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

Ponce de Leon in America


Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, Marquis of Cadiz, the foremost Spanish champion in the Moorish wars, passed away seven months after the surrender of Granada, and in that very month of August, 1492, which witnessed the sailing of Christopher Columbus for the New World, afterwards called America. Long before he closed his eyes to earthly scenes, he had achieved a reputation far surpassing that of any other Ponce de Leon; but another of the name was soon in the field, who was to perpetuate his most heroic exploits, though in a land far distant over the ocean.

Juan Ponce de Leon (who, needless to say, perhaps, is the actual subject of this biography) was also engaged in the wars against the Moors of Granada, but in a humbler capacity than his illustrious exemplar. He was born at San Servos, province of Campos, Spain, in 156o, and was thus seventeen years the junior of Rodrigo Ponce, as well as his inferior in rank. Taken into the household of Don Pero Nunez de Guzman as a page, he afterwards won his way to distinction of a sort, but has not to his credit in Spain such doughty deeds as are ascribed to Rodrigo the marquis. The Spanish historians have little to say of his life in the land of his birth, save to mention that he served in the wars without becoming conspicuous either for bravery or cowardice, and assisted his king, like many thousand others, in wresting the province of Granada from the Moors.


Juan Ponce de Leon.

It might be a pleasure to know, and to be able to say, that young Juan Ponce, of Leon, was a great favorite with King Ferdinand and his consort; that he everywhere followed his titled namesake into the thickest of the fray; that he bearded the Moslem warriors in their strongholds, and that he finally retired to his estates with vast spoil obtained from the infidels. But we must defer to the verities of history, which are silent as to the formative period of Juan Ponce's career. We may imagine all these things; and it is within the realm of probability that Juan, like Rodrigo, was present at the conference between the sovereigns and Columbus; that he may have seen the great navigator when, in sorrow and sadness, he left Queen Isabella's silken tent with the intention of departing from Spain forever; or witnessed his joyous return to receive her sanction to his enterprise, after having been overtaken by her messenger at the Bridge of Pines.

Rodrigo the marquis left Granada for his home, but to die; Columbus went to Palos, whence he sailed for a new world beyond the ocean; Juan Ponce disappears, after leaving Granada, and quite ten years elapse before he clearly appears against a background of events important in themselves. In order to account for him after the siege, some of the older historians have him sail with Columbus on his voyage of 1493; and this is far from improbable, though there exists no proof. The author of the Ensayo Gronologico Para la Historia de Florida, published in 1723, says, quoting Oviedo's Historia General y Natural de las Indias:  "Ponce de Leon was one of the original conquistadores of Hispaniola, having gone there with Don Cristopher Columbus, in 1493, as a captain of infantry."

Oviedo, the historian, to whom this reference is made, makes the statement that Juan Ponce de Leon went to Hispaniola, or Santo Domingo, as a captain; that he was a man well-born, and hidalgo. "I knew him very well," he says, "and he is one of those who came to these parts [he was writing of the West Indies] with the first admiral, Don Christopher Columbus, in the second voyage which he made to these islands."

Richard Eden, the English translator of Peter Martyr's Decades, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, quaintly says: "This John Ponce had before sayled with Chrystopher Colon to the ilande of Hispaniola, in the yeare 1493. He was a gentle souldier in the warres of the ilande, and captayne of the prouince of Higuel for Nycolas de Ovando, that conquested the same." The best-known of modern historians, Washington Irving, accepts this statement also; but if Juan Ponce sailed to the West Indies in 1493, and was afterwards, as some say, concerned in the conspiracy of Francisco Roldan (who plotted and eventually accomplished the overthrow of Christopher Columbus and his brothers), he held such an obscure position as to merit no mention by contemporary chroniclers.

Whenever he went to the West Indies, when at last he bursts upon our vision he is a seasoned soldier of capacity. Such he is when the first mention is made of deeds of his worthy the telling. He was thirty-two years of age when Granada surrendered; he was forty-two when Ovando, with whom he served, embarked for the West Indies, and fifty-two when he went in search of the mythical "fountain of youth." He was a young man in the first instance, still young in the second instance, and not beyond middle-age when the third occurred; yet nearly every writer alludes to him as "old."

"Age had not tempered the love of enterprise," says Bancroft, referring to an adventure in 1509, when Ponce de Leon was only forty-nine; yet this historian lived to be nearly twice that age, and doubtless would have resented being called "elderly "at fifty or under. Again, after his vain search for the fountain of youth, he "remained an old man," says the same writer; yet he was then only fifty-three, and scarce sixty-two when an Indian arrow terminated his career. But Juan Ponce de Leon appears on the world's stage a veteran at the outset, springing into the arena, like Minerva, fully armed and equipped.

Nicolas de Ovando, who was despatched to Hispaniola by King Ferdinand to supersede Francisco de Bobadilla (the man who won unenviable distinction by sending the Columbus brothers home to Spain in chains), was a person whom a monarch might trust, but an ordinary man of affairs would not. Ferdinand of Spain was impressed by his gracious presence and his courtesy, his fluent speech, his superficial modesty, and, courtier-like, neglected to pry beneath that promising exterior. Perhaps he did not care to, for this red-headed commander of the order of Alcantara, who afterwards proved himself a veritable fiend in human guise, possessed influence at court which would have landed him in high position, had the grand cardinal himself opposed.

Sent out to the West Indies ostensibly to succeed Bobadilla, but in reality to oppose the just claims of Columbus, and wring from the despairing natives their last grain of gold and tribute of labor, Ovando measured fully up to his sovereign's expectations. Selfish, avaricious, coldly calculating, brutal, Ferdinand himself could not surpass this loathsome creature selected to carry out his purposes in Hispaniola. But he had at his command almost unlimited resources, and he sailed from Spain with the largest fleet that had ever left its shores for those of the New World, consisting of thirty ships, carrying out twenty-five hundred emigrants, including people of rank and high connections.

The misled sovereigns allowed the despicable Ovando to dress himself in silks and brocades, in evidence of his elevated rank, and to surround himself with a body-guard of seventy-two esquires; but it had not been long since the man Columbus, who discovered the island to which this wretch was sent with authority, had returned to Spain a prisoner and in chains! The expedition sailed on February 13, 1502, and, after a stormy voyage, in which one of the vessels foundered, carrying down with it more than one hundred passengers, arrived at Hispaniola two months later.

The city of Santo Domingo, on the south coast of the island, had been founded by Don Bartholomew, brother of Christopher Columbus, six years before. It owed its origin to the richness of the surrounding country, for its harbor, at the mouth of the river Ozama, was the nearest of any to the region in which gold had been discovered in quantities. The exaggerated reports of its richness which had been sent to Spain had crowded Ovando's ships with adventurers, who, as soon as they landed, hastened at once to the mines, where they expected to find the precious metal lying in great nuggets on the surface of the ground and glistening in the waters of the streams.

It is true that the largest nugget ever sent to Spain from America was found in this auriferous region, at about eight leagues distance from the city. It was the same on which the lucky discoverers served a roasted pig, vaunting that the King of Spain himself could not boast such a table; but they lost it, not long after, having shipped it in the vessel that sank with Bobadilla, in the terrible hurricane predicted by Columbus.

The good bishop, Las Casas, who was in the island at the time the adventurers landed and scurried for the mines, says that they "expected to gather gold as easily and readily as fruit from the trees"; but, alas, how soon and how bitterly were they disappointed! Unused to labor of any kind, they promptly abandoned the mines, when they found that gold could only be obtained by toilful digging, and it was not long before the roads and trails leading to Santo Domingo were again thronged with these same despairing cavaliers, who, having exhausted their resources, besought Ovando to send them back to Spain. That would have been the wisest course to pursue, for the island was already over-populated with worthless Spaniards of the non-producing class; but the governor induced them to remain by bestowing extensive grants of land, along with which went large numbers of Indians as slaves.

Now, Ovando had been expressly forbidden by Isabella and Ferdinand to continue this system of repartimientos, as the wholesale distribution of the natives in this manner was termed. In fact, he had been commanded to abolish it throughout the island; but, finding that the Indians would not work unless compelled, he had not carried out the wishes of the sovereigns. Instead, he had represented to them that the natives not only refused to labor, when released from their obligation to do so, but lapsed into paganism, to the great detriment of their morals. This hypocritical plea had its effect upon Isabella, who ordered the Indians under restraint again, but recommended that they should be paid for their labor and treated humanely.

The word humanity was not in the Spaniard's vocabulary, and it could hardly be expected that the fiendish Ovando would have use for it. He had, in effect, the sovereigns' authority for re-enslaving the Indians, and promptly availed himself of it to bestow upon his friends all the natives he could capture, by the use of dogs and savage soldiery. Soon there was no portion of the island exempt from ravage, no body of Indians that was not forced to labor for the Spaniards.

"Under cover of this hired labor," says the veracious historian, Mr. Irving, "more intolerable toil was exacted from them, and more horrible cruelties were inflicted, than in the worst days of Bobadilla. They were often separated the distance of several days' journey from their wives and children, and doomed to intolerable labor of all kinds, extorted by the cruel infliction of the lash. For food they had only cassava bread, an unsubstantial support for men obliged to labor, and so little of that that when the Spaniards who superintended the mines were at their repasts (says Las Casas), the famished Indians scrambled under the table, like dogs, for any bone thrown to them. While the Spaniards thus withheld the nourishment necessary to sustain their health and strength, they exacted a degree of labor sufficient to break down the most vigorous man. If the Indians fled from this incessant toil and took refuge in the mountains, they were hunted out like wild beasts, scourged in the most inhuman manner, and laden with chains to prevent a second escape.

"Many perished long before their term of labor expired. Those who survived their term of six or eight months were permitted to return to their homes until the next term commenced; but their homes were often fifty or sixty miles distant. They had nothing to sustain them through the long journey but a few roots, peppers, or a little cassava bread. Worn down by long-continued toil and cruel hardships, which their feeble constitutions were incapable of sustaining, many had not strength to perform the journey, but sank down and died by the way: some by the side of a brook, others under the shade of a tree, where they had crawled for shelter from the sun."

It must be remembered that this report of Spanish cruelties was not made on hearsay, but came from an eye-witness, Bishop Las Casas, who continues: "I have found many an Indian dead in the road, others gasping under the trees, and others in the pangs of death, faintly crying, 'Hunger! hunger!' Those who reached their homes most commonly found them desolate, for during the eight months they had been absent their wives and children had either perished or wandered away; the fields on which they depended for food were overrun with weeds, and nothing was left them but to lie down, exhausted and despairing, and die at the thresholds of their habitations."

Such was the sway of Don Nicolas de Ovando in Hispaniola. Under his rule the natives dwindled steadily; at his orders they were enslaved, beaten into submission, driven into the grave, by hundreds and by thousands; but worse was yet in store for these unfortunate Indians of Hispaniola. They were to be hounded to the verge of extermination by this same Ovando, who, as soon as he was firmly seated as governor, began the process of decimation.

Casting about for some defenceless natives upon whom he might actively exercise his powers for evil, he found that a tribe existed in the western part of the island which had not been completely subjugated—that is, had not been wholly brought under the system of repartimientos. It was ruled by a once-beautiful caciquess, the sister of a cacique known as Behechio, whose name was Anacaona. She had been a friend of that most noble brother of Christopher Columbus, Don Bartholomew, and this alone was sufficient to make her the victim of Ovando's malevolence. Her beautiful daughter, Higuenamota, had been beloved by a Spanish cavalier, one Hernando de Guevra, who on this account had been persecuted by Christopher Columbus, at the instigation of the rebel Roldan. The last-named, after declaring against the rule of Columbus, several years previous to the arrival of Ovando, had finally come to terms with him, and afterwards sought a retreat in Anacaona's province, where he and his companions in iniquity perpetrated every species of crime that their depraved natures could suggest. It may be imagined what treatment the caciquess Anacaona received; and as to her daughter's fate, history is silent, though tradition states it was worse than death itself.


Old Part of St. Domingo.

Anacaona's subjects were gentle and generous, like their queen; they had received the Spaniards most hospitably, and had never raised a hand nor drawn a sword against them prior to the coming of Ovando. They even endured the ills this wretch had put upon them without rising in open rebellion; yet they were not wholly spiritless. They had endured so much that their oppressors knew it was impossible for them to suffer more without an appeal to arms; for they were numerically strong, though inferior to the Spaniards in discipline, and lacking weapons that could be used with effect against them.

Though they had occasionally turned upon their tormentors, and individual instances had occurred of Indians, goaded to desperation, suddenly springing upon and throttling a brutal Spanish overseer, there had been no concerted attempt at an uprising. When, however, reports were brought to Ovando that one was meditated by the sub-caciques of Anacaona's tribe, he eagerly availed himself of the opportunity for invading her territory. He gathered together three hundred and seventy soldiers, infantry and cavalry, and marched direct for Xaragua, which was the seat of Anacaona's authority. To the unsuspecting caciquess he sent word that he was coming on a friendly visit, and Anacaona assembled all her chiefs and sub-caciques to do him honor. Other Spaniards, notably Don Bartholomew Columbus, had visited her as Ovando came, with an armed force, and had been entertained without anything untoward happening to her people; so she held this to be but another instance of the kind. As the Spanish army approached her village, troops of damsels met the soldiers with singing and dancing, and the waving of palm-leaves over their heads. These naked beauties were as innocent as they were graceful and pleasing; yet but a few days passed ere many of them were numbered with the hundreds of slain Indians that strewed the very ground they trod in rhythmic measure.

After several days of feasting, during which the Spaniards enjoyed every dainty known to the Indians, and which the latter set before them with evident pleasure, the treacherous Ovando, who had been brooding constantly over his suspicions, gave the signal for a massacre. It had been preconcerted with his officers that he was to lay his hand upon a cross he wore on his breast—the cross of the high order of which he was a commander, that of Alcantara—for the bloodshed to begin. Comely Anacaona and her lovely daughter had just entered the hut in which Ovando was lodged, accompanied by their train of female attendants, to proffer a request that he would order a joust of reeds to commence, in which the cavalry were to take part. So he strode forth, but instead of contributing his share to the entertainment his Indian friends had provided, he requited their hospitality with slaughter.

At the signal, the cavalry charged with drawn swords and levelled lances upon the unsuspecting throng of naked Indians, who had gathered in the square of the village to do honor to their murderers. The infantry let loose their cross-bows and arquebuses, hacked with their halberds and smote with battle-axes, and shortly there was no Indian left alive in the square—or, at least, no Indian whom the Spaniards intended should live. Even children, and babes at their mothers' breasts, were slashed with swords, and impaled on pikes and lances.

In one great house of the village were gathered eighty-four of Anacaona's sub-caciques, and these were all burned alive, or caught and hanged to trees as they escaped from the flaming dwelling. Some of them were first put to the torture and information elicited upon which the fiendish Ovando proceeded against Anacaona, whom he took to Santo Domingo and hanged, in front of the church—the second in America—which the Spaniards had erected for the worship of the God they professed to serve.

These things did Ovando, with whom, in Hispaniola, Juan Ponce de Leon served as a soldier, from whom he received the command that first brought him prominence, and the impulse towards the career that placed him in the temple of fame.

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