Narrative of a Voyage to the West Indies and Mexico - Part 8

Part 8

[69] From the Spanish "Ciruela"--plum.

I have also spoken of a tree named Palmiste.[70] It is twenty paces in height, and as large round as a man; nevertheless it is so tender, that with a good sword-stroke, it can be cut quite through, because the outside is as soft as a cabbage, and the inside full of marrowy-pith, which is very good, and firmer than the rest of the tree: it has the taste of sugar, as sweet, and better. The Indians make a drink of it, mixed with water, which is very good.

[70] In Champlain's time only two varieties of palm were known (save the cocoa-nut tree, which was called "palm" _par excellence_), the "Palmiste franc," or cabbage palm--Areca oleracea (Linn.); and the "Palmiste epineuse," or th.o.r.n.y palm--Areca spinosa (Linn.)

I saw also another fruit, called Cocques, of the size of an Indian nut,[71] which has a figure approaching to that of a man's head: for there are two holes which represent the two eyes, and that which advances between the two holes appears as the nose, underneath which there is a rather wide hole, which may be taken for the mouth, and the upper part of the said fruit is all frizzled, like curly hair; from the aforesaid holes issues a water, which is used as a medicine. When first plucked, this fruit is not good to eat; they let it dry, and make like little cups and bottles of it, as of Indian nuts, which come from the palm.

[71] "Cocos lapidea" of Gaertner, the fruit of which is smaller than the common cocoa-nut, and of which small vases, cups, etc., are made.

As I have spoken of the palm,[72] although it is a tree sufficiently common, I will here represent it. It is one of the highest and straightest trees that can be seen; its fruit, which is called "Indian nut," grows quite on the top of the tree, and is as large as the head of a man; and there is a thick green bark on the said nut, which bark being removed, the nut is found, about the size of two fists; that which is inside is very good to eat, and has the taste of young walnuts; there comes from it a water, which serves as a cosmetic for the ladies.[73]

[72] Cocos nucifera.

[73] "C'est cette eau qui entre ses autres vertus, a la propriete d'effacer toutes les rides du visage, et de lui donner une couleur blanche et vermeille pourveu qu'on l'en lave aussi-tost que le fruit est tombe de l'arbre."--De Rochefort.

There is another fruit called "Plante,"[74] of which the tree may be twenty or twenty-five feet high, which has a leaf so large, that a man might cover himself with it. There grows a root from the said tree, on which are a quant.i.ty of the "plantes," each of which is as thick as the arm, and a foot and a half long, of a yellow and green colour, of very good taste, and so wholesome, that a man can eat as much as he likes, without its doing any harm.

[74] Plaintain-tree--Banana.

The Indians use a kind of corn which they call "Mamaix" (maize), which is of the size of a pea, yellow and red: and when they wish to eat it, they take a stone, hollowed like a mortar, and another, round, in the shape of a pestle: and after the said corn has been steeped for an hour, they grind and reduce it to flour in the said stone; then they knead and bake it in this manner. They take a plate of iron, or of stone, which they heat on the fire: and when quite hot, they take their paste, and spread it upon the plate rather thin, like tart-paste; and having thus cooked it, they eat it while hot, for it is good for nothing, cold, or kept.

They have also another root, which they name, which they use for making bread: but if any one should eat of it, unprepared, he would die.

There is a gum called Copal,[75] which proceeds from a tree, which is like the pine-tree: this gum is very good for gout and pains.

[75] Rhus Copallinum (Linn.) The Mexicans gave the name of "copal," to all resins and odoriferous gums. The "copal," par excellence, is a white and transparent resin, which flows from a tree whose leaves resemble those of the oak, but longer; this tree is called "copal-qua-huitl," or tree which bears the copal; they have also the "copal-qua-huitl-petlahuae," whose leaves are the largest of the species, and like those of the sumach. The "copal-quauhxiotl," with long and narrow leaves; the "tepecopulli-qua-huitl," or copal of the mountains, whose resin is like the incense of the old world, called by the Spaniards, "incienso de las Indias," and some other inferior kinds.

There is also a root which is named patate, and which they cook like pears at the fire:[76] it has a taste similar to that of chesnuts.

[76] Batatas--sweet potatoe, yam.

In the said country, there are numbers of melons of strange size, which are very good; the flesh is quite orange-colour; and there is another sort, of which the flesh is white, but they are not of such good flavour as the others. There are also quant.i.ties of cuc.u.mbers, very good; artichokes, good lettuces, like those called with us "romaines,"

cabbages, and numerous other kitchen herbs; also pumpkins, which have red flesh, like the melons.

[Ill.u.s.tration: _etched by M.M._]

There are also apples, which are not very good, and pears, of tolerably good taste, which grow there naturally. I think that if any one would take the trouble to plant these good fruit trees in our climate, they would succeed very well.

Throughout New Spain, there is a kind of snake,[77] which is of the length of a pike, and as thick as the arm; the head as large as a hen's egg, on which they have two plumes; at the end of the tail they have a rattle, which makes a noise as they glide along. They are very dangerous with their teeth, and with their tail; nevertheless, the Indians eat them, after having taken away the two extremities.

[77] Champlain clearly means the rattle-snake (Crotulus), but seems to have confounded it with the horned snake, from the "plumes" on the head.

There are also dragons of strange figure, having the head approaching to that of an eagle, the wings like those of a bat, the body like a lizard, and has only two rather large feet; the tail somewhat scaly, and it is as large as a sheep; they are not dangerous, and do no harm to any body, though to see them, you would say the contrary.

I have seen a lizard of such strange size, that if it had been related to me by another, I should not have believed it. I a.s.sure you that they are as large as a quarter pipe. They are like those that we see here, as to their form; their colour is greenish-brown, and greenish-yellow under the belly: they run very fast, and hiss in running; they are not mischievous to men, although they do not fly from them unless pursued.

The Indians eat them, and find them very good.[78]

[78] Probably "Lacerta Iguana" (Linn.), some of which grow to a great size. The flesh was considered a delicacy by the Indians and by many Europeans, but eating of it too frequently was supposed to occasion a wasting of the body. De Rochefort says: "On ne conseille neanmoins d'en manger souvent a cause qu'elle desseche trop le corps et lui fait perdre tout son embonpoint."--_Hist. Nat. et Morale des Antilles._

I have also many times seen in that country, animals that they call caymans, which are, as I believe, a kind of crocodile,[79] and so large, that certain of the said caymans are twenty-five and thirty feet in length, and are very dangerous; for if they should find a man unawares, without doubt they would devour him. They are of a whitish-yellow colour under the belly, the back armed with strong scales of brownish-green colour, having the head very long, and the teeth strangely sharp; the mouth very wide, the eyes red, and very flaming; on the head there is a sort of crown; they have four very short legs, the body of the size of a barrel. There are also smaller ones. From beneath the hind thighs excellent musk is procured. They live in the lakes and marshes, and in the fresh-water rivers. The Indians eat them.

[79] In another room there were great earthen vessels, some filled with water, others with earth, in which were snakes as big as a man's thigh; and crocodiles, which they call caymans, as thick as a man's thigh.--Gage, _Description of the Palace of Montezuma._

I have also seen tortoises of marvellous size, such that two horses would have difficulty in dragging one of them; and there are some so large that, in the sh.e.l.l which covers them, three men could place themselves and float as in a boat. They are fished in the sea. The flesh of them is very good and resembles beef. They are in great quant.i.ty in all the Indies, and they are often seen going to feed in the woods.

There are also numbers of tigers,[80] of the skin of which great care is taken. They do not attack unless pursued.

[80] Tigris Americana (Linn.)--Jaguar.

There are also to be seen in the said country, some civettes,[81] which come from Peru, where there are quant.i.ties.

[81] Viverra civetta (Linn.)--the Gato de Algalia of the Spaniards.

There comes from Peru to New Spain a certain kind of sheep which, like horses, carry burthens of more than four hundred pounds for days together. They are of the size of an a.s.s; the neck very long, the head middling; the wool very long, and which more resembles hair like that of a goat than wool. They have not horns like our sheep, and are very good to eat, but their flesh is not so delicate as that of our sheep.[82]

[82] The Llama, or Vicuna.

The country is much peopled with stags and hinds, roe-bucks, wild boars, foxes, hares, rabbits, and other animals which we have in our parts, and from which they are not at all different.

There is a kind of little animal of the size of prawns, which fly by night, and make such light in the air that one would say that they were so many little candles. If a man had three or four of these little creatures, which are not larger than a filbert, he could read as well at night as with a wax light.[83]

[83] The Lantern fly--Fulgora suternaria (Linn.)

In the woods and in the plains are to be found numbers of crabs,[84]

like to those which are found in the sea, and are also as common on land as in the sea elsewhere.

[84] "Gecarcinus," Cancer ruricolor (Linn.)--land crab.

There is another small kind of animal like a crawfish, excepting that they have the hinder parts devoid of sh.e.l.l; but they have this property--of seeking the empty of snails and lodging therein the part which is uncovered, dragging the sh.e.l.l always after them, and are only to be dislodged by force.[85] The fishermen collect these little beasts in the woods, and make use of them for fishing; and when they wish to catch fish, having taken the little animals from the sh.e.l.l, they attach them by the middle of the body to their lines instead of hooks, then throw them into the sea, and when the fish think to swallow them, they seize the fish with their two powerful claws and will not let them go; and by these means, the fishermen catch fish of the weight even of five or six pounds.

[85] The hermit-lobster, "pagurus streblany," (Leach); "pagurus Bernardus" (Fabricius); "cancellus marinus et terrestris." Bernard l'hermite of the French; caracol soldada of the Spaniards.

[Ill.u.s.tration: AN INDIAN FEAST.]

I have seen a bird which is named "pacho del ciello,"[86] that is to say, bird of the heavens, which name is given to it because it is continually in the air without ever coming to the earth till it falls dead. It is of the size of a sparrow. Its head is very small, the beak short; part of the body greenish-brown, the rest somewhat red. It has a tail of more than two feet in length, almost like an aigrette, and singularly large. With respect to the body, it has no feet. It is said that the female lays one egg only on the back of the male, by whose heat the said egg is hatched, and when the bird has left the sh.e.l.l, it remains in the air, in which it lives like the rest of its kind. I have only seen one, which our general bought for one hundred and fifty crowns. They are to be caught towards the coast of Chile, which is a great extent of Terra-Firma, extending from Peru as far as the Straits of Magellan, which the Spaniards are examining, and are at war with the savages of the country, where, it is said, mines of gold and silver are found.

[86] Pacho del ciello.--"Paradisia."--Bird of Paradise. The belief was long prevalent that these birds lived constantly in the air, having no feet. The specimens, sent to Europe had seldom the legs and feet attached, the body and tail being only used as an aigrette or plume; hence the idea of their not having any feet.

I think it not out of place here to say that ebony wood comes from a very high tree, like to the oak: the outside of the bark is whitish and the heart very black.

The Bresil is a tree, very large compared with the ebony tree, of the same height, but it is not so hard; the said Bresil bears a kind of nut, which grows to about the size of gall-nuts which come on elm trees.

After having spoken of the trees, plants, and animals, I must give a short account of the Indians, their nature, manners, and belief. The greater number of the said Indians, who are not under the domination of the Spaniards, adore the moon as their Deity, and when they desire to perform their ceremonies, they a.s.semble, great and small, in the middle of their villages, and place themselves in a circle; those who have anything to eat, bring it, and they put all the provisions together in the midst of them and make the best cheer possible. After they are well satisfied, they all take each other by the hand, and begin dancing with loud and strange cries, their song having no order or connexion. After they have well sung and danced, they place themselves with their faces to the earth, and all at once, they altogether begin to cry out and weep, saying, "Oh! powerful and bright moon, grant that we may conquer our enemies, and may eat them, that we may not fall into their hands; and that, dying, we may go and rejoice with our relatives." After having made this prayer, they rise and set about dancing in a round; and their feasts last thus, dancing, singing, and praying, about six hours. This is what I have learned about the ceremonies and belief of these poor people, deprived of reason, whom I have here figured.

As for the other Indians who are under the dominion of the king of Spain, if he did not take some order about them, they would be as barbarous in their belief as the others. At the commencement of his conquests, he had established the Inquisition among them, and made slaves of or caused them to die cruelly in such great numbers, that the sole recital would cause pity. This evil treatment was the reason that the poor Indians, for very apprehension, fled to the mountains in desperation, and as many Spaniards as they caught they ate them; and on that account the said Spaniards were constrained to take away the Inquisition, and allow them personal liberty, granting them a more mild and tolerable rule of life, to bring them to the knowledge of G.o.d and the belief of the holy church; for if they had continued still to chastise them according to the rigor of the said Inquisition, they would have caused them all to die by fire. The system that is now used is, that in every estance (estancia), which are like our villages, there is a priest who regularly instructs them, the said priest having a list of the names and surnames of all the Indians who inhabit the village under his charge.

[Ill.u.s.tration: BURNING INDIANS.]