A number of summers ago, when I was still stationed in Spain, I packed up my daughter, and a tent and all the necessary gear, and did a long looping camping tour of the southern part of Spain, down through the Extremadura, and to the rock of Gib al Tarik, and a long leisurely drive along the Golden Coast. I had driven from Sevilla, past the sherry-manufacturies around Jerez La Frontera (on a Sunday, so they were closed, although the Harvey’s people should have given me a freebie on general principals, I had sipped enough of their stuff, over the years), made a pit stop at the Rota naval base for laundry and groceries. I had driven into Gibraltar, done a tour of the historic gun galleries, seen the famous Gibraltar apes, and then waited in the long customs line to come back into Spain. We had even stopped at the Most Disgusting Public Loo on the face of the earth, at a gas station outside of San Roque, before following the road signs along the coastal road towards Malaga and Motril, and our turn-off, the road that climbed steadily higher into the mountains, the tall mountains that guarded the fortress city of Granada, and the fragile fairy-tale pavilions of the Alhambra.
The road followed the coastline, for the most part, sweeping through towns like Estepona and Marbella as the main thoroughfare, always the dark blue Mediterranean on the right, running wide of the open beaches, hugging the headlands, with new condos and little towns shaded by palm and olive trees, splashed with the brilliant colors of bougainvillea, interspersed with the sage-green scrublands. The traffic was light enough along the coastal road, and I began to notice a certain trend in place names – Torre de Calahonda, Torremolinos, Torre del Mar, Torrenueva – and to notice that most of the tall headlands, rearing up to the left of the road, were topped by a (usually) ruinous stone watchtower. Forever and brokenly looking out to the sea, and a danger that might come from there, a danger of such permanence as to justify the building of many strong towers to guard the little towns and the inlets where fisher-folk would beach their boats and mend their nets.
This rich and lovely coast was scourged for centuries by corsairs who swept in from the sea, peacetime and wartime all alike, savage raiders with swords and torches and chains, who came to burn and pillage – and not just the portable riches of gold or silver, but those human folk who had a cold, hard cash value in the slave markets of Algiers and Sale, along the Barbary Coast. It was a scourge of such magnitude that came close to emptying out the coastal districts all along the Spanish, French and Italian coasts, and even reached insolently into Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Iceland. The raiders from the port of Sale (present-day Morocco) grew fabulously wealthy form their expertise in capturing and trafficking in captured Christians from all across coastal villages in Western Europe, and from ship crews taken in the Mediterranean and the coastal Atlantic waters. This desperate state of affairs lasted into the early 19th century, until the power and reach of the Barbary slave-raiders was decisively broken. For three hundred years, though, families all along this coast and elsewhere must have risen up from bed every morning knowing that by the end of the day they and or their loved ones might very well be in chains, on their way to the slave markets across the water, free no longer, but a market commodity.
This kind of life-knowledge is out of living memory along that golden Spanish coast, but it is within nearly touchable distance in Texas and other parts of the American West, where my own parent’s generation, as children in the Twenties and Thirties would have known elderly men and women who remembered the frontier – not out of movies, or from television, but as children themselves, first-hand and with that particular vividness of sight that children have, all that adventure, and danger, privation and beauty, the triumph of building a successful life and community out of nothing more than homesteaded land and hard work.
There was no chain of watchtowers in the harsh and open borderlands, watching over far-scattered settlements and little towns, and lonely ranches in a country never entirely at peace, but not absolutely at war. The southwestern tribes, Comanche, Apache and their allies roamed as they wished, a wild and free life, hunting what they wanted, raiding when they felt like it, and could get away with it. Sometimes, it was just a coarse game, to frighten the settlers, to watch a settler family run for the shelter of their rickety cabin, fumbling for a weapon with shaking hands, children sheltering behind their parents like chicks. But all too often, for all too many homesteading and ranching families, it ended with the cabin looted and burned, the adults and small children butchered in the cruelest fashion, stripped and scalped.
And the cruelest cut of all for survivors of such raids in Texas and the borderlands was that children of a certain age – not too young to be a burden, not too old to be un-malleable (aged about seven to twelve, usually) were carried away, and adopted into the tribes. Over months and years, such children adapted to that life so completely that even when they were ransomed back and brought home, they never entirely fitted in to a life that seemed like a cage. They had been taken as children, returned as teenagers or adults to an alien life, to parents and family they could no longer see as theirs. Some of them pined away after their return, like the most famous of them, Cynthia Ann Parker, others eventually returned to their Indian families. For parents of these lost children, that must have been so cruel, to lose a much-loved child not just once, but to finally get them back and then to discover that they were no longer yours; they had not been a slave in captivity, but one of the Tribe ad that they longed to be away, roving the open lands as free as a bird.
(The connection between these two topics is that I was reading Giles Milton’s White Gold, and Scott Zesch’s Captured at more or less the same time. Eventually I worked this tragedy of stolen children into Adelsverein: The Harvesting.)