On the Indians’ way of producing and lighting fires without flint or steel, but with a stick, twisting it with other smaller sticks, as will now be told.

Translated by Grace Willoughby ’22

Nature’s eagerness to provide men with everything they need in many aspects of life can be seen every hour. The Indians’ method of lighting fire will seem like a new thing in many parts, and of no little marvel to those who have never seen it; and it is very common in all the Indies, as it should be as it is reasonable and necessary that fire be shareable for human life and the service of humankind; and the Indians do it in this way. They take a stick as long as two palms or longer, as one prefers, and as thick as the thinnest finger of the hand, or like the thickness of an arrow, of a good strong wood they use for this purpose: and wherever they stop in the fields to eat or to dine and they want to make a fire, they take two dry sticks of the lightest they can find, and they put these light sticks close together very tightly, holding them together on the ground, and in the juncture in between these two, they put the other strong stick that I spoke of first at the forefront, and between their hands twisting or rubbing it continuously: and since the point or extreme end is being rubbed around the two small sticks that are held on the ground, it ignites them in a short space of time, and in this way they make fire. This is done in this island of Hispaniola and in all the others, and on the Mainland; but in the province of Nicaragua and other parts they do not set aside the stick of strong wood, that I said is clean and smooth, which functions as a mandrel or drill, but use three sticks of the same wood that are ignited as they are held on the ground.

In Castilla del Oro and in the islands, where the Indians are at war and in the field for long periods and often need fire, they keep and carry with them that main stick, for when they are on the move; because it is whittled as best suited to the purpose, smooth, so that it can easily be held between the palms, especially when rubbing them at great speed. And thus they make fire more quickly and with less fatigue or work for the hands than would be the case with rough or twisted sticks. I have drawn it here,[1] although without that image what I describe is sufficient to understand it. But it is still good insofar as the image may be of use, so that the eyes are informed and these things are better understood.

Whoever is well-read will not marvel at these, or similar secrets, because many of them will be found in writings. This matter of making fire from sticks, at the very least, was written about by Pliny in his Natural History,[2] where he talks of the miracle of fire and says that through twisting or rubbing wood together, one can produce and ignite fire: so that what Pliny says and what these Indians do (in this case), is all the same thing. Vitruvius says[3] that fire originated out of the branches of trees brought down by storms rubbing together, catching fire, and erupting into flames. But why do I claim authority from the ancients about things I have seen myself or that nature teaches everyone and are seen each day? Ask those cart drivers experienced in the running of their carts and wagons; and they’ll tell you how many times the hubs of their wheels have caught on fire by the rubbing and stirring of the axles: I hope this suffices to teach everyone how to make fire in the manner done here and which I have described. But as I have brought wagons to prove my argument, they will not catch fire if they are moving slowly or are empty, but only when they are running at great speed fully loaded do they catch fire, and more often with some words than others.

In the year 1538, His Imperial Majesty commanded heavy artillery to be provided for this splendid fortress under my charge; and they brought culverins weighing seventy quintals[4] or more, each one made of bronze, and cannons of fifty-five quintals, and half-culverins of forty or a bit less; and after the ships arrived on this port and these were pulled ashore, we made them be carried by many blacks, and they brought them to this house, and since there were many people pulling each piece, they brought them running despite their weight, but every fifty steps the wheels caught on fire, and to avoid this, I had men with cauldrons of water run along each team so they could douse and kill the fire. So, this is a thing often seen and natural.

[1] Illustration 2.a figure 2.a

[2] Pliny’s Natural History, Book II, Chapter 110. [GFO]

[3] Vitruvius, Book II. [GFO]

[4] A quintal is a unit of weight equivalent to 100 kg.