Natural History of the West Indies by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo

The Island of Hispaniola

Hispaniola, from Higuey Point to Cape Tiburon is more than one hundred and firty leagues in length. From the coast of Navidad in the north to Cape Lobos in the South, the island is fifty leagues wide. The city of Santo Domingo is in the southern part of the island at about nineteen degrees north latitude. There are many beautiful rivers and streams on the island and some are quite large, such as the Ozama River, which empties into the ocean at Santo Domingo. Other rivers are the Neyba, which flows close to the town of San Juan de la Maguana, the Artibonito, the Haina, the Nizao, and many smaller ones which I do not care to mention. On the island there is a lake [Lake Enriquillo] about two leagues inland, near the town of Yaguana, which extends fifteen leagues or more to the east. In some places it reaches a width of on to three leagues, but for the most part it is considerably narrower. Most of the lake is salty, but where rivers and springs flow into it the water is fresh. The truth is that this lake is really a “sea eye” which is very near the sea and contains many different kinds of fish, especially large sharks, that enter the lake from the sea by coming under the land or through a place or places through which the sea flows and forms the lake. This is the opinion of most of those who have seen this lake.

At the time of the discovery, Hispaniola was populated by Indians and was ruled by two kings, Caonabo and Guarionex, and afterwards it passed to the rule of Anacoana. I do not wish to dwell on the conquest or the cause of the reduction in numbers of the Indians, and thus go about describing things I have described in detail elsewhere. This is not the subject I am to treat here, but other details that Your Majesty may not so well or may have forgotten. Concerning this island, however, I wish to say that there are very few Indians there now, and not so many Christians as there should be, since many of those who once were on the island have gone to other islands or to Tierra Firme. Being men fond of adventure those who go to the Indies for the most part are unmarried and therefore do not feel obligated to reside in any one place. Since new lands have been discovered and are being discovered every day, those men believe that they will swell their purses more quickly in new territory. Even though some may have been successful in this, most have been disillusioned, especially those who already have established homes and residence in Hispaniola.

I believe beyond any doubt, and this opinion is held by many that if a prince had no realm except this island, in a short time it would not be inferior to Sicily or England, nor at present is there any reason why either of those islands should be envied. Hispaniola is so rich in natural resources that she could enrich many provinces and kingdoms. In addition to having more rich mines and better gold than have yet been discovered in such quantity anywhere in the world, so much cotton grows wild that if it were cultivated and cared for it would become the best and most productive in the whole world. There are so many excellent drumstick trees that large quantities of the pods are already being brought to Spain and from Spain they are carried and distributed to many parts of the world. This is increasing so rapidly that it is really a marvel. On that island there are many rich sugar plantations. The sugar is of very good quality and ships loaded with it come to Spain every year.

Plants native to Spain that have been transplanted and cultivated there grow better and in larger quantity than in any part of Europe. They grow and multiply in spite of the fact that they are neglected and not well cared for. The men want the time they would employ in agriculture for other gains and enterprises that more rapidly swell the wealth of the covetous souls who have no desire to work. For this reason the settlers do not occupy themselves with growing grain or setting out vineyards, for in the time necessary for these to produce fruit, these products can be had at good prices, for ships carry them there from Spain. In mining, trading, pearl fishing, or in other pursuits, the colonists become wealthy more quickly than they would by sowing wheat or planting vines, as I have said. Some, however, especially these who expect to remain in that land, are engaged in agriculture. There are also many fruits native to Hispaniola, and those that have been carried there from Spain and planted have grown remarkably well.

Farther on I shall describe in detail those that had their origins on that island and in other parts of the Indies, which have been found there by Christians. Of the things which have been carried from Spain there can be found on that island throughout the year, many good vegetables, many fine cattle, sweet orange and bitter orange trees, and very beautiful lemon and citron trees, and these fruits are to be found in abundance. There are many figs throughout the year, many date palms and other plants and trees that have been carried there from Spain.

In Hispaniola there was no quadruped except two species of very small animals that called hutia and cori, which are very much like rabbits. All other quadrupeds that are there now have been carried from Spain. Consequently it seems to me unnecessary to speak of them, nor is it necessary to say more than that the cattle as well as other animals have multiplied greatly. Cows have multiplied at such a rate that many cattle kings have more than a thousand or two thousand head, and there are quite a number who have up to three or four thousand head, and there are quite a number who have up to three or four thousand head. An occasional herd may have more than eight thousand head. Herds of five hundred or more are quite common. The truth is that the land furnishes some of the best pasturage, clear water, and one of the most the temperate climates n the world for such castle. Consequently the animals are larger and more handsome than those in Spain; and since the weather is mild, and not cold, the cattle are never lean and bad of flavor. Likewise, there are many sheep and swine, and many of the swine and cattle have become wild. Large numbers of dogs and cats that were carried there from Spain for the use of the settlers have escaped to the forests and have become quite vicious, especially the dogs, and they eat the cattle because of the carelessness of the shepherds, who guards the flocks poorly. There are many mares and horses and all the other domestic animals that have been bred from original stock carried from Spain.

There are many small towns on this island, concerning which I desire to say only that they are so located that in time they will grow and become famous, because of the fertility and the abundance of the land. Concerning Santo Domingo, the principle city, I wish to point out that with regard to the buildings, no town in Spain, unless it is Barcelona, which I have seen many times, is superior in general. The houses in Santo Domingo are for the most part of stone like those in Barcelona, and the walls are strong and beautiful, constructed of wonderful masonry. The general layout of the city is much better than that of Barcelona, because the many streets are more level and wide and incomparably straighter. Since the city was founded in our own time, there was opportunity to plan the whole thing from the beginning. It was laid out with ruler and compass, with all the streets being carefully measured. Because of this, Santo Domingo is better planned than any town I have seen.

The city is so near the sea that on one side there is only space for the street, which is about fifty paces at the widest point. On one side the waves beat upon live rock and rugged coast, while on the other side, near the houses, flows the Ozama River, which forms a marvelous port. The ships anchor there near the shore, under the very windows of the houses and no farther from the mouth of the river than the distance from the foot of Monjuich Mountain to the monastery of Saint Francis or to the Exchange of Barcelona. In this area, the fortress and castle are located, beneath which, and about twenty paces away, the ships enter the river until they drop anchor, they are never more than thirty or forty paces away from the houses of the city, for on that side the city extends to the edge of the water. One could not find such a beautiful port or river mouth anywhere in the world.

There must be some seven hundred citizens in this city, living in such houses as I have already described. Some of the private homes are so luxurious that any grandee in Spain would find himself most comfortable there. Admiral Diego Columbus, Your Majesty’s Viceroy, has such a magnificent house that I cannot remember one in Spain a quarter as good. It is well constructed of stone and located on the port. It has many fine rooms and commands a beautiful view of both land and sea. The rooms to be added later will harmonize with the part already constructed. Here your Majesty would be as comfortably lodged as in one of the finest houses in Castile.

A cathedral is now being constructed, and the Bishop and other dignitaries and canons are well provided for. Since there is an abundance of materials and labor, it should be completed soon. From what I have already seen, I believe it will be a magnificent building of good proportions.

There are also three monasteries (Dominican, Franciscan and Saint Mary of Mercy) which have handsome but modest buildings which are not so grotesque as those in Spain. But speaking without prejudice toward any religious order. Your Majesty may rest assured that in these three communities God is worshiped most devoutly, because they are inhabited by holy and exemplary monks. There is also a fine hospital to which poor people may be carried and where they are well cared for. It was founded by Miguel de Pasamonte, Your Majesty’s treasurer.

Day by day the city is growing larger and becoming more noble, and this is certain to continue since the Viceroy and Your Majesty’s high court of justice and Royal Chancellery are located there. Likewise, most of the rich people of the island live in or near the city of Santo Domingo.

You just read an excerpt from: Natural History of the West Indies by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, as translated and edited by Sterling A. Stoudmire — copyrighted 1959.

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