Story of Columbus - G. M. Imlach

The Settlement of Isabella

In order to soothe Guacanagari's alarm, Columbus invited him to dinner on board. The poor chief, who had been so much afraid that he dared not meet the Spaniards without binding up a false wound, was delighted by this kindness, and went readily. As he roamed about the ship looking at different things, he met some of the Indian women who had been rescued from the Caribs. With one tall beautiful girl he talked earnestly for a long time, and she seemed unwilling to let him go. That night the women leapt overboard and swam ashore; a few were recaptured, but six escaped to Guacanagari, who retreated with his tribe into the forest, and was not seen by the Spaniards for some time. The Admiral was somewhat hurt by the chief's conduct, although he saw it was due to goodwill towards the captives, and his followers vowed vengeance if Guacanagari fell into their hands.

They now set about choosing the site for the new city. The animals could no longer be kept on board, the grain should be sown, the men were impatient at being cooped up in the ships.

Some fifty miles to the east of Navidad they found a good harbour, where two rivers ran into the sea. There was a smooth beach between the streams, behind which lay a pile of rocks which would serve as the base of a fort. The sea teemed with fish. On the banks of one river was a thick wood through which a rabbit could scarcely make its way. The ground on the other river was easily cleared, and quantities of wheat, barley, sugar-canes, and vines were planted. These grew fast. The church and the fortress must be built of stone, but ordinary dwellings were made in native fashion of timber and reeds. So well did the settlers work that in January 1494 they were able to sleep ashore in their new city Isabella, named after their Queen.

But alas! no sooner had they begun to settle down than fever broke out. Columbus fancied that the sickness was caused by the lack of fresh food; the new crops were not yet ready for harvest, the bread and wine they had brought with them were bad, and there was no meat, since they dared not kill the few animals they had. He determined to despatch some of the vessels to Spain for provisions, especially for calves and sheep, but he must send in them a cargo of gold, and hitherto he had not had time to seek for it.

However, Cibao was only four days' march from Isabella, and since Columbus did not wish to leave the new city himself, he allowed Ojeda to lead a party to the gold country. Ojeda and his companions, overjoyed by their good fortune, set off across a beautiful plain, through which the Golden River flowed, up to the hills of Cibao. They were amused to hear the Indians cry out in dismay at the new monsters, for they thought the riders and their horses were some horrible animals. But when the Spaniards dismounted they soon calmed the fears of these people, and they heard glowing accounts of the gold bars and nuggets, which were, as always, in some far district. Nevertheless they saw gold enough to satisfy them glittering in the sands of the streams, and Ojeda picked up one virgin nugget which weighed half a pound.

With this they returned to Columbus, who sent all the specimens he could collect, both of gold and of the fruits and spices of the island, to Spain. He wrote that this was but a promise for the future, and that he would begin immediately to mine for gold. And he asked the King and Queen whether it would not be wise to capture as many of the cruel Caribs as possible and to use them as slaves to till the land and dig for gold.

Now for this last proposal Columbus has been much blamed, because thus he brought slavery into the New World. It is true that he was the first to advise it; yet at that time white men everywhere made slaves of the darker races. Columbus, too, was always kind to the friendly Indians; it was only the cannibal Caribs that he hated and wished to keep under restraint.

Soon after the ships had sailed the Admiral was taken ill. Some of the unruly Spaniards, who disliked being governed by a foreigner from Genoa, gathered together, declared that all Columbus' words were vain, that there was no gold in Hayti, and that they would seize a ship and tell their countrymen in Spain the truth. Fortunately Columbus recovered in time to hear of the plot and to throw the plotters into chains. It seems that no one else in the colony had courage to interfere.

Then he set out on his journey to Cibao, followed by about four hundred men, mostly miners and craftsmen, and with Ojeda and his companions to guide him and clear a way through the forest. He marvelled at the lovely country as Ojeda had done; he was well received by the Indians, who brought presents of bread and fruit, and he found gold scattered in the beds of the streams.

He set some of his men to wash for gold by catching the water in shallow trays in which it dropped its dust, others to dig deeper into the earth, and still others to build a fortress to protect the miners whom he might leave in this lonely spot. When the citadel was ready, he named it Fort St. Thomas, set Ojeda in charge of it, and returned to Isabella.

There he was sorely needed. Fever had broken out again, food was running short, the Spaniards, free from his firm rule, had begun to ill-treat the natives, who ceased to bring fruit and vegetables to the settlement. All were discontented. Columbus could no longer be patient with the lazy adventurers. He made a stern decree. Every man must work with his hands, till the ground, grind corn, or do something useful to the colony. If any one refused, he should not eat. The angry Spaniards, who had been taught to think work shameful, protested in vain against these harsh orders. Father Boil cried that monks were sent to do higher and nobler things than toil in the fields; he was told that monks should then have only half rations of food. Unwillingly they all fell to work, and for the time the colony was saved, but Columbus had made many bitter enemies, who would not be long without their revenge.

Yet then all seemed to be going well, and he decided that he might leave the colony for a short time. His brain was full of the new lands waiting for him to find them, of the great cities of Asia governed by powerful kings who would hail him as a messenger from the east. He had been bound in Hayti long enough. His part in life was not to govern one peaceful island, but to discover an empire.

He left Isabella in charge of a council, at whose head sat Diego Columbus. Ojeda was to remain in command at Fort St. Thomas, and Margarit, another daring officer, was to explore the island, keeping on good terms with the friendly Indians, and if possible to frighten the great chief Caonabo, who hated the Spaniards and had caused the massacre at Navidad. Columbus feared no real danger from the natives, for just before his departure one Spanish horseman had been able to rescue five Spaniards from a mob of five hundred Indians.

He set sail to the west, and as he passed the ruins of Navidad he stopped to see if he could hear anything of Guacanagari. But the chief hid in the woods, and the ships proceeded on their course. They soon reached the eastern point of Cuba.

Columbus was very anxious to know whether this land was an island like the others he had explored, or, as he hoped, part of a great continent. He turned along the southern coast and soon saw villages with smoke coming from them, and fires blazing on the shore. When he landed the natives fled, but left behind them a banquet of fish, lizards, and vegetables, most of which the Spaniards ate eagerly, though they refused the lizards. They spoke to one Indian who lingered on a rock above the shore, and explained that they would pay for what they had taken. He assured them that his people would not take pay, that in one night they could catch as much as the white men had eaten, and bade them a friendly good-bye. Later, the natives they met were less timid, and were full of goodwill. They brought many gifts, and, when asked if they had gold, smiled and pointed to the south. The Admiral determined to follow their direction, and after two days reached the island of Jamaica.

Here he was received differently. A number of war-canoes, manned by natives painted black, and shaking spears, came in pursuit of the ships, and, though he out-sailed them, when he anchored he found more opposition. The beach was covered with Indians hurling their spears into the water and uttering cries of rage. The men went ashore well armed and let fly a shower of arrows which killed many natives. They then unchained a great dog, and the Indians fled in dismay. Seeing no gold, Columbus got fresh water and left the island, though not before he had won the friendship of the savages. One young man even went with him on his voyage.

He reached Cuba again, but it became difficult to persevere on a western course. The weather was stormy and treacherous, the sea was full of islands and sunken rocks, and sailing became very dangerous. The natives all declared that the land had no end, that a man could march for many days to the west and still go on, and the sailors began to murmur that no island was ever so large as this great country. The ships' bottoms were foul and took in water, the masts creaked and groaned, the rigging was worn. It was necessary to return, and at a point where the coast bent suddenly towards the south-west the Admiral decided to do so.

He was over-tired by continual watching, and had hardly recovered from his illness at Isabella, and so for a very sensible man he did a very foolish thing. He made everybody on the ships, down to the smallest cabin-boy, sign a paper to say that Cuba was not an island but part of the mainland, and he threatened that any one who ever denied this should receive a hundred lashes and have his tongue cut out. This paper was taken from ship to ship and solemnly signed by every member of the crew. All were ignorant that a two days' sail would have brought them to the end of Cuba and showed them the sea beyond. And so they went back with their precious document.

Columbus took the same course for his return voyage. He was driven out of his way by storms and touched at Jamaica again; then the ships were separated by the winds, but joined at a point on the south of Hayti. They explored the coast here until Columbus fell suddenly into a deep swoon, and his men feared death was at hand. They carried him as quickly as might be to Isabella, which he reached unconscious.

Little had been done by this expedition; Columbus had found Jamaica and fallen into error about Cuba. But much had happened to injure the colony while he was away.