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

War with Agueybana


As the Indians pretended to the Spaniards that the death of their countryman was due to an accident, and as the latter had had no previous cause for suspicion against them, the affair was passed over without reparation being exacted. But dire were the consequences of this deed, for the Indians had at last discovered that their enemies were mortals like themselves, and feared no longer to attack them. The tidings traveled swiftly, until the island had been girdled with messengers and every sub-cacique informed. So long as it was practicable to carry the corpse of the unfortunate Spaniard, the Indians bore the hideous trophy from one tribe to another, and thus thousands were convinced that they had been deceived; the Spaniards were liars, and they were also mortal, vulnerable.

Cacique Agueybana laid his plans in secrecy, visiting in person every chieftain, and arranging, so far as human foresight could, for an uprising that should enclose the settlers within a ring of flame. He himself had a special grievance, and was not only to give the signal for the massacre, but wreak vengeance upon the man to whom he had been assigned in repartimiento, Don Cristoval de Sotomayor. This cavalier had kept on good terms with Juan Ponce, and by him had been made alcalde mayor, or chief judge, of the island, and given the very province in which King Agueybana lived.

That he, a king, should be assigned by another to another as a slave, with all his family and tribe companions in servitude, was at first so astounding to Agueybana that he could not understand it. Unlike his brother, the unsuspicious and generous Guaybana, he had mistrusted the Spaniards and held aloof, but had committed no crime, had instigated no reprisals, until this unwarranted deprivation of his liberty aroused his rage and urged him to revenge. Don Cristoval, who had been selected as the first victim, was an easy master; but that did not mitigate his offence in the eyes of the outraged cacique, whose ancestors had always been free and untrammeled forest-rangers, going and coming as they chose, without consent of anybody.

In the eyes of one of Agueybana's sisters, however, the gallant Sotomayor had found favor, for he was a noble cavalier, handsome and amiable, and, being unmarried, considered himself at liberty to contract an alliance with whatever dusky beauty he might fall in love with. Whatever his feelings towards Agueybana's sister, she was in love with him, and when she learned from her brother that Sotomayor's life was in danger, warned him to flee.

"Go, I beseech thee," she entreated her lover, "while there is yet time, for two days hence thou art marked to be slain! Thou dost not believe me? Then send some one of thy men disguised as an Indian, and let him listen to our warriors as they chant the areyto in the forest."

Don Cristoval laughed at her fears, but the princess was insistent; so he sent one of his men, stripped like an Indian and bedaubed with war-paint, to spy upon the conspirators, who met nightly in a forest not far from his house. The man performed the mission secretly, and, returning to Sotomayor, reported that he had seen hundreds of Indians in war-paint, assembled about a fire in the forest, where they had worked themselves into a fury by chanting the areyto, or ballad reciting the great deeds of their ancestors, and telling what they would do on the morrow.

Don Cristoval's fears were at last aroused, and he promised the princess to set out for Caparra in the morning, with a view to seeking assistance and protection. When morning came, however, he made the mistake of applying to Agueybana for Indians as guides and porters, thus betraying his plans to the cacique, who lost no time in laying an ambuscade. Accompanied by four or five Spaniards, like himself armed only with sword and buckler, Sotomayor strolled carelessly through the forest, with the Indian carriers before and behind him. There was only an obscure trail to guide the party, known solely to the Indians, who finally led the Spaniards into a dense thicket of tree-ferns bordering a deep ravine. Suddenly, out of the shades of the tropical forest whistled an arrow, followed by another and another. Then the shrill war-whoop struck upon Sotomayor's ears, and he found himself surrounded by a score or more of savage warriors. He had hardly time to draw his sword and stand upon the defensive, when, with a blow from his war-club, Agueybana felled him to the ground, where he was set upon by others and quickly despatched. His companions were served in the same manner, and then the exultant Indians returned to the village of Sotomayor, which they set on fire that night and destroyed, slaying the Spaniards within it as they were made visible by the light of the flames. A few Spaniards succeeded in escaping, and, under the lead of Diego de Salazar, made their way through the forests to Caparra, where they found wary Ponce de Leon securely intrenched within a castle of his own construction on a cliff. He had already been informed of the massacre by a Spaniard, who had been overtaken by Agueybana in the woods, wounded, and left for dead, but who escaped by climbing a tree, where he remained till night, when he evaded his foes and finally reached Caparra with the dismal tidings.

Governor Ponce was too old a soldier to risk a general engagement with the host of Indians then in the field, estimated at fifteen or twenty thousand; but he sent a small detachment in search of Sotomayor, perchance he might be alive, which arrived at the scene of massacre too late to render assistance. The unfortunate Don Cristoval was found stretched out upon the ground, in full armor, with the Indian princess bending over him, weeping and lamenting. He and his comrades were hastily buried; then the detachment hastened back to Caparra, fearing pursuit by the cacique, whose warriors, the weeping princess told the commander, were gathering by thousands.

The fortress of Caparra was now the goal of all the Spaniards in the island, and it was also the intention of Agueybana, his sister said, to converge his warriors there. From every direction came the fleeing Spaniards, for the preconcerted uprising had been successful, and not a village remained that had been founded by the white men. Agueybana and his warriors served the Spaniards as Ovando had the caciques of Anacaona, setting their houses on fire, and cutting them down as they attempted to escape. More than a hundred Spaniards were killed in this uprising, which was one of the very few massacres that, viewed from the Indians' stand-point, was a great success.

Beleaguered within his fortress of Caparra, Governor Juan Ponce viewed with apprehension the gathering hordes of Indians bent upon exterminating the strangers who had treated them so harshly. He was not alarmed, and, in point of fact, held the Indians in contempt, for his experience in Hispaniola had shown him that they could not combat the white men except when vastly superior in numbers. But there had been in Hispaniola no such cacique as Agueybana, except perhaps Caonabo and Cotubanama, who were at last overthrown. Juan Ponce had no doubt of his ability to eventually defeat the rash cacique who had destroyed his villages and killed his settlers; but first he needed reinforcements, and sent to Hispaniola for them by several messengers, meanwhile grimly holding his own in the fortress, with an occasional foray to keep the savages from making an assault in force.

In his youth, Juan Ponce had met and fought with foes who were so far superior to these poor savages in adroitness and strategy, that encountering their attacks and outwitting their plans was mere child's play. In his campaigns against the Moors of Granada he had become versed in stratagem and ambuscade, and he applied his knowledge with such good effect that at last the besiegers grew exceeding wary. Dividing his little force of scant a hundred men into three bodies, which he placed under experienced captains, he sent them outside the fort alternately, to harry the foe, to entice them to attack, and then take them by ambuscade; to mass them in some place where they could be cut down by a concentrated fire from the arquebuses. At last this unceasing warfare grew so distressing that Agueybana withdrew from around the fortress and encamped at a distance, where he could concert in peace his plans for destroying the Spaniards.

It was not long before reinforcements arrived from Hispaniola, and then the governor took the offensive, sallying forth at the head of his troops in search of the foe. With more than five thousand warriors at his command, Agueybana was carelessly reposing in fancied security, when the crafty old soldier, Juan Ponce, fell upon him like a thunderbolt. He had a hundred men, and had left another hundred in the fortress to care for the women and children. With his centurions compacted like a living wedge, Governor Ponce split the Indian army in twain, and committed such slaughter that the survivors fled in wild dismay. Against the armor worn by the Spaniards, darts and arrows sent by the savages had no effect, and scarcely a man of Ponce's force was wounded, while hundreds went down before that phalanx in its panoply of steel.

Agueybana had imagined the Spaniards few in number, since so many had been massacred, and was prone to believe that, notwithstanding the evidence presented to the contrary, in the experiment conducted by Cacique Brayoan, they might be immortal, after all. The reinforcements had come without his knowledge, and he was taken unawares; but by no means dismayed, he resolved upon one last attempt to free his native land from the invaders. He sent to all the inferior caciques of Boriquen a command to assemble in his province of Mayaguez, and such a multitude responded that the Spaniards, when they saw them, were all but dismayed. Juan Ponce got news of their coming, and set out to meet them with his handful of men, but at sight of the vast army opposed to him, hesitated to attack in the open, and threw up a temporary fortification. There he awaited Agueybana, who, goaded to desperation by the thought that his enemy might escape in the darkness of night, then approaching, led his warriors in an assault as the sun went down.

Knowing how much depended upon depriving the Indians of their fighting head, or commander, Ponce de Leon cautioned his men to concentrate their fire upon the chief. The tall form of Agueybana was conspicuous, for he was a head higher than the average of his warriors, and in his mane of coarse black hair he wore a snow-white heron's plume. Calling an arquebusier to his side, the governor told him to have his matchlock ready to fire at the word from him. He was a sturdy soldier and the best shot in the army. Soon the surging sea of warriors covered the plain and broke against the frail fortification behind which the Spaniards were crowded, elbow to elbow. They were impatient to burst their bounds and attack the savages with sword and lance, but Juan Ponce restrained them.

"Nay," he said. "Wait till I give the word. First we must slay the chief; then the dispersing of this rabble will be an easy matter." He spoke calmly, his voice deep-toned and clear, so that all heard him, even above the roar of Indian drums, the shrill blasts of conch-shells, and the yells from a thousand throats.

At last Juan Ponce saw what he was looking for: a white heron plume dancing above the swarthy brow of Agueybana. The warriors had surrounded the fortification by this time, so that it was like an island in an ocean, but foremost of them all was the cacique. Ponce de Leon 'plucked his musketeer by the arm. "See, there he is," he said. "A hundred ducats for thee if thy shot be true." Resting his arquebus upon the top-most log of the barricade, the soldier calmly aimed his piece and deliberately applied the match. As the cacique was in rapid motion, and constantly shortening the distance that separated him from the marksman, the aiming of the arquebus required a cool head and practised eye. The arquebusier had both, as he soon showed, for immediately the flame shot forth Agueybana was seen to leap into the air, clutch frantically at his hair, then fall to earth.

"He hath it! He hath it!" shouted Juan Ponce, exultantly. "The chief is slain. Out, now, my gallant men, and at the savages with lance and sword!" The soldiers needed no second call, even as the warriors needed no spur to urge them to retreat when the tidings spread that their chief was dead. With howls and yells they swerved aside from the fortification, broke, and fled tumultuously, pursued by the Spaniards, at whose head was their veteran commander shouting like a madman.

Juan Ponce was at that time just fifty years of age, his sword-arm was as sinewy, his frame as robust, and his actions prompt and agile as when he was a youth and fought the Moors. He was a veteran by reason of experience, but not in years, he felt. His nature was hopeful, his plans far-reaching, and he set himself the task of reducing the island to subjection as blithely as if he were half of fifty years old rather than half a century.

The killing of Agueybana had broken the back of the war, and thereafter no great resistance was offered to the Spaniards. The natives of Porto Rico were by nature mild and peace-loving, like those of Hispaniola; but by having been subjected to the assaults of the fierce Caribs during many years, they had become hardy and warlike. Those cannibal sea-rovers had harassed them constantly, coming up from the southern islands in their war-canoes, ravaging the beautiful valleys, burning their huts, killing their warriors, and carrying away their women and children as victims for sacrificial feasts. But, as already remarked, the Spaniards were far worse than the cannibals, for while the acts of the latter were sometimes tempered with mercy, while they sometimes intermarried with the Boriquenos and joined their communities, the former were ever aliens and oppressors. The result of the invasion begun by Juan Ponce de Leon—the ultimate result, and it was not delayed many score years—was extermination. No descendant of that race discovered in Boriquen by Columbus; no descendant of that race found by him in Hispaniola—though it numbered millions in both islands—lives on earth to-day.

After their second defeat the Indians retired to their homes, and the Spaniards finally enslaved them all, the process having been initiated by the cavalier whose fortunes we are following, Juan Ponce de Leon.

Slaves meant wealth, for they could be sold in Spain (notwithstanding laws and sentiment against the practice), and they were made to labor on the plantations, raising maize and yucca, eventually sugar-cane and coffee, so that the Spaniards became enriched thereby. As Juan Ponce was the first in authority to enslave the natives and profit by their labors—as to him was brought all the plunder for division between himself, the king, and his soldiers—within two years of his arrival in Boriquen he had amassed a princely fortune.

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