Post-classical history


ON SEPTEMBER 25, 1493, the day Columbus’s seventeen-ship armada departed Cadíz, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull known as Dudum siquidem. It was the fourth such writ that the pope, the Spaniard Rodrigo Borja, had issued dating back to May 3 that addressed the rights of Fernando and Isabel to Columbus’s discoveries.

Borja had two illegitimate children, and as Alexander VI, he proved to be fixated on securing a heritable territory for his offspring in Italy. For Fernando and Isabel—and through them Columbus—Borja managed to use his papal authority to bestow a heritable territory of literally immeasurable dimensions, as the technical capability to define its globe-girdling expanse was beyond the grasp of the interested parties.

Collectively, the first three bulls are generally called Inter cetera. Under the premise of spreading Christianity to the heathen, the pope had agreed to reserve for the Spanish monarchs all lands on the western side of a meridian drawn from pole to pole, “whether mainlands and islands are discovered and yet to be discovered towards India or towards any other region whatsoever.” This line of demarcation was to be drawn one hundred leagues beyond “any of the islands which are commonly called the Azores and Cape Verde, provided that all islands and mainlands found or yet to be found, discovered or yet to be discovered, from the said line to the west and south were not possessed in actuality by any Christian king or ruler, up to the day of Christmas last, from which the present year 1493 begins.”

Inter cetera was hugely problematic in lumping the Azores and Cape Verde Islands into one island group for measuring purposes. The two island groups are separated north to south by some thirteen hundred nautical miles, and they also lie on different lines of longitude. The westernmost islands in the Cape Verde group, São Antão and São Vicente, lie around 25° west; Flores, the westernmost of the Azores, is around 31° west. In addition to this six-degree difference in the measurement starting point (which cosmographers at the time had no accurate means of knowing), measuring west from these places in leagues to determine a particular meridian where Spanish rights began would produce two very different results because of their latitude differences.

Another complication was that the rights assigned to Spain were said to be “towards India or towards any other region.” In other words, the rights didn’t include “India”—whatever that geographic term actually meant; the papacy may have added this phrase in order to placate Portuguese objections.

Inter cetera scarcely settled the matter of who could claim what. As Portugal already had rights through Aeterni Regis of 1481 to any undiscovered islands in the Ocean Sea in latitudes south of the Canaries, with no westerly limit specified thereto, there was naturally a diplomatic dispute over how the papal bulls of 1481 and 1493 converged. The language of Inter cetera also seemed to acknowledge that it applied only to waters south and west of the Canaries as defined byAeterni Regis, despite the fact that the Azores were being used as a measuring point for the meridian. Portugal had already sent an ambassador to the Vatican in early May 1493 to contest Spain’s claims; this diplomatic mission could have been in direct response to the debriefing Columbus gave João II on his return from the first voyage in March.

On September 25, 1493, came Dudum siquidem, issued by Alexander VI as a rough plaster job on some of the gaping cracks in Inter cetera as Columbus departed on his second voyage. Dudum siquidem acknowledged that “it could happen that your envoys and captains or vassals sailing toward the west and south might steer to eastern regions and find islands and mainlands which had been or were [discovered],” which appeared to be a nod to Portugal’s earlier efforts to find a route to India from the opposite direction, around Africa. It went on to elaborate Spain’s territorial rights by incoherently extending them to “regions of the West or the South or the East or of India.” Still, where Inter cetera had granted rights only towards India, Dudum siquidem now included “regions . . . of India.” Columbus personally may have demanded this, because according to his worldview, he already was in the Indies with what we know actually to have been Caribbean discoveries.

Dudum siquidem and Inter cetera were a muddle, and it would be left to Portuguese and Spanish diplomats to better define their spheres of authority through a treaty, which would take until June 1494 to settle. In the meantime, Columbus had sailed with the Spanish pope’s assurance that whatever he had already encountered—and had yet to encounter—one hundred leagues beyond the Cape Verdes or the Azores was his alone to claim and also to exploit as Spain’s governor and viceroy of Española and Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

THE CROSSING WAS LESS benign than had been the trailblazing one of 1492, as Columbus’s fleet was lashed and scattered by a storm about a dozen days beyond the Canaries. But all seventeen vessels survived the passage and, perhaps because of the storm’s wrath, arrived in the Caribbean well below the latitude of the first voyage’s landfall.

Columbus’s friend Michele da Cuneo said they made initial landfall on November 3 at Dominica, followed by Maria la galante (Marie-Galante) and Guadeloupe. The armada then sailed north through the Leeward Islands chain and also visited the Virgin Islands before reaching Puerto Rico, en route to Española.

This necklace of unprecedented landfalls (which could have given the unknown author of the August 1497 letter, which was sent from London to the Duke of Milan, the confidence to state that Cabot “has good skill in discovering new islands”) was full of colorful and salacious encounters with natives to which the eyewitness accounts gave considerable attention. The cannibals only speculated about in Columbus’s first-voyage report were now breathed to life as a ferocious people, the Caribs.

We know that the Caribs and the Arawaks had originated in South America, with the Arawaks arriving first and establishing themselves foremost in the Greater Antilles of Cuba, Jamaica, Española, and Puerto Rico, in the process reducing the original colonists, the Ciboney, who had come from Florida, to a territory in western Cuba. Arawak tradition held that the Caribs who followed them from South America had forced them out of the Lesser Antilles. Although the Caribs may well have been warlike and raided the Arawaks, the truth as to their cannibalism has been enduringly controversial. Nicolò de’ Conti’s experiences on his Indies travels, which by then had been published in Florence, could have fueled an expectation of such bestial savagery. Of the Andaman Islands, Poggio Bracciolini said Conti reported: “The inhabitants are cannibals, no travelers touch here unless driven so to do by bad weather, for when taken they are torn to pieces and devoured by these cruel savages.” Poggio Bracciolini moreover seemed to foreshadow explanations of the Caribs in saying the inhabitants of an island called Batech “eat human flesh, and are in a state of constant warfare with their neighbors.”

Some of the evidence of human bones and heads from the second Columbus voyage could have been inspired by funeral rituals and ancestor worship and inflated as literary entertainment. Participant Diego Alvarez Chanca, physician to Fernando and Isabel, who wrote a voyage report for his sovereigns, traded in some of the more gruesome details. Recounting how they rescued some of the Caribs’ captives, Dr. Chanca wrote luridly of a systematic abduction and consumption of Arawaks. “These women also say that the Caribs use them so cruelly that it appears incredible: that the children to whom they give birth are eaten and they only rear those they have by their native wives.” Captured men were taken alive to Carib villages and slaughtered for food. “They cut off the genital member of the boys they capture and make use of them as servants until they become men, and then when they wish to make a feast they kill and eat them, because they say that the flesh of boys and women is not good to eat. Three of these boys came fleeing to us, all three having the genital member cut off.”

On November 14, Columbus skirmished with Caribs at Santa Cruz—St. Croix in the Virgin Islands—losing one of his men, a Basque, to an arrow. A canoe was rammed and its three occupants, two men and a woman, were brought before Columbus. “One of them was wounded in seven places, and his insides were falling out,” related the Sicilian Nicolò Scillacio in an account that drew on the letter written to him by “a very noble Spaniard,” the voyage participant Guillermo Coma. “Since it was believed that he could not be healed, he was thrown overboard. However, he bobbed to the surface, and by kicking his feet while holding his guts in place with his left hand, he swam spiritedly to shore.” The ferocity of the Caribs was both awe-inspiring and unnerving.

Columbus had dispatched to Española an advance party in a caravel, apparently before the main armada had even reached Dominica. It supposedly was sent out to circumnavigate Española, but most certainly its main task was to make contact with and relieve La Navidad, where thirty-nine Spaniards had been left to their own devices for more than ten months.

No mention survives of what became of this reconnaissance. Columbus meanwhile paused at the harbor of Monte Cristi on November 27 rather than proceed directly to La Navidad, which was only some fifteen miles to the south-southwest. Poor weather kept them pinned down at Monte Cristi, according to Cuneo, but in Dr. Chanca’s recollection, Columbus had decided to halt there to scout for a new town site nearby, even before reaching La Navidad, “as the place where the Admiral had left the Christians to make a settlement had not appeared to him to be healthful.”

When Columbus sent men ashore, they began to find bodies: “two dead men on one side near the river, one with a rope on his neck and the other with one on his foot,” Dr. Chanca recalled. “This was the first day. The next day following they found the bodies of two more dead men farther along than the others. One of these bodies was in such condition that it could be seen he had been heavily bearded. Some of our people suspected more evil than good and with good reason. The Indians are all beardless as I have said.”

They arrived off La Navidad a few days later. Lombard cannons were fired to signal their arrival. There was no response from the cannons that had been left behind, nor could any smoke be seen from cooking fires, or even signs of settlement.

La Navidad had been obliterated. “A certain strong house somewhat fortified by a palisade where the Christians had dwelt was burned and destroyed,” Dr. Chanca reported, “and they found certain cloaks and clothing which the Indians had brought and thrown into the house.” Other possessions were found in a nearby settlement the Arawaks abandoned on Columbus’s arrival—“a very pretty Moorish garment which had not been unfolded by those who brought it from Castile, and trousers and pieces of cloth and an anchor belonging to the vessel which the Admiral had lost there on the first voyage and other things.” The Spanish seriously doubted that the items had been traded away.

The entire contingent of men Columbus had left behind, to Martín Alonso Pinzón’s distress in January 1493, had died or disappeared, and no one knew exactly how or why.

Ten or eleven bodies were then found on November 28, overgrown by grass. They had been dead, it was thought, for anywhere from fifteen days to three months. Cuneo said the bodies were missing their eyes. “We thought the islanders had eaten them, for as soon as they have killed anyone, they immediately gouge out his eyes and eat them.” The bodies were “hideously disfigured by decay,” according to the Coma account, “covered with dust, discolored by blood, and wearing a fierce expression. They had lain neglected, unburied almost three months beneath the sky . . . too disfigured for recognition.”

Columbus understood precious little about the people in whose company he had left behind the men of La Navidad. The Arawaks of Española were far from ignorant, simple primitives. They lived in towns with central plazas and well-­appointed homes of the ruling elite, called the Taino, from whose ranks were drawn the caciques, or heads, of the island’s chiefdoms. The Taino nobility ruled over a broad population of common people who produced food and paid tribute to their rulers; beneath the common crowd was a class of dispossessed people who acted as servants to the Taino. Columbus understood at least that the society was led by caciques, and he turned to the local ruler, Guacamarí (or Guacanagarí), for an explanation of what had become of La Navidad and its men.

A terrified Guacamarí blamed a raid by rival caciques. Cuneo related how Guacamarí “with tears falling upon his breast (and likewise all of his men) told us that Caonabó, the lord of the mountains, had come with 3,000 men and had killed them, as well as some of Guacanagarí’s own men, and had robbed them in order to vex them. We found nothing of what the lord admiral had left. Hearing this, we believed him.”

According to Dr. Chanca, Columbus was also told that some of the Spaniards had succumbed to disease. Still others had gone to the land of that other cacique, Caonabó, to find a gold mine and were killed there. The people of Caonabó and another chief, Mayrení, had then come to La Navidad and killed the rest of the Christians while also assaulting Guacamarí’s people. The Coma account likewise blamed Caonabó for the actual assault, based on what Guacamarí related, and said that Guacamarí and his men tried to defend the Spaniards. The cacique himself said he had been wounded in the arm, but when Columbus first met him and found him in bed, claiming to have been injured, he thought the claim doubtful.

Clearly, there was more to the story. As Dr. Chanca wrote, “[I]t began to appear that one of the Christians had three wives and another four, from which we believed that the evil which had befallen them had come from jealousy.” Dr. Chanca seemed to suggest the Spaniards had turned on each other over women, but the Coma account elaborated on this differently:

The incitement to hatred and the cause of the war was the excessive lust of the Christians for the Indians’ women. Each Spaniard had taken five women for his pleasure, I presume in the hope of offspring, but the women’s husbands and male relations were unwilling to accept this at any cost. The barbarians conspired together to avenge the insult and erase their shame (for no spirited race is free from jealousy), and rose up against the Christians in a great mob. The Christians were unable to hold out for long against their massed legions, and though they fought valiantly to the last man, they were still miserably cut to pieces.

The men of La Navidad probably had made themselves magnificently unpopular in the countryside as they roamed in search of gold. Taking female captives from distant tribes in the process could have ignited the fateful assault, although some of the women could have been from Guacamarí’s people. Columbus spent about ten days trying to get to the bottom of the disaster. He gave the dead a proper Christian burial and had the ground of the burned La Navidad dug up, as he had instructed the party left behind to bury any gold that was found.

The day after the ten or eleven bodies were found, ships were dispatched to the east and west, to find a new location for the Castilian trading center, to be called La Isabella, after a local survey found no other satisfactory site. Columbus worried, with good reason, about disease in swampy terrain. But as much as he strove to reaffirm good relations with Guacamarí and his people, he also likely wanted little to do with the local Arawaks, as he was not fully persuaded of their innocence in the destruction of La Navidad and the loss of what amounted to almost half the men from the first voyage.

Columbus already had a solid prospective location for the trading center: the River of Martín Alonso. Located about forty nautical miles east of Monte Cristi, its superbly protected, Y-shaped harbor would become renowned as a hurricane-hole for sailors on the north coast of Española, which otherwise offers so little in the way of sheltered waters. Columbus had visited it with Martín Alonso Pinzón on the way home in January 1493.

Columbus had called it Río de Gracia, hoping to wipe Pinzón’s name from any map. The name Río de Martín Alonso nevertheless would persist. The Coma account said that a search party in fact inspected “Puerto de Gracia,” calling it “a very beautiful retreat,” but did not explain why Columbus failed to choose it for his town site, especially when Pinzón already had proved that it gave access to the gold resources of the interior. Logistics may have had nothing to do with the decision. It allegedly was too associated with Martín Alonso Pinzón for Columbus’s liking or pride.

One of the deponents in the Columbus suits, Gonzalo Martín of Huelva, spoke at Palos in 1532 to Columbus’s refusal to consider this location for the trading center. Martín had sailed with Columbus on his third voyage and had also visited the River of Martín Alonso. He had been told “that Cristóbal Colón, from annoyance that Martín Alonso had discovered the island [Española] and the river first, had not wanted to settle there but three leagues farther down at the place now called La Isabela. Asked from whom he heard this, he said that it was publicly discussed in the Indies by most people who were there whose names he does not recall, but that what he has said was held there as a certain and a well known thing.”

Columbus instead had selected a location about eight miles west of the River of Martín Alonso. The new town of La Isabella was sited on a squat bluff facing westward near present-day Cambronal. The entrance to a lazy, meandering river, the Bajabonico, whose mouth today is cleaved into two branches, was close at hand. Cuneo praised it as an “excellent harbor.” True, the curve of the coast provided shelter from the prevailing easterly winds, but the location otherwise was totally exposed and there was no real harbor to speak of, only an anchorage.

Columbus can be excused for not knowing at the time that there was any such thing as a hurricane. But this didn’t change the fact that the Cambronal site would provide no protection to an anchored vessel if the wind blew from the north or west, unless that craft could be safely moved into the Bajabonico. At the least, La Isabella would require harbor infrastructure to be viable as a major, long-term trading center. Protective breakwalls, such as the ones that framed the harbor of Columbus’s native Genoa and of Barcelona, and that Cabot had so recently proposed for Valencia, would have been an early consideration. Cabot would have had his work cut out for him. One can imagine him beginning to envision the breakwalls that would make La Isabella the Valencian port he never got to build and estimating how much of the stone Columbus soon was using to construct buildings would be required to create it.

The anonymous engineers and laborers debarked and set to work erecting a Castilian town. Dr. Chanca (who curiously gave the new colony the name Marta) wrote of it approvingly, explaining in his letter home it was being built

on the bank of this large river so near that the water marks its boundaries in such a manner that half the city is surrounded by water with a ravine of cleft rock so that there is no need of any defence on that side. The other half is surrounded by so dense a grove that a rabbit could hardly get through it. This grove is so green that fire could not consume it at any time of the year. A canal has been commenced from the river which the engineers say they will put through the centre of the place and construct upon its banks wind-mills, sawmills, and whatever mills can be operated by water.

Cabot would have been kept busy helping plan and executing these waterworks and performing preliminary surveying for a proper harbor facility.

Parties of men meanwhile struck out overland to seek gold, returning on January 20 and 21. “The one that went to Cibao found gold in so many places that a man dare not tell it,” Dr. Chanca explained, “but truly they found gold in more than fifty streams and rivers and outside the rivers on land. So that they say that wherever they wish to seek for gold in all that province they will find it.” Dr. Chanca promised that Fernando and Isabel “can consider themselves the most prosperous and richest Princes in the world, for no such thing has been seen or read of before in the world. Truly when the ships return on another voyage they can take away such a quantity of gold that whoever knows of it may wonder at it.”

Yet the news from these overland expeditions of stupendous amounts of easily harvested gold was the worst possible sort for a settlement that expected several hundred newcomers to toil at menial labor and produce food on the Castilian payroll. The only force more destructive for La Isabella than the avarice the gold rush soon would unleash was the power of one of the Arawaks’ most fearsome gods. His name was Huracán. The Spanish would feel his wrath twice in 1495.

DR. CHANCA’S LETTER was consigned to the care of the twelve-ship return flotilla under Antonio de Torres, which departed the nascent trading center on February 2, 1494. Sending most of the vessels back at this early date had not been the original plan. Dr. Chanca noted that the ships had sailed “on account of the great amount of sickness which had been among the people.” The mysterious pathogen that already had felled Martín Alonso Pinzón and cost some lives at La Navidad evidently was spreading among the newcomers as well. They died in droves, and the ill were being shipped back to Spain, along with young nobles cum tourists who raced home before the epidemic could claim them as well.

The flotilla was back in Cadíz on March 9. No later than three months after that, John Cabot surfaced in Seville. If he had in fact just returned from La Isabella, then he had seen, done, or suffered enough. He would prove to be one of the most timid men in the history of exploration when it came to making contact with Indigenous peoples. Was he filled with fear by secondhand tales from the second Columbus voyage of the massacre at La Navidad and fierce cannibals, augmented perhaps by the reports from the actual Indies of the Venetian traveler Nicolò de’ Conti? Or was it firsthand experience on that voyage—dead Spaniards with their eyes gouged out, terrified Arawaks who fled Carib captors and made Columbus’s men understand that their children were raised as castrated foodstock—that instilled such profound apprehension in Cabot when his own ship came upon a foreign shore and its emerald-green woods stood before him in shadowed mystery?

Columbus would not reappear in Spain for another two years. In his absence, the quest to prove a profitable westward route to the Orient changed profoundly. The world was moving beyond scandalous tales of cannibals and gleaning more useful data about where Columbus had been and what he had found. That intelligence helped spur on fresh initiatives. By the time Columbus steered home for Spain, Cabot too would be on the Ocean Sea, steering in the opposite direction.

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