John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Mutiny After the Shipwreck


By enlisting the services of the Indians, who were devoted to Henry Montes, one of the Solis survivors, Cabot succeeded in constructing a galiot large enough to convey all the stores that had been saved, and took his departure from St. Catharine on February 15, 1527. Nearly seven months had been lost, owing to the detention at Pernambuco by contrary gales and the wreck of the flag-ship. Many of the men had died, while of the survivors very few were fit for duty; yet at this critical juncture the long-smouldering mutiny broke out, and the commander was called upon to act with severity and promptitude. This he did, too, and, though his trials were by no means at an end, he disposed of the mutiny and the mutineers effectually.

It has been claimed that Sebastian Cabot was extremely cruel in his treatment of the mutineers; but, in view of the circumstances, this charge cannot be sustained. In short, one day there were unmistakable signs that the ringleaders, Francis de Rojas, Martin Mendez, and Michael de Rodas, had stirred the whole fleet to the verge of an uprising. Before they could act in concert, however, Cabot swiftly descended upon them, as before, and this time showed the scoundrels no mistaken lenity. He might, as he afterwards deposed in Spain (when brought to court to answer for this act), have hung them without form of trial, but instead of inflicting capital punishment he merely marooned them. He had them placed in one of the small-boats, together with their wearing apparel, provisions, two casks of wine, gun-powder, and firelocks, and then set them adrift. He committed no violence, and was even so regardful of their well-being that, when they complained of the wine, a better quality was furnished them. They begged and implored to be taken back aboard ship; but the commander was inexorable. Pointing to an island in St. Catharine's Bay, he told them to seek succor with the Indians dwelling there, and without further ado left them to their fate. It is likely that he may have intended to return and rescue them, provided they should change in their behavior; but they and their friends held that the Indians were hostile, and, moreover, were cannibals, like those who had devoured Solis and his men twelve years before. The unfortunate trio then gave way to despair; they raved, they tore their hair and beards, they shouted imprecations; but to all this the commander was both blind and deaf. The wind that bore their lamentations to his ship also filled his sails, and the little fleet stood straight out for the open sea.

The distance between St. Catharine and the mouth of the Plata was covered in five or six days, and the convalescents were refreshed by the brief sea voyage; but so many of the men died at the first island they landed on that it was called San Lazaro, or Isle of Lazarus. Here they found a survivor of the ill-fated Solis expedition, one Francis del Puerto, who told them of the terrible sufferings he had endured as a slave to the Indians.

Twelve years had elapsed since Solis sailed into the great estuary of La Plata and began an exploration of its banks, He had made a previous voyage as far as the fortieth degree of south latitude, together with Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who had captained one of the vessels comprising the first fleet of Columbus in 1492. He was not satisfied with the scanty returns for their labors, but returned for a more complete survey of the coast southward of Cape St. Augustine in Brazil. It was on this voyage that he discovered the river named by him La Plata, or The Silver, on account of the rumors that reached him of its riches. Finding his progress impeded by shoals, Solis left his vessels and proceeded up the river in a long-boat, hugging the western bank.

He had not gone far when one of his men pointed out a group of Indians standing on shore and signalling them to land. Desiring to secure some of these natives to take home to Spain, Solis steered for the bank and leaped ashore. He was armed only with his sword, and he committed a second act of imprudence by following the savages when they retreated towards a forest in the vicinity. His men were as eager as himself to capture some of them, and had pressed forward after him without any effective weapons in their hands. They were ill-prepared, therefore, for an assault when the wily redskins suddenly let fly a shower of arrows into their midst. They turned to run, but another discharge of arrows laid all of them prone upon the ground. Leaping from their ambush, the yelling savages first despatched the wounded, then stripped the slain, and, building a great fire, roasted the limbs and bodies, right in sight of the surviving Spaniards in the boat. These were overcome with horror, but finally made their escape to the ships, where their doleful story spread terror throughout the fleet. Having lost their captain, the gallant Solis, and some of their best men, the rest determined to abandon further exploration and return to Spain with all speed possible.

It was with the terrible fate of his predecessor in mind that Cabot entered the great river, bent upon continuing the exploration interrupted so tragically twelve years before. The Solis survivor, Francis del Puerto, repeated the tales the others had told respecting the vast riches of the upper regions, and offered to act as guide. Taking him aboard ship, on May 6, 1527, the fleet left San Lazaro and proceeded up the river. A long stay near the mouth of the Plata was necessary to allow the sick to recuperate; but when the final start was made, many were left behind, dead, at San Lazaro.

Thirty miles up the Plata, and opposite the present city of Buenos Ayres, lies the island San Gabriel, which Cabot and his men carried at the point of the sword, their landing there was so stoutly contested by the Indians. They were the same who had slaughtered Solis and his men, and were not only valiant, but possessed of grim humor. One of them, on being asked why they did not eat the two Spaniards slain in the last assault, replied: "We had a taste of Spaniards then, and did not like their flesh; but when we want it we can have it," or words to that effect.

From some of them Cabot learned that the mountains of gold were located somewhere up the Parana, and opposite the confluence of that stream with the Plata he built a fort, which he called San Salvador. There was a good natural harbor here, so the vessels were brought up and left in charge of an officer, while Cabot and a strong company proceeded up the Parana in a long-boat and caravel. They explored it as far as its junction with the Paraguay, meeting with much opposition from the natives by the way, and occasionally fighting them at close quarters. On January i, 1528, the Spaniards reached an island which they called New Year's, from which Cabot sent out his trusty lieutenant, Michael Rifos, with thirty-five men, to punish or pacify a tribe in the vicinity that threatened them harm. Rifos chose to punish the savages, finding them sullen and resentful, and returned vaunting a great victory, with abundance of booty.

Most of the people met by the Spaniards were intelligent as well as valiant, says one of the party who kept a journal. This diarist's name was Ramusio, and his superior industry, not to say intelligence, as contrasted with his commander, who seems never to have written anything, is worthy of commendation. It is from him we obtain even the scant information that comes down to us from that voyage, for Sebastian Cabot left not a line referring to his doings, and we might well be warranted in the supposition that he was mentally incapable of serious effort in this direction. His good and his bad traits came out strongly in this expedition. He was determined, yet gentle in demeanor; he was in the main humane, but severe in the punishments he inflicted upon his men for disobedience. One of them, named Francis de Lepe, because he had incautiously spoken to a companion of seizing a boat and going off where food was more abundant, was given a brief trial and ordered hung to a tree. The half-starved wretch addressed his half-starved companions, as they were about to swing him off, saying: "As I pay for all, my friends, I wish you all a good voyage. Adios!" There were few who pitied more than they envied him, for they were in a terrible condition. Their food had given out by the time the Paraguay was reached, and when Cabot turned into that river instead of following the Parana (which ran easterly and, he feared, might take him into Portuguese territory) they were reduced almost to the last stages of starvation. "They ate the most unclean animals, they chewed the wildest plants, and many called on God for death, being no longer able to endure their torments."

Parties were sent out from the boats in all directions, searching for food. Some men and a boy went out one afternoon. At nightfall all had returned except the boy, who was lost in the dense forest or had been devoured by wild animals. Great fires were lighted, but the night passed without his arrival. In the morning Cabot sent out searchers, and, as they came back at night without tidings of the boy, despatched another band on the following day, with the same result. He refused to move on, slowly starving though the Spaniards were in that wilderness, until after his officers had urged him to consider their own plight and not to sacrifice their lives in the vain quest. Then, though most reluctantly, the sympathetic commander gave the order to proceed, and the boy was left to his terrible fate.

Some Indian huts were found at last that yielded a supply of coarse food, and soon after the Spaniards came to a land "very fayre, and inhabited with infinite people, who wore small plates of gold in their ears and noses." These signs of the precious metals they were so ardently seeking gave great joy to Cabot and his men, whoa when told that they were abundant in the land of the Chandules, who lived near the mountains of gold, less than seventy leagues up the river, wished to seek them out at once.

If Cabot could but find that golden treasure and lade his ships, he might make his peace with the merchants of Seville and the sovereign; otherwise he must suffer condign punishment for his disobedience. Now, as it seemed, he had the treasure almost within his grasp, and, despite hunger and heat, exposure to the sun by day and the miasmatic mists by night, endless toil and incessant fighting with the insect pests, the Spaniards were heartened to push on. They had scarcely come to this resolution, however, when a presage of disaster occurred in the slaughter of three of their men, who left the galiot one morning to gather wild fruits in the forest. The gallant Michael de Rifos was sent with a small troop to punish the offenders, but was himself slain, together with all his company. Thus perished Rifos, Sebastian Cabot's favorite officer, who had been the innocent cause of the dissension with Mendez, and to the very last a loyal adherent, upon whom the commander could always depend.

Cabot himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, became a military man, donned armor, seized a sword; and at the head of his company sallied forth to avenge poor Rifos's death. He was met by a horde of savages far outnumbering his own command, but he skilfully fought them, on their own ground in the forest, and, by the aid of superior weapons, finally defeated them. The contest lasted the greater part of a day, for the savages battled valiantly, but were at last compelled to flee, leaving three hundred dead behind them. The Spanish loss was only twenty-five, but Cabot could ill afford this depletion of his force. The original number of soldiers engaged in that wild voyage up the Parana and Paraguay was now reduced by more than half, for, in addition to those killed in fights with the natives, two had been hanged and many died of fevers and dysentery; some had been left behind to garrison the fort of Sancta Spiritu, some were in irons on account of having been implicated in the plot with the luckless Lepe, and there were not men enough to force the galiot and brigantine up the river, even with the assistance of such Indians as could be caught and impressed for the purpose. In this strait the captain-general ordered the manacles of the prisoners to be struck off; but they, as well as their companions, were too weak to labor at the oars, and the time soon came when the stout-hearted commander recognized the futility of attempting further progress up the river.

He had borne up with wonderful fortitude, had kept a serene countenance, and, far from complaining or murmuring, had always a word of encouragement on his lips for the despairing. His anguish must have been great when, at the last, it was borne in upon him that the search for the golden mountains must be abandoned. They were then not far away, and, perchance the impenetrable wall of forest enclosing the river could have been overtopped, might have been seen in the distance; but Sebastian Cabot was never to view them. The treasure they were said to contain might have wrought his redemption; it was the only means by which he hoped to avert the wrath of his king; but he was compelled to relinquish his quest for it and to issue an order to return down the river.