“Isabella of Castile,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time,1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, normally shortened simply to Oviedo, was born in Madrid, Spain in 1478. His father, Juan de Oviedo, was the secretary to the royal family. Through this connection, young Oviedo was eventually made a page at the court of Alphonso of Aragon, the Duke of Villahermosa and the nephew of Spain's powerful King Ferdinand. Alphonso took a liking to Oviedo and trained him in the military arts, and eventually introduced him to his uncle Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The royal family also grew fond of the likable and quick-witted Oviedo, and at the age of 13, he was appointed an aid to the Infante Juan, the crown prince of Spain.

Through his connections at the Spanish court, Oviedo met Christopher Columbus, who in 1490, was trying very hard to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to fund a voyage west to the Orient. Oviedo, a young man with an incurable curiosity, was fascinated by Columbus's theory and the two became friends. He also met and befriended the Pinzón brothers, Spanish master mariners who would prove to be very important in Spain's voyages of exploration. Nicolás de Ovando, who would later become Spanish governor of the island of Hispaniola, was also one of Oviedo's powerful friends.

In 1497, Infante Juan died unexpectedly. Oviedo, heartbroken by his friend's death and suddenly finding himself without a royal sponsor, did what many young Spaniards at the time did: went off to fight the seemingly never-ending wars in Italy. For several years, Oviedo made good use of the soldiering methods taught to him by Alphonso of Aragon, making his living as a soldier for famed Spanish captain Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba. Life in Italy was not all fighting and killing for Oviedo, however. The Italian Renaissance was well underway at the time, and Italian writers were creating wonderful books for a curious and literate young man like Oviedo to read. Giving up the hardscrabble life of a soldier for the much safer life of a scholar was no doubt an easy choice.

“Ferdinand V of Aragon,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time,1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Upon returning to Spain in 1502, Oviedo married Margarita de Vergara and rejoined the Spanish court, in the service of Infanta Joanna. His happiness did not last long, though, as his new bride died in childbirth, less than a year after their wedding. Unable to cope with his loss, Oviedo again joined the army, this time serving in the wars against France. Although soldiering seemed to agree with Oviedo (he survived to old age and was apparently never seriously wounded in combat), he was eager to return to the more sedate world of scholarship. His chance came in 1506, when King Ferdinand (now sole ruler of Spain after the death of Isabella in 1504) commissioned Oviedo to draw up a history of the kings and queens of Spain. This sort of research thrilled the bookish Oviedo, who again settled down and remarried (the name of his second wife is unknown).

For several years, Oviedo served the Spanish Crown as a scholar and historian. It was apparently a peaceful period for the Oviedo family, as a son was born in 1509. But through it all, the curious Oviedo dreamed of sailing to the New World (which his old friend Christopher Columbus had "discovered" in 1492) and seeing it firsthand. The Spanish king tightly controlled who traveled to his new realms, and interlopers were not welcome. Oviedo, through his connections at court, wrangled the position of veedor (overseer of gold smelting in Spanish colonies) in 1513. In April 1514, he was on his way to Panama with Pedro Arias de Ávila (normally called Pedrárias Dávila) who had been appointed governor of the Panamanian colony of Darién. In an interesting side note, two of Oviedo's shipmates were future conquistadors Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Hernando de Soto.

Dávila proved to be a tyrannical bully, and it was nearly impossible for anyone to get along with him. He and Oviedo were especially hostile to one another, so in late 1515, the new veedor returned to Spain with a shipment of gold. King Ferdinand died not long after, so Oviedo introduced himself to Ferdinand's successor, Charles I. The new king appreciated Oviedo's thoughts of the New World and paid him handsomely for acting as an advisor. Deciding to remain in Spain, Oviedo set down to right a novel (Don Claribalte was published in 1519) and return to the safer existence of a writer and scholar.

Word came to Oviedo that a priest named Bartolomé de las Casas was chastising King Charles, and Spain in general, for the cruel mistreatment of the Native Americans, who the Spanish tended to call "Indians." He insisted that the Indians were gentle and mild people, ignorant of the Christian religion and worthy of Spanish sympathy and attention. This was in direct conflict with the going argument in Spain (and most of Europe) that the Native Americans were savage idolaters, fit only to serve as slaves. Oviedo hurried to King Charles to assert that while some natives were as Las Casas described, others were heathen cannibals unworthy of conversion to Christianity. Charles sided with Las Casas in this argument, and the entire affair caused bad blood between Oviedo and the priest (later a Dominican friar) for years to come.

In 1520, Oviedo was commissioned by Charles, who still valued his opinion, to write the official history of the New World. He also appointed him to be a councilman and clerk in the Panamanian city of Santa María del Antigua. Governor Dávila, still proving himself to be an unlikable brute, had moved the seat of government to Panama City, in an attempt to make the other towns in the colony irrelevant. But Oviedo persevered and ran Santa María well, establishing law and order among the often unruly Spaniards and even forging out trade agreements with the local native population. He kept his mind sharp by writing the entire time, slowly compiling a history of the West Indies. He returned to Spain in 1523 to see Charles and complain about Dávila's supposed mishandling of the Panama colony. He spent several years in Spain (he'd left his wife on the island of Hispaniola) to continue writing.

In 1532, Oviedo retired from his position as veedor, and the job was passed on to his son Francisco. King Charles, possibly in an effort to get Oviedo to finally complete the book he'd been commissioned to write, appointed him the official Chronicler of the Indies. In between trips back and forth to Spain (Oviedo gained the deserved reputation for being something of a complainer at the court of King Charles), he published his General and Natural History of the Indies in 1535. It caused an instant sensation in Europe, where, for the first time, the Old World was able to glimpse the reality of life in the New World. Oviedo cataloged dozens of species of plants and animals that amazed and thrilled even the most jaded of European readers.

So successful was General and Natural History of the Indies that Oviedo quickly drew up plans for a second part. The first had gone into some detail about the native peoples, who Oviedo largely regarded as uncivilized and barely human. To him, they were little more than animals, every bit as dangerous and unpredictable as the many poisonous snakes and voracious jaguars that populated the native jungles. This was the view of Native Americans that Oviedo presented, and that Europe largely expected. His second work would again focus on native plant and animal life, but would also expand on Spanish efforts to colonize the region. But despite the popularity of his first work, Oviedo had trouble finding anyone to publish his second.

It is thought that his old rival, Bartolomé de las Casas, was behind the publishing world's reluctance to touch Oviedo's second book. Las Casas, largely hailed (or criticized, depending on the source) as the "apostle of the Indians," undoubtedly objected to Oviedo's characterizations of the natives, and could certainly have used his considerable power to keep the manuscript from seeing the light of day. Frustrated by this lack of traction, Oviedo continued to polish his book, while taking less and less of an active role in the running of Spain's New World colonies. He returned to Europe in 1556, and died a year later. After his death, his beloved second volume on the history of the West Indies was finally published.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés proved to be an avid supporter of Spain's right to colonize and exploit the New World. Despite his unenlightened views on the lives and humanity of the Native Americans, Oviedo did prove to be a very observant writer. He explained exotic and very foreign flora and fauna to Europe in forthright, easily understood terms. His two works on the New World gave the curious European a chance to explore the Americas (Spain's conquered portion of it, anyhow) without ever leaving the relative safety of his study's armchair.