Settlement of a Pearl-Fishery at the Island of Cubagua.
The court of Spain was at this time very solicitous to turn the settlements already made in the New World to advantage, and was therefore easily led into various projects which were formed for promoting the royal revenue from that quarter. Among other projects, was one which recommended the colonization of the island of Cabagua, or of Pearls, near Margarita, on purpose to superintend the pearl-fishery there, and the young admiral was ordered to carry that into execution. The Spanish inhabitants of Hispaniola derived great advantage from this establishment, in which they found the natives of the Lucayo or Bahama islands exceedingly useful, as they were amazingly expert swimmers and divers, insomuch that slaves of that nation became very dear, some selling for 150 ducats each. But the Spaniards both defrauded the crown of the fifth part of the pearls, and abused and destroyed the Lucayans, so that the fishery fell much off. The island of Cubagua, which is rather more than 300 leagues from Hispaniola, nearly in latitude 10 deg. N. is about three leagues in circumference, entirely flat, and without water, having a dry barren soil impregnated with saltpetre, and only producing a few guiacum trees and shrubs. The soil does not even grow grass, and there are no birds to be seen, except those kinds which frequent the sea. It has no land animals, except a few rabbits. The few natives which inhabited it, fed on the pearl oysters, and had to bring their water in canoes from the continent of Cumana, seven leagues distant, giving seed pearls in payment to those who brought it over. They had their wood from the isle of Margarita, which almost surrounds Cubagua from east to north-west, at the distance of a league. To the south is Cape Araya on the continent, near which there are extensive salines or salt ponds. Cubagua has a good harbour on the northern shore, which is sheltered by the opposite island of Margarita. There was at first such abundance of pearl oysters, that at one time the royal fifth amounted to 15,000 ducats yearly. The oysters are brought up from the bottom by divers, who stay under water as long as they can hold in their breath, pulling the shells from the places to which they stick. Besides this place there are pearls for above 400 leagues along this coast, all the way from Cape de La Vela to the gulf of Paria; for Admiral Christopher Columbus, besides Cubagua, which he named the Island of Pearls, found them all along the coast of Paria and Cumana, at Maracapana, Puerto Flechado, and Curiana, which last is near Venezuela.