Our YA novel Hammer of Witches is a historical fantasy that follows young Baltasar Infante as he inadvertently finds himself part of Columbus’s first westward journey. In this post, our intern Andres Oliver looks at some of the places Columbus and Baltasar pass through, then and now.
Baltasar Infante’s quest to find his father carries him along with Columbus from the shores of Spain to the New World. We first meet Baltasar in the Spanish port town of Palos de la Frontera, whose scent of “seaweed and ale…smell of home” to the young protagonist (Hammer of Witches 19). Located in the Andalusian province of Huelva, the present-day Palos may smell different altogether; the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and recent construction of docks to shelter the port of Huelva have brought the town further inland.
Though the town has moved, visitors will still find many of the vestiges of the historical port city where Columbus began his journey. Attractions include the fifteenth-century church of San Jorge, where Columbus and his crew heard mass before departure, and La Fontanilla, a medieval well where they took on water. Furthermore, the town features a monument to the enterprising Pinzón brothers (who also play a part in Hammer of Witches) and a monolith engraved with the names of the seventy sailors who set sail from Palos is 1492.After leaving Palos de la Frontera, Columbus’s journey takes him first to the Canary Islands and then to San Salvador in the Bahamas. Today, there are several monuments in San Salvador marking the place where Columbus supposedly first makes landfall during his historic 1492 journey.
Columbus then sails to Cuba before continuing on to the island of Hispaniola, where much of the action in Hammer of Witches occurs. The author of Hammer of Witches describes her decision to focus on Columbus’s time in Hispaniola this way:
Hammer of Witches is a work of fiction, and fiction has its own rules which don’t apply to history. For one thing, history doesn’t follow a schedule. Events can happen gradually over a long period with many lulls in between. Fiction, on the other hand, must keep readers’ attention, and climaxes hopefully arrive when expected. For this reason I compressed the timeline of Colón’s first voyage, cutting out his layover in the Canary Islands and some of his wanderings around the Caribbean so I could focus solely on his time in Ayití, where more of the dramatic events occurred.
Ayití is a region occupying the western side of Hispaniola and corresponding to the modern nation of Haiti (the eastern side of the island corresponds to the modern-day Dominican Republic). Columbus lands in a place now called Môle-Saint-Nicolas, on the Northwestern coast of Haiti.
Ayiti’s stunning natural beauty—the word means “land of high mountains” in the Taino language—leads Baltasar to view the island as a sort of sacred paradise, with “leaves, shadows of stems and palm fronds cross[ing] over one another to create a natural spire” and “choir[s] of squawking birds echo[ing] through the canopy… creat[ing] a percussive rhythm for their psalm” (211).
A large part of Baltasar’s personal growth centers on his seeing through this garden of Eden to the conflicts taking place behind the scenes. At the time of Columbus’s landing, the island of Hispaniola is divided among five caciquats, or kingdoms: Marien, Xaragua, Maguana, Magua, and Higuey. Figuring most prominently in Hammer of Witches are Marien, ruled by Guacanagarí, and Maguana, ruled by Caonabó. While Baltasar finds Marien to be little more than a small village, he describes Maguana as a “village writ large, with thousands of people milling through its dirt roads and side streets” (289).
It’s a far cry from the idea of the “New World” as undeveloped, uncivilized, and unpopulated.
To learn more, pick up a copy of Hammer of Witches and check out these additional teaching resources: