Read Shooting Stars Online

Authors: Stefan Zweig

Shooting Stars

BOOK: Shooting Stars

is an artist through the entire twenty-four hours of his normal day; he succeeds in producing all that is essential, all that will last, only in a few, rare moments of inspiration. History itself, which we may admire as the greatest writer and actor of all time, is by no means always creative. Even in “God’s mysterious workshop”, as Goethe reverently calls historical knowledge, a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen. As everywhere in life and art, sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between. As a chronicler, history generally does no more than arrange events link by link, indifferently and persistently, fact by fact in a gigantic chain reaching through the millennia, for all tension needs a time of preparation, every incident with any true significance has to develop. Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky.

But if artistic geniuses do arise, they will outlast their own time; if such a significant hour in the history of the world occurs, it will decide matters for decades and centuries yet to come. As the electricity of the entire atmosphere is discharged
at the tip of a lightning conductor, an immeasurable wealth of events is then crammed together in a small span of time. What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single
, a single
Too Soon
or a
Too Late
makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity.

Such dramatically compressed and fateful hours, in which a decision outlasting time is made on a single day, in a single hour, often just in a minute, are rare in the life of an individual and rare in the course of history. In this book I am aiming to remember the hours of such shooting stars—I call them that because they outshine the past as brilliantly and steadfastly as stars outshine the night. They come from very different periods of time and very different parts of the world. In none of them have I tried to give a new colour or to intensify the intellectual truth of inner or outer events by means of my own invention. For in those sublime moments when they emerge, fully formed, history needs no helping hand. Where the muse of history is truly a poet and a dramatist, no mortal writer may try to outdo her.



25 September 1513


When he first returned from the newly discovered continent of America, Columbus had displayed countless treasures and curiosities on his triumphal procession through the crowded streets of Seville and Barcelona: human beings of a race hitherto unknown, with reddish skins; animals never seen before; colourful, screeching parrots; slow-moving tapirs; then strange plants and fruits that would soon find a new home in Europe—Indian corn, tobacco, the coconut. The rejoicing throng marvels at all these things, but the royal couple and their counsellors are excited above all by a few boxes and baskets containing gold. Columbus does not bring much gold back from the new Indies: a few pretty things that he has bartered with the natives, or stolen from them, a few small bars and several handfuls of loose grains, gold dust rather than solid gold—the whole of it at most enough to mint a few hundred ducats. But the inspired Columbus, who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time, and who has been so gloriously proved right about his sea route to India, boasts effusively and in all honesty that this is only a tiny foretaste. Reliable news, he adds, has reached him of gold mines of immeasurable extent on these new islands; only just below the surface, the precious metal, he says, lies under a thin layer of soil in many fields, and you can easily dig it
out with an ordinary spade. Farther south, however, there are realms where the kings drink from golden goblets, and gold is worth less than lead at home in Spain. The ever-avaricious king listens, intoxicated to hear of this new Ophir that now belongs to him. No one yet knows Columbus and his sublime folly well enough to doubt his promises. A great fleet is fitted out at once for the second voyage, and now there is no need for recruiting officers and drummers to find men to join it. Word of the newly discovered Ophir, where you can pick up gold from the ground with your bare hands, sends all Spain mad; people come in their hundreds, their thousands to travel to El Dorado, the land of gold.

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honourable noblemen arrive, wishing to gild their coats of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cádiz. There are branded thieves, highwaymen and footpads hoping to find a more profitable trade in the land of gold; there are debtors who want to escape their creditors and husbands hoping to get away from scolding wives; all the desperadoes and failures, branded criminals and men sought by the Alguacil justices volunteer for the fleet, a motley band of failures who are determined that they will make their fortunes at long last, in an instant too, and to that end are ready to commit any act of violence and any crime. They have told one another the fantasies of Columbus, repeating that in those lands you have only to thrust a spade into the ground to see nuggets of gold glinting up at you, and the prosperous among the emigrants
hire servants and mules to carry large quantities of the precious metal away. Those who do not succeed in being taken on by the expedition find another way: never troubling to get the royal permission, coarse-grained adventurers fit out ships for themselves, in order to cross the ocean as fast as they can and get their hands on gold, gold, gold. And at a single stroke, Spain is rid of troublemakers and the most dangerous kind of rabble.

The Governor of Española (later San Domingo and Haiti) is horrified to see these uninvited guests overrunning the island entrusted to his care. Year after year the ships bring new freight and increasingly rough, unruly fellows. The newcomers, in turn, are bitterly disappointed. There is no sign of gold lying loose on the road, and not another grain of corn can be got out of the unfortunate native inhabitants on whom these brutes descend. So hordes of them wander around, intent on robbery, terrifying the unhappy Indios and the governor alike. The latter tries in vain to make them colonists by showing them where land may be had, giving them cattle, and indeed ample supplies of human cattle in the form of sixty to seventy native inhabitants as slaves to work for every one of them. But neither the high-born hidalgos nor the former footpads have a mind to set up as farmers. They didn’t come here to grow wheat and herd cattle; instead of putting their minds to sowing seed and harvesting crops, they torment the unfortunate Indios—they will have eradicated the entire indigenous population within a few years—or sit around in taverns. Within a short time most of them are so deep in debt that after their goods they have to sell their hats and coats, their last shirts, and they fall into the clutches of traders and usurers.

So in 1510 all these failures on Española are glad to hear that a well-regarded man from the island, the
or lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso, is fitting out a ship with a new crew to come to the aid of his colony on terra firma. In 1509 two famous adventurers, Alonzo de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa, received the privilege from King Ferdinand of founding a colony near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela, naming it rather too hastily Castilla del Oro, Golden Castile. Intoxicated by the resonant name and beguiled by tall stories, the lawyer, who knew little about the ways of the world, had put most of his fortune into this adventure. But now no gold comes from the newly founded colony in San Sebastián on the Gulf of Urabá, only shrill cries for help. Half the crew have been killed in fighting the native people, and the other half have starved to death. To save the investment he has already made, Enciso ventures the rest of his fortune, and equips another expedition to go to the aid of the original one. As soon as they hear that Enciso needs soldiers, all the desperadoes and loafers on Española exploit this opportunity and take ship with him. Their aim is simply to get away, away from their creditors and the watchful eyes of the stern governor. But the creditors are also on their guard. They realize that the worst of their debtors intend to disappear, never to be seen again, and so they besiege the governor with requests to let no one travel without his special permission. The governor grants their wish. A strict guard obliges Enciso’s ship to stay outside the harbour, while government boats patrol the coastal waters to prevent anyone without such permission from being smuggled aboard. And all
the embittered desperadoes, who fear death less than honest work or their towering debts, watch as Enciso’s ship leaves on its venture with all sail set.


And so, with all sail set, Enciso’s ship leaves Española and steers towards the American mainland. The outlines of the island it has left behind are already merging with the blue horizon. It is a calm voyage, and there is nothing in particular to be said about its early stages, or at most we may note that a huge and extremely powerful bloodhound—a son of the famous Becericco, who has become famous himself under the name of Leoncico—prowls restlessly up and down the deck, sniffing around everywhere. No one knows who owns the mighty animal or how he came on board. Finally the crew notice that the dog cannot be prised away from a particularly large crate of provisions that was brought aboard at the last minute. But lo and behold, this crate unexpectedly opens of its own accord, and out climbs a man of about thirty-five, well armed with sword, helmet and shield like Santiago, the patron saint of Castile. He is Vasco Núñez de Balboa, giving us the first evidence of his astonishing boldness and resource. Born in Jerez de los Caballeros of a noble family, he had sailed for the New World with Rodrigo de Bastidas as a private soldier and finally, after many wanderings, was stranded off Española along with his ship. The governor had tried in vain to make Núñez de Balboa into a good colonist; after a few
months he had abandoned his allotted parcel of land and was bankrupt, and at a loss for a way to escape his creditors. But while the other debtors, clenching their fists, stare from the beach at the government boats that prevent them from getting away on Enciso’s ship, Núñez de Balboa circumvents Diego Columbus’s cordon by hiding in an empty provisions crate and getting accomplices to carry him aboard, where no one notices his cunning trick in all the tumult of putting out to sea. Only when he knows the ship is so far from the coast that the crew are unlikely to sail back to Española on his account does the stowaway emerge, and now here he is.

Enciso is a man of law, and like lawyers in general has little romanticism in his soul. As Alcalde, chief of police in the new colony, he does not intend to put up with dubious characters. He brusquely informs Núñez de Balboa that he is not going to have him on his ship, but will put him ashore on the beach of the next island they pass, whether or not it is inhabited.

However, it never comes to that. For even as the ship is making for Castilla del Oro it meets—miraculously, in a time when only a few dozen vessels in all sail these still-unfamiliar seas—a heavily manned boat under a commander whose name will soon echo through the world, Francisco Pizarro. The men in the boat are from Enciso’s colony of San Sebastián, and at first they are taken for mutineers who have left their posts of their own accord. But to Enciso’s horror, they tell him there is no San Sebastián left, they themselves are the former colonists, their commander Ojeda has made off with one ship, the rest, who had only two brigantines, had to wait until all
but seventy colonists had died before they could find room for themselves in the two small boats. One of those brigantines has been wrecked in its own turn; Pizarro’s thirty-five men are the last survivors of Castilla del Oro. So now where are they to go? After hearing Pizarro’s tale, Enciso’s men have no taste for braving the swamp-like climate and the natives’ poison-tipped arrows in the abandoned settlement; turning back to Española seems to them the only option. At this dangerous moment, Vasco Núñez de Balboa suddenly steps forward. He explains that after going on his first voyage with Rodrigo de Bastidas, he knows the whole coast of Central America, and he remembers that at the time of that voyage they found a place called Darién on the bank of a gold-bearing river where the natives were friendly. They should found the new settlement there, he suggests, not in this unhappy place.

At once the whole crew comes down on Núñez de Balboa’s side. In line with his proposition, they steer for Darién on the Panama isthmus, where they first indulge in the usual slaughter of the natives, and as some gold is found among the goods they rob, the desperadoes decide to found a settlement here, in pious gratitude naming the new town Santa María de la Antigua del Darién.


The unfortunate financier of the colony, the
Enciso, will soon be sorry he did not throw the crate overboard with Núñez de Balboa inside it, for after a few weeks that audacious
man has all the power in his hands. As a lawyer who grew up believing in order and discipline, Enciso tries to administer the colony on behalf of the Spanish Crown in his capacity as Alcalde, the chief of police of the governor, who cannot be found just now, and enacts his edicts as sternly in the wretched huts of the Indios as if he were sitting in his legal chambers in Seville. In the middle of this wilderness where no humans have ever trod before, he forbids the soldiers to haggle over gold with the natives, gold being reserved for the Crown; he tries to force this undisciplined rabble to observe law and order, but the adventurers instinctively back a man of the sword rather than a man of the pen. Soon Balboa is the real master of the colony; Enciso has to flee to save his life, and when Nicuesa, one of the governors appointed to the mainland by the king, finally arrives to enforce the law Balboa refuses to let him land. The unhappy Nicuesa, hunted out of the land allotted to him by the king, drowns on the voyage back.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Poems for All Occasions by Mairead Tuohy Duffy
Not a Chance by Ashby, Carter
Indecent Proposal by Molly O'Keefe
A Second Chance by Bernadette Marie
Sorceress (Book 2) by Jim Bernheimer
An Honorable Rogue by Carol Townend
Shades of Deception by Amanda Meadows
Seeing a Large Cat by Elizabeth Peters
The Sardonyx Net by Elizabeth A. Lynn