It began with a clap of thunder as the crew raised anchor off Cape Cruz, Cuba, on July 16, “so sudden, violent, and with such a downpour of rain, that the deck was placed underwater,” Columbus said. They struck sail and pushed their heaviest anchors overboard to secure a mooring amid the flashes of lightning. By the time they had accomplished that task, so much water had seeped through the “floor timbers that the sailors could not get it out with the pumps, especially because they were all very tired and weak from too little food.” To sustain them through their difficult labors, “all they had to eat daily was a pound of rotten biscuits and a pint of wine.” Drawing on their last reserves of strength, the men struggled to prevent the vessel from sinking.
Weakened, Columbus cowered before the onslaught of the elements, and confided to his journal: “I am on the same ration as the others. May it please God that this be for His service and that of Your Highnesses. Were it only for myself, I would no longer bear such pains and dangers, for not a day passes that we do not look danger in the face.” And yet he persisted; there was no other choice.
The storm eventually blew itself out, and two days later, on July 18, their weather-beaten ship returned to Cape Cruz, due north of Jamaica. A delegation of cheerful Indians brought cassava bread, fish, and abundant fruit to the weak and starving Spaniards. When the men recovered, Columbus desired to sail for Hispaniola, but, with the wind being contrary, he stood for Jamaica.
Four days later, the fleet glided into the translucent waters surrounding Jamaica, where still more Indians plied the sailors with lusty greetings and succulent victuals, “which they liked much better than what they had received on all the other islands.”
Early one morning, a canoe approached, bearing an Indian who gave little gifts to every Spaniard in sight, except Columbus. “I was off to one side reciting some prayers I find helpful,” he wrote, and “did not immediately see the gifts or the determination of the approach of this man.” Eventually he did take notice of the cacique’s theatrical entrance. “In the largest canoe he came in person with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was about eighteen years, very beautiful, completely naked as they are accustomed to be, and very modest; the other was younger, and two stout sons and five brothers and other dependents; and all the rest must have been his vassals,” Columbus later told his friend Bernáldez. Two or three men had their faces painted with colors in the same pattern, and each wore on his head a large feather helmet, and on his forehead a round disk as large as a plate. Each held in his hand a gadget that he tinkled. As for the cacique, he wore ornaments fashioned of guanín, a gold alloy, around his neck. To Columbus, the finery resembled “eight-carat gold.” Some were as large as plates, he claimed, and shaped like fleurs-de-lis. Except for a finely worked girdle, the rest of his body was exposed. And his wife was naked, “except in the one spot of her pudendum, which was covered by a little cotton thing no bigger than an orange peel.” Her older daughter wore around her middle a single string of small and very black stones, from which hung something made of “green and red stones fastened to woven cloth.”
The cacique and his entourage came aboard Columbus’s caravel, turned to address the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and amid torrents of praise for Spain, declared, “I have decided to go to Castile with you and obey the King and Queen of this world.”
Columbus considered those words carefully. “He said all this so reasonably I was wonder struck.” As a distracting wind shifted one way and then another, he invited the cacique and his entourage to remain aboard ship for the day, “staying out in the open sea until the waves became enormous.” The ship heaved and groaned in the heavy weather. “By this time the women were most afraid, crying and asking their husband and father to go back home,” Columbus observed. “From that moment, they knew the sea, and what it meant to face the sea.” To Columbus, it meant an occasion to master the elements, and by extension, to confront his destiny; to the terrified Indians, it meant the experience of terror before the power inherent in the universe. “And they wanted him [the cacique] to be aware how painful this was for them because they were the ones who most wanted to go to Castile.” Reflecting on his wife, his daughter, and his young son, barely six or seven, “whom he always held in his arms,” the cacique swallowed his pride and acknowledged the wisest course would be to return to the safety of land. To honor the decision, Columbus and he exchanged gifts, and the Admiral, not to be outdone in magnanimity, said that he also gave gifts to the cacique’s brothers and the rest of his retinue.
Shifting his attention to the cacique’s children, who were as naked as their parents, Columbus desired “the older daughter dressed, but her mother said no because they were not used to it.” In fact, she had been cowering behind her parents, “hugging herself with her arms, covering her chest and face,” and uncovering it “only when expressing wonder.” She talked throughout the long day at sea, “but always behaved in this honest and chaste manner.” When they were safely anchored, Columbus reluctantly dispatched his distinguished Indian guests, who were “very sad at parting, and so was I, because I would have liked very much to bring him to Your Highnesses as he was the very person for knowing all the secrets of the island.” They had been spared a grueling transatlantic crossing and an uncertain future in Spain.
Within days, Columbus took it upon himself to explore the southern portion of the island of Jamaica. Perhaps here he would find sufficient quantities of gold to satisfy his avarice.
They appeared behind the mist like a giant turquoise dragon. They were the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, one of the largest continuous mountain ranges in the Caribbean, reaching an altitude of over 7,400 feet at the highest point, swathed in lush vegetation sheltering five hundred species of flowering plants, half of which existed nowhere else on the planet. Fluttering mariposas darted among the trees, including the stupendous Homerus swallowtail (Papilio homerus), the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere, with a six-inch wingspan of flickering black and gold. Hundreds of avian species looked on, in search of their next meal. The richness and diversity of life in the region equaled anything to be found in Marco Polo’s extravagant Travels.
As Jamaica’s Blue Mountains came into view on August 19, Columbus led the fleet past a point that he named Cabo del Farol, or Signal Fire, after spying an Indian bonfire. The ships completed a windward passage to the island of Hispaniola.
In the midst of this natural splendor the fleet spent another three days, until a canoe bearing Indians arrived.
“Almirante!” they shouted in recognition.
Columbus had become a legendary presence in these parts, both feared and welcomed.
They sailed along the suffocating, overgrown coast, enduring dreary afternoon squalls and the menace of distant thunder, until, on August 19, “he lost sight of that island and headed directly for Hispaniola,” leaving Jamaica and the promise of easy gratification in his wake. All he had discovered by this point in his voyage was that it would be difficult or impossible to attain his goal without the help of God.
Within a day or two Columbus took refuge on a compact island, Alta Vela, only to realize that he had become separated from the other two ships comprising his fleet. This was not the first time he had lost track of the small fleet. He appeared to be losing his grip on the voyage and on himself. He ordered men to climb to the island’s highest point, but even they saw nothing but an endless expanse. Hungry and restless, his men slaughtered seals simply by walking up to the creatures as they slept on the beach and bludgeoning them to death.
After six days, the two missing ships appeared, and the reunited fleet sailed for the island Columbus called Beata, twelve leagues distant. Expecting more of the hospitality to which he had become accustomed, Columbus was startled by Indians “armed with bows and poisoned arrows and carrying cords in their hands issued from that village, making signs that those cords were tying up the Christians they would capture.” Undeterred, the three boats landed, and after a brief exchange, the Indians “put aside their arms and offered to bring the Christians bread, water, and all else they had.” Even more pleasing, they had heard of Christopher Columbus, and wished to meet him. And so they did, after which the fleet sailed on.
Passing an island, Columbus decided to name it after his companion Michele de Cuneo of Savona, who explained, “out of love for me, the Lord Admiral called it La Bella Saonese. He made a gift of it, and I took possession . . . by virtue of a document signed by a notary public.” By such contrivances ancient lands passed into contemporary hands. Cuneo surveyed his new realm, where he “uprooted grass and cut trees and planted the cross and also the gallows.” Cuneo was pleased; it was beautiful, he decided, counting thirty-seven villages “with at least 30,000 souls.”
On the night of September 14, Columbus “observed an eclipse of the moon and was able to determine a difference in time of about five hours and twenty-three minutes between that place and Cadiz,” said Ferdinand.
This statement has inspired centuries of questions about Columbus’s precise whereabouts at this time (uncertain), his facility with celestial navigation (limited), and even his honesty in reporting his findings (open to question). But the deceptions and lapses reveal the limits of his abilities as a navigator and his instinctive desire to obscure his location when it seemed to place him beyond the limits of “India.” In “India,” he reigned supreme, thanks to the proclamations of Ferdinand and Isabella, and was entitled to great wealth and prestige. If he had inadvertently strayed into some uncharted part of the world, his findings and claims would be open to challenge and probably worthless. Better to hope that all would come right in the end than to try to understand his actual location in a global context. One of the great paradoxes of this explorer’s mental habits was his reluctance to contemplate alternative answers to unresolved questions about navigation. He did not wish to “discover” the “unknown.” For Columbus, who believed that all had been foretold and guided by the will of God, there was no such thing.
For those who shared Columbus’s mysticism, a lunar eclipse was freighted with significance. It occurs when the moon passes behind the earth so that the earth prevents the sun’s rays from striking the moon. The sun, the earth, and the moon are aligned, with the earth in the middle. The previous lunar eclipse, May 22, 1453, coincided with the fall of Constantinople, and now it was happening again, imbuing his voyage with cosmic significance.
Columbus was planning to return to La Isabela, when the character of the voyage abruptly changed, and disturbing gaps in the account appear. After five days riding out a gale, the fleet had become separated once more; eventually the two missing caravels reappeared, and on September 24, the restored fleet made for the eastern end of Hispaniola to another island, this one called Amona by the Indians. Instead of returning to what had become his home port in the Indies, Columbus “repaired his ships with the clear purpose of ravaging again the islands of the cannibals and burning all their canoes, so that these rapacious wolves would not injure sheep any longer.” But the campaign against the cannibals failed to materialize.
“From that point on the Admiral ceased to record in his journal the day’s sailing,” his son reported, “nor does he tell how he returned to Isabela.” Overwork and nervous strain had broken his health. “He sometimes went eight days with less than three hours’ sleep,” his son explained. “This would seem impossible did he not himself tell it in his writings.” The recent ordeal at La Isabela had taken its toll; as a result of “his great exertions, weakness, and scanty diet” Columbus “fell ill in crossing from Amona to San Juan.”
In fact, he was comatose: “He had a high fever and drowsiness, so that he lost his sight, memory, and all his other senses.” He was fighting for his life, “more dead than alive,” said Peter Martyr. “I attribute my malady to the excessive fatigues and dangers of this voyage: over 27 consecutive years at sea have taken their toll,” he later wrote to the Sovereigns. “My own concern was that even the most courageous person could die, and besides, I was preoccupied with bringing the ships and crews back safely.” Over the course of the last thirty days, “I slept no more than five hours, in the last eight only an hour and a half, becoming half blind, completely so at certain times of day.” He ended his lament with a prayer: “May Our Lord in His mercy restore my health.”
The men serving under him realized there was no second-in-command to take his place. Frightened and disoriented, the leaderless crew decided to make for La Isabela, arriving at the beleaguered fort on September 29, 1494. The fleet dropped anchor, and Santa Clara welcomed another Columbus, the wandering Bartholomew, who had lived in his brother’s shadow. Now he had his chance to step into the light.
For years, Bartholomew Columbus had tried to emulate his brother’s exploits at sea. In England, he had unsuccessfully petitioned Henry VII to sponsor a voyage to the Indies, and in France, he approached Charles VIII with the same plan, and met with the same dispiriting result. His skills as a mapmaker stood him in good stead, and he conducted himself as a competent and reliable mariner, but he lacked Columbus’s charisma and consuming mysticism. Said Las Casas, “My impression, from talking to him on a number of occasions, was that the commander was a dry and harsh man, with little of the sweetness of character and gentleness of disposition that characterized the Admiral.” On the other hand, he had a “pleasing countenance, albeit a little forbidding, with good physical strength and strong character,” in the chronicler’s estimation, and he was “well-read, prudent, and circumspect” and experienced “in the world of business.” During the years of exile in Spain, he had been a “great support to the Admiral, who turned to him for advice whenever he proposed to do something.”
In matters of scholarship, Las Casas judged Bartholomew his brother’s equal, or better: “He was a notable sailor, and to judge from the books and the navigational charts belonging either to the admiral or to him and covered in marginal notes and annotations in his own hand, he was, in my opinion, so learned in matters of the sea there can have been little his brother could have taught him.” In fact, Bartholomew “had a clear hand, better than the Admiral’s, for I have many writings by both in my possession.”
In limbo, Bartholomew had occasion to study his brother’s handwriting. Fresh from the triumphant first voyage, Columbus wrote to Bartholomew, imploring him to come to Spain. If he arrived in Seville in time, the reunited Columbus brothers could have sailed together as brothers in arms, but the fleet had formed so quickly that Christopher led the second voyage from Cadiz long before Bartholomew arrived.
Marooned in Seville, Bartholomew received a communication from Columbus that promised to give him the standing he needed. Bartholomew was to escort Columbus’s two children, Diego and Ferdinand, to the court in Valladolid to serve as pages to the sole male child of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the sixteen-year-old infante, Don Juan. At the start of 1494, Bartholomew presented his nephews to the Sovereigns, who in turn elevated him to the status of Don Bartolomé, and gave him a coveted appointment to command a fleet consisting of three ships bound for La Isabela, where supplies were desperately needed. Despite settling in a land of astonishing fertility, the outpost remained dependent on Spain for survival.
By the spring of 1494, Bartholomew, now known as El Adelantado, a Spanish military title meaning “the Advancer,” was guiding a fleet bound for La Isabela, where he arrived in late June to join forces with the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Try as he might, he never inspired the confidence or fear associated with his brother. “Since Genoa was Genoa there has never been a man so courageous and astute in the act of navigation as the lord admiral, for when sailing, by simply observing a cloud or a star at night, he judged what was to come, if there was to be bad weather. He himself commanded and stood at the helm. When the storm had passed, he raised the sails while others slept,” marveled his friend Michele de Cuneo, who, unlike Las Casas, doubted the Adelantado’s ability to lead a small fleet, let alone a Spanish colony. But nepotism was nepotism, and there was nothing that Cuneo or anyone else on the voyage could do about it.
In an effort to bring a measure of order to their ragtag outpost of empire, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched another supply fleet, four ships in all, with instructions to Columbus dated August 16, 1494. Although appreciative in tone, the communiqué revealed widening cracks in the royal façade of confidence. They desired their almirante to be more forthcoming about his actual discoveries. “We have now read everything you say, and although you go into considerable detail, and reading what you write is a source of great happiness and joy to us, we should like to know still more about, for example, how many islands have been discovered to date and named,” they chided, adding that they also desired to know “how far these islands are one from the next, and everything you have discovered on each of them.” Furthermore, “You must already have harvested what you sowed, and so we should like to know more about the seasons over there, and what the weather is like in each month of the year, for it seems from what you say they are very different from here.” They asked, “If you love us, please write at length.”
All reasonable requests, with a common theme: Tell us about our new empire.
Displaying more than perfunctory sensitivity to Columbus’s preoccupation with La Isabela, they acknowledged the responsibility was his: “As to the settlement you are building, there is no way anyone can from here advise you or recommend any changes to your plans, and we leave it entirely up to you; even were we on the spot, we should listen to your opinion and take your advice.”
To Columbus’s dismay, they threatened politely to switch him to a new assignment. Instead of settling the Indies, where the situation was rapidly deteriorating, he could return to Spain to help settle matters with the rival Portuguese concerning trade routes and the Treaty of Tordesillas, whose application was still hotly debated. “If it would be difficult for you to come,” Isabella wrote, would he please send his brother “or some other person there who knows” about the issue, “promptly by the first caravels that come home.” Given the overriding importance to the shape of the fledgling empire, whose boundaries were being tested every day, she needed to hear all his thoughts “so that we can get back to the question of exactly where the demarcation line is to be drawn within the time laid down in the agreement with the king of Portugal.”
Oblivious to these royal requests, Columbus remained at La Isabela, trying to fulfill his grandiose vision of his mission, but his goals were slow to be met. “As each day passed,” Las Casas explained, “the Admiral became more and more conscious that the whole of the land was up in arms—albeit the arms involved were a joke—and that the hatred of the Christians was growing.” Conversions to Christianity among the Indians proved difficult to accomplish, and often temporary. “As for our holy faith,” Columbus wrote of his halting efforts to persuade Indians, “I believe that if the caciques and peoples of this island were called for baptism today all would come running, but I do not believe they would understand or comprehend anything associated with this holy mystery.” Often the Indians consented to be baptized—and rebaptized—simply to obtain the gifts they received for complying.
The limited value of the cotton and spices to harvest and ship to Castile hardly justified the expense and danger of maintaining a distant outpost. Most important of all, the gold that had seemed to glisten in every riverbed and hillside in the Cibao had run out. Columbus and his men had picked the mines and waterways clean. He thought there would be an endless supply of gold on Hispaniola, but in fact he had rapidly depleted the island’s modest store. To justify his continued presence and his rich entitlements, he turned to the resource of last resort: slaves.
Since February, Columbus had planned to inaugurate a regular slave trade between the Indies and Spain. It would focus on the menacing Caribs, thereby allowing the more peaceful Taínos to remain in place, and it would last until the gold mines functioned. With gold in short supply, the slave trade gradually took on greater urgency. If Columbus had misgivings about his decision, he kept them to himself. Portugal and Genoa had their slave trade; why not Spain? The Sovereigns, no strangers to cruelty, kept their distance from the idea, which was certain to offend the church, political rivals, and even their own sense of morality. “This subject has been postponed for the present until another voyage has come thence, and let the Admiral write what he thinks about it.” Ignoring the sentiment expressed in this response, Columbus set about establishing a slave trade including both Caribs and Taínos. Despite his intermittent regard for the more peaceful of the two tribes, he would send them all to the busy and profitable slave market in Seville.
According to Michele de Cuneo, Columbus ordered the seizure of fifteen hundred men and women on Hispaniola. Of these, five hundred deemed the most desirable for the slave trade were confined to one of four caravels bound for Spain. He invited his men to select from those left ashore; about six hundred Indians disappeared into captivity this way. The remaining four hundred Indians managed to escape with their lives, among them women who were nursing. Describing the appalling spectacle, Cuneo wrote, “They, in order to better escape us, since they were afraid we would turn to catch them again, left their infants anywhere on the ground and started to flee like desperate people; and some fled so far that they were removed from our settlement of La Isabela seven or eight days beyond mountains and across huge rivers.”
In retribution, the Spanish captured Guatiguaná, a cacique believed to have killed Spanish intruders, along with two of his chiefs, and bound them all, but before the Indians could be shot for their misdeeds, the captives chewed through their restraints and fled.
On February 24, 1495, their less fortunate brethren sailed with the fleet, along with Michele de Cuneo, who had finally seen enough of the New World, and Columbus’s brother Diego, who had been given the task of defending the Admiral against the charges being prepared in Spain by Columbushaters led by Father Buil and Pedro Margarit. At that moment, Columbus was ruminating bitterly on the trumped-up charges and outright “falsehoods reported to Your Highnesses by some wretches who came here, and those whom they spoke to.” He raged against his accusers, an untrustworthy, ignorant, depraved lot who had no business participating in this noble enterprise: “At dice and other pernicious, infamous vices they lost their inheritances, and since they could no longer find any land that could sustain them they came on this voyage through lies and deception, thinking to get rich quick on the seashore without any work or effort so they could return to their former way of life. This happened no less among the religious [orders] than among the laity; they were so blinded by wicked cupidity that they would not believe me in Castile when I predicted that they would have to work for everything. They were so greedy they thought I was lying.”
No matter how low their character and malicious their tales, Columbus’s behavior on the voyage was at times even more shameful, but it went unrecognized and unchallenged in Spain.
Antonio de Torres, by now making a specialty of leading these intermediate transatlantic crossings, proved less adept than Columbus at bringing the fleet swiftly home. The Admiral had neglected to advise him of the optimal route, which involved sailing on a northerly course to a latitude approximately that of Bermuda before heading east to the Canaries or Cape St. Vincent on the Portuguese coast. With his tragic burden of captives, Torres drifted around the Lesser Antilles for several weeks before working his way far enough north to catch the trades; after that, he reached the island of Madeira in little more than three weeks.
It was a hellish crossing. “About two hundred of these Indians died, I believe because of the unaccustomed air, colder than theirs,” Michele de Cuneo wrote. “We cast them into the sea.” Half the surviving Indians were seriously ill by the time they disembarked at Cadiz. “For your information,” he informed the authorities, “they are not working people and very much fear cold, nor have they long life.”
Desperate to demonstrate the value of the vulnerable human cargo he sent to Spain, Columbus, at a safe distance, put aside his reservations about the Indians to extol their qualities to Ferdinand and Isabella. “I believe they are without equal in the world among blacks or anywhere else,” he declared. “They are very ingenious, especially when young,” he noted. “Please consider whether it might be worth it to take six or eight boys, set them apart, and teach them to write and study, because I believe they will excel in a short time; in Spain they will learn perfectly.” The educational program never came about. Instead, the fleet’s overall manager, Juan de Fonseca, sent the survivors to Seville to be auctioned off. Columbus’s confidant Bernáldez witnessed the Indians’ final degradation at the hands of the Spanish. They were “naked as the day they were born, with no more embarrassment than wild beasts.” As if reaching for an even more callous observation, he complained, “They are not very profitable since almost all died, for the country did not agree with them.”
As Columbus’s plan to establish a slave trade with Spain self-destructed, the Indians of Hispaniola battled Spanish forces, especially in the vicinity of La Isabela. The fugitive Guatiguaná, who had chewed his way out of Spanish bondage, rallied his warriors, and began to kill off the Spanish invaders or force them back onto their ships. The Indians had the advantage of overwhelming numbers and familiarity with their homeland, but Guatiguaná was unable to unite the disparate tribes in this quest. Some leaders wished to remain safely apart, and others, especially Guacanagarí, retained their loyalty to the forces of Spain.
Columbus was still suffering from exhaustion, so weak that his crew carried him from the flagship to the shore. There he spent the winter months recovering, until the end of February 1495. He suffered from the combined effects of several ailments, some more apparent than others. The reliable Las Casas specified arthritis, by which he probably meant the painful and debilitating condition of rheumatoid arthritis, and it appeared that Columbus had begun to deteriorate mentally as well as physically. He was particularly distressed to hear that the Indians had risen in revolt against Pedro Margarit, whom Columbus had appointed to supervise the mines of the Cibao. With his petty authoritarian ways, Margarit had made a mess of things, having “paid no heed to the Admiral’s wishes,” says Ferdinand, and seemed hell-bent on making himself the new leader of the expedition.
Right after Columbus’s departure with his three ships, Margarit had ignored his orders to occupy large swatches of the island, and instead took his men, nearly four hundred strong, to the Vega Real, ten leagues away, where he devoted his energies to “scheming and contriving to have the members of the council established by the Admiral obey his orders, and sending them insolent letters.” Frustrated in his plan to usurp Columbus, “to whom he would have had to account for his actions in office,” he had caught the first ship bound for Spain, without explanation or placing someone else in charge of the 376 men left behind, who rapidly deteriorated into predators. “Each one went where he willed among the Indians, stealing their property and wives and inflicting so many injuries upon them the Indians resolved to avenge themselves on any they found alone or in small groups.” As a result, “the Admiral found the island in a pitiful state, with most of the Christians committing innumerable outrages for which they were mortally hated by the Indians, who refused to obey them.” Still inflamed, Guatiguaná slaughtered ten Spanish guards and stealthily set ablaze a shelter containing forty others, all of them ill. Peter Martyr wrote in anguish of the Spanish “injustices” that had occurred in Columbus’s absence: “Kidnapping women of the islands under the eyes of their parents, brothers and husbands . . . rape and robberies.”
With Margarit gone, Columbus had no choice but to apprehend Guatiguaná. Failing to accomplish that task, he seized some of his followers and sent them as prisoners to Spain aboard the fleet led by Antonio de Torres. The four ships departed on February 24, 1495.
But troubles with the Indians were just beginning.
At La Isabela, Columbus belatedly learned that the Indians served four chiefs, Caonabó, Higuanamá, Behechio, and Guarionex, each of whom commanded “seventy or eighty caciques who rendered no tribute but were obliged to come when summoned to assist them in their wars and in sowing their fields.”
One of these many caciques stood out—Guacanagarí—Columbus’s occasional ally and overseer of that part of Hispaniola where La Isabela was located. Hearing that Columbus had returned after a long absence, Guacanagarí immediately visited to declare his innocence. He had done nothing to aid or encourage the Indians who had slaughtered the Spanish, and to demonstrate his longstanding goodwill, recalled the goodwill and hospitality he had always shown the Christians. He believed that his generosity toward these visitors from afar had provoked the hatred of the other caciques, especially the notorious Behechio, who had killed one of Guacanagarí’s wives, and the thieving Caonabó, who had stolen another. Now he appealed to the Admiral to restore his wives and obtain revenge. As Guacanagarí narrated this tragic tale he “wept each time he recalled the men who had been killed at La Navidad, as if they had been his own sons.”
Guacanagarí’s tears won over Columbus, restoring the bond between the Admiral and the cacique.
As he considered the situation, Columbus realized that the emotional cacique had provided valuable intelligence about conflicts among the Indians, conflicts that Columbus could exploit to punish enemies of them both. An alliance with Guacanagarí would enable him to settle all scores.
Recovering from his breakdown, Columbus “marched forth from Isabela in warlike array together with his comrade Guacanagarí, who was most eager to rout his enemies,” Ferdinand wrote. It was March 24, 1495, almost six months after the Admiral had arrived. The military task ahead presented impossible odds. Columbus and Guacanagarí jointly commanded a regiment of two hundred Spanish guards, bolstered by twenty horses and twenty hounds—beasts who were far more terrifying to the enemy than any European biped. But they faced an immense force, “more than one hundred thousand Indians” defending their own territory against a small band of invaders. Given the Indians’ growing anger at the Spanish, it seemed this battle would be the last of Columbus, his mission, his men, and his ships. A massacre in the making, the plan had an air of doom about it, as if Columbus, too skillful a navigator to perish at sea, had deliberately chosen instead to martyr himself—and his men—on land.
Believing that he now understood “the Indian character and habits,” Columbus began his campaign by leading his little force on a ten-day march from La Isabela. He divided the men into two groups, one under his command, the other under his brother Bartholomew. Relying on their steeds’ ability to strike absolute terror into the enemy, the two brothers would try to trap the massed Indian forces in a pincer movement. Columbus “believed that the Indians, frightened by a din arising simultaneously on various sides, would break and flee in panic.”
At first, the “infantry squadrons,” as Ferdinand grandly called them, attacked the Indians, beating them back with crossbows and arquebuses. At that point, the “cavalry and hounds” interceded to sow panic amid the enemy, which they did, chasing the Indians into the jungle, and pursuing them wherever they went, “killing many,” according to Ferdinand, “and capturing others who were also killed.”
The Spanish soldiers chased the Indians into the subtropical thickets, and when they could no longer advance, they unleashed twenty greyhounds. The ravenous beasts, wrote Las Casas, “fell on the Indians at the cry of tomalo.” Take it! “Within an hour they had preyed on 100 of them. As the Indians were used to going completely naked, it is easy to imagine the damage caused by these fierce greyhounds, urged to bite naked bodies and skin much more delicate than that of the wild boars they were used to.”
The Spanish forces succeeded in capturing Caonabó alive, together with his wives and children. Ferdinand exaggerated the number of Indian warriors participating in the battle, although they greatly outnumbered the Spanish, whose victory, aided by horses and superior weapons, inspired confidence that had been lacking ever since Columbus first arrived in the Indies. “There is not a single one of our weapons which does not prove highly damaging when used against the Indians,” Las Casas reported from the front, while the Indians’ weapons amounted to “little more than toys.”
After the battle, Caonabó “confessed that he had killed twenty of the Spaniards who remained under Arana in La Navidad when the Admiral returned to Spain from his discovery of the Indies.” So he had been the prime malefactor all along. And, if his confession was to be believed, there was worse. He had subsequently visited the Spanish at La Isabela “feigning friendship,” but with “the true design (which our men suspected) of seeing how he might best attack and destroy it as he had done to the town of La Navidad.” Columbus’s obdurate aide, Alonso de Ojeda, at first tried to broker a “pact of friendship” between Caonabó and Columbus, Peter Martyr related, and wound up threatening the chieftain “with the massacre and ruin of his people if he would choose war rather than peace with the Christians.”
The Italian chronicler skillfully analyzed the chieftain’s political dilemmas and pretensions, as they appeared to Columbus. “Understandably, Caonabó was like a reef in the middle of the sea, tossed this way and that by opposite currents, distressed also by the memory of the crimes he had committed, since he had deceitfully murdered twenty of our defenseless men; although he seemed to desire peace, he was nonetheless afraid to go to the Admiral. Finally, after elaborating a plot with the intention of killing the Admiral and the others when the opportunity presented itself and pretending to want to make peace, he set out to meet the Admiral with all his retinue and many others, armed according to their custom.” With effort, Ojeda enticed the exhausted Caonabó to appear before Columbus and make peace. As a reward, Caonabó would receive a coveted bronze bell from the church.
Ojeda brandished steel handcuffs and foot restraints, explaining that no less a personage than King Ferdinand wore these decorative items on horseback. Out of special consideration, Caonabó could try them on and see how it felt to be a king. Ojeda arranged for Caonabó to be mounted on horseback directly behind him, as the Spaniards tightened the restraints so that Caonabó would remain securely astride the horse. At that moment the Spanish soldiers scared off Ojeda’s guards, and Ojeda spurred the horse, which galloped across a river with both men. Caonabó had been kidnapped.
Ojeda rode on, pausing only to tighten the restraints of his prisionero, until they reached La Isabela, where Caonabó, now a captive, spent his time, in the words of Peter Martyr, “fretting and grating his teeth as if he had been a lion of Libya.”
Pressing on with his pacification of the Cibao, Ojeda rounded up other recalcitrant chieftains, although at least one, Caonabó’s brother-in-law, Behechio, escaped. When the action was over, Columbus staged a victory march through the subjugated countryside.
That was the Spanish side of the story, recorded for posterity by the chroniclers Ferdinand Columbus, Peter Martyr, and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. But there was another, more troubling perspective, that of the Indians, which emphasized the European rape and kidnapping of the naive Taínos. Even Columbus’s sympathies were divided at times between the men he led and those he sought to conquer, but once he had purged himself of compassion, his attention returned to his obsession with gold, glory, and conquest.
Illuminating the moral stakes in the conflict, Las Casas declared, “Such an execrable victory certainly did not redound to the glory of God.” To try to make up for these sins in some small way, he would bear witness to their suffering, and serve as their advocate for posterity.
Columbus intended to dispatch Caonabó and his brother to Spain, “for he was unwilling to put to death so great a personage without the knowledge of the Catholic Sovereigns,” according to Ferdinand. He judged it sufficient to punish many other Indians. It was a curious decision for such a vindictive man, and stemmed from the fact that Columbus and Caonabó had developed a rapport, from one leader to another, across their vast political and linguistic gulf. They shared an interest in the eternal mysteries of life and death, as Columbus attempted to conquer the Indians’ sturdy spiritual realm with the same vigor he had brought to their fragile temporal existence, and with equally baffling results.
“I have taken pains to learn what they believe and know where the dead go, especially from Caonabó,” Columbus wrote in a remarkable reappraisal of his former antagonist. “He is a man of mature age, very knowledgeable and sharp-witted,” and he gave Columbus his first convincing idea of what the life of an Indian cacique was like: privileged, indulgent, and Edenic. “They eat, have wives, enjoy pleasures and comforts,” Columbus marveled. In and around the outbreaks of hostilities, the Spanish had learned more about the lives and resources of their hosts, as Ferdinand noted, their mines of “copper, sapphires, and amber; brazilwood, ebony, incense, cedars, many fine gums, and different kinds of wild spices,” including cinnamon (“though bitter to the taste”), ginger, pepper, everything except the gold Columbus ardently sought. There were even “mulberry trees for producing silk that bear leaves all year round, and many other useful plants and trees of which nothing is known in our countries.”
What sounds like an idyll, at least in Columbus’s words, was anything but. With his two brothers, he established three more fortresses, which he used to enforce a system of tribute that ruined the island’s previously resilient economy.
Henceforth, every Indian over the age of fourteen had to give the equivalent of a hawk’s bell filled with gold. Caciques were required to give even more to the Spanish occupiers. Indians who lived in regions where gold was scarce could substitute cotton—spun or woven, not raw—if they wished, but everyone had to give his tribute, on pain of death. Those who complied received a stamped copper or brass token to wear around their necks in what became a symbol of intolerable shame. (Of this system, Las Casas charged: “Even the cruelest of the Turks or Moors, or the Huns and Vandals who laid waste our kingdoms and lands and destroyed our lives, would have found such a demand impossibly onerous and would have deemed it unreasonable and abhorrent.”)
In time, the Indians depleted the island’s limited supply of gold, and what seemed like a modest amount became increasingly difficult to acquire, even with unremitting effort picking through sand and shrubs. The system was in some ways worse than slavery, and it obliterated any chance that the Indians would assist or cooperate with the Spanish in any other endeavor besides the pointless tributes of gold. By imposing this system, Columbus ensured a modest supply of gold would be his, at the cost of everything else he needed or could have wished. For example, Guarionex, the influential cacique, argued that the land used to provide a minimal amount of gold could grow enough wheat to feed all of Spain, not just once, but ten times, but Columbus refused to consider the idea, deciding instead to halve the tribute and perpetuate the offense.
Recounting this policy, Las Casas howled with indignation. “Some complied,” he noted, “and for others it was impossible, and so, falling into the most wretched way of living, some took refuge in the mountains whilst others, since the violence and provocation and injuries on the part of the Christians never ceased, killed some Christians for special damages and tortures that they suffered.” The Christians responded by murdering and torturing their antagonists, “not respecting the human and divine justice and natural law under whose authority they did it.” There is no denying the force of Las Casas’s outrage, but Indians were not the innocents of his imagination; they had been slaveholders long before the Europeans arrived. Fernández de Oviedo noted that in war, contesting Indian tribes “take captives whom they brand and keep as slaves. Each master has his own brand and some masters pull out one front tooth of their slaves as a mark of ownership.”
Demoralized by the Spanish tribute system, and unnerved by their own prophecies, many Indians took steps to escape in the only way left to them. Columbus became aware of the dimensions of the tragedy decimating the Indians when “it was pointed out to him that the natives had been vexed by a famine so widespread that more than 50,000 men had died, and every day they fell everywhere like sickened flocks,” in the words of Peter Martyr.
The reality was even more terrible than famine; it was self-inflicted. The Indians destroyed their stores of bread so that neither they nor the invaders would be able to eat it. They plunged off cliffs, they poisoned themselves with roots, and they starved themselves to death. Oppressed by the impossible requirement to deliver tributes of gold, the Indians were no longer able to tend their fields, or care for their sick, children, and elderly. They had given up and committed mass suicide to avoid being killed or captured by Christians, and to avoid sharing their land with them, their fields, groves, beaches, forests, and women: the future of their people. It was an extraordinary act of despair and self-destruction, so overwhelming that the Spanish could not comprehend it.
All of them, fifty thousand Indians, dead by their own hand.
The Spanish refused to shoulder the blame. The mass suicide resulted from the Indians’ “own stubbornness,” said Peter Martyr. “The Indians purposely destroyed all their bread [cassava] fields,” Columbus told his Sovereigns in October 1495. “To prevent my searching for gold the Indians put up as many obstacles as they could.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “nothing else makes them so sad and upset as the fact that we are coming into their territory.” But in reality, the Indians had little interest in gold, especially in comparison to Columbus. In his version, the Indians, after realizing that they would not be able to divert him from his hunt for gold, belatedly “resumed planting and seeding the land because they were starving, but heaven did not help them out with rain this time and they were ruined and died and are dying at an incredible rate.” He ascribed their deaths to “starvation.”
The dwindling number of survivors found themselves trapped in a survivalist endgame. Some took refuge in the mountains, where Spanish dogs set upon them. Those who avoided the dogs succumbed to starvation and illness. Although estimates of the population are inexact, the trend is plain. Of the approximately 300,000 Indians in Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’s first voyage in 1492, 100,000 or so died between 1494 and 1496, half of them during the mass suicide. Las Casas estimated that the Indian population in 1496 was only one-third of what it had been in 1494. (“What a splendid harvest and how quickly they reaped it!” he wrote acidly.) Twelve years later, in 1508, a census counted 60,000 Indians, or one-fifth of the original population, and by 1548 Fernández de Oviedo found only five hundred Indians, the survivors of the hundreds of thousands who had populated the island when Columbus arrived, and who had seen him as the fulfillment of a longstanding prophecy. It was only now that the meaning of that prophecy became clear: his presence meant their extinction.
In time the Taínos made peace with their adversaries. A tribe combining both Caribs and Taíno emerged, and seemed to point the way to coexistence. The arrival of Columbus’s fleets, one after the other, disturbed the spontaneous compromise, and added a new level of stress and conflict to this volatile society. The leading figure was Columbus’s adversary, Caonabó, the Carib cacique who married a Taíno wife, Behechio’s sister, Anacaona. Not long before Columbus’s arrival, other Taínos had married Caribs who renounced cannibalism; in this, Caonabó and Anacaona were not alone. A third tribe, the Ciguayo, appeared to be a hybrid of the two former adversaries. Las Casas reported that they had forgotten their native tongue and instead “spoke a strange language, almost barbaric” that might have combined their idiom with the Taínos’ speech. Like the Caribs, they grew their hair long, and used liberal applications of red and black war paint, but unlike them, the Ciguayo did not poison their arrows. It was the Ciguayo who fired off arrows at Columbus when he first arrived at the Dominican Republic, and to memorialize the attack, he named the scene of the battle the Gulf of Arrows.
At the time Columbus arrived on the scene, all three tribes—Taíno, Carib, and Ciguayo—were trying to preserve peace and prevent mutual destruction with intertribal marriages, a strategy akin to the many liaisons between the royal families of Spain and Portugal. But the Spanish presence brought the Indian alliances to a halt, and pitched the Indian nations into turmoil.
Columbus’s sins—at least, those against the Spanish—eventually returned to haunt him. On August 5, 1495, a fleet of four caravels sailed from Spain under the leadership of Juan de Aguado, a martinet who had been among those who sailed with Columbus at the outset of the second voyage, and who had returned to Spain along with other sick and disaffected would-be conquerors under Torres’s command. Thanks to the efforts of Father Buil, sentiment in Spain had turned decisively against the Admiral, and Aguado and his aides returned to Hispaniola with orders to investigate Columbus. At the same time, they carried supplies and—because gold remained paramount—a metallurgist.
On his arrival in October 1495, Aguado made a grand entrance, accompanied by trumpets, and assumed command of the little outpost in the wilderness. Bartholomew, present at La Isabela during the humiliating spectacle, sent a letter of caution to Columbus, who had gone inland to the mines of the Cibao. Returning to the fort, the Admiral surprised everyone by listening respectfully to the new orders Aguado brought from the Sovereigns.
Columbus was to reduce the number of men on the royal payroll to five hundred, and to make sure that everyone received his just share of provisions. Complaints that Columbus had played favorites reverberated from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Worse, everyone else at La Isabela subsisted on short rations, despite the land’s incredible fertility. “The soil is very black and good,” observed Cuneo. “We brought with us from Spain all sorts of seeds, and tried those that would do well and those that could not.” The successes included radishes, squash, onions, lettuce, parsley, melon, and cucumber. Chickpeas and beans shot up in a matter of days, “then all at once they wilt and die.” No one knew why. The Spaniards eventually lost interest in growing their own food, “the reason being that nobody wants to live permanently in these countries.” Infected with gold lust, they preferred to rely on supplies of foodstuffs from Spain and cassava bread.
Listening to the outpouring of complaints about Columbus, Aguado noticed that the healthiest Europeans engaged in rogue pursuits: petty thievery, searching for gold for themselves, and trapping slaves. He painted a sorry portrait of the Spanish colony’s inability to feed itself in the midst of plenty.
All of the people that have been in this island are incredibly discontented, especially those that were at La Isabela, and all the more for the force, the hunger and the illnesses that they endured, and they did not swear an “as God would take me to Castile”; they had nothing to eat other than the rations given to them from the storehouse of the King, which was one escudilla [about a cup] of wheat that they had to grind in a hand mill (and many ate it cooked), and one chunk of rancid bacon or of rotten cheese, and I don’t know how many garbanzo beans; of wine, it was as though there was none in the world, and this was the allowance of the Crown. And the Admiral for his part ordered them to work hungry, weak, and some sick (in building the fort, the Admiral’s house and other buildings) in such a manner that they were all anguished and afflicted and desperate, for which reasons they complained to Juan Aguado and used the occasion to speak about the Admiral and threaten him to the [Sovereigns].
Absorbing this harsh testimony and surveying the degradation into which La Isabela had fallen, Columbus realized he had little choice but to suspend his exploration of Hispaniola and return to Spain to defend himself. The doors of royal favor and patronage were creaking shut slowly but unmistakably, and he dreaded being cast out. Other mariners stood ready to take his place. All they needed was the Sovereigns’ blessing, and Columbus’s monopoly on discovery in the name of Spain would end, and with it, the prestige and riches he had been promised.
While he pondered his fate, Columbus, a lifelong autodidact, applied himself to studying the Taínos with the thoroughness he brought to his other endeavors, especially their spirituality, which, he learned, was far more intricate and nuanced than their simple way of life—their small fields, primitive huts, and long canoes—had led him to expect. He noted that their numerous chieftains maintained private shrines in a “house apart from the town in which there is nothing except some carved wooden images.” When they saw Europeans coming, Columbus said, they hid them “in the woods for fear that they will be taken from them; what is even more laughable, they have the custom of stealing each other’s cemís.” There was more; the statues were the focus of a private, mysterious, and transformative rite. The images, he added, were accompanied by “a well-made table, round like a wooden dish, in which there is kept a powder that they place on the head of the cemí with a certain ceremony. Then, through a cane having two branches that they insert in the nose, they sniff up this powder. The words that they spoke none of our men could understand. This powder makes them lose their senses and rave like drunken men.”
The Taínos used the little cemís to commune with the spirit world, and as Columbus observed to his dismay and amusement, to manipulate members of their tribe who had not been initiated into the idol’s mysteries. He told of a cemí that “gave a loud cry and spoke in their language.” On closer examination, he discovered that the “statue was artfully constructed,” the base connected by a tube or “blowgun” to a “dark side of the house, covered by branches and leaves, where was hidden a person who said whatever the cacique wanted him to say (as well as one can speak through a blowgun).”
To expose the sleight of hand, several Spaniards toppled the talking cemí, and the cacique, deeply embarrassed, pleaded with them to say nothing to his tribesmen “because it was by means of that deception that he kept them in obedience to him. . . . Only the cacique knows of and abets this fraud, by means of which he gets all the tribute he wants from his people.” (Surely that cynical combination of superstition and deception to control the faithful occurred nowhere in Spain, or anywhere else in Europe.)
Caonabó elucidated other Taíno burial rites for caciques, as Columbus took notes. (“They open the cacique and dry him before a fire that he may keep whole. In the case of others they preserve only the head.”) This sojourn through the Taínos’ underworld prompted the Admiral, already prone to a morbid turn of mind, to ponder questions of mortality. “I have taken pains to learn what they believe,” he wrote, “and know as to where the dead go, especially from Canaobó,” who told the explorer that they went “to a valley to join their forefathers.”
This was as far as Columbus dared to venture into the twilight of the Taínos’ spiritual beliefs and practices. He assigned Ramon Pané, one of the six priests on the expedition, to go further still, “to set down all their rites.” This Father Pané did, and compiled a report based on his four years of living in close quarters with the Taínos. His revelations about their religious practices, and the Spanish interference in these rites, contained so many unpleasant truths that Columbus dismissed them as fiction, and considered that “the only sure thing to be learned from it is that the Indians have a certain natural reverence for the after-life and believe in the immortality of their soul.” Yet he included the controversial document in his chronicle, which his son reproduced more or less in full, realizing, perhaps, that it offered the best explanation of the deterioration of relations between the Spanish and the Indians.
According to Father Pané, a Catalan who characterized himself as a “poor anchorite”—or scholarly hermit—“of the order of St. Jerome,” the trouble went to the heart of their opposing spiritual beliefs. His unsparing reflections are sometimes considered the first anthropological study of the Indians, or, for that matter, of any people. Of all the accounts Columbus’s voyages generated, it is certainly the strangest and most penetrating.
“They believe that there is an immortal being in the sky whom none can see and who has a mother but no beginning,” he wrote, recording their basic myths in a manner that he hoped would make them comprehensible to Christians like him. Father Pané said that he “wrote in haste and had not enough paper” to record myths passed down the generations: how the sea was created (a giant calabash emptied its contents, water and fish), the origins of the sun and moon (they emerged from a cave populated with two stone cemísthat appeared to perspire), and the afterlives of the dead (secluded by day, they emerge by night for recreation and to eat a special fruit the size of a peach). Among Father Pané’s observations, the Indians had a method for identifying the dead: “They touch the belly of a person with the hand, and if they do not find a navel, they say that person is ‘operito,’ which means dead.” And if an amorous man carelessly lies with a woman without first checking to see that she does, indeed, possess a navel, “she suddenly disappears and his arms are empty.”
Suffusing all these beliefs was cohoba, the hallucinogenic snuff the Indians snorted through their special pipes with two stems. Father Pané’s subjects spent much of their time in an altered state of consciousness, the effect of inhaling powerful cohoba dust. “Thecohoba is their means of praying to the idol and also of asking it for riches,” he wrote. The chief initiated the ceremony by playing an instrument. “After he has finished his prayer he remains for some time with bowed head, looks up to the sky, and speaks. All respond to him in a loud voice, and having spoken, they all give thanks; and he relates the vision he had while stupefied with the cohoba he stuffed up his nose and that went to his head.” During the séance, he spoke of his communing with the cemís, of their enemies fleeing, and of the victory to come. Or he might warn of famine, or massacres, “whatever comes into his addled head.” Horrified and faintly amused, Father Pané mentions that “they say the house appears to him upside down, and the people to be walking with their feet in the air.” He was talking about astral projection, or out-ofbody experiences triggered by cohoba.
Father Pané believed that conversion to Christianity could break these ancient patterns, and he embraced those Indians who made the leap from their sinful lives to the church. Yet his detailed report demonstrated to Columbus how difficult it would be to conquer and administer this part of the world, trying to bring European ideas of order to people who lived in other spiritual realms and obeyed other voices.
Father Pané heard from Columbus himself about an Indian community with its own language, distinct from the others. It would be his assignment to live with these people and their cacique, Guarionex. Dismayed, the priest questioned Columbus about the wisdom of the order. “Sir, how can Your Lordship ask me to stay with Guarionex, when the only language I know is that of Macorix?” Father Pané beseeched Columbus to provide an Indian companion.
“He granted my wish,” Father Pané was pleased to report as he joined forces with a bilingual Indian named Guaicavanú, who later converted to Christianity and took the name of Juan. “Truly, I looked upon him as my own good son and brother.” The priest and the sympathetic Indian named Juan took up their new post, where they stayed with Guarionex for nearly two years, “during which time we instructed him in our holy faith and the customs of the Christians.” But it was not easy: “At first he appeared well disposed toward us, causing us to believe that he would do all we wished and wanted to become a Christian, for he asked us to teach him the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, the Credo, and all the other prayers and things that are proper for a Christian to know.” Later, “he grew angry with us and backslid from his good purposes on account of the principal men of that country, who scolded him for obeying the Christian law.” So they abandoned Guarionex for another cacique, “who seemed well-disposed to us and said he wanted to be a Christian.” His name was Maviatué.
“The day after we left the village and dwelling of Guarionex for the land and people of Maviatué, the people of Guarionex built a hut next to the chapel, where we have left some images before which the neophytes could kneel and pray and find comfort.” The chapel and its objects immediately became a source of irritation for the lapsed Christians. Two days after Father Pané’s departure, “by orders of Guarionex six men came to the chapel and told the seven neophytes . . . in charge to take the sacred images that I had left in their care and destroy them because Fray Ramón [Pané] and his companions had gone away and would not know who had done it.” The six followers of Guarionex pushed the guards aside, “forced their way in, took the sacred images, and carried them away.”
As if that were not bad enough, the Indian raiders hurled the images to the ground, buried them, and urinated on the mounds, saying, “Now will you yield good and abundant fruit?”
When he heard about the incident, Bartholomew Columbus felt impelled to demonstrate that he could be as decisive in his dealings with the Indians as his illustrious brother had been hesitant. “He brought those wicked men to trial, and their crime having been established, he caused them to be publicly burned at the stake.” If Bartholomew believed this punishment would chastise the Indians once and for all, he was quickly forced to realize his error. “Guarionex and his people persisted in their evil design of killing all the Christians on the day assigned for them to pay their tribute of gold.” The Spanish discovered the plot just before it was carried out, and imprisoned the Indian conspirators, “yet some persisted in their design, killing four men and Juan Matthew, the chief clerk, and his brother Antonio, who had been baptized.”
The rampage grew in intensity, and, it seemed to Christian eyes, yielded a miracle amid the mayhem. “Those rebels ran to the place where they had hidden the images and broken them to pieces. Several days later the owner of the field went to dig up some yams (which are roots that look like turnips or radishes), and in the place where the images had been buried two or three yams had grown together in the shape of a cross.” Incredibly, “This cross was found by the mother of Guarionex—the worst woman I ever knew in those parts,” yet “she found it a miracle, saying to the governor of the fort of Concepción, ‘God caused this wonder to appear in the place where the images were found, for reasons known only to Himself.’” At least it was comforting to imagine that she did.
Father Pané offered sobering advice to Columbus: “This island has great need of men who will punish those Indian lords who will not let their people receive instruction in the Holy Catholic Faith, for those people cannot stand up to their lords.” Toughened and wearied by experience, the priest set aside his humility to insist, “I speak with authority, for I have worn myself out in seeking to learn the truth about this matter.”
But for the moment, Columbus appeared to have succeeded in his mission against all odds, if his mission consisted only of conquest. Ferdinand claimed that his father “reduced the Indians to such obedience and tranquility that they all promised to pay tribute to the Catholic Sovereigns every three months, as follows: In the Cibao, where the gold mines were, every person fourteen years of age or upward was to pay a large hawk’s bell of gold dust; all others were to pay twenty-five pounds of cotton.”
Such were the terms of the Pax Columbiana.
Still adhering to their hunger strike, the Indians were starving to death. “If they survive this famine,” Columbus euphemistically noted in October 1495, “I hope in Our Lord I can maintain this agreement with them and earn not a little profit.” He ordered his men to conduct a census “cacique by cacique,” and complained, “no more than a quarter of them could be found because everyone had scattered to the mountains, into unpopulated areas in search of roots to feed the people.” Each surviving Indian who delivered a tribute to the Spanish authorities received a “brass or copper token, which he must wear about his neck as proof that he made his payment; any Indian found without such a token was to be punished.”
All the while, the Spaniards seethed with resentment. Some had already returned to Spain with Antonio de Torres to spread tales about the callous Admiral of the Ocean Sea. His two brothers, rushing to his side, had only managed to make things worse with their brutal approach to Indian relations. He feared that the longer he was away from the court, the more his rivals would poison the minds of his Sovereigns against him. On his first voyage he had departed in relative obscurity and returned as a hero; on this, his second voyage, he had departed as a hero, but had every reason to believe that he would return in disgrace unless he pleaded his case before the Sovereigns.
Conditions at La Isabela were so chaotic that it took a long time—nearly six months—to ready a ship to bear the Admiral of the Ocean Sea to Castile. She was named, fittingly, India, a caravel made of three ships destroyed by a violent Caribbean hurricane, said by Peter Martyr to have occurred in June 1495, and for which the Indians blamed the presence of the Spaniards, who had upset the elements. The only other ship in the little convoy was Santa Clara, in which Columbus owned a half share.
The two caravels were designed to carry about twenty-five people each; now they collectively held 235 Europeans and 30 Indians, including the dangerous Caonabó, still a prisoner, along with his brother and nephew. Columbus commended these former enemies to his royal patrons with cheerful optimism: “I am sending Your Highnesses Caonabó and his brother. He is the most important cacique on the island and the most courageous and intelligent. If he starts to talk he will tell everything about this land better than anyone else, because there is no subject he does not know about.” The safe arrival of Caonabó in Seville, and his appearance before the Sovereigns, promised to be a major event.
The fleet set out on the morning of March 26, 1496, with Bartholomew aboard, but he disembarked as planned when the ships called at Puerto Plata, not far from La Isabela on the northern coast of Hispaniola. Bartholomew returned to La Isabela overland, and the fleet sailed on without him, under Columbus’s sole command.
The going was agonizingly slow. Twelve days later, Columbus put the eastern extremity of Hispaniola astern, sailing “directly east as much as wind permitted.” Provisions were low, his men tired and in bad humor. On April 6, the Admiral changed course and headed south. Within three days he dropped anchor off Marie Galante, the island that he had blithely claimed for Spain at the beginning of the voyage. The respite proved brief. The next day, a Sunday, he set sail, contrary to his custom, his ears ringing with the complaints of his men about toiling on the Lord’s Day.
Standing off Guadeloupe, he sent a few small boats ashore, taking care to arm the men, and “before they reached the beach a multitude of women armed with bows and arrows and with plumes on their heads rushed out of the woods and assumed a menacing attitude.” Those in the boats sent the two Indians among them to bargain with the women warriors, and when they realized the men had come in search of food, not conquest, they directed them to the “northern shore of the island, where their husbands would furnish them with what they needed.” The inexperienced Spaniards combed the shore, came away empty-handed, and reeling from hunger and exhaustion, returned to the caravels and set sail on a northerly course. As their ships hugged the shore, Indians assembled at the water’s edge, where they “uttered great cries” and fired off volley after volley of poison-tipped arrows at the exposed watercraft.
Undeterred, Columbus sent his men ashore, prepared to meet with a harsh response. The Indians regrouped and tried to stage another ambush, but they dispersed as soon as the Spanish fired their clumsy but noisy guns. In their haste, the Indians abandoned their supplies and their dwellings, “which the Christians entered, looting and destroying all they found,” Ferdinand wrote. Most of all they needed food. “Being familiar with the Indian method of making bread, they took their cassava dough and made enough bread to satisfy their needs.”
They searched the dwellings with care, noting “large parrots, honey, wax, and iron which the Indians used to make little hatchets, and there were looms, like our tapestry looms, on which they weave cloth.” They came across one more item: “a human hand roasting on a spit.” The men recoiled in horror.
Soon they were nosing around Guadeloupe, perhaps entering the cove known as Anse à la Barque, marked by serene huts, among other signs of benign inhabitants.
Columbus dispatched a boat with an armed crew, who encountered countless arrows soaring overhead. A few shots scattered the archers, and the landing party raided the huts, looking for food and supplies, but found only huge red parrots staring blankly at them. In frustration, a small group of Spanish marauders gave chase to the Indians and captured three boys and ten women, whom they held hostage as they traded for cassava root.
The ships remained at anchor in Guadeloupe for nine days, as the men busied themselves baking cassava bread on hot griddles, preparing firewood, and gathering water. The leisurely schedule hints that they also enjoyed the “hospitality” of the women they had captured, releasing them shortly before their departure, with the exception of one who appeared to be the wife of a cacique, and her daughter, whom they held captive aboard their crowded ships.
On April 20, 1496, the fleet finally set sail for Spain. In the cramped quarters, illness spread rapidly, and the Indians proved most vulnerable. Caonabó, who had survived so many challenges on his native soil, died at sea. The court of Ferdinand and Isabella, about which he had heard so much, and which had fired his imagination with impossible grandeur, would never greet him, or enslave him.
“With the wind ahead and much calm,” Ferdinand wrote, Columbus sailed “as close to the twenty-second degree of latitude as the wind permitted; for at that time men had not learned the trick of running far northward to catch the southwest winds.” These conditions made for slow progress, and by May 20, the men “began to feel a great want of provisions, all being reduced to a daily ration of six ounces of bread and a pint and a half of water.”
To add to their anxiety, none of the caravels’ pilots had the slightest idea of their true location. Columbus believed they were approaching the Azores, confiding his reasoning to his journal. The Flemish and Genoese compasses, or “needles,” were not synchronized: “This morning the Flemish needles varied a point to the northwest as usual; and the Genoese needles, which generally agree with them, varied slightly to the northwest; later they oscillated between easterly and westerly variation, which was a sign that our position was somewhat more than one hundred leagues to the west of the Azores.” His calculations showed they were getting closer to home with every passing swell, and he expected to see “a few scattered branches of gulfweed in the sea” at any time. Two days later, on May 22, a Sunday, he affirmed that they were one hundred leagues from the Azores.
The compass needles told a different story: the ships were off course and dashing headlong into danger. Columbus “assigned the cause to the difference of the lodestone with which the needles are magnetized.” As the men protested, and fear of disaster mounted, the Admiral pursued his course, relying on dead reckoning, that is, arriving at his location by carefully calculating the speed at which his ship traveled, and the distance he had come, since leaving the island of Guadeloupe on April 20.
On the night of June 7, a Tuesday, the pilots estimated they were still “several days’ sail from land,” but Columbus alarmed them all by taking in sail “for fear of striking land.” They were nearing Cape St. Vincent on Portugal’s coast, he insisted, as the pilots, eight or ten all told, mocked the misguided Admiral. Some said they would raise the coast of England, and others claimed they were not far from Galicia, in northwestern Spain, and in that case, Columbus should let out all the sheet he could, “for it was better to die by running on to the rocky coast than to perish miserably from hunger at sea.” But he did nothing of the kind. Shorn of sail, the ships coasted uncertainly through the dark, gelatinous sea.
Ravenous, the men talked openly about desperate survival measures. The Caribs proposed to eat the other Indians aboard, while the Spaniards conserved their food by heaving the Indians overboard. They were prepared to execute their plan, but at the last minute the Admiral forbade them, reminding them all that the Indians, as Christians and human beings, deserved to be treated as the others.
Columbus held to his course through the night, until, on Wednesday, June 8, 1496, “while all the pilots went about like men who were lost or blind, they came in sight of Odemira, between Lisbon and Cape Saint Vincent.” The little town sparkled in the distance, and it lay exactly on the Portuguese coast where Columbus’s dead reckoning told him it would. So much for the pilots and their predictions.
“From that time on,” Ferdinand noted, “the seamen regarded the Admiral as most expert and admirable in matters of navigation.” He had gotten them home alive, and that alone merited their gratitude. He had survived storms, countless Indian attacks with poison-tipped spears, mutiny, the prospect of starvation, and a severe illness.
Now Spain and all its challenges beckoned, and the imperative to extol his accomplishments and justify his actions invigorated him. He had left Hispaniola as the proud Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Preparing to go ashore, he carefully altered his appearance, wearing the simple habit of a friar, out of a mixture of piety, penitence, and cunning. The authorities might jail a captain, but how would they treat the pious man returned from the sea who stood before them?
Columbus had not seen Spain since September 25, 1494, nearly two years before, and great events had occurred during his absence. The Catholic Sovereigns, whom he ardently desired to see, were in Burgos, in northern Spain, preparing the marriage of their only son, the Most Serene Highness Don Juan, Prince of Asturias, to Archduchess Margarita, the daughter of Emperor Maximilian of Austria. Everywhere, the “solemn pomp” of the Spanish nobility was in evidence, said Ferdinand Columbus, privileged to attend as a page to the prince, who was just eighteen years of age and known for his frail constitution.
In Burgos, Columbus displayed mementos of his latest voyage to the Indies: plants, trees, birds, and other animals. He exhibited implements employed by the Indians, their masks, belts accented with gold, and handfuls of gold dust “in its natural state, fine or large as beans and chickpeas and some the size of pigeon eggs.” These quantities did not satisfy Columbus’s greed, or his promises to return with fistfuls of gleaming nuggets of gold. In a rare moment of ambivalence, he “accepted that up till now the gain had barely met the cost.” Despite the Admiral’s private reservations, the trophies amazed many who saw them. Columbus and his men seemed latter-day versions of Jason and the Argonauts returning from their quest with rare specimens of the Golden Fleece.
“I send you samples of seeds of every kind,” Peter Martyr boasted to Cardinal Sforza on April 29, 1494, “bark, and pitch from those trees they think may be cinnamon.” He warned the cardinal to “barely touch them when you draw them near your lips: although not harmful, they produce excessive heat that can irritate and sting the tongue, if you leave them on it a long time.” And if the cardinal felt his tongue burn after he tasted them, “the hot sensation is quickly eliminated by drinking water.” A “piece of wood,” on the other hand, resembled aloe. “If you have it split, you will smell the ensuing delicate perfume.”
Setting aside their doubts, the Catholic Sovereigns prepared a stirring announcement that Spain had claimed a new realm, with the pope’s blessing. On October 15, 1495, approximately three years after his first landfall in the area, Columbus could inform Ferdinand and Isabella: “The entire island is completely subjugated and its people know and accept the fact that they must pay tribute to Your Highnesses, each one a certain amount every so many moons.” So ran the official version of the just-completed second voyage, in which the Admiral of the Ocean Sea consolidated his, and Spain’s, control of international trade. Portugal take note: the Treaty of Tordesillas had legitimized the land-and-sea grab.
As if to confirm the Spanish ascendance, João II of Portugal died ten days later. He was only forty years old, and poisoning was strongly suspected. With the Portuguese monarch gone, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to have a fair portion of the globe to themselves. They had reconquered Iberia, and with the help of Columbus they stood ready to claim still more.
Yet the maintenance of an overseas empire raised more questions than it settled, and troubling, persistent questions they were. First of all, where, precisely, was this newly acquired empire located? Columbus insisted they had reached India’s distant precincts yet again, but skeptics and rivals believed that he had only the vaguest idea of where they were located. Next, what to do about the numerous people they had encountered in these islands, the so-called Indians? There were those who were obliging, and offered succor, and those who came racing to the water’s edge to hurl spears at their ships. And there were those who committed suicide rather than coexist with the Spanish. There were alarming signs of cannibalism among these “Indians,” yet it appeared that no Spaniard had been subjected to this fate. Columbus had tried to form strategic alliances with Indian leaders whom he encountered, yet his supposed ally Guacanagarí had massacred dozens of isolated, vulnerable Spanish scouts. Finally, converting the Indians to Christianity had proved difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating. Even Father Pané admitted that “force and craft” were sometimes necessary to effect conversions, and there was no assurance that Indians who had been baptized would practice the Christian faith after the priests departed. In reality, many fell away from the faith as rapidly as they had embraced it.
So the questions, for now, went unanswered.
As he had at the completion of his first voyage, Columbus guaranteed himself a return trip with the simple expedient of leaving men behind to fend for themselves, and he immediately went about mounting a third expedition to rescue or support them. His friend Peter Martyr wrote that the Admiral, “quite saddened by the murder of our men but of the opinion that he should not delay any longer,” immediately began to lobby the Catholic Sovereigns to send a dozen ships to these troubled islands, and it appeared that he would get his wish. Both he and his royal patrons seemed determined to repeat the mistakes rather than learn the painful lessons of the first two voyages. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea remained convinced that the wealth of India and the Grand Khan lay only a short cruise from the islands he had already explored. The age of exploration, or, as it was in danger of becoming, the age of exploitation, continued to be driven by this illusion.
Columbus wished to return immediately to bring his stranded men provisions and weapons. “But insist as he might,” Ferdinand commented sharply, “since the affairs of that court are usually attended by delay, ten or twelve months passed before he obtained the dispatch of two relief ships under the command of Captain Pedro Fernández Coronel.”
The desperately needed ships finally sailed from Spain for the Indies in February 1497 without Columbus, who “stayed to attend to the outfitting of the rest of the fleet that he required for his return voyage to the Indies.” Short of men and supplies, the task would require a year.
During this interval, a noticeable change came over Columbus. “Being a great devotee of Saint Francis, he also dressed from this time on in brown,” Las Casas wrote sympathetically, “and I saw him in Seville when he returned from here, dressed almost identically as a Franciscan friar.” Wearing the somber garb of a religious order signaled that Columbus had given himself over to his destiny with a renewed vigor.
By the time Columbus departed from Hispaniola, La Isabela had become a ghost town. The highly emotional Las Casas, who later visited the settlement and lamented its failed hopes, noted that “it was advised by many that no one could dare to pass by La Isabela after it was depopulated without great fear and danger” caused by “many frightening voices and horrible ghosts.” And he related a fantastic tale:
One day at some buildings of La Isabela, [some visitors] saw two lines of men, drawn up in formation, all of them apparently nobles and men from court, well dressed, with swords by their sides and all with cloaks of the kind affected by travelers of the time in Spain; those to whom this vision appeared were amazed—how had such elegant strangers come to be there, without anyone’s knowing about it? They greeted and questioned them about where they had come from. When the travelers removed their hats, heads disappeared, leaving themselves beheaded, and then they disappeared. Those witnessing this spectacle almost died from fright on the spot and were upset for many days.
In reality, Columbus’s final deed before leaving Hispaniola had been to instruct his brother Bartholomew to establish a new city at the mouth of the Ozama River. Santo Domingo was so named because Bartholomew arrived there on a Sunday. The site seemed promising: “a river of wholesome water, quite rich in excellent varieties of fish, flows into the harbor along charming banks,” Peter Martyr noted. “Native palms and fruit trees of every kind sometimes drooped over the heads of our sailors, their branches weighed with blooms and fruits.” The soil appeared to be even more fertile than that of La Isabela. Work on the fortress of Santo Domingo commenced that year, or the next, 1497, and before long twenty men resided in the future capital of the Spanish empire of the Indies. Santo Domingo is now the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Western Hemisphere.
The rise of Santo Domingo meant the end of La Isabela. The ill-starred settlement became the final resting place of the bones of both Spanish settlers and Indians, finally at peace in death. In their shallow graves, the Indian corpses rested on their sides, according to their custom, and the Spanish on their backs, with their arms crossed over their rib cages and their eyes staring into eternity.