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Mutiny of Porras-Eclipse of the Moon-Stratagem of Columbus to procure Supplies from the Indians.
MONTHS elapsed, and nothing was heard of Mendez and Fiesco. The Spaniards, enfeebled by past sufferings, crowded in close quarters, in a moist and sultry climate, and reduced to a vegetable diet, to which they were unaccustomed, became extremely sickly, and their maladies were heightened by anxiety and suspense. Day after day, and week after week, they kept a wistful look-out upon the sea for the expected return of Fiesco, flattering themselves that every Indian canoe, gliding at a distance, might be the harbinger of deliverance. It was all in vain ; and at length they began to fear that their messengers had perished. Some gradually sank into despondency; others became peevish and impatient, and, in their unreasonable heat, railed at their venerable and infirm commander as the cause of all their misfortunes.
Among the officers of Columbus were two brothers, Francisco and Diego Porras, relations of the royal treasurer Morales. To gratify the latter, the admiral had appointed one of them captain of a caraval, and the other notary and accountant-general of the expedition. They were vain and insolent
men, and, like many others whom Columbus had benefited, requited his kindness with the blackest ingratitude. Mingling with the people, they assured them that Columbus had no intention of returning to Spain, having in reality been banished thence by the sovereigns. Hispaniola, they said, was equally closed against him, and it was his design to remain in Jamaica, until his friends could make interest at court to procure his recal. As to Mendez and Fiesco, they had been sent to Spain by Columbus on his own private concerns; if this were not the case, why did not the promised ship arrive? or why did not Fiesco return? Or if the canoes had really been sent for succour, the long time that had elapsed without tidings gave reason to believe that they had perished by the way. In such case, their only alternative would be to take Indian canoes, and endeavour to reach Hispaniola: but there was no hope of persuading the admiral to do this; he was too old, and too infirm, to undertake such a voyage.
By these insidious suggestions, they gradually prepared the people for revolt, assuring them of the protection of their own relatives in Spain, and of the countenance of Ovando and Fonseca, if not of the favour of the sovereigns themselves, who had shown their ill will towards Columbus by stripping him of part of his dignities and privileges.
On the 2d of January, 1504, the mutiny broke out. Francisco Porras suddenly entered the cabin where Columbus was confined to his bed by the gout, reproached him vehemently with keeping them in that desolate place to perish, and accused him of having no intention to return to Spain. The admiral raised himself in bed, and, maintaining
his calmness, endeavoured to reason with the traitor ; but Porras was deaf to all argument. "Embark immediately, or remain, in God's name!" cried he, with a voice that resounded all over the wreck. "For my part, I am for Castile! those who choose may follow me!"
This was the signal. "For Castile! for Castile!" was heard on every side. The mutineers sprang up on the most conspicuous parts of the vessel, brandishing their weapons, and amidst the uproar the voices of some desperadoes were heard menacing the life of the admiral.
Columbus, ill and infirm as he was, leaped out of bed, and tottered forth to pacify the mutineers, but was forced back into his cabin by some of his faithful adherents. The Adelantado sallied forth lance in hand, and planted himself in a situation to take the whole brunt of the assault. It was with the greatest difficulty that several of the loyal part of the crew could restrain his fury, and prevail upon him to relinquish his weapon, and retire to the cabin of his brother.
The mutineers, being entirely unopposed, took ten canoes, which the admiral had purchased from the Indians; others, who had not been concerned in the mutiny, joined them, through fear of remaining behind, when so reduced in number: in this way forty-eight abandoned the admiral. Many of the sick crawled forth from their cabins, and beheld their departure with tears and lamentations, and would gladly have accompanied them, had their strength permitted.
Porras coasted with his squadron of canoes to the eastward, landing occasionally and robbing the
natives, pretending to act under the authority of Columbus, that he might draw on him their hostility. Arrived at the east end of the island, he procured several Indians to manage the canoes, and then set out on his voyage across the gulf. The Spaniards had scarcely proceeded four leagues, when the wind came ahead, with a swell of the sea, that threatened to overwhelm the deeply laden canoes. They immediately turned for land, and in their alarm threw overboard the greater part of their effects. The danger still continuing, they drew their swords, and compelled most of the Indians to leap into the sea. The latter were skilful swimmers, but the distance to land was too great for their strength; if however they at any time took hold of the canoes to rest themselves and recover breath, the Spaniards, fearful of their overturning the slight barks, would stab them or cut off their hands. Some were thus slain by the sword, others sank exhausted beneath the waves; eighteen perished miserably, and none survived but a few who had been retained to manage the canoes.
Having reached the shore in safety, Porras and his men waited until the weather became favourable, and then made another effort to cross to Hispaniola, but with no better success. They then abandoned the attempt in despair, and returned westward towards the harbour, roving from village to village, living upon the provisions of the Indians, which they took by force if not readily given, and conducting themselves in the most licentious manner. If the natives remonstrated; they told them to seek redress at the hands of the admiral, whom, at the same time, they represented as the implacable foe of
the Indian race, and bent upon gaining a tyrannical sway over their island.
In the mean time, Columbus, when abandoned by the mutineers, and left in the wreck with a mere handful of sick and desponding men, exerted himself to the utmost to restore this remnant to an efficient state of health and spirits. He ordered that the small stock of biscuit which remained, and the most nourishing articles of the provisions furnished by the Indians, should be appropriated to the invalids: he visited them individually, cheered them with hopes of speedy deliverance, and promised that on his return to Spain he would intercede with the sovereigns, that their loyalty might be munificently rewarded. In this way, by kind and careful treatment and encouraging words, he succeeded in restoring them from a state of sickness and despondency, and rendering them once more fit for service.
Scarcely, however, had the little garrison of the wreck recovered from the shock of the mutiny, when it was menaced by a new and appalling evil. The scanty number of the Spaniards prevented them from foraging abroad for provisions, and rendered them dependent on the voluntary supplies of the natives. The latter began to grow negligent. The European trinkets, once so inestimable in their eyes, had sunk in value, by becoming common, and were now almost treated with indifference. The arrangements made by Diego Mendez were irregularly attended to, and at length entirely disregarded. Many of the caciques had been incensed by the conduct of Porras and his followers, which they supposed justified by the admiral; others had been secretly instigated by the rebels to withhold pro