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

The Governor Builds a Castle


The governor was not constantly in the field during the conquest of Boriquen, but only occasionally, when his presence was necessary to inspirit the troops, to decide the boundaries of a newly projected town, or to assign a drove of captive Indians to some favorite lieutenant. He was long in establishing himself at any place that should become a permanent settlement, because of the difficulties involved in changing his base of operations and the questions to be settled, not only in his own time, but relating to future generations. He must consider not alone the demands of the present but the contingencies of the future. In the first place, he should keep in touch with the mother-colony in Hispaniola, whence he drew supplies for his army, and also reinforcements of soldiers and settlers. In the second, he should consider the possible relation of the port at which he made his permanent seat to Spain, the mother-country; for, when sufficiently settled and the produce of the island came to be considerable enough for export, connection with Europe must be established and maintained by means of ships.

It was, therefore, on account of the many vexatious problems to solve that Juan Ponce delayed the planting of himself, his family, and the headquarters of the army at some point where they could remain undisturbed. In pursuance of his desire to acquaint himself thoroughly with the resources of the island, as well as its various ports and advantageous points for settlement, he made many excursions by sea and by land. In one of these he visited and examined anew the place where he had made the acquaintance of Guaybana and his family. He noted then, what he had previously overlooked or since forgotten, the great natural beauty of Aguada and Aguadilla; the vast and beautiful curve of the coast, with surf-washed beaches strewn with shells, at that time overtopped by tropical trees and pierced by the channels of down-rushing streams.

Scant three years had elapsed since his first visit to the island, barely two since he had returned with soldiers for its conquest; and now, how changed! Then the beaches had swarmed with Indians, who had wonderingly approached him, timidly touched him to assure themselves that he was mortal, and then led the way to their village and spread forth the most bountiful hospitality. Now there came no one out to greet him; the shore was silent but for the cries of the sea-birds, and the village was deserted. The great bohio in which the cacique had entertained him was filled with the rank growth of the tropical forest, such as advances like a skirmish-line ahead of the main body of arboreal giants, takes silent possession, and in a few months works a transformation. The roof of palm-thatch had fallen in, many of the supports had broken down, and the great dais which had served the cacique as a throne lay flat upon the ground.


Morro Castle, San Juan, Porto Rico.

In the days to which Juan Ponce could not but have looked back with regret he was served by smiling damsels, who brought him fruits and refreshing drinks as he lay in a hammock beneath the forest-canopy conversing with the king. These nut-brown virgins wore but nature's garb, save for a sea-shell amulet hung about the neck, and around the waist a short skirt of sweet-scented grasses; yet were they as innocent as babes and modest as children. Laughing, dancing, singing, with prattle sounding like the running waters of a brook, eager to please and desirous to serve, these maidens recalled to the soldier, by their joyous presence, the stories he had heard the Moors repeat, relating to the houris of the Mohammedan paradise.

As the stern soldier gazed at them through half-closed eyes, noting their innocence and joyousness, his heart grew warm within him yearningly, as once it had when his first-born was brought him, and the world seemed full of love, of peace, and of happiness. To himself, then, he had resolved that no harm should come to these maidens, even though he was meditating the invasion of their country and the enslavement of their tribe. He would remember, he would instruct his soldiers regarding them, and after the conquest was effected, Dona Inez should found a school for their instruction, a retreat for their protection.

But now behold Juan Ponce de Leon again in that same place, clad in armor of steel, and pointing out to his comrades the scenes of his former visit. With his sword he indicates the spot where the feast was spread, the trees between which the hammocks were swung, the glade adown which tripped the happy maidens when they came to serve him and the king.

But all was silent now. The wind rustled gently the long leaves of the palm, played with the emerald fingers of the tall tree-ferns, sent a sigh through the king's deserted palace; but there was no other sound save for the hollow moaning of a wood-dove. Juan Ponce shook his head sadly and was about to go, when his companion, Captain Salazar, exclaimed: "Hark thee, Senor Governor. It seemed I heard a groan."

"'Twas more belike the dove," answered De Leon. "Aloft in the tree-top it calleth to its mate. Come, it is near dusk, and the marquee is pitched on the sands awaiting our return."

From the site of Guaybana's deserted court a broad road stretched to the shore—a smooth, straight highway, lined with trees—and though it was then encumbered with fallen limbs and branches, it was still passable. On either side were the weed-grown gardens, formerly cultivated by the Indians in maize and yucca, upon which, with the wild fruits from the forest, they mainly subsisted. The soldiers turned to leave the wood, by a trail which led into the highway. Again the sound saluted their ears, which Salazar declared to be a groan, and not the moaning of the dove, for it proceeded from near earth and had a human accent. He drew his sword and started for the point whence it came, followed slowly by Juan Ponce de Leon.

"Have a care, my Diego," cautioned the governor. "It may be the savages are all dead or driven away, but still there is danger of an ambuscade."

Salazar proceeded with caution, being also an old soldier, and with his sword parted some branches that hung over a hollow beneath a leaning tree. Peering within, he saw stretched out on the ground the emaciated figure of a girl, or woman, to all appearances near death. She stared at the intruders with lack-lustre eyes, too weak to move or even to speak. Her hair, raven black and abundant, lay in a tangled mass about her head. One arm lay across her breast, and from the other, stretched at her side, the hand had been cut off, not long before, since the wound had hardly healed.

Juan Ponce muttered an oath. "That's the work of the scoundrels from Xaragua, Roldan's men," he exclaimed. "Have I not told them often not to bring hither their murderous practices, mangling and mutilating? Would I were strong enough to send them back again, one and all, to Hispaniola!"

"Ha, what's this? A cross of gold on the string around her neck. Salazar! Diego Salazar! I gave this girl that cruzito!"

Juan Ponce fell back as though struck in the face, and a groan burst from his lips. "Poor little one," he said, with a sigh. "She was one of the damsels I met here that first time I came to see the king. Her mother was the cacique's mother, so she was a princess; and she gave her to me peradventure I might marry; but I could not, of course, having a wife in Hispaniola. So, as a token of appreciation, I gave her that cross which thou now seest, Diego Salazar. And she was the king's sister; sweet and winsome was she; but now, behold! The king is dead; her mother, I have heard, perished in the flames; and she—"

"She, too, is dead, I fear me," exclaimed Diego Salazar. "Yes, her eyes are wide-staring, and the lids move not, neither doth she breathe. We have come only to see her die, my governor."

"May the saints forgive me," murmured De Leon. "I cannot but think it was my doings that brought her to this sad ending. Her brother befriended me; her mother would have bestowed her most precious jewel upon me; and see, Diego Salazar, how I have requited their friendship!"

Captain Salazar said no word, either of reproof or consolation, knowing the truth of this self-accusation, but believing the governor's mood but a passing one, scarcely worthy, he thought, blood-stained as he was, a stern soldier like Juan Ponce de Leon. Together, in silence, they dug a shallow grave with their swords and placed the frail body therein. They covered it with forest mould, and scattered leaves over the grave; but before the princess was hidden forever from sight, it is said, Juan Ponce removed the cross from her neck and took it away—though never to be seen, while he lived, by any of his comrades or kindred. Thenceforth it reposed beneath his gorget, and there it was found (according to the local legend, of which this story is but an elaboration)—there it was found when, ten years later, having met a violent death, his armor was removed preparatory to sepulture.

Whether this tale be true or whether it be false, and put forth merely to account for the exceeding great change that came over Juan Ponce at this time, who can tell? This is true, however: that thenceforth he was, indeed, changed for the better. His holy talisman, and the sad scenes of which it reminded him, may have wrought that difference in his character which is noticeable between the Juan Ponce who ravaged Higuey and Boriquen, in the early days of his career, and the serious yet romantic cavalier who sought the Fountain of Youth, bent upon perpetuating human life instead of destroying it. He returned to Caparra contemplative and sad, resolved upon leaving at once a place fraught with so many disagreeable memories. In his wanderings he had examined all the ports of the island, and had come to the conclusion that there was none like that in the northeast part of Boriquen, now known as San Juan de Puerto Rico. Its entrance was narrow, yet the harbor within was spacious and land-locked, while between it and the open ocean was a rocky peninsula which presented a site unsurpassed for a castle and fortifications.

While Caparra was not completely abandoned until 1522, the army was withdrawn from it in the latter part of 1511 or early months of 1512, and a settlement begun on the more advantageous site at San Juan. Here stands to-day the city of San Juan (named after the gallant conquistador who founded it), occupying the western end of a small island on the north coast, two miles in length and half a mile in breadth. Bridges and causeways connect it with the mainland now, but in Juan Ponce's time it was entirely isolated, and a better place for defence against the attacks of the Indians could not anywhere be found. Its strategic and defensive features were so manifest that it was early seized upon by the successors of Governor Ponce, and in 1584 the famous Morro Castle was completed, which commands the harbor entrance and the sea beyond.

This ancient citadel was the beginning of a line of impregnable fortifications which entirely surround the city, enclosing within it a series of connected bastions, with moats, guarded gates, fortalezas, or little forts, lofty battlements, semi-bastions, and quaint sentry turrets projecting over the sea. San Juan is like a walled town of the Middle Ages, and its fortifications, though practically begun by Ponce de Leon in 1512, were two hundred and fifty years in process of construction. They were planned, as we find them now, in 1630, and nearly completed in 1641, yet the castle of San Cristobal, which commands the land approaches to San Juan, was not finished until 1771.

The city within the walls is one of the oldest, as it is the quaintest, to be found within the limits of the United States, antedating St. Augustine, in Florida, by more than fifty years, and, as a contemporary of Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba, is more ancient than Havana. In fact, the hero of this biography was engaged in laying the foundations of San Juan when Velasquez set out for the island of Cuba, under the direction of Don Diego Columbus. While he was effecting its conquest, Juan Ponce de Leon was bringing the Boriquefios under subjection, Balboa was pursuing his discoveries in Darien, and Pizarro was preparing for his mighty achievements in Peru.

Whether the first structure erected by Ponce de Leon is still standing or not, the oldest building in San Juan is the castle he built, near the point overlooking the harbor, and known to-day as the Casa Blanca, or the White House. Taking it in its entirety, also, it is the most picturesque, and historic as well, for it was not only built but was occupied by him after he left Caparra and while he continued governor of Boriquen.

If you would find Caparra, you must cross the bay of San Juan to a little hamlet called Catano, and take a road into the country, which is fertile, but not so picturesque as that immediately about the city built on the peninsula. But little is left of the town whence Ponce de Leon directed his warlike operations against the Indians, for soon after the seat of government was removed to San Juan it was invaded by an army of ants, which were not so easily withstood as the desultory attacks of the natives. Then an epidemic of small-pox broke out, followed by diseases due to the excesses of the settlers, who fled from the place in dismay. Caparra is still known as Pueblo Viejo, or the Ancient Town, but nothing now remains of it except a line of crumbling walls and the ruins of its aqueduct.

What the Spaniards erected in Porto Rico, as elsewhere, they intended should outlast their time—speaking of the structures that succeeded to the frail bohios of reeds and palm-leaves, patterned after those of the natives. Building material was abundant, skilled workmen were numerous in the army, and thus we find these solid structures of stone, like the Casa Blanca and the Morro, as perfect in condition as at the time they were erected. So this relic of Ponce de Leon remains for us to view to-day, intact and picturesque. From its roof, or azotea, and from its seaward-facing windows, the views of land-locked bay, surf-beaten shores, and watery horizon are entrancing, especially at sunset.


Casa Blanca, house of Ponce de Leon.

The castle is surrounded by a garden, filled with cocoa-palms and such like tropical trees, and the garden by an ancient wall with crenellated parapet, beyond which is the outer line of defence, with massive buttressed battlements and quaint sentry turrets hanging precariously over the indigo-tinted waters of the bay. The outlook landward is not less attractive, taking in the vast sweep of palm-fringed coast and the ranks of rounded hills, cultivated to their very summits, which recede into the distance, until merged in the majestic Yunque, central peak of the great Luquillo range, four thousand feet in height. Cloud wreaths encircle Yunque's verdant crown, spirals of smoke ascend from numberless valleys, as in the days when every vale had clusters of bohios sheltering a happy, innocent people for whom the advent of Juan Ponce de Leon meant extermination.

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