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

Juan Ponce's Last Campaign


"With this evyl begynnynge Iohn Ponce departed from hence to Boriquen, and from thence to Florida, where he wente alande with his souldiers, to espye a place moste commodious to inhabite and plante a colonie. But the Indians comynge forthe againste hym, assayled the Spanyardes fiercely, and slewe and wounded many of them.

"At which conflicte also he hymselfe beinge wounded with an arrowe, dyed shortly after, in the ilande of Cuba; and so endynge hys lyfe, consumed a great parte of the rychesse he had before begotten at Saynt Johannes of Boriquen."

"Juan Ponce had not been as wary as usual," says Washington Irving, with reference to the defeat at Guadalupe, "or he had to deal with savages unusually adroit in warfare. . . . This blow, at the very outset of this vaunted expedition, sank deep into his heart, and put an end to all his military excitement. Humbled and mortified, he set sail for the island of Porto Rico, where he relinquished all further prosecution of the enterprise, under pretext of ill health, and gave command of the squadron to a captain named Zuniga. But it is surmised that his malady was not so much of the flesh as of the spirit. He remained in Porto Rico as governor; but having grown testy and irritable, through vexations and disappointments, he gave great offence and caused much contention on the island by positive and strong-handed measures in respect to the distribution of the Indians."

That the dispirited commander of the squadron sailed away from Guadalupe most reluctantly, we may reasonably suppose, for he left there, never to be seen again by men of his race, the soldiers needlessly sacrificed in the ravine, the women who had been kidnapped by the cannibals, and his precious blood-hound Becerrico. Most of them all, probably (if the truth were told), he lamented gallant Becerrico, who had given his life to save his master's reputation, and died game at the very last. His body was not recovered, having sunk almost as soon as the savage he was pursuing swam ashore, and probably became food for sharks, as great numbers of them gathered about the scene of strife.

The bay in which the fleet was anchored while this futile attempt was made to subjugate the Caribs, lies between two headlands on the southern coast of Guadalupe. Into it run the combined waters of three streams—the "Trois Rivieres" of the present-day French, who occupy the island. On the left bank of the central stream, overshaded by tree-ferns and wild plantains, may be seen some primitive rock carvings, or petroglyphs, which mark the site of Carib settlements.

Having Ponce de Leon's distressing experience in mind, the Spaniards left the Caribs to themselves for many years; but finally the forces of Spain, France, and England, severally and at various times used against the natives, effected their practical extermination, and no Indian of their tribe lives in the island now.

The nearest settlement of Caribs descended from those we have described, reside in Dominica, another insular gem of the Caribbees, fifty miles from Guadalupe. Farther down the chain, in the island of St. Vincent, a few more may be found—survivors of the volcanic eruption of 1902, when their settlement was destroyed and many Indians lost their lives. The present descendants of the brave Caribs, the only Indians who successfully resisted the murderous Spaniards in the West Indies, are but two or three hundred in number, and dwell in the two islands mentioned, Dominica and St. Vincent.

There is no trace of their ancestors' rivals and enemies, the Arawaks, in any island of the Caribbean Sea, respecting the extermination of whom an Italian, writing in 1560, says: "The natives, finding themselves intolerably oppressed, and with no chance of regaining their liberty, with sighs and tears longed for death. Therefore, they went into the woods and hanged themselves, after having killed their children, saying it was far better to die than to live so miserably, serving such and so many ferocious tyrants and wicked thieves. Finally, out of the two million of original inhabitants, through the number of suicides and other deaths, occasioned by the oppressive labors and cruelties imposed by the Spaniards, there are not now [1560], one hundred and fifty to be found. And this has been their way of making Christians of them.

"What befell those poor islanders has happened also to all the others, in Cuba, Jamaica, and Porto Rico. And although an almost infinite number of Indians from the mainland have been brought to these islands, nearly all have perished. In short, I may say that wherever the Spaniards have unfurled their banner they have, by their great cruelties, inspired the inhabitants with perpetual hatred."

Ponce de Leon was commissioned not only to conquer the Indians of the islands, but also those of the Terra Firma coast, now called the Spanish Main; but having been so lacking of success at the outset, he retired to Porto Rico—as we have seen—and thence sent Captain Zuniga in his place. This commander left no record of his achievements; but a slave-hunter who went over his route about twenty years later tells the tale with brutal frankness. "All along the coast," he says, "the Indians came down from the hills to fish; therefore we used to land and hide ourselves, often waiting all day, and on the Indians arriving we jumped out, like so many wolves attacking so many lambs, and made them our slaves. In this way we caught upward of fifty, the greater part women with little children.

"While we were on the coast, a Spaniard, Captain Pedro de Calice, arrived with upward of four thousand slaves; and he had captured as many more, but, from famine and fatigue, they had died on the journey. And when some of them could not walk, the Spaniards, to prevent them from remaining behind to make war, killed them by burying their swords in their sides or breasts.

"It was really a most distressing thing to see the way in which these wretched creatures, naked, tired, and lame, were treated, exhausted as they were with hunger, sick and despairing. The unfortunate mothers, with two or three children on their shoulders or clinging around their necks, overwhelmed with tears and grief, were all tied with cords or with chains round their necks and arms. This captain had gone seven hundred miles into the country inland, which when the Spaniards first went there was full of people, but now was nearly depopulated."

The best we can say of Juan Ponce is that he was not the worst of that class of cut-throats denominated "conquistadores," or conquerors, but really entitled to be called robbers, kidnappers, and murderers. We can hardly sympathize with him in his grief over the disaster at Guadalupe, since it was mortified pride, and not contrition for his sins, that cast him into gloom. He retired to his castle at San Juan, and during a period of nearly or quite five years made it his headquarters, though occasionally visiting other parts of Porto Rico.

He thus remained, says one who wrote of his voyages, "in a state of growling repose," until the discovery of Mexico by Cordova; the further exploration of its coast by Grijalva, and its invasion by Hernando Cortes aroused him from the seeming lethargy into which he had fallen.

When tidings of the first expedition, along the coast of Yucatan, was brought him, the old lion of Boriquen merely regarded the messenger drowsily; at the news that Grijalva had returned to Cuba with quantities of gold, he yawned, but sat up and took notice; when, however, he was told of what Cortes had done: of the armies he had met and vanquished, the vast treasure he had wrested from Montezuma, and already shipped to Spain, he roused himself to action.

The Florida which he had discovered was not, then, an island, after all, but a continent; and that base-born Hernando Cortes had invaded it. He had penetrated beyond the coast—as he himself should have done, instead of retreating before a paltry band of Indians; and he had sent home to Spain a treasure-ship, through the very channel he had found when searching for the fountain of Bimini.

Once again the Casa Blanca was a scene of preparation for an expedition, and the harbor of San Juan resounded with the sounds of labor, as vessels were careened, seams opened by the heat of the sun in decks and sides were calked, and booms and top-masts fitted. Shortly after, on a day in 1521, two ships sailed out of San Juan harbor, the equipping and manning of which had taken the bulk of that fortune which Juan Ponce, as conqueror and as governor, had wrung from the wretched natives of Boriquen. He was taking leave of the island forever—though he had no premonition of the event which, in a few months, was to deprive his family of its protector and the island of its governor. Again, from the battlements, Dona Inez and her children waved him farewell, and, after watching the vessels sail into the horizon, returned to their dreary, uneventful existence in the castle.

Governor Ponce's voyage through the Bahamas was the roughest, stormiest, that he had ever undertaken, and the sufferings of his crews were great. But they were no longer sailing an unknown sea, and, notwithstanding contrary winds and baffling currents, eventually the coast of Florida was sighted. Had the natives of Florida been informed of his coming, they could not have been more alert and aggressive, for scarcely had a port been found and a boat-load of fighting-men disembarked, than they were upon them, with pointed reminders, in the shape of darts and arrows, that their presence was not wanted.

It seemed fated that Ponce de Leon should never penetrate the region he had found, nor more than set foot on shore, for no sooner had he landed than the savages came down with overwhelming force. Caught at a decided disadvantage, with half his men still afloat and the others unprepared for conflict with a large body of the enemy, yet the gallant veteran led the soldiers against the savages with his old-time valor and energy.

Making his way to the fore-front, he shouted, waving his sword: "Santiago! Santiago! Good St. James is with us, men. Now at them!" In the fore-front of battle he stood, urging his soldiers to come up and close in an attack, and, while thus exposed (though sheathed in armor from throat to toe), he was struck in the thigh by an arrow and fell to the sands.

The battle did not rage long after that, for the men had no heart to fight after their leader was struck, and made his disability a pretext for retreating to the ships. They had a very good excuse for retiring, inasmuch as many had been killed before the wounding of their commander-in-chief, and many more were wounded. Those nearest to Ponce de Leon, when he fell, seized and bore him on board ship, where, after an inspection of the wound, it was decided to set sail for Cuba, in the hope of securing competent surgical aid at Havana.

The stragglers were recalled by trumpet, at the sound of which the savage Floridians hurried to the strand by hundreds and mocked the discomfited Spaniards as they hoisted sail and bore away. They left a host of scoffing Indians on the shore, hearing the gibes of whom, and learning that they had shown no mercy to such as had fallen into their hands, the wounded veteran would fain have sallied forth again. He called for his armor, of which his attendants had stripped him, and for his sword; but at the first venture he fell fainting to the deck. Before the Cuban shores were sighted, it was evident to all that Juan Ponce de Leon had received a mortal hurt. Like the gallant Cordova, who four years before had returned to Havana from Yucatan by way of Florida, and had been wounded by those same savages, Juan Ponce was death-struck ere he reached the shore. Havana harbor was at last made, however; he was taken to land and given every attention; but in vain. After a few days of painful lingering, during his conscious intervals in which he calmly gave orders for the disposition of his body and effects, he was carried off, either by a fever resulting from the wound, or by the poison in which, it was thought, the arrow had been dipped.

While many followers of Juan Ponce de Leon had lost their lives in the battle that brought him his mortal injury, and many more were seriously wounded, yet personal mention is made only of the commander, who, having most to gain by a victory, had also most to lose by defeat. Still, less is known of his last hours than we could wish, and no account exists by any one who was present at his death-bed; though we know that he was tenderly cared for to the last, and at his death was mourned by all who knew him as a valiant and honorable cavalier.

His remains were taken on board the flag-ship, with all the honors of war, and from the harbor of Havana the little fleet sailed into the open channel between Cuba and Florida. Thence the Bahama archipelago was entered, and through that sea, which Juan Ponce de Leon was the first to navigate in its entire extent, was borne the body of him who sought therein the isle and fountain of eternal youth. Back to Boriquen they bore him, and at the castle, Casa Blanca, he was received by the weeping Dona Inez and her children.

They gave him sepulture at first within the castle, but eventually his ashes were deposited beneath the high altar of the Dominican church in San Juan de Puerto Rico. Removed from that sanctuary in 1863, after having been religiously preserved for more than three hundred years, these sacred relics were for a while unsepultured; but at last, after the American invasion of Porto Rico, were placed beneath a monument erected in memory of him who was "a lion by name and a lion by nature."

Upon his original tomb, says Barcia, quoting Herrera, was carved an epitaph in Latin, which is paraphrased as follows in Spanish:

"Aqueste lugar estrecho

Es sepulcro del varon

Que en el Hombre fue Leon,

Y mucho mas en el hecho."

"This narrow grave contains the remains of a man who was a Lion by name, and much more by his nature," or deeds.

Juan Ponce de Leon left two sons, one of whom, Don Luis, was made an adelantado by Charles V., in recognition of his father's services; and a daughter Isabel, who was afterwards married to one Antonio de Gama, a licentiate of Porto Rico. In the year 1553 the wife of a Ponce de Leon perished at sea off the coast of Mexico, and so late as 1566 Porto Rico boasted of an alcalde named Juan Ponce de Leon.

"It was a noble name," says the historian Oviedo, "that of the adelantado Juan Ponce de Leon, who in truth was an honorable cavalier, a noble person, who labored hard in the conquest and pacification of Isla Espanola, Higuey, and the Isle of St. John."

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