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

Encounters with Cannibals


"He [Juan Ponce de Leon] touched in at the ilande of Guacana, otherwyse cauled Guadalupe, and sent to lande certayne of his men with the laundresses of the shyppes; whom the canibales, lying in ambushe, assayled with their envenemed arrowes, and slaying the most parte, caryed away the women."

Thus the translator of Martyr's great work on the New World (to whom reference is made in the previous chapter) epitomizes the adventures of Juan Ponce in the Caribbees; but a mere summary of them should not suffice. The details are to be found in fragmentary shape scattered throughout various works. Having collected the same, we will now piece them together, and, entreating the reader's forbearance, endeavor to weave a fabric—a tapestry, perchance—in which our hero's acts shall stand in proper relation to the time and place of their occurrence.

First, in confirmation of the statement above made, we have, for instance, that of a Spanish historian, one Andres Gonzales Barcia, who wrote, in 1723, a very valuable work on, Florida, which was published under the pseudonym of "Don Gabriel de Cardenas y Carlo." He applies the word "Florida" to the adjacent islands and the main, or "terra firma," and says that Juan Ponce set sail in the month of May, 1515, with three ships, armed at his own cost, for the islands in which lived the Caribs, whom he was instructed to pacify.

After a prosperous voyage, he arrived within sight of the island called by the natives Guacana, and by the Spaniards Guadalupe, where he sought and found a harbor. As he and his company had been many weeks at sea, they were sadly in need of clean clothes and fresh water for drinking, so he sent a number of laundresses ashore with an armed escort to protect them while they washed the linen in a mountain stream which rumbled noisily over the rocks on a beach within sight of the ships. The women spread their ropa  on the rocks, tucked up their skirts, rolled up their sleeves, and proceeded at once to launder the linen the best they could under the circumstances. Meanwhile their escort strolled about on the beach, picking up gay-colored shells washed ashore by the waves, and in other ways "killing time," until one of them, in an evil hour, proposed that they should follow a path they had found to the native village to which it probably led. Having had no experience with the Caribs, these foolish soldiers adopted the suggestion at once, and set off through the forest, leaving the women unprotected.

Unknown to them, however, they were watched, and had they been bribed for the purpose they could not have done anything more gratifying to the savages, who were peering from the thickets along the trail. They were in overwhelming numbers, for the forest swarmed with them; every rock and every giant tree had behind it a group of naked Indians, and had the unsuspicious Spaniards been more acute, they might have seen the fierce eyes of their foes gleaming hungrily through the leaves of palms and tree-ferns. Each red-skinned savage grasped in one hand a bow of tough iron-wood, and in the other a clutch of arrows, barbed and tipped with feathers. At his waist hung a stone-headed battle-axe, so ponderous that when its owner walked or ran he had to balance it with the hand that held the arrows.

Every Indian had his war-paint on, his skin stained with roucou (annatto), and his face painted in lines of white and black, making him look like a two-legged tiger or cougar. The various colors blended so well with those of the flowers and leaves about them, that perhaps this was the reason that none of the savages had been seen by the Spaniards, who, still pursuing their way inland, walked directly into the trap that nature and the savages had set for them. Nature aided the Indians, we say, because the path led at first through the ravine, at the mouth of which the stream came out that ran over the beach sands into the sea. This ravine grew narrower and gloomier as it receded from the bay, and after a while the Spaniards entered a veritable tunnel, formed by the cragged rocks on either side, overarched by dense canopies of vines closely set with leaves and spangled with blossoms. Around and into the flowers, which hung from the canopies and trailed down the cliffs, darted topaz-throated, gold-crested humming-birds, buzzing like bumble-bees, their wings like films of mist about them, so rapid were their movements.

But the Spaniards had no eye for the beauty of the scene, for some of them, old soldiers of the Moorish wars, became suddenly alive to the dangers of a situation like this, which, except for its tropical environment, reminded them of some gloomy gorge in the mountains of Malaga or Ronda. Their leader was a veteran of many campaigns, but one of the loose-natured sort, whose dissoluteness had stood in the way of his advancement beyond the grade of sergeant. He already repented of having set out on this foray, and was about to halt his little band for consultation, when, turning about to do so, his eye was caught by a dusky figure gliding like a snake across the ravine, between the Spaniards and the beach.

"Alerta!"  he shouted. "Be vigilant, my men, for there is an enemy behind us! Draw sword! Face about! Retreat!" The score or so of soldiers instantly comprehended their peril, and prepared themselves for what they knew must be a desperate encounter. For now, realizing that they had been discovered, the savages came pouring out of the forest like ants and hornets from their nests. They came swiftly, silently. Shrewd savages that they were, trained warriors in many a conflict, knowing that a tumult would bring the Spaniards from the ships out-swarming, at first they refrained from raising the war-whoop. But when the leader of the soldiers saw their retreat cut off by naked Indians, and numbers of them massing ahead, so that a living wall rose up before and behind, he gave the order to open fire with the arquebuses.

There were half a dozen muskets in the party—those primitive, clumsy matchlocks which required a large and motionless mark to be effective—and these were quickly made ready. Matches were lighted, and the musketeers advanced to the front. The wondering savages looked on in silence, only brandishing their bows and war-clubs; for they knew that the strangers were their prey, and for the moment merely played with them, as a cat with a mouse in its clutches. They did not realize the death-dealing powers of the arquebuses, and when at last the matches were applied to the powder-pans, and puffs of smoke rolled out, followed by flame, with a terrible noise that reverberated through the ravine, they were astounded. They thought the combined reports of the muskets were thunders from the clouds, and they looked aloft, around, in vast astonishment.

The thunder they called "God's voice," and were extremely afraid of it, for the lightning, its twin brother, sometimes slew the unwary and irreverent. But here were heaps of slain, and no sign of a storm! Here were wounded and dying, the survivors noticed, who had been struck down without any apparent cause, except—it finally dawned upon them—that cause could be traced to those strange things the Spaniards had pointed at them. They closed the great gap made by the murderous muskets in their ranks and gathered for consultation. This gave the Spaniards time to reload, and when at last the savages had reached the decision that the muskets were responsible for the slaughter, they received confirmation of it in another volley, which stretched several more lifeless upon the rocky bed of the ravine. Then they hesitated no longer, as a body, for the survivors were undismayed by the noise, the smoke, or the slaughter, and closed in upon the devoted band of Spaniards with deadly intent.

As there was no longer any necessity for silence, the reports of the muskets having given alarm, of course, to those on shipboard, the savages let loose most horrid yells and war-whoops as they advanced, even the wounded seeming inspired to fury and attempting to keep up with the thronging warriors. There was no time for recharging the arquebuses, and the Spaniards were obliged to meet the foe on nearly equal terms. Against arrows, spears, and war-clubs they opposed their lances, swords, and clubbed arquebuses, also being protected to some extent by their armor. Except for their steel armor, and their expertness at cutting and thrusting with the sword, the Spaniards had but small advantage over the savages, who threw themselves upon them like a thunderbolt. At first the keen-edged swords made terrible havoc in the Carib ranks, for the naked savages had nothing to protect their limbs and bodies. How they were mangled! How their blood flowed forth in streams that day! But they minded no wounds, however grievous, nor cared for aught except to kill a Spaniard ere they died, and so it was that the soldiers were overcome, one at a time, by mere weight of numbers, and finally the last one of that little band lay prostrate, lifeless, in the bed of the stream.

It had been hideous, ghastly work, and the surviving Caribs were excited to a fury perfectly fiendish by the time it was ended; but there remained another deed to be mentioned, compared to which the slaughter of the soldiers might be termed an act of mercy. The wretched laundresses, who had been left unprotected, flocked to the sea-side when they heard the first sounds of strife, and held out imploring arms towards the ships at anchor in the bay. Their piercing shrieks were heard by the savages ashore as well as by the people on board ship, and there was fierce rivalry as to whom should be first at the surf-line on the beach.

And what were the feelings of Juan Ponce de Leon, who, as commander of the fleet, had ordered these helpless females on shore without adequate protection? He was reclining in a hammock, on the after-castle of the flag-ship, when the tumult in the ravine began. His heart thumped suddenly against his ribs, then seemed to leap into his throat, as he remembered that he had been guilty of gross neglect in landing a party in an enemy's country without guarding against treachery and surprise. He leaped to the deck forthwith, and instantly trumpeted orders for the launching of boats and the arming and despatching of a rescue-party to the shore. But the movements of the sailors were slow and clumsy compared with those of the naked, fleet-footed Indians, who, immediately they heard the shrieks of the women, diverted a number of their warriors from the forest to the shore. They darted out of the woods and down the beach. Silently they ran and swiftly, swooping upon the terrified females like hawks or sea-eagles, and bearing them off upon their shoulders.

Several boats were then near the beach, each boat well laden with soldiers; but before their passengers were landed the savages had nearly reached the forest. Clad in their heavy armor, which weighted them down like lead, the soldiers feared to leap into the water, and thus much time was lost while the boats were being drawn up the strand. Meanwhile the hapless females were struggling in the arms of their horrid captors, realizing that the fate in store for them was far worse than immediate death; but in vain were their attempts to free themselves, their piteous pleadings, their tears, and anguished cries for help. A few of the cross-bowmen in the foremost boat knelt on the sands as soon as they struck shore, and, taking careful aim, let fly their arrows. Three of the savages were struck between the shoulders by the speeding bolts, one of them with such force that the woman he held in front of him was wounded, the arrow having gone clean through his body. But what was the horror and surprise of the on-gazing Spaniards to see these relentless cannibals, as they fell, seize their victims by the throat with their teeth, and strangle them, while in the agonies of death!

Never before had the Spaniards witnessed such animosity, such undying hate, and they crossed themselves fervently, exclaiming the while, "Santa Maria defend us from such savages as these!"

The day was then well advanced, but after the search-party had landed came Ponce de Leon, determined to ascertain the fate of his soldiers, even were the shades of night to fall before he found them. After stripping the fallen Spaniards of their weapons, despatching the wounded, and gathering up their own dead and injured warriors, the Caribs had retreated into the forest, where those who had kidnapped the women met the main body. Together, then, the exulting Indians departed for their stronghold in the mountain, where their wives and children were gathered, and whence they could not be dislodged were an army of ten thousand to attack them.

The shadow of the Soufriere, the great and gloomy "sulphur mountain," Guadalupe's quiescent volcano, lengthened portentously along the surface of the sea, proclaiming the near approach of night; yet would not Juan Ponce desist from his search of the ravine. Finding the trail as it led into the gorge, he followed it until, at dusk, the scene of conflict was revealed. There lay his gallant men, as they had fallen in the heat of battle, all their armor on, save that their helmets and easily detachable portions, like the greaves and gorgets, had been snatched away. The place where they had fallen afforded no spot for sepulture, and as it was impossible, in the gathering darkness, to carry those mail-clad corpses back to shore, and fearing an attack if he remained there, Juan Ponce ordered a retreat. The yells of the retreating Indians could be heard afar off in the forest; but this fact was no guarantee that there were not hundreds still remaining, and the commander acted with commendable prudence in deferring the burial of his slain until the succeeding day.

"But we shall not find them here to-morrow, commander," said a veteran of his company, who had fought the savages of Terra Firma, under Ojeda and Balboa.

"And why not?" demanded Juan Ponce. "Faith, the stream they have fallen in is not strong enough to bear them away, and if it were we should find them at the river's mouth." He was raging inwardly, his heart sore with vexation over the loss of his men and the terrible fate of the women; but he strove to be calm, and was patient with the soldier.

"Why? Because," rejoined the veteran, "the cannibal pagans will return to get them. While they have the poisoned arrow in these islands, these savages have not used it here, and that is proof that they intend to sacrifice and eat our comrades. They will take and roast them in their armor, as we were wont to roast the armadillos on Terra Firma coast!"

"Impossible!" exclaimed Juan Ponce, horrified, and undecided what his course should be. But whatever was in store for the dead, he knew it was impossible then to rescue them. He and his men made their way back to the beach and the ships; but in the morning, when he returned to the ravine for the purpose of paying the last honors to his braves, there was no vestige of them there!

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