#8 from Natural History of the West Indies
(Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1526)

Suicide on the Death of the Chief

This species of poisonous yuca grows in great abundance on the islands of San Juan [Puerto Rico], Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola.

In some of the islands where the poisonous yuca is found, occasionally there has been some Indian chief or leader and many of his subjects who have committed suicide. The chief, through the exhortations of the devil, would tell all those who wanted to die with him the reason that he thought would draw them to their diabolical end. Then each one would take swallows of the water or juice of the yuca and suddenly they would all die without any help whatsoever.

In many places of Tierra Firme when a cacique or some lord dies, all the retainers of his household, both men and women, kill themselves. The devil has led them to believe that those who commit suicide when the chief dies will go with him to heaven and there serve him food and drink or continue the same work they have done in the home or the cacique on earth.

Those who do not do this, they believe, when they die of some other cause, or naturally, their spirits die with the body. And all the other Indians and vassals of the chief, when they die, as has been said, their spirits die with the body. And so they die and are converted into air or into nothingness, as would happen to a pig, a bird, a fish, or any other animal. They believe that only the servants and vassals who serve the master in the house or in some particular service have and enjoy that right and pre-eminence.

From that false belief it results that even those who are engaged in the cultivation of corn kill themselves in order to enjoy this blessing, and have themselves buried with a little corn and a small wooden sword. The Indians say that it is carried with them so that if in heaven there is a lack of seed, they will have enough to begin their trade, until the devil, who informs them of everything, provides them with a larger quantity of seed.

In the highlands of Guaturo I was able to observe this very well. There I held prisoner the cacique of that province who had rebelled against the service of your Majesty. I asked him to explain to me the meaning of a number of graves that were in his house. He said that were the graves of Indians who had killed themselves when his father died. Since often they are buried with great quantities of wrought gold, I had two of the graves opened. There I found the corn and knives that I mentioned above. When I asked the reason, the cacique and some of his Indians said that those who had been buried there were farmers, men who knew well how to plant and harvest corn, and they were his and his father’s servants. And so that their souls would not die with their bodies, they had killed themselves upon the death of his father, and had the corn and knives for use in heaven.

I replied that the cacique should observe that the devil had deceived him, and that everything he told them was false, for those servants had been dead a long time and still had not carried away the corn and the knives. I also pointed out that now the seed was rotten and worthless, and that the dead had not planted anything in heaven. To this the cacique replied that if they had not carried those things away, it was because they had found plenty in heaven and those were not needed. They were told many things about this error of theirs, from which they profit little, to remove them from their way of error, especially when they are grown men and the devil already has them ensnared.

[#8] “Suicide at the Death of the Chief,” from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Natural History of the West Indies, trans. and ed. Sterling A. Stoudemire (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1959, pp. 17, 35-37).

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