Adventures and Conquests of Pizarro - George Towle

Pizarro's Departure

In the morning of the 14th of November, 1524, the little town of Panama was alive with unusual commotion. The day was misty and chilly; yet the people, consisting not only of Spaniards, but of Indians clad in every variety of native costume, flocked into the streets, as if something unusual were about to take place.

The town lay upon a projecting point of the coast, and was surrounded by a high stone wall. Out in the lovely bay, which was not less beautiful in its contour and its surroundings than the famous Bay of Naples, the sparkling waters were dotted with hilly isles, densely covered to their very summits with rich tropical trees and shrubs; while far off on the other side the dim outlines of lofty mountains were visible, their peaks rising above the floating clouds.

From the center of the most thickly-populated quarter rose the towers of the cathedral, then very new, the ruins of which may still be seen by the traveller in that southern region; and it was in the direction of this edifice that the motley throng of soldiers, sailors, planters, shopkeepers, fortune-hunters, desperadoes, Indians, women, and children, was drifting.

The cathedral was soon crowded to its utmost capacity. Near the high altar, with white-plumed and blue velvet cap, stood the gaunt and grim-looking Pedrarias, the governor of the colony. Just by his side was seen the tall, sturdy figure, and dark, resolute face, of Francisco Pizarro, also attired in a handsome costume; while a long sword hung at his side, and a shining cuirass covered his breast. A little behind Pizarro was stationed the short form of Almagro, his friend, whose countenance betrayed the earnestness and fire of his nature.

For a little while silence reigned through the cathedral. Then a stout, prosperous-looking priest, with large and bright black eyes and pleasant face, arrayed in the robes of his sacred office, advanced, and kneeled at the high altar. This priest, had he been seen in another place and in a more worldly garb, would have been taken rather for an enterprising merchant, or even an adventurous soldier, than for a minister of souls. It was Luque, Pizarro's stanch friend, and his partner in the venture that was about to be made.

Presently the priest's voice was heard chanting the solemn service of the mass. The song of the choir echoed through the cathedral; and then Luque, turning towards Pizarro, stretched forth his arms, and in loud, deep, earnest tones blessed him, and bade him God speed in his dangerous voyage. He then administered to him the holy sacrament, and the ceremony was at an end.

A procession was now formed, the governor, Pedrarias, marching at the head, with Pizarro at his side. Behind them went the soldiers and men who had been enlisted for the voyage; and these, in turn, were followed by a large concourse of soldiers and people.

Arrived on the shores of the bay, Pizarro took leave of the governor, who, though jealous of the gallant captain, concealed his feelings, and warmly bade him farewell; embraced his good friends Almagro and Luque; and, amid the shouts of the throng gathered on the quay, went on board the larger of the two ships that lay at anchor.

It was not long before the men had all embarked; and the moment arrived to weigh anchor, to spread sails, and put out to sea. As the ships glided out of the harbor, a loud clamor of shouts rent the air. Flags were waved, and guns fired off; and the tall figure of Pizarro was seen erect on his quarter-deck, saluting the crowd with his plumed hat, until he and the ships faded out of sight in the still brooding mist.

Pizarro had boldly committed his fortunes and his life to the great deep, and to the perils sure to be encountered in strange and savage lands. His bold heart beat high as he thought of the glorious prospect of success; nor did it for a moment shrink before the dread possibilities of disaster and defeat. He knew almost nothing of the region to which he was going, but trusted firmly in his good fortune and his pluck to conquer every obstacle. The little ships pushed bravely out to sea, and soon every landmark of the town and bay was lost to sight. Reaching the Isle of Pearls, where Pizarro had once obtained so many precious jewels, and to which he had given its name, he anchored there a little while; and then, resuming his voyage, he sailed southward toward the continent, where, according to the stories he had heard, he would find the riches he so ardently sought.

In a few days, as the ships sped along the coast, they doubled a promontory, on the other side of which Pizarro espied the mouth of a river. Resolved to explore every part of the coast, lest he should miss the country of which he was in search, he ordered the ships to sail up this stream as far as they could. It proved to be navigable for about six miles. They cast anchor, and Pizarro landed upon the unknown shore with all his soldiers to explore the country round about.

He found himself in a strange and forbidding place. Dismal swamps, overgrown with rank and tangled shrubs, stretched out before him and his comrades on every side as far as the eye could reach; and, after crossing these, they came to a rough, craggy, barren region, which was as desolate, and as difficult to cross, as the marshes had been. There were no signs anywhere of human habitation; and, after several days employed in tedious and fruitless marches under a blazing sun, the party returned footsore and weary to the ships.

Once more they put out to sea, and continued to skirt as near to the shore as it was safe to do. It was not many days before their eyes were gladdened by another inlet. Here Pizarro put in, in order not only to explore the region, but to renew his supply of wood and water. But the place was not less lonely and unattractive than that they had before visited: so, after taking in wood and water, they resumed their voyage.

Hitherto, in spite of the inclement season of the year, the weather had not been unfavorable to the expedition. But they had no sooner struck into the open sea than a furious tempest assailed the ships. It burst upon them suddenly. Thunder rolled in deafening peals across the black and heavy masses of clouds; while the sharp and quick succeeding flashes of lightning lit up the sea and firmament, as if to show the adventurers the frightful aspects of the storm in which they were enveloped. The poor little ships creaked and groaned; and as each tremendous billow struck and dashed over their sides, making them shake and tremble, and deluging the men with salt water, it seemed as if every moment would see them staved in and shattered by the shock.

Pizarro, in the midst of the tempest, was as patient and calm as if he had been quietly reposing in his house at Panama. His men at first raved and cursed in their terror; but he went among them and cheered them, and soon shamed them into submission by his own dauntless courage.

The storm grew more and more terrible. Day waned, and night came; and the waves still rose to awful heights, the wind swelled to a hurricane, and the ships drifted and plunged helplessly whithersoever the frenzied elements carried them. For a week the tempest continued to rage with a fury that only abated a few moments at a time. And now another calamity was added to the dangers of shipwreck.

Almagro had stored the ships with what he thought an ample supply of provisions; but he had supposed that the voyagers would be able to renew it from time to time by procuring food at the places on the coast where they would land. But they had as yet found nothing to sustain life, and their provisions and water were almost exhausted. They had now before them the danger not only of foundering at sea, but, even if they were spared this fate, of dying by starvation. Each man's rations were reduced to two ears of corn, and this scant sustenance Pizarro cheerfully shared with the humblest of his comrades.

The storm happily ceased a few days after the provisions fell short; and the captain, ignorant of what lay beyond, resoled to put back to the inlet where he had taken in wood and water. There, at least, they would be safe on dry land; they would repair the disabled ships; and it might be, that, by exploring farther inland than they had done, food would be found.

On reaching the inlet, all hands disembarked, and made preparations for a longer sojourn. Their situation, indeed, was far from promising. Having escaped the terrors of the sea, new trials and miseries seemed to await them on shore. A desolate tract of marsh and forest lay stretched out before them. Already over thirty of the stalwart band which had set out from Panama had died, and Pizarro found that he had but eighty faithful followers left to share his dangers and hardships. He divided these into parties, who scoured the country, and penetrated as far as they could through the tangled growths that lay beyond the swamps. But one and all returned with the same mournful story, that neither inhabitants nor food were anywhere to be found.

Pizarro was resolved to take a desperate course. Undismayed by his situation, and firmly set on not returning to Panama, where the news of his failure would be received with jeers and contempt, he sent the smaller of his ships, under a faithful officer named Montenegro, back to the Isle of Pearls for provisions; while he himself, with the larger part of his men, remained on the dismal coast. He trusted to his good fortune to survive till the ship should return, and, by continually picturing to his comrades the glory and riches in store for them, persuaded them to be content to stay with him.

He expected Montenegro to come back at least within a fortnight. But the fortnight passed, then three weeks, then a month; and as the poor little company of adventurers stood on the coast, and strained their eyes northward, no friendly sail, promising food for their empty stomachs, and drink for their parched lips, greeted their sight.

Nothing could exceed the misery which Pizarro and his comrades suffered during this long and terrible suspense. Confined to a barren and unhealthy shore, with scarcely any provisions, and water so bad that it poisoned and sometimes killed those who drank it, with scant shelter from the storms that often swept over them, and the hope of seeing the ship of succor appear constantly postponed, it seemed as if one and all were doomed to a slow death of torture on this remote and lonely spot. At last they were reduced to the most desperate extremities. The small stock of corn became exhausted; and the half-famished creatures greedily ate the salt seaweed that the waves washed upon the beach, and bitter palm-berries, and even the tanned cowhide which covered the ship's pump, and which they boiled, divided, and devoured as best they could. Day by day Pizarro saw his company dwindling before his eyes. Scarcely a day passed that one or two did not die of sheer starvation; while the rest became gaunt and haggard, and were gradually reduced to little more than skeletons.

The brave captain, however, still kept up a stout heart. He shared with the rest their repulsive food; he tended the sick, and administered such medicines as he had with his own hand; he piled up soft beds for them with brush and leaves; he caused huts to be erected, and himself assisted in putting them up, so that some shelter might be afforded from the frequent tempests; and by constantly going among them, showing his deep sorrow for their miseries, cheering them by his words of hope, and setting them a bright example of patience and indomitable resolution, he quite won their hearts even in the midst of their distress.

One day, as Pizarro was going about, relieving as best he could the pains of the sick, two or three of his men came running up, and eagerly told him they had seen a light a great way off, through the trees. He at once started out with a party of a dozen, and soon, sure enough, saw a faint glimmering in the distance. Making his way as best he could through the tangled forest, he at last reached an opening, and to his surprise and delight found there a group of Indian huts. The savages, frightened out of their wits on seeing the Spaniards, ran away into the woods as fast as their legs could carry them; but, gathering confidence, they soon returned to the edge of the open space.

Pizarro and his men lost no time in entering the huts, and were overjoyed to find in them some cocoanuts and corn. They loaded themselves with as much as they could carry, and were on the point of returning, when several of the Indians, advancing, bitterly complained, by expressive signs, of the robbery, and asked Pizarro why the Spaniards had come to plunder their peaceful village.

He replied, in the same way, that he and his men were starving, and that it was necessary that they should take whatever food they could find. He then asked them many questions, and they told him that beyond the mountains there was a land abounding in riches.

The Spaniards observed that these savages wore heavy ornaments of gold; and this entirely confirmed their belief in a golden country, and restored ambition and cupidity to their flagging souls. They returned to their companions aglow with the story of their discovery, and filled them with joy by displaying the corn and cocoanuts they had taken.

It was not until the forty-seventh day after its departure, that Montenegro's ship, returning over the ocean, gladdened the eyes of Pizarro's still half-famished party. When they saw the sails in the distance, they capered, weak as they were, wildly about on the beach; and, when at last Montenegro cast anchor, they rushed out into the sea to embrace their comrades, and devour the good things which were thrown overboard to them. Montenegro had brought an ample supply of corn and pork, but told a harrowing tale of the hardships he and his crew had suffered on their way back from the Isle of Pearls.

Refreshed by the provisions which Montenegro had brought, and re-enforced by his ship and men, Pizarro left the place where he and his comrades had spent so many dismal days, and which he expressively named "The Port of Famine," and continued his voyage southward along the coast.

Resolved to push his discoveries as far as possible, he passed several harbors which looked inviting, and did not cast anchor again until he came to a place where there were indications of habitation. Here he went ashore with his soldiers; and, finding none of the difficulties in penetrating the country which he had experienced at the Port of Famine, he marched rapidly forward. Everywhere he saw signs of the presence of human beings; and he was not surprised, when, emerging from a thicket, he saw an Indian village, surrounded by palisades, on the crest of a hill before him.

Pizarro's first impulse was to attack the village; but before he did so he sent Montenegro forward to explore the neighborhood. While his lieutenant was gone on this errand, the captain, knowing that his ship had been badly disabled by the tempests through which she had passed, ordered a few of the sailors to take her back to Panama for repairs. Thus he cut off from his party a retreat by sea.

The savage inhabitants of the village, on espying the Spaniards, had run away into the bushes as those at the Port of Famine had done; but the sequel proved that they were a far bolder race. Montenegro, after proceeding some way, was suddenly assailed by the Indians, who rushed out of their hiding-places, and with loud cries fired a perfect shower of arrows among the Spaniards.

The latter were completely surprised, and at first lost their presence of mind. Quickly recovering, however, they drew their swords, and fell fiercely upon the enemy. The Indians were driven pell-mell into the woods again, but not until three of the Spaniards had been killed, and several wounded.

It was now Pizarro's turn to suffer from the valor of the warlike natives. Gathering in a dense mass, the Indians hastened to assail him before Montenegro's force could return to his aid. Before he knew it, a storm of arrows assailed his little camp; and this was attended with hideous yells, which struck as much terror to the heart as the rude weapons themselves.

Pizarro was too brave a man to wait patiently for the onset of the Indians. His blood was up; and, calling upon his men to follow him, he leaped over the barricade which he had caused to be erected, and with naked sword ran forward to meet the savage foe.

The Indians saw by his bearing, and air of command, that he was the Spanish chief. They directed their whole fire upon him, and, as he was struggling valiantly, inflicted seven wounds upon him under his armor. Pizarro faltered, and then fell.



The savages, with an exultant cry of joy, rushed upon him to kill him. But the heroic cavalier, seeing their design, sprang lightly to his feet, and dispatched two of the advancing Indians with his sword. The rest he held at bay until his soldiers could come up; and just at this moment the day was saved, and defeat turned into victory, by the timely arrival of the faithful Montenegro. The victory, however, was won at the cost of five Spaniards killed, and seventeen wounded.

It seemed hopeless to proceed farther in the expedition. The hostility of the natives had been aroused; Pizarro's force had been woefully reduced by disease and battle; the provisions were running short; and the remaining ship was not in a fit condition to pursue the voyage farther south.

Pizarro, therefore, sorrowfully ordered his men to embark; and the ship's prow was once more turned towards Panama. The weather being favorable, the voyage was made rapidly and safely; and ere many days the lovely Isle of Pearls came again in sight. But Pizarro was unwilling to return to Panama, and meet Pedrarias with his story of failure. So he cast anchor in the little port of Chuchama, on the mainland opposite the Isle of Pearls; and, landing his men there, he sent his treasurer forward to the city in the ship to carry to the governor the golden ornaments he had taken from the Indians, while he and his comrades awaited at a distance the course of events.