Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations


Category: Christopher Columbus




Columbus, the Pinzons and all their men came ashore.

Some time later hundreds of brown, naked, handsome people came out of the jungle that was near the shore. They surrounded the strangers and stared at them. The natives were smiling and friendly.

Columbus planted the Spanish flag in the sand and claimed the island in the name of the king and queen of Spain. The brown people watched curiously.

They did not know, of course, that these strangers who they thought were gods would destroy them completely. In fifteen years not one of them would be alive.

But now they came bearing gifts of fruit and parrots and bone trinkets, showing great hospitality.

Using the language of signs, Columbus asked the name of this place. They told him, “Guanahani.”

‘Til rename this island San Salvador!” he declared.

Admiral Christopher Columbus looked at these naked people and admired their beauty. But what kind of people were they? Certainly this was not Cipango, for this was uncivilized place and there were no towers of gold here. Surely it was a small island in the Indies, not far from Cipango.

As he thought he was in the Indies, which was his name for Asia, Columbus called these brown Americans “Indians”, and nobody ever bothered to correct the mistake.

Of course, he was a long way from India, or China, or Cipango-Japan. The scientists of Portugal and Spain had been right. Asia was still far, far away. Columbus was only half­way there, on a little island in the Bahamas off the coast of North America known today as Watling’s Island.

There were happy days on San Salvador. The seafarers enjoyed the hospitality of the “Indians” who swam out to the ships with food and gifts. The Admiral wrote in his journal:

“They are so free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything that they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it, and they are content with whatever trifle be given them…”

But he also pointed out in his journal that here were thousands of slaves and servants who could be had for nothing.

The sailors showed the islanders their swords. The Indians, who knew nothing of weapons of war, seized the swords by the blade and cut themselves.

Guanahani was a beautiful island for the Spaniards but it had no riches they were looking for. The Admiral reminded himself that he had not struggled a whole lifetime to swap bone trinkets with naked savages. Nobody could build marble mansions with parrots and fruit. He had to go on westward, to find Cipango-Japan. And from there he would sail westward again to the mainland of Asia, to China, the land of the Grand Khan.

He gathered his men and ships, kidnapped six Guanahanis to serve as guides and interpreters, and sailed in search of Cipango and gold.

He found neither Cipango nor gold. Island after island, dozen of them rose up out of the Caribbean Sea. He found on them only more “Indians” like those of Guanahani. The Admiral’s men searched the Indian villages, hut by hut, overturning fireplaces and smashing pots. They found “hamacas”, the net ham­mocks the Indians slept in and which in time would be used by every sailor in the world. They found Indian corn and pumpkins. They found tobacco cigars. But they did not find the gold they were looking for.

And at the same time many of the Indians wore tiny gold pins through their noses, or other small or­naments made of the yel­low metal. The Admiral’s men waved these tiny bits of gold and shouted,

“Where? Where?”

The Indians pointed to the south-west. “Cuba!” they said.

“Ah,” thought the Admi­ral, “that must be the Indian word for Cipango. We are on the right track.”

The islanders led them along the usual canoe route to Cuba, through a sea full of small islands.

The fleet sailed up and down the eastern coast of Cuba but found nothing new. Only the same Indians. But here, on Cuba, the villages were large, the huts in which the natives lived were built better and some of the Indians wore beautifully decorated pieces of cloth.

Columbus frowned. There were no gold-roofed cities here. This was definitely not Japan. Perhaps the Indians had misunderstood him and had led him directly to the mainland of Asia. Yes, that was it! They were in China!

Very well, then, he would find Cipango-Japan on the way back. But now, while he was in China, he would try to find the Grand Khan.

The Cubans pointed westward to high range of mountains. “Cubanacan,” they said, meaning “mid-Cuba”. But Columbus was certain that they were saying, “El Gran Khan!”

He sent an interpreter and a group of men by land with messages for the Khan. But the interpreter, Louis de Torres, found small use for his talents. They found no Grand Khan, only a village of fifty huts, surrounded by fields of sweet potatoes, maize and beans. They were treated with great hospitality and invited to stay. But they came back in a few days disappointed.

Christopher Columbus walked angrily up and down the deck of his flagship. He had little time. Soon he would have to return to Spain. Where were the gold and spices he had promised Ferdinand and Isabella? He could not go back with empty hands. Already his men were beginning to laugh at him behind his back.

He waved a gold pin in the faces of his Indian guides. “Gold! Gold!” he shouted. “Where is it? Where does it come from?”

The Indians were beginning to understand the Spaniards much better now. So it was gold the travellers were looking for. So that was why they had searched the Indian villages!

The Indians nodded their heads up and down and pointed south-west. Some of them said, “Bohio,” but others declared, “Babeque.”

The Admiral’s .fleet sailed along the coast of Cuba in search of Bohio.

By this time Martin Alonso Pinzon was beginning to feel that the Admiral did not know the way which could lead to India. Besides, he was certain that Babeque and not Bohio was the place to find gold. So he refused to sail on with Columbus.

One day he sailed away from the other two ships and soon disappeared. This was a simple desertion, but Columbus was helpless.

The “Nina” and “Santa Maria” continued exploring the island chain until at last they came to the islands now called Haiti. Would this be the land of gold? Columbus landed on Haiti and claimed it in the name of Spain’s sovereigns. On shore, he was greeted by a crowd of Haitians, led by a handsome young chief. Columbus’s heart beat wildly when he saw gold ornaments worn by the chief. The huts were large here and beautifully decorated. He pointed to the chief’s golden orna­ments and asked, “Where?”

The chief smiled and pointed across the bay. “Cibao,” he said, which is the name by which the central part of Haiti is still known and where there were at that time real gold mines. “Cibao?” thought Columbus. “That must surely be Cipango!” A messenger arrived from the king of that part of Haiti, whose name was Guacanagari, inviting Columbus to come to him. At last! A real king! The Indians assured him that there was much, much gold in Cibao. It was a fine Christmas present.

Columbus planned to spend Christmas holiday with Guaca­nagari on Cibao-Cipango-Japan and the day before Christmas the two ships sailed towards their destination.

All men slept the night before Christmas. They were very tired by the days of hard sailing. Even the officer of the “Santa Maria’s” night watch fell asleep. The helmsman, too, was sleepy. He could hardly keep his eyes open. He asked a cabin boy to hold the helm for a moment, while he slept a few minutes. The cabin boy eagerly took the tiller.

Suddenly, there was a crash. Very quickly everybody came to the deck. But it was too late to do anything, for the ship struck the reefs and the sharp coral was already making holes in her bottom. Water came in faster and faster.

Soon everyone left the “Santa Maria” in a small boat. The “Nina”, with her boat, came to the rescue and took everyone away safely.

All Christmas Day was spent trying to float the “Santa Maria” and remove her stores. The native Haitians came in their canoes and helped. With their aid, everything valuable in the ship was removed to shore, where Columbus sat.

What would he do now? All was lost. He had one remaining ship, the “Nina”, which could never hold the crews of two. It was impossible to do further exploration.

King Guacanagari sent his relatives to console Colum­bus. They sat down beside him and wept with him.

Then, at last, Guacanagari himself came with his people — a handsome and proud prince who had a gold chain round his neck. But the gold chain was enough to stop Columbus’s tears.

Guacanagari begged his guest to be happy. He would give him anything he wanted. Already he had given the large houses of his village to the wrecked seamen and he would give even more houses. His men were guarding the “Santa Maria’s” supplies, and nothing had been stolen or lost.

He had heard that Columbus and his men desired gold. Would some gold, perhaps, ease their sorrow? Guacanagari promised the Admiral much gold, all that could be carried away. He sent his guards back to bring it.

The Admiral invited the chief aboard the “Nina” for a meal. He was delighted with Guacanagari’s dignity and pleasant table manners, which were much more delicate, he observed, than those of Spain’s aristocrats.

Then the chief invited all to shore for a big feast. In the midst of the feast the chief’s guards came back with plates of gold and a huge mask with gold eyes and ears.

Columbus was delighted. Guacanagari assured him that there was even more gold in the hills of the west, in Cibao.

After all, Columbus thought, the loss of the “Santa Maria” was a good thing. True, he had not yet seen any gold-roofed cities such as Marco Polo had described, but could anyone doubt they were near? He would start a colony here with the men who could not be transported back to Spain. He would build a fort and call it La Navidad. Forty men would stay here, in Cipango, and trade for gold while he sailed home to report this wonderful discovery to Spain.

He had to do it quickly. There was little time even for further exploration westward in search of the cities of gold. For Guacanagari’s men reported that they had sighted the “Pinta” at another shore. Columbus had to hurry or Martin Pinzon would reach home before him and take all the glory and spread lies about him.

A fort was built with the timber of the “Santa Maria”. Many sailors wished to stay. They dreamt of sitting comfortably in the fort while Guacanagari’s people carried gold to them and made their beds and did all the work.

Guacanagari was sad to see the Admiral go, although Co­lumbus promised to return soon. The men of the little “Nina” waved goodbye to the crowds of Indians on Haiti’s shore.

And then they sailed eastward.

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