Melissa Hernández ’22: Book X, Chapter II (Of the Tree Called Guayacan, Which Is Used to Treat the Sickness of the Sores)

Book X, Chapter II

Of the tree called guayacan, which is used to treat the sickness of the sores.

Translated by Melissa Hernández ’22

There are two very notable and excellent trees in these islands and even on the Mainland; for just as the sickness of the sores [syphilis] is common in all these parts, so too did divine mercy want its remedy thus communicated and found throughout these parts. But although this disease is found elsewhere, the original place where the Christians saw and experienced the sores and then saw them cured with the guayacan tree[1] was in this island of Hispaniola. Another such tree is called palo santo[2] and it is found on the island of Borinquen, now called San Juan by the Spaniards. So, returning to the guayacan, I have seen it in this and other islands, and on the Mainland, in the province that the Indians call Nagrando. And because it was in this island of Hispaniola that the Spaniards came to know of this tree, I put it here, even if it is found elsewhere; and I want to say how well known it is, both in the Indies as in many parts of the world where it has been taken as a remedy for that very illness.

There are so many guayacan trees in these Indies that I think there are more of them than there are pines in the region of Cuenca or even that all the others pines of Spain. It is a very excellent tree, as has been proven innumerable times both in these parts and in Europe, where it has been taken from here to treat this frightening disease of the sores (which in Italy, as I have said elsewhere, they call the French disease, and in France they call it the Neapolitan disease); great cures have been seen in Spain and in other parts of the world from this tree on men who for a long time were crippled and distressed by very raw and extremely painful sores. This disease is one of the most despairing, peculiar, and distressing in the world, as it is well known to those who have been touched by this plague, who can better testify to its effects through having experienced them—as can those who God, by his mercy, has delivered from such pain, for it is a truly dreadful disease. Among the Indians it is not as severe an ailment nor as dangerous as in Spain and in colder lands. These Indians easily heal themselves with this tree; the cure consists of drinking water made by boiling wood from the guayacan tree, but it also depends on a specific diet, without which it would not work and cause much pain. There is little need to describe here the way this remedy is applied because the way to use the wood from this tree is already very well-known and common—in Spain they are as skilled as they are here in benefitting from this remedy; it will also be addressed in detail where the palo santo from the island of San Juan is discussed, because both are prepared and taken in the same way. But, whenever possible, one should always use a fresh stick, as fresh as possible; I refer to outside the Indies, because here one can see and cut it fresh from the fields any day, whereas in Spain and far from these parts one should seek out the thickest piece available, because it takes longer to dry, whereas here one should seek the thinnest because it is more tender and purgative.

The Indians cure themselves of this evil as easily as in Spain we do from scabies, and although it is very common, they worry very little about it. In this island, the guayacan brought from an islet called La Beata is very famous; this islet is near the coast of this island, and whenever someone wants guayacan from La Beata or elsewhere, they take it as they please. This tree’s bark is spotted with green, and sometimes green and tawny, almost like a dappled or roan horse. The leaf is similar to that of the strawberry tree,[3] but this one is smaller and greener, and it bears some yellow things as its fruit, which look like two lupin beans held together by the stem. Its wood is very strong and heavy, with an almost black heartwood on brown; in addition to its virtues, it is used for many things, like for the wheels of sugarcane mills. But because the main virtue of this wood is to cure the illness of the sores, and I said that I would explain the way it is taken where I discuss the palo santo, I will now describe another remedy I have seen here: they take thin splinters from this wood  (which some chop into small pieces), and they cook half a pound or more of the wood in two liters of water, until part of the water evaporates; then they remove it from the fire and let it rest; and the patient drinks a bowl of that water every morning for twenty or thirty days on an empty stomach—but, if the patient wants to be completely cured, he must not stop drinking this water for at least the first twenty days. During that time the patients must abstain from meat and fish, maintaining instead a strict diet of only raisins and dry things in small quantities (and maybe some biscuit cake), only what is enough to sustain them; during the day they must drink more water boiled with the same guayacan. In this way I have seen some sick people heal without sores, but they must be in an enclosed space while drinking this water, and even a few days later they should avoid going outside—I say this is the way it works where the tree is freshest. Whoever is afflicted by this illness may not be cured by what I say here, because this land is very different from Europe, and here great diligence is necessary to keep the patient from outside air—even greater care must be taken where the air is thinner and the ground cold. And the patient should not leave a well-sealed chamber for any reason; to me it seems that whoever seeks this cure in Spain must stay inside and be very careful, both in what I say about the air as in the diet. But this is already so widely used in so many parts that men are skilled in the way of this remedy. And this is not the only plant with which the Indians heal and cure themselves, for they are great herbalists and know many herbs and plants, and they have experimented with them for this and many other ailments.

It has been found that this disease is contagious and that it can be caught in many ways, like wearing clothing belonging to someone who is ill, eating and drinking in their company, or sharing dishes and cups used by the sick to eat or drink; more so sleeping in the same bed and partaking of their breath and sweat. Much more dangerous is engaging in carnal excesses with some woman who is sick with this evil, or if a healthy woman is with a man who is touched by this illness—they turn into people of Saint Lazarus, lepers ravaged by cancer. And in these parts and Indies few Christians, and I say very few, have escaped this awful evil if they have had carnal assignations with the native women of this generation of Indians; because in truth, the plague belongs to this land and the Indian men and women are as used to it as people elsewhere are used to other common illnesses. But I have sometimes seen Indians, especially in the Mainland, who upon feeling ill from this disease, at the earliest signs of it, start to drink the water boiled with this stick, and abstain from women for many days—they say that women are the ones who spread and communicate this pain and illness—and especially in the province of Nicaragua, where there is very excellent guayacan, as well as in the province of Nagrando and other parts of that land.

[1] Guaiacum officinale. [EE]

[2] Guaiacum sanctum. [EE]

[3] Arbutus unedo. [EE]

Image: Handcoloured engraving of Guajacana minor by A. Munting, published in 1696.