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Athena Review  Vol. I, no. 3

Alonzo de Ojeda in Columbia and Panama (1499-1502): 

Peter Martyr's account

The Spanish navigators Alonzo de Ojeda and Diego Nicuesa set out in 1499 from Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to explore the northern coast of South America. The following excerpt is from Peter Martyr's account, De Orbe Novo (1511) derived from first hand reports  to which Martyr had access, as Royal Chronicler for Spain.   (From Decade 2, Book I, translated by Francis McNutt).

"...I shall now summarise in a few words the discoveries by the Spaniards of unknown coasts, the authors of the chief expeditions, the places they landed, the hopes raised, and the promises held out by these new countries.

The discovery of these lands I have mentioned, by the Genoese, Christopher Columbus, was related in my Ocean Decade, which was printed without my permission [2] and circulated throughout Christendom. Columbus afterwards explored immense seas and countries to the south-west, approaching within fifteen degrees of the equinoctial line. In those parts he saw great rivers, lofty snow-capped mountains along the coasts, and also secure harbours. After his death the sovereigns took steps to assume possession of those countries and to colonise them with Christians, in order that our religion might be propagated. The royal notaries afforded every facility to every one who wished to engage in these honourable enterprises among whom two were notable: Diego Nicuesa de Baecca, an Andalusian, and Alonzo Ojeda de Concha.

Both these men were living in Hispaniola where, as we have already said, the Spaniards had founded a town and colonies, when Alonzo Ojeda first set out, about the ides of December, with about three hundred soldiers under his command. His course was almost directly south, until he reached one of those ports previously discovered and which Columbus had named Carthagena, because its island breakwater, its extent, and its coast shaped like a scythe reminded him of Carthagena. The island lying across the mouth of the port is called by the natives Codego, just as the Spaniards call the island in front of Carthagena, Scombria. The neighboring region is called Caramairi, a country whose inhabitants, both male and female, are large and well formed, although they are naked. The men wear their hair cut short to the ears, while the women wear theirs long. Both sexes are extremely skilful bowmen.

[Fig 1: Peter Martyr 's map (1511), showing the Caribbean and South American coasts from Honduras to Venezuela.]

The Spaniards discovered certain trees in the province which bear fruits that are sweet, but most dangerous, for when eaten they produce worms. Most of all is the shade of this tree noxious, for whoever sleeps for any length of time beneath its branches, wakens with a swollen head, and almost blind, though this blindness abates within a few days. The port of Carthagena lies four hundred and fifty-six miles from the port of Hispaniola called Beata, where preparations are generally made for voyages of discovery. Immediately on landing, Ojeda attacked the scattered and defenceless natives. They had been conceded to him by royal patent because they had formerly treated some Christians most cruelly and could never be prevailed upon to receive the Spaniards amicably in their country.

Only a small quantity of gold, and that of poor quality, was found amongst them; they use the metal for making leaves and disks, which they hang on their breasts as ornaments. Ojeda was not satisfied with these spoils, and taking some prisoners with him as guides, he attacked a village in the interior twelve miles distant from the shore, where the fugitives from the coast-town had taken refuge. These men, though naked, were warlike; they used wooden shields, some long and others curved, also long wooden swords, bows and arrows, and lances whose points were either hardened in the fire or made of bone. Assisted by their guests, they made a desperate attack on the Spaniards, for they were excited by the misfortunes of those who had sought refuge with them, after having lost their wives and children, whose massacre by the Spaniards they had witnessed.

The Spaniards were defeated and both Ojeda's lieutenant, Juan de Ia Cosa,[3] the first discoverer of gold in the sands of Uraba, and seventy soldiers fell. The natives poisoned their arrows with the juice of a death-dealing herb. The other Spaniards headed by Ojeda turned their backs and fled to the ships, where they remained, saddened and depressed by this calamity, until the arrival of another leader, Diego de Nicuesa, in command of twelve ships. When Ojeda and Cosa sailed from Hispaniola, they had left Nicuesa in the port of Beata still busy with his preparations. His force numbered seven hundred and eighty-five soldiers, for he was an older man than Ojeda, and he had greater authority; hence a larger number of volunteers, in choosing between the two leaders, preferred to join the expedition of Nicuesa; moreover it was reported that Veragua, which had been granted to Nicuesa by the royal patent, was richer in gold than Uraba, which Alonzo de Ojeda had obtained.

As soon as Nicuesa landed, the two leaders after conferring together, decided that the first victims should be avenged, so they set out that same night to attack the murderers of Cosa and his seventy companions. It was the last watch of the night, when they surprised the natives, surrounding and setting fire to their village, which contained more than one hundred houses. The usual number of inhabitants was tripled by the refugees who had there taken shelter.

The village was destroyed, for the houses were built of wood covered with palm-leaves. Out of the great multitude of men and women, only six infants were spared, all the others having been murdered or burnt with their effects. These children told the Spaniards that Cosa and the others had been cut into bits and devoured by their murderers. It is thought indeed that the natives of Caramairi are of the same origin as the Caribs, or cannibals, who are eaters of human flesh. Very little gold was found amongst the ashes. It is in reality the thirst for gold, not less than the covetousness of new countries, which prompted the Spaniards to court such dangers. Having thus avenged the death of Cosa and his companions, they returned to Cartagena.

Ojeda, who was the first to arrive, was likewise the first to leave, starting with his men in search of Uraba, which is under his jurisdiction. On his way thither he came upon an island called La Fuerte, which lies halfway between Uraba and the harbour of Carthagena. There he landed and found it inhabited by ferocious cannibals, of whom he captured two men and seven women, the others managing to escape. He likewise gathered one hundred and ninety drachmas of gold made into necklaces of various kinds.

He finally reached the eastern extremity of Uraba. This is called Caribana, because it is from this country that the insular Caribs derive their origin, and have hence kept the name.[4] Ojeda's first care was to provide protection, and to this end he built a village defended by a fort. Having learned from his prisoners that there was a town twelve miles in the interior, called Tirufi, celebrated for its gold mines, he made preparations for its capture. The inhabitants of Tirufi were ready to defend their rights, and Ojeda was repulsed with loss and disgrace; these natives likewise used poisoned arrows in fighting.

Driven by want, he attacked another village some days later, and was wounded by an arrow in the hip; some of his companions affirm that he was shot by a native whose wife he had taken prisoner. The husband approached and negotiated amicably with Ojeda for the ransom of his wife, promising to deliver on a fixed day, the amount of gold demanded of him. On the day agreed upon he returned, armed with arrows and javelins but without the gold. He was accompanied by eight companions, all of whom were ready to die to avenge the injury done to the inhabitants of Carthagena and also the people of the village. This native was killed by Ojeda's soldiers, and could no longer enjoy the caresses of his beloved wife; but Ojeda, under the influence of the poison, saw his strength ebbing daily away.

At this juncture arrived the other commander, Nicuesa, to whom the province of Veragua, lying west of Uraba, had been assigned as a residence. He had sailed with his troops from the port of Carthagena the day after Ojeda's departure, with Veragua for his destination, and entered the gulf called by the natives Coiba, of whom the cacique was named Caeta. The people thereabouts speak an entirely different language from those of Carthagena and Uraba. The dialects of even neighbouring tribes are very dissimilar.[5] For instance, in Hispaniola, a king is called cacique, whereas in the province of Coiba he is called chebi, and elsewhere tiba; a noble is called in Hispaniola taino, in Coiba saccus, and in other parts jura.

Nicuesa proceeded from Coiba to Uraba, the province of his ally Ojeda. Some days later, being on board one of the large merchant vessels called by the Spaniards caravels, he ordered the other ships to follow at a distance, keeping with him two vessels with double sets of oars, of the type called brigantines. I may here say that during the rest of my narrative it is my intention to give to these brigantines as well as to the other types of ships the names they bear in the vulgar tongue. I do this that I may be more clearly understood, regardless of the teeth of critics who rend the works of authors. Each day new wants arise, impossible to translate with the vocabulary left to us by the venerable majesty of antiquity.

After Nicuesa's departure Ojeda was joined by a ship from Hispaniola with a crew of sixty men commanded by Bernardino de Calavera, who had stolen it. Neither the maritime commander, or to speak more plainly the Admiral, nor the authorities had consented to his departure. The provisions brought by this ship somewhat restored the strength of the Spaniards.

The complaints of the men against Ojeda increased from day to day; for they accused him of having deceived them. He alleged in his defence, that by virtue of the powers he held from the King he had directed the bachelor Enciso, who was chief justice and whom he had selected because use of his great legal abilities, to follow him with a shipload of stores; and that he was much astonished that the latter had not long since arrived. He spoke the truth, for at the time of his departure, Enciso had already more than half completed his preparations. His companions, however, who considered they had been duped, did not believe in the sincerity of his affirmations about Enciso, and a number of them secretly planned to seize two brigantines belonging to Ojeda, and to return to Hispaniola.

Upon discovering this plot, Ojeda decided to anticipate their plan and, leaving Francisco Pizarro, a nobleman [6] who commanded the forts he had built, he took some of his men and went on board the ship we have mentioned. His intention was to go to Hispan iola, not only to recover from the wound in his hip, but also to learn the causes of Enciso`s delay. He promised his companions to return in less than fifty days. Out of the three hundred there only remained about sixty men, for the others had either perished of hunger or had been slain by the natives. Pizarro and his men pledged themselves to remain at their posts until his return within fifty days bringing provisions and reinforcements. When the established time elapsed, finding themselves reduced by famine, they boarded the brigantines and abandoned Uraba.

During their journey to Hispaniola a tempest overtook them on the high seas, which wrecked one of the brigantines with all its crew; and the survivors relate that they distinctly saw, circling round the brigantine, a gigantic fish which smashed the rudder to pieces with a blow of its tail. Gigantic sea monsters certainly do exist in those waters. Without a rudder and buffeted by the storm, the brigantine sank not far from the coast of the island, named La Fuerte, which lies half way between Uraba and Carthagena. The remaining brigantine which outrode the storm, was repulsed from the island by the natives who rushed from every direction armed with bows and arrows.

Pursuing his course, Pizarro encountered by chance the bachelor Enciso between the bay of Carthagena and the country called Cuchibacoa, which lies at the mouth of the river the Spaniards have named Boiugatti or cat- house, because it was there they first saw a cat, and boiu means house in the language of Hispaniola... "

Notes: Decade 2, book 1

1. Giovanni de' Medici, elected in 1513 as Pope Leo X, was the patron to whom Peter Martyr dedicates his accounts.  Leo X was keenly interested in the exploration and discoveries in America, and unceasingly urged his nuncios to keep him supplied with everything written on these subjects.

2. Peter Martyr's friend, Lucio Marineo Siculo, was responsible for this premature Spanish edition of  Martyr's accounts published in 1511. An Italian edition of the First Decade was printed by Albertino Vercellese at Venice in 1504.

3. Such was the sad end of Juan de la Cosa, the pilot of Columbus. The oldest map of the New World, now preserved at Madrid, was the work of this noted cartographer.

4. The place of origin of the Caribs is disputed, some authorities tracing them to Guiana, others to Venezuela, others to the Antilles, etc.

5. A number of distinct languages were spoken along the coastline. Among the most common were dialects of the Arawak language family, which also included the Taino cultures in the Antilles.

6. This is a very early historical mention of Pizarro, later to play a central role in the Spanish conquest of Peru.

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