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Alonso de Ojeda

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Nationality  Spanish
Occupation  Explorer

Name  Alonso Ojeda
Role  Navigator
Alonso de Ojeda Alonso de Ojeda Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Born  c. 1468Cuenca, Spain
Other names  His name is sometimes spelled Alonzo and Oxeda
Known for  Naming Venezuela, first European to visit Lake Maracaibo, founder of Santa Cruz (La Guairita)
Died  1515, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Similar People  Juan de la Cosa, Rodrigo de Bastidas, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Pedro Alonso Nino, Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada

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Alonso de Ojeda (ca.1468 (some sources state 1466) – 1515) was a Spanish navigator, governor and conquistador. He travelled through Guyana, Venezuela, Trinidad, Tobago, Curaçao, Aruba and Colombia. He is famous for having named Venezuela, which he explored during his first two expeditions, for having been the first European to visit Guyana, Colombia, and Lake Maracaibo, and later for founding Santa Cruz (La Guairita).


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Early life

Alonso de Ojeda Biografia de Alonso de Ojeda

He was born in Torrejoncillo del Rey (Cuenca) around 1468 (some authors claim 1466) to an impoverished noble family. He grew up in Ojeda, near Cristian Garrido Oña, in the merindad of Bureba in the present day province of Burgos in northern Spain. In his youth he served the Duke of Medinaceli, don Luis de la Cerda, as a page. Alonso de Ojeda was a close relative of a member of the Court of the Inquisition, who had the same name. This relative presented him to the famous Archbishop of Burgos Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca who would later become president of the Council of the Indies. He distinguished himself in the conquest of Grenada, with his military abilities, his skill as a swordsman and his bravery. The young Ojeda quickly won the patronage of the Archbishop, who offered his protection at the first opportunity. Alonso was slight of stature, surprisingly agile and extremely accomplished with all types of weapons. In addition he was quick witted and insightful, he was brave to the point of recklessness, vindictive to the point of cruelty, softhearted with the weak and courteous with women, quarrelsome and a duellist, but he was deeply religious and rigorously observed his religious duties. The Archbishop thought the youth had a well-tempered soul and a generous heart, but he also noticed that his character had a depth of ambition that would help him to emulate Christopher Columbus.

Arrival in Hispaniola

In September 1493, thanks to Rodríguez de Fonseca, he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas, arriving on the island of Hispaniola. In January 1494, Columbus gave him the task of finding the members of a number of crews that were lost in the hinterland of the island. Ojeda only had fifteen men at his command in his search of the Cibao region of the island, which was controlled by the warlike Taíno cacique called Caonabo. Ciboa was an area that contained many gold mines and Ojeda returned to La Isabela to report his findings to the Admiral who he found was suffering from a fever.

In March 1494 Columbus founded Fort Santo Tomás, with Pedro Margarit in command, later relieved by Ojeda.

Caonabo and his warriors attacked the fort and Ojeda and his men defeated them. Legend has it that Ojeda personally took Caonabo prisoner using golden shackles by making the Cacique believe that they were items of royal clothing.

Alonso de Ojeda also took part in the battle of Vega Real (also called the battle of Jáquimo), in which, under his command, the Spanish were victorious. An account of the battle written by Father Bartolomé de las Casas states that the native army comprised ten thousand warriors, while there were only some four hundred Spanish soldiers. Of course it is possible that these figures have been exaggerated. Ojeda returned to Spain in 1496.

First voyage to Venezuela

On returning to Spain, Ojeda was commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs, without the permission of Columbus, to sail for America again, which he did on 18 May 1499 with three caravels. He travelled with the pilot and cartographer Juan de la Cosa and the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci. This was the first of a series of what have become known as the "minor journeys" or "Andalusian journeys" that were made to the New World.

On leaving Spain the flotilla sailed along the west coast of Africa to Cape Verde before taking the same route that Columbus had used a year before on his third voyage. After making landfall Vespucio decided to separate from the flotilla and he sailed south towards Brazil. The main flotilla arrived at the mouths of the rivers Essequibo and Orinoco in the Gulf of Paria. It also visited the peninsulas of Paria and Araya, the islands of Trinidad and Margarita and travelled along the continental coast, always in search of a passage towards India. The flotilla then sailed along the Paraguaná Peninsula and sighted the island of Curacao, which was named Giants Island as the indigenous people that were seen were thought to be giants. During the same journey, he constructed a ship and visited the islands of Aruba and the Las Aves archipelago.

During the voyage along the Paraguaná Peninsula the flotilla entered into a gulf (Gulf of Venezuela) where there were villages of the Wayuu people with palafito houses built over the water and supported on stilts made from tree trunks. These villages are said to have reminded Amerigo Vespucci of the city of Venice, (Italian: Venezia), and so the area was given the name Venezuela meaning Little Venice. (However, according to Martín Fernández de Enciso, who supported Ojeda's 1509 expedition, they found a local population calling themselves the Veneciuela, so "Venezuela" may derive from the local term.) The flotilla arrived at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo on 24 August 1499. The lake was originally named after Saint Bartholomew as this was his saints day. Ojeda also reached Cabo de la Vela, on the Guajira Peninsula, which he named Coquivacoa.

A few days later the expedition left Cabo de la Vela for Hispaniola with some pearls obtained in Paria, a little gold and a number of slaves. The scarcity of goods and slaves resulted in a poor economic return for investors in the expedition. However, the importance of the voyage comes from the fact that it was the first detailed reconnaissance of the coast of Venezuela and that Spanish explorers carried it out. Following Colombus' third voyage Ojeda is credited with leading the second European expedition to have visited Venezuela, and the first to have visited Colombia. The expedition also gave Juan de la Cosa the chance to draw the first known map of the area now known as Venezuela, as well as being possibly the first journey that Vespucio made to the New World.

However, when the expedition arrived in Hispaniola on 5 September the followers of Christopher Columbus were angry because they considered that Ojeda was infringing upon Columbus’ exploring privileges. This resulted in brawls and fights between both groups, which left a number of dead and wounded. Ojeda took many captives back to Spain whom he sold as slaves. Even so, the voyage was not financially successful, netting some fifteen thousand maravedis in profit to be divided among the fifty-five crewmembers surviving from the original three hundred. Note, that since forty maravedis per day was an average wage for skilled labour at this time, they could have made more money staying at home. Returning on the heels of Pedro Alonso Nino's smaller but far more lucrative voyage magnified this disappointment. The date of return is disputed: it is usually stated that Ojeda returned in June 1500 but the historian Demetrio Ramos has suggested the earlier date of November 1499.

Second voyage to Venezuela

Ojeda decided to make another journey and he received a new commission from the Catholic Monarchs on 8 June 1501. He was appointed Governor of Coquivacoa behind the back of Christopher Columbus. This appointment gave him the right to found a colony in this area, although he was advised not to visit Paria. On this occasion he formed a partnership with the Andalusian merchants Juan de Vergara and García de Campos, who were able to charter four caravels: the Santa María de la Antigua, the Santa María de la Grenada, the Magdalena, and the Santa Ana.

Ojeda set sail from Spain in January 1502 and he followed the same route as his first voyage. On this occasion he kept his distance from the Gulf of Paria and made landfall on Margarita Island where, according to some sources, he tried to obtain gold and pearls from the indigenous people using a number of different methods. He sailed along the coast of Venezuela from Curiana to the Paraguaná Peninsula. On 3 May 1502 he founded a colony on the Guajira Peninsula, at Bahia Honda. The colony was called Santa Cruz and it was the first Spanish settlement on Colombian territory and therefore the first on the American mainland.

However, the colony did not last for more than three months, as the new arrivals started attacking the indigenous villages in the area, causing constant conflict with them. In addition to this there were personal difficulties between Ojeda and his men. At this point Vergara and Campos took Ojeda prisoner and abandoned the settlement with the small amount of plunder that had been captured. Ojeda was put in prison in Hispaniola in May 1502, where he was held until 1504. He was released following an appeal made by Archbishop Rodríguez de Fonseca, although he had to pay a costly indemnity, which left him with little money.

The second voyage was therefore a failure as he had not discovered any new areas and he had not received much of a share of the plunder obtained by Vergara and Camps. In addition the Santa Cruz colony was abandoned and the Governorship of Coquivacoa was abolished.

Third voyage to New Andalusia

On regaining his freedom Ojeda remained in Hispaniola for four years with little to do. (Some authors think that, on his release from prison, Ojeda returned to Spain.) Then in 1508 he learnt that King Ferdinand the Catholic was interviewing people interested in colonizing and governing the section of mainland between the capes of Cabo Gracias a Dios (on the border between present day Honduras and Nicaragua) and Cabo de la Vela in present-day Colombia. Juan de la Cosa went to Spain in order to represent Ojeda at court. One of Ojeda’s rivals was Diego de Nicuesa.

Both candidates had good reputations and sympathizers at court, so the King decided to divide the region into two governorates: Veragua to the west and New Andalusia to the east as far as the Gulf of Urabá. The former was awarded to Nicuesa and the latter to Ojeda in a commission signed in 1508.

The new governors repaired to Santo Domingo in order to prepare the expeditionary flotillas. There was a great disparity between the two flotillas. As Nicuesa was wealthier and had better credit with the colonial authorities he was able to attract 800 men, many horses, five caravels and two brigs. While Ojeda’s flotilla only consisted of a little more than 300 men, two brigs and two smaller ships. Among those who embarked on these four vessels was Francisco Pizarro, the future conqueror of Peru. Hernán Cortés, who was later to dominate Mexico, would have been among the soldiers of fortune engaged in this adventure, had a sudden illness not prevented him from sailing. Due to the disputes regarding the extent of each of the two governorates, Juan de la Cosa decided that the River Atrato would form the boundary between the two regions.

Ojeda promised to make the wealthy lawyer Martín Fernández de Enciso mayor of the new colony that Ojeda planned to establish in New Andalusia. Encisco was ordered to follow on after the main flotilla with a chartered boat and more provisions. The main flotilla finally set sail from Santo Domingo on 10 November 1509, a few days ahead of Nicuesa. In an attempt to avoid problems with the indigenous peoples Ojeda took the unusual step of asking the writer Juan López de Palacios Rubios to draft a proclamation. This invited the local people to submit peacefully to rule by Imperial Spain or be forced to do so. The proclamation had the approval of the Spanish authorities.

The flotilla arrived at Bahia de Calamar in present-day Cartagena (Colombia). This was against the wishes of De la Cosa who did not want to land in the area. After disembarking with about 70 men Ojeda encountered a number of indigenous tribes. He then sent out missionaries and interpreters to read out the proclamation that had been drafted by Palacios Rubios. The indigenous people were upset by this proclamation and so Ojeda tried to placate them by offering them trinkets. At this time the Spanish were also raiding villages to capture Indians for slaves. Ojeda was no exception to the cruelty of the Spanish against the native people. An eyewitness account recorded by historian Bartolomé de las Casas notes, "The Spaniards worked an incredible slaughter on that village, they spared no one, women, children, babies or not. Then they robbed." These actions so provoked the indigenous people that they started to fight against the Spanish settlers. Ojeda defeated the natives in the coastal area and on pursuing some of the survivors who had escaped into the jungle he came upon the village of Turbaco. The Spanish were then taken by surprise by a counterattack. Nearly the entire party were wiped out in the battle and Juan de la Cosa sacrificed his life so that Ojeda could escape. Only one other Spanish soldier survived the battle and he and Ojeda fled back to the coast where they were rescued by the ships anchored in the bay.

Nicuesa arrived with his flotilla soon after and, worried by Ojeda’s losses, he gave him arms and men. The two men then forgot their differences and joined forces to seek revenge on the people of Turbaco, who were massacred to a man.

Governor of Nueva Andalucía and Urabá

Nicuesa then left for Veragua while Ojeda continued travelling along the coast of Nueva Andalucía toward the southwest. On 20 January 1510 he founded the settlement of San Sebastián de Urabá, which in reality was little more than a fort.

However, the fort soon grew short of food, which exacerbated the problems caused by the unhealthy climate and the constant threat of attack by the local tribes who attacked the Spaniards with poisoned arrows. Ojeda was wounded on the leg by one such attack.

Eight months after the flotilla left Santo Domingo the assistance promised by Fernández de Enciso still had not arrived. Francisco Pizarro was placed in charge of the fort and ordered to stay there for the fifty days that it would take for Ojeda to travel to and return from Santo Domingo. However, Ojeda never returned to San Sebastian and after the fifty days Pizarro decided to leave the colony in the two brigs along with the 70 colonists. A little later Fernández de Enciso, along with Vasco Núñez de Balboa, arrived to provide assistance to the survivors. The indigenous people who lived in the area later burnt down the fort.

Ojeda eventually returned to Santo Domingo in the brig of a Spanish pirate called Bernardino de Talavera who was fleeing from Hispaniola and passed by the port.

Shipwrecked in Cuba

When Ojeda returned to Santo Domingo he was accompanied by seventy men and he was seeking help. However, the pirate took Ojeda prisoner and would not set him free. At this point a powerful hurricane struck the boat and Talavera had to seek help from Ojeda. Despite their efforts the ship was shipwrecked at Jagua, Sancti Spíritus, in the south of Cuba. Ojeda decided to travel along the coast on foot with Talavera and his men in order to reach Maisí Point from where they would be able to get to Hispaniola.

However, the party faced a number of difficulties on route and half of the men died of hunger, illness or other hardships that they met along the way. The sole possession remaining to Ojeda was an image of the Virgin Mary, which he had carried with him since he left Spain. He made a promise on this image that he would build a church dedicated to her in the first village that he reached where he was given hospitality.

A little later, and with only a dozen men and the pirate Talavera still surviving, he arrived in the district of Cueybá where the chief Cacicaná provided food and shelter. Ojeda was true to his word and he built a small hermitage to the Virgin in the village, which was venerated by the local people. The party was rescued by Pánfilo de Narváez and taken to Jamaica, where Talavera was imprisoned for piracy. From Jamaica Ojeda returned to Hispaniola where he leaned that Fernández de Enciso had been able to relieve the colonists who had stayed in San Sebastián.

Later life and death

After the failure of his journey to Nueva Andalucía, Ojeda did not mount any further expeditions and he renounced his position as governor. He lived out the last five years of his life in Santo Domingo. He later withdrew to the Monasterio de San Francisco where he died in 1515. Las Casas records of his death, that "He died sick and poor, he didn't have a cent to bury him, I think, for all the pearls, the gold he had … stolen from the Indians, for all the slaves he had made of them the times he hit the mainland. He willed himself to be buried (beneath) the door of the … monastery of St. Francis..." This was so that all the visitors to the monastery would walk over his grave as a penance for all the errors that he had committed during his life.

His remains were moved to the former Convento Dominico. The excavations also found the remains of Bartholomew Columbus.


Ciudad Ojeda, a city on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo, is named in his honour.

The Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez tells the story of the life of the conquistador in his novel El Caballero de la Virgen (1929).

In addition the Spanish writer Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa tells the story of Ojeda's life in his novel Centauros (2007).


Alonso de Ojeda Wikipedia