Melissa Hernández ’22: Book X, Chapter III (Of the Tree That Produces What They Call Balsam on This Island of Hispaniola)

Book X, Chapter III

Of the tree that produces what they call balsam on this island of Hispaniola, where this liquor was made first, before anywhere else.

Translated by Melissa Hernández ’22

In many parts of this island there are certain trees that produce a liquor they call balsam, and though it is not a balsam, it is still an excellent medicine. These trees are not of fair appearance, and are somewhat similar to the pear trees of Castile in their size and height, but the leaves are not like those of the pear trees but rather like those of pomegranates, but much thinner. This tree has a stalk and sometimes three and more together, as do fig trees, pomegranates and other trees in some parts; the trunks and branches seem dry, but the leaves are green and fresh, and the branches grow straight, not forming a crown. The Indians call this tree goaconax,[1] and they use its wood for torches because it burns very intensely; at night, the Indians go fishing, lighting their way with the embers of this firewood, and when one splits it, it smells good, but not to the Indians, who hate the scent. There are a lot of these trees in the mountains and forests of these islands and the Mainland, and they are no less in number than the oaks or pines in Spain. The secret of this liquor that here they call balsam (though it is not) was published by Anton de Villasanta, who was a neighbor of this city of Santo Domingo; according to some people, he learned how to make it from his wife, an Indian and a native of this island. Others say that the one who discovered this liquor was a doctor, a great Italian philosopher named Codro, who passed through these parts in the year 1515. I met him and saw him in this city, but he later died on the Mainland, on the coast of the southern sea, near the islands of Zorobaro and the Port of Punuba; he was truly a man of great letters and humanity, very wise and experienced in everything regarding nature, who had traveled very widely around the world, and the desire to see these Indies led to his dying in them. But, whoever was the inventor of this artificial balsam, the one who first published it and first enjoyed its success was Anton de Villasanta, and His Imperial Majesty the Emperor King, our lord, rewarded him handsomely for it. Returning, then, to our subject, I say that there are already many men on this island who know how to make this balsam. According to some, the process is thus: small pieces of the wood from this tree are boiled in water, which releases a liquor, the consistency of oil or thicker, of a light grape syrup color. The balsam is used for fresh stab or spear wounds, or any other recent wound, because it immediately stanches the blood—and no other medicinal thing has ever been known or seen that so quickly seals and closes a wound. Great results have been seen from the application of this balsam on very large and deadly wounds, and it has healed them very well and quickly, even mitigating their pain; and many even contend that it heals other countless and serious diseases, some usually considered incurable. But in this I refer to those who have experienced it, because I have not seen it used or applied—though I have heard great praises for this balsam and its results from many who have experienced them.

I have also heard others blaspheme against it and say that it is dangerous if applied incorrectly, especially on those fresh wounds that require a steady hand, because it welds very quickly, and in closing the sore or wound one must be very careful, and it doesn’t surprise me that it is so. For one can eat so much bread as to make one ill, and a man can drink so much wine as to be drunk and sick—yet these same things in moderation can sustain life. So that all extremes are harmful and are not without evil, and everything that is medicinal requires a lot of experience, especially those things that have newly come to the notice of men and have been little used: all the more so if the complications of remedies that have been used for a short time are not fully understood, nor do all doctors understand the ailments in the same way, nor may they want to heal them as quickly as they could sometimes, and when they want to, their advice may not be taken in time. The truth is that it is taken as certain by popular opinion that this balsam is very useful if one knows how to use it.

A certain water is likewise drawn from this tree through another method of cooking known to some here; it is very suitable for all humors and ills caused by the cold. But I do not want to elaborate more on this water or balsam, for there are many here who by experience can speak more fully about it, but it is forbidden to do so, because in Spain, this Villasanta hinted that he would give His Majesty a great treasure with this balsam, and His Majesty commanded, under severe penalties, that none prepare it, but Villasanta died without fulfilling what he promised. But I say what is public—the treasure that was to be given, never came to be. In truth, if my opinion were to be taken, His Majesty would never prohibit such a thing from which so much good could result, nor would he keep anyone from making it or distributing it to all those who needed it—for the King does not lack for other major enterprises to increase his rents.

These matters of medicine are all doubtful in my opinion. That said, I want to refer to what Pliny[2] says about medicine and its secrets: that calamite or magnet stone draws iron to itself, but when garlic is applied it loses and discards this property; that goat’s blood breaks diamonds, which no other force can overcome; and, at the end of the prologue of Book XXI, the same author says that nature has produced nothing without some hidden cause. And this must be believed judging from what is seen and experienced every day: for many remedies are rejected until the need arises, but when it does, some relieve pain, others mitigate the heat, and others relieve thirst—so they apply such remedies to the sick on purpose, fortifying the person and restoring life. Who has discovered such unknown secrets as those I just mentioned by Pliny, like the fact that a thing as vile as garlic can have an effect on such a wonderful and excellent stone and of so many properties as calamite (without which sailors are but blind men)? Who stumbled on such a great surprise and mystery like that of the capacity of the blood of such a vile animal as the goat to break a stone as precious and of such relentless strength as the diamond, which neither fire nor any other element can begin to break? All these things I suspect were understood by chance, through time and by divine dispensation. So I am likewise of the opinion that there is still much experience lacking to those who would heal using this so-called balsam (which it is not, but rather a good liquor), and this experience must also be acquired, because in experimenting with the quantity or quality needed for effectiveness, it will be able like the manchineel (used by some in these parts for purging)—in that it benefits some and does a lot of harm to others.

In short, I find that a tailor, before he learns the trade, breaks and loses many needles, and what is worse, he damages some clothes; and a man-at-arms, before he is skilled, falls many times and loses many spears and breaks others. But the tailor pays for the clothes he cannot fix or those he damages, and the man-at-arms learns through his own danger. A doctor, however, before he knows how to heal and can be called a master, is worse than a pestilence—but, if a man slaps another, justice cuts off his hand or imposes another punishment as warning, equaling those and other offences. However, when it comes medicine, justice is blind and its rigor is not feared, because a doctor or surgeon, even if he kills many, feels no remorse and others still give him money. I have lingered on this tree, here called artificial balsam, and I could say more about it, from what I have been informed, and even according to what I have seen myself of its positive and negative effects—for I do not want anyone to be cured by my words, nor do I want such credit in medicine, because I did not study it nor is it my profession or exercise, but of those who make their living trying to cure or kill. Of the true balsam, Pliny[3] and many other authors have written at length, and there is no need to discuss it here, since the effects of the good balsam are appropriate to things far removed from those that with this artificial liquor are cured or some want to cure.

[1] Myroxylon balsamum. [EE]

[2] Pliny, Book XX, Chapter I. [GFO]

[3] Pliny, Book XII, Chapter 26. [GFO]

Image: Chromolithograph from Hermann Adolph Koehler’s Medicinal Plants, edited by Gustav Pabst, 1887.