Where else to start than the end of the world? And with some blame. It’s all Werner Herzog’s fault. A chance trip to one of his films ended up at the south west tip of Portugal staring into the Atlantic. This summer I dipped my toe into the waters of conquistadors, explorers and the Age of Discovery.
Where better to start this blog than with the end of the world. Not the far future in a flaming sun, or distant past, pulled through time to the fires of a new universe. That may come later. Right now, I’m talking that best kind of end of the world. The kind that was beaten.
In September, when the late afternoon sun caught the end of Europe, beyond the small town of Sagres at the south-west point of Portugal, the cliffs of Cape St Vincent. Until the 14th century, where Europeans stood and stared out to the crashing waves of an ocean that never ended. The Atlantic. Which Atlantic? This one:
It’s a brutal ocean, the brutal ocean. But there just had to be something across it, didn’t there? It wasn’t widely thought that the world was flat by the time people decided to set off, but it was a leap of faith.
600 or so years on, it really started a couple of months ago on the cold and wet brick of central London. Kagoul at hand at Somerset House’s Film 4 Summer Screen watching Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I was feeling fairly rough, the London skies had been ripped apart by thunder in the morning and fogged by torrential rain in the afternoon. As one of the party sat grumpily in a transparent poncho moaning that (laughing) security had seized his newly purchased fishing stool, I thought of some Tweets from. Rain, flooding, thunder, cold – as everyone thought and some had written, that wouldn’t stop Herzog.
Of course, Aguirre was the perfect film for it. Loosely based on historical figures, with a barn-storming performance by Klaus Kinski in the central role, brilliantly off-the-cuff filming techniques and opportunism that could have granted the location a co-direction credit. It’s full of idiosyncrasy. One is that it was filmed in English to ease communication between a cast and crew made up from 16 nations, only for the sound funds to be absconded with and a German soundtrack synched on in post. You get the surreality of it all far before Kinski lets loose.
That screening kick-started a Herzog retrospective (as of now, I’m a leisurely three films in: another story for another time), but it was also a visceral experiences that re-piqued my interest in conquistadors and the age of discovery. Savage, arrogant, damaging, brave, visionary. I’d missed a lot of exploration…
Conquistadors and Courage
It was afflatus, and already the sails were caught. There followed a spate of films. First, Aronofsky’s intriguing but sadly diluted science fiction-scape The Fountain. Brief moments of vivid 16th century dreamery as Hugh Jackman’s Tomas sets out to find the Fountain of Life for Rachel Weisz’s Isabella of Spain, mirroring, or maybe not, his and her reincarnations in the 21st century and far future. A curio, arrestingly packed with impressive filming techniques. A real shame its budget was halved.
Then there was perhaps the definitive: 1492: Conquest of Paradise. This was Ridley Scott’s down-time, an unfortunate period that almost ran the entirety of the 1980s and 1990s. Just eight years before Gladiator… Somehow, inexplicably, it would have been enhanced if it been made after 2000 or before 1980. Still, with the striking central performance by Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver laying down the regal gauntlet to Rachel Weisz as Isabella I. As critics were happy to point out at the time, and the film poster even more so, it does a fine job of capturing the sheer courage of departing Europe for the unknown. I write to Vangelis’ soundtrack right now – Scott could get some things right during those dark days, even if the celluloid skimps on the voyage in favour of the politics of the old and new worlds.
One of its most effective representations has the armour plated Spanish soldiers standing in the tropical swampland, met by the indigenous Lucayan. Of course, his bold and very direct passage took Columbus to the Bahamas rather than the mainland, several more voyages and an ignominious end. While struggling with the early years of conquest, Amerigo Vespucci had landed on the Southern Continent to possibly give his name to it, while John Cabot had given the English just the slimmest of claims of being the first Europeans to land on the North America coast since perhaps good old Leif Ericson.
Conquerors and Colonisation
And then there were the English. By happy accident, I was wrenched back into the 16th century mystery of the Dares of Virginia (now North Carolina) at the same time by Matthew Sweet’s solid but mildly dour Doctor Who audio adventure Voyage to the New World. I’d been introduced to the Roanoke Colony by Neil Gaiman’s sumptuous 1602 series for Marvel comics many years before, and it had long sat in a strange genre bubble of my mind. One of the great myths that sprung up from the Age of Discovery: Virginia Dare, the first English, first white Christian child born in the New World.
That strange brewing a mystery obscured and measured by the length of a voyage across the Atlantic. The child, her family and the colonists who disappeared never to be seen again with only the words “Croatoan” and “Cro” carved into the remains of their settlement. A creeping name for a nearby island that yielded nothing. That mystery’s never been recorded on film, although I did catch-up with Terrance Malick’s The New World. I wasn’t expecting much, a mistake I’ll probably make again. Malick’s poetic retelling of the Pocahontas legend is for me the finest of his few films, and certainly one of the best of last decade. That tale of the Chief’s daughter, who converted to Christianity and was absorbed into English society has a companion piece in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto with its rather wonderful ‘ending’ and makes a counter-point to the ‘Lost Colony’ that most likely fell to local tribes. The New World is an achievement that defies reason, a running theme in the age of discovery. Riddled with mysteries.
To the End of the World
And then In September came a trip to the continent where I inadvertently found myself near the end of the world that helped inspire all those ‘adventures’. At those cliffs. Not where Columbus departed from, nor Captain Newport, but a new set of explorers.
In the sleepy, unchanging fishing village of Alvor, across the bay sat the statue of Henry the Navigator in Lagos. One of the prettiest towns on the Algarve, not the biggest, but I was reliably told the third most important. Infante Henrique was around about where the great unbroken alliance between the British and Portuguese started in 1387, when his father King John I married Philippa of Lancaster.
The Half-English Henrique and his siblings were to become known as the Illustrious Generation, with Henry heading down to the south of Portugal and started the Age of Discoveries.
I went to the south-western tip of Portugal and took some photos.
Inadvertently. Just as inadvertent as the discovery of the New World. Then, there wasn’t yet a craze for Eldorado (a cunning tale crafted by the natives to successfully play on the greed of the Europeans – or perhaps more fairly, their desperate need to buy grace with their regal overseers) but there was a need to get to India. It took many attempts to round the cape of Morocco, it was perilous to navigate the southern-most tip of the African continent. When Bartolomeu Dias managed it in 1488 John II of Portugal re-named it the Cape of Good Hope – not actually the southernmost tip of Africa, but where relieved captains could steer to the east.
A replica of Dias’ caravel, sits in the harbour at Lagos. A remarkably small ship, but a necessarily manoeuvrable one, for an impressive endeavour. Nine years later, young sea captain Vasco da Gama would complete the trip to the Far East and land in Calicut after two years. There had to be a faster route…
Not for the gold or hubris of Aguirre, not the competition of expansion later taken on by Captains Newport and Smith. Not even the Fountain of Life. There just had to be a faster way to open up the highly profitable spice market. The fuel of the Age of Discovery that inspired men to courage and spawned the horrors of colonisation in the New World: cassia, cardamom, pepper and turmeric.
And for one, Columbus never admitted that he hadn’t reached the far Indies.
A first blog in 1492 words of course