The Renaissance was the European era between the 14th and 17th centuries, when art, literature, and the ideas of ancient Greece were discovered again and widely studied, causing a rebirth of activity in all these things. During that time The authority of kings, emperors, popes and dukes were overcome through the Reformation, through the farmers' insurrections, and through the idea of nationalism, re-directing thinking and feeling after the Middle Ages. Based on the ideals and aesthetics of pre-Christian times, the re-orientation towards the good, the true and the beautiful leads art and sciences to new hights. Europeans started to see themselves as freed from the fetters of the church, and went to take possession of far-away parts of the earth in brave adventures.
Some significant people of the time:
Kopernikus, Kepler, German scientists
Paracelsus, Swiss physician and researcher
Jakob Fugger, German tradesman
Sinan, Turkish architect
Tizian, Raffael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Italian painters
Columbus, Italian discoverer
Dürer, German painter
Riemenschneider, German sculpturer
Shakepeare, Bacon, English poets
Calvin, Zwingli, Swiss reformers
Luther, German reformer
Melanchton, German religious philosopher
Cervantes, Spanish poet
El Greco, Spanish painter
Galilei, Italian scientist
Erasmus, Dutch scientist
Münzer, German freedom fighter
The year 2011 AD presents an unparalleled opportunity for us to mount the cockpit of history and with a pilot’s eye gaze out upon the distant horizons of our historical experience. This historical experience, for those of us who live in the west, is relatively short, commencing as it does a mere 500 years ago. Some, in looking back, see only the start of an era of imperialist brutality and ecological degradation. Another point of view perceives with pleasure the commencement of an age of freedom and the divers pathways that progress has carved on the landscapes of the New World.
In 1992, which people commemorated as the “Columbus Quincentenary”, the point of view of some native Americans caught the ear of scholars, political activists and Black Awareness groups. They were offended by the idea that Columbus should have “discovered” the New World, a view that was adopted by many in the Caribbean as well. Even if their plight did not really change anything in the role that Columbus played as a historical figure, it must be seen as a testament to freedom and progress that the voices of those objectors were heard.
Anniversaries are very important in that they give an occasion to re-evaluate history. In not rallying around anniversaries, such as for example the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Tobago to Trinidad, to pick just one instance, those important occasions are wasted, and a fossilised status quo is maintained.
In the case of Columbus, the objectors negated the achievements of him as a great explorer and put his motives and consequences into opprobrium. This is understandable from their perspective, since in the aftermath of the Admiral’s coming to the Americas, their culture got nearly completely wiped out and African slavery was introduced.
However, it is important to put events and personalities of former times into their proper historical context. To belittle the past is a vice of those who seek to aggrandise themselves in the present, without having achieved greatness. As Anne Rice puts it in her “Vittorio”, a very insightful fictional book about the Florentine Renaissance, “Those who don’t do anything great, find suspect anything that is not in a perpetual state of disintegration”. This is to a considerable extent a problem of the so-called Third World, where poverty keeps many people from thriving and achieving greatness for themselves. To stay with the example of Columbus, who came to this island of ours 503 years ago, let us look at what this Admiral of the Ocean Sea really achieved in the context of his times, which was really the beginning of modernity in the western world: the Renaissance.
Dr. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, historian, writes:
“The significance of his [Columbus’] Atlantic crossing has been belittled and denied. Yet, bearing in mind the resources of 1492, the opening of reliable routes, both ways across the Atlantic, had a permanent transforming effect on the world. No single event contributed so much towards making our unified world of today different from that of antiquity and that of the Middle Ages, which were composed of discrete patches like a decayed mosaic.”
Christopher Columbus, then, can be commemorated as the discoverer of these reliable routes in the age of the sailing ship. He found a way to use cutting-edge technology of the time to its fullest potential. In fact, it was on his second voyage to the west that he concretised the ideal route, which led south-west from the Canary Islands in the mid-Atlantic to the Lesser Antilles, and on his way back to exit north from the West Indies to catch the westerly winds. These journeys from the old world to the new forged a significant link that has stood the test of time. But much more than that, the vast populated middle region of the world, stretching from the Americas to Europe across the caravan routes to Asia, India, and the sea lanes to China now formed a chain. No more would the world be comprised of loosely joined cultures hardly speaking, barely trading with each other. With the advent of the remarkable Genoaese adventurer, we were on the way to the making of the “global village”, the whole breadth of which “could be crossed by cultural contagion, human migration and commercial exchange.”
Columbus’ discoveries of the 1490s, remarkable and special as they were to the Renaissance, belong in fact in the context of an evolving and unfolding, a changing, world.
In this period, paradigm shifts took place in the religious, cultural and economic spheres. Explorers were setting out. Marco Polo had not too long ago returned to Europe, having visited China mostly by foot. Vaso de Gamma and de la Peyrouse would circumnavigate the world in the years ahead, which would be a significant development, since only full circumnavigation offered concrete proof that the world was round! This, in fact, was one of the great goals of Christopher Columbus. He felt sure that if he sailed west into the Atlantic, he would eventually arrive in the east - a great supposition at the time.
Egypt, ancient and obscure, was undoubtedly the original source of all the sciences known to man in olden times. The scientists of Egypt - today referred to as priests - taught the Greeks all they knew. At the time of Columbus and the later circumnavigators, the most important sources of geographical writings were those of the Greeks. The great Aristotle, who lived about 400 years before the birth of Christ, had demonstrated that the world was round. His views were discarded and eventually lost to the medieval Catholic world in western Europe. They were only remembered in Islamic works which were slow to make their way westward.
Another Greek, Pythagoras, born 472 BC., was a product of the mystery schools of Egypt. He too knew that the world was round. Pythagoras, amongst his several proofs, pointed out that the shadow of the earth cast upon the moon during a lunar eclipse was round, demonstrating that the surface of the earth must be round too, from whatever angle one looked at it.
This knowledge led to the belief that it would be possible to reach Asia by sailing westward from Europe. Columbus, in attempting to prove this, operated in the context of great personal bravery: it was not commonly accepted that the earth was indeed round! The value of his “discoveries” is thus to be found in the fact that he proved a scientific fact, that he conquered superstition and stupidity in the people who insisted the world was flat.
This value stands for itself and cannot be debased with the argument that the Americas and the Caribbean had been discovered by people already, that the hemisphere was populated, and that the Scandinavians had “discovered” it in previous centuries.
In analysing history, one has to be careful not to unravel events like an old sweater, and to end up with ends of wool that show nothing of the intricate knitting pattern. To judge Columbus anything other than a superb Renaissance man by arguing that it was because of him that enslaved people from Africa would suffer in the colonies would be to make the sheep responsible for the sweater!
In the years immediately following Columbus’ discovery of Trinidad in 1498, the interest of Spain was concentrated on the larger or her new-found possessions to the north. In the earlier years, Trinidad was visited by the ships of those engaged in discovery, who, after taking wood and water, passed on. In time, the beauty and fertility of this island attracted attention. There was also always the prospect for gold. The island was seen as well-populated, thus a source of labour, mostly from the point of view of forced labour amongst the Amerindians. By 1509, Diego Columbus, son of the Admiral and governor of San Domingo, was buying Amerindians from Trinidad for 150 ducats each to work in the pearl diving industry on the island of Cubagua.
With gold ever in mind, the Spanish King directed attention to the exploration of the natural resources of Trinidad. In 1511, he instructed Diego to cease removing slaves from Trinidad and to send men to explore the island for gold. The two caravels dispatched from San Domingo, sailed southward in the blinding heat of May, careful to bypass islands known for the man-eating habits of their inhabitants. With great trepidation, they put a boat ashore at the island of Redonda, off the coast of Montserrat. Her volcano was idly smoking. The sailors’ intent was to capture and kill the giant turtles nesting there, the meat of which they salted. They set sail once more and touched upon the island of Guadeloupe for water and to rest the crew, before hazarding the next leg of the journey that would bypass the windward islands and take them to the towering cliffs of Trinidad and its port of entry, known as the Boca del Dragon.
Before them lay the great Gulf of Paria, and about their small and somewhat fragile vessels great whales disported, nursing their young and mindlessly enjoying the twilight of their existence.
From the shore, a small suspicious gathering of Amerindians saw for the third or fourth time these strange craft appear as if by magic. In the waters, just off their village that they called place of the silk cotton trees because of the giant trees that came down from the mountains to the mangrove coast. Later, the Spaniards would pronounce that turn of phrase as “Cumucurapo”, to be remembered hundreds of years later as Mucurapo.
Captain Roderigo de Bastidas brought his men ashore. They were sweating in their heavy armor and European clothes. Banners were flying, bearing the arms of Spain and depictions of the Virgin of Compostela. They made their way through the tangle of mangrove into the savannah lands studded with great trees, that would many centuries later be called Woodbrook, and whose streets would be decorated with the playful names of the children of Johann Benjamin Gottlieb Siegert, a German who found some of South America’s real riches in the plants that grow there, concocting herbs and tree bark into his famous Angostura Bitters.
The expedition followed the almost dry riverbed of the Rio Santa Anna, into the hills, to an area known as Ariapita. The Carib warriors moved purposely forward, their naked bodies painted bright red with roocoo against the mosquitoes. In the distance could be heard the roar of a waterfall. In the trees above, the bellbirds called. In the brilliant sunlight, the high cliffs seemed indeed to sparkle with a golden light. Golden nuggets appeared to protrude from the rock’s face, and the Spaniards, excited by their find, scrambled up the hillside. The mountain pools below them reflected in perfect union the circle of the sky.
The search for gold in Trinidad was not successful. Probably the Amerindians showed the Spaniards the deposits of marcasite, fool’s gold, and it was not long before expectations in this direction were proved unjustified.
Don Antonio Sedeño
Interest in Trinidad thereupon lapsed, except as a place for enslaving Indians to be sold in other islands until 1520, in which year, on December 15th to be exact, the King of Spain granted the conquest and pacification of the island to Don Antonio Sedeño, the contador of San Juan, Porto Rico. Sedeño was named governor and captain general. Don Antonio was thus Trinidad’s first governor. He was a tough soldier who had made adventure his life’s work. Shortly after his appointment to the Indies, his colleagues were sending adverse reports about Sedeño, and in 1518, he was suspended from office and imprisoned on the allegation of having seduced a very young girl from a convent in Porto Rico.
Allegedly, Sedeño had a “turbulent nature”. Put into prison for the offense, he set it on fire and escaped aboard a ship leaving the port. Diego Columbus had Sedeño acquitted and reinstated after an investigation.
The following year saw him back in jail, this time for making free with His Majesty’s revenue. He was said to have “put his hands deeply into His Majesty’s funds” with disturbing the island and fermenting factious disorders. He was sentenced to pay 5000 pesos. The index of papers of the Council of the Indies show Don Antonio in and out of jail. Such is the record of the man who aspired to conquer and pacify the island of Trinidad!
His brother officers were glad to see him go. To the authorities in Spain, he was a man of wealth with resources suitable for the conquest of Trinidad, a man possessed of an undoubted courage - exactly the qualities of leadership well suited to a conquistador!
When one thinks of conquistadors, the names of Cortés and Pizzaro come to mind, iron-clad men who went to Mexico and Peru. Men who burned their ships on the beaches of the New World and resolutely set out to conquer and in fact destroy civilisations that were thousands of years old. What those rough-edged, ignorant Spaniards mindlessly destroyed were in fact precious records of those civilisations’ knowledge of precessional astronomy, mathematics and geometry. Their vast libraries were annihilated, and the information of the “Gods coming to earth” was forever lost. Probably, the loss of their archives was more than anything else the undoing of the Aztec and Inca civilisations. Montezuma, emperor of the Mexicans, really believed that Hernando Cortés was the God prophesied to return.
The Spaniards at that time had come out of a terrible war for the reconquest of Spain. Generations of an aristocratic knightly Catholic class had clashed with the flower of Islamic warrior culture. Victorious against the ‘infidel’, the Catholics destroyed the high culture established by the Moors in Europe and proceeded to cross the Atlantic to wipe out another.
Trinidad received its first conquistador, Don Antonio Sedeño, in 1531. The frail caravels sailed for the Indies from the port town of San Lucar de Barrameda in Spain, carrying 70 men and some horses. He had a fortunate and successful crossing, and as was the custom, made landfall at the south east corner of the island, just about where the gas pipelines now come out of the Atlantic ocean on Galeota Point. He proceeded along the south coast, past Moruga, to enter the Gulf of Paria by the Serpent’s Mouth, and sailed straight north to seek for the Indian Cacique named Turpiari, who was the ruler of the north of Trinidad. These two became friends, and it is said that their relationship endured many decades.
Trinidad was hard for Sedeño to handle. He had arrived at a time when a war of Amerindian conquest was being waged between rival tribes of Caribs. He was caught in the primitive politics of the day, and beset by Carib warriors who were not afraid to die for their island. They attacked the Spaniards again and again, destroying Sedeno’s stockade at Mucurapo in a series of bloody battles. Their bravery and commitment should be known and remembered with the same respect as the Apache braves: Geronemo, Crazy Horse and Little Bear. These were in fact the first heroes of Trinidad. They fought and died for this island, which they knew as Iere, the Land of the Hummingbird.
It is because of the valor of the tribal people that the hummingbird, now a national symbol, is in the centre of the cap badge and buttons of both the Trinidadian police force and the regiment, and is, in fact, saluted with respect.
Don Antonio did not conquer Trinidad. He died in the high forest of the province of Meta on the mainland, organising yet another attempt to colonise Trinidad. He had left his fortune behind in Spain and had come out with his ambition and his youth to make a fortune. He had earned the friendship and the respect of the caciques throughout many difficult years - no mean feat in those times - a success which should give him a notable place in the ranks of the conquistadors.
Today, if you visit President’s House, there is a plaque at the entrance bearing the names of Trinidad and Tobago’s governors. His is the very first.