Captain Stevens’ English Translation of Herrera

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180. HERRERA [Y TORDESILLAS], Antonio de. The General History of the Vast Continent and Islands of America, Commonly Call’d, The West-Indies, from the First Discovery thereof: With the Best Accounts the People Could Give of Their Antiquities. Collected from the Original Relations Sent to the Kings of Spain. By Antonio de Herrera, Historiographer to His Catholick Majesty. Translated into English by Capt. John Stevens...Illustrated with Cutts and Maps. London: Printed for Jer. Batley at the Dove in the Pater-noster-row, 1725-1726. Titles printed in red and black, a few wood-engraved text illustrations and ornamentation. Total plate count: 15 copper-engraved plates, all but 2 folded (portraits, scenes from the Conquest, Amerindian life); plus 3 copper-engraved folded maps.

Vol. I: [8], [1] 2-379 [1, publisher’s ad] pp., frontispiece portrait of Columbus, folded map (A New Map of as much of North & South America, as is particularly spoken of, in this first Vol. of ye History of ye West Indies; neat line to neat line: 16 x 48.5 cm), 2folded plates;

Vol. II: [2], [1] 2-436 pp., folded map (A New Map of South America According to the Latest and Best observations, taken from Monsr. De L’Isle Geographer to ye late French King...; neat line to neat line: 44.5 x 36.5 cm), 4 folded plates;

Vol. III: [2], [1] 2-418 pp., folded map (An Hidrographical Draught of Mexico as it Lies in its Lakes; neat line to neat line: 17 x 21 cm), 2 folded plates;

Vol. IV: [2], [1] 2-422, [2] pp., frontispiece portrait of Cortés, 2 folded plates;

Vol. V: [2], [1] 2-430, [2] pp., frontispiece, 1 folded plate;

Vol. VI: [2], [1] 2-408, [32] pp., 1 folded plate.

6 vols., 8vo (19.5 x 13 cm), nineteenth-century three-quarter crimson levant morocco over marbled boards, matching marbled endpapers, spines with raised bands and gilt lettering, t.e.g. (signed binding by James MacLehose of Glasgow, 1811-1885; the firm created some very elaborate bindings, but the present bindings seems more along the lines set out in The British Bookmaker, V:66, December 1892, pp. 125-126: “A large share are in the severely plain style which finds favour particularly in Scotland”). Contemporary ink inscription of Elizh. Cook Chatterton dated 1809 at Stanthorne. Joints rubbed, a few corners lightly bumped, interior fine except for scattered light foxing to text and plates and a few minor instances of slight worming confined to blank margins. A very good set in a handsome binding.

     First English edition, the issue with preface in Vol. I in six pages, the headpiece to the preface and to page 1 representing a hill with a flag on top with a sun in the background; Sig. B is under the ‘a’ of “Seneca”. Translated by Captain John Stevens (first published at Madrid, 1601; see herein). This work appeared serially between 1724 and 1726. Roy McKeen Wiles in Serial Publication in England before 1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1957, p. 89) states that “Stevens’ publisher, Jeremiah Batley...was wrong in asserting that The General History of the Vast Continent and Islands of America, Commonly call’d, The West-Indies, had never been translated to English; a portion at least had been translated by Samuel Purchas for inclusion in his Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas, His Pilgrims, first published just a hundred years before Batley parcelled out Stevens’ translation in monthly one-shilling numbers in 1725 and 1726. Both Stevens and Batley, however, would have been delighted to know that a bookseller in 1952 would be offering the six octavo volumes for 52 pounds”; see Wiles’ entry for this edition on p. 275. Of course, the best edition for a modern student of Herrera’s classic history of the establishment of the Spanish colonies in America is the seventeen-volume Spanish edition issued by the Spanish Royal Academy of History between 1934-1957, complete with annotations to indicate Herrera’s sources. On the other hand, there is something to be said for the cheap thrill of reading in turgid eighteenth-century English, for instance, the thrilling and profound account of Cabeza de Vaca’s adventures in Florida, Texas, and the Spanish Southwest (Vol. 3, pp. 91-105).

     Borba de Moraes I, pp. 401-401. JCB I (3, 1659-1674), p. 355. Brunet III, col. 132n. Chapman, A History of California: Spanish Period, Chapter V. English Short Title Catalogue N1037. European Americana 1725/95 (noting in 1725/96 existence of another issue of Vol. I, with different preface, gatherings B-R reset, different ornaments and initials). Graesse III, p. 259. Hough, Lesser Antilles 146. Hill I, p. 143. Hill II:804. Palau 114314. Phillips, America, p. 798. Phillips, Guiana & Venezuela Cartography, p. 709 (citing map of South America in Vol. 2). Sabin 31557. Servies, Florida 295. Streit III:199. Wagner, Cartography of the Northwest Coast 529 (citing Bowen’s map in Vol. I): “California extends only to about 31°, hence it cannot be said whether Bowen intended it to be an island or a peninsula.” Wagner, Spanish Southwest 12i: “This work is not an abridgment of the first three decades, as stated by Sabin, but an abridgment of the entire work.”

     This translation is somewhat controversial and may perhaps be unreliable. Palau notes that in this translation, Stevens was “algo libre” and allowed many personal feelings to intrude into the text. Sabin states it is a translation of the first three decades only; however, Wagner and Borba state that it is an abridgement of the entire work. Field (691) cites the 1740 edition printed in London for Wood & Woodward and grumbles about Captain Stevens’ translation into English:

It is unfortunate for the student of history, that the translation is performed with the same unscrupulous license which most English editors of works on American history assumed a century ago. Captain John Stevens has left in his translation a monument of his own impertinent vanity, in the liberties he has taken with this noble history. He has transposed abridged, and interpolated, and thus greatly impaired the value of his work, and yet it is the best translation we have of the whole of Herrera.

Howell, California 50:113:

The most comprehensive account of Spanish discoveries and activities in the Americas, Herrera’s History contains several portions of interest for the history of California. The first complete account of Cabrillo’s discovery and exploration of the California coast in 1542 appears in this work. Herrera also describes the 1535 voyage of Cortez, who discovered Baja California, and according to Herrera, gave the new territory the name of California. Finally, the work contains an account of Ulloa’s famous voyage of 1539, during which he discovered that Baja California was not an island but in fact a peninsula, a claim that was not reconfirmed for more than two hundred years.

     According to DNB, Captain Stevens (d. 1726) was a soldier, a Spanish scholar and translator, a Roman Catholic, and probably an Irishman. Sometimes his surname is given as Stephens. He settled in London before 1695 and was busily engaged in translations as well as historical and antiquarian compilations. DNB states that his mastery of Portuguese and Spanish deserves special recognition as a predecessor to Southey, Stirling-Maxwell, Ticknor “in the exploration of the rich mine of Spanish literature.” Of the present English translation of Herrera, DNB notes that it “has been pronounced too free.”

     The Hidrographical Draught of Mexico as it Lies in its Lakes in Vol. III is quite similar to a map that appeared in Gemelli-Careri’s Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: Awnsham and John Churchill, 1704; see herein). Gemelli claimed the map was drawn by Adrian Boot, a French engineer sent to New Spain by Philip IV and copied by Dr. Christopher de Guadalajara. Many of the plates are derivative of the portraits and scenes found on the excellent miniature engravings of the pictorial titles of the 1601 edition of Herrera, along with borrowings from DeBry and other early illustrators of the New World.


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