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

The Valiant Exemplar


That great deeds and a broad field of action are not always commensurate is exemplified in the lives of the Ponces de Leon, Juan and Rodrigo, noteworthy names of a family famed in the annals of America and Spain. Of the two, doubtless the latter was the more distinguished in the land of his birth for bravery and military skill; but the former achieved a still wider celebrity by linking his name with the discovery of Florida and the search for the fountain of youth.

These two famous sons of Spain were not closely related, although they bore the same patronymic, as Juan came from an ancient family of Aragon, and Rodrigo from an equally ancient, and in the fifteenth century more flourishing, house of Andalusia, or the south of Spain. Both belonged to the hidalguia, or Spanish nobility; but the northern, or Aragon branch, was in decadence at the time Juan was born, in or about the year 1460, while the Andalusian was then rapidly approaching the zenith of its glory. This, indeed, culminated with the career of Rodrigo Ponce de Leon (born 1443, died 1492), who, while possessing vast territory in Spain, with scores of castles, towns, and villages, passed the greater part of his life in camp.

Soldiers were they both, trained almost from infancy in the profession of arms; but while Juan was still a page at the court of Pero Nunez de Guzman, Senor of Toral, Rodrigo could raise an army of his own retainers and vassals. For he was then the most illustrious of the Ponces, and, having in youth come into the ownership of title and estates, was well and widely known as the powerful Marquis of Cadiz. As his territory, at the time this story opens, lay contiguous to the region then occupied by the Moors, with whom for centuries the Spaniards had been engaged in deadly warfare, he had been, as it were, cradled beneath the canopies of tents, nurtured upon the traditions of his ancestors, and matured with Spain's seasoned veterans in the field. Thus it came to pass that he was regarded by the king and the queen, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, as their most doughty champion, defender of the faith, and implacable antagonist of the Mahometan Moors.

For more than seven centuries the Moors from Africa had held possession of some portion of the Iberian peninsula; but at the period in which Juan and Rodrigo Ponce de Leon appeared upon the scene they were restricted to a mountainous region bordering upon the Mediterranean Sea. A thousand years ago, indeed, the Mahometans had taken as their own the best part of Spain; they had even crossed the French frontier and threatened to invade all Europe. Turned about by the blows of Charles Martel, in that fierce battle of the year 732, the Saracens began their century-long retreat southward; but nearly five hundred years elapsed before their power was shattered on the field of Tolosa. After that the Spaniards gathered courage to attack the Moors at every opportunity; still, it was not till the end of the fifteenth century that they were practically driven from Spain. The refluent wave to Africa was a very long time in reaching its shores.

It remained for Isabella and Ferdinand to reap the reward of persistent effort by other sovereigns through the centuries preceding. They fell heirs to what had been accomplished, what had been garnered, what achieved by their predecessors, and by their union they welded together the chain of little kingdoms—of Spanish provinces—that stretched across the peninsula from the Mediterranean to Portugal's frontiers. Behind the retreating Moors the Spaniards erected impregnable barriers: one year they took and refortified a city, another a province, a mountain range, a river and its banks; but whatever was taken they held. Broader and broader became the region that lay north of the Moors, from which they were banished forever; narrower and narrower the territory that lay between it and the Mediterranean, until, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, they held only the Sierra Nevada and the country skirting it. But this territory comprised the most fertile, the most beautiful region of Spain, where the climate was perfect, the scenery perfection. Trickling rivulets from the Nevadas, or Snowy Mountains, fed sparkling streams that descended through picturesque valleys, nourishing an exuberant vegetation which supported a large population without toilsome effort on their part.

The Moors were still numerous in that portion of Spain to which the exigencies of war had driven their ancestors; they were yet fierce and warlike, and now and again, like hawks swooping from their aeries, they descended from their mountain valleys and ravished Christian territory. But they could make no head against the encroachments of the Spaniards, and were fortunate if they could hold what they had: the towns and villages embosomed within rock-walled valleys; cities like Loja and Granada, with beautiful mosques and teeming market-places; castles like the Alhambra, with its impregnable fortifications girdling the Hill of the Sun, that towered above the "city of the faithful" in Spain.

Within the Alhambra, at the opening of the year 1580, dwelt the powerful Moorish sovereign Muley Aben Hassan, who had succeeded to the throne in 1465. Granada was his capital, the glorious Alhambra his palace of delights, while his sway extended over six-score fortified cities and towns. Still, he was expected by the Christian sovereigns to pay them annual tribute, in default of which his territory was subject to invasion. He had not paid it, then, these many years; but only a few months before King Ferdinand had sent an embassy with a demand for the tribute, in money and captives, which was customary in the time of Muley's father, Ismael. The embassy was received with courtesy, and sumptuously entertained in the palace of the Alhambra, but when Muley Hassan heard the message he is said to have returned the haughty answer: "The kings of Granada who used to pay tribute to the Castilians are dead—tell your sovereigns. Our mints coin now nothing but lance-heads and scimitar-blades; but these are at their service!"

An armed truce had existed for years between the Spaniards and the Moors, but, as was perfectly apparent to both Mahometans and Christians, a crucial conflict in the very near future was inevitable. The insolent reply of the Moorish king rendered it so, even if existing conditions had not; but at the time King Ferdinand was unable to proceed against his mortal enemy, owing to a war with Portugal and dissensions in his kingdom. Muley Hassan was very well aware of this fact, else he might not have proceeded so far as, in effect, to throw the gauntlet at his rival's feet. It was too late to retreat, even though too early to begin a war; but he deliberately chose the dread alternative, and cast the die that determined his fate and doomed his people to destruction.

Taking advantage of King Ferdinand's preoccupation in Portugal, the wily Muley Hassan suddenly descended upon Zahara, a Spanish post on his western frontier. In itself, Zahara was not a very desirable acquisition; but its castle-fortress, perched as it was upon a great cliff overlooking a fertile stretch of Spanish territory, gave it vast strategic importance. One stormy winter's night, in Christmas week of 1481, a band of Moorish soldiery scaled the battlements and fell upon the unsuspecting garrison as if from the clouds. The long period of peace had rendered the Spaniards negligent, and the fierce tempest had driven the sentinels to shelter, so that the Moors took them entirely by surprise. Aroused from their slumbers by fiendish yells and war-cries, the soldiers of the garrison rushed to arms; but only to be cut down by Moorish scimitars, and in a short time the fortress was in possession of the foe. With its fall also fell the town of which it was the citadel, and the wretched inhabitants, assembled in the great square by call of trumpet, were quickly made captive, and at daybreak driven off in gangs to Granada. After garrisoning the fortress with his own soldiers, and placing it in a posture of defence, Muley Hassan returned to his capital, flushed with victory, and carrying an immense amount of spoil.

When King Ferdinand heard of this exploit his rage was great, his indignation intense; for, though he himself was merely biding the time to strike a telling blow at his adversary, he did not relish the idea of being forestalled. Still, the Moor had done for him what all his diplomacy had thus far failed to accomplish: he had united, at a stroke, the various factions of the Spanish nobility, who came pouring into camp with offers of immediate assistance.

Now, while the king believed in fighting fire with fire, as the Spanish proverb has it: Sacar fuego con otro fuego (quenching one fire with another)—he was not then in position to act. He was laying his plans for an invasion of Moorish territory on such a scale that, once undertaken, not merely detached outposts should be reduced, but eventually the entire kingdom. He was already assembling the forces of Spain for a siege that was eventually protracted over ten years' time, and he must necessarily proceed cautiously and slowly, taking one sure step at a time.

It was at this juncture, while the king was planning moves of magnitude on the martial chess-board, which he was fearful of deranging by a petty play, yet burning with a desire for revenge upon his foe for the taking of Zahara, that the Marquis of Cadiz came to the rescue. By a sudden foray into the enemy's territory, and by a feat of arms unsurpassed in any age for dash and gallantry, he relieved the situation by a slash of his sword, and gratified his sovereign's longing for revenge.

His dukedom comprised vast possessions in Andalusia contiguous to the Moorish provinces, and in his service he held many converted Moors as scouts, or adalides, who spied upon the movements of their countrymen and reported to their master what was going on. They informed him one day that if he wished to make reprisals upon Muley Hassan a golden opportunity offered in the surprising of Alhama, a town and fortress situated similarly to Zahara, near the frontier, and occupying cragged heights partially surrounded by a river. The valiant marquis desired nothing so much as a chance to signalize himself in the interests of his sovereigns, and at once, upon receipt of the information, despatched his trusty retainer, Ortega de Prado, a captain of escaladors, to survey the fortress and report upon the practicability of carrying it by storm. He did so one dark night, and returned with the report that Alhama was negligently guarded, and that its walls, though lofty and steep, could probably be scaled.

Then Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, Marquis of Cadiz, collected three thousand cavalry and four thousand infantry, nearly all his own retainers, and on a day in February, 1482, set out for Alhama. His troops were veterans, inured to war from their frequent encounters with the Moors. Upon being told that the object of the foray was the reduction of Alhama and the avenging of the Zaharenos, they demanded to be led at once to the assault. All were brave men, without fear of death; but the marquis would not needlessly expose them, so, although they could then see the town and fortress from their hiding-places in the sierra, he waited till the shades of night had fallen. Then they approached the castle on the crag, arriving near the base of which three hundred picked men were selected for its assault, while the main body of the army remained in ambush.

Two or three hours before daylight, Ortega de Prado and his thirty escaladors planted their ladders against the walls, and up the gallant three hundred clambered to the battlements. Over the parapet they poured, and had gained the portal to the citadel before they were discovered. As the Moorish soldiers came forth they were slaughtered without mercy, and soon the uproar within reached the army without, which joined in with loud shouts and the din of kettle-drum and trumpet. A postern-gate was thrown open by the brave Prado, and in rushed the Christians, led by the Marquis of Cadiz and the Adelantado of Andalusia.

The Moors fought valiantly, as heaps of slain attested, the Christian losses including two alcaldes and many followers; but all their spirited defence was in vain. Soon the castle was in possession of the Spaniards, and with it fell the town; though not until after a protracted defence, for it was also surrounded by high walls, which the Spaniards were compelled to scale by means of their ladders, and even then did not carry until after a breach had been opened by their artillery. After the walls were gained the Moors fought desperately from roof-tops, thresholds, and hearth-stones; for they knew no mercy would be shown them, and that all survivors, women and children as well as men, would be carried away as captives and immured in dungeons or sold as slaves. They were finally overcome, and while the groans of the wounded and laments of prisoners filled the air, the Spanish soldiery gave themselves up to the sacking of the town. Vast booty was obtained, consisting of gold and silver, cattle, horses, silks, grain, and honey; for Alhama was called the richest town in Muley Hassan's kingdom, and was a repository for rents and tribute-money.

Believing that town and castle were to be abandoned, the soldiery committed great destruction of portable property, and wasted provisions which they should have saved; but the marquis had no intention of loosing his hold on this erstwhile stronghold of the Moors.

"Nay, nay," he said. "God hath given the place into our hands. We have gained it with difficulty and bloodshed; it would be a stain upon our honor to abandon it through fear of imaginary dangers."

So preparations were made to hold both town and castle. The baggage of the army, which had been left on the bank of a river, was sent for, the breaches in the walls were repaired, and everything made ready for a siege; for the marquis well knew that Muley Hassan had received tidings of what had befallen his stronghold, and he knew, also, that the fiery Moor would lose no time in hastening hither with an army. Within three days, in truth, he was before the walls with fifty thousand horse and foot, and finding them impregnable, though his fanatical followers attempted to scale them again and again, he sat down for a siege until his artillery should arrive. The Christians within the walls had food enough, but little water, for the Moors succeeded in diverting a stream that ran through the town, and the besieged came near perishing from thirst.

Information of their perilous situation was conveyed by fleet messengers to the king and the queen, who were then at a distance from Andalusia; also to the several petty lords of the southern country, who, like the Marquis of Cadiz, could muster little armies of their own. At once there was a great commotion throughout all southern Spain, and the most energetic of the nobles was Don Juan de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia, equally powerful with the Marquis of Cadiz, but hitherto his deadly enemy. Won over by the Marquesa Ponce, who entreated him to go to her husband's assistance, he associated other cavaliers with him, and in a short time a large army was marching upon Alhama. Another army was being raised under the direct command of the king, and information of this coming to the ears of Muley Hassan, he exerted himself to the utmost to carry the castle by storm before the reinforcements should arrive.

His escaladors mounted the walls by hundreds, only to be thrown headlong back into the ravines; but by means of a secret passage some seventy fierce Africans gained access to the citadel before they were discovered and attacked by the garrison. A most desperate engagement ensued, but the Moors were finally overwhelmed by superior numbers and the last Moslem cut down. The banner of the prophet, which they had defended so valiantly, was then displayed from the ramparts, while seventy turbaned heads were thrown over the walls to dismay the besiegers.

At sight of the captured banner and the dissevered heads, Muley Hassan went wild with rage; but he was unable then to avenge his valiant followers, for close upon him now were pressing the forces of Medina Sidonia. Compelled to retreat, back to Granada he hastened, and into the castle poured Don Rodrigo's rescuers, ere the last Moorish banner had disappeared behind the hills. Thus Alhama, which was won by Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, and rescued by his life-long foe the Duke of Medina Sidonia, continued in Spanish possession and has ever since remained.

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