James W. (James William) Buel.

Library of American history (Volume 1) online

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usual fruits found in tropical countries. But nowhere was
Columbus able to find either gold or silver, so that he was
permitted rather to gratify his curiosity than his avarice.
These people tried to tell him of a country, great and pow-
erful, lying somewhere west of their own ; but communica-
tion with them was so difficult and their meaning so doubt-
ful that the Admiral did not choose to make any effort to
verify what they sought to reveal. Had he done so he
must in less than a two days' sail have reached Yucatan,
with its quaint and varied civilization, and afterwards, by
necessary sequence, the gorgeous Mexico, where his dreams
of oriental splendor might well seem to be realized in the
silver-bright halls of the Montezumas.

Strangely enough, however, Columbus' whole attention
was fixed on the finding of that strait which he confidently
believed would lead him directly to the country where Gen-
ghis Khan was supposed to live in unexampled splendor
and magnificence. It thus happened that the Admiral,
confident of his ability to make his way through into the
Indian Ocean, really cared little for the reports which the
natives gave him respecting the wealth and opulence of
the populous countries immediately to the west, but rather
cared everything for the ocean currents to which he yielded
himself in the confidence that they would bear him directly


to his goal. He accordingly passed by one of the grandest
opportunities of his life. Yucatan and Mexico were not
discovered. Those lands, rich in the wonders of an ancient
civilization, inhabited by millions of people belonging to a
strange and unknown race, were left to others, while the
Admiral's destiny carried him as if by a deluding vision into
the most trying episodes of his whole career.

Leaving Guanaja, after a short voyage Columbus reached
the coast of Honduras, where a landing was effected and
the sailors were permitted to rest for three days. The
country was claimed with the usual formalities, and on the
17th of August the squadron proceeded eastward along the
northern coast of Honduras, but was arrested by ocean
tides and such fierce storms that several times shelter had
to be sought in the harbors along the coast. Rains poured
down in such torrents as the Spaniards had never before
witnessed, while occasionally, for a space of twenty-four
hours, thunder reverberated with a continuous crash that
seemed to shake both ocean and sky ; lightnings pierced
the darkened horizon, and the general confusion and terror
were so great that the hardy sailors, though long weather-
beaten and well experienced in the hardships and perils of
the deep, frequently gave up in despair, confessed them-
selves and made ready for what they momentarily expected
would be the final summons. Columbus was himself at in-
tervals apprehensive that the end was at hand, and his sor-
rows were aggravated by the thought that he had brought
to this stormy world his most devoted brother and his
second son probably to perish with him.

The storm having at length partially abated, Columbus
was permitted to land from time to time at inviting harbors,
where he came in contact with the natives and made many
efforts to gain their confidence and a knowledge of their
country. But in many cases they employed a language not


understood by the interpreters, and communication with
them was, therefore, uncertain. The first natives that
Columbus observed on the coast of Honduras were gener-
ally naked and tattooed on different parts of the body with
figures of the deer and jaguar. But he found others who
were clothed with cotton waistcoats and a few had cuirasses
made of the untanned skins of animals. In other places
along the coast the natives bedaubed their faces with ocher,
so as to give them a horrible appearance, greatly intensified
by painting white circles around the eyes. Many of these
people lived on uncooked fish and preferred all their meats
raw, on which account rather than from ocular evidence
they were believed to be cannibals. Farther eastward an-
other tribe of natives was found whose pecuHarity was in
their practice of boring the ears and distending the orifice
thus made by the insertion of pieces of bones, so that
Columbus named the district Costa de la Orcja (Coast of
the Ear).

After departing from this latter region the vessels stood
out to sea, but only to plunge into another storm of ex-
ceeding severity. To add to the distress of the crews con-
tinuous rains had rotted the sails until they were unable to
withstand the wind, and were blown into tatters, while the
caravels were so perforated by the teredo-worm that it
required constant work at the pumps to keep them afloat.
Exposure and want of sleep told severely on the strongest,
and a majority of the men became incapacitated by sick-
ness, while all were fairly helpless from terror. " I have
seen many tempests," says Columbus, " but none so violent
and of such long duration." Indeed from the time of
leaving San Domingo his voyage had been a succession of
storms, culminating in one of extraordinary fury. But after
forty days of trials and dark forebodings they came in sight
of a cape on the 14th of September, and doubling this point


they reached a protecting body of water and were able to
make a landing near the mouth of a river and attend to the
necessary repairs of the ships. In commemoration of this
relief Columbus gave to the cape the name of Gracias a
Dios, or Thanks to God. Their stay at this place was cut
short by a sudden swelling of the river, which poured down
so great a flood that the vessels were swept out to sea, but
happily when the repairs were so far made that they were
able to withstand this new danger.

Following the Mosquito shore along Darien, on the 25th
they came to anchor opposite an Indian village called
Cariari, where the prospect was delightful and the natives
disposed to hospitality. But Columbus mistrusted the
mysterious conduct of the Indians and became in turn the
object of their distrust. A venerable old cacique brought
two of his girls to Columbus as hostages for his pacific
conduct, but even this offering did not fully restore con-
fidence, for the young girls carried a magic powder with
them which the Spaniards dreaded as much as the Indians
held in terror the writing materials of their visitors. Being
unable to establish mutual confidence, Columbus took his
departure from Cariari and sailed along Costa Rica, the
Rich Coast, landing at several places to communicate with
the natives. He here found many evidences of abounding
gold, but the signs of a strait being likewise conspicuous, he
did not stop long enough to fully explore the country for
that precious metal.

A voyage of several days towards the south failed to
reveal the passage of which he was in search, and the weather
becoming stormy again, Columbus was induced by the ex-
postulations and urgings of his crews to turn back and visit
the gold mines of Veragua, of which he had heard many
wonderful reports. His next point was, therefore, Puerto
Bello, where he tarried two days. But upon putting to sea


another fierce storm arose which prevented him from
regaining the harbor and left him again at the mercy of
dashing wave and lightning stroke. Instead of abating after
the first day the storm increased in violence, and the vessels
were so severely bufifeted by the wild waves of a raging sea
that their seams were opened and the horror of a desper-
ate situation fell upon all on board. Columbus had been
suffering such great agony from gout that these hardships,
so long protracted, with only brief intervals of relief, ren-
dered him unfit for duty. But he had a small cabin built
for him on the forecastle deck, through the windows of
which he could see from his bed all that was transpiring
about him. Here for eight days he watched with deepest
anxiety the falling torrents of rain, the booming billows that
pounded like battering rams against the little vessels, and
the lightnings that shot like fiery serpents out of the sky
and burst with thundering detonations around the ships.

Before these awful portents of frightful disaster the crews
lost all hope of rescue, and set their thoughts on heaven as
the harbor towards which their souls must now be directed.
To add to the general terror, Father Alexandre, the Fran-
ciscan chaplain, succumbed to sufferings to which the storm
had subjected him, and in his death the superstitious sailors
saw a fresh proof of God's afflicting hand in determining
their destruction. But the worst incident of this tragical
and horrific tempest was yet to come, that well might
frighten fear itself. On the 15th of December the Admiral
was startled by shrieks rising above the storm din and
beating surges as if all the agonies of hell had burst through
some rent in the sea to convey to earth an idea of the pangs
visited upon lost souls. In this most appalling omen — this
despairing cry that broke as it were from hearts stung by
the darts of death — Columbus forgot his own suflferings in
the excitements of a new danger. He tottered to the door,


and sweeping the horizon with his feverish eyes discovered
the cause of the sailors' consternation and affrightment.
The four vessels had contrived to retain their positions,
despite the fierce winds that assailed them, and in this
relative proximity Vv-as now a danger of their engulfment
together. Towards the north, less than a league away, the
distressed watchers perceived the breaking waves gathering
into one mountainous billow, growing higher and higher until
its peak was whitened by a foaming cap of violent agitation.
Immediately above this high-reaching watery summit black
clouds that hung before the heavens like curtains of midnight
began to boil and spread out their horrid hands to grapple
and amass the inky vapor that broke only before the light-
ning's bolt. Gaining a circular motion, the clouds whirled
faster and faster until directly the center began to fall lower
and lower to meet the upswirling mountain of water, when
quickly an embracement occurred, frightful to behold, and
in a death waltz the whirling waterspout came rushing
towards the ships. It was as if the clouds were sweeping
up the sea with inexorable ravenings — a summoning of the
waters of the earth before that great Power who Jiad once
before imprisoned the deep in the heavens to turn it back
in a deluge and drown the world.

No human skill could avert the calamity that was threat-
ening. Nothing but God's providence could restrain this
Satanic maneuver. In an age so superstitious we are not
surprised that in his extremity Columbus had recourse to
exorcism to compel the demons of anger and calamity to
yield their power, while he conjured the aid of blessed spirits
to give him protection from the furies of the air. Taking
six candles which had been consecrated by the Church, and
wrapping about him the cord of St. Francis, he unsheathed
his sword and, holding this aloft in his right hand, he held
the book of the Gospels in his left, and facing the water-


Bpout, read the opening chapter of St. John. Having
performed this holy service he spoke to the winds as if by
the authority of Jesus Himself, commanding them to abate
and the waterspout to dissolve itself into the sea. To make
this adjuration the more effective he described a magic
circle with his sword and drew the sign of the cross therein,
at which, strange to relate, the waterspout seemed to swerve
somewhat from its track and pass off obliquely with a bel-
lowing noise to lose itself in the immensity of the ocean.
And following th^ disappearance of the waterspout the
curiosity in the result is increased by the fact that the raging
of the sea measurably abated, and in a brief time there was a
great calm.

On the 6th of January, 1503, the squadron had regained
the coast and entered the mouth of a river, which in
honor of the feast day Columbus called the Belen, or Beth-
lehem, which was scarcely more than a league from
Veragua. The extraordinary difficulties which had attended
the voyage from Puerto Bello to Veragua may be under-
stood when we consider the fact that the distance was less
than a hundred miles, and yet to traverse it required the
labors and sufferings of nearly a month, during which inter-
val Columbus had passed through more privations and
anxieties than perhaps he had ever before experienced.

At the mouth of the Belen was a considerable Indian
village, the inhabitants of which made a show of hostile
intent at the effort of the Spaniards to land. But Colum-
bus contrived through the interpreter to make them under-
stand that his object in visiting them was to open a trade
to their advantage. At these assurances they laid down
their arms and accorded a welcome to their visitors, and
after the first greetings were exchanged they became quite
civil and traded several large pieces of gold to the Span-
iards for hawk-bells and other European trinkets. A few


days later Don Bartholomew, taking with him some of the
more courageous spirits of the expedition, ascended the
river to the residence of the cacique of the country, who
was known among the natives by the name of Quibian.
This chief welcomed him with a hearty spirit of cordiality
and accompanied his peaceful overtures with presents of
gold ornaments, and was more than content with such gew-
gaws as were given him in return. The chief also accom-
panied his visitors back to the vessels and was induced to
come on board, when the Admiral gave him a reception,
had his musicians perform several pieces, and after showing
him through the caravel made him many presents of such
trinkets as mirrors and hawk-bells. But suddenly some
suspicion arose in the mind of the cacique, and without
stopping to give any explanation of his conduct he left the
vessel abruptly, nor could he be persuaded to return. On
the following day Don Bartholomew, at the head of seventy
men, made a second trip of several miles into the interior
to explore the country and ascertain its products. He
found some indications of gold, and was assured that at the
distance of twenty days' journey beyond there existed gold
mines of large extent and exceeding richness, a report
which the Spaniards were anxious to confirm by investi-

Since his physical condition as well as need of supplies
prevented Columbus from continuing his search for the
conjectured strait, he decided to establish a military post
at the mouth of the river, while he himself would return to
Castile to procure reinforcements and supplies, with the in-
tent of accomplishing a permanent occupation of the gold-
bearing country. He therefore conciliated some of the
inferior chiefs by liberal presents, and gained their consent
thereby to the building of a fortress on their lands. After
completing the post he left a garrison of eighty men under


the command of Don B.utholomcw in charge of the for-
tress, and also a caravel for their use in case it became nec-
essary for them to abandon the country. Having settled
everything satisfactorily, Columbus raised his anchors pre-
paratory to departing with the other two vessels. But in
the meantime the water in the river had become so shallow
that he was compelled to wait until rains came to swell it
to the necessary depth to enable him to pass over the bar
at the river mouth.

Meanwhile Ouibian, learning that a settlement had been
formed on his territory, resolved to attack the Spaniards
unawares and burn their ships, a vague report of which plot
reached Columbus, but the particulars were wanting, nor
could Columbus determine in his own mind the cause of
this hostile purpose.

Diego Mendez and Rodrigo de Escobar, whose bravery
and sagacity had already served Columbus in the most
perilous extremities, and were to give services no less valu-
able thereafter, volunteered to enter tlie Indian camp as
spies and ascertain the plans and intents of the enemy, a
purpose which, hazardous as it was, Columbus gladly ac-
cepted, for upon their success depended the fate of the
expedition. The two proceeded up the river a short way
until they came upon two Indians whom they engaged,
by signs and such speech as they had mastered, to convey
them in a canoe to the residence of Ouibian, which was
upon the river bank. Though the voyage was hazardous to
a degree, the two resolute spies succeeded in reaching the
cacique's capital without accident, but they found the vil-
lage in a great state of agitation through warlike prepara-
tions, and danger signs were observable on every side.
The audacity of the adventurers seems to have fairly
appalled the natives for a time, but recovering from their
surprise they manifested a murderous disposition which,


however, Mendez restrained by representing himself as a
surgeon come to cure an arrow wound in the leg of Ouibian,
who had been shot in an engagement three days before.
By this subterfuge, the two passed on up the crest of a hill
to the cacique's mansion, which occupied a level space of
some dimensions, around which were arranged the skulls
and decaying heads of three hundred enemies killed in
battle. Even this horrible sight failed to excite great fear
in the mind of the intrepid Mendez ; but scarcely had he
crossed the court when a powerful son of Ouibian rushed
out and dealt the courageous Spaniard a blow in the face
that knocked him backward, though not prostrate. This
assault Mendez thought it unadvisable to resent, but rather
to employ pacific measures to accomplish his ends. With
this purpose he sought to conciliate the young man's anger
by gentle words and by showing him a box of ointment
which would cure his father's wound. These overtures
serving to make him amenable to other advances, Mendez
presented the belligerent youth with a looking-glass, comb
and pair of scissors, and showed him how to use the articles
to improve his looks. Under the influence of these gifts
the young man became not only tractable but even friend-
ly, though no amount of persuasion availed to gain ad-
mittance to the chief. But being permitted to freely
mingle with the Indians, Mendez and Escobar succeeded in
discovering particulars of the designs of Ouibian to assault
and burn the ships, after which they returned in safety and
apprised the Admiral fully of the plot, wlio took action at
once to circumvent and punish the treacherous natives.
The chief and several of his principal men were arrested by
Don Bartholomew, who descended suddenly upon them
with a .force of eighty men. But through the negligence of
the ofificer charged with his care Ouibian contrived to make
his escape, a result which the Spaniards did not seriously


deplore, for they felt that their ends had been as effectually
accomplished by a dispersion of the natives and the arrest
of the chief as though he had been severely punished for
his perfidy.

On the 6th of April the River Belen had risen to a stage
of water permitting the passage of the ships, and the Ad-
miral accordingly prepared to take his departure. Sixty
of the men who had been left for garrison duty came out
in a longboat to bid their comrades in the ship adieu, leav-
ing only twenty men with Don Bartholomew to guard the
fortress, and these were scattered, some on the banks of the
river and others through the country in aimless wander-
ings. The lesson which the Spaniards had supposed Qui-
bian had learned by his arrest did not prove so salutary as
they had fancied, for seeing his advantage in the temporary
diminution of the garrison, he gathered his force of about
four hundred natives and surrounded the camp. Fortu-
nately before making the attack the Indians filled the air
with their cries, which gave the Spaniards timely warning
and opportunity to arm themselves to meet their assailants.
The result of the battle which followed was the killing of
nineteen Indians and the taking captive of fifty others, who
were conveyed to one of the caravels and imprisoned in the
hold as hostages, but in the encounter seven of the Span-
iards were wounded, two of whom died on the following
day. Don Bartholomew also received an arrow wound in
the breast, but not sufficiently serious to render confinement
to his quarters necessary.

But this tragic incident was only the prelude to one
which proved very much more serious ; for on the following
day Diego Tristan was sent up the river in one of the
ship's boats with eleven men to procure a supply of fresh
water, though he proceeded against the remonstrances of
Diego Mendez, who was well acquainted with the char-


acter of the Indians and had made himself fairly fluent
in their tongue. Tristan felt secure, however, with the
force at his command, falsely reckoning that the natives
had met with such disaster in their conflict with the
Spaniards that they would hardly hazard another engage-
ment at any odds. The consequence was that when he
reached the place that afforded fresh water his boat was
surrounded by Indians, some of whom were on shore and
others in canoes, who fell upon the Spaniards w^ith such
surprise and impetuosity that all but one were massacred,
and this sole survivor only escaped by the strategy of
swimming under water to the opposite shore.

This tragic event distressed Columbus so much that he
could not prevail upon himself to leave under circumstances
which would appear as an abandonment of the feeble gar-
rison to the implacable hostility of an innumerable number of
infuriated savages.

On account of the boisterousness of the sea communica-
tion with the shore was impossible, hence Columbus was
left without information as to what was being done at the
fortress. But he felt the insecurity of the men, though he
had hopes that the Indians would not make an attack on
account of the fifty prisoners who were detained as hostages
on board his caravel. Every evening these captives were shut
up in the forecastle of the vessel, the hatchway of which was
secured by a strong chain and padlock. But one night the
Spaniards neglected to fasten the chains, which fact came
mysteriously to the knowledge of the Indians, who collected
a number of stones from the ballast of the vessel, with
which they made a heap sufficiently high to allow the men
to exert their strength against the unsecured hatchway.
Several of the most powerful warriors mounted on the top,
and bending their backs, by simultaneous effort forced up
the hatch, flinging the sailors who slept on it to the oppo-


site side of the vessel. Having thus gained their liberty,
several of them plunged into the sea and swam ashore.
Others, however, were less fortunate, and being seized on
the deck, were forced back into their prison quarters and the
precaution of locking them in was then attended to. What
was the surprise of the officers, however, when distributing
the rations early in the morning, to find that during the
night the imprisoned Indians had strangled themselves in
their despair. Thus the situation was dreadfully compli-
cated, for those who escaped would communicate to their
friends on shore the situation on shipboard, while the
suicide of the prisoners would be calculated to nerve the
natives to a greater determination to avenge them.

In the fear that the Indians would now attack the garri-
son, Columbus was determined in some way to apprise his
brother of the circumstances and put him on his guard.
The rough sea, however, still precluded the possibility of a
boat living to reach the shore, so Columbus was deeply
distressed in mind how he should communicate the neces-
sary intelligence, until a sailor named Pedro de Ledesma, a
Biscayan, volunteered to swim through the breakers if the
boat would take him sufficiently near. This proposal was
eagerly seized upon, and the brave sailor successfully
accomplished his hazardous undertaking. Reaching the
camp unexpectedly, he was received with the greatest joy
as a liberator of the garrison.

The intrepid and herculean Ledesma found his country-
men in a deplorable situation, shut up in their fortress, for
the time safe from their savage foes, but contemplating with
horror the hour when provisions should fail them and their
ammunition be expended. Their alarm was also intensified
by the depressing news of the tragic death of Diego Tristan
and his companions, whose swollen bodies were now begin-

Online LibraryJames W. (James William) BuelLibrary of American history (Volume 1) → online text (page 26 of 37)