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Mercedes of Castile (The Voyage to Cathay)

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An 1840 book by James Fenimore Cooper.

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Author: James Fenimore Cooper
Publisher: Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michiga
1 review about Mercedes of Castile (The Voyage to Cathay)

Teaching truths through writing historical fiction

  • Aug 13, 2010
In the second third of the 19th Century, all America was awash with writings about Columbus's four voyages from Spain to the New World of the Americas, or "Cathay" as he thought he had reached. The first voyage, in particular, was widely hailed as the greatest single exploration in world history up until that point.

James Fenimore Cooper had read many earlier accounts: the journal of Christopher Columbus himself, descriptions by the great Cervantes and by his fellow Americans Washington Irving and William Hickling Prescott. But he went beyond them all in MERCEDES OF CASTILE, or, THE VOYAGE TO CATHAY.  In that novel of 1840 Fenimore Cooper told the (fictitious) tale of 20 year old Luis de Bobadilla, Conde (Count) de Llera. He is in love with 18 year old Mercedes de Valverde, heiress and orphaned ward of Luis's aunt Beatriz, best friend from girlhood till the latter's death of Queen Isabella of Castile. Luis has proven himself at an early age a veritable Achilles of a Christian knight in successful campaigns to expel the conquering Muslims from Spain. He has also sailed all around the Mediterranean for adventure. This was at a time (about to change dramatically once Columbus returned to Spain in 1493) when voyaging was simply "not done" by grandees of Spain.

The pious Queen Isabella is as aware of Luis's weak points as she is of his strengths. Her Majesty prudently sets in motion a test: if and only if incognito Luis accompanies Columbus on his 1492 voyage and acquits himself well, will she approve the marriage of Luis and Mercedes. For her part, Mercedes, though madly in love with the Conde de Llera, has promised the Queen never to marry without the royal permission.

All goes very well on this first voyage. Columbus discovers both Cuba and Hispaniola. On matrilinear Hispaniola, young Luis is befriended by a young Haitian prince and introduced to his lovely sister Ozema. With the help of one other Spanish crewman who is armed with an arquebus, Luis beats off a surprise attack by another Caribbean prince intending to carry off Ozema and marry her against her will. The brother, sister, Luis and Columbus agree that for the temporary safety of Princess Ozema, she will return to Spain on one of the two remaining vessels of Columbus's fleet to be presented to Queen Isabella, patroness of the voyage.

Ozema, though young, naive, sheltered and pure in heart, is nonetheless something of a linguistic genius. When Luis first sees her, he involuntarily gasps "Mercedes" because the Haitian reminds him so much of his distant love. Ozema's one linguistic blunder is to think that "Mercedes" is a Spanish word used to describe anything beautiful and admired. She is in love with Luis, but he (dreaming ever of the fair Mercedes) never notices. During a terrible storm at sea on the home voyage, Luis takes from around his neck a crucifix and gives it to the Princess to prepare this pagan for something approaching a resigned Christian death. But Ozema takes this transfer to be a rite of Christian marriage. In her mind Luis and Ozema are now man and wife. By the time she reaches Spain, the princess is fluent, if not yet entirely grammatical, in Castillian Spanish.

Problems become acute back in Barcelona, where the royal court is assembled. Ozema shows off her crucifix to Mercedes and her aunt to whose care the innocent Luis has committed the Princess. Ozema says that she and Luis are married. Mercedes is stunned; for the cross had been a gift from her to Luis to express their own undying, unbreakable love. Now, Mercedes is ready to give up Luis.

Queen Isabella is sorely tempted to degrade Luis as a sexual bounder. But Columbus, who had witnessed the gift of the crucifix during the storm, convinces Her Majesty that Luis loves only Mercedes. Defeated in love, Ozema sinks toward death. She asks to be baptized but only after Luis and Mercedes are first wed in her presence. That done, Ozema then begs Luis to take her as a second wife. An irate archbishop and an empathetic Queen Isabella react differently to this request -- as Ozema slips into death.

Cooper sums up:

"Thus fled the first of those souls that the great discovery was to rescue from the perdition of the heathen.  ... Little did she (Queen Isabella) foresee, that the event was but a type of the manner in which the religion of the cross was to be abused and misunderstood; a sort of practical prognostic of the defeat of most of her own pious and gentle hopes and wishes" (Ch. XXX).

This love story of Luis, Mercedes and Ozema is embedded in the earlier (1469) love match between Isabella of Castile and her cousin Fernando of Navarre. She had married without the permission of the King of Castile, her brother. But she trusted that Mercedes and Luis would not follow her own example!

James Fenimore Cooper, the author, was himself a loving husband and father of daughters. If there was ever a great woman of history whom Cooper admired, it was Queen Isabella. Women readers of 2010 will find no cause to fault Cooper for not understanding and cherishing women.

It is refreshing to go back a mere 170 years to a book of 1840 when most Americans were still unabashedly in awe of the accomplishments and sincerely religious intentions of The Great Navigator, Christopher Columbus, a good man not always responsible for the evil deeds of some of his greedy followers. 

As Cooper wrote in the preface to MERCEDES OF CASTILE:

"… we state truths, with a profession of fiction, while the great moral caterers of the age state  fiction with the profession of truth."


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