On the discovery of the island of Cubagua, where they fish for pearls, and where they were first seen in these Indies, and how the Spanish had notice of them.
Translated by Isabella Perez ’21
The third voyage and discovery of the first Admiral of these Indies, Don Christopher Columbus, took place in the year 1496 and set off in the month of March from the bay of Cádiz with six very well armed caravels (as was told in book III), three of which he sent during the voyage to this island of Hispaniola while he continued his discoveries with the other three. The Admiral set sail from the island of Cádiz with this fleet and made port a few days later in the Canary Islands, where water and firewood and other things were provisioned for the voyage, and from there they sailed in the direction of the islands of Anton, commonly known as Cape Verde, which are the same that the old cosmographers called the Gorgades, and which some say are called the Hesperides: which I refute, basing myself in that authority and authorities I cited in Book II, chapter III, wherein it is sufficiently proven that the Hesperides are these islands of our Indies. But we shall leave that aside.
Returning to my purpose, I say that from the islands of Cape Verde, the Admiral with his three ships sailed to the Southeast up to one hundred fifty leagues, as pilot Hernán Pérez Mateos (who lives today and is in this city) attests, and later a storm brought them to such straits that they cut the masts from the mizzenmasts and threw a great part of their cargo in the sea; and they seemed in such danger that they thought they were lost and sailed north-northwest and went to reconnoiter the island of Trinidad. But this storm that pilot Hernán Pérez tells of is not corroborated by Don Fernando Columbus, son of the Admiral, who undertook the same voyage with his father: he told me that the trial in which they found themselves was of calms and heat so great that the vessel cracked and the wheat they carried rotted, and of necessity they threw it out and retreated from the equator. It appears that whoever heard that they sailed away from the equator due to the heat shared the false opinion of the ancients, who claimed that the torrid zone (which is the same equator) is uninhabitable due to the sun’s excessive heat; and later, when I write about the southern sea, I intend to show and write how below the equinoctial line or torrid zone and even within it, all these parts are inhabited, since each day our Spaniards pass from one tropic to the other. I say that Don Fernando Columbus spoke well, because when at sea anytime you cross the said equator or sail close to it, it is doubtless very hot; and thus, due to this, as he said, they sailed away from it on this route. But on land, along the same equinox line, He who ordered it all, who is God, provided such mountains and sierras, which are not merely there, but because of them and the air the provinces and regions of the torrid zone are temperate: all the more, there is no lack of snow or large patches of ice in some parts of it and in the surrounding regions. And this is what the ancients did not understand, namely, that taking it as natural, it appeared inevitable to them that this stated equator could not be inhabited due to the sun’s great strength.
Let us return to our history, because this matter, as I said, will be spoken of at greater length when we reach the equator and describe what has been seen and is seen by our Spaniards every day. So, while exploring the island of Trinidad, Don Fernando said that the Admiral chose this name because he had it in his mind to thus name the first land he found, and it followed that they saw all at once three mountains nearby or at seemingly little distant one from the others, and he called and named the island Trinidad and passed through that passage and called it Drago’s mouth, and he saw the Mainland later and a great part of its coast, as I have said at length in another place. And from the point of Las Salinas on the Mainland (where this Drago’s mouth lies, which is within ten degrees of the equatorial line to the side of our artic pole) the Admiral sailed along the coast of the Mainland to the West and surveyed other islands, as I have said in book III. From there, he sailed on and discovered La Isla Rica, named Cubagua (which is addressed here), which the Christians at present call Pearl Island, where, after some years, the new city of Cáliz was founded, and the pearl fishery is there. Next to this island lies another larger one called La Margarita because the Admiral named it thus.
There is a distance of fifty leagues to the West from the point of Las Salinas to the island of Cubagua, and it is a small island, and short, as I have said, three leagues in circumference, little more or less, and of one and a half longitude and of narrow latitude. From this to the vast coast of the Mainland it is four leagues to the closest land, which is the province called Araya. And since on this island of Cubagua (as was said in the preface) there is no water, those who live there go to the Mainland, to the river they call Cumaná, which is seven leagues from the new Cáliz (in truth a laborious task); but given the profits, the men tolerate all these difficulties to further their interests.
Cubagua lies ten and nearly-a-half degrees farther from the equator on our horizon; and there may be a distance of one hundred and seventy or one hundred and eighty leagues, little more or less, from it to this city of Santo Domingo in this island of Hispaniola. It lies north-south, with the island of Santa Cruz of the Caribs at a distance of a hundred and ten leagues, which island of Santa Cruz lies on the Northern band. The Mainland is to its south, with the closest point being at a distance of four leagues and the island of Poregari twenty-five leagues to its west. So, that which I have stated is its position and boundaries, and nearest surroundings; but the land nearest to Cubagua is the island of Margarita, which, as I have said, lies one league north of it.
Everything else the admiral discovered on this third voyage has been told in Book III of this first part, and there is no need to revisit or repeat it here, except what relates to these two islands, Cubagua and Margarita, by telling the manner and occasion when it was known that there were pearls there, which occurred in this way.
Just as the admiral sailed even with Cubagua with his three caravels, he commanded certain sailors to get on a boat and row towards a pearl fishing canoe, whose occupants, seeing the Christians approaching, retreated towards the island; and among other Indians, they saw a woman who had around her neck a great quantity of strings of seed pearl and pearls, the seed pearls chunky (because often the Indians did not heed, nor had the art nor so subtle an instrument with which to bore them). So, one of those sailors took a Valencian clay plate (also known as a Malaga plate), which are carved in a manner that makes the figures and paintings gleam, and shattered in; and in barter for the shards of plate, they obtained several strings of thick seed pearl from the Indians and Indian woman: and the sailors, pleased, brought it to the admiral, who, understanding the business more profoundly, tried to conceal his excitement; but he was too pleased to hide it, and said: “I tell you all that you are in the richest land there is in the world, and you should give thanks to God for it.” And he sent the boat back to land with other men and ordered them to obtain as many seed pearls and pearls as could fit in a bowl in barter for another shattered plate, like the one mentioned, and for some bells. And arriving at the island, they traded with the fishermen up to five or six marcos of pearls and seed pearls, all mixed, in the manner that the Indians fish them, large and small; and the Admiral took those pearls to take them himself or to send to Spain to the Catholic Monarchs, Don Ferdinand and Doña Isabela, of glorious memory. And he did not want to linger there to avoid the chance that the sailors and the men with him would be stoked with desire and greed for the pearls, thinking of keeping it secret until the right time and when it should suit him. And, if he had wanted, he could have obtained half a bushel of pearls, as the pilot Hernán Pérez Mateos, who is here, says: he affirms that he saw as much or greater quantity of them; but the Admiral did not want to give rise to it. But since little is secret among sailors, when some of them later returned to Spain they shared what has been said in the village of Palos, where at the time the majority of the sailors who had travelled in these parts were. And it was likewise known in Moguer, and certain ship makers called Niños, neighbors of that village, who had come to know of it, among whom was one Per Alfonso Niños, left from there in a ship, taking with him some of those who had been with the Admiral when he had discovered that island of pearls, and they went to it and obtained many pearls and returned to Spain as rich men (if they could have gotten away with their caper). It is true that this Per Alfonso had a license to come to these parts to discover; but it was given to him with the condition that he would not come within fifty leagues of any place the Admiral had discovered, which he did not honor, instead he went directly to what was already known, and did his bartering; and when he returned to Europe he reached port in Galicia, where Hernando de Vega, Lord of Grajalm (who later was the commander of the military and knightly Order of Santiago in Castile) was viceroy; and some among those who went with Per Alfonso had some differences with him and said that he had not shared the spoils and pearls fairly with them, nor had he given to the King his fifth as he was bound to do. So, it came to the notice of the viceroy and he ordered Alfonso’s arrest and took the pearls and the ship from him and his cohorts, as to persons who had not upheld the letter of the license, and he sent Per Alfonso and some of the others prisoner to the court where, with much labor, they had their comeuppance. From there on a great number of pearls had been gotten from the island.
Some ventured to say that for the sake of the Admiral’s authority and position this discovery of the pearls amounted to great trouble, because they say that it was known in Spain through letters from sailors who were with him when he discovered Cubagua and the pearls, and from others, before his own news reached Spain, which others deny.
That Per Alfonso Niño and his companions exchanged up to fifty marcos of pearls that they obtained by bartering pins and bells and similar things of little value, and many of those were very good Asian-type pearls and round, albeit small, because there were none (as I heard the High Knight Commander say) that could approach five carats.
There, in that province of Cubagua and along the Mainland coastline they call the pearls thenocas, and also coçixas, and in the many and different languages of that coast and islands they give them other names as well. And this will suffice to tell the story of the discovery of Cubagua and of how news reached the Christians about the pearls to be found in these parts.