While Cristobal Colon was on his second voyage to the New World, 1493 - 1496, King Fernando & Queen Isabella of Spain, issued a proclamation on April 10, 1495, allowing all Spaniards the opportunity to travel to the Indies and settle in Española. This proclamation also allowed them to them to sponsor private voyages for the purpose of exploration, discovery and trade with the natives.
The first of the Conquistadores that left Spain under this proclamation, on a trip of exploration and conquest, was Alonso de Ojeda. He was born in Cuenca, Spain, about 1466 and died on the island of Española, about 1508. He came of an impoverished noble family, but had the good fortune to start his career in the household of the Dukes of Medina Sidonia. He early gained the patronage of Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos and later Patriarch of the Indies, who made it possible for Ojeda to accompany Columbus in his second voyage to the New World. Ojeda distinguished himself there by his daring in battle with the natives, towards whom, however, he was unduly harsh and vindictive. He returned to Spain in 1496 with the conclusion of Columbus' second voyage.
On his return to Spain it only took Ojeda three years to put together an expedition to the Indies in search of adventure and wealth. Ojeda, set sail on May 20, 1499, from Santa Maria (near Cadiz), Spain. He had four ships in his party, He directed his course to Cape Verde and in a little over three weeks he sighted the mainland near the mouth of the Orinoco River, crossing the Equator, they saw the coast of Brazil, at 4° or 5° South, possibly near Aracati. From there, he sailed west, along the coast of South America along the Guiana's and present day Venezuela, from the Gulf of Paria to Maracaibo and Cape de la Vela; after landing on Trinidad and at other places, discovered a harbor on the coast of South America with the inhabitants living in houses built over the water, like in Venice. He called the bay, Venezuela (little Venice), because it reminded him of the bay of Venice in Italia. He discovered Cape St. Augustine and the River Amazon, and made notable observations of the sea currents, of the Southern Cross and other southern constellations. He sailed west along the coast of Venezuela to Cape de la Vela. At this point, he turned north and went to Española, where he was not well received, because it was thought that he was infringing upon the exploring privileges of Columbus.. He returned to Spain, in June of 1500 with a large number of pearls and Indian, that he sold has slaves.
With Ojeda, on this expedition, were two individuals that should be mentioned because of their historical importance.. One was Juan de la Cosa, the pilot, who was with Cristobal Colon on his second voyage, and the cartographer that drew the first maps of the new world. The second person was Amerigo Vespucci, the person for whom all of the new world was to be named after.
Some people have claimed that he was the first Conquistador to sight the coast of Panama; but, this would require that he had gone west as far as Cabo Tiburon in Darien. Most authorities do not believe that he went that far west.
reported, when he returned to Spain after his fourth voyage, about the rich
goldfields, in Veragua on the Isthmus. that gained it the name of Castilla
del Oro (the (Castle of Gold). All of Tierra Firme, North and West of the Atrato River, was
given the name of Castilla del Oro, while all of the land to the East was
given the name of Nueva Andalusia, which included the North Coast of South
years elapsed before the King of Spain, and the Council of the Indies made
any serious effort to colonize Tierra Firme. It wasn't until
1508, four years after the Admirals voyage, that any attempt to
colonize area it was attempted.
the official historian of the Court, wrote that the king was very
interested in having Tierra Firme colonized; but, at the time, he was
preoccupied with the wars in Spain. The person most interested in colonizing
the area, was Alonso de Ojeda. Unfortunately, he was not a rich man, and
could not contract with the King, without the support of others. Juan de la
Cosa, who had been with Columbus on some of his voyages, offered financial
support. With the support of Juan Rodriquez de Fonseca , Bishop of
Palencia, who managed of the Affairs of the Indies, he went to Court.
His greatest asset was the loyalty of the old pilot Juan de la Cosa. , Peter Martyr, one of the most trustworthy of the contemporaneous chroniclers of the Discovery, says that the navigators of the day valued above all other maps those made by de la Cosa "to whom these tracks were as well known as the chambers of his own house." He had sailed more miles in the Caribbean Sea than even the great Almirante. He had a sagacious head and the quiet sort of bravery which was badly needed to balance the dashing impetuosity of Ojeda.
was another applicant for the privilege of colonizing Tierra Firme, Don
Diego de Nicuesa. He had the advantage not only being richer than Ojeda,
but also the more polished. He held the office of The Royal Carver, wore
the fanciest clothes ever seen in Madrid, was very popular with the ladies
at Court, and was a gentleman of unquestioned integrity and valor. But he
lacked training for the hard work that was to come. There is not
very little good that could be said of Nicuesa ability to lead men during
a crises. He proved to be a stubborn fool, who mistrusted his men, and succeeded
in turning his friends against him. He set aside the Royal Carving Knife
for the sword of the conqueror.
a long time Merit and Favoritism balanced each other in the mind of the
king. Not being able to make a choice between them, he appointed them
both. Nicuesa was to govern Castilla del Oro, from Cape Gracias a Diós to
the border of Nueva Andalusia. Ojeda was given Nueva Andalusia from Cape
de la Vela to the domains of Nicuesa. The dividing line between their
jurisdictions was left for them to fight out.
the fall of 1509, five years after Columbus had returned from Panama, the
two governors met in Española and started quarreling right away. The king
had further complicated matters, by giving them, as a joint source of
provisions, the Island of Jamaica. This upset the governor of Española,
Diego Colon, the son of the Great Admiral. Diego claimed all lands
discovered by his father, which included Jamaica. This made him so hostile
to the two new governors, that instead of helping them with ships and men,
as the king had ordered, he did all he could to hinder and impede them. He
also did everything he could to fan the fire of jealousy between them.
all of the fighting between themselves, Ojeda soon lost his cool and
challenged Nicuesa to a duel. With the mediation of Juan de la Cosa,
bloodshed was averted and they agreed to accept the Darien River, now
called the Atrato River, as the boundary between their provinces.
truce that existed between them was very precarious. Nicuesa, being the
more affluent of the two, was able to outbid Ojeda for ships and
equipment. This was counterbalanced by Ojeda's experience in the
area, his reputation and personal charisma attracted the best and
most able of the volunteers. Among them were two who would later paint
their names in letters of blood and fire on the chronicle of the Americas,
Hernado Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. Ojeda was able to enlist the
Bachelor of Law, Martin Fernandez de
Enciso to his side. This attorney had
amassed a fortune in the few years of colonial practice. But he had not
realized the fact that it is easier to get money from adventurers than by
adventures. Like so many another he fell under Ojeda's charm. Ojeda
promise to make him "Alcalde Major", Chief Justice of the soon
to be conquered vice-royalty of Nueva Andalusia, and he turned offered
Ojeda his fortune.
November 12, 1509, Ojeda set sailed from Española, with two ships, two
brigantines, three hundred men and twelve brood mares. Hernando Cortes was not able to sail with him, due to a wound in his knee and was left
behind. On November 14, 1509, Nicuesa set sail with two large ships, two
brigantines, a caravel, seven hundred men and six horses. Nicuesa led a
better equipped and lager expedition. His force was made up mostly of men
fresh from Spain, lacking experience, and not hardened for the work
Bishop of Palencia had given Ojeda, before he left Spain, a miraculous
portrait of the Virgin Mary that was to protect him. He carried it on his
person, at all times, in the belief that it made him invulnerable, and no
harm would come to him, as long as he had it. There were many witnesses
which make it possible to believe that he actually lived through the
innumerable adventures during his life time.
after leaving Española, Ojeda's fleet reached his unconquered, new
vice-royalty, near the present city of Cartagena, Colombia. He went ashore
with part of his force to take possession of the land, and establish his
authority in the area. He proceeded to wave the Spanish flag, erect a
cross at the point where he set foot on dry land. The Spaniards that had
previously visited this coast had come to trade. The Indians in the area,
came to the shore with hospitable intention and willing to trade. Having
satisfied his own idea of taking possession, Ojeda turned his attention to
the natives. He ordered some of his friars, who had come to look after the
spiritual welfare of the new domains, to read aloud the following
proclamation. This curious treatise had been drawn up by learned divines
at home and with slight alterations was employed by the other
Conquistadors under similar circumstances:
much the natives understood of this discourse in Spanish is unknown. We
know that something was understood, since they replied with great dignity
that they were satisfied with their own chiefs and were ready to protect
their wives, children and land.
the open beach, the Spaniards quickly defeated the natives that resisted.
The Spaniards had not yet learned the danger of following the natives into
the jungle, nor had they learned the horror of their poisoned arrow. After
defeating the natives on the beach, Juan de la Cosa urged Ojeda to be
content with his victory. He urged the importance of finding a suitable
place for their settlement and had established themselves before
continuing the battle against the natives. Ojeda's nature to not to be
cautious and he was excited after defeating the natives on the beach. He
ordered the pursuit of the natives into the jungle. After about an hour,
they came to a large Indian village. Immediately, the Spaniards scattered
in all directions, looking for booty. At that point, the natives who had
taken refuge in the jungle, attacked them. The Spaniards had let down
their guard and most of them fell during the first surprise attack. Juan
de la Cosa rallied a few of them and regrouped to offered some resistance.
Only one of this group escaped. Ojeda also escaped into the jungle.
Separated from his men he got lost in this strange and foreign land.
Without food and in constant danger of discovery he struggled through the
dense underbrush. He finally reached the seaside where he was found by his
men in an almost dying condition. The sailors left on shipboard had become
desperate at the long absence of the landing party. Just when things were
at their darkest some sails came up over the horizon, it was the Nicuesa's
two governors had parted Española in anger, and Ojeda feared that Nicuesa
would take advantage of his distress. But Nicuesa. in the only noble
incident related to him, sent word that "A Spanish hidalgo does not
harbor malice against a prostrate foe." He sent a party of men to
help Ojeda avenge the death of Juan de la Cosa and his men. They surprised
the Indians, who were feasting in their village, in celebration of their
victory, and massacred every last man, women and child. The blood lust of
the Spaniards was whetted by the sight of the corpse of de la Cosa,
horribly bloated and discolored as a result of the poisoned arrows.
Nicuesa's men share of the booty was over thirty-five thousand dollars.
then sailed on to the Gulf of Darien, the western boundary of his
province, and disembarked on the eastern shore of the gulf. In memory of
Juan de la Cosa and as a protective charm, he named the settlement, San
Sebastian, after the saint who died from arrow wounds. This was the first
European settlement on the American continent. He then sent his fastest
ship back to Española, with some of the booty and glowing letters to Enciso, urging him to hurry up with the much needed
reinforcements and supplies.
the small settlement of San Sebastian, attempting to establish itself,
relied on the supplies and food that was brought with them. Their major
problem was the poison, which the natives tipped their arrows with. So
deadly was the venom that the slightest scratch meant a horrible death.
Herrera gives interesting details as to the method of its manufacture:
it is hard to believe that this was the real receipt for this powerful poison,
but it does illustrate how fearful the Spaniards were of the natives
arrows in the region.
As time passed, and the colony consumed the limited food they had brought from Española, it started to get scare. All along, they were waiting for Enciso's ships, with provisions. Enciso never left Española until September, 1, 1510, 8½ months after Ojeda. Had Enciso not taken so long, the settlement of San Sebastian may still exist and have the distinction of being the oldest continuously inhabited city on the main land of America. But the colonist were going hungry, and they dared not wander too far from their small community and fortifications. Anybody that got to close to the jungle, was immediately attacked by the natives and their deadly poison arrows. This fear of the natives, prevented them from going out to forage for food, or planting any type of crop, to supplement their diet.
far as battle was concerned, Ojeda was still leading a charmed life. His picture of the
Virgin was still protecting, such that, he had never been wounded or bled in
battle. His confidence in the powers of the Virgin was such, that was always
in the front of any skirmish with the native. After a while, event the
natives began to believe that his life was charmed.
incident, Ojeda's wounding, really upset the whole colony and it was thrown into despair.
They felt that the blessed Virgin
had taken away her protection, and the colony was doomed. During the whole
time they were in Nueva Andalusia, nobody had ever survived the wound of a
poison arrow. Those that were not killed outright, suffered a slow and
painful death. The accepted practice of the time was the amputation of the
limb. But Ojeda was a fighter, and this was not going to get him down nor
did he want to lose his leg. He ordered their surgeon to cauterize the wound thoroughly with a hot iron.
The surgeon did not want to do it, but Ojeda threatened to execute him if
he did not. The surgeon ran a white-hot iron rod through his leg, and then
applied whit-hot iron plates to the entrance and exit wound. This all took
place without any form of anesthesia or being held or tied. Such was
Ojeda's fortitude and although this sounds impossible, you have to
remember that these men were born to the saddle and the hard life of
battle, and to show signs of pain, was not in their nature. The burning
did so much damage, that they had to consume a whole barrel of vinegar,
imbibing sheets and wrapping him in them. Fortunately,
the arrow had gone completely through his thigh, and little of the poison
was deposited in his leg. Ojeda took some time to recover from his wound,
(the arrow wound and the burning iron) giving some historians to believe
that he was lucky to have been shoot with a non-poisoned arrow.
After this incident, the settlement became very discouraged. The natives were making it impossible to go out side their stockade, even to get fresh water. Has disperse was setting in, they spotted a ship approaching from a distance. They thought that it was Enciso, coming with their reinforcements. But, once again, whey were faced with disappointment when it was not Enciso.
brigantine that dropped anchor close by, was under command of
privateer, who was looking for booty on the northern coast of Tierra Firme
and San Sebastian. When the
brigantine, which Ojeda had sent, loaded with the
first gold and pearls from his new province, reached Santo Domingo, the
word spread of the treasures and success of the new colony. Talavera,
wanting in on the booty, collected a gang of thieves and cut-throats and marched
overland to a small cove where a Genoese brigantine was taking on lumber. They murdered the
crew and set sail to join Ojeda.
Talavera's crew consisted of 70 other desperados and was carrying a cargo
of Cassava bread and meat.
They expected that they would become rich, just as Ojeda's men were, by
trading or stealing from the natives. They had no idea about the hardships
that the colony had suffered, or was in at the time.
Talavera's crew consisted of 70 other desperados and was carrying a cargo of Cassava bread and meat. They expected that they would become rich, just as Ojeda's men were, by trading or stealing from the natives. They had no idea about the hardships that the colony had suffered, or was in at the time.
The small amount of food that they brought, was an immediate relief for the famine at San Sebastian. They did not have enough to provide total relief. When the pirates realized the difficulties ahead, the poisoned arrows, hunger, no treasures, they decided to return to Española, instead of staying in Nueva Andalucia.
Ojeda decided to sail with Talavera to Española with the hope of seeding up Enciso with the reinforcements and supplies for San Sebastian. He left Francisco Pizarro in charge of what was left of his forces, with instructions to remain at San Sebastian for fifty days. If Enciso or Ojeda did not return with the needed reinforcements, they were free to abandon San Sebastian, and sail back to Española in the two remaining brigantines. These two ships had been attacked by the Teredo worms, and in very poor conditions.
Ojeda, took with him on the trip back to Santo Domingo, all of the treasures that they have been able to take from the natives. He freely informed his host, as to the contents of his luggage, and said that he intended to buy more provisions in Española and return to San Sebastian. No sooner were they out of sight of land, when Talavera took him prisoner, and confiscated all of the gold and pearls Ojeda had. Ojeda tried to fight with his captors, and challenged them; but they refused to fight him. They were aware of his reputation, as a man that never lost a fight, and was an excellent swords man.
Soon afterwards, they were hit by a hurricane, and since Talavera was a poor captain and navigator, they were forced to release Ojeda, so that he could save the ship in the storm. He was able to keep the ship afloat, long enough to get to the western end of Cuba, where they ran aground, losing the ship and treasure. Cuba, at this time, was still an unconquered island, and they had to endure constant attacks by the native and hunger. They marched 400 miles eastward, stumbling through swamps and cutting their way through the jungle. After several months in Cuba, there were only about a dozen of them still alive. They were able to get a message to Jamaica about their predicament and Pánfilo de Narváez came to their rescue in a caravel. Talavera was hanged in Jamaica for piracy..
By the time he finally reached Santo Domingo, Ojeda was unjustly thrown into prison and eventually set free. He died in a hospital in Santo Domingo in 1515 from complications from his old wound, by the poison arrow. When he died, he was so poor, and broken in spirit, that he did not have enough money to get buried with. With his last breath, he requested that his body be laid to rest in the monastery of San Francisco near the portal.
After Ojeda left San Sebastian, the settlers, under the command of Pizarro, waited for Enciso or Ojeda to return with supplies. They were not aware that they would never receive any help from Ojeda, who was now stranded in Cuba. During this time, their group was getting smaller and smaller. On the Fiftieth days after Ojeda left, they were still without provision, growing weaker, and dieing off. Since there were still 70 colonist alive, and they did not all fit into the two ships that were available. Pizarro asked for volunteers to remain behind so that the rest could escape, with the promise of returning to get them later. There were no volunteers so they decided to wait a little longer, with the expectation that famine, sickness and the poisoned arrows of the natives, would eventually reduce their number, so the could all fix on the boats. This took place, shortly after, so they loaded what ever provisions there were left on the ships. The four remaining horses were killed, salted and loaded onboard.
Pizarro commanded on of the brigantines, and
Valenzuela was in command of the other. As soon as the got outside of the
harbor, the encountered a storm. Valenzuela's already weakened brigantine
fell apart in the rough water, and all hands were lost. Pizarro's boat was
close by, but could not save any of the men from the stricken vessel.
There were 30 men in Pizarro's worm eaten boat, fighting for their lives against the elements, when they were sighted by Enciso's ships that were coming to reinforce the community of San Sebastian.
Bruce C. Ruiz
April 26, 2002