Thursday, January 23, 2014

1513 - Juan Ponce de Leon discovers Florida

Juan Ponce de Leon
 (1474-1521)
On March 4, 1513, Governor of Puerto Rico Juan Ponce de Leon left Punta Aguada in search of new lands to colonize but some pretended later that he had rather in mind to discover the Fountain of Youth.

Relayed by the writings of Greek traveler Herodotus and the legend of Prester John's Kingdom, the alleged reality of such a spring had been updated since the discovery of America through stories reported by the Natives. The water of this miraculous fountain supposedly granted an exceptional long life to those who drank it and cured their ills. This myth was also found among the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean who talked emphatically about a rich island located northwest called Bimini. According to them, the precious spring was over there, beyond the Bahamas (Lucayos). One of their leaders had even left seeking after it with a party but never returned. 

Spanish flag 1513
A few years earlier…

When Christopher Colombus landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, these islands were inhabited by the Lucayos (Luku -cairi, meaning in Arawak language " people of the islands "), people related to the Tainos (meaning "good people") who lived mainly in the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico).


Endowed with a generous and peaceful nature, the Lucayos, estimated at about 40 000, were soon decimated by diseases brought by Europeans or taken in slavery to the Greater Antilles to make up for the lack of labor. Thirty years hardly after the Spanish conquest, the Bahamas had become desert islands. They would remain so for almost 130 years.

The Lesser Antilles were, meanwhile, inhabited by the Caribs, people come from the shores of the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela. Contrary to the Tainos who were regarded as peaceful people before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Caribs showed traditionally a warry spirit and mistrusted foreigners. For their part, the Spaniards feared them because they practised cannibalism. Was it a hollow reputation or reality? Actually, they happened to eat sometimes the body of a foe during well-defined rituals.

The Bahamas, which were the first islands discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, quickly experienced a tragic destiny. The 40 000 Lucayan Indians who lived there were fast wiped out by smallpox and few survivors condemned to hard labor or abducted by slave traders. Twenty years after the Spaniards arrived, the islands were already widely depopulated.

A  Tainos family
Juan Ponce de Leon, a zealous servant of Spain

Juan Ponce de Leon was born in the province of Valladolid into a family of minor nobility including some ancestors become famous in fighting the Moors. He had chosen the military career but the fall of the Kingdom of Granada leaving him unemployed, he joined most probably in 1493 the colonization army set up by Christopher Columbus and tried the adventure in America.
In 1502, he was called to side Governor of Hispaniola Nicolas de Ovanda so as to subdue the Native Tainos in open rebellion.

Since the Spaniards had arrived in Santo Domingo, the Tainos who had first welcomed the newcomers had fast understood that their intentions were to deprive them of their lands. They sacked in response the Spanish settlements and resisted the occupation by refusing to harvest or fleeing. The Spanish crackdown was a relentless ferocity and the cruelty of Ponce de Leon himself surprised observers who made a report to the Crown. He was in particular part in the Ygueï Massacre where hundreds of Tainos men, women and children were submitted to the worst tortures.These were often scalded, had hands and feet cut off, were skinned alive, broken on the wheeled, hanged or burnt.

Tainos Massacre

Far from being condemned for these abuses, Ponce de Leon was upgraded governor of the island of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico) that he had previously discovered and eager to temper the claims of Diego Colon (the son of Christopher Columbus) on the colony, King Ferdinand rewarded him by allowing him to found a new city at Ygueï, eastern Santo Domingo and to enslave the remaining Tainos to work in gold mines.

Enslaving Tainos
Regarded as a great servant of Spain, Ponce de Leon could, without fear, terrorize his province, stoking the anger of the Tainos who rebelled again in 1511, before being once more harshly subdued and decimated by Spanish arquebuses when it was not by fatal diseases such as smallpox or measles. As a result of the Spanish brutality, the Tainos population decreased in a dizzying pace generating pressing workforce needs. A solution to this situation was to conquer new territories. The Bahamas being already emptied of their former inhabitants, it urged to fetch slaves somewhere else. Far from seeking the Fountain of Youth as it was later said, Ponce de Leon left rather for slaves hunting. Meanwhile, Spanish settlers came in numbers. They were already 10 000 in 1508.

Was it for him a way to ward off the memory of a poor childhood and ungrateful family land, the fact is that Ponce de Leon undoubtedly took advantage of his position to become a wealthy planter. Maybe he was not a brave soldier but was able to be feared by his cruelty, using ruthlessly a substantial and cheap indigenous labor work to develop his vast domains. He grew vegetables and developed livestock such as pigs, cattle and horses, building a prosperous business on an island in turmoil.

The myth of the Fountain of Youth

Searching for the Fountain of Youth
Although the reality of this healing waters was reasonably put in doubt, it seems that Governor Juan Ponce de Leon would have given some importance to what the Natives reported and even made it his workhorse, as soon as the king of Spain granted him a charter allowing him to discover the mythical Bimini country.

The Indians made perhaps a confusion between this mythical land and that of the Mayas but it was clear to the Spaniards that it could be on the Bahamas side. As far as he was concerned, Ponce de Leon never admitted officially in his lifetime that the main purpose of his search would have been the fountain of youth if it ever was.

The question of the fountain quest was discussed only after his death and the first one to mention it was Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo in a book published in 1535 about the history of this time. There was no doubt in his mind that the conquistador hoped to discover the spring in order to regain youth and sexual potency. One would think that there was a bias in this claim but other Spanish authors confirmed that Ponce de Leon was well obsessed with finding this fountain.

Ponce Leon and his men preparing to land in Florida
(Jackson Walker)
Did Ponce de Leon really search for the fountain of youth?
It is right to think that it is about an unfounded assertion even if the Spanish biographers fastened, for reasons remaining to determine, making this character inseparable of the mythical quest. It is sure, actually, that in the early 16th century, the Spaniards, who had set foot on the American continent for only 20 years, did not stop being fascinated by the extraordinary wealth of this New World that contrasted with the barenness of their own country. It could seem obvious that if there was so much gold, a rare and precious metal, it could also be found the Fountain of Youth, a rare and precious water.


These new lands already offered the Spaniards more gold than they ever have imagined and reality blending with fiction, any information, any rumor, the lesser legend exerted immediate fascination. Everything seemed possible in this unexplored continent the wealth of which made the head spin. The myth of the Fountain of Youth drew its origins in Antiquity but was especially associated in the Europeans minds with a far and unreachable country, America appearing therefore as an ideal field to restore it. Having themselves similar myths, the Natives had not delayed to understand that the greediness and rapacity of the Spaniards was comparable with their credulity. It was fair enough to get rid of these bulky hosts by sending them to chase fantasies, hoping maybe that they would not return. Juan Ponce de Leon had certainly health problems as many of his contemporaries but there was no evidence that he was obsessed with the myth of perennial youth. He belonged to a category of minor nobility adventurers especially concerned with the language of arms and easy fortune. Now, knowing him neither wife nor child, a sufficiently rare occurence among the conquistadors, historians have deducted that perhaps he suffered from some intimate problem, thereby justifying the search of appropriate treating waters.

Discovering Florida

In 1512, King Ferdinand decided to pursue the colonization looking for new territories and chose Ponce de Leon for this mission. The charter of which he was beneficiary granted him important privileges on the lands to discover among which gold mining, but all costs were on the other hand at his own expense.
To this end, he equipped 3 ships, the Santiago, the San Cristóbal and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion, setting sail late winter, 1513 for new lands to be conquered (1). He sailed along the Bahamas and arrived between April 2 and 8 before a still unexplored coast, believing it was an island (2).

It seems that he dropped anchor in the area where will be later founded St Augustine, close to present Melbourne Beach. He took possession of this land on behalf of the king and called it Florida, probably because of plentiful blooming plants in this season. He had then to fight against the Gulf Stream that led him northeast but finally succeeded to set sail south, making surveys of the estuaries of the rivers met.


First meeting between the Spaniards 
 and the Calusas
He arrived on May 4 at Biscaine Bay (now Miami Beach) in Tequesta territory. Hidden in the woods, the Indians were not seen, preferring to avoid contact with the explorers. Ponce de Leon and his crew left May 15 to Keys Islands and sailed along the western coast up to Manataca (now Cape Montano) they reached on May 23. They arrived at the CalusasPonce de Leon thought he could trade with them when interpreters announced him the pending arrival of their king. Instead, he saw approaching his ships 20 war canoes loaded with men waving spears and bows. He succeeded repelling them, even making prisoners but the next day, the Natives attacked again with 80 canoes. The fight was indecisive making casualties on both sides. Ponce de Leon listened to his prisoners who recommended him to sail southwest to the Dry Tortugas, a chain of sandy islands where he cast anchor on June 21 .

These islets were only filled with thousands of marine animals. The Spaniards captured about 160 giant sea turtles and killed many sea wolves, animals of which Indians reserved generally meat to tribes chiefs. They left swiftly for Havana and Puerto Rico where Native people had just revolted.

Ponce de Leon achieved a second trip to the Florida coast in July and met on his way a Spanish ship captained by certain Diego Miruelo suspected of being a spy in the service of Viceroy Diego Colon, son of Christopher Colombus. It chanced that Miruelo was shipwrecked shortly after and Ponce de Leon rescued the crew. He returned in Puerto Rico only on October 19. Never during these two trips, it was question of fountain of youth.

Juan Ponce de Leon's expedition brought no result. He had not ventured in the mainland contenting himself with a coastal survey. It was obvious that his first voyage had not allowed to raise the mystery of the fountain of youth.(3)

Preparing  the colonization of Florida

Ponce de Leon spent the months following his return to try to subdue the Caribs who disputed regularly the Spanish rule in Puerto Rico. The scant information available would suggest that he had only little results. It is maybe the reason why he decided in 1514 to leave for Spain in search of support and legitimacy that seemed to challenge the presence of Viceroy Diego Colon.

He was welcomed with the honors by King Ferdinand who knighted him while he was confirmed in his rights over Bimini and Florida. He was next year back in Puerto Rico with license to raise an army to subject the Caribs permanently. It is unclear if he succeeded in this mission but it seems that he chose to get involved again in the conquest of Florida where he was supposed to hold rights.

What interest represented Florida for him? An easy conquest, perhaps, against peoples regarded as weaker by the Spaniards for lack of equivalent weaponry. He maybe hoped to carve out a new empire just like his governorship in Puerto Rico. This attempt would nevertheless prove fatal to him.

The Calusas attack the Spaniards
He left in February 1521 for a new colonization campaign of Florida aimed at carrying out the fight against the Calusas who had prevented him from landing some eight years earlier. Accompanied with 200 men including farmers, about fifty horses and cattle, he intended to establish a lasting settlement. He landed in the estuary of present Charlotte Harbor but this position turned out fast undefensible. The colonists were violently attacked by the Natives and Ponce de Leon wounded by a poisoned arrow. He withdrew hastily with his men in a panic and set sail to Havana where he had to die from his injury. His body was transferred to Puerto Rico to be buried there.

Was Ponce de Leon too old or too poor strategist to boost so slightly in an adventure which had already failed earlier. Meanwhile Hernan Cortès, with 500 soldiers and taking advantage of alliances with indigenous peoples was submitting the powerful Aztec Empire.
This new failure postponed the colonization of Florida.

References :
(1) The Track of Ponce de Leon in 1513 (L.D. Scisco - American Geographical Society, 1513)
(2) Ponce de Leon Landed Where (Herald Tribune, March 29, 2013)
(3) Ponce de Leon Exposed (T.D. Allman - New York Times, April 1, 1513)

Bibliography:
E.H. Haines Ponce De Léon Discovers Florida

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