If you’d been in St. Augustine, Florida, on Saturday, you could have glimpsed Catholic priest Father Gilbert Medina peacock-strutting through the pretty streets, dressed as the Spanish invader Juan Ponce de León.
Father Medina was proud to do his part to celebrate the discovery of Florida by Ponce de León five hundred years ago, a feat that the priest and his posse re-enacted by planting a flag in a seemingly random flower bed in a local park. His pride, he said, was bolstered by his Catholic faith, just as the 16th-century explorer had found spiritual satisfaction in bringing his Catholic faith to the New World.
As Father Medina told the local news team — watch the video, below — he viewed his re-enactment of the conquistador’s supposed triumphs as “an opportunity to connect myself to Catholic history.” But when he donned the replica Spanish helmet, his vision was grander than that. He also hoped, he said, to inspire people, to whet their appetites for history, to make them delve into books and look up historical events on the Internet, and thus “explore the world.”
So I did that, as it seemed to me that Father Medina’s assessment of Ponce de León was a bit
That’s not uncommon among followers of the faith. When you check out the Catholic Encyclopedia, the entry on Ponce de León uses the most wonderful euphemisms. During his conquests of the Caribbean and beyond, Ponce didn’t slaughter the natives; he “reduced” them. He didn’t wage war on indigenous tribes or brutalize uppity slaves; he had “encounters” with them.
Other sources, which I read thanks to Father Medina’s kind encouragement, provide perhaps a fuller account of Ponce’s record.
Back on his island [Puerto Rico], Ponce de León parceled out the native Taínos amongst himself and other settlers using a system of forced labor known as encomienda. The Indians were put to work growing food crops and mining for gold. Many of the Spaniards treated the Taínos very harshly and newly introduced diseases like smallpox and measles took a severe toll on the local population. By June 1511 the Taínos were pushed to a short-lived rebellion, which was forcibly put down by Ponce de León and a small force of troops armed with crossbows and arquebuses [early firearms].
Encomienda, which comes from the Spanish verb for “to entrust,” has a nice ring to it, but that didn’t keep the natives from being treated worse than dogs.
The difference between encomienda and slavery could be minimal. Many natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted.
The Florida Frontier reminds us that
Ponce de León carried a contract from his king “to settle the Islands of Bimini and the lands discovered.” This contract stated that the native people must be given the option of becoming serfs or, when they didn’t comply, they could be taken as slaves.
It’s good to have options.
The Spanish conquistadors carried with them a religion whose defining symbol is an image of intolerance and torture — the cross. … Their method of gaining control of their lives was through the accumulation of personal wealth and by the subjugation of others.
Sure, but that still does not get to the heart of the Ponce de León legacy. The explorer’s enthusiasm for spreading Catholicism and his callous treatment of his enslaved inferiors were as legendary as evidence of his vaunted accomplishments is flimsy and even fake. Most notably, by 1513, the year he “discovered” Florida, the peninsula had in fact seen so many Europeans that some native Americans greeted him in Spanish.
I’ll quote from the recent New York Times article “Ponce de León, Exposed”:
Contrary to what our school books taught us, Ponce did not discover Florida. He never did much of anything here except get himself killed. …
Ponce never went anywhere near St. Augustine, the city where he is said to have discovered the Fountain of Youth. … Ponce was after gold, but Florida had none to be found. He left and might never have returned but for the news that Cortés had found gold in Mexico. In 1521 Ponce — envious, vigorous, avaricious — made the fatal mistake of trying his Florida luck again.
After sustaining an arrow wound to his leg, which led to an infection,
…he died of fever in Havana, having discovered nothing, founded nothing and achieved nothing.
The Spanish never named anything after Ponce de León.
In America, we often enjoy myth-making more than truth-telling — a bit like Chicagoans invented deep-dish pizza (which, I hasten to add, is tasty enough) and pretend it’s Italian food. We treat history as some cheap fake of an imitation of a facsimile, a theme-park-ready cubic zirconium version of truth that lets us substitute slavery for bravery and plunder for pluck.
Pay no mind to the bodies, make way for the Walt Disney Company. Stuff those skeletons into the closet, here comes the Catholic Church. It’s perfectly understandable, and perfectly depressing, all at once.