Archaeology at La Isabela

America's First European Town
By Kathleen A. Deagan

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09041-2

Chapter One

Columbus and La Isabela

Christopher Columbus came to the Americas on his second voyage in 1493 with great expectations and golden dreams, prepared to establish a colony that would become wealthy from gold and flourish as a base for his dynasty. He founded his first town with nearly fifteen hundred men on what is today the north coast of the Dominican Republic (figure 1.1 and called it La Isabela after the queen of Spain. His hopes were not to be realized, however. Just four years later La Isabela was in ruins.

La Isabela has captured the imagination of archaeologists and historians for centuries, as the first European attempt at colonization in the unknown Americas. Until recently, however, our understanding of the settlement has in fact been based on historical imagination rather than systematic scholarly work. Although a huge literature pertaining to Columbus has been generated over the past five hundred years, little of it has been directed specifically toward the circumstances and events of La Isabela itself. We discuss and document this argument (as well as the scholarship on Columbus in greater depth in chapter 1 of Columbus's Outpost.

This first European colony was outfitted and organized without any substantial information about the social or environmental circumstances of life in America other than the brief shipboard sojourn during Columbus's first voyage. La Isabela represents a medieval Iberian concept of colonization, and because of this it provides us with an extremely important archaeological reference point from which to study the development of the diverse and distinctive cultural mosaic of the post-1500 Americas. It is also an essential datum from which to measure the direction and intensity of changes in the material worlds of both Europeans and Native Americans as they made cultural adjustments to one another.

We argue in Columbus's Outpost that the life conditions and social processes in fifteenth-century La Isabela were deeply influential in shaping subsequent Spanish colonial experiences in the Americas. We also suggest that these conditions and processes were encoded most comprehensively in the materiality of life in the colonies, as it is only in the largely democratic record of trash disposal, loss, and abandonment that we find expression by the majority of people in the past, not just by those who produced intentional written or iconographic records. As many have pointed out before us, most historical accounts of European-American contact offer an essentially one-sided perspective, reflecting that experience as perceived by the literate (and often elite minority. It is left to archaeology to construct the experiences and perspectives of those who willingly or unwillingly constituted the great majority of people in early fifteenth-century America.

The experiences of such people-artisans, foot soldiers, women, farmers, Indians, and Africans-were not trivial. Nor were these ordinary folk passive. Their perceptions of and reactions to the conditions of life in fifteenth-century Hispaniola led to the collapse of the Columbian project and the recasting of Spain's approach to America from a mercantile to an imperial venture. We argue both in Columbus's Outpost and in the pages ahead that La Isabela was a carefully planned venture that failed, largely through the reactions of colonists who were unable-or unwilling-to recreate Spain in America. We also assert that this failure led to adjustments, both locally in the Spanish Americas and remotely at the imperial center in Spain, that became central to the transformation of Spain in America. Archaeological evidence from La Isabela offers us one of the few sources of information about the original configurations of the experiment as well as the local circumstances that provoked the earliest changes in the colonial project.

The archaeological evidence we present in the following chapters was generated as part of a multidisciplinary, multinational program of research, conservation, and development that took place at La Isabela between 1987 and 1996. This program was initiated by the Dirección Nacional de Parques of the Dominican Republic in anticipation of the 1992 observation of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first voyage to America. Archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, architects, and conservators from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the United States, Spain, and Italy have collaborated in the salvage and documentation of this remarkable settlement, and the story of that collaboration is detailed below and in chapter 5 of Columbus's Outpost.

Historical Context and Narrative Structure

The medieval background of La Isabela and its roots in Iberian expansion, reconquista, and religiosity have been explored by a great many authors, and we consider these themes in detail in chapter 2 of Columbus's Outpost. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso was one of the earliest historians to show that Columbus's project was a peculiar amalgam of private and monarchical rights and interests, in which the Crown financed an economic venture modeled on the Portuguese trading factorías in West Africa but permitted Columbus to share in a small part of the profits. It was an arrangement that would not serve the colonies well, particularly in the view of those hidalgos and adventurers who expected recompense for their participation in the manner of the reconquisa-with hereditary rights to land, labor, and production. (For further analyses and discussion of these themes, see Columbus's Outpost, chapter 2, and also Pérez de Tudela Bueso, 1954, 1955, 1986.)

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela (in the Spanish spelling of her name) enthusiastically supported the Isabeline venture and had a major role in designing it. Columbus's second fleet of seventeen assorted ships carried between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred men and was organized to establish a permanent colony that would serve as a base for trade with the people of this new land (see Columbus's Outpost, chapter 2). The fleet left Cádiz on 25 September 1493 and arrived in the Caribbean in November. Columbus was anxious to return to La Navidad, the settlement he had inadvertently established in December of the previous year, 1492, after the Santa María was wrecked off the north coast of what is today Haiti. The admiral, ever ready to shape events to his vision, had concluded that the wreck of his flagship was a divine sign that he should establish his colony there. The forty crewmembers of the ill-fated Santa María had been left at the town of the Taíno Indian chief, Guacanagarí, with instructions to obtain gold and find its source. Columbus was understandably eager in the fall of 1493 to be reunited with them.

The fleet arrived too late. When Columbus reached La Navidad on 28 November he found the fort and the Indian town burned, and all the Spaniards dead. Guacanagarí claimed that some of the men had died of disease or through fighting with one another, some had left to explore the interior and died there, and the rest had been killed in an attack by a rival chief, Caonabo (on La Navidad, see Deagan 1987b, Morison 1940). The tragedy at Navidad was to have far-reaching consequences, not only for the establishment of La Isabela but also-and more profoundly-in the mutual mistrust that was to pervade the attitudes of the Taíno Indians and the Spaniards toward one another from that time on.

Beset by doubt, confusion, and probably some despair, Columbus and his men left La Navidad on 7 December and sailed eastward along the north coast of Hispaniola, looking for a more hospitable location. It took nearly a month of indecisive tacking to sail the 160 kilometers and choose the site that was to become La Isabela. The fleet dropped anchor on 2 January 1494, and the first Mass on land was celebrated on 6 January, marking the official establishment of the colony.

The expedition was well equipped. Among its nearly fifteen hundred members were soldiers, sailors, carpenters, stonemasons, metalworkers, potters, and farmers. Four secular priests (who were not members of regular religious orders accompanied the group, along with two Franciscan priests and the Hieronymite brother Ramón Pané, who was to become famous as the first ethnographer of the American Indians. Five monks of minor orders from the monastery of Monserrat in Catalonia were led by another Catalan friar, the outspoken and often disgruntled Crown appointee and papal representative Fray Bernaldo Buil. The expedition also included Dr. Alvarez Chanca, a physician who left invaluable accounts of the events of the second voyage; Juan Ponce de León, the future governor of Puerto Rico and Florida; the cartographer Juan de la Cosa; the father of Bartolomé de las Casas (who was later to become the defender of the Indians; and Columbus's younger brother, Diego (see the appendix in Columbus's Outpost for other individuals known to have been at La Isabela).

Most of the colonists, however, were soldiers, adventurers, or hidalgos who flocked to join Columbus's second expedition, which was launched in the year after the reconquest of Spain from the Moors had been completed. The crusading soldiers who had helped win the seven-hundred-year-long war and were now hoping for wealth, new lands, and adventure in the Indies were not the ideal contingent to establish a new colony. Few of the hidalgos were skilled in agriculture or animal husbandry, and even fewer were accustomed to such physical labor as tilling fields, digging ditches, or building houses.

Although no rosters or supply lists from this voyage have survived, the archaeological record suggests that the materials for colonization were both varied and abundant. All of the things the colonists thought they would need to build a proper Spanish town were on board, with the remarkable exception of Spanish women (although some historians feel confident that at least one woman was present on the expedition; see Varela 1986:6). The expedition brought a wide variety of European plants and animals, many taken on in the Canary Islands, which the fleet left in October 1493 laden with horses, mules, swine, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, dogs, and cats (see Tejera Gaspar 1998). Only twenty of the horses survived the voyage. Other, less desirable live passengers also arrived with the fleet-some, like rats and mice, as stowaways in the holds, and others-the European germs, microbes, and viruses that were to devastate the native people of the Caribbean-in the bodies of the Spanish human and animal passengers.

Plants considered essential to the Spanish diet were imported to La Isabela-wheat seed, grapevine cuttings, chickpeas, melons, olives, fruit stones for planting, onions, lettuce, and radishes. Columbus also brought sugar cane to La Isabela in 1493, and long after Isabela was no more than a memory, this single introduction shaped the economic life of the Caribbean for centuries.

Eyewitness accounts of La Isabela vary considerably, but they generally agree that the major buildings were constructed of stone. These stone buildings included Columbus's fortified house (known as the "Castillo"), the church, a guard tower, and the fortified customhouse-cum-storehouse, or alhóndiga. The colonists lived in some two hundred "huts" (chozas or bohíos) made of wood and thatch.

The problems besetting the community began almost immediately. Food supplies had spoiled and were quickly depleted-particularly (and most alarmingly to the Spaniards the wine, which Columbus claimed had leaked out of the casks during the voyage because of the poor workmanship of his suppliers. Within a few days of their arrival most of the men fell sick, and many died. Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabela in January 1494 that he wanted to send more gold back to them, and would have done so "if only the majority of the people here had not fallen ill" (Columbus, 1494, in Parry and Keith 1984:179). Their illnesses were attributed to the hardships of the long voyage, strange food, and the harmful "miasmas" of the unaccustomed tropical climate. Close quarters during the two months aboard ship as well as unfamiliar parasites in the local water probably provoked widespread dysentery and gastrointestinal ailments among the Spaniards. But Columbus added that "the country only tries them for some space of time and after that they recover."

It has also been suggested that influenza communicated by swine and horses may have been responsible for much of the illness suffered by both Spaniards and Indians at La Isabela (see, for example, Guerra 1985, 1988). Other historians, including Bartolomé de las Casas, have suggested that syphilis-the one contagious American disease to which the Europeans had no resistance-was a factor in the continuous disease experienced by the men of La Isabela.

Fortunately for the colony, events other than sickness and death soon reduced the number of men dependent upon the supplies at La Isabela. In early January, shortly after arriving, Columbus sent a land expedition under Alonso de Hojedo to the interior to scout for gold, and just a month after dropping anchor, he dispatched twelve of the original seventeen ships back to Spain to carry news to Ferdinand and Isabela and to beg for more supplies-especially food, clothes, arms, and draft animals.

La Isabela was essentially unprotected during those first months. The stone buildings and defense wall were not finished, the fields were not cultivated, and the town was made up of thatched huts filled with sick men unable to work. Undoubtedly with the catastrophe of La Navidad still fresh in his mind, Columbus worried that a single Indian torch could easily destroy the town. He pushed everyone on the expedition who was still standing-including the hidalgos-to work on constructing the settlement and planting crops. This overwhelmingly unpopular policy created a mutinous attitude among the colonists, and the first open rebellion against Columbus took place in January, the same month as the founding of the town. It was organized by the frustrated and disappointed royal accountant, Bernal de Pisa, who had been appointed to the expedition by Ferdinand and Isabela to represent their fiscal interests. Columbus crushed the rebellion, jailing Pisa and hanging several others. Among the Spanish burials in the town cemetery excavated in 1983 by physical anthropologists Fernando Luna Calderón and José Guerrero was the skeleton of a Spaniard buried face down with his hands behind his back, suggesting that he may have been one of the less fortunate mutineers (Guerrero 1983; Luna Calderón 1986).


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