In his work, Columbus the Moor, Charles Matz weaves a complex tapestry of cultural elements into a dramatic presentation of Columbus’ historic journey to the so called “New World.” As a poet, novelist, dramaturge, and performer on the one hand and as a long term resident of Italy, in the culturally diverse Mediterranean, Matz masterfully creates a work, varied in form and content.
Firstly, Columbus the Moor is translated into four languages: English, French, Spanish and Italian. Every version contains the language of the Taino ethnic group. This in itself is symbolic of the coming together of different worlds in the Columbus story: Columbus, an Italian who resided in Portugal and Spain, his crew, comprising individuals mainly from Spain but including Irish and English, and the indigenous people populating the Americas.
In addition to the variety in language, this work comprises different artistic forms. The author refers to it as “performance art.” Poetry and song along with dramatic dialogue are the means by which the story is conveyed. As Charles Matz asserts, it is a text meant to be read aloud, so, even as a piece of literature, Columbus the Moor is a work of orality.
Interestingly, this narrative combines historical fact with a certain level of mysticism. The story focuses on a voyage of Columbus to the Caribbean, which is well-known in history; and besides Columbus, historical figures, such as Bartolome de las Casas and the names of the entire crew of the Pinta, Santa Maria, and the Nina are included in the narrative. Enriching the historical nature of the narrative is a mystical element, which reveals itself in a dialogue between Columbus and a ship, Columbus’ vision of the islands he would encounter, and the Amerindians prophesying Columbus’ arrival. In the very first passage of the play, the Ancient Earth Mothers request that “the Wind,” which has been personified, bring music to the earth. The result is a redramatization of the Columbus voyage that is creative and full of life.
The portrayal of Columbus also is a complex and layered aspect of this work. This is firstly revealed with the title of the play, Columbus the Moor. This is an interesting choice for the author as the Moors, originating from North Africa, dominated Spain and Portugal for 800 years and were defeated and driven out in the same year of Columbus’ first voyage:1492. In fact, Columbus makes reference to the defeat of the Moors in his journal detailing his first journey.
Matz explains that “we have called him a Moor in this text for poetic reasons: dynamic intellectual and emotional reasons.” He goes on to explain that the Moors were forced to leave Spain as Christopher Columbus forced himself to leave. Despite this explanation, it is intriguing that some allege that Christopher Columbus had a Moorish navigator on board named Pero Alonso Nino. The title Columbus the Moor sparks interest in the potential role of the Moors in the Columbus story.
How positively Columbus is portrayed is also of interest. Columbus’ bravery and mastery of the seas is clearly evident in the text, as he states, “my horizon leaps up in distant tongues/ waves/ that mark that edge/ of which warnings are old.” While being celebrated as a great seaman, another aspect of Columbus’ journey is illustrated as Columbus foresees the violence that his arrival brings: “…of the Virgin Patronesses/ the hermit saints/ the martyr saints/ Saints axe-slain, beheaded saints/ windlass wound saint deacons/ so many saints!/ nude or semi-nude saints, saints with wings…” In this text, a Taino poet observes sinister omens of Columbus’ coming while a Chief responds, “…that is nothing to worry about…” The complexity of views on Columbus is certainly represented in this text.
Columbus the Moor is no one thing; it is an amalgation—a callaloo. It is in that sense a Caribbean text. Ironically, describing the events that created the modern Caribbean. It is a text for which silent reading is not sufficient. It will best be enjoyed if the full potential of sensory experience is brought to bear. A journey well worth the taking.
Dr. Natalio Wheatley is a lecturer at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College in the British Virgin Islands. He has a Masters of Arts in Literary Studies from Purdue University, and a PhD from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where his dissertation focused on “Race, Class, and Resistance in Three Caribbean Novels”. He is a poet who was recently anthologized in Where I See the Sun: Contemporary Poetry in the Virgin Islands. Dr. Wheatley has presented alongside intellectual giants, such as Tony Martin, Horace Campbell, and Rex Nettleford, and has performed poetry throughout the world, including Carifesta 10, the Caribbean Festival of the Arts in Guyana and as an invited guest in the Houses of Parliament in London, England.