Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Expeditions in Search of Gold


Isabella was an unfortunate settlement from the start, situated as it was between deep forests and the sea, with no means of access or egress save by the boats, which Columbus controlled. Unused as they were to the severe labor imposed by him, and attacked by the diseases so prevalent in a newly opened region in the tropics, the cavaliers, who had come out with great hopes and high expectations, soon became disheartened, then rebellious. A sedition was started which became very serious. It was promoted by the Pope's apostolic vicar, Father Boyle, who was at the head of the first religious establishment in the New World, and who felt the exactions imposed upon one of his importance by the Admiral. In fact, almost the entire company was disposed to murmur, even rebel, against this "upstart of a foreigner," Columbus, who had drawn them into the wilderness by his exaggerated stories of wealth untold within the secret recesses of the interior. They had expected to 'find the precious metal lying about on the ground, and with their little stores of trinkets had hoped to barter with the natives so profitably to themselves that they should be able to return to Spain in a few months with wealth to suffice them a lifetime. Instead, they were compelled to toil at menial tasks, to build forts and dwellings, even to cook their own food, while the elusive gold still remained in possession of Mother Nature. As the city had been planted by Columbus solely with a view to its nearness to the gold region, and as his enemies would prove to the crown that he had committed a blunder at the outset unless he could produce vast quantities of the precious metal, he sent expeditions in search of it as soon as circumstances would warrant him in doing so.

Behold, then, the first of the gold-hunting parties that ever penetrated the interior of Hispaniola and found the grains and nuggets in their beds of sand and gravel. It was commanded by a reckless and daring adventurer, Alonzo de Ojeda, who made a name for himself in the annals of early America, and who was the first to come into personal contact with that valiant cacique who had massacred the garrison at Navidad, Caonabo the Carib. He lived in the mountains of the Cibao (which Columbus still believed might be the veritable Cipango), and his title, by which the Indians knew him, of "Lord of the Golden House," indicated the opulence of his kingdom.

Behold Ojeda and his little band of daring cavaliers as they sallied forth from Isabella, forded the river, and sped across the fruitful plains that extended from the sea-coast to the mountains. Mounted on neighing steeds, like themselves eager for a dash into the country; clad in corselets of steel, with helmets on their heads and swords on their hips, they presented a terrible spectacle to the innocent Indians, whose peaceful villages were scattered over the plain, and who fled in wild terror before them. These primitive people had never seen white men before, they had never seen horses before, and they mistook beast and rider for a terrible monster which had come up from its lair in the ocean to ravage and destroy.

The rugged mountains were crossed, the valley of the Yaqui was reached, and in the sands of its headwaters Ojeda and his comrades found nuggets and grains of gold, with which they returned to Columbus, and which he sent back to Spain in the seven ships that sailed on February 2, 1494. With them went a promise that the next shipment should be at least a ton, for the riches of the country seemed inexhaustible. But the sovereigns would not always content themselves with promises; the enemies of the Admiral were already at work undermining his reputation at home. The gold could only be obtained by toilsome marches into a hostile country; but there was a source of profit ready at hand, in the natives of the islands, some of whom he sent back in the returning ships to be sold as slaves.

There were more Caribs (whom he conveniently branded as " cannibals") than was good for the peace of the country; but if they could be exchanged for cattle and horses, of which the settlement was greatly in need, a double purpose might be achieved. "The royal treasury would be greatly enriched, and a vast number of souls would be snatched from perdition, and carried, as it were, by main force to heaven!" The Queen did not approve of this means of reimbursing the crown for its outlay; but it was a long time before Columbus learned of her decision, and meanwhile he went forth on another expedition, ostensibly for gold, but with the intention of making captives of Caonabo and his ferocious subjects.

The many vexations attendant upon the founding of the settlement and the pacification of the malcontents had caused Columbus to fall seriously ill; but on his recovery he organized the second expedition, consisting of all the soldiers and cavaliers who could bear arms and endure the rigors of a march into and through the rugged mountain country. The total population of Isabella at this time was about one thousand men, and, leaving behind the sick and the laborers, Columbus selected about five hundred of the choicest spirits for this expedition, which he was to command in person. They marched across the plain, rejoicing to escape their irksome confinement amid the forests and mangrove swamps, and, with banners flying, drums beating, and trumpets sending forth their inspiring sounds, penetrated the obscurity of the forests, which glittered with helm and corselet, lance and sword and arquebuse. That was the first day's march; the second took them through the Yaqui mountain range, where the enthusiastic cavaliers opened a road which to this day bears the name they gave it of el Puerto de los Hidalgos, or the Gentlemen's Pass.

The Spaniards who marched through the defile cleared by the cavaliers then saw before them the magnificent valley of the Yaqui, where verdant plain and sombre forest alternated, strung upon a noble river's silver chain. They did not know it, they were not then aware of it, but this was the same river seen by Columbus in January, the year before, and named by him the Rio del Oro, because of the golden flakes which clung to his water-casks, and which gave promise of a rich country to be found at or near its source. Two days longer they continued their march, meeting everywhere with hospitality from the natives, who lived here in peace and contentment. They were at first afraid of the terrible horses, and of the men in shining armor; but when once their confidence was won they were only too glad to serve the invading strangers and place before them all the wealth of their homes and their mines.

On the evening of the second day the Spaniards had reached the confines of the Cibao, a stony and mountainous region, the crystal streams of which ran over sands glistening with gold. Convinced that he was now at the portal of the Golden House—though he had seen no evidences of its lord's existence—Columbus concluded to penetrate the interior no farther, but to erect here a fort to serve as an outpost on the frontier. He chose a headland half surrounded by a river, in the bed of which he found jasper, porphyry, and grains of gold. Here he raised a wooden tower, which was protected in front by the curving stream, and in rear by a moat. This, the second fort erected in the wilds, was called Santo Tomas de Yanico, or St. Thomas of the River Yanique.

While the fort was in process of construction an active exploration of the surrounding region went on, and glowing reports of its richness were brought in daily. When the Indians learned the desire of the white strangers to obtain gold, they ran to the rivers, and, sifting the sands, brought in a large supply. One nugget was discovered nine ounces in weight, and for another weighing an ounce the Indian who found it considered himself richly rewarded by receiving a hawk's-bell in exchange.

When completed, the fort was placed in charge of Pedro Margarite, a knight of the noble order of Santiago, and under him were left fifty-six men of mettle. Then Columbus leisurely returned to Isabella, lingering by the way to cultivate friendly relations with the natives; but hardly had he reached the coast than a messenger from Margarite was at his heels, with the startling tidings that the Indians of the mountains had suddenly become unfriendly and were withdrawing from the vicinity of the fort. The fate of Navidad's devoted garrison, it would seem, must have been forgotten by the soldiers of St. Thomas, for no sooner had the Admiral left them than they gave themselves up to the same passions that had wrought the destruction of their compatriots under Diego de Arana. Columbus sent them a reinforcement of fifty men, and this served temporarily to deter the hostiles; but the fire kindled by Spanish atrocities was smouldering, and the fierce Caonabo was already massing his warriors for a descent upon the fort. He had kept ominously silent since the massacre at Navidad, even holding aloof when his territory was invaded by the Spaniards; but they were soon to hear from him, soon to learn that not all the caciques were like the timid Guacanagari.

In order to relieve the congested condition of the city at the coast, and to give scope for the enterprise of his chafing cavaliers, Columbus decided to dispose the bulk of his troops in the interior, where he could not only be supported by the natives, but conduct a protracted search for gold. So he sent the first detachment, a little army of about four hundred men, under Alonzo de Ojeda, to relieve Margarite, who was instructed to make a military tour of the island. Ojeda was a gallant but headstrong soldier, and learning, while on the way, that some Spaniards had been robbed by Indians at a ford of the Yaqui, he seized the thieves, cut off their ears, and sent them, together with their cacique, who had shielded them, to Columbus for further punishment. The Admiral had them conducted in chains to the public square of Isabella, where, after making a pretence of preparing for their execution, he released them, with an admonition to behave better in the future. This act of Ojeda's was perhaps the first recorded one of deliberate cruelty towards the Indians by the Spaniards; but it was to be followed by innumerable others.

Having in mind his obligations to the crown relating to the discovery of new lands, as well as the founding of settlements, Columbus set sail, on the last week of April, 1494, for the purpose of finishing his exploration of Cuba's southern coast. He left the settlement in charge of his brother, Diego, and, with three caravels, departed in search of new adventures and new lands. During this voyage he suffered many hardships and made many interesting discoveries; but we will not immediately follow him, for occurrences in Hispaniola more urgently claim our attention. Captain Margarite, to whom Columbus had sent a letter of advice, cautioning him to deal gently with the Indians, and by no means to mistreat them, from the very first departed from the course recommended by his superior, and committed arbitrary acts that caused a rebellion which became almost universal.

We have thus far dealt with only two of the five caciques, or great chiefs, who ruled the natives of Hispaniola at the coming of Columbus; but there were several others in that island, which was called by them Babeque  or Qisqueya. They held their office by hereditary rights, and each was absolute within his own territory, except that Caonabo frequently invaded the districts of the coast. The first cacique to be encountered by the Spaniards—as we have already noticed—was the unfortunate Guacanagari, who held sway over the northwestern part of the island, or in what is now known as Haiti, and near whose town of Guarico the Santa Maria  was wrecked. At the Yaqui River began the possessions of another cacique, Guarionex, extending eastward probably as far as the Bay of Samana. The third caciquedom was ruled by the savage Caonabo, whose capital was at Managua, on the southern slopes of the Cibao Mountains. The fourth province belonged to Cotubanama, and was called Higuey or Ciguey. It was with warriors from this province, probably, that the Spaniards had their first skirmish, at the Bay of Arrows, in the month of January, 1493, when on their homeward voyage. The fifth and last province to be mentioned was known as Xaragua, comprising all the western and southwestern portions of the island. It was very populous, and under the sway of Cacique Behechio, whose sister was Caonabo's wife, and celebrated for her beauty. In all, it was estimated, more than a million Indians occupied this great and beautiful island, where they lived in comparative peace and content, until so rudely disturbed by the Spaniards.

Although Columbus himself was indirectly responsible for the atrocities which ended only in the complete extinction of these people, yet it was Margarite who commenced the course of action which really brought about their rebellious conduct and eventual enslavement. Instead of making a well-regulated tour of military exploration, he conducted his soldiers to the most populous and agreeable villages of the interior, where he quartered them upon the people, whom he plundered without mercy. When their complaints reached Don Diego Columbus, he sent a remonstrance, which was unheeded by Margarite, who at last became wearied of dwelling in the wilderness and departed for Isabella. There he found powerful partisans among the cavaliers, who also induced the head ecclesiastic, Father Boyle, to take sides with them. The upshot of the matter was that Margarite, Boyle, and others of the disaffected, seized some ships in the harbor and departed in them for Spain, to lay their grievances before the Crown.

Left without a commander, the soldiers formerly under Margarite split up into roving bands of robbers, wandering over the country in search of plunder, and committing such terrible excesses that even the mild and patient Indians were provoked to retaliation. Finding the Spaniards in small parties, scattered here and there, they fell upon them with overwhelming numbers and put many to death. Chief Guatiguana, a sub-cacique within the territory of Guarionex, was the first to show the natives their strength, by killing ten licentious soldiers who had forced themselves upon his people, and then setting fire to a hut containing forty-six more. The Indians flocked to his standard and invested the little fort of Magdalena, which had been built in the neighborhood of what is now Santiago. But the most formidable enemy of the Spaniards who then took the field was the redoubtable Caonabo, from whom alone they had expected trouble, and who secretly and suddenly descended upon the fort of St. Thomas.

He and ten thousand of his warriors, armed with bows and arrows, stone-headed lances and war-clubs, surrounded the fort and attempted to carry it by storm. But they had in Ojeda a wary as well as courageous foe to deal with, one who had received his war-training in conflict with the Moors. He and his men were alert, and, intrenched within their moat-surrounded tower, well provisioned and armed, they bade the Carib chief defiance. Finding it impossible to take the fort by assault, Caonabo finally settled down to a siege, and for thirty days maintained so close an investment of this isolated tower in the wilderness with his savage warriors, that its occupants were reduced to the verge of famine.

During this investment, many were the forays the daring Ojeda led from the fort, in which he defeated every art and stratagem of the savage, and, amid flights of darts and arrows, bore himself so bravely that he won the rude chief's admiration. Neither prevailed in open combat, however, and at last the Carib wearied of the siege and drew off his forces to the mountains.

The sequel to this strange encounter followed after the return of the Admiral from Cuba, several months later; but we cannot do better than refer to it here, on account of the bearing it has upon the chivalrous daring of Ojeda and the innate nobility of Caonabo. The latter retired from the fort, but after a brief rest at his capital returned to ravage the territory adjacent to Isabella. Accompanied by his brother-in-law, Behechio, cacique of Xaragua, he successively visited all the caciques of the island, and organized an offensive league against the Spaniards. All except Guacanagari joined the league; but he, recreant to fraternal obligations and ties of blood, not only refused to assist, but informed Columbus of the conspiracy. But for him it might have succeeded, for it was wide-spread, and the movements of its organizers were veiled in secrecy. When they learned of his betrayal, Caonabo and Behechio made a descent upon his capital, killed some of his wives and relatives, and carried away others into captivity; but the misguided chieftain still remained devoted to the Spaniards, and thereby hastened his end.

Captain Ojeda was in Isabella at the time Caonabo was ravaging the country, and, being appealed to by Columbus, he offered to deliver the Carib into his hands, dead or alive. Taking with him ten companions, as rash and daring as himself, he plunged into the trackless forests beyond St. Thomas, and finally reached the stronghold of his foe, by whom he was warmly received, without a thought of treachery. This stronghold was at Maguana, on the southern slopes of the Cibao Mountains. Caonabo was promised, if he would return with his visitors, the bell that hung in the church-tower at Isabella. As he had heard its clear, mellow tones ringing through the forest when prowling about the settlement, he greatly desired to possess it, and consented to accompany Ojeda to the coast. But his warriors were also to go, he said; and several thousand assembled for the purpose.

Ojeda was puzzled, but he met the situation, and soon found means for accomplishing his purpose by stratagem. As they were encamped on the bank of the river Yegua one day, he exhibited to Caonabo a pair of handcuffs, made of steel, but bright as silver, which, he told the chief, were royal ornaments sent him by the King. To obtain them properly, he must first slip them on his wrists, then mount behind the Spaniard on his horse. The unsuspicious Indian complied, and, having thus rendered his foe defenceless, the artful Ojeda clapped spurs to his steed, and away they went, on a mad race through the forest. The warriors raced after them, but Ojeda's comrades beat them back with their swords, then closed about their leader, and swept down towards the coast. The journey was long and dangerous, but that strange cavalcade accomplished it in safety, and at its ending Ojeda delivered his captive to Columbus, by whom he was placed in a dungeon. He was kept there many months, and throughout his captivity invariably greeted his captor with deference, but treated the Admiral with contempt, saying one was a brave warrior, the other a coward.