The Mendoza scrolls
Gonzalo Guerrero is one of the great mysteries of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Shipwrecked in the Yucatan years before, Guerrero apparently led, or at least aided, the Mayan resistance to the Spanish conquerors. On two occasions, the Spaniards were able to contact him, hoping to entice him to return, but were refused. Until the discovery of Guerrero’s confessions, however, little was known for sure about his life or what role he might have had in fighting the Spanish invasion.
The documents now called the Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero were discovered in five Mayan pottery jars owned by the Mendoza family of Madrid since 1548. The jars, all with tight fitting lids sealed with resin, were almost forgotten in a display cabinet in a back room of the family villa in the Madrid suburb of La Moraleja.
In 2010, however, a visitor, an assistant curator at the Museo Nacional Del Prado, noticed the jars and arranged a loan of them to the museum for an exhibition. Noting the sealed condition of the jars, the museum X‑rayed the jars and discovered that there were cylindrical shaped objects that appeared to be scrolls packed tightly in all five jars.
With the Mendozas’ permission, the jars were opened. Inside were scrolls made of sheepskin, covered on both sides with writing. Most remarkably, however, the writing was in Spanish. Due to the dryness and lack of air in the sealed jars, the scrolls were intact, but a concentrated effort was necessary to completely unroll and record the writing.
To the astonishment of the curators, it soon became apparent that these scrolls appeared to be the hand-written memoirs of the mysterious Gonzalo Guerrero himself.
Although written in Spanish, the style of the writing is narrative and more free flowing than was the rule at that time. Some have dismissed the papers as a forgery, saying that no 16th century Spaniard would have written this way, but the Confessions were written after Guerrero had lived with the Maya for over 20 years and become one of them. His writing would have no doubt reflected his altered outlook and philosophy. Analysis indicates that the resin that sealed the jars is over 400 years old, as are the scrolls themselves, so a modern day forgery seems unlikely.
Here, then, is the translation of the Mendoza scrolls; The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero. The narrative has been left as written with a few exceptions. For some Mayan words or place names, the more familiar modern term has been substituted, and some historical notes have been added.
Most accounts written at the time either viewed the Maya in an idealized way, or spoke in horror of idolatry and human sacrifice. Gonzalo Guerrero views the Maya with an impartial eye. He points out the brilliance of the civilization, but he also the human sacrifices, incessant warfare, and brutality. Where the Confessions deal with known facts, such as the fighting at Chichen Itza, the details follow the historical record closely, indicating that Guerrero was accurate in his reporting and observant of the world around him.
Guerrero also seems to have been completely candid in his confessions, including more examples of his shortcomings than his heroics. When his actions were self-serving or venal, he duly records them that way. When he is torn by indecision and conflicting loyalties, that too is noted. The picture of Guerrero that emerges, blemishes and all, is very different then the image of him that the Spaniards saw.
Guerrero was a man of 16th century Spain, thrust into an alien world. He was at the mercy of people who spoke a language he didn’t understand and thought in ways that were different than anything he had ever experienced. It was as if an astronaut had been stranded on a distant planet and found a fully developed alien civilization there. As a result, Guerrero was forced to go to great lengths and make agonizing choices to adapt and to survive.
Here, then, is the story of an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time in history.
“So it was that I decided to take up arms against my former countrymen; to stand with the Mayans against the Spanish conquest that threatened to devour them…. I had been forced to choose between the country of my birth and the woman of my heart. I made my choice and have never doubted I made the right one.”
Chapter 1– The Expedition
Greetings to any who find this message, and to the people of the Kingdom of Castile in this, the year of Our Lord 1534.
My name is Gonzalo Guerrero. I was born a Spaniard, but will die a Mayan. I am recording my confessions so that my actions, and the reasons I became a Mayan warrior and took up arms against the country of my birth will be better known and understood by the people of Spain, who no doubt think of me as a renegade and traitor. So for the sake of my family in Spain, and for the sake of my immortal soul, I will relay the truth of the events that brought me here.
Many years have passed since I last wrote Spanish words on a scroll, and the quill feels awkward and unfamiliar in my hand as it slowly scratches its way across the blank surface. As I write, strands of hazy white smoke from the burning incense on the pyramid temple of Kukulcan drift over the treetops like twisting serpents. The sweet smell mingles with the scent of wood smoke from the cooking fires, and the damp mists of the forest. These smells are familiar to me now, and sooth my heart, despite their association with blood and death.
To tell my story, I must tell you of the past. The Maya believe time runs in infinite repeating cycles, so unless you look to the past, you can never understand the present. My story does not begin in the land of the Maya, or even in the New World. My story begins in a bedroom; the bedroom of the Señorita Consuello Arbenza.
In the year of 1511, I was like many other hot blooded young Spaniards living near Seville, longing for adventure and riches in the mysterious and exciting new world across the great ocean.
Along with my sister Maria and my brother Hectore, I grew up on our family’s farm when Castile and Aragon were still recovering from over 700 years of struggle against the Moors. After all the death and destruction, the invader had finally been driven from our soil in the wars we called the Reconquista. With my brother, Hectore, I would pretend I was a brave soldier of Castile fighting off the Moorish invaders. We would battle each other with swords and spears made of sticks, our harmless combat raging furiously across fields, streams, and woods. Our Uncle Fernando was a master swordsman, and spent long hours teaching my brother and me the art of fighting with the sword and the pike. By the time I was 14, I was defeating the best of the local fencing school.
As I grew older, I became increasingly restless to escape my dull life on the farm. My head was filled with the tales I had heard of the Indies, and the island of Hispaniola where Admiral Colon had started his colony.
“More expeditions are going to the New World,” I would moan, “and I am missing all the adventure and riches. While Spain is marching to glory, I march behind a plow!”
Even Hectore, who was usually the most patient and understanding of men, sometimes grew weary of listening to my laments. I recall one exchange that was typical.
“Before you sail for adventure, Senor Conquistador, you still have that manure to spread,” he said one day. “Perhaps you will find something valuable in it.”
“Come, Hectore,” I replied, brandishing a broomstick, and knocking a bucket out of his hand, “fence with me so I will be ready for the new world.” I took up the dueling stance.
“You may battle all the buckets you wish, Gonzalo,” he laughed, “but you will never leave Avilla.”
He might have been right, but in that year of 1511, my life suddenly changed forever. I still talked of seeking my fortune in the new world, but dallied at home courting a woman named Consuelo Arbenza. She had black hair and a nature as voluptuous as her body. Consuelo was hot blooded as I was, and I would court her in the traditional way, with a chaperon and a guitar during the day, but come to her room in the night. She lived with her father, but he was often away performing his duties as a judge of the Holy Inquisition. Many an evening, while Don Arbeza was consigning heretics to the flames, Consuelo and I would spend hungrily grappling in her big canopied bed giving full rein to our youthful passions. Although I love my wife dearly, I will always have a special place in my heart (or perhaps my loins) for Consuelo Arbeza and those soft velvet nights in Spain.
But the priests say the pleasures of the flesh are dangerous, and so it proved with me. One night, Consuelo and I were just at the point of fumbling with each other’s clothes, when I stopped. I thought I faintly heard the click of boot heels on the tile floor of the corridor outside her room.
“What was that sound?” I said, suddenly alert. “Could there be someone else in the house?”
“Father is presiding over a trial of heretics in Seville. No one will be home for hours yet,” she said, running her hand up my leg and pulling off my doublet in one deft motion.
At that moment the door burst open and there, black in the corridor light behind him, stood Consuelo’s father, Don Julio Arbenza, with a sword in his hand and blood in his eyes. What happened next took only a few seconds, but seemed to go on forever.
“Seducer! Fornicator!” he bellowed, raising the sword. His oaths mingled with Consuelo’s screams and seemed to fill the room as I scrambled over the bed and toward the open window. With the bed sheets tangled around my ankles, I tripped and knocked over a table as the figure of wrath crossed the room and bore down on me. With all the pent up strength I had been saving for Consuelo, I managed to hop over to the window and roll out an instant before the Toledo blade was thrust quivering into the windowsill behind me. I fell into a rose bush and frantically made my escape through the darkened garden while picking thorns out and trying to put my clothes back on.
I will spare you the details of the scene that ensued when I arrived home. Suffice to say, it involved a good deal of shouting, recriminations, and panic, and in the end my family decided I must flee to Seville before I wounded something other than my dignity. As a judge of the Inquisition, Don Arbenza had the power to make my life extremely unpleasant…. and short.
So while Hectore watched with tears in his eyes, my father sent me off with some gold coins and an ivory handled dagger he had carried in the war with the Moors. The dagger was a thing of deadly beauty; its rich carvings and cold blade glistened in the soft firelight.
“Gonzalo,” he said in exasperation, as he bundled me out the door, “your life will be a short one if you don’t learn discretion where women are concerned. A judge of the Inquisition…Madre de Dios!”
My uncle Fernando went with me to Seville, and, as our horses’ hooves echoed in the quiet blackness of the Spanish night, listened patiently as I complained about how unfair the world had been to me. He then said something I was to remember ever after.
“Everyone complains of the injustices of life,” he said philosophically. “It is true the world can be a terrible place because some of the people who are in it seem determined to make it so. But you don’t have to be one of them. If you cannot make the world a better place, Gonzalo, at least do what you can to keep it from getting worse.”
The waterfront of Seville was a riot of noise and bustling motion, crowded with merchants, adventurers, soldiers, priests, beggars, prostitutes, and officials of all types. On the docks, there were rough looking seamen from everywhere; Catalonians, Moors, Italians, Greeks, Arabs and many more whose pedigree was uncertain. The only thing they all seemed to have in common was a love of drink and a hatred of bathing. But within this untidy mass of humanity were an air of excitement and the heady feeling of unlimited possibilities.
A man in a tavern took me to a Captain Juan de Valdivia in a ship named the Sangre de Cristo. They were to leave for the New World the next morning and had room for another man. I hastily bought a second hand sword and breastplate from an armorer and departed Seville at dawn, one step ahead of the vengeful Don Arbenza and the Holy Inquisition. It was the last I ever saw of the land of my birth.
I had never been to sea before and soon learned that it was not as wondrous and romantic as I had thought. The only way to travel in less comfort is to be dragged behind a horse. The first surprise was how small the vessel was. Even at the dock, the Sangre de Cristo had looked puny; about 70‑80 feet long and about half as wide. Into this space were crammed 50 men, and all their equipment and provisions. There were no beds or comforts of any kind. When you needed to sleep, you bedded down on some sacks or straw if you were lucky, or in some damp corner if you weren’t. Not that sleep was easy or relaxing on a ship underway; between the dampness, the violent motion, and the incessant banging, creaking and groaning of the hull and the rigging, it was enough to keep a corpse awake.
In spite of the discomfort of our travel, or perhaps because of it, everyone was eager to get to the New World. To say we were all fortune seekers is to oversimplify. Personal gain may have been the most important factor, but it was by no means the only one. Religious fervor was high, and many felt they were part of a holy crusade to spread the true faith among the heathen and to carry the cross to the far reaches of the earth. Exciting possibilities indeed, but I almost didn’t get there.
One night, I was at the top of the main mast, trying to untangle a violently flapping sail during a blinding rainstorm. There was a sudden lurch of the ship and to my horror, I found myself losing my balance and about to plunge to the deck far below. Suddenly, as I teetered between life and death, a hand came from nowhere, grabbed my collar, and jerked me back to safety. My savior was Jeronimo de Aguiller, a lay brother who intended to become a Franciscan monk after having proved himself worthy by saving the souls of the Indians. He was somewhat shorter and thinner than I was, but apparently strong enough when he had to be.
When I was back on deck again, cold, wet, and shaking, but alive, I turned to Aguiller.
“Jeronimo, you saved my life up there. I could have been killed and taken you with me.”
“It was my Christian duty,” he replied simply, “You would have done as much for me.”
I wondered if he was right. Would I? Although I was not to know the answer until much later, we became friends from that day onward.
Another devout traveler was Brother deAngelo. He was young, idealistic, and hell bent on lifting the Indians to civilization whether they liked it or not. He believed he would be instrumental in their spiritual salvation. But he was a good-hearted soul who seemed constantly amazed and disappointed at the world he saw around him.
Eduardo Perez was a different sort altogether. He was a burly, evil looking man who had fought in Italy and spoke of killing Spain’s enemies ruthlessly and without mercy. He seemed to relish the thought that he would soon get a chance to spill blood in a holy cause, and practiced fencing with anyone he could find. To relieve the tedium of the voyage, I sparred with him several times, and we were able to teach each other a few new tricks that might be put to good use one day. But for all his skill, Perez seemed impulsive and reckless. And I wondered if he might not be almost as dangerous to his comrades as to the enemy.
And so the Sangre de Cristo and its mixed crew of missionaries, dreamers, adventurers and opportunists slowly made its way to the fabled land called the New World.
One morning, when it had begun to seem as if we had been at sea most of our lives, we finally heard the cry we had all been waiting for; “Land ho!”
We all crowded the rail and strained our eyes. There, shimmering on the horizon was a dark smudge; Hispaniola, the outpost of Spain in the New World and staging area to wondrous lands waiting to be claimed and exploited.4
As the bulk of Hispaniola steadily grew larger, everyone prepared in his own way; de Aguiller and brother deAngelo prayed, Captain Valdivia consulted his charts, Perez sharpened his sword, and I stood by the bowsprit dreaming of gold and glory.
Chapter 2- The Wreck of the Sangre de Cristo
Hispaniola’s capitol, Santo Domingo, was mostly a scattering of shabby wooden structures lining dirt streets among the palm trees at the mouth of the Rio Ozama. There appeared to be a large central square almost bordering the river, and a few more stone or wooden buildings were under construction. On the river side of this square a fine stone building, the Alcazar of Diego Colon, was almost completed. This massive two-story structure was to be the home of one of the sons of Cristobal Colon, himself. Nearby, they were laying out the foundation of a cathedral.
Most of the town was surrounded by a palisade wall down to the water, although sections of this stockade were being replaced with stone fortifications. Santo Domingo had very little wharf space, so the Sangre de Cristo dropped anchor in the river and several of us headed for shore in one of the longboats.
By the time we stepped ashore, the mid afternoon sun was blazing high in the sky. The damp heat, heavy with the smell of sewage and rotting vegetation was almost overpowering. The streets and buildings of the town seemed to shimmer in the stifling haze, and after a few steps, we were all dripping with sweat. It almost seemed an effort to breathe in that tropical furnace.
“Look,” said de Aguiller, suddenly pointing to the dock area, “those must be Indians.”
He indicated several figures hauling crates and barrels between the ships and the weathered looking warehouses nearby. Someone said they were Arawak Indians. The Indians were short and brown skinned; they mostly wore only ragged loincloths, and perhaps sandals. Their long black hair hung down in their faces or stuck to the sweat on their shoulders. They all had a dispirited and resigned look about them, as if they saw only hardship and death in their future but were helpless to do anything about it. De Aguiller grew pale, visibly shaken by the Indians’ condition, but I had other, more pressing concerns.
“This heat is unbearable,” I complained, “Come, Jeronimo, let us slake our thirst and renew our strength. There is a tavern over there. We will drink to our success in the New World.”
The tavern wasn’t much of a place; a few crude tables on a dirt floor under a thatched roof held up by poles with the bark still on them. Inside, it was almost as hot as the street, but at least it was shady. A bald, greasy looking barkeep was speaking to a man with a sword at his side. The man had a black beard and the air of someone who knows exactly what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it. His eyes reinforced that impression, for they seemed to burn with single-minded determination. If he hadn’t been here, I thought, this rascal might well be back in Seville helping Consuelo’s father burn heretics at the stake in an Auto de Fe.
The man’s name, we learned, was Hernan Cortes.
Of course, I had no way of knowing at the time of the effect Cortes would have on my life and on the lives of millions of others. I would like to say that I had a feeling about him and sensed danger, but I really didn’t. Oh, he was an impressive figure; confident, decisive, and well spoken. Even so, I could never have imagined where destiny would lead him.
“Buenos dias, señors,” he said with a nod of his head. “I regret I cannot join you, but I merely stopped in for a quick refreshment. I am on my way to make arrangements for my expedition to Cuba.”
In spite of his formidable appearance, Cortes seemed amiable enough, and as he drank his ale, he spoke of his plans.
“The new world is a land of unimaginable potential,” he said, “Wealth beyond measure belongs to whoever is bold enough to seize it. We stand at a time in history that is unique. A modern world is encountering a rich but primitive world that is unknown. Think of the possibilities, señors! Here, there is always another, richer land just over the horizon, and new worlds to conquer! For a brave man of Castile, there is no other place to be.”
We were spellbound by this man. He refreshed our wilted spirits far more than the ale. Wealth beyond measure…..
“Well, my friends,” said Cortes, slamming a now empty tankard down on the table, “I must beg your leave. Cuba awaits.” He flipped a coin to the barkeep, and was gone, back out into the glaring sun to conquer his new worlds.5
“I can’t stop thinking about those Indians,” said de Aguiller, as we raised anchor the next morning. “They are being kept in miserable servitude. The Captain said it is called the Repartamiento system and is supposed to teach the Indians about the Holy Faith in exchange for their labor. The Indians have no choice, of course, but even so, could this be the consequence? The Indians have been reduced to slaves in their own lands and they are dying in large numbers as a result. I understand a Dominican brother named Fra de Montesino preached a sermon last week condemning the Castilians for their treatment of the Indians. ‘God’s children’ he called them.” De Aguiller shook his head slowly; deep lines of worry and confusion furrowed his brow. “Surely all this can’t be God’s will.”
“Who can say?” I shrugged, “Perhaps the Repartimiento system is teaching the savages about Heaven by sending them there.”
“But if they are God’s children…”
“Come Jeronimo: what does all this have to do with us? We are not Indians! Let us speak of pleasant things!” I tried hard not to think about the Indians too much.
But de Aguiller still looked troubled.6
In a few days’ time, we reached Jamaica. The island resembled Hispaniola with white sand beaches all around and palm trees waving and bending in the warm breeze. A thick green canopy of forest covered everywhere else. We dropped anchor in the clear blue water and sent a party of men to explore. They returned two days later with reports of scattered villages of naked savages, a few miserable native crops, and absolutely nothing resembling gold. This was repeated twice more as we made our way from east to west along the southern coast. Finally, on the last expedition ashore, I was taken along. Here again, I saw naked Indians living in pathetic huts of sticks and leaves. In each village we came to, we assembled the occupants and read them a proclamation that they were now subjects of Spain and had to become Christians. This was usually met with blank stares since none of the Indians spoke Spanish.
We also searched the huts for gold and found none. As I looked into one hut, I interrupted a grunting Perez ravishing a naked Indian woman on the dirt floor. She didn’t appear to be struggling, just waiting sullenly for it to be over. I was uneasy about what I saw, and just stood there in the doorway without speaking. Although I had laughed at de Aguiller’s sentimentality regarding the Indians, I saw no need for such callous brutality.
“Eduardo….” I started to say. Perez noticed me and interrupted to say he was finished.
“Come, Gonzalo,” Perez leered over his shoulder, “have a quick poke to keep up your strength. Most enjoyable, too, if you don’t mind a few scratches and the smell of wood smoke.” He stood up and pushed the woman aside. She was silent, but looked up at me with a burning hatred that made me uneasy. Perez continued to leer, waiting for me to take my turn. As I stood, paralyzed by my confusion and revulsion, a gleam of light reflected off an object Perez wore around his neck, and I saw it was a crucifix. The tiny figure of Our Lord seemed to look at me accusingly.
“There is no time,” I lied, “We must return to the ship.”
“Well, never mind,” Perez shrugged, “there will be others.”
I paused in the doorway as I left and looked back at the woman. Her eyes still glared at me, and I made a hasty retreat.
“Prepare to get underway!” shouted Valdivia, when we had returned, “We have spent enough time in this poor place. We sail to the south!”
A cheer went up from everyone. Soon we would be in the rich lands of the south, where we could go forth and trade the cross of Christ for the gold of the Indies. I put the image of the Indian woman out of my mind and looked forward to the great adventure ahead.
The next morning dawned gray with rain. Whitecaps were forming at the tops of the waves, and being blown off by a rising wind. The Sangre de Cristo plunged and rolled like a seagoing drunkard.
“A storm is building,” said Valdivia, sniffing the air, “Take in the sails and lash down the cargo. Step lively; this could be a bad one.”
As if slapped by a giant hand, the ship lurched with the force of the storm. The winds howled like all the lost souls in hell and waves like foaming grey mountains slammed into us. The Sange de Cristo rose up one side of each wave and slid down the other. Massive gray green walls of water broke over us, and the ship shuddered like some living thing. We prayed for the storm to abate, but it seemed to grow in its fury.
Soon, pieces of rigging were carried away, then with a loud crack, the mizzenmast went, crashing across the stern in a tangle of ropes and splintered wood until another wave cleared it off.
The next wave took the mainmast down, crushing two more men as it fell, and tearing off most of the starboard rail. By now, we had given up trying to steer the ship and devoted our efforts to just keeping the Sangre de Cristo afloat.
“Jeronimo,” I shouted, “Help me brace the bulkhead. It’s ready to collapse!”
We worked frantically shoring up the splintered timbers. Others were working the bilge pumps, but water was coming in faster than the exhausted crew could pump it out, and the ship started wallowing lower in the water.
Soon, all the masts were gone and the battered hull was taking on water between planks that had been loosened or broken by the pounding of the waves. As de Aguiller and I wedged a brace in place to try to strengthen the splintered side of the ship, I looked down and saw I was standing in water. The Sangre de Cristo was dying.
“Everyone into the longboats!” shouted Valdivia, who, like the rest of us was now so bedraggled as to be scarcely recognizable. “Launch from the starboard side; it’s already under water. Be quick about it!”
As we floated clear, only the stern of the ship was still above water, as if reluctant to meet its fate. In a few minutes, though, it sank beneath the waves, and the Sangre de Cristo was gone with only a few shattered planks of wood and pieces of debris to mark its grave.
With the next dawn, the storm was gone and we took stock of our situation. Two longboats with 24 men between them were bobbing on the clear blue waters without any land to be seen.7
“Each boat has charts, compass and quadrant for navigation, and fishing gear,” said Valdivia, “We have two barrels of water and a barrel of biscuits. We have sails, but the masts have been carried away in the storm, so will have to row.”
Before the storm, Valdivia had taken a sighting and determined our latitude. He estimated we were 60 miles southwest of Jamaica, but couldn’t be sure how far the storm had carried us. We only knew we needed to go northeast back to Jamaica, but a strong westerly current was taking us further away by the minute. We would have to row 10-12 miles a day just to stay in the same spot. If we stopped to rest we would lose what we had gained. Finally, Valdivia made the only realistic decision he could make.
“We will row with the current. With any luck, we will be carried to the western part of Cuba. If we row steadily, we will make 22 miles each day.”
“And what if we don’t find Cuba? Will we row forever?” A man named Ortega challenged the decision. He stood up in the boat and pointed at Valdivia. “I put it to you, Valdivia; how long do you expect us to row?”
“Until we either find land or die,” the captain replied coolly, “And it’s CAPTAIN Valdivia. Now sit down before you swamp the boat.”
Ortega glared at him for a moment, then sat down.
So we turned about and headed into the unknown. We could never have made it back to Jamaica against the current, and the faster we could travel, the more likely we would find another land before we died.
So we took turns rowing while the others held the sail over their heads for protection from the sun. As the food and water diminished, though, our rowing became less effective. We caught some fish and ate them raw, but after 10 days, we were thirsty and famished. The sun had burned us, and our hair and beards were wild and tangled. On the thirteenth day, Jesus Hernandez, who had been delirious with fever for three days, died in his sleep.
In the tropical heat, the water was the biggest problem. We used the sail to catch rainwater and directed it into the almost empty barrels, but it was not enough. Day followed endless day. The sun blazed mercilessly overhead, sweating out what little water we had in our bodies. By the twentieth day we were all too weak to row more than a few strokes. Valdivia estimated that we had come over 300 miles. Where was the land?
Brother deAngelo, his mouth parched and his tongue swollen, prayed faithfully for God’s deliverance and mercy, but found neither. Perez had saved his sword, only to use it to cut up the occasional fish. Ortega still grumbled, but his protests were feeble, and no one was listening. Even de Aguiller’s optimism was sorely tried.
“This can’t be, Gonzalo,” he would say, looking at the endless expanse of sparkling blue water, “I feel so strongly that God has some plan for my life.”
I couldn’t be much comfort. “Perhaps he planned for you to die in an open boat with hungry, thirsty and foul smelling companions,” I said sarcastically.
“I too have a destiny;” chimed in Perez, “to be the conqueror of new lands, and the scourge of the Indians. This sword is thirsty for blood that does not come from a fish.” He tapped the hilt of his sword with a meaty forefinger.
“We all have a destiny, my sons;” said brother deAngelo “to bring the word of God to these lands. God is testing us so that we will emerge stronger for the trials that await us.”
“With all due respect, brother deAngelo,” I said wearily, “if God doesn’t stop making us stronger soon, he’ll kill us all.”
After 25 days, we were down to 18 hungry, thirsty, sun burned scarecrows drifting in a state of despair and delirium. In a few days, we would all be dead; hope was finally gone. On the night of the 25th day, another storm came up and drove us relentlessly to the west through the darkness. With our last remaining strength, we bailed to keep the boats afloat out of sheer force of habit rather than any thoughtful effort. But we soon lapsed into an exhausted unconsciousness one by one, and let the winds carry us as they wished. We were beyond caring.
Slowly, through a blurred haze of sleep, I awoke. My eyes were still closed, but I sensed something was different. There was no motion of the boat. And there was a sound. It was familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify it. With my eyes still closed, I strained to remember the sound. Then, with a start, I recognized it….surf.
My eyes opened and were almost blinded by the glare of the morning sun reflecting off of a white sand beach. The boat was firmly grounded above the surf line where the wind and storm had driven it. The other boat was nowhere to be seen. Slowly, I looked up the beach and saw blue skies, waving palm trees, and miles of white sand. I also saw something else.
Standing on the beach surrounding the boat were ten Indians with bows and arrows, spears, and war clubs motioning for us to get out of the boat and come with them.
Chapter 3- The Land of Blood
“Where are we, Gonzalo?” De Aguiller had also awakened and crouched wide-eyed beside me. “And who are those people? They look different from other Indians.”
Different indeed. Instead of naked Indians, these were dressed in elaborate loincloths made of good quality cloth dyed red and black. They also wore short jackets and large, complex headdresses made up of wide headbands and long green feathers. Some of them wore a short cloak tied over one shoulder and under the opposite arm much like the garments worn by the ancient Greeks. They had sandals and wide bracelets of jade or some similar material on their wrists and ankles. Even their physical appearance was different. They were short and brown skinned like the Arawaks, but stocky and more muscular. Each had a broad band of black painted across his chest and face. And what faces! They had flat, elongated foreheads that seemed to accentuate their noses, and several of them were cross-eyed!
Even their weapons seemed better fashioned than the others we had seen. The clubs with which they were motioning us out of the boat were not just pieces of tree limbs, but were finely carved and lined along two edges with pieces of sharpened stone to form a cutting edge, almost like a sword. These people were far more formidable than the Arawaks on Jamaica, and were worlds away from the poor specimens remaining on Hispaniola. The Spaniards and the Indians silently regarded each other across a gulf that was far wider than the few feet that separated them.
The Indians’ leader, who also wore discs in his earlobes and a necklace of bone, motioned once again, and this time, they all took a step closer. I had a feeling their patience was short, and they would not ask a third time, so I started to get out of the boat.
“No!” came the deep voice of Perez. He had already gotten out with his sword in his hand, walking slowly toward the Indian leader. The Indian, although he was a good foot shorter than Perez, viewed him with curiosity, not alarm.
“No heathen savages have the right to give orders to Castilians. You take us to your chief, you brown swine, or I’ll see the color of your insides! Do you hear me? ”
The Indians still made no move and said nothing, but stood there waiting for the rest of us to follow. For a few tense seconds, the only sound was the rumble and hiss of the surf and the whisper of wind in the palm trees. This enraged Perez even more and he advanced on the leader.
“Very well, you will all taste Toledo steel.” With that, Perez raised his sword to strike. Suddenly, almost too fast to see, the leader swung his club in a fast, vicious arc. There was a sound like a melon dropped on a stone floor and Perez crumbled dead on the beach with his skull smashed. Red splatters of blood stained the white sand. His body twitched once, then was still.
“Santa Madre de Dios,” whispered de Aguiller hoarsely.
In stunned silence, we all got out of the boat and followed the Indians into the jungle. Each of us looked in horror at the still form of Perez as we passed. Several flies were on his face and the blood had soaked into the sand.