Of the animals that the Spaniards on the Mainland call tigers, which the Indians call by several names according to the language of each province where they are found.

Translated by Andrea Tellez ’21

In the preface or introduction to this book I said that after I discussed the animals that the Spanish found on this island, and those that they brought to it from Spain, I would tell of those animals that are found in it that were not included in the first printing of the General History of the Indies. To do so, I will first write of those animals of which I gave particular notice in that brief treatise that I addressed to His Caesarean Majesty from Toledo in the year 1526; then I will tell of those that came to my memory afterwards or that I have seen up to the present time. And the first will be the tiger, an animal that, as the ancients wrote, is the fastest of the land animals. Isidore says in his Ethymologies: “The tiger is named thus for its speed, and the Tigris river is named so for its velocity, and the Persians and the Medes name the arrow this way. And to that spotted beast, of admirable power and velocity, they give the name of the Tigris river, because it is the fastest and strongest current of all the rivers.”[1] According to Justinus, this Tigris river is born in Armenia with little water, etc.[2] Pliny says[3] that the panther and the tiger, because of their variety of colors and diverse spots, are almost completely different from all the other animals, because the other wild animals have one single color, depending on their species.

The first Spaniards that saw those animals on the Mainland, in the province of Cémaco and in Darién, called them tigers, which the Indians of that land call ochí—the same animal that was sent from New Spain to the Emperor, our lord, who was in the city of Toledo in the abovementioned year. The shape of its head is like that of a lion or cheetah, but thicker, and it and all of the body and legs are painted with evenly spaced black spots, outlined with red, which make a beautiful work or concert of color; the largest of those spots are on the back and flanks, and they get smaller toward the abdomen and the arms and head. The one that was brought to Toledo was small and young, and to me it appeared to be three years old or younger; but there are much bigger ones on the Mainland. I have seen them taller than three spans and more than five in length, and they are very stocky and of strong arms and legs, with sharp teeth, fangs, and nails, and so fierce that it appeared to me that not even one of the largest true lions could be as fierce or as strong. But I well believe that lions are braver and more daring. In the Mainland there are many of these ochís or tigers, or more likely panthers (because they lack the speed of the tiger as described above, and these don’t have joints in the back legs and move by leaping), and they eat many Indians and are very dangerous. But, as I said, I would not say they are tigers, given what is said about the speed of the tiger and what is seen of the clumsiness of these ochís, which we call tigers in these Indies. It is true that—as we observe the world’s marvels and the extreme disparities between creatures in different parts of the world, differences dependent on the provinces and constellations they inhabit—we see that the plants that are harmful in some parts are healthy and beneficial in others, like the yuca, which is deadly in these islands but on the Mainland is a healthy fruit. Which is why Saint Gregory[4] says that the herbs that nourish some animals, kill others.

It is also true that birds considered tasty in one province are ignored and not eaten elsewhere. In some places men are black and in other provinces they are white, but they are all men nonetheless. And it is the same for these ochís or tigers that live on the Mainland, in the province of Cueva and in other places, which are as I have described and whose skin is so beautiful; I say the same can be found in Nicaragua, where they even have black ones, especially close to the famous Coçabolca lagoon[5] and close to Salteba (now Granada), and nearby. And we should not wonder at what Pliny says[6], that lions are only black in Syria. It could be that in the same way that tigers are fast in one region, as has been written, here in the Mainland, of which I speak, they are clumsy and heavy. Men in some kingdoms can be courageous and daring, while they can be naturally timid and cowardly in others. All of these things and many more that could be said to this purpose are easy to prove and quite believable to all those who have read or have been around the world, who would have learned from the experience of seeing it with their own eyes.

These tigers or ochís are killed easily by crossbowmen in this way: when a crossbowman knows where a tiger is to be found, he goes looking for it with his crossbow and a small pointer dog or bloodhound (and not with an attack dog because any dog that grapples with an ochí will most definitely perish, for it is a fierce and powerful animal); the pointer dog, when it finds the ochí, goes around barking and nipping at it and running away, and it annoys it so much that it makes it run away and climb up onto the first tree it finds and stays there; as the dog at the bottom of the tree barks at it and the ochí growls at it and shows its teeth, the crossbowman shoots from twelve or fifteen steps away, hits the chest, and runs back, and the tiger is left with its predicament and injury, biting the ground and the trees. The crossbowman then returns as early as two or three hours later or the next day, and with the dog he then finds it where it lays dead and skins it or brings it to the town, because the hide is very fine and the meat is not bad; the fat is very beneficial for many things as well—other than being good to burn in a lamp, it is healthy for cooking as a good lard, and will soothe any swelling or boil.

In the year 1522, us regidores[7] of the city of Santa María del Darién passed an ordinance in our city council promising four or five gold pesos to whoever killed one of these tigers; in a short time, many of them were killed for this prize, in the way I described above, and with traps too. I have stated my opinion as to whether these ochís are or are not tigers; but they may be among those animals noted by their spotted skin, or by luck a new animal that has such a skin but has not been written about, because among the many animals of the Mainland, including those that I include here (or most of them), no ancient writer has ever made memory of them, for they inhabit the provinces unknown to them, which neither Ptolemy’s nor any other author’s cosmography included or remembered, until Admiral Christopher Columbus showed it to us. The admiral’s achievement is certainly a worthier thing, grander and more memorable, in comparison, than Hercules’ supposed feat of connecting the Mediterranean sea to the Ocean, for the Greeks before him did not know how to[8]; this is the origin of the fable that says that the Calpe and Ávila mountains (the ones that are on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, one in Spain and the other in Africa) were joined together until Hercules split them apart and opened the way to the Ocean Sea, placing his pillars in Cádiz and Sevilla,[9] which the Emperor, our Caesar, deservedly claimed as his motto with the words—Plus ultra[10]. Words that are true only of one universal Emperor (and not suited to any other prince) for his Cesarean Majesty has stamped them on places very far from those Hercules reached. And so, Hercules sailed so little, just from Greece to Cádiz, and because of this the poets and historians say he opened a gateway to the ocean—but, without a doubt, the memory of Columbus is of a higher esteem and his merit wholly unrivaled by Hercules. Let us return to our subject.

I will not keep from the reader the story that unfolded after the ochí or tiger had reached our Caesar, to remind men never to learn bestial trades or commune with fierce and untamed beasts. Around the time this animal arrived in Toledo, a few days before or after, a brown lion that the Caesar used for hunting had died—and this hunting, although it is rare and practiced by princes, is not a new thing nor that beneficial or pleasant, or of greater authority or greatness than the trade of any hunter. And because that lion died, the trade was left vacant, and the lion keeper, so as not to lose his rations and wages, begged the Caesar to mercifully make him keeper and administrator of the tiger, offering to teach and tame and show the tiger how to hunt as domestically as he did with the brown lion; His Majesty granted it to him, and this hunter took it to his farm outside of Toledo, because the practices he had to teach this beast were bestial and something to be done outside of the city. In all honesty, he could have occupied himself with something more useful and less dangerous to his person, because that tiger was young and grew tougher and fiercer by the day and its cunning doubled. All that said, owing to his good skill, this hunter or master of this new tiger had already taken it out of its cage and had it very tamed, tied with a very thin cord, and so friendly that I was startled when I saw it like that; and to clear up doubts, Captain Pánfilo de Narváez and I and other men who were at the royal court on Indies business at the time went to see this tiger’s docility for ourselves. And since this teacher understood that we had seen these animals in these Indies, he wanted to inform himself from us of the genealogy or nature of these beasts, and it felt to me to respond to him; I told him that among the Spaniards that had passed through these parts, and there were many thousands of men, I did not know that any of them had developed such a friendship with any of these ochís or tigers, as he had with that one, and that because of that it was to his credit that it was so calm and gentle—but I begged him to not trust it, for it was a bad beast, and he should thank God for freeing him from the lion that had died and to give that other tiger to the devil, and not to sleep with it, nor be indoors with him by night or day, and to always be vigilant, for I could imagine him dead, or at the very least badly injured, for I could not expect anything different from this tiger’s condition. Then, laughing and not thinking that I deserved thanks for such advice, petting the tiger’s back, he said: “Este é mi fillolo, é un ançolo é lo farró far miracule; ançi voglio andar in la India é portar çinque ó sey de quisti piu picolini é voglio que Çesár havia una caczia de Imperator, é voglio que mi dia uno stato.” In the hunter’s Lombard tongue this means: ‘This animal is my son and it is an angel and I will make him perform miracles: soon I want to go to the Indies and bring five or six small ones, and I want the Caesar to have an Emperor’s hunt, and I want him to give me a state.’ As I and those that were there saw his contentment, some lauded his good wishes and the others fell silent; and I, watching him raving thus, felt compassion and said: “May God do as you wish, but I must still remind you to not trust this beast, because you think he appreciates what you teach him, but this he cannot learn without your control of his food; and it thinks that you trick it into suffering hunger so that when it starves and you deny it food, you, trusting in its friendship, go to scratch it, as you do now, and it will tear you to pieces. Believe me, and cut its claws, better yet tear them out at the root, and even all of its teeth and fangs—do not believe that they were given by God for you to feed him at specific hours, because never has one of his lineage ate at the table nor was called by bell to the table, nor has it ever had another rule but to devour, and being cruel by nature, and you want to make it godly. I promise you, if we live a year, you or the tiger will be dead; and forgive me, for I truly pity you.” He did not understand my words well and said he thanked me, but he knew the trade very well. As I did not have a need to learn it, we left laughing at his nonsense. And honestly, I was confident that that friendship would not last, because even when the hunter scratched it, I don’t know what the tiger was saying lowly or murmuring between its teeth. Finally, about eight days later, there was some disagreement between them about their lessons, and the tiger tried to kill the teacher, in such a way that, had he not been helped, he would have died. Not long ago the tiger died or the teacher helped it die, which I believe more likely. And honestly, such animals do not belong among people, as they are ferocious and untamed by nature. And I see those who intend to make them tame as no less beastly than the same tigers.

And since I have already told of these animals, I will now relate one case that happened in Nombre de Dios with one of these tigers, which without a doubt is a notable thing. There was a tiger that would sneak into town at night and kill chickens, dogs, and other animals, and even gentle Indians, and it did a lot of damage; one night they set a trap for it, and it was left hanging up high by a leg, barely reaching the ground with its feet. Because it was trapped, it gave out a roar, which brought out all the people who were already awake. Then, with a strong crossbow, from eight or ten steps away, a good crossbowman shot an arrow and stuck it in all the way to the feathers; as it felt injured, it gave out another roar and a pull that would have toppled the beam from where the rope was tied; and they hurried to arm the crossbow again, and they shot three or four spears, and neither them nor the arrow could pierce the skin—as they shot two arrows at it, the arrows and the spears fell to the ground. The tiger was so enraged that after that first shot pierced it (which got him by surprise), no other could injure or cause it harm; but because of that first one it bled out and died. This was the year 1525, and that whole town saw it and it is notable. And this is enough of the tigers of the Mainland, which the Indians call ochís in the Cueva region, and in Nicaragua they are called teguan, and likewise in different provinces they call them differently.

These animals have been seen in many parts since then, and they are found on this and the other side of the equator, where the Spanish have been, like in the new kingdom of Granada or the kingdom of Prince Bogotá, and also in the banks of the famous Río de la Plata, alias Paranaguaçu (Illus. 4.8, fig. 10.8).

[1] ‘Tigris vocatur, propter velocem fugam. Ita enim nominant persae et medi sagittam. Est enim bestia variis distincta maculis, virtute et velocitate mirabilis, ex cujus nominee flumen Tigris appellatur, quod is rapidissimus sit omnium fluviorum. (Ethymologies, Book XII, Chapter II.)

[2] ‘A cujus montibus Tigris fluvius modiis primo incrementis nascitur. (Justinus, Book XLII.)

[3] Pliny, Book VIII, Chapter XVII.

[4] Mor. C 61. Sre. El c. De Job 38.

[5] Lake Nicaragua or Cocibolca or Granada is a freshwater lake in Nicaragua; it is the largest lake in Central America, the 19th largest lake in the world (by area) and the tenth largest in the Americas, slightly smaller than Lake Titicaca.

[6] Pliny, book VIII, chapter XVII.

[7] A member of a council of municipalities.

[8] Pliny, Book III, Proem.

[9] Isidore, Ethymologies, Book XIV, Chapter VII.

[10] Plus ultra (‘Further beyond’) is a Latin phrase and the national motto of Spain. It is taken from the personal motto of Charles V (24 February 1500 – 21 September 1558), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (as Charles I), and is a reversal of the original phrase Non plus ultra (“Nothing further beyond”). This was said to have been inscribed as a warning on the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar, which marked the edge of the known world in antiquity. Charles adopted the motto following the discovery of the New World by Columbus.