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

Becerrico the Blood-Hound


No immediate results followed the discovery of Florida, for Juan Ponce was not prepared to follow it up either with a conquest of its inhabitants or the implanting of a settlement. He did not know, in fact, whether it might be called an island or a continent, and for several years thereafter had in mind another expedition to settle that question. He was the first to traverse the Bahamas, however, the first to reveal the existence of islands until that time unknown, but not the first (modern geographers assert) to trace the coastal outlines of that peninsula by him called Florida.

Twenty years before he made his exploration (as we have already hinted in a previous chapter), Columbus barely missed landing on the coast of Florida by holding a few points to the southward of his main course, towards the last of it. But he was diverted still farther to the south by reports of gold occurring in Cuba and Haiti, and never after that did he make a more northern latitude than on his first voyage. Southward, ever southward, his star seems to have beckoned him, though always with an inclination westward, for he was trying to break through the barriers of a continent that intervened between him and the Pacific, then unknown.

Between 1492 and the date of Juan Ponce's voyage through the Bahamas, it is declared on pretty good evidence, some one, "name and nationality unknown," but the latter supposed to be Portuguese, made a voyage to and around the peninsula, because a map was made of it in 1502. This is called the "Cantino map," since it was made by, or for, one Alberto Cantino, a correspondent in Portugal of the Duke of Ferrara. Although the map made in 1500 by Juan de la Cosa, one-time companion of Columbus, outlines the Atlantic coast of North America from about the latitude of Newfoundland southward to that of a point north of Cuba, it does not do so correctly. The configuration of Flor ida is not given, while in the Cantino map it is sufficiently approximate to be easily identified. The relative position, also, of Florida and Cuba (on the map as "Isla Isabella") is correct, although the longitudinal axis of the island runs the wrong way. But this is an unimportant particular with the cartographers of that time, who were accustomed to fill unknown regions with droves of elephants or lions, and untraversed seas with dolphins, whales, and mermaids. The Cantino map of itself indicates that somebody viewed the coast of Florida previous to 1502, and it has been conjectured that this individual might have been the Portuguese navigator Gaspar Cortereal, who made a voyage in 1500, and was lost in another the following year.

Allowing Sebastian Cabot's claim, that he and his father ran down the entire Atlantic coast in 1497; or that advanced by an ardent eulogist of Amerigo Vespucci, that he sailed from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence the same year, we may have material for a map, date 1502, without looking further. Still, whoever made the voyage did not report it, or at least did not claim the discovery; so the credit remains with Juan Ponce de Leon, as that for revealing to Europe the New World, America, belongs to Christopher Columbus, in despite of what the Norsemen accomplished—and allowed to lapse into oblivion.

Historian Harrisse says: "Between the end of the year 1500 and the summer of 1502, navigators, whose names and nationality are unknown, but whom we presume to be Spaniards, discovered, explored, and named the part of the shores of the United States which from the vicinity of Pensacola Bay runs along the Gulf of Mexico to the Cape of Florida, and, turning it, runs northward along the Atlantic coast to about the mouth of the Chesapeake or Hudson." But Historian Harrisse is equally "at sea" respecting this voyage and these voyagers, with the Brazilian Viscount Varnhagen, who advanced the theory that Vespucci must have made a voyage in 1497, somewhere or other, but probably along the Atlantic coast of North America.

Whoever went before Juan Ponce de Leon to the coast of Florida, he was the first to bring away positive information of that "great country of Bimini," known only to the Lucayos, from the traditions of whom, most probably, Peter Martyr published, in 1511, a map on which is a large island of that name. He reached Boriquen, on the homeward voyage, September 2ist, and, from the meagre accounts that have been preserved, seems to have been greatly elated over his successful voyage. It was not successful so far as the gaining of treasure was concerned, for scarcely a grain of gold was found on the trip; nor in the discovery of rich and opulent cities, for not a structure larger than an Indian hut capable of sheltering a score or so of persons had been seen; neither was a settlement made, or plantation attempted, though his patent from the king was issued for the special purpose of "discovering and settling the island of Bimini."

The discovery seems not to have attracted general attention at the time outside the islands, for the editions of "Ptolemy" which appear within the next decade or so do not make note of it, nor does "Florida" appear on any map for a long time thereafter. A map of 1529, eight years after Juan Ponce's death, has on it, in relatively their exact positions, the isles named by Ponce the "Martyrs" and "Tortugas," as well as the native name of Florida, which was Canico. Geographical information was slowly diffused in those days, and it may be imagined that Juan Ponce, a gallant soldier, but an unlettered cavalier, was out of touch with the few cartographers in Spain.

But the discoverer himself considered his achievement important enough to warrant a voyage to Spain, for the purpose of making a report in person to King Ferdinand. He did not go, however, until the next year, in the spring or early summer, as he found affairs in the island demanding his attention for several months after his return. The Indians were still in a state of unrest, though lacking courage for an uprising—or rather, it should be said, an intelligent head to guide them. In the few short years since the invasion of the Spaniards, the Boriquenos had dwindled appreciably, many having been killed in the mines and on the plantations. The year before Juan Ponce sailed on his expedition, or in 1512, the introduction of negro slaves from Africa was agitated, to take the place of the Indians. The latter were not only too weak to endure severe and continuous labor, but their spirits were too lofty to submit to oppression without the most destructive consequences. Bands of them, following the example set by the Indians of Cuba, wandered into the forests and committed suicide by hanging, rather than continue in the hopeless condition to which the Spaniards had reduced them.

Juan Ponce was told of the conditions prevailing, and his advice sought by the settlers, who were almost as despairing as the natives, but for different reasons. They could not work the lands without native assistance; they could not amass fortunes without owning or controlling large numbers of Indians as slaves, and the rascals, they said, were hanging themselves faster than they could be caught and trained. A conference was held in the Casa Blanca, soon after Ponce's arrival home, the upshot of which was that he promised to journey through the island and examine into the subject. He had vast plantations of his own, which, his major-domos told him, were "going to the dogs," and supposedly rich mines, which could not be worked on account of the obstinacy of those "children of the devil," the Indians.

Setting out with an escort of cavaliers, in addition to a small body of retainers—as the major-domos, or stewards of the castle and estates, the superintendents, or overseers of the mines, etc.—Juan Ponce once again made the rounds of Boriquen. First he visited an estate in the valley where he was cultivating a large area in maize and making experiments with sugar-cane, which had been introduced into Hispaniola nearly twenty years before, and was then perfectly at home in the West Indies. Broad fields of both beneficent plants, the maize and the cane, were then in luxuriant growth, with waving leaves and tasselled tops, reaching to the shoulders of the Spaniards as they sat on horseback. The first sugar-cane in the islands had come from the Canaries, that group of islands off the coast of Africa which had been made the half-way station, or tarrying-place, of all the early voyagers to America. Maize, or Indian-corn, was an indigenous product, first seen by Columbus in 1492, the golden grains of which were taken by him to Spain and thus introduced into Europe. Here were both plants, the one a native and the other an exotic, meeting on common ground and mingling their leaves in a magnificent display such as only the tropics can produce.

But for the maize and the cassava, which were universally cultivated throughout the West Indies, the Spaniards might not have conquered the natives so quickly, as they furnished the strangers the chief part of their supplies, and kept many a cut-throat crew from starving. But for the sugar-cane there might have been no importing of negro slaves from Africa to take the place of natives worn to death by unceasing toil. The constantly increasing area devoted to cane and corn demanded an increased labor supply, Ponce de Leon's major-domos told him, and he could see for himself that the Indians were not adequate. The country had been scoured far and near, and there was not a family within miles and miles that had not a representative on the estate, perhaps; yet behold, they said, the meagre results! There were many square miles of the richest soil, inexhaustible in its fertility, yet with their utmost efforts they could not cultivate a tenth part of the acres then available.

Juan Ponce mused upon what his servants told him, but did not immediately declare himself. He inspected the rude sugar-mills—trapiches de buyey  they were called, on account of the power being furnished by oxen, or bullocks; he tasted the sugar crystallizing in the pans, and inspected the quarters of the laborers. It was then the beginning of the harvest season, when, if ever, they should be sleek and contented, from having their cravings satisfied by the delicious juice of the cane; but he found them lean and discontented. Many were too ill to work, some had recently died, and all were unhappy. They were suffering from no malady known to the overseers, unless it were homesickness; but, without strength to wield the heavy hoe all day long, and without spirit or ambition, they simply sank in their tracks, withered away, and died.

Juan Ponce pondered long, then he said: "Negroes from Africa are now out of the question, for first they must be captured by the Portuguese, then they must be purchased from the Portuguese, after a long voyage across the Atlantic. I have no gold with which to make the purchases, having exhausted nearly all my fortune in the voyage to and from Bimini; and if I had, it would be folly to waste it, when the great God, in his wisdom, has provided slaves for labor near at hand. These are truly in bad shape; but, forsooth, are there no others obtainable when these shall be gone?"

"The island is nearly exhausted of able-bodied men," replied the overseer, "and as well of women and children. But I have word of a colony of mountaineers—Caribs, they tell me—far up on the shoulders of Luquillo. These might be impressed."

"Might be!" declared Juan Ponce de Leon, hotly. "Nay, man, they must be! Our cultivation cannot go on without them, and, by the saints! that is of vastly more importance to us than their freedom to them. How far is it? Why cannot we go now and capture them?"

"Not so far," rejoined the overseer. "Perhaps a day and a night. But the way is rough, and at the end we may find some opposition."

"And have we never found it before—and overcome it, prithee? Here we stay to-night, and to-morrow we start. So few, you say? Enough we are to rout a thousand of those perros—dogs of Indians. We all are armed and mounted; and, besides, see ye not our good friend Becerrico? A hundred alone he could put to flight."

The great blood-hound, Becerrico, had been left to guard the castle and its contents while his master was away in the Bahamas, and nobly had he done his duty. Aware that he was on guard at Casa Blanca, no Indian dared approach it by day or by night; so Juan Ponce had no hesitation in leaving his family and servants there. Upon his return, however, the blood-hound had seemed to consider his obligation as to the castle fulfilled, and had attached himself to his master once more. Thus he was with him on the tour of inspection, and the next morning, as the cavalcade left the hacienda, he marched proudly in the van. The way was toilsome and difficult, owing to the rugged nature of the forest-covered hill-sides. The great mountain was reached, and partially ascended, by sunset, when a camp was made, the horses picketed, and supper prepared for the weary cavaliers. They had no beds or hammocks, but when sleep overtook them lay down upon the ground wrapped in their cloaks; for all were veterans and used to exposure.

No sentinel was posted, though they were then quite near the Indian settlement, for the ever-alert Becerrico stood guard throughout the night, and no other was needed. In the morning, at daybreak, he woke the sleepers with a deep-mouthed growl, as he was too intelligent to bark, with an enemy not far away, and an hour later they were off on the trail again. Instead of taking a day and a night, Juan Ponce thought it better to make the journey by daylight, hence progress was more rapid than if the other course had been pursued, and half the forenoon had not gone before the end was near.

The termination of their toilsome efforts came abruptly, at the base of a steep cliff, upon the summit of which, the guide said, the Indians had their fortified village. There was no path, apparently, by which the cliff could be scaled, but it rose sheer before them, an insuperable obstacle to their advance. There was no path—that is, for horse and soldier to take—but there was a trace, or trail, a few inches wide, along the face of the cliff, which an Indian, sure of foot, might follow. In fact, one had been over it recently, for the scent was so strong that Becerrico followed it fast and furiously, leaving his master and comrades gazing stupidly after him as he bounded upward.

Soon their ears were assailed by shrieks, with which was mingled the baying of the hound, and they knew that Indians had been found, though they were hidden from sight by a curvature of the cliff. Suddenly there arose above the shrieks of women and children the shrill war-cry of the Caribs, followed by a howl of pain and distress from the hound. Then (even while his master cried out that Becerrico was hurt unto death, and he must go to his rescue) the dog bounded into sight, as though hurled by a giant, and, rolling from one rocky projection to another, finally fell at the base of the cliff, bleeding from ghastly wounds, and apparently lifeless.

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