Ponce de León and the water of life

James Ferguson traces the life of the conquistador Ponce de León and the poetic justice with which he met his end

Illustration by Nikolai Noel

Of all the anniversaries in Caribbean history that fall in 2008 (and there are many, not least the 1808 abolition of the slave trade) there is one that has a particular symmetrical resonance. Five hundred years ago, on August 12, 1508, Juan Ponce de León founded the first Spanish colony on the island known to its inhabitants as Borinquen (or Borikén). Today we call it Puerto Rico, the Rich Port, a name given in the optimistic belief that it contained the great deposits of gold that the conquistadors dreamed of.

If ever a “discovery” was a clash of two alien cultures, this was it: the conqueror and the conquered literally inhabited different worlds. Ponce de León was of noble but impoverished Spanish stock, born around 1460 near Valladolid. Although he was an hidalgo or gentleman, his prospects were distinctly unpromising, as he was a younger son and thus denied what paltry inheritance there might be. Embarking on a military career, he had taken part in the campaign to conquer the Moorish kingdom around Granada, and in 1493 accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second expedition to the Americas, settling in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola—now the Dominican Republic.

By all accounts a harsh and ruthless man, Ponce de León was well suited to the frontier conditions of the nascent Spanish empire, and had few qualms about exploiting the indigenous population. The native Tainos, crushed by the Spaniards’ superior fighting technology and devastated by new and terrible diseases, were virtually enslaved by the new colonial masters. When they rebelled they were mercilessly punished, and in 1502 Hispaniola’s governor, Nicolás de Ovando, sent Ponce de Léon to the east of the territory to quell an uprising.

Such was his success that he was named deputy governor of Higüey province, where he constructed a solid two-storey stone house—which can still be visited today near the town of San Rafael del Yuma—and set up home with his Spanish-born wife Leonor and three children. Here he lived an implausibly domestic existence, running an agricultural estate worked by Taino slave labour.

But it was not in the nature of conquistadors to live humdrum lives, and soon Ponce de León had itchy feet again, especially after he heard rumours surrounding the gold of Borinquen. (Of course, the fact that these rumours were spread by Hispaniola’s Taino people, presumably in a futile bid to send the Spanish on their way, might have aroused suspicions.) Nonetheless, greed outweighed caution, and Ponce de León was given permission to lead an expedition to the island—which, in fact, he had already briefly visited en route to Hispaniola.

If the Spanish hidalgo was driven by gold lust and ambition, the island’s indigenous people were unmoved by material wealth. Numbering about 30,000, they lived in small coastal communities, fishing and farming crops such as yucca and cassava. At first, these Tainos were welcoming, but it was not long before the violence of the invaders became apparent. With firearms and dogs, the colonists easily overcame the island’s inhabitants and established a first settlement, named Caparra, near present-day San Juan.

The speed with which the Spanish destroyed the Taino culture was spectacular, and by 1520—in 12 short years—the indigenous people were almost extinct. By 1513 the first African slaves were arriving on what was by now called Puerto Rico. Nor was gold found in significant quantities, and Puerto Rico became essentially a ranching economy, with vast estates owned by Spanish settlers.

Ponce de León, predictably enough, had made a fortune from this nasty business and was further rewarded by being named governor and captain-general of Puerto Rico. Caparra was soon abandoned, and a better settlement made at a nearby coastal location, San Juan. But the wealthy conquistador was still not a happy man. He might own hundreds of slaves and a huge ranch, but he was all too conscious of his own mortality. Aged 50 in 1510, he was an old man by the standards of the age.

Once again, an insistent rumour reached Ponce de León—from the Tainos, of course. It told of a fountain of youth, situated somewhere to the north, that poured with water guaranteed to restore health and vitality to the drinker. Malicious Spanish contemporaries also pointed out that Ponce de León showed particular interest when told that the water cured sexual impotence. So it was that in 1513 he decided, encouraged by political power struggles in Hispaniola that threatened his governorship, to finance his own expedition in search of this elixir (and early version of Viagra).

On April 2 the three-ship expedition sighted land and Ponce de León stepped ashore on what he thought was an island, which he named “La Florida” after Pascua Florida, the “Flowery Passover” or Easter season of Spanish Catholicism. This place, as it turned out, was somewhere on the northeast coast of the American state of that name. The expedition then moved south, round the Florida Keys, sailed to Cuba, back to Florida and eventually returned to Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, not a drop of the water of life was found. Undeterred, the aging explorer resolved to make another, more serious bid to find the fountain—and to colonise Florida. In 1521 two ships bearing 200 men and 50 horses set off from Puerto Rico and landed near the present-day Charlotte Harbor on the southwest coast. The plan was to establish another settlement and, no doubt, to make any unsuspecting natives do all the hard work.

But here Ponce de León’s luck ran out. There were indigenous people, but they were not the gentle Tainos of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, but the Calusa or “fierce people.” Understandably, they took exception to these uninvited visitors and fighting quickly broke out. Ponce de León was hit in the shoulder by a poisoned arrow. The colonists managed to escape and make it back to Cuba, but there he died of his wound. He was later buried in the cathedral of San Juan.

One can perhaps derive some slight satisfaction from the Spaniard’s comeuppance at indigenous hands, but the genocide of the Tainos was an appalling episode in history, which appeared not to trouble the conscience of Ponce de León and his ilk.

But perhaps the genocide was not quite as complete as contemporary Spanish chroniclers believed. In 1998 researchers from the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayaguez campus investigated the DNA profile of 56 volunteers. Of these, 70 per cent were found to have significant levels of Indo-American DNA, suggesting direct descent from those first, indigenous Puerto Ricans.

Are these modern-day inhabitants the heirs to Taino groups who fled into accessible parts of the island and survived long enough to intermix with colonists or slaves? The research is ongoing. But meanwhile the San Juan Star asked its readers, many of American descent, to consider whether they preferred yucca to french fries.