Of the manatee and of its size and form, and of the way the Indians sometimes catch this large animal with suckerfish and other particularities.

Translated by Adele Birkenes ’20

The manatee is one of the most notable and unique fish of all that I have read about or seen. Pliny did not write about them, neither did Albertus Magnus in his Proprietatibus Rerum, nor are they found in Spain. I have never heard any man of sea or land tell of having seen or heard of them, except in the islands and Mainland of these Spanish Indies. This is a large sea fish, although they are often hunted in the large rivers of this island and surrounding lands. They are much larger, in terms of length and width, than the sharks and the shortfin mako, of which I have written in the previous chapters. The large ones are ugly, and the manatee looks a lot like a wineskin bag of the kind they use to carry wine in Medina del Campo and Arévalo and throughout that land. The fish’s head is like that of an ox and even larger, and it has small eyes for an animal of that size. It has two thick stumps in place of arms with which it swims, and they sit high and close to the head. It is a fish covered with hide and not with scales, extremely docile, and it swims upriver to graze on plants by the riverbank, from where it can reach the plants in the water.[1]

On the Mainland the crossbowmen kill these animals and many other fish with a crossbow from a boat or canoe, and because the manatees travel near the surface of the water, they shoot them with a harpoon-tipped arrow, and the arrow has a rope of thin and solid thread. Once wounded it seeks to escape, while the crossbowman gives it rope. At the end of the very long rope, they put a stick or cork that serves as an unsinkable buoy or signal. And when the manatee has bled out and is tired and close to death, it approaches the beach or coast, and the crossbowman reels in his rope, and when he has ten or twelve arms’ lengths of rope left, he hauls the rope toward the land, and the manatee moves closer until it touches earth and the waves themselves help it to run aground. The crossbowman and his company pull it out of the water and take it to where it can be weighed or stored. And since they are large fish, a cart with a pair of oxen is needed to transport it. Sometimes, after the wounded manatee approaches the shore, the men wound it once more from the boat using a thick barbed harpoon, in order to kill it more quickly, and after they are dead they float to the surface. I believe that the manatee is one of the best fishes in the world and the one that is most like meat, so much so that it looks like beef once it is butchered, and someone who had not seen the entire animal or did not know it, looking at a slice of it would not be able to determine if it is beef or veal. In fact, he would take it for beef, and all the men in the world would be equally deceived, because the flavor is more like meat than fish, when it is fresh. The cured meat and jerky of this fish is very unique and keeps well without spoiling or going bad. I have taken it from the city of Santo Domingo of this island of Hispaniola to the city of Avila in Spain, in the year 1531, the Empress, our lady, being there. And in Castile this smoked meat looks like very good English cured meat, in its aspect; when cooked it tastes like very good tuna, or even better tasting than tuna. Finally, it is a very unique and precious fish, if there is such in the world.

In this Ozama River, which flows through this city, there are water grasses along its banks close to the seashore, and the manatee lingers there, and when the fishermen see it they harpoon it from their boats or canoes. They also kill it with strong nets made to the purpose. These animals have certain stones or bones in the head, in between their brains. That stone is very useful in the treatment of kidney stones, as people here affected by that illness affirm. For this they grind the stone, after it has been well burned, and the patient takes that powdered dust on an empty stomach after waking up in the morning, a measure about the size of a blanca or  jaqués de Aragon coin with a swig of very good white wine; drinking it continually like this some mornings makes the pain go away and the kidney stone is broken up and comes out as sand in the urine, according to what I have heard from reputable people who have experienced it. I have seen many people seek out this stone for the effect that I have described. A manatee usually has two stones like these in the brains, the size of a small playing ball, like a crossbow nut, but not round; some of them are larger than what I have described, corresponding to the size of the animal or manatee. But I believe that this is the same property that the stones found in the heads of the corvina and the red seabream and other fishes have, if we are to believe Pliny, who says that these quasi-stones can be found in the head of fish, which, when drunk with water, are the optimal remedy for kidney stones.[2]

Some of these manatees are so large that they are fourteen or fifteen feet in length and more than eight spans in width. They are narrow in the tail, and from the waist or start of it until the end of the tail and the extremities they are very wide and thick. They have only two short hands or arms close to the head, and because of this the Christians call them manatee; the chronicler Peter Martyr[3] says that they took the name from lake Guaniabo, which is false. And just as in this Island of Hispaniola they took away their name and gave it this, thus on the Mainland there are many of these fish called by diverse names according to the differences in the languages of the provinces where the manatee is found. They do not have ears, rather some small holes to hear. The hide looks like that of a pig that is bald or scorched by fire. It is yellowish-brown in color and has some odd hairs. The hide is as thick as a finger and curing it in the sun makes it good for belts and soles of shoes and other uses. And its tail, from the waist that I described before, is cut into pieces (all of which looks like rope or strips) and is put out in the sun for four or five days, and after it dries, they fry it in a skillet and it renders a lot of lard, almost all of it turns into fat, leaving little pulp or residue to throw away. And this lard is the best for cooking fried eggs, because even when it is a few days old it never becomes rancid or has a bad flavor, and it is very good for oil lamps and is even said to have medicinal uses. The female manatee has two teats on its chest, and like this it gives birth to two offspring and breastfeeds them. I have never heard of this except with regard to this fish and the “old sailor” or sea wolf (the monk seal).

There are manatee and turtle fisheries on the islands of Jamaica and Cuba, and I would not dare write what I am about to say were it not so public or notorious and had I not heard it from people of good reputation. And it is also believed that on the island of Hispaniola, when there were still many of the Indians natural to it, they used to catch these animals with suckerfish. And since the course of my history has brought me to write about the manatee, it’s best to include this here than elsewhere in the book. So, it should be known that there are some fish as large as a span, called suckerfish, ugly in appearance, but of excellent energy and understanding; it sometimes happens that they get trapped in the nets when they are trying to catch other fish. This is a good fish and among the best of the sea for eating, because it is lean and firm and without phlegm, or at least it has very little; I have eaten it many times and can attest to it. When the Indians want to keep or raise some suckerfish for their fisheries they catch them when they are small and keep them in saltwater from the sea and feed them; they raise them domestically until they are the size that I have described or a little bit larger, and ready to help with their fishing. Then they take them out to sea in a canoe or boat, always kept in saltwater and tied to a thin (but strong) cord, and when they see a large fish, like a turtle or a streaked prochilod, which can grow very large in these seas, or some of these manatees or any other animal that may happen to be visible in the surface of the water, the Indian takes the suckerfish in one hand and strokes it with the other and tells it in his language to be manicato, which means hardworking and of a good heart, and to be diligent, and other words that encourage strength, exhorting them to be daring and hold onto the largest and best fish it can find. And when the time is right, he lets go of the cord and throws the suckerfish in the direction of the large fish they want to catch, and the suckerfish shoots like an arrow and clings to the side of the turtle or to the belly or wherever it can, and it attaches to it or to another large fish, which, as it feels itself seized by the smaller suckerfish, escapes to another part of the sea; meanwhile the Indian fisherman extends the cord to its full length, which is of many arms’ length, and at the end of the cord there is a stick or cork that serves as a signal or buoy, which remains at the surface of the water. After little time has passed, the manatee or turtle the suckerfish has grabbed onto grows tired and returns to the coast. Then the Indian fisherman begins to reel in his cord from the canoe or boat, and when he has a few arms’ length left to collect, he starts to pull with care, little by little, guiding the suckerfish and the prisoner it is attached to until they are on the coast, and the very waves of the sea wash it ashore. And the Indians that were fishing jump off their boats and onto land, and if it is a turtle they flip it over even though it has not touched land, because they are great swimmers, and they put it on dry land; if it is a manatee, they harpoon it and kill it. When the fish is taken out of the water, it is necessary that the suckerfish be detached little by little and with much care. The Indians do this by speaking sweet words to it and offering many thanks for the work it has done, and like this they remove the suckerfish from the large fish to which it is attached. And it is stuck so tightly that if they were to remove it by force, they would break the suckerfish and tear it to shreds. And this is how these large fish are taken, of which it seems that nature has made this suckerfish sheriff and executioner or huntsman to take and catch them. The suckerfish has scales that are organized in rows, like the palate or upper mandible of the mouth of a human, or of a horse, and there are some very thin, rough, hard spiky bones which it uses to attach itself to other fish. And it has these rows or scales full of these spikes on the outside part of the body, from the head to the middle of the body along the spine and not on the belly, but rather in the middle of the spine; and because of this they call it the suckerfish, because with its spikes it can affix itself to other fish.

This generation of Indians is so foolish that they believe with great certainty that the suckerfish perfectly understands human exhortations and all the words that the Indians say to encourage it before letting it loose, so that it clings to the turtle or manatee or other fish, and that it also understands the words of thanks that the Indians offer for what it has done. And this ignorance comes from not understanding that it is a property of nature, because without any exhortation it happens many times in that great Ocean Sea, and I have seen very many times how sharks and turtles are taken out of the water with the suckerfish still attached, and tearing it to pieces when trying to remove it. From this we can infer that it is not in their nature to remove themselves after getting attached of their own will, without some time elapsing, or for another reason that I do not understand; since it would be expected that when the shark or the turtle is taken, the suckerfish attached to them would escape if they could. The fact is that, as I said before, every animal has its sheriff.

I will describe here something notable that I have seen all eight times that I have traveled this great Ocean Sea, coming from Spain or returning to it in this route of the Indies; and I think that everyone who has sailed this route would say the same. And it is that like on land where there are fertile and infertile provinces so I believe it must be in all of the seas (based on what I have seen), because it happens sometimes that the ships sail 50 and 100 and 200 and many more leagues without being able to catch a single fish or see one. And in other parts of the same Ocean Sea, where this that I have described can be seen, there are so many fish to be found that it seems like the sea is boiling with fish, and humans kill many of them. The Indians of this Island of Hispaniola call the sea bagua (I do not say baygua, because baygua is the barbasco or plant they use to stun and catch a lot of fish, according to what I have been told, whereas bagua is the name of the sea on this island).

Many other things could be said about other fish and crabs and their many differences, and about the lobsters that can also be found on this island, but since these are things common to all of the other parts of these Indies, I will not describe them here; also because the crabs, even though they live in the water, also live on land in these parts, and there is much to say about them, and as such I will leave it for a chapter that specifically deals with the diverse ways of the crabs, in the second part of this Natural History of the Indies. Nor will I write or talk about pearls, because even though they are taken to this city and island in large quantities, they are not fished here, but rather on other small islands off the coast of the Mainland and other parts; this matter of the pearls also involves the island of Cubagua, which is addressed in book XIX. And like this I leave it for its own chapter.

[1] See Appendix 2 for illustration listed as Illus. 5, figure 8 in AR edition. [EE]

[2] Pliny, Book XXXII, Chapters 5 and 100. [GFO]

[3] Peter Martyr, Dec. I, Chapter 8. [GFO]