Sea of Lentils — Antonio Benitez-Rojo (1985)
Setting: Four separate 16th century narratives spanning Castille, the Spanish Netherlands, Florida, and various Caribbean islands, among them, a Hispaniola full of ‘scoundrels’ “crazed by the idea of the island as one enormous [gold] mine”.
What it’s about: This is one of the few novels to graphically portray the horror of the Conquista — the Spanish genocide of the Amer-Indian peoples: the brutality of Europeans, the enslavement of Indians in mines. Above all, this novel charts the transition between that great crime and another, the industrialisation of the transatlantic slave trade by the British, with one of the overlapping narratives introducing the first British slaver on his first mission, taking the baton from an old Spanish trader.
Slavery, torture, starvation, massacres, beatings flash momentarily into view, obscured mostly by the general debauchery of the Spanish invaders.
A cast of dodgy characters is the poor adventurer who sails with a villainous, distant Columbus. He finds himself worshipped by local tribes, carried around in a hammock and allowed to brutalise and sodomise at will, who fortunes are carried up and down by waves of abuse:
“One afternoon, as you came home with two guinea pigs you’d shot with crossbow, you found nothing left of your village, your castle,m your servants, anything; a mounted part of hidalgos had set fire to the palm huts after disembowelling every Indian at hand…you wandered through the Vega of villages deserted, sacked, and burned.”
Antonio Benitez-Rojo is more academic than novelist, but this gives us a novel of historical richness that humanises a long-past genocide and adds colourful historical detail such as the book’s title: The sea of lentils is both a cartographer misnaming the Antilles but also an allusion to the way Europeans saw the new world as a source of wealth and resources when they see the map of the New World:
“Lentils of gold, silver, pearls, hides, accents and tastes and colours unsurpassed.”
Why you should read it: One of the few books to engage with the dark genocidal history of the Conquista and the English role in the slave trade.
The most fascinating narrative is the story of a Spanish trader from the Canary Islands Verde successfully enticing John Hawkins to become England’s first slave trader. Unravelling like a detective story, it is a subtle but powerful evocation of the dawn of a terrible chapter in world history — made more powerful by not going into its consequences, but acting as a sort of creation myth, cynically romantic.
Interweaving that narrative with the brutality of the Spanish soldiers in the New World is enough to foretell the chilling abuses yet to come, ending with a speech to his crew announcing the venture:
“Why should the Negro be a chattel to the Portuguese alone and all the Indies’ riches go to Spain?…we shall leap ashore and seize them by their necks and thrust them bound into our hold”