Jospeh Wiswell ’20: Book II, Chapter XI (Of the Northeast and Northwest Movements of the Ship’s Compass and of the Fickleness of the North Star)

Book II, Chapter XI

Of the northeast and northwest movements of the ship’s compass and of the fickleness of the North Star, and of the four stars that they call the Southern Cross or the diameter line.

Translated by Joseph Wiswell ‘20

I said in the fifth chapter that the compass needles used for navigation are defective and point erroneously to the northeast and northwest; and so that this account can be useful not only to those who have knowledge of these things but can also prove helpful to those who have never seen the sea, warning those who have never heard about this and delighting those who want to understand unusual things with similar impacts, I will say this.

Compass needles are made and charged through the virtues and properties of the lodestone (which in Castile they popularly call magnet rocks), of whose abilities the locals boast, calling them by different names; in addition to the two names I have mentioned they call it magnetic hematite, siderite, and heraclion. This rock is of various types and genres: some are stronger than others, and not all the lodestones are of the same color; the best of them come from Ethiopia and are sold for their weight in silver. All lodestones are greatly effective in medicine for the treatment of many sicknesses. But speaking solely to our concern, which is that of compass needles made with this stone, they show sailors the proper place of our arctic pole or north wind (which they also call the North), at whatever time, hour, and moment of the day or night, whether the skies are clear and serene or threatening and cloudy because of storms or rains. And even though by day we do not see the star closest to the pole, which we popularly call North Star (although it is not), or the night can be so full of clouds that the star is not visible, the compass needle, because of the composition or virtue of the lodestone, points to the pole, and all pilots and seamen, and all who practice the art of navigation are guided by it.

I said above that the star they call the North Star is not such; and so I state it, if you assume by that that it marks the pole or axis, or that is fixed, because in truth the pole is another thing and the needles charged with lodestone point to that, because the star that we see is movable and not fixed. If the stars we call the guardians (a part of that same northern constellation) are visible at the top of the constellation, the North Star is three degrees below the pole; and when the guardians are visible at the bottom of the constellation, the North Star is three degrees above the pole, so from north to south it moves three degrees. When the guardians are visible to the east, the North Star is a degree and a half below the pole; and when they are visible to the west, then the star is a degree and a half above the pole; so from east to west it is distant a degree and a half from the pole, as I have said. When the guardians are aligned with the northeast, the star is three and a half degrees below the pole; and if they are aligned with the southwest, the star is three and a half degrees above the pole. If the guardians are aligned with the northwest, the star is half a degree below the pole; and it is the opposite if the guardians are aligned with the southeast, when the star is half a degree above the pole. With all these changes and deviations, it is clear that the North Star is not the pole, nor is it fixed, nor would it represent a sure measure for navigators. But since it is the star closest to the pole, these changes in the position of the star should be noted as warnings, since the pole itself cannot be seen, so attention should be focused on the constancy of the compass needles and their lodestone, since they are perpetually fixed on the invisible pole. And thus men skilled in the science or art of navigation know the route they follow, aligning the needle with the north, and collating the indications of the needle with the height of the North Star and of the sun, according to the rules of the declination of the sun. And following these indications they plan their route.

All this is for those men who find in the understanding of the sea a more tranquil occupation than those not thus employed. But regarding the difficulties presented by the operation of the needles, or better yet, by men’s understanding of them (since they teach us what I am about to say), it is believed that the diameter or half of the world, or the line that crosses the earth from pole to pole, crossing the equinoctial line, crosses the islands of the Azores, because the needles are never directly and perfectly fixed on the Arctic pole line except when the ships or caravels are in that zone or latitude. And when they move on towards these western parts, they decline a quarter of a degree to the northwest. And traveling east on the return to Spain, as they move away from the aforementioned Azores Islands, they decline to the northeast another quarter. So this is what I wanted to say when touching upon this difficulty of the needles, for the purposes of our subject.

I want to say another very important thing that those who have not navigated these Indies could not have seen, except for those who have traveled in the direction of the equinoctial line or found themselves at least at twenty-two degrees from it more or less. And it is that if you look to the sky to the south you will see four stars forming a cross rising up on the horizon[1] located near the circle of the guardians of the Antarctic pole, as they look in the drawing; those which His Imperial Majesty gave me for my coat of arms, so that I and my descendants could put them together with the ancient one of the Valdés family, in consideration of my having served in these parts and Indies and before that in the royal house of  Castile since I was thirteen years of age; because at such an age I began to serve in the chamber of his highness the prince Don Juan, my lord of glorious memory, uncle of His Imperial Majesty, and after the end of his days in the service of Their Catholic Majesties Don Ferdinand and Doña Isabella, of immortal memory, and after them of Your Majesties. Those arms will appear at the end of this treatise, since it has been written in these parts, where the men who can see these stars endure such toils, and where I have spent the best part of my life. I touched upon this particularity about the stars because they are very notable figures in the sky, where there are innumerable others that can be seen shortly before them looking towards the Arctic; and turning your gaze from there towards the south you will see a sky so full of stars, as it can be in Spain, but looking upon different intervals and constellations, since these are never seen from Spain or other parts of Europe, nor from the greatest part of Asia or Africa, unless one has traveled beyond twenty-two degrees of the Arctic pole, the number of them receding as we cross the equinoctial line moving towards the Antarctic pole, nor can they be seen throughout the Tropic of Cancer.

Returning to my story, it is  time to tell the reason why the Indians and people of King Goacanagari killed the Christians  whom the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus had left in this island of Hispaniola after the first voyage; and to speak of the people he found in this land, so that moving ahead we can tell of other things convenient to this history and we can describe the animals and birds and trees and fruit and provisions the Indians had for their  sustenance, and other things bearing on this history.

[1] Lám 1, Figure 2. [AR]

Image retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University