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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1045. Robert Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 7 March 1805 ⁠* 

I have not Oviedos History, – but this passage occurs in his Relacion sumaria de la Historia Natural de las Indias. – Cap. 77. [1] 

The chapter treats of the Guayacon [2]  or Holy Wood as the Spaniards calls it, & mentions it as the remedy used in the Islands [3]  for the disease. – ‘Your majesty (the treatise is addressed to Carlos 5. [4] ) may be certain that the disease came from the Indies. it is very common among the Indians but not so dangerous in those parts as in these; indeed the Indians in the islands cure it easily with this wood, & on the main land with other herbs, or things with which they are acquainted; for they are great Herbalists. (he has said that the Guayacon does not grow on the continent to his knowledge) – The first time that the disease was ever seen in Spain was after the Admiral D Christoval Colon discovered the Indies & returned to these parts. some Xtians who had been with him upon that discovery, & those who were in his second voyage who were more, brought back the plague, & from them others were infected. [5]  And afterwards in the year 1495. when the Great Captain D Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova passed over to Italy with troops in favour of the King of Naples D Fernando the young, against K Charles of France, he of the large head, by order of the Catholic King D Fernando & Doña Isabel, of immortal memory, the grandsires of your Majesty, this disease went with some of his soldiers, & this was the first time it had been seen in Italy. [6]  And as it was that time the French were there with the said K Charles, the Italians called this evil the French evil, & the French called it the evil of Naples, because they also had never seen it till that war, – & from thence it has spread thro all Xtendom, & past into Africa, by means of some men & women infected with it, for in no other manner does it spread so much, as by the connection of man & woman, as has often been seen. & also by eating from the sauce, or drinking from the dish or cup which the disease have used, & still more by sleeping in the sheets & linen wherein the diseased have lain. It is so so sore & dolorous an evil, that no man who has eyes must have seen many persons rotten, & turned away from Saint Lazarus’s [7]  on account of it, & many of xxx xxx many have died of it. Few of the Xtians who connect themselves with the female Indians escape – but as I have said it is not so perilous – there as here – as well because this tree being fresh is more profitable & operates better, as because the temperature of the earth is without cold, & helps the diseas such diseased persons better than the air & constellations here.’

Oviedos larger work was written before this, but not published. [8]  You will most likely find both the passage from it as well as this, in the History of Medicine. You have here the whole of this, literally rendered.

I remember a story in a miscellaneous book of Elizabeths time [9]  made up from Spanish and Italian writers – so that from whence it originally came heaven knows – but it is certainly older than her time, to this effect. That two persons (Spaniards I believe) being grievously diseased determined to go among the Indians to be cured, & accordingly to the Islands they went & cured they were, chiefly by eating lizards. The folly of the remedy does not impugn the main import of the fact – that they believed the Indians had more knowledge of the disease than the Europeans.

If a man 250 years hence were to argue that the French Revolution existed an indefinite time before we now suppose it to have broken out, because we read of mobs in London, & sedition every where, – he would argue just like those who deny the American origin of Venereal disease – the facts that it was notoriously called either French or Neapolitan, & that it was common in the Islands, where Oviedo had lived, are decisive. It is not a thing to be claimed for his countrymen by any vanity. The single cases which seem to have occurred at an earlier period you can better account for than I. how far the description of cancers, scrofulous swellings & ulcers &c may explain them.


And thus, Sir, have I replied to your Presidentships [10]  letter immediately upon receiving it.

We have been alarmed about the child – have blistered behind her ears, & administered calomel. [11]  the symptoms have completely disappeared – but not so my uneasiness. If the disease should decidedly manifest itself, I shall bleed her in the jugular vein, by which King has saved three children. she seems well at present.

I had news from Tom on the 11th of Feby when he wrote he had been on board the Amelia a month, in which time they had buried 60. [12]  he was well, & in good spirits.

You will sooner know when Madoc is published than I shall. My directions concerning copies have been sent to Longman some time, who will I suppose instruct Constable [13]  to supply you according to my desire. – I have been twice at Grasmere for some days with poor Wordsworth whose heart is almost broken by the loss of his brother in the Abergavenny. [14]  I fear too he loses much of his own little property, but of this he is not able to think of or feel.

God bless you


Thursday. March 7. 1805.


* Address: To/ H. H. Southey Esqr/ to the care of Mr Guthrie, Bookseller./ Nicholson Street./ Edinburgh/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: MR/ 1805/ 9
Endorsement: Fair be thy/ To a friend about to depart for
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Don. D3
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478–1557), Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias (1526). Oviedo’s more famous history, which Southey refers to, was Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano, of which the first part was published in 1535. The publication of the second part was interrupted by the author’s death. Henry Southey was soliciting information from his brother for his university dissertation to graduate as MD. This was on the origins and course of syphilis, in which he suggested an American origin for the disease. BACK

[2] Guayacan, or lignum sanctum (Guaiacum officinale). The Spanish used an extract from the root to treat syphilis. BACK

[3] The West Indies, where the tree is native. BACK

[4] Charles V (1500–1558) was ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1519, and as Carlos I of Spain, he ruled the Spanish Empire from 1516, until his abdication in 1556. BACK

[5] Epidemic syphilis had arrived in Europe by 1495, two years after the return of Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) sailors from the New World. BACK

[6] The Spanish expedition against the French in Italy, was led by Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (1453–1515), the aim being to restore to his throne the descendant of Ferdinand I of Naples (1423–1494), brother-in-law of the Spanish king Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516) and deposed by the invasion of the forces of Charles VIII of France (1470–1498). BACK

[7] The Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem established leper hospitals all over Europe at the beginning of the twelfth century. BACK

[8] Ovideo’s Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Océano was not published as a complete work until 1851–1855. BACK

[9] Elizabeth I (1533–1603, Queen of England and Ireland 1558–1603; DNB). BACK

[10] Harry was elected as one of the four annual presidents of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in December 1804. BACK

[11] The common name for mercury chloride, which was taken for various ailments. BACK

[12] HMS Amelia was a 38-gun Hébé-class frigate of the French navy captured in 1796 and commissioned into the British navy. On taking up his appointment on the Amelia, Thomas found the ship’s crew struck down by fever. BACK

[13] Archibald Constable (1774–1827), the Edinburgh publisher and bookseller who distributed Madoc in Scotland. BACK

[14] John Wordsworth (1772–1805), captain of the East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, went down with his ship on the Shambles rocks off Portland Bill, on 5 February 1805. BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013