A journal ... a mystery ... and the adventure of a lifetime.
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Laden with books, Isabel spied an empty study carrel in a quiet corner of the library and hurried to deposit her heavy burden on the desk.
“Why are reference books always so heavy?” she muttered as she settled into the chair and dug through her backpack in search of her tablet and pen. After finding them, she took out the journal’s case. With slow, careful movements, she snapped open the clasps and removed the precious book from its protective shell. Opening to the first entry, she began the arduous task of translating the five-hundred-year-old script.
The reference books smelled of dust, and the light bulb overhead flickered and danced as she bent over her work. Once the first few paragraphs took shape on her notepad, excitement swept through her, and she forgot all else.
June 5th, 1505
We have become the vilest of animals. With our lips we proclaim we are from the civilized world, but our actions betray the truth of our dark nature. We call them savages, and in the same breath, we order atrocities committed against them. Our cruelty is unparalleled. We sentence the natives we enslave to death without cause, and to their misfortune, death at the hands of the Spanish Navy is despairingly slow and painful.
The men are pressed into service as pearl divers, forced to make repeated trips to the bottom of the ocean from morning to night without rest. We brutally whip them if they delay for even a moment between dives. Without time to adequately rest and regain their breath, drowning and exhaustion claim many. The sharks lurking in the coastal waters take others. Thousands have submerged into watery graves never to walk in the light of the sun again.
Those men who endure the torture we inflict on them develop sores on their skin from hours in the salty water. We feed them rotting oysters and perhaps a bit of bread. Their bodies grow skeletal from lack of proper food. For their hard labor and suffering we reward them with a block of wood to sleep on and chains to ensure they do not escape the fate to which we have sentenced them in the name of greed and power.
But while the physical suffering of the men is great, it is by far preferable to that which the women endure. When the slave ships arrive to unload their fleshly cargo, the men stationed here at Cubagua crouch on the docks like hungry jackals, eager to satiate their foul lusts on the female captives. The officers callously give the women and girls over to the soldiers and ignore the chilling screams that fill the air when the carnage begins. Every female over the age of eight is subjected to this inhumane treatment. Those who survive their initial trial are kept under lock and key, forced to endure the violence day after day, subject to the whim of any sailor who will part with a few coins in exchange for female company.
At 24 years of age, I am not immune to or unaffected by the sight of the naked women unloaded from the cargo holds. Though looking on the beauty of their exposed flesh causes my blood to stir and awakens my carnal needs, as of yet I have not participated in the evil. I cannot feel satisfied in my abstinence, for I have done nothing to stop their torture either. In my eyes I am as guilty as those who partake in the flesh trade.
My complacency condemns me. The dark, round eyes and smooth, fresh faces of the young native women remind me of my younger sister. If circumstances were different, the soldiers might feast their lusts upon her. Such thoughts torture me daily. For this reason I cannot participate, and for this cause I have been moved to commit a rebellious act of treason for which I could be hanged.
An unusually high number of women arrived on the slave ship that entered Cubagua’s harbor today. Fewer soldiers lurked on the docks, as two fully-manned battleships were sent to deal with rogue pirates attempting to poach the pearl beds off the western coast of the island. Usually the soldiers outnumber the women five to one, and they are forced to “share” the bounty. Today, there would be enough women for each man to have his own companion.
My feet carried me into the midst of the rowdy sailors, and I soon laid claim to one of the maidens. I rushed her into a grove of banana palms unnoticed and pressed further into the undergrowth until we were hidden from sight. I removed my shirt and gave it to her. As she was small of stature, the shirt hung to her knees, covering her modestly.
I led her further away from the port, following the shore but careful to stay hidden in the trees and vegetation. She shrank away from my touch and refused my help, but she did not offer undue resistance. After a two-hour walk, we arrived at the abandoned hut once occupied by an Indian fisherman now captured and enslaved.
The small, crude hut would serve as a refuge for the maiden, at least for a time. Set a distance away from the beach, trees and brush surrounded the structure. Vines and mosses grew over its walls, providing effective camouflage. I entered the hut alone, checking for snakes or scorpions lying in wait for a victim.
When I emerged and gestured for her to enter, she recoiled in terror, as if certain I intended her harm. The fearful way she looked at me made me ashamed to be a man. Rather than force her in, I decided to coax her with food and drink. I removed my canteen and set it inside the doorway. Nearby trees offered a variety of foods including bananas, guavas, and avocados. I gathered a selection and placed them inside with the water, then strolled away, giving her time to make her choice.
When I returned, she sat inside, eating and drinking the meal I had provided. Upon seeing me, she scrambled into the corner, bearing the look of a frightened animal. I left her crouching in the hut, unsure whether I’d see her again.
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