Columbus the Discoveror - Frederick Ober

Where the Flag-Ship was Wrecked


The first disaster to the fleet came through the agency of a boy. He was, perhaps, the first white boy in America, and the only one who went with Columbus on that memorable voyage. He is mentioned but once, and then in terms of censure; but what he did will be shown a little further on. Meanwhile, let us sail with Columbus across the sea-channel between Tortuga and the main island, thence along the coast, until we arrive at the scene of disaster referred to.

When in mid-channel, the Santa Maria  overtook an old Indian in a still older canoe, and both in danger from the heavy seas, the Admiral thought, so he took them aboard. Through the Indians from the Bahamas, who were able to speak a few Spanish words, Columbus inquired of the man in what direction lay Cipango. To his great joy, the Indian pointed to some misty mountain peaks of the interior, and said, "Ci-ba-o, Ci-ba-o."

There was, indeed—and is to-day—a mountainous region of Haiti called by that name, which abounds in gold, and, moreover, it lay in the direction indicated by the Indian, only a few clays' travel from the coast. Cibao, in the Haitian language, means the "gold-stone country," and the name of this gold-producing region was so similar to " Cipango," that Columbus was certain they were one and the same. He was confirmed in this impression by a young cacique who came to meet him at the beautiful Bay of Acul. He was borne on the shoulders of his subjects, and brought a present from his superior cacique, Guacanagari, in the shape of a cotton girdle, to which was attached a sort of mask, with face, tongue, ears, and nose of beaten gold. His men, also, were abundantly supplied with gold in grains, which they gladly bartered for trifles like beads and bells. They came by land, they came by sea—running, swimming, paddling in their frail canoes—for they had been told of these simple men who gave beads and cascabels, for gold which they could pick up in the streams at will, by a woman whom the Spaniards took captive at San Nicolas. They had found her in the forest, and when they took her aboard ship she was overcome by fear; but when presented with some glittering beads and jingling bells, she leaped overboard, swam ashore, and told all her neighbors of the "men who had come down from the sky." So they came to see for themselves, and though not one of them wore clothing of any kind, each man, woman, and child was provided with gold. This they desired to exchange for the chug-chugs, or cascabels, the tinkling music of which was new to them, and one Indian, after giving for one of these trifles a nugget of gold worth perhaps a hundred dollars, ran away as fast as his legs could carry him, lest the Spaniard should repent of his bargain and take the bell away!

At last, thought Columbus, the Spaniards had arrived at Cipango, that land of gold and spices described by Marco Polo. The cacique, Guacanagari, if not a representative of the Grand Khan, must be an allied potentate surely and an invitation to visit his court was promptly accepted. The gentle people who had welcomed them to Acul were loath to let them go, and of the bay itself Columbus wrote: "I have now been at sea twenty-three years, with scarcely any intermission, and have seen the East and the West; but in all those parts I have never witnessed so much of perfection in harbors as in this." He and his sailors had been for four months in almost daily expectation of something dire to happen; they had dreamed of sea-serpents, submarine monsters, and mermaids; they had wailed over the continuous trade-winds, which, always blowing from the direction of Spain, would prevent them from returning home; and they were fearful that, having reached the bottom of that "watery hill," they should never get back again. But their blissful experiences on the coast of Haiti thus far had lulled their suspicions and calmed their fears. Having found the seas around those islands ever smooth and serene, the breezes gentle, and the currents favorable, they had become careless and neglectful of their duties.

On the morning of a bright and beautiful day, December 24th, the flag-ship and the caravel set their sails and coasted easterly again, over a sea of glassy smoothness, past noble headlands crowned with palms, past crescent-shaped beaches of snowy sands, with valleys, veritable vales of paradise, reaching back into the mountains. The distance to Guarico, the cacique's town, was not great, but as the breezes were light and baffling, interspersed with calms, the day passed by and night arrived before the bay on which it stood was sighted. As the sea was smooth and the flag-ship almost motionless, Columbus concluded to take a much-needed rest, and about midnight retired to his cabin, after cautioning the master to keep a careful watch. But the captain of the watch followed his example, and then the helmsman, tired of holding an immovable tiller, gave it to a boy, and went to sleep. Then the only wakeful person on board the flag-ship was that hapless lad, into whose hands chance had thrust the helm, at the very time the most extreme care was necessary. For, though the fragrant breezes from off shore were light and zephyr-like, and the sea shone in the moonlight like molten silver, yet there was a terrible force at work, urging the ship upon an unseen shoal. In a word, the Santa Maria  was carried by a treacherous current upon a reef—silently, but with great violence, so that she became firmly wedged, and her seams began to open. The alert ear of the Admiral heard the waves lapping against her sides at the instant the boy's cry of alarm rang through the ship, and he hurried on deck. Taking in the situation at a glance, he ordered a boat astern with an anchor, in order to warp the ship off the reef; but the master, to whom this was intrusted rowed off to the caravel, which was less than two miles to windward. Though the sea was calm, the heavy swell came in with great force from the open ocean, and soon it was necessary to cut away the masts. Even this extreme measure did not save her, for she began breaking up soon after, and Columbus saw that he must abandon his good ship Santa Maria, in which he had sailed from Spain to the New World.

As the reef on which the ship struck was only four or five miles from Guarico, the Admiral sent messengers to the cacique imploring assistance, which was rendered promptly and cheerfully by the Indian chief. He sent a fleet of canoes to the reef, in which all the wreckage of the vessel was taken ashore before day had dawned. At sunrise, Columbus and his crew were the guests of the cacique with the almost unpronounceable name—the generous Guacanagari.

This, the first accident of moment that happened on the first voyage to America, occurred in the early hours of Christmas morning, 1492. Preparations had probably been made for a festival that day, but, instead of rejoicing, the Spaniards all gave way to gloom and despondency. Noting the Admiral's downcast looks, and hearing him sigh deeply and frequently, the cacique did his best to cheer him, though he is said to have shed tears of sympathy when he received his honored guest at Guarico. Literally speaking, he placed all he had at his disposal, and such was the honesty and goodwill of these barbarous aborigines, who for the first time then looked upon civilized man, that not even a nail or a bolt was lost from the wreckage of the flag-ship.

It was piled upon the beach, and during the week that followed a small fort was constructed from the timbers, which was defended by the lombards that, ten weeks before, had saluted the newly-discovered San Salvador. One of these cannon was fired expressly for King Guacanagari's benefit, and when, for the first time in their peaceful lives, he and his subjects heard its thunderous roar wake the echoes of their hills, and its ponderous ball crash through the forest trees, they all fell to the ground, overcome by fear. They themselves possessed no more forceful weapons than their bows and arrows, and when a Moorish cross-bowman gave an exhibition of his skill they were filled with surprise. They recognized the potency of such allies as these turey  men, or heaven-sent beings, in their wars with the fierce cannibals of the more southern islands; but this was not the motive that impelled them to open-handed generosity, for that was but a part of their noble nature. Nothing the Spaniards desired was withheld from them, and as for gold, it was brought to Columbus in such quantities that he really believed, as he wrote in a letter to his sovereigns, that more than a ton could be collected in a year. The cacique even doffed his golden crown, and compelled a companion chief to do the same, presenting both coronets to the Admiral; while, for such a trifle as a cascabel, the natives would gladly give a handful of gold-dust in exchange, considering themselves well paid.

Bathed as it was in a golden atmosphere, steeped in the suns of a perpetual summer, yielding the most delicious fruits and fragrant flowers of the tropics, this island of Haiti seemed to the Spaniards not far short of paradise. When, in the preparation for departure, it became necessary to leave a portion of the flag-ship's crew behind, more men offered to remain than wished to return to Spain. The little Nina  could not carry all, to the number of ninety or a hundred men, so forty were told off to man the fort which had been built from the flag-ship's wreckage, and placed under command of Diego de Arana, notary and alguacil  to the armament. There is a tradition that the boy who was at the helm when the Santa Maria  was wrecked, formed one of the garrison of this first fort erected in America by Europeans, but no further mention is made of him. He was "only a boy," though he was sturdily doing his best when the ship was forced upon the reef, and deserved better of fate than to be thrust back into oblivion. He was unfortunate in having the helm at the time of an accident which shortened the voyage and compelled Columbus to set sail for Spain when on the threshold of discovery.

During the week between Christmas of 1492 and New Year's Day, 1493—two dates which will serve to fix these memorable events in mind—much gold was collected, and the fort was built, which was called Navidad (the Nativity), on account of the day on which the wreck occurred. In a letter written off the Canaries, on the voyage home, Columbus said:

"I have taken possession of a large town, to which I gave the name of Navidad, and have built a fort there, in every respect complete. And I have left sufficient people in it to take care of it, with artillery and provisions for more than a year, also a boat and a coxswain, all in complete friendship with the king of the island, to that degree that he delighted to call me, and looked on me as, his brother. And should they fall out with these people, neither he nor his subjects know anything of weapons, and go naked, and are the most timorous people in the world. The few people left there are sufficient to conquer the country, and the island would thus remain without danger to them, they keeping order among themselves . . .

"Hitherto I have not seen in any of these islands any monsters, as there were supposed to be, nor have heard of any, except at an island which is second in going to the Indies, and which is inhabited by a people who are considered in all the islands as ferocious, and who devour human flesh. These have many canoes, in which they scour all the islands of India and plunder all they can. They are fierce as compared with the other people, who are in general but sad cowards."

Columbus, and the men he left in Navidad, reckoned too much upon the cowardice of the Haitian people, and left out of their calculation the ferocious Caribs, who roamed the sea in their great war-canoes, with the result that when he returned to this place less than a year later not one of the garrison remained alive to greet him! Before he departed, Guacanagari spread forth a banquet, the like of which neither he nor any other white man had ever enjoyed before. Seated on the ground beneath umbrageous trees, with modest Indian maids to wait on them, and lave their hands with water in calabashes scented with fragrant herbs, the Spaniards ate their fill of native fruits and viands. They were served with ajÚs, or nutritive roots; native bread made from cassavi, such as the island has to-day; shrimp from the streams; parrots and utias  from the forests, with a beverage made from the palm to "wash them down;" and finally they were given Y-shaped tubes of cane, through which they were taught to inhale the fumes of a weed called tobacco. There was nothing lacking which the island could supply, and in respect to their hospitality Columbus has well said: "Where they have confidence and forget their fears, they are so open-hearted and liberal with all they possess that it is scarcely to be believed without seeing it. If anything that they have is asked of them, they never deny it; on the contrary, their generosity is so great that they would give anything, whether it is costly or not, for, anything of every kind that is offered them, and be quite contented with it."

The Spaniards left these people with regret, all those who had not been detailed to garrison the fort setting sail eastward in the little Nina. This was on January 4th, and Guacanagari's banquet may have been given about New Year's Day. At all events, it was in the first week of the year 1493 that the Admiral bade farewell to his good friend, the cacique, to whom he commended his friends in the fort, and actually began the homeward voyage to Spain. The signal gun fired on board the Pinta  was answered by a parting salute from the fort, and the departing voyagers looked their last upon their countrymen left alone in that wilderness surrounded by savages.

Having lost his largest vessel by ship-wreck, and having left a year's supply of provisions with the garrison, Columbus felt compelled to hasten homeward, when, but for the accident to the Santa Maria, he would probably have explored the unknown interior of Haiti, which he called Isla Espanola  (Spanish Island). He sailed along the north coast of the island, through three degrees of longitude, before taking his final departure, however, and only two days out from Guarico fell in with Captain Martin Alonzo, who came towards him in the Pinta, straight before the wind. He had been all the time trading with the natives for gold, which he had found in abundance, for he had sailed into a river which flowed down from the Cibao, or Goldstone country, guided thither by the Indians whom he had taken aboard at Cuba. A shrewd and capable mariner was Captain Martin Alonzo, and as he commanded the larger of the two remaining vessels, it behooved Columbus to handle him cautiously, lest he sail off and leave him, with his crazy little craft now crowded to the bulwarks. So he spoke with him warily, and reproved him gently for his dereliction; but he compelled him to restore to liberty four captives he had on board, greatly to Pinzon's disgust.

In the river where Martin Alonzo had been trading, turtles and manatees (which Columbus mistook for mermaids) were seen in great numbers, and when the Spaniards went in to fill their water-casks, flakes of gold adhered to the hoops and were seen sparkling in the sands. This river was known to the natives as the Yaqui, but, on account of the auriferous character of its sands, the Admiral called it the Rio del Oro, or River of Gold. It is a large and beautiful river, having its source in the Cibao region of that portion of the island now known as Santo Domingo, and still retains its aboriginal name. Eastward from the Yaqui, a few leagues, the Admiral sighted a tentlike promontory, which he named Monte Cristi, and in the harbor it sheltered held converse with Pinzon as to the route to pursue. They concluded to hold on their course along the coast until it dipped to the south, when they would strike out into open ocean. Thus they sailed along a most picturesque coast, interweaving with the warp of its beautiful scenery the woof of historical occurrences. They passed the point where, the next year, the first New-World city was founded, sailed by a shining mountain which Columbus called La Plata—the Silver—the name of its port to-day, and at last arrived off that superb promontory Cape Cabron. The Spaniards named it Cabo del Enamorado, or the Lover's Cape, but for what reason no one knows. Beyond, a few leagues, they looked upon the great, granite face of Balandra Head, another promontory, draped in flowing robes of tropic tapestry, and guarding the most magnificent bay, or gulf, they had then discovered. This was the great Bay of Samana, containing on its western shores other and smaller bays, silver-sanded, forest-fringed, with tinkling streamlets sparkling beneath overhanging palms, and sea-birds flitting over waves that gently lapped the shore. As the scene was entrancing, and water was needed for the voyage, a boat was sent ashore with an armed guard, followed by Columbus with a party intent on observation only. While the water-casks were being filled, a savage came strolling up, whose fearless manner was so sharply in contrast with the cringing nature of the people hitherto encountered, that the Admiral was led to observe him closely. He was ferocious of aspect and his face was decorated with war-paint, while his weapons were of finer make and more effective than those in use by the natives of Cuba and Haiti generally. He carried a bow of great length, his arrows were slender reeds, and his sword was of iron-wood, so heavy and so sharp that "it was capable of cleaving through a man's helmet to the very brain."

When the savage was brought to Columbus, he entered into conversation with him through the interpreters, and gained much information of a doubtful character as to the islands south and east of Babeque. There, for instance, was the "island of Amazons," Madinino, inhabited only by ferocious women warriors, who slew every man that landed on their shores; and this Amazonian island was long and vainly sought by Columbus in subsequent voyages. This Indian had been probably sent out as a lure, for he was a Carib, one of those fierce cannibals of whom the Admiral had heard but never seen, and led the Spaniards into an ambush. Suddenly there appeared "a body of fifty Indians, all naked, with coarse hair as long as the women wear it in Castile, the backs of their heads adorned with parrots' feathers, and in their hands big bows, arrows, javelins, and war-clubs." They assumed at first a friendly attitude, laying aside their weapons, but, suddenly changed about, seized their bows and war-clubs, and attacked the Spaniards fiercely. Though taken by surprise, the latter repelled the attack, and with their sharp swords wounded several of the Caribs, when the others fled into the forest with howls of rage and dismay. They were not followed, but the next day their cacique came down from his residence in the hills accompanied by hundreds of his warriors, and traded with the Spaniards amicably, among other things of value, presenting to Columbus a coronet of gold.