Expedition of Hernandez de Cordova. A. D. 1517.


IN the year 1514, I left Castille in company with Pedro Arias de Avila, who was then appointed governor of Tierra Firma, with whom I arrived at the port of Nombre de Dios. A pestilence raged at that time, of which many soldiers died, and most of the survivors were invalids. The governor P. A. De Avila had a jealousy which terminated fatally, with an Hidalgo who had conquered that province, of which he was Captain: his name was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a rich man, and to whom Avila had married his Daughter; but being afterwards suspicious that his Son-in-law had an intention of revolting, he caused him to be beheaded.

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When we saw that troubles were likely to ensue, and learned that the Island of Cuba had been lately gained under the government of Diego Velasquez, a certain number of us, persons of quality who had come with Avila, resolved to demand his permission to go to Cuba. This he readily granted us; not wanting so many soldiers as had come with him from Castille, for the country of which he was appointed to the government, had but few inhabitants, and was already conquered. Permission being obtained we sailed for Cuba, and arriving there, waited on the governor, who received us kindly, and promised to give us the firm lands that should fall vacant. Three years however elapsed, reckoning from the time we left Castille, and no settlements had as yet offered. Considering this therefore as so much loss of time, one hundred and ten of us elected for our Captain a rich Hidalgo of Cuba named Francisco Hernandez de Cordova, and determined to set out under his command, upon a voyage of discovery. For this purpose we bought two vessels of considerable burthen, and our third was a bark which we obtained on credit from the governor Velasquez; he however proposed as a condition, that we should engage the soldiers to make a descent on certain islands between Cuba and Honduras, named Los Guanages, to seize a number of the inhabitants and make naves of them, in order thereby to pay the cost of the bark; but when the proposal of Velasquez was made known to the soldiers, we to a man refused it, saying, that it was not just, nor did God or the King permit, that free men should be made slaves.

Velasquez was immediately convinced, and assented to the justice of what we laid, and he gave us also what assistance he could as to provisions. We laid in a store of Hogs, which were then sold at three Crowns each, and Cassava bread, there being in Cuba neither Oxen or Sheep. With such poor provisions, and some trifling Toys, and Ornaments for the Indians, we prepared ourselves for the voyage, having engaged three Pilots, the principal of whom was Anthon de Alaminos, a native of Palos; the other two were named Camacho de Triana, and Juan Alvarez el Manquillo de Huelva. Having provided ourselves as well as we could with every necessary, we all assembled at a port on the

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North of the Island, eight leagues from the town of St. Christopher, the settlers of which were two years after removed to the Havannah. This port is called in the language of Cuba, Agaruco. That our expedition might be conducted on proper principles, we persuaded a Clergyman of that town named Alonzo Gonzales, to accompany us, and we also chose for Veedor a soldier named Bernardino Iniguez, that in case Gold should happen to fall in our way, the proper Officer might be at hand, to take care of his Majesty’s rights.

On the eighth of February 1517, having recommended ourselves to God, and the blessed Virgin, we sailed from the port of Agaruco, and in twelve days passed St. Anton, otherwise called the land of the Guanatareyes, a tribe of savages. Doubling this Point, we sailed at hazard towards that part of the Horizon where the Sun set, utterly ignorant of shallows, currents, or prevailing winds. During our voyage a storm came on, and for two days and two nights we were in the most imminent danger; the wind however subsided, and in twenty-one days from our leaving the Island of Cuba, we saw land which had never before been discovered. We also on approaching perceived a large town, at the distance of two leagues from the coast, which from its size, it exceeding any town in Cuba we named Grand Cairo. The smallest Vessel was then ordered to approach and examine the neighbouring coast.

On the morning of the fourth of March, five Canoes came off to us. These vessels are like troughs, made of one entire tree, and many of them capable of containing fifty men. We made signals of invitation to those on board, with which they readily complied, not shewing the least apprehension. Above thirty entered the principal vessel, where they were treated with such provisions as we could give them, and each was presented with a string of green beads. After admiring the vessels for some time their chief desired to return, saying that he would on the ensuing day come again to us with more Canoes, in order to bring us to land. These Indians wore close dresses of cotton, their waists being girded with a narrow cloth; in which, we observed that they exhibited

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more sense of decency than the natives of Cuba, with whom this dress was used by the women only. On the ensuing day, the fame chief came with twelve large Canoes, and made signals to our Captain that he would bring us to land. This he expressed by saying, “Con-Escotoch, Con-Escotoch,” which signifies, come to our town: and it was from this that we gave it the name of Punta de Cotoche. It was determined by us to accept the invitation, observing the proper precaution of going all in a body, and by one embarkation, as we perceived the shore to be lined with Indians. We therefore hoisted out our own boats, and in them, with twelve Canoes brought to us by the chief, and our smallest vessel we proceeded to the land. On arriving there we halted for a time to consider what should be done, but the Cacique or Chief still urging us by signs to advance, we proceeded in good order, with fifteen cross-bows and ten musquets, the chief guiding us, and accompanied by a number of the natives. On a sudden, as we paled by some thick woods, the Cacique began to call out loudly to a body of Indians, which he had posted there in ambuscade; they sallied out upon us at the signal, and poured in a discharge of arrows, whereby they wounded fifteen of our soldiers.

These warriors were armed with thick coats of cotton, and carried, besides their bows and arrows, lances, shields and flings; they also wore ornaments of feathers on their heads. Having discharged their arrows they advanced, and attacked us with their lances, but the keenness of our swords and the effect of our cross-bows and musquetry soon drove them to a distance, with the lots of fifteen left dead upon the spot. Near the place of this ambuscade were three buildings of lime and stone, wherein were idols of clay with diabolical countenances, and in strange unnatural postures, and several wooden chests which contained similar idols but smaller, some vessels, three diadems, and some imitations of birds and fillies in alloyed gold. The buildings of lime and stone, and the gold gave us a high idea of the Country we had discovered. On our return to the shore we had the satisfaction to find, that while we were fighting, our chaplain Gonzales had taken care of the chests and

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their contents, which he had with the assistance of two Indians of Cuba brought off safely to our ships. In this action we made two natives prisoners, who were afterwards baptized, and called by the names of Melchor, and Julian. Having re-embarked, we proceeded as before, coasting towards the West.

After fifteen days cautious sailing by an unknown coast, we discovered from our ships a large town with an inlet which was apparently a River. This place we named from the day on which we discovered it, which was Sunday of Lazarus; and here we determined to endeavour to procure water, of which we were in want, owing to the badness of our casks, our limited means not enabling us to purchase proper vessels for that purpose. As the tides run very far out, we left our large ships a league’s distance from the shore, and proceeding thither well armed, came to the water which supplied the town; for in this Country as far as we could observe, there are no running streams. Here we filled our casks, and just as we had finished, about fifty Indians dressed in cotton mantles and to all appearance chiefs, approached us, enquiring by signs what we wanted; to which we replied in the same manner, that we came for water, and were returning to our vessels. They then pointed to the East, by way of asking if we came from that quarter, repeating several times the word “Castillan;” after which they invited us to their town, to which we proceeded with them, and arrived at some large, and very well constructed buildings of lime and stone, with figures of serpents and of idols painted upon the walls. When we entered these temples, for such they were, we perceived about one of the altars traces of blood fresh spilled; there were also several idolatrous figures and symbols, all which contributed to impress us with surprise and horror. During this time the Indians behaved peaceably, but collected in great numbers, which put us upon our guard though they appeared only to be attracted by curiosity. A body of natives soon appeared, dressed in very ragged mantles, and each bearing a bundle of dry reeds, which having deposited together, they retired. After them came two bodies of warriors, each commanded by its captain, who drew them up opposite to us; im-

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mediately after which, ten priests rushed out of an adjoining temple.—They were dressed in loose robes of white cotton, their long hair was clotted with blood, and matted and twilled together so as to be apparently impossible to be separated; they had in their hands vessels containing fire and aromatics, with which they fumigated us, making signs at the same time, that unless we quitted their Country before the fuel lying by us was consumed, they would put us to death. They then kindled the faggots, and retired without doing any thing more. The warriors however began to make a noise by whistling, founding their horns, and drums. These formidable preparations made us think it moil prudent to retire, which we accordingly did, and regaining our boats on board of which the water casks had been already put, we embarked, and reaching our vessels, proceeded on our voyage. We coasted for six days, during which time we encountered a violent gale of wind from the North, and were in imminent danger of being driven on shore. We also suffered from want of water, owing to the badness of the vessels, and were constantly obliged to go on shore and sink wells, in order to procure a daily supply. Continuing our route, we arrived opposite a town about a league from the coast, which we determined to proceed to, and for that purpose cast anchor.

This town the name of which was Pontonchan, contained several buildings of lime and stone, and was surrounded by fields of maize.—Having landed and found a spring of water, while we were engaged in filling our casks, large bodies of warriors approached us in silence; they were armed with their usual missile weapons, shields, and two handed swords. Their bodies were covered by a defensive armour of cotton reaching to the knees, their faces painted black, white, and red, and plumes of feathers ornamented their heads. They accosted us in the same manner that the natives of Campeche had done, pointing to the East and saying “Castillan, Castillan,” we replied to them by signs that we came from the East, but were much perplexed to know the meaning of this expression, or whether to construe it favorably or otherwise; and as we meant to remain on shore, for the night, we formed

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ourselves into a body, and kept a good watch in every direction; being also occupied in consulting upon the arrangement of our future movements. During this time we heard a great noise among the Indians, which we considered as portending us no good. Some of us were for embarking, but that was considered too dangerous to attempt in the face of the enemy, others were for attacking them, on the old principle that he who makes the first attack conquers; but we had at lean three hundred to encounter, for each one of us, and this was considered too rash. While thus occupied, day broke, and gave us a sight of our danger. We comforted each other with hopes of God’s mercy, and each determined to exert himself to the utmost. We soon perceived great bodies of warriors advancing, with colours flying, and joining themselves to those who had assembled on the preceding night. They then enclosed us on all fides, fighting with us foot to foot, and wounded above ten of our soldiers; the execution however of our fire arms and swords made them draw off a little, but it was only to use their arrows to more effect.—They continually cried out, “Al Calachioni,” or shoot at the captain; in consequence, he received no left than twelve arrows. I also got three for my share, one of which, in my left side, was very dangerous, and two of our soldiers they carried off alive; one was named Alonzo Bote, the other was an old Portuguese. Our captain seeing that all our exertions to drive them off were ineffectual, that the enemy were continually receiving supplies, while we had above fifty of our number killed, determined to endeavour to cut his way through them. This we effected, being formed into a compact body; but they pursued us at our heels, attacking us with their lances, and with showers of arrows. We however reached our boats, but it was only to encounter new difficulties; the hurry and pressure to embark was such, that the boats were sunk and we were forced, half wading, and half swimming, to endeavour to reach the small vessel, which came as far as possible to our assistance; our soldiers received many wounds, while in and about the boats, and it was with the utmost difficulty that any of us escaped with our lives. On counting our numbers when we arrived on board the ships, we found that our loss amounted to fifty-seven. This action lasted above half an

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hour. In the marine charts this bay is named “De Mala pelea.” Our wounds after a little time became very painful, from the cold and sea water, and we began to grow very much out of humour with the pilot Alaminos, and his discoveries. He still however persisted in his original opinion, and in denying that this land was a continent.

One soldier only of those who survived had draped unwounded; most of us had three or four wounds, our captain twelve. The mariners also were many of them disabled; for which reason we burned our smallest vessel, and divided her crew between the others. But I have yet to mention the greatest misfortune that attended us. In the hurry to escape from the natives, we had been forced to leave our casks behind. The thirst we endured in consequence thereof, during the time that we were at sea was such that our very tongues and lips cracked: Such cruel hardships attend those who go on voyages of discovery! After three days sail, we perceived an inlet which we concluded would lead to a river or some fresh water; fifteen mariners and three soldiers entered to examine it, but what water they found was all salt, even where they sunk pits on the chore, and when they returned with it, distressing as our thirst was we found it undrinkable. We called this the inlet of alligators, from the number of those animals seen there. The reigning winds of North and North East at this time increased to a storm which we fortunately weathered, and then, having determined to return to the Havannah, by the advice of Alaminos we ran for the coast of Florida, which by his maps, his degrees, and altitudes, he found to be distant about seventy leagues. With this navigation he was well acquainted, having been in that country in a voyage of discovery with Juan Ponce de Leon, ten or twelve years before. Accordingly, having sailed for four days across the gulf, we discovered that part of the coast of America to which we were bound.

When we approached the coast, the first object with us was to obtain a supply of water. Our captain, from his wounds and sufferings by thirst, was sinking hourly; on his account therefore and our own,

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twenty of us, of which number I was one, went on shore with the calks. The pilot Alaminos warned us to be prepared against a sudden attack of the natives, who had in that manner fallen on him, in his former visit to this coat. We accordingly put a good guard in an open place near the shore, and proceeded to make wells, in which to our great satisfaction we found excellent water. We stayed about an hour steeping cloths in it, and washing our wounds, and this delay enabled the Indians to fall on us; for at the expiration of that period, one of our out centinels came to give us the alarm of their approach, a few moments only before they appeared. These Indians were very tall of stature, and were clothed in the skins of animals. They assailed us with a slight of arrows, with which they wounded six of us, and myself among the rest. We however beat them off, and they then went to support another body of their countrymen, who, in their canoes, had attacked and seized our boat, and were dragging it away with them, having wounded the pilot Alaminos, and four of the mariners. We followed them close, and wading above our middles in the water, rescued the boat, leaving in all twenty-two of them dead, and three who were slightly wounded, we made prisoners; these however died in the voyage. After the natives were beaten off, we enquired of the soldier who brought the report of the enemy, what had become of his companion; he said that a short time before, he saw him go towards the water fide with a hatchet in his hand, to cut a palmita; that he shortly after heard him cry out as he supposed when the enemy were putting him to death, and therefore he gave the alarm, the Indians appearing immediately after. This soldier was named Berrio: he was the only person who escaped without a wound in Pontonchan. We went in search of him, and found the plant which he had begun to cut, and the sand much trodden, but no trace of blood: of course we concluded that he had been carried off alive. After searching for the space of an hour we gave him up, and returned to the vessels with the water, which, when our companions saw, they knew no moderation in their joy. One man in particular leaped into the boat when it came along-side the vessel, and seizing a cask of water, did not stop drinking until he died.

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We then proceeded on our voyage by some low Islands named Los Baxos de los Martires, where the vessel on board which our captain was struck ground, and in consequence took in so much water that the was near sinking; indeed we feared that our utmost exertions in pumping could not bring her into port. There were as I recollect two sailors of the Levant on board: when we called to them to assist us in pumping they replied, “facetelo vos! Do it yourselves!” At this time we were exhausted by fatigue, and the vessel in the most imminent, danger of sinking: however we forced them to give us their assistance, though unwillingly: and by our exertions, with the blessing of God, we arrived safely at Puerto de Carenas, where is now built the city of the Havannah.

On our arrival an express was forwarded to the Governor D. Velasquez, to inform him that we had discovered a Country where the houses were built of lime and stone, and the inhabitants decently clad; that they sowed maize, and possessed gold. Our captain went immediately to his estate near Santi Spiritus, where he died in ten days after his arrival. Three soldiers also died of their wounds in the Havannah, and the rest dispersed to their different homes or avocations. The fame of our discovery was spread through the Islands by the vessels on their arrival. When the figures and idols which they brought were produced, it was believed that they were antiques conveyed to those countries by a Jewish colony, after the destruction of their city by Titus and Vespasian. Our Indian prisoners on being asked if their country produced gold, replied in the affirmative, which is contrary to fact, as has been since well ascertained. The name which that part of the continent now acquired, was owing to an equivocal expression or mistake of words. Yuca is the Insular name of the plant made use of for bread, the heap of earth in which it is planted is called by these people, Tale; on being questioned relative to it, they saying they knew it, and using this word with its signification in their language, the two repeated together made the word Yuca-tal, or Yucatan as it was expressed by the Spaniards, and ever after remained applied to that part of America. Such was all

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that the soldiers gained by this discovery, from which we came back, poor and wounded, and thought those fortunate who had reached they homes alive, for our lots from first to last amounted to seventy of our number. Diego Velasquez wrote to his patron the Bishop of Burgos relating the particulars of his discovery and the expences he had been at, for all which he obtained fame and credit with his Majesty, but not a syllable was said of the poor soldiers who had expended their properties, and lost, or risqued, their lives in the expedition.

Three soldiers of us whose object was to reach the town of Trinidad, as loon as our wounds were healed, agreed with an inhabitant of the Havannah who was going thither in a canoe with a cargo of cotton to sell, for our passage, for which he was to be paid ten crowns in gold. Accordingly we embarked with him, and after coasting for eleven days, we arrived near an Indian town named Canarreon, where we were driven on shore by a violent gale of wind. The canoe was dashed to pieces, and we with difficulty reached the land, naked, wounded, and bruised, by the violence of the waves. We had no resource but in the clothing adopted by the first pair, and in the same wood where we procured this, we found a species of tough flexible roots called Bejucos, with which we tied on our feet sandals made of the bark of trees, which we cut out for that purpose with sharp stones; and travelling thus for two days, we came to the village of Yaguarrama where Fray Bartholome de las Casas afterwards bishop of Chiapa was then parish priest. On the next day I went to another town named Chipiona, belonging to Alonzo de Avila, where, at the house of a friend named Anthonio de Medina I got clothed, and then pursued my journey to St. Jago, where I sound the governor Velasquez busily employed in fiting out another armament for discovery. As he was my relation, and also as governor, I went to wait upon him, and after paying him my respects, he asked me if I was able to undertake another expedition to Yucatan. I told him that he should say the land of wounds and calamity; to which he answered that he knew we had suffered much in the former voyage, but that

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such was the fate of those who sought honour and fame in new discoveries; and that his Majesty should know and reward our merits. “And now,” continued he “my son, try your fortune again, and I will put you in a station where you shall acquire honour.”