4 out of 4 stars
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To begin, not at the beginning, but at the end: in an Author's Note at the end of his book Kidnapped by Columbus, Marc Wilson states: “This book is fiction. The story is true.” That some up very neatly the very close ties this story has to actual historical events; Wilson outlines how many events and characters fit with the historical record, but also explains exactly where he has exercised some poetic licence. He amply justifies his use of the term 'kidnapped', with which some historians disagree, to describe the plight of a group of Taíno “Indians” who were taken back to Spain by Christopher Columbus when he returned from his first voyage of discovery.
The first person narrator of this extraordinary account is Guarocuya, one of the six Taínos that Columbus 'persuaded' to join him aboard La Niña. Columbus is an ambivalent figure: decent in many respects, and loyal to his friends, but not always kind to his mistress, and with a tendency to religious extremism, a gift for self-promotion and a strong desire to advance his social status.
Guarocuya recounts his adventures alongside his dear friend Rodrigo, a Spanish Jew, as they travel across Spain to the court of los reyes catolicos, the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. There is plenty of colour, mystery, tension and excitement in the tale and the tensions and dangers only increase when they reach court. Wilson shows how Queen Isabella, in particular, could be capable of great kindness as well as religious fanaticism. She not only acknowledges but also promotes the humanity of the “indians”, whilst others debate whether they are really just monkeys, not entitled to human status. The ugly irony of this, though, is that, because Isabella insists on recognition of their humanity, the Taínos are then expected to convert to Christianity, which brings them within the reach of the notorious Spanish Inquisition.
From that point onwards, it is clear that the main issue of the narrative is going to be whether, and for how long, Guarocuya and his friends, including Rodrigo and the mysterious Count of Messina, will be able to evade a horrific death at the hands of the cruel Torquemada and his fanatical team of torturers and murders.
I hesitated a long time over the rating of this book. If I could give this book three-and-a-half stars, I would. In literary terms it is perhaps just “a good read” - well-structured, and ably narrated; it has also been well-edited, with very few errors. The fictional characters could be seen as lacking complexity and depth, but they are consistent and not entirely one-dimensional. Guarocuya is an engaging narrator who tells his story simply and well. I occasionally found the simplicity grating, and sometimes the fictional embellishments stretched my credulity, but the pace of the story was sufficiently gripping to carry me through all that. Most importantly, and what tips the balance for me, is that this novel offers real insight into a very dark point in history and the kind of thinking that lay behind the terrible human tragedy that was to follow. For that reason, I give this book a rating of 4 out of 4 stars. and I recommend it to all fans of historical fiction and those with an interest in colonialism, human rights and religious freedom.
I began with the final Author's Note, and I'm going to end with the Prologue. Guarocuya explains that his story is being written in his old age, whilst he is in prison, awaiting execution after leading a “failed revolution” against Spain. This means that there is room for a sequel to this book. I dare to hope that Wilson chooses to write it, and I have the courage to read it. It will be grim: there were half a million Taínos before Columbus landed; by the time Guarocuya is committing his story to paper, most of them are dead. The road to genocide, it seems, can be at least partially paved with good intentions.
Kidnapped by Columbus
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