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Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among the Stars

1

Swimmer Among the Stars
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The pharaoh Necko was not content to rule the Upper and the Lower. He wanted knowledge of the whole. So he plopped a crew of Phoenicians down in the Red Sea and told them to go home the long way. Off they went south, pulling on oars and cursing with lemon breath their bad luck for being alive in the time of the Egyptians.

The edges of an entire continent watched the tentacle creep of Phoenician oars. On board, the Phoenicians didn’t see Africa as Africa. They had no sense of its contiguity. At the Cape of Good Hope, they thought they had crested the world. Mount Cameroon belched the fiery promise of its ending. The Gambia River spread wide as a sea. Finally rounding Bojador after sev­eral attempts, the Phoenicians welcomed the green of the north­ern ocean. They relished its cold tirades. If man was made for land, the Phoenicians were made for wind.

For much of their journey, they were puzzled to find the sun hovering on their right side. We would say now, reasonably, that this was the effect of crossing hemispheres, of leaving the north for the south. But they did not have this illusory sense of up and down. The world hadn’t been distorted into place by maps. In­stead, they followed the unbroken line of coast, willing it like sunrise to arc into the circle of their longing.

Every few months, they stopped for a while. They found a nameless harbor, beached their boat, scraped the hull clean, un­did all the rigging, patched the lonely sail. They stretched out to sleep in little cotton camps. If, by chance, they met with locals, it was quick and rough. The Phoenicians left little behind, cer­tainly not their names. Sometimes, when searching for traces of the vanished foreigners, locals would come across inexplicable plots of alfalfa, growing wild and alien.

Eventually, the Phoenicians skimmed past the Pillars of Her­cules into the Mediterranean. The crew was chapped and black­ened, dressed in new clothes, furnished with new slaves, drunk on gourds of palm liquor. When they pulled into the harbor at the mouth of the Nile, the Egyptians gathered to marvel at their menagerie of captured animals.

The Phoenicians asked to see the pharaoh Necko and collect their reward. Too bad, they were told, he died years ago. The new pharaoh had no interest in their travels. In fact, he had no interest in reminding people of the old pharaoh. He seized the Phoeni­cians’ boat and confiscated their exotic animals and slaves.

Some of the sailors made it home to Phoenicia. Few people remembered them. They were looked at as ghosts or as strang­ers, which would have been harder to bear if they didn’t feel it themselves.

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For a few centuries, many people wanted to believe that a medi­eval Welsh prince sailed to America, discovering the continent long before Columbus. They dated his voyage to 1170. They had minimal proof. There was no real documentary evidence for the expedition of Prince Madoc, only an accumulation of folklore passed down through the British aristocracy. Nor was there any archaeological evidence of a Welsh colony in the Americas, though much time was spent scouring the midlands for traces.

The believers of this theory studied every axhead and arrow­head, rampart and earthwork, for a suggestion of mist­wreathed Wales. If those hard things offered any clues, it was only in thin and reedy whispers. So fantastic rumors spread: in Alabama, breastplates emblazoned with a Welsh coat of arms; a stone cita­del in Kentucky; old Welsh landings in Mexico, Florida, and New­foundland; and, most of all, clear­eyed Indians across the continent who spoke Welsh.

Several men in the seventeenth century claimed separately to have been saved by knowledge of Welsh. Captured by surly Indian tribesmen, they squealed for mercy in their mother tongue. The Indians muttered among themselves and then circled around the captives. They smiled and produced meandering sounds that resembled Welsh. The Welshmen were freed; their comrades who spoke no Welsh were killed.

Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to look out for Indians who spoke Welsh. Brigham Young dispatched Welsh­-speaking missionaries to various tribes south of Utah in the hope of recovering Madoc’s descendants. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the consensus was that the Mandan people of the Midwest were the most likely heirs of the Welsh prince. But the population was so decimated by smallpox and displaced by conquest that it was hard to determine if there were any real Mandans left. They had become a myth in their own time.

This was real: Three Hopi men were brought to Salt Lake City in 1863. They were sat down in a room full of Welshmen. For hours, the Welsh speakers flooded them with syllables, fragments, full sentences in all the dialects of the valleys and coasts, in old Welsh, in ancient Brythonic. The Hopi men were strung up in the singsong of Merlin. They cut their way free with the sharpest knife they had. We’re very sorry, they said in English, but we don’t understand a word.

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Many vessels cluttered the heaving floats from West Africa to the Caribbean. There were human bodies, of course, those chained people destined for the sugar plantations, full of despair and an­ger and other hungry thoughts. But there were also mosquitoes for whom the journey across the ocean must have spanned many generations. The mosquitoes roamed and ate and spawned and died. What is more infinite in the mind of a blood­sucking in­sect: the slave ship’s multitude of bodies, its countless miles of veins and whispering capillaries, or the lonely plots of African wetland that the mosquito once imagined as its own? Perhaps some folkloric memory of the sky persevered among the mos­quitoes, transmitted in the dark from mother to larvae. A male mosquito lives only ten to twenty days. The life of a female mos­quito can last as long as one hundred days. With favorable winds and a sure navigator, it could have been that an ancient female mosquito emerged from the ship’s belly to fizz in the light of another continent.

The mosquitoes brought yellow fever to Haiti. It offered a grisly liberation, sweeping through the ranks of Napoleon’s bri­gades with such relentlessness that as many as half of the French troops were laid low by the fever. Guerrilla warfare, desertion, and a British blockade did in the rest. Haiti was free. The triumphant black armies took the cities of their erstwhile masters. Whites were expelled, their property seized.

But some whites were allowed to stay. Several hundred Poles chose to settle along the sea, building a hamlet whose future name, Cazale, was a Creole estrangement of one of their sur­names. History regularly produces these little enclaves of the uncanny. With their usual bad luck, the Poles had lost their own nation several years earlier to Russia and Austria. Napoleon embraced them into his legions and promised to restore their country. But he found the Poles too revolutionary for his liking, so he packed them off to Haiti to reclaim the colony, where he hoped they would do him the favor of dying.

There were Poles who stayed loyal to France, who bellowed and expired on the ramparts of Cap Français or in the moun­tains, places equally far from Poland. There were Poles who died, like everybody else, of yellow fever. And there were Poles who wondered whether they, the downtrodden of Europe, sto­len from their woodlands to do the savagery of others, were blacker than they had realized, and simply switched sides.

When Pope John Paul II visited Haiti in 1983, local leaders and clergy produced various specimens for the pontiff’s amuse­ment, men and women fair enough to suggest some plausible history of Polishness. Polish photographers still journey to modern­day Cazale. They search for light skin, for green and blue eyes, blond hair. They shoot freely, wandering through back gardens, claiming any face that isn’t in their (and our) view entirely black. A grandmotherly smile beams up from the wash­ing. A square­jawed youth angles his head and looks away while a much darker man trims his hair. A nurse holds up a pale baby to the camera. There is no memory in these photos, only desire.

Look instead at icons of Ezili Dantò, the Haitian spirit of in­dependence, a fiery beauty who supports righteous causes and now blesses the weddings of lesbians, who loves nothing more than Barbancourt rum, fried pork, and cigarettes. Draped in gold, she has three scars on her cheek received during the war against the French. She carries her daughter Anais in the bend of her left arm.

In every aspect of framing and composition, her image cop­ies the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, that famous icon of the Virgin Mary whose lithograph Polish soldiers worshipped in the heat and desolation of Haiti’s war. We can imagine the transfer of the image; it snapped as a banner above the Polish regiments, it was worn by many Poles as an amulet. In an act of unexpected friendship and common feeling, a Polish soldier may have gifted his amulet to a Haitian rebel, his black comrade. Or maybe he had his throat slit. The Black Madonna, who could not help him, was plucked from his corpse.

She carried her own military history. Her icon was pierced by the arrows of Tatars and slashed by radical Hussite icono­clasts. The legend goes that she was painted on planks of wood in Constantinople by the apostle Luke. Before that, she was just a cedar table, on whose face Mary herself once ate a meal.

Swimmer Among the Stars

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Barnes and Noble
IndieBound
Google
ibooks

 

 

Kanishk Tharoor’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, VQR, and elsewhere. His short story “Tale of the Teahouse” was nominated for a National Magazine Award. He is the presenter of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Kolkata, and New York, he now lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

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