Ponce And Ceron


Friar Inigo Abbad, in his History of the Island San Juan Bautista de

Puerto Rico, gives the story of the discovery in a very short chapter,

and terminates it with the words: "Columbus sailed for Santo Domingo

November 22, 1493, and thought no more of the island, which remained

forgotten till Juan Ponce returned to explore it in 1508."

This is not correct. The island was not forgott
n, for Don Jose Julian

de Acosta, in his annotations to the Benedictine monk's history (pp.

21 and 23), quotes a royal decree of March 24, 1505, appointing

Vicente Yanez Pinzon Captain and "corregidor" of the island San Juan

Bautista and governor of the fort that he was to construct therein.

Pinzon transferred his rights and titles in the appointment to Martin

Garcia de Salazar, in company with whom he stocked the island with

cattle; but it seems that Boriquen did not offer sufficient scope for

the gallant pilot's ambition, for we find him between the years 1506

and 1508 engaged in seeking new conquests on the continent.

As far as Columbus himself is concerned, the island was certainly

forgotten amid the troubles that beset him on all sides almost from

the day of his second landing in "la Espanola." From 1493 to 1500 a

series of insurrections broke out, headed successively by Diaz,

Margarit, Aguado, Roldan, and others, supported by the convict rabble

that, on the Admiral's own proposals to the authorities in Spain, had

been liberated from galleys and prisons on condition that they should

join him on his third expedition. These men, turbulent, insubordinate,

and greedy, found hunger, hardships, and sickness where they had

expected to find plenty, comfort, and wealth. The Admiral, who had

indirectly promised them these things, to mitigate the universal and

bitter disappointment, had recourse to the unwarrantable expedients of

enslaving the natives, sending them to Spain to be sold, of levying

tribute on those who remained, and, worst of all, dooming them to a

sure and rapid extermination by forced labor.

The natives, driven to despair, resisted, and in the encounters

between the naked islanders and the mailed invaders Juan Ponce

distinguished himself so that Nicolos de Ovando, the governor, made

him the lieutenant of Juan Esquivel, who was then engaged in

"pacifying" the province of Higueey. After Esquivel's departure on

the conquest of Jamaica, Ponce was advanced to the rank of captain,

and it was while he was in the Higueey province that he learned from

the Boriquen natives, who occasionally visited the coast, that there

was gold in the rivers of their as yet unexplored island. This was

enough to awaken his ambition to explore it, and having asked

permission of Ovando, it was granted.

Ponce equipped a caravel at once, and soon after left the port of

Salvaleon with a few followers and some Indians to serve as guides and

interpreters (1508).

They probably landed at or near the same place at which their captain

had landed fifteen years before with the Admiral, that is to say, in

the neighborhood of la Aguada, where, according to Las Casas, the

ships going and coming to and from Spain had called regularly to take

in fresh water ever since the year 1502.

The strangers were hospitably received. It appears that the mother of

the local cacique, who was also the chief cacique of that part of the

island, was a woman of acute judgment. She had, no doubt, heard from

fugitives from la Espanola of the doings of the Spaniards there, and

of their irresistible might in battle, and had prudently counseled her

son to receive the intruders with kindness and hospitality.

Accordingly Ponce and his men were welcomed and feasted. They were

supplied with provisions; areitos (dances) were held in their honor;

batos (games of ball) were played to amuse them, and the practise,

common among many of the aboriginal tribes in different parts of the

world, of exchanging names with a visitor as a mark of brotherly

affection, was also resorted to to cement the new bonds of friendship,

so that Guaybana became Ponce for the time being, and Ponce Guaybana.

The sagacious mother of the chief received the name of Dona Inez,

other names were bestowed on other members of the family, and to

crown all, Ponce received the chief's sister in marriage.

Under these favorable auspices Ponce made known his desire to see the

places where the chiefs obtained the yellow metal for the disks which,

as a distinctive of their rank, they wore as medals round their neck.

Guaybana responded with alacrity to his Spanish brother's wish, and

accompanied him on what modern gold-seekers would call "a prospecting

tour" to the interior. The Indian took pride in showing him the rivers

Manatuabon, Manati, Sibuco, and others, and in having their sands

washed in the presence of his white friends, little dreaming that by

so doing he was sealing the doom of himself and people.

Ponce was satisfied with the result of his exploration, and returned

to la Espanola in the first months of 1509, taking with him the

samples of gold collected, and leaving behind some of his companions,

who probably then commenced to lay the foundations of Caparra. It is

believed that Guaybana accompanied him to see and admire the wonders

of the Spanish settlement. The gold was smelted and assayed, and found

to be 450 maravedis per peso fine, which was not as fine as the gold

obtained in la Espanola, but sufficiently so for the king of Spain's

purposes, for he wrote to Ponce in November, 1509: "I have seen your

letter of August 16th. Be very diligent in searching for gold mines in

the island of San Juan; take out as much as possible, and after

smelting it in la Espanola, send it immediately."

On August 14th of the same year Don Fernando had already written to

the captain thanking him for his diligence in the settlement of the

island and appointing him governor ad interim.

Ponce returned to San Juan in July or the beginning of August, after

the arrival in la Espanola of Diego, the son of Christopher Columbus,

with his family and a new group of followers, as Viceroy and Admiral.

The Admiral, aware of the part which Ponce had taken in the

insurrection of Roldan against his father's authority, bore him no

good-will, notwithstanding the king's favorable disposition toward the

captain, as manifested in the instructions which he received from

Ferdinand before his departure from Spain (May 13, 1509), in which his

Highness referred to Juan Ponce de Leon as being by his special grace

and good-will authorized to settle the island of San Juan Bautista,

requesting the Admiral to make no innovations in the arrangement, and

charging him to assist and favor the captain in his undertaking.

After Don Diego's arrival in la Espanola he received a letter from the

king, dated September 15, 1509, saying, "Ovando wrote that Juan Ponce

had not gone to settle the island of San Juan for want of stores; now

that they have been provided in abundance, let it be done."

But the Admiral purposely ignored these instructions. He deposed Ponce

and appointed Juan Ceron as governor in his place, with a certain

Miguel Diaz as High Constable, and Diego Morales for the office next

in importance. His reason for thus proceeding in open defiance of the

king's orders, independent of his resentment against Ponce, was the

maintenance of the prerogatives of his rank as conceded to his father,

of which the appointment of governors and mayors over any or all the

islands discovered by him was one.

Ceron and his two companions, with more than two hundred Spaniards,

sailed for San Juan in 1509, and were well received by Guaybana and

his Indians, among whom they took up their residence and at once

commenced the search for gold. In the meantime Ponce, in his capacity

as governor ad interim, continued his correspondence with the king,

who, March 2, 1510, signed his appointment as permanent governor.

This conferred upon him the power to sentence in civil and criminal

affairs, to appoint and remove alcaldes, constables, etc., subject to

appeal to the government of la Espanola. Armed with his new authority,

and feeling himself strong in the protection of his king, Ponce now

proceeded to arrest Ceron and his two fellow officials, and sent them

to Spain in a vessel that happened to call at the island, confiscating

all their property.

Diego Columbus, on hearing of Ponce's highhanded proceedings,

retaliated by the confiscation of all the captain's property in la


These events did not reach the king's ears till September, 1510. He

comprehended at once that his protege had acted precipitately, and

gave orders that the three prisoners should be set at liberty

immediately after their arrival in Spain and proceed to the Court to

appear before the Council of Indies. He next ordered Ponce (November

26, 1510) to place the confiscated properties and Indians of Ceron and

his companions at the disposal of the persons they should designate

for that purpose. Finally, after due investigation and recognition of

the violence of Ponce's proceedings, the king wrote to him June 6,

1511: "Because it has been resolved in the Council of Indies that the

government of this and the other islands discovered by his father

belongs to the Admiral and his successors, it is necessary to return

to Ceron, Diaz, and Morales their staffs of office. You will come to

where I am, leaving your property in good security, and We will see

wherein we can employ you in recompense of your good services."

Ceron and his companions received instructions not to molest Ponce nor

any of his officers, nor demand an account of their acts, and they

were recommended to endeavor to gain their good-will and assistance.

The reinstated officers returned to San Juan in the latter part of

1511. Ponce, in obedience to the king's commands, quietly delivered

the staff of office to Ceron, and withdrew to his residence in

Caparra. He had already collected considerable wealth, which was soon

to serve him in other adventurous enterprises.