Ponce de Leon


Writ­ten by   Sam Turner

St. Augus­tine Light­house & Museum

OCTOBER 13, 1513 — O Antón de Alaminos and the car­avel San Cristóbal, tasked with con­tin­u­ing the search for the island of Bimi­ni, had part­ed com­pa­ny with Juan Ponce de León and the remain­ing car­avels San­ti­a­go and San­ta María de la Con­so­lación at the island of Guatao on Sept. 17. Short­ly there­after, Juan Ponce and his two ships depart­ed the Lucayan islands. Along with them went Diego Miru­elo and his ship­wrecked crew, who were sus­pect­ed of spy­ing on the expe­di­tion and act­ing under the orders of Diego Colum­bus, Juan Ponce’s prin­ci­pal polit­i­cal ene­my and the gov­er­nor of the New World. Clear­ing the islands, Ponce and his ships head­ed south­east on a course for the island of Puer­to Rico and home. They arrived in San Juan, Puer­to Rico, 21 days later.

Juan Ponce and the men on his two ships had been gone for approx­i­mate­ly sev­en-and-a-half months. Every mariner’s heart­felt desire after such a long absence was like­ly a hap­py and joy­ous home­com­ing with friends and fam­i­ly. How­ev­er, this was not to be. What greet­ed them instead was a vision of destruc­tion and war. The town of Caparra, found­ed by Ponce in 1506, had been attacked and burned by the neigh­bor­ing Carib Indi­ans who had pre­vi­ous­ly formed an alliance with some of the Taino Indi­ans of Puer­to Rico in 1511. This Carib attack ini­ti­at­ed what became known in Puer­to Rico as the “sec­ond war” to dis­tin­guish it from the 1511 Taino uprising.

Juan Ponce’s wife and fam­i­ly had sur­vived the attack as had most of the inhab­i­tants of Caparra but at least 29 hous­es had been burned to the ground. The church had been loot­ed of its sil­ver orna­ments before being burned along with the library of the new­ly arrived bish­op, Alon­so Man­so. As if this new state of war was not enough, and to make mat­ters worse, Ponce learned that Diego Colum­bus was now res­i­dent in Puer­to Rico.

On May 22, as Juan Ponce’s fleet had been approach­ing the west coast of Flori­da, Diego Colum­bus on the island of Españo­la had been putting the final touch­es to his expe­di­tion to Puer­to Rico. Colum­bus arrived at the port of San Ger­mán on June 2, 1513. He had come to Puer­to Rico to per­son­al­ly take charge and place the island under his jurisdiction.

The burn­ing of Caparra by the Caribs began a string of Span­ish attacks against the Taino though not nec­es­sar­i­ly against only those who had par­tic­i­pat­ed in rebel­lion. These attacks were autho­rized by Diego Colum­bus and usu­al­ly took the form of cav­al­ry raids known as cabal­gadas. These raids quick­ly became a means of obtain­ing slaves for work­ing the mines, ranch­es and farms of the Span­ish on Puer­to Rico.

Flush with suc­cess, Juan Ponce had returned from what would turn out to be one of the most impor­tant voy­ages of dis­cov­ery in his­to­ry only to find his set­tle­ment of Caparra in ruins and his arch-rival Diego Colum­bus sit­ting on the wreck­age of his dreams. Puer­to Rico, which Ponce had start­ed as a new and peace­ful set­tle­ment in 1506, had not only been tak­en from him, it had been ruined by the same Span­ish prac­tices he had grown to dis­like on the island of Españo­la. Now with Diego Colum­bus present on the island, Ponce had even less author­i­ty than when he had first been removed from office. He had to get back to Spain and the King’s court. There he would obtain sat­is­fac­tion and title com­men­su­rate with his accom­plish­ments. There he would receive his reward for loy­al ser­vice to the king. But where was the San Cristóbal? Would Antón de Alaminos find Bimini?