Commentary No. 070
Date: 1538, April 10. Santo Domingo, La Española.
Theme: When it came to piratical attacks against La Española by vessels from Spain’s imperial enemies, the local enslaved black population was at much risk as the free Spanish or creole population of the areas under assault, since they would be treated by the attackers as chattel to be stolen or kidnapped to be exchanged for a ransom
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles--Archivo General de Indias, SANTO_DOMINGO, 49,R.9,N.59
On the 1st of February of 1538 a French vessel assaulted Puerto Hermoso, a port fifteen leagues west of Santo Domingo City on the south coast of La Española and near the town of Azua and captured three ships that had left from Santo Domingo in that direction the night before with between 10 and 12 sailors. (This would mean that for the type of ships called bergantines the sailing to Azua’s port took between 12 and 24 hours.) According to the report from the Audiencia, Puerto Hermoso was an important provisioning area of sea salt for the entire Island. Another port one league away from this one was Ocoa “where I Licenciado Zuazo have a sugar mill.”
The Audiencia’s report mentions as well how “another two leagues further down [west] there is another ingenio of the Secretary Diego Caballero,” possibly the one known as Zepi Zepi and “another two leagues away is the village of Azua where there are four sugar mills, all of which falls [sic] on the sea shore close to it [the sea] one league inwards at the furthest. One of the residents of the salt pans traveled to Santo Domingo City in a day, apparently riding on horse, while “the others went to alert the village of Azua and to the ingenios so they would put themselves into safety.” Once the news arrived in Santo Domingo, about three hours later a force of seventy horsemen and fifty pawns had been reportedly gathered from within the dwellers of the city and its district and had left from there to the Ocoa area.
Referring to the port of Santo Domingo City, the authorities wrote that “since many days ago this port has never been so empty of ships because, since no naos have come from those kingdoms since more than five months ago, only one large galleon of about one hundred tons was at the port and two caravels of fifty tons each.”
The expedition sent from Santo Domingo City by ground against the French arrived in the Ocoa region in one and a half days (“in a day and a night”). They found the Ocoaingenio totally robbed by the French, who took all the sugar in it as well as “six black slaves, since the rest escaped from them into the mountains. ” The French ordered the sugar estate’s overseer to write to the city asking for a ransom of 4,000 pesos in exchange for not burning down the sugar estate. From Ocoa, part of the force dispatched went to Azua while others went to the ingenios. One day some French disembarked “at the port of Azua” before the Santo Domingo forces could get there and stole “more than three thousand arrobas of sugar” and demanded a ransom in exchange for “not burning down the town”. About nine residents went to negotiate with the French a potential exchange of “the Spaniards and certain blacks that [the French] had taken onto the ships” for some “heifer and lamb meet,” but they were captured as well and released only after another ransom of about 300 castellanos. In the process the Spaniards learned that the French larger vessel was about 150 tons and the total crew of about one hundred men.
With better information about the size of the French expedition, an armada was sent from Santo Domingo formed by a galleon and two caravels with 200 men, which left one early morning hoping to arrive in Ocoa the same day in the afternoon. The day before a group of six Frenchmen went to the Ocoa mill hoping to collect a ransom for not burning the mill and they were killed in a surprise attack by the locals, except two that were taken prisoners. The French left the area and after five days searching the vicinities the squadron sent from Santo Domingo could not find them. The French had sailed away from the coast and then eastwards and showed up at La Saona island, which was “twenty five leagues” from Santo Domingo, and was “the place through which all the vessels [coming] from Spain pass by.”
The same armada sent to Ocoa was then sent to Saona, where they found and chased the French ship for a day without capturing them. The next day passed by La Saona a vessel of “Don Alvaro de Bazán” part of a royal armada and captained by a Pero or Joan de Peñalosa with a cargo of 100,000 ducados in silver for the Crown and some gold of private individuals which were unloaded in Santo Domingo due to the bad condition of the vessel.
While another vessel available at the port of Santo Domingo was prepared to be sent to Spain with the silver and gold, a Spanish vessel arrived from Cubagua loaded with pearls for the Crown “and Indians and fish and salt and other things” that had been chased for two days from around the Saona area by the same French vessel as before, which this time dared to approach the port of Santo Domingo as close as “a shot” from the city’s fortress. As a precaution the ships harbored in Santo Domingo had been sent up the Ozama river. The following day an armada “more than well provisioned of everything” was sent to Saona, and then to the island of San Juan, and then back westwards along the southern coast of La Española beyond Azua in search for the French vessel, to no avail.
Ultimately, according to the long report submitted by the colonial authorities of La Española, during their days of assault the French attackers killed the two Spanish captains of the ships they had initially captured in Puerto Hermoso, and took with them the “fifteen ladino black slaves” they captured in the ports of the area as well as about 3,000 arrobas of sugar.