Grace Willoughy ’22: Book VI, Chapter IV (On the Indian’s Ships or Small Boats, Which They Call Canoas)

Book VI, Chapter IV

On the Indian’s ships or small boats, which they call canoas,1 and in some islands and parts they call piraguas; which are made of one piece of a single tree.

Translated by Grace Willoughby ’22

Speaking about matters related to Oriental India, Pliny the Elder says[1] that Modusa is a city in a certain region named Concionada, from which region they carry pepper to a port named Becare in ships made from a single log. I believe that such ships must be like the ones that the Indians use here. In this island of Hispaniola, and in all the other parts of these Indies known to date, along all the coastlines and the rivers the Christians have seen thus far, there is a type of boat that the Indians call canoa, with which they navigate the large rivers and seas here; they use them for their wars and raids, as well as for trading between one island and another, for fishing or for whatever suits them. And furthermore, without these canoes, we Christians who live here would not be able to reach the properties along the seashore or along the large rivers. Each canoe is made of a single piece from a single tree, which the Indians carve out with blows from their stone axes, as seen in this figure[2]; and with these axes they carve out the tree trunk, smothering it with blows, and they burn what is carved out and cut, little by little, and then smother the fire, returning to cut and carve as before; and continuing like this, they make a boat about the shape of a trough or a dough box; but deep and long and narrow, as large and heavy as the length and width of the tree from which they make it allows; and underneath it is flat and does not have a keel, like our boats and ships do.

I have seen some of these of such a size that can carry forty or fifty men, and so broad that a cask could lie comfortably across the boat between the Carib Indians, who use these big or even bigger canoes, as I have said, and call them piraguas, and they sail with cotton sails and row in the same way with their nahes (that is what they call the oars). And sometimes they go sailing while standing, and sometimes seated, and when they want to, on their knees. These nahes are like long paddles, and the tops are like a crutch used by a lame person, the nahe or oar and canoe are pictured herein.[3] Some of these canoes are so small that they can only fit two or three Indians, and others six, and others ten and so on, depending on their size. But all of them are very light, and dangerous, because they capsize often; but they do not sink even if they swell with water: and since these Indians are great swimmers, they turn the canoes to right them and are very skilled at emptying them. These are not boats that go far from the shore, because since they are shallow, they cannot withstand the open sea; and if a little storm brews, then they fill with water, and while they do not sink, it is not a good pastime for a man in the water to cling to a canoe, especially if he does not know how to swim, as has happened many times to Christians who have drowned. But in spite of all that, these canoes are safer than our boats because although our boats sink less frequently, because they are higher and more substantial, those which sink go to the bottom at once; and the canoes, although they flood and swell with water, they do not go to the bottom nor sink, as I have said, and they stay afloat. But he who is not a very good swimmer, will not be able to control them well. No boat travels faster than a canoe, even if the canoe is being pulled by eight oars and the boat with twelve; and there are many canoes that will travel faster than the boat, even with less than half of the men rowing; but it has to be in a calm and serene sea.

El Tostado, writing about Eusebio’s De Los Tiempos, regarding the reason why some animals were not allowed in Deucalion’s boat,[4] says that it was because Deucalion did not prepare a boat large enough; because, according to Ovid and Virgil’s views, back then men only knew how to make those very small boats dug out of a single piece of timber, without any joints, as they make kneading troughs these days. It seems to me that what this learned man says is the same that I have said of the canoes.

[1] Pliny’s Natural History (Book 6, Chapter 23) [GFO]

[2] Illustration 1.a figure 12.a

[3] Illustration 2.a figure 1.a.

[4] Parallel flood myth to Noah’s Arc: Zeus, angry at humankind, decides to destroy all life with a flood, saving Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha.

Image: Published in 1798, illustrated by John Stockdale