Chronicles of America 

Juan de Valdivia

Juan de Valdivia, it will be remembered, had in January, 1512, set out from Santa Maria of Darien for Espanola to solicit of Don Diego Columbus a supply of food. (See: Balboa and the Pacific) His return, long looked for, never came. His ship was wrecked off Jamaica, and he was carried in an open boat with a few followers to the coast of Yucatan. Here he was seized by the local cacique and with three others was sacrificed to the gods, his heart being torn out and his flesh eaten. Some of the company were kept prisoners. One by one they died till two only were left — Gonzalo Guerrero, a seaman, and Gerónimo de Aguilar, a friar — both of whom some eight years later were found, as will be seen, by Cortes.


Among the first American peoples encountered by Columbus and his successors in the Caribbean were the Arawak. They and their linguistic cousins the Taino, now extinct, called their leaders by the name that has come to us via Spanish as cacique (with the pronunciation ka-seek). The word was noted in English as early as 1555. Since the North American Indians used different titles for their chiefs, cacique is not commonly heard in the United States or Canada, but it still is common in the Caribbean.

In earlier times, Arawak was spoken in the Bahamas and Trinidad as well as on the north coast of South America, but it is now limited to a few thousand speakers in Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Venezuela. Arawak belongs to the Caribbean branch of the Maipúrean language family. Another English word from Arawak, also via Spanish in 1555, is iguana.

Columbus never reached Yucatan, but on his first voyage he heard of the culture of a people called the Mayas, who wore clothes and dwelt on a mainland ten days' journey in a canoe from Española; and on his fourth voyage he came, on July 30, 1502, into actual touch with this civilization, near the island of Guanaja, off the coast of Honduras. Here he encountered a monster canoe provided with an awning and laden with merchandise; a canoe bearing a cacique clad in loin cloth and mantle; one, furthermore, which was being propelled by a band of twenty-five Indians "well clothed." Nor was Columbus's acquaintance with the Maya culture limited to the sight of the canoe. Near Cariari (Nicaragua) he personally visited a mountain tomb, "as large as a house and elaborately sculptured," where there stood, or crouched, as though peering within, the corpse of a Maya Indian. He saw also, he tells us, "some large sheets of cotton cloth elaborately and cleverly worked, and other sheets [Maya manuscripts?] very delicately painted."

As compared with the Nahuas of Mexico (pre-Aztec as well as Aztec), the Mayas of Yucatan were an ancient, a peaceful, and a polished race; and, like all races that have advanced as far as barbarism, they were emphatically religious. Their most characteristic deity, perhaps, was Itzamna, god of the East or rising sun, inventor of letters. But there was another sun deity, Kukulcan, the most active and immanent of the Maya gods. He was patron of arts and crafts, inculcator of peace, and withal deprecator of human sacrifices — a god of order who, having founded cities, had departed into the sunrise, whence he had promised to return at a future time. War gods there were in the Maya pantheon, but war and religion, despite some human sacrifices, were not the intimate blend that they were in Mexico.

If the death of Valdivia and his three fellow unfortunates upon a heathen altar may be regarded as demanding of Heaven to be avenged, vengeance nevertheless was somewhat delayed. Valdivia died in 1512. Up to that time but little had been done to subdue and occupy the Antilles outside of Espanola. In 1509 Diego Columbus had sent a Governor to Jamaica, and in 1511 he had made Diego Velasquez Governor of Cuba — a land which Christopher Columbus had never recognized as insular, but which had been officially demonstrated so to be by a voyage of circumnavigation effected by Sebastian de Ocampo in 1508. Velásquez was jocose and affable but at the same time acquisitive and envious. To Cuba he took with him, or soon summoned to follow him, Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba, Juan de Grijalva, Bartolomé de las Casas, Pánfilo de Narváez, and Hernan Cortes. Narváez did the work of pacification, while Velasquez founded Trinidad, Puerto del Principe, Matanzas, Santo Espiritu, San Salvador, Habana, and Santiago.

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