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

The Fount of Perennial Youth


While Juan Ponce de Leon was building his castle—imagining, perhaps, that here he would rule and rest during the remainder of his days—something occurred which seriously interfered with his plans. In a word, his erstwhile comrades and one-time superiors, Juan Ceron and Miguel Diaz, came back to Boriquen, with power to supersede him as governor and commander of the forces. They came direct from Spain, by command of the king, who finally acknowledged that he had infringed the rights of Don Diego Columbus in appointing Ponce de Leon as governor, and took this method of making restitution.

Juan Ponce had been hasty, ill-advised in sending Ceron and Diaz home as prisoners to Spain, for their arrival there had excited the sympathy of the court and provoked inquiry into the respective rights of the claimants. The governor was found to be wholly in the wrong, but, inasmuch as he had by that time accomplished the subjugation of the island, and sent to the home country a large amount of gold and other spoil, the king was well satisfied with what he had done, and cautioned his envoys not to disturb him in the possession of whatever property he might have accumulated, whether in Indians, lands, or gold. To mollify the choleric old soldier, they carried him a letter, written by the royal hand, in which the king assured him that he had done this merely as an act of justice towards Diaz and Ceron, without reflecting in any manner upon his conduct as military commander or governor.

Juan Ponce surrendered the government with what grace he could, giving into the hands of Diaz and Ceron all the properties pertaining to the crown, but reserving for himself such as he chose to consider his own. He then had vast landed estates, bands of Indians in repartimiento, a large accumulation of gold gleaned from the streams of Boriquen, and his castle, so he should have been content. Whether content or not (and in passing we may remark that it was not in his nature to be so), he was willing to be relieved of the cares of government for a while. He had, in fact, an idea that there still remained new worlds to be discovered, new islands—perchance continents—to conquer, and, like the restless soldier that he was, yearned to go away on ventures new.

Let us review, in a single paragraph, what had been accomplished by Spain at that time, in the way of discovery, since the sailing of Columbus from Palos in August, 1492. He himself had brought to light the islands of the West Indies and the eastern coast of Central America; Vespucci, Pinzon, and Solis had extended the line of discovery southward along the east coast of South America; Ojeda, Cosa, Bastidas, Nicuesa, and others had connected the discoveries of Columbus on his third voyage with those of his fourth, and completed the survey of the continental coast line from Yucatan to the Orinoco; but as yet no great extent of interior had been penetrated, except in Darien.

Strangest of all, the great peninsula now called Florida was still unknown, unless, indeed, it had been coasted by the Cabots, coming down from Labrador in 1497 or 1498. If Columbus had not changed his course when on his first voyage, he would have landed on its coast instead of in the Bahamas. Ocampo, when in 1508 he circumnavigated Cuba, seems not to have heard of the peninsula, within less than a hundred miles of which he must have sailed. Three years later, Velasquez subjugates the island, sailing partly around it, and marching across it at various points; but does not learn of Florida. The natives must have known of it, however, as the Indians of Cuba sometimes made voyages longer than the distance across the Florida channel between the north coast and the keys.

The Caribs from the Lesser Antilles, lying between Boriquen and Trinidad, off the Orinoco, performed longer voyages in their war-canoes, and in some of their excursions are said to have traversed the entire length of the Bahama archipelago, returning with strange tales of the islands and people they had seen. As some of them had halted at Boriquen on their return, and some had settled there, these tales had become traditionary with the natives, who repeated them to the Spaniards. Thus it had come about that Ponce de Leon heard of them, and one day there was brought to him a Carib woman from the hills of Luquillo, who related the story of a war-canoe that left for a voyage to the northern islands and never returned. The Caribs who sailed it were kinsmen of hers, who, having heard of an island containing a wonderful fountain, the waters of which had the power of restoring youth to aged people, went off in search of it. As they never came back, she reasoned, they must have found the fountain of rejuvenescence, for they were valorous braves and skilful sailors, who could not have been detained against their will by man or tempest.


Routes of the Dicoverers.

The governor questioned the woman closely, and found her firm in the belief that there was a wonderful island filled with rare delights, wherein was a spring that gushed forth in an unfailing stream, to bathe in which was to receive the gift of perennial youth. It was called, she said, Bimini, and was far north in the chain of islands now known as the Bahamas. She thought she could guide the governor to it, because she had often heard her kinsmen discuss the island and the way thither. It was as vividly pictured in her brain as her own bohio and the path that led to it from the highway.

As for going thither, she answered, when questioned by the governor, now that she was old it mattered not where she dwelled, whether on land or on ocean, and she was at the master's service. For the fountain she cared not, since her life had been a hard one, her troubles many, and she was oppressed by the manifold burdens of existence.

She was called a Carib, though born in Boriquen, having been captured in her youth by the cannibals and taken to their island of Turuqueira, or Guadelupe, where she was espoused by a warrior of the tribe. Her tales of the beauty and fertility of Boriquen appealed to the warrior, and he took advantage of the first expedition northward to remove thither. Children were born to them, but they were lost to her now, having been enslaved; her husband had long before tired of her and the island, and gone back to the cannibal isles; thus, having nobody to live for, or to take care of her in old age, she may well have said that one place was as good as another. By this she meant there were no tender ties that bound her to Boriquen, all her family having disappeared, being absent if not dead, and her home a mere hut of reeds that the first hurricane might utterly destroy.

By the governor's command, the vieja, as she was called—being a woman past the prime of life, though not "old," as this name would imply—was taken to the servants' quarters in the castle and provided with food. She was detained there, though not against her will, until the governor should decide upon the course to pursue in respect to an exploration northward. Rumors of the existence of Bimini and the spring of perennial youth had reached his ears before, but being vague they had not impressed him like this story of the Carib, for she could guide him thither. War-worn veteran that he was, with wealth at his command sufficient for many years to come, he desired now a prolonged rest from his labors; and if he could renew in his exhausted frame the vigor of youth, how much it would mean to him! Doubtless, however, Ponce de Leon proceeded under the impulse of a number of motives, and not solely for the purpose of discovering the Fountain of Youth, when at last he concluded to make a voyage through the Bahama chain and see what there was beyond it.

There was, he believed, still a "third world" to discover, and mayhap he might be the fortunate man. Since the time that Don Christopher Columbus had sailed through the archipelago about midway its length, in 1492, no explorations had been made there. The man-hunters of Hispaniola had made hasty visits to get slaves for the mines, and had nearly depopulated several islands; but they had touched only at the southernmost. He, then, being now at liberty to do as he liked, and with unbounded wealth at command, would equip an expedition for seeking out what lay beyond the misty barrier.

This was the conclusion Ponce de Leon came to, after thinking the matter over, and repeatedly interrogating the vieja, whose stories were ever the same. There was an island in the northwest Bahamas, she said, abounding in everything that man most desired, including gold and delicious fruits; and in the centre of the island was a spring of purest water, to bathe in which would make one young and handsome again. This story she reiterated, until at last Governor Ponce became convinced of her faith in it, if not of its truth.

There were then three caravels in port, which had come from Spain with supplies for the army. They were at his disposal, if not owned by him, so he gave orders for fitting them out for a voyage. When it became noised about that the veteran Juan Ponce was to set forth on a voyage of discovery, he had no lack of applicants for the cruise. His own retainers were sufficiently numerous to fill three vessels the size of those caravels, and it seemed that every Spaniard in Boriquen desired to accompany him. They were not all old men, either, who wished to make the voyage for the purpose merely of renewing their youth; but most of them were young and able, who had no thought of aught but the gold to be found, and the adventures that were always the share of him who went with Juan Ponce on an expedition for ravage or conquest. Ceron and Garcia objected to the withdrawal from the island of so many stalwart soldiers, protesting that there was still need of them, as the Indians were not entirely pacified, and the Caribs yet made desultory excursions from their strongholds in the south.

Juan Ponce laughed at their fears, and did not fail to point out that the island was already pacified when they returned to govern it; also, that the soldiers' terms of enlistment had expired (most of them), and there was no power, save the king's orders, to prevent them from going where they wished. And he flung a Spanish proverb at them: "Por donde va la mar, vayan las arenas"—that is to say: "Where the sea goes, there the sands go." And they could not stop them, either.

Juan Ceron grumbled and Diego Garcia blustered; but what cared the governor? He cared no whit, in truth, for they could not detain the men, and neither had they control over his own actions. So there was great bustle at the castle San Juan. Troops of Indians came in from the country with provisions; there was a slaughtering of cattle and hogs, the meat of which was salted for the voyage. Cannon were mounted on the decks of the caravels, ammunition stored in their holds, and when all was ready Juan Ponce bade adieu to his family and set sail for the port of San German, on the southwest coast of the island, where the bulk of the provisions was to be taken aboard, such as maize and cassava bread, for which that part of the country was famous.

At this time there resided with Ponce de Leon, in his castle, his wife, two daughters, and a young son, who were, of course, left behind when this venturesome voyage was undertaken. Little is said of them, however dear they may have been to the husband and father; but that they survived him is known, and presumably they resided in the Casa Blanca during the remainder of their lives. Unlike the wife of De Soto, however, who was left in Havana while her lord made his unfortunate venture in Florida, Dona Inez did not participate in her husband's public affairs. She remained in Casa Blanca, watching and waiting for the soldier's return. Twice thereafter Ponce de Leon left her thus while he went on his venturesome expeditions—in 1515 against the Caribs, and in 1521 to Florida, which last ended in his death.

After the caravels were provisioned at San German, Ponce de Leon took a course thence northeasterly, crossing the Mona Passage and coasting Hispaniola as far as Puerta Plata, or the Port of the Silver Mountain, whence he continued on into the archipelago of the Bahamas. In brief, he traversed the entire archipelago from southeast to northwest, and threaded his way among a chain of islands six hundred miles in length. Even now, with all the aids of buoys by day and lights by night, at various points, the Bahama channels are exceedingly difficult, and sometimes perilous, to navigate; but what must they have been in the time of Ponce de Leon? The bones of many a galleon lie bleaching on the reefs concealed beneath the waters there—remains of vessels wrecked centuries ago, and the time is not far distant in the past when the wreckers of the Bahamas made fortunes from the misfortunes of seafarers.

"There is no part of the seas, I believe," says Bryan Edwards, who wrote a history of the West Indies, "in which the navigation is more difficult and deceitful than near the shore of Florida, where the currents, setting from the westward through the channels of the Bahamas, mingle with that impetuous tide [the Gulf Stream] which issues from the Gulf of Mexico. . . . That forty sail of wrecking-vessels should have kept their station at one inlet on this coast is a pretty convincing proof of the numerous victims continually thrown on its shoals. The well-known American traveller, Charlevoix, many years ago was wrecked in this quarter, and he gives a pretty exact picture of what almost daily occurs.

"So very fallacious and irresistible are the cross-currents and eddies that it often happens while vessels are steering in one course, they are carried nearly in an opposite direction, and till the crews behold the breakers, or the wrecking-vessels hovering round them, they can hardly persuade themselves of their desperate situation."

Though fortuitously, perhaps, Ponce de Leon had set forth on his voyage at the very best season of the year in that latitude. He left the port of San German on March 3, 1513, and on the 14th, after devious voyaging, he arrived at the island of Guanani, or Guanahani, the veritable "San Salvador," and first landfall of Columbus in America. This island is situated somewhere midway the archipelago of the Bahamas; but whether it is that now known as Cat, Watling's, or Eleuthera is still a moot question. One of these, undoubtedly, was that on which Columbus first landed, in October, 1492, and hither came Ponce de Leon twenty years later, on his way to islands still farther to the north.

He had been "favored with propitious weather and tranquil seas, and had glided smoothly with wind and current along that verdant archipelago, visiting one island after another, until, on the 14th of the month, he arrived at Guanahani, or San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus had first put his foot on the shores of the New World. His inquiries for the island of Bimini were all in vain, and as to the Fountain of Youth, he may have drunk of every fountain and river and lake of the archipelago, even to the salt pools of Turk's Island, without being a whit the younger."

How different, when Juan Ponce de Leon visited Guanahani in 1513, was that island from the San Salvador which Columbus had discovered in 1492, and named "in honor of our Lord and Saviour!" It had not changed in its physical aspects, but in respect to its population. As already mentioned, the only Spaniards who had visited the island between the advent of Columbus and the arrival of Juan Ponce were the debased slave-hunters from Hispaniola; but they had almost entirely depopulated it. When Columbus approached the coast in his vessels, the strand was swarming with men, women, and children, and the island supported a numerous population; but when Juan Ponce found harbor there, in order to make some repairs to his caravels, scarce any Indians were to be seen. Nearly all had either been killed, or made captive and carried away to the mines in distant Hispaniola. The few poor wretches remaining in Guanahani were then hiding in caves, where they cowered in terror, afraid to go forth in search of food, though famishing. Their remains have been found in these caves, hundreds of years after Columbus and Ponce de Leon passed to their reward, and the writer of these lines has seen, in situ, some of the implements they left, as stone axes, hatchets, war-clubs, arrow-heads, and hoes.

Confirmatory of what we have said respecting these people and the present aspect of their former abode, the historian already quoted, Bryan Edwards, has the following: "There was not the least appearance of any cultivation on the island; but I could not behold the beautiful and fragrant woods over the white strand without recurring to the fate of that innocent race of people, whose name it bears, but who have long since been dragged from their native shores by the merciless ambition and avarice of their European visitors.

"A passage in Herrera came forcibly to my recollection while meditating on the subject, in which he says that on the first arrival of the Spaniards this unsuspecting but devoted people were never satisfied with looking at them merely; they knelt down, lifted up their hands, and gave thanks to God, inviting one another to admire the 'heavenly men.' Twenty years, however, had scarcely elapsed before these 'heavenly men' found it convenient to transport them, by force or artifice, to dig in the mines of Hispaniola, a measure to which the court of Spain was tempted to give its assent by the plausible suggestion that it would be the most effectual mode of civilizing and instructing them in the Christian religion. Upon this pretence forty thousand souls (probably the whole population of the island) were transported to Hispaniola. So exalted was the opinion which this simple people entertained of their destroyers, and so strong and universal is the persuasion of the human mind that a destiny awaits it beyond the miseries and disappointments of its present bounded existence, that many of the Lucayans were induced with cheerfulness to abandon their homes, under a persuasion that they should meet in a happier country the spirits of their deceased friends, with whom the Spaniards represented themselves as living in a state of society.

"As the situation of these islands with respect to each other invited a continual intercourse among the inhabitants, who probably subsisted in a great measure on fish, one may justly presume that they were principally devoted to a maritime life. Some of their canoes were large enough to carry between forty and fifty persons. Indeed, many convincing proofs of their intrepidity and expertness on the water occurred after their transportation to Santo Domingo, when, finding out the delusion which had been practised to decoy them from their native country, they made every effort to regain it. Some few effected their escape, although many were frustrated in the design. Two men and a woman constructed a raft, and having laid in a stock of maize, and water in gourds, in the hollow of a tree attached to the bottom of the raft, they put to sea, and had actually proceeded one hundred and fifty miles on their long and perilous voy age, when, intercepted by a Spanish ship, it was their cruel fortune to be taken and carried back to the country which they so much detested, and where they were doomed to eternal slavery."

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