Gateway to the Classics: Amerigo Vespucci by Frederick A. Ober
Amerigo Vespucci by  Frederick A. Ober

Cannibals, Giants, and Pearls


Besides the letter written by Vespucci to Lorenzo de Medici, he sent an account of the second voyage to his friend Soderini, in which are some incidents not mentioned in the first, with very little repetition of others. He wrote:

"We set out from the port of Cadiz, three ships in company, on the 18th of May, and steered directly for the Cape de Verdes, passing within sight of the Grand Canary, and soon arriving at an island called De Fuego, or Fire Island, whence, having taken wood and water, we proceeded on our voyage to the southwest. In forty-four days we arrived at a new land, which we judged to be a continent, and a continuation of that mentioned in my former voyage. It was situated within the torrid zone, south of the equinoctial line, where the south pole is elevated five degrees and distant from said island, bearing south, about five hundred leagues. Here we found the days and nights equal on the 27th of June, when the sun is near the tropic of Cancer.

"We did not see any people here, and, having anchored our ships and cast off our boats, we proceeded to the land, which we found to be inundated by very large rivers. We attempted to enter these at many points, but from the immense quantity of water brought down by them we could find no place, after hard toiling, that was not over-flowed. We saw many signs of the country's being inhabited, but as we were unable to enter it we concluded to return to the ships and make the attempt on some other part of the coast. We raised our anchors accordingly, and sailed along southeast by east, continually coasting the land which ran in that direction. We found the currents so strong on this part of the coast that they actually obstructed our sailing, and they all ran from the southeast to the northwest. Seeing our navigation was attended with so many inconveniences, we concluded to turn our course to the northwest; and having sailed some time in this direction we arrived at a very beautiful harbor, which was made by a large island at the entrance, inside of which was a very large bay. While sailing along parallel with the island with a view of entering the harbor, we saw many people on shore, and, being much cheered, we manoeuvred our ships for the purpose of anchoring and landing where they appeared. We might have been then about four leagues out at sea. While proceeding on our course for this purpose, we saw a canoe quite out at sea, in which were several natives, and made sail on our ships in order to come up with and take possession of them, steering so as not to run them down. We saw that they stood with their oars raised—I think either through astonishment at beholding our ships, or by way of giving us to understand that they meant to wait for and resist us; but as we neared them they dropped the oars and began to row towards the land.

"Having in our fleet a small vessel of forty-five tons, a very fast sailer, she took a favorable wind and bore down for the canoe. When the people in it found themselves embarrassed between the schooner and the boats we had lowered for the purpose of pursuing them, they all jumped into the sea, being about twenty men, and at the distance of two leagues from the shore. We followed them the whole day with our boats, and could only take two, which was for them an extraordinary feat; all the rest escaped to the shore. Four boys remained in the canoe who were not of their tribe, but had been taken prisoners by them, and brought from another country. We were much surprised at the gross injuries they had inflicted upon these boys, and, having been taken on board the ships, they told us they had been captured in order to be eaten. Accordingly, we knew that those people were cannibals, who eat human flesh.

"We proceeded with the ships, taking the canoe with us astern, and following the course which they pursued, anchored at half a league from the shore. As we saw many people on the shore, we landed in the boats, carrying with us the two men we had taken. When we reached the beach all the people fled into the woods, and we sent one of the men to negotiate with them, giving them several trifles as tokens of friendship—such as little bells, buttons, and looking-glasses—and telling them that we wished to be their friends. He brought the people all back with him, of whom there were about four hundred men and many women, who came unarmed to the place where we lay with the boats. Having established friendship with them, we surrendered the other prisoner and sent to the ships for the canoe, which we restored. This canoe was twenty-six yards long and six feet wide, made out of a single tree and very well wrought. When they had carried it into a river near by, and put it in a secure place, they all fled, and would have nothing more to do with us, which appeared to us a very barbarous act, and we judged them to be a faithless and evil-disposed people. We saw among them a little gold, which they wore in their ears.

"Leaving this place, we sailed about eighty leagues along the coast and entered a bay, where we found a surprising number of people, with whom we formed a friendship. Many of us went to their village, in great safety, and were received with much courtesy and confidence. In this place we procured a hundred and fifty pearls (as they sold them to us for a trifle) and some little gold, which they gave us gratuitously. We noticed that in this country they drank wine made of their fruits and seeds, which looked like beer, both white and red; the best was made from acorns, and was very good. We ate a great many of these acorns and found them a very good fruit, savory to the taste and healthy to the body. The country abounded with means of nourishment, and the people were well disposed and pacific.

"We remained at this port seventeen days, with great pleasure, and every day some new tribe of people came to see us from inland parts of the country, who were greatly surprised at our figures, at the whiteness of our skins, at our clothes, at our arms, and the form and size of our ships. We were informed by them of the existence of another tribe, still farther west, who were their enemies, and that they had great quantities of pearls. They said that those which they had in their possession were some they had taken from this other tribe in war. They told us how they fished for pearls, and in what manner they grew, and we found that they told us the truth—as your excellency shall hear.

"Sailing along the coast again, and finding an island about fifteen leagues from it at sea, we resolved to see if it were inhabited. We found on this island the most bestial and filthy people that were ever seen, but at the same time extremely pacific, so that I am able to describe their habits and customs. Their manners and their faces were filthy, and they all had their cheeks stuffed full of a green herb which they were continually chewing, as beasts chew the cud, so that they were scarcely able to speak. Each one of them wore, hanging at the neck, two dried gourd-shells, one of which was filled with the same kind of herb they had in their mouths, and the other with a white meal, which appeared to be chalk-dust. They also carried with them a small stick, which they wetted in their mouths from time to time and then put in the meal, afterwards putting it into the herb with which both cheeks were filled, and mixing the meal with it. We were surprised at their conduct, and could not understand for what purpose they indulged in the strange practice.

"As soon as these people saw us, they came to us with as much familiarity as if we had been old friends. Walking with them along the shore, and wishing to find some fresh water to drink, they made us to understand by signs that they had none, and offered us some of their herbs and meal; hence we concluded that water was very scarce in this island, and that they kept these herbs in their mouth in order to allay their thirst. We walked about the island a day and a half without finding any living water, and noticed that all they had to drink was the dew which fell in the night upon certain leaves that looked like asses' ears. These leaves being filled with dew-water the islanders use it for their drink, and most excellent water it was; but there were many places where the leaves were not to be found.

"They had no victuals or roots, such as we found on the main-land, but lived on fish, which they caught in the sea, of which there was an abundance, and they were very expert fishermen. They presented us with many turtles, and many large and very good fish. The women did not chew the herb as the men did, but carried a gourd with water in it, of which they drank. They had no villages, houses, or cottages, except some arbors which defended them from the sun, but not from the rain; this appearing needless, for I think it very seldom rained on that island. When they were fishing out at sea, they each wore on the head a very large leaf, so broad that they were covered by its shade. They fixed these leaves also in the ground on shore, and as the sun moved turned them about, so as to keep within the shadow. The island contained many animals of various kinds, all of which drank the muddy water of the marshes.

"Seeing there was no gain in staying there, we left and went to another island, which we found inhabited by people of very large stature. Going into the country in search of fresh water, without thinking the island inhabited (as we saw no people), as we were passing along the shore we remarked very large footprints on the sands. We concluded that if the other members corresponded with the feet they must be very large men. While occupied with these conjectures, we struck a path which led us inland, and after we had gone about a league we saw in a valley five huts or cottages which appeared to be inhabited. On going to them we found only five women, two quite old, and three girls, all so tall in stature that we regarded them with astonishment. When they saw us they became so frightened that they had not even courage to flee, and the two old women began to invite us into the huts, and to bring us many things to eat, with many signs of friendship. They were taller than a tall man, and as large-bodied as Francisco of Albizzi, but better proportioned than we are. While we were consulting as to the expediency of taking the three girls by force and bringing them to Castile to exhibit as wonders, there entered the door of the hut thirty-six men, much larger than the women, and so well made that it was a pleasure to look at them. They put us in such perturbation, however, that we would much rather have been in the ships than have found ourselves with such people. They carried immense bows and arrows, and large-headed clubs, and talked among themselves in a tone which led us to think they were deliberating about attacking us.

"Seeing we were in such danger, we formed various opinions on the subject. Some were for falling upon them in the hut, others thought it would be better to attack them in the field, and others that we should not commence the strife until we saw what they wished to do. We agreed, at length, to go out of the hut and take our way quietly to the ships. As soon as we did this they followed at a stone's-throw behind us, talking earnestly among themselves, and I think no less afraid of us than we were of them; for whenever we stopped they did the same, never coming nearer to us. In this way we at length arrived at the shore, where the boats were waiting for us. We entered them, and as we were going off in the distance they leaped forward and shot many arrows after us; but we had little fear of them now. We discharged two arquebuses at them, but more to frighten them than injure, and on hearing the report they all fled to the mountain. Thus we parted from them, and it appeared to us that we had escaped a perilous day's work. These people were quite naked, like the others we had seen, and on account of their large stature I called this island the Island of Giants. We proceeded onward in a direction parallel with the main-land, on which it happened that we were frequently obliged to fight with the people, who were not willing to let us take anything away.

"When we had been at sea about a year, our minds were fully prepared for returning to Castile, as we had then but little provision left, and that little damaged, in consequence of the great heat through which we had passed. From the time we left Cape de Verde until then we had been sailing continually in the torrid zone, having twice crossed the equinoctial line (as before stated), having been five degrees beyond it to the south, and then fifteen degrees north of it. Being thus disposed for our return, it pleased the Holy Spirit to give us some repose from our great labors.

"Going in search of a harbor, in order to repair our ships, we fell in with a people who received us with friendship, and we found that they had a great quantity of Oriental pearls, which were very good. We remained with them forty-seven days and procured from them one hundred and nineteen marks of pearls, in exchange for mere trifles of our merchandise, which I think did not cost us the value of forty ducats. We gave them nothing whatever but bells, looking-glasses, beads, and brass plates; for a bell one would give all he had.

"We learned from them how and where they fished for these pearls, and they gave us many oysters in which they grew. We procured one oyster in which a hundred and thirty pearls were growing, but in others there were less number. The one with the hundred and thirty the queen took from me, but the others I kept to myself, that she might not see them. Your excellency must know that if the pearls are not ripe and loose in the shell they do not last, because they are soon spoiled. Of this I have seen many examples. When they are ripe they are loose in the oyster, mingled with the flesh, and then are good. Even the bad ones which they had, which for the most part were rough, were nevertheless worth a considerable sum.

"At the end of forty-seven days we left these people, in great friendship with us, and from the want of provisions went to the island of Antilla [meaning Hispaniola], which was discovered some years before by Christopher Columbus. Here we obtained many supplies and stayed two months and seventeen days. We passed through many dangers and troubles with the Christians, who were settled in this island with Columbus (I think through their envy), the relation of which, in order not to be tedious, I omit. We left there on the 22d of April, and, after sailing a month and a half, entered the port of Cadiz, where we were received with much honor on the 8th day of June. Thus terminated, by the favor of God, my second voyage."

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