The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 3.

Journey up river continued. Wild pigs and jaguar. Bungos. Reach Machuca. Castillo. Capture of Castillo by Nelson. India-rubber trade. Rubber-men. Method of making india-rubber. Congo monkeys. Macaws. The Savallo river. Endurance of the boatmen. San Carlos. Interoceanic canal. Advantages of the Nicaraguan route. The Rio Frio. Stories about the wild Indians. Indian captive children. Expeditions up the Rio Frio. American river steamboats.

AFTER breakfast we again continued our voyage up the river, and passed the mouth of the San Carlos, another large stream running down from the interior of Costa Rica. Soon after we heard some wild pigs (Dicoteles tajacu) or Wari, as they are called by the natives, striking their teeth together in the wood, and one of the boatmen leaping on shore soon shot one, which he brought on board after cutting out a gland on its back that emits a musky odour, and we afterwards had it cooked for our dinner. These Wari go in herds of from fifty to one hundred. They are said to assist each other against the attacks of the jaguar, but that wary animal is too intelligent for them. He sits quietly upon a branch of a tree until the Wari come underneath; then jumping down kills one by breaking its neck; leaps up into the tree again and waits there until the herd depart, when he comes down and feeds on the slaughtered Wari in quietness. We shortly afterwards passed one of the large boats called bungos, that carry down to Greytown the produce of the country and take up merchandise and flour. This one was laden with cattle and india-rubber. The bungos are flat-bottomed boats, about forty feet long and nine feet wide. There is generally a little cabin, roofed over at the stern, in which the wife of the captain lives. The bungo is poled along by twelve bungo-men, who have usually only one suit of clothes each, which they do not wear during the day, but keep stowed away under the cargo that it may be dry to put on at night. Their bronzed, glistening, naked bodies, as they ply their long poles together in unison, and chant some Spanish boat-song, is one of the things that linger in the memory of the traveller up the San Juan. Our boatmen paddled and poled until eleven at night, when we reached Machuca, a settlement consisting of a single house, just below the rapids of the same name, seventy-miles above Greytown.

We breakfasted at Machuca before starting next morning, and I walked up round the rapids and met the canoe above them. About five o’clock, after paddling all day, we came in sight of Castillo, where there is an old ruined Spanish fort perched on the top of a hill overlooking the little town, which lies along the foot of the steep hill; hemmed in between it and the river, so that there is only room for one narrow street. It was near Castillo that Nelson lost his eye. He took the fort by landing about half a mile lower down the river, and dragging his guns round to a hill behind it by which it was commanded. This hill is now cleared of timber and covered with grass, supporting a few cows and a great many goats. In front of the town run the rapids of Castillo, which are difficult to ascend, and as there is no road round them excepting through the town of Castillo, advantage has been taken of the situation to fix the custom-house there, where are collected the duties on all articles going up to the interior. The first view of Castillo when coming up the river is a fine one. The fort-crowned hill and the little town clinging to its foot form the centre of the picture. The clear, sparkling, dancing rapids on one side contrast with the still, dark forest on the other, whilst the whole is relieved by the bright green grassy hills in the background. This view is the only pleasant recollection I have carried away of the place. The single street is narrow, dirty, and rugged, and when the shades of evening begin to creep up, swarms of mosquitoes issue forth to buzz and bite.

I here made the acquaintance of colonel McCrae, who was largely concerned in the india-rubber trade. He afterwards distinguished himself during the revolutionary outbreak of 1869. He collected the rubber men and came to the assistance of the government, helping greatly to put down the insurrection. Originally a British subject, but now a naturalised Nicaraguan, he has filled with great credit for some time the post of deputy-governor of Greytown, and I always heard him spoken of with great esteem both by Nicaraguans and foreigners. He showed to me pieces of cordage, pottery, and stone implements brought down by the rubber men from the wild Indians of the Rio Frio. Castillo is one of the centres of the rubber trade. Parties of men are here fitted out with canoes and provisions, and proceed up the rivers, far into the uninhabited forests of the Atlantic slope. They remain for several months away, and are expected to bring the rubber they obtain to the merchants who have fitted them out, but very many prove faithless, and carry off their produce to other towns, where they have no difficulty in finding purchasers. Notwithstanding these losses, the merchants engaged in the rubber trade have done well; its steadily increasing value during the last few years having made the business a highly remunerative one. According to the information supplied to me at Greytown by Mr. Paton, the exports of rubber from that port had increased from 401,475 pounds, valued at 112,413 dollars, in 1867, to 754,886 pounds, valued at 226,465 dollars, in 1871. India-rubber was well-known to the ancient inhabitants of Central America. Before the Spanish conquest the Mexicans played with balls made from it, and it still bears its Aztec name of Ulli, from which the Spaniards call the collectors of it Ulleros. It is obtained from quite a different tree, and prepared in a different manner, from the rubber of the Amazons. The latter is taken from the Siphonia elastica, a Euphorbiaceous tree; but in Central America the tree that yields it it is a species of wild fig (Castilloa elastica). It is easily known by its large leaves, and I saw several whilst ascending the river. When the collectors find an untapped one in the forest, they first make a ladder out of the lianas or “vejuccos “ that hang from every tree; this they do by tying short pieces of wood across them with small lianas, many of which are as tough as cord. They then proceed to score the bark, with cuts which extend nearly round the tree like the letter V, the point being downwards. A cut like this is made about every three feet all the way up the trunk. The milk will all run out of a tree in about an hour after it is cut, and is collected into a large tin bottle made flat on one side and furnished with straps to fix on to a man’s back. A decoction is made from a liana (Calonyction speciosum), and this on being added to the milk, in the proportion of one pint to a gallon, coagulates it to rubber, which is made into round flat cakes. A large tree, five feet in diameter, will yield when first cut about twenty gallons of milk, each gallon of which makes two and a half pounds of rubber. I was told that the tree recovers from the wounds and may be cut again after the lapse of a few months; but several that I saw were killed through the large Harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus) laying its eggs in the cuts, and the grubs that are hatched boring great holes all through the trunk. When these grubs are at work you can hear their rasping by standing at the bottom of the tree, and the wood-dust thrown out of their burrows accumulates in heaps on the ground below. The government attempts no supervision of the forests: any one may cut the trees, and great destruction is going on amongst them through the young ones being tapped as well as the full-grown ones. The tree grows very quickly, and plantations of it might easily be made, which would in the course of ten or twelve years become highly remunerative.

We left Castillo at daylight the next morning, and continued our journey up the river. Its banks presented but little change. We saw many tall graceful palms and tree ferns, but most of the trees were dicotyledons. Amongst these the mahogany (Swietonia mahogani) and the cedar (Cedrela odorata) are now rare near the river, but a few such trees were pointed out to me. High up in one tree, underneath which we passed, were seated some of the black congo monkeys (Mycetes palliatus) which at times, especially before rain and at nightfall, make a fearful howling, though not so loud as the Brazilian species. Screaming macaws, in their gorgeous livery of blue, yellow, and scarlet, occasionally flew overhead, and tanagers and toucans were not uncommon.

Twelve miles above Castillo we reached the mouth of the Savallo, and stayed at a house there to breakfast, the owner, a German, giving us roast wari, fowls, and eggs. He told me that there was a hot spring up the Savallo, but I had not time to go and see it. Above Savallo the San Juan is deep and sluggish, the banks low and swampy. The large palm, so common in the delta of the river, here reappeared with its great coarse leaves twenty feet in length, springing from near the ground.

Our boatmen continued to paddle all day, and as night approached redoubled their exertions, singing to the stroke of their paddles. I was astonished at their endurance. They kept on until eleven o’clock at night, when we reached San Carlos, having accomplished about thirty-five miles during the day against the current. San Carlos is at the head of the river, where it issues from the great lake of Nicaragua, about one hundred and twenty miles from Greytown. The mean level of the waters of the lake, according to the survey of Colonel O.W. Childs, in 1851, is 107 1/2 feet, so that the river falls on an average a little less than one foot per mile. The height of the lowest pass between the lake and the Pacific is said to be twenty-six feet above the lake, therefore at that point the highest elevation between the two oceans is only about 133 feet; but even allowing that an error of a few feet may be discovered when a thorough survey is made across from sea to sea, there can be no doubt that at this point occurs the lowest pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific in Central America. This fact, and the immense natural reservoir of water near the head of the navigation, point out the route as a practicable one for a ship canal between the two oceans.

Instead of cutting a canal from the head of the delta of the San Juan to the sea, as has been proposed, the Colorado branch might be straightened, and dredged to the required depth. Higher up, the Torre, Castillo, and Machuca Rapids form natural dams across the river. These might be raised, locks formed round them, and the water deepened by dredging between them. In this way the great expense of cutting a canal, and the fearful mortality that always arises amongst the labourers when excavations are made in the virgin soil of the tropics, especially in marshy lands, would be greatly lessened between the lake and the Atlantic. Another great advantage would be that the deepening of the river could be effected by steam power, so that it would not be necessary to bring such a multitude of labourers to the isthmus as would be required if a canal were cut from the river; the whole track, moreover, passes through virgin forests rich in inexhaustible supplies of fuel.1

1 The commission appointed by the United States Government to examine into the practicability of making a canal across the isthmus reported in favour of the Nicaraguan route, and the work was begun at Greytown in 1889. But after an expenditure of 4,500,000 dollars, the scheme was abandoned, for political reasons, in favour of the Panama route.

San Carlos is a small town at the foot of the great lake, where it empties its waters into the San Juan river, its only outlet to the ocean. On a hill behind the town, and commanding the entrance to the river, are the ruins of a once strong fort built by the Spaniards, the crumbling walls now green with the delicate fronds of a maiden hair fern (Adiantum). The little town consists of a single rugged street leading up from the lake. The houses are mostly palm-thatched huts, with the bare earth floors seldom or never swept. The people are of mixed origin, Indian, Spanish, and Negro, the Indian element predominating. Two or three better built stores, and the quarters of the military governor, redeem the place from an appearance of utter squalor. Behind the town there are a few small clearings in the forest, where maize is grown. Some orange, banana, and plantain trees exhaust the list of the productions of San Carlos, which is supported by being a calling place for all vessels proceeding up and down the river, and by the Ulleros or rubber-men who start from it for expeditions up the Rio Frio and other rivers. We found there two men who had just been brought down the Rio Frio by their companions, greatly injured, by the lianas up which they had made their ladder to ascend one of the rubber trees, having broken and precipitated them to the ground. I learnt that this was a very unusual accident, the lianas generally being very tough and strong, like great cables.

Most fabulous stories have been told about the Rio Frio and its inhabitants; stories of great cities, golden ornaments, and light-haired people, and it may be useful to relate what is known about it.

The Rio Frio comes down from the interior of Costa Rica, and joins the San Juan, near where the latter issues from the lake. The banks of its upper waters are inhabited by a race of Indians who have never been subjugated by the Spaniards, and about whom very little is known. They are called Guatuses, and have been said to have red or light-coloured hair and European features, to account for which various ingenious theories have been advanced; but, unfortunately for these speculations, some children, and even adults, have been captured and brought down the river by the Ulleros, and all these have the usual features and coarse black hair of the Indians. One little child that Dr. Seemann and I saw at San Carlos, in 1870, had a few brownish hairs amongst the great mass of black ones; but this character may be found amongst many of the indigenes, and may result from a very slight admixture of foreign blood. I have seen altogether five children from the Rio Frio, and a boy about sixteen years of age, and they had all the common Indian features and hair; though it struck me that they appeared rather more intelligent than the generality of Indians. Besides these, an adult woman was captured by the rubber-men and brought down to Castillo, and I was told by several who had seen her that she did not differ in any way from the usual Indian type.

The Guatuse (pronounced Watusa) is an animal about the size of a hare, very common in Central America, and good eating. It has reddish-brown fur, and the usual explanation of the Nicaraguans is that the Indians of the Rio Frio were called “Guatuses” because they had red hair. It is very common to find the Indian tribes of America called after wild animals, and my own opinion is that the origin of the fable about the red hair was a theory to explain why they were called Guatuses; for the natives of Nicaragua, and of parts much nearer home, are fond of giving fanciful explanations of the names of places and things: thus, I have been assured by an intelligent and educated Nicaraguan, that Guatemala was so-called by the Spaniards because they found the guate (a kind of grass) in that country bad, hence “guate malo,” “bad guate,”— whereas every student of Mexican history knows that the name was the Spanish attempt to pronounce the old Aztec one of Quauhtemallan, which meant the Land of the Eagle. I shall have other occasions, in the course of my narrative, to show how careful a traveller in Central America must be not to accept the explanations of the natives of the names of places and things.

The first people who ascended the Rio Frio were attacked by the Indians, who killed several with their arrows. Exaggerated opinions of their ferocity and courage were in consequence for a long time prevalent, and the river remained unknown and unexplored, and probably would have done so to the present day, if it had not been for the rubber-men. When the trade in india-rubber became fully developed, the trees in the more accessible parts of the forest were soon exhausted, and the collectors were obliged to penetrate farther and farther back into the untrodden wilds of the Atlantic slope. Some more adventurous than others ascended the Rio Frio, and being well provided with fire-arms, which they mercilessly used, they were able to defy the poor Indians, armed only with spears and bows and arrows, and to drive them back into the woods. The first Ulleros who ascended the river were so successful in finding rubber, that various other parties were organised, and now an ascent of the Rio Frio from San Carlos is of common occurrence. The poor Indians are now in such dread of fire-arms, that on the first appearance of a boat coming up the river they desert their houses and run into the woods for shelter. The Ulleros rush on shore and seize everything that the poor fugitives have left behind them; and in some cases the latter have not been able to carry off their children, and these have been brought down in triumph to San Carlos. The excuse for stealing the children is that they may be baptised and made Christians; and I am sorry to say that this shameful treatment of the poor Indians is countenanced and connived at by the authorities. I was told of one commandante at San Carlos who had manned some canoes and proceeded up the river as far as the plantain grounds of the Indians, loaded his boats with the plantains, and brought them down to San Carlos, where the people appear to be too indolent to grow them themselves. All who have ascended the river speak of the great quantities of plantains that the Guatuses grow, and this fruit, and the abundant fish of the river, form their principal food. Their houses are large sheds open at the sides, and thatched with the “suiti” palm. As is often the case amongst the Indians, several families live in one house. The floor is kept well cleaned. I was amused with a lady in San Carlos who, in describing their well-kept houses to Dr. Seemann and myself, pointed to her own unswept and littered earth floor and said, “They keep their houses very, very clean — as clean as this.” The lad and the woman who were captured and brought down the Rio Frio both ran away — the one from San Carlos, the other from Castillo; but neither could succeed in reaching home, on account of the swamps and rivers in their way, and after wandering about the woods for some time they were recaptured. I saw the lad soon after he was taken the second time. He had been a month in the woods, living on roots and fruits, and had nearly died from starvation. He had an intelligent, sharp, and independent look about him, and kept continually talking in his own language, apparently surprised that the people around him did not understand what he was saying. He was taken to Castillo, and met there the woman who had been captured a year before, and had learnt to speak a little Spanish. Through her as an interpreter, he tried to get permission to return to the Rio Frio, saying that if they would let him go he would come back and bring his father and mother with him. This simple artifice of the poor boy was, of course ineffectual. He was afterwards taken to Granada, for the purpose, they said, of being educated, that he might become the means of opening up communication with his tribe.

The rubber-men bring down many little articles that they pillage from the Indians. They consist of cordage, made from the fibre of Bromeliaceous plants, bone hooks, and stone implements. Amongst the latter, I was fortunate enough to obtain a rude stone hatchet, set in a stone-cut wooden handle: it was firmly fixed in a hole made in the thick end of the handle.1 It is a singular fact, and one showing the persistence of particular ways of doing things through long ages amongst people belonging to the same race, that, in the ancient Mexican, Uxmal, and Palenque picture-writings, bronze axes are represented fixed in this identical manner in holes at the thick ends of the handles.

1 Figured in Evans’ “Ancient Stone Implements” second edition page 155. In Evans’ first edition it is erroneously stated in the text to be from Texas. It has been pointed out that early man adopted the opposite method to the modern in the mounting of his axes: we fix the handle into a hole in the axe head; he jammed the head into a hole in the handle.

We slept on board one of the steamers of the American Transit Company. It was too dark when we arrived at San Carlos to see anything that night of the great lake, but we heard the waves breaking on the beach as on a sea-shore, and from further away came that moaning sound that has from the earliest ages of history connected the idea of the sea with sorrow and sadness.1 The steamer we stayed in was one of four river-boats belonging to the Transit Company, which was at this time in difficulties, and ultimately the boats were sold; part of them being bought by Mr. Hollenbeck, and used by the navigation company which he established. These steamers are built expressly for shallow rivers, and are very different structures from anything we see in England. The bottom is made quite flat, and divided into compartments; the first deck being only about eighteen inches above the water, from which it is divided by no bulwarks or other protection. Upon this deck are placed the cargo and the driving machinery. A vertical boiler is fixed at the bow, and two horizontal engines, driving a large paddle-wheel, at the stern. The second deck is for passengers, and is raised on light wooden pillars braced with iron rods about seven feet above the first. Above this is another deck, on which are the cabins of the officers and the steering apparatus. The appearance of such a structure is more like that of a house than a boat. The one we were in, the “Panaloya,” drew only three feet of water when laden with 400 passengers and twenty tons of cargo.

1 “There is sorrow on the sea; it cannot be quiet” Jeremiah 49:23.)

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