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The Courteous Battle






Category: IN THE CARIBBEAN

Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

In the bay where more than three and a half centuries later the Spanish
fleet was to be destroyed the don once fought the enemy with different
result. It was in 1538, in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, that the
battle occurred,--Santiago of sad memory, with its shambles, where
insurgents were shot by platoons; with its landings, where slaves were
unloaded at night and marched thence to the plantations, like mules and
cattle; with its Morro, connected by wells and traps with caves in the
rock beneath, where bodies of men mysteriously done to death slipped
away on the tide. A French privateer had appeared before the town,
demanding ransom or surrender. Luckily for Santiago, a Spanish caravel
had arrived a few days before, under command of Captain Diego Perez,
and this gallant sailor offered to go out and defend the town. His
ship was attacked as soon as it came within range of the enemy's guns,
and, turning so as to deliver an effective fire, he gave as good as
he got. All that day the people of the town heard the pounding of
the brass pieces and saw the smudge of powder against the blue to
the south, yet at the fall of evening little damage had been done:
the ships lay too far apart, and the aim on both sides was ridiculous.

Each commander had seen enough of his adversary to respect him,
however, and moved by a common impulse they raised white flags,
declared for a cessation of hostilities through the night, and every
night, so long as they should continue to oppose one another. Then
followed an exchange of fruit and wine, of which both crews were in
need, and, confident in the honor of their enemies, all hands slept
as tired men usually sleep. Said the Spanish captain to the French
commander in the morning, "Artillery is a cowardly and abominable
invention. It is desired to hurt a foe while those who serve it run
no risk. How say you if we put the tompions back into our cannon and
fight, as chivalric men should ever fight, with sword and pike?"

To this the Frenchman gave willing consent, and, the ships ranging
near, the battle reopened, after prayers and breakfast, to some
purpose. With cries of "Santo Iago!" the Spanish tried to board the
pirate ship, but could not secure a footing. Blows were exchanged
throughout the day, save when one ship or the other drew off, that
the wounded might have attention, and the dying prayers, for much
blood was shed and several lost their lives. At the end of the day
both commanders declared their admiration for the skill and courage
of their opponents, and again gave presents of fruit and wine as they
stopped work until the morrow. Perez sent ashore that night to tell
the people of Santiago that fighting was an exhausting business,
and to some extent a risky one, and would they kindly send a few
able-bodied fellows to replace the dead and disabled on his ship?

The response to this call was so meagre that he began to mistrust
his countrymen, and he asked if, in case he lost his ship, the town
would reimburse him, considering that he was risking his all in
their defence. After much debate the townsmen replied, through their
officials, that they were not in a position to make good his loss,
but they trusted that such a calamity would not be possible; that he
would maintain a stout heart and fight on to prove the superiority
of Spanish valor to French craft; that the blessed Santo Iago would
watch over him and his gallant crew; that their best wishes were
with him, and that his kindness would never, never be forgotten. A
trifle disheartened, Captain Perez nevertheless resumed the fight
on the next day, and again on the fourth day, and after the usual
exchange of courtesies at evening, he told the privateer on the fifth
day that he would encounter with him as usual. The persistence of the
Spaniard in thus holding out against seeming odds--for the Frenchman
had the larger crew--set the privateer to thinking, and a sudden
fear arose within him that Spanish reinforcements were on their
way, and that Perez was merely fighting for time until they should
arrive. This fear grew until it became belief, though a baseless one,
and, hoisting sail as quietly as possible, he stole out of Santiago
Bay on the fourth night after hostilities had opened. As thanks are
cheap, Perez received a good many of them.





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Previous: A Spanish Holofernes



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