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

Subjugation of Boriquen


Returning to Hispaniola, Juan Ponce laid before Ovando tangible evidence of Porto Rico's riches, in the grains of gold and nuggets which he had obtained from its streams. The governor was delighted, and authorized his lieutenant to raise a force of soldiers sufficient for its subjugation. Before proceeding in force, however, he was recommended to return and make a complete reconnoissance of the entire island, while the cacique remained friendly, and ascertain the best points for erecting forts, as well as for settlement, and traffic with the natives.

Although the Spaniards despised trade as a profession, and the hidalgos considered themselves disgraced if they but engaged in it for a while, they recognized its necessity in dealing with the Indians. From his long experience in Hispaniola, where the Indians spoke the same language and had the same habits as those of Boriquen, Juan Ponce was peculiarly well-fitted to commence an establishment among them, by which the Spaniards should gain a foothold. After that they asked nothing more, for wherever they went, they never stopped until they had gained entire possession of whatever country they invaded.

Ponce de Leon must have known this; still, though engaged in an act of perfidy towards the hospitable Guaybana, he did not hesitate to place himself completely in his power. Once again he sailed across the channel, and landed at Aguada, but this time he was accompanied by a small body of soldiers, and also by his wife and child. The authority for this statement is the veracious historian, Oviedo, who says, in his Historia General de las Indias, "Captain John Ponce returned to Sanct. Johan and took with him his wife and daughter."

Knowing Indian character so well, Juan Ponce had no hesitation in placing his little family in charge of the queen-mother, while he and Guaybana went off on the reconnoissance of the island, as proposed by Ovando. And, as the cacique and the Spaniard had exchanged names, the mother of the former and the wife of the latter did the same, the queen calling herself Dona Inez, and bestowing Indian names upon the children. After completing his survey, Ponce de Leon returned once again to Hispaniola, leaving his dear ones with their kind protectors, fully assured that they would be cared for and safe-guarded during his absence, which he promised should be short.

He took leave of them on the beach at Aguada, fully expecting to return within a few weeks, at farthest; but when he reached Santo Domingo, was shocked and surprised to find that Governor Ovando had been recalled to Spain, and in his place another, who was not so favorably disposed towards him and his scheme of conquest. This other was no less a personage than Don Diego Columbus, son of Christopher the admiral, and as Ovando had notably oppressed his father and deprived him of vast possessions, it was not to be supposed that he would hold in esteem any of his friends and favorites. He had friends of his own, in fact, whom he purposed to advance to all the high places of trust and emolument, among which he included the governorship of Boriquen. Juan de Esquivel happened to be in Hispaniola at the time of his arrival, and being as agile in shifting his allegiance as he was alert in pursuing the Indians, was appointed governor of Jamaica; but Juan Ponce, being absent, and without friends at court to make intercession for him, was not only ignored, but frowned upon severely.

As Ovando had come to the West Indies with the largest fleet, so Don Diego Columbus had brought with him the most extensive suite of cavaliers and dames of high degree; for he purposed setting up a court that should dazzle all beholders with its magnificence. He had recently married a lady related to King Ferdinand, Dona Maria de Toledo, through whose influence with the court he had secured the appointment as viceroy and the restitution of properties his father had lost by the machinations of Bobadilla and Ovando. He reared a stately palace upon the right bank of the Ozama; he built a castle, towered and battlemented, and he established in this city of Santo Domingo, founded by his uncle Bartholomew, the first vice-regal court in America. He had been deprived of his rights for many years; his father had died poor and neglected; when at last he came into possession of his own, he resolved to make amends for that long period of poverty and abuse.

He had an exaggerated notion of his hereditary rights and privileges, even going the length of opposing the crown itself in his pretensions. Thus it came about that, when he learned of Porto Rico's riches, and the great desire among the conquistadores for appointments there, he took the matter into his own hands; though there was doubt as to whether it were not the king's prerogative. Honest Juan Ponce was set aside, as having been the friend of Ovando, and as governor of the island he appointed one Juan Ceron, with Miguel Diaz as his lieutenant. Juan Ceron seems to have been an unknown adventurer, but Miguel Diaz was none other than the Spaniard who had been instrumental in bringing about the settlement at the mouth of the Ozama.

When the only Spanish settlement in the island was at Isabella, on the north coast, in the time of Don Christopher's reign, Diaz, a common soldier, deserted and fled for protection to the mountains, where he found refuge with a female cacique. She gave him shelter, and more, for, when told that the Spaniards valued the yellow metal, gold, above all other things on earth, she led him to a region where it abounded. This region was at the headwaters of a tributary of the Ozama, and the result was, after Miguel Diaz had been pardoned on account of the gold he took to Don Bartholomew Columbus, the founding of Santo Domingo, as the nearest good port to the mines.

So Miguel Diaz and his friend went over to govern the island which Columbus had discovered and Ponce de Leon exploited. Seeing no other course to pursue, and especially in view of his wife and children being already on the island, Juan Ponce fell into the ranks, and went as a common soldier in the expedition which he had hoped and expected to command. There was another also, who had equally high pretensions with him as to Boriquen, and this was one Cristoval de Sotomayor, who had come out with a commission from the king for governing Porto Rico and building a fortress there. He had not urged his claims when he found Don Diego unalterably opposed to interference by the king, and, like Juan Ponce, joined the throng of adventurers who swarmed into the island after Juan Ceron.

Comparing these two, Oviedo says in effect: "When Juan Ponce was a page in the service of Pero Nunez de Guzman, before he had come to the Indies, the latter could not boast a hundred thousand maravedis income; but he came of an illustrious lineage, and later rose to a high position under the illustrious infante Don Fernando. That is to say, that between the two, Ponce and Sotomayor, there was little to choose as to their previous position and the richness of their blood; but the former had the name of being an hidalgo and he also had the appearance of one who might rise to the great height which he afterwards attained."

Owing to his experience in handling troops and Indians, his great ability, and his honesty, Ovando had placed confidence in him as governor of Higuey, and wished him to occupy the same position in Boriquen. A few months after the expedition had sailed, in fact, there came from Spain indubitable proof that the late governor still held to this belief, and of his influence with the king, for Ferdinand, at his solicitation, sent out a commission to Ponce de Leon as governor of Porto Rico, at the same time hinting to Don Diego that he might interfere only at his peril. Realizing that his sovereign was in a temper not to be trifled with, Don Diego withdrew his support from Ceron, leaving him to get out of the dilemma the best way he could. In short, as soon as Ponce learned that he was actually governor by royal appointment, he took command without consulting the wishes of his former superior, and as he and Diaz objected, arrested and sent both as prisoners to Spain.

Governor Ponce found his family safe, in the care of the queen-mother, Dona Inez; but the good Guaybana, he was told, had fallen ill and died, a firm friend of the Spaniards to the last. What became of the noble female who had been so serviceable, who had bestowed upon her guests the most generous hospitality, is not known; but her second son, Agueybana, succeeded to his brother, and, having greater perception than Guaybana, was not so well disposed towards the strangers as the elder members of his family. Soon after he found himself firmly intrenched in the island, Ponce de Leon followed the custom of his countrymen everywhere in the West Indies at that time, and began to apportion the natives among his friends in repartimientos. He had not a thought but that these Indians were his vassals, given into his possession by a wise Providence; but to the claims of humanity he gave no heed; to the suggestion that he owed a debt of hospitality to Guaybana's people, he paid no attention.

Juan Ponce de Leon's hardness of heart brought about the usual occurrences, which shaped themselves into retribution for the oppressed natives. Despairing of getting rid of their taskmasters by peaceful means, they resolved upon a general insurrection and massacre; and this was not long after Juan Ponce had established himself at a point on the northern coast, which he called Caparra. The location here of the seat of his government shows how wrong-headed he could be, as clearly as his ungrateful conduct towards his former hosts, whose gracious acts of hospitality he requited by the imposition of heavy tasks and pressing demands for tribute. For Caparra was, of all places in the island, the least desirable as a location for a settlement, being about a league distant from the sea, and reached only by a horrible trail up a steep mountain-side. It cost more, the grumbling Spaniards were wont to say, to transport provisions over this league of road, from coast to mountain-top, than for the entire voyage from Spain. It was located here, however, on account of its contiguity to the gold region—a reason which had influenced Columbus in choosing the wholly unsuitable site for the first city founded by Europeans in America—Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola. The Spaniards were short-sighted in this respect, founding their towns and cities, as a rule, without regard to natural advantages, but with a view to the situation respecting the gold-mines.

Yes, Ponce de Leon was worse than wrong-headed, merely—he was mercenary, cruel, and oppressive. Now that he had a free hand he showed traits of his character which had been long suppressed or overshadowed by others, of necessity. After many years of vain striving he had at last secured the position of power which would give him wealth unlimited, provided he paid no heed to humanity's claims. He deliberately resolved upon the course to pursue, and he consistently held to it for years thereafter, without regard to the innocent Indians he harried and murdered, whom he considered no more than the earth beneath his feet.

What an opportunity he had for gaining not only wealth but the affection of the natives, who nobly despised mere lucre, and cared not for the so-called precious metals. Friendship was more to them than gold, and hospitality than silver; yet the Spaniards could not appreciate, even if they could recognize, the noble qualities of these people. They, the incoming strangers, were the baser sort, for though they looked upon these naked Indians with contempt, the latter were as far above them as the heavens above the earth upon which they dwelled.

At first, as we have seen, the simple natives looked upon Juan Ponce and his soldiers as celestial beings, and were prone to revere them as such; but not a long time passed before their good opinion changed. It could not be otherwise, for the Spaniards treated them as they treated their cattle, except that they did not devour their flesh after they had killed them. The cannibals, the fierce Caribs, that came up from the Lesser Antilles and ravaged their island annually, were no worse than these Spaniards, nor even so much to be dreaded, for they invaded only a province at a time. They never remained long, either, but after their ravage went away, and the Boriquenos were free from invasion for another twelve-month. But these Spaniards came and remained, their numbers were being constantly added to by accessions out of the sea, and the despairing natives began to inquire whether they really were immortal. The Spaniards themselves told them so, and they had never yet seen one of them die. But again, if they were immortal—in other words, gifted of heaven—why should they display all the attributes of fiends?

Some of the shrewdest caciques became skeptical on this point, and assembled secretly in the forest for the purpose of deciding it, if possible. They finally arrived at the conclusion that the only way to test the Spaniards' immortality was to proceed to extremities on the person of some one whom fortune might throw in their way. But, in the language of the modern fable, "Who would bell the cat?"—or, in other words, catch the Spaniard. All shrank with horror from the mere suggestion, for all actually believed the foreigners supernatural, and likely, even if apparently killed, to restore themselves to life and take a terrible revenge.

There was one cacique, however, who was less superstitious than the others, and, as it happened, a Spaniard had sent him word that the next day he expected to cross his territory, and required carriers for himself and luggage. The name of this cacique was Brayoan, and he lived on the north coast, near the port of Rico. After talking earnestly with King Agueybana, who was present at the meeting in the forest, he departed for his bohio. There he went through the ranks of his followers, selecting with care a sufficient number of them to act as escort to the Spaniard on the morrow. They were all picked men, reliable men, but the cacique concealed himself in the forest where he could watch them when they met the Spaniard.

The white man came at the time indicated, borne in a litter on the shoulders of four Indians tottering from fatigue. They were glad when they saw fresh recruits awaiting them, and did not tarry long after delivering up their burden, but hastened back to their tribe. The white man arrogantly commanded the new carriers to take up their burden, which they did with an alacrity that should have aroused his suspicions.

Silently they bore him onward through the forest, until they came to the bank of a deep, swift river. They plunged in, one of them stumbled, and the litter was overturned. As the man rolled out they seized and held him under water—an hour or more they held him, until he was drowned beyond all peradventure. Then they dragged the lifeless body to the bank, where Cacique Brayoan met them, and, after a glance at the corpse, remarked, "Well done, my children, for the man is dead!"

Still they would not trust the mere evidence of sight, but sat by the corpse until three days had passed, at the end of which there was no longer any doubt.

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