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

Invasion of Porto Rico


How long Juan Ponce de Leon would have been satisfied with the quiet, uneventful life of a provincial governor in Higuey it is difficult to say, though, as already hinted, he seemed quite contented. The months lengthened into years, and still peace prevailed in the province, which was so quiet, and so far distant from the capital, that Governor Ovando almost forgot its existence. Now and again, to be sure, he would say to Juan de Esquivel, in a grimly jocular way:. "What news from the adelantado? Methinks he must have found treasure, which he desires to keep secret from us; else why should he not more frequently communicate?"

Juan Ponce had found a treasure—the treasure of content, the like of which would never be known to Ovando, nor to Esquivel, for they had too many stains of murder on their souls. He and his military family lived apart from others, on the hill of Alta Gracia, or Highest Thanks, whence they could sweep their gaze over a broad and beautiful landscape, bounded north and south by mountains, west by hills, and east by the watery horizon of the Mona Channel. Above this eastern horizon, hanging in the sky like blue and misty clouds, entrancing in their loveliness, rose the mountains of Boriquen, or Porto Rico, an island which had been known to the Spaniards for years, but had never been explored. On his second voyage, in 1493, Don Christopher Columbus, coming up from the islands of the Caribbees, first espied the mountain-tops of Boriquen. As he approached them the exquisite contours were revealed that have charmed many voyagers since: conical peaks, rounded hills, curves and crescents, melting into fair and verdant valleys, clothed in the wondrous vegetation of the tropics.

Columbus was then in the heyday of his career, for he never again commanded so large a fleet, never again sailed in the society of cavaliers so exalted in rank as those who accompanied him on that second voyage to the West Indies in 1493. He was then on his way back to Hispaniola, where he had left forty men in a fortress, on the north coast of the island. Never a soul of the forty did he find alive (by-the-way, let it be said), for all were massacred by the cacique to whom we have already alluded in these pages—Caonabo the Carib, Lord of the Golden House. But the admiral, as Columbus was then entitled to be called, did not know of this disaster. His gallant fleet swept on, coasting the southern shores of Boriquen, and all on board, filled with hopes of fortunes awaiting them in the islands, exclaimed with delight at the beauty of this insular paradise.

Sweeping around the southwestern point of the island, the fleet was finally brought to anchor in a large and beautiful bay, now known as Aguadilla, near the northwestern extremity of Boriquen. Here a broad beach was discovered, near which, gushing like a fountain from a natural basin surrounded by tropical vegetation, was a spring of purest water. This place Columbus called Aguada, or the watering-place, because he availed himself of the abundant supply, in close proximity to the shore, to water his ships.

Upon the island itself he bestowed the name of San Juan, and the beauty of the bay so impressed him that he called it the Rich Port, from which we have San Juan de Puerto Rico, or Saint John of the Beautiful Port. The proper spelling of the name is Puerto Rico, and not Porto, which is Portuguese, or bastard English, but not Spanish, though recent usage seems to sanction it.

The Indian name of the island was Boriquen (latterly by the islanders called Borinquen); but of the aborigines Columbus seems to have seen few, if any, for he did not tarry to trade with them, but sailed for Hispaniola as soon as his ships were watered from the forest fountain. He never returned to the island, and it escaped the attention of others until about the year 1508, when its misty mountains beckoned to Juan Ponce de Leon, then governor of Higuey and residing at Alta Gracia. One day, in the summer of 1508, his major-domo came to him with an Indian who had crossed the channel, or Mona Passage, from Boriquen, in a canoe. "Senor Adelantado," he said, "here is a Boriqueno who has something for barter which looks to me like gold. He did not procure it in this island, but in that from which he came, and he says that there is much more—that the river sands are full of it, in fact."

The Boriqueno, or native of Boriquen, was closely questioned by Juan Ponce as to the auriferous locality, and in answer pointed to the distant mountains. He had a pebble veined with gold, and some grains of goodly size, which he said he obtained from the sands of a river called the Zebuco. These specimens he generously offered to the adelantado, and the latter accepted them, giving him in exchange some cascabels, which tinkling trinkets appeared to please him more than the gold. Asked if he would guide the Spaniards to the river containing the gold, the simple Indian said that he was willing, but that he must first obtain the consent of his cacique, whose name was Guaybana. He was sure, however, that this consent would not be withheld, for the cacique was anxious to become acquainted with the white men, of whose presence in Quisqueya (Hispaniola) he had heard, and whose ships he had seen sail past his island.

The adelantado was no longer content to dwell in his province of Higuey, for the mountains of Boriquen, with their golden-sanded rivers, seemed to offer him the fortune which thus far he had failed to accumulate. They pertained, moreover, to a large and presumably fertile island which had not yet come under Spanish domination, and why should not he be the first to seize upon and govern it, in the name of the king? He detained the Indian until a caravel could be made ready, and, with several trusty companions and an interpreter, set out from a small natural harbor near Cape Engano for the bay of Aguadilla. The channel between the islands, known as the Mona Passage, was about fifty miles across, and by leaving at dusk the party of explorers reached Aguadilla at daybreak next morning. The Boriqueno's canoe had been taken along as a tender and the Indian himself as a guide; so the one served to bear the caravel's passengers through the surf to the beach, after the larger craft was anchored, and the other as master of ceremonies at the court of Guaybana.

The Indian cacique was more than a mere chief—he was a sovereign, ruling the whole island, and to him several other chiefs were tributary. When Columbus had visited the island he abandoned the coast at first view of the strangers, and hid himself in the forests, probably alarmed at the size of the fleet and number of people aboard it; but on the arrival of Juan Ponce, with a single small vessel, and accompanied by but a few armed men, he was found readily accessible. The Indian guide conducted the adelantado to a forest-covered hill, from the base of which the sparkling waters of the spring gushed forth, and there the residence, or bohio, of the cacique was found, beneath the spreading branches of an immense silk-cotton tree. Guaybana was reclining in a hammock, and around him were his wives and children, all vying in attentions to the King of Boriquen.

At a little distance were the dwellings of his subjects, on the verge of the forest, with well-cultivated gardens stretching to the bay. At the approach of the Spaniards the cacique rose and saluted them with a gesture, while his attendants fell apart and allowed them to come near him. He was naked, except for a cotton cloth around his loins; yet he bore himself with dignity and composure, as he received Ponce de Leon in full minor, with sword clanking at his side. A most imposing figure the adelantado made, with helm and corselet, greaves, and gauntlets, all of shining steel. The cacique and his attendants were lost in admiration of his resplendent presence, and the Indian maids, of whom there were many, shapely and comely, clasped their hands and gazed at him awe-stricken. They believed him descended from the heavens—a celestial being—and murmured beneath their breath: "Cemi!  a God who has come from the sky.

They were aroused from their stupor by a command from Guaybana, and promptly scattered in various directions. Some swept the mud floor of the bohio with brooms of twigs, others spread wild banana leaves on the ground, upon them placing piles of native fruits and vegetables, raw as well as cooked, while others still came from their storage-places in the forest with great calabashes full of chicha, and wine extracted from the sap of the palm-tree. The repast was quickly spread; at a signal from the king the attendants fell back, while host and guest entered the bohio and seated themselves upon heaps of palm leaves arranged around the food so plentifully provided.

Guaybana had several wives, but nevertheless was obedient to his mother, a very handsome woman, whose daughters resembled her, being very comely and amiable. One of these fair princesses she would fain have bestowed upon Juan Ponce, as a pledge of their amity; but the soldier informed her, as well as he could through the Indian interpreter, that he already had a wife in Hispaniola, who would be displeased, and therefore he must decline the honor, though with thanks.

Silence reigned during the repast, but after it was over conversation was conducted through the interpreters, and the king exchanged names with his guest, in token of friendship. Nothing could exceed his hospitality, and in his desire to please Juan Ponce he took him nearly all over the island. Accompanied by a retinue of warriors, the two penetrated to the interior, where the mighty Luquillo mountain rises far above the general altitude of the range; they inspected vast fields of maize and yucca, filling fertile valleys; and finally, as the king came to understand that the greatest desire of his guest was to obtain gold, he took him to the auriferous streams.

It had been a hard task for elderly and corpulent Juan Ponce to accompany the king in his tour of inspection while wearing his armor, beneath the ardent rays of a tropical sun. One by one he shed the various pieces of his coat-of-mail, until at last he was divested of it almost entirely. Then, as compared with the athletic cacique, he shrank into something like insignificance, and the Indian maidens no longer likened him to their gods.

All his toils, however, and all the implied disparagement of his high qualities, he willingly endured, on account of the shining treasure hidden in the sands of the rivers, for it was incalculable, he believed, and inexhaustible. From two of the mountain streams, the Zebuco and the Manatuabon, he and his companions took gold, in grains and nuggets, in such quantities that they danced for joy on beholding it. Their actions greatly amused King Guaybana, who stood by, looking on with a smile; but if he had realized what he was doing in holding out this golden lure to the Spaniards, he would surely have killed them on the spot. They were wholly in his power; they were even then scheming to invade his island with a force sufficient for its subjugation; but he allowed Juan Ponce to depart unharmed, with all the gold he had found in the streams, while his companions remained to await his return.

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