Of the voyage from Spain to the Indies, and the manner and planning of the navigation, and of the marvelous tree of the island of El Hierro, which is one of the Fortunada Islands, now called the Canary Islands.
Translated by Daniella Torres-Skendi ’22
The Emperor King of Spain, our lord, has his royal Casa de Contratación or House of Trade—before which ships and caravels, peoples and goods, and all that comes from these parts need to be registered by officials—in the city of Seville. And with their license, people board with the captains and masters at the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the Guadalquivir River joins the ocean, which the ancients called Bétis, from the name of Beto, the sixth King of Spain, according to Beroso. From there they continue their journey to the Canary Islands, which the cosmographers call Las Fortunate, and they are as follows: Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro. Solino makes mention of these islands in his treatise Mirabilibus Mundi, and so does Pliny, although he does not write about the miracle of the island of El Hierro, which he calls Ombrio, in as great a detail as we understand it today. And because this is something worth knowing, I will tell what I have learned from some trustworthy persons, particularly because it is a notorious tale.
El Hierro is inhabited but has no freshwater river, spring, lake, or well, and yet every day in the world God provides heavenly water, but not from rain. He gives said water in this way: each day, an hour or two hours before dawn, a tree found there sweats from its branches and leaves, and a lot of water falls down the bottom of the trunk; a small cloud or fog is above the tree continuously at that time, until two hours after daybreak or a little less, and when the sun is up the cloud disappears and the water ceases to fall. In said time, which can be more or less four hours, enough water is collected to fill a handmade reservoir or lagoon at the foot of the tree, enough for all the people who live on that islet and for their livestock and beasts. The water that falls is very excellent and healthy. This island and Gomera belong to the Count Don Guillén Peraza, vassal of their Majesties. All the other five islands of the Canaries or Fortunate belong to the Royal Crown of Castile, except the one they call Lanzarote, which belongs to a gentleman from Seville, Fernandarias de Saavedra. El Hierro is a small island, and I have already seen it three times coming to these Indies. It lies east to west in what they call in Africa the little sea, twenty-seven and a half degrees west of the equator, on the side of our north pole.
Returning to the route followed on the voyage to our Indies, I say that the ships take from one of these six islands, especially from Gran Canaria, or la Gomera, or la Palma (because they are on a straighter course, and they are fertile and abundant in resources and all that is convenient for those who do this long voyage) supplies of water and firewood, fresh bread, chickens, sheep and goats, live cows, cured meat, cheeses, cured dogfish, shark, and snapper, and other supplies to supplement what the ships bring from Spain. That area and gulf that extends from Castile to these islands is called the Gulf of Mares [or Horse Latitudes] because so many of them were left behind in its waters. That sea is so tempestuous and dangerous, much more so than from there to the Indies, that all the livestock and mares brought from Spain during the early settlement of this land remained on that gulf, because of storms or because they died on the journey; and due to the difficulties in bringing them over, the men began calling it the Gulf of Mares. And this is how it was given this name and kept it, since those mares or horses that reached the Canary Islands alive were deemed to have sailed safely. You could also call it the gulf of cows, since no fewer of them died in the same way.
The ships usually take eight or ten days, more or less, from Spain to the Canary Islands. Having arrived there, they have traveled 250 leagues (to El Hierro), and from there they set course for these parts. With this island in sight, they follow the course to La Désiderade, or one of those islands mentioned in the previous chapter as sharing its location. It takes twenty-five days, more or less, to reach these islands, called La Désiderade, Les Saintes, Marie Galante, Guadeloupe, or Dominica, or any other nearby island, depending on the weather and the pilot’s skill; it has sometimes happened that when ships pass between these islands at night or through bad weather or because the horizon is blurred, they sometimes fail to see them until they reach the island of San Juan, or Hispaniola, or Jamaica (now Santiago, which is further west), or by chance Cuba, which is the furthest west of those that I have named. Sometimes, by fault or misfortune of the pilots and sailors, there have been ships that have never reached any of these islands and have sailed past until the Mainland, and few of these have been saved. When making the trip with a skilled and well-trained pilot (of which there are now many), most will recognize one of the first islands named. And from there they navigate 750 leagues from the Canary Islands (even though some maps indicate more and others fewer), but not very far from this distance of 750 leagues. From there to the city of Santo Domingo on the island of Haiti (which we now call Hispaniola), they navigate another 150 leagues.
So, from Spain to here there are 1,150 or 1,200 leagues, more or less. This is according to the current navigation charts that are better and more accurate than earlier ones (in others they used to mark 1,300 leagues, and in some more). But because this route is better understood from day to day, most say that this journey is 1,200 leagues, more or less. Because of the northeast and northwest movement of the needles, and adjusting for this defect of the ship’s compass, and because of the continuously changing weather and currents, this route may be many leagues father than described, longer to come to these parts and even longer on the return to Spain (the route and navigation on the return to Europe is different, as I will explain here).
It usually takes thirty-five to forty days from Spain to this city of Santo Domingo, setting aside the extremes of those who take longer or arrive much more promptly than what I have stated, because I describe nothing but what happens most often. Returning to Castile takes about fifty-five days or less; in the year 1525, being His Imperial Majesty in the city of Toledo, two caravels went from this city of Santo Domingo to the entrance of the river in Seville in twenty-five days. But we should not be guided by what rarely happens but by what is more ordinary, for the extremes should not be followed. The return trip to Spain used to take the ships three or four months because they insisted on following the same route that had brought them here. So sometimes they faced dangers and took double the time; but this is now better understood, and as pilots become more skilled in this navigation the ships make the return through the northern route, going in the direction of Bermuda (also called La Garza), which is at thirty-three degrees, and sometimes they see it and other times not. But when the ships are at this latitude, they leave the northern route they had been following and sail east, because this island sits east to west, like Azemmour in Africa; from Azemmour to Sanlúcar, where the Guadalquivir River enters the sea, the distance is eighty leagues, more or less. This way of navigating proved the fastest, because after the ships are at thirty-three degrees, the northwest and north winds are almost steady, allowing the ships to travel faster than by the route they took here. I have seen the island called Bermuda or La Garza within a lombard’s shot of it, with the ship’s prow pointing to it and already sailing at a depth of eight fathoms. It is a small island and it is believed to be deserted; I went there determined to get ten or twelve armed men to go and release half a dozen hogs and sows we brought for our ship’s store or supplies, so that they would breed and provide useful meat at some point. Preparing to lower the dinghy off the ship for this purpose, the weather betrayed us, diverting our course. It is not a high land, though it has a ridge that rises above all the other land; there are many seagulls and other water birds there, and many flying fish, of which I will write in its proper place. It has two names because the ship that discovered it was called La Garza, and its captain was named Juan Bermúdez, who was a native of Palos.
Many dangers were faced during the early years following the discovery of these Indies, both in coming here and returning to Castile, as in sailing to and from Mainland, and each day notable things befall those who sail. And because some miraculously escaped other extraordinary situations, something will be said about this later on in the final book, so as not to interrupt this description of the journey from Spain. Those who have made said journey many times, experienced men of the sea, affirm that it is the safest navigation in the world among those known on the Ocean Sea.
The ships that depart from here do so from Hispaniola, or stop on this island on their way to the Mainland, which takes seven to ten days or more, depending on their destination; this is because the Mainland is very extensive and there are various navigations or routes to it. And since it is not yet time to speak of its discovery, I will save it for its own place and time. I only say so here so that whoever wants to go from the island of El Hierro, which is one of the seven Fortunate or Canary Islands, to the coast of the Mainland, where the great river called Marañón is located, will find the Mainland and that coast after navigating six-hundred leagues or less, as will be best understood by those curious about the modern and proven cosmography of these Indies. Ptolemy, ancient and true cosmographer, said nothing of the Mainland and, as was said in the second chapter of this book about Aristotle, SolisnoPliny and Isidore, those authorities speak of the Hesperides islands and not of the Mainland. To my understanding (begging the pardon of those who have read something different), I believe that the first Admiral, Don Christopher Columbus, did not start this discovery frivolously, but following very enlightened and clear authorities and reliable news of these Indies. But because I do not wish to be eager, I will discuss in due course where these islands and new lands are.
Regarding this route, most particularly, I say that those who know how to measure will find that La Désiderade, which is the first destination for ships coming from Spain to these Indies, is at fourteen degrees from the equator, on the side of our arctic pole; those others in its proximity are all on our horizon on this same pole, some south of La Désiderade, and those to the north I have already named in chapter IV of this second book. The southern part of Hispaniola, especially the city of Santo Domingo, is at eighteen degrees from the equator, and its northern coast is at twenty degrees, a few more in some parts and in others much less; this is due to its irregular coast, which widens and narrows in proportion to its shape. So, its highest latitude is from eighteen to twenty, making it thirty-seven leagues wide and 120 to 130 leagues long, more or less. I will discuss the other islands and the Mainland in their proper place.
If some of those who understand, discuss and fully teach cosmography were on said land, without having seen it or known it from experience, they would say that I have made a grave error in the account of this trip, because I said that the island of El Hierro, where this route is charted and begins, is at twenty-seven and a half degrees, and that the island of La Désiderade, the first stop for ships coming here, is at fourteen, and that the southern part of Hispaniola and its city of Santo Domingo are at eighteen degrees, with the widest part of its northern coast at twenty degrees, so that it appears that El Hierro and La Désiderade are at least four degrees lower than should be correct, in order to reach Hispaniola (with each degree of the latter from north to south or from pole to pole extending seventeen and a half leagues). So, La Désiderade is seventy leagues from Hispaniola’s parallel, leaving it on the northern part, and this is true. But if one should fail to go down to fourteen degrees after taking the eighteen, this would be a grave mistake after having navigated twenty days in average conditions. Because without taking them it would be eighteen leagues to the islands called the Virgin Islands, or farther out, and there are many shallows and dangerous inlets between the islands. So that if one were to sail to nineteen or twenty, due to bad weather or because of the defects of the ship’s compass (which will be spoken of in the next chapter), one would not reach this island, ending up instead on the islands of Lucayos, or in Cuba, as the Admiral did on his first journey. To avoid many inconveniences and dangers, and because the islands’ inlets are more safely entered at fourteen to fifteen degrees, one must keep to this number, always keeping at fifteen or less; after the ships enter through said parallel between La Désiderade and the one they call Antigua and those around it, what is left of the path, because of the currents, is travelled very promptly, and the ships can reach this island at their pleasure.
That which I have said cannot be learned in Salamanca, nor in Bologna or Paris, but in the binnacle, which is that place where the compass needle is kept, and with the quadrant in hand, observing the North Star at night and the sun in the day using the astrolabe. Because as is said in Italian: altro vole la tabla que tovalla bianca, I say that navigation also requires more than words, because even though the tablecloths are white, that is not sufficient for the guests to eat, just as those who study cosmography and know it much better than Ptolemy, even with as many words as are written, will not know how to navigate until they use it. Just as he who reads medicine cannot hope to cure the sick as he should until he is experienced in taking the pulse, and through it understands a patient’s paroxysms or the treatments that should be provided for their illness, in that same way the skilled pilot checks the pulse of his compass needle, making sure that it points to the north, with the quadrant showing its elevation and the astrolabe that of the sun; and his experience reminds him of how to tune the sails and govern his sailors and people, and the sounding line shows him the depths. Growing up as a page in the sea, the job is so engrained in him that it is almost second nature, but even if they learn the art at a young age, not all become pilots, nor do all of those who study become doctors. But one can be sure that he who was not raised on the sea from a very young age never became a perfect sailor. This reminds me of an old courtly proverb: he who was not a page, always smells like a mule driver. I want to say that just as pages, sons of good men, are raised in the court and palace since childhood to be valiant and well-bred and elegant courtiers, and not rude in any way, so too must those who are to be able sailors begin to endure the travails of the sea from a tender age, so that they not lose heart or become frightened in times of tempest or dangerous shipwrecks, thus ensuring that they become skilled pilots. This should suffice to understand the journey, and the first Admiral’s second voyage of discovery, and of the true navigation of these seas from Europe.