John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Back to Spain in Disgrace


Having so much at stake, with disgrace staring him in the face on his return to Spain, the intrepid Cabot might not have given up the quest for the mysterious mountain, so long as a single man stood by him, but for a rumor which reached him at this time that a Portuguese fleet had arrived in the Plata and was advancing to take him in the rear. A Nemesis was on his track, indeed, but a Spaniard, not a. Portuguese; though the historian Charlevoix says he had been sent by Spain's great rival, Portugal, for the purpose of frustrating any scheme Cabot might have entertained for extending Spanish commerce in the Spice Islands.

Cabot himself, however, as must have been made apparent by this time, had frustrated his own plans and those of the king and of the merchants of Seville. No Portuguese marplot was needed to complete the ruin he had already initiated, for his enemies, in their wildest imaginings, could not have supposed him so incapable as he proved himself. He had sailed from one disaster to another, always blundering, always persisting in his own opinion that what he was doing would result in a benefit, but hopelessly losing himself in a maze of doubt and perplexity.

That a fleet was coming up the river, his good friend Yaguaron, the most powerful chieftain in that region, assured him, for he had it from his spies, who kept close watch on the movements of the white men. Yaguaron, of course, could not distinguish Spaniards from Portuguese; but he knew that the new arrivals were Europeans, that they were in great vessels with wings, and armed with weapons similar to those carried by Cabot and his companions, which had caused such havoc in the ranks of the naked savages that they held the strangers in great respect. The commander of the fleet, as it later developed, was one Diego Garcia, a native of Moguer, the town near Palos that produced the gallant Pinzons, companions and rivals of Columbus. He was an utterly insignificant creature himself, one of a number of free-lances in the field of exploration, whose services were at the command of merchants desiring to trade in the newly discovered countries. He had sailed from Spain without any intention of dogging the movements of Cabot, for, supposing that worthy well on his way to the Moluccas, he had applied for and obtained permission to explore the very river into which misfortune had cast Sebastian Cabot. As the Rio de la Plata had been discovered on January 1, 1516, and twelve years had elapsed since unlucky Solis had been killed and eaten on one of its islands, the wonder is that it had not been explored before. But, finally, it was in a fair way to be opened to observation, for some Spanish merchants associated themselves with Don Ferdinand de Andrada, and secured a concession from the government to explore, perhaps to colonize, the Plata, or River de Solis, as it was called by some. There was one condition only, and that was that Garcia should go in search of a French priest and a companion named Cartagena, whom Ferdinand Magellan had abandoned in the strait discovered by and called after him.

Leaving Spain in August, 1526, Garcia made so prosperous a voyage that he afterwards boasted he had covered in weeks the distance it had taken Cabot months to traverse. It would appear, in truth, that the veriest tyro at navigation was more successful, or fortunate, than Sebastian Cabot, "with all his knowledge of astronomy"—as has been said before. However, Diego Garcia followed close after Cabot to South America, and arrived at the mouth of the Plata while the captain-general was up the river. As he sailed into the harbor of San Salvador, the Spaniard who had been left there by Cabot to guard the place, fiery Antonio Grajeda, thinking that Rojas, Rodas, and Mendez, the three mutineers, were advancing with evil intent, sallied forth in an armed canoe to meet and give him battle. Each side prepared for a fight, but fortunately Garcia recognized in Grajeda an old acquaintance, and hostilities were suspended. Provisions were scant at San Salvador, but Grajeda gave Garcia and his men the best reception he could afford, at a banquet, and related to the new arrival the details of the great victory gained by his commander over the Indians on the Parana, news of which had then recently reached him.

It must have been disappointing to Diego Garcia, to find his chosen field of exploration pre-empted by one who, he had every reason to believe, had departed for the Pacific and the Spice Islands. Just when he discovered the fact is not known, but probably it was at St. Catharine's Bay, where Cabot had left the three mutineers, who could not have failed to enlist his sympathies if they met him. In any case, he could not have been well disposed towards Sebastian Cabot, when he found his expedition rendered ineffectual on account of the latter's strange departure from his original scheme of voyaging.

It was, then, with anger and jealousy rankling in his breast, that Diego Garcia left San Salvador and proceeded up the river. He sailed upstream in a brigantine exactly suited for the purpose, and the manner in which he became possessed of this vessel illustrates the unstable character of Diego Garcia. At one of his previous stops, in the bay of St. Vincent, Garcia met a Portuguese lawyer, who had resided there many years engaged in stealing Indians from their homes and shipping them to Portugal as slaves. When Garcia arrived he had accumulated more than eight hundred captives, a full cargo for a ship of goodly size, but had no means of sending them to the European market.

Now, Diego Garcia had just the ship he wanted, in which he could transport his eight hundred slaves, and it did not take the two very long to make a bargain. Diego sold the slaver his ship, and the man-stealer's son-in-law sold him a brigantine suitable for river navigation. In this brigantine and another he started up the river with sixty men, and when he arrived at Fort Sancta Espiritu, which was merely a collection of huts surrounded by a mud wall, he commanded the officer in charge to surrender. This officer was Captain Gregorio Caro, one of Cabot's most devoted friends, and he replied to Garcia's arrogant demand that he held the place by order of his commander and in the name of his majesty. That was sufficient, he thought, to warrant him in defending it to the last extremity, and it was his intention to do so. This answer cooled Garcia down a little, and soon friendly relations were established, during which Caro told the new-comer there was a rumor that Cabot had been defeated by the Indians. If such were the case, and if he should meet his commander, he desired that he would ransom him, if a prisoner, or bring away his body if he were slain.

Three hundred miles above Sancta Espiritu (a distance which, it was his boast, he traversed in twenty-seven days, while Cabot had taken five months to go over the same) Garcia encountered the man who had invaded his territory. Notwithstanding the bad blood that is said to have existed between them, their meeting was friendly, and it was even proposed to join fortunes in continuing the exploration which, alone, Cabot could not carry out. For some reason, however, they soon after separated, and though Garcia furnished Cabot with a supply of provisions, the latter concluded to return to the mouth of the river. They were then in about south latitude 28, at the port of St. Ann, as Cabot called the place, where he was afforded the protection of his friend and ally, Chief Yaguaron.

It had ever been Sebastian's policy to treat the aborigines with kindness, and he once severely punished a Biscayan in his company for invading the hut of an Indian and throwing him to the floor, afterwards plundering the hut of its contents. He hanged him, in fact; and though his men considered the penalty far too severe for the offence, they refrained from maltreating or plundering the natives wherever they went. The Biscayan, after he had been hoisted upon the gallows, fell to the ground, owing to the breaking of the rope. "Mercy! mercy!" then he cried, and it was hoped that the commander would allow him to go free. But no, he merely sent for another rope, and, seeing that it was affixed with care, caused the wretch to be swung into the air, and did not leave until assured he was dead. Another soldier, who was caught stealing provisions, upon which they all depended for the maintenance of their lives, suffered the loss of both ears, which Cabot caused to be cut off, not only as a punishment, but as a warning to others.

His firmness and just dealing won him the devotion of his soldiers, and also of the Indians; but the latter were soon estranged and embittered by the coming of Garcia, who, with his men, acted atrociously. They demanded supplies, they wantonly insulted the Indian females, and finally aroused in the Guaranis a spirit of hatred and a desire for revenge. Cabot, by this time, had set out down the river, and was resting either at Fort Sancta Espiritu or San Salvador. Indiscriminate in their hatred, the Indians secretly plotted the destruction of both commands, and assembled in such numbers that, when the storm burst, all the forts were destroyed and many Spaniards massacred. Neither Cabot nor Garcia cared to remain in a country the inhabitants of which were so relentlessly hostile, so both withdrew the remnants of their forces from the Parana and left the region unoccupied by Europeans.

Many had given their lives in this attempt to explore the River of Solis, but nothing material resulted from it, except that at a later day, when Portugal put forth claims to the territory south of Brazil, Spain brought forward, in rebuttal, the names of many tribes over whom, she asserted, Sebastian Cabot had established sway, and on whose territory he had built forts. Though his exploration was a failure, as to immediate results, it was extensive in its aims and comprehensive in its scheme. According to Richard Eden, in his Decades, the chart attributed to Sebastian Cabot showed that from the mouth of the River of Solis, or Plata, he "sayled up the same into the lands for the space of three hundred and fiftie leagues [or about a thousand miles], as he writeth in his own Carde."

He saw much, suffered much, and made a desperate attempt to find the golden mountains; but all to no avail. He had thought that, inasmuch as the Guaranis, whom he mentions, had invaded Peru and returned, after devastating provinces and acquiring plunder of silver and gold, it might be possible for him to reach that rich region from the Parana. About this time he who became the conqueror of Peru was in Spain, soliciting of the emperor permission to invade that country by the west coast. That Pizarro succeeded in accomplishing his purpose, and that Cabot failed in his, was known to the world centuries ago; but it was not because the latter lacked in persistence that he failed, so much as the misdirection of his aims. Between the time of his departure from Spain and his return four years and four months elapsed, yet for this waste of precious time he had absolutely nothing to show, except a little, very little, gold, a few specimens of silver, and a description of the country contiguous to the river discovered by Solis twelve years before. He made a chart, it is thought, and wrote an exhaustive description of the region; but, if so, no historian has seen them, it is believed, since Herrera's time, say three hundred years ago.

Soon after his arrival at Fort San Salvador, after leaving Garcia, and before the massacre took place, Cabot equipped a caravel and sent in it to Spain two of his officers, Ferdinand Calderon and, George Barloque, who were intrusted with a letter to the emperor. In this letter the discomfited adventurer told of his attempt to reach the gold region of the interior, gave a full account of the various peoples he had met, and asked for "men and means for colonizing the territory." In support of his assertion that the land was fit for colonizing, he says: "The people, on reaching this land, wanted to know if it was fertile and fitted for the cultivation of grain. So, in the month of September, they sowed fifty-two grains of corn, which was all they could find in the vessels, and in the month of December they gathered from them 2250 grains; and the same fertility was found with other seeds."

The colonization scheme impressed the emperor; but the merchants of Seville, having been victimized by Cabot, whose failure to sail to the Moluccas had lost them their ventures, refused utterly to have anything more to do with him. They denounced him as a base adventurer, whose pretended skill and knowledge, by which he had deceived the sovereign during many years, vanished when subjected to the first real test. Charles himself, however, still professed faith in his pilot major and captain-general; but he was hampered by lack of funds, and with three great armies in the various fields of Italy, France, and Venice clamoring for their pay, long in arrears, he was unready to fit out more expeditions of doubtful utility. He was even compelled to dispose of the Moluccas to Portugal, such was the financial pressure upon him at the time; thus Cabot's failure to reach them with his expedition was somewhat mitigated, and to a certain extent lost sight of in the public clamor over the disgraceful affair.

The two officers sent by Cabot reached Spain towards the end of October, 1528, and a year of anxious waiting ensued. On October 6, 1529, finally despairing of receiving the hoped for succor, the commander held a council with his officers in the port of San Salvador, at which it was resolved, in view of their desperate situation, to abandon the country altogether. This is shown in the first of two memorials prepared by Cabot; and in the second, dated October 2, 1529, he sets forth why, by whose fault, and how the fort of Sancta Espiritu was lost. He does not inform us, however, why, after the forts had been levelled, or reduced to ashes by the savages (with whom the country was then swarming, in many hostile bands), he left a small body of Spaniards in the country. That he did so appears by the evidence of a survivor; but that this commander, generally so humane, could abandon any of his men to the mercies of a savage population aroused to revenge, does not seem credible. It is probable that he found it impossible to take them all home, through having lost a vessel or from lack of provisions; but the real reason is not known.

Then there were the mutineers, whom he had left at St. Catharine's Bay, who had contrived to let it be known in Spain, through the Portuguese, how cruelly they had been treated by their commander, and had appealed to the emperor for redress. Charles V. sent out an order for Cabot to take up these men on his way home, provided they were still alive, and when arrived at the bay he sent in Diego Garcia to summon them, in the king's name, aboard his ship. Garcia, it seems, had left La Plata about the time Cabot sailed, and had, in all probability, suffered severely from the Indians' attack. He had been amply equipped for a more extensive exploration than his rival made; but his only boast was, in the end, that he had ascended the river as far as Cabot had, and had discovered as far as Cabot discovered, in less than half the time the latter consumed.

Charles V.


The mutineers were not at St. Catharine, where, it was learned, the trio had been able to secure the friendship of the Indians among whom they were cast. One day, Francis de Rojas, in a frenzy of rage, had stabbed a companion when in the hut of some natives, and turned their feelings against them. Fearing his insensate wrath, Mendez and Rodas had seized an Indian canoe and attempted to reach another island across the bay, but were capsized and drowned. So there was but one of the original mutineers alive when Cabot and Garcia arrived, and he had gone to Port Vicente. When they reached this port, at Cabot's request, Garcia again acted as an intermediary, and bore to Rojas a summons to appear, within six, days, on board the flag-ship Santa Maria del Es Pinar, "to be carried to Spain and delivered to his Majesty and to the Council of the Indies, to account for and answer certain accusations that have been made against you."

The mutineer's harsh experience had not tamed his haughty spirit, for he refused to acknowledge Cabot as his commander, and instead of complying with the summons, demanded that he be given crew and equipment for a brigantine, in which he desired to sail for the rescue of those Christians abandoned at Cape Santa Maria, on the coast east of the river La Plata. Also, he demanded an accounting for four young Indians, taken from their homes by Cabot, "and by whose capture the whole island is turned upside down." At the same time he insisted that Cabot should take two of his own Indian slaves aboard his ship and deliver them safely to his relatives in Spain.

The charge of kidnapping was true, as Rojas knew; but, though in direct contravention of the sovereign's orders, Cabot escaped censure on the plea that he needed these men to assist at working his ship, for when the disgraced commander arrived in Spain it was found that he had but twenty able seamen left. With but a single ship of his fleet of four, and but twenty remaining of his two hundred men thus he returned, after four years of peril and privation.