Kendal Simmons ’23: Book VI, Chapter XIX (About a Notable Discovery in Visual Perception That Contradicts What Our Eyes Show Us)

Book VI, Chapter XIX

About a notable discovery in visual perception that contradicts what our eyes show us in other parts of the world.

Translated by Kendal Simmons ’23

It is very common to see something in the distance that appears to be much smaller than its true size. In the province of Venezuela, in the Mainland, which His Imperial Majesty has commended to the German Velzares [the Welzer Company], there is a phenomenon that contradicts what was stated above. In a certain part of that province, objects appear to be much bigger from a distance than what they actually are. Along the path that reaches from the city of Coro to the cape of San Román (a province that the Indians call Paraguana) there is a cape that juts out twenty-five leagues or more into the sea. At first, the cape is as wide as a short league, but it continues to widen, quickly reaching a longitude of eight or nine leagues. The majority of this land is washed by seawater when the sea is rough and, after the water recedes, it remains level and smooth. It remains free of any grass, rocks, or similar things and it is so clean that it is comparable to a nice laid out sheet of paper. The sand remains slightly whitened, similar to saltpeter or land touched by salt.

What I am about to say is a marvelous thing: if a man is walking along this path and spots another man in the distance who is traveling in the opposite direction, then it will seem as if the person coming is as tall as the mast of a ship. It is true that the object seemingly multiplies, whether it be a man, a horse, a stone, or any other object that expands when the sun reaches the ground and creates a shadow that is much larger than the actual size of the object. This is how the object grows and seems so much larger on the aforementioned path. This occurs both in the morning and during the middle of the day, regardless of the time or hour. Also, the farther away the object is, the taller it appears to be, while the closer the object gets, the smaller it appears to be. This has been attentively observed and experienced by many, as it is a very notable thing.

After passing this path, the land widens greatly and there are hills, groves, slopes, and valleys where the object appears just as it does in other places. On July 13th, 1540, in the presence of the reverend lord, the president of the Royal Audience and Chancery that resides in this city of Santo Domingo of the island of Hispaniola, Licenciado Don Alonso de Fuenmayor, bishop of this city who was sworn in before me, as has been told, Alonso de la Llana, a merchant native to the city of Burgos, and Francisco Nuñez, native to the city of Plasencia, staying in this city, all confirmed that what has been said is true and that they themselves have seen the phenomenon occur many times. And even without those testimonies, many others say that they have seen and experienced it, among whom is Lázaro Bejarano, a neighbor of this city, a man of honor and credibility who visited that land not very long ago and says the same thing. And although this is a well-known occurrence, some people who are unaware of the phenomenon have been tricked by those who are aware. Someone who is aware may travel ahead along the path and leave a hat or a rock on the ground that is no larger than a handspan, all without the newcomer seeing it. And, since they are separated by the length of a crossbow shot or two, looking back, it seems as if something as big as an ox or a horse is there. Given that the land is level and not one thing is seen passing by, the newcomer makes his guesses as to what it is, saying that it is a man or a horse or a boulder. However, going back to see the object, it grows smaller and resumes its actual size and shape, twenty or more times smaller than what it had seemed to be from afar.

Image: Hand-colored engraving by Thomas Gage, retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University