Elizabethan: De orbe novo, The new world

peter-martyrIn The Widows Guild, Francis Bacon finds a clue in a copy of De orbe novo (On the new world, 1530) by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera. D’Anghiera was an Italian humanist who served in the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella. He wrote the first accounts of the discoveries in the new world. Like a good renaissance historian, he based his work on real data: contemporary letters and reports.

Bacon is looking for information about poisons that cause paralysis, and he finds some; or rather, I found it for him, by the simple non-sixteenth-century expedient of Chrome’s Find function.

This book is endlessly delightful; well worth playing with in your odd moments — waiting for that report to be sent to you or your program to compile (if people still do that). Go to Project Gutenberg and open it in your browser. Use Find to skip through it, looking for anything Carribean or South American that strikes your fancy. Creatures? Poisons? Gold? Religion? You’ll find it here.

And if you’re wondering which island is actually where, you can study this wonderful site: Caribmap — A Cartographic history of the Caribbean Islands.

I’ll give you some extracts, with illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.

First contact: Hispaniola


The Landing of Christopher Columbus. Library of Congress, via Wikipedia.

“Upon leaving these islands [the Canaries] and heading straight to the west, with a slight deviation to the south-west, Columbus sailed thirty-three successive days without seeing anything but sea and sky. His companions began to murmur in secret, for at first they concealed their discontent, but soon, openly, desiring to get rid of their leader, whom they even planned to throw into the sea. They considered that they had been deceived by this Genoese, who was leading them to some place from whence they could never return. After the thirtieth day they angrily demanded that he should turn back and go no farther; Columbus, by using gentle words, holding out promises and flattering their hopes, sought to gain time, and he succeeded in calming their fears; finally also reminding them that if they refused him their obedience or attempted violence against him, they would be accused of treason by their sovereigns. To their great joy, the much-desired land was finally discovered.[Apparently it’s still not known exactly which island was first.] During this first voyage Columbus visited six islands, two of which were of extraordinary magnitude; one of these he named Hispaniola, and the other Juana [now Cuba], though he was not positive that the latter was an island. While sailing along the coasts of these islands, in the month of November, the Spaniards heard nightingales singing in the dense forests, and they discovered great rivers of fresh water, and natural harbours sufficient for the largest fleets.

[It’s hard to imagine a ship and a landscape quite enough to hear bird song on board!]

[They see people, who flee from them. The Spaniards capture one woman and give her clothes and presents, which she takes back to her people, convincing them that the Spanish are generous. They come out and find ways to communicate. The Spanish interpret their courtesy as deference and immediately assume possession, in a friendly way so far.]

Barbarians next door

“The Spaniards learned that there were other islands not far distant, inhabited by fierce peoples who live on human flesh; this explained why the natives of Hispaniola fled so promptly on their arrival. They told the Spaniards later that they had taken them for the cannibals, which is the name they give to these barbarians. They also call them Caraibes. The islands inhabited by these monsters lie towards the south, and about half-way to the other islands. The inhabitants of Hispaniola, who are a mild people, complained that they were exposed to frequent attacks from the cannibals who landed amongst them and pursued them through the forests like hunters chasing wild beasts. The cannibals captured children, whom they castrated, just as we do chickens and pigs we wish to fatten for the table, and when they were grown and become fat they ate them.” [No telling what this was about, in reality.]

Stars, turnips, and this thing we call corn

“Although these people adore the heavens and the stars, their religion is not yet sufficiently understood; cornas for their other customs, the brief time the Spaniards stopped there and the want of interpreters did not allow full information to be obtained. They eat roots which in size and form resemble our turnips, but which in taste are similar to our tender chestnuts. These they call ages. Another root which they eat they call yucca; and of this they make bread. They eat the ages either roasted or boiled, or made into bread. They cut the yucca, which is very juicy, into pieces, mashing and kneading it and then baking it in the form of cakes. It is a singular thing that they consider the juice of the yucca to be more poisonous than that of the aconite, and upon drinking it, death immediately follows. On the other hand, bread made from this paste is very appetising and wholesome: all the Spaniards have tried it. The islanders also easily make bread with a kind of millet, similar to that which exists plenteously amongst the Milanese and Andalusians. This millet is a little more than a palm in length, ending in a point, and is about the thickness of the upper part of a man’s arm. The grains are about the form and size of peas. While they are growing, they are white, but become black when ripe. When ground they are whiter than snow. This kind of grain is called maiz.”

Skipping through, finding poison

“Despite their nakedness, it must be admitted that in some places the natives have exterminated entire groups of Spaniards, for they are ferocious and are armed with poisoned arrows and sharp lances with points hardened in the fire. Even the animals, reptiles, insects, and quadrupeds are different from ours, and exhibit innumerable and strange species. With the exception of lions, tigers, and crocodiles, they are not dangerous.” [A few minor exceptions…]


Crocodiles in Jalisco, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons

“In conducting their man-hunts, the Caribs have scoured all the neighbouring countries; and whatever they found that was likely to be useful to them, they brought back for cultivation. These islanders are inhospitable and suspicious, and their conquest can only be accomplished by using force. Both sexes use poisoned arrows and are very good shots; so that, whenever the men leave the island on an expedition, the women defend themselves with masculine courage against any assailants. It is no doubt this fact that has given rise to the exploded belief that there are islands in this ocean peopled entirely by women.” [So much for those fabled Amazons.]

And now I can’t find the quote that Bacon used to solve the case. Ay, me!

Where to Buy

  • Buy on AppleBooks
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Buy on Barnes & Noble
  • Buy from Google Play
  • Buy from Kobo
  • Buy from Audible

My books are also available at at Amazon in the UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany as well as IndieBound, Powell’s, Scribd, Indigo Chapters, Books-a-Million, and Chirp.