Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Alonso de Ojeda and the Carib Cacique

Of the three ships with which Columbus made his first voyage, the "Pinta" deserted the others and went off on a voyage of discovery of its own, and the "Santa Maria," the flag-ship of the admiral, ran ashore on the coast of Hispaniola and proved a hopeless wreck. Only the little "Nina" (the "girl," as this word means in English) was left to carry the discoverer home. The "Santa Maria" was carefully taken to pieces, and from her timbers was constructed a small but strong fort, with a deep vault beneath and a ditch surrounding. Friendly Indians aided in this, and not a shred of the stranded vessel was left to the waves. As the "Nina" was too small to carry all his crew back to Spain, Columbus decided to leave a garrison to hold this fort and search for gold until he should return. That the island held plenty of gold he felt sure. So Captain Ardua was left, with a garrison of forty men, and the "Nina" spread her sails to the winds to carry to Spain the wonderful news of the great discovery.

La Navidad, or The Nativity, he named the fort, in remembrance of the day of the wreck, and when he came back in 1493 he hopefully expected to find its garrison awaiting him, with a rich treasure in the precious yellow metal. He reached the spot to find the fort a ruin and the garrison a remembrance only. They had been attacked by the Indians and massacred during the absence of the admiral.

In fact, the mild, gentle, and friendly Indians whom Columbus had met with on his first voyage were not the only people of the islands. There were on some of the West Indies a warlike race called Caribs,—cannibals, the Spaniards said they were,—who gave the invaders no small trouble before they were overcome.

It was a band of these fierce Caribs that had attacked La Navidad and destroyed the fort and its garrison, impelled to this, likely enough, by some of the ruthless acts which the Spaniards were much too ready to commit. The leader of these warriors was a bold cacique named Caonabo, chief of a warlike mountain tribe. It is with this chieftain that we are at present concerned, as he was the hero, or victim rather, of the first romantic story known to us in Indian life.

In addition to the forts built by the Spaniards on the coast of Hispaniola, there was one built far in the interior, called Fort Santo Tomas. This stood in the mountainous region of Cibao, the reputed land of gold of the island. Its site lay within the territory of Caonabo, who ruled over a great district, his capital town or village being on the southern slope of the Cibao Mountains.

The first conflict between the Spaniards and the natives, after the massacre of the garrison of La Navidad, was in the district of the Vega, where a fierce fight took place in the spring of 1495, the natives suffering a severe defeat. The next was at Fort Santo Tomas, which was commanded by Alonso de Ojeda, a young man who had come out with Columbus in his second voyage. He was a man of great courage and unusual daring, one of the chief among those dauntless spirits who had to do with the conquest of the New World.

A man of his spirit was needed to command this isolated fort in the mountains, for the cacique, Caonabo, was not pleased with this invasion of his territory, and soon marched upon the fort with a strong force of his warlike race. Santo Tomas was closely invested and fiercely attacked, Ojeda being reduced to such an extremity that he owed his escape only to a rescuing force sent by Columbus from Fort Isabella, on the coast. Driven off by the superior arms of his foes, Caonabo withdrew sullenly to his stronghold in the mountains. But he was quickly back again, with a larger force than before. He had never met his equal among the Indians, but the fire-spouting tubes of the Spaniards proved too much even for his courage, and he was a second time forced to withdraw.

It was evident, however, that Ojeda was perilously situated, surrounded as he was by warlike enemies, led by so bold and persistent a chief. In the face of this peril he adopted an expedient as daring as any of those shown by Cortez, Pizarro, or any other of the Spanish caballeros of that age of conquest, and one whose ingenuity equalled its daring. It is this striking adventure which it is our purpose to describe.

Choosing from his men a few of the bravest and most trusty, Ojeda set out on horseback over the mountains, following paths never before traversed by the Spaniards, until they came to the Carib town of Maguana, where he found Caonabo surrounded by a throng of armed warriors. The Spaniards had bearded the lion in his den, and were in a position of extreme peril should the cacique prove hostile. But Ojeda was a past-master in craftiness, and by professions of friendship and other arts of duplicity he persuaded the chief to accompany him alone into the edge of the forest.

He now took from his pocket a pair of handcuffs, bright and shining manacles of which the untutored Indian had no conception of the use, but whose brightness attracted him. Ojeda told him they were bracelets, which the King of Spain had graciously sent him as a present, in recognition of his fame as a warrior of skill and courage. The poor Indian probably understood all this very imperfectly, but he was easily brought to view the manacles as Turey, or a gift from Heaven, and willingly held out his wrists that his guest might adorn them with those strange and splendid bracelets.

In a moment his hands were secured, and before he could recover from his surprise Ojeda, whose small frame concealed much strength, reached from his saddle, seized the astonished chief, and by a great exertion of muscular force lifted him from the ground and swung him up on the horse. The warriors, who beheld this act with sudden suspicion, had no time to use their weapons before the Spaniards had put spur to their horses and dashed off into the forest. Two of them rode on each side of Ojeda, to prevent the captive throwing himself from the horse. Threatened by their swords and with his bands clasped in those fatal bracelets, Caonabo was forced to submit, and was carried by his captors for many miles through the heart of his own country to Fort Isabella, a stronghold which Columbus had built at a site on the sea-coast, fronting a bay in which all his vessels could ride in safety. Here the bold Ojeda, as the culmination of his daring enterprise, delivered his captive to Columbus, and he was locked up in a secure cell.

As the story goes, the brave cacique had a greater admiration for courage than anything else in the world, and instead of hating Ojeda for the crafty way in which he had been captured, he seemed to hold him in high esteem as the bravest of the Spaniards. Whenever Ojeda appeared in his cell he would rise and courteously salute him, while he treated the visits of Columbus with haughty disregard. So far as the captive cacique could make himself understood, the high rank of Columbus was nought to him. He had no proof that he was a man of courage, while the manner in which Ojeda had captured him showed him to be a brave man. To the bold Carib courage was the fit of virtues and the only one worthy of respect.

The poor Indian suffered the fate of most of his countrymen who had to do with the Spanish invaders. Put on board ship and sent as a prize of valor to Spain, the unfortunate chief died on the voyage, perhaps from a broken heart, or as a result of the change from his free forest life to the narrow confines of a fifteenth-century ship.

The life of Ojeda after that date was one full of adventure, in which he distinguished himself as much by rashness as by valor. In 1499 he was put in command of an exploring expedition and sent out from Spain, one of his companions being Amerigo Vespucci, he whose first name gained the immemorial honor of being given to the great western continent. In this voyage Ojeda discovered part of the continent of South America, which he called Venezuela, or Little Venice, a name suggested by an Indian village built on piles in the water. Eight years later Ojeda sought to plant a colony in New Andalusia, but the natives there proved too bold and hostile for him, and he failed to subject them to his authority.

Many were his adventures, all of them characterized by a rash daring like that he had shown in the capture of Caonabo. When at length he died, he was buried, in response to his own request, in the doorway of the Franciscan monastery in the city of Santo Domingo, so that all who entered that place of worship should walk over his grave.