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Arrival of the Commissioner Aguado-Discovery of the Gold Mines of Hayna. [1495.]
WHILE Columbus was endeavouring to remedy the evils produced by the misconduct of Margarite and his followers, that recreant commander, and his litic coadjutor Friar Boyle, were busily undermining his reputation in the court of Spain. They accused him of deceiving the sovereigns and the public by extravagant descriptions of the countries he had discovered; and of tyranny and oppression towards the colonists, compelling excessive labour during a time of sickness and debility; inflicting severe punishments for the most trifling offence, and heaping indignities on Spanish gentlemen of rank. They said nothing, however, of the exigencies which had called for unusual labour; nor of the idleness and profligacy of the commonalty, which called for coercion and chastisement; nor of the contumacy and cabals of the cavaliers, who had been treated with indulgence rather than severity. These representations, being supported by many factious and discontented idlers who had returned from the colony, and enforced by people of rank connected with the cavaliers, had a baneful effect upon the popularity of Columbus, and his favour with the sovereigns.
About this time a measure was adopted, which shows the declining influence of the admiral. A proclamation was made on the 10th of April, giving general permission to native-born subjects to settle in the island of Hispaniola, and to go on private voyages of discovery and traffic to the new world. They were to pay certain proportions of their profits to the crown, and to be subject to certain regulations. The privilege of an eighth of the tonnage was likewise secured to Columbus, as admiral; but he felt himself exceedingly aggrieved at this permission being granted without his knowledge or consent, considering it an infringement of his rights, and a measure likely to disturb the course of regular discovery by the licentious and predatory enterprises of reckless adventurers.
The arrival of the ships commanded by Torres, bringing accounts of the voyage along the southern coasts of Cuba, supposed to be the continent of Asia, and specimens of the gold, and the vegetable and animal productions of the country, counterbalanced in some degree these unfavourable representations of Margarite and Boyle. Still it was determined to send out a commissioner to inquire into the alleged distresses of the colony, and the conduct of Columbus, and one Juan Aguado was appointed for the purpose. He had already been to Hispaniola, and on returning had been strongly recommended to royal favour by Columbus. In appointing a person, therefore, for whom the admiral appeared to have a regard, and who was under obligations to him, the sovereigns thought, perhaps, to soften the harshness of the measure.
As to the five hundred slaves sent home in the
ships of Torres, Isabella ordered a consultation of pious theologians to determine whether, having been taken in warfare, their sale as slaves would be justifiable in the sight of God. Much difference of opinion arose among the divines on this important question; whereupon the queen decided it according to the dictates of her conscience and her heart, and ordered that the Indians should be taken back to their native country.
Juan de Aguado set sail from Spain towards the end of August with four caravals freighted with supplies, and Don Diego Columbus returned in this squadron to Hispaniola. Aguado was one of those weak men whose heads are turned by the least elevation. Though under obligations to Columbus, he forgot them all, and forgot even the nature and extent of his own commission. Finding Columbus absent in the interior of the island, on his arrival, he acted as if the reins of government had been transferred into his hands. He paid no respect to Don Bartholomew, who had been placed in command by his brother during his absence, but, proclaiming his letter of credence by sound of trumpet, he proceeded to arrest various public officers, to call others to rigorous account, and to invite every one, who had wrongs or grievances to complain of, to come forward boldly and make them known. He already regarded Columbus as a criminal, and intimated, and perhaps thought, that he was keeping at a distance through fear of his investigations. He even talked of setting off at the head of a body of horse to arrest him. The whole community was in confusion; the downfall of the family of Columbus was considered as arrived, and some thought the admiral would lose his head.
The news of the arrival and of the insolent conduct of Aguado reached Columbus in the interior of the island, and he immediately hastened to Isabella to give him a meeting. As every one knew the lofty spirit of Columbus, his high sense of his services, and his jealous maintenance of his official dignity, a violent explosion was anticipated at the impending interview. The natural heat and impetuosity of Columbus, however, had been subdued by a life of trials, and he had learnt to bring his passions into subjection to his judgment; he had too true an estimate of his own dignity to enter into a contest with a shallow boaster like Aguado : above all, he had a profound reverence for the authority of his sovereigns; for, in his enthusiastic spirit, prone to deep feelings of reverence, loyalty was inferior only to religion. He received Aguado, therefore, with the most grave and punctilious courtesy, ordered his letter of credence to be again proclaimed by sound of trumpet, and assured him of his readiness to acquiesce in whatever might be the pleasure of his sovereigns.
The moderation of Columbus was regarded by many, and by Aguado himself, as a proof of his loss of moral courage. Every dastard spirit who had any lurking ill will, any real or imaginary cause of complaint, now hastened to give it utterance. It was a time of jubilee for offenders: every culprit started up into an accuser; every one who by negligence or crime had incurred the wholesome penalties of the laws was loud in his clamours of oppression; and all the ills of the colony, however produced, were ascribed to the mal-administration of the admiral.
Aguado listened to every accusation with ready
credulity, and having collected information sufficient, as he thought, to ensure the ruin of the admiral and his brothers, prepared to return to Spain. Columbus resolved to do the same; for he felt that it was time to appear at court, to vindicate his conduct from the misrepresentations of his enemies, and to explain the causes of the distresses of the colony, and of the disappointments with respect to revenue, which he feared might discourage the prosecution of his discoveries.
When the ships were ready to depart, a terrible storm swept the island; it was one of those awful whirlwinds which occasionally rage within the tropics, and which were called "Uricans" by the Indians, a name which they still retain. Three of the ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk by it, with all who were on board; others were dashed against each other, and driven mere wrecks upon the shore. The Indians were overwhelmed with astonishment and dismay, for never in their memory, or in the traditions of their ancestors, had they known so tremendous a storm. They believed that the Deity had sent it in punishment of the cruelties and crimes of the white men, and declared that this people moved the very air, the water, and the earth, to disturb their tranquil life, and to desolate their island.
The departure of Columbus, and of Aguado, was delayed until one of the shattered vessels, the Niña, could be repaired, and another constructed out of the fragments of the wrecks. In the mean time,
information was received of rich mines in the interior of the island. A young Arragonian, named Miguel Diaz, in the service of the Adelantado,