Caribbean Knights: Quijote, Galahad, and the Telling of History

By Reiss, Timothy J. | Studies in the Novel, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Caribbean Knights: Quijote, Galahad, and the Telling of History


Reiss, Timothy J., Studies in the Novel


On 25 February 1605, "Pedro Gonzalez Refolio presented four crates of books to the Inquisition for its inspection." In one of these, the extant register in Seville's Archivo General de Indias tells us, were "`5 Don quixotte de la mancha.'" The crates were registered to a ship due to sail with the Tierra Firme fleet from Seville to the Americas.(1) But if Gonzalez was quickest off the mark, Don Quijote having been published only five or six weeks before, he was neither alone nor the heaviest hitter. On 26 March, Juan de Sarria, a bookseller of Alcala de Henares associated with a dealer in Lima, Miguel Mendez, offered sixty-one more crates of books to the Inquisition for its inspection. The registers for the first twenty of these are lost, but the others held another sixty-six copies of Cervantes' novel.(2) By 3 April, another thirteen copies brought this fleet's known total to eighty-four copies.(3) This was only the beginning. In the Nueva Espana fleet that sailed in July of the same year, one shipment alone, to Clemente de Valdes of Mexico City, contained 262 copies of Don Quijote, while another, to Antonio de Toro in Cartagena, included 100 copies of the novel.(4) Rodriguez Marin has observed that since fewer than a third of the ships' registers still exist, one may well need to multiply these totals by as much as four to have anything close to an accurate estimate of numbers actually shipped.

This massive dispatch of Don Quijote to the Americas suggests why copies of its first edition are so rare in Spain.(5) Perhaps, too, it implies that if, in its first years, the novel and its main characters were understood in Spain essentially as parodic comedy and figures of burlesque, they had more and different weight on the other side of the Atlantic. That, at least, is what I will argue in this essay, taking Don Quijote as a figure of the mingling of cultures but, more importantly, as an allegory of debates about history, about seizures of and conflicts between cultures by varied tellings of history, about the different ways in which cultures can and do tell their stories, and about the ways in which cultures may establish their homes by such tellings.

Don Quijote, Cervantes' novel and its eponymous protagonist, passing between Europe and the Americas, more particularly, here, between Europe and the Caribbean, helped weave these debates, seizures, conflicts, stories and establishments. They (with a few other named and unnamed knights) figure the usually unnamed errant exile or semi-exile fighting accepted tales and reasons, on a quest for those meaningful to different times, peoples, and places. I do not arbitrarily choose Quijote. His name has been used to clarify or complicate issues in the debates about cultural histories in philosophical argument, in fictions of various kinds, and as their allegory. It is in, and because of, those guises that he, others and their avatars, wander in and out of the following effort to describe one version of the complicated passage of the telling of history from seizure through conflict to new establishment. They are meant not just to clarify this passage but to concretize it through one of the images most widely used by all parties to this European and American, European and Caribbean, instance. But it is, of course, the debate and the passage themselves that matter.

The tale of Don Quijote's travels across the Atlantic does not end with the shipments to the Atlantic's western shores and their dispersal northwards to Mexico City, southwards to Lima, and to any number of provincial or capital colonies between. Lima itself was the viceregal capital, and it was there, after months of travel across the Isthmus and down the Pacific coast, that Sarria's son, also named Juan, delivered the remaining forty-five crates of his father's shipment to their associate in June 1606. A day later, he signed agreements to take consignments of books into the interior, to the high-mountain Inca capital of Cuzco and on to more remote villages and mining camps. …

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