The Black Legend - Witnessing Atrocities in the New World

AMERICAS. VOYAGES AND TRAVELS. SLAVERY. Bry, Theodor de (1528-1598); Benzoni, Girolamo (1519-1572?)

Americae Pars Quarta. Sive, Insignis & Admiranda Historia de Reperta Primùm Occidentali India à Christophoro Columbo Anno M CCCCXCII scripta ab Hieronymo Bezono Mediolanense, qui istic a[n]nis XIIII versatus dilige[n]ter omnia observavit. Addita ad singula ferè capita, non contemnenda scholia in quibus agitur de earum etiam gentium idololatria. Accessit praeterea illarum regionum tabula chorographica. Omnia elegantibus figuris in aes incisis expressa à Theodoro de Bry Leodien..

Francofurti ad Moenum: Typis Ioannis Feyrabend, impensis Theodori de Bry., Anno M. D. LXXXXIIII. 1594


Folio: 35 x 23 cm. [8], 145, [3] p.(-[2] blank lvs.), XXIIII lvs (minus final blank.) With an added double-page map. Collation: ):():(⁴, ):():(⁴, A-Q4, R6, Aa-Ee4, Ff6 (lacking blanks R6 and Ff6). Complete.


A mixed issue, with the 2nd issue points noted by Church in the first part but without the added Arabic numerals on the plates of the second part.

Illustrated with 2 engraved title pages, engraved coats-of-arms with virtues, 1 large folding map, 24 large engravings. A very good copy, complete with the map. Bound in modern calf by Sean Richards. Light marginal soiling, marginal damp-stains. One plate just shaved at the outer margin, not affecting image, two plates with minor printing flaws from where the sheets were folded during printing. The map is in fine shape with just the border at top slightly shaved.

This book constitutes the fourth part of the first Latin edition of Theodor de Bry's “Grand Voyages” (“America”), the most famous collection of travel narratives from the Americas, printed in fourteen parts from 1590 to 1634.

This volume contains book one of Girolamo Benzoni’s influential “Historia del Mondo Nuovo”, in which the Milanese merchant-adventurer narrates his experiences in the Caribbean and the Yucatan. Benzoni spent fourteen years in the New World before returning to Europe. His work, first printed in 1565, would prove enormously popular, and this popularity would increase dramatically with its publication by de Bry, which was amplified by new, striking illustrations.

The book is illustrated with 24 large -and now iconic- engravings by de Bry depicting Columbus’ first voyage, his early encounters with the Amerindians, scenes from Benzoni’s own eye-witness experiences in the New World, and the Amerindians’ (often violent) encounters with the Spanish. The long captions to these engravings constitute a paratext to Benzoni’s work, in which both the cruelty of the Spanish (whom Benzoni despised) and the “savagery” of the Amerindians (toward whom Benzoni was more sympathetic) are described.

The double-page map shows the islands of the West Indies, and the lands bordering the Caribbean, including Florida and the Southeast of North America bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, central America, and northern parts of South America. It includes images of Columbus' ships and various notes regarding his four voyages.

“The narrative by Benzoni, a Milanese traveler who spent fourteen years in the New World beginning in 1541, is often used to gauge the outlook of the De Brys. While in the service of Spain, Benzoni observed and recorded Spanish atrocities in Peru [and the Caribbean] and collected many other first-hand reports on the inroads made by the conquistadors elsewhere…

“Benzoni explains to his audience exactly why he braved a transatlantic crossing in 1541. Like many of his contemporaries, he sought adventure. He definitely found it, traversing breathtaking surroundings, encountering tattooed and pierced natives, engaging in deadly battles, and barely surviving almost continual hardship. More than once, Benzoni found himself at death’s door yet managed to escape with his life… Like other early travelers, Benzoni became an amateur naturalist. He recorded detailed descriptions of indigenous flora and fauna, almost always oddly colored by the pressing pains of hunger or thirst. At the same time, his writings engage in explicit political commentary. Although a traveler in Spanish America, he despised the Spanish. At almost every turn, Benzoni criticizes Spanish methods of conquest and governance, while frequently siding with Native Americans.

“More than a decade after he initially departed northern Italy for parts unknown, he found himself expelled from the overseas kingdoms of Spain. He packed his thousands of ducats and left, set to retrace his steps to Europe. Unfortunately, he suffered shipwreck and inclement weather before he got far. He had to stay in Havana for several miserable months waiting for a vessel strong enough, and weather good enough, to carry him home. He ultimately arrived in Spain in 1556, penniless, exhausted, and full of stories. With nothing left to peddle but his memories, he decided to write them down in his ‘History of the New World’. Originally published in 1565, Benzoni’s history quickly captured the attention of readers across Europe.

“Benzoni’s narrative contributed to a growing corpus of travel narratives that related the explorations and adventures of Europeans as they traveled to parts unknown. His work was very well received for several reasons: he included harrowing stories, he offered descriptions of the indigenous animals and plants that Europeans had never even imagined, and he described a completely new group of people and beliefs. Just as Spain’s continental ascendency seemed unstoppable, Benzoni offered a vitriolic description of the barbarity of the Spanish that brought their moral authority to rule and exploit the New World into question. The mix of adventure, exotic people and places, and anti-Spanish diatribe made ‘The History of the New World’ an immediate best seller. Benzoni’s narrative provides a unique first-hand account of the Spanish conquest by an Italian. Its anti-Spanish rhetoric represents an understudied but historically significant contribution to the Black Legend of Spanish colonialism. As a whole, ‘The History of the New World’ provides readers with a rich ethnographic text that offered its early modern readers a tantalizing blend of travelogue, adventure tale, and anti-Spanish propaganda…


From the time of his arrival in the Americas, Benzoni’s narrative is filled with episodes that vividly depict the brutality of slavery. Traveling with and among the Spanish, he witnesses (and participates in) continuous efforts to enslave the indigenous people. Despite his involvement, Benzoni is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved:

“While we were in Amaracapanna, Captain Pedro de Cáliz arrived with more than 4,000 slaves. He had captured many more but they had died on the journey from hunger, over-work, and exhaustion, as well as from sorrow at leaving their country, their fathers, their mothers, or their children. When some of the slaves could not walk, the Spaniards tried to prevent them from making war later by burying their swords in their sides or in their breasts.

“It was really an upsetting thing to see the way these sad, naked, tired, and lame creatures were treated. They were exhausted with hunger, illness, and sadness. The unlucky mothers were all tied with rope or chains around their necks or arms and had two or three children, overcome with tears of grief, hanging around their necks or on their shoulders. Nor was there a woman who had not been violated by the predators. Because there were so many Spaniards who indulged their lust, many were left broken. This captain had gone 700 miles inland into a country that was full of people when the Spanish arrived, but by the time I arrived very little was left undestroyed…

“All the slaves that the Spaniards take in this province are hauled to Cubagua, home of the king’s offices that collect royal taxes of twenty percent on pearls, gold, slaves, and other things. They brand the slaves on the face and arms with a letter C and then the governors and captains do what they please with them.  Sometimes they give them to the soldiers, who periodically sell them or gamble them away to one another. When the Spanish ships arrive, they trade the slaves for wine, flour, biscuits, and other necessities. The merchants then send the slaves to the island of Hispaniola or take them elsewhere and sell them. They fill the caravels with them, keeping them below decks. Because almost all of them were captured inland, the sea tortures them. Not being able to move there, under the cargo hold, they stand in vomit and the results of their other needs like animals. And when the sea is calm they lack water and other necessities. They are made miserable by the heat and the stink and the thirst and the close quarters until they die wretchedly.

“Today all of the country around the Gulf of Paria and other places are empty of the Spaniards. Because there are no more pearls, gold, or fish, they have no other income except slaves. There are few of them since the governor has given the Indians their freedom, so most Spaniards have gone to other countries.”

African Slaves:

“At the time that the Indians of this island (Hispaniola) had begun their decline into ultimate ruin, the Spaniards brought aver a great number of Moors from Guinea, which was a conquest of the king of Portugal. Back when there were mines, they worked there with gold and silver, but those ran dry. After that, the Spaniards increased the number of sugar plantations, so now many Moors work in these, and as shepherds, and do anything else to please their masters.

“You find among the Spaniards not just cruel people, but indeed the very cruelest of people. They want to punish a slave for whatever misdeed he has committed, such as for not having earned enough for the day, or for some mischief he might have done, or for not having brought up enough silver or gold from the mine. When he comes home in the evening, instead of feeding him dinner, they make him undress (if he happened to be wearing a shirt), throw him down on the ground, and tie his hands and feet across a piece of wood. Among the Spaniards this is called the law of Bayona. This law, I believe, was written by some great demon. Then, with a strap or a piece of rope, they beat him until blood streams from his body. When it is over, they cook a pound of pitch or a little bit of boiling oil and, little by little, put it over bis whole body. He then washes with water, some salt, and the pepper of that country. Then they cover him and leave him lying on the table until the master deems him ready to return to work. Others dig a hole in the ground and put him in it, covering him completely until only his head sticks out, and leave him there all night. The Spaniards say they do this because the ground absorbs the blood and protects the flesh so it will not develop sores and he will get well sooner. If someone dies (as sometimes happens), the penalty for this great sin, according to the law of the Spaniards, is just that they must get a new slave for the king. 

"Because of this great cruelty, many of the slaves in this territory began to run away from their masters and wandered lost around the island. But they have multiplied to such numbers that they have given, and continue to give, the Spaniards who live there a lot of trouble. 

"The kings of Ethiopia, the Quinei, Manicongri, Gialopi, Zapi, Berbersi, are always at war with one another, and take one another prisoner and then sell one another to the Portuguese. So in this country they still bear one another some hatred, but they do not mistreat one another. On the contrary, because of the assaults of the Spaniards, they give one another help and favor. Each nation recognizes its own king or governor and keeps itself separate from the others. Because of this, they do not do the harm to the Spaniards that they could if they would unite."


“Although Benzoni frequently sides with Native Americans against what he perceives (or at least portrays) as the savage Spanish, cannibalism is a recurring theme in his ‘History’. The attribution of cannibalism to some Native American groups began almost as soon as the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean. This accusation served the interest of Spanish conquistadors, because, unlike the so-called civilized groups, cannibals could be dealt with more harshly. When legislation began to limit the enslavement of native peoples, exceptions were made for cannibals. In the early colonization of the Carib- bean, these distinctions were mapped onto the ethnic markers applied to indigenous groups. Caribs were labeled cannibals and subjected to enslavement, while Aruacas (Arawaks) were not cannibals and therefore enjoyed legal protections. Significantly, this early distinction between “good” and “bad” indios, a view clearly perpetuated by Benzoni’s ‘History’, had lasting consequences in obscuring the cultural landscape of the early Americas.”(Schwaller and Byars, introduction to their edition, Benzoni, “The History of the New World”(2017))

Ethnography and Natural History:

Benzoni’s narrative is filled with careful observations of flora, fauna, and above all, the culture of the Indigenous. He describes their clothing, diet, technology, and many aspects of their social structure and customs, including religion and ritual.
“I believe that most of the countryside south of Paria is the most beautiful and fruitful of any I have seen in any part of the Indies. It has a large and fertile plain where there are always flowers, some that smell nice and some with a terrible odor. The trees are perpetually in bloom as if it were always spring, though not all of them bear fruit. In some parts there is medicinal cassia. The province is usually hot and damp and full of mosquitoes that are very annoying at night. There are also swarms of locusts that harm the plants severely.

“The men wear a codpiece shaped like a cannon made of squash that covers their manhood and leaves the rest to hang freely. The codpieces used to be covered in pearls and gold but the Spanish put a stop to that. Married women cover their shameful parts with a cloth called a pamanilia. The young girls wear only a cord. Wealthy lords are allowed to take as many wives as they want, but only one is legitimate. She commands all the others. The poorer people only take three or four and they get rid of them when they get older so they can take younger wives. Each of the wives are deflowered by holy men called piacchi.

“Their main food source is fish. They also make wine out of maize and out of other various fruits and roots. They eat human flesh, and spiders, worms, other disgusting things, and lice, like the monkeys. They make a rare mixture out of oyster shells—the kind that make pearls—that they char with the leaves of the axi tree to preserve their teeth. They temper these with a little water and spread it over their teeth, which become as black as charcoal, but then are conserved forever without pain. They pierce their nostrils, lips, and ears. They paint their body with the juice of red and black herbs. Really, the uglier they become, the more beautiful they think they are.

“The beds of the principal lords are made with a tarp, longer than it is wide, like a sheet. The tarp is suspended in the air on two large poles, and they sleep on that. Those who sleep in the countryside keep a large fire burning continuously so they won’t get cold. This is the normal way of sleeping in all the provinces.

“The principal arms they carry are bows with two kinds of poisoned arrows, either of palm wood or of a kind of reeds that grow by the river. Instead of iron tips they use hard fish scales and pieces of flint covered with a black cement which is pure venom made from roots, herbs, ants, apples, and some other beastly mixture combined and boiled with difficulty and diligence by the old women. The vapor that comes from it is so dangerous that most of the women die. When the tincture is fresh, the man who was wounded by this arrow swells and is so hurt that he goes mad and dies quickly. If the poison is old it loses its efficacy, so the wounded can be remedied by lancing the swollen place with a red-hot iron. I have known several Spaniards who were saved this way.”(Translation by Byars)

Church 154; Sabin Vol. III p. 36-37; Huth catalogue, vol. 2, p. 411; JCB, pre-1675, I: p. 393-4; Burden, Mapping of America no. 83