Mehr Nasir-Moin ’21: Book XIX, Chapter VIII (In Which the Chronicler Addresses Some Opinions About Pearls)

Book XIX, Chapter VIII

In which the chronicler addresses some opinions about pearls from ancient histories, and of some of their distinctive features, and of some large pearls that have been found in these Indies.

Translated by Mehr Nasir-Moin ’21

As for the discovery and conquest of the Island of Pearls and part of the province and coast of Cumaná in the Mainland, and other particulars related to that matter, what suited that history has been told in the preceding chapters. Now I will say something about the opinions of the ancients regarding margaritas or pearls, and although to some it may seem a harsh thing for me to rebuke and contradict what such distinguished and knowledgeable men affirm, readers should not marvel, because they can tell the truth and so can I. They, as their words were informed by various authors or people on whose information they relied, and my own, which proceed from my eyes and experience. Isidore[1] says that pearls are called uniones, because they are always found alone and never two or more together, and Albertus Magnus agrees with this in his treatise De proprietatibus rerum, and both authors have it that they are engendered from the dew at a certain time of year, and they say other things that the curious person will be able to read about, if he desires, in their treatises. But Pliny[2] writes about it much longer and better than any of the other authors that I have seen: he agrees with the aforementioned, or better yet, they could have learned from him when they claim that pearls are generated from dew, as more credit is due to him because he is older. This manner of the conception of pearls from dew is one of the things that I do not affirm, and about which I am doubtful, as I will explain below. And all three histories agree that depending on the quality of the dew they receive they are light or dark; so they say that if the dew is light, so is the pearl, and if murky, the pearl is murky. And if it is cloudy when they are conceived, they say that the pearls are yellow, because they belong to the air, and they have more propinquity with the air than with the sea, and from the air they take their color, whether cloudy or clear. But Pliny does not agree with the aforementioned authors when it comes to the name of the pearls being uniones, because he says that Elio Stilon writes that in the war of Jugurta, pearls which were supremely large were given this name of uniones; but he does not approve of what the other authors say, for in the aforementioned book and chapters Pliny differs from them based on the evidence of his own eyes, and he says that he has seen many times the edges or border of the nacre or shell and almost outside the shell four pearls together and even five. He could very well say it, because in these parts, especially on the island of Cubagua, which I describe here, many more beads of pearls and small pearls have been seen together, and this happens every day. But all of the authors conclude that pearls get old, and therefore I say that no prudent person should make such a great treasure of something that so promptly and magnificently teaches us the truth and decay of beauty. I say treasure as in holding them as a jewel that can last a long time, because their radiance is not durable. And because of this they are not a legacy to keep, because with every day that passes they lose their vigor and are worth less, for they grow old and wrinkled, and from hour to hour they are less valuable. So, the fresher they are, the better they are, as long as they possess the other qualities they must have to be valued. I will not say much more than what Pliny says about pearls in the aforementioned text, which is very remarkable to hear, like those of Lollia Paulina, matron of the emperor Gaius Caligula, and of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. But I will remind whoever reads this that Pedrarias de Avila, governor of the Mainland, had a pearl that he bought for 1,200 pesos from a merchant named Pedro del Puerto in the city of Darién in the year 1515 (who had bought it at an auction from Gaspar de Morales and the people who had gone with him to the island of Terarequi, which is in the South Sea); and in the same way the merchant bought it he sold it the next day, and then sold it to Pedrarias, because the merchant could not sleep at night thinking of the gold he had given for the pearl, which weighed 31 carats, and is pear-shaped and had a very beautiful color and was very much like those from the Orient. Which the Empress, our lady, later bought from Doña Isabel de Bovadilla, wife of Pedrarias: and in truth it is a pearl and jewel to be highly esteemed by those who own it, as it is now. But I had a round pearl weighing twenty-six carats, and I later had another pear-shaped one, which I obtained in Panama in the year 1529, which I sold in this city of Santo Domingo of this island of Hispaniola to a German from the great Belzares (Weiser) company for 450 castellanos. These large pearls and others were found in the South Sea on the island of Terarequi; but on this other island of Cubagua, which is dealt with here, they are not large, but small, of two and three and four or five carats, the largest of them perhaps a little bigger than this; but they are different in their perfection and they are found in boundless quantity, large and small and of all kinds. There are pearls as well in other parts of these Indies, which I will mention when this history considers or touches upon the provinces where they are found.

As for what I touched upon previously when I said or tried to indicate that I had to disapprove or contradict what such distinguished authors write in this matter of pearls, I say that I find it impossible to affirm what they say about engendering from the dew, and being cloudy or clear or yellow because of thunder; because in the same oyster not all of the pearls contained are of a single quality and roundness, or of a uniformity of color or size, but come in many different ways. On the other hand, how can you prove what they say as many of them are drawn from 10 or 12 fathoms of deep water, where they are very stuck and attached to rocks in some parts? Who saw them clear before it thundered, and afterwards saw that the same ones had become dark and acquired the imperfections already mentioned? . . .  Let those who do not know how to contradict it believe them; because I have seen them and found them as black as jet, and others tawny, and others yellower and sparkling like gold, and others curdled and thick and without radiance, and others almost blue, and other like silver, and others that verge on the color green, and others tending towards other colors. And in this way the more different and imperfect or less esteemed they are, the more and of greater esteem are the perfect ones. It is very rare to find those that are worthy of consideration or of the estimation of their carats for their sale. But as for the manner of their creation, remember he who reads this of what was said in Chapter II of this Book XIX, which can be considered very certain. And it could also be that in these parts they were formed and bred in one way, and in the East where Pliny and others say that there they are engendered in another way, by the dew as they say, because nature in some parts works in different ways in the same type of creatures. Let the reader be content, then, with what has been said, and let us move on to another way that pearls are made and born in nacres, of which I made mention in the preface because I have never read about them nor have I seen them written about by any author, and I have taken them to Spain, and there are many of them on the southern coast of the Mainland, in the province that is called Nicaragua, and in the islands of Chara and Chira and Pocosi, and other islands of the Gulf of Orotiña.

[1] Isidore, Ethi., Book XVI, Chapter 10.

[2] Albertus Magnun, Book XVI, Chapter 62.

Illustration by Richard Polydore Nodder in The zoological miscellany: being descriptions of new, or interesting animals, published in London in 1814.