Book IX, Chapter XI
Of the tree called ceiba, in particular, and other large trees.
Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
The chapters on the oak and caoban (mahogany) trees addressed their large size; many of those trees, some even larger, can be found in the Mainland. And in truth, if I were to speak of these things without so many eyewitnesses, I would do so fearfully, for it is the habit of blabbers not to be content simply with refuting what appears to them as doubtful, but to contradict even what is well known. But since I know from my situation and deeds that I speak the truth, I do not find the bite of the ignorant a nuisance, for it is known that dogs who bark at the wind draw no blood. I will say, then, that a league from the city of Darién, also known by the name of Santa María de la Antigua, there runs a broad and very deep river known as the Cutí; and before that land was won by the Christians, the Indians had laid down as a bridge a thick tree that spanned the river from one side to the other, traversing the whole width from one deep bank to another; it laid over a crossing that we constantly used to go to the mines and to our haciendas, and the tree was very long and thick; as it had been there for a long time, the tree was beginning to dip in the middle, and even though we used it there was a stretch where the water reached up to our knees, and every year it slowly sunk a bit deeper because the river was eroding the soil on the banks on which it rested. This is why in the year 1522, when I was judge and captain of that city, I had another tree laid across a few steps downriver from the first one, a tree nature had provided right next to the gully running along the bank of the river and which was felled almost entirely, except for a small portion near the root that remained attached (so that the earth could continue to nurture it through its own roots, preserving and renewing it); once fallen, it spanned the entire river, leaving some fifty feet on the other side of the river, even though the river’s width was more than a hundred feet. This tree measured sixteen spans or more at its broadest, and stood more than two cubits above the water, which made for a very good bridge; on one side I had metal bars placed at intervals, and over those I placed a handrail, making for a handsome bridge. When its crown crashed against the other bank it knocked down and split other trees across the river, tearing branches and uncovering a number of grape vines (of the type mentioned in Chapter I of the previous book); these turned out to be of the black variety and very good despite being wild, of which more than fifty of us present there at the time ate many. This tree I speak of, like many others growing on this land and other parts of the Mainland, was thin, and despite having been partly felled, still continued to grow, since it retained part of its roots and was fed through them; every year it was necessary to cut the new shoots and branches growing on the length that served as a bridge over the river, and the crown that rested on land was always fresh and green.
Pliny said that German pillagers made ships from one single carved-out tree trunk, and some of these ships could carry as many as thirty men. On this subject I will say that along the coast of the province of Cartagena, before it was populated by Christians, the Indians made canoes—as they call the vessels they use to navigate—some of them so large that they could carry a hundred and even a hundred and thirty men. They are made from one trunk or sole tree, and across its width you can place a barrel very comfortably, leaving on each side enough room for the people to move freely. They have other ships called piraguas, which are so broad that you can measure ten or twelve spans from side to side, and they navigate them with two sails—the mast and foremast—made from good cotton cloth.
In the report I wrote that was printed in Toledo in the year 1526, I said that the largest tree I had seen in the Mainland or the Indies until then had been in the province of Guaturo, when I was searching for the cacique of that land who had rebelled against service to Their Majesties, whom I later captured. Making our way through Guaturo, as I and the people with me passed a very tall sierra covered in trees, at the top of it we saw one among them whose feet or roots formed a triangle, like a trivet, leaving twenty-foot openings between each root, and these openings were so broad and tall that a very wide wagon (of the horse-drawn sort used in the kingdom of Toledo during the wheat harvest) could fit comfortably through any one of them. And high above the ground, higher than the length of a war lance, all three legs or trees came together, and from there up they formed one sole tree without any division, which, even before branching out, continued to climb as one trunk much higher than the tower of St. Roman in Toledo; and from that point upwards it was covered in very large branches. Some of us later climbed the tree, and from the point I reached, which was close to the point at which the arms or branches started to grow, it was marvelous to see how much land one could see up to the province of Abrayme. It was an easy tree to climb because it was covered in lianas that made for easy footholds. Each of the three legs on which the tree was born or founded was thicker than twenty spans, and after the three legs joined into one that main trunk was more than forty-five spans around. I named that mountain the Sierra of the Trivet Tree. After I wrote this about this great tree, I have seen many others, many much larger. And in my view the ceibas are by far the largest trees in these Indies; and there are two types of this tree: one deciduous and one evergreen. There was one ceiba in this island of Hispaniola, eight leagues from this city, where it is still remembered as the fat tree—I often heard the Admiral Don Diego Columbus say that he and fourteen men holding hands had not managed to encircle it. This tree died and rotted, but there are still many people alive who saw it and say the same about its size. I am not as impressed, remembering those larger ceibas that I have seen in the Mainland. Another large ceiba was found in the town of Santiago, in this island of Hispaniola; but none are bigger than the ceibas of the Mainland.
And because the largest of these trees I have seen to date are from the province of Nicaragua, which exceed in size all the ones I have described, I will only mention one ceiba that I saw many times in that province, not even half a league from the house and settlement of the cacique of Fhecoatega, along a river in the settlement of the cacique of Guazama, who was part of the encomienda of an honorable man called Miguel Lúcas, or of his companions Francisco Núñez and Luis Farfan; using a piece of string, I measured this tree with my own hands, and it measured thirty-six yards or a hundred and thirty-two spans at the base; and since it was on the banks of a river, it could not be measured at the lowest point near the roots, and this would have undoubtedly been about three yards broader—which would amount to thirty-six yards or a hundred and forty-four spans altogether, making it the broadest tree I have ever seen.
The wood of these trees or ceibas is soft and easy to cut, light in weight, and not good for woodwork or for anything besides two purposes. One of them is its wool or silk, the other is its great shade, since they are grand trees whose branches spread out wide and offer a healthy and pleasant shadow unlike that of other trees we have in the Indies, which are notoriously harmful—like the tree from which the Carib Indians make the herb they use for their arrows. The fruit of these trees forms pods the size of a large thumb, as wide as two fingers and round and full of a thin wool. After they ripen and dry, they open in the heat of the sun; then the wind takes the wool, which carries certain small grains that are its seeds (like those found in cotton). This wool seems to me a unique thing, and the fruit of the ceiba is like the bitter cucumbers of Castile, except larger and thicker; but the largest is no longer than the thumb, and when it is ripe, it opens lengthwise in four parts, and the first breeze takes away the wool (the fruit has nothing else inside), and it looks like it has snowed over the ground the wool covers. This wool is very short, and it seems to me that it cannot be woven; but it is a wool suitable for bed pillows or seat cushions, as it is unique in its softness and very comfortable for the head, and the most delicate and estimable of all wools for princely beds: it is silk-like and thinner than the finest strands of silk, so that no feather, wool, or cotton can be compared to it. However, if it gets wet, it turns into lumps and is worthless—I have experienced it all, and as long as this wool does not get wet, there is nothing like it for cushions or bed pillows. The Indians of Nicaragua have especial places set aside for the tiangüez, which means market, where they come together for their sales, fairs, and exchanges, and there are always two, three, or four of these ceibas planted to offer shade; and in many plazas or tiangüez two or three or four ceibas are enough to provide shade for one or two thousand people, so they plant ceibas according to the size or flow of people on the plaza or tiagüez. This very large tree they call ceiba in this island, as I have said, is called poxot in Nicaragua and has other names elsewhere.
 Ceiba pentandra, also known as kapok or silk-cotton trees. [EE]
 Pliny, Book XVI, Chapter XLI. [GFO]
Image: Illustration of the ceiba tree by Pierre Jacques Benoit in the late 1700s.