Book V, Chapter III
Concerning the marriages of the Indians and how many wives they have; to what degree they do not take wives, nor do they know them carnally; and concerning their vices and lusts, their religious practices when they search for gold, their idolatry, and other notable things.
Translated by Dahlia Chroscinski ’19
In the previous chapter I described the type of beds of the Indians on this island of Hispaniola, so let us speak in turn of it complement, their matrimonial practices were, given that in truth this act that we Christians hold as a sacrament, as it is, could be called instead a sacrilege among these Indians, for one cannot say the following about them: those who God joins, man must not separate.One must rather believe that the devil joins them, given their practices. It was customary that every man had one wife and no more (if he could not support more), but many had two or more wives, and the caciques or kings had three or four or however many they wanted. Cacique Behechio had thirty wives of his own, and not only for the uses and relationship that married men typically have with their wives, but also for other beastly and vile sins, since Cacique Goacanagari had certain women with whom he laid as vipers do.Such an unbelievable abomination could only be learned from such animals; Albertus Magnus writes about this act and use of vipers in De proprietatibus rerum, as does Isidore in his Etymologiae and Pliny in his Natural History, among other authors. But much worse than the vipers themselves were those who committed such acts, for vipers were not granted any other way of conceiving, and only through necessity do they come to perform such an act; let us see if the man who would imitate such behavior would find what God has in store for him just, where such a thing was practiced or took place. Therefore, if such tales are told about this king or cacique Goacanagari, it is clear that he would not be alone in committing such vile and dirty crimes; in time, ordinary folk (and even the entire kingdom) would seek to imitate the prince in his virtues and vices. Because of this, a prince’s faults are greater and thus worthy of greater punishment, if they are inventors of some sin or crime, and when those who govern are virtuous, their merits and glory are of the greatest excellence and reward, for by showing themselves to be a praiseworthy example of virtue, they invite their subjects to be better by imitating them.
So, what I have said about the people of this island and neighboring regions is publicly known, and even in the mainland, where many of these Indians were sodomites, it is well known that there are many of them. Such is their appreciation of this sin that, as other people tend to wear jewelry made of gold and precious stones around their necks, in some parts of the Indies they have ornaments in gold relief of a man on top of another, in that diabolic and vile act of sodomy. I saw one of these small devil’s pendants, weighing twenty gold pesos, hollow, cast, and well carved, on the port of Santa Marta on the coast of the Mainland in the year 1514, when the navy that the Catholic King sent to Castilla del Oro with Pedrarias Dávila, its general captain, arrived there; and as they carried the gold that was taken from there and brought it later to melt before me, as I was overseer at the gold foundries, I broke it with a hammer and crushed it with my hands on an anvil in the foundry house, in the city of Darién.
Therefore, it remains to be seen if he who values and decorates his body with such jewels would commit such sins on this earth, where they wear such adornments, or if it should be considered as something new among the Indians or as something very ordinary and commonplace to them. Thus you should know that one who is passive and takes on the role of a woman in this beastly, unholy act, is later given the tasks of a woman and made to wear naguas or skirts as a woman.
When I come across a certain word that is strange to our Castilian language, I would like to address it at once before moving forward, for the reader’s satisfaction. To this purpose I shall say that the naguas are light blankets made of cotton that women of this island wrap around their bodies from the waist to the knees to cover their shameful parts, and the principal women wear them down to their ankles; virgin maidens, as I have said already, do not wear anything to cover their shameful parts (nor do the men) because, as they do not know what shame is, they do not see the need to defend against it.
Returning to the subject of this abominable sin against nature, it was commonly practiced among the Indians of this island. To the women it is abhorrent, more from self-interest than for any scruple of conscience, and even though there were in fact some women who were good people, the majority on this island were the most lecherous and dishonest and libidinous women that have ever been seen in these Indies. And I say that some were good and loved their husbands, because when a cacique died, at the time when they buried him, some of his women accompanied him of their own free will and went with him into his grave; they would bring water and casabi (the bread they eat) and some fruit with them. The Indians of this island would call the beautiful, famous woman who buried herself alive with her husband athebeane nequen; when they did not commit themselves, even though it would weigh heavy on the rest, they were thrown in with their husbands. And so it happened on this island when Cacique Behechio (a great man, as was said in its place) died, two of his wives were buried alive with him, but not because they loved him; they did not love him of their own free will but they were forced against their will to be buried alive, and they fulfilled these hellish offerings in order to observe the custom. This was not generally practiced throughout the entire island, because this was not what happened when other caciques died; instead, after the cacique dies, they swathe him with woven cotton bandages, like a girth or cinch for riding, and the bandages are so long that they wrap the dead very tightly all the way from his head to his feet, and they dig a hole and put him in it, as if in a silo, and put his jewels on him and the things that he values most. And in this hole, where they bury the dead, they make a dome of sticks so that the body does not touch the ground, and they sit him on a well carved duho (which is a bench), and later cover this dome or housing made of sticks and wood with dirt; for fifteen or twenty days his Indians sing laments with many other principal Indians and caciques from other regions who come to honor the dead. With these outlanders they share the goods and personal property of the dead cacique, and in their laments or songs they tell the tales of the life and deeds of the dead cacique, and they speak of the battles he won, and how well he governed his land, and all of the other things that were worthy of memory. And so, from the confirmation of the nobility of the cacique’s works, they form the areytos and songs that will remain as history, as I have already discussed in the first chapter of this book.
Given the fame of Anacaona, who was the most principal woman of this island in her time, one should know that not only the men possessed the filth of the fire of lust, although they were the most abominable. This was a woman who committed similar acts to those of Semiramis, queen of the Assyrians, not like her great deeds as told by Justin, nor as in the killing of those whom she bedded, nor in making the younger maidens wear cloths over their shameful parts, like Giovanni Bocaccio writes about that queen. Because Anacaona didn’t want her servants to be so honest, nor did she wish her adulterers dead; but she wanted to emulate her in many other filthy libidinous behavior. This Anacaona was King Caonabo’s wife and the sister of King Behechio; she was a very dissolute person, like the other women of this island, and although they were good to the Indian men and not so obviously lustful, they would give themselves easily to the Christians and did not deny them their persons. But Cacica Anacaona’s lust was of a different nature, but only after her husband and brother died, because she was not as shameless during their lifetimes; after they died she was just as revered and respected, if not more so, than them. She made her home in the land and lordship of her brother, located in the province of Jaragua, towards the Western end of this island, and nothing was done but what she ordered; the caciques had six or seven wives or as many as they wanted to have, and one was the main one, the one he loved the most and paid most attention to, even though all the wives ate together. Among the wives there were no arguments or quarrels, but instead calmness and equality, and without fighting they passed their lives under the same roof and together by their husband’s bed, which seems impossible and not conceivable except among chickens and sheep, which are content to share a single rooster or a single ram without getting jealous. But among women this is a rare thing, and out of all of human nations today, only these Indian women and the people of Thrace hold on to this custom; these two groups of people are similar in many rituals and others things, as will be told in more detail later, because although among the Moors and other infidels in some places it is common to have two or three or more wives, their envy, gossip, and jealousy is endless, to the annoyance of their husband and the women themselves.
And so, returning to our history, among a cacique’s many wives there was always one who came before all the others, either because she was more generous or more loved, without offending, belittling, or lording it over the others. This is how Anacaona behaved when her brother and husband were alive; after they were gone, as I have said, she remained the absolute mistress, respected by all the Indians. But she became very unchaste in the venereal act with the Christians, and because of this and other similar things she gained a reputation for being the most dissolute woman ever on this island. Despite all this, she was a woman of great gifts and knew how to be served and obeyed and feared by her people and subjects, and even by her neighbors.
I said earlier that the women of this island were chaste with the natives but would give themselves to Christians of a certain rank; and in order to move on from this foul subject, it seems worth noting a remarkable religious practice that the Indians on this island maintained by separating themselves from their wives and remaining chaste for a few days—not for the purpose of living a good life nor to reject vice or lust, but to get gold. It almost seems that the Indians were in some way trying to imitate the people of Arabia, where those who gather incense (according to Pliny) not only separate themselves from the women, but are also completely chaste and immaculate, avoiding intercourse altogether. The Admiral Christopher Columbus, first discoverer of these regions, as Catholic captain and good governor, after getting news about the mines in Cibao and seeing that the Indians got gold from the water of the streams and rivers without digging it up, following the religious practice described, would not allow the Christians to go for gold without first having confessed and received communion. And he said that since the Indians first spent twenty days without being with their wives (or any other women), and fasted while separated from them, and claimed that if they had been with their wives they would not find gold, then, if the beastly Indians treated this so solemnly, all the more reason for the Christians to set aside their sins and confess their guilt, and being in the grace of God, our Lord, He would grant them earthly and spiritual goods more readily. Such saintliness was not pleasing to everyone, and they said that as far as they were separated from their wives in Spain—those who had them—there were farther from them than the Indians from theirs; regarding the fasting, they said that many Christians died of hunger and ate roots and other bad foods, and drank water; and regarding the confessions, they argued that they were not obliged by the church except once every year on Easter to mark the Holy Resurrection, and this they did, and some even more frequently. And they said that since God did not ask more of them, this should be sufficient for the Admiral, who should allow them to follow their own path and not impose such provisions on them. And thus they attributed this to other reasons that, not unsurprisingly, crossed their minds; since he did not deny a license to search for gold to those who confessed and took communion while others were not allowed to go to the mines; instead he had them punished if they went without his license.
Regarding the kingdoms or cacicados (chiefdoms) and estates of the Indians, I have been informed by many that they are inherited and passed along among them, and the inheritance goes to the eldest son of any of the cacique’s wives. If after the son inherits there are no more children, the estate does not go to the son of the cacique’s brother, but instead goes to the son or daughter of his sister, if she had any, because they said that he was a truer nephew or heir (for it was evident that the sister had given birth to the child) than any born to his sister in law, and thus a truer grandchild of the lineage or ancestry. But if the cacique died without leaving any sons or daughters, and he had a sister with children, they would not inherit the cacicado if there was a brother of the dead cacique born from the same father, if the estate was patrilineal; if the estate was matrilineal then the relative closest to the mother inherited everything, following the line from which the lordship and property came. This does not seem overly bestial or wrong, especially in a land where the women were so unchaste and bad, as was said earlier. The men, although some were worse than the women, had a virtuous and common restraint and habit, generally pertaining to marriage; in no way did they take as a wife nor did they have sexual relations with their mother, daughter, or sister, but in all other respects they took and used them, whether or not they were their wives—which is marvelous among a people so inclined to and distorted with the vice of the flesh. And such a bestial people should be praised for keeping this rule inviolably guarded, and if some prince or cacique breaks it, he is regarded as very bad and is commonly hated by all his people and even by strangers. But among some who have the name of Christians in some parts of the world it will have been broken sometimes, and among Jews and gentiles no less, as is proven in the Holy Scripture with Amon and Thamar, his sister. Suetonius Tranquillus says so in the life of Caligula: Cum omnibus sororibus suis stupri consuetudinem fecit; and in his Suplementum chronicarum he says that the Emperor Caligula used two of his sisters, and from one of them he had a daughter whom he also forced himself upon. The daughter forgave him, Eusebio writes, and adds that Caligula had intercourse with his sisters as well and exiled them to certain islands. And in the same Suplementum chronicarum it is written that the people of Parthus, disregarding proper chastity, had sexual relations with their own daughters and sisters and other women who were closely-related or closely allied to them. But regarding this, one of the most terrible princes, about whom such excesses are written, is the Emperor Caligula, who was mentioned earlier. He who wants to know more particulars, listen to Suetonius Tranquillus, who wrote about his life, and see what he has to say. El Tostado [Abulensis], writing about Eusebio’s De los tiempos, citing Solinus in Polyhistor, says that those without laws do not use marriage, but instead all of the women are communal, like among the Garamantes, who are Ethiopians; the same Tostado, citing Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, says in earlier times it was the custom among the English that six men together could marry one woman. This custom would not be approved in these our times by King Henry VIII of England; I rather think that he would feel the complete opposite.
But let us not speak only of strangers, for today some live in our Spain, or are natives of it, and I have seen and met two of these people, and even three, who each married two sisters; the first sister dying before they married the second. I have also seen two brothers married to one woman, all three of them still alive, and I have seen a religious man of the Military Order of Calatrava, which is the same of Cistel, who after being professed for many years left the Order of which he was a member and joined that of Santiago, and a married woman, who having had children from her husband abandoned him and took the same habit of Santiago, married the commander who had been a member of the Calatrava Order. But for things so exceptional and rare to take place the Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ must intervene, since he can bestow everything—this he consents to only when such a relationship exists for very legitimate and necessary causes, or in order to avoid further damage, and therefore he approves such marriages. Thus I believe he has done in the cases I have seen, but I hope to God that they have told the truth to His Sanctity, because he always says fiat, clave non errante. So it is not so surprising if among these savage people of our Spanish Indies the errors I have named have taken place.
But in the little that I have read, the people who seem to me to be most similar to these Indians in the use of women are those of Thrace. The very same Abulensis writes that in that land every man has many wives, and that the more wives one has the more honorable one is considered, and that the wives of these parts who love their husbands the most throw themselves in the fire when they burn the dead husband (as it was the custom in that region to burn men’s bodies after they died). Those who did not do this were taken as wives who had not been faithful to their husbands (I have already said that in our Indies, according to custom, some women were buried alive with their dead husbands). And in the next chapter this same author says that these people of Thrace sacrifice foreign men, and that out of the skulls of the dead they make cups for drinking human blood and other beverages. Isidore, in his Etymologiae, says that this is more fabulous and false than true; I think he would not doubt this if he knew what we know today of the Caribs in these islands, and of the people of New Spain, and of the provinces of Nicaragua and Peru, and those who live on the Mainland, below the equinoctial line or close to there, like in Quito, Popayan, and other parts, many in the Mainland, where sacrificing men is a very common practice, and it is as common to eat human flesh as it is to eat sheep and cow in France, Spain and Italy.Regarding this practice of eating human flesh, Pliny says that among the Scythians there are many peoples who sustained themselves by eating human flesh, and that in the middle of the world, in Italy and Sicily, the Cyclopes and the Laestrygonians did the same, and that again in the other side of the Alps in France (or the North Band) they would sacrifice men. But let us abandon this topic of eating human flesh and one man eating another, for it has its place later: in the second part, dealing with the Mainland, there is much to say about this. Now we return to the mistake of the Indians regarding women. I say we could bring to bear other peoples just as guilty in these matters, and although among Christians such a crime is not common, I suspect that it could have been committed by some reckless fool, or by someone isolated from the true Catholic faith; for this very reason I am more amazed by these savage Indians who despite being so full of vices have not erred regarding women by not laying with their mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they have erred in other ways as mentioned. Nor should it be thought that they refrained from it for some virtuous reason, but because the Indians of this island (and of the surrounding ones) consider it certain and established that the one who marries his mother, daughter, or sister dies a bad death. If this opinion, as it is said, is fixed in them, one must believe that they have learned this through experience. Nor is it surprising that the Indians are involved in the other errors that I have named, nor that they incur others, as they do not honor the Almighty God and worship the devil in various forms and idols, as is customary among the people of these Indies. As I have said, in many places and on many things they paint, carve, and sculpt in wood, clay, and other materials a demon which they call cemí, as ugly and as frightening as what the Catholics usually paint at the feet of the archangel Saint Michael or of the apostle Saint Bartholomew, only not bound in chains, but revered and sometimes seated on a stool or pedestal, sometimes standing, and in various ways. They had these infernal images in their houses in designated and dark places reserved for prayer, and which they entered to pray and ask for what they desired, like water for their fields and land, or a well sown field, and victory against their enemies; in short, they asked for and thought of all their needs, and the remedy for them. And there inside was an old Indian who replied to them along the lines of what they wanted to hear or according to his consultation with he whose evil visage was represented there;from what is fair to conclude that the devil, as his minister, entered and spoke through him, and as he is an old astrologer, he told them the day that it was going to rain, and other things that pertain to nature. These old men were highly revered and held in great esteem among the Indians as priests and prelates; these were the ones who most commonly smoked the aforementioned tobacco or inhalations, and when they came back to themselves, they said whether war should be waged or delayed, and without the opinion of the devil (in the form described), they did not undertake or do anything of importance. It was the main exercise on this island of Haiti or Hispaniola, during the times when they stopped warring or doing agriculture or working in the fields, to trade and exchange some things for others, not with the cunning of our merchants, asking for things that are really worth much more for only a real, nor making promises to deceive simple folk; but rather contrary to all this and haphazardly, because out of wonder they looked at what they were given and what they exchanged in return as having the same value in price or barter, but enjoying the thing as a pastime, they would trade what was worth a hundred reales for what was not worth ten or even five. Finally, when it occurred to the Christians to dress them and to give them a very fine silk or scarlet tunic, or a very good cloth, and in little time, after a day or two, they would exchange it for a piece of lace or string, or a pair of pins; in this respect, they would barter anything, and later what had been acquired they traded again for another ridiculous thing, being worth or not being worth more or less the same price, because among them the most important aim of their wealth was to exercise their will, without having consistency in anything. The greatest sin or crime that the Indians of this island hated most and punished with the greatest severity and without alteration or mercy was theft; however small the stolen object, they impaled the thief alive (like they say they do in Thrace), and like this they left the thief skewered on a post or tree, like in a spit, until he died there. And because of the cruelty of such a punishment, they rarely had anyone to punish in this way; but if they had no pardon or relief was offered to the guilty, regardless of family connection or friendship, and they held it as an equal crime to intervene or intercede for the punishment to be forgiven or substituted with a lesser one.
Satan has already been exiled from this island; everything ceased with the cessation and death of most of the Indians, and also because those who remain are now few and are in service of the Christians or have their friendship. Some of the young boys among these Indians may be saved if they believe and are baptized, as the Gospel says. So, those who keep the Catholic faith and do not follow the mistakes of their parents and predecessors will be saved. But what shall we say of those who, being Christians, were estranged some years ago, fleeing to the sierras and mountains with the Cacique Don Enrique and other principal Indians, not without bringing shame and great harm to the Christians and neighbors of this island? But because this is a remarkable event and requires a detailed narrative, the matter will be discussed in the next chapter, so that the origin of this rebellion may be better understood and to see how God brought it to a good end through the clemency of His Imperial Majesty Our Emperor, King Charles V, our lord, and by the prudence of his very high Royal Council of the Indies.
 Quos Deus conjuxit, homo non separet. Math. 19.
 De proprietatib. rer. Book III, Chapter 100.
 Isid. Book XII, Chapter 8.
 Pliny, Book X, Chapter 62.
 Justin, Book II.
 Giovanni Boccaccio, De las Ilust. mugeres.
 Pliny. Book XII, Chapter XIV.
 Regum II, Chapter XIII.
 Suplementum chronicarum, Book VIII.
 Eusebio, De temporibus.
 Suplementum chronicarum, Book VII.
 Cap. De libidine ejus cum omnibus sororibus.
 Abulensis, Book III, Chapter 106.
 Insert English translation here.
 Abulensis, Book III, Chapter 167.
 Isidore, Book IX, Chapter II.
 Pliny, Book VII, Chapter 2.
 Marcum, Chapter XVI. Qui crediderit et baptizatus fuerit, salvus erit: qui vero non crediderit, condemnabitur.
Image retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.