Monday 21 November 2011

Don Antonio and the Amerindians

In 1524, an elderly Spaniard set out to become a conquistador. His quixotic attempts to settle the economically worthless island of Trinidad was met with furious opposition from the tribal people.

Don Antonio Sedeño was Trinidad’s first governor, if one doesn’t count Christopher Columbus. Sedeño arrived in 1530, personifying the first serious attempt by the Spaniards to settle in Trinidad after its discovery by Columbus some 32 years before. In the meantime, only sporadic visits had been made by Spanish captains, who tried to obtain Amerindians as pearl divers. Upon enslaving them and taking them away to the pearl islands of Cubagua, Coche and Margarita, most of the Amerindians died.
A previous attempt to settle the island of Trinidad had failed in 1513, when two Spanish Dominican missionaries came. Their names were Francisco Cordova and Juan Garces, and they were very successful in making friends with the local Amerindians, even though they didn’t know each other’s language.
When a Spanish ship arrived, the Amerindians, used to the Spanish friars and trusting them, welcomed the sailors with tokens and gifts. A number of Amerindians was invited on board the ship, and no sooner had they arrived there, that the captain hoisted the anchor and abducted them to Santo Domingo, where they were sold into slavery!
The Spanish friars were as upset as the Amerindians about that, and short of being lynched by the tribal people, they begged them to let them try and free their brothers. With the next ship, they sent their complaints to the authorities in Santo Domingo and to the superior of the Dominican order. Unfortunately, the Amerindians from Trinidad had been bought as slaves by officials of the supreme court, so nothing was done about the matter!
For eight months, the Amerindians and the monks waited in Trinidad. Eventually, the Amerindians lost their patience and the friars were put to death, becoming the first martyrs of their faith in Trinidad.
Violence breeds violence which breeds violence. In 1516, Juan Bono from the Biscay in Spain, came to Trinidad with 70 men. Ostensibly a peaceful settler, he won the trust of the Amerindians. After a while, Bono invited a large group of tribal people to a feast of friendship. When everybody was gathered in a large hut, Bono's men surrounded the hut, overwhelmed the gathering by force and abducted many tribal people to their boats. The ones he could not fit into the hold, he burnt to death inside the hut which was set on fire. The ones in the boat were sold as slaves in Puerto Rico.
Trinidad, discovered in 1498 by Columbus, was not really conquered until Don Antonio Sedeño, seeing himself as a conquistador in the wake of Vasco de Balboa, Fernand Cortez and Francisco Pizarro, obtained letters of patent as governor and captain general of the island. The Royal Court requested that his conquest should be completed, and that he would erect forts and churches in the conquered places.
Sedeño arrived in Trinidad in November 1530, with two caravels, 70 men, food, arms, horses, domestic animals and trinkets for barter with the tribal people. He landed in the Bay of Erin - the only coastline known at the time.
The Amerindians did not resist him. Rather, they came to the bay to welcome him, with their cacique Maruana as the leader. Sedeño distributed gifts, and Maruana made him understand that he would appreciate him as an ally against the Caribs.
Other Indian chieftains came to greet Sedeño, who was, however, cautious and built a fortification for his men and his possessions. After a while, the Spaniards’ food stocks began to run out. In true Spanish style, they decided to raid the conucos (villages) of the Amerindians in the northern part of the island, Cumucurapo, in the dead of night. When the Amerindians heard of this, they decided to expel the intruders - all with the exception of Maruana, who had come to see himself as Sedeño friend and did not join the conspiracy.
The attack of the Amerindians was sudden, but the Spaniard were able to hold them off for a while thanks to their fortifications and firearms. After losing many soldiers, Sedeño decided to back off for the moment, sending the remaining men to the mainland and going himself to Puerto Rico for reinforcements and food. Maruana helped the Spaniards to escape in the two caravels in which they had come.
It was not as easy as expected for Sedeño to raise men and provisions in Puerto Rico. Everybody had heard of the conflict with the Amerindians there and was reluctant to join. Sedeño traveled for six years between Trinidad, the forts on the South American mainland, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. Fort Paria, which was where the remainder of the Trinidad soldiers had settled, was taken by another Spanish conquistador, Diego de Ordas. Unbeknownst to that, Sedeño sent a ship to Fort Paria with supplies. Fearful of de Ordas, the caravel turned away from the Fort and landed instead in Cumucurapo in Trinidad. The Amerindians seemed to be welcoming enough, and gave the 30 men of the ship a place to settle. A week later, 24 of the sailors  were killed by the tribal people, who obviously did not trust any Spaniards anymore. Six men escaped with the caravel and went to report to Sedeño.
At the end of 1532, Sedeño sailed to Trinidad with 80 men with a plan to attack the Amerindians. The tribal people, however, had been warned of the nightly attack, and fought fiercely. However, Sedeño overwhelmed them, and only a couple women and children were left of the village of Cumucurapo, fleeing into the mountains. Nothing was left of the village, and having no provisions, Sedeño withdrew to Margarita.
A year later, Sedeño returned with 170 men with the intention to conquer and settle the island of La Trinidad. The Spaniards built a stockade at Cumucurapo. Many men fell ill, and even though he suspected another attack from the Amerindians, Sedeño could only rely on the food supplies from Maruana and wait.
On the 13th September 1533, the second battle of Cumucurapo began. The Amerindians swept down from the mountains with loud battle cries. Many Spaniards were killed, and the Indian attack was only broken up when the Spaniards counter-attacked on horseback (a sight totally unknown and surely quite terrible to the Indian warriors).
Sedeño prevailed, rebuilt the fortifications, motivated the remaining men. A couple months later, however, he had to give up, since everybody left to seek the riches of Peru with Pizzaro. On the 27th August, 1534, Sedeño left Trinidad and never returned.
He went to Fort Paria, where de Ordas imprisoned him for six months. Eventually, he was released and returned to Puerto Rico, regaining his health. Like so many others he was still bitten by the El Dorado bug, and after gathering yet another following, set out for the South American mainland in search for gold.
Sedeño died in 1538 down the main, poisoned by a slave girl. Thus died Trinidad’s first designated governor.

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