Venezuela's Island of Treasures and Tragedies: The Iridescent Pearl Played Prominently in Cubagua's History and in the Early Years of Discovery, Conquest, and Colonization in the Americas

Americas (English Edition), November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Venezuela's Island of Treasures and Tragedies: The Iridescent Pearl Played Prominently in Cubagua's History and in the Early Years of Discovery, Conquest, and Colonization in the Americas


The imagination flies in Cubagua, leaving a lustrous trail the color of the pearl that has played such a prominent role in the island's history. The relentless sun produces reverberations, a mirage, and suddenly past meets present, a world in ruins transforms into buildings, and abandoned spaces come to life.

Spanish monarchs Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon entrusted Columbus to discover a new maritime route to the Far East across the Atlantic. It was on his third trip towards an unknown world that he had a first glimpse of the South American continent, close to the mighty Orinoco River.

Along the coast of the mainland, which he called "Land of Grace," the Admiral of the Ocean Sea observed indigenous men and women adorned with exquisite pearls, and on Cubagua he immediately assessed the future benefit for the Spanish Crown, and perhaps, for himself. The pearls would be a steady source of wealth in the early years of American colonization, and its exploitation fit perfectly within the first and foremost objective of the conquest: the integration of overseas territories that would sustain the imperial policy of expansion and convert the court of Castile into the greatest center of power in the West.

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From the earliest days of the 16th century, settlers built rudimentary huts so they could quickly begin commercial exploitation of the pearl. The huts were gradually replaced by solid stone and mud constructions, and Cubagua became a thriving colonial settlement, a sort of miniature version of a European city. Life was a frenzy of pearl diving and transatlantic trips with precious cargoes that even included "the devils dung" (petroleum) used to alleviate Charles V's painful gout.

During the most productive years between 1526 and 1532, the population of the island exploded to between 1,000 and 1,500 people. Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas described the sudden bonanza with excessive optimism. "The Spaniards have made a fine village on the islet, with many stone and adobe houses and walls," he said. "It's as if they planned for it to last 500 years."

Ciudad Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua was the first settlement of the Spanish empire elevated to the status of "city" on September 12, 1528, in accordance with its policy of populating and founding cities and towns; at the time, it was one of the richest and most legendary cities in the Americas.

In spite of the many obstacles of living in such an austere environment, the abundance of pearls propelled the organization of daily life. Drinking water was transported with a fleet of ships and barrels from the mainland. Firewood. stones, and logs for construction came from the Gulf of Cariaco and Cumana. Margarita was the principal center for the supply of meat, fruit, and vegetables. Salt was brought from the peninsula of Araya, and pearls became an accepted currency. Several Spanish settlements in the Antilles, mainly Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and San Juan (Puerto Rico) were additional suppliers for Cubagua.

The human landscape of the island was rather colorful, including indigenous pearl divers, Spaniards, traders, canoe owners, women, missionaries, sailors, merchants, carpenters, barrel-makers, adventurers, scoundrels and riffraff, navigators, and money lenders who found time for recreation and culture through reading, music, card games, chess, and ball games. A few books and fifteen vihuelas (a forerunner of the guitar) arrived by order of the King, and bullfights were organized for important festivities. The birth of Phillip II was celebrated in 1527 with a festival of bulls brought over from Margarita.

Women carried out multiple roles as mistresses, slaves, domestic servants, cooks, and laundresses, but some were also independent business owners and were considered an essential ingredient for harmonizing the harsh conditions of daily life. Only a very few Spanish women arrived relatively late to the island and chroniclers reported all their moves closely. …

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Venezuela's Island of Treasures and Tragedies: The Iridescent Pearl Played Prominently in Cubagua's History and in the Early Years of Discovery, Conquest, and Colonization in the Americas
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