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Brief historiography of the Ship of Fools in America

Few and imprecise are the sources that provide reliable information about the fate of the Flemish ships of the 16th century that arrived in America. The subject has been neglected by generations of historians, who have seen in it a simple curiosity concerning popular legends and the folklore of the conquerors. However, recent findings yield revealing data that make us urgently rethink research in this regard [1].

 

The historiography concerning the so-called "Ships of Fools" in Renaissance Europe, is documented and demonstrated. In its Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (French: Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge Classique) [2], Michel Foucault dedicates an extensive section to describing the nature of these vessels. Sort of a collective metaphor for madness, the figure of a ship driven by chance among the currents of desire is a constant that appears throughout Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

 

Although the notion of unreason predominates in the description of the crew members of these ships, we must not also forget the basis of their representativeness:

 

“[…] these 'ships' whose crew of imaginary heroes, ethical models or social types embarks on a great symbolic journey, which provides them, if not fortune, at least the form of their destiny or their truth." [3]

 

We are referring, then, not only to proto-insane asylums dumped into the waters with no apparent ministry but rather to complex, symbolic societies in search of a destiny that justifies them.

 

The first clear mention that we find regarding its possible intercontinental travel corresponds to the narration of the crew member of one of the first exploration trips to the Americas on his way back to Europe. This is Juan Valdemar y Cabido, lookout for the Santi Spiritus, a caravel belonging to the expedition of Alonso Vélez de Mendoza around the year 1500.

The sailor recounts in his logbook what would seem like a hallucinatory vision[4]:

 

On the seventeenth night, at the post of my guard, we sailed with a favorable & calm wind by the grace of Our Lady and Blessed Virgin, who gave us a sky clear of clouds & stars & brought us the moon in its complete roundness & brighter & closer than ever seen in Our Kingdom, that it seems to emerge from the same splendor that it caused with its light. Being calm & gentle waters, like those of a lake without current, I suddenly observed a small boat coming our way. It surprised me greatly, to see it without sails or banners, even more than to discover it on the high seas, of whose explorations we only had news of our own company. Even so, I feared the bewilderment of my ignorance, & I approached the bowsprit of our own seeing that one, which in its silent navigation was foreign to me & that my mind imagined Oriental or Moorish, or from the Atlantean kingdoms that the ancient gentiles related. However, as she approached, her loneliness was revealed to me. The ship did not carry fires for the night, & more than foreign it seemed to be shipwrecked by humanity, which in its silent & dark appearance seemed to float like a shadow on the glare of the moon, which inhabited it even more than the ragged and dark crew members who from its deck observed me without asking for help or paying courteous reverence. The spirit ship passed alongside our own, its crew chanting a sordid prayer. With only her posterity left in sight, I beheld a grey-haired, bearded old man with closed eyes stretching from the stern a broken bristling fishing net. Wherever these disgraced creatures were embarked, they were surely led by the one who, like a rudder, poured the threads of his hands over the splendors of the moon, to keep the waters calm and obedient to his will.

 

In this case, we are struck by the description of the ship in its size and peculiar shortcomings. The story presented has had various readings, from those that expose it as the encounter with a ship of Barbary corsairs or Portuguese shipwrecks (Turrent, 1989), or the confession of a navigator's dream. In any case, we are forced to propose a reinterpretation of the source: the probable discovery of a Flemish ship that has lost its way, or, that has finally found it.

 

Jheronimus_Bosch_011.jpg

The trace of the aforementioned ship can be followed through few, but constant references throughout the first year of the 16th century. The diary of the port captaincy of Vlissingen (then Flesingen), tells briefly about the previous February 18: “She left the cause of the River Scheldt to enter the open sea, taking those crazy people to continental exile”. The narrator is specific to an amazing degree: “twelve visible, holding vegetable branches like broken candles. It seemed to me that I observed religious men accompanied by immoral nudes, so determined in their navigation that their excessive enthusiasm seemed to exceed their madness.”.

 

The story would have taken little time to become popular in Flemish lands. An example of this can be seen in the famous painting of El Bosco, who, inspired by that vision, makes an allegorical painting in which good and evil take shape, as a metaphor for the century that was beginning —another sample, in his vision, of the imminent end of the world.

 

However, the painter —like many other providentialists of his time (and many others)— was completely wrong. Far from rushing to their own end, the fortunes of that small crew seemed to find a course that, in retrospect, finds a richer and more disconcerting meaning: The New World.

 

During the years following these stories, when the explorations in America became more constant, it is common for the conquerors to find testimony among the indigenous groups about white-skinned individuals inhabiting those lands. Already on his fourth voyage in 1502, Christopher Columbus received information of this type when he intercepted a small boat, which led him to believe that he was near the Great Khan, and that perhaps Europeans were already part of his court [5].

We suppose then that it was in the course of the year 1500, that the distinguished ship of which we follow traces would have touched the American lands, news that sooner than later would have been spread among the Native American communities. We know in turn from the story of the survivor Gerónimo de Aguilar, that by 1511 —the year of his shipwreck on the Yucatan coast—, the presence of Europeans living in American territories outside the Hispanic colonial project was already accredited among the natives[ 6].

 

In turn, we do not have clear indications that give reason about the Flemish ship for several decades. Perhaps the sympathy was caused, according to the narration of Aguilar himself, by the madness caused to one of his own (whose name is silent) after a blow to the head. A situation that the Cocomes Indians judged as divine interference, and that was undoubtedly a popular notion that often made them to point, according to the religious, enthusiastically toward the seas.

 

It will be until the discovery of Florida by Juan Ponce de León and Figueroa that new clues will be found in this regard. The conqueror had departed with three ships from Puerto Rico, seduced by the legend of the fountain of eternal youth. It is known that on his continental landing in 1503, he found at least one native capable of speaking Spanish fluently [7]. But his astonishment did not end there. Once it was confirmed that his men —Europeans of various nations and languages— understood each other with some aborigines, they were told that the natives learned those and other knowledges, and even some trades, from a community of white-skinned bearded sorcerers that arrived a few years earlier in a small boat from across the sea.

 

After that happy episode, there was a strange change in the attitude of the natives of those coasts. Believing to return to a safe place, the explorer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba sailed back to the peninsula in 1517, fleeing from Yucatán; this time having a very hostile reception. In the following decades, this attitude remains, making the area impassable for Europeans, and the bellicose attitude inexplicable.

 

In the same way, it would remain in our eyes if it were not for the Spiritual Diary of Francisco Villarreal, a Jesuit brother and founder of the Tequesta mission in 1568, at the mouth of the Miami River. More than six decades have passed since that first encounter in language, and yet, the memory of that initial empathy remains latent in the hearts and ambitions of the Spanish people. Confronted in his faith, the religious questions the divinity about how to carry out his mission:

 

"'What profits a man if he gains the New World to God, if he loses his faith?' The Mission lands take me away from the certainty of the Kingdom to be built, by chance that the Spirit would facilitate me. It would seem, then, that among these Indians, more than the will of enjoying the Divine internally, they yearn to do so from the evil spirit and its promised sins. At times they seem to enjoy the sacred Word, attending to it & loving it. But the consolation lasts very little. Learning it, easily, they deform it, making it incoherent but continuous. profane but heartfelt; as fools incapable of reason & understanding of the things of the Lord."

 

More than the typical description of the learning (voluntary or forced) of the faith by the indigenous people, what we notice here is a more typical description of what madness was for Europeans in the classical age. Believing them to be perverted according to the degradations of old Europe, the Jesuit ordered the entire community to be burned, fearing that their influence would act to the detriment of the evangelization of the other indigenous peoples.

 

Ancestors or teachers of these fools; the madmen shipped to America still remain a mystery between the lines of history. Brief historiography, but whose scope seems not yet to have found its final finitude.

[1] Dr. John Lawrence, director of the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC), declared to Archeology Magazine: “We are quite surprised […], the remains found coincide both in their description and in antiquity to those predicted in popular narratives , so we will undoubtedly have to completely rethink our assessments in this regard [...]. There are strong indications that during the 16th century Florida was not only reached by conquerors from the European continent” (Archeology, Mar/Apr 2011 64:2. “Ship of Fools founded on Florida”).

[2] Michel Foucault (1967)

[3] Ibid. p. 10.

[4] File 45, Box 2, Valdermar and Cabido, AGI.

[5] (1504) Epistle of the Kings.

[6] Cervantes de Salazar (1556), Chronicle of the first explorations of the eastern coast of New Spain

[7] Ibid.

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