The Weight of Smoke by George Robert Minkoff

BOMB 97 Fall 2006
097 Fall 2006 1024X1024

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


The old mariner looked up, surprised to see anyone around him. “Should I tell you the tales of the weed?” he said. Then he shrieked and laughed with the madness of one possessed. “Cast down your Raleigh. All history is a lie. Drake is the story of tobacco, and you pray to hear it, eh!” Those around the fire gestured for the mariner to continue. “It be strange, all and all,” raged the mariner, “tell a tale going backwards as it were, not coming forward … but you’d be wise to listen, for though Drake came to these shores where we now sit but twice, his spirit still wanders the breeze in its mysteries and in its longings. The smell of him is still in this earth.”

The old mariner sat back for a moment, straightening his spine, listening to the air. He heard nothing, I suppose, or if he did, he gave no sign of it. Finally, he began to speak. “All mysteries are omens of tales men fear to tell. Even from the very beginning it be true. So it is we build our legends in our lies.”

I was then to have the tale of Drake in full, a man whose life I knew only by bits and rumors, and here and there a poem. So little did he tell by his own words. And I, his ink to scribe his final page. What prodigal is a child’s love? I to adopt a father by his histories. But how else could I, by myself, be set? We are cast by our own thoughts, by our own image we are made. And yet my blanks are not my home. Drake not just a memory in a quest. The search is not always what is sought. The treasure not always of a coin. I am in birth, to what am I born? A child who ever seeks his father may forever lose himself.

“Columbus in the New World but a few hours,” said Jonas Profit, “when a savage in a canoe offered the admiral some dry leaves. Those leaves, when burned, had a sweet and wholesome scent much like incense. History did not then have a name for that leaf, but names are soon made for men to play their schemes upon their toys. That savage offered friendship with the leaf, as was their custom. The Spanish had no use for peace or the weed, they wanted only gold and women and slaves.

“Some days later Columbus sent two of his company ashore with an Indian guide. On a dusty road, no more than a jungle track, they saw a group of savages, men and women, walking toward them, the men carrying lighted sticks and tapers in one hand and in the other a leaf rolled into a funnel. Some of these tubes were one to two feet in length. Into the mouth that broadened into a horn, the savages pushed a quantity of the crushed tobacco, which they would constantly light and relight with the burning taper. To those Spanish it was as if the savages did drink smoke. Spain had witnessed its first cigar.

“Luis de Torres, one of those Spaniards, was a scholar and a linguist of great facility, a learned Jew, perhaps the last of his people to have an important position at the Spanish court. He was to be ambassador to the lands of the Khan of Cathay. In truth, his people under threat, he sought for them a sanctuary, a new Jerusalem rising in the West in a new world. But it was not to be. Before Torres returned to court, Ferdinand and Isabella had proclaimed the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, a thousand years of history now a ghost. The next year, all the Muslims. A million people forced to flee, a disaster in the market towns of Spain. A population gone. An economy ruined. Universities soon but hollows, no science produced, no new inventions used, all progress crucified. The Inquisition had brought punishment upon its own. Spain became the country of the tomb. Torres now unwelcomed at home, around him dangers. He fled to the New World, settling finally in Cuba, where he was discovered by the Inquisition and burned at the stake.

“The second Spaniard’s fate was no less cruel,” said the mariner, as his hands grasped at some burning embers floating in the wind. “Rodrigo de Jerez of Ayamonte acquired the tobacco habit, as did most of Columbus’s crew. It was said he was the first to publicly smoke the leaf in Spain. In his native town of Ayamonte, the neighbors, seeing him drinking smoke, thought he was possessed of demons. They called a local priest, his boyhood friend, who arrested him, sending him to the Inquisition to be tried. Tortured, no explanation wise enough when suspicion is the law, de Jerez to rot in prison for 15 years, only to be released into a Spain quite content, enjoying its own smoking habit, the same pursuit for which de Jerez had been imprisoned. Such is justice when its license is by ignorance and whim.”

The mariner sighed, “When Columbus sailed for Spain again, aboard his ships was the new trinity of the new age: gold and tobacco and dozens of savages to be sold as slaves. Within decades, ten thousand slaves in Andalusia alone. In other regions of Spain, thousands more. In the West Indies whole populations sent to work the gold mines of Hispaniola. Ships so filled with men and women and children it is said one could navigate between the islands by sailing by the floating paths of corpses riding in the currents. A hundred thousand Indians shipped from the Yucatán to Hispaniola to work and to starve, exhausted in the mines. Death was a bargain. Indians worth less than the food to feed them. And so they died by the Spanish cruelty, while their masters had their pleasures and smoked the weed or snuffed it or chewed it with white powder of crushed seashells. Tobacco sometimes mentioned as a remedy, on such slight hopes do men brew their cure, but the story not ending there. Smoking a curiosity mostly seen about the docks. In the West Indies tobacco was farmed as a novel pleasure to enthrall some idle recreations, the lazy Spaniards seeing little value in the crop. For 25 years tobacco held its casual use, the weed left for others to exploit, until 1560 and Portugal and Jean Nicot and a world awakening to the rumors of great cures. What new day is this that dreams to a different light?” The old mariner smiled ironies in his wisdom.

“In these early days when Drake followed John Hawkins, it be an easy but desperate living in the sea for those that dared. The Spanish government held monopoly on all trade in the Americas. Special licenses were needed, which could be bought only in Spain. But for those who had the courage and the blessed lack of scruples, it were possible to steal goods or slaves on the high seas or in Africa, sail to South America, bribe a Spanish governor and trade till your ship burst with gold.

“John Hawkins had invented this trade, made many trips and done so well he brought his cousin, young Drake, into the business as a family favor. The problem was the Spanish government knew of the illegal trade, and in a fit of royal displeasure, several local officials were hung, as a humane reminder to the rest that some laws were meant to be obeyed occasionally. Needless to say, this newly found Spanish enlightenment closed down the trade for good, or at least until the corpses cooled. Into this new moral sea sailed Hawkins and Drake and I in 1568, all fresh with excitement and disgust from a little piracy off the coast of Portugal and a little slaving on the coast of Africa. Drake never having the stomach for that trade, his humanities always deeper than his greed. Hawkins only to his accounts and his merchandise. I was then a man who had studied to be an alchemist to cure the sick, compassion to be my inspired eyes, to see disease, search out the cause. And I believed as did my fellow alchemists that when God created a disease, for that disease he also made a cure. Our calling to seek that remedy in the world, cast potions and confections as God has done. God in me as I in God, this world as my saber, I wield it about my head with a double will. And so I studied nature and its metals and its herbs, and the new leaf they called tobacco, the cure of all cures. So simple is the power we offend. This practice brought to what? And still God hides, and still to Hawkins on this voyage no prospects seemed too bright, and no profits seemed so easy, only a few dead and a few wounded.

“Hawkins’s fleet of six ships now crossed the Atlantic, sailing for the little town of Rio de la Hacha, on the bowl of South America on the coast of Colombia, 100 miles north and east of Cartagena. And so things return to their beginnings to begin again. The governor of Rio de la Hacha had indulged in spasms of corruption so corrupt Hawkins thought him a friend. But in truth, there had been trouble two years before when one of Hawkins’s commanders, a Captain Lovell, had been denied a license to trade in the town, and the venture had gone sour. In the end, Lovell abandoned 60 black slaves on a beach for the Spanish to find, rather than face the expense of bringing them home.

“Drake had been a purser on that voyage, and Hawkins knew that his young cousin had a tingle of vengeance in his liver. Now Drake commanded an advance party of two ships, which sailed all bright in fair breeze into Rio de la Hacha. Drake being to the Spanish, even then, the devil’s grandson, he pushed those ships into the harbor, their sails and banners to the wind all plumed and taut. The Spanish about lost their eyeballs with the shock.

“Now, the town’s governor, Castellanos, then being still newly converted to the ways of the righteous, and having his victory of Lovell to live up to, not to mention a little guilty roll to his swagger over all the trading he had done in the past, was afraid, he was, that the town be better at remembering than forgetting. So he ordered three cannons fired, the noise being more important than the direction. Them balls splashed around harmlessly like hollow fists, Drake answering with a cannonade of his own, putting five cannonballs through the governor’s own house. There came a general exchange of firelocks, cannons, pistols, tongues of fire from the cannons almost lost in the smoke, which swept its drifts over the town and ships like a driven beast. Our ship crossed before the face of the town, not firing now, showing the colors of our determination. We were there for trade, after all, not war. The guns of the town were silent. Some of the buildings burned, the roofs pushed outward, beams protruding through the smoke and the hints of fire. Figures ran hysterically through the streets, their shadows following like demons on the walls of the stucco buildings.

“Drake sailed out of the harbor, anchored and blockaded it, waiting for Hawkins and the rest of the fleet. Hawkins arrived in a fury. He saw most laws as inconvenient and those who obeyed them more inconvenient than most. He held Castellanos’s conversion as a momentary religious spasm, which a large portion of profit would cure, but Hawkins was now low on supplies of fresh water and food. The slaves in the hold were costing him a fortune to feed. He had six ships bouncing aimlessly in the surf. The men were grumbling and Hawkins had backers who expected a profit. One of them is said to have been the queen herself.

“Hawkins was a desperate man, but in his desperation he was patient. He wrote to Castellanos saying he only wanted a license to trade, adding that his ships had been blown off course, and all he needed was a little commerce so he could reprovision. These were lies, but Hawkins hoped they would give the governor an excuse to take the most self-evidently reasonable course, which for Hawkins was the most profitable. Castellanos, fearing he had more to lose than a few coins, said no.

“To Hawkins, such determination in the face of profit was insanity. He himself was always reasonable in his vices, unlike the French corsairs; but, like Drake, he was a strange mixture. It was a many-spiced blood that flowed in both men. Hawkins would have his trade and his profit, even if it brought the whole Spanish empire to his throat. He was about to commit an act of war. To him it was merely shrewd practice in a business he had pioneered.

“Early the next day the sea rolled softly, as if it were still half in slumber. Cowering in its watery breath, 200 well-armed men slipped over the sides of our ships down ropes to waiting boats, pikes and crossbows and firelocks on their backs. Hawkins had decided to seize Rio de la Hacha and force Castellanos to grant him a trading license. We are all servants to the pleasures that allow us to forget. To Hawkins, a signed piece of paper would legalize all that came before, and commit to armistice all memories of the destruction and the killing, all the ruins, and so again would sweetly surge the ambrosias of our trade.

“The boats cast off. We rowed, the fleet diminishing in distance as the land rose with opening arms. We landed and marched toward the town, ahead of us festooned in their gallant rags walked our trumpeters and drummers, scattering noise. Down the main street we went, past shuttered windows and stuccoed walls brooding white; our shadows, like deformed needles, thrusting at their plastered silence. In the town center Castellanos and his militia knelt behind barricades of barrels and scraps of wood, waiting. The Spaniards rose, motley in their rags of war. They volleyed. One of our company, his face torn away, fell to his knees screaming, coughing blood in the bugle of his throat. His agony was ignored as a hail of arrows in their shadow threads wove the air. We fell back, more in surprise than fear of hurt, releasing our own vengeance in shots and crossbow darts, which fell about the barrels like the clatter of iron teeth. Spanish figures rose in wounds and terrors, arms flung wide, falling backwards. Others ran in panic. They were gone, we let them go—the Spanish, their Indian militia and some blacks, trusted slaves, holding weapons. The town was ours.

“But what conquest did we have? An empty city. The entire population had fled into the hills, hiding in secret places all their jewels, their gold, their treasure. All the wealth that we would have. There in the town we sat, defeated in our victory, watching the breached doors of houses sway in their silent mockeries. Words turned rancid in our throats. Still scheming his salvation, Hawkins had a plan. He wrote a friendly note to Castellanos saying it was a shame events had come to this unhappy pass. But he, Hawkins, bore no ill will. Castellanos answered from the hills by burning all the crops in the fields. We could gather no food. Hawkins paced the streets of his empty town, kicking dust at dust in his fury, smoke from the fields rising like a fiery beacon at his back. But Hawkins was a resourceful man. He wrote another letter to the governor saying unless he received 4,500 ducats, Rio de la Hacha would be burned to the ground.

“With torches in hand, running through the streets, our eyes bright with expectation, like children at hideous play. Twenty buildings were set afire, including the governor’s own, smoke from the fields and the buildings rising in wind-swept columns, merging far away in the float of distance, two intents now in a powerful unity. ’If you fire all the buildings in the Indies, my answer will be the same,’ wrote Castellanos, ‘now and forever no.’

“It be a hard biscuit in old Hawkins’s mouth, eh Smith?” The eyes of the mariner reflected the light of our raging campfire. The dancing embers raced upward to journey with the night, joining with that sweet breath of the wind that in my imagination I saw as the fleeing smoke of Rio de la Hacha. The old mariner’s arms lay on his bent knees. He stared ahead. “So we sat,” he said. “For Hawkins there could be no real war. The Queen would only accept an incident in the pursuit of profit, not a general conflict. For the Spanish there could be no real peace. To barter with us would mean the governor’s head.

“As the night bears its own shadow, so an enigma bears its own solution. He came sweetly, carrying his own death, as he came with a gift to buy his own resurrection. He was a black African, a slave, one of the Spanish irregular militia that the Spaniards added now and again to the numbers of their local forces. He came in ragged protocol to offer a proposition. Take me to my freedom beyond the Spanish and I shall take you to where is hid the town’s treasure.’

“Hawkins pulled at his own collar to hold himself up, as his knee almost bent in gratitude. There were no agreements or pledges more solemnly sworn, or more honor encrusted in any words than those that were spoken there. The black led us atop a small hill near the town. There were 100 in our party, all well armed. As we approached the crest, there came a howl from a distant rise, as if the earth, expecting an injury, had already felt imagined pain. On the other hill, the townspeople gathered, crying, cursing the air with voices and waving fists. Someone fired a shot, which we ignored. The black man, our informer, jumped and laughed and waved his hands, making such faces that once he even dared to show the Spanish the air of his behind. Then he fell to whimpering, telling us of his suffering and of the Spanish brutalities: children with their hands cut off for stealing, women torn apart by wild dogs as a sport, their infants in their arms. He was a soul made mad with memories.

“Near a rock at the hill’s crest our shovels tore upon the earth, our bodies sweating avarice. Within an hour we had gathered all the gold and jewels and silver, plates and pearls and cups. We marched to the town, singing, giving praise to the bounty of God’s plunder. It was a king’s ransom, maybe 20,000 ducats, I would guess. In the town again, we burned the cathedral in the honor of God’s love and his wisdom for making us Protestants. You would think we’d pack our ships and sail away, but not Hawkins. Gold would not suffice. He needed cloaks to cover all his crimes. He knew the queen could not afford a war with Spain. He knew the Spanish would demand the return of all their treasure, and the queen, in all her grumblings and all her delays, would sweetly return it to them, packed in rages and cradled in her curses. Hawkins wrote again to Castellanos, demanding either a license to trade, or he would keep the treasure. It was a clever humanity that brought a stranger vice. Castellanos had no choice. He had to negotiate. There, in an open field, the two sat, a crude wooden table between them, exchanging pleasantries and gifts, as if loyalty and memory were just conceits altered to fairer currents when a moment’s need arose.

“What admiration there was in those courtly twins, Hawkins and Castellanos. The day was fine. The wine was good. They smiled. They danced the dance of commerce, as birds playfully slaughtered worms at their feet. Drake, not important enough to have his say, was on his tiny ship. Hawkins traded his goods for 4,500 ducats and some dozen barrels of tobacco, that being of the good smoking leaf, Nicotiana Tabacum, not well-known then in England. Hawkins accepting this first supply, believing it would have its value, there being no real store of tobacco in Plymouth or London or on the eastern coast, but for the few private weights owned by mariners. Castellanos had most of his town’s treasure, plus 110 slaves, some cloth and spices as evidence for our conscience and for the crown, what was received was for trade not for ransom. The two stood, shook hands, and gestured their satisfaction with a hug. Castellanos offered Hawkins another glass of wine to salute their friendship. Two tobacco leaves were rolled into funnels, then stuffed with more crushed leaf. One was handed to Hawkins. The cigar was lit. These cornucopias protruding like trumpets from their mouths, they enjoyed the taste on each blossom of smoke, smiling to each other through the elixir of the weed. What remedy is this that brings its secrets in practical cures? War avoided, profit to all in brotherly commerce.

“How full Hawkins was with himself, to be so hollow. As we turned to lift the treasure to our carts, Hawkins ordered that the black be given to Castellanos as a prize. There is a scream in silence the earth does make that pierces the ears of men, into their very souls. The black in silent thunder stood and from his bones his flesh did slide. He came at Hawkins, cursing with savage oaths. The Spanish seized him, bore him in his rage away. Castellanos patted Hawkins on his back. Someone in our party would have helped the black, but instead we spit at the earth as if it were more guilty than ourselves. How many times must we fail before we know we fail? And so in our hesitations we do offend, weeping in our dry tears the legends of the lost.

“We rowed to our ships and brought back the cloth and 5 the slaves as was our pledge. We left them chained together on a beach, surrounded by bales of cloth and barrels of spices. They seemed confused and unsteady, their skin hanging as if weary of any shape. Through the throat of the street we could see the town square. There the Spanish had dug a stake in the earth, piled cords of wood around to the height of a man’s chest. They tied the black to it. He struggled as if he would have fled from his own flesh. The Spanish threw oil on the wood and lit the pyre. “We left the harbor heading north. When we were beyond the sight of land, the smoke from the pyre, a whirlwind shard, floated like a plaintive wisp, a beacon column, calling softly to errant ships sailing on the drum rolls of the sea.”  

George Robert Minkoff’s epic novel In the Land of Whispers will be published in three volumes between 2006 and 2008 by McPherson & Company, beginning in November 2006 with The Weight of Smoke, from which this excerpt is taken. The second volume, The Maps of the Storm, is scheduled for July 2007, with the concluding volume, The Leaves of Fate, promised for February 2008. Minkoff, a noted antiquarian book dealer, divides his time between western Massachusetts and New York.  

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BOMB 97, Fall 2006

Featuring interviews with Anthony McCall, Sasha Chavchavadze, Tod Papageorge, Lynne Tillman, Nichole Argo, Steven Shainberg, Amina Claudine Myers, Theresa Rebeck, William Katavolos, Judith Linhares. 

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