On the differences and advantages of Hispaniola when compared to the islands of Sicily and England.
Translated by Desmond Curran ’19
I well know that all comparisons are odious to some who listen to what they would not want to hear. This will happen to some Sicilian and English readers of this treatise, especially with what they will see in this chapter where I will say what I have said and written many times—that if a prince were to have lordship over only this island, in a short time he would be richer than the lords of the islands of Sicily and England, for what is left over here would make other provinces very rich. And because I have compared two of the greatest and best islands belonging to the Christians, I should explain what moved me to do so.
I say this because these two islands are very rich, remarkable, and well known kingdoms. I say this also because here in Hispaniola there are very rich gold mines that are so abundant and productive that their yield declines only when men stop working them. I say it because since the first cows from Spain arrived on this island there are now so many that ships return to Spain filled with their hides. It has often happened that three or five hundred of them have been slaughtered and, more or less as it pleases their owners, their meat is left to rot in order to take the hides back to Spain. And to make this clearer I should say that an arrelde (four pounds) of beef is worth two maravedís. They have likewise brought Andalusian mares, and there are now so many horses and mares that they are worth four or three castellanos, and a breeding cow is worth one castellano and a ram is worth one real. I share what I have seen regarding cattle, and I have sold them at my farm in the village of San Juan de la Maguana at this price or less. A lot of cattle and pigs have become wild, as have domestic dogs and cats that were brought from Spain and are now feral in the hills.
There is so much cotton on this island that if people were to cultivate and harvest it they would produce more and better cotton than anywhere else in the world. On the island of Xio [Chios], the main island in the Genovese archipelago, it is one of their main crops planted for profit, but here they do not cultivate it. There are innumerable cañafístola trees [cassia fistula, commonly known as golden shower] on this island and very beautiful groves of them, and a great deal are shipped continuously to Spain and other places at four ducats or less per quintal or bushel. There is so much sugar on this single island that among the mills in operation (and the ones under construction) there are already twenty powerful mills, each one a very rich and wealthy estate (not including other horse mills). Here, an arroba of sugar is worth a ducat or less, and many ships and caravels loaded with sugar sail to Spain constantly. Furthermore, the leftover molasses thrown out or given to blacks and workers would be a great treasure elsewhere. There is a lot of brazilwood [Caesalpinia echinata] on these islands. They do not exploit it because they do not want to take the trouble of going out and cutting it in the mountain ranges they call Baoruco, as there are many other things for them to make a profit on without as much work and cost to themselves. There is excellent indigo and a lot of it, although here they do not hold it in much estimation since it is no less good than what our painters call acre. There are numerous and very large mountains and forests of the guayacán tree. Its wood is brought in logs or planks to the port of this city and sold at sixty maravedís per quintal or sometimes even a silver real. There are many parts of the world where this wood is worth two or three reales per pound. I have even seen it sold in Medina del Campo at two reales per pound, but here it has little value due to its great abundance. It is a very excellent and wonderful tree, given the many diseases its bark (and the brew derived from it) can cure. Of all the things that are sown and cultivated on this island, those which have been brought from Spain have grown and thrived quite well. As to what I said regarding cattle, there are men and neighbors of this city who hold seven to eight and even ten to twelve thousand head of cattle, and some own from eighteen or twenty thousand heads or more and even twenty-five or thirty-two. There is even one who has forty-two thousand; she is Maria de Arana, a woman of lower nobility and widower of a recently-deceased gentleman called Diego Solano. When this part was first printed I said that the Lord Bishop of Venezuela, Don Rodrigo de Bastidas (who is now Bishop of San Juan), had sixteen thousand heads of cattle. However, I can now say that at present, in the year 1547, he has twenty-five thousand heads of cattle or more. There are many rams and mares as well. Many of the pigs and cows have gone feral to the mountains, and you can find them in the wild in large herds because there are many great and dense pastures. The waters here are very good and the temperate air makes it so that there is very little difference between day and night, and winter is without extreme cold and the summer without extreme heat. The island is so large that there is enough space for more people, cattle, and crops because the circumference of this island is three to five hundred leagues, more or less from coast to coast (some even say four hundred).
Innumerable orange, citron, lime, and sweet and sour lemon trees have been planted and grown on this island; they are all so good that even the best of Córdoba or Seville could not beat them. There are also many fig and pomegranate trees—only trees that bear fruits with large or hard pits have not done well on this land. Some have rightly said that there are olive trees inside this city, some of them beautiful and great. And although I would confirm this, they are sterile, bearing only leaves and no fruit. There is also a wide variety of garden produce such as lettuce, radish, and watercress; herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and spearmint; or scallions and types of cabbage like the open-leaved collard greens or closed-head cabbage or Murcian cabbage. Eggplants, which are as natural to this land as Guinea is to the blacks, are also grown, and they fare much better here than in Spain (one eggplant vine can last three years, always bearing fruit). Beans also grow in great abundance, and it is a very pleasant legume (known in Aragon as judías). Sometimes the island also produces good turnips as well as carrots and many cucumbers. Figs and melons of Castile grow for the greater part of the year, but when in season they grow bigger and taste better. Many thistles were grown in this city thanks to the diligence of a neighbor, and he sold them well as a novelty. Unfortunately, they were bitter and disappointing for those eager to drink, because indeed this delicacy is not suited to these lands and grows better in the cold lands of our Spain, as is true of turnips and carrots.
In conclusion, of all the things imported from Spain, those which have been neglected and not cared for have stopped growing. This is because in the time they take to grow men would rather seek more profitable crops to swell their purses more quickly (especially those who have no plans of staying but only want to enjoy the land and return home), so they go to work in exportation or the gold mines or in pearl fisheries, and on many other things that offer a quick profit, which they take with them. So it is very rare to find those who want to sow wheat or plant vines, because the more they live and spend time here the more they treat this land as their stepmotherland (although they have done better here than in their motherland).
Well, do not think that if the bread and wine of Castile is lacking that it is the fault of the land. There have been attempts to grow wheat here and it has done very well. Likewise, you can see the many vines that have grown successfully in this city, but even if those shoots had not been brought from Castile there are many wild grapes on the island that can be planted (it is believed that this is how all the grapes in the world first sprang). The most that I saw was in the month of February, during the year 1539, when a farmer from this city brought out to the square a basket of grapes from a hawthorn or new vineyard he had planted on the banks of the Nigua river (four and a half to five leagues from here). He sold them for two silver reales per pound up to the amount of nine or ten gold pesos. This was the same man who had planted the thistles I mentioned before. So, when someone blames the earth for a lack of grapes and bread, I would say that it is their fault and not the land’s. As for my comparison with those other famous islands, one can very well see and understand how many advantages Hispaniola has over them both when all the other peculiarities of those islands have been said and examined (and any others one could compare).
There were also on this island of ours many good herbs like those of Spain, except they were not brought from Spain or elsewhere; they grow in the fields here without the work of men, as the reader can see in Chapter IX of this history.
I have said that one arrelde of beef is worth two maravedís in this city, but the non-Spanish reader wouldn’t understand what an arrelde is or what the price of a maravedí is. To clarify this I would say that a unit of money from Aragón, or Italian currency, is worth a maravedí and a half, and a Roman cuatrín is worth as much as a maravedí, and four cavaluchos from Naples are worth as much as one maravedí. An arrelde is the weight of four pounds and each pound weighs sixteen ounces. I hope that my comparison will be understood by the Italians as well as other readers so that they will understand how cheap the meat is, especially because it is one of the best that can be found in the world. The island didn’t have hens like the ones they have in Castile, but the ones which have been brought here from Spain have reproduced so well that in no other part of the world could there be more (rarely does a hen lay fewer eggs than she can cover with her body and wings). So, generally, I have done what I can in the case of a comparison of this island, its city, and main church (which is well endowed with its clergy, dignitaries, canons, prebendaries, and chaplains).
There are three monasteries in this city: San Francisco, Santo Domingo, and The Divine Mercy. They are, by the order I have named them, old or first founded. All three houses are elegant buildings but moderate and not as unique as the principal ones of Spain. Although The Divine Mercy is not yet finished, its base is very sumptuous and it is expected to be the best one yet built. I say that in these monasteries (speaking without offense to any monastery of all there are in the world of these three Orders) there are people here of such religion and great example that they would suffice to reform all the other monasteries of many other kingdoms, because they are holy people of great doctrine. There is also a very good hospital, well-built and well furnished, where the poor are healed and helped and God is well served. There are also buildings for a school where grammar, logic, philosophy, and other sciences will be taught and studied that would be esteemed as a good building anywhere, and each day this city is more ennobled by the construction of new houses, churches, monasteries, and fortresses.
The court of the Royal Audience and Chancellery resides in this city, whose jurisdiction includes not only Hispaniola but all the other islands that I have mentioned, as well as part of the Mainland. Admiral Louis Columbus, Duke of Veragua and of the islands and bay of Cerebaro, Marquis of the island of Jamaica, grandson of the first Admiral Christopher Columbus who discovered these parts, and son of the second Admiral Diego Columbus, also resides here. Most of the governors and captains who have conquered and populated the majority of what the Christians hold in these Indies have come from this island, as will be told at greater length where appropriate, following the example and principle of industry of the first discoverer of this new world (or such a great part of it). Then, returning to the purpose of my comparison between this island and those of England and Sicily, I will also say that I have not finished describing other particularities of this land, which may be noted in earlier chapters so that this chapter may not be too long (and also because the constraint of time has not allowed me to learn as much about the rest of the land yet). So that the order is not perverted and remains logical, in regard to the trees as well as the animals, the bread and agriculture of the island itself, other matters and specialties of medicine, and of the rites, ceremonies, and customs of the people of the Indies (and especially this island, which is now our principal subject), there is much more to say and describe beyond what is said and written here. I will therefore distinguish and particularize only what I have seen until the present time. And because any such comparison is usually odious, some will want to answer for their own country. The English may not admit to what I say to the detriment of their island, which is inhabited by kings, princes, nobles, and warlike people, so fertile, rich and powerful, and with many other particularities and exigencies that can be attributed to it, such as two archbishops, Cantuarensis et Evoracetisis, and nineteen dioceses; fifty cities (the principal of them being London, which is one of the most famous in Christendom); one hundred and thirty-six villages, sixty-three provinces, and duchies; with many barons and princes under the administration and lordship of such a powerful king (a descendant of so many kings that one might say that England’s foundation began forty years after the destruction of Troy); so of course England must therefore precede all the other islands. The Sicilians may say their island had its origin in the Iberians and their Captain Sicano, who called it Sicania, then Siculus, Neptuni filius, and that their land is full of excellent cities and towns, both ancient and noble, such as Messina, Syracuse, Palermo and others; with many men of titles and noble people like Diodorus Siculus and other approved writers who have long written in its favor; and the most fertile land of bread and wine; and that it has all that is necessary for the use of men and being located in the heart of Europe. Thus, the Sicilians will say too that no other island should precede them.
There are so many other things that can be said in praise of Sicily and England that I won’t contradict. Yet the reader must consider my purpose when thinking of all these things, since for so many centuries those islands were populated by people of reason and ruled by very notable princes and kings, as both kingdoms have boasted. How much more should our island be appreciated, since it has always been in the hands of savage and bestial people, and that its fifty-five years of history can only be told starting from the year 1492, when the first Christians came here with the first Admiral Don Christopher Columbus. In such a short time, the state of the island can be attributed to God and to the good fortune of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, to the invincible Emperor Charles, their grandson, our princes, and to the diligence and virtue of their Castilian soldiers and vassals, with whose industry and weapons we have populated the island. Through our Lord they are always more ennobled. Now let us go to the other things in this book.