Book VI, Chapter XXXVIII
Which tells the account of a great danger faced by a resident of the city of Panama, which proved his remarkable ability to swim, and of the manner in which it saved his life when very few in the world would have avoided drowning if the same had happened to them.
Translated by Emilie Rose Parker ’22
In Chapter XXXII I made mention of a new treatise written by a well-educated gentleman, called Silva de varia lección (Miscellany of Various Lessons), and in my honest opinion it is one of the most enjoyable texts out of those I have seen in our Spanish language. Among other gentle tales and admirable events he recalls, there is tale of a man’s swimming prowess, which he believes is the origin of the fable of Nicolao the Fish-man; he also mentions various stories of great swimmers, especially of a man called Colan the Fish, a native of the city of Catania in Sicily, and of others, as the reader can see in the aforementioned text. And this has reminded me to make a note here of a story I will develop more fully when we arrive at Book XIII of this first part of the General History of the Indies. I learned, and it was true, that a good man named Andrea de la Roca, a neighbor of the city of Panama, had an experience that makes me think that in the matter of swimming this man has shown and proven himself to be the best swimmer alive today, or the greatest one there has been in a long time. In my opinion, all that the gentleman Pedro Mexía writes of those great swimmers in his Miscellany of Various Lessons pales in comparison to what I will now tell; because for a man to swim for his pleasure or necessity is very different than to be tied and dragged underwater by the strength of a great marine animal at such speed that no swift horse or deer on earth can be as swift or as fast. Many times I have seen in this grand ocean a ship going at full sail, with fair weather and a long and powerful wind, such that in a day it could travel one hundred leagues or more, and the sharks, mako sharks, tuna, dolphinfish and other fish travel alongside the ship, as fast or faster than the ship, swimming around it many times, as fast as a very fast man would run compared to a three-year-old child; and it seems to me that such fish swim faster, without comparison, much faster than the ships, no matter how many sails they have. All this being true, listen, reader, to a very extreme and astounding tale about swimming, a tale well-known by many people presently living who know this Andrea de la Roca as well. As a man of the sea he was the steward in charge of overseeing the Indians working in the pearl fisheries of this island of Terarequi, off the coast of the Southern sea, fifteen leagues from Panama. One day, like other times, he wanted to go harpoon fishing for his enjoyment, to catch some good fish from a canoe. He saw a ray or manta and launched his long harpoon, wounding the ray, which, being injured, swam to deep water with the greatest swiftness that can be described, and the rope of the harpoon followed the fish with the same momentum; disastrously, it clung to Andrea’s foot in such a way that he was snatched from the canoe and dragged underwater, the ray pulling him away from the canoe for more than a league. And in that league one could say that he swam more than fifteen, because many times the ray took him fifty or one hundred fathoms under the water; but he had such strength, breath and sense, that being a strong young man and a great swimmer, he was able to grab onto the rope, loosening it from around his foot and freeing himself. But based on this, and according to the judgment of most, it was because the harpoon got stuck in the bones of the ray, mortally wounding it, and in the space that it traveled, dragging the fisherman and bleeding out, it became weak and lessened its speed, giving Andrea the opportunity to untie himself from the rope. More truthfully, neither his or any other man’s stamina nor ability would have been enough to avoid drowning, if he had not been aided by the Mother of God, to whom, as he himself later told me, he entrusted himself so devoutly, as his emergency required. And from where he untied his foot from the rope to the surface of the water he went up more than thirty fathoms, and swam more than a league to his canoe near the Indians, who picked him up more than two hours after the ray snatched him from it. This happened in the year 1519, as has been said. And because it may seem doubtful to many that a man could be under the water for that long, especially under so much stress and effort, talking to him about this, he told me that he was pulled under and reemerged from the water more than twenty times. But it is known to many in that land that any time this man wanted to be underwater for an hour, he did it; since I have not seen it, although I know him and have dealt with him, on this matter of the time he can spend underwater, I do not want to persuade the reader to believe it or doubt it. But as far as what has been said is true, the ability this man had for such an activity must be clear. He told me that the ray had been as large as the weapons cabinet which hung in the house of governor Pedrarias Dávila, where we were when he informed me of what I have written here, in the year 1521, in Panama City—that it had been at least two and a half yards wide and three in length, which is a 44-span circumference; and it was because of the huge size of these rays that the sailors gave them the name mantas or blankets.
 Silva de varia lección, Chapter 23, 1st part.
Image: Oil painting by Edward Orme in 1814.