Story of Columbus - G. M. Imlach

Cuba and Hayti

On leaving San Salvador Columbus hardly knew which way to steer, so many were the islands that lay in his course. He sailed slowly among them, touching now at one and now at another, and finding everywhere the same beautiful trees and flowers and birds.

The trees were as green in October as they would have been in May here, and some were covered with blossom and others with ripe fruit, as if there were summer all the year round. Among them nightingales and other small birds were singing delightfully. In one of his letters Columbus said: "There are trees of a thousand sorts, and all have their several fruits, and I feel the most unhappy man in the world not to know them, for I am very sure that they are all valuable." Even the fish in the sea shone with a thousand colours, "blue and yellow and red and other tints, so that there was not a man who did not take great delight in seeing them." And as the Spaniards ate the new fruits, fondled the tame parrots, and breathed the air fragrant with spices, they began to believe they had come to the happiest place on earth, where there was never rain, or storm, or cold, but always sunshine and summer.

The people, too, were everywhere as gentle and friendly as they had been on San Salvador.

One day, as the Spaniards were passing among the islands, they saw a small canoe in which sat an Indian. The wind was fresh, and though the larger ships sailed steadily enough, the little canoe was tossing up and down and seemed in danger of being swamped. Columbus sent out a large boat to seize the Indian. In the canoe were a small jug of water, some cassava bread, and some red paint with which the native would smear his face before he landed. There was also a basket with some beads and coins in it, so that the Spaniards knew he must have come from San Salvador. When they took the savage on board he was quiet, but shivered with fright or cold. The Admiral spoke kindly to him, gave him some bread and treacle, and in the evening, when the sea was smooth and land was near, let him set off in his canoe. The man's eyes shone with pride and pleasure, and he told the natives of the island all about his adventure, for very soon canoes came from the shore with water and bread for the strangers. Columbus gave presents to all, a leather strap, or a string of beads; and because he found they were all fond of something sweet, he had a great jar of treacle opened for them. Then more of the savages came on board and offered him neatly-woven cotton sashes.

At another time two of the seven Indians who had been carried off from San Salvador attempted to escape in a canoe. They were immediately followed by a boat from the ship, but they gained the shelter of the woods, and the sailors were obliged to return without them. However, they came upon a strange Indian sitting alone in his canoe, and roughly bound him and carried him to the ship instead of the former captives. The Admiral sent for the man at once, put a red cap on his head, wound green glass beads round his arms, fastened little bells to his ears, and then sent him ashore to tell his fellows of his good fortune. This action pleased all the people on that island, and helped to reassure the five Indian prisoners. These the Admiral could not set free, because he needed them to speak to the other islanders in their own language.

For some time he sailed on in this way, asking at all the islands where gold was to be found, and in reply hearing of a large island in the south called Cuba, where there was abundance of the precious metal. He concluded that Cuba must be Japan, and decided to delay no longer in seeking it. After three days' sail he came there, and entered a harbour at the mouth of a deep, wide river.

The island of Cuba was much larger and more beautiful than any the Spaniards had yet seen. Inland were lofty hills covered with dense woods of pine and other tall forest trees; large rivers flowed down fertile valleys past scattered villages and little plots of cultivated land to the sea, and the coast was broken up by numerous bays and islets. Humming-birds flitted among the flowers in the forest, gorgeously glittering beetles crawled about the ground, strange scented trees, in which Columbus fancied he had found the spices of Asia, grew everywhere, and, best of all, among the rocks at the mouths of the rivers he believed he had found the pearl oyster itself.

He wished to ask the natives if this place were Japan, but alas! on his approach they all fled, and in their huts, built of palm trunks and branches, and thatched with palm leaves, the Spaniards found only some cotton cloth and some bone fishing-hooks. Martin Pinzon heard from one native whom he captured that this was no island, but a great continent stretching far to the west, and Columbus was rather pleased than disappointed, for he imagined he must have sailed past Japan and come directly to the great land of China. One of the San Salvador Indians was persuaded to go ashore and speak to the natives, who told him that the country was very large, and that beyond the hills were rich nations ruled by powerful kings. But he must have made mistakes in the language, for he said they also spoke of tribes of one-eyed men, and especially of one fierce cannibal people with dogs' noses, who fell upon their enemies and sucked their blood.

Columbus sent some of the best of his men up one of the rivers to find these great kings, and while they were away he had his ships turned over one by one on their sides, and made the sailors clean the hulls, so that they sailed as fast as when he left Spain. But when the expedition returned, they had only found a village of about fifty houses, where the people took them for gods, kissing their hands and feet, and begging them to stay there for ever.

One marvellous thing they saw—men and women putting rolls of leaves in their mouths, lighting them, and swallowing the smoke. The leaves used by these fire-eaters were named tobacco, and the Spaniards were much shocked by their daring. They said, too, that they had seen some little animals like rabbits which lived among trees, as the English squirrel does, and some large dogs which did not bark nor make any noise, but there were no horses, cows, or sheep. There were, however, a great many serpents and lizards, and the Indians ate these, and liked them as well as we do pheasants. They shot the birds, too, with arrows, and in these ways got plenty of food. One disgusted Spaniard said: "They eat all the snakes and lizards and spiders and worms that they find upon the ground, so that to my mind their bestiality is greater than that of any beast upon the surface of the earth."

When Columbus had sailed some distance along the north coast of Cuba, and had found no trace of gold, nor gathered any pearls from the oyster-shells, he decided to try the other direction and to make for a new island of which the natives continually talked to him. And he ordered the sailors to set up large crosses, made roughly of trees bound together, on every cape and headland, as a sign that the explorers brought with them the Christian faith. Sometimes, too, he would talk with the Indians about his religion.

As the ships approached the eastern point of Cuba, Martin Pinzon did a base thing. He was impatient of the Admiral's delays, and he fancied that if he could find much gold and return to Spain with it, the glory of the voyage would be his. So one dark, stormy night he sailed away in the Pinta  in search of the rich island he had lately heard of, thinking that if he met Columbus again he could always pretend he had been driven away by the winds against his will. But Columbus knew the envy of this man's heart, and he wrote in his journal: "Many other things also did this man do and say to me."

For some days the Santa Maria  and the Niņa  were delayed by contrary winds. At length, on December 5, they were able to make some way to the east, and on the following day they came to Hayti.

This island was also very large, and the mountains were higher than those in Cuba. The woods did not cover the whole land, but there were open, green spaces, very fresh and beautiful, and the smoke rising in countless directions showed that there were many inhabitants. The Spaniards proceeded along the north coast, and gradually taught the natives not to fear them. On one occasion they captured a girl among the woods. They gave her some bright sashes and bells and sent her away, and soon her husband, who was the chief of that place, came in a great procession of natives to thank them. At another time a young chief ventured aboard the Santa Maria  and dined with Columbus. He tasted each kind of food and drink eagerly, and afterwards sent an attendant for a thin gold belt, which he gave to the Admiral. In return, he accepted a gay quilt from the latter's bed, his coloured slippers, and some gold beads stamped with the pictures of Ferdinand and Isabella. At these last he marvelled, saying what great princes they must be to have sent Columbus without fear so far, even from heaven to that island.

The subjects of these chiefs came out in numbers with presents of yams, roots from which they made bread. Columbus wrote of them: "All here have a loving manner and gentle speech. Both men and women are of good stature and not black. I know they are tanned by the sun, but this does not affect them much. Their houses and villages are pretty, each with a chief who acts as their judge, and who is obeyed by them. All these lords use few words and have excellent manners. Most of their orders are given by a sign."

So far all had gone well with the adventurers, but on Christmas Day they met with their first great misfortune. The ships were in a good wide harbour, and Columbus felt that he might take a night's unbroken sleep. He gave the steersman careful instructions to keep the helm in his own hands and to watch for any sign of danger, and went to his cabin.

No sooner had the Admiral gone than the careless man called up one of the ship's boys to take his place, while he went to sleep on the deck. Gradually the Santa Maria  drifted nearer to the shore, and the boy was not old enough to know there was danger in the sound of the breakers. She struck heavily on a reef. Columbus, roused by the shock and the boy's cries, rushed on deck, and found the Santa Maria  lying on her side. He ordered the master and some of the sailors to take a boat and throw out an anchor astern in order to restore the ship's balance. They jumped into the boat, but, instead of obeying orders, they rowed to the Niņa  and begged to be taken aboard, crying out that the Santa Maria  was lost.

The captain of the Niņa  refused to aid the cowards, and they were compelled to return, but too late to be of any use. The ship was settling fast, and though Columbus cut away the masts, he could not right her. Then he sent to Guacanagari, the chief of the district, and asked him for help. He immediately sent out canoes, and everything movable was taken from the Santa Maria  and carried ashore. There it was stored in the huts, and so careful and so honest were the natives that not so much as a needle was missed. Meanwhile Guacanagari entertained the Admiral and his crew, making them many presents, and weeping over their misfortunes.

Columbus was now in a great difficulty. The small Niņa  could not hold nearly all the men, and some must be left behind. He determined to build a fort, and he chose some of the best and most active of the Spaniards to live in it till his return. He provisioned it from the wreck with bread and wine for more than a year, and bells and toys for trading, and he left there a carpenter, a gunner, a doctor, and a tailor.

As he heard that gold was found inland at a place called Cibao, he gave orders that they should collect as much as possible during his absence. When the fort was finished he held a great ceremony and named it Navidad, and in order to show the Indians the terrible power of the white men, he fired off a salute with his largest guns. At this the natives fell to the ground, and it took some time to calm their fears and assure them of the Spanish goodwill.

About the safety of the men in the fort Columbus had no doubts. Guacanagari had learned to love him very much—he even called him his brother—and had begged for the help of the Spaniards against his enemies. There seemed nothing to fear. He wrote: "Supposing that the natives' feelings should become changed, and they should wish to injure those who have remained in the fortress, they could not do so, for they have no arms; they go naked, and are, moreover, too cowardly."

On the 4th of January 1493 the Admiral—who was very anxious lest Pinzon should reach Spain before him—left Navidad, keeping his course to the east. About two days later a sailor, who was at the masthead looking out for rocks, saw a large ship in a bay some miles off, and Columbus was glad to recognise the fugitive Pinta. Martin Pinzon came to him in great alarm, making many excuses for his evil conduct; and because Columbus did not wish to quarrel with the captain so far from Spain, he listened to what he had to say, and coldly declared himself satisfied with the explanation. Pinzon had collected a large quantity of gold from the natives, and he said that all the district abounded in the precious metal. But Columbus had so little trust in this man, and feared the dangers of delay so much, that he gave orders that both ships should proceed as quickly as possible.

Before they reached the eastern point of Hayti they had one more adventure. A boat's crew, which had been sent ashore for water and yams, was attacked by some fifty natives, darker and fiercer than any the Spaniards had seen before. They were Caribs—a race of cannibals of whom the other Indians stood in dread, and they used bows and arrows with some skill. Fortunately the Spaniards were able to drive off the Caribs, after killing two men. This was the first bloodshed in the New World.