Dahlia Chroscinski ‘19: Book V, Chapter II (Concerning the tobacco use and smoking habits of the Indians in this island of Hispaniola and the types of beds they sleep in)

Book V, Chapter II

Concerning the tobacco use and smoking habits of the Indians in this island of Hispaniola and the types of beds they sleep in.

Translaetd by Dahlia Chroscinski ’19

The Indians of this island, among their other vices, had a very bad one which was that of smoking various substances, including one that they called tabaco (tobacco), in order to alter their senses. They did this with the smoke of a certain herb that, as far as I understand it, has the qualities of henbane, but not of the same shape or form, from their appearance, because this herb is a stem or sapling about four or five handspans tall or less with thick and broad leaves, and soft and hairy, and their colors is reminiscent of the color of the leaves of the ox tongue or bugloss (as the herbalists and medics call them). This herb is in a manner or genus similar to henbane, which they take in this way: the caciques and principal men have hollow sticks about the length of a jeme[1] or less thick than the little finger of the hand, and these small tubes each have two barrels that split from the main one, as it is depicted here,[2] all in one piece. And they would put those two in their nostrils and the other in the smoke and herb that was burning; they were very smooth and well crafted, and they burned the leaves of that grass, tossed together and wrapped up in the way that the courtiers usually make their smokes—they would take breaths and inhale smoke one, two, three or more times, as much as they could take, until they were left senseless for a long while, lying on the ground, drunk or asleep in a deep, heavy dream. The Indians who did not have these sticks smoked with reed straws or canes; and it is the instrument through which they inhale the smoke, the reeds or canes that were mentioned, that the Indians call tobacco, and not the herb or dream it induces (as some thought). The Indians considered this particular herb very precious, and they cultivated it in their gardens and fields for the effects I have said; it was believed that using this herb and incense was not only something healthy, but also very sacred. When the cacique or principal man falls down to the ground, the women (which are many) take him and lay him in his bed or hammock, if he had told them to do so before he fell; if he hadn’t said so nor requested this beforehand, he does not want anything but for them to leave him on the ground until the intoxication and sleepiness passes. I cannot imagine what kind of pleasure they get out of such an act, if it is not the gluttony of drinking that makes them smoke tobacco in the first place, and some drink so much of a certain wine that they make themselves that even before they can smoke they fall into a state of drunkenness; when they feel heavy and stuffed, they resort to such perfume. And also, many, without drinking too much, smoke the tobacco and do what I have described until they end up laying sideways or on their back on the ground, not because of sickness but like sleeping men. I know that some Christians already use it, especially those that are touched by the illness of the sores, because it is said that when they are like that they are transported and no longer feel the pain of their disease, but to me this is nothing more than a waking death—I see it as far worse than the pain from which they are trying to escape, as they are not healed by this.

At present, many Blacks in this city and throughout the whole island have adopted this same custom, and they grow this herb on the farms and properties of their masters for the effects that I have mentioned, and they consume the same smokes and tobaccos; they say that when they stop working and smoke tobacco, they become less fatigued.

Here it seems worth mentioning the immoral and bad custom that the people of Thrace practiced, among their other criminal vices, according to what Abulensis writes regarding Eusebio’s De los tiempos,[3] where he says that everyone, both men and women, have the custom of eating around the fire, and that they enjoy becoming intoxicated very much, or so it seems; as they don’t have wine, they take the seeds of some herbs that grow among them, which when thrown into the coals give off such an odor that they intoxicate everyone present, without drinking anything. In my opinion this is the same thing as the tobacco that the Indians use. I said above that when a leader or cacique falls due to inhaling tobacco they put him in his bed, if he wants them to do so, so it is pertinent here to note what beds the Indians have on this island of Hispaniola, which they call hamaca (hammock), and it is thus.

A blanket woven in parts and in others open, with crossing squares forming a net, because it makes it fresher, and it is made of spun cotton (made by the Indian women), which is often 10 or 12 handspans in length and as wide as they wish to make it. Many threads of fique or henequen fiber (of which more will be said later in Chapter X of Book VII) hang from the ends of the blanket.These threads or cords are long and detachable and run along to the ends of the hammock from a knot (where they part) that is made like the ends of a bowstring, and like this they mount it, hanging it from the hammock’s end. From these knots they tie well-made roped lines of cotton or of fique fiber in the width they want; they call these ropes hicos, because hico means the same as rope or string, and one rope is tied to a tree or pole and one is tied to another, and the hamaca remains in the air, as high above ground as they want to put it. They are good and clean beds, and since the ground is temperate, there is no need for covers, unless one is at the height of some mountain range, where it is cold; as they are wide and hang loose, so that they are softer, there is always some spare cloth on the hamaca, if they want to fold it over themselves. But if they sleep at home, the posts or shelves of a bohío or hut are used to hang these hamacas or beds, and if it is cold they put coals under the hamaca, on the ground or close by, in order to warm themselves. But in truth, to he who is not accustomed to such beds, they are not comfortable if they are not very wide; the head and feet of one who sleeps in them are higher than the back which is low, and the man becomes arched, disrupting his sleep; when they are wide enough, one can lie across the middle, and this way the entire body is balanced.

In the fields, especially where there are groves of trees from which to hang them, it seems to me the best type of bed for men at war—it is portable and a boy can carry it in his arm, or a man on horseback can use it as a saddle or as a seat cushion. And in the armies they would be quite useful in Spain and Italy and other parts, because many suffer or die in these places from sleeping on the ground during winters and stormy weather. In these Indies men at war carry them in baskets with lightweight covers, which here they call hacas, but in other regions of these Indies they call patacas, the ones that are made from bihaos, which will be discussed later, and like this they keep them protected and clean; the people do not sleep stretched out on the ground, like the Christians do in the military camps of Europe and Africa and other regions. They do not sleep this way here because the earth is so humid that it would be more dangerous than war itself, and if I have understood it correctly, this bed looks as it has been depicted here.[4]

[1] A unit of measurement used for plants, equivalent to about twelve centimeters.

[2] (Lám. 1. a fig. 7.a)

[3] Abulensis, Book III, Chapter 168.

[4] Lám. 1, fig. 8.

Image retrived from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.