Translated by Frederick (Jamie) Anderson ’19

Thus begins the first book of this volume, which consists of the preface or introduction to this first part of the General and Natural History of the Indies, addressed to the Sacred, Imperial, Catholic and Royal Majesty of the Emperor, our Lord King.

S. Caes. Cath. R. M.

Regarding the declaration of Saint Jerome, glorious scholar of the Church, about Eusebius’s De los tiempos,[1] Abulensis, also known as El Tostado, writes that the Ethiopians settled along the Indus River. Part of Ethiopia lies in Asia and another part in Africa, but the eastern Ethiopians are in India, which according to Isidore (Ethimol., Book 14, Chapter 3, On Asia) got its name from the Indus River: India vocata ab Indo flumine.[2]. That same author had earlier said that the Red Sea receives the Indus River in the East: Indus fluvius orientis qui rubro mari accipitur.[3] This is part of eastern Ethiopia, but modern (and proven) cosmography places the Indus River not as the aforementioned authors state but 500 or more leagues further from the Red Sea and the Persian Sea; it enters the Ocean on the coast of the city called Lima, in the mouth of which sits the kingdom of Cambaya; between the same Indus and Ganges Rivers lies greater India, or the easternmost India, which is very far from the Red Sea and more to the levant than the Ethiopians, against whom it is said Moysen was sent to fight as captain of the Egyptians. These Ethiopians would later become good Christians, as El Tostado says in his aforementioned text, after being converted to the faith by Saint Matthew the Apostle. And at the beginning of their conversion, Saint Eunuch, chief steward for queen Candace, baptized and taught by Saint Philip the Apostle, went to them.

I wish to convey and signify by means of their true cosmography that here I do not write about these Indias mentioned above, but of the Indies, islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, which are now under the realm of the royal crown of Castile, and include countless and vast kingdoms and provinces—of such wonders and riches as will be proclaimed in the books of this General and Natural History of these your Indies. I therefore beg Your Imperial Majesty to bestow worth on my vigils by turning your thoughts to them, since all men naturally desire knowledge, and rational understanding is what makes man more exceptional than any other animal—and in this distinction he is like God when He said: Let us make man in our image and likeness. For this reason, our will is not content nor is our spirit satisfied with understanding and speculating on narrow questions, or looking simply at ordinary and familiar things that are close to the motherland or a part of her. Those who best partake in this fine desire for knowledge, who seek it through pilgrimages to far-flung provinces, setting aside many and various dangers, do not cease to seek out in the earth and the sea the marvelous and innumerable works that the very same God and Lord of all reveals to us (so that we may praise him all the higher), satisfying the worthy aspiration of this our pilgrimage. And He declares to us, through what we can see in the world, that He who could make all that is visible is also capable of having made what is beyond our reach in His creation, either because of its magnificence or because of our poor efforts, but most principally due to our human weakness, in which all mortals are cloaked; from which arise other reasons and obstacles that can impede an occupation as laudable as seeing with our bodily eyes what is visible (beyond what is only contemplative) of the universal totality, what the Greeks call cosmos and the Latins call mundo. Some cosmographers believe only one fifth of this world is inhabited, of which opinion I find myself quite distant, because regardless of everything written by Ptolemy, I know that in this empire of the Indies, a possession of Your Imperial Majesty and the royal crown of Castile, there are such great kingdoms and provinces of such strange peoples of diverse customs, ceremonies, and idolatries, differing much from all that has been written (ab initio up to our time); and human life is too short to ever see it all, nor to speculate about or understand it.

What mortal mind could ever comprehend such a diversity of languages, habits, and human customs as there are in these Indies? Such a variety of domesticated as well as wild and fierce animals? Such an indescribable multitude of trees, many bearing a diversity of fruits and others sterile, those that the Indians cultivate and those that nature produces of its own accord without the help of mortal hands? So many useful and beneficial herbs and plants? How many innumerable others yet unknown to him and such a variety of roses, flowers, and pleasant fragrances? Such a diversity of birds of prey as well as of other sorts? So many soaring and fertile mountains and others so different and wild? So many meadows and so much open country, perfect for agriculture, with such suitable riverbeds? How many mountains, grander and more frightful than Etna or Mongibello, Vulcano and Stromboli (and these and all others under your rule)?

Those I have named would not have been as celebrated as they were by the poets and historical records of old if they had known of Massaya, Maribio, Guaxocingo and those that henceforth will be recorded by this pen and this your writer. So many valleys and glades, clear and delightful! So many ocean coasts with extensive beaches and excellent ports! So many powerful and navigable rivers! So many immense lakes! So many springs both cold and hot, very close to one another! So many deposits of bitumen and other materials or spirits! So many fishes that we know in Spain and many more that we don’t nor have even seen! So many mines of gold, silver and copper! Such precious marcos[4] of pearls of all types discovered every day! Of what other land has it been said or known that in such a short space of time and despite being so distant from our Europe it has produced this abundance of livestock and crops brought here across such wide, expansive seas, as in these Indies our eyes see? Both livestock and crops have been received by this land, not as stepmother, but as a truer mother than the land that sent them. Some of these things are produced here in greater quantity and better quality than in Spain: like useful cattle for the service of man; grain and legumes; fruits, sugar, and the fruit of the purging cassia. The source of these things in my days came from Spain, and in short order they have multiplied here in such quantities that the ships return to Europe with their holds filled with sugar, cassia fruit, and cow hides; the same could be done with other things that here are ignored and that these Indies, before the Spaniards found them, produced and still produce: like cotton, orchil, brazilwood, alum, and other commodities that are desired in many other kingdoms and would be of great use to them. Our merchants do not want these so as not to burden their ships but with gold, silver and pearls, and the other spoils I mentioned first.

What could be written about this incredibly expansive and new empire is such and what we can learn from it so admirable that may Your Imperial Majesty pardon me if I communicate it as profusely as the subject matter requires; it should suffice to say that, as a man who has spent the years I have observing these things, I will spend what is left of my life leaving as remembrance this sweet and lovely General and Natural History of the Indies, recounting all that I have seen and all that has come and will come to my attention from the moment of its first discovery, as much of it as can be seen and grasped until life leaves me. As he who serves you in these parts and preserves part of these matters with a natural inclination to inquire (as I have in fact inquired), I have been commanded by Your Imperial Majesty’s clemency to write them and send them to your royal Council of the Indies so that just as they accrue and become known they may be included in your glorious Chronicle of Spain; by publishing this treatise and making known to the rest of the world what is under your royal Castilian scepter, Your Imperial Majesty, apart from serving God, our lord, does great mercy to all the Christian kingdoms in giving them occasion to give infinite thanks to God for the expansion of his sacred Catholic faith. By your sacred and most Christian zeal, this faith grows every day in these Indies, and this will be a glorious pinnacle for the perpetual and unique immortality of your fame; not only will the faithful Christians have to thank Your Imperial Majesty for your benevolence in sharing this true and new history, but even the unfaithful and idolatrous residing across the world, away from these parts, hearing of these marvels and learning of things so unknown and distant from their hemisphere and horizons will be obliged to laud their maker.

The matter is, very powerful lord, that my age and diligence, by virtue of the magnitude of the objective and its circumstances, will not be enough for its perfect completion, given the paucity of my days and the inadequacies of my style. However, at the very least, that which I will write will be true to fact, different from all the fables that in this matter other writers, without seeing these parts, have from Spain presumed to write with elegant and uncommon Latin and vernacular words, from accounts by many others of different judgment, forming stories closer to good style than the truth of the matter that they tell—for just as the blind man is unable to determine colors, so too the absent cannot testify on these matters as he who witnesses them.    

I want to certify to Your Imperial Majesty that my lines will come to you bereft of any wealth of false words meant to move the reader, but they will be quite abundant in truth and in accordance with said truth I will say what will not invite contradiction (as far as their truth is concerned), so that your sovereign clemency may send it to be polished and refined, as long as the tenor and accuracy of what I have reported here to Your Greatness is retained when it is put in the hands of he who will amend it, expressing it in better style—at least so it does not offend my righteous desire to be objective, nor I be denied praise for the work that for so long a time and enduring many dangers I have produced. After the Catholic King Ferdinand, of glorious memory, grandfather of Your Imperial Majesty, sent me in the year 1513 of the Nativity of our redeemer, Jesus Christ, to the Mainland as overseer of the gold foundries, I gathered and inquired by all possible paths to ascertain the truth of these matters. I occupied myself with my tasks at the foundry as needed, as well as I did in the armed conquest and pacification of certain portions of that land, serving God and Your Majesties (like your captain and vassal) in those harsh beginnings when certain cities and villages that now belong to Christians were settled and where now the divine worship flourishes to the glory of Spain’s royal scepter. In that conquest, those of us who at that time journeyed with Pedrarias Dávila, second-in-command and captain general of the Catholic King, and later of Your Imperial Majesty, we would have been up to 2,000 men, and we came across an additional 1,500 or more Christians under the captainship of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in the city of Darien (formerly called la Guardia), and later in Santa María de la Antigua, that city that was head of the bishopric of Castilla del Oro and is now deserted (and not without great fault of those who were the cause of the abandonment, because it was in the area that suited the conquest of the archer or Carib Indians of that region). And of those 2,500 men I mentioned, at present there are no more than 40 in all these Indies or outside of them, to my knowledge; because to serve God and Your Imperial Majesties, and for the safety of those Christians who later came to those provinces, it was required, or better yet, it was necessary that it be thus. The savageness of the land and its air, and the denseness of vegetation and forest in the countryside, the danger of the rivers and of the large lizards and tigers, and the experimenting with the waters and foodstuffs came at the cost of our lives but was advantageous to merchants and settlers, who with their washed hands now enjoy the fruit of the sweat of others. Being Your Imperial Majesty in Toledo in the year 1526 of the Nativity of Christ, I wrote a summary relation of part of what is here contained titled: Oviedo, Of the Natural History of the Indies; but this treatise will be called General and Natural History of the Indies because all that is contained in that summary will be found in this and its other two parts, the second and third, better and more copiously told, because that summary was written in Spain and my documents and books remained in this city of Santo Domingo of the island of Hispaniola (where my home is), and because I have seen much more than I hitherto knew of these matters in the ten years that have passed since that summary was written, and I have observed more attentively what was most important to see and understand for the purpose of this work. And moreover, it should be noted that all that is contained in that report or summary will be included in this treatise and its parts more extensively, along with other better and very new things, which I could not remember for not having seen or learned of them yet.

Thus, very powerful Lord, for the reasons mentioned, it is fair that these histories be made known among all the republics of the world, so that the scope and greatness of these States be known throughout the world, states kept by God for your royal crown of Castile and for the prosperity and renown of Your Imperial Majesty, to whose favor and protection I offer the present work, humbly beseeching, as reward for the time I have spent on it and for the forty or more years I have spent in service to your royal house of Castile, that you be pleased  to accept my books; for although these that I submit here are not of great industry or artifice, nor of a quality that requires long-winded speech and ornaments of words, they have not been of little labor nor completed with the ease that other written works can be gathered and composed— it is however, at the very least, an agreeable lesson to hear and understand so many of nature’s secrets.

If any strange or savage terms be discovered here, the reason is the novelty that they describe; and they should not be blamed on my command of language, for I was born in Madrid and was raised in the royal house and have conversed with noble people, and I have read some, so it can be surmised that I will have come to understand my Castilian tongue, which of the common tongues is held above all others. Whatever is contained in this volume that does not sound like Castilian will be names or words placed here by me of my own will, so as to convey the things that the Indians desire to signify.

It is my wish that Your Imperial Majesty forgive the shortcomings of my pen: for Pliny said of his own writing in the prologue to his Natural History that it is a difficult task to make old things new, and to confer authority on new ones, and radiance on those that differ from what is habitual, and to shed light on dark subjects, grace on the unpleasant, and faith on the dubious. It is enough that I have desired and still desire to serve Your Imperial Majesty and to please anyone who might view my work, and if I have not known how to do so, praised be my intention. Let the reader be content with enjoying and learning what I have seen and experienced through many dangers without facing any such hazards, and that he can read it from his homeland without enduring such hunger and thirst, heat and cold, and other innumerable travails, without venturing into stormy seas, nor enduring the misfortunes that in these parts are suffered on land; instead let him know that I was born for his leisure and rest, and in my pilgrimage I have seen these works of nature (or better said, the works of the Master of nature), those which I have transcribed in the twenty books that this first part or volume contains and in those that make up the second and third volumes, with which I am currently occupied and which concern the affairs of the Mainland.

It is true that the last book, which is now put here as the twentieth, will come later on at the end of the third part, because it is of a quality that will serve all three; that book is titled On Misfortunes and Shipwrecks, from Cases that Have Occurred in the Seas of these Indies. All these books are divided according to the genre and quality of the materials they discuss. I have not taken these from the two thousand volumes I have read, as did the aforementioned Pliny, who seems to have written what he read; he said that he embellished that which the ancients did not understand or later life contradicted. But I gathered all that I have written about here from the two billion vicissitudes and necessities and dangers that in twenty-two years I have seen and experienced by my own person, serving God and my king in these Indies and having traversed the great Ocean Sea eight times.

Moreover because in some way I plan to follow or imitate that same Pliny, not in saying what he said (although in some places his authorities will be cited as a thing natural to the connections between natural histories), but in differentiating between my books and their genres, as he did, I will attest to what he endorses in his introduction, where he states that it is a thing of worse vicious spirit and wretched skill to be easily caught in an act of theft than to return what was lent, more so if one has built capital from the extortion; so as to not fall into such a crime, nor to deny Pliny what is his (with regard to the invention and title of the book), I follow him in this case.

One thing will separate my work from Pliny’s style, and it shall be to relate some portion of the conquest of these Indies and offer an account of its first discovery and of other things that although they may be outside the scope of a natural history will be very necessary to it; this information will let the reader know the beginning and foundation of this enterprise in order to better understand why the Catholic Monarchs, the admirable Ferdinand and Isabella, grandparents of Your Imperial Majesty, were moved to order these territories found (or better said they were moved by God to do so).

All matters, including those that touch upon particular accounts, will be placed in its proper place through the grace of the Holy Spirit and his divine assistance, with an express protestation that all that might appear in this narrative will fall under the beliefs and practices of our holy mother, the Apostolic Church of Rome, whose tiniest grain and most humble servant I am and in whose obedience I proclaim to live and die. But because all of those jealous of their honor and shame fear their detractors—and not only Pliny (despite being such a famous author), but more than can be counted, and even Holy King David shared this fear when he begged God to deliver him from the evil tongues of the wicked—with more just reason should I fear the same, for the dead and absent cannot answer on their own behalf. Thus did Pliny claim of Plancho’s statement, when he said that the dead do not fight or confront, except with masks; thus I wish that those who admonish me from Europe, Asia, or Africa may be aware that I am not based in any of those places (as can be ascertained from what has been seen and discovered in the austral or southern sea and the Earth’s arc towards the north and cape of Labrador). Thus the readers will have to listen to me from so far away, so let them not judge me without having seen this land, where I am and of which I write; and let it be enough that I write from here in a time of innumerable eye witnesses, and that my books are addressed to Your Imperial Majesty, whose empire it is, and that they are written in obedience to your command, you who puts food on my table as your chronicler on these matters, and that I have not been of such little understanding as to dare claim the opposite of the truth before such high and Imperial Majesty, for I would lose your grace and my honor in doing so. Moreover, the matters treated here were not so written for the sake of ambitious honors from particular people, with words and fictions uttered in hopes of being rewarded by any mortal; rather, in accordance to that true declaration by the wise man—that the mouth that lies, kills the soul—I hope God will protect mine from such danger, and that, as faithful writer, I will be remunerated by the ample liberality of His clemency and the royal mandate of Your Imperial Majesty, whose glorious person may our Lord forevermore favor and allow to enjoy total monarchy as your sublime heart desires it, as we your followers and true subjects desire and as all the universal Christian republic needs you to, amen.

So among all the world’s princes that call themselves faithful and Christian, at present only Your Imperial Majesty sustains the Catholic religion and Church of God, protecting it against the innumerable and wicked scourge and immense potency of Muhammad, exiling its main leader and Grand Turk with such a shedding of Turkish blood and with such shining victories on sea and land as had been seen earlier in 1532 and 1533, while other Christian Kings remained silent awaiting the outcome of your successes; and our merciful and just God gave such a momentous conclusion to such an immortal triumph that as long as there are men it will never be forgotten. And thus it will be recognized and rewarded in heavenly life, when Your Imperial Majesty will be exalted alongside the blessed kings Ricaredo, first of that name, and his brother Saint Hermenegildo the Martyr, foundation of your long ancestry, royal lineage, and Spanish throne. Of these great men Paul of Burgos, El Burgensis, says that when 60,000 Frenchmen entered Spain King Recaredo sent Claudius, his general, from Toledo, defeating the French and killing and capturing most of them—and so El Burgensis declared: Nulla unquam in hispaiis victoria viator vel similis invenitur.[5] The Archbishop Don Rodrigo says the same in his writings, which El Burgensis followed, and what these excellent gentlemen said would be even more to the point if they could have seen what your captains and vassals accomplished in the year 1525 against King Francis’ cavalry and France’s might in the capture of his person and the capture of the most principal men of his kingdoms and States in the siege of Pavia, or if they could see what we hope that God will accomplish through your good fortune and unconquered name.

All of this remains for your elegant chroniclers, who are there and have the pleasure of seeing it, and so they will write of it: here in these far-flung kingdoms, although those of us who love being in your royal service might not see what is said of these Your Imperial Majesty’s great victories, we take such pleasure in it as must those who love their prince as they should as loyal subjects and Christians—in truth, I do not believe that those who so call themselves would cease to give eternal thanks to God for the preservation of Your Imperial Person and life, since our own lives are bound with them, as is the welfare of the Christian religion.

[1] We have not been able to identify the text Oviedo refers to as De los tiempos. [EE]

[2] Insert English translation here.

[3] Insert English translation here.

[4] Half-pound weights.

[5] Insert English translation here. [EE]