THE CONQUERORS OF CENTRAL AMERICA, I

He set out in December, 1499, with four vessels, of which only two returned to Palos at the end of September, 1500. He touched the coast of the newly discovered continent at a point near the shore visited by Hojeda some months before, and explored the coast for some 2400 miles, discovering Cape St. Augustine at 8° 20' south latitude, following the coast-line in a north-westerly direction to Rio Grande, which he named Santa-Maria de la Mar dulce, and continuing in the same direction as far as Cape St. Vincent. Diego de Lepe explored the same coasts with two caravels from January to June, 1500; there is nothing particular to record of this voyage beyond the very important observation that was made on the direction of the coast-line of the continent starting from Cape St. Augustine. Lepe had but just returned to Spain when two vessels left Cadiz, equipped by Rodrigo M. Bastidas, a wealthy and highly respectable man, with the view of making some fresh discoveries, but above all with the object of collecting as large a quantity of gold and pearls as possible, for which were to be bartered glass beads and other worthless trifles. Juan de la Cosa, whose talents as a navigator were proverbial, and who knew these coasts well from having explored them, was really at the head of this expedition. The sailors went on shore and saw the Rio Sinu, the Gulf of Urabia, and reached the Puerto del Retrete or de los Escribanos, in the Isthmus of Panama. This harbour was not visited by Columbus till the 26th of November, 1502; it is situated about seventeen miles from the once celebrated, but now destroyed town of Nombre de Dios. In fact this expedition, which had been organized by a merchant, became, thanks to Juan de la Cosa, one of the voyages the most fertile in discoveries; but alas! it came to a sad termination; the vessels were lost in the Gulf of Xaragua, and Bastidas and La Cosa were obliged to make their way by land to St. Domingo. When they arrived there, Bovadilla, the upright man and model governor, whose infamous conduct to Columbus we have already mentioned, had them arrested, on the plea that they had bought some gold from the Indians of Xaragua; he sent them off to Spain, which was only reached after a fearfully stormy voyage, some of the vessels being lost on the way.

After this expedition, so fruitful in results, voyages of discovery became rather less frequent for some years; the Spaniards being occupied in asserting their supremacy in the countries in which they had already founded colonies.

Indians devoured by Dogs
Indians devoured by Dogs.
From an old print.

The colonization of Hispaniola had commenced in 1493, when the town of Isabella was built. Two years afterwards Christopher Columbus had travelled over the island and had subjugated the poor savages, by means of those terrible dogs which had been trained to hunt Indians, and unaccustomed as the natives were to any hard work, he had forced them to toil in the mines. Both Bovadilla and Ovando treating the Indians as a herd of cattle, had divided them among the colonists as slaves. The cruelty with which this unfortunate people was treated became more and more unbearable. By means of a despicable ambush, Ovando seized the Queen of Xaragua and 300 of her principal subjects, and at a given signal they were all put to the sword without there being any crime adduced against them. "For some years," says Robertson, "the gold brought into the royal treasury of Spain amounted to about 460,000 pesos (2,400,000 livres of the currency of Tours) an enormous sum if we take into consideration the great increase in the value of money since the beginning of the sixteenth century." In 1511 Diego Velasquez conquered Cuba with 300 men, and here again were enacted the terrible scenes of bloodshed and pillage which have rendered the Spanish name so sadly notorious. They cut off the thumbs of the natives, put out their eyes, and poured boiling oil or melted lead into their wounds, even when they did not torture them by burning them over a slow fire to extract from them the secret of the treasures of which they were believed to be the possessors. It was only natural under these circumstances that the population rapidly decreased, and the day was not far off when it would be wholly exterminated. To understand fully the sufferings of this race thus odiously persecuted, the touching and horrible narrative of Las Casas must be read, himself the indefatigable defender of the Indians.