The region of Central America King Ferdinand divided into two provinces, in 1509, and prepared to plant colonies there. One of these provinces he placed under the command of the navigator Ojeda, and the other under Diego de Nicuesa. Late in the autumn Ojeda sailed from Haiti, accompanied by Pizarro, who afterward became the energetic and cruel conqueror of Peru. Hernando Cortez, who was afterward the Indian conqueror of Mexico, would have sailed with Ojeda, had not a violently inflamed eye prevented. Ojeda was also accompanied by some friars whose chief business at the outset seems to have been the reading aloud to the natives, in the Latin language, a proclamation by the Spanish leader which had been prepared by learned divines in Spain. It declared that God who made them all, had given in charge of one man, named Saint Peter, who had his seat at Rome, all the nations of the earth with all the lands and seas on the globe; that his successors at Rome called Popes, were endowed in the same way by God; that one of them had given to the Spanish monarchs all the islands and continents in the Western Ocean; that all natives yet found had given cheerful submission to whatever the soldiers and priests required of them, and that the natives of the land before him were expected to do the same. In the event of their willing submission, he promised them many favors. "If you do not this," he said, "or wickedly and intentionally delay to do so, I certify to you, that, by the aid of God, I will powerfully invade and make war upon you in all parts and modes that I can, and will subdue you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and his majesty; and I will take your wives and children and make slaves of them, and sell them as such, and dispose of them as his majesty may command; and I will take your effects, and will do you all the harm and injury in my power, as vassals who will not obey or receive their sovereign, and who resist and oppose him. And I protest that the deaths and disasters which may in this manner be occasioned, will be the fault of yourselves, and not of his majesty, nor of me, nor of these cavaliers who accompany me."
This infamous proclamation which justified murder and robbery under the sanction of that religion the chief attributes of which are justice, benevolence and mercy, was adopted as the formula, and indicated the spirit of the Spanish invaders of America afterwards. Although read aloud by the friars, the pagans could not understand a word of it. The Christians did not expect them to understand it. Their offices were fulfilled when the Latin words had gone into the ears of their dusky listeners. The consequences must be borne by the wondering heathen!
Delay in making a willing submission was speedily followed by violence. The natives were attacked by the intruders and some of them were killed. Some were sent captive to the ships. Ojeda, apprehending no danger, permitted his followers who were on shore to roam in quest of booty. He was mistaken. The outraged Indians gathered stealthily and attacked the Spaniards furiously with poisoned arrows. Ojeda and a few soldiers took refuge in a small cabin, where all but himself were slain. He was a small man and found shelter from a shower of arrows, under his buckler, for awhile, when he sprang from his covert like a tiger and cutting his way through the multitude uninjured, he found shelter and concealment among the matted roots of mango trees at the wooded base of a mountain. There he was found by his followers, almost dead with fatigue and hunger, and was carried to his ship.
At this juncture Nicuesa appeared with his squadron. The two governors soon agreed upon a plan of operations. Four hundred men and some horses were landed, and all started for the village of the Indians, which they desolated with fire and sword. No quarter was given to age or sex. Men, women and children were slain with weapons or perished in the burning cabins. Having gathered much spoil, the governors parted, Nicuesa for his prescribed province, and Ojeda for another part of his, for he would not attempt to plant a colony on the scene of his disaster.
The wants of his followers caused Ojeda to sail for Haiti for supplies. His crew rebelled and put him in irons, but when a great storm arose, they released him for the sake of mutual safety. The vessel stranded on the southern shores of Cuba which was then under native rule, and a place of refuge for the unhappy inhabitants of Hispaniola. The shipwrecked mariners suffered dreadfully in morasses, and more than half of them perished. They feared the natives and tried to avoid them; but hunger made the survivors bold, and a part of them, led by Ojeda, followed a path into an Indian village. The pagans there treated the suffering Christians with the most tender care and unstinted hospitality. The cacique sent men with provisions to hunt up survivors in the morasses; and when Ojeda departed, he sent guides and servants to conduct the Spaniard and his companions to a part of the island nearest Jamaica, on which his countrymen had lately settled. To that island Ojeda was taken, and thence to Hispaniola, where he died. At his own request his body was buried at the portal of the Cathedral of San Francisco. He chose that spot that every one who passed the portal might "tread upon his grave." So he sought to expiate his crimes by such post-mortem or after-death humiliation.
The natural kindness of the Cubans was requited the following year (1510) in the usual way. The Spaniards of Haiti, inflamed by Ojeda's account of the wealth of Cuba, conquered it, and there established the horrid social and political system which had made Hispaniola a land of mourning for its native inhabitants. The pious Ojeda had planted a germ of the Church in Cuba, and so gave the pagans there, as he believed, an equivalent for any disabilities which they might suffer under Spanish rule. In his distress he had made a vow to the Virgin, that if she should deliver him from the great peril, he would build a chapel in the first Indian village he might find, and over its altar place a precious little Flemish painting of the Sacred Mother, which he carried with him, and leave it there. He did so. The character and attributes of the Virgin, as the mother of God who rules the universe, he explained to the simple-minded cacique and his people, who, at the outset, were taught to revere the picture as a blessing from the skies. They kept the chapel swept clean; made votive offerings; composed couplets to the Virgin and sang them with accompaniments of instrumental music, as they danced in the groves around the sacred place; and in other similar ways they commended themselves to their pious conquerors as hopeful converts to Christianity. So it was that the Christian religion was introduced into Cuba more than three centuries and a half ago.
Return to Our Country, Vol. I