Samuel Eliot Morison
Admiral of the Ocean Sea
One day was spent exploring the Rio Gibara in a boat. Martin Alonso Pinzon brought in specimens of the native creole pepper, and something he thought to be cinnamon, which raised hopes of a lucrative trade in spicery. Columbus had his first taste of sweet potatoes—or were they yams?—with 'the flavor of chestnuts' and of cultivated American beans; he saw the wild cotton growing, with flowers and open bolls on the same bush. The boatswain of Nina brought in resin from the gumbo-limbo, which the Admiral thought he recognized as the mastic he had seen in Chios on one of his early voyages. Some Indians 'yessed' the Spaniards when they inquired about the one-eyed and dog-headed men of Sir John Mandeville; others accurately pointed eastward toward Haiti when asked where gold came from.
Until the last day of his stay, Columbus kept the confidence of the natives, because he maintained good discipline among his men, and the natives had no gold to tempt their cupidity. There must have been considerable sporting between the seamen and the Indian girls, for the habits of the Tainos were completely promiscuous. But Columbus says nothing of that, since his Journal was intended for the eyes of a modest queen. Instead, he dwells on the Indians' docility and imitativeness; when they heard their visitors saying the Ave Maria and singing Salve Regina at sundown they tried to join in, and readily imitated the sign of the cross. His own words about the natives of Puerto Gibara are directly quoted by Las Casas:
They are a people very guileless and unwarlike, all naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them. It is true that the women wear merely a piece of cotton big enough to cover their genitals but no more, and they are very handsome, not very black, less so than the Canary Islanders. I maintain, Most Serene Princes, that if they had access to devout religious persons knowing the language, they would all turn Christian, and so I hope in Our Lord that Your Highnesses will do something about it with much care, in order to turn to the Church so numerous a people, and to convert them, as you have destroyed those who would not confess the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And after your days (for we are all mortal) you will leave your realms in a very tranquil state, and free from heresy and wickedness, and will be well received before the eternal Creator, whom may it please to grant you long life and great increase of greater realms and lordships, and both will and disposition to increase the holy Christian religion, as hitherto you have done. Amen.On the night of November 5 the embassy returned from Holguin with a most discouraging report. They had walked up the valley, past fields cultivated with sweet potatoes, beans and maize; they observed many kinds of birds, including the Hispaniola mockingbird that they took for a nightingale; but they had pricked the Grand Khan bubble. Instead of visiting the imperial court of Cathay where Luis de Torres expected to air his Arabic, they received a primitive welcome in a village of fifty palm-thatched huts and a few hundred inhabitants. They had been treated with great dignity, 'chaired' into the principal house, and seated on one of the carved seats or metates that Taino caciques used, well described by Ferdinand as 'made of one piece, in a strange shape, and almost like some animal which had short legs and arms and the tail, which is no less broad than the seat, lifted up for conveniency to lean against; with a head in front and the eyes and ears of gold. These seats are called duchi.' Rodrigo the mariner doubtless enjoyed it, but Torres felt humiliated in having to call upon the interpreter from Guanahani to make a speech to the men. After that was over the women and children were allowed in to see the 'men from Heaven,' whose hands and feet they adoringly kissed. They pressed their visitors to spend a week or two; but the Spaniards, seeing 'nothing that resembled a city,' returned next day, in company with the cacique and his son. These were entertained aboard one of the caravels, since Santa Maria was then high and dry.
If the embassy missed meeting the King of Kings, they nevertheless encountered a more pervasive sovereign, My Lady Nicotine. 'The two Christians met on the way many people who were going to their villages, women and men, with a firebrand in the hand, and herbs to drink the smoke thereof as they are accustomed.' The tobacco pipe of the North American Indians was unknown to the Tainos, who rolled cigars which (as in Cuba today) they called tobacos. Inserting one end in a nostril, they lit the other from a firebrand and inhaled the smoke twice or thrice, after which the cigar was handed to a friend or allowed to go out. When a party of Tainos went on a journey, as Rodrigo and Luis de Torres observed them, small boys were charged to keep one or more firebrands glowing in readiness for anyone who wanted a light; and by halting every hour or so for a good 'drag' all around, Indians were able to travel great distances. Las Casas, commenting on this passage some forty years later, says that the Spaniards of Hispaniola were then beginning to take up smoking, 'although I know not what taste or profit they find in it.' Apparently the bishop never got beyond his first cigar. Within a century of his writing this, the use of tobacco had spread throughout the Western World, to men and women alike, despite the opposition of kings and clerics. As a gift from the New World to the Old it proved far more valuable than gold.