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WE must now digress a little, in order to describe a new expedition, after which we will return to the present subject. While equipping this squadron of four caravels, the same governor,' Diego Velasquez, had simultaneously armed a fifth, which was to be accompanied by one single brigantine, carrying provisions and forty-five soldiers. The Spaniards used force against the natives who inhabited the coast of the neighbouring continent; these people are circumcised and worship idols. During their voyage the Spaniards passed a number of small islands, remarkable for the fertility of their soil and the abundance of their crops. These islands are called Guanaxa, Guitilla, and Guanagua2; and in one of them they captured three hundred natives of both sexes, who had in no wise molested them. They named this island Santa Marina. Crowding their prisoners upon the caravel, they returned to Fernandina while the brigantine, with a crew of twenty-five sailors, was ordered to continue this man-hunt.
The caravel touched at a port called Carenas, distant about two hundred and forty leagues from the capital of Cuba, Santiago. It is known that the length of this island extends towards the west, and that it is divided in the middle by the Tropic of Cancer.
1 Progubernator: Diego Velasquez was governor of Cuba, the title of viceroy being held by Diego Columbus. * Islands lying in the Bahama channel.
Fortune took upon herself to avenge the prisoners. Some of their jailers having landed, and only a few remaining on board the caravel, the islanders seized this opportunity to recover their freedom. They obtained possession of the arms of the Spaniards, fell upon them, killing six and driving the others overboard. Once masters of the caravel, which they had learned to sail, the islanders returned to their country. They first landed on a neighbouring island where they burned the caravel, taking care to keep the arms, and regained their native land in their own barques. They took the Spaniards who had been left in charge of the brigantine by surprise. Upon the shore there grew a large tree, on the top of which they set up a cross, and upon the upper part of its trunk they wrote in Spanish letters Vamos al Darien. Darien is the river on whose banks stands the capital of what is supposed to be a continent, Santa Maria de la Antigua.
As soon as the news of the disaster reached him, the governor of Fernandina hastened to send shiploads of soldiers to rescue the abandoned Spaniards. The decision was wise but tardy, for the catastrophe was complete. They saw the cross and, following the coast, they read the letters carved on the tree-trunk; but not venturing to attack the fugitives, who were desperate and better armed than themselves, they retired, not, however, without capturing in a neighbouring island five hundred prisoners of both sexes, as easily as if they had been hares. The excuse offered for this iniquitous proceeding was that the natives were circumcised. Hardly had they landed at Fernandina than they themselves had to undergo the same trials, for the prisoners attacked one of the two caravels with fury and, despite their desperate resistance, killed a number of the Spanish soldiers. Others threw themselves overboard and swam to the other caravel, which was not far distant. A general attack upon the caravel in the possession of the natives was then made,
and during four hours the result of the battle was uncertain. 'The barbarians, both men and women, fought with fury to regain their liberty, while the Spaniards were still more excited at the thought of losing their plunder. The latter finally conquered, because they handled their arms more skilfully. The defeated savages threw themselves into the sea, and though some of them were picked up by shallops, about a hundred were lost either in the fight or by drowning. Only very few Spaniards perished; and the prisoners were sent to Santiago or to the gold mines.1
The Spaniards next undertook an expedition to another of the neighbouring islands, which are more numerous thereabouts than the Symplegades* in the Ionian Sea, to which the vulgar give the general name of Archipelago. They got a bad reception, and all who landed were either killed or wounded. It is thought that this island is the one discovered by Juan Ponce, captain of a small fleet, and afterwards abandoned by him when he was repulsed by the natives. He named it Florida, because he discovered it on the Feast of the Resurrection, which is called Pasqua Florida. They claimed to have sighted twenty-six islands. Columbus had already navigated amongst them, for they are like daughters to Cuba or Hispaniola, and are the guardians of what is believed to be a continent, their rocks forming a breakwater against the ocean storms. In most of these islands the Spaniards found gold in the form of grains. The natives wear various kinds of necklaces and masks made of gilded wood or ingeniously wrought gold, for they are very clever artisans. Francisco Chieregato, nunzio of Your Holiness to the court of our Spanish sovereign, has taken back one of these masks so that you may see and examine the clever workmanship.
1 We owe the description of this typical act of piracy and slave-hunting to Spanish sources; the same sad tale is repeated throughout the years of misrule that depopulated the islands and disgraced Spain.
'Ha sunt ibi frequentiores quant in nostra Ionio Symplegades, quarum congeriam archipalagus valgus appellat. This sad slip of Peter Martyr's pen must have provoked derisive mirth amongst the humanists of the Pontifical Court, whose critical ears his lapses from Ciceronian purity had already offended. The Symplegades he far distant from the Ionian Sea, being found in the Euxine, opposite the entrance to the Thracian Bosphorus. Being but two in number, nobody, however vulgar, ever called them an archipelago.
They make a razor in the following curious fashion: they use certain yellow stones," transparent as crystal, and razors made of these stones cut as well as those of good steel. What is still more singular is that when the blade is dull with usage, they do not sharpen it on a wheel or a stone or with powder, but merely dip it in water. A great variety of elegant instruments and other objects is found amongst them, but it would take too long to enumerate them, and perhaps, Your Beatitude, absorbed as you are in grave affairs, would feel little interest in such a description.
I now return to my original subject, the islands of Cozumel, Yucatan, and Coluacan or Oloa; rich and truly Elysian lands, which have just been discovered, and from which I have somewhat wandered. The great importance of these regions is already fully understood. BOOK VI
1 Obsidian or izili as the Mexicans called it, was the stone used for making sacrificial knives, spear-points, maquahuitl blades, razors, and all sharp instruments for cutting; its colour however is usually black, sometimes grey, but I recall no yellow.
THE Spaniards recently settled in Cuba obtained the governor's authorisation to fit out a fleet of ten caravels carrying five hundred soldiers, and three brigantines similar to lightly harnessed horses.1 They intended to make use of these brigantines in shallow waters and along the coasts fringed with reefs. Seven war-horses were taken on board the fleet. Fernando Cortes, at that time a judge in Cuba, was appointed commander,2 and with him were associated Alfonso Fernando Portocarrero, Francisco de Montejo, Alfonso d'Avila, Alvarado, commander of Badajoz, Juan Velasquez, and Diego de Ordaz. They sailed3 from the same western point of Cuba favoured by the same wind that had already served Francisco Fernandez and Juan de Grijalva.
They arrived within sight of the Isla de los Sacrificios, which we have already mentioned, where a sudden and violent storm prevented their landing, and drove them out of their course to the island of Cozumel, off the eastern coast of Yucatan. There is only one port
1 The simile does not seem apt. As is explained in the next sentence, the brigantines were for use in places where the larger vessels could not penetrate, and hence in this somewhat strained sense might be likened to light cavalry skirmishers.
'Consult Bernard Diaz, Historic Verdadera; English translation by Maudslay 1910; Prescott's Conquest of Mexico; MacNutt's, Fernando Cortes in Heroes of the Nations Series, vol. xix; Gomara, Cronica de la Conquista; Las Casas, Hist, de las Indias, torn. iii.
» February 18, 1519.