Max Eliot ’21: Book VII, Chapter I (Of the Indian’s Grain Called Maize)

Book VII, Chapter I

Of the Indian’s grain called maize and how it is planted and harvested, and other things concerning this.

Translated by Max Eliot ’21

The Indians of this island have two types of bread—very different one from the other—both of which are very common across most of these islands and even in parts of the Mainland. And so I do not have to repeat it later, I will tell here about this grain they call maize and the flour they call casabi [cassava]. Maize is a grain, and cassava is made from the roots of a plant they call yuca [manioc]. The Indians plant maize in the following way. The maize plant grows as a reed-like stalk that produces some spikes or ears about as long as a small span[1] and no wider than a man’s wrist, covered in plump seeds that look almost like garbanzos or chick peas (but not entirely round). When the Indians want to grow maize, they cut down the bush or reeds (because the soil where only grass grows is not thought of as fertile in these parts as are reed fields and groves) and burn the cuttings, leaving the ash of the cut material on the ground, almost like it’s been manured. Virgil claims that burning a field will make the soil better for tilling.[2] Gabriel Alphonso de Herrera (the doctor who compiled that famous volume on agriculture) agrees; he says that to prepare any field for cultivation the following year, first it must be leveled as needed, and if it was cultivated the previous year, the stubble should be used whenever possible and burned, making sure to do so when the wind will not scatter the ash, etc.

I would say that these Indians, although unaware of these precepts, have been taught something similar by nature; they also know of the necessity to clear the land of trees, reeds, and naturally occurring plants so they can create their fields and sow them. They always choose to sow under the new moon because they are of the opinion that as the moon grows, so will the planted seed. When it is time to scatter the seeds in the cleared ground, five or six Indians (or however many the farmer has at hand), all in a row and each a pace away from the next, will walk the field with a stick or club in their right hand, poking the ground with one end of the stick and then shaking the stick to widen the hole; they then remove the stick and use their left hand to drop four or five kernels in the hole (they keep these kernels in a leather pouch they wear at the waist, or in a satchel hanging from the neck like a baldric); finally, they close the hole with their foot so that parrots and other birds don’t eat them, and then they take a step forward and repeat the same action. The whole line of Indians moves together in rhythm, continuing in their purpose, until they have seeded to the end of the field; then, in the same fashion, they return the other way and come back, until they seed the entire field. And as I have said, after tossing the grains in each hole, they close it immediately because of the birds. Pliny gives a method for seeding which, among other rules he gives, these Indians also follow: “There is a certain degree of skill, too, required in scattering the seed evenly; to ensure this, the hand must keep time with the step, leading always with the right foot.” Later Pliny says that the number of seeds should be between four and six, according to the nature of the terrain, while some claim it should be exactly five.[3] As I mentioned, the Indians obey this rule entirely in the way they plant the seeds. They also obey another rule, this one from Theophrastus, who said it is more productive to sow seeds sparsely and cover them well than to sow plentifully and leave them uncovered.

Above I have already said that the Indians, immediately after dropping the kernels, cover them with their foot, stamping the dirt and closing the hole. And because maize is very dry and hardy on its own, so that it sprouts more quickly, they soak the seeds one or two days ahead of time and sow them on the third. They also sow soon after it has rained, so that their sticks, which serve in place of ploughs, can easily penetrate the earth three or four fingers deep with just a slight poke. This maize sprouts in just a few days, and in four months’ time it is harvested.  Some varieties are ready for harvest in just three months, and others can be harvested only two months after sowing. In Nicaragua there is maize seed that comes to harvest in only forty days; its yield is small, however, and it won’t last, serving only as a momentary alternative before the other three and four-month maize is ready. This forty-day maize grows because of a special method of cultivation, which is as follows. As the maize grows, they make sure to weed it until it grows taller than the grass. When it is tall enough, it becomes necessary to guard it, a job they leave to the young men, who are stationed up in trees and scaffoldings made from wood and cane, covered with foliage to protect from the sun and rain; they call these scaffoldings barbacoas, and from the barbacoas they are continually shouting, shooing away the parrots and other birds that come to eat the maize sprouts. Their manner of keeping watch or guarding seems similar to the way it is done in parts of Spain, to guard the hemp and the millet and other things from the birds.

This grain grows from a main stalk or shaft; they can be as thick as a lance or spear shaft, while some are more or less as thick as a thumb, according to the quality of the soil where they have been seeded. The corn stalks commonly grow much taller than a man, and the leaf is like that of a typical Castilian reed, though much longer and wider, greener, more sturdy and flexible, and less rough. Every stalk yields at least one ear of corn, but some may yield two or three. Each ear carries two or three hundred seeds, or even four hundred, though it can be more or less; some even have five hundred, according to the size of the ear. Every ear is wrapped in three or four leaves or husks, layered over each other all the way down to the kernels; the husks are somewhat rough, and almost the same color and texture of the leaves of the very young maize, and the grains are so well guarded by those husks that the sun and air do not bother them, and they ripen inside. That being said, they can get suffocated when there are suddenly several very sunny years. When the ears dry out, they are harvested immediately, because parrots and other beaked birds will cause serious damage to the crop if it is not collected and removed in time. On the Mainland, in addition to the danger of the birds, the maizefields must also survive deer, wild boar, howler monkeys, and other inconveniences.

On this island, it is now more important to guard the fields than it was in the time of the Indians because of livestock brought from Spain that have gone wild, like cows, pigs, and dogs. The Indians developed this style of growing maize, and that is how they do it. But the Christians do it much better because they plough the soil when possible and use better equipment than the Indians. When a fanega (or Spanish bushel) of corn is sown, it usually yields between six and a hundred, or even a hundred and fifty fanegas, according to the quality of the soil. This past year of 1540, I gathered one hundred and fifty-five fanegas from one fanega sown three and a half leagues from this city of Santo Domingo, near the Haina river. Once this grain has been harvested and brought home, this is how the Indians eat it: in Hispaniola and other islands, they eat it whole and toasted when ripe, or raw when tender or half matured; they call this tender maize ector, and they prepare it almost like a curdled milk or soup. This ector is tasty and good, and after the Christians came to this island they fed it to horses and beasts of labor, and it is very good feed for them; they also give it to their Black and Indian slaves whose labor the Christians use. On the Mainland, the Indians have a different use for this grain and I will describe it here so I do not have to deal with the same subject repeatedly, and it is this. On a concave stone (about three spans long and two spans wide), the Indian women, particularly, grind the maize with another long, rounded stone; in a rolling motion, they grind the maize slowly, mixing in water little by little, maintaining a steady rhythm. In this way they make a kind of paste or dough, of which they take a little bit and make it into a lump as big as a little span and two or three fingers thick; they then wrap the lump in a corn leaf or something similar and boil it. When it is ready, they take it from the pot or cauldron and let it cool a little, but not all the way. If they do not want to boil them, they roast the lumps near the embers, which hardens them and makes them more similar to white bread, with a crust all around and a soft center. They remove the leaf they had wrapped it in to boil or roast and eat it somewhat hot, not all the way cooled, because if it cools it is not as tasty and it gets harder to chew (the colder it gets, the drier and rougher it is). Either boiled or roasted, this bread is not good after two or three days, because after a while it molds and spoils and becomes inedible. It is not good for the teeth either, and for this reason the Indians often have dirty and damaged teeth, and I have not seen worse teeth in any people.

In the province of Nicaragua and other parts of the Mainland they have maizefields like those I have mentioned, but there they make a white cake or bread that is big and thin. This is an art which originated in New Spain, in Mexico and its provinces (of which region many great and notable things will be seen in the second part of this history). They call this bread tascalpachon, and it is very good and tasty. It is made from the same maize dough, but they choose for this bread only the whitest kernels. They crush the kernels before grinding them, removing a hardness or shell from the tip where the kernel is attached to the cob. This way, the bread comes out better and softer, and the hard bits do not get stuck between the teeth as they do when the lumps or bread are made with uncrushed kernels. The Christians have improved this bread greatly, cooking it in ovens in the Spanish style. It is tastier and has a prettier appearance cooked that way, like roscas (ring-shaped bread) or buns. The Christians likewise make a very good unleavened maize bread to take on short trips out to sea.

When the Indians (and even the Christians) sail in the southern sea, they have a helpful trick. They bring some toasted maize flour with them and put a fistful of it in a glass of water and mix it to make a thin porridge. This is a good beverage that nourishes all on its own, because it is grain and water. It even has a pleasant and very useful characteristic: when water goes bad or stinks, take a fistful or two of toasted maize flour and mix it with some water in a glass to make the porridge—this makes the water potable and removes the bad odor, leaving it smelling pleasantly of toasted corn. I have used this trick on those southern seas where I learned it, and I have even brought the flour a few times while going between the Indies and Spain in case it was necessary. It was useful to me and enabled me to do a good deed for others as well. In the province of Cueva on the Mainland, they make a good maize liquor, which I will discuss when I write about that land. And everything I have said relating to this grain called maize I have experienced firsthand in the twenty-eight years preceding the time of this writing in 1541, during which time I have and still plant and harvest it for my own house.

As I follow the teachings of Pliny, I will repeat here what he says of the millet from India, which I think is the same thing that in these Indies we call maize. Pliny says of millet: “A kind of millet has been introduced from India into Italy within the last ten years: it is of a swarthy color, with a large grain, and reed-like stalks called lobas that can grow to seven feet; it is extremely fertile, above all other barleys, with one seed yielding three pints of grain; it is sown in humid places.”[4] By this information provided by the author, I take it to be maize; he says it is black, and the majority of the corn grown on the Mainland is a dark purple or red, with some being white, and a lot of it is yellow. It could be that Pliny did not see all these colors, only the dark purple color that seems almost black. The stalk that he describes as being like reeds is very much like that of maize, and anyone who sees maize in the country could mistake it for a reed field. The majority of the maize here is taller than the seven feet he describes, but it varies according to the fertility and yield of the soil in which it is sown. As he says, it is incredibly fertile; as I have already noted, I have seen anywhere from eighty to a hundred and fifty fanegas harvested from one sowing. He says that it should be planted in humid areas, and these Indies are incredibly humid. To further confirm maize’s need for wet soil, or for being planted where water is plentiful, I say this: in 1530, I was in Avila with Her Majesty the Empress, our lady, while our lord the Emperor was in Germany, and I saw in that city (one of the coldest cities in Spain) a house with a good bit of maize standing some ten spans high, just as thick and green and beautiful as can be seen in these parts where it grows best of all, and they would irrigate it every day with a nearby waterwheel. Truthfully, I was amazed, struck by the distance and difference in climate between these parts and Avila. And because this testimony is only mine, I will mention that in that very house was staying the very revered doctor, Don Bernal, he of the Royal Council of the Indies for Their Majesties, who is now the Bishop of Calahorra.

[1] The distance between an outstretched thumb and index finger. [EE]

[2] Virgil, in the first of The Georgics. [GFO]

[3] Pliny, Book XVIII, Chapter 24. [GFO] There appears to be a discrepancy in how the chapters are numbered in Oviedo’s copy of Pliny’s natural history and in modern editions. The cited chapter appears as Book XVIII, Chapter 54 in the Tufts Perseus version. [EE]

[4] Pliny, Book XVIII, Chapter 7. [GFO] Again, there are discrepancies between Oviedo’s version and modern English translations. This passage appears in chapter 10 of Tufts’ Perseus translation. Also, Oviedo’s reproduction of Pliny has some different details than the English translation. He omits the name “phobæ,” and rather than describing the plant as “swarthy” he renders it as “negro” (black). This makes his later arguments based on the color Pliny describes much less jarring, especially the assertion “He says it is black” in the following sentence. [EE]

Image: Illustration of maize by Marilena Pistoia in one of her works published in 1973.