Friday, January 20, 2023

Was the Battle of Vega Real Really a Battle, or Just the Beginning of a Spanish Rampage?

There is something uncomfortable about the Battle of Vega Real. If one accepts the accounts of Bartolomé de las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus, it should be listed as the first major battle between Europeans and Indigenous Americans, with the victory going to the former while sending the latter into ignominious defeat and wretched subservience. Yet the nearly mythological descriptions of the battle, with two hundred twenty Spaniards defeating a hundred thousand Tainos seems so exaggerated as to make one wonder if it is even possible to discover what really happened on the plain of Vega Real in March 1495. The fact Columbus had twenty men on horse, twenty dogs, and European weapons hardly seems enough to overcome the odds, unless one assumes, as las Casas and F. Columbus both do, that there was some aboriginal incomprehension about what they were encountering in arms, animals, and men, some cowardice bred of the shock of the unknown that infected an immense gathering of people who had come from all over the island of Hispaniola and confounded their ability to respond effectively. 

In response to my article about the dogs Columbus used at the Battle of Vega Real, I received some emails from readers who questioned why they had not heard more the battle itself, let alone the horses and dogs that seemed a factor in the Spanish victory. “A battle that supposedly involved 100,000 indigenous men in 1495 would seem to have been a very important battle. Why haven’t I heard of it?” Something of the same question was in the back of my mind from the very beginning of my research into the battle. Let me see if I can add some perspective to this very valid question.

What Did Warfare Mean to the Indigenous of Hispaniola?

Given that the Battle of Vega Real was one of the first military encounters between the Indigenous and the Spanish, we must consider what warfare meant to the Indigenous of Hispaniola in 1495. Herrera’s frontispiece, reproduced in the prior blog and my article, portrays two armies at the beginning of a field battle, each on one side of the battlefield, weapons raised, dogs being released, cavalry entering from the side. Would the forces gathered by Caonabo or his brother be organized this way, as if they fought under the same rules of engagement as a European army?   

The illustrator of the frontispiece of the 1601 edition of Herrera’s Historia natural does show another encounter where there was not such a structure to a battle, the attack on Navidad when Columbus was back in Spain after his first voyage. In fact, the illustrator includes two separate panels, one showing the fortress before Columbus left Hispaniola, and one showing it under attack as he returns on his second voyage (the destruction of Navidad and Columbus's return were not simultaneous but the inclusion of ships of the return fleet made the composition more dramatic). See Figure 1. 

Figure 1. Two panels from Historia general, Herrera y Tordesillas 1601, showing (left) the founding of Navidad and (right) its destruction. The left caption translates: The Admiral says goodbye to King Guacanagari, building La Navidad. The wrecked Santa Maria, from whose timbers the fortress of Navidad was built, is shown partially sunken in the water beside the fortress.  Guacanagari, who controlled the area of the construction, is being carried by his subjects while Columbus surveys the area. The right caption translates: The Admiral returned and found the tower of Navidad burned and the Castilians murdered. The Indigenous are shown attacking with arrows and fire.

As to the Battle of Vega Real in 1495, Ferdinand Columbus states that his father, understanding the Indigenous character and habits, intended to attack the diverse multitude scattered throughout the countryside, assaltar da diverse parti quella moltitudine, sparsa per le campagne (Historie del S.D. Fernando Colombo, 1571, 123; Columbus and Keen 1984, 149, whose translation is less of a literal transliteration than mine).  Figueredo (2006) describes the Tainos as giving battle “guided by strategic designs that demanded rigid organization.” Yet Caribbean warfare was also said to be “noisy and showy with skirmishes lasting entire days” where “a melee of personal insults, challenges and combats was the norm” (Glazier 1978).

Thus, an alternative conception of the encounter at Vega Real might be that the Indigenous gathering on the plain did not array themselves against the forces of Columbus, perhaps expecting a period of shouting and threats before arms were picked up. Perhaps they thought their overwhelming numbers would demonstrate their resolve and force Columbus to retreat. Or perhaps many of them were just in their houses and going about their lives, as they had at other times that Columbus and his subordinates had marched through Vega Real.

Were There Military Encounters Between Europeans and Indigenous in 1494 Before the Battle of Vega Real?

It has already been mentioned that when Columbus returned to Hispaniola in his second voyage, he found that Navidad had been destroyed and the men he left there had been killed. He was told that some of the Spaniards had fought and killed each other and the rest had been killed by the cacique Caonabo (Las Casas 1875, vol. 2, lib. 1, cap. 86, 13; Columbus and Keen 1984, 119), who would continue to be the primary Taino leader opposing Columbus during the second voyage. 

Ferdinand Columbus records what appear to have been relatively minor skirmishes in 1494 around the fortresses built for gold mining operations (Columbus and Keen 1984, 129; Wilson 1990, “The First Skirmishes," 82-84). See Figure 2, showing how the Indigenous were supposed to happily engage in mining and panning gold for the Spanish. They were not, however, particularly happy and manifested their displeasure quickly. An attack on the fortress at Magdelena in late 1494 brought a response that resulted in the capture of 1,600 Indigenous in the Macoris area, 550 of whom were sent to Spain as slaves in caravels that departed from Hispaniola on February 17, 1495 (Morison 1963, 226, translating the letter of Michele de Cuneo; Anderson-Cordova 2017, 31). Thus, there was a period where Spanish groups building fortresses were attacked, but the resistance seems to have been rapid, spontaneous, and not the collective effort of a group of caciques, as may have happened in March 1495.  

Figure 2. Oviedo y Valdés, Historia general, recto of leaf 66, Indigenous mining and panning for gold. JCB Accession No. 01632, Juan de Junta, 1547, Salamanca.

Was the Taino Force at Vega Much Less than 100,000, Say Just 5,000?

The number of Indigenous fighters that Columbus encountered at Vega Real, said to be 100,000 by both Las Casas and F. Columbus, is often doubted and sometimes even summarily rejected. Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1549-1625), writing about a century after the battle, takes the number given by the earlier sources, but rather than simply repeating that there were 100,000 Indigenous on the plain, he hedges, saying that the natives seemed to amount to one hundred thousand, todo el parecio ser de cien mil hombres (Historia general, vol. 1, Decada I, lib. 2, cap. 17, 77; Parry and Keith 1984, 201). This suggests that a sixteenth-century historian was already uncomfortable with the size that Las Casas and F. Columbus had given the Taino force. 

Kathleen Deagan and José María Cruxent (2002, 61), in their brilliant description of the settlement at La Isabela, state that the Taino caciques organized an insurrection, “allegedly planning to march against La Isabela with a force more than five thousand strong,” thus ignoring the number of combatants given by Las Casas, F. Columbus, and, grudgingly, Herrera. A footnote in their book indicates that they have taken the more credible number from Pietro Martire d’Anghiera’s De Orbe Novo (Parry and Keith, 1984, 208-210), which describes the force encountered in the Cibao by Alonso de Ojeda as “about 5000 men [cinco mil hombres armados á su manera], equipped in their fashion, that is to say, naked, armed with arrows without iron points, clubs, and spears.” (There is probably a textual error in the 1892 edition of Martire, Fuentes historicas sobre Colon y América, which reads, at 221, unos mil armadas instead of unos cinco mil armados).  Martire’s description of Ojeda does not mention the Battle of Vega Real but I do believe Deagan and Cruxent have correctly correlated the passage in Martire with events that were either part of the Battle of Vega Real or that followed immediately after it, but I would have liked to see further comment on this substitution of numbers. Shoring up the accounts of Las Casas and F. Columbus by finding correlations in the accounts of early chroniclers of the conquest who do not specifically mention a battle at Vega Real produces a more credible description of the battle, but such jerry rigging simultaneously demonstrates that there is no single early account that is entirely credible. This, among other reasons that will be discussed below, probably results in historians shying away from paying too much attention Vega Real and makes some of them reluctant to anoint the battle as the first major conflict between Europeans and the Indigenous. 

Was the Population of Hispaniola Sufficient for an Army of 100,000 Indigenous Even to Be Possible?  

Before accepting the reduced size of Columbus’s opponents at Vega Real, it might be appropriate to ask whether it would have even been possible for any group of caciques to gather 100,000 people at the Vega Real in 1495. Michele de Cuneo, in a letter written in 1494, wrote that the cacique Caonabo could field 50,000 men (Parry and Keith 1984, 89, translating from the Italian, homini L mila; Cuneo, Lettera [1495] 1893, 99), although this reference is not mentioned in connection with a specific battle.

A preliminary question concerns whether the population of the island in 1495 was sufficient for such a sizeable force to be possible.  One of the first anthropologists to estimate populations of the Caribbean was Alfred Kroeber (1934), who placed the population of the West Indies at 200,000, meaning the population of Hispaniola could not have fielded a force of 100,000.  Angel Rosenblat (1967) put the population of Hispaniola in 1492 at between 100,000 and 120,000, also too small.  

Kroeber was attacked for his estimates. Francis Jennings (1975, 18-19) described him as a “dissident scholar” who “emphatically rejected the notion that the natives of North America could be considered capable of so ordering their societies and technologies as to increase their populations beyond a static and sparsely distributed token representation.” William Denevan (1996) said that Kroeber’s estimates were the result of “antithetical conceptions of the quality and capacity of aboriginal cultures everywhere in the Americas.” 

Tink Tinker and Mark Freeland (2008) estimated that the population of Hispaniola in 1492 was just shy of eight million (7,975,000 to be precise) but accepted that Las Casas was correct in arguing for a precipitous decline under early Spanish rule, going down to 3,770,000 by 1496, with only 500,000 surviving by 1500 and 60,000 by 1507.  Their numbers thus allow for fielding a considerable force in 1495, but probably not a few years later.  

Samuel Wilson (1997) finds the number 100,000 implausible, though he accepts that 15,000 men could have been raised in 1497 (Stone 1990, 97-102). He makes the important observation that famine and epidemics had even five years after contact considerably reduced the population of the island.

As I noted in my paper, recent genetics research (Fernandes et al. 2020) has estimated that the pre-contact population of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico combined could have been at most 80,000 people. Various assumptions are made in the calculation of population sizes using genetic analysis, but if this research is upheld, a lower number than some of those proposed will likely have to be accepted and the estimates of Kroeber and Rosenblat may be judged not so far off after all.   

If Las Casas and F. Columbus Exaggerated the Number of Indigenous at Vega Real, Why Did They Do So?

Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen (1971) summarize some of the reasons for exaggeration of population estimates in sixteenth-century accounts (I add numerals in brackets):

[1] The conquistadors wished to stress the heroism of their feats; [2] the clergy sought to enhance the importance of their missionary and evangelizing work; [3] pro-Indian polemicists wished to present a somber picture of the activities of the conquistadors; [4] enthusiasts of the Indians’ past were eager to idealize or hyperbolically exalt that past; and [5] obsessive Hispanophiles wanted to present the Indian as a biologically and culturally inferior being.

Las Casas could have exaggerated for reasons (2) and (3), F. Columbus for (1), and modern commentators who uncritically accept the numbers of earlier accounts may belong in (3) through (5), though laziness in questioning earlier accounts may not implicate any serious bias due to any of these reasons. 

How Many Allies Did Columbus Bring to Vega Real?

Two hundred twenty men against 5,000, accepting an adjustment to the numbers of Las Casas and F. Columbus, is still a significant discrepancy and it would seem that even a terrified mass of 5,000 Indigenous fighters could get off enough arrows to finish off a few hundred men, horses, and dogs.  As I mentioned in my paper, the size of Guacanagari’s force allied with Columbus becomes, therefore, a significant factor. F. Columbus assigns no number to the allied force, saying only that Guacanagari was eager to oppress his enemies, Guacaanagari molto disderoso di opprimere I suoi nimici (F. Columbus, Historie del S.D. Fernando Colombo, 1571, 123; Columbus and Keen 1992, 148). Las Casas realizes that the size of Guacanagari’s force would be relevant, but parenthetically apologizes that he could not find the number of his vassals, (no pude saber qué gente llevó de Guerra, de sus vasallos). (Las Casas, 1875, vol. 2, lib. 1, cap. 104, 97).

Here again, some creativity is required to estimate the size of Guacanagari’s contribution in men. I noted in my paper that Erin Stone (2021) takes the number of 3,000, citing Sauer (1966, 89, who only refers to "Guacanagari of Marien and his men"). The number is, however, quite credible as it is used by Martire for the indigenous allied force later used by Bartolomé Columbus against Guarionex (1892, vol. 1, Decada 1, lib. 7, cap. 1, p. 284).

Who Led the Indigenous Forces against Columbus at Vega Real?

The frontispiece panel of the 1601 edition of Antonio de Herrera’s Historia general depicts Columbus facing Guarionex, their respective armies behind them. Were the Battle of Vega Real such a clearcut European-style engagement, one would expect accounts to identify the two commanding generals that faced each other in March 1495.  This is not the case, however, and it is doubtful that we can ever be certain who led the Indigenous forces, or whether they were even under the command of a single individual.   

Las Casas does not specifically name a commander for the Indigenous forces, though in the chapter that describes the battle he does refer to Guatiguana, Cacique of Magdelana, who had earlier killed ten Spaniards, 10 cristianos (Las Casas, 1875, vol. 2, lib. 1, cap. 104, 98). Wilson (1990, 89-90) notes that Samuel Eliot Morison, in Admiral of the Ocean Sea, preferred Guatiguaná as the leader of the resistance, a possibility Wilson does not reject though he also accepts the possibility that the leaders were “notorious and nameless brothers of Caonabo.” The latter would be the current author’s choice, should he be entitled to have an opinion on this. Wilson, correctly in my opinion, states that although Guarionex is “consistently considered by all of the chroniclers to have been the most powerful cacique in the Vega, [he] is not mentioned at all and seems not to have been involved.” Since Fray Ramón Pané was sent by Columbus to live among the people of Guarionex in 1495, it is unlikely this would have worked very well had Columbus and Guarionex been so hostile to each other in March 1495 (Pané 1999, xxi). It could not be ruled out that one of the caciques subordinate to Guarionex might have been important at Vega Real (Kulstad 2008, 39, discussing Maniocatex, more often spelled Manicaotex).

Ferdinand Columbus indicates that Caonabo, frequently described as one of the most powerful caciques of the island, was taken alive at the battle, along with his wives and children, e preso vivo Caunabo, principal Cacique di tutti loro, insieme co’ suoi figliuoli, & con le sue donne (F. Columbus, Historie, 1571, 123). It perhaps should be noted that Keen, in translating the passage, adds a footnote stating the F. Columbus was in error in that “Caonabó neither participated in nor was made prisoner in this battle, but was captured by Hojeda by a ruse.” (See Tyler 1988, 164, summarizing the three most common narratives of how Caonabo was captured.) 

As noted above, Deagan and Cruxent cite Martire to give the number of Columbus’s opponents at Vega Real as 5,000.  Let us look at Martire’s chronicle more closely.  He notes that Columbus had left Hispaniola in 1494 to try to reach the Far East, which he believed to be close, but after some exploration returned only to learn that Caonabo was besieging Alonso de Ojeda at the blockhouse of Santo Tomás. Martire says Caonabo would not have begun such a siege had he known that Columbus himself was coming with imposing reinforcements, no habían levantado el sitio hasta que vieron que venía el mismo Almirante con gran escuadrón (Martire 1892, vol. 1, Decada 1, lib. 4, cap. 1, 208; Parry and Keith 1984, vol..2, 208). Martire says that Caonabo was encouraged by other caciques to expel the Spanish. Caonabo then left with a large force, probably to attack Columbus, but Ojeda separated the cacique from his men  and brought him to Columbus, where he was seized and put in irons, fué preso y encadenado (Martire, 210; Parry and Keith, 209).

Martire continues that, after the capture of Caonabo, Columbus resolved to march throughout the whole island, determinó recorrer las isla (Martire 1892, cap. 2, 211; Parry and Keith 1984, 209). After a long passage concerning the Spanish search for gold in Hispaniola, Martire returns to the events concerning Caonabo, now in irons. Martire states that Caonabo pleaded with Columbus to protect his territory, which was being ravaged by his native enemies in his absence. His real purpose, however, was to lay a trap for Columbus because Caonabo’s brother had assembled five thousand men to attack the Spanish. Ojeda, however, decided to go on the attack rather than wait to be attacked and, finding the ground well adapted for cavalry maneuvers, his horsemen rode down the enemy, who died if they remained in place. Only those who abandoned their houses for the mountains and rough cliffs survived, abandonando sus casas se refugiaron en las montañas y en ásperos riscos (Martire 1892, cap. 4, 222; Parry and Keith 1984, 211). 

This passage from Martire, which I believe ends with a description of an encounter that was either part of the Battle of Vega Real or followed soon after, does not conform with Las Casas or F. Columbus in that Columbus himself is not present, but it agrees with them in stating that cavalry was essential in the victory, though dogs are not mentioned. It may also give a clue about the type of fighting that was occurring at this time in that the natives that awaited the battle in their houses were killed, whereas those who fled might survive. Does this mean that some of the “battles” described involved not an open field of battle but something closer to the attacks of the U.S. Army against defenseless villages in the nineteenth century plains warfare? Perhaps David Traboulay (1994, 26) is correct in arguing that when Columbus, his brother Bartholomé, and Ojeda "took a series of military expeditions all over the island," they were specifically attacking villages that could not pay the tribute Columbus was imposing.

Oviedo (1851, vol. 1, lib. 3, cap. 1, 59) also describes Caonabo’s siege of Santo Tomás, in territory under his control, which involved assembling archers to attack the fort and burn it. Ojeda, as in Martire’s account, captured Caonabo, but Caonabo’s brother, who was well respected by the Indigenous (hombre de mucho esfuerço quisto de los Indios) then gathered a force of seven thousand men, most of them archers, and began fighting to free his brother.  Oviedo also describes the panic that men on horseback caused among the Indigenous.  Ojeda received an additional three hundred men from Bartolomé Columbus and captured Caonabo’s brother. Later, according to Oviedo, the focus of the opposition to the Spanish shifted to Guarionex, who was able to gather fifteen thousand men (Oviedo 1851, cap. 2, 60), whom Bartolomé Columbus attacked in a night battle in which he captured Guarionex in 1497 (Wilson 1990, 98).

Can the Accounts of Martire and Oviedo Be Correlated with Those of Las Casas and F. Columbus?

Samuel Wilson (1990, 90) argued that the Battle of Vega Real “was such a rout that Martyr does not even mention it.” Martire did, however, mention Columbus’s desire to march across the island and also described actions conducted by Columbus’s subordinates that may well have been part of the overall plan that probably began with the Battle of Vega Real. It is not clear to me why Martire would not want to mention a rout, as Wilson argues. Another possible explanation is that perhaps the initial attack of Columbus and Guacanagari and their forces was not a battle where their enemies were engaged and soundly defeated on a battlefield, but rather a rampage through the villages and fields of the northern Vega Real with only gradually developing resistance from the inhabitants.  Perhaps the soldiers from whom Las Casas and F. Columbus received their information had altered memory in such a way as to make the encounters into a single battle of which they could be proud, rather than a rampage that Oviedo and Martire preferred to ignore.   

Carl Sauer (1966, 88-89) takes his summary description primarily from F. Columbus, but curiously adds, “This was no proud conquest, nor was it called such. The easy submission was entitled ‘pacification.’” This would be a questionable judgment if one were to focus on the accounts of Las Casas and F. Columbus, which were described as victories against considerable odds, but it is more easily accepted if passages from Oviedo and Martire that probably relate to the same period are allowed to add a caution as to how confined geographically or limited temporally the battle was. It might be expected that Martire would have incorporated the account of F. Columbus, given that he knew Fernando as a boy at the royal court and probably tutored him. (Perez Fernandez and Wilson-Lee 2021, 8).

Obviously, the inability to identify a single or specific set of leaders of the Indigenous at Vega Real makes it difficult to imagine the battle, and the problems in correlating the accounts of Las Casas and F. Columbus with accounts of probably the same period by Martire and Oviedo, undermine any faith that a definitive history of the conflicts of 1495 is even possible.

Where Did the Battle of Vega Real Occur?

Another problem concerns the location of the battle. Ferdinand Columbus says that Columbus encountered the scattered Indian horde two days’ march from Isabela, due gionate lungi dalla Isabella (Historie 1571, 123; Columbus and Keen 1984, 149, at least in the 1992 edition, incorrectly translates as a ten days’ march). Las Casas says that the Columbus’s march from La Isabela was ten leagues, diez leguas, from La Isabela (Las Casas, vol. 2, lib. 1, cap. 104, 97).

If one is to argue that the events around a siege of Santo Tomás described by Martire and Oviedo contain some of the circumstances that are attributed to the Battle of Vega Real, then it is to be noted that this would require some interval for the theater of war to move south.  According to the letter of Michele de Cuneo, who was at the fortress at Santo Tomás when it was built was built, it was about 27 leagues from La Isabela and only about two leagues from where Caonabo lived (Parry and Keith 1984, 88-92, translation of the letter).

That the Spanish would want to fight within an easy distance of a fortress is not in doubt. Martire (Decada 1, lib. 4, cap. 2, p 212-13) says a number of refuges, número los refugios, were added so that they could be reached quickly in case some violence from the islanders might threaten the Spanish, por si acaso alguna vez les amenazaba alguna violencia de los insulares. This would indicate that having encountered hostility, groups of Spanish men might need a place where they could shelter and perhaps force some acceptable sense of engagement on the natives, rather than just enduring sporadic and random attacks.

The frontispiece of Antonio de Herrera’s 1601 edition of Historia general depicts an attempt by los yndios to destroy la Cruz de la Vega, which is being defended by Bartolomé Colon, referred to in the caption as el Adelantado, a title given him by his brother Christopher. Whether this was part of the Battle of Vega Real or totally unrelated has long been a subject of historical dispute. A particularly detailed paper by Apolinair Tejera (1945) includes careful analysis of relevant passages in Oviedo and Herrera, which refer to crosses erected at fortresses in Hispaniola with little commentary. Those early accounts were expanded novelistically, and with significant spiritual elements, by later writers.  

Apolinair Tejera concluded that Herrera’s reference to a “miracle of the Holy Cross of the Conception of La Vega” was not dated by him, and could not be, and that the exaggerated incident of Santo Cerro must have occurred long after the bloody disaster of Vega Real (el exajerado incidente del Santo Cerro debió ocurrir much después del sangriento desastre de la Vega Real).  It is curious, however, that the illustrator of Herrera's book included dogs in that battle, just as he had in his depiction of the Battle of Vega Real, though the Spanish forces in the fight over the cross were under Columbus's brother, rather than Columbus. Floyd (1973) accepts Tejera as correctly separating the incident of the cross from the Battle of Vega Real. See Figure 3.

Figure 3. A frontispiece panel of the 1601 edition of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’ Historia general (vol. 1) shows a battle in defense of a cross. The caption translates: The Indians try to tear down and burn the Cross of La Vega and the Adelantado [Bartolomé Columbus] fights with them and defeats them, los indios procuran derribar y quemar la Cruz de la Vega y el Adelantado pelea con ellos y los vence. Some authors have argued this was part of the Battle of Vega Real. Detail, John Carter Brown Library, JCB B601 H564h.

One recent researcher  (Stone 2021, 376) argues that upon reaching the plain of Vega Real, Columbus and Guacanagari “set up a small palisade atop present-day Santo Cerro, a mountain that overlooks the entire Cibao valley located in Guarionex’s cacicazgo.” After a day of fighting, the Spaniards retreated to Santo Cerro.  Waking the next morning, however, they were surprised to discover that the opposition forces had disappeared in the night. This perspective on the battle conflicts with accounts that  the Tainos were put to flight after the attack of the horses and dogs.  It also seems to accept that what is generally called the Battle of Vega Real could as easily be called the Battle of Santo Cerro.  Kulstad (2008, 41) notes that those who distinguish the battles of Vega Real and Santo Cerro usually point out that Santo Cerro was further from Isabela than Las Casas and F. Columbus would place the battle. I do not think Stone adequately addresses this difficulty. Guitar (2001) also connects Santo Cerro to Vega Real but provides few references.

How Much Do We Know about the Battle of Vega Real?

The progression of events during 1495 was, I believe, something like the following:

Angered by Spanish incursions into his territory and that of other caciques, but seeing that isolated attacks against the Spanish only led to defeats, Caonabo begins to assemble a force, which numbers 5,000 or more, to push the Spanish back and perhaps to remove them from Hispaniola altogether. Guarionex may have encouraged Caonabo to revolt, and may have been pulling strings to get other caciques to cooperate with Caonabo, but he probably did not take any battle leadership role until after 1495. 

Columbus returns from his explorations of the Cuba and other islands in 1494 and determines that threats to mining operations and Caonabo’s gathering of an army require a coordinated response led by him. Caonabo is captured by Ojeda, either by a ruse or in a skirmish. It is not impossible that F. Columbus appropriately connects his capture to the first major fighting in Vega Real. Ojeda takes Caonabo to La Isabela, where he is kept in chains pending being sent back to Spain. A brother of Caonabo gathers a large force, or supplements the force Caonabo has already assembled, now amounting to about 7,000 men dedicated to freeing Caonabo and continuing his crusade against the Spanish.

Beginning at the northern end of the plain of Vega Real, but perhaps continuing near one of the defensive fortresses, Columbus, supported by perhaps 3,000 men under his ally Guacanagari, uses cavalry and dogs and greatly shocks the Indigenous inhabitants. Caonabo’s brother and other caciques are taken prisoner at Vega Real or in subsequent actions.  Columbus’s victory is followed by additional battles and skirmishes led by Alonso de Ojeda and Bartolomé Columbus, using portions of Columbus’s army. Some battles occur near the defensive fortresses.  

The encounter at Vega Real as presented by Las Casas and F. Columbus and as depicted in the frontispiece of Herrera’s Historia general of 1601, was a classic European battle.  Although a great number of Indigenous people had gathered at Vega Real, they may not have been organized as an army prepared for battle but rather have been more of an intertribal gathering, assembled to air their grievances and reach a consensus on what to do about the Spanish. They were, in any case, unprepared to respond to the organized force that began to move through them and their villages before they could even understand what they were facing. Guacanagari would have understood that the forces of Caonabo or his brother were not expecting what Columbus was about to deliver, and he could have calculated how to support Columbus, making his army a significant part of the blow that Columbus landed at Vega Real. He was assuring his own survival and probably seeking the best treatment possible for his people.  

Columbus was determined to pacify the island, but he is only mentioned as participating in the first battle that occurred after he entered the Vega Real. He could have easily returned to La Isabela after his initial victory and left the mopping up to Alonso de Ojeda and his brother, which explains what Martire and Oviedo were describing. The entire island was not pacified, but the area under Caonabo’s control probably was. Guarionex was able to mount significant resistance in 1497 (Wilson 1990, 75, 78), but was also defeated and had to flee. Columbus would have continued to enjoy the support of Guacanagari but may have by then also incorporated some remnants of the forces of other defeated caciques as well. 

Does this perspective of the battle alter any of my findings or opinions with regard to the use of dogs at Vega Real? Probably not. The dogs could have been chasing people who were already panic-stricken and might have had to bite them more at the side than at the front to bring them down. The dogs might be less apt to encounter weapons from people who were fleeing rather than going into battle, and the dogs may not have been as easily hit by arrows since they would not have been moving before a backdrop of armed Spaniards.  They would have been just as useful in these circumstances.  

I do invite comments to this blog and particularly references to additional sources. Should you not wish to comment publicly, please email me at


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