Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Jamaica Discovered


Leaving Isabella in three caravels, on April 24, 1494, Columbus revisited Monte Cristi and Navidad, thence standing away for Cape Maysi, the eastern end of Cuba and his point of departure for Haiti on the previous voyage. Coasting the shores of Cuba westerly from Maysi, he discovered a magnificent, lake-like harbor, which he called Puerto Grande, but which now bears its native name of Guantanamo, and is occupied as a naval station by the United States of America. He remained here several days, trafficking with the natives, who were so amazed at the sight of the great winged vessels that they crowded to the shores by thousands, and so generous that they gave the Spaniards freely all they had. At one spot within the harbor-mouth, the latter found large quantities of fish, iguanas, and utias suspended in the smoke of fires kindled on the ground, and, being half famished, they devoured them to their bones, without exciting the ire of the Indians, who seemed greatly pleased that the strangers should have enjoyed the banquet they were preparing for themselves. They went off to their gardens in the forest and returned with cassava, delicious fruits, and calabashes of water, which they offered these beings, whom they regarded as descended from the skies.

Beyond Guantanamo (passing by that stretch of coast made famous in the Spanish-American War of 1898), Columbus spied the entrance to another harbor, the peerless port of Santiago de Cuba, where a settlement was made twenty years later by Velasquez, and whence, in 1518, Cortes sailed forth for his conquest of Mexico. He did not explore the shores of its beautiful bay, though the natives were numerous and hospitable, but, learning from them that Babeque, the country of gold, lay farther to the south, he soon set out in quest of it.

Departing from the coast of Cuba, May 3rd, standing boldly out into the open sea, he soon brought to view the towering peaks of Jamaica's central mountain chain. The highest of these peaks rises to an altitude of seventy-three hundred feet, the crowning pinnacle of a multitude of others, sheltering within their forest-covered ridges more than a hundred beautiful valleys, each one with a stream embowered in tropic vegetation. The harbors on its north coast were as numerous as in Cuba, and from one of them darted out to meet the fleet a gigantic canoe, leading a convoy of seventy more, filled with savages decked with war-paint and adorned with feathers. They saluted the Spanish ships with fierce yells and gestures, brandishing their lances and shooting arrows, so Columbus stood off from shore, and later made another harbor, which he called Santa Maria. Here he was saluted by another party of naked savages, many of whom were painted black, their heads covered with gay feathers. They disputed the entrance of the caravels into the harbor (where they were to be careened and overhauled), and Columbus ordered out the small boats, the soldiers in which dispersed the Indians by a discharge of arrows from their cross-bows. Then they landed and let loose upon the fleeing savages a fierce blood-hound, which overtook and mangled a large number before its fury was appeased. This is the first instance, it is said, of a blood-hound being used against the Indians of America; but it was not the last, sad to relate, for thousands of poor wretches afterwards met horrible deaths through being torn to pieces by this loathsome beast. Blood-hounds were last used in Jamaica, for the purpose of hunting human beings, nearly three hundred years later, when a pack was imported from Cuba to aid English soldiers in tracing the maroons, or runaway negroes, to their lairs in the Blue Mountains.

The Indians of Jamaica were more warlike than any others Columbus had met, except the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, whom they greatly resembled. Like them, they performed long voyages in canoes, some of which were nearly a hundred feet in length, by eight or ten in breadth. They were hollowed from the trunks of gigantic ceiba  trees, the wood of which is soft and easily hewn with the rude stone implements possessed by the Indians. Columbus called this magnificent island Santiago, but it is yet known by its aboriginal name Xamaica, or Land of Springs and Streams. He coasted the north shore westward as far as Montego Bay, which he called Buentiempo, or Fairweather Gulf, and whence, the wind being unfavorable for further coasting, he set sail once again for Cuba. On May 18th the glorious peak of Turquino rose, pinnacle-like, above the clouds, and then a headland appeared, which the Admiral called Cape Cruz, a name it still retains. This was the third approach he had made to Cuba, and he still believed it to be a continent, rather than an island, as he sailed in and out of deep gulfs and bays, the misty shores stretching interminably before him. Westward from Cape Cruz he became entangled in that labyrinth of isles and islets which still bears the name he gave it of Los Jardines de la Reina, or Gardens of the Queen. With their shores of coral, lofty forests, and verdurous aspect generally, they so much resembled the Asiatic archipelago described by Marco Polo, that Columbus was more than ever convinced he had reached the outposts of Asia.

Fragrant, spicy odors were wafted to his caravels from off shore; vast flocks of flamingoes and other brilliantly colored birds winged their way above the strands, or stood, statue-like, on sands and reefs, while the waters were alive with fish of rainbow 180 colors, vying with the parrots and humming-birds in hue. Columbus was amazed at the wonders he saw, but nothing interested him more than the native method of fishing with a fish. Instead of using hooks and lines, the Indians tied a supple vine to the tail of a peculiar fish called the remora, the head of which is furnished with sucking-disks, by means of which it attaches itself to whatever it meets. Not only the smaller fish were taken in this manner, but (according to Columbus) sharks and sea-turtles.

Whatever they had at the time Columbus met them, the natives of these islands generously gave him: fish, parrots, "dumb dogs" (now extinct), and wood-pigeons of delicious flavor, on account of the spices upon which they fed. In this manner voyaging, now threading the mazes of far-stretching archipelagoes, now the guests of hospitable Indians, the Spaniards sailed almost to the western end of Cuba; but turned about a little too soon to discover its insular character. When, one day, an archer who had strayed into the wilds came running back with the report that he had seen men clothed in long, white garments, who had flitted like ghosts among the trees, but whom his fears had prevented him from accosting, Columbus was convinced that he had arrived on the confines of a civilized country, probably the famous Mangi, the richest of the Grand Khan's Oriental provinces. Nothing further was seen of these "men in white garments," however, by the party that was sent in search of them, and they were probably merely white cranes, or herons, which the imagination of the archer had distorted into human shapes.

Columbus had visions of a voyage around the "Golden Peninsula," across the Indian Ocean, to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, provided he could continue on far enough to the westward; but his three caravels were insufficient for such a voyage—their seams had opened, their rigging and cables were worn—so he was persuaded to abandon the attempt. But it was necessary, in order to sustain his contention that he had really arrived at the eastern coast of Asia, to receive some confirmation of the fact from his fellow-voyagers, so he compelled them all to sign a paper to this effect, drawn up by the notary of the fleet. They all made deposition, from the Admiral down to the cabin-boys, that they had no doubt whatever that Cuba was a continent, the "beginning and ending of Asia"; and whoever should recant, if an officer, should incur a penalty of ten thousand maravedis, or, if of inferior rank, should receive a hundred lashes and have his tongue cut out. As Columbus attested, and compelled his sailors to attest, so he really believed, even to the day of his death, that, instead of discovering a country entirely new and unknown, he had found the way to the eastern coast of the Old World. Thus he belittled his own discovery, and went around chasing a will-o'-the-wisp; which should prove a warning to those who would make everything conform to a theory.

This paper was drawn up and signed while the voyagers were in the waters subsequently called the Sea of Cortes, sailing southward from which they discovered a lofty island which Columbus named Evangelista, now the Isle of Pines, where they anchored and took in supplies of wood and water. Bearing up again towards the coast of Cuba, they retraced their course to an Indian settlement at the mouth of a fine river, the cacique of which received them joyously. His subjects brought in from the country vast stores of provisions, such as utias, pigeons, cassava bread, and delicious fruits. After the Spaniards had feasted to their hearts' content, they held religious services in a natural grove, and the cacique was profoundly impressed. After they were over, he addressed Columbus as follows: " I am told that thou hast lately come to these lands with a mighty force, and hast subdued many countries, spreading great fear among the people; but be not, therefore, vainglorious. Know thou that, according to our belief, the souls of men have two journeys to perform after they have departed from the body: one to a place dismal, foul, covered with darkness, prepared for such as have been unjust and cruel to their fellow-men; the other full of delights, for such as have promoted peace on earth. If, then, thou art mortal, and dost expect to die, beware that thou hurt no man wrongfully, neither do harm to those who have done no harm to thee."

This speech was interpreted by a young Lucayan Indian, one who had been taken by Columbus on his first voyage, and who had been named after his brother, Diego Colon. The Admiral was deeply moved, apparently, by the true spirit of Christianity manifested by this simple savage, and it would have been well had his precepts sunk into his heart. But, as the near sequel will show, he must have quickly forgotten them, for his conduct towards the natives of Hispaniola was not in accord with their spirit. No one dwelling in those islands had ever done harm to Columbus, yet he brought upon those gentle, peace-loving Indians all the horrors of a devastating war.

After having been entertained several days by the hospitable cacique, Columbus departed for Cape Cruz, on the way encountering a gale which threw his vessels on their beam ends, so violent was the wind, which continued contrary for nearly a week. As he could not, on account of it, immediately return to Hispaniola, he stood across the sea-channel to Jamaica, where, for nearly a month, he beat along its southern coast, ever sailing easterly by day, and making harbor every night. Like many others who have followed in his course around that magnificent island, he was lost in admiration of its beauties, and filled with a desire to explore its unknown interior.

From one of the harbors, on a morning about the last of July, the Spaniards saw three great canoes come out to meet them. The largest canoe, which was carved, and decorated in bright colors, contained a native cacique and his family, consisting of his wife and several sons and daughters. The young men were stalwart, and the girls were models of grace and beauty, though all were naked, wearing only caps and tufts of feathers. In the prow of the canoe stood their standard-bearer, waving aloft a white banner, while other Indians beat lustily on native drums hollowed out of logs and covered with skins. The cacique and his family all wore golden ornaments and carried presents in their hands, which they gave to the Admiral as they stepped aboard his caravel. While his wife and the maidens stood modestly by, he addressed Columbus, saying: "My friend, I have determined to leave my country and go with thee to thine. For thou hast destroyed the canoes and dwellings of the Caribs, slaying their warriors, and carrying their wives and children into captivity. All the islands are in dread of thee. Rather, therefore, than thou shouldst take away my dominions, I will embark with all my household in thy ships, and will go to do homage to thy King and Queen, and to behold thy country, of which thy Indians relate to me such wonders."

Those simple savages, naked as they were, considered themselves fit for voyaging anywhere, and were greatly disappointed when Columbus told them that, while he received them as vassals of his sovereigns, yet could not take them with him, on account of the crowded condition of his ships. They returned to their canoes in sadness; but if they had only known what perils they escaped, from what bondage they were saved, they would have departed with thanksgivings. This incident enlivened the monotony of the voyage along the southern coast somewhat, and shortly after Columbus took his departure from the eastern end of Jamaica (now known as Point Morant), and steered across another unknown channel. He was, it should be remembered, feeling his way along from island to island, and from cape to promontory, without chart to guide or pilot to direct, through waters absolutely unknown and unexplored. When, therefore, he arrived off the southern shores of Haiti, he had coasted a long distance before he became "aware it was the same island from which he had departed four months before.

One day, August 23rd, an Indian came aboard his caravel and addressed him in Spanish, by which token he knew that Hispaniola had been reached at last. Then the terrible fatigues he had suffered, the strain of watching day and night through weary months, combined to cause a collapse, and, now that the long suspense was over, he fell into a stupor of exhaustion. The navigation of his ship was left to the crew, who, seeing their commander plunged into a death-like lethargy, from which there seemed no possibility of his awaking, set all sail for Isabella, finally arriving in port with their unconscious charge, in the last week in September.