Elizabeth Girdharry ’22: Book IX, Chapter XXXIV (Of the Tree Called Guao)

Book IX, Chapter XXXIV

Of the tree called guao [Comocladia dentata Jacq.].

Translated by Elizabeth Girdharry ’22

Guao is a tree that is more than a plant, which is why I call it a tree, because I have seen some that are very tall. Its leaves resemble those of the tree we call acebo (holly) in Spain. The leaves of this guao are very green, and they sting and burn as much as those of the mazanillo (manchineel tree), mentioned in chapter XII of this book, but they are not as poisonous, because I do not know nor have I heard of the Indians using it for that purpose (although it would not surprise me). But the white zap that comes out if one cuts or plucks the leaves is a caustic and potent irritant, or if one cuts off its buds or scrapes the branches or leaves; even the dew that sits on this tree, if it were to get on someone’s face or in any part of the person it gets on their skin and burns and causes blisters, which is a thing to behold. Once we were out in the country, and a greenhorn or new arrival that did not know this tree turned away to do what he needed to do in private, and he took some leaves from this guao to clean himself and was left in such a state that he could not sleep all night or let others rest; even the following day he was in so much pain that he was of no use. Its properties are such that it can even be used in place of solimán [corrosive sublimate or mercuric chloride] to eat away rotten flesh in sores, but it is stronger and more painful.

Despite all this it is useful in other ways. Some of the Indian women of this island (our Hispaniola), those who dare suffer to look better, being envious of the white Spanish women, use the roots of the guao to whiten their skin. They cook the roots for a long time, and after they are well roasted and soft they rub them between their palms for long time until they make a paste. And they rub this paste on their face, neck and everything they want to whiten; so that the guao does not burn them alive or to make it bearable, they add other herb balms and soothing ointments to the paste. After nine days they wash it off and are so white as to be unrecognizable, so changed and white that they look like they were born in Castile. But neither the Indian women nor the Spanish Christian women who use solimán and albayalde (white lead or Venetian ceruse) to shave, very few would claim to be nuns or even honest. And this is enough about the guao.

Image: Drawing of the guao plant from Flore médicale des Antilles by Theodore Descourtilz in the 1820s.