Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Second Voyage and First Settlement


The second voyage of Columbus to the New World disclosed far more beautiful islands than those which had greeted him on the first, and his "landfall," in the chain of the Caribbees, was vastly more impressive than that of Guanahani or San Salvador. He had departed from the port of Cadiz with a fleet of seventeen vessels, including three large carracks of more than a hundred tons burden each and fourteen caravels. These were laden with everything considered necessary to the planting of a colony in the wilderness, and with a great many things altogether useless and superfluous. Although it had been intended to take out not more than a thousand persons in all, the number that finally embarked, including volunteers and "stowaways" (lured by the wonderful stories of an idle life in that glorious country, where gold was to be had for the seeking), was scarcely less than fifteen hundred.

Old Spain, in fact, might have been almost depopulated of its men had there been ships enough to carry all who wished to go. There were, besides the sailors, priests, monks, and cavaliers; soldiers who had fought against the Moors, and now were looking for other peoples to conquer, other fields in which to garner fame and golden harvests. The veritable weapons which had been used against the Moors, such as lances, arquebuses, halberds, and the defensive armor—helms, corselets, coats of mail—were taken from their repositories and furbished up anew for this coming conquest of the transatlantic heathen. The nobility, as well as the commonalty, contributed its quota of adventurers; and such was the enthusiasm aboard the ships, such the display of wealth and warlike accoutrement, that a most notable contrast was afforded to the dubious departure from Palos, on the first voyage, scarcely fourteen months before.

By sunset of September 25, 1493, the walls of Cadiz were lost to view. On October 13th, Ferro, in the Canaries (at which Columbus had touched for wood, water, and live-stock), was left behind, and the course was shaped towards the Carib islands, of which the Admiral had been informed by the Indians he had captured in the Gulf of Samana. By sailing more southerly than on the aimless first voyage, he avoided somewhat the Sargasso's vast expanse of seaweeds, and sooner received the strength of the trade-winds. Except for a single tropical tempest, encountered in the last week of October (during which the sailors were treated to a display of "St. Elmo's fire," playing in circles of lambent flame around the flag-ship's topmasts), nothing occurred to mar the serenity of that second outward voyage from Spain. Signs of land were noticed November 1st, and at dawn of the ad, a gloriously beautiful island, like an apparition of enchantment, rose to greet the eager voyagers. This vision of beauty, in the shape of a lofty mountain, clad with varying green from sea-line to summit, was called by Columbus, Dominica, from having been first seen on a Sunday. By this name it is still known, and lies about midway the crescent-shaped chain of islands called the Lesser Antilles, or Caribbees. It should interest the reader to note that here, to-day, on the eastern slopes of that mountain seen by Columbus in November, 1493, resides a remnant of the Carib race, or people, from which the islands took their name. He could not land on the " windward," or Atlantic coast of the island, the seas there were so rough, the shores so difficult of approach, but kept on towards another smaller isle, to which flocks of screaming parrots were winging their way. Here he found a "lee" and landed, taking possession with much ceremony, and giving to the island the name of his flag-ship, Mariegalante. The shores were fringed with fragrant forests, the breezes from which came off to the fleet as sweet as gales from paradise; but another and larger island lured Columbus on. Three thousand feet above the sea yawned the crater of a cloud-capped volcano, its lower slopes and shoulders covered with magnificent forests, while its shores contained the villages of Indians, who fled at the approach of the Spaniards. In a bay of this island the Admiral cast anchor, and sent a boat ashore to find the natives.

Fortunately for some of his company, who were lost in the forest several days, most of the Indian warriors were away on a war expedition to the northward. Only the women and children remained, but some of the females were so fierce, so skilled in the use of their barbaric weapons, fighting like veritable demons, that they could not be captured alive. Their abandoned huts were visited and found to contain cotton hammocks, carved calabashes, spear-heads and ponderous battle-axes of stone, poisoned arrows, and domesticated parrots. Here, also, the Spaniards found what they considered undoubted evidences that these newly discovered Indians were "man-eating cannibals," for from the rafters of the larger huts hung the smoke-dried limbs and heads of human beings! By leaping to this conclusion that the Caribs were cannibals, Columbus fastened a stigma upon those brave people which for many years operated to their hurt. Those smoke-blackened relics which he found in the huts of the island called by the natives Turuqueira, and which he named Guadalupe, were merely the remains of their deceased relatives and ancestors, which they thus piously preserved in the manner prescribed by Carib custom. Columbus made their alleged propensity to devour human beings an excuse for their capture and enslavement, whenever he had opportunity. That was not often, however, for the wary Caribs were rarely found off their guard, and, when discovered, it was more frequently the savage than the Spaniard that came off the conqueror.

Still, the bad name clung to them; and moreover, says an old writer, from their generic name we have derived the term cannibal, cannibal, meaning in the aboriginal speech a man-eater. "And finding in canniba  the word resembling Khan," says this writer, "Columbus was of the opinion that these pretended man-eaters were in reality merely subjects of the great Khan of Cathay, who for a long time had been scanning these seas in search of slaves." Thus we see Columbus still in search of evidence to prove that he had arrived at the outlying possessions of the Grand Khan, for whom, in fact, he was seeking to the end of his days.

Sailing onward, after leaving the island of the great volcano, where he beheld water-falls falling, as it were, out of the clouds, and where the first Caribs had been found in their native haunts, Columbus brought other and equally beautiful islands to view, one after another. Most of them were sky-piercing mountains, covered with virgin forests, sheltering bays, and harbors in which large fleets might lie at anchor. He gave names to all, as the caravels and carracks sailed past their gloomy headlands, or lay idle with their spars and hulls mirrored in calm waters. The island of Montserrat succeeded Guadalupe, both of which he named after monasteries in old Spain. Nevis was the snow-topped mountain; St. Christopher he called after himself and the fabled giant who bore the infant Jesus on his shoulders; Antigua, after a city in Spain; Redonda, because it is round; Santa Cruz, in memory of the holy cross; after which succeeded St. Thomas and St. John, with a great group northwardly which was named the Virgins, in memory of the good St. Ursula and her martyred followers.

Thus sailed the Spaniards through that chain of gemlike islands, passing from one vision of beauty to another, lost in admiration of their charms, and yet hardly daring to explore them, because their destination was that solitary fort on Haiti's northern shore, to the relief of which they were hastening. They tarried at Santa Cruz long enough to skirmish with some Caribs, whom a boatload of sailors surprised in a canoe, while they gazed in wonder upon the great winged vessels sailing past—the first they had ever seen. Rounding a great rock, the boat dashed against the canoe and overturned it, throwing the savages into the sea. They were not a whit dismayed, however, but, recovering their bows and arrows, sent a flight of missiles among the Spaniards, wounding several. One of these warriors was a woman, and might well have been queen of the Amazons, of whom Columbus was in search, so fierce and warlike was she.

Half submerged in the sea as she was, she sent an arrow quite through a Spanish target, which a sailor held up for his protection; while a young man with her, having a lion-like and savage face, did the same. They were only taken after their missiles were exhausted, weak from loss of blood, and even then they fought with tooth and nail. Even after they were on board ship, bound and helpless, their very aspect of ferocity made the timid tremble with affright. Such as these, the brave and fearless rovers of the Caribbean Sea, the Admiral was fortunate in having avoided on his first voyage to the West Indies, though he had met some of the milder ones at Samana. Those that he took in the skirmish mentioned, he sent home to Spain by the returning ships of the fleet, with a recommendation to Isabella that they be sold as slaves, somewhat as a recompense for the cost of the expedition, and also "for the good of their souls."

Near the termination of this voyage through the Caribbees, in which scores of beautiful islands had been discovered, there came into view one larger than the others, vast, forest-covered, mountainous—known to the natives as Borinquen, and renamed by Columbus, San Juan de Puerto Rico, or St. John of the Noble Port. The harbor from which this island derived its name is now called Aguadilla, and lies on the west coast of Puerto Rico—the only island of importance in the West Indies now belonging to the United States. The fleet watered here from a bountiful spring which still gushes forth beneath the cocoa palms, and then the Admiral steered across the channel to Hispaniola, or Haiti, the eastern coast of which he skimmed most hurriedly, being anxious to arrive at Navidad. A brief tarry was made, however, at the Bay of Arrows, where had occurred the only skirmish of the first voyage, and one of the Indians, who had then been carried to Spain, was here put ashore, finely clad and laden with gifts for the cacique, to whom he took a message of greeting from the Admiral. He disappeared, and was never seen again, plunging with all his finery into the great forest, which received him into its secret fastnesses.

On, on sped the fleet, beyond the Bay of Arrows, passing the "Port of the Silver Mountain," but pausing only at Monte Cristi and the Rio del Oro. On the grassy bank of a tributary of this river, as some of the company were looking for gold, they found the corpse of a man, evidently a Spaniard, with a rope of Spanish grass around his neck, as if he had been strangled, and near him the body of a boy. This sad discovery was made when less than a day's sail distant from the fortress of Navidad, so that the gloomy apprehensions to which it gave rise were quickly verified. The fleet arrived off Guarico and Navidad after dark, on November 27th. No light appeared on shore, no answering report came from the fort, when guns were fired on board the flag-ship. Only their echoes replied and the stillness on shore was of the grave. The hours passed by, filled with gloom and suspense; but about midnight a canoe was discovered hovering near, and, being hailed, the Indians in it told a tale of disaster. They said the fort had been attacked by the dread Caonabo, cacique of the Goldstone Country, who had massacred every Spaniard left alive, after a sickness which had wasted them away. Not only had the fierce cacique destroyed the fort and Spaniards, but also the village of Guarico, having wounded Guacanagari and killed many of his people.

Not an eye was closed in sleep that night on board the ships, and in the morning, before the sun had risen above the eastern hills, a search was under way on the site of the fort. It had been burned to the ground, and amid its charred ruins Columbus sadly groped for some indication of the garrison's fate. Cannon were fired, soldiers were sent into the enclosing forest, the few Indians discovered were closely questioned; but all, all in vain. To this clay the fate of Fort Navidad's garrison remains a mystery. By some it was surmised that Cacique Guacanagari had instigated the massacre, and called Caonabo down from his mountain stronghold to commit the bloody deed; but it was probably the result of an independent foray by that savage chieftain of the Cibao country. That Guacanagari had sufficient cause for an attack upon the Spaniards, no apologist for them has had the hardihood to deny; for they ranged the villages with licentious intent, and deprived the chieftain and his subjects of provisions as well as of gold. Humanly speaking, they probably deserved their fate; but it is a saddening thought that the first garrison of white men ever left in America should have been massacred by an outraged people in retaliation for atrocities they had committed.

The fort had been plundered before it was set on fire, and in some of the houses near were found several articles which had belonged to the garrison, as well as an anchor that had been taken from the Santa Maria. Caonabo had evidently tried to carry it off, as well as the lombards, but had been compelled to abandon them on account of their weight. What became of the cannon we do not know; but what is supposed to have been the veritable anchor that was taken ashore from the wrecked vessel, Christmas morning, 1492, was recovered near the site of the fort, by the writer of these lines, and sent for exhibition at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was found on a deserted plantation not far from Guarico, where resided the generous Guacanagari, who welcomed Columbus when in extremity, and gave him the first gold which he obtained in any quantity.

Columbus could not believe in the guilt of Guacanagari, in connection with the massacre of the garrison, and when, at last, he emerged from the forest, whither he had fled at the coming of the fleet, he treated him with consideration. He had been wounded in conflict with Caonabo, showing in evidence a contusion on his leg, which he said caused him great pain and had delayed his coming more promptly to greet his friends of the year before. He was shown the various wonders aboard the ships, including the horses, which amazed and terrified him greatly, as he had never seen any beasts larger than raccoons, or "dumb dogs," which had their habitat in Haiti. He also viewed the prisoners taken in the southern islands, including the Caribs, who appeared so fierce and formidable, even in their chains, that he trembled and shrank away in horror.

There was another group, consisting mostly of Indian women, who had come aboard ship at Puerto Rico, which excited feelings of a different nature in his breast, Among them was a fine-looking maiden of queenly presence, to whom he spoke gently and frequently, as she seemed to have captivated his heart at first sight. None of the Spaniards understood what they said to each other, but the purport of the conversation may be divined from the fact that the next night, while the ship was wrapped in darkness and the crew slept, the queen and her companions slipped overboard and swam ashore. They were pursued by sailors in a boat, but, though the distance was several miles, they succeeded in landing and escaping to the forest. At the same time Chief Guacanagari, who had made a beacon-fire on shore to guide them, also disappeared with all his family, and was not seen again by the Spaniards until a long time afterwards.

The gloomy termination to a voyage that had begun so auspiciously preyed upon the mind of the Admiral to such an extent that he could not bring himself to found a settlement at Guarico, as he had originally intended. While there were most attractive sites for one farther westward, such as in the Vale of Paradise, he chose rather to consider the vicinity to the gold region, Cibao, than natural beauty of location. So he retraced his course to the eastward, intending to land at the Port of the Silver Mountain (now known as Puerto Plata), which would have been a very desirable location. A head wind, however, threw him into a spacious though shallow harbor guarded by coral reefs, into which a winding river discharged its waters. This stream, Columbus was told by the Indians, had its source in the Cibao, or Goldstone region, to which this harbor was so near as to be its natural port. This information was sufficient to decide the Admiral to commence his settlement at this spot, though in itself it had few natural advantages, being a great breastwork of coral rock in front of dense forests, with a white-sanded beach on one side and a river on the other. It was then December 7th, and, having been for more than ten weeks on board ship, the weary crews and passengers were anxious to get firm land beneath their feet. They went ashore most joyfully, and with alacrity set themselves to the building of their city. The carracks and caravels discharged their freightage—of soldiers, cavaliers, priests, monks, horses, sheep, hogs, plants for cultivation, provisions, munitions, and articles for trade and barter—upon a beautiful beach between two coral bluffs. This beach is less than three hundred feet in length, curves like a scimitar, and is overlooked by an abrupt headland which is the sea-front of a wooded plain that extends back to the rocky hills.

It was upon this beach Columbus landed, on December 7, 1493, and upon this headland that he laid the foundations for the first European city in the New World. He called it Isabella, after his royal patroness, and erected here a church, a " king's house," or melting establishment, where the gold was assayed as it was brought from the mountains, and a residence for himself. These were built of stone obtained on the spot, as also was a circular, battlemented tower, later erected for defence. The dwellings of the settlers generally were made of frail material, such as reeds or palm leaves, plastered together with mud, and have long since disappeared; but the more substantial structures remained intact for many years, and not long ago could have been traced by their ruins and foundation-walls, though overgrown with tropical vegetation.