Ponce de Leon - Frederick Ober

A Soldier in Hispaniola


When Columbus discovered the island called by him Hispaniola, or Little Spain, since known as Haiti and Santo Domingo, it was swarming with a native population estimated by Bishop Las Casas at scarcely less than a million. These Indians are particularly described in the Life of Columbus, which is the first volume in the Heroes of American History  series; but we may at least be permitted to refer to the fact that they were governed by five great caciques, or native chiefs, who had long since apportioned the island between them. Guacanagari, whose territory lay along the north coast, and who was the first cacique to greet the Spaniards on their arrival, who had gone to the rescue of Columbus when his flag-ship was wrecked on the reefs off Cape Haitian, who had placed all his possessions at the disposal of the strangers and allowed them to build a fort in his dominions, was the first to meet death at their hands.

Then followed the "Lord of the Golden House," Caonabo, the spirited chieftain who lived in the mountains, who was captured by stratagem, imprisoned at Isabella, the first settlement, and died in chains and misery on the voyage to Spain. Guarionex, the lord of the royal Vega, or great plain of the interior, saw his people massacred by the Spaniards, and was drowned while a prisoner on board a ship which went down in a hurricane. Behechio, the brother-in-law of Caonabo, died of grief, it is said, because of the outrages perpetrated by the Spaniards, who overran his territory, in the western part of the island, and reduced many of his people to slavery.

During the ten years intervening between the coming of Columbus and Ovando, the native population had been reduced one-half, or at least one-third, by means of deliberate massacres, famine, and sickness, incidental to the compulsory labor in the mines, and innumerable atrocities, the mere narration of which almost chills the blood with horror. The Spaniards overran the island "like fiends let loose from hell," by means of blood-hounds ferreting out and destroying such fugitives as fled from their oppressions in the mines and on the plantations, and sought refuge in the forests and mountains. The distresses of the natives culminated when Ovando took the field (as already narrated), and, his wolfish instinct awakened by the sight and scent of blood, hunted his helpless prey like a wild beast of the forest. Troops of savage horsemen scoured the plains, equally savage footmen invaded the mountains, and the Indians that did not die of starvation were sought out and slain, even in caverns and ravines where they had taken refuge.

Having reduced the Indians of Anacaona's country to subjection, after bringing them to the verge of extermination, Ovando declared that section of the island subjugated. In token of his triumph, after slaughtering thousands of peaceful natives and committing atrocities unspeakable, he founded a town near the centre of Xaragua province, which, with horrible irony, he named Santa Maria de la Verdadera Paz, or Saint Mary of the Veritable Peace. Then he and his band of murderers returned to the city of Santo Domingo, where they brought this carnival of bloodshed to a close by the hanging of Queen Anacaona and her surviving chieftains.

The ruins may be seen to-day, on the left bank of the river Ozama, of the chapel in which, according to tradition, Don Nicolas de Ovando piously rendered thanks to the Almighty for his victory over the natives. In this same chapel, a few years before, Don Francisco de Bobadilla had caused to be proclaimed his authority from the Spanish sovereigns for arresting Columbus and expelling him from the island. Don Francisco had perished in the hurricane of which he had been warned by his victim, who was then on his fourth and last voyage to the West Indies, and was soon to experience the vindictive ferocity of Bobadilla's successor.

It was towards the end of that voyage, which was the most unfortunate Columbus had ever undertaken, that he was wrecked, on the coast of Jamaica, and for a twelve-month imprisoned in a half-sunken, stranded hulk, while awaiting succor from Ovando. With the latter, during his Xaragua campaign, was the unwilling messenger, Diego Mendez, whom Columbus had sent imploring assistance. The faithful Mendez, after experiencing the perils of a voyage across the channel between Jamaica and Haiti in a canoe, during which several of his companions died from exposure, and the whole party nearly perished from thirst, was compelled to await Ovando's pleasure for many months, while Columbus and his people were suffering from starvation. Ovando's intention, doubtless, was to delay sending assistance to his rival until he should have succumbed to the deadly perils which environed him; and he is said to have been greatly chagrined when the vessel, which he finally despatched to Jamaica, arrived at Santo Domingo with Columbus on board.

Great were the grief and indignation of Columbus and his brother, Don Bartholomew (who was then in his company), to learn of what had taken place in Xaragua. A province which they knew as a veritable Eden of delights had been given over to bloodshed and ravage; a queen, whose gracious hospitality Don Bartholomew had experienced, and whose lovely qualities were known to both, had been executed like a common malefactor.



But they were helpless to avenge the Indians' wrongs. Indeed, the Admiral must have reflected, sadly if not remorsefully, that he had been the first to commit those wrongs. Scant ten years had elapsed since he marched with his army through the great mountain-valley known as the royal Vega, then teeming with people and abounding in natural productions for the sustenance of man. The battle of the Vega had been fought, which he had overlooked from the hill of Santo Cerro. On the one side were mailed soldiers armed with swords and arquebuses, assisted by ferocious blood-hounds; on the other a horde of naked Indians, helpless in their ignorance of stern war's requirements, and defenceless save for weapons of the rudest sort. It was not a battle, it was a massacre, and he, Columbus, was the real author and instigator of it. He was, in truth, but the precursor of Roldan, Bobadilla, and Ovando, each more ferocious, more fiendish than the other. What, then, could he say to Ovando in rebuke; what could he do, even had he the desire, to stay the ravage? He could say nothing, do nothing; so he went back to Spain in sorrow, a broken-hearted, utterly despairing man, there to find his royal patroness, Isabella, near her death, and Ferdinand deaf to his petitions for relief.

We have nothing more to do with the deeds of Columbus, except as we come upon their consequences while following the adventures of that hitherto elusive cavalier, Juan Ponce de Leon, whose real career commences as that of the great discoverer nears its end. If he saw Columbus (as doubtless he may have seen him) at the time he was dictating terms to Ferdinand and Isabella, at Granada, so in all probability he met him after his rescue, in Santo Domingo. For Juan Ponce was in Santo Domingo at the time—in the island, if not in the city—and had won the commendation of Governor Ovando by his "sagacity and valor" in warfare with the Indians.

It is not to his credit either to have found favor with Ovando or to have shown proficiency in his trade or profession, which was that of the soldier—in other words, a murderer. There might have been an excuse for his adoption of this pursuit in Spain, inasmuch as he was fighting the enemies of his country; but in Hispaniola there were no enemies to combat. The Indians never made an assault, never laid an ambuscade or attacked a dwelling, save in retaliation for crimes committed by the Spaniards, who were always the aggressors. When they ceased from plundering, the Indians returned to their homes; when they sheathed the sword, or called back their blood-hounds, the "war" was over.

Whether Juan Ponce de Leon came to Hispaniola with Columbus in 1493, or with Ovando in 1502, the first view we get of this doughty cavalier shows him engaged in a disreputable business. Not only disreputable, but debasing and murderous, for he was harrying defenceless natives: driving them from their homes, setting fire to their huts, and making them feel the keen edge of his sword.

These acts were not held to be debasing by the "Christian" cavalier of that period—and doubtless that was what Don Juan Ponce considered himself. The Christian cavaliers of Spain had harried the Moors in a similar manner, and had plundered the Jews as effectually as they plucked the Indians of Hispaniola, and both these people were civilized. They differed from the Spaniards in their religious belief, however, and that in itself, the so-called Christian cavaliers opined, was sufficient to cause them to be sent to the stake, and, if they did not recant, to burn in the fires of hell forever after.

Now, the unfortunate Indians were neither civilized nor Christians, consequently they were not, in the opinion of the Spaniards, entitled to any consideration whatever. Droves of them were baptized, thousands cast away their idols and professed a belief in the Spaniards' God; but these subterfuges availed them only to escape the torments of the hereafter—or, at least, did not mitigate those inflicted by the "Christian" cavaliers. They continued their tortures, they deprived the natives of their gold, their homes, and finally of their lives; for the last of the race passed out of existence hundreds of years ago.

Four of the Indian caciquedoms, as we have seen, were subjugated, and their rulers murdered, within ten years of the first arrival of Columbus. There yet remained another, which, in the year 1504, met its fate at the hands of Ovando. This was the province of Higuey, which included the eastern portion of the island, vast and fertile, inhabited by a very warlike people. North of it lay the bay of Samana, on the shore of which Columbus had his first encounter with American Indians; east lay the Mona channel, separating Santo Domingo from the island of Porto Rico, and the south coast was laved by the waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Off this south coast lies a lonely islet known as Saona, the shores of which are rugged, the interior wild and forest-covered. Saona to-day is almost as lonely and desolate as in the time, four hundred years ago, of which we write. It was then a retreat of the cacique of Higuey, who retired thither as to a fortress when he wished to rest undisturbed. One day, from his lofty aerie on the crags of Saona, the cacique of Higuey espied a Spanish shallop bearing down to take the channel between his islet and the larger island.

It was not often that Spaniards fell into the clutches of the Indians; but here was an evident opportunity not only for plunder, but at the same time for revenge. Only a few weeks had passed since Cotubanama (for that was the name of the cacique of Higuey) had seen a fellow-chief killed—torn to pieces before his very eyes—by a blood-hound, set upon him by a Spaniard. He himself had narrowly escaped the fangs of the ferocious brute, having lingered to assist his friend, though in vain.

He clutched his great bow and three-pronged arrows, and with long strides set off for the shore, followed by a few retainers. There he found a sufficient number of Indians to man three war-canoes, with which he skirted the cliffs, and in their shelter lingered till dusk, waiting for the shallop to become becalmed, in the interval between the sea and land breeze. He had rightly calculated, for night, as he expected, found the boat idly drifting between the two islands. The Spaniards, eight in number, lay down to sleep, not anticipating harm from the direction of the sea, and knowing that a few hours must elapse before the land breeze would be strong enough to waft them onward. Swiftly and silently the canoes closed about the shallop, over the bulwarks of which the Indians swarmed noiselessly—and it came to pass that the friend of Cotubanama was, that night, avenged!

When the sad tidings reached Ovando he was at headquarters in Santo Domingo, resting after his foray into the Xaragua country. His soldiers were with him, encamped in the suburbs of the town, along the banks of the river Ozama. They were panting like hounds that had been on a hunt, having had little rest, and were worn down with fatigue; but the prospect of a fresh quarry to pursue and the plunder of a people that had never been ravaged, enlivened them as it were wine had been given them. Four hundred of them were told off for the invasion of Higuey, and placed under the command of a veteran campaigner, Juan de Esquivel. With him in a subordinate capacity, as captain of a company, went Juan Ponce de Leon.

Incidentally we may remark, the forays of Governor Ovando against the Indians of Hispaniola brought to light several individuals who achieved a greater reputation than himself, for at Xaragua he had with him Velasquez, who commanded the company that penned Anacaona's caciques in a hut of the village and then destroyed them by setting it on fire. This cavalier was afterwards selected by Don Diego Columbus, who succeeded Ovando in the government of the island, to accomplish the conquest of Cuba, which he did, assisted by Fernando Cortes, who also fleshed his sword on the natives of Xaragua. Now he brings to the front, though unwittingly, Juan Ponce de Leon; but doubtless, could he have foreseen what a great career he was opening before him, he would rather have slain him in cold blood. Juan Ponce was at that time merely a soldier of fortune, apparently with no other wealth than his sword and what it brought him. He was a good soldier, but by no means a super-excellent one, though, it was said, Ovando was attracted by his dogged courage, his uncomplaining fortitude, and had him in mind for promotion.

Before the little army left the capital for the unknown province of Higuey, the governor harangued the troops, in an open field back of the chapel, on the left bank of the river. "You must know, my men," he said, addressing Juan de Esquivel and Juan Ponce in particular, but in a voice that all might hear—"You must know, that this province of Higuey is a virgin field, so far as invasion by Christians is concerned. Hence I scarce need to tell you there will probably be found vast spoil of gold, perchance of silver; for those barbarians have been raking the sands and gleaning the streams for centuries. It was known to the Colombinos, who intended to invade it, but, in the providence of God, were prevented by my opportune arrival."

At this point the pious governor clasped his hands and turned his eyes to heaven, while the soldiers huzzaed most heartily. Then he concluded: "The people of Higuey are the worst of pagans—heathen, without a redeeming trait, and hence ye will not spare them, neither men, nor women, nor children. Go, my sons, and may Heaven help ye to render a good account of the incorrigible heathen of Higuey."