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The natives called this country Cuba." Within sight of it, the Admiral discovered at the extremity of Hispaniola a very commodious harbour formed by a bend in the island. He called this harbour, which is barely twenty leagues distant from Cuba, San Nicholas.
Columbus covered this distance, and desiring to skirt the south coast of Cuba, he laid his course to the west; the farther he advanced the more extensive did the coast become, but bending towards the south, he first discovered, to the left of Cuba, an island called by the natives Jamaica,” of which he reports that it is longer and broader than Sicily. It is composed of one sole mountain, which rises in imperceptible gradations from the coasts to the centre, sloping so gently that in mounting it, the ascent is scarcely noticeable. Both the coast country and the interior of Jamaica are extremely fertile and populous. According to the report of their neighbours, the natives of this island have a keener intelligence and are cleverer in mechanical arts, as well as more warlike than others. And indeed, each time the Admiral sought to land in any place, they assembled in armed bands, threatening him, and not hesitating to offer battle. As they were always conquered, they ended by making peace with him. Leaving Jamaica to one side, the Admiral sailed to the west for seventy days with favourable winds. He expected to arrive in the part of the world underneath us just near the Golden Chersonese, which is situated to the east of Persia. He thought, as a matter of fact, that of the twelve hours of the sun's course of which we are ignorant he would have only lost two.
It is known that the ancients have only followed the sun during the half of its course, since they only knew that part of the globe which lies between Cadiz and the Ganges, or even to the Golden Chersonese. During this voyage, the Admiral encountered marine currents as impetuous as torrents, with great waves and undercurrents, to say nothing of the dangers presented by the immense number of neighbouring islands; but he was heedless of these perils, and was determined to advance until he had ascertained whether Cuba was an island or a continent. He continued, therefore, coasting the shores of the island, and always towards the west, to a distance, according to his report, of two hundred and twenty-two leagues, which is equal to about one thousand three hundred miles. He gave names to seven thousand islands, and moreover beheld on his left hand more than three thousand others rising from the waves. But let us return to those matters worthy to be remembered which he encountered during this voyage. While the Admiral was carefully examining the character of these places, coasting along the shore of Cuba, he first discovered, not far from Alpha (that is from the end of it), a harbour sufficient for many ships. Its entrance is in the form of a scythe, shut in on the two sides by promontories that break the waves; and it is large and of great depth. Following the coast of this harbour, he perceived at a short distance from the shore two huts, and several fires burning here and there. A landing was made, but no people were found; nevertheless there were wooden spits arranged about the fire, on which hung fish, altogether of about a hundred pounds' weight, and alongside lay two serpents eight feet long." The Spaniards were astonished, and looked about for some one with whom to speak, but saw nobody. Indeed, the owners of the fish had fled to the mountains on seeing them approach. The Spaniards rested there to eat, and were pleased to find the fish, which had cost them nothing, much to their taste; but they did not touch the serpents. They report that these latter were in no wise different from the crocodiles of the Nile, except in point of size. According to Pliny, crocodiles as long as eighteen cubits have been found; while the largest in Cuba do not exceed eight feet. When their hunger was satisfied, they penetrated into the neighbouring woods, where they found a number of these serpents tied to the trees with cords; some were attached by their heads, others had had their teeth pulled out. While the Spaniards busied themselves in visiting the neighbourhood of the harbour, they discovered about seventy natives who had fled at their approach, and who now sought to know what these unknown people wanted. Our men endeavoured to attract them by gestures and signs, and gentle words, and one of them, fascinated by the gifts which they exhibited from a distance, approached, but no nearer than a neighbouring rock. It was clear that he was afraid. During his first voyage the Admiral had taken a native of Guanahani (an island near by Cuba), whom he had named Diego Columbus, and had brought up with his own children. Diego served him as interpreter, and as his maternal tongue was akin to the language of the islander who had approached, he spoke to him. Overcoming his fears, the islander came amongst the Spaniards, and persuaded his companions to join him as there was nothing to fear. About seventy natives then descended from their rocks and made friends, and the Admiral offered them presents. They were fishermen, sent to fish by their cacique, who was preparing a festival for the reception of another chief. They were not at all vexed when they found that their fish had been eaten and their serpents left, for they considered these serpents the most delicate food. Common people among them eat less often of the serpents than they would with us of pheasants or peacocks. Moreover they could catch as many fish as the Spaniards had eaten, in one hour. When asked why they cooked the fish they were to carry to their cacique, they replied that they did so to preserve it from corruption. After swearing a mutual friendship they separated. From that point of the Cuban coast which he had named Alpha, as we have said, the Admiral sailed towards the west. The middle portions of the shores of the bay were well wooded but steep and mountainous. Some of the trees were in flower, and the sweet perfumes they exhaled were wafted out across the sea,' while others were weighted with fruit. Beyond the bay the country was more fertile and more populous. The natives were likewise more civilised and more desirous of novelties, for, at the sight of the vessels, a crowd of them came down to the shore, offering our men the kind of bread they ate, and gourds full of water. They begged them to come on land. On all these islands there is found a tree about the size of our elms, which bears a sort of gourd out of which they make drinking cups; but they never eat it, as its pulp is bitterer than gall, and its shell is as hard as a turtle's back. On the ides of May the watchers saw from the height of the lookout an incredible multitude of islands to the south-west; two of them were covered with grass and green trees, and all of them were inhabited. On the shore of the continent there emptied a navigable river of which the water was so hot that one could not leave one's hand long in it. The next day, having seen a canoe of fishermen in the distance, and fearing that these fishermen might take to flight at sight of them, the Admiral ordered a barque to cut off their retreat; but the men waited for the Spaniards without sign of fear. Listen now to this new method of fishing. Just as we use French dogs to chase hares across the plain, so do these fishermen catch fish by means of a fish trained for that purpose. This fish in no wise resembles any that we know. Its body is similar to that of a large eel, and upon its head it has a large pouch made of a very tough skin. They tie the fish to the side of the boat, with just the amount of cord necessary to hold it under the water; for it cannot stand contact with the air. As soon as a large fish or turtle is seen (and these latter are as large as a huge shield), they let the fish go. The moment it is freed, it attacks, with the rapidity of an arrow, the fish or turtle, on some part exposed from the shell, covering it with the pouch-like skin, and attaching itself with such tenacity that the only way to pull it off alive is by rolling a cord round a pole and raising the fish out of the water, when contact with the air causes it to drop its prey. This is done by some of the fishermen who throw themselves into the water, and hold it above the surface, until their companions, who remained in the barque, have dragged it on board. This done, the cord is loosened enough for the fisherman-fish to drop back into the water, when it is fed with pieces of the prey which has been caught. The islanders call this fish guaicano, and our people call it riverso." Four turtles which they caught in this fashion and presented to the Spaniards almost filled a native barque. They highly prize the flesh of turtles, and the Spaniards made them some presents in exchange which highly pleased them. When our sailors questioned
* Always deeming Cuba to be an extension of Asia, Columbus was anxious to complete his reconnaissance, and then to proceed to India and Cathay.
* The island is about eighty-five miles from Cuba. The name Jamaica, which has survived, meant in the native tongue “land of wood and water." It was really discovered on May 13th, but was not colonised until 1509.
* As will be later seen, these so-called serpents are iguanas. - They are still a common article of food throughout the islands, and tierra caliente of Mexico and Central America, and make savoury dishes.
* The fragrant odours blown out to sea from the American coasts are mentioned by several of the early explorers.
* A sea-lamprey, also called remora and echineis. Oviedo gives details concerning the manner of catching, raising, and training the young lampreys to serve as game-fish. Hist, delle Indie, cap. x., in Ramusio. The account is interesting and despite obvious inaccuracies may have a basis of truth.