a review by Arielle Aaronson
“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” While the names of his three vessels – the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María – may ring familiar, the details of Columbus’s inaugural voyage don’t fit as neatly into the answer lines of history exams. That Columbus’s first expedition was marred by inept mariners and rash decisions is lesser-known, and is also the subject of Camille Bouchard’s 2008 young adult novel Trente-Neuf.
With one of the three ships lost at sea and the second run aground on newly christened Hispañiola, Columbus was planning to return to Spain and leave thirty-nine of his men to fend for themselves in the New World.
Writing from the alternating points of view of a Spanish cabin boy and a young Taíno villager, Bouchard weaves the two perspectives into one compelling narrative. Although the two boys speak in similar voices – too similar at times to convey their vastly differing backgrounds – Bouchard skilfully uses these voices to reflect the prejudices and miscommunications that plagued the famous first expedition. We understand Jorge’s fervent belief in God’s marvelous kingdom, just as we witness the cruel destruction of Baguanamey’s village life. But the boys defend each other in the face of growing violence and their awe for each other is palpable.
Trente-Neuf is a dark book full of the realities we face when confronted with the unknown. Columbus’s men manipulate the villagers and prey on the weak before ultimately turning on each other. For their part, the Taíno people let themselves gradually lose control of their world. And if the character development is a bit thin in places, requiring narrative prompts from the author instead of letting the story slowly reveal itself, the plot is gripping. Although history books can tell us the fate of the indigenous tribes after Columbus dropped anchor, there’s more to the story. We are easily drawn into the world of Jorge and Baguanamey. What brings them together? How will they change? And ultimately, who will survive? ≈
by Camille Bouchard
≈ translated by Arielle Aaronson
Jorge Gonzalez, thirteen years old, cabin boy
On board the Santa María, Christmas Day, 1492
We left the port of Guárico yesterday, on Christmas Eve. It seems that the gold mines are fairly remote, and the Admiral decided to sail around the island rather than walk across it. In his eagerness to please us, Chief Guacanagari has given us two village Indians as guides. The king truly believes we are angels fallen from heaven.
Today the wind is low and we make slow progress. We hardly celebrate Christmas, if only in prayer. That is, by praying even more than usual. The Admiral is tired. With all of the feasting, the meetings with Indian leaders, and the excitement of finally discovering India’s riches, he has not slept in two days. Now that we are on board the ship, he studies his maps, writes in his logbook, draws up his plans… We watch him work through the cabin door, which he has left open.
He finally decides to retire around eleven o’clock, leaving the Santa María in the hands of its owner, Don Juan de la Cosa. Don Juan, also tired, gives the ship over to his coxswain who, having overindulged in the Christmas wine, hands the helm in turn to Pedro, a cabin boy my age.
Since I do not have to report for duty until the wee hours of the morning, I head to my usual sleeping quarters in the front of the boat. I have barely begun to dream when I am wakened by a cry:
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The Santa María washed up against the reefs so gently that those sleeping had to be alerted by the watchmen’s cries. Otherwise, we would have perished. The Admiral makes more of a racket than the vessel being torn apart. He is mad, hopping mad. At Don Juan de la Cosa, mostly for letting his coxswain entrust the ship to Pedro. Also because a panicked Don Juan jumped into a canoe with a handful of sailors and fled to the Niña, leaving us aboard the sinking ship. And finally, once the Niña’s sailors come to our rescue, the Admiral is furious with Captain Martin Alonzo Pinzón whose charge, the Pinta, is nowhere to be seen.
“My crew is a bunch of traitors and incompetents!” he fumes. “Only the smallest of our ships remains! How are we to get home now? How are we to deliver the riches to our Majesties in Spain, as promised?”
Don Juan and his men hang their heads like scolded children. We make a sorry show, looking far from godlike in front of the Indians watching us.
Since we are barely off shore, the Niña goes to moor in the harbour facing the village of Guárico. Chief Guacanagari hastens to send men to our rescue. Rescue the gods: such an opportunity for divine grace doesn’t come along every day. At least that’s what Don Pedro Gutiérrez and Don Rodrigo de Escobedo are snickering to each other.
The Santa María can still be reached. As she hit the reefs her planks split apart, her hold filled with water, and she came to a slow standstill, lurching to the port side. We sawed off her mainmast. At low tide, the Indians came and helped us take her apart plank by plank, nail by nail, carrying all of the equipment to the beach.
As I’m rolling a barrel over near a big pile of wood, I overhear Don Juan de la Cosa and the Admiral talking.
“What will you have us do?” asks Don Juan.
“We cannot rebuild the boat,” answers Don Cristóbal, “and we cannot all fit on the Niña for the journey home. Since we’ll need volunteers to stay and wait for our return, we will build a fort.”
Volunteer to stay in this country where the people treat us like gods? I who have no remaining family in Spain, who live with monks in their monastery, I who can’t stand life on board the ship with all those pig-headed cabin boys always making fun of me, constantly ridiculing me… Without thinking, I blurt out:
“I’ll volunteer, Admiral!”
He looks at me with his piercing blue eyes. He is silent. He must be surprised, for I’ve never dared to speak to him before. And for a few interminable seconds I regret having opened my mouth so quickly. Finally, the Admiral turns away without responding. I hear him mumble to Don Juan:
“We shouldn’t have too much trouble recruiting volunteers. I’ll appoint them if it comes to it.”
I go back to my chores, my heart filled with both hope and apprehension. I’m volunteering to stay in this strange world that we just discovered! Was I too impulsive? Will the Admiral accept my offer despite my age?
I’m not cut out for either life on board the ship or the life I led in Spain. With the will of God, He who has not inspired in me a calling for the monastery, I am sure I could grow to like it here. I am already looking forward to finding that Indian boy my age, the one who seemed friendly.
The one called Baguanamey. ≈