(I suppose I must have been consumed by a brain parasite, that I didn’t timely post this year’s version of this piece here. But, no matter. Mistah Admiral: he—still—dead.
(For, as ever, Anacaona, and all the Taino.)
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Taino, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the fuku of the Admiral because the Admiral was both its midwife and one of its great European victims; despite “discovering” the New World the Admiral died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices. In Santo Domingo, the Land He Loved Best, the Admiral’s very name has become synonymous with both kinds of fuku, little and large; to say his name aloud or even to hear it is to invite calamity on the heads of you and yours.
No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fuku’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not . . . .
—Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Much about the Admiral is not known. Where he was born, and when: these are not known. The arc of his early years, when and what he studied at the University of Pavia: these, too, are not known. Where he obtained his ideas of geography, this is not known. The Admiral, it developed, did not know geography: he believed, to the end of his days, that where he landed in 1492 marked the far eastern fringe of Asia.
What is known is that when the Admiral stepped ashore on Hispaniola, he brought original sin to the New World. For the policies he pursued there exterminated that island’s people, the Taino. Every one.
“All the Indians of these islands were allotted by the Admiral . . . to all the settlers who came to live in these parts; and in the opinion of many who saw what happened and speak of it as eyewitnesses, the Admiral, when he discovered these islands, passed sentence of death on a million or more Indians, men and women, of all ages, adults and children. Of this number and of those since born, it is believed that there do not survive today, in this year 1548, 500 Indians, adults and children, who are natives and who are offspring of the stock of those he found on arrival.”
Today, “the Taino survive in the shape of one’s eyes, the outline of one’s face, the idiom of one’s language.” All the rest, is gone.
From Hispaniola, the Admiral and his works brought destruction too to all the native peoples of all the rest of the Americas—north, central, and south.
And to replace the falling bodies of the Taino, who died extracting gold and silver for him, the Admiral birthed the transatlantic slave trade, bringing to the New World in bondage people from the place where human beings were born.
Wrote the Admiral to his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella:
“We can send from here, in the name of the Holy Trinity, all the slaves and brazil-wood which could be sold. If the information I have is correct, we can sell 4000 slaves, who will be worth, at least, 20 millions, and 4000 hundred-weight of brazil-wood, which will be worth just as much . . . I went recently to the Cape Verde Islands where the people have a large slave trade, and they are constantly sending ships to barter for slaves, and ships are always in harbor . . . Although they die now, they will not always die. The Negroes and the Canary Islanders died at first[.]“
The Admiral also loved him some pope, another of his sponsors. And wanted to help him flog his god to other parts of the globe. In his journal of December 26, 1492, the Admiral writes that he hopes to gather up from the New World gold “in so great quantity that the Sovereigns within three years would undertake and prepare to go and conquer the Holy Places.” In a letter sent directly to the pope, the Admiral offered to himself lead a crusading force of some 110,000 men.
What killed the Admiral, this is not known. At the time of his death he was presumed to have perished of gout, but gout was then the preferred explanation for any malady involving inflammation of the joints.
Today, however, Science Men believe the Admiral perished of Reiter’s Syndrome. Typically people develop such a syndrome after an initial bout of diarrhea, or food poisoning. It can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
As the Admiral lay dying in Spain, back in Hispaniola the sort of sexual contact he had initiated there was proceeding apace.
“There are plenty of [slave] dealers who go looking about for girls; these from nine to ten are now in demand,” the Admiral had written approvingly of child sex-trafficking.
A Dominican monk, on conditions out in the mines: “Each of [the foremen] had made it a practice to sleep with the Indian women who were in his workforce, whether they were married women or maidens. While the foreman remained in the hut or the cabin with the Indian woman, he sent the husband to dig gold out of the mines; and in the evening when the wretch returned, not only was he beaten or whipped because he had not brought up enough gold, but further, most often, he was bound hand and foot and flung under the bed like a dog, before the foreman lay down, directly over him, with his wife.”
If, as the Science Men now suspect, the Admiral was felled by Reiter’s Syndrome, he would have suffered from “sausage digits,” a bladder and urinary tract infection, inflammation of the urethra and the prostate, and open sores on the roof of the mouth, the tongue, and the penis. It is known that his eyes spouted blood, and that finally he went blind.
Where today lie the remains of the Admiral, this is not known. Tradition has it that when he died, he was stowed away in the crypt of a Franciscan monastery in Valladolid. That monastery is long gone. In its place today are the billiard rooms of the Cafe del Norte.
This son of the Admiral, it should be noted, was as much a wonderman as the Admiral himself. Here is the son of the Admiral describing the “tribute” system instituted by his father:
“In the Cibao, where the gold mines were, every person of fourteen years or older was to pay a large hawk’s bell of gold dust; all others were each to pay twenty-five pounds of cotton. Whenever an Indian delivered his tribute, he was to receive a brass or copper token which he must wear about his neck as proof that he had made his payment. Any Indian found without such a token was to be punished.”
The son of the Admiral neglects to note that this “punishment” consisted of severing the hands of the Taino.
It was additionally remembered that the town had been in a ferment back in 1585, when the English pirate Francis Drake threatened to set fire to the town, and that at that time frantic priests exhumed all the various Admiral-connected bodies in the various holes around the altar, hauling them off to Somewhere for safekeeping.
What actually Must Have Happened, the Santo Domingo inquirers concluded, is that after Drake sailed off, and the priests returned the bodies to the holes, they deposited them wrongly.
The Santo Domingo contingent concluded that it held the true body of the true Admiral, and began distributing bits and pieces of it: to the Vatican, Genoa, the University of Paris.
Through some sort of dark process, these parts of the Admiral multiplied rapidly, so that when Mark Twain, late in the 19th Century, visited Europe, he was presented with a bewildering number and array of Admiral relics.
“I was once shown two skulls of [the Admiral],” Twain wrote. “One when he was a boy, and one when he was a man.”
Havana took no notice of the Santo Domingo inquiry: it stubbornly insisted it possessed the true dust and bones of the Admiral. When in 1898 the United States replaced Spain as the bully on Cuba, the purported remains of the purported Admiral were unearthed and shipped to Seville. Except that some people say that what was shipped to Seville were not the same remains as those received from Santo Domingo in 1795.
Meanwhile, also in the late 1890s, ashes purportedly from the Santo Domingo version of the purported Admiral were somehow getting out from somewhere, and were being made into crystal lockets, and/or stashed in bank vaults, by people in the United States. Pinches of alleged Admiral dust were displayed at the Library of Congress, and passed around at parties.
A 1959-60 forensic analysis of all the various bone fragments from both Seville and Santo Domingo concluded that “parts of two distinct bodies reside in each location, with no duplication but many parts missing altogether.” In 2003, extracting DNA from the Seville version of the purported Admiral proved difficult—only “short fragments of mitochondrial DNA could be isolated,” and anyway “the bones did not appear to belong to somebody with the physique or age at death associated with [the Admiral].” Nothing could be proved conclusively on the DNA alone; instead, the researchers relied on “anthropological and historical analyses”—meaning all this guff you’ve been reading here—to conclude that the Seville Admiral was indeed the “real” Admiral.
In short, they guessed.
No DNA was extracted from the Santo Domingo version of the Admiral. Or from any of the bodies left behind in Havana when one of the Cuban versions of the Admiral was shipped to Seville. Neither did anybody dig around under the pool hall in Valladolid, to determine whether the Franciscans had indeed failed to surrender to their Carthusian rivals the actual remains of the actual Admiral, way back in the early 16th Century.
So where, really, is the said Admiral?
The people of Haiti know where he is. In 1987, when the Duvaliers were driven from their nation, the Haitians, heirs of the Taino, toppled the statue of the Admiral that had loomed over Port-au-Prince, and slung it into the sea.
The sea where lies Guinee, tomb of his victims.
“Tell again,” he said, “about the bottom of the sea.” He asked because he had a notion that it was in some fashion where he was headed.
“Guinee,” she said. “Because the slaves believed that by jumping overboard they returned to Africa. So it’s where the soul goes for a while. Guinee, it’s very beautiful there.”
Then she said, “It’s not always beautiful. They’re lonely there.”
The Admiral, he is everywhere. He is nowhere. And, like “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”
. . . . One final note, Toto, before Kansas goes bye-bye: traditionally in Santo Domingo anytime you mentioned or overheard the Admiral’s name or anytime a fuku reared its many heads there was only one way to prevent disaster from coiling around you, only one surefire counterspell that would keep you and your family safe. Nor surprisingly, it was a word. A simple word (followed usually by a vigorous crossing of index fingers).
It used to be more popular in the old days, bigger, so to speak, in Macondo than in McOndo. There are people, though, like my tio Miguel in the Bronx who still zafa everything. He’s old-school like that. If the Yanks commit an error in the late innings it’s zafa; if somebody brings shells in from the beach it’s zafa; if you serve a man parcha it’s zafa. Twenty-four-hour zafa in the hope that the bad luck will not have had time to cohere. Even now as I write these words I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.
—Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao