Columbus’ La Navidad


With much apprehension, Columbus weighed anchor on November 27 for the short run to La Navidad. It was late in the day when the seventeen ships arrived at the reefs guarding the narrow entrance to the colony’s little harbor. Mindful of what happened to the Santa María at this same place, Columbus had the fleet anchor outside the harbor for the night. They were less than three miles from the beach, and the voyagers strained their eyes looking for some sign of human activity on shore, such as fires for cooking the evening meal. But no glimmer of light broke the dark outline of the forest.

Columbus ordered two cannon shots fired to alert the colony to the fleet’s arrival. There was no answering signal. “The people were much dejected and feared the worst,” Dr. Chanca wrote.

About midnight several natives came to the fleet in a canoe and asked to be taken to the admiral. One of them identified himself as a cousin of Guacanagari, and presented two gold masks to Columbus as a gift from the cacique. The visitors were asked how the Christians at La Navidad were faring. The Indians replied that they were well except that there had been some deaths from illness, and some others from disagreements among themselves.

The king’s cousin also presented Guacanagari’s regret for not coming to the fleet in person. The king was indisposed, it seemed, from a wound incurred in defending the Christians from an invasion by two neighboring caciques, one a truculent ruler named Caonabo, lord of the area where most of the gold was said to be found, and the other named Mayreni. Guacanagari’s village had been burned by the invaders, his cousin added.

The native envoys left before dawn, promising they would return later that day with Guacanagari. “With these parting words we were somewhat relieved,” Dr. Chanca commented.

Their relief was short-lived. In the morning Columbus sent a party of his officers, including Dr. Chanca, to the beach to investigate the situation at La Navidad. They were accompanied by an Indian interpreter who had been given the Christian name of Diego Cólon.

La Navidad was a scene of silent desolation as the shore party approached it from the beach. The little fortress which had been built from the timbers of Columbus’ wrecked flagship was in charred ruins. Some articles of clothing were scattered on the ground. A few natives were seen lurking on the edge of the forest but they vanished as the Spaniards came near. Later, however, another relative of Guacanagari’s appeared on the scene, and he and three of his companions were taken to Columbus in the ship’s boat. They confirmed his worst fears. Every man in the colony was dead, all thirty-nine of the sailors who had been his shipmates on his first great voyage. Most of them had been killed, the Indians told the admiral, in the invasion by the caciques Caonabo and Mayreni, who burned the fortress as well as Guacanagari’s nearby village.

“The next morning the Admiral went ashore with some of us and went to the site of the village and found it totally destroyed,” Dr. Chanca related. “We discussed a number of different theories as to what had happened; some suspected that Guacamari [ sic ] himself was the traitor and caused the deaths of the Christians; to others this appeared unlikely since the [chief’s] village had been destroyed.”

The bodies of eleven Spaniards were found in shallow graves overgrown with weeds. “All [the natives] said with one voice that Caonabo and Mayreni had killed them,” Dr. Chanca continued, “but along with this they expressed resentment that the Christians [each] had as many as three women and some four and we believed much evil resulted from their jealousy.”

Meanwhile Columbus waited in vain for Guacanagari’s promised appearance. At last he decided that if the chief could or would not come to him, he would go to the chief. Guacanagari had transferred his headquarters to a village of fifty huts about nine miles from the site of his ravaged town.

“The Admiral went ashore and all the principal persons with him, so well attired that their garb would have been appropriate in a principal city,” Chanca related. “When we arrived, we found [the chief] reclining on his bed, such as they use, suspended in the air.… He exhibited much sympathy, with tears in his eyes, for the death of the Christians and indicated as best he could how some had died of illness and others had gone to Caonabo to look for the gold mine and had died there and still others had been slain in the village. From the appearance of the bodies the deaths had occurred within the last two months.

“I and [another] surgeon from the fleet were present; the Admiral said to … Guacanagari that we were skilled in treating men’s infirmities and suggested he show us the wound.”

The cacique consented, and the two physicians loosened the bandage. Chanca said it was certain to him that the supposedly wounded thigh was in no worse shape than the other, although the chief pretended that it gave him much pain. “The Admiral did not know what to make of it; it seemed to him and to many others that they must dissimulate until the truth was better known.”