Abby Tarwater ’21: Book V, Preface (This is the fifth book of the first part of The Natural and General History of the Indies, Islands, and Mainland of the Ocean Sea)

Book V, Preface

This is the fifth book of the first part of  The Natural and General History of the Indies, Islands, and Mainland of the Ocean Sea: which is about the rites, ceremonies, and customs of the Indians, and of their idolatries, vices, and other things.

Translated by Abby Tarwater ’21

In Book III of this Natural History some causes were expressed about why the Indians of this island of Hispaniola came to an end and died, and some of this material was repeated later in the first chapter of Book IV, speaking of the attributes of these Indians.And so it is better understood that this culpability and punishment is primarily founded on the crimes and abominable customs and rites of these people, some part of them and of their doings will be stated in this Book V. For which one can easily deduce God’s rectitude, and how merciful he has been with these peoples, waiting for many centuries for them to amend themselves. Since no creature fails to know that there is an all-powerful God, and so the psalmist says: the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the works of his hands reveal the sky.[1] Moreover, as I wrote in Book II, the Holy Church had already preached to everyone in all the parts of the world the mystery of his redemption; these words were said by Saint Gregory the Great, doctor of the Church,[2] he who took the pontificate and throne of Saint Peter in the year of the Lord 590 and ruled for fourteen years;[3] and Francesco Petrarch in that Summathat he wrote of the lives of the Supreme Pontiffs, claims that Gregory held the Apostolic Throne for thirteen years, six months, and ten days. And after that Saint Gregory rose to heaven in the year 604; and although during the last year of his life the preaching of the mystery of our redemption in all parts of the world had been completed (as he said), eight hundred and eighty-eight years had passed between that time and Columbus’ arrival in these parts (in 1492). And from Columbus and the Christians’ arrival in these Indies to the present year of 1548, another fifty-six more years have elapsed, making it nine hundred and forty-four years after Saint Gregory. And therefore, these people should have understood by now something of such importance to them (as saving their souls), since they have not lacked nor are they currently lacking preachers and priests zealous in the service of God to remind them, after the flags of Christ and the King of Castile came here, even if they had forgotten and needed to be taught again.

But anyway, these Indians (or most of them), are a nation very far from wanting to understand the Catholic faith, and it is crushing cold iron to think that they will be Christians without much discourse over time, and so it seemed to them in their helmets (or rather) in their heads, since they did not wear helmets, nor did they have heads like other people, but rather tough and thick skulls, such that the main advise that the Christians shared when they fought against them and came to blows, was to not stab them in the head, because the swords would break. And as well as having a thick skull, so they have a bestial and poorly inclined understanding and, as will be told later, when we tell of some of their rites and ceremonies, and idolatries, and customs, and other particularities of the same sort that occur or of which I have notice at present. And although this is done and noted in this book, other things will be said of their ceremonies and rites where they fit in with other parts of these stories.


[1] Coeli enarrant gloriam Dei et opera manuun ejus anuntuant firmamentum (Ps. XVIII).

[2] Morales, Book XIII, Chapter X.

[3] Eusebius, De temporibus.

Image retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.