by Fred E. Foldvary
In 1920 a girl was born in the Yukpa village of Kanowapa in the jungles of Venezuela near the border with Colombia. The Yukpa are tribe of Carib Indians, who believe in a Land of the Dead separated by a wide river from the Land of the Living. To pass into the Land of the Dead, the soul must pass through a dangerous forest and be interrogated by the Frog Woman. Evil souls get consumed by wild animals, while goods souls go to paradise.
The parents named her Matilda, because its Old German origin means "mighty battle maid," and because they wanted a name that would be common in the wider world beyond their Indian village. Indeed, when diseases killed some villagers in 1930, the family feared death and migrated to Caracas, capital of Venezuela. But the economy was depressed, and there was no work. So they went to the British island colony of Trinidad just north of Venezuela, where Matilda's father became employed in Port of Spain as a worker in the oil industry.
Instead of walking to school, Matilda would do two steps and a skip. Step, step, skip! Step, step, skip! It looked like she was waltzing down the sidewalk, and her friends laughingly called her "Waltzing Matilda," after the Australian song. Indeed, Matilda took dancing lessons and wanted to teach waltz after she graduated from school.
But it was not to be. She met Harry Forsyte, a descendant of African slaves, during a game of croquet at a local park. They got involved, and she became pregnant at the age of 16. She left school and came to live with Harry, who worked on a sugar cane plantation. During the depression, the demand for sugar had fallen, and wages were very low. However, Harry had inherited five hundred dollars from his uncle, and he wanted to buy a farm and a house so they could grow their own food and become financially independent. Matilda wanted to invest the funds in a dance studio. Harry said that in the depressed economy, nobody would pay to take waltz lessons, and it would be much smarter to own land.
Harry had also inherited a rare male tortoiseshell cat from his uncle, which had a considerable market value even during the depression, and Matilda wanted them to sell the cat while it still had value, but Harry refused, as he dearly loved that cat. Since many banks had failed during the depression, Harry did not trust the banks, and kept his cash with him at all times. At night, he stuffed the cash in his pillow and slept on it. Matilda would cry at night, frustrated because she would never achieve her dream of being a waltz teacher, and also, she longed to be back in her native Yukpa village.
During the night of New Year's Day, 1938, the mighty battle-maid Matilda rebelled against her husband. She reached into Harry's pillow and withdrew the money. She packed her few belongings, put the cat in a carrier, and rode to town on Harry's horse. The next day, she sold the cat and the horse, and bought a ticket for a ship going to Venezuela.
When Harry woke up, Matilda was gone. In horror, he felt inside his pillow, and realized she had stolen his money. In his agony, he went to the local tavern. He cried as he drank rum. Carlos the bartender asked him what was the matter. "Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela!" cried Harry. "She even sold me cat and horse!"
A waterfront worker, Norman Span, was in the tavern and overheard Harry's lament. He went over to console Harry, who spilled all the details. Norman was also a song writer and performer who was known by the name King Radio. Inspired by Harry's story, Norman Span composed the song "Matilda," which would in 1953 become famous world-wide from the version by Belafonte.
But Matilda did not go back to her people. Realizing that she could only be a dance instructor in a large city, Matilda used the money to buy a house in the outskirts of Caracas, and became employed in a dance studio. Her house had a large front lawn which she converted into a croquet playing area, where she would play with her friends.
On September 20, 2006, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations, calling U.S. president George Bush a "devil." Crossing himself, his face revealing a hint of smile, Chavez said, "This table from where I speak still smells like sulfur."
On Trinidad television, a news reporter sought reactions from the people of Venezuela. An elderly woman in Caracas said to the reporter, "Chavez is correct to call the US imperialist, but it was very rude to call Bush a devil. Chavez himself has not been perfect."
Watching the news program, Harry Forsyte, now 86 years old, was astonished to realize that the woman on television was Matilda, who had stolen his money, horse, and cat! He vowed to find her and bring her to justice.
But the next day, while Harry was on a boat to Venezuela, some Cuban army officers who worked for the government of Venezuela knocked on the door of Matilda's house. "You have committed defamation of the character of the president, a violation of the law," they told her.
"I did not mean any offense," she replied.
The Cubans looked at her beautiful green front lawn. "This looks like a golf course," they said.
"No. I play croquet on the lawn, not golf."
"If we say it is a golf course, then that is what it is," said one of the Cuban officers.
"So what?" asked Matilda.
"The law requires all golf courses in Venezuela to be confiscated, and the land given to the poor. You have 24 hours to vacate, otherwise we will put you in prison."
In Caracas, Matilda, even in her age of 86, still operated a dance studio in a rented space. Harry came to her office. "You thief!" he exclaimed. "You ruined my life. Give me back my money!"
"I'm sorry, but I cannot," she replied. "I bought a house and land with the money, and now, it has just been confiscated."
"You will pay with your life!" he shouted. "Waltzing Matilda will now do the Dance of Death!" He pulled out a gun, and shot her three times. She lay dead on the floor.
Her Yukpa relatives brought her body back to the village. In their traditional way, they wrapped the corpse in cloth and put it on a platform. The descendants of her siblings believed that even though Matilda had taken her husband's money, she was not a bad person, and her theft had brought to the world a beautiful calypso song. Surely the Frog Woman would let her dwell in happiness in the Land of the Dead.
On September 23, 2006, in Matilda's funeral, the villages performed the traditional funeral music, singing, "She went very far away, but it is a good farther away."
And that is the story of Matilda, a drama of music, land, theft, and death. We now can say why she took the money, and what became of her.
This article first appeared in the Progress Report, www.progress.org. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Fred Foldvary teaches economics at Santa Clara University and is the author of several books: The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and the Dictionary of Free-Market Economics.