Madeline Seibel Dean: Book VI, Chapter III (On the Nature and Impact of Hurricanes)

Book VI, Chapter III

Which tells of the huracanes or storms that passed through this island of Hispaniola, in the ocean and the land, very notable and terrifying and dangerous, after the Christians moved to these parts and populated this island; from these two storms or hurricanes one can understand all those like them.

Translated by Madeline Seibel Dean ’22

Huracan [hurricane], in the language of this island, means strictly speaking a very powerful storm or tempest; in effect, it is nothing more than very strong winds and torrential and excessive rain, all together or any of these two things by themselves. On Wednesday August 3rd, 1508 (the governor of this island at the time was don Frey Nicolás de Ovando, Lord Commissioner of Alcántara), almost at noon, a lot of wind and water suddenly came together and so excessively that in this city of Santo Domingo all of the bohíos or straw houses fell to the earth, and even some with mortared or rammed earth walls were affected and destroyed. The same occurred in many towns of this island and caused great damage to the fields and destroyed the estates. The hurricane completely levelled the town named Buena-Ventura [Good Fortune], and it would be better to call it sad or bad fortune or ruined fortune (for all of those whose houses were destroyed in it); what was most unfortunate and painful was the loss of more than twenty ships, caravels and other vessels from the port of this city.

The wind came from the north such that, as soon as it started to blow, the sailors that were safely on land went into the sea to cast more anchors and cables in order to secure their ships. However, the storm grew so strong that their prudence, diligence and preparation were for nothing; the wind broke everything and uprooted the ships and the small and big vessels and threw them away from the port (which was down river), and it cast them to the sea and battered these fierce coasts with some, while others were so wrecked as to never turn up again.

Thereafter, the weather changed and the wind suddenly blew from the opposite direction, and not with less vigor or fury; the south wind was so great, the same as the north, that it tumbled some ships back to the port. As the north wind had dragged them out to sea, so did the south wind drag them back upriver; the ships were upside down, leaving only the topsails visible and the rest under water, in such a way that, like I said, the north wind dragged them out to sea and the midday or south wind returned them to land. In this tribulation many men drowned, and the worst part of this storm lasted twenty-four natural hours, until Thursday at midday. But it didn’t stop as suddenly as this text makes it sound; many who witnessed it, some of whom still live in this city, testify and affirm that this is the most terrifying thing of its kind that the eyes of men have seen. They say that it seemed like all of the demons were loose, dragging the ships from one place to another, as it is said.

The wind lifted many people in the air, without being able to hold on to or touch the ground, and took them a long distance across the streets and the fields, and many were discombobulated and hurt badly. It pulled up some rocks that were made into walls and fences, and it took down many thick trees in the forest, some of them very large, turning them upside down, and threw others very far from where they had been; in the end, the damage this storm or hurricane caused was very great and general in all of this island.

The Indians said that other times there used to be hurricanes, but that there had never been another one similar or as strong in their time, nor did they remember having heard or seen anything as frightening in their own days or those of their ancestors. And thus, many of the men were lost in this city and the greater part of this island and their plantations destroyed, especially the estates in the countryside.

The next year, on July 10th, 1509, the Admiral Don Diego Columbus came to this city, as I  have said in another part, and later that same month, twenty-nine days after he came, there was another hurricane, worse than the one the year before, but it didn’t do as much damage to the houses as it did in the countryside. There have been others after but not as bad nor with as much horror as these two. It is believed, and all of the devout Christians affirm and their experience has shown, that these hurricanes have stopped after the Holiest Sacrament was placed in the churches and monasteries of this city and the other towns of this island. No one should be surprised by this, because as the devil has lost lordship over this land and God has taken it as his own, allowing his sacred faith and Christian religion to be sown and thrive, there will be differences in the weather and tempests and in the storms and everything else, without comparison; the power of our God is infinite, and because of His mercy and clemency these dangers and horrible hurricanes and tempests have stopped in this land. After the hurricanes I spoke of passed, an honorable man, a neighbor of this city named Pero Gallego, who has died recently, was the first to give out the Blessed Sacrament and build a sanctuary out of well-carved stone in the monastery of Saint Francis of this city—since then they have not come back. And because of this, and because this nobleman was one of the earliest settlers in the conquest of this island, his August Majesty, informed of this, gave him the title of marshal of the island, title with which he died.

I bring this up because, as I’ve said before, I don’t plan to leave unrecorded what is worthy of being remembered, as are these hurricanes; until the sanctuary I spoke of was built we couldn’t have Sacrament in the churches, because they were built of wood and straw and were not convenient for this.

By the way, whoever has seen and walked past some grove of big and thick trees where a hurricane has struck would see something of much awe and grim horror, because there are innumerable and powerful trees pulled up and the tallest roots and branches of them; others are broken in half and torn apart and split, other stacked on top of each other, such that it would seem to be the Devil’s work. In some parts of the Main Land, which I’ve seen as close as the space of a crossbow shot or two, there have been entire areas covered with fallen trees and on top of each other, as I have talked about. And because we were going in that direction, we found it was convenient to go by those same places or forests that were so destroyed, and we didn’t have another path that was as secure or as convenient, so we could not avoid the ordeal of going through there. It was quite the sight to see three or four men, some up higher than others, going from tree to tree and from branch to branch, climbing and working in order to find our way; this blocked and difficult path allowed us to avoid the big rivers and rough cliffs, the deep valleys, prickly and closed groves, and the suspicion of our enemies, all without knowledge of the land.

All of these and other impediments made it so that, with much exhaustion of the people and fatigue of the spirit, we had to continue through the closed and difficult way, as I have said it was after the hurricane. No matter how short the path was it was inevitable that some companions were hurt, their clothes torn and ripped, and others hurt their hands and finished the journey only after great effort. You cannot help but think the trees that are uprooted still have nobility and grandness; more than that, it’s something to marvel at them when they are damaged and remote from where they grew and with their roots disrupted, some over others, stuck in such a way and piled up and interwoven that, as I’ve said, it must be the work of the devil or part of hell’s community, and there are no Christian eyes that can see it without horror.

Of the two hurricanes I have mentioned that befell this island in the times I spoke of, there are many witnesses in the city, and some around my house, that lived through the second, and in the island there are people whose houses were much destroyed, and some in Spain that were here at the time, and some men of the sea who with great loss experienced it at sea, that said they were lost in the first hurricane. These storms were as I have described them and the memory of such notable struggles on this island will never be lost among those who survived. Therefore, it is good that one give notice of this to the coming people, so that they may pray to Our Lord so that he may deliver them from such dangers; thus hoping that His clemency allow, and in His infinite mercy deliver, the protection of this city and island and the Christians from these horrible events into the shelter and salvation of His most sacred and true body and Sacred Sacrament; the same God giving us His Grace, so that in His service and love those present and those who will come after may persevere, our souls may be saved, and the bodies may be free and exempt from such calamities and anguish.

We proceed to the other things that are to be said in this new history that readers should be grateful to hear, which are different from what they have read so far in this Natural and General History of the Indies.