Wednesday, January 15, 2014


According to Simon Hart’s 1959 study The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company: Amsterdam Notarial Records of the First Dutch Voyages to the Hudson, published by the City of Amsterdam Press, a certain “Jan Rodrigues,” described as a “mulatto . . . of San Domingo,” sailed to what is now Manhattan, New York, in 1613 aboard the Jonge Tobias, captained and owned by Thijs Volckenz Mossel. Hart continues by pointing out that Rodrigues was “not satisfied on Mossel’s ship and did not wish to go back to Holland with him.” Instead, Rodrigues, later termed a “black rascal” by a subsequent group of Dutch traders who encountered him (82), received wages in the form of weapons that could also serve as trading items, for the trade Rodrigues is said to have engaged in with the native peoples of the island. “When the ships departed in May or June, 1613,” Hart concludes, “Jan Rodrigues stayed on the Hudson” (23). Other accounts, such as the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute’s monograph Juan Rodriguez and the Beginnings of New York (New York, 2013), assert that this disembarkation and decision to stay behind very well might make Jan Rodrigues, the son of a Portuguese sailor father and a mother of African descent, the first  non–Native American settler of what is now New York City and state, predating sustained Dutch settlement by several years. Given his background, he would also be the first person of African descent, the first Latino/Hispanic, and the first Dominican to settle in Manhattan.



The canoe scudded to a stop at the steep, rocky shore. There was no slip, so he tossed the rope, which he had knotted to a crossbar and weighted with a pierced plumb square just larger than his thumb, forward into the foliage. Carefully he clambered toward the spray of greenery, the fingers of the thicket and its underbrush clasping the soles of his boots, his stockinged calves, his ample linen breeches. A thousand birds proclaimed his ascent up the incline; the bushes shuddered with the alarm of creatures stirred from their lees; insects rose in a screen before his eyes, vanishing. When he had secured the boat and settled onto a sloping meadow, he sat, to wet his throat with water from his winesack, and orient himself, and rest. Only then did he look back.

The ship, the Jonge Tobias, which had borne him and the others across more nautical miles than he had thought to tally, was no longer visible, its brown hulk hidden by the river’s curve and the outcropping topped by fortresses of trees. The water, fluttering like a silk shroud, now white, now silver, now azure, ferried his eyes all the way over itself east—he knew from the captain’s compass and his own canny sense of space, innate since he could first recall—to the banks of a vaster, still not fully charted island, its outlines an ocher shimmer in the morning light, etching themselves on his memory like auguries. Closer, at the base of the hill, fish and eels drew quick seams along the river’s nervous surface. From hideouts in the rushes toads serenaded. Once, in Santo Domingo where he had been born and spent half his youth before working on ships to purchase his freedom, he peered into a furnace where a man who could have been his brother was turning a bell of glass, and he had felt the blaze’s gaping mouth, the sear of its tongue nearly devouring him as the blown bowl miraculously fulfilled its shape. Now the sun, as if the forebear of that transformative fire, burned its presence into the sky’s blue banner, its hot rays falling everywhere, gilding the landscape around him. He was used to days and nights in the tropics, but nevertheless crawled beneath the shade of a sweet gum bower. He turned down the wide brim of his hat, shifted his sack to his left side, near the tree’s gray base, opened his collar to cool himself, and waited.

The first time he had done this, at another, more southerly landing nearer the dock and the main trading post, one of the people who had long lived here had revealed himself, emerging from an invisible door in a row of bayberries, speaking—yes, repeating a soft but welcoming melody. Jan—as Captain Mossel and the crew on the ship called him, or Juan as he was known in Santo Domingo, or João as he had once been called by his Lusitanian sailor father and those like him among whom he worked, the kingdoms of the Iberians being the same in those days, and before that M______, the name his mother had summoned forth from her people and sworn him never to reveal to another soul, not so distant, it struck him, from the Makadewa the envoy of the first people had begun to call him—had turned his ear around and around like a tuning fork until he captured it, and with the key of this language that most of the Dutch on the ship assured him they could not fully hear, he had himself unlocked a door. Skins for hatchets, axes, knives, guns, more efficient than flints or polished clubs in felling a cougar, a sycamore, an enemy. He had wrung a peahen’s neck and roasted an entire hog, but despite having heard several times the call to revolt, he had never revealed a single secret or shibboleth, nor had he killed or been party to killing another man. So long as the circumstances made it possible to avoid doing either, he would. Someday, perhaps soon, he knew, his fate might change, unless he overturned it.

The envoy had, through gestures, his stories, later meals and the voices that spoke through fire and smoke, opened a portal onto his world. Jan knew for his own sake, his survival, he must remember it, enter it. He had already begun to answer to the wind, the streams, the bluffs. As he now sat in the grass, observing the light playing through the canopies, the shadows sliding across themselves along the sedge in distinct shades, all still darker than his own dark hands, cheeks, a mantis trudging along the half-bridge of a gerardia stalk, he could see another window inside that earlier one, beckoning. He would study it as he had been studying each tree, each bush, each bank of flowers here and wherever on this island he had set foot. He would understand that window, climb through it.

He stood and unsheathed his knife. Then he removed a roll of twine from his bag. Using the tools, he marked several nearby spots, hatching the tree and tightly knotting several lengths of string about the branches, creating signs, in the shape of lozenges, squares, half-circles, that would be visible right up to sunset. In nearby branches he created several more. There was always the possibility that one of the first people, one of whom he expected to appear at any moment, though none did, or some nonhuman creature, or a spirit in either form, would untie the markers, erase the hatchings, thereby erasing this spot’s specificity, for him, returning it to the anonymity that every step here, as on every ship he had sailed on, every word he had never before spoken, every face he had never seen until he did, once held. If that were to be the case, so it would be. Yet he vowed not to forget this little patch where a new recognition had dawned in him. If he had to commit every scent, every sound, even the blades of grass to memory, he would. He walked around, bending down, looking at a squirrel that had been looking intently at him . . .

Despite having no timepiece, he knew it was time to return. A breeze, as if seconding this impulse, sighed Rodrigues. He began sifting through his store of images for a story to recount to them, shielding this place and its particularities from their imaginations. He broke off two branches big enough to serve as stakes and carried them with him down to the bank and the canoe. Using his knife and fingers, and, once he had created an opening, the thinner end of his paddle, he dug a hole, and pounded the first stake into it. Using the twine he created a cross with the other branch, then strung a series of knots around it, from the base to the top, wishing he had brought beads or pieces of colored cloth, or anything that would snare the gaze from a distance. He stepped back to inspect it. He was not sure he would be able to spy it from the water, though it commanded the eye from where he stood. But, he reminded himself, once he returned to the ship, it would be for the last time, and he would have months, years even, to find and reconstruct this cross again, to place a new one. The first people would guide him to it, too, if they happened upon it. He replaced his knife and the twine, collected his anchor, then hoisted himself back into the canoe, paddle in one hand, in the other his ballast. He pushed off from the shore, out into the river, and as he glanced at the cross, it appeared to flare, momentarily, before it disappeared like everything else around it into the island’s dense verdant hide. It was, despite his observations of the area, the one thing that he recalled so clearly he could have described it down to the grain of the wood when he slid into his hammock that night, and, when he returned a week later, his canoe and a skiff laden with ampler sacks, of flints, candles, seeds, a musket, his sword, a small tarp to protect him from the rain, enough hatchets and knives to ensure his work as trader, and translator, never to return to the Jonge Tobias, or any other ship, nor to the narrow alleys of Amsterdam or his native Hispaniola, the very first thing he saw.




Wednesday, January 15, 2014