Christopher Columbus History of Pearls

Enjoy this account of Christopher Columbus history and his pearls published in 1554 only some 50 years after his third voyage.

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Primary sources are always the best bet for a clear photograph of history. The closer the documentation is made of an event to the actual occurrence the truer and more accurate it is, better than any retelling generations later. (My kids get frustrated with me for preferring "old books", but that is the reason why....they were written closer to actual events and therefore more factual.)

A detailed account of Christopher Columbus history of pearling adventures, and of the subsequent discoveries and explorations on the Caribbean coast is given by Francisco Lopez de Gomara in his "Historia general de las Indias," published in 1554, of which the following is a literal translation slightly abridged:

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Since there are pearls on more than four hundred leagues of this coast between Cape Vela and the Gulf of Para, before we proceed farther it is proper to say who discovered them. In the third voyage made by Christopher Columbus history to the Indies, in 1498, having reached the Island of Cubagua, which he called the "Isle of Pearls," he sent a boat with certain sailors to seize a boat of fishermen, to learn what people they were and for what they were fishing. The sailors reached the shore where the Indians had landed and were watching. A sailor broke a dish of malaga ware and went to trade with them and to look at their catch, because he saw a woman with a string of rough pearls (aljofar) on her neck. He made an exchange of the plate for some strings of rough pearls, white and large, with which the sailors returned highly deliglhted to the ships. To assure himself better, Christopher Columbus history records he ordered others to go with buttons, needles, scissors, and fragments of the same Valencian earthenware, since they seemed to prize it. These sailors went and brought back more than six marcs (forty-eight ounces) of rough pearls, large and small, with many good pearls among them. Said Christopher Columbus then to the Spaniards: "We are in the richest country of the world. Let us give thanks to the Lord." They wondered at seeing all those rough pearls so large, for they had never seen so many, and could not contain their delight. They understood that the Indians did not care much for the small ones, either because they had plenty of large ones, or because they did not know how to pierce them.

Fragment of Letter Written by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
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Christopher Columbus history states he left the island and approached the land, where many people had collected along the shore, to see if they also had pearls. The shore was covered with men, women, and children, who came to look at the ships, a strange thing for them. Many Indians presently visited the ships, went on board and stood amazed at the dress, swords, and beards of the Spaniards, and the cannon, tackle, and arms of the ship. Our people crossed themselves, and were delighted to see that all those Indians wore pearls on their necks and wrists. Christopher Columbus history records he asked by signs where they fished them, and they pointed to the coast and island.

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Christopher Columbus history reveals he then sent to the shore two boats with many Spaniards, for greater certainty of those new riches, and because they importuned him. The chief took them to a place where there was a circular building that resembled a temple, where presently much bread and fruits of different kinds were brought. At the end of the feast he gave them pearls for sweetmeats, and took them afterward to the palace to see the women and the arrangement of the house. Of the numerous women there, not one was without rings of gold and necklaces of pearls. The Spaniards returned to the ships, wondering at such pearls and gold, and requested Christopher Columbus to leave them there. But he did not wish to do so, saying they were too few to settle. He hoisted sail and ran along the coast as far as Cape Vela, and from there came to Santo Domingo, with the intention of returning to Cubagua after regulating the affairs of the government. He suppressed the joy he felt at having found such treasures, and did not write to the king regarding the discovery of pearls, or at all events did not write it until it was already known in the Castile. This was largely the cause for the anger of the king, and the order to bring Columbus a prisoner to Spain. They say that he did not so much intend to conceal this discovery from the king, who has many eyes, as that he thought by a new agreement to get this rich island for himself.

Of the sailors who went with Christopher Columbus when he found the pearls the greater number were from Palos. As soon as these came to Spain, they told about the country of pearls, displayed many, and carried them to Seville to sell, whence they went to the court and into the palace. Excited by this report, some persons there hurriedly prepared a ship and made Pedro Alonso Nino its captain. He had from the Catholic king license to go in search of pearls and land, provided he should not go within fifty leagues of any discovered by Columbus.

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Nino embarked in August, 1499, with thirty-three companions, some of whom had been with Columbus. He sailed as far as Paria, visited the coast of Cumana, Maracapan, Port Plechado, and Curiana, which lies united to Venezuela. There he landed, and a chief, who came to the coast with fifty Indians, conducted him amicably to a large town to take water, refreshments, and the barter he was in search of. He bartered for and secured fifteen small bells, and similar trifles. The Spaniards stayed in the town twenty days, trading for pearls. The natives gave a pigeon for a needle, a turtle-dove for one glass bead, a pheasant for two, and a turkey for four. For that price they also gave rabbits and quarters of deer. The Indians asked to be shown the use of needles, since they went naked and could not sew, and were told to extract the thorns with them, for they went barefooted: Nino brought round, lustrous pearls of five or six carats, and some of more. But they were not well pierced, which was a great fault. On the route a quarrel arose over the division, and certain sailors accused Nino before the governor in Galicia, saying that he had stolen many pearls and cheated the king in his fifth, and traded in Cumana and other places where Columbus had been. The governor seized Nino, but did not keep him in prison very long, where he consumed pearls enough.

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