Madison Wilson ’22: Book VI, Chapter II (Of the Indian Game Called Batey)

Book VI, Chapter II

Of the Indian game called batey, which is the same as the ball-game, although they play it differently, as will be told here, and the ball is of a different type or material than the balls the Christians use.

Translated Madison Wilson ’22

Since in the previous chapter I discussed the arrangement of the Indians’ towns and houses, and how in each town they had a place in the plazas and on the paths heading out of the villages designated for their ball-game, I now want to discuss the way they played and with what balls, because it truly is a thing to hear and note. Around the court where the men gathered to play, ten by ten and twenty by twenty, mostly the men, they had their stone seats; and for the cacique and principal men they placed wooden stools, beautifully carved, made from fine woods decorated with reliefs and engravings sculpted into them, called duhos. The balls are made of tree roots and grasses, saps and mixtures of things that all together look something like black wax. They cook together all these and other materials, and they make a paste, which they then roll to make into a ball more or less the size of those inflatable ones from Spain, some smaller and some larger. This mixture makes a black coloring that does not stick to the hands; after it is dried it turns somewhat spongy, not because it is hollow or empty like a sponge, but it becomes lighter and soft and is somewhat heavy.

These balls bounce a lot higher than the inflatable balls, because from only dropping them on the ground they reach much higher and bounce many times, finally stopping on their own, like the inflatable balls but much better. Because they are solid they are a bit heavy; if one were to hit one of these balls with an open hand or a closed fist, in a few strikes the impact would cut the hand or dislocate it. Because of this the players strike it with the shoulders, elbows, head, knees, and more often with the hip; they do so with such skill and ease that their agility is a thing to behold, for even if the ball goes very close to the ground, they throw themselves in such a way from three or four steps away, flying in the air, and strike it with their hip to keep it from touching the ground. A player may strike the ball no matter the height or direction the ball bounces or travels in the air, because no ball is off limits as long as it is not on the ground; it does not matter how many times it bounces so long as they hit it while it’s in the air. They do not organize themselves in particular sides, but put as many on one end of the field as the other, dividing the field or pitch of the game, and those on one side release or serve the ball once by throwing it in the air and waiting for the opponents to touch it first; once the opponent hits it, then either side can hit the ball, doing everything they can to strike the ball without stopping. The point of the game is for one side to get the ball to the opponents’ side or past the limits of their side; they do not stop until the ball touches the ground, either because the player did not reach it in time or failed to make it bounce, or was too far to reach it and it stopped by itself. A loss is counted by a mark or line, and then the ones who first received the ball serve, and after a certain number of lines—as many as were agreed—the prize is awarded to the winner.

The game is similar but different to the game called chueca, except that instead of using a chueca they use the ball, and instead of using a cayado or stick the players use their hips or shoulders to strike the ball. And there is still another difference: since the game is played on a field and not on a street, the limits of the field are marked, and whoever throws the ball out of bounds, he and his team lose a mark; this player then has to return serve, not from where the ball went out of bounds but from where it was served before going out of bounds. When I was in Italy I saw them play a game with a very big ball, as big as a jug weighing one arroba (25 pounds) or bigger, and they called it balon or palon. I especially saw the game many times in Lombardy and Naples; fine men would hit that ball or balon with their foot, and though the form of the game looks a lot like the Indians’, given that in the batey they strike the ball with the shoulder, knee, or hip, the balls do not go as high as the balon or the smaller inflatable ball. But the balls here bounce a lot more and the game itself takes more skill and effort. It is amazing to see how skilled and swift the Indian men (and even many women) are at this game, which is more often played among men, but sometimes women play against women and other times men and women play mixed together; it also happens that the women play against the men and the married women against the virgins.

It is worth mentioning, since it was said in an  earlier part, that the married women or women who have known men wear a cotton shawl from the waist to mid-thigh, but that the virgins wear nothing, playing or not, as long as they have not known men intimately. But because the cacicas (wives of the cacique or chief) and principal married women wear these fine, white skirts or cloths that go from the waist to the ground, if they are young and want to play batey, they change from those long cloths and put on shorter ones that go to mid-thigh. And it is amazing to watch their speed and swiftness and how graceful the men and women are. As I mentioned, before the Christians came here the men did not wear anything in front of their private parts, but after conversing with the Spaniards some covered themselves with a pampanilla or loincloth made of cotton or linen; the loincloth is about the size of a hand and hangs in front of their private parts from a thread tied around the waist.

But that is why they did not bother showing what they had, even without a breeze blowing, because they only wore that little cloth, tight on top and loose in the bottom, until later the men and women understood and started covering up with very fine shirts they made out of cotton. Presently, those few that remain are all dressed or wear shirts, in particular those under the power of Christians; if some do not do it this way, they are only those relics that remain from the people of cacique don Enrique, who was mentioned in the preceding book.

Pliny[1] attributes this ball game or the invention of such a pastime to King Pyrrhus, of whom these people here know nothing; so until we know who was the true and first inventor of such a game, Pyrrhus should not have credit for its invention, since it should be presumed that these peoples are more ancient than him.

[1] Pliny, Book VII, Chapter 56.

Image: Illustration by an unknown artist of a Jamaican Taino town watching the batey.