Colombe (Columbus) by Kamau Brathwaite

C
olumbus from his after-
deck watched stars, absorbed in water,
melt in liquid amber drifting
through my summer air.
Now with morning, shadows lifting,
beaches stretched before him cold & clear.
Birds circled flapping flag & mizzen
mast. birds harshly hawking. without fear.
Discovery he sailed for. was so near.

C
olumbus from his after-
deck watched heights he hoped for,
rocks he dreamed. rise solid from my simple water.
Parrots screamed. Soon he would touch
our land. his charted mind’s desire.
The blue sky blessed the morning with its fire
But did his vision
fashion, as he watched the shore,
the slaughter that his soldiers
furthered here? Pike
point & musket butt
hot splintered courage. Bones
cracked with bullet shot,
tipped black boot in my belly. The
whip’s uncurled desire?

C
olumbus from his after-
deck saw bearded fig trees. Yellow pouis
blazed like pollen & thin
waterfalls supended in the green
as his eyes climbed towards the highest ridges
where our farms were hidden.
Now he was sure
he heard soft voices mocking in the leaves
What did this journey mean. this
new world mean. dis
covery? Or a return to terrors
he had sailed from. Known before?
I watched him pause
Then he was splashing silence.
Crabs snapped their claws
and scattered as he walked towards our shore.

Summary and Analysis

The first line has one syllable, a pattern that is repeated in the next two stanzas as well.

C
olumbus, from his after-
deck watched stars, absorbed in water

Note how words are split. The use of the symbol ‘&’, called the ampersand, in place of ‘and’ is unusual in poetry. In the Caribbean region, one peculiarity of the local speech pattern is to omit the first letter. It is Brathwaite’s way of demystifying Columbus; by first fracturing the French version of the name of the legendary figure. The name Columbus/ Colombe loses its dignity by being split into two in the beginning of every stanza. Moreover, the image of Columbus in this poem is that of a man who was indirectly responsible for the genocide of the local people. In this context, using the French version of his name is ironic, as Colombe means dove, which is a symbol of peace.

Observe how the poet has not used capitalization and punctuation. The syntax is also different; hardly any articles are used and the word order is reversed. This shock technique forces us to pay attention to the unusual combinations.

The poem is from the omniscient perspective of the native, secretly watching Columbus; who is a silent, solitary figure, standing on the rear part of the ship, watching the reflection of the stars in the sea. The emergence of daylight makes the reflection turn yellow. Don’t miss the beautiful metaphor of the stars ‘melting into liquid amber.’ Before him, in the daylight, he surveys the beaches before him. Above him birds circle around the flapping flag and the mast of the ship. The reversed syntax in;

harshly hawking

brings in a sense of unease into the poem. The hawking or preying birds are clearly associated with Columbus, who has come like a predator to these islands. The poet steers away from conventional representations of Columbus as an innocent, well- meaning discoverer. The birds of prey are agitated, maybe sensing Columbus’s intentions with their special foresight.

Like a lord, Columbus surveys the land before him. His desire to possess it is brought out in the image of the man who has already imagined this exotic paradise:

C
olumbus from his after-
deck watched heights he hoped for
rocks he dreamed. rise from my simple water

Opposing forces can be felt in the poem – the silence of Columbus on the afterdeck of the ship and the silence of the native watching him. The tensions are built up by the native’s reiteration of ownership of the elements as ‘my summer air’, ‘my simple water’ and ‘our land’. The metaphor of the simple water underscores the unsuspecting, simple innocence of the native, compared to Columbus’s sinister plans. He appears as a strategist who has already calculated the benefits of his journey.

The short sentences without articles build up the tension. The screaming parrots are an omen of the impending violence, about to be unleashed by Columbus. This image links up with the birds of prey that were making harsh noises above the mast, in the first stanza.

The native can sense the ambition in Columbus’s mind. The poem raises doubts about Columbus’s motives. We wonder whether the slaughter of the natives was part of his plan to forcibly gain possession of these islands. This aspect of his voyages has not been sufficiently stressed in history text books and journals. The European soldiers use weapons, symbols of western civilization, to crush the passionate resistance and the courage of the indigenous people. The native empathizes with the pain about to be perpetrated on his community; the whip and the boot that will be used as weapons to subjugate and crush these simple people.

Pike
point & musket butt
hot splintered courage. Bones
cracked with bullet shot
tipped black boot in my belly.

Even before Columbus has set foot on the island, the native can feel the pain and suffering of his people at the hands of Columbus’s troops. There are many historical accounts of the brutalities inflicted on the natives on the islands. I will give just one example; Columbus’s soldiers used the natives as human targets to practice firing and fed the dead bodies to their dogs.

The image of Columbus looking at the bearded fig trees contains echoes of the moment when another Portuguese explorer sighted these in 1536, on another island, and named it Barbados, which means ‘the bearded one’. Pay special attention to the imagery. Brathwaite combines suggestions of fertility and virility in the simile of the yellow pouis flowers that ‘blazed like pollen’ and the waterfalls glimpsed in the greenery. It is an abundant, colourful, and exotic paradise.

Note how Columbus’s eyes move in an upward arc. In the first stanza, he is watching the reflection of the stars in the water; when day dawns he looks upon beaches and the rocks rising in the water and in the last stanza his eyes travel up to the ridges. The progressively upward movement of his eyes mirrors his rising ambition and greed.

The figure of Columbus standing silent is ominous; the native has gauged the destructive potential of the explorer. Columbus hears ‘mocking voices’ behind the bushes. Like the narrator, other natives are watching him. Perhaps his guilt makes him paranoid and he believes the voices are laughing at him.

The second half of the last stanza in ‘Colombe’ is in line with modern, revised accounts of Columbus. Brathwaite splits the word ‘discovery’ into two:

What did this journey mean, this
new world mean: dis-
covery? Or a return to terrors
he had sailed from, known before?

Brathwaite’s breaking up of the word ‘discovery’ is an excellent illustration of how language can be a powerful weapon, forcing us to look at things differently. This technique deprives the word of any dignity and, by extension Columbus’s achievement in landing on the island. He is not a brave explorer, but an ambassador of colonial power.

Columbus is imagined as a man with a tortured soul; restless and unhappy. Brathwaite does not take the easy path and project Columbus as an anti-hero. He is more complex; a man sailing across the world to escape his inner demons. Brathwaite has added another dimension to Columbus’s motives; the great explorer is presented as a disturbed personality.

The image of Columbus alighting from the ship is conveyed through a powerful metaphor: ‘splashing silence’ as he walks. Again, Brathwaite has inverted the syntax to draw attention to the silence that Columbus has shattered. His destructive potential is conveyed through the crabs crushed under his feet, as he takes his first step on the island, oblivious of the peace that he has disrupted. The image of the crabs, links up with the hawks and parrots in the earlier stanzas.

Conclusion

The poem forces us to revise popular notions about Columbus by presenting him from the perspective of the native. The use of the French version of his name, Colombe, the splitting of his name as well as the word ‘discovery’, and the experiments with language: all these contribute to the poet’s attempt to demystify the great navigator. However, Brathwaite does not take recourse to the simple device of presenting Columbus as a villain, driven by pure greed and ambition, resulting in the senseless slaughter of the indigenous people. The Columbus of this poem is a complex man; he is a restless and unhappy soul. Brathwaite’s poetic imagination conceives a man who home.

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