Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut — Contents
That Corporal McCabe and Johnson were able to take command of San Lorenzo was not a miracle in any sense. Many people had taken over San Lorenzo—had invariably found it lightly held. The reason was simple: God, in His Infinite Wisdom, had made the island worthless.
Hernando Cortes was the first man to have his sterile conquest of San Lorenzo recorded on paper. Cortes and his men came ashore for fresh water in 1519, named the island, claimed it for Emperor Charles the Fifth, and never returned. Subsequent expeditions came for gold and diamonds and rubies and spices, found none, burned a few natives for entertainment and heresy, and sailed on.
“When France claimed San Lorenzo in 1682,” wrote Castle, “no Spaniards complained. When Denmark claimed San Lorenzo in 1699, no Frenchmen complained. When the Dutch claimed San Lorenzo in 1704, no Danes complained. When England claimed San Lorenzo in 1706, no Dutchmen complained. When Spain reclaimed San Lorenzo in 1720, no Englishmen complained. When, in 1786, African Negroes took command of a British slave ship, ran it ashore on San Lorenzo, and proclaimed San Lorenzo an independent nation, an empire with an emperor, in fact, no Spaniards complained.
“The emperor was Tum-bumwa, the only person who ever regarded the island as being worth defending. A maniac, Tum-bumwa caused to be erected the San Lorenzo Cathedral and the fantastic fortifications on the north shore of the island, fortifications within which the private residence of the so-called President of the Republic now stands.
“The fortifications have never been attacked, nor has any sane man ever proposed any reason why they should be attacked. They have never defended anything. Fourteen hundred persons are said to have died while building them. Of these fourteen hundred, about half are said to have been executed in public for substandard zeal.”
Castle Sugar came into San Lorenzo in 1916, during the sugar boom of the First World War. There was no government at all. The company imagined that even the clay and gravel fields of San Lorenzo could be tilled profitably, with the price of sugar so high. No one complained.
When McCabe and Johnson arrived in 1922 and announced that they were placing themselves in charge, Castle Sugar withdrew flaccidly, as though from a queasy dream.