the lie of Ponce de León and the fountain of eternal youth

“Under this structure rest the bones of a lion, more for his great deeds than for his name.” The epitaph inscribed on the mausoleum of Juan Ponce de LeónBack in Puerto Rico, he does not deviate one iota from the truth. The deeds of this Hispanic, recorded in the crystalline seas of Central America, would overshadow those of other traditional heroes such as Francisco Pizarro O Hernan Cortes. However, the prevailing memory of him, that which has passed from generation to generation, is his alleged trip to Florida in search of a myth as hollow as the magical waters of the fountain of eternal youth.

an extensive report on the life of Ponce de Leon for him ‘The Hispanic Council‘. “It is a fallacy that he traveled there in search of him,” he explains in a statement to ABC. The journalist and popularizer, on the contrary, prefers to stay with that indomitable and adventurous spirit that the discoverer demonstrated throughout his life. That character “that prevented him from getting comfortable” and that led him to avoid misadventures as a direct confrontation with the Columbus family to explore Puerto Rico and Florida. In addition to running into the so-called Gulf currents in Mexico, a key find for the trade of the Spanish Empire.


[Pinche aquí para leer el informe completo de Manuel Trillo sobre Ponce de León]

How does a rich farmer from Hispaniola go on to want to embark to Boriquén in search of riches?

We are talking about the early days of the discovery and colonization of the New World. Ponce de León was in those initial waves, although it is not entirely clear when. It is noted that he arrived on Columbus’s second voyage, although it may have been somewhat later. At that time the presence of the people of our country was practically reduced to Hispaniola and little else. From there, once the Spanish took hold, they began to look beyond their mere surroundings. The island of Boriquén, what today would be Puerto Rico, is what was closest to them.

How did Ponce de León find out about the supposed wealth in Boriquén?

Many natives came and went and told stories, sometimes true, sometimes interested, about the riches that were there. That was what aroused the appetite of the conquerors who were in the region of Hispaniola, then under the command of Nicolás de Ovando, with whom our protagonist had a very good relationship. With him he reached an agreement to move to Puerto Rico and explore new lands. In reality, with him and with King Ferdinand, it was not an exclusively local initiative. It was done through a partnership with the monarch.

It is surprising that he embarked on this company when Ponce de León had a large farm, servants in his charge …

From what we know of his biography, which is not too much, he was a restless man. He was not an accommodating person, he was entrepreneurial in nature, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, he seized it. First he made the leap to an unknown land such as Hispaniola was at that time; then he embarked on a series of conflicts with the natives; When he obtained the land to build a manor house, he went to explore and colonize Puerto Rico and Florida; He also joined an army against the Caribs … Anyway, he was an enterprising and energetic guy.

How was the internal struggle between Ponce de León and the Colón family?

The biography of Ponce de León is very marked by the enmities that he developed throughout his life. With Diego, who aspired to seize the colonization rights of the New World based on being the family of who he was, he collided in a frontal way. The son of Columbus wanted to be the one to exploit everything and displace the businesses that our protagonist had with the King. The two met in Hispaniola after Nicolás de Ovando was displaced. There the first crash took place.

He also talks about a fairly unknown process that forced him to return money to the Crown …

They opened an investigation into how he had handled the accounts he kept with His Majesty and forced him to return part of it. Although later he took revenge and got the person who had fined him to refund the money.

Did the Colón family have more dark than light in this sense?

I wouldn’t say the whole family. In this case it was a particular conflict between two people. I don’t like to judge five hundred years later who was good and who was bad. They all had their ambitions, their interests, and they maneuvered within the possibilities they had. In my opinion, yes, Ponce de León acted in good faith, while Diego Colón, at times, tried to put his will above that of the King. The pulse was actually with the Corona itself.

Ponce de León is known today for the journey in search of the fountain of eternal youth. Who was to blame for this myth becoming widespread?

It’s something I mention in the report. The first time the fountain of youth was discussed was not during Ponce de León’s life, but years after his death, in the chronicles of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. He did not have the best opinion of the discoverer. I think he made that story, a bit forced, to point him out. In practice, it is very exaggerated to say that the Spanish went to explore Florida with the sole purpose of finding this place. This is not reflected in the historical documentation. In the letters written by the conqueror, which refer to the second of his travels, not once is said about it. That there could be a legend about rejuvenating miraculous water as there has been throughout history? Can be. But in no case was it his main reason for traveling.

Have many chroniclers repeated this myth?

Indeed. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, for example, also made reference to him. The funny thing is that the more it is repeated, the more it is exaggerated and the more it penetrates into society. It is normal, because in the end it is a very tasty legend. Today it is still told in Disney movies and has served as the central theme of a theme park. It is a story that hooks very well, but it is a complete fable.

Manuel Trillo – ABC

In fact, you call it a fallacy in the text …

Yes. It is possible that this legend existed among the natives. What is an absolute fallacy is that the reason Ponce de León traveled to Florida was to discover the fountain of eternal youth.

Speaking of Florida … In the report he talks about the importance of the Gulf currents, discovered by Ponce, for the Spanish Empire

Effectively. That area became a great highway for the riches that were brought from the New World throughout the centuries. It was precisely on Ponce de León’s first trip to Florida when, thanks to the pilot Antón de Alamillos, they realized that the ships were unable to advance despite the favorable wind. Thus they discovered that Gulf Stream that had a capital importance for trade and transportation between America and the Peninsula.

Has the Spanish Empire been that kind of black beast that the Black Legend dictates?

No one should judge past events with the eyes of the present. Of course there were conflicts with the arrival of the conquerors to America, as there were also – even more cruelly – with the English or the French. The history of humanity is plagued at the end of wars and follies. The key is that the Spanish did not show any particular cruelty to the natives. Quite the contrary. The empire had a very human relationship with them. It is true that there were specific cases of ambitious people who took advantage of the opportunities they had. But that is why a series of laws were made, such as those of Burgos, to control and avoid excesses.

Were laws motivated to alleviate the abuses from the Crown?

Definitely. The Crown tried to put a stop to this type of abuse. In the Spanish colonization there was a spirit of humanity, of treating natives as people, something that did not happen in other cultures. The normal thing in the rest of the countries was to subdue them and interpret that they were inferior beings. That, here, did not happen.

[La mentira de la Leyenda Negra que sonroja a los ingleses: así borraron del Pacífico al Imperio español]

And in the case of Ponce de León?

Ponce de León was not an inhuman person or insensitive to the suffering or condition of the natives. It is true that he used them in the exploitation of mines and counted on them to expand his own fortune and that of the Crown, but he did so through dialogue with the chiefs of the different tribes that he encountered. Furthermore, he did not avail himself of the atrocious punishments that the Black Legend has repeated over and over again.

Is the destruction of statues born, then, of ignorance?

Of ignorance and of a series of ideological prejudices little founded on the truth. In addition to an eagerness to become judges of the past five centuries later. From history we must keep his legacy, which is the most important thing. I am not saying that abuses are applauded, I invite you to understand everything in context. Society admires aqueducts even though it knows that the Romans used slave labor. They don’t get down on it.

How should we remember Ponce de León?

The bottom line is that he was an entrepreneur who did not stop in the face of dangerous challenges. We tend to forget that the discoverers faced a new world. It is like going to Mars now, but blindly, without the information that the satellites or the exploration ships have given. At that time they threw themselves into the sea and to know what they were. I think the courage to embark on colossal adventures like exploring Puerto Rico or Florida is worthy of admiration. On the other hand you have to value his legacy. It is the figure that put on the map and in written history an entire subcontinent in which, over time, and thanks to the mixture of cultures, the world’s leading power emerged. That pioneering spirit is the fundamental of his figure and the legacy he has left us.

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