William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
SEVENTEEN: Mislike Me Not for My Complexion
It was Oxford who answered the question I had addressed to John. The only good news from Corisco was that my son and his mother had survived to escape to London alive and unhurt.
“Malabo is no more,” the earl said to me. Then, turning to Amina, he suggested: “How about settling young Master Shakspere in for the night. William and I are going to be here for a long while. You could rejoin us afterwards.”
I put John down. He said goodnight to Oxford and me, and preceded his mother out of the study. As they were leaving, the earl went and fetched himself a large goblet of sherry and an even larger one for me. Leaning on his desk, he heaved a deep sigh before giving me a gist of the horrors Amina had recounted to him.
In 1590, an earthquake and the resulting tidal waves either sunk or swept away all but a handful of the thousands of islands that had once been the glory of the ancient kingdom. And a year later, Corisco, one of the least affected islands, was reduced to rubble in a war between Portuguese forces and the armed wing of a Malabese coalition opposed to Portugal colonizing the capital as an independent entity.
“Las Brisas Orphanage, All Saints’ College, Castelo Novo, the magnificent Royal Palace – they’re all gone!” The earl wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “King Massango MwanaKongo was killed in one of the battles.”
“What about Mother Isola?”
“She and three, only three, of her children survived. They’re now living in the hulk of a ship that was blown ashore by one of the tidal waves. Mother is raising funds to rebuild the seminary.”
“And Father Julius? The rector.”
“He’s teaching in Cape Santa Clara. That’s where he and Amina and your son were living when the war broke out.”
The earl reached for both candles on his desk, saying: “Let’s go and sit by the fire in the library. You’re turning blue from the chill in here.”
“Or the news from Corisco.”
As Oxford stepped out in front of me, we heard a bang on the window behind us. He turned around, handed me the candles, dashed back into his study, and dropped on all fours under the desk. “There’s a loaded pistol on the table in the library,” he whispered. “Get it! Don’t answer the door. My footman is outside. He’ll see who it is.”
When I returned with the firearm, Oxford stood up and said: “It’s apparently only another of my deliveries.” There was a piece of paper sticking through a crack in the window. He pulled it out and read: “My Lord Earl of Oxford, thou hast a new title.” Holding one of the candles close to my temple, he gave me the sheet to read the title myself: “Harbourer of Moors.”
“Is this about Amina and John?” I gave the paper back to him.
“It’s about Emmanuel. He’s moved out of his rooms in Cambridge, and is residing with Gilbert – posing as a Protestant refugee from the Netherlands whom your brother is teaching English. But some hatemongers out there seem to think he’s staying with me.”
Under brighter circumstances, I would have laughed heartily at the thought of a haberdasher who could barely read and write pretending to teach any language to a professor of languages. But I was out of sorts, and couldn’t even manage a chuckle.
“Is his life in danger?” I asked, putting down the pistol.
“Not so much his as his uncle’s.”
Doctor Lopez, the earl explained as we walked to the library, had been charged with treason on the grounds of accusations made by three contenders for the queen’s favours: Sir Francis Bacon, his brother Anthony, and the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. According to them, Don Antonio Pérez, a claimant to the Portuguese throne who was then living in London, had paid Doctor Lopez to poison Her Majesty. They also accused the doctor of selling secrets to Spain, because Don Antonio’s alleged payment was presumed to have come from Madrid.
“Amina won’t rejoin us now,” said Oxford, his cheeks aglow in the fire light. “I’ve told her and John to stay in their rooms if they hear any unusual noises.” Pointing to a musket hanging above the fireplace, he asked: “How good are you with that?”
“It’s my favourite weapon. While in Corisco, I received detailed training from an expert in its use and maintenance.”
“Then you better take that one with you when you leave from here tonight. I’m afraid no one deemed to be close to me is safe. If Doctor Lopez is put to death…”
“Put to death? Don’t say that, my lord.” I grabbed the musket with one hand and a pouch of gunpower with the other.
“William, there’s little doubt that he will be. Very little doubt. As we speak, he’s being tortured in the Tower.”
A lump rose in my throat. Laying the charged musket where I had earlier picked up the pistol, I said: “If Doctor Lopez is executed for attempting to murder the queen, none of the few Jews left in this country will be safe.”
“Neither will anyone named Lopez – Jew or not. That’s why Professor Manuel Lopez is in hiding. Look at that!” The earl threw a note to me. “And that!” He threw another. Both had been enclosed in the top one of two manuscripts lying beside him. “Since he fled the university nearly a month ago,” Oxford continued, “I’ve been sent insults like those every day.”
The first of the insults in my hands read: “Burnished son of Barabbas, go home or prepare to die.” The second was a bawdy sextet which opened with the line “There was an earl who loved to hunt…” It ended with an invective the last word of which rhymed with “hunt”.
I examined the two messages by the fire light and also took a closer look at the one which had arrived that evening. “These are all in the same handwriting, my lord.” I waved them at him. “A lady’s.”
“Or that of a cowardly courtier feigning a woman’s hand. Whoever is writing them must be aware of everything happening at court.”
“I must take John and Amina out of here. This very moment, if I may trouble your groom for help.”
I tossed the slips of paper on the table. Pointing at them, Oxford said: “Look further into those for me. And don’t worry about Amina and John. Kadiatu will come for them tomorrow. I sent her a message shortly after writing to you this morning.”
“Thank you, my lord. They should be safe at the Tunkara residence until I find them a house of their own.”
“You could run an errand for me, though. If you don’t mind.” Oxford wiped the dust off the two manuscripts that had been lying beside him, and placed them by the musket on the table. “I’d like you to deliver those to Emmanuel before returning to Shoreditch. Tell him I said they’d serve our purpose if properly merged.”
I rose and picked up the manuscripts. They were both dog-eared copies of old plays. The first was The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco. The second bore the title The Jew of Venice. I asked: “Is he the author of this one as well?”
“I was.” The earl proudly slapped an open palm on his chest. “I am. It’s my own translation of a tragedy I originally wrote in Italian many years ago.”
The Jew of Venice, Oxford went on to explain as he walked me to the door, had successful runs in Venice, Florence and Rome in the fifteen-seventies (when he spent more time abroad than at home).
“My footman should be about,” he said, pointing in the direction of the dimly-lit back porch of Oxford House. “He’ll help you in the stable.”
Like the earl and me, neither groom nor footman had slept all night. With their eyes barely open, they guided me out of their stable into the twilight of a new day.
Given the pace at which I rode, my head bowed in thought, I could just as well have walked to Saint Bride’s. The docile animal I sat on appeared to sense my reluctance to leave Oxford House. Its rhythmic trot and the soothing fresh air put me in the right frame of mind to compose a poem. And so I did.
When I arrived at GS & Co, Gilbert and Emmanuel were both still asleep. I sat down at the dining table. In the quiet of the haberdashery, with two manuscripts on one side of me, and a loaded musket on the other, I put on paper the lines I had composed in my mind that tranquil morning:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste; Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, And weep afresh love’s long-since-cancelled woe, And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight. Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, Which I new pay as if not paid before. But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
That was the first of many sonnets I would address to Amina in the years which followed. Out of habit, I wrote “W.H.” under it.
The next day, while Gilbert rode Oxford’s horse back to his stable, I walked to Chateau Tunkara and delivered my poem to Amina in person. After reading it and thanking me, she asked: “Have you changed your last name, Will?”
“No. Why? Oh, that H in WH.” I had to let Amina in on a secret.
Shortly after he returned to England, Emmanuel and I decided that if we had sensitive messages to send to each other, we would conceal them in sonnets. To ensure that, if they were intercepted, our communications won’t be traced back to us, he and I agreed that he would sign his EI for “Emmanuel Ipse”; and that I would sign mine WH for “William Himself.”
Amina appeared to be absent-minded while I explained the arrangement. But when I was done, she said: “Talking of hidden messages, the next time you see Emmanuel, please ask him if he knows anything about a Princess Emanga of Malabo.”
“Emanga? A missing person?”
“The question is does she exist? They say that just before his heart stopped, King Massango MwanaKongo told the men attending him: “Give my love to Princess Emanga.”
“Give my love to Princess Emanga,” I repeated.
“No member of our dissolved royal family goes by that name. Naturally, all kinds of speculations are being made back home about the last words of the last king of Malabo.”
“I will go back to Saint Bride’s and put the question to Emmanuel before returning to my lodging.”
The Earl of Oxford had revealed to Amina what sort of life I led. All that remained for me to do was ask her to settle in London and give our son an English education. When I made the request, she joyed my heart by telling me she had already decided she would live in England until John was old enough to look after himself.
A week or so following my delivery of that poem, even though Queen Elizabeth herself had called into question the evidence used to prosecute him, Doctor Rodrigo Lopez was found guilty of high treason. They executed him on the seventh day of June in 1594.
Just as Oxford and I had feared, the physician’s alleged plot gave rise to a flood of anti-Jewish sentiment. But events proved us to be only partly right in our assumption. Before long, the collective dread of Jews engendered in London by the incident burgeoned into a nation-wide avalanche of indiscriminate hostilities against all foreigners. As a consequence, those around the queen became suspicious of everybody, even of one another. Some of her advisers went so far as to question her wisdom in continuing to maintain a Jewess among her ladies-in-waiting. And for the rest of that year, her whereabouts were kept secret from the general public.
On the day they executed Doctor Lopez, the atmosphere in Tyburn was that of a pagan orgy. Bloodthirsty malaperts clapped and stomped, shouting “Lupus!” here and “Wolf!” there. Knowing that somewhere in the throng which clamoured for the doctor to be hanged, drawn and quartered his nephew was quietly weeping inside whatever disguise he wore that afternoon, I couldn’t hold back my tears.
In the riots which ensued immediately after the execution, four innocent bystanders lost their lives – all four of them dark-skinned Londoners. Their parish, Saint Boltolph’s Church, didn’t register their deaths for fear of reprisals. But they are mentioned by name and description in subsequent reports:
“Marie – a blackamoor woman that die in the street.”
“Christopher Cappervert” (meaning Christopher from Cape Verde).
“Isabell Peteers – a Black-more lodgeing in Blew Anchor Alley.”
“Anne Vause – a Black-more wife to Anthonie Vause, Trompetter.”
Towards the end of the year, there being no more practising Jews in the streets of London, it was Catholics who became the targets of Protestant mockery, opprobrium and violence.
The riots continued to flare up intermittently for close to twenty-four months. As late as the winter of 1595 to ’96, mischievous youth still publicly engaged in sacrilegious acts like mock enactments of Passover and the Stations of the Cross. Jesuits and seminary priests were still being captured and killed without regard to due process.
The crisis came to a head during the New Year’s celebrations of 1596. After one particularly rowdy, exotic street party, intense anti-foreign sentiments again bubbled to the surface in London. Europeans of African and Asian descent, the vast majority of them born and bred in England, were accused of taking jobs from the English and of availing themselves of goods and services to which they were not entitled.
By then Queen Elizabeth herself had become obsessed with the safety of her royal person. She sided with the complainants. In a letter Her Majesty wrote the Lord Mayor of London shortly after the marred jollifications, she lamented: “There are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here too manie.” And a couple of months later, she signed the first of two edicts ordering “all Negroes and Blackmoors” to get out of England.
When I told Emmanuel about the edict, he said: “Thank God I’ve already decided to leave her realm. I stand no chance of ever teaching in Cambridge again.”
“You’re far more likely to be thrown out of England in a coffin.”
We were in the dining hall of Chateau Tunkara. It was the second Sunday of April in 1596. Twenty of us, mostly relatives of the Tunkaras, were waiting to attend Holy Mass and collect monies for some of the Anglo-Africans about to return to the lands of their ancestors.
Michael and Kadiatu had arranged with a Franciscan priest in Lambeth to go and say Mass at their residence on the second Sunday of every month and at Christmas and Easter. After that day’s Mass, they entered their chapel-cum-dining-hall as Emmanuel and I rose to leave.
Shaking Michael by the hand, I said: “We were just about to come and bid the family goodbye.”
Kadiatu pulled her husband back. “You can’t leave now,” she said. “You’re having dinner with us. You!” She wagged a finger at Emmanuel. “You came here under cover of darkness. And you want to be seen departing in broad daylight? Hnn?”
At dinner time, Michael took the seat between Emmanuel and me. He tried to talk my friend into weathering London’s latest political storm instead of taking to his heels. “Calm will return before the end of the year. Believe you me,” he pleaded. “After most of my cousins are gone, city authorities will turn a blind eye on the remaining few. It’s happened many times before.”
“And after a while, the exiles come back home,” Emmanuel countered. “It’s happened as many times as they’ve been kicked out of the country.”
“If they themselves don’t return,” I cut in, “their future children will come and replace them.”
“Excuse me!” Michael bolted away to go and settle an escalating argument between one of his granddaughters and my son John.
“He has a point,” I said to Emmanuel over Michael’s empty chair. “You’re not a Jew. Nor do you look anything like a black Moor. And you’re in England as a Portuguese national.”
“One whose family name is Lopez. Would you seek employment in England today if your name were Lopez?”
I didn’t answer his question. The rest of our after-dinner conversation was about how we would continue to maintain our partnership while he was abroad – perhaps permanently.
When Cambridge University relieved Manuel Lopez of his duties as Professor of Philology three months later, the formality had to be executed in absentia. By then he was aboard a ship bound for Portugal.
Monifa, who had agreed to travel between London and Lisbon as our principal courier, also left England the following month. Before her departure, she delivered to Oxford House the remaining nine manuscripts of Emmanuel’s fourteen early plays. Thus was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, put in the unique position of furnishing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with the sparkling theatrical fireworks with which they blasted London society into the seventeenth century.
Copyright: Raphael Soné