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

The Rebellion in Higuey


Cotubanama, cacique of Higuey, and last survivor of Hispaniola's chieftains, was the equal of Caonabo the Carib in valor, and the strongest man of his tribe. Bishop Las Casas says that he was as perfectly formed as any man he had ever seen, of whatever nationality. He was a yard in breadth across his shoulders, and in stature overtopped the tallest of his subjects, yet was so admirably proportioned that he did not appear the giant that he was, unless contrasted with others. He seems to have been the counterpart of that great warrior, Tuscaloosa, whom De Soto met and conquered in Florida. Though his countenance was grave and his aspect dignified, he was not handsome, but as courageous as a lion. There was not a man in the Spanish army that could bend his cross-bow, nor a native in the island that had not heard of and dreaded his three-pronged arrows, tipped with bones of fishes, which he shot with unerring aim.

Immediately after the murder of the Spaniards on the shallop, he had passed over to the main island, and, taking with him many of his people, made for the mountains. They were wild and rugged, while numerous caverns in the cliffs afforded shelter from the elements. Cotubanama knew what would be the consequences of his crime, and intrenched himself against the coming of the Spaniards, who were not long in getting on his trail and following it to his mountain fastnesses. He left small bands of warriors in the lowlands, to impede the progress of the Spaniards, and, if possible, divert them from his place of refuge; but their efforts were in vain. They fought stubbornly, all the way from the sea to the foot-hills, and the few survivors then fled to the caverns in the cliffs. There they reported that the mailed soldiers carried everything before them; that they had destroyed the villages, burned, in the ruins of their humble dwellings, such of the women and children as they caught, and ended by hanging an old and greatly venerated caciquess named Higuanama, who was the titular ruler of Higuey. Following the example set them by Governor Ovando in the Xaragua country, the soldiers under Esquivel committed every sort of outrage upon the defenceless females and children, as well as upon the warriors taken in the field. They shut up all their captives, six or seven hundred in number, in one of the immense communal dwellings, and then set it on fire, stabbing with sword and poniard such as attempted to escape.

It was not from fear or cowardice, evidently, that Cotubanama had retreated to the mountains himself, leaving some of his people exposed to ravage in the lowlands; but the prudence of a commander who knew his loss would be irreparable. He afterwards made amends for this apparent cowardice by fighting various groups of Spaniards single-handed; but that was when, driven to bay, he battled in desperation for his very life. He had the sagacity to see that his naked warriors could not successfully encounter the mailed men of Spain in open conflict, nor even when given the advantage of deep forests and tangled thickets; so he despatched a messenger to sue for peace. This Indian was next to his chief in size and rank, exceedingly courageous, and of a bold and lofty demeanor. He undertook the mission reluctantly, and Cotubanama, suspicious that he might commit some rash act which would defeat his plans, sent also another messenger by a different path through the forest. It was well he did so, for his sub-chief, whether intentionally or not is unknown, met and attacked two Spanish cavaliers in a narrow pass, and, though they were mounted on horseback, and armed at every point, succeeded in getting possession of all their weapons. But when the fight was over, he had been pierced in many places by the swords and lances of his opponents, and, fierce and implacable to the last, fell dead at their feet. Such was the fierce resolution of the Higueyans, the last unconquered aborigines of Hispaniola. To a man, it is believed, they would have fought in defence of their country, had not Cotubanama, from motives of policy, asked for peace.

It suited Juan de Esquivel to cease from fighting, on the condition that such of the Indians as had been captured should be retained as slaves, and a vast acreage of land planted in maize for the support of the invaders. It may be recalled, by those familiar with the life of Columbus, that at one time the cacique of the royal Vega offered to sow the great plain, over a space extending from the mountains to the sea, with Indian-corn, or maize, in lieu of tribute, but that his oppressor refused the proffer. Famine ensued, owing to the scarcity of laborers in the field, and such Spaniards as survived starvation were impressed with the necessity of cultivating the soil, as well as digging beneath its surface for gold. Hence the proposition to Cotubanama, which the cacique accepted, in the name of his people, and a peace was declared.

Both Esquivel and Ponce de Leon were greatly taken with the stern and savage chieftain, whose giant frame commanded their admiration, and whose skill at shooting the cross-bow surprised them. They invited him to dine in their tent with them, and the commander exchanged names with him, thenceforth the Spaniard being called Cotubanama, and the Indian, Esquivel. Not long after, the cacique had occasion to invoke his Christian name, when in dire extremity; but without avail, for the Spaniards did not hold this ceremony in such estimation as the savages, with whom it meant perpetual fraternity and friendship.

A wooden fortress was erected near the sea, at a point commanding the channel between Hispaniola and Saona, of which a captain named Martin de Villaman was left in charge, with a handful of men. Considering the country pacified, Esquivel returned to Santo Domingo city, laden with spoil and followed by a long train of dejected captives. He must have been singularly constituted to imagine that Cotubanama would tamely submit to have his province despoiled and his people enslaved. In point of fact, the cacique had made a pretence of submission only, on account of being unprepared for war. If he had not contemplated a breach of the peace compact before Esquivel left Higuey, he soon had a pretext, in the licentious conduct of the Spaniards left behind as a garrison, who not only held the native women in slight regard, but shamefully mistreated them. Neither the daughters, sisters, nor even the wives, of the caciques were safe from their oppressions, and soon the subjects of Cotubanama rose in their might, destroyed the fortress, and slaughtered all the Spaniards save one, who escaped in a canoe and bore the frightful tidings to Santo Domingo.

Great was the rage and deep the indignation of Ovando, who sent for Esquivel and demanded that he get ready at once for a second invasion of Higuey. This time, in addition to the Spanish regulars, he had with him a large force of Indians, who, too unwarlike for soldiers, served as carriers of the luggage, and scouts. The governor adjured his lieutenant to show no mistaken lenity to Cotubanama and his people on this occasion. "Fire and sword! Fire and sword!" he exclaimed, angrily. "Burn them in their huts! Hang them from the ceibatrees! And to make the occupation permanent, leave there Juan Ponce, with sufficient force to quell any uprising—if any remain of the pestiferous heathen—for him I appoint adelantado of the province."

Juan Ponce did not regard his new appointment—which appears to have been his first promotion in many a year—with the favor that might have been expected; but it was a step in advance. He was no longer a common soldier, striving for an end that never came in sight; for, as ruler in prospective over a province as yet unconquered, he was elevated above the common herd of adventurers by this act of the governor. He placed his affairs in order without delay, and after kissing the hand of Ovando and thanking him for the honor, joined Esquivel at the head of his company. The historian Herrera says that Juan de Esquivel, in addition to being commander-in-chief, was captain of the soldiers from Santiago province, Juan Ponce of those from Santo Domingo, and Diego de Escobar of those from Concepcion de la Vega. In all there were about four hundred men, most of them veterans, accustomed to warfare with the Indians.

Ponce de Leon was profuse in his thanks to the governor, without a doubt; but he must have regretted leaving the vicinage of the insular court, where alone he found congenial society that reminded him of what he had known in far-away Spain. He had won and wedded, it is said, one of the noble dames who came out in Ovando's train, and a child had blessed their union, so it must have been hard to leave the home he had provided for them in the capital and march off to the wars again. He was married, it is true; but, so far as the world knows Juan Ponce de Leon, the romanticism that surrounds him is of another sort than that which centres about an affair of the heart, or of love. He appears ever the stern soldier, with his heart encased in an armor as impenetrable as that which protected his body.

May we not attempt to picture him, as he stands before his superior, Ovando, meekly receiving his commands? "Son Juan," the governor is saying, "I have taken thee from thy soldiering and made thee in effect adelantado (though without royal sanction), because I have perceived in thee a capacity for greater things. Thou hast wielded thy sword well, Son Juan; but, on reflection, what hast thou gained by all these years devoted to the wars? Except for occasional plunder, of which I can hardly believe thou hast much left, nothing hath it availed thee, and thou'rt now past forty years of age, with wife and child to think about. Thy family in Spain is a noble one; but thou—what hast thou done to perpetuate its glory?"

"Nay, do not blush"—as the swarthy cheek of the soldier crimsoned with shame—"thou'rt not the kind that looks beyond the present duty, which is enough for thee to know, letting the future care for itself. Hence, I have selected thee as my lieutenant, or, in fact, military governor, in this heathen province of Higuey, for I know that upon thee I can depend. The sole fault thou mayst be guilty of is leniency, which, let me impress upon thee, will be lost upon those children of Satan, misnamed by the Admiral, Columbus, my predecessor, 'Indios,' or natives of the Indies. Stretch their necks whene'er occasion offers, and crack their bones as pastime every morning, so thou wilt be respected by them as their master; else wilt thou regret that I, Nicolas de Ovando, have appointed thee military governor of Higuey and all contiguous country in the east."

Seldom had the grim governor unbent to such an extent as to tutear (or treat familiarly, by "theeing" and "thouing") his subordinate, Juan Ponce, mere captain of a company; but his extended speech on this occasion, as well as his action in conferring upon him this much-coveted position, showed that he took a kindly interest in the modest soldier. Covered with confusion, Juan Ponce seized the great man's hand and reiterated his thanks; then, as the governor's attitude once more stiffened into its accustomed rigidity, he bowed low, with helmet doffed, and backed himself out of the room.

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