The Voyage

Melanie Taylor Herrera

Illustration by Guillaume Gilbert

Some of the oldest women would describe the voyage in all its details: the nauseating smell of feces, urine, blood and spoiled food; the heartrending cries of those who died suffering the most terrible pains while tied to their shackles; the cry of infants and children, sometimes still trying to suck from the breast of a mother already dead; the conversations shouted from one end of the boat to the other among the few who could understand each other. The women who had survived the ship's crossing spoke of it rarely, as they seldom had the opportunity to meet. They had been scattered among different monasteries and houses where they were kept busy with the garden, the kitchen, the laundry, and the cleaning in general. Today was an exception; the entire city was in attendance at the procession: the civil servants of the Crown, the wealthy and poor families, the religious order and the nuns, the servants, the traders passing through the city, even the enslaved and free blacks who lived in Malambo and Pierdevidas joined in. She walked between the female servants and a few of the free black women who made use of the opportunity to speak with ease of things past and present and of the future attack so endlessly discussed by the men and the Church. There was so much to talk about in so little time that it was difficult for her to concentrate on just one conversation. The elderly woman at her side insisted on talking to her about the voyage between the homeland and this new city, while all she really wanted to know was what would happen if the English arrived.

The procession left from the Plaza Mayor, opposite the Cathedral, and proceeded down the Calle de la Empedrada. Leading the procession was Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán himself, accompanied by soldiers carrying the image of the Immaculate Conception of María. The city bustled, full of people and life; with the attack in embryo, the Spanish had sent for replacements from other towns like Natá and Villa de los Santos and even for the flecheros, the Indian militiamen, and their arrival had aroused great curiosity, though she hadn't been able to see them, enclosed as she was most of the time inside the convent. Also at the front, along with the governor, were the highest dignitaries of the city's religious communities and the gentlemen from the wealthiest families. Señor Terín would be there, without a doubt. Following in his steps were the communities' monks and priests and a few nuns. Behind them were the Spanish families, specifically the women and their domestic servants, ready to assist the Spanish women were they to faint or need water during the walk. Farther behind was her group: the servants of the convents and churches and of the less affluent families, the free black men and women, and the Indians, mixed in a multicolored and absurd whole, whose conversations united with the religious chants at the head of the procession. A young monk with a serious expression on his face carried the holy sacrament on high next to the image of the Conception, and watched Father Sancho Pardo de Andrade y Fiegueroa, head of the Isthmus's Diocese, through the corner of his eye.

She rarely left the Convent of the Conception. She had arrived at an early age and many years had already passed since then. Despite all that time, she still remembered her arrival at the hands of a man whom the nun had received at the door. The nun, thoroughly covered from head to toe, looked her over with curiosity, read from a paper, and ordered her to follow. The nun took her to an enormous kitchen where numerous black women were occupied in various tasks. "You have a new assistant," the nun said authoritatively before disappearing. One of the women approached her with a mocking smile.

"Look at the size of the assistant the women are sending us—she barely reaches the table! Does she speak Castilian? Because if she's fresh off the boat..."

The kitchen exploded in laughter.

"Leave her alone, María," cried out one of the women, the eldest, a grey-haired black woman with a face so kind the girl ran to be near her. The woman embraced her sweetly and whispered something in her ear in a language she didn't understand, as she had been born in the Colonies and separated from her mother at an early age, and so only understood Castilian.

"We'll call her Candela, so she gets a taste for the stove," yelled María.

"No," said the elder, "we'll call her Mercedes."

Mercedes learned to tend the garden and to help in the kitchen, but they didn't send her out to the market or to run errands. The nuns had trusted servants for those tasks. One of them was María, called Skinny María, to distinguish her from another maid, Fat María. Skinny was often sent to the market to buy the meat and beans. There, a free black woman known as One-Eye, had recounted all the details of the procession to her and said there would be even more processions to come. By seven at night in the dark of the premises, the voice of Skinny María could be heard relaying the events exactly as One-Eye had. That is how they found out the rich families donated magnificent jewels, even diamonds, to ensure the Most Holy's mercy. Gathered together were Fat María, responsible for cleaning the cells and rooms of the Mother Superiors; María Pieta, the cook; Teresa, another maid who worked in the garden; Caimana, a tall, well-built black woman whom the nuns entrusted with work usually reserved for men, like cutting trees, repairing furniture, moving heavy things, and carrying packages and important messages; and the two Soledads, identical twins who looked after the girls, children from prominent families who lived and were educated in the convent.

"Pray, pray, pray to the Santísimo because bad days are coming," resounded the voice of Skinny María, "One-Eye told me so and you all know that she has contact with the maids of every family and all the servants of the convent, and that she knows about everything and everybody. By our Blessed God, who keeps me from lying, the pirate named Morgan, the worst of all pirates, is heading towards the city; we all know it, but what you all don't know is that some of the señores and religious order are preparing to leave for Lima because they don't trust that the governor can stop him."

Some made the sign of the cross, and a cry escaped from one of the Soledades. Skinny continued.

"The nuns are planning to leave and they'll divide us among the families that have donated money to the convent. Fat María won't let me lie either; she's already packed many important things, from documents to jewels."

"It's true," said Fat María, her voice fading.

She hadn't told anyone as the nuns had strictly forbidden it.

"They'll only take one of us to help with the trip and most likely they'll take one of the Soledades since they're so young and were born slaves on Spanish soil. And since the nuns raised them, they're docile and speak Castilian well. They leave on Monday."

The women were seized by anxiety. The twins embraced each other crying. Fat María wondered which house she would be sent to; the nuns had been kind to her, and she knew that not all masters would be like them. María Pieta immediately thought of Juan, a black muleteer with whom she already shared a special relationship. She could easily use the opportunity to escape with him once and for all. Caimana felt tremendous rage and impotence. Even with her great physical strength, there was little to nothing she could do to change things. Perhaps she could join the Cimarrons, the escaped slaves. Teresa had only ever lived with the nuns, and she had faith they would place her in a good home; they wouldn't abandon her just like that. She felt fear, terrible fear, fear she couldn't name, but could feel like a tingling in her stomach, a restlessness in her hands, a headache, the anguished voice that escaped from her throat. From then on, no one in the convent was at peace. Monday was a week away.

Word spread quickly and the nuns no longer disguised their preparations. Some of the girls who lived with the nuns were sent back to their families. The first of the servants to be transferred was Fat María, who was sent to work at the Hospital San Juan de Dios. She left just before dawn. They only had time to hug her and watch her disappear out the door before a nun's sharp voice dispersed them.

With Fat María's departure, the servants sunk into a collective melancholy. They did their work slowly and indifferently, but the days flew by. Some remembered how they arrived in Panama. Others, the oldest slaves, recalled the earthquake of forty years back: if they had survived the earthquake, they could survive the English. Mercedes listened to them through lunch, saying nothing. She didn't want to go anywhere. She didn't want to escape, or find the runaways, or cross through to Malambo with a few of the boatmen or water carriers; she didn't want to be made to serve elsewhere either. Perhaps she could somehow hide in the convent and the English wouldn't find her. The nuns were terribly upset when Caimana and María Pieta disappeared on the same day, two days after the departure of Fat María. This put the rest of them in a predicament; the nuns interrogated them to exhaustion. None of the maids could offer information about the fugitives' whereabouts.

Caimana was a strong woman and she felt capable of arriving at the Cimarron settlement, the palenque. In the company of two men, Matias and José, she had penetrated into Pierdevidas by day and at midnight had left for the Atlantic. She remembered the voyage, her arrival to these lands. She had been separated from her children and her beloved, chained by the Portuguese, humiliated and tortured, sold in the Portobelo Fair, brought to the House of the Genoese, and after the earthquake of 1621, sold again by her owner to the nuns. She wasn't afraid of the jungle; she had walked through it from Portobelo to Panama. She wasn't afraid of the caimans; she had grabbed them with her own hands at the beach near Matadero, hence her name. Various children and a soldier had witnessed it. She wasn't afraid of the Spanish; she saw a certain justice that they would now suffer in their own flesh what she had lived, that others would arrive and take your house, your family, your dignity, until they had turned you into a shadow of what you had been. She wasn't afraid of any deity nor did she blame any deity, as in her mind they didn't exist; only the sun, moon, jungle, and the strength of her arms, which she used to survive, existed. They had to be careful about going into the jungle; now that the English were en route, the Spanish sent patrols to observe their movements. It would be inopportune to stumble upon a group of soldiers. Matias and José told her about life in the palenque. The Africans were their own masters and lords. They had to respect certain rules to live in peace, but in general life was tranquil; they could build their own huts and farm the land; you could hear the sound of the ocean in the village day and night; they played the drums, danced without limitations or fuss, and they caught great quantities of fish. This idyllic life Matias and José depicted gave sustenance to her spirit, which thirsted for justice, and helped her to forget the difficulties of the road; the lack of food, which forced them to hunt what they could and to eat the fruits they found; the suffocating heat, and the uncertainty of it all.

María Pieta had met Juan, the muleteer, one afternoon when she had lingered more than usual at the chapel of Santa Ana, located past the El Rey bridge, near the servants and slaves' neighborhoods. After mass, people congregated in small groups to converse at leisure. As she listened to mass, not understanding a thing, as it was in Latin, she reveled in observing the men as she pleased, most of all because the annoying nuns and servants who would interrupt her conversations with the water carriers and the messengers, the precious few times she found to speak with one, weren't there. Even though the convent had its own church, which the nuns were proudly remodeling with stones, so that if another earthquake struck, it would still stand tall, she preferred to visit the chapel and no one objected. They were all happy with her cooking, as she well knew, and there wasn't a dish they could ask for that she couldn't prepare for the pleasure of the nuns, who at times, with the excuse of important visitors, asked her to prepare banquets worthy of the Governor. She had met Juan about a year before, but they had only been together as man and wife a few times. He had promised to save money so he could buy her from the nuns, but they had very clearly told him that they'd never find a cook like her and that they weren't prepared to relinquish her just so that she could live with a black man. The very day before her flight, she'd had to work miracles with the little that remained in the pantry to prepare a dinner for a very important señor. With so many people in the city, some about to leave and others preparing their escape, they couldn't stock up as much as usual. One of the twins had served the dinner and had told them that Señor Delgado y Osorio was the one responsible for taking the nuns to Lima and that some very wealthy families would set sail with them. María Pieta had barely finished cleaning the kitchen when she started to prepare a parcel of her few belongings in the dark: a change of clothes, a rosary, and a gold ring she had found in the street. The convent now housed only a few, and the nuns, busy with their imminent departure, paid little attention to the remaining servants. She had to devise a way past them to leave. As soon as she was outside the convent, she walked quickly, fearing she would come across a soldier. As luck would have it, a group of black water carriers on return from Pierdevidas, who knew Juan, passed by. The loud group took her in and promised to take her to him. When the two finally met, María Pieta embraced him with all she had. The man picked her up, with arms enormous from working daily, as if she weighed nothing, laughing uproariously. The trip wasn't over, they needed to go to Pacora, a village where many black men and women lived free and where people like Morgan wouldn't venture. Not long after, the group left for Pacora, hope guiding their tired feet. The son that María Pieta carried in her womb would be born free.

With the departure of Fat María, María Pieta, and Caimana, the few maids left in the convent couldn't keep up with the nuns' last orders.  There was so much to store, divide, change, and undo. There were only two days left until their departure. The nuns would be taken by rowboat to the island of Taboga, where they'd leave in a ship, the Trinidad Galleon. The twins were informed that they would also be accompanying them. At the last moment, the Mother Superior hadn't had the strength to separate them; she had raised them from a very young age and had watched them grow together. The city was feverish with news of the imminent arrival of the English, who had managed to survive even though they hadn't found food on the voyage. On the day of the departure, Teresa, Skinny, and Mercedes went to the dock to help the nuns and the twins with their belongings and to see them off. Alongside them were other slaves and servants who helped the noble ladies and gentlemen with their belongings as they got into their respective boats. The day broke brightly and the ocean was calm; the trip to Taboga would be tranquil. They watched as the señores and nuns floated away until they were only a faint shadow in the distance. It was said that they were leaving to safeguard their money, and that the wild bulls and the Indian flecheros, together with the detachments, would do all that was necessary to secure the lives of the city dwellers.

Returning to the convent after seeing off the nuns, Mercedes, Skinny María, and Teresa were impressed by the silence that reigned in what had once been a bustling complex. They dined early, at five, and took the liberty of inviting a servant named Perea, who served one of the families living in the Plaza Mayor, in order to learn more about what was happening. The four sat down in the dining room the nuns normally used with the best plates and silverware. They also found wine that the Mother Superior usually hid in the pantry. The air in the room was heavy. They slurped slowly and then eagerly a soup made of bits and pieces of everything they had found: pieces of chicken, otoe, yam, yucca, cilantro, pieces of maíz, and also pork fat. They finished the soup in silence. Later Skinny opened the wine and served everyone a glass. Perea drank the liquid in one gulp and it was like turning on the convent's cistern faucet.

"The lady of the house has been crying all night. Her husband demands she be quiet, but in vain. Luckily the children, so little, were fast asleep. The foolish things don't know what's in store for them. Ay, but those who don't have money to leave by boat now shake with fear for their belongings. Morgan's men are evil. And I don't mean evil like the thief caught in the Convent of the Mercy before Christmas mass stealing silver goblets. No! Evil like they kill, rape, torture, destroy, steal, and shoot. They are Frenchmen and Englishmen who've been hired for these tasks. And our great governor believes that with his armed forces of jelly, these are my master's words, that with this fake army of reserves, he's going to be able to take them. Even still, there are those who believe that because the English are hungry and weak and even sick with the fevers that are found here, when the Spanish release the bulls, it'll be a miracle cure-all. I'd leave the city before then if I were you. In my case, there's nothing that can be done, my masters will even look for me beneath stones, but you all, who will they send to look for you? They say the pirates went through Santa Catalina and left nothing standing, that Fort San Lorenzo has been turned to ashes, nothing but a mountain of crumbling rocks after they burned it. They couldn't stop them at the entrance, so now they'll say they'll stop them at the exit."

Perea laughed as she drank what was by then her third glass of wine and returned to the charge: "It's like when a man's mounted above you, is that when you're going to stop him from mounting you, eh? When he already has you against the floor? Because, understand this now, we're against the floor."

Perea's bursts of laughter filled the hall. They shoved her out of the convent when she kept asking for more wine. After shutting the door, they looked at one another by candlelight. The first to speak was Skinny María.

"I'm not going," she said firmly.

"Neither are we," the others responded.

The day that the English took the city arrived, Wednesday, January 28, 1671. If not for Morgan's attack, many would have said that it was the most beautiful day of the dry season. The governor himself led the reserves against the English in Matasnillos, but the push of the Spanish, Indians, Blacks, dogs, and bulls was not enough against the pirates whose eyes were infused with avarice, hunger, and hatred. Soon Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán ordered his troops to retreat at full gallop to the city, where he gave the order to evacuate and to burn everything, in order to leave nothing to the English, and then took off rapidly for Natá. Those who could ran to the outskirts on their horses. Mercedes and the other two servants closed the doors of the convent as well as they could. It was a huge building with many exits. For a moment there was a silence in the city so great that it seemed midnight in the midst of full day. And suddenly the explosion! The city was turned into hell. From the garden they could see how everything around them was consumed by the flames; the sound of the carts, the galloping of the neighing horses, the screams of men, women, and children, and the death rattle in the pirates' barbaric language reached them. They sat unmoving on the wooden seats in front of the garden. They felt an enormous peace knowing they would die like this: asphyxiated in the only place they had known as home. The heat was unbearable, and the smoke thick. The city's cries became louder each time, in some cases heartbreaking. They spoke of those who had escaped; what would have happened to them? They would never find out that María Pieta made it to Pacora but had a miscarriage on the road and that Caimana, after burying her two travel companions, one who fell victim to the fevers and the other to a snakebite, one day fell on her knees, her eyes flooding with tears before the Caribbean Sea that extended before her like a smiling goddess as the people of the Palenque came out to greet her.

Mercedes first hugged Teresa. They had been workmates in the garden since they were young; they had been through the same humiliations, laughed through the same hardships, treasured the same small happinesses and now, together, they faced the same death. With tears in their eyes they hugged Skinny María, whose face looked serene. The three held hands. The first to lose consciousness from the smoke was Teresa and later Skinny. Mercedes waited anxiously for the moment she could cross the threshold between the living and the dead. All that she had lived now seemed to her a simple voyage whose pains and tribulations were a vaguely blurry memory.

Mallets knocked down the door to the convent. The place grew hotter and more suffocating each minute, as the roof and surrounding buildings burned in flames. A man entered the enclosure and unexpectedly grabbed Mercedes by the waist. She couldn't break free; she couldn't see the face of the man who pulled her forcefully. Without thinking she began to feel for the saber secured to the man's belt and then pulled. With her own hands and with all of the strength she could muster, she buried the saber in her body. The man finally let go, let her fall. As her life left her, she could see the pirate's face, his astonishment. Then darkness.

The pirate, visibly disturbed, looked at the woman on the floor, blood spurting from her mouth. He went to the other women and shook them, but they had no pulse. The three women were dead. He left the Convent of the Conception and ran into his companion who was running towards the Convent of Mercy.

"Don't even go near the Plaza Mayor, Exquemiling, it's a true hell!" his companion yelled without stopping his run.

"They hated slavery so much that they preferred to die like this?" To John Exquemeling it still seemed he held the woman by her small waist. Now she didn't seem like a woman but a little bird wanting to take flight. He who had seen too many die and whose hand hadn't shook while slicing a leg, sewing an eye, or amputating a limb, now softened seeing a black woman die at her own hand, before giving herself up. Or was ending your life giving up? With these thoughts he roamed the streets, registering what the others did with meticulous detail. He would write, after many difficulties on the return to his native Europe, a popular book, The Buccaneers of America. He would omit the detail of the convent, preferring to keep it as a personal memory.

Morgan's men stayed in the city for three weeks, and they were not content. The incredible treasures they had imagined, which had sustained the group in its travels in spite of the obstacles, were nowhere to be seen. The Spanish had hidden their money well and more than one Spaniard had managed to escape with a good sum to Peru. The pirates searched the city, leaving no stone unturned, nor any rubble unexplored. After the ravenous fire, only the Convent of Mercy was left standing, which the pirates made into their general barracks. Morgan ordered the pirates to navigate the Pacific toward the nearby islands Perico, Naos, and Taboga to see if they could find something more. They grabbed as many slaves as they could to then sell in Jamaica. Yet, the greatest profit was the paid ransom of almost half of the Spanish prisoners who they took with them when they left the city. The pirates gained very little and so Morgan abandoned his crew before they rebelled. But that's another story.

translated from the Spanish by Christina Vega-Westhoff