28. Cartagena, Bruno Schulz, The Conqueror, Slave trade in Portugal and Spain

Photo of a Palenquera by Tomas Novoa
It is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.
W.G. SEBALD, the Rings of Saturn

In a single stroll around the city, one can run into the rhythms of vallenatos, mapalés, champetas and cumbias, music of accordions, and the musical voices of the Palenqueras, black women dressed in colorful attires who sell fresh fruit from metal vases they transport on their heads. The streets, built between beautiful colonial houses, smell of a mix of sea salt, sweat, and the oil used to fry fish, pastries, plantains, and arepas filled with cheese or egg. Many of the locals, talkative, relaxed, and joyful by nature, drink rum, tell stories, and walk barefoot while the tourists go around the historical center in black and red carriages drawn by wiry, hungry, exhausted horses, their skins covered in open sores an blisters, who sometimes collapse during the ride. Their lives are spent pulling carts made of wood and iron on which smile and chat and take photos and hug and hold hands couples and families, tourists and locals, from morning till night. It is unthinkable for me to tell the events in a chronological order. I was too young, most of the events are mixed in my head in a blurry succession of images, smells, faces, sounds, and situations. What follows is the best way I could come up with to dispense some order to it all. One, Our Home. I lived in two places during my six-month stay. The room in the house where we settled for the first months belonged to a hefty Arabic-looking woman, olive skin, her hair a mane of white, who lived with her only daughter. Blame the lack of memory and praise the practicality. We will call the woman Josefina and her daughter, her daughter. A white colonial house of one plant in the neighborhood Manga, right in front of the dark tea-colored sea.

A Typical house in the neighborhood of La Manga

Come in, come in, we were waiting for you, said Josefina. Mother, as she often did when meeting a stranger, hugged her and kissed her cheek, as if she had known her for years. Our room was in the backyard, wide and tall as the inside of a twenty-foot shipping container, two beds for five people, a standing fan, facing a row of front of dwarf palm trees, painted a bright white, like everything else in that part of Cartagena. I still try to remember what the toilet was like, or where we took a shower. We used to keep our food in a small pantry room in front of the main one. Some crumbs, or sugar uncleaned, a soda bottle not rinsed, any food container left without its lid sufficed for the whole room and all the food to be infested by black ants the following morning. I used to pick the suffocated tiny bodies of the insects from the powdered milk, fresh milk at thirty five degrees was out of the question, and thought them responsible for their own demise, victims of their gluttony. Another coincidence. Right after I wrote this sentence you have just read, I opened a book by Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer shot and killed by a Gestapo officer named Karl Günther, in the middle of his short story titled Eddie. The passage read, Greedy ants swarm everywhere, decomposing into atoms the substance of things, eating them down to their white bones, to their ribs and skeletons. Schulz was apparently working on his Magnum Opus, a book he planned to title The Messiah. As it is the case with so many other things, the pages of the manuscript were lost forever during the war.

The Procession, drawing by Bruno Schulz

The second was a minuscule apartment. A stove with a single hotplate and a place to wash the dishes against a wall, a bathroom with a shower and a toilet and a bedroom with, once again, two beds for five people. The good thing this time was that the two beds had two other beds hidden in them, like pregnant beds, which one could pull out like a drawer before losing consciousness at night. This minuscule apartment was in the fifth floor, room five oh five, of El Conquistador (The Conqueror) building. The Country used to be a fertile place, innumerable fields and forests, hundreds of rivers which provided an inexhaustible source of fresh water, a variety of weathers. A stretch of land bathed by two seas, inhabited by hundreds of indigenous peoples. Ever since the Spanish came and burnt the land and stripped its people off their culture, beliefs, honor, and treasures, ever since they raped the women and killed the men, brought slavery and plagues, ever since those times, so many years back, all this violence, terror, injustice and submission has planted a seed in the hearts of the people, a seed that grew strong and became part of their essence, their nature.

The pool I used to swim in the building “El Conquistador”

When the Spanish caravels sailed back to Cadiz and Seville, their sailors eager to please the crown, they did so with their wombs full of the gold extracted from the land by the enslaved aborigines, men and women that due to malady, violence, and hunger died by the millions. The crown decided then, without wasting any time, nothing can, nothing should stop the boom, to annex Portugal to the kingdom. The Portuguese, experts in the slave trade, flooded the continent with hundreds of thousands of black Africans from Ghana, Congo, and Guinea. Many of the blacks got sick and died or were killed during the long trip. Their bodies were thrown into the waters as if they were nothing more than fodder.

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