“At 320 leagues from Hispaniola, those who have explored closely tell of a celebrated Spring, when waters are drunk, old men are rejuvenated.”– Peter Martyr, scholar, 1513
His piercing eyes searched the endless Ocean. He stood on the top deck of the caravel Santiago, a grand sight in himself. The timbers of the ship creaked and the sails and flags fluttered in the subtle breeze. A balmy gust wandered through the red plumage of Juan Ponce de Leon’s hat.
The Fountain of Youth.
Ponce de Leon was nearly 53 years old. By the year 1513 he had conquered much of the new world and yielded many riches to Their Majesties King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Native Americans? He had subdued them to slavery. Settlements? Done – Hispaniola and Puerto Rico had been added to the Spanish empire thanks to his efforts. Food? Ponce had profited greatly from the “casana bread” he had discovered at the hands of the natives – a bread with a substantial shelf life. It was perfect for ship voyages, and Ponce made a small fortune off of selling it. Salvation of souls? Ponce and his men baptized and instructed the natives in the Catholic doctrine. Gold? Oh, yes, especially gold! Ponce had a smithy turning out gold coins from the nuggets found in Puerto Rico. At 53, Ponce was already a great man in the world, both old and new.
But he was also notoriously cruel.
So cruel was his treatment of the natives that the King had revoked his governance of Puerto Rico, and given it to Diego Columbus – Christopher Columbus’s son!
Oh, the dishonor! How could they do that to him, after all he had worked for? Ponce’s temper flared every time he thought of it!
It was all he could do but to strike out on yet another voyage. Something that could make him forget about his woes.
The Fountain of Youth.
At first, Ponce was skeptical of the native legend he had heard. Bimini, they called it. A land of riches and beauty, with a spring with waters that could heal and restore youth.
Wait, riches? They had him at “riches.” And the prospect of treating creaky joints was certainly appealing. But Ponce came up short as he remembered that he had subdued these same natives. He’d killed some of their family members in the process. Still, other natives died from the diseases brought over to them from Spain. Okay, so the natives weren’t impressed with Ponce. They probably hated him. And was he really going to believe they were telling the truth about Bimini in light of their tragic experiences?
Ponce tightened his lips as he imagined them, snickering behind their fingers in their shacks. He could hear them now:
“Stupid, overdressed pig!”
“Bimini, north? Hahaha!”
“He believed it, the greedy glutton!”
“Lets hope he gets lost and dies!”
No, Ponce did not believe them! Or did he? Was this eternal spring just the stuff of legend? Or, was it really out there somewhere? Did Ponce really care about finding it?
The gold. Yes, that was it. Rather than chasing the breezes of some ridiculous legend, Ponce was sailing out in search of something more practical. A nice mountain of riches claimed in honor of the King and Queen of Spain would serve as an irresistible plea for redemption!
Just wait. Ponce would show them all!