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Colombia's Forgotten Conquistador 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 hillcrest, 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.

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 504 years ago in December, 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 since this high point where I find myself is easily defended and above all 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 modern-day town Necocli in a barrio called Canaflechal, it is what it 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 travelling 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 Cortes (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 to lake Maracaibo and he did open this “the corner of America” up to further exploration.

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 up and coming event 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 Necocli through lush cattle pastures and banana plantations takes me away from the 95km of beaches that make this region so enticing to tourists from Medellin that make the 424km journey north.

A breeze picks up as I alight the motorcycle near to 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.

This settlement was resilient up to a point despite being attacked continually by the hostile tribes in the area and 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) 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 their 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 north-western 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.

500 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. But it is here despite everything, on the Darien’s front porch, that possibly the next wave of tourism expansion in Colombia will take place.

And what became of Alonso de Ojeda after his exploits here in Uraba? This overlooked conquistador that discovered Curacao and Bonaire, named Venezuela and is perhaps the first European to have set foot on South American soil, founded San Sebastian de Urabá “the corner of America” 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 Cortes’ 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.”

The tale of the forgotten Conquistador of Colombia.

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