Lizabeth Paravasini-Gebert: Book IX, Chapter XII (Of the Manzanillo or Manchineel Tree)

Book IX, Chapter XII

Of the manzanillo or manchineel tree, from whose fruit the Carib Indians make the herb with which they shoot and fight, whose poison is for the most part irreversible.

Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

In this island of Hispaniola, on its western coast, in the sierras of the San Miguel point, which others call Tiburón, on the coastline and in other parts of this island and other islands on the gulf, and in many parts of the Mainland, on the northern band, especially from Paria, from the mouth of the Drago and the island of Trinidad to the gulf of San Blas to the west, and close to the port of Nombre de Dios, a distance that spans more than three-hundred miles of coast, there are countless manzanillos from which the Carib Indians make the diabolic herb with which they shoot their arrows by mixing it with other poisonous substances.

Although some can reach the height of three men, these are commonly low, vine-like trees, but they are lofty and full of leaves that resemble those of the pear tree. These trees are covered with a fruit or manzanilla (small apple) of a very pleasant smell, as small as cermeña pears but round, although some are elongated with a bit of a pink tinge, very pleasing to the eye; but both the fruit and the tree are poisonous. The Indians of this island didn’t know how to make this herb nor did they use it; but no man who sees this fruit, if he doesn’t know it, would not want to eat his fill, because its appearance and smell are an invitation. Moreover, it is proven many times over that if men lie down carelessly to sleep under the shade of this tree, even for a short time, without knowing anything about it, they will rise with a big headache and their eyes, eyebrows and cheeks swollen. And if by chance the dew from this manchineel touches the face, it is like fire that brands and scorches all the skin it touches; and if it gets in the eyes, it either impairs or blinds them or puts them in great danger of damage or loss of sight. If you burn the wood of this tree, no one can remain nearby for very long, because it causes a lot of misery; it produces a headache so bad that everyone around—men or animals—back away.

Pliny says, citing Sextius,[1] that the Greeks call a certain tree simlaçe, and that in Arcadia its poison was so powerful that it killed anyone who slept or ate under it. I mention it here since it resembles the manzanillos or manchineels we have here. But despite all their negative properties, I will tell of what happened to a gentleman from my land, a relative of mine, a young man from Madrid by the name of Gonzalo Fernández del Lago, still living at present, who passed by these lands. In the year 1515 he went from this city of Santo Domingo with an armada to wage war against the Carib Indians on the island of Cibuqueyra, which is now called Santa Cruz. As the war went on, being desperately in need of provisions, overcome by gluttony, he ate five or six of these apples and they did no harm to him; and he would have eaten many more if the other Christians had not stopped him, telling him about this fruit, which he didn’t believe, instead he praised it, saying: “I do not know what you’re saying, but these manzanillas tasted very good to me, and if you had not told me that they are bad I would not have stopped eating them until I had had my fill.”  In short, they caused no harm or change in his person then or afterwards, and today he is still alive. I believe that his escape from this mistake and from such a pestiferous fruit was due to the same reasons that monk’s hood will not kill those who eat it unless it comes in contact with the bloodstream. Spanish crossbowmen make an herbal mixture with this plant, and I have heard some of them say that they eat it or take it as a purgative, and that it is a very good purgative as long as it does not flow into the bloodstream and discharges the poison into it; and it must be the same with these manzanillas. But in the case of this gentleman, the manzanillas neither caused him any harm nor acted as a purgative. I did speak to him in this city, on the same year in which the events I have narrated took place, and asked him if it was true that he had eaten this fruit, as I had been told, and he said that it was true and that it had taken place in the way I have written it here.

[1] GFO: Pliny, Book XVI, Chapter 10.

Image: Illustration of the manchineel tree by Pierre Jean Francois Turpin in the early 1800s.