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

Seeking the Man-Eaters


"Furthermore, one Johannes Pontius [John Ponce] was sente foorthe with three shyppes to destroye ye Canibales, bothe in the lande [mainland, 'terra firma'] and Ilandes thereaboute; as well that the nations of the more humane and innocente people maye at the lengthe lyve without feare of that pestiferous generation, as also the better and more safely to search the secretes and rychesse of those regions."

In these words the ancient chronicler sets forth the expedition of John Ponce de Leon for the subjugation and enslaving of the Caribs, or cannibals, Indians who lived in the small islands south of Boriquen, between it and the coast of South America. Our hero had gone to Spain for permission from the king to conquer and settle the country he had discovered, which lay to the north-west of Boriquen, and this had been granted willingly; but, as an after-thought, Ferdinand had made the proviso that he should first attack, and if possible bring to terms, the fierce Caribs who so often ravaged the islands lying to the north of their abodes. This stipulation was not at all to the liking of Juan Ponce, though it was probably the result of his own representations to the crown respecting the cannibals, who, having been placed by the sovereigns beyond the pale of mercy, could be enslaved and made objects of traffic, on account of their reputation as devourers of human flesh.

Whether he relished the prospect of a Carib campaign or not, he was committed to it beyond peradventure, and instead of sailing direct to Porto Rico, on his return to home and castle at San Juan, he was obliged to make a long detour to the southward, following the route taken by Columbus on his second voyage.

He entered upon preparation for the voyage most reluctantly, as appears, for several months went by before he "beat up" for recruits, or made known his desire for settlers to accompany him to Florida. When he did so, at last, his proffers were not responded to with alacrity, for few there were who desired to take that roundabout voyage to Florida and the Bahamas, by way of the Caribbee Islands.

Another reason may have operated upon Juan Ponce to protract his stay in Spain, and this was a very natural reluctance to leaving the land of his birth, where his family was held in such great esteem and he himself so highly honored, and launch upon another venture, the labors of which might, and probably would, be greatly in excess of its rewards. Although he had passed twenty years, in conflict with Indians and with the varied forces of nature, in a region which was itself inimical to man's well-being, he had not become so seasoned to toil and dangers that he could not highly appreciate the relaxations of his life at court and as the guest of Spain's great men, all of whom were glad to honor him. He met and may have been entertained by the erudite Ximenes, cardinal, and commander of forces that had won success in war. The cardinal's great victory over the Moslems of Oran, north coast of Africa, was accomplished by the warlike prelate in the very year that Ponce de Leon invaded Boriquen, and it would be strange if each had not heard of and admired the prowess of the other.

There was still another whom Juan Ponce could not have failed to meet, since both were in Spain at the same time, and this was Gonsalvo de Cordova, el Gran Capitan, or the Great Captain, of the Italian wars. He was then living sumptuously, but in retirement and out of favor with the king, at his castle of Loja, province of Granada. This hero of the wars with the Moors, and especially in Italy, could have told the humbler conqueror something respecting the inconstancy of Ferdinand's favor had he been disposed to do so—and that he was so disposed, no one who has read his history can doubt, for he had no fear of the king and very little regard for him. But it was not on account of mistrust of the king that Ponce de Leon hesitated about embarking, so much as lack of means for purchasing the fleet's equipment.

When at last he set sail from Spain he bade farewell forever not only to Spain's Catholic sovereign, but to its great captain and its great cardinal as well, for all died within three years of his visit. Gonsalvo went first on the last great journey, departing in December, 1515, and Ferdinand in January, 1516. "Since Ferdinand ascended the throne," wrote his biographer, he had seen no less than four kings of England, as many of France, and also of Naples, three of Portugal, two German emperors, and half a dozen popes. As to his own subjects, scarcely one of all those familiar to the reader in the course of our history now survived, except, indeed, the Nestor of his time, the octogenarian Ximenes." The cardinal, however, did not linger long behind his master, for his death took place in November, 1517.

Juan Ponce de Leon outlived them all; and though at that period he was relatively obscure, and had achieved no great, wide-spread renown, his name is now regarded as hardly secondary to that of the Great Captain, whose fame is more to his countrymen than to the world at large.

It was in January, 1515, that Ponce de Leon sailed on his expedition to the Caribbee Islands, with instructions first to assail the insular marauders, overcome them, destroy their villages and canoes, and then proceed to do the same to those of Terra Firma, on the north coast of South America, between Cape de la Vela and Cartagena. He steered a straight course for the island of Guacana, which was renamed Guadalupe by Columbus, who had discovered it on his second voyage, in 1493.

The Indians of the Lesser Antilles, as the Carib archipelago is sometimes called, were probably distantly related to the fierce Guajiras of the main, or Terra Firma, but there may have been no connection between them for hundreds of years. So far as the evidence afforded by relics and traditions informs us, the savages who then inhabited the Caribbees had come from the south, from the Orinoco country of Venezuela and the wilds of Guiana. Just when they left their native region and invaded the volcanic islands which form a connecting chain between Porto Rico and Trinidad, off the Orinoco's mouths, is not known, but it was at a time far distant in the misty past.

They had been so long there at the time Columbus discovered the islands that no vestige remained of the original inhabitants, who are supposed to have been Arawaks. No vestige, that is, save traces of the language they spoke, and half-breed descendants resulting from the marriage of the females of the Arawak tribe with the Carib warriors. For, while the invading Caribs, it is said, killed all the adult males and old women, they spared the marriageable females and the children of either sex. The boys were saved to become warriors, and trained so carefully that, after arriving at an age permitting them to hold the bow and shoot an arrow, they were not allowed anything to eat unless they had first shot it from a tree in which it was suspended. Thus they became most expert bowmen, and made no little trouble for Juan Ponce, as we shall find further on in this narrative. Conclusive and pathetic testimony as to the Caribs' barbarous custom of murdering their male enemies and preserving the females is found even to-day among their descendants, for some of the women have a speech different from that of the men and the tribe in general.

When Columbus, in 1493, arrived at Dominica, an island about midway the arc of the chain, he found, as reported by the chroniclers, positive evidence that the Caribs were cannibals, in the presence of human bones hanging up in their huts and human flesh cooking in a vessel over a fire. Some writers have since claimed that these bones suspended from the roof-trees of the huts were the revered remains of their ancestors—for that custom of preserving the departed prevails to-day in Guiana, the country from which they emigrated. And the flesh cooking over the fires was not that of human beings, but of the iguana and aguti, the first a lizard with very white and tender meat, and the second a small quadruped something like a hare.

But it served the humor of Columbus at that time to declare these newly discovered people cannibals—a word, by-the-way, derived from their own language, in which it is cannibal. It served his purpose to do so, because his sovereigns had declared all anthropophagi  to be exempt from the restrictions they had placed upon the enslaving of other Indians, and subject to perpetual captivity. Columbus knew that there would be a demand for slaves to work the mines, perform menial labor, and cultivate the plantations, and, with an eye to the future, proclaimed these people just what he desired them to be. He purposed returning, some time in the near future, to capture all he could of these anthropophagi, so conveniently located on the southern route from Hispaniola to Spain, and fill his ships with slaves.

That he did not carry out his benevolent intention was owing to several insuperable obstacles to the plan, but not to his lack of good-will. In the first place, the Caribs themselves strenuously objected to his scheme, and fought every assailing party with such demoniac fury that the Spaniards found it better to leave them alone than to attempt the capture of savages like these, who resisted to the death, or, if wounded and taken alive, refused to labor for their captors when carried to Spain. In the second place, Columbus found it difficult to return thither, after the founding of a settlement in Hispaniola, and far easier to declare the weak and inoffensive natives of that island infected with the taint of cannibalism, and thus subject to the imposition of slavery, than to direct his energies against the Caribs.

To their weak and generous natures the Indians of the larger northern islands, as Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica, owed their eventual extermination; for the brutal Spaniards, though they found millions inhabiting there, in a few years swept them from the face of the earth. Las Casas, writing of conditions in his lifetime, declares that while there were, at the beginning of the Spanish invasion, nearly three millions of natives in the islands, at that time not more than two hundred remained in Hispaniola.'

But the more vigorous and ferocious Caribs successfully repulsed every attempted invasion of their domain (including that of Ponce de Leon, which soon will be described), and maintained themselves in their strongholds until the Spaniards themselves were driven out and were succeeded by the English and French. To this invincible spirit is due their preservation as a people to-day; and though only a vestige remains of that people, owing to the ravages committed by volcanic outbursts and ardent spirits, this is more than may be said of the Arawaks of the Greater Antilles.

While Ponce de Leon is sailing towards the Caribbees, wholly unaware of the warm reception awaiting him there, but (according to the historian) indulging in gratifying anticipations of an easy conquest and rich spoils, let us avail ourselves of the knowledge since gained of the Caribs and bestow upon them the attention due a little-known yet peculiar people. They came into the Caribbees (those islands which now perpetuate their tribal name) from South America, but as to their remote origin, they had a tradition to the effect that they dropped into Guiana from sky-land, through a hole in the clouds. There dwelled their great father, whom they knew as Tamosi, or "The Ancient One" ("The Ancient of Days"). They knew but one god, Tamosi, and did not believe in a spiritual hierarchy, though firmly convinced of the existence on earth of good as well as evil spirits. The former they did not regard, but the latter they sought to propitiate by gifts of game, fruits, flowers, and the feathers of the birds they killed with their arrows, or caught by means of bird-lime made from wild-fig juices. There were two principal spirits, they said, the chief of which was Mabouya, or the forest sprite, and another called Oumekou, which lived by the sea-shore. They took Mabouya with them on the hunt, and Oumekou when they made excursions among the islands in their war-canoes; but neither, as they admitted to the Christians, could protect them from the ouragan, or hurricane, which frequently devastated their country and destroyed their homes.

But for the ouragan, the Caribbees were like isles of paradise, replete with everything attractive to the senses, and typical of the happy land where they would dwell after life on earth had ceased, with placid streams in which to swim unwearied, and orchards of delicious fruits. They believed, with the Moslems, that the most valiant warriors would there be waited on by houris, beautiful beyond compare; and from the fact that they declared they were to be Arawak slaves, the opinion is derived that these Indians were held in high esteem.

As to their souls, they said, there were as many as they could feel beatings of the arteries in their bodies, besides the principal one, which was in the heart, and went to heaven with its god, who carried it thither to live with other gods. "For they do not think the soul to be so far immaterial as to be invisible; but they affirm it to be subtile, and of thin substance, as a purified body; and they have but the same word to signify heart and souls," notes one who visited the Caribs more than two hundred years ago.

And he continues, in confirmation of what has been observed by the author of this biography (who once resided with the descendants of these people): "The Caribs have an ancient and natural language, such as is peculiar to them, and also a bastard speech, with foreign words, chiefly Spanish, intermixed. Among themselves they always use the natural language, but in conversing with Christians the bastard speech. And the women [as has been mentioned] also have a different speech from the men."

"Both men and women are naturally chaste, and when those of other nations looked at them curiously, and laughed at their nakedness, they were wont to say, 'You are to look on us only between the eyes.' For they go stark naked, men and women and children, and though the Christians have conversed very much among them, yet have all their persuasions to induce them to cover themselves been to no purpose. They believed they were perfectly dressed, however, if they merely changed their natural color by dyeing their bodies with roucou, which makes them red all over; but on great occasions they wore scarfs and girdles of feathers."

These were the Indians whom Juan Ponce was sailing to subdue—if possible to enslave—with his three ships-of-war, hundreds of soldiers, and weapons far superior to their own.

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