Of many other peculiarities, and some of them very notable, of the island of Cubagua; of a source of bitumen where there is a natural liquid that some call petroleum, and others call it stercus demonis (devil’s excrement), and the Indians give it other names.

Translated by Lilian Carmichael ’20

The island of Cubagua, as I have said, is small, and can measure three leagues, a little more or less. It is flat, and the soil itself is salty, and therefore barren of all kinds of good herbs; nor are there any trees on it, except for some guayacans, tiny or dwarf trees compared to those in other parts of these Indies. There are other low trees, like bramble patches or olive trees, without any fruit, and the bigger part of the island is a thick grove of some tall elephant cacti (cereus) of a height of an estado and a half or two, as thick as the calf of a man’s leg. At a certain time of the year these bear two types of fruit resembling figs, some red or vermillion and others white: the red ones have very small seeds, like mustard seeds, and the Indians call this fruit yaguaraha. It is very good-tasting fruit and fresh, and on the tree, or better to say on the thistle, it is covered in thorns like chestnuts, and when they mature the thorns fall off and they open and resemble figs. The other type of fruit growing on the cacti is likewise green on the outside and they are somewhat like dates; but they are bigger, and the inside is white, and the seed like fig granules; and when they are eaten, which is when they are ripe, a musky scent or something softer rises to the nose. The Indians call this fruit agoreros.

There are rabbits on that island, of good flavor and plentiful, like those of Castile, although the fur is rougher and coarser. There are many good iguanas. There are birds that the Spaniards call flamencos (flamingos), because they use that name in Spain for certain birds; but these here are not flamencos and the difference is this. Those of Cubagua are as big as a turkey; the plumage is a reddish color: the legs thin and four handspans in height; the neck another four handspans long, and thin, like the thumb of a man’s hand; the beak is shaped like that of parrots. These birds feed on tiny fish and shellfish that they look for in lagoons and ponds and from what they can find on the seashore at low tide. They honk like geese and raise their young near the lakes.  There also large gannets with crops and other types. There are other water birds, small and numerous. At a certain time of year other birds visit the island, some peregrine falcons and other types of birds of prey, and merlins, and others that here they call guaraguaos[1] (which are like kites and thrive on stealing and taking chickens where they can be found, and when there are not they have their fill of lizards). Some peregrine falcons are caught and tamed, and they have been brought to Spain, where they have done very well and are valued. Among other things I have noticed on this island which I will mention here are two animals that are in some way—or even very—similar in their venom: the first is a land animal and the other a sea animal, a marvelous and strange thing, and they are thus. There are some spiders, very tiny in size, but the pain they inflict is so great that it does not have any other possible comparison except for the one I will describe here about a sea animal. And if the pain caused by these spiders to those they bite were to last it could be that the person bitten would be driven man or die a crude death; but there is no greater comfort in this danger than the hope and experience that one already has of soon coming to that end when the pain is gone and the injured one is freed. The outcome of such a bite is that the victim becomes very nauseous and suffers a great ordeal without relief or mitigation from any source, without being able to eat, drink, or rest until the following day at the same hour that he was bitten; and when the pain has ceased, the one who suffered remains such that he cannot return fully to his first state for two or three days, although no one dies of this. There is a fish or animal in the sea, no bigger than a thumb, and those it bites in the water, as it sometimes happens to an Indian, suffer the same nausea and feels as great and intolerable pain as those suffering from the spider’s bite, without the pain ceasing until the following day at the time that the seawater is at the same point in the waning or rising of the tide that it was at the time the animal bit. So the illness and pain caused by both animals lasts twenty-four natural hours, and the fish mentioned is said to be called tartara, and is painted in white and yellow stripes and freckles, each of its distinct color.

There are on the island of Cubagua and in the other neighboring islands many large turtles, so large that one can get as much flesh from them as from a six-month-old calf or young bull. These turtles leave the sea for the land to spawn at their proper time, and they make a hole in the sand with their large hands, and there they lay a thousand or fifteen hundred eggs, more and less, the size of good lemons, and their shell is thin like a film, and after they have spawned they cover the eggs with the same sand; and when they have hatched and are living, the little turtles leave like from an anthill, and go to the sea, which is there next to where they were born, and they grow up in it. The Indians kill these turtles with small harpoons made from a nail that they attach to a fishing line or a sturdy cord; and since they are large animals and the wound is small, it would not be enough to injure or catch the turtle in this way, but the turtle gives its attacker further weapons, since as soon as it feels itself wounded it squeezes its shell so tightly that it anchors the harpoon so firmly that it cannot be released; then the Indian jumps into the water and turns the turtle upside-down, and as it is on its back, it cannot escape, and with one pulling on the harpoon’s rope and others helping the one who turned it over, the Indians bring it into the canoe.

The island of Cubagua has a good port on the north coast, and one league ahead of it is the island of Margarita, which borders in to the north-northeast, and on the other side is the Mainland, four leagues away, and the land they call Araya borders it from the East until almost the South. On the western tip there is a fountain or spring of a liquid, like oil, next to the sea, in such abundance that the bitumen or liquid floats over the seawater, which can be seen from two or three leagues from the island, and the oil can be smelled from afar. Some of those who have seen it say it is called by the natives stercus demonis (demon’s excrement), and others call it petroleum, and others asphalt; and those who call it the latter want to indicate that this liquid is of the sort found in Lake Aspháltide, witih which many authors write in agreement. They find that this liquid is very useful in many things and for various illnesses, and they send for it from Spain with much insistence because of the experience that doctors and others who have tried it have had with it, to whose accounts I refer. It is true that I have heard them say that it is a very beneficial remedy for gout and other illnesses caused by the cold, because this oil, or whatever it is, is said by everyone to be very hot. I do not know and can neither contradict or agree beyond what others have seen and will attest to, which should be soon, depending on the diligence with which this petroleum is sought. We will move on to the other things about this island of Cubagua.

The Spaniards have brought some pigs there from the island of Hispaniola and other parts, of the breed or caste brought from Castile, and some of the ones they call baquiras or wild hogs on the Mainland; and on this island their hooves grow so long that they turn upward and reach a length of a handspan or thereabouts, so that they are crippled and cannot walk without pain and falling at every step. Those who live on that island bring drinking water from the Cumaná River on the Mainland, which is seven leagues from the island, and they bring firewood from the island of Margarita.

Around Cubagua and along its eastern coast it is all banks of rocks and sand, and pearls grow there in the so-called oysters or fish that produce them, which grow naturally there and spawn and develop in large quantities, and hence are considered to be everlasting, although it is necessary to be patient and allowed them to reach perfection before being picked, so that they are better and more profitable; because it follows the way that the vine produces the grape, namely, at the beginning of its development these oysters or shells begin the pearls in the heart of the fish and it grows inside of them, and at that time and later it is a tender grain, like in milk, and as time elapses the pearl toughens and grows, even though there are so many small ones, like grains of sand or a little bigger, that are hardened. This enterprise has been a very rich thing in as much as the fifth that is paid to His Majesties from the pearls has been worth each year fifteen thousand ducats and more, not including what which is stolen by some; since their lack of conscience and much greed makes them determine, at their peril, to hide many marcos of pearls, and one can certainly believe that they are not of the poorest quality, but among the most selected and precious. The thing is that until the present time no one in the whole world knows nor is it written precisely that such a multitude of pearls has been seen and found in such a small space or sea area. The flesh of the oysters, although it is somewhat hard and difficult to digest, is good, but better in marinade; and aside from it, there is an abundance of good fish in Cubagua and they can even bring salted fish in great quantities to this island of Hispaniola in some ships. That island of Cubagua was never populated by Indians due to its barrenness and lack of fresh water, so they came there from other islands and the Mainland to fish for pearls. Its reputation led to Christians going there from this island of Hispaniola and from San Juan to barter wine, cassava, and other things for pearls, and they began to build bohíos or Indian-style huts, which marked the beginning of the population of the island.


[1] Red-tailed hawks (buteo jamaicensis) (EE).