Story of Columbus - G. M. Imlach

The Fate of the First Colonists

There was no difficulty in getting ships together for a second voyage. Three large vessels, attended by fourteen smaller, such as Columbus had used before, lay waiting for him in Cadiz Bay. From all sides men pressed to take part in the expedition; sailors, craftsmen, and miners, who would be useful in the new colony; monks, who were to bring the Indians to the Christian faith; and men of noble birth, who would be the companions of the Admiral, take charge of exploring parties, and, if necessary, captain the Spaniards against attacks from the natives. All were on fire with desire of glory, of riches, of adventure. As Columbus moved about the ships his appearance was hailed with joy. Every one watched for the great leader whose courage and genius were to bring him fortune and fame. Never was there a gladder band of adventurers.

On board were stored not only provisions, but spades and ploughs, grain and vine-slips, seeds of oranges, lemons, and other fruit, and calves, goats, sheep, and fowls for the colony. There were also eight pigs, which multiplied so quickly that the islands were soon full of them, and about twenty horses for the Spanish cavalry.

Diego Columbus went with his brother, and Bartholomew wrote to say that he would follow them out. Henceforward the Admiral in all his voyages was to be surrounded by faithful kinsmen.

One thing only troubled him. Juan de Fonseca, who had been appointed by the Spanish sovereigns to find supplies and look after the welfare of the colonists, proved to be a man of irritable temper, jealous of Columbus, and disposed to do him an ill turn. He feared that, while he was in a foreign land, one powerful enemy in Spain might do much harm. So indeed it proved.

The ships touched at the Canary Islands, and then sailed steadily across the Atlantic. Columbus steered to the south of his old course, as he hoped to make new discoveries before reaching Navidad. On Sunday the 3rd of November 1493, seven weeks after they had set out, a pilot cried: "The reward! Land! I see land!" and directly afterwards six green islands were visible. These were some of the group called the Lesser Antilles, and the ships passed from one to another in search of a good harbour.

At length the Spaniards landed at the large island of Guadaloupe, and pressed inland till they came to a village. The huts were well built and airy, but they were horrified to find in all men's bones and skulls, and traces of the cooking of human flesh. The natives had fled to the woods. However, some women were found who told Columbus that they had been made prisoners and carried off from their homes by the terrible cannibal Caribs, who inhabited this and all the smaller islands. These Caribs came in canoes, and burned the villages of the gentler Indians, killed the men and took away their bodies for food, and kept the women prisoners, for women's flesh made them sick.

The Spaniards, disgusted by this story, went back to the ships. On the way they gathered pine-apples for the first time, and declared this was the best fruit men had ever eaten. That evening they missed a captain and eight sailors, and were much alarmed lest the Caribs should have seized them. The island was too large to search, but the Admiral gave orders that guns should be fired and trumpets sounded to recall the stragglers, who still did not appear. His fears were somewhat relieved by hearing from an Indian woman that most of the Carib men were away with their king in canoes, and that those who remained had only tortoiseshell arrows, and were no match for the Spaniards.

After a day or two had passed, and no news had come, Ojeda, a brave young noble, offered to lead an expedition in search of the lost party. But though he climbed up rocky hills and through almost impassable gorges, he saw no traces of them. At last, on the fourth day, after all hope had been given up, the wanderers arrived, dirty and exhausted. They said they had met no savages, but had strayed through forests where the trees were so tall and thick that they could not see the sun in the daytime nor the stars by night. They would have died if they had not by chance come to the sea and followed it round the island to the ships. Columbus punished the men severely for lingering behind, and then set sail without having seen the war-bands of Guadaloupe.

Later, however, he did fight with the Caribs. A boat's crew came upon a canoe filled with men and women of a yellowish colour, long-haired, and with their ankles and wrists so tightly bound by cotton bandages that their legs and arms were dreadfully swollen. At first they were startled by the approach of the white men, and sat still; then, as they drew nearer, they turned on them fiercely, instead of running away as the other Indians did, and shot some of the Spaniards with poisoned arrows. They were made prisoners and put in chains, but even then they glared at their captors with such threatening looks that they were terrible to approach. No gentleness and no bribes could soften either the men or the women, and Columbus, who naturally was horrified by their cannibal habits, soon gave up his attempts.

Fearing that the colonists might be getting short of provisions, he determined not to delay longer among these islands, but to sail to the north-west for Hayti. He reached the eastern point and passed slowly along the north coast, looking out for signs of his old crew. Before reaching Navidad he had to cross the mouth of the Golden River, a great stream which flowed from the very heart of the island. There some of his men who had gone ashore made a horrible discovery. Four corpses bound with grass-ropes were lying in the sun. One had a beard, and they knew him to be a Spaniard, for all the Indians had smooth chins.

A great fear fell upon the expedition, and they moved on in dread of some shameful disaster. At night they reached Navidad, and found all quiet and dark. Guns were fired, but there was no answering report from the shore. The sailors stared into the dusk, but could distinguish nothing, and Columbus would not let them leave the ships till morning. After some hours a few Indians in a canoe hailed the vessels. They brought two masks of gold as a present to Columbus from Guacanagari, who, they said, was wounded.

The Admiral asked them many questions about the welfare of the fort. Slowly and unwillingly they answered that some of the Spaniards had died of disease, and others had fought among themselves for gold, and perished. The rest were well. On being further pressed, they confessed that two Indian princes from the south had attacked the white men, and that the fort had been destroyed. Guacanagari, they declared, had received his wound fighting to defend the colonists. Much distressed, Columbus dismissed the Indians, and they left the ship.

Navidad destroyed


On the next day a boat's crew was landed and found the settlement destroyed. The stockade was broken down, the fort was level with the ground, and grass grew on the roofs of the huts. Not far away was an Indian village, from which the natives fled at their approach. They searched the empty houses, and found several articles belonging to their unhappy countrymen, among them a costly cloak and some stockings. Farther away still they came upon eleven graves, not long made, but already covered with grass. Not one Spaniard could they find to tell the true tale of the disaster. All must be dead.

Filled with anger, the sailors returned and begged the Admiral to lead them against the faithless Indians at once. He refused, saying that he was not yet certain of their guilt. The men said bitterly, "What, then, has changed the nature of the Indians if not this horrible crime? Formerly they came to us with gifts. Now whole villages are deserted before us." But Columbus shook his head, not knowing what to think.

Before dinner he went on shore with all his officers to visit Guacanagari. The chief, who was lying in a hammock, complained of the pain in his leg; but, with tears in his eyes, expressed his joy at seeing his dear brother again. Columbus insisted that he should show his wound to the Spanish surgeon, and, while the native seemed unwilling, he could not refuse. To every one's astonishment, when the leg was unwrapped it looked perfectly whole and sound, though Guacanagari moaned loudly whenever it was touched. Columbus was very doubtful of the Indian's honesty, but on all sides were signs that the tribe really had been attacked and plundered by another band of Indians, and he thought it better for the present to remain on good terms with his old friend. So he bade him a kindly farewell and returned on board.

There a storm of reproach awaited him. The monks, headed by a certain Father Boil, were especially fierce in their outcry. Why did he not put to death this traitor who had killed his followers? Was it for his private ends that he passed over such a deed? How much had the Indian paid him as a bribe?

However, the Admiral went his own way without overmuch explanation to the Spaniards, and during the next week, by inquiry among the Indians, he learned the true history of the fort. The colonists had become discontented for two reasons, first, because the air in the marshy district round Navidad was unhealthy, and they had suffered from fever, and then because they all wanted gold and could get none in the neighbourhood. Many of them rebelled against their leaders and marched to Cibao, the gold country of the interior, where they were murdered by the natives. The rest remained in the fort, sick, or idle, or employing their time in annoying the friendly Indians. At last, the chiefs of the Cibao, who had destroyed their comrades, marched against them also, and though Guacanagari had tried to assist them, he had been driven back, while the white men were massacred.

Saddened by this story, Columbus worked hard to regain the confidence of the Indians. He did not know that this was only the beginning of the unhappy history of the conquest of the West Indies, that before long the whole of the Indians would have died under the rods and swords of the Spaniards, and that thousands of Spaniards would fall victims to their own greed, cruelty, and pride. "To these quiet lambs," said a wise historian, writing of the natives, "to these quiet lambs, with such blessed qualities, came the Spaniards like most cruel tigers, wolves, and lions, enraged with a sharp and tedious hunger; for these forty years past minding nothing else but the slaughter of these unfortunate wretches, whom with divers kinds of tortures, neither seen nor heard of before, they have cruelly butchered."