Nueva Cádiz was the hub of a commodities boom by 1515.
Scholars and archaeologists occasionally drop by the ruins of Nueva Cádiz for a glimpse into the dawn of the Spanish conquest.
February 25, 2009
In Venezuela, Trying to Map Out Blueprint for Lost City
By SIMON ROMERO
CUBAGUA, Venezuela — The first living things to greet a visitor on this desert island are the dogs. More than a dozen roam through the ruins of Nueva Cádiz, as if signaling that the city that flourished here five centuries ago at the start of the European conquest belongs to them now.
Amid their howling, a weathered sign next to a garbage pile briefly describes the rise and fall of Nueva Cádiz, by 1515 a slaving center and the flash point for Latin America’s first frenzied commodities boom, built around pearls. By 1541, the sign says, “The depleted oyster beds put a final end to the city.”
So it went for Cubagua. Before the conquistador Hernán Cortés plundered the riches of Mexico’s Aztec empire, Spain established a thriving outpost here on one of the Lesser Antilles’s most desolate islands, which is so dry that water supplies have to be imported from the mainland and nearby islands (as they were for Nueva Cádiz).
Spanish officials sent the enslaved here and killed off Caribbean ethnic groups, like the Lucayans brought from the Bahamas as pearl divers. The Spanish laid out avenues and built an imposing city of limestone that was intended to serve as a base for conquering the rest of South America. Then, suddenly, they abandoned it.
Nueva Cádiz is now largely forgotten, even in Venezuela. Scholars occasionally drop by for a glimpse into the dawn of the Spanish conquest, and archaeologists sometimes obtain permits to dig here. Otherwise Cubagua’s ruins, which might rank among the most important post-Columbian archaeological sites in the Americas, are a lost city — in effect, if not in name.
“To this day I do not understand why anyone would build a city here,” said Enrique Suárez, 60, a fisherman who lives in a house built of driftwood and discarded tin on the edge of the ruins.
Left vulnerable to the elements and mainland looters, the city’s walls now stand no more than a few feet high. A concrete historical marker erected in the early 1990s lies ravaged by vandals.
Cubagua’s entire population today numbers fewer than 100, all of them fishermen like Mr. Suárez and their families. They live on what they catch, in Mr. Suárez’s case on a recent morning a stingray that he was drying in the scorching sun. Later, he said he would prepare the stingray with some salt and garlic.
For diversion, he raises fighting cocks and feeds some of the feral dogs. Apart from his small boat, his only mainland tie seemed to be a red flag on his roof emblazoned with the letters P.S.U.V. — the initials of President Hugo Chávez’s Socialist party and a symbol of a revolution that has not yet arrived in Cubagua.
“We are living in almost complete solitude out here,” Mr. Suárez said, “and that is the way we like it.”
Archaeologists occasionally disrupt this idyll. Last year, a team led by a Venezuelan, Jorge Armand, disembarked here and found shrubs and garbage covering the ruins. The fishermen were using the ruins of Nueva Cádiz as an open air outhouse, Mr. Armand said.
“Here was a city built by the Spanish to last five centuries, and today it is hardly even on the margins of our consciousness,” Mr. Armand said. “Paradoxically, thanks to this neglect, the ruins have been more or less preserved.”
Before Mr. Chávez rose to power a decade ago, developers planned to build one of the Caribbean’s largest resort complexes on Cubagua, with 8,000 hotel rooms, two aquariums, a highway system, two 18-hole golf courses and a desalination plant to provide fresh water. But opposition from environmentalists and historians scuttled the project.
About two years ago, Mr. Chávez’s government unveiled its own plan to develop Cubagua, roughly a 10-square-mile outcrop. It called for a small port, a museum, a school and a health clinic, and for the fishermen to be trained so they could go to work in tourism cooperatives.
But money for the project vanished from the Institute of Cultural Patrimony, according to published reports in Caracas. Mr. Armand called in January for a federal investigation into claims of corruption surrounding the project.
The wait for justice in Venezuela can take years, decades, perhaps longer. Meanwhile, Cubagua still beckons to the occasional wayfarer, like Peter Muilenburg, who wrote an account in the 1990s of the island’s place in Caribbean history, describing its “anarchy, greed, and wealth.”
Stephen G. Bloom, an American who is publishing a history of pearls this year titled “Tears of Mermaids,” traveled to Cubagua in 2008.
“There were a bunch of wild dogs guarding something of amazingly valuable historical importance,” said Mr. Bloom. “I found it immensely sad.”
Archaeologists and economic historians also see a parable for today’s oil-rich Venezuela. Nueva Cádiz exploded as a New World epicenter for commodity exploitation, and fell just as quickly when the population of oysters in its hammerhead-infested waters crashed after just a few decades.
“Will other areas of Venezuela resemble Cubagua when the oil industry disappears?” asked Mr. Armand, the archaeologist.
Skeptics counter that it is far too early to even pose such a question. Venezuela, after all, boasts some of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.
But even that bounty may not shield complex oil projects from obsolescence someday. Competition from new energy technologies moves forward. Abrupt shifts in the global economy whipsaw different industries. As a former Saudi oil minister once put it, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.
The pearl industry’s evolution points to one possible outcome. Even today, Cubagua’s fishermen still find tiny pearls in oysters. But even if these pearls resemble the gems once lusted after by European royalty, they are nearly worthless compared with the gumball-size pearls now cultivated in Asia.
“The oyster’s meat is now worth more than its pearl,” said Cornelio Marcano, 37, a fisherman who lives on Cubagua. “After all, what is more important?” he asked. “Food for one’s belly or a pearl?”