Columbus’ La Navidad
The Fate of the New World’s First Spanish Settlement
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
In his journal of the second voyage, Columbus recorded the declarations of natives who were familiar with the situation of the fortress. This journal is no longer extant, but both Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus had access to it in writing their respective histories. Oviedo’s chronicle differs in minor detail from the others but concurs with them in substance.
“As none of those whom Columbus left in this island had any inclination to prudence or shame, they gave a bad account of their persons and thus forfeited their lives,” wrote Oviedo. “The Indians made it known how those Christians did many vicious things and robbed them of their wives and daughters and everything they had, as their fancy dictated. And with all this they acted as if each one was a law unto himself and they were insolent to the captain who had been left to command them and they strayed into the interior, a few at a time, so that all were slain.”
Additional details of the destruction of the colony were presented by Ferdinand Columbus: “A brother of the cacique Guacanagari along with some other Indians who could speak some words of Castilian talked to the Admiral. They said that very soon there began to be discord among the Christians and each one took whatever women and gold that he could and Pedro Gutiérrez and Escobedo [Arana’s lieutenants] killed a certain Jâcome and with nine others went with their women to a cacique called Caonabo, who was lord of the mines.
“The latter had them all killed and after many days Caonabo came with many of his people to La Navidad where only Diego de Arana held out with ten men who chose to stay with him to guard the fortress, all the others having scattered to various places in the island. Caonabo set fire at night to the houses where the Christians lived with their women.”
Ferdinand says the forlorn remnant of the colony was driven into the sea, where eight of them drowned, including Arana. Three others perished on the beach. With their deaths the colony ceased to exist.
A militant faction of the arriving colonists demanded that Columbus arrest Guacanagari for complicity in the massacre. Among the most vocal of this group was Father Bull, a Benedictine priest who had been assigned by the sovereigns to look after the spiritual needs of the new colony and begin the work of converting the natives to the Christian faith. Father Buil and Columbus soon became mortal enemies.
But Columbus had more pressing problems than an inquest into the La Navidad deaths. The fifteen hundred voyagers were exhausted from their long journey. Part of the stores of food which the ships had brought was rotting in the hot, humid climate. The last thing he needed was a confrontation with the natives.
A site for the settlement was hastily selected near the mouth of a river a few leagues east of the ill-fated La Navidad. Columbus named it La Isabela in honor of his royal patroness.
As if the curse of La Navidad fell on its successor, the short history of Isabela was one of unrelieved misery and despair. Famine, disease, and death were the daily companions of the pioneer settlers who had expected to find gold lying around in chunks for the taking.
“They were plunged into hard physical labor in constructing the works and the buildings,” Las Casas wrote. “The people all at once began to fall ill and many of them died so that there scarcely remained a man of the hidalgos and commoners who did not become terribly ill of the fever.… Supervening all the misfortunes was the great anguish they conceived in finding themselves without hope so far from their lands and finding themselves likewise defrauded of the riches which they had confidently expected.”
The site for Isabela had been badly chosen. It was in an unproductive part of the island with a poor harbor and exposed to strong winds from the north and west. Within three years Bartolomé Columbus, the energetic younger brother of the admiral, founded Santo Domingo on Haiti’s south shore. Isabela was abandoned, but its terrible memory lived on like a nightmare in the minds of the early Spanish colonists.
“There were many in this island of Espanola who would not venture, without fear, to go near Isabela after it became depopulated,” wrote Father Las Casas, who lived on Espanola from 1502 to 1527. “It was reported that one time toward the end of day, one or two men passing by the buildings of Isabela saw two files of men, like two choirs, in one of the streets. They appeared to be nobles and of the court, well-dressed, girded with swords and muffled in hooded cloaks such as those which were in fashion in Spain at that time. One of those to whom this vision appeared .. . saluted them and asked when and whence they came. They responded silently, only touching their hands to their hats in returning the salute. Then they removed their heads from their bodies, together with their hats, leaving them headless, and immediately disappeared.
“This vision and fantasy left those who witnessed it nearly dead and for many days they remained stricken with terror.”