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Margarita, an old royal courtier, Columbus made preparations for
exploring the island which lies only seventy miles from Hispaniola,
and which he believed to be a continent. He had not forgotten the
royal instructions, which urged him to visit the new coasts, without
delay, lest some other sovereign might take possession of them. For
the King of Portugal made no secret of his intention also to discover
unknown islands. True it is that the Sovereign Pontiff, Alexander VI.,
had sent to the King and Queen of Spain his bull, sealed with lead, by
which it was forbidden to any other sovereign to visit those unknown
regions.[9] To avoid all conflict, a straight line from north to south
had been drawn, first at one hundred leagues and afterwards by common
accord at three hundred leagues west of the parallel of the isles of
Cape Verde. We believe these islands to be those formerly called
the Hesperides. They belong to the King of Portugal. The Portuguese
mariners have continued their explorations to the east of that line;
following the coast of Africa on their left, they directed their
course to the east, crossing the Ethiopian seas, and up to the present
time none of them has yet sailed to the west of the Hesperides, or
towards the south.

[Note 8: According to the judgment of Las Casas, Bartholomew
Columbus was a man of superior character and well qualified to rule,
had he not been eclipsed by his famous brother. _Hist. Ind_., ii., p.

[Note 9: Bull granted May 4, 1493: _Ac quibuscumque personis . . .
districtius inhibemus, ne ad insulas et terras firmas inventas, et
inveniendas detectas et detegendas, versus occidentem et meridiem,
fabricando et construendo lineam a Polo Arctico ad Polum antarcticum,
sive terræ firmæ, Insulæ inventæ et inveniendae sint versus aliam
quamcumque partem quæ linea distet a qualibet insularum quæ vulgariter
appellantur de los Azores el Capo Verde, centum leucis versus
occidentem et meridiem ut præfertur pro mercibus habendis, vel
quavis alia de causa accedere præsumant, absque vestra et hæredum
et subcesorum vestrorum prædictorum licentia spetiali_.... By the
agreement signed at Tordesillas, the distance was increased by common
consent between Spain and Portugal, not as Martyr says, to 300, but to
370 leagues.]

Leaving Hispaniola,[10] the Admiral sailed with three vessels in the
direction of the land he had taken for an island on his first voyage,
and had named Juana. He arrived, after a brief voyage, and named the
first coast he touched Alpha and Omega, because he thought that there
our East ended when the sun set in that island, and our West began
when the sun rose. It is indeed proven that on the west side India
begins beyond the Ganges, and ends on the east side. It is not without
cause that cosmographers have left the boundaries of Ganges India
undetermined.[11] There are not wanting those among them who think
that the coasts of Spain do not lie very distant from the shores of

[Note 10: He left Hispaniola on April 24th.]

[Note 11: This was the general opinion of cosmographers and
navigators at that period; contemporary maps and globes show the
Asiatic continent in the place actually occupied by Florida and
Mexico. See map of Ptolemeus de Ruysch, _Universalior coquiti orbis
tabula ex recentibus confecta observationibus_, Rome, 1508.]

The natives called this country Cuba.[12] Within sight of it, the
Admiral discovered at the extremity of Hispaniola a very commodious
harbour formed by a bend in the island. He called this harbour, which
is barely twenty leagues distant from Cuba, San Nicholas.

[Note 12: Always deeming Cuba to be an extension of Asia, Columbus
was anxious to complete his reconnaissance, and then to proceed to
India and Cathay.]

Columbus covered this distance, and desiring to skirt the south coast
of Cuba, he laid his course to the west; the farther he advanced the
more extensive did the coast become, but bending towards the south, he
first discovered, to the left of Cuba, an island called by the natives
Jamaica,[13] of which he reports that it is longer and broader
than Sicily. It is composed of one sole mountain, which rises in
imperceptible gradations from the coasts to the centre, sloping so
gently that in mounting it, the ascent is scarcely noticeable. Both
the coast country and the interior of Jamaica are extremely fertile
and populous. According to the report of their neighbours, the
natives of this island have a keener intelligence and are cleverer in
mechanical arts, as well as more warlike than others. And indeed, each
time the Admiral sought to land in any place, they assembled in armed
bands, threatening him, and not hesitating to offer battle. As they
were always conquered, they ended by making peace with him. Leaving
Jamaica to one side, the Admiral sailed to the west for seventy days
with favourable winds. He expected to arrive in the part of the world
underneath us just near the Golden Chersonese, which is situated to
the east of Persia. He thought, as a matter of fact, that of the
twelve hours of the sun's course of which we are ignorant he would
have only lost two.

[Note 13: The island is about eighty-five miles from Cuba. The
name Jamaica, which has survived, meant in the native tongue "land of
wood and water." It was really discovered on May 13th, but was not
colonised until 1509.]

It is known that the ancients have only followed the sun during the
half of its course, since they only knew that part of the globe which
lies between Cadiz and the Ganges, or even to the Golden Chersonese.

During this voyage, the Admiral encountered marine currents as
impetuous as torrents, with great waves and undercurrents, to say
nothing of the dangers presented by the immense number of neighbouring
islands; but he was heedless of these perils, and was determined to
advance until he had ascertained whether Cuba was an island or a
continent. He continued, therefore, coasting the shores of the island,
and always towards the west, to a distance, according to his report,
of two hundred and twenty-two leagues, which is equal to about one
thousand three hundred miles. He gave names to seven thousand islands,
and moreover beheld on his left hand more than three thousand others
rising from the waves. But let us return to those matters worthy to be
remembered which he encountered during this voyage.

While the Admiral was carefully examining the character of these
places, coasting along the shore of Cuba, he first discovered, not far
from Alpha (that is from the end of it), a harbour sufficient for many
ships. Its entrance is in the form of a scythe, shut in on the two
sides by promontories that break the waves; and it is large and of
great depth. Following the coast of this harbour, he perceived at a
short distance from the shore two huts, and several fires burning here
and there. A landing was made, but no people were found; nevertheless
there were wooden spits arranged about the fire, on which hung fish,
altogether of about a hundred pounds' weight, and alongside lay two
serpents eight feet long.[14] The Spaniards were astonished, and
looked about for some one with whom to speak, but saw nobody. Indeed,
the owners of the fish had fled to the mountains on seeing them
approach. The Spaniards rested there to eat, and were pleased to find
the fish, which had cost them nothing, much to their taste; but they
did not touch the serpents. They report that these latter were in no
wise different from the crocodiles of the Nile, except in point of
size. According to Pliny, crocodiles as long as eighteen cubits have
been found; while the largest in Cuba do not exceed eight feet. When
their hunger was satisfied, they penetrated into the neighbouring
woods, where they found a number of these serpents tied to the trees
with cords; some were attached by their heads, others had had their
teeth pulled out. While the Spaniards busied themselves in visiting
the neighbourhood of the harbour, they discovered about seventy
natives who had fled at their approach, and who now sought to know
what these unknown people wanted. Our men endeavoured to attract them
by gestures and signs, and gentle words, and one of them, fascinated
by the gifts which they exhibited from a distance, approached, but no
nearer than a neighbouring rock. It was clear that he was afraid.

[Note 14: As will be later seen, these so-called serpents are
iguanas. They are still a common article of food throughout the
islands, and _tierra caliente_ of Mexico and Central America, and make
savoury dishes.]

During his first voyage the Admiral had taken a native of Guanahani
(an island near by Cuba), whom he had named Diego Columbus, and had
brought up with his own children. Diego served him as interpreter, and
as his maternal tongue was akin to the language of the islander who
had approached, he spoke to him. Overcoming his fears, the islander
came amongst the Spaniards, and persuaded his companions to join him
as there was nothing to fear. About seventy natives then descended
from their rocks and made friends, and the Admiral offered them

They were fishermen, sent to fish by their cacique, who was preparing
a festival for the reception of another chief. They were not at
all vexed when they found that their fish had been eaten and their
serpents left, for they considered these serpents the most delicate
food. Common people among them eat less often of the serpents than
they would with us of pheasants or peacocks. Moreover they could catch
as many fish as the Spaniards had eaten, in one hour. When asked why
they cooked the fish they were to carry to their cacique, they replied
that they did so to preserve it from corruption. After swearing a
mutual friendship they separated.

From that point of the Cuban coast which he had named Alpha, as we
have said, the Admiral sailed towards the west. The middle portions of
the shores of the bay were well wooded but steep and mountainous. Some
of the trees were in flower, and the sweet perfumes they exhaled were
wafted out across the sea,[15] while others were weighted with fruit.
Beyond the bay the country was more fertile and more populous. The
natives were likewise more civilised and more desirous of novelties,
for, at the sight of the vessels, a crowd of them came down to the
shore, offering our men the kind of bread they ate, and gourds full of
water. They begged them to come on land.

[Note 15: The fragrant odours blown out to sea from the American
coasts are mentioned by several of the early explorers.]

On all these islands there is found a tree about the size of our elms,
which bears a sort of gourd out of which they make drinking cups; but
they never eat it, as its pulp is bitterer than gall, and its shell is
as hard as a turtle's back. On the ides of May the watchers saw from
the height of the lookout an incredible multitude of islands to the
south-west; two of them were covered with grass and green trees, and
all of them were inhabited.

On the shore of the continent there emptied a navigable river of which
the water was so hot that one could not leave one's hand long in it.
The next day, having seen a canoe of fishermen in the distance, and
fearing that these fishermen might take to flight at sight of them,
the Admiral ordered a barque to cut off their retreat; but the men
waited for the Spaniards without sign of fear.

Listen now to this new method of fishing. Just as we use French dogs
to chase hares across the plain, so do these fishermen catch fish
by means of a fish trained for that purpose. This fish in no wise
resembles any that we know. Its body is similar to that of a large
eel, and upon its head it has a large pouch made of a very tough skin.
They tie the fish to the side of the boat, with just the amount of
cord necessary to hold it under the water; for it cannot stand contact
with the air. As soon as a large fish or turtle is seen (and these
latter are as large as a huge shield), they let the fish go. The
moment it is freed, it attacks, with the rapidity of an arrow, the
fish or turtle, on some part exposed from the shell, covering it with
the pouch-like skin, and attaching itself with such tenacity that the
only way to pull it off alive is by rolling a cord round a pole and
raising the fish out of the water, when contact with the air causes
it to drop its prey. This is-done by some of the fishermen who throw
themselves into the water, and hold it above the surface, until their
companions, who remained in the barque, have dragged it on board. This
done, the cord is loosened enough for the fisherman-fish to drop back
into the water, when it is fed with pieces of the prey which has been

The islanders call this fish _guaicano_, and our people call it
_riverso_.[16] Four turtles which they caught in this fashion and
presented to the Spaniards almost filled a native barque. They highly
prize the flesh of turtles, and the Spaniards made them some presents
in exchange which highly pleased them. When our sailors questioned
them concerning the size of the land, they answered that it had no
end towards the west. They insisted that the Admiral should land, or
should send some one in his name to salute their cacique, promising
moreover that if the Spaniards would go to visit the cacique, the
latter would make them various presents; but the Admiral, not wishing
to retard the execution of his project, refused to yield to their
wishes. The islanders asked him his name, and told him the name of
their cacique.

[Note 16: A sea-lamprey, also called _remora_ and _echineis_.
Oviedo gives details concerning the manner of catching, raising,
and training the young lampreys to serve as game-fish. _Hist. delle
Indie_, cap. x., in Ramusio. The account is interesting and despite
obvious inaccuracies may have a basis of truth.]

Continuing his route towards the west, the Admiral arrived several
days later in the neighbourhood of a very lofty mountain, where,
because of the fertility of the soil, there were many inhabitants. The
natives assembled in crowds, and brought bread, cotton, rabbits, and
birds on board the ships. They inquired with great curiosity of the
interpreter, if this new race of men was descended from heaven. Their
king, and a number of wise men who accompanied him, made known
by signs that this land was not an island. Landing on another
neighbouring island, which almost touched Cuba, the Spaniards were
unable to discover a single inhabitant; everybody, men and women, had
fled on their approach. They found there four dogs which could not
bark and were of hideous aspect. The people eat them just as we do
kids. Geese, ducks, and herons abound in that island. Between these
islands and the continent there were such strong currents that the
Admiral had great difficulty in tacking, and the water was so shallow
that the keels of the ships sometimes scraped the sand. For a space of
forty miles the water of these currents was white, and so thick that
one would have sworn the sea was sprinkled with flour. Having finally
regained the open, the Admiral discovered, eighty miles farther on,
another very lofty mountain. He landed to replenish his supply of
water and wood. In the midst of the thick palm and pine groves two
springs of sweet water were found. While the men were busy cutting
wood and filling their barrels, one of our archers went off in the
woods to hunt. He there suddenly encountered a native, so well dressed
in a white tunic, that at the first glance he believed he saw before
him one of the Friars of Santa Maria de la Merced, whom the Admiral
had brought with him. This native was soon followed by two others,
likewise coming out of the forest, and then by a troop of about thirty
men, all of them clothed. Our archer turned and ran shouting, as
quickly as he could, towards the ships. These people dressed in tunics
shouted after him, and tried by all means of persuasion in their power
to calm his fears. But he did not stop in his flight. Upon hearing
this news, the Admiral, delighted finally to discover a civilised
nation, at once landed a troop of armed men, ordering them to advance,
if necessary, as far as forty miles into the country, until they
should find those people dressed in tunics, or at least some other
inhabitants.[17] The Spaniards marched through the forest and emerged
on an extensive plain overgrown with brush, amidst which there was
no vestige of a path. They sought to cut a pathway through the
undergrowth, but wandered about so hopelessly that they hardly
advanced a mile. This underbrush was indeed as high as our grain when
ripe. Worn out and fatigued, they returned without having discovered
a trail. The next day the Admiral sent out a new troop of twenty-five
men, urging them to use the greatest diligence to discover the
inhabitants of that country. They, however, having come upon the
tracks of some large animals, amongst which they thought they
recognised those of lions, were terrified and retraced their
steps.[18] In the course of their march, they had found a forest
overgrown with wild vines, which hung suspended from the loftiest
trees, and also many other spice-producing trees. They brought back to
Spain heavy and juicy bunches of grapes. As for the other fruits they
collected, it was impossible to bring them to Spain, because there
were no means of preserving them on board the ships; hence they
rotted, and when they were spoiled they threw them into the sea. The
men said that they had seen flocks of cranes twice as large as ours in
the forest.

[Note 17: None of the natives of the islands wore white tunics,
nor indeed any but the most scanty covering. It has been surmised that
the soldier who made this report may indistinctly and from a distance
have descried a flock of tall white cranes, otherwise he was either
the victim of an hallucination or an inventor of strange tales to
astonish his fellows. Humboldt (_Histoire de la Géographie du nouveau
Continent_) quotes an instance of the colonists of Angostora once
mistaking a flock of cranes for a band of soldiers.]

[Note 18: There were no lions nor large beasts of prey in the
island; it has been suggested that these tracks may have been
footprints of an alligator.]

Pursuing his course, the Admiral sailed towards other mountains; he
observed upon the shore two huts, in which only one man was found,
who, when he was brought on board the ships, shook his head and hands,
indicating by signs that the country about these mountains was very
populous. All along this coast the Admiral encountered numerous canoes
which came to meet him, and on one side and the other friendly signals
were exchanged. The man Diego, who, from the beginning of the voyage
understood the language of the islanders, did not understand that of
this newcomer. It was known, indeed, that the languages vary in the
different provinces of Cuba.[19] The natives gave it to be understood
that a powerful sovereign, who wore clothes, lived in the interior of
the country. The whole of the coast was inundated by waters, the beach
being muddy and strewn with trees like in our swamps. When they landed
to replenish their supply of water, they found some shells with pearls
in them. Columbus nevertheless continued on his way, for he sought
at that time, in obedience to the royal instructions, to explore the
greatest possible extent of sea. As they proceeded on their course,
lighted fires were observed on all the hilltops of the coast country,
as far as to another mountain eighty miles distant. There was not a
single lookout upon the rocks from which smoke did not rise.

[Note 19: Pezuela gives interesting information concerning the
tribal languages of Cuba. _Diccionario Geografico, Estadistico,
Historico de la isla de Cuba_.]

It was doubtful whether these fires had been lighted by the natives
for domestic purposes or whether it was their custom in time of war
thus to signal to warn their neighbours to provide for their safety
and unite their forces to repel our attacks.

What is more probable is that they assembled to inspect our ships, as
though they were something prodigious, concerning which they knew not
what course to adopt. The coast-line began to recede in a southerly
direction, and the sea continued to be encumbered with islands. Some
of the ships, which had been scraped by the reefs, had sprung; ropes,
sails, and other tackle were rotted, and provisions were spoiled by
the humidity. The Admiral was, consequently, obliged to retrace his
course.[20] The extreme point of this country reached by him, and
which he believed to be a continent, he named Evangelista.

[Note 20: Two or three days more would have sufficed to
demonstrate the insular character of Cuba, and would doubtless have
made Columbus the discoverer of Yucatan.]

During the return voyage, Columbus passed among many other islands
more distant from the continent, and reached a sea where he found such
numbers of huge turtles that they obstructed the advance of his fleet.
He likewise crossed currents of whitish water, similar to those he had
already seen.[21] Fearing to sail amongst these islands he returned,
and coasted along the one he believed to be a continent.

[Note 21: The milky colour was produced by quantities of chalky
sand, churned up from the bottom by the currents.]

As he had never maltreated the natives, the inhabitants, both men and
women, gladly brought him gifts, displaying no fear. Their presents
consisted of parrots, bread, water, rabbits, and most of all, of doves
much larger than ours, according to the Admiral's account. As he
noticed that these birds gave forth an aromatic odour when they were
eaten, he had the stomach of one of them opened, and found it filled
with flowers. Evidently that is what gave such a superior taste to
these doves; for it is credible that the flesh of animals assimilates
the qualities of their food.

While assisting at Mass one day, Columbus beheld a man eighty years
old, who seemed respectable though he wore no clothes, coming towards
him, accompanied by a number of his people. During the rest of the
ceremony this man looked on full of admiration; he was all eyes and
ears. Then he presented the Admiral with a basket he was carrying,
which was filled with native fruits, and finally sitting beside him,
made the following speech which was interpreted by Diego Columbus,
who, being from a neighbouring country, understood his language:

"It is reported to us that you have visited all these countries, which
were formerly unknown to you, and have inspired the inhabitants with
great fear. Now I tell and warn you, since you should know this, that
the soul, when it quits the body, follows one of two courses; the
first is dark and dreadful, and is reserved for the enemies and the
tyrants of the human race; joyous and delectable is the second, which
is reserved for those who during their lives have promoted the peace
and tranquillity of others. If, therefore, you are a mortal, and
believe that each one will meet the fate he deserves, you will harm no

Thanks to his native interpreter, the Admiral understood this speech
and many others of the same tenor, and was astonished to discover such
sound judgment in a man who went naked. He answered: "I have knowledge
of what you have said concerning the two courses and the two destinies
of our souls when they leave our bodies; but I had thought until now
that these mysteries were unknown to you and to your countrymen,
because you live in a state of nature." He then informed the old man
that he had been sent thither by the King and Queen of Spain to take
possession of those countries hitherto unknown to the outside world,
and that, moreover, he would make war upon the cannibals and all the
natives guilty of crimes, punishing them according to their deserts.
As for the innocent, he would protect and honour them because of their
virtues. Therefore, neither he nor any one whose intentions were pure
need be afraid; rather, if he or any other honourable man had been
injured in his interests by his neighbours he had only to say so.

These words of the Admiral afforded such pleasure to the old man that
he announced that, although weakened by age, he would gladly go with
Columbus, and he would have done so if his wife and sons had not
prevented him. What occasioned him great surprise was to learn that
a man like Columbus recognised the authority of a sovereign; but his
astonishment still further increased when the interpreter explained
to him how powerful were the kings and how wealthy, and all about the

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