Book VI, Chapter I
Of the houses and dwellings of the Indians of this island of Hispaniola, also known as Haiti.
Translated by Karly Andreassen ‘20
The Indians of this island of Haiti or Hispaniola lived on riverbanks or close to the sea, or on the sites that pleased them most or better served their purposes, whether on the highlands or on plains, valleys, and forests; they established their villages in the places they found most suitable; and alongside their villages they had their plots and conucos (what they call their farms) of maize and yucca (cassava), and fruit orchards. In each town or village square there was a place designated for the ball game they call batey; and on the outskirts of the towns there were also places bigger than those at the plazas furnished with seats for watching the game, which the following chapter will describe at greater length.
Let us turn to their houses, which in all these islands are commonly called buhio (which means house or residence), but in the language of Haiti the buhio or house is more properly called eracra. These eracras or buhios were built in one of two styles, according to the will of the builder. One style was thus: in a circle, they drive many posts of good wood into the ground (each one of the convenient thickness) at a distance of four or five steps between each post, or at the distance they choose between each post; after the posts are in the ground, they place their beams high above them, and on top of those they place the branches that serve as the framework for the roof; the heads or widest part of the branches go over the beams I mentioned, and the tapered ends point up, and all the ends of the branches meet and join at a point, in the style of a tent. Atop the branches they set canes or thin boards across, a span apart (or less), two by two (or one by one), and they cover that with long, thin straw—others cover theirs with leaves of the bihao tree (common banana), others with cane leaves, and others use palm leaves or other things. At the base, in place of walls from the roof to the ground, they stick canes into the earth from post to post, shallow and as close together as the fingers of a hand, and one next to the other these form walls, and they tie them very well with bejucos, which are a type of vine or rope which grows around trees (and also hangs from them), like the correhuela (field bindweed); and these bejucos are very good for tying, because they are flexible and pliable and do not rot, and they serve as tacks and ligatures in place of ropes and nails to tie a piece of wood with another, and to tie the canes in the same way. The buhio or house of that style is called caney. They are better and more securely walled than others for protecting them from the air because they are not as exposed. The bejucos or ties that I mentioned, one can find however many one wishes, and of the thickness or thinness that is needed. Sometimes they split them to tie thin things, the way they use wicker to tie cask staves in Castile. The bejuco is also medicinal; and there are diverse types of bejucos, as will be told in their place later on, when the weeds, plants, and medicinal trees and their properties are discussed.
This style of house or caney, in order for it to be strong and well-built and well put together will have in the center a post or mast of the most appropriate thickness, driven three or four spans deep into the earth and reaching up to the tallest point or capital of the buhio, to which all the points or ends of the branches are tied. That post will be like those typically found in a pavilion or tent, like those brought by the armies and royalty of Spain and Italy, because the entire house or caney is fixed to that mast; and to better understand this, I put here the manner or figure of the caney, as it should be understood.
The Indians make other houses or buhios in that same way and with the same materials; but these are in a different style, more pleasing to the eye and roomier, built for princely men and caciques; they are long and made with pitched roofs, like those of the Christians, and likewise made with posts and walls of cane and wood, as has been told. These canes are solid, thicker and taller than those of Castile, but they cut them to the measurements of the height of the walls they wish to make, and in the middle go support posts, which here we call haytinales, that reach the highest ridgepole; the best of these buhios have portals that serve as entryways or anterooms, and these are covered in straw like the houses of the villages or towns in Flanders. And if one is better than the other and better made, then it seems to me that the Indians’ roof has the advantage, because the straw or weed from here is much better for this purpose than the straw of Flanders.
On the Mainland, the Christians now make these houses with multiple floors and tall rooms and windows, and because they use nails and very good boards, and they know how to build them better than the Indians, some of these houses are so good that any lord could lodge in one of them. I built a house in the city of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, made from nothing but wood, cane, straw and some nailings, and it cost me more than 1,500 pesos of good gold—it was fit for a prince, with good accommodation above and below, and with a beautiful orchard filled with oranges and other trees, on the bank of a graceful river that runs through that city. That latter republic, to its population’s sorrow, to the detriment of God and Their Majesties, and to the injury of many individuals, was in fact depopulated because of the malice of he who caused it.
And so the houses or buhios (or eracras) of this and other islands are of these two styles I have mentioned, and the Indians build them in towns and communities and also in small villages spread out in the countryside, and also in other styles, as will be told in the second part of this Natural and General History, when we discuss matters related to the Mainland, because over there in some provinces they are of another style, and I have only heard of or seen some of them in that land. But just as the form of the caney or round house was drawn, I would like to include here the second style of the houses I have mentioned, which are like the one I have drawn here, so that what I said about both is better understood. And one can be certain that for the first two or three years, if it is good and well made, the straw roofs leak less than the tiled roofs of Spain; but after the time I say, the straw rots, and it is necessary to replace it and even the base frames or posts, but not if they are made from some of the woods that are found in these parts which do not rot beneath the earth; some of these woods are the corbana or cinnamon tree of this island, and the guayacan, which they tell me is used to make the foundation of the houses in the provinces of Venezuela, and that it does not rot at any time. And on the Mainland, there is another wood, which the Christians call prieta wood, which also does not rot beneath the earth; but because in other parts I will discuss the woods, and their qualities will be further specified, there is no need to say more here than what pertains to these buildings or styles of houses.
 Illus. 4.a, fig. 9.a
 Illus. 1.a, fig. 10.a
Image by artist M. Stiles