Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober

With Ojeda the Fighter


Those who have read the History of Columbus will doubtless remember the character and exploits of Alonzo de Ojeda. He was about twenty-one years of age when he accompanied Columbus on his second voyage (1493); he had, however, already distinguished himself by his enterprising spirit and headlong valor, and his exploits during that voyage contributed to enhance his reputation. He returned to Spain with the Admiral, but did not go with him on his third voyage, in 1498. He had a cousin-german of his own name, Padre Alonzo de Ojeda, a Dominican friar, who was a great favorite with the Spanish sovereigns, and on intimate terms with Don Juan Rodriguez Fonseca, who had the chief management of affairs in the Indies.

Through the good offices of this cousin, young Alonzo was introduced to Fonseca, to whose especial favor and patronage he was warmly recommended. While Ojeda was lingering about the court, letters were received from Columbus giving an account of the events of his third (1498) voyage, accompanied by charts descriptive of his route, specimens of pearls, gold, etc., in order to impress the sovereigns with the great value of his most recent discovery. The Admiral had good and sufficient reasons for making the most of this discovery, as his enemies in Spain and in the West Indies were seeking to belittle his great deeds, hence his indiscretion in placing the proofs of his achievement in the hands of his implacable foe, Bishop Fonseca. He could not return at that time, owing to the terrible condition of affairs in Hispaniola, which demanded his continued presence there—as narrated in his Life.

The tidings he sent caused a great sensation among the maritime adventurers of Spain; but no one was more excited by them than Alonzo de Ojeda, who, from his intimacy with Fonseca, had full access to the charts and correspondence of Columbus, and who immediately conceived the project of making a voyage in the route thus marked out by the Admiral, and of seizing upon the first fruits of discovery which he had left ungathered. This scheme met with ready encouragement from Fonseca, who, as has heretofore been shown, was opposed to Columbus and willing to promote any measure that might injure or molest him. The bishop accordingly granted a commission to Ojeda, authorizing him to fit out an armament and proceed on a voyage of discovery, with the proviso merely that he should not visit any territories appertaining to Portugal, or any of the lands discovered in the name of Spain previous to the year 1495. The latter part of this provision appears to have been craftily worded by the bishop, so as to leave the coast of Paria and its pearl fisheries open to Ojeda, they having been recently discovered by Columbus in 1498.

The commission was signed by Fonseca alone, in virtue of general powers vested in him for such purposes; but the signature of the sovereigns did not appear on the instrument, and it is doubtful whether their sanction was sought on the occasion. He knew that Columbus had recently remonstrated against a royal mandate issued in 1495, permitting voyages of discovery by private adventurers, and that the sovereigns had in consequence revoked that mandate wherever it might be deemed prejudicial to the stipulated privileges of the Admiral. . . . Having thus obtained permission to make the voyage, the next consideration with Ojeda was to find the means. He was a young adventurer, a mere soldier of fortune, and destitute of wealth; but he had a high reputation for courage and enterprise, and hence had no difficulty in finding moneyed associates among the rich merchants of Seville, who, in that age of discovery, were ever ready to stake their property upon the schemes of roving navigators. With such assistance he soon equipped a squadron of four vessels, at Port St. Mary, opposite Cadiz.

Among the seamen who engaged with him were several who had just returned from accompanying Columbus in his voyage to this very coast of Paria. The principal associate of Ojeda, and one on whom he placed great reliance, was Juan de la Cosa, who went with him as first mate, or, as it was termed, chief pilot. This was a bold Biscayan who may be regarded as a disciple of Columbus, with whom he had sailed on his second voyage, when he coasted Cuba and Jamaica, and he had also accompanied Rodrigo de Bastidas, in his expedition along the coast of Terra Firma. The hardy veteran was looked up to by his contemporaries as an oracle of the seas, and was pronounced one of the most able mariners of the day. He may be excused, therefore, if in his harmless vanity he considered himself on a par even with Columbus.

Another conspicuous associate of Ojeda on this voyage was Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine merchant, induced by broken fortunes and a rambling disposition to seek adventures in the New World. Whether he had any pecuniary interest in the expedition, and in what capacity he sailed, does not appear. His importance has entirely arisen from subsequent circumstances—from his having written and published a narrative of his voyages, and from his name having eventually been given to the New World.

Ojeda's First Voyage.


Ojeda sailed from Port St. Mary on May 20, 1499, and, having touched for supplies at the Canaries, took a departure from Gomera, pursuing the route of Columbus in his third voyage, being guided by the chart he had sent home, as well as by the mariners who had accompanied him on that occasion. At the end of twenty-four days he reached the continent of the New World, about two hundred leagues farther south than the part discovered by Columbus, being, as it is supposed, on the coast of Surinam. Hence he ran along the coast to the Gulf of Paria, passing the mouths of many rivers, but especially those of the Esquivo and the Orinoco. These, to the astonishment of the Spaniards, unaccustomed as yet to the mighty rivers of the New World, poured forth such a prodigious volume of water as to freshen the sea for a great extent. They beheld none of the natives until they arrived at the island of Trinidad, on which island they met with traces of the recent visit of Columbus. Vespucci, in his letters, gives a long description of the people of this island and of the coast of Paria, who were of the Carib race, tall, well-made, and vigorous, and expert with the bow, the lance, and the buckler. His description in general resembles those which have frequently been given of the aboriginals of the New World; there are two or three particulars, however, worthy of citation. [Here follows the narrative of Vespucci, as given in the preceding chapters, pages 82-124.]

After touching at various parts of Trinidad and the Gulf of Paria, Ojeda passed through the strait of the Boca del Drago, or Dragon's Mouth, which Columbus had found so formidable, and then steered his course along the coast of Terra Firma, landing occasionally until he arrived at Curiana, or the Gulf of Pearls. From hence he stood to the opposite island of Margarita, previously discovered by Columbus, and since renowned for its pearl fishery. This, as well as several adjacent islands, he visited and explored, after which he returned to the main-land, and touched at Cumana and Maracapana, where he found the rivers infested with alligators resembling the crocodiles of the Nile. Finding a convenient harbor at Maracapana, he unloaded and careened his vessels there, and built a small brigantine. The natives came to him in great numbers, bringing abundance of venison, fish, and cassava bread, and aiding the seamen in their labors. Their hospitality was not certainly disinterested, for they sought to gain the protection of the Spaniards, whom they reverenced as superhuman beings.

When they thought they had sufficiently secured their favor, they represented to Ojeda that their coast was subject to invasion from a distant island, the inhabitants of which were cannibals, and carried their people into captivity, to be devoured at their unnatural banquets. They besought Ojeda, therefore, to avenge them upon these ferocious enemies. The request was gratifying to the fighting propensities of Alonzo de Ojeda, and to his love of adventure, and was readily granted. Taking seven of the natives on board of his vessels, therefore, as guides, he set sail in quest of the cannibals. After sailing for seven days he came to a chain of islands, some of which were peopled, others uninhabited, and which are supposed to have been the Caribbee Islands. [Then ensues Vespucci's account of the fight, with the substitution of Ojeda as captain in command.]

His crew being refreshed, and the wounded sufficiently recovered, Ojeda made sail and touched at the island of Curacao, which, according to the accounts of Vespucci, was inhabited by a race of giants, "every woman appearing a Penthesilia, and every man an Antei." As Vespucci was a scholar, and as he supposed himself exploring the regions of the extreme East, the ancient realm of fable, it is probable his imagination deceived him, and construed the formidable accounts given by the Indians of their cannibal neighbors of the islands into something according with his recollections of classic fable. Certain it is that the reports of subsequent voyagers proved the inhabitants of the island to be of the ordinary size.

Proceeding along the coast, he arrived at a vast, deep gulf, resembling a tranquil lake, entering which he beheld, on the eastern side, a village, the construction of which struck him with surprise. It consisted of twenty large houses, shaped like bells, and built on piles driven into the bottom of the lake, which in this part was limpid and of but little depth. Each house was provided with a draw-bridge, and with canoes, by which the communication was carried on. From these resemblances to the Italian city, Ojeda gave to the bay the name of the Gulf of Venice, and it is called at the present day Venezuela, or Little Venice. The Indian name was Coquibacoa. [In this connection Irving quotes freely from Vespucci's account of the Lake Dwellers, and also gives entire his description of the Spaniards' entertainment by Indians of the interior.]

Continuing to explore this gulf, Ojeda penetrated to a port or harbor, to which he gave the name of St. Bartholomew, supposed to be the same at present known by the original Indian name of Maracaibo. . . . The Spaniards brought away with them several of the beautiful and hospitable females of this place, one of whom, named by them Isabel, was much prized by Ojeda, and accompanied him on a subsequent voyage. Leaving the friendly port of Coquibacoa, Ojeda continued along the western shores of the Venezuelan gulf, and standing out to sea, doubling Cape Maracaibo, he pursued his voyage from port to port, and promontory to promontory, of this unknown continent, until he reached that long stretching headland called Cape de la Vela, or Cape of the Sail. There the state of his vessels—and perhaps the disappointment of his hopes at not meeting with abundant sources of immediate wealth—induced him to abandon all further voyaging along the coast, and, changing his course, he stood across the Caribbean Sea for Hispaniola. The tenor of his commission forbade his visiting that island; but Ojeda was not a man to stand upon trifles when his interests or inclinations prompted him to the contrary. He trusted to excuse the infraction of his orders by the alleged necessity of touching at the island to calk and refit his vessels and to procure provisions; but his true object is supposed to have been to cut dye-wood, which abounds in Hispaniola.

Columbus, at that time, held command of the island, and, hearing of this unlicensed intrusion, despatched Francesco Roldan, the quondam rebel, to call Ojeda to account. The contest of stratagem and management that took place between these two adroit and daring adventurers has already been detailed. Roldan was eventually successful, and Ojeda, being obliged to leave Hispaniola, resumed his rambling voyage. He at length arrived at Cadiz, in June, 1500, his ships crowded with captives, whom he sold as slaves. So meagre, however, was the result of this expedition that we are told [by Vespucci] that when all the expenses were deducted but five hundred ducats remained to be divided between fifty-five adventurers. What made this result the more mortifying was that a petty armament, which had sailed some time after that of Ojeda, had returned two months before him rich with the spoils of the New World.

The successful armament alluded to was that of Pedro Nino, who had sailed with Columbus on his first voyage and on his third. With a caravel of only fifty tons, and a crew of thirty-three men, he sailed from Palos in June, 1499, returning in April, 1500, with a richer cargo of pearls than any other that had been brought from the new country. He had steered directly for the Pearl Coast, and at or near Cumana and Margarita, had amassed a fortune from the sea.

In this connection it should be mentioned, that the country adjacent to the Pearl Coast, opposite Cumana, was known to the natives as Amaraca-pan; that the name Amaraca occurs frequently in this region, as (A)mar-aca-ibo, the great gulf where the Lake-Dwellers live. It is regarded only as a coincidence that a name so nearly like that which was bestowed upon the continent by Europeans should be found applied to portions of that continent by the aborigines; but some enthusiasts have undertaken to show that it was from this native appellation the cartographers and cosmographers derived the first "America" placed upon the maps.