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

Capture of Cotubanama


"Fire and sword! Fire and sword!" were the terse and brutal orders of Ovando to Esquivel. "Whoever is left, Juan Ponce is to govern them; but he cannot govern the cacique, so he must die! But, sooth, do not kill him in the field, if it be possible to bring him alive to the capital. I fain would see him hang by the neck, the scoundrel, and so see thou to it, Juan de Esquivel, that I have that pleasure."

"Si, Senor Gobernador"  (Yes, Sir Governor), replied the captain, "that pleasure you shall have, of a verity. But," he added, sotto voce, to Juan Ponce, as he dropped his sword into its scabbard and turned on his heel to leave, "first we must catch the hare, meseems. Not a score of my soldiers can hold him."

"There are more ways of catching a hare than by stepping on its tail," answered Juan Ponce. "'A carne de lobo, diente de perro,'  (To wolf's flesh, dog's tooth) Juanito; you know the proverb."

"Ay, forsooth. The hounds shall be set on his trail; but they might rend him mortally. And should he die before I could get him to the governor, I misdoubt but he might kill me, for he hath set his heart upon torturing this cacique of Higuey."

"But do not exterminate them wholly, those people of Higuey," rejoined Juan Ponce. "For, consider, what avail if I be ruler of a province without any inhabitants!"

"Certes, so thou'rt to be adelantado! I had forgotten. Sooth, the governor might have done worse than have given me that appointment. I am tired of this constant marching over the country—fording rivers, climbing mountains, and always killing and killing. But I'll leave thee some subjects, Juanito; if not of the men, some women and children, for I'm weary of slaying such—or, what is the same, ordering my men to do it."

"And I," said Ponce de Leon. "Not a child or a woman have I slain this many a day. Notwithtanding the governor saith these Indians have no souls, and that it is no sin to slay them, I am of a different opinion. As adelantado, I shall endeavor to mitigate somewhat the sufferings of these poor people —that is, provided I be allowed to do so."

"Well may you put in that proviso," said Esquivel, with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulders. "I doubt if the devil himself be such a hater of mankind in general, and these poor wretches in particular, as our lord and master, Don Nicolas de Ovando. But this talk is treason, and were he to hear of it, off might go our heads—not only civil, but actual."

The two officers were then riding slowly at the head of their troops, being among the few who were mounted. The soldiers were trudging wearily, yet without complaint, though their heavy armor was a "load for a mule," as they were wont to say; never to mention the heat of the sun, which, in that tropical island, beat down with terrible force. They were obliged to ford a great many rivers, some they were forced to swim, and at night to camp wherever dry land might be found. Their fare was coarse, consisting mainly of what the country afforded by a hasty ravage, such as maize, yucca, age, or peppers, and occasionally a sylvan animal known as the aguti—for of domestic fowl or quadrupeds the natives had no stock.

At the end of four or five days' marching the exhausted army entered the province of Higuey, where their presence was made known to the widely scattered Indians by great signal-smokes, which rose from numerous hills. These signals indicated that the natives were alert and probably prepared—as well as they might be—for the war, which Cotubanama knew to be inevitable. The Indians seemed to have been withdrawn from the sea-coast and concentrated in the mountains. The land rose to a great elevation, in vast terraces, with walls of rock almost perpendicular, with intervals of red soil, which was extremely fertile and produced abundant crops of food plants.

Although their province was on three sides surrounded by the sea, the inhabitants of Higuey were mostly mountaineers, and upon the advent of the Spaniards all became so temporarily, abandoning their villages in the littoral and hastening to the higher country. In the caverns and chasms of the mountains they made places of refuge for the women and children, while the warriors, as before, tried to make a stand in the lowlands. The first that were captured were without leaders, their caciques having gone to the mountains; but no amount of torture—and the cruel Spaniards applied it without mercy—could force them to reveal the hiding-places of their chiefs.

The first town the Spaniards entered, on a broad plateau flanked by rugged terraces, was deserted; but the second, still farther up, was occupied by a host of naked warriors, who seemed resolved to defend it to the last. Their yells were frightful to hear, their darts and arrows fell in showers; but at the first fire of the Spaniards, from their cross-bows and arquebuses, they took to flight, without waiting to engage the enemy at close quarters. They fled; yet they were brave enough and fierce enough, for such of the wounded as could not get away stood unflinchingly until the Spaniards reached them, when they tore the arrows from their wounds and hurled them in the faces of the foe as the swords or lances pierced their bodies.

As the invaders pressed onward, driving before them herds of fugitives, which ever and anon they massacred by hundreds, when their progress was impeded by them, Juan Ponce must have felt, indeed, that at the last he would have no people to govern—as he had already surmised. He urged Esquivel to hasten the end by securing Cotubanama, whose captivity or death, he was assured, would terminate resistance and bring the war to a conclusion. Despite his professed disinclination for slaughter, Commander Esquivel allowed his men to indulge in it to their hearts' content. But he, too, was desirous of taking the cacique, and (more because the slaying of innocent non-combatants delayed the march than from motives of mercy) he ordered the soldiers to stay their hands awhile.

They were then approaching the town in which Cotubanama resided in time of peace, and it was possible he might still be there. Two trails led to it, one so open and clear of obstacles that the old campaigners, Esquivel and Ponce, were at once suspicious of an ambush; the other obstructed by fallen trees, but nevertheless chosen by the soldiers. Progress through the forest was rendered doubly toilsome by impediments thrown in the way by the Indians; but doubtless many lives were saved by the taking of this route, as the savages in ambush were cleverly flanked, and compelled to retreat towards the town. Here they made a stand from about noon till night, assailing the Spaniards with arrows, darts, and stones, fighting with great fury; but with their crude weapons and destitute of defensive armor, even of clothing, they could not withstand the foe. As darkness fell, the shower of missiles slackened, then ceased entirely; the yells died away, and through the forest surrounding the village the savages silently retreated.

They were led by Cotubanama, in the fight and in the retreat; but though he was seen by the Spaniards, his giant frame towering above the heads of the warriors, the wily chieftain succeeded in making good his escape. He was promptly pursued the next day, but by that time had obtained such an advantage that it was weeks before his last retreat was discovered. Esquivel, now aroused to fury, his wolfish instincts dominant, refused to listen to Juan Ponce, who represented that the spirits of the people were broken, and it was doubtful if they ever made another stand. He entreated the commander to give over the pursuit, and to send out messengers inviting the scattered fugitives to return to their villages, proffering pardon to all except Cotubanama. Thus the cultivation of the soil could be carried on, the terrified Indians as well as the Spaniards could bind up their wounds, and peace prevail again.

The good Las Casas, who was then a young man and accompanied this expedition, united his pleadings with those of the adelantado, but all without avail. Esquivel became a veritable maniac in his fury against the Indians. He caused them to be hunted down, group by group, one by one, and all were killed as fast as they were captured, even the aged and feeble, women and children, when found in the caves to which they had fled for safety. Mere killing, even murder by wholesale, did not satisfy these fiendish Spaniards, but they devised the most ingenious methods of torture. They erected gibbets in long rows, and upon these hung their captives, in such a manner that their feet touched the ground and their torments were prolonged. Thirteen Indians were thus hanged one day, in honor, the blasphemous ruffians stated, of "our blessed Saviour and his twelve apostles," and while the helpless victims were still alive they hacked and slashed them with their swords, merely to gratify their thirst for blood.

These things Juan de Esquivel allowed to be done in order that the surviving natives might be terrorized into submission and reveal the hiding-place of Cotubanama; but, to their credit be it stated, no Indian was found so recreant to his chief as to betray him. By accident, Esquivel finally learned that he had left the mountains and returned to Saona, where, with wife and children and some chosen warriors, he was hiding in a cavern. Leaving Juan Ponce in command of the main army, Esquivel took with him fifty soldiers and embarked in a caravel for Saona, where, as he went over in the night, he landed without being discovered by the cacique. Two Indian spies were captured, and from them the Spaniards learned that Cotubanama was concealed in a cavern not far distant. The brutal Esquivel drove a poniard into the breast of one of the spies, and, while he lay quivering in the agonies of death, commanded the other to lead the way. The terrified Indian dared not refuse, but, before the cacique's place of concealment was reached, suddenly darted to one side, and, leaping over a precipice, was dashed to pieces on the rocks below.

Though rugged and forest-covered, the island was not so large that the chief could remain there long in hiding, and the Spaniards scattered in search of him. One Juan Lopez, a man of powerful physique, dashed ahead of his companions up the steeps, and found himself suddenly confronted by a file of warriors. They were in a defile with overhanging trees, and if they had not lost courage by this unexpected apparition of a mailed soldier, dropped as if from the clouds, they might have killed him with their arrows. But they stepped aside, incredible as it may seem, and behind them was revealed the giant chieftain himself, with bent bow and a three-pronged arrow drawn to the head. He did not have time to speed it, however, for the brave Lopez darted in and slashed him with the sword he carried, at which Cotubanama cried out, "Do not kill me, for I am Juan de Esquivel."


Bartholomew de Las Casas.

He seized the Spaniard by the throat, and would have strangled him outright had not the noise of the struggle been heard by his comrades, who hastened to the rescue just in time to save his life. They threw themselves upon the giant in a body, and by the weight of their armor bore him to the ground, where they held him, helpless and bleeding, until the arrival of Juan de Esquivel.

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