« IndietroContinua »
heard the song of the nightingale, a bird unknown in these countries. From the grass growing to the very edge of the water, he inferred the peacefulness of the ocean which bathes these islands, never lashing the shores with angry surges. Ever since his arrival among these Antilles, he had experienced nothing but soft and gentle weather, and he concluded that a perpetual serenity reigned over these seas, little suspicious of the occasional bursts of fury to which they are liable, and of the tremendous hurricanes which rend and devastate the face of nature.
While coasting the island, he landed occasionally and visited the villages, the inhabitants of which fied to the woods and mountains. The houses were constructed of branches of palm-trees, in the shape of pavilions, and were scattered under the spreading trees, like tents in a camp. They were better built than those he had hitherto visited, and extremely clean. He found in them rude images, and wooden masks, carved with considerable ingenuity. Finding implements for fishing in all the cabins, he concluded that the coasts were inhabited merely by fishermen, who supplied the cities in the interior.
After coasting to the north-west for some distance, Columbus came in sight of a great headland, to which, from the groves which covered it, he gave the name of the Cape of Palms. Here he learnt that behind this bay there was a river, from whence it was but four days' journey to Cubanacan. By this name the natives designated a province in the centre of Cuba; nacan, in their language, signifying the midst. Columbus fancied, however,
that they were talking of Cublay Khan, the Tartar sovereign, and understood them to say that Cuba was not an island, but terra firma. He concluded that this must be a part of the mainland of Asia, and that he could be at no great distance from Mangi and Cathay, the ultimate destination of his voyage. The prince, said to reign over the neighbouring country, might be some oriental potentate of consequence; he determined, therefore, to send a present to him, and one of his letters of recommendation from the Castilian sovereigns. For this purpose he chose two Spaniards, one of whom was a converted Jew, and knew Hebrew, Chaldaic, and a little Arabic, one or other of which languages, it was thought, must be known to this oriental prince. Two Indians were sent with them as guides: they were furnished with strings of beads, and various trinkets, for their travelling expenses, and enjoined to inform themselves accurately concerning the situation of certain provinces, ports, and rivers of Asia, and to ascertain whether drugs and spices abounded in the country. The ambassadors penetrated twelve leagues into the interior, when they came to a village of fifty houses, and at least a thousand inhabitants. They were received with great kindness, conducted to the principal house, and provisions placed before them, after which the Indians seated themselves on the ground around their visiters, and waited to hear what they had to communicate.
The Israelite found his Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Arabic of no avail, and the Lucayan interpreter had to be the orator. He made a regular speech after the Indian manner, extolling the power, wealth,
and munificence of the white men.
When he had
finished, the Indians crowded round the Spaniards, touched and examined their skin and raiment, and kissed their hands and feet in token of adoration. There was no appearance of gold, or any other article of great value, among them; and when they were shown specimens of various spices, they said there was nothing of the kind to be found in the neighbourhood, but far off to the south-west.
Finding no traces of the city and court they had anticipated, the envoys returned to their ships: on the way back they beheld several of the natives going about with firebrands in their hands, and certain dried herbs which they rolled up in a leaf, and lighting one end put the other in their mouths, and continued inhaling and puffing out the smoke. A roll of this kind they called a tobacco; a name since transferred to the weed itself. The Spaniards were struck with astonishment at this singular and apparently preposterous luxury, although prepared to meet with wonders.
The report of the envoys put an end to many splendid fancies of Columbus, about this barbaric prince and his capital; all that they had seen betokened a primitive and simple state of society; the country, though fertile and beautiful, was wild, and but slightly and rudely cultivated; the people were evidently strangers to civilized man, nor could they hear of any inland city, superior to the one they had visited.
As fast as one illusion passed away, however, another succeeded. Columbus now understood from the signs of the Indians, that there was a country
to the eastward where the people collected gold along the river banks by torch-light, and afterwards wrought it into bars with hammers. In speaking of this place, they frequently used the words Babeque and Bohio, which he supposed to be the names of islands or provinces. As the season was advancing, and the cool nights gave hints of approaching winter, he resolved not to proceed further to the north, and turning eastward, sailed in quest of Babeque, which he trusted might prove some rich and civilized island.
After running along the coast for two or three days, and passing a great cape to which he gave the name of Cape Cuba, he stood out to sea in the direction pointed out by the Indians. The wind, however, came directly ahead, and after various ineffectual attempts he had to return to Cuba. What gave him great uneasiness was, that the Pinta, commanded by Martin Alonzo Pinzon, parted company with him during this attempt. She was the best sailer, and had worked considerably to windward of the other ships. Pinzon paid no attention to the signals of Columbus to turn back, though they were repeated at night by lights at the masthead: when morning dawned, the Pinta was no longer to be
Columbus considered this a wilful desertion, and was much troubled and perplexed by it. Martin Alonzo had for some time shown impatience at the domination of the admiral. He was a veteran navigator of great abilities, and accustomed from his wealth and standing to give the law among his nautical associates. He had furnished two of the
ships, and much of the funds for the expedition, and thought himself entitled to an equal share in the command: several disputes, therefore, had occurred between him and the admiral. Columbus feared he might have departed to make an independent cruise, or might have the intention to hasten back to Spain, and claim the merit of the discovery. These thoughts distracted his mind, and embarrassed him in the farther prosecution of his discoveries.
For several days he continued exploring the coast of Cuba, until he reached the eastern end, to which, from supposing it the extreme point of Asia, he gave the name of Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. While steering at large beyond this cape, undetermined which course to take, he descried high mountains towering above the clear horizon to the south-east, and giving evidence of an island of great extent. He immediately stood for it, to the great consternation of his Indian guides, who assured him by signs that the inhabitants had but one eye, and were fierce and cruel cannibals.
In the transparent atmosphere of the tropics, objects are descried at a great distance, and the purity of the air and serenity of the deep-blue sky give a magical charm to scenery. Under these advantages, the beautiful island of Hayti revealed itself to the eye as they approached. Its mountains were higher and more rocky than those of the other islands, but the rocks rose from among rich forests. The mountains swept down into luxuriant plains and green savannahs, while the appearance of cul