Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Shipwreck and Rescue, Coast of Jamaica


Compelled to abandon one of his caravels at Belen, where it was left to rot in the harbor, Columbus set sail with the same number that he had in his first voyage for the island of his greatest triumphs and worst disasters. He could not sail direct, on account of the contrary winds, but stood over to the eastward, far into the Caribbean Sea, to a point whence he could shape his course with a fair prospect of "making" Hispaniola. He thus returned to Puerto Bello, greatly to the disgust of his crews, who in their ignorance imagined he meant to renew his search for the mysterious strait. Perhaps he did; but if so, his intention was frustrated by the work of the teredo, or terrible ship-worm, which had bored one of the caravels so full of holes that he was compelled to abandon her in the Beautiful Port.

This left him but two vessels, the same number in which he had made his first return to Spain; but they were far less seaworthy than the historic Nina  and Pinta, and were crowded to suffocation. A month of anxious voyaging followed, during which these unfortunates were buffeted by storms innumerable, and finally, by the force of unseen currents (upon which Columbus had not reckoned), set upon the south coast of Cuba, in the midst of the "Queen's Gardens," instead of on the shores of Hispaniola. Here they encountered a dreadful storm that nearly wrecked the miserable hulks, but recovered sufficiently to bear up for Jamaica, on the north coast of which was found a sheltering harbor, into which they ran, on June 24, 1503. The caravels (as Columbus wrote in a letter afterwards) were bored as full of holes as a honey-comb; he had lost all his anchors, and his crews were utterly exhausted from hunger, constant watching, and battling with the elements. They had only strength enough to run the vessels into another harbor, which the Admiral called Santa Gloria, and there both ships and crews succumbed beneath their repeated calamities.

The worthless hulks which the Spanish sovereigns had furnished their Admiral for a voyage around the world nearly fell to pieces in Santa Gloria, where they were run ashore, to save them from sinking with all on board. They were stranded on the sands of a beautiful beach not far from St. Ann's harbor, on the north coast of Jamaica, which ever since that event has been known as "Don Christopher's Cove." The caravels settled into the sands, the water rising to their decks, and, after fastening them together, Columbus built cabins of palm leaves in prow and stern. These frail huts sheltered him and his men for more than a year, while they were drearily waiting for a rescue purposely delayed by Ovando, to whom a messenger was sent soon after the shipwreck. Their provisions were already scanty when they reached this haven, their ships were now immovably fixed in the sands, and not a single small-boat remained in which to cross the channel for relief.

In this emergency rose the man for the occasion, one Diego Mendez, who embarked in a frail canoe, with a single Spanish comrade and six Indians, for Hispaniola. The channel that separated the east end of Jamaica from the western end of Hispaniola was one hundred miles in width, but about midway was a small island, Navassa, at which they touched, at the close of the second day, and where they found refreshment for their perilous voyage. The heat was so intense and the labor so severe that one of the Indians died on the way, while all were so consumed by thirst that when they landed at Navassa and found a supply of water accumulated in hollows of the rocks, three of them drank to excess and died upon the spot. But, after enduring terrible privations, the faithful Mendez arrived at Santo Domingo and delivered to Governor Ovando the letter from Columbus requesting the despatch of immediate relief. Now, Nicolas de Ovando was such a fiend in human shape as history reveals to us in the person of Philip II. of Spain. His inhuman acts in Hispaniola would fill a volume, and record the most revolting cruelties that even the Spaniards of his day were capable of perpetrating. He hated Columbus and envied him his fame. Now that he had him completely at his mercy, he resolved to bring about his destruction, and, on one plea and another, delayed sending relief for more than seven months! Then, when he believed that his enemy must have perished from starvation or the arrows of hostile Indians, he despatched a pardoned rebel, one Escobar, whom Columbus had previously condemned to death, on a visit of observation. Eight months after the departure of Mendez the haggard and emaciated men on board the stranded hulks saw a sail in the offing, one evening just at dusk. It proved to be the ship sent by Ovando in command of Escobar, who warily approached and hailed the ship-wrecked mariners, but stood "on and off," so that none of them could get on board his vessel. Sending a boat to shore, with a letter to the Admiral and a present of a cask of wine and a side of bacon, he waited long enough merely to receive a reply to the missive, then sailed away into the darkness of the night. The astonished and now despairing Spaniards looked vainly for his reappearance, for he never returned, and four months of dreary waiting intervened before succor came at last.

In the meantime, while Mendez was endeavoring to raise an expedition for his former comrades, and Ovando was doing all in his power to add to their misery, if not to effect their destruction, how passed the time with the Admiral and his crews? At first, having made arrangements with the natives for regular supplies of provisions, he did not suffer much from hunger, although the food was poor and coarse, and, unaccustomed to it, and to the confined existence aboard the wrecks, he and many of his men fell sick. Columbus, in addition to his mental sufferings, was confined to his bed by the gout, and but for the presence of his son, Fernando, who was constantly by his side, might have succumbed to the accumulation of miseries. He reproached himself constantly for having brought Fernando with him on this voyage; but the lad was a solace and comfort to him all the while, and survived the terrible experiences of the Veragua coast and Jamaica to write a history of his father's life. The name Veragua has been perpetuated in his family by the title bestowed upon his nephew, Don Luis, son of his brother, Diego, and still borne by his descendants.



More than six months after the arrival at Santa Gloria, on January 2, 1504, a mutiny broke out among the crew, led by two brothers, Diego and Francisco Porras, who burst into the Admiral's cabin, where he lay helpless in bed, flourishing their swords, and demanding that he sail at once for Spain. This absurd demand was only a pretext for license, but was the signal for the mutineers to rise, which they did on every side, shouting: "A Castilla, a Castilla!  Lead us on to Castile!" Columbus attempted to restrain them, but was forced to take to his cot again, after tottering to the deck. The adelantado sallied forth, sword in hand, and swore he would hack them to pieces; but the mutineers were too many for him, and he was compelled to see them depart, with ten canoes and the greater portion of the provisions then on hand. Porras and his gang at first attempted to cross the channel to Hispaniola, filling their canoes with Indians to paddle them over; but a great gale coming up they were obliged to return to Jamaica. To lighten their canoes, they threw overboard their effects, then compelled the hapless Indians to leap into the sea. The natives were almost as much at home in water as on land, but the shore was too far away for them to reach it, and when some of them attempted to rest themselves occasionally by taking hold of the gunwales of the canoes, the cruel Spaniards would cut off their hands or stab them with their swords. This incident shows their character; but in truth they were no different from the majority of those ruffian adventurers who, in the wisdom of Providence, were permitted to explore, to plunder, and to destroy, in the opening years of our New World's history.

The mutineers dispersed themselves among the Indian bands of the interior, where they created such a feeling of enmity against Columbus and his unfortunate companions that soon all supplies of provisions were cut off entirely, and the horrors of famine soon began to threaten those dwellers on the hulks embedded in the sands. Most of the hundred Spaniards remaining with the Admiral were too ill to forage for provisions, but not so ill they could not fill the air with their complaints; and at last, driven to desperation, Columbus bethought himself of an expedient. He and his crews were superstitious, but the Indians, as he knew, were even more so, and, invoking the aid of his astronomical lore, he predicted an eclipse of the moon within three days, in the early part of the night. The rebellious caciques had been assembled for the purpose of receiving this valuable information, and they were told, furthermore, that the Spaniards were under the protection of a deity who rewarded those who served them and punished those who, for instance, failed to supply them with provisions. In token of his wrath, the moon, which was then shining brightly in the heavens, would soon veil her face in darkness, and remain obscured until they promised better behavior for the future. The simple savages hooted and scoffed at Columbus; but when, indeed, the moon went into a cloud and did not emerge as was her wont, they became really alarmed, even terrified. They robbed themselves of provisions in order to placate the wily Admiral, and, casting them at his feet, implored him to intercede with his deity in their behalf. This he promised to do on condition that they would not fail of supplies in the future, and, retiring to his cabin, soon emerged with the assurance that their prayers were granted. He timed his emergence to coincide with the reappearance of the celestial orb, which soon flooded the forests with silver light and filled the hearts of the savages with joy. They went back to their homes in happier frame of mind, so thoroughly convinced a great calamity had been averted through the intercession of Columbus, that they never after failed with their supplies.

Shortly after this event, which better illustrates the sagacity of Columbus than his honesty, occurred another, which brings into contrast the different natures of the Admiral and the adelantado. The latter was the fighter of his family, while the former, if not absolutely cowardly by nature, yet has left little evidence of his valor. He was courageous in his convictions, but shrank from personal encounters, while Don Bartholomew was a very lion in a fight. After they were reunited, at Isabella city, he always stood as a shield between his elder brother and danger. So now, when Porras, the rebel, ventured one day to attack the Admiral in his stranded ship, the adelantado set upon him so furiously that he was overpowered and captured. This, too, after Don Bartholomew had killed several men who had sought to intervene, and received from Porras himself a serious wound in the hand, after the latter's sword had cleft his buckler. This action brought the rebels to terms; but their surrender only made so many more mouths to feed, and Columbus awaited most anxiously news from honest Diego Mendez.

It is thought that his troubles at this period must have affected his mind; and that he was, at least, broken and dispirited is shown by a letter he wrote and despatched by the hand of Mendez to his sovereigns: "Hitherto I have wept for others; but now have pity upon me, Heaven, and weep for me, O earth. As to my temporal concerns: without a farthing to offer for a mass, cast away here in the Indies, surrounded by cruel and hostile savages, isolated, infirm, expecting each day will be my last; in spiritual concerns, separated from the holy sacraments of the church, so that my soul, if parted here from my body, must be forever lost. Weep for me, whoever has charity, truth, and justice. I came not on this voyage to gain either honor or estate—that is most certain—for all hope of the kind was already dead within me. I came to serve your Majesties, with a sound intention and an honest zeal, and I speak no falsehood."

When we think of him at this time, pent up within the narrow walls of his cabin, enduring the heat of an almost vertical sun by day and the discomforts caused by tropical insects at night, added to his physical and mental infirmities, the hardest heart must needs go out to him in sympathy. That he survived this period of captivity on the coast of Jamaica, in which he suffered all that mortal man can well endure, may be attributed to his hardy constitution. That he at last escaped, may be placed to the credit of sturdy Diego Mendez, who finally succeeded in fitting out a vessel, at the Admiral's expense, which reached the imprisoned Spaniards the last week in June, 1504, after they had been a year and a few days marooned on the hulks. At the same time, another vessel arrived, sent by Ovando, and in the two the survivors of that protracted and unfortunate voyage of 1502—1504 returned to Santo Domingo.

Columbus was treated with great superficial courtesy by the despicable Ovando, who in his heart hated him for his well-earned honors, and had hoped he and his companions would have met their deaths before the vessels reached them. He lodged him in his own, formerly the Admiral's house, and bowed obsequiously before him; but at the same time he prated loudly of the vast powers granted him by the sovereigns and of his sagacity in dealing with the Indians. How must the heart of Columbus, callous as it was, have swelled within him when he learned of what had happened to the Indians during the reign of Ovando; and how Don Bartholomew must have longed to slay that base minion of King Ferdinand, when he heard of the terrible wrongs committed by the Spaniards in Xaragua!

For Ovando had massacred every one of the eighty caciques who had so hospitably entertained the adelantado and rendered tribute, seven years before. He had murdered their subjects in cold blood, thousands of them, and put them to the torture. And lastly, he had hanged as a felon the beautiful and joyous Anacaona, who had received Don Bartholomew like a brother and entertained him like a prince. He had done his best, or worst, to make the island desolate, and before his rule was over he hunted down and hanged the last of the five native caciques who were in power at the coming of Columbus.

Not satisfied with plundering the natives and shedding their blood, this were-wolf in human guise, Don Nicolas de Ovando, the trusted servitor of Ferdinand and Isabella, inflicted upon them the most outrageous tortures. He caused gibbets to be erected everywhere, upon which the Indians were hung thirteen at a time, "in reverence of our Saviour and the twelve apostles "; he burned them at the stake, women and children as well as men; he pierced them with spears, hacked them to pieces with swords, and cut off the hands of all he found roving at large. The island was filled with lament; and, writhing in anguish, unable to endure the scenes of misery, Columbus took ship, with his family, for Spain, where he arrived after a tempestuous passage of two months—fit termination to the most disastrous voyage of his life.