Gateway to the Classics: Juan Ponce de Leon by Frederick A. Ober
Juan Ponce de Leon by  Frederick A. Ober

The Island's Aborigines


While no native of Porto Rico can boast that he is descended directly from any of the caciques of Boriquen, or has in his veins the unadulterated blood of the island's aborigines, there are to-day many of mixed blood whose ancestors were among the highest in the land. Among these, degenerates as they are, traditions have been preserved of the original population, which lead us to believe that it was more highly civilized than that of Hispaniola, Jamaica, or Cuba. Not alone traditions inform us of what these people were, but the remains they have left behind them show conclusively their status as compared with their insular neighbors of that period.

There have been unearthed, in various parts of Porto Rico, vessels of pottery, great stone stools, "mealing stones," beads, amulets, masks, and collars of stone, with many other implements of industry and art, not to mention of war, which have been pronounced the most beautiful of their kind in the world. The Boriquenos left behind no manuscripts, on bark or on parchment; no hieroglyphics, either carved or painted—no chronicles of any sort, in fact, save these products of their industry, some individual specimens of which must have taken a lifetime of patient labor to perfect.

In order to understand the people with whom Ponce de Leon came in contact, and for whose extermination he was in great measure responsible, we should see and examine their handiwork, as they themselves are non-existent, and no aboriginal artist has made and left for posterity any portrait of a native Boriqueno. Their pottery is the most profusely ornamented, the antiquarians say, of any that has been found in the West Indies, while there are several kinds of stone carvings that are absolutely unique. These are called, from their shape, "horse-collars "and "mammiform stones." Imagine a veritable horse-collar carved out of solid stone! It was not intended for the purpose the name recently bestowed upon it would suggest, but for a use which no one living could surmise. It has to do with the religion, or more properly the superstition, of the natives, who had objects of this kind buried with them when they died. An Indian would spend all the leisure hours of a lifetime, it is said, laboriously carving this collar from the hard volcanic rock with which the island abounds, in order, merely, that it might be placed over his head when he was laid in the grave. Why did he do it? Because his priest, or medicine-man, the buhiti, who was usually a relative or near friend of the cacique, had told him to do so; otherwise—unless securely implanted in the grave, by means of this stone collar upon his breast, weighing half a hundred pounds—the devil would certainly fly away with him! That is, the Indian devil, who was not related to the white man's devil, though, like him, an evil spirit and a character to be avoided. With one of these stone collars over his head, the defunct owner, whether cacique or common soldier, might successfully defy the efforts of Satan to remove him.

Another object peculiar to Porto Rico is the "mammiform stone," suggestive by its shape of a human form buried beneath a mountain. The mountain is of the convex, rounded shape so peculiar to the hills of the island, and the man beneath it was doubtless intended for a Carib, the inveterate enemy of the Boriqueno. The suggestion from which the aboriginal artist worked was without doubt obtained first from the pyramidal and rounded hills, so numerous and so beautiful; and second from the ferocious Carib, who came every year on ravage intent. By nothing less than planting a mountain upon his back, the native sculptor probably reasoned, could the pernicious cannibal be securely held!

That the Boriquenos were not wholly devoted to the arts of peace—to agriculture, fishing, weaving hammocks, carving beads and ornaments—is shown by the objects for use in war which have been passed down to us. There are large collections of them in the museums, consisting of banner-stones, war-club heads, axes, and hatchets of stone, and likewise spears, arrow-heads, and darts. Caciques like Agueybana had armories of aboriginal weapons extensively equipped; but they were usually subterranean, for great heaps of stone battle-axes, war-clubs, arrows, etc., have been found buried in the ground, or concealed in caverns.

The language of these people was rich and varied, and differed but slightly from that of their neighbors in the islands north and south of them, all of whom, except the Caribs, were of what is known as the Arawak stock. Let us take three Arawak words, for example, which have in the course of time become ingrafted upon our own language: hammock, canoe, and iguana. All the islanders—in Boriquen, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba—pronounced them the same, or similarly. In forming the plural of substantives they added ati, uti, or anu. In their adjectives they recognized two genders, the masculine and the neuter, in which latter the feminine was incorporated, but without distinction; for to the Indian, woman is not a person, but a thing, says the philologist.

The family names of individuals were derived from animals, plants, rocks, etc., the qualities of which, especially if making for greatness or valor, were supposed to enter into the persons bearing the respective appellations. Next to the cacique, the buhiti, or medicine-man, was the most powerful personage of the tribe; but, though the office was considered a very desirable one, it had its pains and penalties. For example, if a cacique died while under treatment by a buhiti, the latter was in danger of having his eyes torn out by the enraged relatives of the recently deceased. Sometimes he was killed and sent to join his chief in his lonely journey to the unknown world; sometimes he was let off with a mild reprimand, especially if the person who had passed away was unpopular. The treatment prescribed by the medicine-man consisted in making a great deal of noise, in order to frighten away any evil spirit that might be lurking about, in punctures of the painful parts, and sometimes the administering of baths, either cold or warm, especially if the patient were suffering from a fever.

The flora of the island abounds in plants possessing curative and medicinal properties, such as numerous species of Malvaceae, which are emollient or mucilaginous; the bulbs of lilies and roots of the Asclepia, which are emetic; the leaves of Caesalpina and the grains of Euphorbia are purgative, while others are astringent in quality; the roots of palms are diuretic; and there are numerous fruits, the juices of which are acid, and refreshing to the sick. Notwithstanding their empiricism, it is believed that most of the medicine-men possessed a knowledge of the virtues which the various plants contained; and that they were sometimes successful in their surgery (having joined fractured limbs and healed terrible wounds) has been proved by the mute testimony of bones exhumed from ancient graves.

The buhiti were also diviners, necromancers, "sacerdotes" or priests, attending to the spiritual as well as the physical needs of their people; and though they knew no more than their followers respecting the God that dwelled in the heavens, they professed to know, which served their purpose just as well. They practised upon the fears and the superstition of the natives; they told them of the devil who would get them if they misbehaved, and of the great Cemi  into whose presence they would enter at last, if their lives accorded with the precepts they, the sagacious buhiti, laid down for them. They memorized and passed on to others the areytos, or legendary ballads by which the scant history of the people was preserved; they prescribed the shape in which the clay idols were to be cast, or carved from stone; and it is a wonder, indeed, that such a general resemblance existed among the idols of all the islands, as well as all implements of war and for domestic use, throughout the West Indies. Primitive man, it has been said, always works along the same general line of development, and thus it is we find the "celts" from the "kitchen middins" of Norway or Denmark resembling those from Central, South, and North America.

But enough has been cited to show that the Boriquenos were in the most primitive stage of culture, and that they were superior in their morals to their art. They had advanced much further than Juan Ponce de Leon and his brother Spaniards along the road that leads to paradise—according to the Book of Books, for they regarded the rights of their fellow-men in the same light as their own. They did to others, so far as their limited perception gave them understanding, as they hoped and expected others to do to them. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," was certainly their maxim in war; but in peace they practised the precepts of brotherly love.

Finally, to show that the island was extensively populated, we will mention the different tribes and the names of their chiefs or inferior caciques. Their general government was autocratic, but at the same time patriarchal. When Juan Ponce arrived at Boriquen the supreme ruler was Guaybana, who received him so hospitably; and after his death, Agueybana, whom he killed, or caused to be killed, in the last great battle between the Indians and the Spaniards. After that there was no longer any supreme chief or head, and no general government, each tribe acting independently, until reduced and disintegrated by the Spaniards. Not all the inferior, or sub-caciques, are known, but most of their names are preserved in those of rivers, mountains, provinces, and towns, such as Utuado, Bayamon, Yabucoa, Maunabo, Gurabo, Cayey, and Camuey—all Indian appellations pertaining to obscure chiefs whose places of residence were not exactly known. Those whose names have descended to us in connection with the provinces they governed are, in addition to the supreme caciques already mentioned, first of all, Areziba, whose district corresponded to that of the present Arecibo, in the north-central part of the island. Mabodamaca, one of the most valiant and vigorous of the small caciques—who was finally surprised and overcome by Captain Salazar Guarionex (a name also borne by a former cacique in Hispaniola)—possessed a prestige superior to that of the ordinary chieftain, and governed a territory adjoining that of his king. His neighbor on the north was Urayoan, who lived on the river Anasco; Mayagoex lived in the present district of Mayaguez; Brayoan (who drowned the first Spaniard in Boriquen, and proved him to be mortal) held the headwaters of the Masco in his keeping, and, in common with Aymamon, paid tribute to Guarionex. All these were on or near the north and west coast of the island; the south at that time was almost unknown, but on the east resided Humacao, or Macao, after whom the province he held received the name it bears to-day.

Within a few months after the battle in which the king lost his life and the Boriquefios their liberties, the whole island was brought under subjection, for reinforcements swarmed over from Hispaniola, and by orders of Governor Ponce the coast was circumnavigated and the interior overrun. The settlement of Caparra proving too difficult of access from the coast, and having no peculiar advantages to offset its cragged situation, was eventually abandoned. Before it was, however, the island had been well surveyed, as well as subjugated, and settlements begun at various points. The west end of the island was first to feel the conqueror's yoke, the natives of the provinces retreating gradually eastward, along the central range of mountains, and seeking a last refuge on the slopes and around the summit of the giant Luquillo. The wild mountaineers were difficult to conquer, and for a long time held out against the Spanish invaders; but in the end weapons and armor of steel prevailed against stone arrows and war-clubs. Fleet as the Indians were, they could not outrun the swift-footed blood-hounds, nor escape their fangs, once they were put on the scent.

It has been denied that the Spaniards used blood-hounds in their conquest of Boriquen, but there is incontestible evidence to the contrary, for Governor Ponce himself took with him to the island his famous hound, with which he had hunted the Indians of Hispaniola so successfully that he received the pay, the rations, and share of booty allowed to a cross-bowman. His name was Becerrico, and he was so renowned for his courage, speed, sagacity, and prowess in general that all the conquistadores knew of him, and envied Juan Ponce the possession of such a wonderful beast. When Vasco Nunez de Balboa went to Darien from Hispaniola, the very year in which Juan Ponce invaded Boriquen, he took with him (at the risk of losing his freedom for doing so) a son of Becerrico named Leoncico, or the "Little Lion," whose exploits gained for him a reputation second only to his father's. These precious beasts seemed to have a special sense for distinguishing friend from foe, as both of them could discriminate the Indians who were allies from those at war with the Spaniards, whether encountered by night or by day.

Respecting Becerrico's sagacity, Oviedo relates a story which appears incredible. It seems that on the night of his fight with the cacique Mabodamaca, Diego de Salazar had, for some reason, decided to throw a certain old Indian woman to the dogs. He did not care to have her destroyed in sight of the soldiers, and, to afford a pretext for sending her away, gave her a letter for Governor Ponce, who was expected next morning. The poor old woman, overjoyed at the prospect of gaining her liberty, perhaps, as a reward of her journey, hastened into the forest. After she had gone a short distance, the hound was loosed and set off on her trail, soon arriving in sight of his prospective prey. His fierce growls aroused her fears; but the desperate nature of the situation emboldened her to make an appeal to the brute as he dashed towards her. Squatting down in the road, she held the letter towards Becerrico, and in her own language said: "Perro, Senor Perro" (Oh, dog, good Sir Dog). "I am going to take a letter to the governor. See, here it is. It is sent by your captain to your master. Now, good Sir Dog, do not do me any harm, for I am going to the governor!"

At sight of the letter the dog halted, came and sniffed it, then leaped over the old woman's head and returned to camp, his instinct having told him that the poor creature was not an enemy to be destroyed, but a friend. When Captain Salazar saw the hound return in such short order he knew he had not accomplished his bloody mission, so had him tied up and messengers sent for the woman. She came in fear and trembling, having divined the trick that had been played upon her; but Salazar said: "Fear not, my good woman, I am going to give you your liberty, for whom Becerrico spares is no enemy to us, but a friend, and Christians can do no better than follow his noble example!"

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