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Book Review
"Brave Island"
Winnowing for pearls in the regions of the dead

by Carl Muller
T
he first edition of "Brave Island" by R. L. Spittel and Christine Spittel Wilson was published in 1966. R. L. Spittel, God keep him, is no more; but soldiering on - as he always did - his daughter, Christine, does not put a foot wrong as she continues to march in the ranks of life. This new edition breathes new life. It is a story of courage, adventure and, essentially, of life full of jagged edges, perils, stark realizations and grim battle. The reader is taken back to 1655, to Captain Major Gaspar Figueira who is the "warrior of the billhook" and "Terror of the Sinhala"; to the coming of the Dutch. The book also pays, with no words said, Christine’s tribute to her illustrious father. Well could he have said to her: "Look at me. Remember me with the eyes of your soul, so that you will write. I am your starting point, and you will write and go on writing"

Historical fiction is the new world we can look at through the glass of our own aquariums. Life, in the sounding past, may not be as we know it today, but even as we pursue the many sword-clanging quests and campaigns of "Brave Island", we can also look out and ask, "Is there much difference?"

I am reminded of what Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said in his superb novel, "Veronika Decides to Die":

"Both there and here, people gather together in groups, they build their walls and allow nothing strange to trouble their mediocre existences. They do things because they’re used to doing them, they study useless subjects, they have fun because they are supposed to have fun, and the rest of the world can go hang - let them sort themselves out. At the very most, they watch the news on television... as confirmation of their happiness in a world full of problems and injustices. "

Actually, what IS the difference? The problems and injustices of the 1700s are not really different when we consider the problems and injustices of the 21st. This "Brave Island" remained so even as colonizers fought for supremacy. This remains so even today, as separatists battle for supremacy, false of face and tongue.

Christine puts a saddle on the gleaming black back of history as she builds up her story of the Dutch cannonade of the Fort of Colombo. It is a game of pitch and toss, perfidy and petty feuds, spirals of fierce combat, the wounding of General Hulft, the well-fed against the starving and besieged. The Portuguese fought like men possessed, even if the possession was of priest-fire. Time and again, the Hollanders were driven back and we have the diary entry of Simon de Basto to tell us of how the final assault would go:

‘That conflict proved the severest of any heard of in the East, where a remnant of sick, famished and wounded men triumphed over the most overpowering charges of fresh soldiers, continually relieved and maintained to combat from six in the morning till eight at night. "

General Coutinho even wished to enclose the women and children in the Church of St. Domingo, and set it on fire, then do the same to the whole town. There was little more the Portuguese could do. With capitulation came the show of surrender - a tattered Portuguese flag and seventy-three maimed and wounded soldiers. Even the forces of the Sinhala king regarded the gaunt remnant of the Portuguese army "with compassion and mute astonishment."

There is, in the book, an astonishing realization that this father-daughter epic is given to us with a sure and certain grasp of history with special operatic overtones. The story twists and turns sinuously. Each character comes and goes, but is not allowed to live his or her own life in his or her own world. Is this somewhat of a curse that follows every colonizer? To the Portuguese, who were told cagily enough that to them, even as they gagged on their own blood, that death and defeat was "God’s will", did it seem to these dazed, beaten men that their saints and the Virgin and God also lived in their own worlds? And in what world did the Sinhala king live? He took Gaspar Figueira, the "Terror of the Sinhala", to command his own bodyguard and train his soldiers. Ah, but the king had his own sense of mad humour. Gaspar, the Portuguese, would live with and serve with van Sterrevelt, a Dutchman. Together, they would plot their escape.

The book has its lessons for us all. It tells us of and claims our attention to the remorseless truth that to all of us there is the number of our days. Friends, enemies, allies, traitors, lovers, deceivers - we continue to give importance even to those we have only heard of, never seen. And we continue to worry, get upset, suffer, attack and defend. What a chaotic waste of time! Why, in God’s name, do we still have to fight for our own tiny space or to stop those who impose their values on us? To Edmont van Sterrevelt and Gaspar Figueira, all the king’s horses and men mattered little. They lay doggo, did as they were ordered and knew that they could not accept what their circumstances had imposed on them. They also had to change, accept each other, face unforeseen consequences, even revenge.

Part one of "Brave Island" brings us up to the point where the Portuguese and the Hollander realized that life had little meaning and the sameness of everyday could stretch endlessly. They decided against this. They escaped.

Part Two brings us more interlinking threads. It was R. L. Spittel’s "wild white boy" who helped them to escape, make their way to a coastal hamlet where they meet again a Portuguese priest who had returned to the island disguised as a beggar. Some parts of the chapter deserve mention. When the Dutchman expressed his intention to go to Colombo, seek out the Portuguese girl he had fallen in love with, the priest said:

"It is best that sons and daughters of our people intermarry in the land where God has cast them, and raise a new generation. Indeed, it is inevitable."

The priest also tells Gaspar:

"Ceylon... we thought the best parcel of land the Creator has placed in the world. And yet, we let it go. If we had been satisfied with what we could hold instead of trying to grasp everything within out reach, we might at least have kept this island. "

We may well say, perhaps van Sterrevelt should have gone, as he threatened, to Colombo; but there is no "perhaps,’ because there is no choice. We see the struggle to keep alive, not to be suicidal; and the bonds the two men have forged. They go instead, egged on by a Muslim pearl trader, to Arippu. As Gaspar says: "By land, my lad, I am all for Arippu, and adventure once more."

What strikes the reader is that this book, so full of human complications is written with an ease that inspires. We follow the trail and the fortunes of our adventurers from the city of pearls to the Gulf of Mannar; their encounter with the thuggees and stranglers of the goddess Kali; their capture by the Dutch; then the outbreak of cholera; their final escape to Goa.

"Brave Island" is a soul-stirring book about braver men moving through the many tunnels of mysterious fate as if on their own astral journeys. And their goodbyes? Were they saying their goodbyes to Alahakoon and Kabraal with the knowledge that they were in truth, addicted to the life that existed in 17th century Ceylon? Throughout this saga, everything that mattered or did not matter had to be tolerated; and Edmont and Gaspar could fight, cry, worry, get angry, lie, even change the colour of their hair and beards, like so many "normal" people and remind themselves that somewhere, their spirits were laughing loud at the thorny situations they got into.

Christine Spittlel Wilson has shown us that, with such a spirit above her, she must wear the mantle - not by sitting at a keyboard and playing some lovely sonata, but by writing as her father’s eternity spurs her. The book is not merely historical fiction. It tells us all that, in our own battles, we are like all the others who need other people in order to achieve, even if these others are difficult, react unpredictably and put up their own defensive walls.

Such a story. Such a setting! Bravely told in this bravest of islands!


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