‘Hay árboles en esta ciudad’: Maritime metaphor and irony in the letter of Eugenio de Salazar (1573)

By Sara Rich

In many cultures ancient and modern, ships have been compared to human bodies. The planking is like protective skin, the frames like bones of a skeleton. Nautical vernacular like yardarm, breasthook, and forefoot are further testimony to the prevalent bodily metaphors in shipbuilding. In the dominant Roman Catholic atmosphere of Iberia in the 16th century, such analogy assumed religious importance. Perhaps because humans were thought to be made in God’s image, if ships were based on the human form, then by extension, they were also based on that of God. In other words, if a ship made in God’s image sailed the seven seas, it was more likely to be showered with blessings instead of meteors (or cannon fire).

However, passenger Eugenio de Salazar opted for a different metaphor. In a letter to his friend Miranda de Ron, the judge newly appointed to Hispaniola uses, not a bodily metaphor, but an urban one to describe his voyage from Tenerife to Santo Domingo in 1573.

Columbus ships

De Salazar probably would have been traveling to Hispaniola in a nau or carrack, similar to Columbus’ Santa Maria seen in this famous painting. However, art historical sources may have preserved only one side of seafaring in the Early Modern era, while neglecting the less glorious aspects. 

De Salazar’s letter, loaded with sarcastic irony, carries the ship-as-city metaphor throughout, beginning with a general description of the ship’s urban landscape, flora and fauna:

There are trees, not exuding salubrious gums and aromatic liquors, but filthy pitch and fetid tallow. Also there are flowing rivers, not of sweet-running crystal waters, but of most curdy nastiness; not filled with grains of gold as the Cibao [in Hispaniola] or the Tajo [in Iberia], but with vulgar, misshapen pearls from the toilets, and of lice so large that some get seasick and vomit pieces of cabin boys’ flesh. The ground is such that when it rains, it is stiff, and when the sun is strong the mire softens and sticks your feet to the floor. The fields have plenty for fowling for cockroaches, and great hunting for rats. Many are cornered and fight the hunters like wild boar. […] Put your feet on the ground of this city, and a surge of the sea will kiss them, to leave your boots whiter than snow with foamy spit and parched with salt. Should you want to walk for exercise, two cabin boys must take your arms like a village sweetheart…i

He proceeds to proclaim how cosmopolitan this city is, with multiple languages spoken by learned men of the world, and where a new language has even come into existence:

There is in this city a universality of people and population, with offices and dignities by their degrees and hierarchies. […] I was amazed looking at this city and the activities of its people, and marveled to hear the language of the sea, which I understood no more than the babbling of the roaring crowd. […] In learning these confusing voices, accents, and words without understanding meanings, I think I have done more than ten mocking birds or twenty parrots. […] Yet do not marvel that I know anything in this language. I have had much exercise in it, so much that in all I speak it goes with me. […] When some sailor tips the jug too much, “Oh how you bail!” When another breaks wind (which happens many times), “Ahoy the poop!” Thus I still cannot leave off with this language.ii

In his anthropological discussion of food, we see how social barriers are broken down in this ship-city, allowing for hierarchies to become temporarily disbanded at meal-times:

In this city, you must cook and eat at the same time as your neighbors, [and all that is eaten is corrupt and fetid, so] all belch desires and dreams of [morsels] unreachable. […] Men, women, boys and old men, dirty and clean, all become a noisy crowd and mess of broken hardtack, some stuck together. Next to some, one belches, another vomits, another breaks wind, another unloads his bowels, and you eat lunch. Nor can you complain of anyone’s bad manners because the ordinances of this city permit everything.iii


This ship’s cross-section better reveals the cramped quarters and challenging living conditions of this seaborne city.

Hardly a utopia, the city de Salazar describes is none other than a Foucauldian heterotopia. A frothy brothel, a garden of disgust, a colonizing rat-trap, where oceanic anarchy dictates that time and space taunt those onboard with the paradox of seaborne freedom and shipbound imprisonment. And yet, as the French philosopher himself states,

“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”iv

Variously confining and defining though our heterotopias may be, whether ship or city or some other union, what would we be without them?


Dr. Sara Rich works with old wood from submerged landscapes and shipwrecks atMaritime Archaeology Trust / Maritime Archaeology Ltd. in Southampton, UK. She is the Experienced Researcher (ER2) in Nautical Archaeology for ForSEAdiscovery.

iTranslations by John Frye in Seafaring in the Sixteenth Century: The Letter of Eugenio de Salazar, 1573 (Mellen Research University Press, San Francisco, 1991). From the Spanish original: Hay árboles en esta ciudad, no de los que sudan saludables gomas y licores aromáticos, sino de los que corren contino puerca pez y hediondo sebo. Tambien ha rios caudales, no de dulces, corrientes aguas cristalinas, sino de espesísima suciedad; no llenos de granos de oro como el Cibao y el Tajo, sino de granos de aljófar más que comun, de granados piojos, y tan grandes que algunos se almadian y vomitan pedazos de carne de grumetes. […] Poneros-heis piés en el suelo de esta ciudad, entrará un golpe de mar á visitarlos, y besároslos-ha de manera que os deje los zpatos ó botas blancas más que nieve de su saliva espumosa, y quemadas con la fortaleza de su sal. Quereis-os pasear por hacer algun ejercicio, es necessario que dos grumetes os llevan de brazo, como novia de aldea…

ii From the Spanish original: Hay en este pueblo universidad de gente y poblacion donde tienen sus oficios y dignidades por sus grados y hierarquías. […] Estaba embelesado mirando esta ciudad y los ejercicios de la gente de ella, y maravillado de oir la lengua marina ó malina; la cual yo no entendia más que el bambaló de los bramenes. […] En aprender las voces, acentos y vocablos de este confuso lenguaje sin entender las significaciones, pienso que he hecho más que diez tordos ni veinte papagayos. […] Y no es de maravillar que yo sepa algo en esta lengua, porque me he procurado ejercitar mucho en ella, tanto que en todo lo que hablo se me va allá la mia. […] Cuando algun marinero trastorna mucho el jarro le digo: ¡oh! cómo achicais. Cuando otro tira un cuesco (que pasa muchas veces), digo: ah de popa. Así que ya no es en mi mano dejar de hablar esta lengua.

iii From the Spanish original: En esta ciudad es menester que guiseis y comais á la misma hora de vuestros vecinos; [todo lo más que se come es corrompido y hediondo] y así todos estan regoldando deseos y descaliños de cosas inalcanzables del puesto donde ellos se hallan. […] Hombres, mujeres, mozos y viejos, suicios y limpios, todos van hechos una mololoa y mazamorra, pegados unos con otros; y así junto á unos uno regüelda, otro vomita, otro suelta los vientos, otro descarga las tripas, vos almorzais; y no so puede decir á ninguno que usa de mala crianza, porque las ordenanzas de esta ciudad lo permiten todo.

iv Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” transl. Jay Miscowiec. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, October 1984. From the French original (1967): Dans les civilisations sans bateaux les rêves se tarissent, l’espionnage y remplace l’aventure, et la police, les corsaires.