The forgotten conquistador

Alonso de Ojeda
Alonso de Ojeda

My thoughts are elsewhere as I clutch at tufts of grass and haul myself up the steep hillside, sweating profusely in the soporific heat all the while desperately trying to keep up with my guide. Each dry discarded or felled tree appears in my line of sight as a possible lurking place for some venomous creature or another, and risking increasing the distance between the guide and me, I skirt around the edges rather than suffer the possible consequences. And then we arrive at the hill crest, and below us the claustrophobic confines and still Caribbean waters of the Gulf of Urabá open out with clear views west onto the famed Darien region and from up here I can understand why, in 1509, Spanish Conquistador Alonso de Ojeda, chose this spot.

The coastal town of Necoclí, founded by Ojeda more than 500 years ago, is one of the oldest in the Americas.

The coastal town of Necoclí, founded by Ojeda more than 500 years ago, is one of the oldest in the Americas.

Pausing for breath and noting that the ascent was steep but hardly impossible, I try and put myself into the Conquistador’s shoes. It was here that just over 500 years ago, Alonso de Ojeda saw enough to create the settlement of San Sebastian de Urabá, known to only a few as the first settlement in South America. It makes sense given that this high point where I find myself is easily defended,strategically positioned for an assault on the mythical “El Dorado” and within reasonably short sailing distance from established colonies in Santo Domingo – current day Haiti – and Jamaica. Although in effect it was little more than a small fortress now believed to be located in the outskirts of the modern-day town of Necocli in a barrio called Cañaflechal, it is what the settlement represents to historians, history enthusiasts and to the subsequent exploration and conquest of the New World that remains undisputed.

Born of an impoverished noble family in the central Spanish city of Cuenca, Ojeda achieved a great deal but remains largely unknown or perhaps willingly overlooked in favour of those who achieved more notable gains. But were it not for Alonso de Ojeda traveling on Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493, then on his own trip in 1499 accompanied by one Amerigo Vespucci (after whom America is named), or indeed on his third expedition in 1509 with Francisco Pizarro (conqueror of Peru and the Incas) the history of Spanish exploits in the New World might read very differently. It is also worth noting that Hernando Cortés (conqueror of the Aztecs in Mexico) was due to sail along with Ojeda but missed the trip due to an inflamed eye.

By all accounts, even those sagely delivered by local poet and author Ismael Porto, Alonso de Ojeda was an unseasonably cruel man towards the indigenous tribes and his settlement here failed. But, he did name Venezuela (little Venice) after viewing houses built on stilts near lake Maracaibo and he did open this “the corner of America” up to further exploration and this, in the words of Porto merits “a commemoration of the 500 years not a celebration.”

Porto makes no excuses for his careful selection of words. “As you can imagine we have all racial mixes here, Kuna Indians, descendants of black slaves, people of European backgrounds from Medellin and Bogas (a mix of indigenous and black) and each one feels that they belong, so it is better to have a commemoration.”

It strikes me that I should try and interview or at least meet some people of the Kuna tribe that have inhabited this region for centuries and get their take on the man as, after all, these are the descendants of the Caribes – a cannibal tribe with a fearsome reputation – with an influence that stretches all the way from northern Colombia up through the San Blas region of Panama. Porto shrugs indifferently at my idea.

“The Kuna won’t speak to you, but good luck anyway.”

And with this we parted company.

A short motorcycle ride south from Necoclí through lush cattle pastures and banana plantations takes me away from the 95 km of beaches that make this region so enticing that tourists from Medellín make the 424 km journey north.

Kuna indigenous group Colombia

The Kuna people and their predecessors have lived in the area settled by Ojeda for centuries.

A breeze picks up as I alight the motorcycle near the Caiman Reservation and the cacophonous rattle of banana leaves begins in earnest. The sign on the school reads Tiwiktinia Ipikuntiwala and I know that I should have heeded Porto’s advice. No one wants to talk to me. What little information I glean from the Kuna chief, clearly unhappy at being pulled away from the warm up for his football match, is that the Kuna still feel affronted by the arrival of the Spanish. I am told to put a request into writing and my query will be addressed in a few weeks. It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why the Kuna continue to feel this way if reports pertaining to Ojeda’s behaviour regarding indigenous tribes are anything to go by. I for one don’t imagine that this Kuna chief will be encouraging his people to participate in any “commemoration” either.

It is not just the events of the past that have slighted the Kuna. Contemporary issues have left not only the Kuna but all inhabitants of Urabá Antioqueño smarting, for it was here that the United Fruit Company oversaw massive banana plantations. More recently, this territory has witnessed power struggles shift the balance between the now defunct EPL (People’s Liberation Army), the ELN and the FARC (the two left-wing guerrilla groups still at war with Colombia) and then subsequently to the rightwing paramilitaries.

However, despite all of the negativisms read in the Colombian newspapers, a good many people still make the journey here, be it from Medellín in the interior or along the Caribbean coast from the well-known destination of colonial Cartagena. In high season rooms are hard to come by.

There is no doubt that there is still some way to go before this region of Colombia hits the mainstream travel market, as the only foreigners are a trickle of hardy backpackers en route to Capurganá and the beaches heading north into Central America. But there is no question that if the local authorities and perhaps the Academy of History start to build up the importance of the place, then perhaps this can become a year round destination.

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Despite my failure with the Kuna, they were far from the presumed cannibals of Ojeda’s era: ferocious in the hunt and lethal with poisoned arrows dipped in “the venom of pismires, roots, spider’s venom, the tail of a spiny tavorino fish, toads and bat’s wings” as chronicled by one survivor of the ill-fated San Sebastian de Urabá.

This settlement was resilient up to a point despite being attacked continually by the hostile tribes in the area, but rather than trying to scavenge for supplies or even cultivate for fear of leaving the security of the fortress, Alonso de Ojeda returned to Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with a promise to return with supplies, leaving Francisco Pizarro in charge. In the face of persistent attacks by the indigenous tribes, diseases, ill health and Ojeda’s delay in returning, Pizarro decided to cut his losses and abandon San Sebastian with only 42 members of the original 300-strong group that had travelled along the coast from present-day Venezuela.

Even from here up on the hilltop in northwestern Colombia, in a region referred to as Urabá Antioqueño, I can make out an impenetrable tangle of jungle that has confounded all attempts by imperialists to harness and civilise the region. There is nature all around but fortunately no poisoned arrows nor venomous creatures on my hike.

Five hundred years ago, Alonso de Ojeda imagined a settlement here, but since his failure, the Gulf of Urabá has been harried by English, Scottish, Dutch and French pirates and then exploited by vast multinational companies, fought over by warring guerrillas and paramilitaries, and remains as one of the principal ports of exit and entry for contraband in Colombia. Despite the odds, the Darien’s front porch could possibly be the theatre of a new tourism expansion in the country.

And what became of Alonso de Ojeda after his exploits here in Urabá? This overlooked conquistador that discovered Curaçao and Bonaire, named Venezuela and is perhaps the first European to have set foot on South American soil, founded San Sebastian de Urabá as “the corner of America” and died after confining himself to the San Francisco Monastery in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1515. Perhaps it is fitting that his death came about from complications arising from an old wound to the thigh inflicted by a poison tipped arrow in Urabá. His influence ran deep as his son Alonso followed in his footsteps and joined Hernando Cortés’ expedition to Mexico in 1519.

Overlooked and forgotten, perhaps Ojeda is paying his dues, as his remains, according to his wishes, were placed under the steps of the monastery so that all who entered that place of worship should walk over his grave …but later in an uprising in the Dominican Republic his skeleton was removed. Bartolome de las Casas, the first priest ordained in the New World, said of Ojeda, “Though he had not been born, the World would have lost nothing.”


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