Ponce de Leon - Frederick Ober

Juan Ponce, Provincial Governor


Cotubanama was bound and taken to a deserted Indian village, whence a trail was discovered leading to his secret hiding-place, in a vast cavern beneath impending cliffs. Here the Spaniards had expected to find his wife and family; but they had received intimation of the disaster that had overtaken the cacique, and quietly slipped away. In the cave were found many rude implements of warfare, such as stone axes, war-clubs, pikes made of seasoned wood with their points hardened in the fire, bows, and arrows. Here also were found several Spanish swords, which had been brought as trophies by some Indians, who, taken and enslaved by the Spaniards, had risen upon their captors and, after slaying them, had escaped to Saona. Besides the swords were found the chains the Indians had worn, and from which they had freed their limbs by filing them off with hard stones. With these chains the captive chief was manacled, and then was taken to the shore, placed aboard the caravel, and sent to Santo Domingo.

As may be imagined, the Spanish soldiers were overjoyed at getting the renowned Cotubanama in their power, and, as he had caused them so much trouble, they resolved to gratify their ferocious instincts by broiling him to death upon a wooden gridiron. No death less merciful would serve to allay their resentment against the fallen chieftain, whose sole crime consisted in a sturdy defense of his native land, and he would doubtless have been sacrificed in this inhuman manner had not Commander Esquivel interfered. He dared his soldiers' anger and opposed their barbarous purpose—not because he was inclined to be more merciful than they, but because of his promise to Ovando. Much as the common soldiers might have been delighted at witnessing the death-throes of their captive, much as Esquivel himself would have rejoiced to see Cotubanama writing in the midst of flames—far more would it redound to their credit if they should send the chieftain to the arch-fiend, Ovando.

"Hold, comrades!" Esquivel commanded, as, having dragged the cacique to the shore, the soldiers busied themselves about the details of his execution. "Hold, I command ye! What would ye, deprive the governor of his long-cherished revenge? Know ye not that I have promised him the pleasure of torturing this captive—of sending him to his final account? Refrain, then, from proceeding further, my good men, with this matter. We have done our duty by taking him, and subduing the rebellion he caused; let us now win further favor of our lord and master by delivering to him this prisoner. Let the poor wretch remain on board the caravel, and we will go with him to the capital, there to witness his execution."

There was vast grumbling over this speech by Esquivel, for the soldiers were amazed that he should interfere in the matter of applying torture to an Indian victim, having hitherto allowed them to proceed as they liked. Some were engaged in fashioning the "gridiron," some were gathering fuel for the fire, others were sharpening their swords and lances, preparatory to gashing their victim as he lay broiling over the coals. They muttered and blasphemed; some of them complained that Ovando would not allow them to witness the tortures preceding the execution, he was so extremely selfish.

"He likes to gloat over the tortures all alone," said one of the soldiers. "He seems to think the flavor gone from them when shared by others. I would wager my year's pay—and it is now six months overdue—that he tortures our captive deep in the dungeon, with nobody present but the executioner."

And so it was, for when, after sullenly acquiescing in the scheme of their commander, the soldiers had accompanied the captive to the capital, they were denied the privilege of witnessing the torturing process; though, indeed, they were allowed to guard the scaffold upon which Cotubanama was hanged.

Juan de Esquivel delayed his departure for the city of Santo Domingo only long enough to advise his coadjutor, Ponce de Leon, as to the course he should pursue with the conquered people, and set such of the soldiers in motion for the land journey homeward as were not detailed to serve with the adelantado. Then he sailed away in the caravel, leaving to Juan Ponce the government of the province. With the capture of Cotubanama all resistance ceased, and with his death on the scaffold all hopes of the natives were suffocated. For he was the last of the caciques, the last of five native sovereigns, all of whom had been discovered by the Spaniards ruling their subjects wisely and happily, but had, more or less directly, suffered death at their hands.

Ponce de Leon had urged Esquivel to allow him charge and control of Cotubanama, as thereby he hoped to secure, through him, the confidence of his former subjects; but the creature of Ovando refused. "Be content, my little governor," he said, "that I leave you people enough to form a community, over which you may rule—a community without a cacique, consequently without a centre of disaffection. There is no other like this savage Cotubanama, and soon after our arrival in the capital, me-thinks, there will be no great cacique at all left in the island, for he is the last of his race, and the governor will not be able to prevent himself from exterminating it. For, as thou knowest, Juanito, our lord, Don Nicolas de Ovando, hath a double, and that double is the devil, who urgeth him to commit the atrocities of which we know."

"He hath a devil, say you?" replied Ponce de Leon. "Then, sooth, what, in the name of the saints, hast thou, Juan de Esquivel? Judged by thy works, a legion of devils, and no less!"

Juan Ponce was ever blunt and plain-spoken, and now that he had become adelantado, with no one present to command him, he might well indulge himself in language that expressed his feelings, which had been overwrought of late. His companion winced, but he replied without trace of ill-feeling: "Mayhap. I myself cannot account for my actions, which, of a truth, have not been such as the saints might commend. But thou hast an opportunity, my adelantado, of showing what can be wrought from this raw material, the population of Higuey. It is not so bad as it might be, and having no head, it will look up to thee to supply that deficiency."

It was as the experienced Esquivel had said it would be: After his departure, such was the paralysis of the body politic in Higuey, caused by the terrible punishment the rebels had received, that Juan Ponce found little use for the few soldiers left with him to enforce his orders. He first busied himself at healing, so far as he could, the wounds caused by war. He established hospitals in which the sick and wounded might be treated, and though they were poorly equipped, owing to the opposition of Ovando to his plans for ameliorating the wretched condition of his people, they were instrumental in restoring to health many an Indian who might otherwise have died of the injuries inflicted by the adelantado's former comrades in azins.

The poor souls seemed to forget the injuries they had received, and, remembering only the favors at the hands of Juan Ponce de Leon, became his abject slaves. The possession of authority, by which he was enabled to carry out schemes of his own initiative, broadened his nature and caused his heart to expand with sympathy for the oppressed. Relieved from the evil dominance of Ovando, which allowed his better feelings scope for action, Juan Ponce turned his attention to the meek and mournful natives, whose last struggle against their oppressors had exhausted their resources and left them in mute despair. Formerly they had led a life of perfect happiness, knowing no wants which their simple existence created that could not be supplied by bountiful nature. They were indolent and ease-loving, adapting themselves to the climate, and working only in the cool hours of dawn and dusk. The noontide hours were devoted to rest, in the hammocks which their ancestors had invented, stretched between trees which, perchance, might be laden with delicious fruits. In the evening they danced to the music of rude instruments, and sang in unison the native areytos, or ballads, which commemorated the traditions of their race.

The coming of the Spaniards had changed the lives of the Indians, so that, even though those of Juan Ponce's province were not compelled to labor in the mines to any great extent, and most of such families as had survived intact were allowed to live together, or near one another, they were sullen, silent, and despairing. The forests no longer rang to their shouts, the fields and dwellings to their songs, for their spirits were broken, their hearts were bleeding. Even the children were mournful and mute.

Fortunately for Juan Ponce, there were few mines in his province, and thus he was not tempted by greed of gold to send his subjects into the bowels of the earth, there to wear out their lives in unending misery. But the country was fertile, and as the Spaniards were compelled to subsist upon the products of the land, which were nutritious and varied, the adelantado soon found a way of forcing the utmost available from the Indians' labor. He kept all the adults at work in the field—all that were able to labor—and gradually brought under cultivation a vast region, with fields of golden maize miles in extent. The native fruits were found and cultivated, such as the anana, or pineapple, the cacao, or cocoa, the aguacate, or alligator-pear; and the few sylvan creatures suitable for food were sought out for the table: the guana, or white-fleshed lizard, the aguti, or coney, wild parrots, and wild hogs. Such an abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish from the sea, shrimps from the rivers, birds and quadrupeds from the forest, had the adelantado supplied to him, that he really revelled in. the bounties of nature. Though at first he was restless and lonesome, from lack of congenial companions, he rapidly grew into his work (or settled into the harness, as he expressed it), and by the time the returns from field and forest, sea and river, came to him in a bounteous stream, he seemed more than content to remain in Higuey for the remainder of his life.

After ranging the province with his band of soldiers, more for the purpose of ascertaining its resources than for pacification—as there was no disturbance worthy the name of rebellion—Juan Ponce finally settled his military establishment at a point in the eastern country, within view of the channel that separates the island from Porto Rico. It was at or near the meeting-place of rivers, with mountains behind it, and a fair plain before. To-day it is approximately located on the map, and its founders' name perpetuated by the name of "Salva Leon de Higuey." So small a place is the settlement that succeeded to Juan Ponce's establishment that some maps omit it altogether, and few are the travellers that ever reach it, for the roads are terrible, the rivers to ford are many, and the habitations of civilized people few and far between.

The last of the Indians passed away many years ago, and their places were filled by negro slaves imported from Africa, whose descendants now occupy the country where roamed the heroic Caonabo and Cotubanama. Hardly a trace remains of Spanish occupation: the Spaniards themselves were expeled long ago; Salva Leon is a miserable settlement, and Saona is desolate.