Of the serpents or snakes and lizards of this island of Hispaniola and other parts.

Translated by Andrea Tellez ’21

Countless are the small lizards that are found on this Island of Hispaniola and in all the other islands of this gulf and of the southern Mainland of these Indies; of this there is so much to say that if one had to write about it in detail, it would be a never-ending process. Some are green, others brownish-gray and others almost black, and some are greener than others, and some are an almost bright yellow, and others are a tawny color. And just as they are different in color, they also vary greatly in size, with some being larger and smaller than others, though they are all small. Some are spotted and others striped or lined with different patterns and colors, and of each kind there are many. Others, when they stop to look at a man, take out from their dewlap a round crest or membrane of red skin and display it, standing very still; if one approaches them they retract it, take it out again and return it once more to the dewlap, whenever they want, or they leave. Others are somewhat larger than the common small lizards of Spain, two and even three times bigger; but not as big as the lizards from Castile. Let us not go on about the small lizards, because they are very common and innumerable, almost in infinito, so let us move on to talk about the serpents, which are the same as snakes. And it is not a brief subject, for my days would not be enough to describe all the ones that are in these Indies—not only for being countless, but because neither I nor any other has ever seen nor can ever see them all; but I will say what I have noted and remembered about them.

On this island there are many and of many kinds and patterns and sizes, and it is the common opinion of the residents of this island, the natives of it, and even of all the Spaniards that have lived here for a longer time, that they are not venomous.

Coming from the Mainland to this island, in the year 1515, I crossed the Neyva River in a cane raft, close to where that powerful and wide river enters the sea, and there were ten or twelve Indians swimming around the raft, guiding it. I want to tell how it happened so that the chroniclers who from Spain write about these Indies will know how far they are from understanding them (or understanding themselves), how far their eyes are turned away from seeing all that pertains to these parts. And if I had not passed through there, I would not have been able to see a snake or serpent that I found in this other part of the coast, at the foot of the mountains they call the Pedernales; I measured this snake and it was more than twenty feet long, and the thickest part of it was much wider than a closed fist, and they must have killed it that day or a few hours before, for it did not stink and the blood was fresh, which had come out from three or four stab wounds it had suffered. Such snakes are less venomous than others in these parts but more frightening to those who see them.

Miguel Johan de Ribas, a native of Zaragoza of Aragon, factor[1] for Their Majesties in Castilla del Oro, and I came together along with a few other Spaniards, who, like me, crossed in that dangerous raft or boat. And as is the case, it is worth describing this voyage, and how different it was from the bridges or boats that other people use in the world. I say there were six or seven bundles of canes tied together with vines (which are better for this purpose than very good rope), and over those bundles was a square frame of other bundles of cane, as thick as a man, around the first canes. So that in the middle of this vessel there was a square space of six or seven feet, in which I was seated, and swimming around it were those Indians that I mentioned that guided the boat (or poorly crafted raft), because I paid them and I gave them some things that they needed, but that were actually of little value. These Indians were from a cacique or chief that lived there on that coast, named Alonso de Ovando, and I gave them fishing hooks and a few knives, and I gave a shirt to the cacique. The river we were crossing was almost a third of a league wide, and some Indians that the factor and I had brought from the Mainland, as they swam and got tired from the river being so wide, grabbed on to the canes of the raft to rest, and while the cacique’s Indians were very helpful, the others got in the way. The factor had crossed first and was already on the other side, so they returned the raft for me, and because the raft had already crossed the river those two times the canes were not tied as well as in the beginning; because of this, where I was seated the water reached almost to my belt, for there was nothing that could have stopped the water from entering through the canes, and because all of the canes here are solid and carried the weight of the tired Indian men and women, the raft was sinking further. I had with me more than three thousand gold pesos cast in bars, some were mine and the rest belonged to the secretary Lope Conchillos and other private people, which I feared would stay in the river; to prevent this (before entering the boat), I wrapped all of the gold in linen very tightly, going around it many times with a sturdy fishing line (or cord), and I left a line of twelve or fifteen fathoms, with the idea that if the raft sunk completely I could retrieve the gold or give one bar to one of the stronger Indian swimmers so they would pull it out, or perhaps I would let it sink to the bottom and a stick I had tied to the line would stay as a signal or buoy. I was barefoot and wearing a shirt, with the sleeves well tied in case I needed to swim. Our Lord willed, by His mercy, for all of us to pass safely, despite the great danger and weariness, because the current was strong and would knock us about and put us almost at the mouth of the sea—so, with my papers and reports and everything I had soaking wet (which I did not regret), we landed on the other side of the river. This happened because I was angry from having waited for five days three or four leagues up river, and in that time the current kept rising and we did not try to ford the river on horseback (and sent the servants ahead with the horses), because the Indians led me to believe that the cacique had canoes and would get me across as I pleased. And If I had lost that gold, my regret would have been so great that life would not have been long enough to fully expiate such an error.

Once on the other side, we found the large snake. Then we climbed the Pedernales sierra, which is very uneven, and the journey took two days and a half, during which we found no water and had nothing to eat but crabs, of which there were many and all very good (this is a delicacy that is not for squeamish or delicate people); and on the third day we arrived at the village of Azua.[2] This is the way that those who recount things of the Indies should teach themselves to write. In truth, if the hardships I endured to come to know them or see these Indies for myself were told here, the volume of such histories would be doubled, and I would want no better prize for my efforts than to know to tell them so well, for I have known how to endure them by the mercy and compassion of God—who has shown my life such notorious mercy so many times, miraculously so, that if I could explain them well, I am certain that these subjects would be more pleasing and of greater esteem to those who read them.

Returning to what was proposed in the title of this chapter, I will be brief in all of it because there is much more to say about similar kinds of things of the Mainland. On this island of Hispaniola, its other neighboring islands and those others on this gulf, there  are thin, green snakes that are very venomous; the Carib Indians make the herb with which they shoot their arrows using these snakes’ venom. These snakes hang from tree branches by their tail, and from there they bite or sting whoever passes, wherever they can reach them, and they are very bad and irritable. Of these Pliny says[3]: “it is a serpent called jaculo, id est dart, because it is on the trees and from there it hurls itself or strikes, like a dart.” And because I touched above on the herb of the Carib archers, it should not be understood that they make this pestilent herb using only the venom of these snakes—they use this and other poisonous materials, as will be told more extensively in its place. There are also other brownish-gray snakes and others that are not very green but bigger than the poisonous one mentioned above, but they are not known for being so bad and venomous, though I don’t believe that there are any snakes without venom at any time of the year. There are other snakes much bigger than the first one I mentioned (the one I found dead at the foot of the Pedernales mountains), as I have heard many say; but they do not complain of them nor are they dangerous. The Indians eat all of them and considered them good delicacies; except for those green, thin ones, which the Carib Indians search for with great diligence to kill them and perfect that diabolic herb mixture they use to dip their arrows.

In 1538, a snake got into this fort and climbed on an artillery cannon; by chance one of the artillerymen of this house saw it and went to his chamber for a sword; he snuck up to it as best he could, and the snake had its head raised with several inches of its neck, and with one swing he cut the head off with part of the neck. The previous morning a large dog from this fort had been found dead, and it was believed that the snake had killed it. I had the snake opened and they found thirty or so eggs inside, like chicken eggs, and they were all yolk; it was seven and a half feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist, and spotted. But because this subject would take very long if I were to tell it here, I will leave what is left of it, which is a lot, to its proper places, since we know that the gulf called Culebras is full of them, and that the island of Margarita has the ones they call rattlesnakes, and in other parts there are others—and when I get to them I will tell what I have understood of that subject. I will also remind the reader to read in book XXIII, chapter VII, what is written of other snakes or vipers of Río de la Plata that are very bad and venomous and worse than all the others.


[1] Royal official that in the Indies would collect rents and pay tributes in the form of goods belonging to the Crown. [English Edition note.]

[2] Oviedo could be referring to Azua de Compostela; founded in 1504, Azua is one of the oldest European settlements in the Americas.

[3] Pliny, book VIII, chapter XXIII.