Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Cuba and the Mythical Cipango


The "cape beautiful," of which Columbus was so enamored, is supposed to have been the north point of Crooked Island, and the place where he filled his water-casks was "Frenchman's Wells," not far away, on Isle of Fortune. Here the Spaniards first saw and killed an "ugly serpent," later called by them the iguana, the flesh of which was highly esteemed by the natives as food. Flocks of parrots flew screaming across the sky, the songs of mocking-birds filled the air, and so entranced was the Admiral—with fair islands beckoning him on every side—that he knew not which way to steer. At last, on October 24th, he wrote in his journal: "I weighed anchor at midnight and departed from Isabella and the cape of the rocky islet [thought to be Bird Rock, near Crooked Island], in order to go to the island of Cuba, which these people tell me is very large, yielding gold and spices. By their signs I understand it to be the island of Cipango, of which marvelous things are related [by Marco Polo], and which, on the maps I have seen, is in this region. And they told me I should sail to reach it west-southwest, as now I am sailing."

The large and beautiful island of Cuba was the fifth at which he arrived, after sailing across a shallow sea teeming with tropical fishes, and so clear that the tinted shells could be seen on the ocean bed many fathoms down. The fourth day from Isabella, or on October 28th, appeared the tops of misty mountains, then the contours of hills, and purple depths of fertile valleys, lighted by the flash of foaming waterfall or sparkle of hurrying stream. So impressed was Columbus by the grandeur of the scenery, the magnitude of the mountains, the vastness of the forests, that he felt sure he had reached, at last, the Asian continent. Indeed, he says as much in the letter he wrote to San Angel while on the voyage: "When I arrived at Juana [as he had renamed Cuba] I followed the coast to the westward, and found it so extensive that I considered it must be a continent and a province of Cathay. After having continued many leagues, without finding signs of towns or cities and seeing that the coast took me northward, where I did not wish to go, as winter was already set in, I considered it best to follow it to the south, and therefore returned to a certain port, from whence I sent two messengers into the country, to ascertain whether there was any king there or any large city."

This reference is to the famous embassy sent by Columbus to the fugitive Grand Khan, which consisted of two Spaniards, one of whom was a converted Jew who spoke Castilian, Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Arabic. In one of these tongues, it was believed, it would be possible to converse with the Grand Khan, and so, while the fleet was anchored in the beautiful River of Palms, two Spaniards, together with an Indian of San Salvador and another of Cuba, were sent in search of the Oriental potentate. They had authority to speak in the name of the Spanish sovereigns, whose letter Columbus bore to the Grand Khan, and were given six days for the journey, going and returning.

Cuba-nacan, the Grand Khan's golden province, was said to be but a few days' travel inland from the coast, and the messengers found it, after penetrating vast forests, crossing rapid rivers, and climbing mountains. They found it; but, alas! there was nothing grand or golden about it, for the vaunted city, when finally seen by the embassy, had dwindled to a straggling collection of palm-thatched huts! As for the "Grand Khan," he could hardly be distinguished from his associates, who were naked, like himself, though he bore the title of cacique, or chief. He was so simple and ignorant, indeed, that, in common with the natives of the Bahamas, he regarded the Spaniards as heaven-descended men. "Come and see these people from the skies," he said to his subjects, and so they gathered about, to the number of a thousand or more, and, squatting on their hams, like so many human frogs, formed a great circle around their celestial visitors, whom they regarded with awe and admiration.

Then and there was exploded the theory of a Grand Khan in Cuba, of a gold-roofed city, and a land of drugs and spices. But the embassy found several things of value and interest on that first expedition to the interior of Cuba, such, for example, as maize, or Indian corn, tobacco, cotton hammocks, perhaps the potato, wild peppers, and the manioc. While crossing the channel between the Bahamas and Cuba, Columbus had encountered an old Indian in a canoe, who had "rolls of dried herbs," which may have been either tobacco or cascarilla; but it is certain that tobacco was found by him in Cuba in use by the natives. The Cubans also possessed the aboriginal art of making fire by friction, as an old historian says: "Each Indian carried a firebrand in his hand at night, with which to light a fire, and the fire was easily kindled, because they had a sort of wood which, if they worked one piece against another, as if they had been boring a hole, it took fire."

Until his arrival at the River of Palms, and the return of his embassy, Columbus had supported himself in the belief that these barbarians whom he found existing in such primitive state, without society, form of government, money, arts, or manufactures of any kind, were merely the veriest sentinels on the outposts of an opulent civilization, which he hoped to discover farther on. But, as day after day and week after week went by, disclosing no evidences of that hoped-for civilization, but only the same kinds of natives, existing in the same simple manner, he began to lose faith in his theories. His great and dominant idea, that by sailing westward he should disclose a continent, or at least the outlying islands of one, had been triumphantly vindicated. That thought sustained him, as he voyaged from island to island, and found living in every one the most barbaric of peoples. Still he did not discard the theory that he was on the way to the Grand Khan's dominions, but merely laid it aside for a while, as we shall see further on in our narrative.

The first landing-place of Columbus in Cuba, like his first landfall in the Bahamas, is even now a matter of dispute. While his great biographer, Irving, lands the Admiral so far to the west on the Cuban coast as Nuevitas, it is more probable that he first struck soil at or about the port of Gibara, the relative position of which to the islands of the mid-Bahamas is such that it would be quite likely to receive his caravels as he came down from the northeast. There are, also, back of this port, four great table-topped hills, the peculiar outlines of which make them conspicuous landmarks, said to have attracted the attention of Columbus on his approach, as stated in his journal. But, if doubt exist as to the exact site of his first landfall here, there is none respecting the harbor he had in mind when he wrote of that which he called Puerto Santo and its forest-born river: "The clearness of its water, through which the sand at the bottom may be seen; the multitude of palm-trees of various forms, the highest and most beautiful I have met with, and an infinity of other great, green trees; the birds in rich plumage, and the verdure of the fields, render this country of such marvellous beauty that it surpasses all others in charms and graces, as the clay loth the night in lustre! For which reason I often say to my people that, much as I endeavor to give a complete account of it to your Majesties, my tongue cannot express the whole truth, nor my pen describe it. In sooth, I have been so overwhelmed at the sight of so much beauty that I have not known how to relate it."

The river and port referred to are found in Baracoa, around which spreads a vast and verdurous forest, apparently as fresh and virginal to-day as when it inspired the Admiral to write in such enthusiastic terms. " Proceeding farther up the river," says the historian Herrera, "being allured by the clearness of the water, the delightsomeness of the banks, and the great variety of the birds, they saw a great canoe under a sort of arbor, capable of carrying fifty persons, yet made of one entire tree [probably a ceiba, or silk-cotton]; for, while the Indians had no iron tools, their instruments being merely flints, and the trees were large, their hearts were soft and spongy and easily hollowed out."

The most impressive object here, a landmark mentioned by Columbus in his writings, is the table-topped mountain known as Yunque, or the Anvil, from its peculiar shape. It is eighteen hundred feet in height and visible forty miles at sea, so it attracted the attention of the voyagers to the beautiful river, in which their vessels lay at anchor while the embassy went into the tropical wilderness, looking for the Khan of Cathay. Yunque Mountain has always been held sacred by the Indians, who had a tradition that when the morning sun sends its rays against its eastern cliffs the features of a once-great cacique are limned upon the rocks.

The Indians of Cuba, like those of the Bahamas, became extinct three centuries ago, and only their traditions and a few aboriginal names remain to remind us of their former presence in the island.

More than a month was passed on the north coast of Cuba, exploring inlets and rivers, collecting specimens of dye and cabinet woods, spices, herbs, and the golden grains of maize, said to have been the first ever seen by white men and taken to Europe. Columbus lingered longer than he thought prudent, even, he was so enraptured with the spicy groves and flowery meads, the sparkling beaches and the sombre forests; above all, the delightsome climate. He calls it the "most beautiful island that eyes ever beheld," and declares that "one could live there forever."

It must have been an exceptional season in which those first explorers in the West Indies performed their voyage, for, not only had they been able to keep their vessels together all the way across the Atlantic, through the smoothness of the seas, but they experienced no gale or tempest among the islands, though they were there in the height of the "hurricane season." That first voyage was exempt from every untoward happening due to wind and weather; but about November loth the vessels became separated through the voluntary act of Martin Alonzo Pinzon, who stood away in the Pinta, while they were attempting to round the eastern end of Cuba. His was the fastest vessel of the little fleet, and though Columbus signalled him repeatedly to heave to and await the rest, Captain Pinzon kept on until distance and darkness hid him from the rest.

Baffling winds compelled the Santa Maria  and the Nina  to put in at a small river east of paracoa, and it was not until December 5th that they succeeded in doubling Cape Maisi, the eastern point of Cuba, which Columbus supposed to be the extremity of Asia, and named Alpha and Omega. Instead of keeping on to the southward and westward, however, and in that direction seeking—what he yet confidently expected to find—the rich and civilized parts of India, the Admiral bore away to the southward and eastward. He was perplexed at first which course to pursue, but the act of his recreant captain decided him to keep on in the direction he had taken. Both Columbus and Pinzon were impelled to this course by the same motive, which was to seek, and if possible find, the island of Babeque, or Bohio, the reputed land of gold. No precious metal had been found in the scant soil of the Bahamas; while Cuba, though reported rich in mines of gold and copper (in the sign-language of the natives), had yielded nothing to the Spaniards' eager search. But, repeatedly and consistently, the Lucayans and Cubans had pointed to the southeast, when asked to name the land containing gold. There, in Babeque, they said, it was to be found in quantities so great that one might pick it up on the shores and glean it from the sands of every stream. Thence came the small supply possessed by the natives of the Bahamas and Cuba at the coming of Columbus, which he had secured in barter for a few beads and trinkets. He and Captain Pinzon had talked it over frequently, questioning the Indians they met on shore and those they had taken aboard ship as captives, and had come to the same conclusion: Babeque was the island of gold, and as gold was what they desired above all other things, they should seek that island without delay. It is supposed that Captain Pinzon may have derived secret information as to the location of Babeque, from one of his captives; hence his haste to sail easterly, in the general direction indicated. Hence, also, the consuming desire of his superior officer, Columbus, to follow in his wake: from fear that Pinzon might glean it all in advance of his arrival.

Taking his departure, then, from the easterly point of Cuba (which still retains its aboriginal name of Maysi), the Admiral soon saw another island rise to view, more beautiful in its contours, and grander in its mountains than the one he left. It was clothed in tropical vegetation from coast to mountain peak, and seemed suspended in a magical atmosphere between sea and sky. " It is a wonderful island," wrote Columbus to his friend, San Angel, "with mountains, groves, plains, and the country generally beautiful and rich for planting, for rearing sheep and cattle of all kinds, and ready for towns and cities. The harbors must be seen to be appreciated; rivers are plentiful, large, and excellent, the greater part of them containing gold. The nightingale and a thousand kinds of birds enliven the woods with their song. There are many kinds of palms, of various elegant forms, besides other trees, roots, and herbs, while the pines are magnificent. It has many mines of gold and a population innumerable."

The Cubans called the island Babeque  and Bohio—meaning the "great country"; but to the natives it was known as Haiti, or the Island of Mountains." That it contained gold was made manifest almost as soon as land was reached, for all the natives had it, apparently, either in nuggets or grains. The first landing in Haiti was on December 6th, at the great natural dock known as Mole St. Nicolas, whence the north coast was skirted till, a storm coming up, the Admiral sought shelter under the lee of that rocky island known as Tortuga, or the Sea Turtle, so named by him because of its shape. It became a famous resort for buccaneers and pirates—their great stronghold in the Caribbean Sea—after the Spaniards had become numerous there; but at the time Columbus found it, Tortuga was uninhabited. Thence, after the storm was over, he sailed across the narrow channel that separated the island from Haiti, and brought to view a valley so beautiful that he named it Val de Paraiso  (Vale of Paradise).