Days of the Discoverers Part 10


"Translators," observed Amerigo Vespucci, "are frequently traitors. Now who is to be surety that yonder interpreter does not change your words in repeating them?"

Alonso de Ojeda touched the hilt of his poniard. "This," he said.

"Toledo steel speaks all languages."

The Florentine's black eyebrows lifted a little, but he did not pursue the subject. Ojeda was not the sort of man likely to be convinced of anything he did not believe already, and Vespucci was having too good a time to waste it in argument.

This middle-aged, shrewd-looking individual had for half his life been chained to the desk, for he had been many years a clerk in the great merchant houses of the Medici. Until he was forty years old he had hardly gone outside his native city. In the latter half of the fifteenth century each Italian city was a little world in itself, with its own standards, customs and traditions. The fact that Vespucci spent most of his leisure and all of his spare ducats in the collection and study of maps and globes and works on geography, was regarded as a proof of mild insanity. When he paid one hundred and thirty gold pieces for a particularly fine map made by Valsequa in 1439, even his intimate friend Soderini called him a fool. Vespucci was himself an expert mapmaker.

This may have been a reason why, about 1490, the Medici sent him to Barcelona to look after their interests in Spain. In Seville he secured a position as manager in the house of Juanoto Berardi, who fitted out ships for Atlantic voyages. In 1497 he himself sailed for the newly discovered islands of the West, and spent more than a year in exploration. This taste of travel seemed to have whetted his appetite for more, for he was now acting as astronomer and geographer in the expedition which Ojeda had organized and Juan de la Cosa fitted out, to the coast which Colon had discovered and called Tierre Firme. In the seven years since the first voyage of the great Admiral it had become the custom to have on board, for expeditions of discovery, a person who understood astronomy, the use of the astrolabe and navigation in general, and the making of charts and maps. Vespucci was exactly that sort of man. However queer it might seem to the young Ojeda to find in a clerk forty years old such a fresh and youthful delight in travel, both he and La Cosa knew that they had in him a valuable assistant. It was generally understood that he meant to write a book about it all.

Vespucci was in fact thinking of his future book when he made that speech about translators. He was planning to write the book not in Latin, as was usual, but in Italian, making if necessary another copy in Latin.

The party had sailed from Puerto Santa Maria on May 20, 1499, taking with them a chart which Bishop Fonseca, head of the Department of the Indies, furnished. It had been the understanding when Colon received the title of Admiral of the Indies that no expedition should be sent out without his authority. This understanding Fonseca succeeded in persuading the King and Queen to take back, and another order was issued, to the effect that no independent expedition was to go out without the royal permission. This, practically, meant Fonseca's leave.

The Bishop signed the permit for Ojeda's undertaking with double satisfaction. He was doing a favor for his friend, Bishop Ojeda, cousin to this young man, and he was aiming a blow at the hated Genoese Admiral, whose very chart he was turning over to the young explorer. All sorts of stories had been set afloat about the unfitness of the Admiral to hold such an important office. Fonseca had managed to influence the Queen so far against him that one Bobadilla had been sent to Hispaniola with power to depose Colon and treat him as a criminal,--so cunningly were his instructions framed. When the great discoverer was actually thrown into prison and sent to Spain manacled like a felon, it might have added a few drops of bitterness to his reflections if he had known what Ojeda was doing. This youth, whom he had trusted and liked, was now looking forward to the conquest of the very region which the Admiral had discovered, and using what was supposed to be the Admiral's private chart to guide him.

It is not likely, however, that the fiery and impatient Ojeda gave any thought to the feelings of the older man. Juan de la Cosa was a leader in the expedition, many sailors were enlisted, who had served in former voyages of discovery, and above all, Fonseca approved. Ojeda would never have dreamed of setting up any personal opinion contrary to the views of the Church.

In twenty-four days the fleet arrived upon a coast which no one on board had ever seen. It was in fact two hundred leagues further to the south than Paria, where the Admiral had touched. The people were taller and more vigorous than the Arawaks of Hispaniola, and expert with the bow, the lance and the shield. Their bell-shaped houses were of tree-trunks thatched with palm leaves, some of them very large. The people wore ornaments made of fish-bones, and strings of white and green beads, and feather headdresses of the most gorgeous colors. The interpreter told Ojeda that the Spaniards' desire of gold and pearls was very puzzling to these simple folk, who had never considered them of any especial value.

In a harbor called Maracapana the fleet was unloaded and careened for cleaning. Under the direction of Ojeda and La Cosa a small brigantine was built. The people brought venison, fish, cassava bread and other provisions willingly, and seemed to think the Spaniards angels. At least, that was the version of their talk which reached Ojeda. It was here that Amerigo Vespucci made that remark about translators. He had not studied accounts of Atlantic voyages for the last few years without drawing a few conclusions regarding the nature of savages. When it was explained that the natives had neighbors who were cannibals, and that they would greatly value the strangers' assistance in fighting them, Vespucci came very near making a suggestion. He finally made it to Juan de la Cosa instead of to Ojeda. The old pilot chuckled wisely.

"I've got past warning my young gentleman of danger ahead," he said good-naturedly. "He can do without fighting just as well as a fish can do without water. If I die trying to get him out of some scrape he has plunged into head-first, it will be no more than I expect."

Ojeda was, in fact, spoiling for adventure, and joyfully set sail in the direction of the Carib Islands. Seven coast natives were on board as guides, and pointed out the island inhabited by their especial enemies.

The shore was lined with fierce-faced savages, painted and feathered, armed with bows and arrows, lances and darts and bucklers. Ojeda launched his boats, in each of which was a paterero, or small cannon, with a number of soldiers crouching down out of sight. The armor of the Spaniards protected them from the Indian arrows, while the cotton armor of the savages and their light shields were no defense against cannon-balls or crossbow-bolts.

When the barbarians leaped into the sea and attacked the boats the cannon scattered them, but they rallied and fought more fiercely on land. The Spaniards won that day's battle, but the dauntless islanders were ready to renew the fight next morning. With his fifty-seven men Ojeda routed the whole fighting force of the tribe, made many prisoners, plundered and set fire to the villages, and returned to his ships. A part of the spoil was bestowed on the seven friendly natives. Ojeda, who had not received so much as a scratch, anchored in a bay for three weeks to let his wounded recover. There were twenty-one wounded and one Spaniard had been killed.

Sailing westward along the coast the fleet presently entered a vast gulf like an inland sea, on the eastern side of which was a most curious village. Ojeda could hardly believe the evidence of his own eyes. Twenty large cone-shaped houses were built on piles driven into the bottom of the lake, which in that part was clear and shallow. Each house had its drawbridge, and communicated with its neighbors and with the shore by means of canoes gliding along the water-ways between the piles. The interpreters said it was called Coquibacoa.

"That is no proper name for so marvelous a place," said Ojeda after he had tried to pronounce the clucking many-syllabled word. "Is it like anything you have seen, Vespucci?"

The Italian had been comparing it with a similar village he had seen on his first voyage, on a part of the coast called Lariab. He had an instinct, however, that it would not be well to mix his own discoveries with those of the present expedition.

"It is rather like Venice," he said demurely.

"That is the name for it," cried Ojeda in high delight,--"Venezuela--Little Venice!"

"It would be interesting," observed Vespucci, "to know what names they are giving to us. How they stare!"

The people of the village on stilts were evidently as much astonished at the strangers as the strangers were at them. They fled into their houses and raised the draw-bridges. The men in a squadron of canoes which came paddling in from the sea were also terrified. But this did not last long. The warriors went into the forest and returned with sixteen young girls, four of whom they brought to each ship. While the white men wondered what this could mean, several old crones appeared at the doors of the houses and began a furious shrieking. This seemed to be a signal.

The maidens dived into the sea and made for the shore, and a storm of arrows came from the canoemen. The fight, however, was not long, and the Spaniards won an easy victory, after which they had no further trouble.

They found a harbor called Maracaibo, and twenty-seven Spaniards at the earnest request of the natives were entertained as guests among the inland villages for nine days. They were carried from place to place in litters or hammocks, and when they returned to the ships every man of them had a collection of gifts--rich plumes, weapons, tropical birds and animals--but no gold. The monkeys and parrots were very amusing, but they did not make up, in the minds of some of the crew, for the gold which had not been found.

Ojeda returned from an exploring journey one day with a ruffled temper.

"A gang of poachers," he sputtered,--"rascally Bristol traders. We shall have to teach these folk their place."

"What really happened?" Vespucci inquired privately of Juan de la Cosa.

The old mariner's eyes twinkled.

"It was funny. You see, we were coming down to the shore, ready to return to the ships, when we spied an English ship and some sailors on the beach, dancing after they'd caught their fish and eaten 'em. Up marches our young caballero with hand on hilt and asks whose men they are. But they answered him in a language he can't understand, d'ye see, and after some jabbering he makes them understand that he wants to go on board to see their captain. I went along, for I'd no mind to leave him alone if there should be trouble.

"So soon as I set eyes on the captain I knew him for a chap I'd seen years ago in Venice. He did me a good turn there, too, though he was but a lad. I knew he was a Bristol man, but I hadn't expected to see him or his ship so far from home. He could talk Spanish nearly as well as you do.

"'What are you doing here?' asks our worshipful commander.

"'Looking at the sky,' said the other man, cool as a cucumber. 'I think we are going to have a storm.'

"'Don't bandy words with me,' says Ojeda. 'You are trespassing on my master's dominions.'

"'Your master is the Admiral of the Indies, no?' says the stranger, and that pretty near shut our young gentleman's mouth for a minute, for between you and me I think he knows that Colon has not been well treated. But he only got the more furious.

"'Do you insult me?' says he, and whips out his Toledo blade and bends it almost double, to show the quality.

"'Wait a minute, my young hornet,' says the captain--he wasn't much more than a boy, himself,--'didn't your master the Duke of Medina Coeli teach you better than to irritate a man on the deck of his own ship? Mine can sail two leagues to your one, and I'm just leaving for home, so, unless you would like to go with me, perhaps you will let this conversation end without any more pointed remarks. If I chose, you know, I could drop you overboard in sight of your men, to swim ashore. My guns would stave your longboat all to pieces. But I've stayed long enough to give the lads a chance to have a good meal and a bit of fun--nothing's better than dancing, for the spirits, dad always said it was better than either fighting or dicing on shipboard. Before we part, though, I'm going to give you one piece of advice. Don't stir up these coast natives too often. If you do, they'll eat you. They use poisoned arrows in some of these parts, and there's no cure for that but a red-hot iron.'

"The caballero's temper is like gunpowder--it flashes up in a second, or not at all. He must ha' seen that the captain meant him kindness.

Anyway, he slips his sword back in the scabbard and says cool as you please,

"'Senor, pardon my hasty conclusion. You have of course a perfect right to look at the sky, and to dance, if that is your diversion. I should be extremely sorry to interfere with your departure. But you will understand that when a commander in the service of the sovereigns of Aragon and Castile finds intruders within their territory it is his duty to make it his affair. I thank you for your warning. Adios,' and he makes a little stiff bow and goes over the side, me after him. I looked back just as I went over the rail, and the skipper was watching me, and I may be mistaken but I believe he winked. I tell you, our little captain can do things that would get him run through the body if he were any other man."

Vespucci smiled thoughtfully. But this incident may have had something to do with his later decision to part company with Ojeda. Vespucci continued to explore the coast, and Ojeda sailed northward to the islands, where he kidnaped some Indians for slaves. When he returned to Cadiz the young adventurer found to his intense disgust that after all expenses were paid there remained but five hundred ducats to be divided among fifty-five men. This was all the more mortifying because, two months before, Pedro Alonso Nino, a captain of Palos, and Christoval Guerra of Seville, had come in from a trading voyage in the Indies with the richest cargo of gold and pearls ever seen in Cadiz.

Vespucci wrote his book some years later, and as it was the first popular account of the new Spanish possessions and was written in a lively and entertaining style it had a great reputation. It gave to the natives of the country the name which they have ever since borne--Indians. A German geographer who much admired the work suggested that an appropriate mark of appreciation would be to name the new continent America, after Vespucci, and this was done. Vespucci described all that he saw and some things of which he heard, using care and discretion, and if he suspected that the captain of the Bristol ship was Sebastian Cabot, later pilot-major of Spain, he did not say so.


Amerigo Vespucci has been unjustly accused of endeavoring to steal the glory of Columbus, but there is no evidence that he ever contemplated anything of the kind. It was a German geographer's suggestion that the continent be named America.


O the Gold Road is a hard road, And it leads beyond the sea,-- Some follow it through the altar gates And some to the gallows tree.

And they who squander the gold they earn On kin-folk ill to please Go soon to the grave, but he toils in the grave-- The miner upon his knees.

The Gold Road is a dark road-- No bird by the wayside sings, No sun shines into the canons deep, No children's laughter rings.

They are slaves who delve in the stubborn rocks For the pittance their labor brings.

Their bread is bitter who toil for their own, But they starve who toil for Kings.

The Gold Road is a small road,-- A man must tread it alone, With none to help if he faint or fall, And none to hear his groan.

The weight of gold is a weary weight When we toil for the sake of our own-- But our masters are branding our hearts and souls With a Christ that is carved in stone!

Chapter end

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