In 1503, Diego Méndez braved the sea in a canoe on a perilous crossing from Jamaica to Santo Domingo. For this daring exploit, which succeeded in dispatching relief to Columbus and his companions who were stranded in Jamaica, Méndez has been noted in the pages of history. Yet his story, told in another way which better illustrates the significance of his life, also sheds light on other facets of early post-Columbian history.

Set in Santo Domingo, this biographical essay treats several crucial aspects of Spanish experience at the time of reconnaissance and early colonization. First, a spectacular deed, one of so many of this dramatic epoch, is tied to the life of which it is a part. Then the sequence of rewards in property, honors, and office given to Méndez is linked to colonial and imperial measures particularly as they affected the encomienda. Heretofore, studies on the encomienda during this early period have been characterized either by excessive generalization or by consideration of petitions and grievances alone. The documents on Méndez demonstrate step-by-step decisions linked to circumstance as they influenced the evolution of the encomienda. Lastly, the essay describes an era in which the fate of fortunes was uneasily balanced between America and Europe. The vagaries of Méndez’ career took him from Yucatán to the city of Brussels, and his experiences ranged from confinement in a jail cell to receptions at the imperial and viceregal courts. His search for just compensation and a secure future demonstrates in precise detail the steps by which both fortunes and misfortunes of ambitious Spaniards of Méndez’ time and station were tempered by the colonial milieu.

A Deed and a Lifetime of Service

Diego Méndez’ name appears for the first time on a muster roll of the crews who were hired for Columbus’ fourth voyage in April 1502. Before that date nothing was known about him. His birth, childhood, youth, and family background remained a mystery, giving rise to considerable rumor. His many enemies took advantage of the situation and accused him of being an estrangero. As such, he should not have been allowed to reside in Española at all and much less to hold public office; nor should he have been granted an encomienda. This was the main point of contention brought against him to justify the later confiscation of his lands and of his Indians; but in a sworn statement addressed to the Consejo de Indias in 1530, he denied such charges and revealed his past, giving the names of his parents and retracing his childhood and youth, to prove that he was a Castilian, not a foreigner. I have already published the Spanish text of his affidavit1 and now give a summary in English.

According to his testimony, both his parents, García Méndez and María Díaz were natives of Zamora. His father had been a contino (officer or advisor) of Enrique IV, King of Castile. During the war of succession that followed Enrique’s death (1474), Diego’s father embraced the cause of Enrique’s daughter Juana, better known as “La Beltraneja,”2 who married her uncle King Alfonso of Portugal. After the defeat of their troops and the loss of Zamora, Alfonso and his bride retreated to Portugal, and García Méndez followed them, leaving behind his wife and their baby boy. Diego’s mother died; but after the war was over, García returned to Spain and brought back his son to Portugal. There, he entrusted him to the care of a friend, Lope de Albuquerque, Count of Penamacor. When Diego Méndez became Penamacor’s criado, he was probably four or five years old. Subsequently, the elder Méndez disappeared and his son makes no further mention of him in his affidavit.

Lope de Albuquerque had been one of King Alfonso’s most trusted advisors, but after the latter’s death, his fortunes altered completely. Lope and his brother Pedro became involved in the struggle between the new King João II and the nobility. Pedro was sentenced to death and beheaded in 1484 and Penamacor fled with his family and took refuge in Spain. There he left his wife and sons and began wandering through northern Europe and Scandinavia for several years, accompanied by young Diego Méndez. He settled in England, and in his desire for revenge, he plotted a piratical expedition against La Mina and other Portuguese settlements in West Africa. João II protested against these rebellious actions and, at his request, Penamacor was arrested and spent four years in the Tower. It was then that young Diego, now an adolescent, undertook three voyages to Spain to obtain his master’s release through the intervention of Queen Isabel. He was apparently successful, for in 1492, Penamacor was freed and, on reaching Barcelona in December of that year, the queen appointed him regidor of Baeza and Ubeda in Andalusia. His service to the queen was to be shortlived, however, as he died in 1496.

Diego Méndez would have us believe that he entered the service of Columbus soon after Penamacor’s death and although this is possible, there is no mention of him until the Genoese’s fourth voyage. On that occasion, he is listed as one of the six escuderos (gentlemen) who sailed on the Santiago de Palos, and received six months’ advance pay (6,000 maravedís) on April 27,1502.3 These escuderos were protégés of the Admiral (four of them were Italian) or of the crown, and although they did not have any particular assignment, they filled vacancies and performed special missions during the voyage. Méndez was soon promoted to escribano mayor of the armada and in this capacity he kept a journal of the fourth voyage which Fernando Colón probably used since the latter refers to it twice in the Life of his father.4 The account of some of his adventures, which Méndez later incorporated into his will, may have been part of that journal which is now lost. He also officiated at the “taking of possession” of the coast of Honduras by Bartholomew Columbus on August 17,1502. On landing, Bartholomew, accompanied by the sound of trumpets and escorted by flagwaving officials, proceeded to cut branches and ordered holes dug in the ground. He thus ceremoniously claimed the discovery and distributed glass-beads and hawkbells to amazed Indians who stood on the beach and watched the proceedings. Finally, Bartholomew ordered Méndez, as escribano mayor, to write an official account of the “taking of possession” and to record it in his register.5

On two occasions during that voyage, Diego Méndez proved that he was a man of no mean ability and courage. In Veragua, during March and April 1503, he distinguished himself in the defense of the fort that the Spaniards had built at the mouth of the Río de Belén. As a reward for his bravery, Méndez was given command of the capitana, which had become vacant through the death of her captain, but he did not exercise this new function long as the ship’s hulk was wormeaten and leaked so badly that the crew had to pump water night and day. The other ship was in no better condition and could not keep afloat much longer. His ships foundering, Columbus abandoned all hope of reaching Española, and when they reached Jamaica, the vessels were run ashore and grounded—both a total loss.

Stranded in Jamaica, Columbus found that the food reserves had been spoiled by weather and seawater, and new supplies had to be obtained from the natives whose apparent goodwill might not last. After a few weeks, the Admiral decided to send a messenger to Española for help, by canoe, since this was the only means of transportation available. Diego Méndez volunteered to undertake the hazardous journey. He set out in a dugout with six Indian paddlers, escorted by another canoe commanded by a Genoese, another protégé of the Admiral, one Bartolomeo Fieschi.6

During the first three days, they suffered atrociously from heat and thirst. When they reached Navassa, a small island two-thirds of the distance to Española, they found fresh water and rested one day, eating clams they had picked up on the shore. In the distance, some thirty miles to the east, they could see Cape Tiburón, the westernmost point of Española. At night they set out again, full of hope, and at dawn they reached the coast of Santo Domingo. This adventure was to make Diego Méndez famous. And, in his later recounting, he indulged in a fair amount of bragging and took all the credit, failing to mention the second canoe and its commander Bartolomeo Fieschi. Méndez, aware of his own abilities, did not hide his light under a bushel.

When they landed on Española, they learned that Nicolás de Ovando, the governor, was in Xaraguá putting down a rebellion, having the leaders hanged or burned alive. Méndez went to Xaraguá and delivered a letter from the Admiral to the governor. Ovando gave him a friendly welcome, but since he did not want Columbus to return to Española, he was in no hurry to provide any help and kept Méndez with him during the seven months he stayed in Xaraguá. It was not until March 1504, that Méndez reached Santo Domingo where, after three months, he managed to lease a caravel freshly arrived from Spain, load it with provisions, and send it to Jamaica. However, he did not accompany the rescue ship himself. Anxious to return to Castile, with letters from Columbus, he reached Spain in the summer of 1504 and reported to the king and queen. Meanwhile, the Admiral had gone through many tribulations in Jamaica, including two successive rebellions led by Francisco and Diego Porras. Not until June 28, 1504, were Columbus and his men able to leave on the caravel dispatched by Méndez, and they finally reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda on November 7.7

During the winter 1504-1505, sickened physically and mentally, the Admiral remained in Seville, waiting for the authorization to pay his respects to his king and queen. During that time, Méndez acted as his secretary, mayordomo, and emissary—carrying letters, fulfilling various missions to the court, and pleading the cause of the Admiral against the Porras brothers and other leaders of the Jamaica rebellion. It was also Méndez who settled the accounts of the fourth voyage with the officials of the Casa de la Contratación, as evidenced by two cédulas reales.8 Many letters written by the Admiral during that same winter display his confidence in Méndez. When Columbus finally obtained permission to go to court, he was again able to manage his own affairs, but the death of Isabel was a blow. Of course King Fernando was always very friendly, but he conceded nothing. Sick as he was, Columbus followed the court in its moves and kept struggling to recover the immense privileges he had been granted in the past, but which were no longer recognized.

He spent the winter of 1505-1506 in Salamanca, often bedridden, suffering from gout or arthritis. One day his faithful criado Méndez told him: “Your Lordship knows that I have been in your service for years day and night. I beg Your Lordship to reward me.” Columbus answered that he would most willingly grant him what he requested. Then Méndez asked for the alguacilazgo mayor of Santo Domingo for life. The Admiral replied that it was not much of a reward for his years of faithful service, and that he granted it most heartily. “And he bade me report this to his son Diego, who was greatly pleased with the bestowal of the said office upon me, and said that if his father conferred it upon me with one hand, he, on his part, conferred it upon me with both.”9 Unfortunately, this promise of both father and son was not kept. If Diego Méndez ultimately succeeded in becoming alguacil mayor of Santo Domingo, it was as a substitute for the absentee title-holder.

After Salamanca, Columbus followed the court to Valladolid. There he grew much worse, and on May 19, 1506, he made out his will, dying two days later. According to Samuel Morison, Méndez was among those “who rallied around the bedside of the dying man,” but Fernando Colón, whom Morison cites as his source, mentions no other witnesses.10 Méndez was probably absent on some errand for the Admiral and was not among those who witnessed the will or kept vigil while life ebbed out of the tired and embittered old man.

Following the death of the almirante viejo, Diego Méndez remained in the service of his son Diego Colón, who was then about twenty-seven years old, three years his junior. Méndez acted as his business manager, fulfilling various tasks and errands. Young Diego Colón had inherited from his father many high-sounding titles, but they had become meaningless since he was without any official position. To obtain one, he had to gain influential friends, and one important point in his campaign for advancement was to marry into the right family. The king favored an alliance with the house of Alba, whose members had been his loyal supporters in critical times. And so in response to the king’s wishes, Diego Colón married Doña María de Toledo, niece of the Duke of Alba. Now the young almirante could aspire to the restoration of his lost privileges for he was helped in his efforts by Diego Méndez and others.11 They prodded the duke, who in turn did his best to pressure the king.12 Finally, Fernando relented and appointed Diego Colón viceroy and governor of the Indies, but not for life as his father had been, for his term of office was to be only “el tiempo que mi merced e voluntad fuere.”13 Yet, even before leaving Spain, the young almirante titled himself “visorrey e gobernador perpetuo.”14

Colón began to prepare for his voyage to Santo Domingo. Those escorting him were his wife Doña María, his uncles Bartholomew and Diego, his brother Fernando, his uncle by marriage Francisco de Garay,15 and a number of retainers, one of whom was Diego Méndez. The latter had become a legendary figure for his crossing from Jamaica to Española in a canoe was well-known. Méndez found a chance to capitalize on his notoriety while the court was sojourning in Fuente de Campos, a small town in Estremadura. There, in the presence of the king, he recalled the many services he had rendered in the Indies, and as a reward he asked Fernando to knight him. The monarch agreed and the ceremony took place on the spot, Méndez kneeling and handing over his sword to Fernando who dubbed him “caballero de las espuelas doradas.” Lope de Conchillos, the king’s secretary who witnessed the ceremony, recorded the official testimony. This was probably Méndez’ finest hour. But that was not all, for two years later he was granted in perpetuity for himself and his descendants, a coat of arms picturing a canoe with two Indians on each side holding a golden stick.16

Outwardly, relations were very cordial between the new viceroy and the king; but the latter had misgivings for he did not put much trust in his appointee. While Colón was waiting in Seville for his fleet to sail, Fernando sent him several letters full of sound advice. In these, he praised Ovando, hoping his successor would follow his example.17 Diego Colón and his retinue landed in Santo Domingo on July 10, 1509; Ovando was notified of his recall and sent back to Spain. The new governor assumed power and proceeded to award some of the choicest offices and privileges to relatives and friends. The licenciado Marcos de Aguilar became alcalde mayor of Santo Domingo. But in spite of Columbus’ earlier promises, Méndez was passed over for the office of alguacil mayor in favor of Bartholomew Colón, who did not keep it, but ceded it or farmed it out to Francisco de Garay. Méndez had to be satisfied with being secretario and contador of the almirante, titles which he used in various documents between 1509 and 1515. On the first of October 1509, he was officially admitted as vecino of the city of Santo Domingo, Marcos de Aguilar presiding, and Garay acting as his sponsor.18 This gave him the right to own land, build a house within the city limits, and be elected to the town council.

Encomienda and Politics

Being a resident of Española entitled Méndez to an encomienda, and he received one on May 22,1510. It consisted of eighty naborías de servicio (Indians attached to his personal service), some residing in Cotuy in the Yuma valley where copper had been discovered. The others were located just north of Santo Domingo, near the Ozama.19 The granting of an encomienda to Méndez was part of the general redistribution of lands and Indians that took place in May 1510, to replace the old repartimiento made by Ovando which had become obsolete. Newly arrived immigrants, attracted by rumors of gold discoveries, were demanding their share of Indian labor. Before Diego Colón had left Spain, Fernando had given him the authority for a new repartimiento with detailed instructions on how to proceed, to ensure an equitable distribution.20 But the young viceroy completely disregarded these instructions, and he deprived Ovando’s partisans of most of their holdings for the benefit of his followers. When Fernando learned of it, he angrily reprimanded Colón, adding, “It will be necessary to do it all over again.”21 The treasurer Miguel de Pasamonte and the other officials appointed by the king were irked no end by the arbitrary government of Diego Colón and his henchmen. To keep the Colóns in check, an audiencia, or court of appeals was set up in Santo Domingo. The three judges appointed to that court soon sided with Pasamonte. The settlers became divided into two hostile camps—los del almirante and los del rey.22

There was one point, however, on which both sides agreed—the necessity of bringing in outside labor, since the frightful mortality of the Indians and the resultant dwindling population threatened the economic life of the island. The Carib settlements were raided, but the natives used poisoned arrows and defended themselves.23 At the beginning of 1514, Méndez decided to go to Spain, hoping to persuade the king to finance an armada strong enough to subdue the rebellious Indians and permit their enslavement. For this he applied for permission to leave Santo Domingo. His petition was received favorably by the governor and his council, and he was granted a one-year leave of absence with the promise that during that time he would not lose his encomienda.24 But this promise proved illusory for the tide had turned against the governor and his entourage. The time had come for the new repartimiento ordered by the king, and this repartimiento was to be carried out by los del rey. Méndez sensed that during his absence, anything might happen and, before sailing on May 6, he appointed Juan García Caballero to handle his affairs.

The new repartidores were Rodrigo de Albuquerque and Miguel de Pasamonte, both enemies of the viceroy. Their appointment discredited Diego Colón who saved face by accepting an invitation to return to Spain to defend the privileges inherited from his father, because their validity was being questioned by the crown.25 The new repartimiento was made in December 1514, and Diego Méndez lost his encomienda to Antonio Serrano and Juan Roldán:

Al licenciado Serrano . . . vecino e regidor de la dha ciudad . . . se le encomendó el cacique Sancho de Cautuy que estaba encomendado a Diego Méndez, con veinte e siete personas de servicio.

Asi mismo se le encomendó veinte e seis naborias de casa de las que registró Diego Méndez de las que tiene en la estancia de Cotuy e en la estancia del Guaniamo.

. . . Al bachiller Juan Roldán, vecino de la dicha cibdad, se le encomendó veinte e nueve naborias de casa, que son las siete allegadas, de las que registró Diego Méndez.26

Serrano and Roldán were letrados, subordinates of the audiencia and hostile to the governor. One afternoon in 1512, Serrano had been attacked and wounded in his house by strangers, but he had managed to escape. It was rumored that the alcalde mayor, Marcos de Aguilar, had hired the cutthroats. When the king learned of this, he was furious.27

In the interim, Méndez was at the court discussing with Fernando his project for an armada against the Caribs. When he learned that his encomienda had been taken from him, he asked the king to intervene, and he was granted a ten-month extension of his leave of absence with orders to the repartidores to restore his Indians April 2, 1515.28 The text of the royal cédula was read to Pasamonte in his own home in the presence of witnesses by the notary public Fernando de Berrio and, on July 27, García Caballero argued before the audiencia for the restoration of the encomienda to Méndez. Pasamonte declared that he would obey the royal command, but Roldán and Serrano announced they would appeal. However, Pasamonte refused to return the Indians until the oidores had pronounced on the appeal.29 The matter dragged on for months, since the three judges (Ayllón, Matienzo, and Villalobos) were in no hurry to take up the case. On December 29, García Caballero once more asked that justice be done,30 but two days later Serrano and Roldán retorted that Méndez was not entitled to an encomienda because he was a foreigner, a native of Portugal, and they cited a royal cédula of October 4, 1513 forbidding the granting of encomiendas to estrangeros.31

At this time, Méndez was stranded in Spain. His negotiations had bogged down because of the king’s illness and death on January 16, 1516, and Fernando’s successor was a fifteen-year-old adolescent living in Brussels. Moreover, Méndez’ ten-month extension had expired. His patron, Diego Colón, was in a similar quandary having lost his governorship and being in danger of losing his privileges. The only solution for them was to contact the new king, Fernando’s grandson, as soon as possible. The almirante remained in Spain, but Méndez departed for Brussels, accompanied by García de Lerma, another member of the Colón coterie. In Brussels, they found the young monarch in a receptive mood, and Méndez secured from him a royal cédula on March 5, 1517, again restoring him his encomienda, provided he return to Santo Domingo within six months.32 But his departure from Brussels was delayed due to a head wound (it is unknown how this was inflicted), and he was treated by Juan Vásquez, the king’s surgeon, who gave sworn testimony to that effect in the presence of the royal notary Fernando Ortiz.33

During his stay in Brussels, it is possible that Méndez met Erasmus who was there at the time. The Dutch philosopher had been appointed by King Carlos as one of his councilors and there was some talk that he might be given a bishopric in Spain. It may have been in Brussels that Méndez acquired his copy of the Enchiridion militis christiani, among other works of Erasmus, for he had become an admirer of the Dutch scholar.34

In Seville, making ready to return to Santo Domingo, Méndez’ departure was further delayed by his marriage to Doña Francisca de Ribera, daughter of Velasco Pérez de Ribera, and sister of a settler in Española. On August 15, the young bride became ill with fever and vomiting, and on the fifth of September, she was pronounced unfit to travel. Accordingly, her husband had official testimony taken from several witnesses by a notary public, since the six months of his last extension were up. With these delays, it is probable that Méndez reached Santo Domingo in November 1517.35

When he arrived, he found that his eighty Indians were still in the possession of Roldán and Serrano whose appeal had been sustained by the oidores of the audiencia. Since then, however, there had been a change in the political climate. The audiencia had been suspended, and three Jeronymite friars had taken over the government of the island together with the licenciado Alonso Zuazo, newly appointed justicia mayor. On December 4, Méndez produced in their presence the real cédula he had obtained in Brussels from Carlos V on March 5, ordering the restoration of his encomienda.36 Zuazo was a colombista. He had no use for Pasamonte and Ayllón, whom he accused of being conversos or sons of conversos. On March 5, 1518, he decided in favor of Diego Méndez ordering Serrano and Roldán to give him back his Indians or be fined 20,000 maravedis each.37

Soon, however, Zuazo was recalled and replaced by Rodrigo de Figueroa, less favorably disposed toward Méndez. Roldán and Serrano appealed again, this time before the king, pretending that the cédula granted to Méndez in Brussels on March 5, 1517, had been obtained under false pretenses, “con relación no verdadera,” and the royal council ordered a new inquiry on June 1, 1519.38 In the interim, the audiencia of Santo Domingo had been restored, and its judges, no friends of Méndez, again took up the case. On May 18, 1521, they annulled Zuazo’s decision and ordered a new trial.39 After three years of probanzas and procedure, they declared on December 24, 1524, that Roldán and Serrano were entitled to the possession of the Indians.40 But Méndez did not give up. He went to Toledo where the court resided, and appealed to the Consejo de Indias.41 Meanwhile Zuazo, who had been sued by Serrano for slander, ordered a probanza to prove that the licenciado was a miser who starved his Indians and his mule, had tortured to death a Negro slave, and was responsible for the suicide of a cacique.42 Finally, on June 13, 1528, the Consejo de Indias judging in last resort, ordered the Indians to be returned to Méndez and condemned Serrano and Roldán to compensate him for the sums and interests they had earned with the work of the natives. They were also to pay damages for those who had died or disappeared.43

By that time, most of the Indians were dead. While alive, their labor in the fields and mines had brought Serrano and Roldán much profit and for this Méndez had to be compensated. He insisted that when he had gone to Spain in 1514, he had left flourishing estancias on the banks of the Ozama that produced oranges, limes, pineapples, guavas, bananas, and sweet potatoes in quantity. The river was teeming with fish and shrimps, the natives raised their own chickens and were well-fed and healthy. All that was worth a lot of money. Méndez estimated that the work done by each Indian valued thirty-one maravedis per day, or a total of twenty-five ducados a year. However, Roldán and Serrano’s brother (Alonso Serrano had since died), refused to pay that much and appealed in 1531.44 The Consejo de Indias ruled that the indemnization, including the interests, should be reduced to six ducados per Indian per year, and should take into account only a four-year period. Moreover, the dead Indians should be excluded.45 As might be expected, Méndez was not pleased and appealed again. By that time (1532), the members of the Consejo de Indias had become sick and tired of the whole thing. They confirmed the previous verdict, condemning Méndez to perpetual silence and ordered him to return to Española within ten months or lose his encomienda.46 However, the heirs of Roldán and Serrano defaulted in their payments, and Méndez was still suing them at the time of his death.47

Honors, Offices, and their Uses

In 1520, Diego Colón returned to Santo Domingo as governor and viceroy. The decision to restore him had been taken by the new king, Carlos V, in August 1518. Apparently, the latter had listened favorably to Méndez and Lerma in Brussels, and when he met Colón in Spain, he felt well-disposed toward him. Alonso Zuazo, had recommended that the almirante once more be given the government of Española with full powers.48 However, Carlos had agreed to restore him on the condition that Marcos de Aguilar who had caused so much trouble and had been the source of so many complaints be barred from the island. Colón thought he would have a free hand in all matters just as the viceroy Adrian whom Carlos had recently appointed to govern Spain in his absence. He failed to realize the difference between a mere viceroy like himself, and a viceroy who was also a regent.49 This he was to discover later and at considerable cost.

Colón felt very grateful to García de Lerma, whose fine manners and flowery speech had greatly impressed the young emperor, and in appreciation he gave him the office of alguacil mayor for a term of six years.50 After their return to Santo Domingo, however, Lerma decided that he had a much greater future in Europe as a courtier, and he ceded his alguacilazgo to Diego Méndez, while reserving for himself part of the income derived from that office. Lerma then sailed back to Spain where he was to have a fabulous career thanks to the royal favor.

Méndez had at last achieved his goal of becoming alguacil mayor though his appointment was strictly secondhand. Moreover, the income he derived from it was much lower than he had expected for he had to give Lerma his share. Also, the audiencia had been restored, and its judges were just as hostile to him and to Colón as before. Méndez complained that instead of giving him their business, the judges relied on their porteros and their servants to deliver summonses, make legal announcements, carry out sentences, and levy fines while his income was restricted to fees for arrests and jailings.51 His detractors accused him of partiality and venality, and of extorting hush money from casados, married men, who had been ordered to bring their wives to the island or leave, but did not want to.52 Méndez was feared, however, and few people cared to bring charges against him.

Diego Colón, too, had no easy life. The restoration of the audiencia hampered him again. The struggle between the servidores del rey and the deservidores had revived. Colón was in debt and hard pressed for money because he had been deprived of some of his bigger sources of income. As a concession to the settlers, the regents, who ruled Spain in the absence of the king, had lowered the tax on gold.53 This hurt the governor because his share of the gold was accordingly reduced. The regents also abolished the tithe on Indian slaves brought to Española from Tierra Firme. This too meant another loss for the almirante since he had been receiving one-tenth of the tax. He decided to revive the tithe and collect his share. In January 1523, the audiencia intervened, forbidding the collection of such a tax, and warning the almirante, his alcalde mayor, his alguacil mayor, and his contador to desist.54 Nevertheless, Colón ordered the contador, Yñigo de Arzeo, to proceed. The latter entered the town hall where some Caribs were being branded and forcibly removed one Indian. He also forced his way into several private homes.55 On February 4, judges of the audiencia ordered the sequestered Indians to be returned to their masters, issued a warrant for Arzeo’s arrest, and ordered Diego Méndez, as alguacil mayor, to carry out both mandates.56

Poor Méndez! He who had complained so often that the oidores did not give him their business had never expected that they would do so under such circumstances. Compromised, he was caught between his duty to the audiencia and his loyalty to the governor, but he did not waver. He answered the judges that before they notified him of their orders, he had received communication of a royal letter, “una carta e mandamiento e provision de su Magestad sellada con su sello real,” forbidding him to carry out the mandates of the audiencia.57 What was that letter from the king, stamped with the royal seal, to which Méndez referred? Addressed to the oidores, it began: “Don Carlos, por la gracia de Dios Rey de los Romanos semper Augusto . . .” but it was dated Santo Domingo, February 5, and it was signed “El Virrey.” Colón thereby had arrogated to himself the right to speak, write, judge, and legislate in the name of the king, a right which the regents of Spain exercised in the absence of the monarch. However, he was only a viceroy, himself subject to the authority of the regents and possessed no such power. (Because of the importance of this “real cédula,” I have presented it in an  appendix. It was submitted as evidence by the prosecutor, when Méndez stood for trial before the Consejo de Indias in 1524.) The judges of the audiencia must have been amazed when they saw the letter, but nevertheless they again ordered Diego Méndez to carry out their commands under pain of losing office and confiscation of property. They also dispatched a copy of the letter to Spain where Carlos had returned and was in full control again.58

At precisely that time, one of the judges, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, was leaving for Spain to negotiate a pet project with the crown, the colonization of a land called Chicora, just north of Florida. When Vásquez arrived, he delivered to the king a memorial from the audiencia, together with the text of Colón’s “real cédula59 As soon as he saw the incriminating document, the angered monarch sent Diego Colón a sharp letter of reprimand, revoking all his arbitrary actions and recalling him to Spain (March 23, 1523).60 Orders were also given for the arrest of Hernando de Berrio, the notary who had drafted the “cédula,” García de Aguilar who had countersigned it, and Diego Méndez who had obeyed it.61

The alguacil mayor was in Seville with his wife and sons when he was seized, put in irons, and sent, under guard, to Burgos where the court had moved. In Burgos, he was allowed to reside in a lodging house at his own expense, under the watchful eye of an alguacil who escorted him whenever he went out. The fiscal accused him of refusing to carry out the mandates of the audiencia, which constituted a violation of his oath of office and made him unfit to hold a position of trust. Therefore, he should be deprived of his alguacilazgo and sentenced to the loss of all his property.62 Méndez protested that he was innocent. There had been a misunderstanding, so he said, and he blamed it on Diego Caballero, secretary of the audiencia and son of reconciliados.63

On May 31, 1524, the doctors Beltrán and Carvajal, and the licenciado Vargas, members of the Consejo de Indias, pronounced Méndez guilty. They decided, however, that he had been under arrest long enough and had spent considerable sums in his own defense; he should therefore be allowed to go free and did not have to pay a fine. However, he was sentenced to the loss of his office, and was forbidden to return to Española unless authorized to do so.64 On June 8, Méndez protested the sentence, but the fiscal said he would fight the appeal. Then, on June 14, occurred a coup de theatre. Méndez appeared before the king’s secretary, Juan de Samano, withdrew his appeal, and announced that he accepted the sentence pronounced against him by the council. This was very strange behavior for a man who never gave up.65 Obviously, he had been promised a pardon, for he had very influential friends at the court, among them García de Lerma. Like Méndez, Lerma had first been a criado of Diego Colón, but later had won the favor of King Carlos, who appointed him veedor of the Costa de las Per las (Venezuela), and was about to name him contino de la casa real.

So, early in 1526, Diego Méndez returned to Santo Domingo as alguacil mayor. Accompanied by his wife and two sons, he also brought five Negro slaves (three males and two females), whose importation bad been granted in spite of the monopoly given by Carlos to Laurent de Gorrevod (December 15, 1525).66 However, Méndez could not sell these slaves in Española, nor use them for commercial gains but only as house servants. He had also garnered another privilege for himself as alguacil mayor, having received authorization for both himself and his lieutenant to be escorted by two armed Negro slaves in the exercise of their duties.67

In the fall of 1527, Méndez was involved in an international incident. On November 25, an English vessel, a large three-master, appeared at the entrance of the Santo Domingo harbor just before dusk. It had been sent by the king of England, together with another ship that had become lost, to look for a northwest passage to Tartary. Its master asked for a safe conduct to enter the port and the audiencia granted the permit. Diego Méndez, as alguacil mayor, and two pilots, boarded the ship and brought her in the following morning. The English received them cordially, treated them to food and drink, and showed them some of the cargo, mostly cloth. But just as they had dropped anchor, a lombard was fired from the fortress by order of its warden, Francisco de Tapia. The stone passed by the poop of the ship at very close range. Whereupon, the angered English captain accused the Spaniards of treachery, raised anchor, and sailed away. Tapia said later in his defense that he had not been advised of the safe-conduct granted by the judges.68

In August 1528, it was the turn of a French corsair fleet to visit the Caribbean. It was feared that it might attack Santo Domingo, and the officials ordered a census of all able-bodied men. Diego Méndez reported to the authorities and was registered “con sus armas.”69 He did so as a private citizen for he had been deprived of his office a few weeks before at the urging of his old and former friend, García de Lerma.

Lerma and Méndez had been business partners in 1525, and that had been the end of their friendship. Méndez had borrowed money from Lerma and others (among them a Sevillian merchant called Luis de Prado) to buy merchandise and horses which he was to take to Española on his ship La Concepción.70 Lerma began to suspect Méndez of cheating when he failed to repay the loan, and both he and Prado complained to the Consejo de Indias in 1526. It was rumored that the ship and its cargo had been sold in the Cabo Verde archipelago.71 The truth was that Méndez had taken a new partner, Alonso García, to whom he sold half interest in the ship with the understanding that García would take the vessel to New Spain, sell the horses and cargo, and return to Santo Domingo to settle accounts with Méndez. García did sell the horses and the merchandise in Yucatán; he also sold the ship, pocketed the money and disappeared, leaving Méndez unable to pay back the sums he had borrowed.72

In January 1528, Lerma complained again that he had not been paid. He insisted that Méndez, as alguacil mayor, was so feared that no one dared to bring charges against him, and he secured a royal cédula ordering the audiencia to start proceedings against his former friend.73 Three months later, the king sent a stiff letter to Doña María de Toledo, who was then in charge of the government of the island, reminding her that García de Lerma was the titular alguacil mayor, having been appointed to that office by her late husband. He ordered her to settle accounts with Lerma and give him his share: “I ask you to settle with him, and since we have granted him the government and command of Santa Marta, and he is going to the said land, I ask you to help him and favor him.”74 The tone of the letter left no doubt that the king had to be obeyed at once, indicative that Lerma was then at the height of his favor.

And so Doña María was forced to dismiss her loyal servant Diego Méndez. In his place she appointed Martín de Vergara. But although Méndez was no longer alguacil mayor, he bore no grudge against the vicereine. To his death he remained devoted to her and her children, and aided them in the defense of their privileges. In 1534, she appointed him and Diego de Arana to carry out a probanza and gather testimony favorable to her cause.75 He also testified in another inquiry that the vicereine’s son Diego was qualified for admission into the Order of Santiago.76 Méndez, now called himself “mercader,” or “maestre,” for he owned ships, and did a brisk business between Santo Domingo and Seville, owning property in both cities.

In 1530 while he was in Spain, Méndez learned that Alonso García, the man to whom he had sold one-half of his ship, La Concepción, and who had disappeared after selling the cargo and vessel in Yucatán, had been spotted in Bermellar, a village in Estremadura, near the Portuguese border. There, García lived safely and comfortably, having changed his name to Juan Martín Alaguero. Méndez, himself, hastened to Bermellar and had García arrested, but while the prisoner was being taken under guard to Madrid to appear before the Consejo de Indias, he managed to escape, and nothing more was heard about him. Probably he had bribed his guards.77 Méndez spent the next three years seizing or attaching the property and goods of the fugitive in order to recoup his losses, which he estimated as follows:

Before disappearing, García, alias Martín Alaguero, had lent money to a priest named Francisco García, who had bought a mill with it. Méndez claimed the mill and attempted to take possession, but the priest appealed and was sustained by the Consejo de Indias.79

In 1524, Méndez sued Francisco del Alcázar, señor of the town of La Palma, υeintiquatro (alderman) and almojarife (chief of customs) of Sevilla, who had confiscated from him a box of caña fistula (cinnamon bark). The following year del Alcázar was sentenced to make restitution and to pay a fine determined by the local judges. In 1528, he appealed to the Consejo de Indias who confirmed the sentence. But since he had influential friends, del Alcázar managed to get another review of the case which came once more before the Consejo where, on December 3,1530, he was condemned again.80

Méndez was also involved in other lawsuits and seemed to enjoy legal procedure. (See Table I for a summary.) Because he was strong willed, he never yielded—no matter how many years, how much money, how many probanzas, appeals, reversals, counterappeals, and reviews these litigations might provoke. He even appealed to the Consejo de Indias the levy of a small fine imposed upon him by the visitadores during his residencia in March 1528. Moreover, he was not satisfied until he had been cleared of all charges, one of which included the theft of the hat and cloak of a prisoner.81

In Valladolid, on June 19, 1536, Méndez made out his will. He devoted half of it to his participation in Columbus’ fourth voyage, and included a detailed account of the two episodes that had made him famous—fighting the Indians in Veragua and crossing from Jamaica to Española in a canoe. To commemorate this second feat, he asked that on his grave be placed a stone bearing the coat of arms he had been granted in 1511. He also asked to be buried, dressed in a monk’s robe, in the chapel of the local Franciscan monastery. He left all his property to his two legitimate sons Manuel and Diego, asking them to deal fairly with his bastard son Antonio. As his most prized possession, he mentioned his library which included six books of Erasmus: the Enchiridion, El arte de bien morir, Los colloquies, Las querelas de la paz, Lingua Erasmi, and a sermon in romance (probably in Castilian). He willed his books to his sons “por mayorazgo,” provided “they do not exchange them, nor lend them, nor give them away to anyone, but read in them regularly because they are full of wisdom.”

One week later, on June 26, he had his testament sealed by a notary in the presence of seven witnesses “todos criados de la señora virreyna de las Indias.” He died December 8, at the age of sixty-one. On that day, one of the executors of his will, a priest named Antonio de Estrada, presented the testament to the teniente de corregidor, Gregorio Ramírez de Alarcon, who had it opened and transcribed by the notary Gabriel de Vera. It is this copy that has survived,82 leaving a final memorial to Méndez’ life, one filled with the conflict and adventure of a turbulent era.

Real Cédula of Diego Colón (Santo Domingo, February 5, 1523)

Don Carlos por la gracia de dios Rey de Romanos emperador sempter Augusto [sic], Dona Juana su madre y el mismo Don Carlos por la misma gracia Reyes de Castilla, de las dos Sicilias, de Jerusalem, de Navarra, de Granada, de Toledo, de Valencia, de Galicia, de Mallorca, de Sevilla, de Cerdeña, de Cordova, de Corcyga, de Murcia, de Jaen, de los Algarves, de Algesiras, de Gibraltar, de las yslas de Canaria. . . .

A vos los nros juezes de apelacion de la nra audiencia que resyde en estas partes, salud e sepades que Yñigo de Arzeo nos hizo relacion que . . . siendole por nos mandado por una nra cedula librada por el dho nro virrey que hiciesen cuenta con el, e sacada las costas de las dhas armadas le diesen el diezmo al dho nro virrey perteneciente conforme a sus privilegios, e que no se lo dando tomase del diezmo del quinto que nos pertenece . . . syn causa ni razón alguna le mandastes encarcelar porque usava de la dha cédula e que no usase mas della so ciertas penas que le poseystes . . . nos suplicava e pedia por merced . . . mandasemos proveer sobre todo de remedio con justicia . . . o como la nra merced fuese, lo qual visto por el dho nro virrey e los testimonios quel dho Yñigo de Arzeo presento . . . fue acordado que deviamos mandar dar esta nra cedula en la dha razón por la qual vos mandamos que de aqui adelante no vos entremeteys por ninguna manera en perturbar la cobranza de la dha decima parte a nro almirante pertenesciente conforme a sus privilegios e revoqueys e deys por ningunos qualesquier . . . mandamientos que ayais dado en quebrantamiento de los dhos privilegios. E mandamos que no entendays mas en ello so las penas contenydas en los dhos privilegios e mercedes quel dho almirante de nos tiene, e demas cada dozientos pesos de oro mitad para la camera e fisco e la otra mitad para las obras publicas desta cibdad, e que alceys la dha carceleria que por la dha razon al dho Yñigo de Arzeo teneys puesta so la dha pena, nos por la presente se la alçamos e le damos por libre . . . lo qual les mandamos que por asy guarden e cumplen so pena de privacion de los oficios mas cada 50.000 mrs para la nuestra camara, e los unos ni los otros no fagades ni fagan ende al por alguna manera. . . .

Dada en la cibdad de Santo Domingo a 5 dias del mes de hebrero ano de 1523 años. El virrey, e yo Garcia de Aguilar, escrivano de numero del Emperador e Reyna nros señores, la fize escrevir por mandado del Virrey e govemador . . . (y en las espaldas desta provision estava el sello Real, e dezia lo syguiente: Registrada Garcia de Aguilar, Torribio Rodriguez.)

Source: AGI, Justicia 985, ramo 1, fols. 10-11.


Louis-André Vigneras, “Diego Méndez, secrétaire de Christophe Colomb, et le comte de Penamacor,” Bulletin des Etudes Portugaises, 30 (1969), 40-41.


Juana was nicknamed “La Beltraneja” because it was rumored that her real father was Don Beltrán de la Cueva. For more details, see article cited above, pp. 41-46.


Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Colección de los viages y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles desde fines del siglo XV, 5 vols. (Madrid, 1825-1837), I, 292; Raccolta Colombiana, 14 vols. (Rome, 1892-1894), I, ii, 214; Samuel E. Morison, ed., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York, 1963), p. 317.


Fernando Colón, Historie (Milan, 1614), pp. 427, 446; English translation by Benjamin Keen, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus (New Brunswick, 1959), pp. 249, 272.


A. Muro Orejón, ed., Pleitos colombinos, Vol. VIII: Rollo del proceso sobre la apelación de la sentencia de Dueñas (Seville, 1964), 446. Méndez’ promotion to escribano mayor might have been one of the causes of the subsequent rift between the Admiral and the Porras brothers, in that one of them, Diego, previously received royal appointment to the dual function of oficial (comptroller) and escribano mayor of the fleet. Diego Porras may well have resented the loss of one of his two positions.


Navarrete, Colección de viages, I, 314-324; Morison, Journals, pp. 387-397.


Navarrete, Colección de viages, I, 325-326; Morison, Journals, p. 395.


Colección de documentos inéditos relativos al descubrimiento, conquista y organización de las antiguas posesiones españolas . . . Indias, 42 vols. (Madrid, 1864-1884), XXXI, 279, 378 (hereafter cited as DII.).


Navarrete, Colección de viages, I, 325-326; Morison, Journals, p. 396.


Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 2 vols. (Boston, 1942), II, 420.


Autógrafos de Cristóbal Colón y papeles de América (Madrid, 1892), pp. 59-60, 61-63.


Autógrafos, p. 64.


Navarrete, Colección de υiages, II, 322-323. DII, XXXIX, 177.


Archivo General de Indias, Seville (hereafter cited as AGI), Contratación 5089, fols. 40-41.


Garay was married to Ana Muñiz Perestrello, whose sister Felipa was Columbus’ wife. See Manuel Giménez Fernández, Bartolomé de las Casas, 2 vols. (Seville, 1960), II, 116.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 9, fols. 54-56.


Navarrete, Colección de υiages, II, 326-327.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 9, fol. 92.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1. Folios in this ramo are not numbered.


DII, XXXI, 396.


AGI, Indiferente General 418, ramo 5, 77-78.


Troy S. Floyd, The Columbus Dynasty in the Caribbean, 1492-1526, (Albuquerque, 1973), p. 144.


AGI, Indiferente General 419, libro 4, fol. 207; Pedro Martir d’Anghiera, Decadas (Buenos Aires, 1946), p. 293.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1.


Colección de documentos inéditos de ultramar, 25 vols. (Madrid, 1885-1932), VIII (hereafter cited as DIU).


DII, I, 111-113. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi, Los dominicanos y las encomiendas de indios de la Isla Española (Santo Domingo, 1971), pp. 136-138.


AGI, Indiferente General 419, libro 6, fol. 33; Patronato 174, ramo 1, pieza 3.


AGI, Indiferente General 419, libro 5, fol. 174; Contratación 5089, II, fol. 16.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 2, fol. 2.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1; Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 9, fol. 77.


Ibid., fols. 84-85.


AGI, Contratación 5089, II, fol. 1206121.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 9, fol. 93.


Erasmus, Opus Epistolarum, edited by P. S. Allen (London, 1906), Vol. II. See his letters written in Brussels from October 1516 to February 1517. Marcel Bataillon, Erasme et l’Espagne (Paris, 1937), pp. 82-88. José Almoina, La biblioteca erasmista de Diego Méndez (Ciudad Trujillo, 1945), p. 117. The Enchiridion is mentioned in the part of Méndez’ will printed by Cesare de Lollis in Raccolta Colombiana, I, ii, 220.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1; Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 9, fols. 93-95.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 2, fols. 31-32.


AGI, Indiferente General 420, libro 1, fols. 102-103, 113.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1.


AGI, Justicia 12, no. 2, ramo 1, pieza 2.


AGI, Indiferente General 420, libro 3, fols. 211-213.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 2.


AGI, Justicia 50, Residencia de A. Serrano, testimony of Diego Méndez; Justicia 12, no. 2, ramo 1, pieza 2, fol. 54; Justicia 2, ramo 1.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 2, fols. 2-3; pieza 8, fols. 5-6.


AGI, Justicia 6, ramo 4, pieza 1, fol. 6.


AGI, Justicia 2, ramo 1.


See his will.


Letter of Zuazo to Chièvres, DII, I, 323-324.


See his letter to Adrian (Dec. 13, 1520), DII, XL, 44-46.


Catálogo de los fondos americanos del Archivo de Protocolos de Sevilla, 5 vols. (Madrid, 1935-1937), IV, no. 710.


See his probanza against the audiencia, AGI, Audiencia de Santo Domingo 9, ramo 1, no. 8; Justicia 50, fol. 1186.


DIU, VIII, 373.


Floyd, The Columbus Dynasty, p. 214.


AGI, Justicia 985, ramo 1, fol. 7.


Ibid., fol. 8.


Ibid., fol. 9.


Ibid., fol. 10.


Ibid., fol. 11.


AGI, Patronato 173, no. 2, ramo 3. Floyd, The Columbus Dynasty, p. 215, wrongly dates this memoir 1521. It mentions the death of Bishop Pero Suárez de Deza who died in September 1522. Diego Colón’s “real cédula” is also mentioned.


AGI, Indiferente General 420, libro 2, fols. 198-199.


Order to arrest Aguilar and Berrio, AGI, Indiferente General 420, libro 2, fols. 225-226; warrant against Méndez in ibid., fol. 204.


AGI, Justicia 985, ramo 1, fols. 4, 14.


Ibid., fol. 17. According to testimony sent to the Consejo de Indias, both parents of Diego Caballero had been “reconciled by the Inquisition” (DIU, I, 422-423, 445).


AGI, Justicia 985, ramo 1.




AGI, Indiferente 420, libro 3, fol. 211. Laurent de Gorrevod, governor of Bresse, was the emperor’s mayordomo mayor. He had received a license to import 4,000 Negro slaves; Giménez Fernández, Bartolomé de las Casas, II, 211.


AGI, Indiferente General 421, libro 1, fol. 212.


DII, XL, 305-354; Irene A. Wright, ed., Spanish Documents concerning English Voyages to the Caribbean, 1527-1568 (London, 1929), pp. 29-56.


AGI, Audiencia de Santo Domingo 9, ramo 3, no. 27, fol. 23. For an account of the French raid to the Caribbean, see Esteban de Pasamonte’s letter to the king, Nov. 3, 1528, in DII, XL, 412-421.


Catálogo de los fondos americanos, V, nos. 568, 601.


AGI, Indiferente General 420, libro 3, fol. 76; 421, libro 1, fols. 95-96; 421, libro 2, fol. 10.


AGI, Audiencia de Santo Domingo 9, ramo 4, pieza 37; Indiferente General 422, libro 1, fols. 148-149.


AGI, Indiferente General 421, libro 2, fol. 271.


Ibid., libro 3, fols. 83-84.


Pleitos colombinos, VIII, 45-47, 446.


Almoina, La biblioteca erasmista, pp. 23-25.


AGI, Indiferente General 1203, no. 26, ramo 1.


AGI, Justicia 973, no. 2, ramo 3, fol. 141.


Ibid., no. 4, ramo 4.


AGI, Justicia 696, ramo 3. In 1520, Francisco del Alcázar had bought La Palma from Diego Colón who had acquired it from the Duque de Medina Sidonia in 1516; Catálogo de los fondos americanos, IV, nos. 7056708, 715, 716.


AGI, Justicia 50, fols. 500-501.


After being kept for four centuries in the archives of the Dukes of Veragua, it is now preserved in the AGI (Patronato 295, no. 90). It has never been published in full. Cesare de Lollis printed the first part (fols. 5 to 14), and Navarrete the second part (fols. 14 to 26); but the preamble (1 to 5), and the fols. 23 to 24, omitted by Navarrete, are still inedited. Raccolta Colombiana, I, ii, 217-221; Navarrete, Colección de viages, I, 314-329.

Author notes


The author is Professor Emeritus, George Washington University.