Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, by Alexander von Humboldt



In all those parts of Spanish America in which civilization did not exist to a certain degree before the Conquest (as it did in Mexico, Guatimala, Quito, and Peru), it has advanced from the coasts to the interior of the country, following sometimes the valley of a great river, sometimes a chain of mountains, affording a temperate climate. Concentrated at once in different points, it has spread as if by diverging rays. The union into provinces and kingdoms was effected on the first immediate contact between civilized parts, or at least those subject to permanent and regular government. Lands deserted, or inhabited by savage tribes, now surround the countries which European civilization has subdued. They divide its conquests like arms of the sea difficult to be passed, and neighbouring states are often connected with each other only by slips of cultivated land. It is less difficult to acquire a knowledge of the configuration of coasts washed by the ocean, than of the sinuosities of that interior shore, on which barbarism and civilization, impenetrable forests and cultivated land, touch and bound each other. From not having reflected on the early state of society in the New World, geographers have often made their maps incorrect, by marking the different parts of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, as though they were contiguous at every point in the interior. The local knowledge which I obtained respecting these boundaries, enables me to fix the extent of the great territorial divisions with some certainty, to compare the wild and inhabited parts, and to appreciate the degree of political influence exercised by certain towns of America, as centres of power and of commerce.

Caracas is the capital of a country nearly twice as large as Peru, and now little inferior in extent to the kingdom of New Grenada.* This country which the Spanish government designates by the name of Capitania–General de Caracas,* or of the united provinces of Venezuela, has nearly a million of inhabitants, among whom are sixty thousand slaves. It comprises, along the coasts, New Andalusia, or the province of Cumana (with the island of Margareta),* Barcelona, Venezuela or Caracas, Coro, and Maracaybo; in the interior, the provinces of Varinas and Guiana; the former situated on the rivers of Santo Domingo and the Apure, the latter stretching along the Orinoco, the Casiquiare, the Atabapo, and the Rio Negro. In a general view of the seven united provinces of Terra Firma, we perceive that they form three distinct zones, extending from east to west.

[* The Capitania–General of Caracas contains near 48,000 square leagues (twenty-five to a degree). Peru, since La Paz, Potosi, Charcas and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, have been separated from it, contains only 30,000. New Grenada, including the province of Quito, contains 65,000. Reinos, Capitanias–Generales, Presidencies, Goviernos, and Provincias, are the names by which Spain formerly distinguished her transmarine possessions, or, as they were called, Dominios de Ultramar (Dominions beyond Sea.)]

[* The captain-general of Caracas has the title of “Capitan–General de las Provincias de Venezuela y Ciudad do Caracas.”]

[* This island, near the coast of Cumana, forms a separate govierno, depending immediately on the captain-general of Caracas.]

We find, first, cultivated land along the sea-shore, and near the chain of the mountains on the coast; next, savannahs or pasturages; and finally, beyond the Orinoco, a third zone, that of the forests, into which we can penetrate only by the rivers which traverse them. If the native inhabitants of the forests lived entirely on the produce of the chase, like those of the Missouri, we might say that the three zones into which we have divided the territory of Venezuela, picture the three states of human society; the life of the wild hunter, in the woods of the Orinoco; pastoral life, in the savannahs or llanos; and the agricultural state, in the high valleys, and at the foot of the mountains on the coast. Missionary monks and some few soldiers occupy here, as throughout all Spanish America, advanced posts along the frontiers of Brazil. In this first zone are felt the preponderance of force, and the abuse of power, which is its necessary consequence. The natives carry on civil war, and sometimes devour one another. The monks endeavour to augment the number of little villages of their Missions, by taking advantage of the dissensions of the natives. The military live in a state of hostility to the monks, whom they were intended to protect. Everything presents a melancholy picture of misery and privation. We shall soon have occasion to examine more closely that state of man, which is vaunted as a state of nature, by those who inhabit towns. In the second region, in the plains and pasture-grounds, food is extremely abundant, but has little variety. Although more advanced in civilization, the people beyond the circle of some scattered towns are not less isolated from one another. At sight of their dwellings, partly covered with skins and leather, it might be supposed that, far from being fixed, they are scarcely encamped in those vast plains which extend to the horizon. Agriculture, which alone consolidates the bases, and strengthens the bonds of society, occupies the third zone, the shore, and especially the hot and temperate valleys among the mountains near the sea.

It may be objected, that in other parts of Spanish and Portuguese America, wherever we can trace the progressive development of civilization, we find the three ages of society combined. But it must be remembered that the position of the three zones, that of the forests, the pastures, and the cultivated land, is not everywhere the same, and that it is nowhere so regular as in Venezuela. It is not always from the coast to the interior, that population, commercial industry, and intellectual improvement, diminish. In Mexico, Peru, and Quito, the table-lands and central mountains possess the greatest number of cultivators, the most numerous towns situated near to each other, and the most ancient institutions. We even find, that, in the kingdom of Buenos Ayres, the region of pasturage, known by the name of the Pampas, lies between the isolated part of Buenos Ayres and the great mass of Indian cultivators, who inhabit the Cordilleras of Charcas, La Paz, and Potosi. This circumstance gives birth to a diversity of interests, in the same country, between the people of the interior and those who inhabit the coasts.

To form an accurate idea of those vast provinces which have been governed for ages, almost like separate states, by viceroys and captains-general, we must fix our attention at once on several points. We must distinguish the parts of Spanish America opposite to Asia from those on the shores of the Atlantic; we must ascertain where the greater portion of the population is placed; whether near the coast, or concentrated in the interior, on the cold and temperate table-lands of the Cordilleras. We must verify the numerical proportions between the natives and other castes; search into the origin of the European families, and examine to what race, in each part of the colonies, belongs the greater number of whites. The Andalusian–Canarians of Venezuela, the Mountaineers* and the Biscayans of Mexico, the Catalonians of Buenos Ayres, differ essentially in their aptitude for agriculture, for the mechanical arts, for commerce, and for all objects connected with intellectual development. Each of those races has preserved, in the New as in the Old World, the shades that constitute its national physiognomy; its asperity or mildness of character; its freedom from sordid feelings, or its excessive love of gain; its social hospitality, or its taste for solitude. In the countries where the population is for the most part composed of Indians and mixed races, the difference between the Europeans and their descendants cannot indeed be so strongly marked, as that which existed anciently in the colonies of Ionian and Doric origin. The Spaniards transplanted to the torrid zone, estranged from the habits of their mother-country, must have felt more sensible changes than the Greeks settled on the coasts of Asia Minor, and of Italy, where the climates differ so little from those of Athens and Corinth. It cannot be denied that the character of the Spanish Americans has been variously modified by the physical nature of the country; the isolated sites of the capitals on the table-lands or in the vicinity of the coasts; the agricultural life; the labour of the mines, and the habit of commercial speculation: but in the inhabitants of Caracas, Santa Fe, Quito, and Buenos Ayres, we recognize everywhere something which belongs to the race and the filiation of the people.

[* Montaneses. The inhabitants of the mountains of Santander are called by this name in Spain.]

If we examine the state of the Capitania–General of Caracas, according to the principles here laid down, we perceive that agricultural industry, the great mass of population, the numerous towns, and everything connected with advanced civilization, are found near the coast. This coast extends along a space of two hundred leagues. It is washed by the Caribbean Sea, a sort of Mediterranean, on the shores of which almost all the nations of Europe have founded colonies; which communicates at several points with the Atlantic; and which has had a considerable influence on the progress of knowledge in the eastern part of equinoctial America, from the time of the Conquest. The kingdoms of New Grenada and Mexico have no connection with foreign colonies, and through them with the nations of Europe, except by the ports of Carthagena, of Santa Martha, of Vera Cruz, and of Campeachy. These vast countries, from the nature of their coasts, and the isolation of their inhabitants on the back of the Cordilleras, have few points of contact with foreign lands. The gulf of Mexico also is but little frequented during a part of the year, on account of the danger of gales of wind from the north. The coasts of Venezuela, on the contrary, from their extent, their eastward direction, the number of their ports, and the safety of their anchorage at different seasons, possess all the advantages of the Caribbean Sea. The communications with the larger islands, and even with those situated to windward, can nowhere be more frequent than from the ports of Cumana, Barcelona, La Guayra, Porto Cabello, Coro, and Maracaybo. Can we wonder that this facility of commercial intercourse with the inhabitants of free America, and the agitated nations of Europe, should in the provinces united under the Capitania–General of Venezuela, have augmented opulence, knowledge, and that restless desire of a local government, which is blended with the love of liberty and republican forms?

The copper-coloured natives, or Indians, constitute an important mass of the agricultural population only in those places where the Spaniards, at the time of the Conquest, found regular governments, social communities, and ancient and very complicated institutions; as, for example, in New Spain, south of Durango; and in Peru, from Cuzco to Potosi. In the Capitania–General of Caracas, the Indian population is inconsiderable, at least beyond the Missions and in the cultivated zone. Even in times of great political excitement, the natives do not inspire any apprehension in the whites or the mixed castes. Computing, in 1800, the total population of the seven united provinces at nine hundred thousand souls, it appeared to me that the Indians made only one-ninth; while at Mexico they form nearly one half of the inhabitants.

Considering the Caribbean Sea, of which the gulf of Mexico makes a part, as an interior sea with several mouths, it is important to fix our attention on the political relations arising out of this singular configuration of the New Continent, between countries placed around the same basin. Notwithstanding the isolated state in which most of the mother-countries endeavour to hold their colonies, the agitations that take place are not the less communicated from one to the other. The elements of discord are everywhere the same; and, as if by instinct, an understanding is established between men of the same colour, although separated by difference of language, and inhabiting opposite coasts. That American Mediterranean formed by the shores of Venezuela, New Grenada, Mexico, the United States, and the West India Islands, counts upon its borders near a million and a half of free and enslaved blacks; but so unequally distributed, that there are very few to the south, and scarcely any in the regions of the west. Their great accumulation is on the northern and eastern coasts, which may be said to be the African part of the interior basin. The commotions which since 1792 have broken out in St. Domingo, have naturally been propagated to the coasts of Venezuela. So long as Spain possessed those fine colonies in tranquillity, the little insurrections of the slaves were easily repressed; but when a struggle of another kind, that for independence, began, the blacks by their menacing position excited alternately the apprehensions of the opposite parties; and the gradual or instantaneous abolition of slavery has been proclaimed in different regions of Spanish America, less from motives of justice and humanity, than to secure the aid of an intrepid race of men, habituated to privation, and fighting for their own cause. I found in the narrative of the voyage of Girolamo Benzoni, a curious passage, which proves that the apprehensions caused by the increase of the black population are of very old date. These apprehensions will cease only where governments shall second by laws the progressive reforms which refinement of manners, opinion, and religious sentiment, introduce into domestic slavery. “The negroes,” says Benzoni, “multiply so much at St. Domingo, that in 1545, when I was in Terra Firma [on the coast of Caracas], I saw many Spaniards who had no doubt that the island would shortly be the property of the blacks.”* It was reserved for our age to see this prediction accomplished; and a European colony of America transform itself into an African state.

[* “Vi sono molti Spagnuoli che tengono per cosa certa, che quest’ isola (San Dominico) in breve tempo sara posseduta da questi Mori di Guinea.” (Benzoni Istoria del Mondo Nuovo ediz. 2da 1672 page 65.) The author, who is not very scrupulous in the adoption of statistical facts, believes that in his time there were at St. Domingo seven thousand fugitive negroes (Mori cimaroni), with whom Don Luis Columbus made a treaty of peace and friendship.]

The sixty thousand slaves which the seven united provinces of Venezuela are computed to contain, are so unequally divided, that in the province of Caracas alone there are nearly forty thousand, one-fifth of whom are mulattoes; in Maracaybo, there are ten or twelve thousand; but in Cumana and Barcelona, scarcely six thousand. To judge of the influence which the slaves and men of colour exercise on the public tranquility, it is not enough to know their number, we must consider their accumulation at certain points, and their manner of life, as cultivators or inhabitants of towns. In the province of Venezuela, the slaves are assembled together on a space of no great extent, between the coast, and a line which passes (at twelve leagues from the coast) through Panaquire, Yare, Sabana de Ocumare, Villa de Cura, and Nirgua. The llanos or vast plains of Calaboso, San Carlos, Guanare, and Barquecimeto, contain only four or five thousand slaves, who are scattered among the farms, and employed in the care of cattle. The number of free men is very considerable; the Spanish laws and customs being favourable to affranchisement. A master cannot refuse liberty to a slave who offers him the sum of three hundred piastres, even though the slave may have cost double that price, on account of his industry, or a particular aptitude for the trade he practises. Instances of persons who voluntarily bestow liberty on a certain number of their slaves, are more common in the province of Venezuela than in any other place. A short time before we visited the fertile valleys of Aragua and the lake of Valencia, a lady who inhabited the great village of Victoria, ordered her children, on her death-bed, to give liberty to all her slaves, thirty in number. I feel pleasure in recording facts that do honour to the character of a people from whom M. Bonpland and myself received so many marks of kindness.

If we compare the seven united provinces of Venezuela with the kingdom of Mexico and the island of Cuba, we shall succeed in finding the approximate number of white Creoles, and even of Europeans. The white Creoles, whom I may call Hispano–Americans,* form in Mexico nearly a fifth, and in the island of Cuba, according to the very accurate enumeration of 1801, a third of the whole population. When we reflect that the kingdom of Mexico contains two millions and a half of natives of the copper-coloured race; when we consider the state of the coasts bordering on the Pacific, and the small number of whites in the intendencias of Puebla and Oaxaca, compared with the natives, we cannot doubt that the province of Venezuela at least, if not the capitania-general, has a greater proportion than that of one to five. The island of Cuba,* in which the whites are even more numerous than in Chile, may furnish us with a limiting number, that is to say, the maximum which may be supposed in the capitania-general of Caracas. I believe we must stop at two hundred, or two hundred and ten thousand Hispano–Americans, in a total population of nine hundred thousand souls. The number of Europeans included in the white race (not comprehending the troops sent from the mother-country) does not exceed twelve or fifteen thousand. It certainly is not greater at Mexico than sixty thousand; and I find by several statements, that, if we estimate the whole of the Spanish colonies at fourteen or fifteen millions of inhabitants, there are in that number at most three millions of Creole whites, and two hundred thousand Europeans.

[* In imitation of the word Anglo–American, adapted in all the languages of Europe. In the Spanish colonies, the whites born in America are called Spaniards; and the real Spaniards, those born in the mother country, are called Europeans, Gachupins, or Chapetons.]

[* I do not mention the kingdom of Buenos Ayres, where, among a million of inhabitants, the whites are extremely numerous in parts near the coast; while the table-lands, or provinces of the sierra are almost entirely peopled with natives.]

When Tupac–Amaru, who believed himself to be the legitimate heir to the empire of the Incas, made the conquest of several provinces of Upper Peru, in 1781, at the head of forty thousand Indian mountaineers, all the whites were filled with alarm. The Hispano–Americans felt, like the Spaniards born in Europe, that the contest was between the copper-coloured race and the whites; between barbarism and civilization. Tupac–Amaru, who himself was not destitute of intellectual cultivation, began with flattering the creoles and the European clergy; but soon, impelled by events, and by the spirit of vengeance that inspired his nephew, Andres Condorcanqui, he changed his plan. A rising for independence became a cruel war between the different castes; the whites were victorious, and excited by a feeling of common interest, from that period they kept watchful attention on the proportions existing in the different provinces between their numbers and those of the Indians. It was reserved for our times to see the whites direct this attention towards themselves; and examine, from motives of distrust, the elements of which their own caste is composed. Every enterprise in favour of independence and liberty puts the national or American party in opposition to the men of the mother-country. When I arrived at Caracas, the latter had just escaped from the danger with which they thought they were menaced by the insurrection projected by Espana. The consequences of that bold attempt were the more deplorable, because, instead of investigating the real causes of the popular discontent, it was thought that the mother-country would be saved by employing vigorous measures. At present, the commotions which have arisen throughout the country, from the banks of the Rio de la Plata to New Mexico, an extent of fourteen hundred leagues, have divided men of a common origin.

The Indian population in the united provinces of Venezuela is not considerable, and is but recently civilized. All the towns were founded by the Spanish conquerors, who could not carry out, as in Mexico and Peru, the old civilization of the natives. Caracas, Maracaybo, Cumana, and Coro, have nothing Indian but their names. Compared with the three capitals of equinoctial America,* situated on the mountains, and enjoying a temperate climate, Caracas is the least elevated. It is not a central point of commerce, like Mexico, Santa Fe de Bogota, and Quito. Each of the seven provinces united in one capitania-general has a port, by which its produce is exported. It is sufficient to consider the position of the provinces, their respective degree of intercourse with the Windward Islands, the direction of the mountains, and the course of the great rivers, to perceive that Caracas can never exercise any powerful political influence over the territories of which it is the capital. The Apure, the Meta, and the Orinoco, running from west to east, receive all the streams of the llanos, or the region of pasturage. St. Thomas de la Guiana will necessarily, at some future day, be a trading-place of high importance, especially when the flour of New Grenada, embarked above the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Umadea, and descending by the Meta and Orinoco, shall be preferred at Caracas and Guiana to the flour of New England. It is a great advantage to the provinces of Venezuela, that their territorial wealth is not directed to one point, like that of Mexico and New Grenada, which flows to Vera Cruz and Carthagena; but that they possess a great number of towns equally well peopled, and forming various centres of commerce and civilization.

[* Mexico, Santa Fe de Bogota, and Quito. The elevation of the site of the capital of Guatimala is still unknown. Judging from the vegetation, we may infer that it is less than 500 toises.]

The city of Caracas is seated at the entrance of the plain of Chacao, which extends three leagues eastward, in the direction of Caurimare and the Cuesta de Auyamas, and is two leagues and a half in breadth. This plain, through which runs the Rio Guayra, is at the elevation of four hundred and fourteen toises above the level of the sea. The ground on which the city of Caracas is built is uneven, and has a steep slope from north-north-west to south-south-east. To form an accurate idea of the situation of Caracas, we must bear in mind the general direction of the mountains of the coast, and the great longitudinal valleys by which they are traversed. The Rio Guayra rises in the group of primitive mountains of Higuerote, which separates the valley of Caracas from that of Aragua. It is formed near Las Ajuntas, by the junction of the little rivers of San Pedro and Macarao, and runs first eastward as far as the Cuesta of Auyamas, and then southward, uniting its waters with those of the Rio Tuy, below Yare. The Rio Tuy is the only considerable river in the northern and mountainous part of the province.

The river flows in a direct course from west to east, the distance of thirty leagues, and it is navigable along more than three quarters of that distance. By barometrical measurements I found the slope of the Tuy along this length, from the plantation of Manterola* to its mouth, east of Cape Codera, to be two hundred and ninety-five toises. This river forms in the chain of the coast a kind of longitudinal valley, while the waters of the llanos, or of five-sixths of the province of Caracas, follow the slope of the land southward, and join the Orinoco. This hydrographic sketch may throw some light on the natural tendency of the inhabitants of each particular province, to export their productions by different roads.

[* At the foot of the high mountain of Cocuyza, 3 east from Victoria.]

The valleys of Caracas and of the Tuy run parallel for a considerable length. They are separated by a mountainous tract, which is crossed in going from Caracas to the high savannahs of Ocumare, passing by La Valle and Salamanca. These savannahs themselves are beyond the Tuy; and the valley of the Tuy being a great deal lower than that of Caracas, the descent is almost constantly from north to south. As Cape Codera, the Silla, the Cerro de Avila between Caracas and La Guayra, and the mountains of Mariara, constitute the most northern and elevated range of the coast chain; so the mountains of Panaquire, Ocumare, Guiripa, and of the Villa de Cura, form the most southern range. The general direction of the strata composing this vast chain of the coast is from south-east to north-west; and the dip is generally towards north-west: hence it follows, that the direction of the primitive strata is independent of that of the whole chain. It is extremely remarkable, tracing this chain* from Porto Cabello as far as Maniquarez and Macanao, in the island of Margareta, to find, from west to east, first granite, then gneiss, mica-slate, and primitive schist; and finally, compact limestone, gypsum, and conglomerates containing sea-shells.

[* I have spoken, in the preceding chapter, of the interruption in the chain of the coast to the east of Cape Codera.]

It is to be regretted that the town of Caracas was not built farther to the east, below the entrance of the Anauco into the Guayra; on that spot near Chacao, where the valley widens into an extensive plain, which seems to have been levelled by the waters. Diego de Losada, when he founded* the town, followed no doubt the traces of the first establishment made by Faxardo. At that time, the Spaniards, attracted by the high repute of the two gold mines of Los Teques and Baruta, were not yet masters of the whole valley, and preferred remaining near the road leading to the coast. The town of Quito is also built in the narrowest and most uneven part of a valley, between two fine plains, Turupamba and Rumipamba.

[* The foundation of Santiago de Leon de Caracas dates from 1567, and is posterior to that of Cumana, Coro, Nueva Barcelona, and Caravalleda, or El Collado.]

The descent is uninterrupted from the custom-house of the Pastora, by the square of Trinidad and the Plaza Mayor, to Santa Rosalia, and the Rio Guayra. This declivity of the ground does not prevent carriages from going about the town; but the inhabitants make little use of them. Three small rivers, descending from the mountains, the Anauco, the Catuche, and the Caraguata, intersect the town, running from north to south. Their banks are very high; and, with the dried-up ravines which join them, furrowing the ground, they remind the traveller of the famous Guaicos of Quito, only on a smaller scale. The water used for drinking at Caracas is that of the Rio Catuche; but the richer class of the inhabitants have their water brought from La Valle, a village a league distant on the south. This water and that of Gamboa are considered very salubrious, because they flow over the roots of sarsaparilla.* I could not discover in them any aromatic or extractive matter. The water of the valley does not contain lime, but a little more carbonic acid than the water of the Anauco. The new bridge over this river is a handsome structure. Caracas contains eight churches, five convents, and a theatre capable of holding fifteen or eighteen hundred persons. When I was there, the pit, in which the seats of the men are apart from those of the women, was uncovered. By this means the spectators could either look at the actors or gaze at the stars. As the misty weather made me lose a great many observations of Jupiter’s satellites, I was able to ascertain, as I sat in a box in the theatre, whether the planet would be visible that night. The streets of Caracas are wide and straight, and they cross each other at right angles, as in all the towns built by the Spaniards in America. The houses are spacious, and higher than they ought to be in a country subject to earthquakes. In 1800, the two squares of Alta Gracia and San Francisco presented a very agreeable aspect; I say in the year 1800, because the terrible shocks of the 26th of March, 1812, almost destroyed the whole city, which is only now slowly rising from its ruins. The quarter of Trinidad, in which I resided, was destroyed as completely as if a mine had been sprung beneath it.

[* Throughout America water is supposed to share the properties of those plants under the shade of which it flows. Thus, at the Straits of Magellan, that water is much praised which comes in contact with the roots of the Canella winterana.]

The small extent of the valley, and the proximity of the high mountains of Avila and the Silla, give a gloomy and stern character to the scenery of Caracas; particularly in that part of the year when the coolest temperature prevails, namely, in the months of November and December. The mornings are then very fine; and on a clear and serene sky we could perceive the two domes or rounded pyramids of the Silla, and the craggy ridge of the Cerro de Avila. But towards evening the atmosphere thickens; the mountains are overhung with clouds; streams of vapour cling to their evergreen slopes, and seem to divide them into zones one above another. These zones are gradually blended together; the cold air which descends from the Silla, accumulates in the valley, and condenses the light vapours into large fleecy clouds. These often descend below the Cross of La Guayra, and advance, gliding on the soil, in the direction of the Pastora of Caracas, and the adjacent quarter of Trinidad. Beneath this misty sky, I could scarcely imagine myself to be in one of the temperate valleys of the torrid zone; but rather in the north of Germany, among the pines and the larches that cover the mountains of the Hartz.

But this gloomy aspect, this contrast between the clearness of morning and the cloudy sky of evening, is not observable in the midst of summer. The nights of June and July are clear and delicious. The atmosphere then preserves, almost without interruption, the purity and transparency peculiar to the table-lands and elevated valleys of these regions in calm weather, as long as the winds do not mingle together strata of air of unequal temperature. That is the season for enjoying the beauty of the landscape, which, however, I saw clearly illumined only during a few days at the end of January. The two rounded summits of the Silla are seen at Caracas, almost under the same angles of elevation* as the peak of Teneriffe at the port of Orotava.* The first half of the mountain is covered with short grass; then succeeds the zone of evergreen trees, reflecting a purple light at the season when the befaria, the alpine rose-tree* of equinoctial America, is in blossom. The rocky masses rise above this wooded zone in the form of domes. Being destitute of vegetation, they increase by the nakedness of their surface the apparent height of a mountain which, in the temperate parts of Europe, would scarcely rise to the limit of perpetual snow. The cultivated region of the valley, and the gay plains of Chacao, Petare, and La Vega, form an agreeable contrast to the imposing aspect of the Silla, and the great irregularities of the ground on the north of the town.

[* I found, at the square of Trinidad, the apparent height of the Silla to be 11° 12′ 49″. It was about four thousand five hundred toises distant.]

[* Rhododendron ferrugineum of the Alps.]

The climate of Caracas has often been called a perpetual spring. The same sort of climate exists everywhere, halfway up the Cordilleras of equinoctial America, between four hundred and nine hundred toises of elevation, except in places where the great breadth of the valleys, combined with an arid soil, causes an extraordinary intensity* of radiant caloric. What can we conceive to be more delightful than a temperature which in the day keeps between 20 and 26° (Between 16 and 20.8° Reaum.); and at night between 16 and 18° (Between 12.8 and 14.4° Reaum.), which is equally favourable to the plantain, the orange-tree, the coffee-tree, the apple, the apricot, and corn? Jose de Oviedo y Banos, the historiographer of Venezuela, calls the situation of Caracas that of a terrestrial paradise, and compares the Anauco and the neighbouring torrents to the four rivers of the Garden of Eden.

[* As at Carthago and Ibague in New Grenada.]

It is to be regretted that this delightful climate is generally inconstant and variable. The inhabitants of Caracas complain of having several seasons in one and the same day; and of the rapid change from one season to another. In the month of January, for instance, a night, of which the mean temperature is 16°, is sometimes followed by a day when the thermometer during eight successive hours keeps above 22° in the shade. In the same day, we may find the temperature of 24 and 18°. These variations are extremely common in our temperate climates of Europe, but in the torrid zone, Europeans themselves are so accustomed to the uniform action of exterior stimulus, that they suffer from a change of temperature of 6°. At Cumana, and everywhere in the plains, the temperature from eleven in the morning to eleven at night changes only 2 or 3°. Moreover, these variations act on the human frame at Caracas more violently than might be supposed from the mere indications of the thermometer. In this narrow valley the atmosphere is in some sort balanced between two winds, one blowing from the west, or the seaside, the other from the east, or the inland country. The first is known by the name of the wind of Catia, because it blows from Catia westward of Cabo Blanco through the ravine of Tipe. It is, however, only a westerly wind in appearance, and it is oftener the breeze of the east and north-east, which, rushing with extreme impetuosity, engulfs itself in the Quebrada de Tipe. Rebounding from the high mountains of Aguas Negras, this wind finds its way back to Caracas, in the direction of the hospital of the Capuchins and the Rio Caraguata. It is loaded with vapours, which it deposits as its temperature decreases, and consequently the summit of the Silla is enveloped in clouds, when the catia blows in the valley. This wind is dreaded by the inhabitants of Caracas; it causes headache in persons whose nervous system is irritable. In order to shun its effects, people sometimes shut themselves up in their houses, as they do in Italy when the sirocco is blowing. I thought I perceived, during my stay at Caracas, that the wind of Catia was purer (a little richer in oxygen) than the wind of Petare. I even imagined that its purity might explain its exciting property. The wind of Petare coming from the east and south-east, by the eastern extremity of the valley of the Guayra, brings from the mountains and the interior of the country, a drier air, which dissipates the clouds, and the summit of the Silla rises in all its beauty.

We know that the modifications produced by winds in the composition of the air in various places, entirely escape our eudiometrical experiments, the most precise of which can estimate only as far as .0003° of oxygen. Chemistry does not yet possess any means of distinguishing two jars of air, the one filled during the prevalence of the sirocco or the catia, and the other before these winds have commenced. It appears to me probable, that the singular effects of the catia, and of all those currents of air, to the influence of which popular opinion attaches so much importance, must be looked for rather in the changes of humidity and of temperature, than in chemical modifications. We need not trace miasms to Caracas from the unhealthy shore on the coast: it may be easily conceived that men accustomed to the drier air of the mountains and the interior, must be disagreeably affected when the very humid air of the sea, pressed through the gap of Tipe, reaches in an ascending current the high valley of Caracas, and, getting cooler by dilatation, and by contact with the adjacent strata, deposits a great portion of the water it contains. This inconstancy of climate, these somewhat rapid transitions from dry and transparent to humid and misty air, are inconveniences which Caracas shares in common with the whole temperate region of the tropics — with all places situated between four and eight hundred toises of elevation, either on table-lands of small extent, or on the slope of the Cordilleras, as at Xalapa in Mexico, and Guaduas in New Granada. A serenity, uninterrupted during a great part of the year, prevails only in the low regions at the level of the sea, and at considerable heights on those vast table-lands, where the uniform radiation of the soil seems to contribute to the perfect dissolution of vesicular vapours. The intermediate zone is at the same height as the first strata of clouds which surround the surface of the earth; and the climate of this zone, the temperature of which is so mild, is essentially misty and variable.

Notwithstanding the elevation of the spot, the sky is generally less blue at Caracas than at Cumana. The aqueous vapour is less perfectly dissolved; and here, as in our climates, a greater diffusion of light diminishes the intensity of the aerial colour, by introducing white into the blue of the air. This intensity, measured with the cyanometer of Saussure, was found from November to January generally 18, never above 20°. On the coasts it was from 22 to 25°. I remarked, in the village of Caracas, that the wind of Petare sometimes contributes singularly to give a pale tint to the celestial vault. On the 22nd of January, the blue of the sky was at noon in the zenith feebler than I ever saw it in the torrid zone.* It corresponded only to 12° of the cyanometer. The atmosphere was then remarkably transparent, without clouds, and of extraordinary dryness. The moment the wind of Petare ceased, the blue colour rose at the zenith as high as 16°. I have often observed at sea, but in a smaller degree, a similar effect of the wind on the colour of the serenest sky.

[* At noon, thermometer in the shade 23.7 (in the sun, out of the wind, 30.4°); De Luc’s hygrometer, 36.2; cyanometer, at the zenith, 12, at the horizon 9°. The wind ceased at three in the afternoon. Thermometer 21; hygrometer 39.3; cyanometer 16°. At six o’clock, thermometer 20.2; hygrometer 39°.]

We know less exactly the mean temperature of Caracas, than that of Santa Fe de Bogota and of Mexico. I believe, however, I can demonstrate, that it cannot be very distant from twenty to twenty-two degrees. I found by my own observations, during the three very cool months of November, December, and January, taking each day the maximum and minimum of the temperature, the heights were 20.2; 20.1; 20.2°.

Rains are extremely frequent at Caracas in the months of April, May, and June. The storms always come from the east and south-east, from the direction of Petare and La Valle. No hail falls in the low regions of the tropics; yet it occurs at Caracas almost every four or five years. Hail has even been seen in valleys still lower; and this phenomenon, when it does happen, makes a powerful impression on the people. Falls of aerolites are less rare with us than hail in the torrid zone, notwithstanding the frequency of thunder-storms at the elevation of three hundred toises above the level of the sea.

The cool and delightful climate we have just been describing is also suited for the culture of equinoctial productions. The sugar-cane is reared with success, even at heights exceeding that of Caracas; but in the valley, owing to the dryness of the climate, and the stony soil, the cultivation of the coffee-tree is preferred: it yields indeed but little fruit, but that little is of the finest quality. When the shrub is in blossom, the plain extending beyond Chacao presents a delightful aspect. The banana-tree, which is seen in the plantations near the town, is not the great Platano harton; but the varieties camburi and dominico, which require less heat. The great plantains are brought to the market of Caracas from the haciendas of Turiamo, situated on the coast between Burburata and Porto Cabello. The finest flavoured pine-apples are those of Baruto, of Empedrado, and of the heights of Buenavista, on the road to Victoria. When a traveller for the first time visits the valley of Caracas, he is agreeably surprised to find the culinary plants of our climates, as well as the strawberry, the vine, and almost all the fruit-trees of the temperate zone, growing beside the coffee and banana-tree. The apples and peaches esteemed the best come from Macarao, or from the western extremity of the valley. There, the quince-tree, the trunk of which attains only four or five feet in height, is so common, that it has almost become wild. Preserved apples and quinces, particularly the latter,* are much used in a country where it is thought that, before drinking water, thirst should be excited by sweetmeats. In proportion as the environs of the town have been planted with coffee, and the establishment of plantations (which dates only from the year 1795) has increased the number of agricultural negroes,* the apple and quince-trees scattered in the savannahs have given place, in the valley of Caracas, to maize and pulse. Rice, watered by means of small trenches, was formerly more common than it now is in the plain of Chacao. I observed in this province, as in Mexico and in all the elevated lands of the torrid zone, that, where the apple-tree is most abundant, the culture of the pear-tree is attended with great difficulty. I have been assured, that near Caracas the excellent apples sold in the markets come from trees not grafted. There are no cherry-trees. The olive-trees which I saw in the court of the convent of San Felipe de Neri, were large and fine; but the luxuriance of their vegetation prevented them from bearing fruit.

[* “Dulce de manzana y de membrillo,” are the Spanish names of these preserves.]

[* The consumption of provisions, especially meat, is so considerable in the towns of Spanish America, that at Caracas, in 1800, there were 40,000 oxen killed every year: while in Paris, in 1793, with a population fourteen times as great, the number amounted only to 70,000.]

If the atmospheric constitution of the valley be favourable to the different kinds of culture on which colonial industry is based, it is not equally favourable to the health of the inhabitants, or to that of foreigners settled in the capital of Venezuela. The extreme inconstancy of the weather, and the frequent suppression of cutaneous perspiration, give birth to catarrhal affections, which assume the most various forms. A European, once accustomed to the violent heat, enjoys better health at Cumana, in the valley of Aragua, and in every place where the low region of the tropics is not very humid, than at Caracas, and in those mountain-climates which are vaunted as the abode of perpetual spring.

Speaking of the yellow fever of La Guayra, I mentioned the opinion generally adopted, that this disease is propagated as little from the coast of Venezuela to the capital, as from the coast of Mexico to Xalapa. This opinion is founded on the experience of the last twenty years. The contagious disorders which were severely felt in the port of La Guayra, were scarcely felt at Caracas. I am not convinced that the American typhus, rendered endemic on the coast as the port becomes more frequented, if favoured by particular dispositions of the climate, may not become common in the valley: for the mean temperature of Caracas is considerable enough to allow the thermometer, in the hottest months, to keep between twenty-two and twenty-six degrees. The situation of Xalapa, on the declivity of the Mexican mountains, promises more security, because that town is less populous, and is five times farther distant from the sea than Caracas, and two hundred and thirty toises higher: its mean temperature being three degrees cooler. In 1696, a bishop of Venezuela, Diego de Banos, dedicated a church (ermita) to Santa Rosalia of Palermo, for having delivered the capital from the scourge of the black vomit (vomito negro), which is said to have raged for the space of sixteen months. A mass celebrated every year in the cathedral, in the beginning of September, perpetuates the remembrance of this epidemic, in the same manner as processions fix, in the Spanish colonies, the date of the great earthquakes. The year 1696 was indeed very remarkable for the yellow fever, which raged with violence in all the West India Islands, where it had only begun to gain an ascendancy in 1688. But how can we give credit to an epidemical black vomit, having lasted sixteen months without interruption, and which may be said to have passed through that very cool season when the thermometer at Caracas falls to twelve or thirteen degrees? Can the typhus be of older date in the elevated valley of Caracas, than in the most frequented ports of Terra Firma. According to Ulloa, it was unknown in Terra Firma before 1729. I doubt, therefore, the epidemic of 1696 having been the yellow fever, or real typhus of America. Some of the symptoms which accompany yellow fever are common to bilious remittent fevers; and are no more characteristic than haematemeses of that severe disease now known at the Havannah and Vera Cruz by the name of vomito. But though no accurate description satisfactorily demonstrates that the typhus of America existed at Caracas as early as the end of the seventeenth century, it is unhappily too certain, that this disease carried off in that capital a great number of European soldiers in 1802. We are filled with dismay when we reflect that, in the centre of the torrid zone, a table-land four hundred and fifty toises high, but very near the sea, does not secure the inhabitants against a scourge which was believed to belong only to the low regions of the coast.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38