Arrival to the Cibao Valley: The Great Vega Real

D. 11 Arrival to La Vega Real. March of 1494. D. 11 Arrival to La Vega Real. March of 1494. D: J. Arvelo. Drawing: F. Castro

The Admiral Governor left his brother in charge and set sail on March 12 of 1494, with 16 horses, 250 crossbow men, 100 shot guns and other experts in carious trades. Due to the thickness of the brush in the path, Columbus sent ahead some of the noblemen to clear a path through the undergrowth climbing the mountains of the Northern range, thus naming the area Puerto de los Hidalgos. They ascended until they reached heights from which they could see the great Cibao valley and one large meadow which Columbus baptized with the name of La Vega Real (The Royal Meadow). Father Las Casas describes it with detail: "they saw the great meadow, something that I believe to be one of the most admirable things in the world and most worthy of mundane and casual things"..." the view from which is such, so green, so clear, so painted, so full of beauty, that as soon as they saw it, they thought they had reached an area of Paradise, gifted and infected by a strange unequaled happiness."1

The conquistadors enter in the valley and investigate the so called gold rivers, finding enough gold nuggets and some copper-bearing veins. In the surrounding area of the present day city of Santiago, they quickly build a fort "from wood and walls which Columbus names Santo Tomas, leaving a garrison of 52 men under the command of Pedro de Margarit and returning to the Isabela to organize the permanent mining of this gold. The Admiral's plans were going great, but his problem was with the men of the Isabella.

On his return on March 29th, he is faced with a very sad situation, farming was practically paralyzed, many men had died and others were gravely sick, probably with syphilis, malaria and dysentery, transmitted basically through ignorance and poor sanitary conditions. These infections caused such damage due to the fact that most of the population suffered from malnutrition, not willing to adapt to the indigenous diet (fruits, roots) or to fish the rich waters in front of their homes. The truth if that the first noblemen that came to settle America, could not live without wheat, onions, chick peas and specially, wine, that they continuously requested from Spain. Apparently, one of the few things they were able to adapt to was the casabe or cassaba tortes which definitely saved many lives.

Additionally, the noblemen were not a social class that was prepared for these kinds of inconveniences; they came from a war nobility, accustomed to military conquests that provided them with the distribution of riches and lands (including serfs), and as pointed out by historian Frank Moya Pons, was a group that "compared with a agricultural society where the free artisan was made up mostly by people that, to the Christian eye, was of inferior level", being unable to work since "manual labor was looked upon as a stigma to the dignified man".2

Other than the bad conditions of their location, this was the cause of all their complaints, that only worsened when the Admiral returned from Cibao and expected the Hidalgos to take turns, along with the laborers, in milling and other communal tasks, resulting in that to most, "manual labor and lack of food to them was deadly. This forced the Admiral to add violence to the rule of law, with grave sentences, forcing some here and there so that the public work got done. This could only result in the hatred from everyone, young and old." ..."finally, his fall originated from this seed."3

And a great fall the Admiral was to have since the sentences to those opposing in the least were hanging and lashings, having grave immediate problems with friar Boyl, who, as soon as he could, returned to Spain with alarming information.

Apparently overwhelmed by the situation, Columbus decided to send all the people that could stand up to the Santo Tomas fort and to serve under the command of Pedro de Margarit, so that with "400 men, went and dug and conquered the entire island, giving his instructions to all".4 Once again he left his brother Diego in charge of the Isabela government, assisted by a board headed by friar Boyl, and on April 26 embarks on a new five-month exploration in which, accompanied by Juan de La Cosa, explores most of the island of Cuba, and discovers Jamaica, convinced that he has found the kingdom of Mangi, next door to the Catai lands (Hispaniola).