The Crazy Islands

Perhaps because of the travel freeze, I’ve been dreaming about a faraway setting for my next book—it’ll be a historical novel, building on The India Road and Clear Eyes, and will be set in the sixteenth century.

By the early 1500s, Spain was enthusiastically moving towards the New World—by the turn of the century, Columbus had completed his third voyage to the misnamed Indies—while Portugal expanded its reach in the old world.

Cabral sailed for India in 1500, ‘discovering’ Brazil for Portugal in the process. As I wrote in Clear Eyes, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón discovered Brazil in 1499—there is evidence he landed in Pernambuco, a state in the northeast. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed five years earlier, meant that the new territory was on the Portuguese side of the meridian line splitting the unknown world between the two Iberian nations.

The Wikipedia entry for Pinzon credits him with the discovery of Brazil, whereas the entry for Pernambuco categorically states it was discovered by the Portuguese. This is one of the weaknesses of Wikipedia—when you jump to the second page from the first, the narratives don’t match.

Vasco da Gama sailed again for India in 1502 to consolidate the ‘hostile trading’ approach—gunboats were the essence of his persuasive powers to force the locals to grant  trade monopolies to Portugal.

My main reasons for writing Clear Eyes were to debunk the myth that Columbus was a visionary mariner and to provide a balanced view of the two most important seafaring nations of the time, both located in the Iberian Peninsula. I believe it matters that the whole eastern endeavor was well organized and took decades to plan, whereas the attempt to find a western passage to the Indies was haphazard at best.

The most likely setting for my new book is Indonesia—the Portuguese were most certainly there, as evidenced by words such as gereja (church), jendela (window), and sepatu (shoe). Loanwords that appear in other languages are the linguistic equivalent of a genetic marker and tend to be used for concepts or items that are foreign to the country—churches were certainly a XVIth century novelty in Java and Sumatra, and given the climate, windows and shoes likewise.

Of course, the Portuguese were in search of trade, and their quest took them to the spice islands of Maluku, in eastern Indonesia.

The English, with their natural ear for other languages, mispronounced them Moluccas (Molukken in Dutch), but the etymology is clear—these were the crazy islands (Malucas) of the Portuguese, where the ship’s compass behaved in erratic fashion.

The Ilhas Malucas, from a map drawn in 1613 by Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu.

But is that really the origin of the name? The Arabs were in Indonesia from the XIVth century onward—which partly explains why Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation—and the spice islands were apparently called Jazirat al-Muluk, the Island of Kings.

Which raises another interesting question: does the Portuguese word for crazy come from the Arab word for king? In Arabic, crazy is مجنون (majnun). Google Translate spells ‘king’ as malik, but clearly malik and muluk are the same word, just rendered differently in the European alphabet.

The crazy islands are the only places in the world where nutmeg and cloves are grown—in XVIIth century London, ladies held an orange stuck with cloves to their delicate nose to ward off the disgusting smell of running sewers.

Indonesia is a fascinating paradox, so I won’t be short of great material, all of it true—and often much stranger than fiction. As an example, Thailand is renowned for it’s third gender—generally called ladyboys—but Indonesia also has an abundance of transgender folks, a perplexing characteristic for a Muslim country.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the word for woman is wanita, and the word for man is pria—transgenders are termed warias, a contraction of the two words. Many warias are sex workers, but other jobs are also popular—when President Obama lived in Jakarta as a youngster, his nanny, Edie, was a waria.

Given the polygamous nature of Islam, some men have both female wives and waria—a somewhat unusual arrangement in the penis-count department.

One of the main differences between waria and ladyboys is that whereas in Thailand, for many transgenders an aspirational aim is to save money for a sex change, warias are not that keen.

The main reason is religious.

We believe we were born as men and must return to god as men.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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