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Histoire Naturelle des Indes Introduction

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

In 1983, the Morgan Library received, as the bequest of Clara S. Peck, a manuscript on paper of 134 leaves, bound in eighteenth-century blue morocco. Though this work is often called the Drake Manuscript, it bears on its title page (inserted when it was bound) the name Histoire Naturelle des Indes—The Natural History of the Indies. That is an accurate account of its contents, for the volume contains 199 separate images of West Indian plants, animals, and Indian life with accompanying captions written in late sixteenth-century French. Histoire Naturelle des Indes did not enter the public record until it was offered for sale in London by Quaritch in 1867. It spent the next eighty years in the libraries of Henry Huth and C.F.G.R. Schwerdt and was acquired by Miss Peck in 1947. It has awaited another thirty-six years before becoming available to scholars at the Morgan Library.

In the mid-1980s, a team of experts scrutinized the Drake Manuscript, hoping to decipher its secrets. They identified most of the locations it mentions, and also identified, in some cases quite precisely, the plants and animals pictured in its drawings. They discovered a possible early owner of the manuscript, l'abbé Jean-Paul Bignon (1662-1743), a French royal librarian whose name may appear in one of the work's margins. And they found, to their surprise, that the Drake Manuscript makes an extraordinary contribution to our knowledge of sixteenth-century French.

To a nautical Protestant like Francis Drake, the Caribbean was irresistible, a natural theater of ambition. Certainly, by 1573 no Englishman knew the region better. There he encountered Indians and "many strange birds, beasts and fishes, besides fruits, trees, plants, and the like," as one of his crew wrote. Drake was alive to the interest of things, for he was also an artist. Unfortunately, his paintings have been destroyed by the odds that govern the fate of historical artifacts. But sometime probably in the early 1590s, someone thoroughly versed in the Caribbean, created the remarkable gathering of images and text that has come down to us as the Drake Manuscript. Its drawings are often naïve but they have a rude vigor, and together with their captions they form the rarest of discoveries: a new window on a new world. And while we can't know exactly the way the New World itself looked in Drake's time (nor exactly his tenuous relationship to the manuscript that bears his name) we can get a pretty good impression from it, reproduced in complete facsimile here for the first time.

For several reasons, Histoire Naturelle des Indes is a complicated document. The hands of at least two different scribes and two different artists are discernible, making it a figure of speech to allude, as I do, to a single author or artist. The manuscript is carefully divided by subject: sixty-two botanical illustrations come first, then some eighty-nine drawings of fish, animals, and birds, then forty-three drawings of Indian, Spanish, and slave activities. Four geographical views are also interspersed. Some drawings are well rendered, others mere daubs, but most have a kind of buoyantly piquant vision of their subjects. Some are true to life, some—particularly the fishes with doglike snouts and ears—arise from an almost medieval fancy, and some may reflect a knowledge of printed sources. But with two exceptions, all the drawings illustrate the Indies, and they name nearly thirty of Drake's regular ports of call. The geographical information in Histoire Naturelle des Indes constitutes the strongest link with Drake.

And the two exceptions? One is set in the Pacific; its text mentions Gilolo, an island in the Moluccas, which Drake visited on the circumnavigation. The other is set in "Loranbec," a mysteriously named province, which, says the caption, lies between Florida and Newfoundland at 36 1/2 degrees latitude. Drake visited this part of the world, probably near present-day South Carolina, on his way to rescue the failing English colony at Roanoke in 1586. The captions to these two drawings mention Francis Drake by name.

Though we will almost certainly never know the identities of the "author" of this work, the manuscript does contain one extraordinary clue as to the kind of person or persons they were: the text. The French captions provide a sharp picture of the region, often more accurate than the drawings, and once they give us a glimpse of one of their authors. In the drawing on folio 111, an Indian tries to stop a European man from entering the night forest where a devil lurks behind a tree. The European is a self-portrait of the "author." Though the drawing is vague, the text is not so reticent. The Indian fears the devil and asks the author how he can be so bold as to walk abroad in the night. "I answered him," the caption read, "that he must believe in the crucified Jesus Christ up above who would deliver him of all his diabolical visions if he firmly believes in him."

With its strong emphasis on the efficacy of faith, this statement indicates that the author was Protestant, most likely a Huguenot. Drake is known to have sailed with Frenchmen in his crew—Huguenots, almost certainly, because of his fierce anti-Catholicism.

All early visions of the New World have the power to haunt us. We search them for signs of innocence, for an Edenic imagining of a world we know too well, just as we continue to consult mirrors for lingering traces of our childhood. This trait is less a measure of nostalgia for a lost world, a time when several continents remained undiscovered, than it is a measure of faith that when Europeans first saw the New World they responded as we imagine ourselves responding—with esthetic joy and a sense of moral promise. We have the advantage of hindsight over those first voyagers from the Old World, and it does not necessarily make us realists.

If we interrogate Histoire Naturelle des Indes carefully, it will not give us quite the answers we expect when we daydream about Drake. Instead it will tell us some practical truths about the way he and his contemporaries regarded the Caribbean. Sixteenth-century Europeans were less interested in cultural innocence than we Americans are, who live so long after the fact of our own discovery. It is all too easy to forget that there are few things rarer than a voyage of exploration without commercial designs. Much as we would like to think that Drake came to Panama for the good view, he really came to Panama for nothing intrinsical in it, just for the gold that was passing through.

And that is partly what the Drake Manuscript tells us. In it we see not a virginal world awaiting the hand of Englishmen or Frenchmen, but a world already shaped and overlaid by two highly sophisticated cultures, one European, one Indian. And for the most part, we see not a pre-Columbian landscape meant to evoke an esthetic impression, but a world carefully articulated into its elements. The "history" of Histoire Naturelle des Indes is analytical in purpose. It separates plant from animal, ocean from earth, beast from man. Plants and animals here are not usually depicted in their natural settings, but are examined as species in isolation. If there is regard for beauty, it is mostly for the beauty of what is practical. Plants, for instance, are pictured in an empty foreground and discussed mainly as resources, not as components of a broader landscape. With a few exceptions—drawings of Cayman Island, bush dogs, and a jaguarundi—only man is allowed to dominate a landscape, and then often just to demonstrate the good he has made of nature. In that sense, Histoire Naturelle des Indes is an early exercise in economic geography, charting use and profit in the New World.

This is especially true when it comes to the Spanish. The author has paid careful attention to the workings of Spanish colonialism, particularly the mining, minting, and transportation of silver and gold. One can easily imagine the strategic uses of this information. Where it concerns mining, the tone of the Drake Manuscript almost resembles that of an early treatise in economics or engineering, tinctured perhaps by the slightest surprise at the breadth and complexity of the web the Spaniards have thrown over the region. Though they devised a cruel and exploitative system, they are portrayed without repugnance. Here are some scenes, taken from the Drake Manuscript's drawings and captions, of the Spanish empire at its work.

In Colombia, a country "rich in wheat, meat, fowl and plenty of gold," African slaves risk their lives mining emeralds. They usually end their days doing so because in the high mountains where emeralds "grow," "masses of stone fall on them...and they die miserably." Indians gather gold from the "falling rain," which forms cascading brooks whose water "is very nourishing for having passed through gold." In Veragua, a province between Costa Rica and Nombre de Dios, mining is more organized and, because of tropical storms, more dangerous. As they leave the mines, slaves wash gold in barrels, dry it over fires in iron bowls, and surrender it to their overseer as a "tribute." From the mines, gold is brought to the royal forge where it is smelted, formed into coins, and stamped with its carat value and the arms of the King of Spain to indicate that a royal tax of one-fifth its value has been paid.

The handling of silver merits more detail. A raised smelting furnace is heated with wood and charcoal, and air is supplied by an Indian who pumps two bellows. To the melting silver, the Spanish add dead dogs and "a stone called tuf," which remove the "bad quality of the silver." Then, the text continues, "one of the Indians pierces the furnace with an iron rod...and the silver flows into the proper clay molds forming plaques and silver bars." More highly refined silver is converted into "Reales" which are marked with a small cross and the royal arms of Spain. In Peru, where "silver grows deep in the soil like iron ore in France," Indian women carry it to the furnaces. Then it is carted down to the sea by "Peruvian sheep," or llamas, which this artist of the Drake Manuscript had plainly never seen, for he gives them long spiraling horns.

Off the island of La Marguerite ("the pearl") near the coast of Venezuela, we watch Africans dive for pearls with ropes and hoop-nets from a Spanish frigate, its mizzen set to keep it steady at anchor. An Indian courier prepares to cross a stream, his letter held in a split stick or a wax-sealed gourd to keep it dry. Boats float down the "recently discovered" Chagres River—often visited by Drake—which flows into the Caribbean southwest of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. (It has since been dammed to form Gatun Lake, part of the Panama Canal.) The Spanish used the Chagres River to transport bulky goods, while bullion traveled overland. And at destination's end, where treasure embarked for Spain, ships ride in the "beautiful and spacious harbor" of Nombre de Dios, captured by Drake in 1573, into which the road from Panama descends between mountains that rise behind the town. Tents and storehouses crowd the water's edge, and a solitary orange tree, whose fruit the colonists deny themselves because of the "heavy" climate, flourishes near the point.

The second culture visible in the Drake Manuscript, and by far the more important, is that of America's aboriginal inhabitants, already distorted by the presence of the Spanish. The Indian tribes represented here have long been extinct and cannot be precisely localized except where, as occasionally happens, the manuscript names their homes. If there is simple wonder anywhere in Histoire Naturelle des Indes, it is here in the Indian scenes that fill the last quarter of the volume. Even on the pages where they are not pictured, the presence of Indians suffuses the text.

A note of admiration creeps in whenever the author describes Indians. Those of Santa Marta, clad only in penis sheaths and carrying conical poison dispensers at their sides, "are handsome and strong men, artful in war." Those of Loranbec, perhaps the Cusabo Indians of South Carolina, "are extremely skilful in battle," so much so that in an incident recorded nowhere but in this manuscript they forced "the English fighting under Sir Francis Drake in 1586" to weigh anchor and retreat. But the author does not merely admire their military prowess. Of those who live near Santa Fe, Colombia, he says, they "are good workers with great skill and intelligence...making beautiful cloth of fine wool with which the Spaniards dress and fit themselves out." Venezuelan Indians "fashion in gold relief several kinds of animals for their enjoyment, which is something unbelievable to us since they are taught only by do this." The women "swim like fish in the sea." In the end, the author throws his hands up in awe: "they are so skilled that one could not show them any work they could not do."

Roughly the first third of the Drake Manuscript is devoted to plants, and the captions explain how the Indians cultivated and used them. As a botanist, the author of the Drake Manuscript is not very sophisticated, for he often fails to distinguish between indigenous plants and those introduced by Europeans. But he is acutely aware of the way Indians have woven tropical vegetation into their lives, and he has drawn on their lore as a primary source of information. He has given us a textbook on how to eat well, stay healthy, and garner profit while visiting the West Indies. Consider these examples, all taken from the captions.

Indians eat raw pineapple mixed with salt to ease stomach pains. They use tobacco for toothache and as an eye-wash, and they mix it with balsam to cure wounds caused by poisoned arrows. From their gardens, they harvest onions three times a year, which they eat "as we eat apples." Using an unidentified herb called "bregele," they soften iron by wrapping the metal in its leaf, covering it with earth, and throwing it in a fire. They make arrow poison from a mixture of centipede flesh, bleating-toad blood, and mensenille (Hippomane mancinella), a tree so poisonous "that if a person looks up at it, he will be blinded for three hours afterwards." They are expert arboriculturists, especially of palm trees, from which they ferment wine. They cut away enveloping foliage so the palm, exposed to the sun, will make more sap, and they build a fire around it to deter "the poisonous beasts." Then they pierce the tree "to its heart in order to make the wine gush out." The manuscript also shows Indians engaged in obtaining means of commerce: two from Trinidad and Nicaragua capture parrots, popular exports to Europe, and another harvests wheat, which is exchanged "for wine from the Canaries, linen, knives, hoops and other things they need."

The most striking image of Indian husbandry appears on folio 121. The caption merely states that the Indian sows several kinds of grain in his garden to make his family happy, but the drawings depicts a garden containing considerably more than "several kinds of grain." According to Alice Peeters, an ethnobotanist at the Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, this watercolor shows the plants most commonly grown together in tropical Amerindian gardens. Among them are a papaya tree (upper left), manioc (middle left), gourds (lower left), perhaps a pineapple plant (above the head), a row of maize (right), and two bean plants growing on poles (extreme right). There are also several unidentified plants in the picture, such as the bush between the Indian's legs. He himself, using a long dibble, sows seeds in a raised bed of soil, a technique associated with Mayans.

The final section of Histoire Naturelle des Indes represents the domestic life of Indians. This is the most interesting part of the manuscript, because these drawings express simple human curiosity. Nothing pictured in them could have profited a European, and yet no European could have resisted their charm. Women tend babies, bathe children, bring fish home from the sea, grind maize in wooden mortars. Men drive away a woman's labor pains by playing musical instruments as they march around the house where she gives birth. A dog leaps to their music and from the roof a pet monkey watches over the entrance. Other men tend barbecues, spin cotton, and weave fishing nets and hammocks. And unlike the rest of the manuscript, where each drawing and caption stands on its own, a continuous narrative of courtship begins to evolve, a story that alludes to earlier drawings and arches across several scenes, culminating in the Drake Manuscript's final tableau.

Courtship starts when a young man visits the house where his beloved and her parents live. He brings with him all he owns—canoe, money, arrows, fishnets—and to the father and daughter he says " 'Hai Hai,' which means 'How are you?' " He is not allowed to eat with them until the next day, when he has hunted and returns bearing meat. He "brings as much as possible to show that he works hard to provide well for himself, his wife and family." Then he dines with his fiancée and her parents in celebration of the engagement.

The wedding day comes. Seated on a stool in the shade and holding a Guyana-style club over his shoulder, the father of the bride gestures with his left hand as he demonstrates the virtues of the young couple. Both bride and groom have dressed magnificently in loincloths, with a bead necklace for the woman and ankle bracelets for the man. The groom holds a rabbit in his left hand, a symbol of his prowess as a hunter; the bride reveals her skill by grinding corn in a basin. The whole picture is one of fertility and abundance. Behind the bride grows a coconut tree and baskets of food stand all about. A large iron pot boils beside a fine grass house, where one of the young man's oars can be seen.

Satisfied, the father says to his daughter, "You need this young man. He will feed you well; you see that he brings a lot of good things for us to eat, he works hard at fishing as well as hunting, he plants, gathers fruit in the wood, and, in short, does everything needed to feed the whole house." The father then turns to the young man and expounds on his daughter's skill at baking bread and dressing meat. After all the proper testaments of value have been made, the two are wed. "When they are married," our author says, "her parents no longer want to work and customarily their children feed them."

Then, as if to give the narrative a slow dissolve, the author of the Drake Manuscript closes the scene by contemplating the community to which the couple will belong. "In each village there is only one tribe, and they do not permit others not from their tribe to live in this village. They choose the eldest among them to be called 'Cacique,' who is like a king and whom they obey in everything. And when their land no longer bears fruit or is tired of producing, they leave it and go to live in another place where they cultivate the land where they know there is fresh water. Then after three or four years, they return to their first land where they settle down as they had done before."

Those are the final words of Histoire Naturelle des Indes. Is it only a modern reader who hears in them a touch of art, the sure sense of an ending? It is impossible to know. The Drake Manuscript is a casement "opening on the foam of perilous seas." We can peer into it, but we cannot see answers to all the questions it makes us ask.

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Essay © Verlyn Klinkenborg, 1996. Reprinted with permission.
This essay was writen to accompany the Morgan's 1988 exhibition Sir Francis Drake and the Age of Discovery. A revised version, which is reproduced here, appeared in Histoire Naturelle des Indes: The Drake Manuscript in The Pierpont Morgan Library (1996).