William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
THIRTEEN: Nothing Extenuate
On a certain afternoon in the late summer of 1587, we were in the midst of celebrating Mother Isola’s birthday in the refectory of All Saints’ College when one of the seminarians took me aside and said: “There’s a man in the library asking for you. He says his name is Tunkara.”
Upon hearing the name, I broke into a sweat and raced the student to the library.
“Michael! What brings you to these parts?” I asked after unclasping the visitor from a tight embrace.
“News from England.”
I sent for the seminary carriage. While waiting for it, Michael and I went and sat on a bench in front of the library.
My visitor was born Musa Abdul Tunkara in Liverpool, but took the name Michael when he converted to Christianity from the Muhammadan faith. He was one of London’s wealthiest merchants. Towards the end of every leap year from the early seventies until the late nineties, he travelled to his ancestral home in Bamako and bought merchandize, which his wife Kadiatu and their children sold over the following four years.
Michael and Oxford were close friends. It was the earl who had requested that he journey to Corisco and seek out Father Julius, Mother Isola, Emmanuel and me on his next trip to or from Mali.
“I have letters in my luggage for all four of you,” he said as I wiped the bench for us. “I’m afraid not much of what you read will be good news. Elizabeth has executed her cousin. And England is about to pay the price.”
“The queen of Scotland is dead? Please say it isn’t so.”
“It is so. Alas. As surely as I am sitting here beside you. The barren bastard of an apostate, hydrocephalic hippopotamus and a hoodwinking strumpet! Last February. That’s when she did it.”
For a brief moment I was transported to Stratford-upon-Avon. When the merchant exploded, I remembered my father and saw myself as a boy again mentally compiling an inventory of his arsenal of invectives.
“But, let me tell you, our virgin queen is in for it. King Philip is preparing to avenge Queen Mary’s execution with a naval attack that is sure to sink England. And it’s not just Spain that Elizabeth is up against this time. It’s all of Catholic Europe!”
“Here comes our carriage,” I said as the vehicle rattled from a distance in our direction.
We loaded Michael’s belongings in the carriage. After we took our places behind the coachman and I asked him to convey us to the orphanage, Michael continued: “On my way here I stopped in Lisbon – that’s where the attack will be launched from. The city is crammed with men raring for a fight: Walloons, Italians, Germans, you name it. Why, I saw fighters there from England – some of our brethren who’re tired of having the Anglican communion rammed down their throats.”
I changed the subject. Michael and I talked about a host of other matters until supper time, when, pushing aside my plate of fried plantains and shrimp sauce, I rose and told him, Amina and Mother Isola: “I have to return home immediately. I’m an officer of the Catholic coalition that’s about to recapture England for Rome. I must be in London before Spain declares war.”
“Not London,” countered Michael. “The battle could be over before you get that far. If you want to see any action, head for Lisbon. And I’d travel by land if I were you. From here, a chain of caravans would bring you to Morocco sooner and more safely than any seafaring vessel. And it’s just a short boat ride from the northern tip of Morocco to Lisbon.”
I said goodnight to them, went to my room and studied the maps of Western Africa by candle light into the small hours of the next morning.
A week later, Michael and I set sail together for Cape Santa Clara. From there we travelled through the Kingdom of Benin to that of Mali, whence I continued the rest of my northward journey alone to Portugal.
Mali had been so hot that the earth cracked under my horse’s hoofs as I rode through the country. But if Mali had been a frying pan, Portugal was the fire. Unlike Malians, whose scorched nation is the epitome of cleanliness, the Portuguese have no notion of public or personal hygiene.
No breeze blew through the narrow, sunbaked streets of Lisbon, which were more crowded than the bazaars of Timbuktu. It was a challenge just walking on their worn-out cobblestones. The sounds one heard in them were jarring; and the smell which hit one’s nose, toxic.
There were armed men everywhere – not only from all over Europe, as Michael had depicted, but also from Arabia and the northern reaches of Africa. Wherever I turned my ear, I could hear a foreign language being spoken.
While asking for directions in the Babel late one afternoon, I found out that I had only eight days to train before the last ship in Lisbon started making its way north to join those assembled in Corunna.
A little before noon the next day, all official documents in hand, I presented myself at the Spanish Office of the Catholic Armada.
“I’m already on the army’s payroll as a commissioned lieutenant,” I said after introducing myself to the chief recruiting officer.
“The musket. I received months of practical training in its use while in Corisco.”
The officer scrutinized my Malabese instructor’s glowing attestation, which was written in Portuguese, and handed it back to me. Without any further ado, he enlisted me as Musketman Guillermo de Guzmán, Viscount of Olivarez.
I was one of the last enlistees to join the fleet.
And what a fleet it was. One hundred and sixty ships in all – of which one hundred and eight were armed merchant vessels, four of them being galleasses supplied by the people of Naples. Twenty-two galleons. Two thousand, five hundred guns. Ten thousand seamen. Twice that many soldiers.
No wonder Pope Sixtus christened the fleet La Armada Invincible. No wonder it was dubbed “the Great and Most Fortunate Navy” (La Grande y Felicisima Armada) by no less a personage than its noble commander, Captain General of the Ocean Sea and Captain General of Andalusia, Don Alonso Perez de Guzmán el Bueno, Duke of Medina Sidonia.
To any human adversary, the Catholic Armada might have been invincible. But not to the hand of God. And God’s hand favoured Protestant England in the summer of 1588.
The circumstances under which the Catholic Armada perished and the reasons for its defeat have been chronicled, analyzed and even glorified ad nauseam. I will therefore limit myself to revealing in this memoir only two hitherto unreported details, personal but pertinent, which I deem worthy of mention.
I saw no action that disastrous summer. While our fleet docked at Calais awaiting reinforcements from the Netherlands, I was aboard the Nuestra Señora del Rosario. A week or so before the now-legendary shooting and burnings commenced, the ancient Rosario collided with a sturdier, modern sister vessel and was damaged beyond repair in one of the infernal storms which turned King Philip’s dream into a nightmare.
And then around midnight two nights after the Battle of Gravelines, while waiting to be rescued from the wreck of the Rosario, I came within an inch of having my throat cut.
Five of us – two other Englishmen, a Portuguese monk, our Spanish captain and I – were lying in different parts of the ruined ship. Minutes after I extinguished my last candle, a boot hit me hard in the ribs and, before I could jump to my feet, the tip of a sword was pressed on my neck. Dripping over me, barely discernable in the dark, was a tall, bearded figure. His foot was on my musket.
“Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Drake,” barked the figure. “Who commands this carcass?”
Before I could answer, a voice called from below us: “My lord, I’ve found the captain. Calls himself Don Pedro. Pedro de Valdes.”
“Bring him up.”
“He says we won’t find anything here worth taking. None of the ships containing valuable goods joined theirs. They’re all stranded in the Netherlands.”
“Bring him up, I say!”
Within seconds, another voice called from farther away: “Sir Francis, we’re outnumbered! An enemy ship is headed this way. It’s already close by and is full of armed men.”
The pirate called Sir Francis (I wouldn’t learn until years later that he had indeed been knighted) slapped my face with his blade. Shouting “Hawkins, say adios to your captain”, he plunged into the water out of which he had emerged.
It turned out that sixty-two of the seamen Drake had fled were propped-up dead bodies. And the three alive were in no better shape than we. They came to our rescue aboard the flagship San Martín.
Just as I had been one of the last fighters to take up arms, I was among the last survivors to return to Spain with the remnants of the Catholic Armada.
I spent the following twelve odd months polishing up my Spanish in Salamanca while awaiting Emmanuel’s return. He was back in the autumn of 1589.
“Foolhardy devil, you,” he said the morning I first visited him. We were in his room at the university. “Your imagination will be the death of us.”
“You’ve already heard?”
“Every frightening, little detail. Mother Isola told me about it. Interrogated me, I should say.”
“She nearly talked me out of the idea. As did Oxford before her. He won’t hear of it at first.”
“The earl has a private reason to be concerned. He’d like me to teach at Cambridge, and is doing his best to help me obtain a position at the university. But I can be a professor and write plays in secret – provided you don’t mind selling them as yours.”
“You ARE with me then.”
“All the way to the gallows.”
My friend had started preparing for our London collaborations before I asked. When he showed me a list of the next ten dramas he planned to write, I was taken aback. Not by the list, but by the handwriting.
“I’ve been practising to write like you,” he said in answer to the question in my eyes. “That way all my future plays would be in the handwriting of the author who will be presumed to have written them.”
“Obviously, there’s nothing you haven’t thought of?”
“That was actually Mother Isola’s idea.”
I told Emmanuel that she had also suggested that neither of us should own property in London.
“Because if we do, we’d be taxed. And tax-payers are easy to track down.”
“What about the money I earn from selling your plays? Or having them performed?”
“You can retain it all.” Emmanuel rose and picked up a portrait which had been lying facedown on his desk. He showed it to me and added: “As long as you agree to employ her and pay her an adequate income until she’s no longer in need of financial help.”
The painting was that of Monifa Ladipo, the Malabese interpreter. My friend had talked her into emigrating to England; and then sent her ahead to live with Michael Tunkara and his family until we returned home and helped her set up a house of her own.
Emmanuel echoed my thoughts: “She would make a perfect go-between for us.”
We agreed that I would stay in Spain and we would start working together until Emmanuel finished his studies and left for Lisbon, from where he was going to emigrate to England as a Portuguese national. If he taught at Cambridge as Manuel Lopez, a foreigner (sponsored by the Earl of Oxford), he would be even less likely to be suspected of writing plays in English, subversive or not.
Unfortunately for me, by the time I saw him again three or four weeks later, anti-English hostilities in Salamanca had become insufferable. And, as we heard, conditions were worse in some of the other major cities.
Less than a year after Catholic Europe failed to unseat her, Queen Elizabeth had sent a retaliatory force to the Iberian Peninsula, led by none other than King Philip’s most dreaded bugbear: Drake, now Admiral Sir Francis.
On that occasion, the sea dog was kicked back to England with his tail pressed tight between his legs. Nevertheless, his latest attempt at humiliating them had so angered the people of Spain that, for months after he was defeated, anti-English sentiment progressively intensified right across the country.
One January evening, for instance, while Emmanuel and I were strolling by the Tormes, someone shouted from the river: “Ingleses!” A blast from a cannon wouldn’t have shocked me more. And that was after I had been called worse things five times within the preceding three days.
By then the Spaniards were coupling their verbal salvos with kicks and punches. Knowing that, when we saw the man who had yelled at us hop out of his boat and head in our direction with his oar raised and mouth spewing abuses, we turned around and ran back to Emmanuel’s room at the university.
What I recall as the final insults happened a fortnight later. I was not myself the direct target. But the affronts could just as well have been aimed at me.
On my way back from the barber’s one Saturday afternoon, I saw a drunken old man kicking a young couple in the shins while on the other side of the street a hotheaded youngling ordered an elderly lady, in very unchristian language, to go back to her country. All that because they had been heard speaking English.
“Catholic or not, the English won’t be safe in this land for a long time to come,” I said to Emmanuel the next morning. “Excepting those few like you who can pass for Spaniards.”
We were standing in front of the university chapel – out of earshot from everyone else, to ensure that my halting Spanish didn’t betray me.
“If you’re thinking of leaving…”
“If? Thinking? I want to fight. Oh, so desperately. But not here. Not against other Roman Catholics. England is where I’m going to do battle. And immediately.”
“In that case, be sure to bypass Madrid. One of my teachers told me yesterday that things are much worse in the capital than here.”
“They have been for weeks, according to my barber.”
Back in his room, Emmanuel said: “Remember me to my uncle. And to Oxford and Gilbert.”
“And to Monifa and Michael.”
I had already taken leave of him when he called and I turned around. Waving his hands in the air and running, he said: “There’s a man in London you ought to meet – the entertainer who leads Oxford’s players. His name is Richard Burbage.”
“I know him. We met a few years ago. In Stratford-upon-Avon.”
“If you want a London resident for a second business partner, I’d strongly recommend him. He speaks for Oxford’s Men, and does an incomparable job of it. You would be wise to make him your spokesman. Then we can both keep the low profile the earl wants us to keep.”
“You’re a fount of wisdom, Professor. Thank you. And farewell.”
We burst out laughing and Emmanuel ended up walking me all the way to my room in the hospice of the Convento de San Estaban. After darkening my face and arms, he helped me change into the Moorish outfit I had bought the day before – turban, earring and all. Then he stumbled on my latest passport. And we had another hearty laugh.
“Waalim Sefuwa? Sefuwa, I understand. But why Waalim?”
“Waalim is the closest thing to a Muhammadan first name that I could create with the letters in William.”
We were still chuckling when Emmanuel said: “Vaya con Dios”.
I travelled south by carriage as far as Seville, pretending all along to be able to speak neither English nor Spanish. While in Seville, I bought a gelding with which I slunk across the Portuguese frontier to Oporto. I rested a full week at the port city before boarding a Venetian carrack bound for Portsmouth.
While living in Salamanca, I had been introduced to an “expert manufacturer of authentic forgeries” – one Giovanni Lorfano. And shortly before I fled Spain, Giovanni counterfeited a Moroccan passport for me in the name of Waalim Sefuwa. It was therefore as a mock citizen of Morocco that, in the autumn of 1590, I ended the six-year odyssey which turned out to be my final return journey beyond the shores of England and my preparation for playing cat-and-mouse with formidable adversaries.
Copyright: Raphael Soné