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Fate and fortune on the Pearl Coast.

CLOSE UNDER THE LEE of Isla Margarita's green, soaring peaks, just off Venezuela's purple shadowed coast, lies a small desert island: Cubagua. Its few square miles shimmer under the sun, devoid of water save for the brine that seeps into low ponds and evaporates, leaving cracked mud flats. A meager scrub ekes subsistence out of thin stony soil.

A less likely spot for human habitation is hard to find. Yet close to its exposed windward coast, 500-year-old ruins bear testimony to a town that flourished for a turbulent moment at the dawn of the European penetration of the Americas. Row after row of time-tumbled coralstone walls once boasted wood floors and upper stories, housing shops, dwellings, fortifications, a church, convent and, it is said, a brothel. Before Cortes set eyes on Mexico, Cubagua was booming with anarchy, greed, and wealth.

From its warm circling seas came a fortune in pearls, the first easy money of the New World. A profusion of oysters on the shallow banks that lie between Isla Margarita and the mainland drew the Spaniards like a magnet; in their train they dragged Indians to dive and die in the depths. A pathetic story unfolded in this desolate place which, like a magnifying glass, focusses the rays of West Indian history into a scorching point that burns the brain and leaves a scar. But more than the crucifixion of the innocent took place here; resistance and freedom were also part of the epic.

In the end . . . good, evil . . . who really knows? It is all part of a process still unfolding into the future, and we cannot judge the beginning if we do not know the end.

The eastern Caribbean is still one of the world's most scenic locales. At the time of the discovery it was pristine--heavily forested, stocked with the primal profusion of life. Flight of parrots dimmed the sun; turtles basked at the surface in such numbers they impeded navigation; fry clustered like thunderclouds in the clear sea and fed an infinite chain of species.

The Lesser Antilles form the Caribbean's eastern edge--a glowing arc of lofty green islands and small cays, fringed by reefs and beaches, rising out of the blue Atlantic. This was the home of the Camajuya Caribs. Camajuya (Thunderbolt) aptly described these Indians, seafaring pirates who revelled in rape, plunder and combat.

Along the eastern Caribbean's northern rim lived the Arawaks of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, a populou,s peaceful race who were the traditional victims and enemies of the Caribs. At its southern rim, 500 miles below, the continental coast ran westwards from Trinidad. Starting in the rugged, luxuriantly forested Paria Peninsula, it slowly changed to the arid terrain of Araya, with the islands and pearl beds of Cubagua and Margarita hard by. Further west the coastline was deeply indented by numerous bays and islands, a beautiful labyrinth of protected waterways and fertile valleys inhabited by a variety of tribes, most of them peaceably inclined until provoked, usually by the same Camajuya Caribs, who coasted these shores every hurricane season when the prevailing calms smoothed the sea for their giant dugouts.

Into this setting of sparkling seas and ancient enmities sailed the Spaniards, questing for fortune. First came Columbus, desperate to bring something rich back from his third voyage. He found a scattering of pearls in Trinidad and Paria, but just missed their source in Isla Margarita, where the Indians dived them up for adornment and trade. He came tantalizingly close, naming the island after a princess, Margarita, also the word for pearl in Greek.

A year later in 1499 Peralonso Nino and Cristobal Guerra landed in Isla Margarita, after crossing the Atlantic in a 50-ton caravel (about a 60-foot boat).

To their delight they traded trifles for treasures -- needles, caps, bells and beads for pearls. Down the coast they acquired even more and returned to Spain rich with the first windfall from the Americas. Peralonso Nino attempted to smuggle his share back. Whereas Columbus came home with stories about riches around the corner, Nino and Guerra came back with 96 pounds of pearls. The Crown took avid notice of this as did other Spaniards eager to get something for nothing. To fend off their advances, the Crown declared trade on the Pearl Coast a royal monopoly. But that did not stop caravels from anchoring there under the pretext of bad weather or emergency repairs to barter for pearls.

After a while the Crown realized that its policy was unenforceable and caused widespread smuggling, so the pearl trade was opened up. Spaniards were required to get a license and pay the quinta, a 20 percent tax, to the Crown. The Christian influx began. Cubagua at the center of the oyster banks and uninhabited, was convenient to settle and defend. No matter that it has no wood or water, it had pearls.

The enterprise started off well. The Crown stressed that the Margarita Indians must be well treated, and for once this familiar injunction was heeded. It made sense to keep them happy since they dived up the pearls and provided food and water. The Spaniards lived in rancherias--ramshackle structures of thatch along the waters edge at Cubagua--and ingratiated themselves with the Indians on Margarita, trading consumer goods for pearls. The Indians quickly came to prefer wine to cassava beer, and they liked linen shirts, wheat bread, firearms and other European goods. Simpatico settlers were often given an Indian girl as a wife or concubine, and the Spaniards made themselves valuable against Carib attacks.

But the stage of free exchange had its drawbacks for the Christians. For one thing it gave the Indians considerable control over the price of pearls, and they insisted that the Spaniards come to Isla Margarita to haggle for them. Furthermore, the Indians took an inordinate amount of time off to enjoy life and their new luxuries, while the Spaniards slapped sandflies and thought of Seville, then of all those unviolated oysters indolently thriving on the sea floor. As more and more Spaniards poured in seeking opportunity, it became clear that what the white men needed was not so much friends and partners, but slaves which they could drive hard in the race for profit.

These were to be had, but the legalities were delicate. They had to be observed, yet circumvented. What happened in Hispaniola and the Bahamas set the stage for Cubagua and merits a brief note. Officially, the Indians were subjects of the realm, but in practice they were its chief commodity. While it was forbidden to buy or sell them, they could be "allotted" to resident Spaniards, for whom they were obliged to work in return for being catechized in the Faith. An allotment of Indians was virtually a settler's homesteading right, the standard reward for some service to the Crown--i.e., subduing the self same Indians. An ingenious Catch 22 ruled that any Indians resisting Spanish sovereignty could be enslaved.

The first Indians to be allotted were the Arawaks of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, and it destroyed them. Great numbers were worked to death in gold mines that only a lethal abuse of labor could make productive. They resisted in vain. The Arawaks had not organized their society around war, whereas the Spaniards, fresh from the centuries-long reconquista, were the most hardened warriors in Europe.

The Indians died of many causes, but most notably of mass suicide. Early travellers in Hispaniola would come upon whole villages deserted, their populations hanging from the branches of nearby trees. All had crossed into their new lives together. One story illustrates their profound belief in life after death. The Indians of a remote mountain village had been alloted to a Spaniard who ordered them down to the mines. Rather than be separated, to die alone, they resolved to do away with themselves. When the Spaniard heard of this, he went to them and made the one threat that still mattered: he vowed to hang himself with them, to claim them in the next world. Aghast at the possibility, the Indians obeyed him and went down the mountains to their shabby deaths.

By 1510 most of the island Arawaks were gone. To replace them the Crown declared two legal sources for fresh labor. All Carib islands--from the Virgin Islands through Grenada--could be raided for slaves, since the Caribs were sodomites and cannibals, and fiercely resisted any Spanish interference in their affairs. Certain other small islands--all of the Bahamas, as well as many of the islands off the coast of Venezuela and Colombia--were declared islas inutiles, unuseful islands. What this meant was that no Spaniards cared to live there, so the Indians had to be transferred to where they could labor "usefully." Since the officials charged with enforcing the good treatment of these Indians were in a position to profit by turning a blind eye to the inevitable abuses, these transferred Indians fared no better than outright slaves. Many of them ended up in Cubagua.

The most highly prized divers came from the Bahama Islands, then known as the Lucayan Islands. Their 60,000 population was noted for its physical beauty--Indians came from far away islands to find a wife--as well as for its ability to dive. Some of them could descend 100 feet, holding their breath, and all of them were skilled in underwater hunting and gathering on the teeming reefs. These people displayed a gentle and loving disposition at which many early observers marvelled. Columbus speculated, prophetically, that they would be easily enslaved.

The depopulation of the Lucayos began in 1508, a proper business financed jointly by wealthy merchants on Hispaniola who sent out expeditions equipped for years at a time. They rounded up the Indians, stockpiled them in central areas on small cays, and shipped them back to Puerto Plata. Bartolome de Las Casas, the great defender of Indian rights, wrote in his History of the Indies what he learned from participant sailors in the trade: "they used to stuff shipholds with hundreds of Indians of both sexes and all ages, pack them like sardines and close off the hatchways to prevent escape, thus shutting off air and light . . . the Indians died and were thrown into the sea, and the floating corpses were so numerous that a ship could find its way by them alone, without need of a compass, charts or the art of navigation."

It was all done legally. The entrepreneurs had licenses granted by the Hispaniola authorities; the cargoes were examined to determine whether they were legitimate slaves, or "unuseful" Indians being transferred for the greater good, who had certain rights. The Dominican friars fought hard on their behalf, but with the right contacts and appropriate kickbacks the traffickers eventually sold them all.

At the commencement of this traffic the Spaniards told the Lucayos they had come from the spirit world to take them to visit their dead loved ones. The trusting souls swarmed eagerly aboard, the hatches were clamped shut, and the ship sailed them to their fate. On one occasion 900 Lucayos were held on a little island in the central Bahamas. Something happened to the vessel slated to pick them up--no doubt it foundered on one of the innumerable reefs in those shoal waters--and it was 15 months before a relief vessel arrived. Half the Indians had starved to death.

Within ten short years the Bahamas were wholly depopulated and no ship bothered to hunt there anymore. In remorse, a God-fearing merchant of Hispaniola equipped a small caravel with food and supplies to last its ten-man crew for three years. Their instructions were to search out the whole Lucayan archipelago, from Caicos to Abaco, looking for any remnant of the inhabitants, and bring them to safety under the protection of the friars. The little vessel skirted long barrier reefs, sailed over the deep cobalt dropoffs that separated the islands, poked into mangrove bordered nooks, and finally returned with 11 living souls, the last of their nation. Las Casas wrote, in words that ring through the centuries and serve their turn in our time: "They were a most blessed people . . . more prepared than any other in the whole of mankind to serve God, [but] so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of those who destroyed them without shame, reason or right, although I have no doubt we the tormentors are less fortunate than they who suffered our torments . . ."

The Lucayos were initially sold to the mines for five gold pieces each, a low price that the slavers claimed was a concession to the economic health of the island. As the pearl fisheries boomed, the Indians' expertise as divers made their value soar up to 150 gold pieces, and every last one of them was snapped up by pearling entrepreneurs. The Indians must have welcomed the change from the gloom to the light; but pearl diving proved to be work as brutal and consuming as that of the mines. Often it was more terrifying.

The average pearl bed lay in 40 feet of water, the deep ones in 70 feet. To reach the botton quickly, the diver took a ballast stone from the bilge of the pearling boat. As its weight carried him down, he held his nostrils and mouth shut and blew, increasing inner pressure against his eardrums via the eustachian tubes, to equalize the increasing pressure of the depths. Once on the bottom he discarded the rock and swam about collecting oysters, stuffing them into a net bag around his neck. When his breath was gone, he tugged the connecting line and was hauled back up by the crew in the boat. After catching his breath and gripping a new stone, he was down again.

At a certain point it became clear that the pearls were a finite resource. Every day the growing mounds of empty shells on the shore made it plain that a race was on to make one's fortune while the oysters lasted. There was no reason to conserve expensive labor beyond its usefulness. The early chroniclers agreed that the divers were worked to death, until blood gushed out of their mouths or sharks ate them.

Sharks abound in the warm tropical waters off Cubagua, including the aggressive hammerheads. The daily presence in the sea of so many people would eventually draw sharks; once tasting blood, they would look for it again. The divers had to work in cloudy waters produced by run-off from nearby coastal rivers. They could not see a shark until it was too close to evade. Had work halted every time a shark was seen in the area, production would suffer intolerably. Losing a costly diver was a risk the pearlmasters had to take; they were entrepreneurs after all, and taking risks was how they made their fortunes.

Some divers took an easy way out of their misery. By hyperventilating at the surface, taking rapid deep breaths, they could charge their lungs with extra oxygen and stay underwater considerably longer. However, done too much it led to blacking out--a peaceful way to swoon and drown.

Few Caribs allowed themselves to be caught between the ship above and the shark below. Unlike the Lucayos, no Carib willingly boarded a Spanish ship unless he was assaulting it with club and torch. The Carib islands had early been thrown open to slaving, but expeditions met with slight success. Caribs were dangerous to hunt; they fought back. When a punitive expedition under the command of Ponce de Leon landed in Guadeloupe to wreak havoc, the soldiers were ambused and decimated while on shore washing and filling the drinking casks.

Another expedition stormed the beach on the Carib stronghold of St. Vincent and was received by a well-aimed flight of poisoned arrows that killed both captains and sent the crew scurrying back to their ships. They fell back on an old standby. They raised anchor and fled to an Arawak island, in this case Trinidad, where they struck up a friendship with its amicable natives, kidnapped them when their guard was down, and sold them at Hispaniola as supposed Caribs, adding insult to injury since the vilest libel for an Arawak was to be called a Carib.

Far from working at the pearl fisheries, the Caribs made a point of plundering them. They almost overran Cubagua in 1515 and again in 1528. Scarcely a year passed that their raiding fleets did not harass the pearling vessels, approaching under cover of squalls or in the glare of the rising sun. Their dugouts sat low in the water, hard to spot until relatively close, and then went faster than the European vessels for short sprints, as 50 warriors bent their backs to their paddles and sliced through the water like fire-hardened spears. The Caribs were great drinkers and loved wine; they also appreciated steel axes and adzes for shaping their beloved dugouts. But most of all they wanted the exotic women the Spaniards brought--white ones with blue eyes and blonde hair, black ones with full breasts and curly locks.

Cubagua flourished despite adversities. So long as the pearls kept coming, so did the Spaniards, and by 1515 the unlikely little island had become a prime trade center. Caravels and naos criss-crossed the Caribbean, to and from ports in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, and came directly from Spain. Besides pearls, they took back parrots, wildcats, monkeys, salt, turtle shells, dyewood and slaves.

The Indians of the Pearl Coast were supposed to be left alone to ensure the security of Cubagua and of the missionaries working on the mainland. But under the pretext of trade, or in conjunction with it, caravels tacked into the remote forested inlets, especially in the Golfo de Ciriaco and the Golfo de Santa Fe, and carried off Indians by force and deceit, as well as by purchasing them.

Two missions of Dominican and Franciscan friars were established at Cumana and Santa Fe to convert the Indians by persuasion and example. Venezuela had not been settled, so none of its Indians were allotted to owners, who could be counted on to subvert such an experiment. The Crown even put all trade on the Pearl Coast under religious control to prevent abuses. But the holy fathers never really had a chance. They could not ban all caravels from the coast because they themselves needed supplies and protection. Out of the friars' sight, the sailors did what they pleased. By 1519-1520 there was steady traffic between the north Caribbean and the Pearl Coast in slaves and pearls. An average of two to three armadas came every month, each bringing back some 50 slaves.

The year 1520 proved to be a watershed. Cubagua had gone from bad to worse and knew no law but desire and force. The rapid increase in population and wealth had turned it into an early version of a wild west mining camp. Drinking gambling, murder and adultery kept the community in turmoil. The few Spanish women were hot in demand; even judges and governors were involved in scandalous triangles. Innocent fornication with Indian women often degenerated into rape.

The man sent to establish order brought Cubagua to the boiling point. Antonio Flores was charged with dispensing justice and protecting the Indians. Instead, he grossly abused his authority to enrich himself in the pearl fishery and the slave trade. He granted licenses only to his associates and winked at their most astrocious misdeeds, while bringing the full severity of the law down on the rest of the Spaniards, punishing trifles with jail, the stocks, whippings, and confiscation of property. He alienated the Margarita Indians by requiring them to sell all their pearls on Cubagua under conditions that favored his own interests. To deal with unrest, he seized two caciques (chiefs), summarily hanged the elder one, strapped the other, still a minor, to the muzzle of a cannon and blew his head off, throwing his body to the dogs.

The Indians exploded into revolt. They ambushed a notorious slaver and massacred him with his men. They burned the missions at Santa Fe and Cumana to the ground, killing every friar. The crew of a newly-arrived caravel came ashore and got axed. The Indians jumped into the ship's boat and headed out to the caravel. The two crewmen left aboard sprang into action, chopped through their anchor cable, unfurled sails, and barely made their escape to Cubagua to bring word of the uprising. Eight days later another caravel pulled in surreptitiously to the coast. Following the strategy of the Spaniards, the Indians came aboard, ate and drank, and invited the Christians ashore. Once in their power they killed 23 men. Only the captain and four of his crew escaped, bringing tales of blood on the beach back to Santo Domingo.

At Cubagua the Spaniards received news of the massacres and sent a caravel to rescue survivors. When the springs on Margarita were poisoned, it became clear that remaining on the little island, now cut off from food and water, would mean a lingering death. Flores managed to seize 200 Margarita Indians who were fishing on the pearl banks aloof from the hostilities, crammed them into four caravels and beat feet for Hispaniola with the rest of the Spaniards.

The Indians set the rancherias ablaze, and Cubagua was left alone to recover from the violence and debauchery . . . but not for long. The pearls still slumbered within the oysters, and the Spaniards needed revenge. They came back in force; 200 armed men landed in the rebellious Santa Fe area and slaughtered whomever they could catch. They left the dead heaped in their villages, on the forest pathways and impaled on stakes lining the beach--a gruesome reminder of Spanish might and will.

The fort at Cumana went up again, this time built to last. Back on Cubagua, the city of Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua sprang up, with stone walls, polished wood floors, graceful second stories, glass windows and lace trimmings. Wealth flowed in and out. A list of imports gives a picture of life at the time: food from home--wine, almonds, raisins, figs, vinegar, rice and oil; building materials--bricks, nails, wooden flooring and boards; boat supplies--pulleys, sailclorth, tar, oars, caulking; as well as candles, linen fabric, scissors, swords, mirrors and son on.

Ten short years later, however, even as the city was building, the boom suddenly went bust. The supply of oysters had dwindled drastically. The pious claimed God had finally revenged himself on the town's wickedness, while others blamed a disease brought on by overfishing. By 1533 the colonists were forced to limit fishing to four months at Cubagua, three months at Coche and two months at Margarita. But to no avail. In 1537 the Crown heard that no pearls had been taken at Cubagua in a year and a half. Big news of gold in Mexico and Peru had siphoned off many citizens, and by 1540 the discovery of virgin oyster beds at Cabo de la Vela and Rio Hacha off the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia drew off the rest. As if to emphasize the ruin, a freak hurricane struck at Christmas in 1540 and levelled the town to its stone walls, and to complete the disaster, a French corsair landed and made off with the bronze church bell and the last piece of artillery at the fort.

Almost 500 years later I sailed to Cubagua with my family, coming south from Puerto Rico over an unchanged sea to make landfall, like a caravel, on the torn western massif of Margarita. Behind it lay Cubagua, barren and abandoned, somnolent in the afternoon heat. I motored the last ten miles in glassy calm--perfect pearl-diving weather.

Something broke the surface ahead. Through the binoculars I saw a dark triangular fin cleaving a languid wake. I altered course towards it, then climbed the ratlines for a better view. The unmistakeable silhouette of a hammerhead shark passed below, the sinister deformation of its flattened head signalling maneater. Within the space of half an hour we saw three more. The last measured ten feet long, with the girth of a horse. It swam unhesitatingly towards the boat, passed close by, and at the last moment lunged at the dingy towing astern. Inches from the little boat it sheered off and disappeared into the opaque depths. I shuddered for the Lucayos who descended into a primal nigthmare that sooner or later became horrifyingly real.

We anchored near a fishing camp at the water's edge--a rancheria. Crooked sticks with bark held up a thatched roof. Old galvanizing and bits of driftwood completed three sides of the shelter. A cook fire smouldered outside, its smoke giving intermittant relief from the sandflies and offal from the day's catch still swirled in the gentle slap of surf, where translucent ghost crabs scurried along the wet sand after it.

As we came ashore, an island family, our counterparts, greeted us shyly but sincerely. While the children interacted in sign language, the men conversed haltingly about the sea, fishing boats--things we had in common. Indian and Spanish traits were irrevocably joined in the father's face and endless hours of sun had parched his skin to a burnished leather with deep etches around his eyes and nose. When we left the family pressed gifts on us: fish, a turtle shell. Given their meager resources, their hospitality was almost embarrassing.

The next morning we walked over to the windward shore to see the ruins. As we approached, the sun was high, beating down out of a bleached-white sky. Lizards scuttled along the weathered stone walls that ran in rectilinear patterns. The shoreline was filled with coral heads, stretching like a molten mirror to a distant rim. Mounds of old oyster shells lined the beach as far as we could see. Behind the fallen town sprawled piles of rock--collapsed buildings--backed by a low rise, with dry sparse bushes enduring the heat.

Just before the outer walls, we stopped to look in a wooden partition placed in the ground. Protected by the sides of the box was a skeleton--skull and bones half buried--with a pitted and terminally rusted iron spearhead lodged between the ribs. It looked to have been unearthed by an archaeologist who had hastily protected it from the wind and then run off to tell someone but never returned. There it sat, with not a soul around. The skeleton was relatively small, the lancehead Spanish. The sight transfixed me, this eloquent enigmatic symbol of Cubagua. Was this a Lucayan struck down in a fit of rage for malingering . . . a Carib who had stormed the town . . . or a Spaniard waylaid in the night by a jealous husband? Possibilities whirled in my head.

I stood lost, staring into space. My son asked, "Dad, you alright? . . . Dad?" I resurfaced, the heat belted down again and the world resumed its prosaic self. Rock walls growing lichens on an ancient shore. Who really knows?

Peter Muilenburg is a freelance writer and avid sailor currently on a voyage around the world.
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Title Annotation:historical account of sixteenth century life in Cubagua Island off Venezuela's Eastern Caribbean coast
Author:Muilenburg, Peter
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:4502
Previous Article:On the trail of the ARC.
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