Mehr Nasir-Moin ’21: Book XVI, Chapter VII (Which Deals With Some Persons Noted For Their Effort, and of Some Things Concerning the War and Conquest of the Island of San Juan)

Book XVI, Chapter VII

Which deals with some persons noted for their effort, and of some things concerning the war and conquest of the island of San Juan.

Translated by Mehr Nasir-Moin ’21

I find the writer who forgets or fails to say some particular things of the sort that will be written about in this chapter very worthy of blame; because although the primary aim of history is directed elsewhere, especially of this one, which seeks to memorialize the secrets and things that nature naturally produces in our Indies, it also resonates with giving it the title general history to recount the achievements of the conquerors of these parts; because at the very least if they had not received a proper accolade or payment for their labor and merits, at least they will not lack the tribute they deserve for who they were and for their very worthy deeds because of the fault and negligence of my pen, which offers greater satisfaction than others. What is written in praise of those who lived well and died valiantly should be held in higher esteem than any goods that fortune could have given them or taken away. And because I do not remain silent about this, I say that there were many noblemen and courageous persons who were present in the conquest of the island of Boriquen, which is now called San Juan. And I do not say many in number, because in all they were very few; but because in this small number of men most of them were very manly and of great spirit and strength. A rare thing and precious gift of nature, and not seen in any other nation as profusely and generally granted as to the Spanish people; because in Italy, France and in most kingdoms of the world only the nobles and knights are special or naturally exercised and dedicated to war, or inclined and disposed to it; and among the rest of the common people and those who are given to the trades and to agriculture, and are plebeians, few of them engage in arms and want to exercise them among strangers. But in our Spanish nation it seems that commonly all of its men were primarily and especially born committed to arms and to their exercise, and war is to them a natural thing, such that everything else is accessory to them, and rank is not an obstacle for the military. And for this reason, though few in number, the Spanish conquerors have always accomplished what many other nations could not have done or finished in these parts.

There was thus in that conquest a Sebastian Alonso de Niebla, a farmer, and who in Spain never did anything except plow and dig and other things related to field work: he was a spirited man, strong and lean, but robust, and together with his robustness which showed itself at first glance in his countenance, he was a man of good conversation. He turned out to be a very great field leader and dared to attempt and undertake things from which, although seemingly difficult and harsh, he managed to emerge victorious. And as he was a very nimble man and a great runner, he dared to do what others could not, because in addition to what I have said about his person he had such great strength that any Indian he grabbed was as much as tied up, once held between his hands; and for this reason, once he became known to the Indians and they learned of about him through experience, they feared him very much. But in the end, since few are born in war, and its inclination is to lead men to their deaths, so was the case with this heroic and brave man; and he was killed in the year 1526 in a province called Loquillo, in the island of San Juan, where Sebastian Alonso de Niebla had his estate and post; and his death resulted from over-exerting himself, and it took place in this way. This man was almost an enemy and at odds with his nobleman neighbor, named Martin de Guiluz, from Biscay, now a neighbor of the city of San Juan of Puerto Rico, and one of the principal persons of that city; and given that in the past the Carib Indians of the neighboring islands used to come in canoes to plunder, it happened that they entered the island and came upon an estate and property of Martin de Guiluz, and as soon as Sebastian Alonso found out, and heard it said that the Carib archers had taken the people who lived on the estate and property of the aforementioned Martin de Guiluz and robbed them of all they had, Sebastian Alonso in great haste sent one of his blacks to saddle him a horse, and said: “By God, let it not be said that because I am at odds with Martin de Guiluz I will let him suffer and lose what he has by not going against those who have robbed him, finding myself so close.” And so he climbed onto the horse, and took two or three of his blacks with him and a Christian hand, and went in pursuit of the Carib Indians, and he caught up with them, throwing them into disarray and breaking their stride, and apprehended four of them; he took them by the hair while riding his horse and handed them over to his blacks, and then turned back for the others. And one of those he grabbed had a poisoned arrow in his hand and killed him; as he carried him on the fly grasped by the hair, he hit him with an arrow forcefully, and he succeeded in wounding him with a single stab to the groin, and from that wound he later died: and when he saw that he was wounded, he killed the Indian and seven or eight others in the same way, and returned with his spoils and handed them over to their owner Martin de Guilaz. And since the poisonous herb with which those Indians shoot their arrows is very pestiferous and bad, he died of that wound; but as a Catholic Christian he distributed well what he had among the poor and needy and through pious works. And in this manner he died, leaving behind much pain and sorrow among the Spaniards and Christians on this island, because in truth he was a man whose character they missed very much, and such a man as is seldom found, since in addition to being very manly and of great strength, the Indians feared him very much, and he was held in as high esteem and reputation by them as by the Christians; because as it was said of him above, he was a great field leader and had much knowledge in military and war matters.

In his company was another good man, named Juan de León, who was mentioned before. He imitated Sebastian Alonso in all matters, because he was quick and a good interpreter, strong and daring. And in the things that we faced, which were many, on land as well as the sea, he was noted as a man of fine spirit and effort; but the one and the other were badly rewarded for their services and work, because they were not taken into account in the allotment of Indians, neither were the great conquerors as they should have. And even when they were given something, it was so trifling that they could not support themselves with it; because it is customary for some to enjoy the sweat and labor of others; and for he who deserves mercies to be forgotten and not rewarded well, and for those that should be forgotten, or at the least are not so deserving of remuneration, to enjoy the largest shares and awards even if not worthy of them. This is the way of the world, and men do what men do; but their passions do not allow them freely to do what they should, the better for us to understand that God is the only just and true rewarder. And so time teaches us that neither those who distributed it, nor the others to whom they gave it unjustly, enjoyed it for but a few days; and both met the same end that temporal things usually have; and pray to God that their souls do no pay for it in the other life, where most already are.

Another was Juan Lopez, field leader, great man in matters of military knowledge, but not a man of great spirit. This office of field leader is more complicated and requires a lot more knowledge in these parts than in Spain, since this land is very dense and full of forests and not as clear nor open as that of Castile and other Christian kingdoms. But because the subject has moved to field leaders, I will tell here of one I met and of a remarkable deed related to this office.

There was a gentleman in the Mainland of Castilla del Oro named Bartolomé de Ocon, who once passed through a certain area of very thick and dense mountains; and about seven years later found himself with some companions very near where he had been before; and five or six of those with him on this trip  had also been in the first excursion; and the land was so densely and thickly covered in trees that the sky was hardly visible, nor could they even walk without clearing the way with swords and daggers, and all those there were thinking that they were lost and did not know where they were heading, nor in what direction to continue their journey; and coming together to discuss what they should do, Bartolomé de Ocon said: “Fear not, gentlemen: less than two hundred steps from here there is, at such a spot (pointing with his finger, which they did not see nor could they possibly had seen because of the thickness of the trees and bushes), where seven years ago, coming from such a direction, we stopped to drink; and if you want to see it, two or three of you can come with me and I will show it to you.” And we should know that they did not have a drop of water to drink, and they were in the greatest need in the world to stumble upon water or they would be in danger of suffering and dying from thirst, so faint they were already. And he went with those who had been there earlier and when they arrived at the stream, which was covered under a canopy of branches, he sat down on a stone next to the water and beginning to drink, said: “I sat on this very stone and had a picnic with you now seven years ago and you can see the pear tree, where we picked many pears, and now it has plenty.” And so the companions, recognizing the stone, which was large and well-known, and the pear trees and other signs and trees, and the same stream, came to know that it was so, and that some of them had been there before, as I have said: and they were not a little amazed and helped by the water. They all gave many thanks to God, and Bartolomé de Ocon received no little credit for this and other similar deeds; because in truth in this case it seemed that he had special grace over the many men who were in those parts, since for the most part he was a plain man and of no better capacity for reasoning than others; he was rather thought to be rude.

But going back to the subject of the conquerors of the island of San Juan, I will say of that Juan Lopez, the field leader mentioned earlier, that although he was a good field leader, was crude and not as spirited and cunning a warrior with the Indians.

There was another dark-skinned young man,  who was a servant to the First Knight Commander Don Frey Nicolás de Ovando, whom they called Mejía; a man of good spirit and quick and lively strength who was killed by the Caribs in Luysa’s Haymanio or seat, and they did the very same Luysa, a principal cacica, who warned him and told him to leave, and he refused to do so, so as not to leave her alone, and so they shot him with their bows; and being full of arrows and having a spear in his hand, he set his eyes on a chief of the Caribs and threw the spear at him and pierced him through from side to side, having first killed two other Indians enemies and wounded others. And in this way he ended his days.

There was another good man named Juan Casado, a good person and plain laborer; but a gentle field leader and fortunate in many things he undertook and a man of great spirit. So, these I have mentioned especially did many good things; but even without them there were other gentlemen and young men who, although they did not have so much experience, did not lack the spirit to show themselves in war as skilled and strong as required. One of these was Francisco de Barrionuevo, who now is governor of Castilla del Oro, of whom mention was made in the pacification of the cacique don Enrique; and although at the time of the war on the island of San Juan he was a young man, he always gave a good account of himself, of what he was, as a man of good caste. Another nobleman called Pero Lopez de Angulo and Martin de Guiluz, and others who would be too many to mention particularly took part in that conquest, and although their age was not as perfect as their effort and desires, they always acted as who they were, and they were always as quick to face dangers as the need and the moment required. And because they were such brave people, although as I have said very few in number, the conquest ended in favor of our faith and in much victory for the Spanish conquerors who took part in this war, who were aided from this island of Hispaniola with some people and who were joined by others at a time when relief was very necessary. And also there were some newly arrived from Castile who, however good, needed to be in the land for some days before being ready to suffer the travails and vicissitudes of war as practiced here, given the great difference in all things, as in the air and character of the land, which must be fought against first before facing the Indians, because very few are not tested and afflicted by it. But praise to God. Few are in danger from this cause, if they are well cared for.

Engraving retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, created in 1707