Story of Columbus - G. M. Imlach

Trouble in Hayti

Margarit, who was over the army, was a brave and proud officer who would not readily obey any man. To Christopher Columbus he had been faithful, awed by his dignity and charmed by his enthusiasm, but for the quiet, patient Diego Columbus he had no respect. As the head of the armed Spaniards he began to think himself master of the island, and to take no orders from Isabella. He was encouraged by Father Boil and some nobles whom Columbus had offended, and together they would have marched against the city, if the older and more masterful brother, Bartholomew Columbus, had not arrived with a small fleet. It was too late to draw back; they dared not openly attack Diego now that he was supported by a man of proved courage and ability; so the band of discontented Spaniards seized the vessels in the harbour and sailed to Spain, resolved there to do what harm they might to Columbus' fame.

Meanwhile, the army without its leader broke up. In small bodies the men went their own way, robbing and insulting the Indians, who soon rose against them under the great chief Caonabo. He was a warrior of Carib blood, and was noted for his bravery as well as his skill in war. His country beyond Cibao was defended by steep rocky hills and thick forests, and he was adored by his men. The Indians of his tribe rushed upon the scattered Spaniards and killed them all. Then a bolder thought entered Caonabo's mind: he resolved to attack the Spaniards in their own forts and rid the island of them.

In Fort St. Thomas Ojeda stood firm. He had his men under control, and allowed them to leave the shelter of the walls only in strong parties which easily beat off the lightly armed Indians. Caonabo besieged the fort with ten thousand men, and attempted to starve out its defenders. But every day the gates opened, and a band of Spaniards, headed by Ojeda, drove back the foremost of the natives. The two heroes seemed born to meet each other in battle. Ojeda believed that he had a charmed life, for in all the fights in which he had taken part he had not received a scratch, and the Indians learned to believe it too when they saw arrows and spears turn aside from him, and they shrank from his strong right arm. Like Caonabo, he was beloved by his followers.

Once during the siege a friendly Indian managed to get into Fort St. Thomas. He brought two wood-pigeons for Ojeda, who saw his officers look at them hungrily. "Alas," said he, "there is not enough to feed us all; they must go;" and he opened the window and let them fly.

After three months Caonabo was forced to retreat from the fort by the loss of his bravest warriors.

Thus, when Columbus returned, the island was in a tumult, which Diego was unable to quell because he lacked decision and courage, and Bartholomew because he had no authority.

As soon as he had recovered from his swoon, Columbus was visited by Guacanagari, who told him that the chiefs of the island had banded together against the Spaniards, and that because he had refused to take part in the plot against his dear friend Columbus, his own life was in danger. The Admiral was delighted to find that his old comrade was faithful, and thanked him warmly for the news. He then gave full powers to Bartholomew to crush the revolt.

Ojeda also came to greet Columbus, and declared that with the help of ten men he would make Caonabo a prisoner. He set off on this daring adventure at once. The Indians had great reverence for the sound of a bell, and would listen for hours to the one in the church in Isabella, saying that it must have fallen from the skies. By promising this bell to Caonabo, Ojeda tempted him to leave his own country and come within its sound. He then showed the chief a set of steel fetters polished until they shone like silver, and told him that they were worn by the Spanish princes on festival days. Caonabo wished to try them on; and Ojeda proposed that he should bathe in the river, and then mount the Spaniard's horse and wear the brilliant ornaments. Caonabo, delighted by his enemy's generosity, agreed willingly, got on horseback for the first time, and put on the fetters. Immediately Ojeda sprang up behind him and rode off with him a helpless prisoner. He was taken to Isabella and brought before Columbus, whom he treated with scorn. To Ojeda, on the other hand, he showed all possible respect, saying that he was a brave and cunning enemy, who had with his own hands captured Caonabo.

The other chiefs were easily defeated. One battle indeed was fought, but the Spanish horses broke through the lines of Indians, and in their flight they were pursued by bloodhounds. All parts of the island were now put under strict guard. Forts were built everywhere, and the Indians were forced to pay a tax of gold-dust. In some districts gold could not be found, and the unhappy people were cruelly whipped; in others the Indians were not used to work, and pined away under their new labours. Thousands of them died, the once peaceful villages fell into ruins, and yet Columbus dared not take off the harsh tax, for he knew that only by sending treasure could he satisfy Spain.

Even as it was, things were going badly with him at Court. The slanders of Margarit and Father Boil against "the upstart foreigner from Genoa" had gained some ground, and though Diego Columbus arrived at Seville with a large quantity of gold and five hundred natives to be sold as slaves, he did not win the royal favour. Isabella forbade the sale of the Indians, and ordered them to be sent back to their homes, and both monarchs agreed that it would be well to ask one of their own officers to go out and report to them on the state of the colony.

Unfortunately the man they chose was vain and obstinate, and interfered so much with Columbus that the latter decided to return home to plead his own cause. He made Bartholomew governor in his stead, ordered him to search for gold in the south of Hayti, and, if possible, to build a city there, and then set out for Spain.

This was an unfortunate and miserable voyage. Two small ships carried the sick, the discontented, and the idle of the colony. East winds delayed the passage until the provisions were almost exhausted, and daily rations of six ounces of bread and a pint of water were served out to each man. Columbus was tired and ill, and could not cheer his mournful crew; murmurs of every sort arose; the men believed the vessels had wandered from their true course; in their hunger they wished to kill and eat the Indians, who were themselves terrified and sea-sick. Caonabo, who was being brought to Spain to be shown as the captive king of the island, died on the way. At length land was sighted, and the wretched band of adventurers landed at Cadiz.

There was little enthusiasm to greet Columbus. Men's hopes of untold treasure had already been disappointed, and the stories of Margarit and his followers had spread abroad. Ferdinand and Isabella nevertheless received him kindly, and promised help in any new voyages he might make. He was entertained at many splendid banquets, of one of which the following story is told.

An envious courtier listening to Columbus' talk observed that after all there was nothing very wonderful in what he had done. Any of those present could have sailed across the ocean in a direct course; any of them therefore could have discovered the Indies. The Admiral took an egg and asked which of them could make it stand on its end. It was passed from hand to hand round the table, while all declared that it was impossible. Columbus tapped the bottom of the egg against the table, and, crushing it slightly, balanced it. "We could have done that," said the courtiers eagerly. "So could you have discovered the Indies, when I had led the way," was the reply.



But it was not for feasts and entertainments that Columbus had come; and there was no money forthcoming for another voyage, for the Spanish sovereigns at that time needed all they had. For two years he waited, sick at heart and cursing the delay, while bad and good news in turn came from his colony. At length the King and Queen had leisure to attend to their most famous servant, and preparations were made for a third voyage, this time not to find a mere island, but to pass beyond to the great continent of America itself.