Of the two notable and dangerous plagues or diseases that the Christians and new settlers of the Indies suffered and continue to suffer from. The diseases are native to these Indies; one of them was transferred and carried to Spain and since then to other parts of the world.

Translated by Nywel Cheaye ’22

Much of the gold from these Indies has passed to Italy and France and to all other parts of the world, some of it taken by the Moors and other enemies of Spain, and since they have shared in the good that has come from our hard work so too should they share in our pain and fatigue, which is why, in one way or another, whether for the gold or the toil, they should remember to offer many thanks to God. And may they choose to embrace that which brings them pleasure or torment with the same patience as the blessed Job, who while rich was not arrogant, nor was he impatient when poor and covered in sores—he always gave thanks to our sovereign God nonetheless. Many times in Italy I would laugh when I heard the Italians call it “the French disease” and the French refer to it as “the Naples disease”; in truth, they would have guessed the name correctly were they to call it “the Indies disease.” The truth can be understood through this chapter and through the extensive experience that already exists of the palo santo[1] and the guayacán,[2] with which this terrible disease of sores [syphilis] is treated and cured better than with any other medicine; such is His divine clemency, that were He places our labors for our sins, so too does He place the remedy through His mercy. The two trees will be spoken about in Book X, Chapter II, but for the moment let it be known how these sores accompanied the samples of gold from this island of Haiti or Hispaniola.

In the previous chapter, I said that Columbus returned to Spain in 1496, and that is the truth; after which I saw and spoke to some of the people who returned to Castile with him like Comendador Mossen Pedro Margarite, Comendadors Arroyo and Gallego Gabriel de León, Juan de la Vega, and Pedro Navarro (bedchamber servants of Prince Don Juan, my master), and many others I am not mentioning, including royal house servants who came to this land during the second voyage of discovery of these parts. From them I heard many things about this island, what they saw and endured and understood from the second voyage, beyond what was told to me by others from the first journey like Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, one of the first navigators of the three Pinzón brothers, of whom mention has been made (I enjoyed a friendship with the latter until he died in 1514). I was also informed by navigator Hernán Pérez Mateos, current resident of this city, who was in the first and third voyages that Admiral Christopher Columbus made to these Indies. I also had notice regarding many things about this island from two noblemen who came in the Admiral’s second voyage, who are here today and live in this city, Juan de Rojas and Alonso de Valencia, and many others who were eyewitnesses and have already shared their accounts and said the same in regard to this island and its travails. No better witness has there been than Comendador Mossen Pedro Margarite, a highly-placed servant to the royal house, whom the Catholic King held in high esteem. He was the gentleman that the King and Queen selected as the principal witness of these events, and they gave him much credit about what had taken place in the second voyage. This gentleman Mossen Pedro went around so dolefully and complained so much that I believe he was suffering from the pains usually associated with this disease, though I could not see any sores on him. After a few months, in the aforementioned year of 1496, we began to hear about this illness amongst some of the courtiers; at first the illness was worse amongst those of lower nobility or little authority, and so it was believed that they had solicited public women, those of that most libidinous trade. However, it then spread amongst the most important and noble people.

The astonishment felt by all those who witnessed this was great, as much because the illness was contagious and terrible as because many people died from it. And because the illness was a new thing, the doctors couldn’t understand it or know how to cure it, nor could others who had experienced it offer advice. Thereafter, the great Captain Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba was sent to Italy with a beautiful grand army by command of the Catholic Monarchs. As their general captain, he was there to support King Ferdinand, second of that name in Naples, against King Charles of France, whom they call “thickheaded”; among those Spanish soldiers there were some suffering from the disease, and through their consorting with prostitutes and women of ill repute they spread the disease to the Italians and French. Since the disease had never been present there, and therefore never seen by any, the French started to call it “the Naples disease,” believing it had come from that kingdom; the Neapolitans, thinking that the disease was brought by the French, called it “the French disease”; some still call it by that name throughout all of Italy, because until King Charles came to Italy no such plague had ever been seen in the land. But the truth is that the island of Haiti or Hispaniola passed this illness onto Europe, as I have said. It is very common among the Indians, and they know how to cure it with excellent herbs, trees, and plants suitable for this and other illnesses, like the guayacán (which some think is ebony) and the palo santo (which I will say more about when I write about trees). Of the two dangerous plagues native to this land, of which the Christians and new settlers of these Indies suffered from and which some still do, the first is the one that produces sores, which was transferred and carried to Spain and to other parts of the world. So, continuing with the struggles of the Indies, I will tell of the one they call niguas.[3]

There are on this island and in all of the Indies, including the islands and mainland, the disease I have mentioned that produces the sores and another called jiggers. The jiggers are not a disease, but it is an evil nonetheless; the jigger is one of the smallest living things, a lot smaller than the smallest flea that can be seen. Nevertheless, it is a type of flea because it leaps like one, except it is smaller. This insect moves through dust, and if one does not want them in the house it is necessary to sweep the house frequently. They enter the body through the feet and other parts of the body, and most particularly through the tips of the toes, and you do not feel it until they have lodged between the skin and the flesh, then they start to eat their fill like a mite that causes scabies and become very full; after all of this, as long as they remain in the skin they continue to eat. Scratching fosters their spread and they rush to multiply, and in short time they breed plenty; as soon as they come in, they nest and make a sort of basket between the skin and flesh as large as a lentil or a garbanzo bean, full of nits, which all turn into jiggers. If in time they are not removed with a pin or needle, as one does with the scabies mites, it gets bad; after they are fully bred (which is when they start to eat a lot), scratching can break the skin and spread them out of control. In short, because the Christians were not knowledgeable in this, as with the sores, many lost their feet because of the jiggers, or at least some of their toes, because after they fester and make an infection they must be killed with iron or fire. The remedy for them is easy and fast: taking them out from the start; for some newly arrived Blacks they are dangerous, either because of their bad flesh or because they are savage and ignorant about how to clean them, nor do they seek help in time, and it cripples their feet and other parts of the body. I have had them in my feet in these islands and on the mainland, and I do not think it is something to be feared for men of reason, although it is an annoyance as long as the jigger is inside—it is much easier to remove them at the start. I have discovered, and people with experience taking out these jiggers will affirm, that when they are removed they must be killed; when they are removed with a pin or needle by breaking the skin of the foot, they spring forward and leap like a flea. This happens when they have recently entered the foot; it is believed that when one enters through the foot, after it hatches its eggs, it leaves as it came to create more infections elsewhere, or if by luck it leaves the foot, it leaves behind a hive of innumerable eggs.

[1] Bursera graveolens.

[2] Guaiacum officinale or lignum-vitae.

[3] Tunga penetrans, chigoe flea or jigger.