30 abr. 2017

Jordi Tomàs's El mar dels traïdors: A Review

Jordi Tomàs, El mar dels traïdors (Barcelona: Proa, 2013). 233 pages.
Idealism and naivety characterise the protagonist of El mar dels traïdors, a young Catalan doctor who, soon after graduating from university, is accepted aboard a merchant ship that is to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the coasts of Africa to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean Sea. The year is 1864, and Antoni Riubó is the young physician’s name. At such tender age and with the promise of acquiring valuable professional experience, who wouldn’t take such a step forward when exotic adventures and the appeal of fortune are calling from the tropics?

But Riubó is being all too easily deceived. The ship is owned by a friend of the family, and the goods they will be exporting from Africa are not limited to ivory, ebony and spices. Although prohibited by law, the slave trade can still render juicy benefits, as the captain will remind Riubó many times during the voyage.

La notícia del motí al vaixell Amistad va recórrer el món sencer l'any 1839.
When the young doctor finds out what their real cargo is, he is appalled and disgusted. His duty is therefore to look after the health of the human cargo below deck, and ensure they make it to Cuba in as healthy a condition as possible. Driven by his moral principles, he starts planning a mutiny. Does he have any support among the crew? It is hard to say, one way or another. As he reads his predecessor’s notes, left within the pages of a medical book, he realises he is all alone in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by the boundless sea and a crew of unprincipled men who will only look after the money the illegal commerce of humans can bring them.

His extremely innocent attempt to take control of the vessel fails miserably. The captain decides not to kill the doctor – Riubó might still come handy should an infectious disease break out among the more than 400 Africans crowded inside the Verge de Monserrat. By chance, an English frigate appears in the horizon. Riubó thinks the English have received his letter he tried to send them while docked in the Cape Verde archipelago. But the captain is always one step ahead of developments.

When Riubó wakes up – the cook and other crew members force feed him some sleep-inducing substance mixed with the ratafia – all the slaves are gone and the English boat has vanished. His life is not a worth a cent, obviously, but the captain still retains him. The rest of the voyage becomes unendurable for everyone on board as they run out of fresh fruit and drinkable water, so they’re extremely glad to reach English territory in the Antilles.

Monserrat Island, Riubó's final destination. Photograph by Mike Schinkel 
Faced with the opportunity to make a dime where a loss had been incurred, Captain Tubau gets the commission to transport an abolitionist lawyer and his daughter to the island of Monserrat. Riubó then sees his chance to report him to the authorities and, believing the words of a fellow crewman, plans to reveal the true nature of the ship and the men who travel in it. The plot has a tragic final twist, and after falling into the trap the slave traders have laid for him, Riubó fails again.

The ending contains yet another surprising twist, one that exposes how disgracefully treacherous the nature of persons whose only aim in life is greed can be.

Jordi Tomàs uses a mix of personal diary entries and letters written to relatives to narrate Riubó’s story, and it is mostly an effective format. El mar dels traïdors highlights the true origin of some of the wealthiest families in 19th-century bourgeois Barcelona. Tomàs spares no detail on the cruelty and brutality slave traders were capable of.

In choosing the format of a personal account through the diary and letters of the young doctor, Tomàs creates a very credible character, a young man whose idealism starkly contrasts with the captain’s appetite for money. Slave traders stopped at nothing: if the abolition of slavery could have made some people think the end of such horrors would be the last to put an indelible stain on humankind, the 20th century came to prove just wrong they had been. El mar dels traïdors is a very good read, and no doubt deserved the award it received.

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