Bryan Hemming

short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography

The Clay Figurine


“We should share our stuff,” Newton said to me after forgetting to bring his compass and protractor for geometry class. Sounded fair enough. “From now on, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine’s me own.”

Back in 1960s Leicester, Bob Newton – or ‘Prof’, as we used to call him – was Form II’s nutty professor at Mill Hill School. Far from earning the nickname for being the most intelligent boy in class, he just looked the part. Following a recent walk on the beach his addled idea of sharing hit me again. “So what’s that got to do with the price of cheese?” Prof might well have asked. Well, it’s a long story.

A few weeks ago the pueblo suffered one of the worst storms in living memory. For thirteen hours the world around us rumbled continuously as bolts of lightning streaked across dark grey skies all at once. Deafening claps of thunder shook our building to its foundations. With hailstones lashing at our windows like grapeshot in the heat of battle, there were moments we feared our windows might break. From late Saturday night to midday Sunday the streets and alleys morphed into a network of raging rivers and streams. As torrents rushed towards the ocean, the scene resembled nothing so much as a satanic version of Venice.

Over the days that followed the rain gradually eased off and skies began to clear. By Friday morning it was sunny enough for a walk down to the River Salado to view the damage.

Cádiz province is the southernmost province in Andalusia at the southernmost point of the European mainland. The city of Cádiz, which lies just over twenty miles north of our pueblo, has one of the longest and most fascinating histories in Europe, so there’s no knowing what you might find on the beach following a heavy storm.

Prehistory in Andalusia has left records of the time humans first began to appear in Europe. Recent archaeological evidence suggests our human ancestors first crossed from Africa into what is now known as the Iberian Peninsula as far back as the Early Pleistocene period, making them the first Western Europeans, and possibly the first Europeans ever. Hominin remains have been found at Orce, near Granada in Andalucia, that date back 1.4 million years.

Though opinions remain divided, many historians believe Phoenicians founded Cádiz over three thousand years ago, which would make it the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. The ancient seaport has witnessed different peoples come and go for more than five millennia. In the wake of the Phoenicians came Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines and Moors.

Seven months after King Boabdil –  the last Moorish ruler in Spain –  handed over the keys of the besieged city of Granada in January 1492, Christopher Columbus embarked on the voyage that alerted Europeans to the existence of another continent, changing the map of the world forever. The Genovese navigator was to return to The New World three more times. For his second and fourth voyages in 1493 and 1498 he set sail from Cádiz.

Just short of ninety years later English privateer Sir Francis Drake set out from Plymouth on a voyage of plunder and destruction designed to hobble the Spanish Armada and its supply ships. Sneaking into Cádiz harbour on April 29th 1587 his fleet open cannon fire on the anchored vessels in the famous ‘singeing of the beard’ of King Philip II. Thirty-seven naval and merchant vessels were destroyed, delaying the attempted invasion of England by a year.

Looking south from our living room window a lighthouse is visible. Less than ten miles away, it marks Cabo de Trafalgar. On October 21st 1805 the people of Conil de la Frontera would’ve been able to hear cannon fire as they watched the Battle of Trafalgar being fought off the coast. That day Nelson routed the combined French and Spanish fleets, an event that foreshadowed the end of Napolean’s ambition to unite Europe under the French tricolour. Twenty-five miles beyond the lighthouse the mountains of North Africa appear as a hazy blue silhouette on the far horizon.

Viewed from the hill above the plain to the south of Conil the River Salado snakes a path to the sea. A low tide had sucked most floodwater out the river and the plain leaving scattered debris. With not enough of a breeze to whip up a ripple, the suface of the remaining water was as smooth as a mirror. Over one and a half thousand years ago, Romans fermented fish intestines in huge pottery amphoras on the other side of the Salado. The resultant paste was known as garum, a popular condiment throughout the Roman Empire. The area is now a nature reserve, stretching all the way to El Palmar about three and half miles walk along the beach. Garum has been revived in Conil and is being served in some restaurants. That’s fine with me so long as they don’t start fermenting fish entrails down by the river again.

Beyond the footbridge at the river mouth the sand was strewn with far more rocks and stones than usual. To judge by the recent look of some of the building rubble washed up by the storm, the river had been used as a dump right up till a few decades ago. Stepping onto the sand I was quickly made aware of dark blue clay lumps. The churning of sea had smoothed them away as to make them virtually indistinguishable from large pebbles. Breaking as soon as trod on, great clumps of the stuff clung to the soles of my shoes.

No matter, as the old Yorkshire adage has it: “Where there’s muck there’s brass”. With high hopes of finding a small chest full of golden doubloons and pieces of eight I set about scouring the detritus.

I’d been scouring less than ten minutes when something caught my eye. A strange-looking face stared up at me. A small statue of seated female figure stood out from the assorted debris. From its brown colour I surmised it must’ve been carved from wood.

The years following Columbus’s discovery of America on October 12th 1492 came to be known as Spain’s Golden Age. Things didn’t turn out nearly so golden for the locals though, as Spanish conquistadors set about slaughtering the indigenous populations in order to pillage the continent of anything of value. Envying the vast amount of wealth that could be accrued by ransacking cities and massacring their inhabitants, the Spanish Crown grabbed the opportunity to extract a hefty share of the loot. By extorting a hefty 20% levy on precious metals, and up to 40% on other goods traded within the empire, Spain went on to become the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. Not for long though. With the blessing of Elizabeth I — or ‘Good Queen Bess’, as she was known to her fawning acolytes— by the 17th century scores of English pirates and privateers holed up on Caribbean islands were attacking and plundering Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver.

In order to ensure the Crown got its full share, Spanish convoys were restricted to sailing in and out of Seville. From there movements of shipping could be monitored under the watchful eye of the Casa de Contratación. With its monopoly on regulating foreign trade, the Casa levied taxes and duties on all goods from the colonies. For more than two centuries trade with Spanish colonies could only be conducted from the river port in order for the state to maintain watch over all movements of the kingdom’s mercantile fleet. They didn’t want to lose as much as a doubloon. Though many more ships were sunk by violent storms and hurricanes than pirates and privateers, enough were lost to warrant reserving a proportion of the levies for the protection of convoys.

mayan-figurineMy first thoughts were that the seated figurine lying on the sand must’ve have been carried up from Africa by heavy seas following the storm. I bent down for a closer look. On handling, I realised it had been sculpted from brown clay. The seawater had soaked below the surface, giving it a darker, glazed appearance. From my limited knowledge of tribal and ethnic art I judged it was not from Africa at all. The tall feathered headdress worn on top of straight fringed hair, coupled with the large collar adorning the neck, had more in common with Central American iconography. The body is completely naked apart from the decorative collar and a loincloth.The figure’s fists rest on thighs with the lower legs tucked under the abdomen in a kneeling position. Etched lines on the wrists suggest bracelets.

Towards the end of the 16th century the party was over for Spain. From 1557 to 1596 the Spanish Crown declared bankruptcy four times. There was no money left in the coffers and, as a consequence, Spanish power and influence waned. The death of Charles II in 1700 brought Habsburg rule to an abrupt end. With the enthronement of the Bourbon Philip V, France and Spain were united under one monarch, an event that swiftly led to the War of the Spanish Succession. Fearing the union would upset the balance of power in Europe, Britain and Netherlands were quick off the mark with a failed to attempt to take Cádiz in 1702. However, they did manage to snatch Gibraltar on August 3rd 1704. In 1708 they added Minorca to the list. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in April 1713 whereby Spain ceded the captured territories of Gibraltar and Minorca to Britain. Whereas Minorca reverted back to Spanish control after the Battle of Minorca in 1756, Gibraltar remains a disputed British Overseas Territory. Spanish Netherlands, Naples, Milan and Sardinia went to Austria under the terms of the treaty. To its eternal shame, Britain managed to wrangle the exclusive right to all slave trading in Latin America for thirty years, out of the deal.

By 1717 Seville’s Guadalquivir River became too crowded with vessels and had started to silt up. The Golden Age was long over and the Casa de Contratación had become a bureaucratic nightmare allowing corruption to flourish. In attempt to rectify the situation the monopoly over trade was transferred to Cádiz. Trade with its vast empire went on. European goods and migrants were taken to America where cargoes of coffee, tobacco, food, and leather were loaded for the return journey. The city prospered from the deal, as it does today. But, though Spanish colonies in Latin America remained predominantly Spanish in culture, Spain’s influence on world affairs beyond its own overseas territories was over. The Treaty of Utrecht had ensured the Anglicisation of North America, and after Napolean was defeated on the battlefield of Waterloo, Britain became the world’s leading imperial nation. Since that time, though the United States wrested rule away from London in 1776, world power has remained in the hands of a small English-speaking elite.

“From now on, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine’s me own.”

Throughout history we have been fed with stories of swashbuckling adventurers braving the seven seas to discover far-off exotic lands. The truth is that they were little more than bands of murderers and thieves, as were our armies. Our kings, queens and emperors evolved out of nothing more than godfathers of mafias that had taken over nations using soldiers of fortune to extort money and goods from those the privileged regarded as their inderlings and slaves. Indigenous populations were treated as pagan sub-humans to be used at will or eliminated, all under the blessing of organised religion. Nothing has changed but the labels.

European nations, and territories appropriated – or ‘colonised’ – by Europeans over the centuries, still slaughter the rightful inhabitants of other nations. They still engineer wars against weaker nations solely in order to strip them of their most valuable minerals and resources. They still enslave entire populations by use of force, threat, debt, and poverty including their own. They try to impose lucrative trade deals conducted in secret such as the TPP, CITA and TTIP, all designed to increase the freedoms of global giants at the expense of workers rights. Nowadays, the pirates and their enablers call themselves governments, diplomats, politicians, lawyers, bankers, financiers, and stockbrokers. They extract their levies in the form of interest, market manipulation, commissions and bail-outs. In their topsy-turvy world of mindless mayhem and destruction, they call bombing and mass murder, ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the rampant lawlessness that follows invasion, ‘liberation’ and ‘democratic freedom’. The tin-pot quislings they enthrone are fêted as ‘friends’ and ‘allies’. Privateers, mercenaries and other private armies made up of heavily armed psychopaths, now ply their murderous trade under the innocuous-sounding title ‘private security services contractors’. Western states reward them for waging illegal wars by proxy. Wars designed to intimidate populations into surrendering their legal rights to valuable mineral assets. The same assets governments, bankers, financiers and stockbrokers exploit in the form of shares, bonds, and duties. They award themselves and each other with interest, subsidies, dividends, commissions, bribes and profits. When things go wrong they compensate themselves with golden parachutes, bail-outs, pay-outs, pay-offs and lavish pensions. As Bob Newton used to say:“From now on, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine’s me own”

My little figurine took more than a week to dry out properly, during which time it gradually lightened to a chalky look and feel. Most unlikely to be a genuine Mayan relic it’s probably a modern reproduction that fell overboard on the voyage to Spain. Prematurely aged by the sea, before being washed ashore, it looks almost as good as the real thing. Placed on a shelf it’ll make a good talking point in the years to come. At the same time it’ll serve as a constant reminder of the worst storms in living memory, and how they are the result of the global warming that threatens to put an end to history and the human race. It’ll also serve as a potent symbol of how greedy elites have exploited the majority throughout history and continue to do so. We are the majority and only we can stop them.

Perhaps I got Bob Newton wrong all those years ago, his little joke could have contained more irony than an eleven-year-old ought to possess. He might have based it on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776, the year of American independence, Smith wrote: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

Copyright ©2016 Bryan Hemming

If you managed to wade through that lot you might like to this lot through an essay on the Deep State by Mike Lofgren. Essay: Anatomy of the Deep State appeared in Moyers & Company

“There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol.”

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, appeared in paperback on August 27, 2013

10 comments on “The Clay Figurine

  1. J.D. Riso
    January 2, 2017

    That’s some interesting treasure. Even if it’s not authentic Maya, it traveled from afar. Your history lesson of your region made my head spin. But nothing is so very different from today, as you said in your eloquent rant. Fermented fish intestines, though…have you tried it?


    • Bryan Hemming
      January 2, 2017

      I do go on a bit at times, but am still constantly amazed to see how history repeats itself always to the disadvantage of the majority. Of course, great strides of made, right up to the point where the elite get too greedy then everything starts to crumble. And that’s exactly where we are at the moment; at the start of the fall of the Anglophone Empire.

      I tried to use the figurine to piece together thousands of years of history in as short a space as possible, inevitably it grew and grew. Hey-ho.


  2. Jack Binding
    December 23, 2016

    Have you ever seen an ’80s cartoon called Mysterious Cities of Gold? Apart from being wonderfully enjoyable, it also paints The Conquistadors as murderers and thieves. Worth a look.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nil
    December 22, 2016

    Astonishing to what thoughts a maybe-mayan figurine can lead!… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      December 22, 2016

      I find walking sitmulates the brain cells, making them work more efficiently. Oh, and it’s good for the legs too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nil
        December 22, 2016

        Yep! It is! 😀


  4. Colltales
    December 20, 2016

    Did you check on the authenticity of the figure, Bryan? The mark of a true explorer: you follow a trek where millions treaded before, and you’re the one to find the relic. Smashing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan Hemming
      December 20, 2016

      I can’t think of anyone qualified to tell me about it locally. At the moment I’ll leave it where it is and do a bit of research on the net. Problem is that being clay, and being in the sea for any length of time, all the evidence that could help date it will have been washed away. If it did turn out to have any real age then the mystery will be how on earth it got to where I found it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Colltales
        December 21, 2016

        Or maybe someone bought it at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop, to give it to a favorite Spanish niece, only to regrettably lose it in those marshes. Were you in the U.S., you could take it to the Antique Roadshow TV program.

        Liked by 1 person

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