THE CONQUERORS OF CENTRAL AMERICA, I

The flotilla, consisting of four vessels, set sail on the 20th of May from Santa-Maria, taking a south-westerly course, and in twenty-seven days the American continent was sighted at the place which was named Venezuela, because the houses being built upon piles reminded the beholders of Venice. Hojeda, after some ineffectual attempts to hold intercourse with the natives, with whom he had several skirmishes, next saw the Island of Margarita; after sailing about 250 miles to the east of the river Orinoco he reached the Gulf of Paria, and entered a bay called the Bay of Las Perlas, from the natives of that part being employed in the pearl fisheries.

Guided by the maps of Columbus, Hojeda passed by the Dragon's-Mouth, which separates Trinidad from the continent, and returned westward to Cape La Vela. Then, after touching at the Caribbee Islands, where he made a number of prisoners, whom he hoped to sell for slaves in Spain, he was obliged to cast anchor at Yaquimo, in Hispaniola, on the 5th of September, 1499.

Columbus, knowing Hojeda's courage and his restless spirit only too well, feared that he would introduce a new element of discord into the colony. He therefore despatched Francesco Roldan with two caravels to inquire into his motives in coming to the island, and if necessary to prevent his landing. The admiral's fears were but too well grounded; Hojeda had scarcely landed before he had an interview with some of the malcontents, inciting them to a rising at Xaragua, and to a determination to expel Columbus. After some skirmishes, which had not ended to Hojeda's advantage, a meeting was arranged for him with Roldan, Diego d'Escobar, and Juan de la Cosa, when they prevailed upon him to leave the island. "He took with him," says Las Casas, "a prodigious cargo of slaves, whom he sold in the market at Cadiz for enormous sums of money." He returned to Spain in February, 1500, where he had been preceded by Americus Vespucius and B. Roldan on the 18th of October, 1499.

The most southerly point that Hojeda had reached in this voyage was 4° north latitude, and he had only spent fourteen weeks on the voyage of discovery, properly so called. If we appear to have dwelt at some length upon this voyage, it is because it was the first one made by Vespucius. Some authors, Varnhagen for instance, and quite recently, Mr. H. Major, in his history of Prince Henry the Navigator, assert that Vespucius' first voyage was in 1497, and consequently that he must have seen the American continent before Columbus, but we prefer to follow Humboldt, who spent so many years in studying the history of the discovery of America, in his opinion that 1499 was the right date, also M. Ed. Charton and M. Jules Codine, the latter of whom discussed this question in the Report of the Geographical Society for 1873,apropos of Mr. Major's book.

"If it were true," says Voltaire, "that Vespucius had discovered the American Continent, yet the glory would not be his; it belongs undoubtedly to the man who had the genius and courage to undertake the first voyage, to Columbus." As Newton says in his argument with Leibnitz, "the glory is due only to the inventor." But we agree with M. Codine when he says, "How can we allow that there was an expedition in 1497 which resulted in the discovery of above 2500 miles of the coast-line of the mainland, when there is no trace of it left either among the great historians of that time, or in the legal depositions in connexion with the claims made by the heir of Columbus against the Spanish Government, in which the priority of the discoveries of each leader of an expedition is carefully mentioned, with the part of the coast explored by each?" Finally, the authentic documents extracted from the archives of the Casa de contratacion make it evident that Vespucius was entrusted with the preparation of the vessels destined for the third voyage of Columbus at Seville and at San Lucar from the middle of August, 1497, till the departure of Columbus on the 30th of May, 1498. The narratives of the voyages of Vespucius are very diffuse and wanting in precision and order; the information they give upon the places he visited is so vague, that it might apply to one part of the coast as well as to another; as to the localities treated of, as well as of the companions of Vespucius, there are no indications given of a nature to aid the historian. Not a single name is given of any well-known person, and the dates are contradictory in those famous letters which have given endless work to commentators. Humboldt says of them "There is an element of discord in the most authentic documents relating to the Florentine navigator." We have given an account of Hojeda's first voyage, which coincides with that of Vespucius according to Humboldt, who has compared the principal incidents of the two narratives. Varnhagen asserts that Vespucius, having started on the 10th of May, 1497, entered the Gulf of Honduras on the 10th of June, coasted by Yucatan and Mexico, sailed up the Mississippi, and at the end of February, 1498, doubled the Cape of Florida. After anchoring for thirty-seven days at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, he returned to Cadiz in October, 1498.

If Vespucius had really made this marvellous voyage, he would have far outstripped all the navigators of his time, and would have fully deserved that his name should be given to the newly-discovered continent, whose coast-line he had explored for so great a distance. But nothing is less certain, and Humboldt's opinion has hitherto appeared to the best writers to offer the largest amount of probability.