The French Pox

At the entrance to the Archive of Simancas, in central Spain, there is an engraved plaque just past the main gate.


The archive closes every year on this day, in memory of Alice Bache Gould, who died at its entrance on St.James’ Day, sixty-one years ago. In some ways, the perseverance of the historian from Boston reminds me of the Rabbit. My mother died almost on the same day, July 24th, and her life too was dedicated to scholarship: I rarely saw her without a book in her hand—and if I did, she had either put one down or was about to pick one up.

Alice Gould was born in 1868 to a Jewish family, in the area that separates Boston from the Charles River. Her father was an eminent scientist, Benjamin A. Gould, who journeyed to Europe after graduating in mathematics from Harvard. In Berlin, he studied with Gauss and Bessel.

Among many other achievements, Ben Gould started and ran the National Astronomic Observatory of Argentina, at Cordoba, and it was there that Alice learned to speak and read Spanish. Her father, like his mentors, was eclectic, and he complemented his scientific work with a keen interest in history.

Alice never married, and she devoted her considerable resources, both mental and financial, to the study of Spanish history—most notably to the research on the composition of the crew that sailed with Columbus on his first voyage.

To my knowledge, no equivalent effort has ever been made with respect to the Portuguese voyages, in particular those of Bartolomeu Dias around the Cape of Good Hope, and the first voyage of Vasco da Gama. Perhaps the task is impossible, due to the loss of records in the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755.

Ms. Alice Gould identified eighty-seven crewmen by name, citing all the relevant sources for each. As you might expect, much more space is often devoted to a lowly ‘grumete’, or cabin boy, than to Christopher Columbus, since we are fairly sure Columbus was aboard.

In that sense, her book flips historical records around, since as a rule captains and generals occupy the bulk of history’s pages.  In The India Road, as in the book about Columbus on which I’m presently working, I strive to bring in the common man, because through his eyes I can tell a different story.

Alice’s work is therefore invaluable to my tale—I know where the men are from, who they were married to, how many brothers and cousins were aboard, who died where and when.

The difference between the writing of Clear Eyes and The India Road is that these pages are appearing while Clear Eyes is being written, and that will tell you something about the writing process. Two years ago, at a talk in London, a lady asked me about the characters in The India Road, and their development—she is a writer, and was interested in my approach. Perhaps if she’s reading this, it will be more insightful than my answers then.

One of the guiding lights of Columbus was this 1474 map made by Toscanelli. The true location of America is shaded in the background.

One of the guiding lights of Columbus was this 1474 map made by Toscanelli. The true location of America is shaded in the background.

Columbus took four convicts with him—I suspect, but can’t be sure, that the Portuguese took far more. One of those men was in jail in Palos: he was called Bartolomé de Torres, and he was sentenced to death for killing a pregonero, a town crier, with a knife. The sentence called for all his goods to be confiscated.

Three of his friends helped him break out of jail: they were called Alfonso Clavijo, Juan de Moguer, and Pero Yzquierdo. In fifteenth century Spain, the penalty for helping a convicted criminal escape was extended to all—as a result, the four men were sentenced to death, as if all had committed murder.

I can imagine their relief when uncle Christopher showed up, bearing a royal order pardoning criminals who joined the expedition.

One of the most interesting aspects of the expedition is the death of Martin Pinzón. The fleet made landfall on October 12th 1492 at Lucayos, Bahamas, home to the Guanahani tribe. By then Columbus’ true estimate (since he kept a fake diary) was 1084 leagues sailed, about 4350 Italian sea miles.

It was Pinzón’s ship that first sighted land, and it was Pinzón’s ship that first made it home to Spain—Columbus stopped in Portugal.

The two captains were hardly on speaking terms on their return, and there are reports from the period that the admiral was responsible for Pinzón’s untimely death. Martin Pinzón died in Palos at the end of March of 1493, roughly six months after reaching the New World.

My impression has always been that the European colonists were responsible for infecting the Native Americans with all sorts of nasty bugs, including the common cold and various venereal diseases—but in my cyber-meanderings while researching Clear Eyes, I came across a museum in Galicia where a replica of the Pinta is on display in the town of Baiona.

The most interesting revelation on the website, almost hidden in the last paragraph, is that among the items brought back from the Indies was the spirochaete Treponema pallidum. Now hopefully you won’t be familiar with this fellow, but he is known as the great imitator—the bacterium that causes syphilis.

So, in a public tribute to the Pinta and its crew, the city of Baiona candidly states that the Spanish introduced the so-called French Pox (or English Pox if you ask in Paris) to Europe—by 1494 it was an uncontrollable epidemic.

Moreover, the website tells us that Pinzón was the first European to die of syphilis—what’s known in epidemiology as the ‘index case.’

Unlike scientific journals, the web isn’t peer-reviewed, so the sensible thing to do is to seek corroboration.

I did. Alice Gould devotes some space to Martin Alonso Pinzón, but her focus is primarily on the composition of the fleet—she only refers to the men who died in the case of the group left behind at La Navidad. It isn’t clear that anyone was supposed to remain in the Indies on this journey, but since the flagship was wrecked, there was not enough space to bring everyone back.

Apparently, Miss Bache was considering an article to discuss the death of Pinzón, but she herself died before it could be written. A Spanish professor, or catedrático, wrote a three volume history entitled Los Pinzones y el Descubrimiento de América—I bought it in Seville at a discount, because the unfortunate bookseller purchased the whole collection, and was now literally sitting on it.

In the first book, once again there is a report of Martin’s death from syphilis. There are also scientific papers that support the theory that ‘Indian’ women in Guanahani infected the sailors with syphilis, and therefore that the disease was brought to the Old World from the New—and there I was thinking the worse thing we got was tobacco.

One thing that puzzles me is the timeline. Syphilis, as the Canadian doctor Sir William Oster, one of the founders of Johns Hopkins, called it, is the great imitator. The first stage begins with a sore, or chancre, which you normally find in the penis or vagina, but due to our wandering ways, may also find in the mouth, lips, or anus; this (the chancre, not the anus) usually appears three weeks after infection (but can be as early as nine days), and disappears in three to six weeks.

Best case, by mid-November 1492 Martin’s chancre had come and gone. The second stage can begin two weeks after the chancre appears, and the symptoms include widespread rashes. This is followed by a latent stage, which is often destructive: its effects will show up in the tertiary stage, and impact internal organs such as the brain, eyes, heart, and liver, and cause death.

The Centers for Disease Control, the Mayo Clinic, and other bona fide websites tell us victims can take years or even decades to die.

I remember as a child being taken to the beach by a couple who were family friends—the man looked about seventy, though he must have been much younger, and was the thinnest person I ever saw—he had cavernous eyes and skin like parchment. He scared the shit out of me—my father told me later the guy had contracted syphilis on the day he lost his virginity to a housemaid—he was twelve years old.

Six months seems too short a time for Martin Pinzón to die of syphilis, and yet if by 1494 the disease had spread enough in Europe to become an epidemic, then surely the serious symptoms can develop much faster.

How fast can you die? I’d love to be able to discuss it all with Miss Gould, I’m sure her painstaking (excuse the pun) analytical mind would dissect the issue as it merits, in the same methodical way she used to destroy the arrogant Spanish catedráticos who opposed the theories of the young American upstart, and blithely called her La Miss.

As it is, I feel a visit to my urologist coming on.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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