I remained two months at Caracas, where M. Bonpland and I lived in a large house in the most elevated part of the town. From a gallery we could survey at once the summit of the Silla, the serrated ridge of the Galipano, and the charming valley of the Guayra, the rich culture of which was pleasingly contrasted with the gloomy curtain of the surrounding mountains. It was in the dry season, and to improve the pasturage, the savannahs and the turf covering the steepest rocks were set on fire. These vast conflagrations, viewed from a distance, produce the most singular effects of light. Wherever the savannahs, following the undulating slope of the rocks, have filled up the furrows hollowed out by the waters, the flame appears in a dark night like currents of lava suspended over the valley. The vivid but steady light assumes a reddish tint, when the wind, descending from the Silla, accumulates streams of vapour in the low regions. At other times (and this effect is still more curious) these luminous bands, enveloped in thick clouds, appear only at intervals where it is clear; and as the clouds ascend, their edges reflect a splendid light. These various phenomena, so common in the tropics, acquire additional interest from the form of the mountains, the direction of the slopes, and the height of the savannahs covered with alpine grasses. During the day, the wind of Petare, blowing from the east, drives the smoke towards the town, and diminishes the transparency of the air.
If we had reason to be satisfied with the situation of our house, we had still greater cause for satisfaction in the reception we met with from all classes of the inhabitants. Though I have had the advantage, which few Spaniards have shared with me, of having successively visited Caracas, the Havannah, Santa Fe de Bogota, Quito, Lima, and Mexico, and of having been connected in these six capitals of Spanish America with men of all ranks, I will not venture to decide on the various degrees of civilization, which society has attained in the several colonies. It is easier to indicate the different shades of national improvement, and the point towards which intellectual development tends, than to compare and class things which cannot all be considered under one point of view. It appeared to me, that a strong tendency to the study of science prevailed at Mexico and Santa Fe de Bogota; more taste for literature, and whatever can charm an ardent and lively imagination, at Quito and Lima; more accurate notions of the political relations of countries, and more enlarged views on the state of colonies and their mother-countries, at the Havannah and Caracas. The numerous communications with commercial Europe, with the Caribbean Sea (which we have described as a Mediterranean with many outlets), have exercised a powerful influence on the progress of society in the five provinces of Venezuela and in the island of Cuba. In no other part of Spanish America has civilization assumed a more European character. The great number of Indian cultivators who inhabit Mexico and the interior of New Grenada, impart a peculiar, I may almost say, an exotic aspect, on those vast countries. Notwithstanding the increase of the black population, we seem to be nearer to Cadiz and the United States, at Caracas and the Havannah, than in any other part of the New World.
When, in the reign of Charles V, social distinctions and their consequent rivalries were introduced from the mother-country to the colonies, there arose in Cumana and in other commercial towns of Terra Firma, exaggerated pretensions to nobility on the part of some of the most illustrious families of Caracas, distinguished by the designation of los Mantuanos. The progress of knowledge, and the consequent change in manners, have, however, gradually and pretty generally neutralized whatever is offensive in those distinctions among the whites. In all the Spanish colonies there exist two kinds of nobility. One is composed of creoles, whose ancestors only from a very recent period filled great stations in America. Their prerogatives are partly founded on the distinction they enjoy in the mother-country; and they imagine they can retain those distinctions beyond the sea, whatever may be the date of their settlement in the colonies. The other class of nobility has more of an American character. It is composed of the descendants of the Conquistadores, that is to say, of the Spaniards who served in the army at the time of the first conquest. Among the warriors who fought with Cortez, Losada, and Pizarro, several belonged to the most distinguished families of the Peninsula; others, sprung from the inferior classes of the people, have shed lustre on their names, by that chivalrous spirit which prevailed at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the records of those times of religious and military enthusiasm, we find, among the followers of the great captains, many simple, virtuous, and generous characters, who reprobated the cruelties which then stained the glory of the Spanish name, but who, being confounded in the mass, have not escaped the general proscription. The name of Conquistadares remains the more odious, as the greater number of them, after having outraged peaceful nations, and lived in opulence, did not end their career by suffering those misfortunes which appease the indignation of mankind, and sometimes soothe the severity of the historian.
But it is not only the progress of ideas, and the conflict between two classes of different origin, which have induced the privileged castes to abandon their pretensions, or at least cautiously to conceal them. Aristocracy in the Spanish colonies has a counterpoise of another kind, the action of which becomes every day more powerful. A sentiment of equality, among the whites, has penetrated every bosom. Wherever men of colour are either considered as slaves or as having been enfranchised, that which constitutes nobility is hereditary liberty — the proud boast of having never reckoned among ancestors any but freemen. In the colonies, the colour of the skin is the real badge of nobility. In Mexico, as well as Peru, at Caracas as in the island of Cuba, a bare-footed fellow with a white skin, is often heard to exclaim: “Does that rich man think himself whiter than I am?” The population which Europe pours into America being very considerable, it may easily be supposed, that the axiom, ‘every white man is noble’ (todo blanco es caballero), must singularly wound the pretensions of many ancient and illustrious European families. But it may be further observed, that the truth of this axiom has long since been acknowledged in Spain, among a people justly celebrated for probity, industry, and national spirit. Every Biscayan calls himself noble; and there being a greater number of Biscayans in America and the Philippine Islands, than in the Peninsula, the whites of that race have contributed, in no small degree, to propagate in the colonies the system of equality among all men whose blood has not been mixed with that of the African race.
Moreover, the countries of which the inhabitants, even without a representative government, or any institution of peerage, annex so much importance to genealogy and the advantages of birth, are not always those in which family aristocracy is most offensive. We do not find among the natives of Spanish origin, that cold and assuming air which the character of modern civilization seems to have rendered less common in Spain than in the rest of Europe. Conviviality, candour, and great simplicity of manner, unite the different classes of society in the colonies, as well as in the mother-country. It may even be said, that the expression of vanity and self-love becomes less offensive, when it retains something of simplicity and frankness.
I found in several families at Caracas a love of information, an acquaintance with the masterpieces of French and Italian literature, and a marked predilection for music, which is greatly cultivated, and which (as always results from a taste for the fine arts) brings the different classes of society nearer to each other. The mathematical sciences, drawing, and painting, cannot here boast of any of those establishments with which royal munificence and the patriotic zeal of the inhabitants have enriched Mexico. In the midst of the marvels of nature, so rich in interesting productions, it is strange that we found no person on this coast devoted to the study of plants and minerals. In a Franciscan convent I met, it is true, with an old monk who drew up the almanac for all the provinces of Venezuela, and who possessed some accurate knowledge of astronomy. Our instruments interested him deeply, and one day our house was filled with all the monks of San Francisco, begging to see a dipping-needle. The curiosity excited by physical phenomena is naturally great in countries undermined by volcanic fires, and in a climate where nature is at once so majestic and so mysteriously convulsed.
When we remember, that in the United States of North America, newspapers are published in small towns not containing more than three thousand inhabitants, it seems surprising that Caracas, with a population of forty or fifty thousand souls, should have possessed no printing office before 1806; for we cannot give the name of a printing establishment to a few presses which served only from year to year to promulgate an almanac of a few pages, or the pastoral letter of a bishop. Though the number of those who feel reading to be a necessity is not very considerable, even in the Spanish colonies most advanced in civilization, yet it would be unjust to reproach the colonists for a state of intellectual lassitude which has been the result of a jealous policy. A Frenchman, named Delpeche, has the merit of having established the first printing office in Caracas. It appears somewhat extraordinary that an establishment of this kind should have followed, and not preceded, a political revolution.
In a country abounding in such magnificent scenery, and at a period when, notwithstanding some symptoms of popular commotion, most of the inhabitants seem only to direct attention to physical objects, such as the fertility of the year, the long drought, or the conflicting winds of Petare and Catia, I expected to find many individuals well acquainted with the lofty surrounding mountains. But I was disappointed; and we could not find in Caracas a single person who had visited the summit of the Silla. Hunters do not ascend so high on the ridges of mountains; and in these countries journeys are not undertaken for such purposes as gathering alpine plants, carrying a barometer to an elevated point, or examining the nature of rocks. Accustomed to a uniform and domestic life, the people dread fatigue and sudden changes of climate. They seem to live not to enjoy life, but only to prolong it.
Our walks led us often in the direction of two coffee plantations, the proprietors of which, Don Andres de Ibarra and M. Blandin, were men of agreeable manners. These plantations were situated opposite the Silla de Caracas. Surveying, by a telescope, the steep declivity of the mountains, and the form of the two peaks by which it is terminated, we could form an idea of the difficulties we should have to encounter in reaching its summit. Angles of elevation, taken with the sextant at our house, had led me to believe that the summit was not so high above sea-level as the great square of Quito. This estimate was far from corresponding with the notions entertained by the inhabitants of the city. Mountains which command great towns, have acquired, from that very circumstance, an extraordinary celebrity in both continents. Long before they have been accurately measured, a conventional height is assigned to them; and to entertain the least doubt respecting that height is to wound a national prejudice.
The captain-general, Senor de Guevara, directed the teniente of Chacao to furnish us with guides to conduct us on our ascent of the Silla. These guides were negroes, and they knew something of the path leading over the ridge of the mountain, near the western peak of the Silla. This path is frequented by smugglers, but neither the guides, nor the most experienced of the militia, accustomed to pursue the smugglers in these wild spots, had been on the eastern peak, forming the most elevated summit of the Silla. During the whole month of December, the mountain (of which the angles of elevation made me acquainted with the effects of the terrestrial refractions) had appeared only five times free of clouds. In this season two serene days seldom succeed each other, and we were therefore advised not to choose a clear day for our excursion, but rather a time when, the clouds not being elevated, we might hope, after having crossed the first layer of vapours uniformly spread, to enter into a dry and transparent air. We passed the night of the 2nd of January in the Estancia de Gallegos, a plantation of coffee-trees, near which the little river of Chacaito, flowing in a luxuriantly shaded ravine, forms some fine cascades in descending the mountains. The night was pretty clear; and though on the day preceding a fatiguing journey it might have been well to have enjoyed some repose, M. Bonpland and I passed the whole night in watching three occultations of the satellites of Jupiter. I had previously determined the instant of the observation, but we missed them all, owing to some error of calculation in the Connaissance des Temps. The apparent time had been mistaken for mean time.
I was much disappointed by this accident; and after having observed at the foot of the mountain the intensity of the magnetic forces, before sunrise, we set out at five in the morning, accompanied by slaves carrying our instruments. Our party consisted of eighteen persons, and we all walked one behind another, in a narrow path, traced on a steep acclivity, covered with turf. We endeavoured first to reach a hill, which towards the south-east seems to form a promontory of the Silla. It is connected with the body of the mountain by a narrow dyke, called by the shepherds the Gate, or Puerta de la Silla. We reached this dyke about seven. The morning was fine and cool, and the sky till then seemed to favour our excursion. I saw that the thermometer kept a little below 14° (11.2° Reaum.). The barometer showed that we were already six hundred and eighty-five toises above the level of the sea, that is, nearly eighty toises higher than at the Venta, where we enjoyed so magnificent a view of the coast. Our guides thought that it would require six hours more to reach the summit of the Silla.
We crossed a narrow dyke of rocks covered with turf; which led us from the promontory of the Puerta to the ridge of the great mountain. Here the eye looks down on two valleys, or rather narrow defiles, filled with thick vegetation. On the right is perceived the ravine which descends between the two peaks to the farm of Munoz; on the left we see the defile of Chacaito, with its waters flowing out near the farm of Gallegos. The roaring of the cascades is heard, while the water is unseen, being concealed by thick groves of erythrina, clusia, and the Indian fig-tree.* Nothing can be more picturesque, in a climate where so many plants have broad, large, shining, and coriaceous leaves, than the aspect of trees when the spectator looks down from a great height above them, and when they are illumined by the almost perpendicular rays of the sun.
[* Ficus nymphaeifolia, Erythrina mitis. Two fine species of mimosa are found in the same valley; Inga fastuosa, and I. cinerea.]
From the Puerta de la Silla the steepness of the ascent increases, and we were obliged to incline our bodies considerably forwards as we advanced. The slope is often from 30 to 32°.* We felt the want of cramp-irons, or sticks shod with iron. Short grass covered the rocks of gneiss, and it was equally impossible to hold by the grass, or to form steps as we might have done in softer ground. This ascent, which was attended with more fatigue than danger, discouraged those who accompanied us from the town, and who were unaccustomed to climb mountains. We lost a great deal of time in waiting for them, and we did not resolve to proceed alone till we saw them descending the mountain instead of climbing up it. The weather was becoming cloudy; the mist already issued in the form of smoke, and in slender and perpendicular streaks, from a small humid wood which bordered the region of alpine savannahs above us. It seemed as if a fire had burst forth at once on several points of the forest. These streaks of vapour gradually accumulated together, and rising above the ground, were carried along by the morning breeze, and glided like a light cloud over the rounded summit of the mountain.
[* Since my experiments on slopes, mentioned above in Chapter 1.2, I have discovered in the Figure de la Terre of Bouguer, a passage, which shows that this astronomer, whose opinions are of such weight, considered also 36° as the inclination of a slope quite inaccessible, if the nature of the ground did not admit of forming steps with the foot.]
M. Bonpland and I foresaw from these infallible signs, that we should soon be covered by a thick fog; and lest our guides should take advantage of this circumstance and leave us, we obliged those who carried the most necessary instruments to precede us. We continued climbing the slopes which lead towards the ravine of Chacaito. The familiar loquacity of the Creole blacks formed a striking contrast with the taciturn gravity of the Indians, who had constantly accompanied us in the missions of Caripe. The negroes amused themselves by laughing at the persons who had been in such haste to abandon an expedition so long in preparation; above all, they did not spare a young Capuchin monk, a professor of mathematics, who never ceased to boast of the superior physical strength and courage possessed by all classes of European Spaniards over those born in Spanish America. He had provided himself with long slips of white paper, which were to be cut, and flung on the savannah, to indicate to those who might stray behind, the direction they ought to follow. The professor had even promised the friars of his order to fire off some rockets, to announce to the whole town of Caracas that we had succeeded in an enterprise which to him appeared of the utmost importance. He had forgotten that his long and heavy garments would embarrass him in the ascent. Having lost courage long before the creoles, he passed the rest of the day in a neighbouring plantation, gazing at us through a glass directed to the Silla, as we climbed the mountain. Unfortunately for us, he had taken charge of the water and the provision so necessary in an excursion to the mountains. The slaves, who were to rejoin us, were so long detained by him, that they arrived very late, and we were ten hours without either bread or water.
The eastern peak is the most elevated of the two which form the summit of the mountain, and to this we directed our course with our instruments. The hollow between these two peaks has suggested the Spanish name of Silla (saddle), which is given to the whole mountain. The narrow defile which we have already mentioned, descends from this hollow toward the valley of Caracas, commencing near the western dome. The eastern summit is accessible only by going first to the west of the ravine over the promontory of the Puerta, proceeding straight forward to the lower summit; and not turning to the east till the ridge, or the hollow of the Silla between the two peaks, is nearly reached. The general aspect of the mountain points out this path; the rocks being so steep on the east of the ravine that it would be extremely difficult to reach the summit of the Silla by ascending straight to the eastern dome, instead of going by the way of the Puerta.
From the foot of the cascade of Chacaito to one thousand toises of elevation, we found only savannahs. Two small liliaceous plants, with yellow flowers,* alone lift up their heads, among the grasses which cover the rocks. A few brambles* remind us of the form of our European vegetation. We in vain hoped to find on the mountains of Caracas, and subsequently on the back of the Andes, an eglantine near these brambles. We did not find one indigenous rose-tree in all South America, notwithstanding the analogy existing between the climates of the high mountains of the torrid zone and the climate of our temperate zone. It appears that this charming shrub is wanting in all the southern hemisphere, within and beyond the tropics. It was only on the Mexican mountains that we were fortunate enough to discover, in the nineteenth degree of latitude, American eglantines.*
[* Cypura martinicensis, and Sisyrinchium iridifolium. This last is found also near the Venta of La Guayra, at 600 toises of elevation.]
[* Rubus jamaicensis.]
[* M. Redoute, in his superb work on rose-trees, has given our Mexican eglantine, under the name of Rosier de Montezuma, Montezuma rose.]
We were sometimes so enveloped in mist, that we could not, without difficulty, find our way. At this height there is no path, and we were obliged to climb with our hands, when our feet failed us, on the steep and slippery acclivity. A vein filled with porcelain-clay attracted our attention.* It is of snowy whiteness, and is no doubt the remains of a decomposed feldspar. I forwarded a considerable portion of it to the intendant of the province. In a country where fuel is not scarce, a mixture of refractory earths may be useful, to improve the earthenware, and even the bricks. Every time that the clouds surrounded us, the thermometer sunk as low as 12° (to 9.6° R.); with a serene sky it rose to 21°. These observations were made in the shade. But it is difficult, on such rapid declivities, covered with a dry, shining, yellow turf, to avoid the effects of radiant heat. We were at nine hundred and forty toises of elevation; and yet at the same height, towards the east, we perceived in a ravine, not merely a few solitary palm-trees, but a whole grove. It was the palma real; probably a species of the genus Oreodoxa. This group of palms, at so considerable an elevation, formed a striking contrast with the willows* scattered on the depth of the more temperate valley of Caracas. We here discovered plants of European forms, situated below those of the torrid zone.
[* The breadth of the vein is three feet. This porcelain-clay, when moistened, readily absorbs oxygen from the atmosphere. I found, at Caracas, the residual nitrogen very slightly mingled with carbonic acid, though the experiment was made in phials with ground-glass stoppers, not filled with water.]
[* Salix Humboldtiana of Willdenouw. On the alpine palm-trees, see my Prolegomena de Dist. Plant. page 235.]
After proceeding for the space of four hours across the savannahs, we entered into a little wood composed of shrubs and small trees, called el Pejual; doubtless from the great abundance here of the pejoa (Gaultheria odorata), a plant with very odoriferous leaves.* The steepness of the mountain became less considerable, and we felt an indescribable pleasure in examining the plants of this region. Nowhere, perhaps, can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful, and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants. At the height of a thousand toises, the lofty savannahs of the hills terminate in a zone of shrubs which, by their appearance, their tortuous branches, their stiff leaves, and the magnitude and beauty of their purple flowers, remind us of what is called, in the Cordilleras of the Andes, the vegetation of the paramos and the punas.* We there find the family of the alpine rhododendrons, the thibaudias, the andromedas, the vacciniums, and those befarias with resinous leaves, which we have several times compared to the rhododendron of our European Alps.
[* It is a great advantage of the Spanish language, and a peculiarity which it shares in common with the Latin, that, from the name of a tree, may be derived a word designating an association or group of trees of the same species. Thus are formed the words olivar, robledar, and pinal, from olivo, roble, and pino. The Hispano–Americans have added tunal, pejual, guayaval, etc., places where a great many Cactuses, Gualtheria odoratas, and Psidiums, grow together.]
[* For the explanation of these words, see above Chapter 1.5.]
Even when nature does not produce the same species in analogous climates, either in the plains of isothermal parallels,* (We may compare together either latitudes which in the same hemisphere present the same mean temperature (as, for instance, Pennsylvania and the central part of France, Chile and the southern part of New Holland); or we may consider the relations that may exist between the vegetation of the two hemispheres under isothermal parallels.) or on table-lands, the temperature of which resembles that of places nearer the poles,* we still remark a striking resemblance of appearance and physiognomy in the vegetation of the most distant countries. This phenomenon is one of the most curious in the history of organic forms. I say the history; for in vain would reason forbid man to form hypotheses on the origin of things; he still goes on puzzling himself with insoluble problems relating to the distribution of beings.
[* The geography of plants comprises not merely an examination of the analogies observed in the same hemisphere; as between the vegetation of the Pyrenees and that of the Scandinavian plains; or between that of the Cordilleras of Peru and of the coasts of Chile. It also investigates the relations between the alpine plants of both hemispheres. It compares the vegetation of the Alleghanies and the Cordilleras of Mexico, with that of the mountains of Chile and Brazil. Bearing in mind that every isothermal line has an alpine branch (as, for instance, that which connects Upsala with a point in the Swiss Alps), the great problem of the analogy of vegetable forms may be defined as follows: 1st, examining in each hemisphere, and at the level of the coasts, the vegetation on the same isothermal line, especially near convex or concave summits; 2nd, comparing, with respect to the form of plants, on the same isothermal line north and south of the equator, the alpine branch with that traced in the plains; 3rd, comparing the vegetation on homonymous isothermal lines in the two hemispheres, either in the low regions, or in the alpine regions.]
A gramen of Switzerland grows on the granitic rocks of the straits of Magellan.* New Holland contains above forty European phanerogamous plants: and the greater number of those plants, which are found equally in the temperate zones of both hemispheres, are entirely wanting in the intermediary or equinoctial region, as well in the plains as on the mountains. A downy-leaved violet, which terminates in some sort the zone of the phanerogamous plants at Teneriffe, and which was long thought peculiar to that island,* is seen three hundred leagues farther north, near the snowy summit of the Pyrenees. Gramina and cyperaceous plants of Germany, Arabia, and Senegal, have been recognized among those that were gathered by M. Bonpland and myself on the cold table-lands of Mexico, along the burning shores of the Orinoco, and in the southern hemisphere on the Andes and Quito.* How can we conceive the migration of plants through regions now covered by the ocean? How have the germs of organic life, which resemble each other in their appearance, and even in their internal structure, unfolded themselves at unequal distances from the poles and from the surface of the seas, wherever places so distant present any analogy of temperature? Notwithstanding the influence exercised on the vital functions of plants by the pressure of the air, and the greater or less extinction of light, heat, unequally distributed in different seasons of the year, must doubtless be considered as the most powerful stimulus of vegetation.
[* Phleum alpinum, examined by Mr. Brown. The investigations of this great botanist prove that a certain number of plants are at once common to both hemispheres. Potentilla anserina, Prunella vulgaris, Scirpus mucronatus, and Panicum crus-galli, grow in Germany, in Australia, and in Pennsylvania.]
[* The Viola cheiranthifolia has been found by MM. Kunth and Von Buch among the alpine plants which Jussieu brought from the Pyrenees.]
[* Cyperus mucronatus, Poa eragrostis, Festuca myurus, Andropogos avenaceus, Lapago racemosa. (See the Nova Genera et Species Plantarum volume 1 page 25.)]
The number of identical species in the two continents and in the two hemispheres is far less than the statements of early travellers would lead us to believe. The lofty mountains of equinoctial America have certainly plantains, valerians, arenarias, ranunculuses, medlars, oaks, and pines, which from their physiognomy we might confound with those of Europe; but they are all specifically different. When nature does not present the same species, she loves to repeat the same genera. Neighbouring species are often placed at enormous distances from each other, in the low regions of the temperate zone, and on the alpine heights of the equator. At other times (and the Silla of Caracas affords a striking example of this phenomenon), they are not the European genera, which have sent species to people like colonists the mountains of the torrid zone, but genera of the same tribe, difficult to be distinguished by their appearance, which take the place of each other in different latitudes.
The mountains of New Grenada surrounding the table-lands of Bogota are more than two hundred leagues distant from those of Caracas, and yet the Silla, the only elevated peak in the chain of low mountains, presents those singular groupings of befarias with purple flowers, of andromedas, of gualtherias, of myrtilli, of uvas camaronas,* of nerteras, and of aralias with hoary leaves,* which characterize the vegetation of the paramos on the high Cordilleras of Santa Fe. We found the same Thibaudia glandulosa at the entrance of the table-land of Bogota, and in the Pejual of the Silla. The coast-chain of Caracas is unquestionably connected (by the Torito, the Palomera, Tocuyo, and the paramos of Rosas, of Bocono, and of Niquitao) with the high Cordilleras of Merida, Pamplona, and Santa Fe; but from the Silla to Tocuyo, along a distance of seventy leagues, the mountains of Caracas are so low, that the shrubs of the family of the ericineous plants, just cited, do not find the cold climate which is necessary for their development. Supposing, as is probable, that the thibaudias and the rhododendron of the Andes, or befaria, exist in the paramo of Niquitao and in the Sierra de Merida, covered with eternal snow, these plants would nevertheless want a ridge sufficiently lofty and long for their migration towards the Silla of Caracas.
[* The names vine-tree, and uvas camaronas, are given in the Andes to plants of the genus Thibaudia, on account of their large succulent fruits. Thus the ancient botanists gave the name of bear’s vine, uva ursi, and vine of Mount Ida (Vitis idaea), to an arbutus and a myrtillus, which belong, like the thibaudia, to the family of the Ericineae.]
[* Nertera depressa, Aralia reticulata, Hedyotis blaerioides.]
The more we study the distribution of organized beings on the globe, the more we are inclined, if not to abandon the ideas of migration, at least to consider them as hypotheses not entirely satisfactory. The chain of the Andes divides the whole of South America into two unequal longitudinal parts. At the foot of this chain, on the east and west, we found a great number of plants specifically the same. The various passages of the Cordilleras nowhere permit the vegetable productions of the warm regions to proceed from the coasts of the Pacific to the banks of the Amazon. When a peak attains a great elevation, either in the middle of very low mountains and plains, or in the centre of an archipelago heaved up by volcanic fires, its summit is covered with alpine plants, many of which are again found, at immense distances, on other mountains having an analogous climate. Such are the general phenomena of the distribution of plants.
It is now said that a mountain is high enough to enter into the limits of the rhododendrons and the befarias, as it has long been said that such a mountain reached the limit of perpetual snow. In using this expression, it is tacitly admitted, that under the influence of certain temperatures, certain vegetable forms must necessarily be developed. Such a supposition, however, taken in all its generality, is not strictly accurate. The pines of Mexico are wanting on the Cordilleras of Peru. The Silla of Caracas is not covered with the oaks which flourish in New Grenada at the same height. Identity of forms indicates an analogy of climate; but in similar climates the species may be singularly diversified.
The charming rhododendron of the Andes (the befaria) was first described by M. Mutis, who observed it near Pamplona and Santa Fe de Bogota, in the fourth and seventh degree of north latitude. It was so little known before our expedition to the Silla, that it was scarcely to be found in any herbal in Europe. The learned editors of the Flora of Peru had even described it under another name, that of acunna. In the same manner as the rhododendrons of Lapland, Caucasus, and the Alps* differ from each other, the two species of befaria we brought from the Silla* are also specifically different from that of Santa Fe and Bogota.* Near the equator the rhododendrons of the Andes (Particularly B. aestuans of Mutis, and two new species of the southern hemisphere, which we have described under the name of B. coarctata, and B. grandiflora.) cover the mountains as far as the highest paramos, at sixteen and seventeen hundred toises of elevation. Advancing northward, on the Silla de Caracas, we find them much lower, a little below one thousand toises. The befaria recently discovered in Florida, in latitude 30°, grows even on hills of small elevation. Thus in a space of six hundred leagues in latitude, these shrubs descend towards the plains in proportion as their distance from the equator augments. The rhododendron of Lapland grows also at eight or nine hundred toises lower than the rhododendron of the Alps and the Pyrenees. We were surprised at not meeting with any species of befaria in the mountains of Mexico, between the rhododendrons of Santa Fe and Caracas, and those of Florida.
[* Rhododendron lapponicum, R. caucasicum, R. ferrugineum, and R. hirsutum.]
[* Befaria glauca, B. ledifolia.]
[* Befaria aestuans, and B. resinosa.]
In the small grove which crowns the Silla, the Befaria ledifolia is only three or four feet high. The trunk is divided from its root into a great many slender and even verticillate branches. The leaves are oval, lanceolate, glaucous on their inferior part, and curled at the edges. The whole plant is covered with long and viscous hairs, and emits a very agreeable resinous smell. The bees visit its fine purple flowers, which are very abundant, as in all the alpine plants, and, when in full blossom, they are often nearly an inch wide.
The rhododendron of Switzerland, in those places where it grows, at the elevation of between eight hundred and a thousand toises, belongs to a climate, the mean temperature of which is +2 and -1°, like that of the plains of Lapland. In this zone the coldest months are -4, and -10°: the hottest, 12 and 7°. Thermometrical observations, made at the same heights and in the same latitudes, render it probable that, at the Pejual of the Silla, one thousand toises above the Caribbean Sea, the mean temperature of the air is still 17 or 18°; and that the thermometer keeps, in the coolest season, between 15 and 20° in the day, and in the night between 10 and 12°. At the hospital of St. Gothard, situated nearly on the highest limit of the rhododendron of the Alps, the maximum of heat, in the month of August at noon, in the shade, is usually 12 or 13°; in the night, at the same season, the air is cooled by the radiation of the soil down to +1 or -1.5°. Under the same barometric pressure, consequently at the same height, but thirty degrees of latitude nearer the equator, the befaria of the Silla is often, at noon, in the sun, exposed to a heat of 23 or 24°. The greatest nocturnal refrigeration probably never exceeds 7°. We have carefully compared the climate, under the influence of which, at different latitudes, two groups of plants of the same family vegetate at equal heights above the level of the sea. The results would have been far different, had we compared zones equally distant, either from the perpetual snow, or from the isothermal line of 0°.*
[* The stratum of air, the mean temperature of which is 0°, and which scarcely coincides with the superior limit of perpetual snow, is found in the parallel of the rhododendrons of Switzerland at nine hundred toises; in the parallel of the befarias of Caracas, at two thousand seven hundred toises of elevation.]
In the little thicket of the Pejual, near the purple-flowered befaria, grows a heath-leaved hedyotis, eight feet high; the caparosa,* which is a large arborescent hypericum; a lepidium, which appears identical with that of Virginia; and lastly, lycopodiaceous plants and mosses, which cover the rocks and roots of the trees. That which gives most celebrity in the country to the little thicket, is a shrub ten or fifteen feet high, of the corymbiferous family. The Creoles call it incense (incienso).* Its tough and crenate leaves, as well as the extremities of the branches, are covered with a white wool. It is a new species of Trixis, extremely resinous, the flowers of which have the agreeable odour of storax. This smell is very different from that emitted by the leaves of the Trixis terebinthinacea of the mountains of Jamaica, opposite to those of Caracas. The people sometimes mix the incienso of the Silla with the flowers of the pevetera, another composite plant, the smell of which resembles that of the heliotropium of Peru. The pevetera does not, however, grow on the mountains so high as the zone of the befarias; it vegetates in the valley of Chacao, and the ladies of Caracas prepare from it an extremely pleasant odoriferous water.
[* Vismia caparosa (a loranthus clings to this plant, and appropriates to itself the yellow juice of the vismia); Davallia meifolia, Heracium avilae, Aralia arborea, Jacq., and Lepidium virginicum. Two new species of lycopodium, the thyoides, and the aristatum, are seen lower down, near the Puerto de la Silla.]
[* Trixis nereifolia of M. Bonpland.]
We spent a long time in examining the fine resinous and fragrant plants of the Pejual. The sky became more and more cloudy, and the thermometer sank below 11°, a temperature at which, in this zone, people begin to suffer from the cold. Quitting the little thicket of alpine plants, we found ourselves again in a savannah. We climbed over a part of the western dome, in order to descend into the hollow of the Silla, a valley which separates the two summits of the mountain. We there had great difficulties to overcome, occasioned by the force of the vegetation. A botanist would not readily guess that the thick wood covering this valley is formed by the assemblage of a plant of the musaceous family.* It is probably a maranta, or a heliconia; its leaves are large and shining; it reaches the height of fourteen or fifteen feet, and its succulent stalks grow near one another like the stems of the reeds found in the humid regions of the south of Europe.* We were obliged to cut our way through this forest. The negroes walked before with their cutlasses or machetes. The people confound this alpine scitamineous plant with the arborescent gramina, under the name of carice. We saw neither its fruit nor flowers. We are surprised to meet with a monocotyledonous family, believed to be exclusively found in the hot and low regions of the tropics, at eleven hundred toises of elevation; much higher than the andromedas, the thibaudias, and the rhododendron of the Cordilleras.* In a chain of mountains no less elevated, and more northern (the Blue Mountains of Jamaica), the Heliconia of the parrots and the bihai, rather grow in the alpine shaded situations.*
[*Scitamineous plants, or family of the plantains.]
[* Arundo donax.]
[* Heliconia psittacorum, and H. bihai. These two heliconias are very common in the plains of Terra Firma.]
Wandering in this thick wood of musaceae or arborescent plants, we constantly directed our course towards the eastern peak, which we perceived from time to time through an opening. On a sudden we found ourselves enveloped in a thick mist; the compass alone could guide us; but in advancing northward we were in danger at every step of finding ourselves on the brink of that enormous wall of rocks, which descends almost perpendicularly to the depth of six thousand feet towards the sea. We were obliged to halt. Surrounded by clouds sweeping the ground, we began to doubt whether we should reach the eastern peak before night. Happily, the negroes who carried our water and provisions, rejoined us, and we resolved to take some refreshment. Our repast did not last long. Possibly the Capuchin father had not thought of the great number of persons who accompanied us, or perhaps the slaves had made free with our provisions on the way; be that as it may, we found nothing but olives, and scarcely any bread. Horace, in his retreat at Tibur, never boasted of a repast more light and frugal; but olives, which might have afforded a satisfactory meal to a poet, devoted to study, and leading a sedentary life, appeared an aliment by no means sufficiently substantial for travellers climbing mountains. We had watched the greater part of the night, and we walked for nine hours without finding a single spring. Our guides were discouraged; they wished to go back, and we had great difficulty in preventing them.
In the midst of the mist I made trial of the electrometer of Volta, armed with a smoking match. Though very near a thick wood of heliconias, I obtained very sensible signs of atmospheric electricity. It often varied from positive to negative, its intensity changing every instant. These variations, and the conflict of several small currents of air, which divided the mist, and transformed it into clouds, the borders of which were visible, appeared to me infallible prognostics of a change in the weather. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon; we entertained some hope of reaching the eastern summit of the Silla before sunset, and of re-descending into the valley separating the two peaks, intending there to pass the night, to light a great fire, and to make our negroes construct a hut with the leaves of the heliconia. We sent off half of our servants with orders to hasten the next morning to meet us, not with olives, but with a supply of salt beef.
We had scarcely made these arrangements when the east wind began to blow violently from the sea. The thermometer rose to 12.5°. It was no doubt an ascending wind, which, by heightening the temperature, dissolved the vapours. In less than two minutes the clouds dispersed, and the two domes of the Silla appeared to us singularly near. We opened the barometer in the lowest part of the hollow that separates the two summits, near a little pool of very muddy water. Here, as in the West India Islands, marshy plains are found at great elevations; not because the woody mountains attract the clouds, but because they condense the vapours by the effect of nocturnal refrigeration, occasioned by the radiation of heat from the ground, and from the parenchyma of the leaves. The mercury was at 21 inches 5.7 lines. We shaped our course direct to the eastern summit. The obstruction caused by the vegetation gradually diminished; it was, however, necessary to cut down some heliconias; but these arborescent plants were not now very thick or high. The peaks of the Silla themselves, as we have several times mentioned, are covered only with gramina and small shrubs of befaria. Their barrenness, however, is not owing to their height: the limit of trees in this region is four hundred toises higher; since, judging according to the analogy of other mountains, this limit would be found here only at a height of eighteen hundred toises. The absence of large trees on the two rocky summits of the Silla may be attributed to the aridity of the soil, the violence of the winds blowing from the sea, and the conflagrations so frequent in all the mountains of the equinoctial region.
To reach the eastern peak, which is the highest, it is necessary to approach as near as possible the great precipice which descends towards Caravalleda and the coast. The gneiss as far as this spot preserves its lamellar texture and its primitive direction; but where we climbed the summit of the Silla, we found it had passed into granite. Its texture becomes granular; the mica, less frequent, is more unequally spread through the rock. Instead of garnets we met with a few solitary crystals of hornblende. It is, however, not a syenite, but rather a granite of new formation. We were three quarters of an hour in reaching the summit of the pyramid. This part of the way is not dangerous, provided the traveller carefully examines the stability of each fragment of rock on which he places his foot. The granite superposed on the gneiss does not present a regular separation into beds: it is divided by clefts, which often cross one another at right angles. Prismatic blocks, one foot wide and twelve long, stand out from the ground obliquely, and appear on the edges of the precipice like enormous beams suspended over the abyss.
Having arrived at the summit, we enjoyed, for a few minutes only, the serenity of the sky. The eye ranged over a vast extent of country: looking down to the north was the sea, and to the south, the fertile valley of Caracas. The barometer was at 20 inches 7.6 lines; the thermometer at 13.7°. We were at thirteen hundred and fifty toises of elevation. We gazed on an extent of sea, the radius of which was thirty-six leagues. Persons who are affected by looking downward from a considerable height should remain at the centre of the small flat which crowns the eastern summit of the Silla. The mountain is not very remarkable for height: it is nearly eighty toises lower than the Canigou; but it is distinguished among all the mountains I have visited by an enormous precipice on the side next the sea. The coast forms only a narrow border; and looking from the summit of the pyramid on the houses of Caravalleda, this wall of rocks seems, by an optical illusion, to be nearly perpendicular. The real slope of the declivity appeared to me, according to an exact calculation, 53° 28′.* The mean slope of the peak of Teneriffe is scarcely 12° 30′. A precipice of six or seven thousand feet, like that of the Silla of Caracas, is a phenomenon far more rare than is generally believed by those who cross mountains without measuring their height, their bulk, and their slope. Since the experiments on the fall of bodies, and on their deviation to the south-east, have been resumed in several parts of Europe, a rock of two hundred and fifty toises of perpendicular elevation has been in vain sought for among all the Alps of Switzerland. The declivity of Mont Blanc towards the Allee Blanche does not even reach an angle of 45°; though in the greater number of geological works, Mont Blanc is described as perpendicular on the south side.
[* Observations of the latitude give for the horizontal distance between the foot of the mountain near Caravalleda, and the vertical line passing through its summit, scarcely 1000 toises.]
At the Silla of Caracas, the enormous northern cliff is partly covered with vegetation, notwithstanding the extreme steepness of its slope. Tufts of befaria and andromedas appear as if suspended from the rock. The little valley which separates the domes towards the south, stretches in the direction of the sea. Alpine plants fill this hollow; and, not confined to the ridge of the mountain, they follow the sinuosities of the ravine. It would seem as if torrents were concealed under that fresh foliage; and the disposition of the plants, the grouping of so many inanimate objects, give the landscape all the charm of motion and of life.
Seven months had now elapsed since we had been on the summit of the peak of Teneriffe, whence we surveyed a space of the globe equal to a fourth part of France. The apparent horizon of the sea is there six leagues farther distant than at the top of the Silla, and yet we saw that horizon, at least for some time, very distinctly. It was strongly marked, and not confounded with the adjacent strata of air. At the Silla, which is five hundred and fifty toises lower than the peak of Teneriffe, the horizon, though nearer, continued invisible towards the north and north-north-east. Following with the eye the surface of the sea, which was smooth as glass, we were struck with the progressive diminution of the reflected light. Where the visual ray touched the last limit of that surface, the water was lost among the superposed strata of air. This appearance has something in it very extraordinary. We expect to see the horizon level with the eye; but, instead of distinguishing at this height a marked limit between the two elements, the more distant strata of water seem to be transformed into vapour, and mingled with the aerial ocean. I observed the same appearance, not in one spot of the horizon alone, but on an extent of more than a hundred and sixty degrees, along the Pacific, when I found myself for the first time on the pointed rock that commands the crater of Pichincha; a volcano, the elevation of which exceeds that of Mont Blanc.* The visibility of a very distant horizon depends, when there is no mirage, upon two distinct things: the quantity of light received on that part of the sea where the visual ray terminates; and the extinction of the reflected light during its passage through the intermediate strata of air. It may happen, notwithstanding the serenity of the sky and the transparency of the atmosphere, that the ocean is feebly illuminated at thirty or forty leagues’ distance; or that the strata of air nearest the earth may extinguish a great deal of the light, by absorbing the rays that traverse them.
[* See Views of Nature, Bohn’s edition, page 358.]
The rounded peak, or western dome of the Silla, concealed from us the view of the town of Caracas; but we distinguished the nearest houses, the villages of Chacao and Petare, the coffee plantations, and the course of the Rio Guayra, a slender streak of water reflecting a silvery light. The narrow band of cultivated ground was pleasingly contrasted with the wild and gloomy aspect of the neighbouring mountains. Whilst contemplating these grand scenes, we feel little regret that the solitudes of the New World are not embellished with the monuments of antiquity.
But we could not long avail ourselves of the advantage arising from the position of the Silla, in commanding all the neighbouring summits. While we were examining with our glasses that part of the sea, the horizon of which was clearly defined, and the chain of the mountains of Ocumare, behind which begins the unknown world of the Orinoco and the Amazon, a thick fog from the plains rose to the elevated regions, first filling the bottom of the valley of Caracas. The vapours, illumined from above, presented a uniform tint of a milky white. The valley seemed overspread with water, and looked like an arm of the sea, of which the adjacent mountains formed the steep shore. In vain we waited for the slave who carried Ramsden’s great sextant. Eager to avail myself of the favourable state of the sky, I resolved to take a few solar altitudes with a sextant by Troughton of two inches radius. The disk of the sun was half-concealed by the mist. The difference of longitude between the quarter of the Trinidad and the eastern peak of the Silla appears scarcely to exceed 0° 3′ 22″.*
[* The difference of longitude between the Silla and La Guayra, according to Fidalgo, is 0° 6′ 40″.]
Whilst, seated on the rock, I was determining the dip of the needle, I found my hands covered with a species of hairy bee, a little smaller than the honey-bee of the north of Europe. These insects make their nests in the ground. They seldom fly; and, from the slowness of their movements, I should have supposed they were benumbed by the cold of the mountains. The people, in these regions, call them angelitos (little angels), because they very seldom sting. They are no doubt of the genus Apis, of the division melipones. It has been erroneously affirmed that these bees, which are peculiar to the New World, are destitute of all offensive weapons. Their sting is indeed comparatively feeble, and they use it seldom; but a person, not fully convinced of the harmlessness of these angelitos, can scarcely divest himself of a sensation of fear. I must confess, that, whilst engaged in my astronomical observations, I was often on the point of letting my instruments fall, when I felt my hands and face covered with these hairy bees. Our guides assured us that they attempt to defend themselves only when irritated by being seized by their legs. I was not tempted to try the experiment on myself.
The dip of the needle at the Silla was one centesimal degree less than in the town of Caracas. In collecting the observations which I made during calm weather and in very favourable circumstances, on the mountains as well as along the coast, it would at first seem, that we discover, in that part of the globe, a certain influence of the heights on the dip of the needle, and the intensity of the magnetical forces; but we must remark, that the dip at Caracas is much greater than could be supposed, from the situation of the town, and that the magnetical phenomena are modified by the proximity of certain rocks, which constitute so many particular centres or little systems of attraction.*
[* I have seen fragments of quartz traversed by parallel bands of magnetic iron, carried into the valley of Caracas by the waters descending from the Galipano and the Cerro de Avila. This banded magnetic iron-ore is found also in the Sierra Nevada of Merida. Between the two peaks of the Silla, angular fragments of cellular quartz are found, covered with red oxide of iron. They do not act on the needle. This oxide is of a cinnabar-red colour.]
The temperature of the atmosphere varied on the summit of the Silla from eleven to fourteen degrees, according as the weather was calm or windy. Every one knows how difficult it is to verify, on the summit of a mountain, the temperature, which is to serve for the barometric calculation. The wind was east, which would seem to prove that the trade-winds extend in this latitude much higher than fifteen hundred toises. Von Buch had observed that, at the peak of Teneriffe, near the northern limit of the trade-winds, there exists generally at the elevation of one thousand nine hundred toises, a contrary current from the west. The Academy of Sciences recommended the men of science who accompanied the unfortunate La Perouse, to employ small air-balloons for the purpose of ascertaining at sea the extent of the trade-winds within the tropics. Such experiments are very difficult. Small balloons do not in general reach the height of the Silla; and the light clouds which are sometimes perceived at an elevation of three or four thousand toises, for instance, the fleecy clouds, called by the French moutons, remain almost fixed, or have such a slow motion, that it is impossible to judge of the direction of the wind.
During the short space of time that the sky was serene at the zenith, I found the blue of the atmosphere sensibly deeper than on the coasts. It is probable that, in the months of July and August, the difference between the colour of the sky on the coasts and on the summit of the Silla is still more considerable, but the meteorological phenomenon with which M. Bonpland and myself were most struck during the hour we passed on the mountain, was the apparent dryness of the air, which seemed to increase as the fog augmented.
This fog soon became so dense that it would have been imprudent to remain longer on the edge of a precipice of seven or eight thousand feet deep.* We descended the eastern dome of the Silla, and gathered in our descent a gramen, which not only forms a new and very remarkable genus, but which, to our great astonishment, we found again some time after on the summit of the volcano of Pichincha, at the distance of four hundred leagues from the Silla, in the southern hemisphere.* The Lichen floridus, so common in the north of Europe, covered the branches of the befaria and the Gualtheria odorata, descending even to the roots of these shrubs. Examining the mosses which cover the rocks of gneiss in the valley between the two peaks, I was surprised at finding real pebbles — rounded fragments of quartz.* It may be conceived that the valley of Caracas was once an inland lake, before the Rio Guayra found an issue to the east near Caurimare, at the foot of the hill of Auyamas, and before the ravine of Tipe opened on the west, in the direction of Gatia and Cabo Blanco. But how can we imagine that these waters could ascend as high as the Silla, when the mountains opposite this peak, those of Ocumare, were too low to prevent their overflow into the llanos? The pebbles could not have been brought by torrents from more elevated points, since there is no height that commands the Silla. Must we admit that they have been heaved up, like all the mountains which border the coast.
[* In the direction of north-west the slopes appear more accessible; and I have been told of a path frequented by smugglers, which leads to Caravalleda, between the two peaks of the Silla. From the eastern peak I took the bearings of the western peak, 64° 40′ south-west; and of the houses, which I was told belonged to Caravalleda, 55° 20′ north-west. ]
[* Aegopogon cenchroides.]
[* Fragments of brown copper-ore were found mixed with these pebbles, at an elevation of 1170 toises.]
It was half after four in the afternoon when we finished our observations. Satisfied with the success of our journey, we forgot that there might be danger in descending in the dark, steep declivities covered by a smooth and slippery turf. The mist concealed the valley from us; but we distinguished the double hill of La Puerta, which, like all objects lying almost perpendicularly beneath the eye, appeared extremely near. We relinquished our design of passing the night between the two summits of the Silla, and having again found the path we had cut through the thick wood of heliconia, we soon arrived at the Pejual, the region of odoriferous and resinous plants. The beauty of the befarias, and their branches covered with large purple flowers, again rivetted our attention. When, in these climates, a botanist gathers plants to form his herbal, he becomes difficult in his choice in proportion to the luxuriance of vegetation. He casts away those which have been first cut, because they appear less beautiful than those which were out of reach. Though loaded with plants before quitting the Pejual, we still regretted not having made a more ample harvest. We tarried so long in this spot, that night surprised us as we entered the savannah, at the elevation of upwards of nine hundred toises.
As there is scarcely any twilight in the tropics, we pass suddenly from bright daylight to darkness. The moon was on the horizon; but her disk was veiled from time to time by thick clouds, drifted by a cold and rough wind. Rapid slopes, covered with yellow and dry grass, now seen in shade, and now suddenly illumined, seemed like precipices, the depth of which the eye sought in vain to measure. We proceeded onwards, in single file, and endeavoured to support ourselves by our hands, lest we should roll down. The guides, who carried our instruments, abandoned us successively, to sleep on the mountain. Among those who remained with us was a Congo black, who evinced great address, bearing on his head a large dipping-needle: he held it constantly steady, notwithstanding the extreme declivity of the rocks. The fog had dispersed by degrees in the bottom of the valley; and the scattered lights we perceived below us caused a double illusion. The steeps appeared still more dangerous than they really were; and, during six hours of continual descent, we seemed to be always equally near the farms at the foot of the Silla. We heard very distinctly the voices of men and the notes of guitars. Sound is generally so well propagated upwards, that in a balloon at the elevation of three thousand toises, the barking of dogs is sometimes heard.*
[* Gay–Lussac’s account of his ascent on the 15th of September, 1805.]
We did not arrive till ten at night at the bottom of the valley. We were overcome with fatigue and thirst, having walked for fifteen hours, nearly without stopping. The soles of our feet were cut and torn by the asperities of a rocky soil and the hard and dry stalks of the gramina, for we had been obliged to pull off our boots, the soles having become too slippery. On declivities devoid of shrubs or ligneous herbs, which may be grasped by the hand, the danger of the descent is diminished by walking barefoot. In order to shorten the way, our guides conducted us from the Puerta de la Silla to the farm of Gallegos by a path leading to a reservoir of water, called el Tanque. They missed their way, however; and this last descent, the steepest of all, brought us near the ravine of Chacaito. The noise of the cascades gave this nocturnal scene a grand and wild character.
We passed the night at the foot of the Silla. Our friends at Caracas had been able to distinguish us with glasses on the summit of the eastern peak. They felt interested in hearing the account of our expedition, but they were not satisfied with the result of our measurement, which did not assign to the Silla even the elevation of the highest summit of the Pyrenees.* One cannot blame the national feeling which suggests exaggerated ideas of the monuments of nature, in a country in which the monuments of art are nothing; nor can we wonder that the inhabitants of Quito and Riobamba, who have prided themselves for ages on the height of Chimborazo, mistrust those measurements which elevate the mountains of Himalaya above all the colossal Cordilleras?
[* It was formerly believed that the height of the Silla of Caracas scarcely differed from that of the peak of Teneriffe.]
During our journey to the Silla, and in all our excursions in the valley of Caracas, we were very attentive to the lodes and indications of ore which we found in the strata of gneiss. No regular diggings having been made, we could only examine the fissures, the ravines, and the land-slips occasioned by torrents in the rainy season. The rock of gneiss, passing sometimes into a granite of new formation, sometimes into mica-slate,* belongs in Germany to the most metalliferous rocks; but in the New Continent, the gneiss has not hitherto been remarked as very rich in ores worth working. The most celebrated mines of Mexico and Peru are found in the primitive and transition schists, in the trap-porphyries, the grauwakke, and the alpine limestones. In several spots of the valley of Caracas, the gneiss contains a small quantity of gold, disseminated in small veins of quartz, sulphuretted silver, azure copper-ore, and galena; but it is doubtful whether these different metalliferous substances are not too poor to encourage any attempt at working them. Such attempts were, however, made at the conquest of the province, about the middle of the sixteenth century.
[* Especially at great elevations.]
From the promontory of Paria to beyond cape Vela, the early navigators had seen gold ornaments and gold dust, in the possession of the inhabitants of the coast. They penetrated into the interior of the country, to discover whence the precious metal came; and though the information obtained in the province of Coro, and the markets of Curiana and Cauchieto,* clearly proved that real mineral wealth was to be found only to the west and south-west of Coro (that is to say, in the mountains near those of New Grenada), the whole province of Caracas was nevertheless eagerly explored. A governor, newly arrived on that coast, could recommend himself to the Spanish court only by boasting of the mines of his province; and in order to take from cupidity what was most ignoble and repulsive, the thirst of gold was justified by the purpose to which it was pretended the riches acquired by fraud and violence might be employed. “Gold,” says Christopher Columbus, in his last letter* (Lettera rarissima data nelle Indie nella isola di Jamaica a 7 Julio dei 1503. —“Le oro e metallo sopra gli altri excellentissimo; e dell’ oro si fanno li tesori e chi lo tiene fa e opera quanto vuole nel mondo[?], e finel[?]mente aggionge a mandare le anime al Paradiso.”) to King Ferdinand, “gold is a thing so much the more necessary to your majesty, because, in order to fulfil the ancient prophecy, Jerusalem is to be rebuilt by a prince of the Spanish monarchy. Gold is the most excellent of metals. What becomes of those precious stones, which are sought for at the extremities of the globe? They are sold, and are finally converted into gold. With gold we not only do whatever we please in this world, but we can even employ it to snatch souls from Purgatory, and to people Paradise.” These words bear the stamp of the age in which Columbus lived; but we are surprised to see this pompous eulogium of riches written by a man whose whole life was marked by the most noble disinterestedness.
[* The Spaniards found, in 1500, in the country of Curiana (now Coro), little birds, frogs, and other ornaments made of gold. Those who had cast these figures lived at Cauchieto, a place nearer the Rio de la Hacha. I have seen ornaments resembling those described by Peter Martyr of Anghiera (which indicate tolerable skill in goldsmiths’ work), among the remains of the ancient inhabitants of Cundinamarca. The same art appears to have been practised in places along the coasts, and also farther to the south, among the mountains of New Grenada.]
The conquest of the province of Venezuela having been begun at its western extremity, the neighbouring mountains of Coro, Tocuyo, and Barquisimeto, first attracted the attention of the Conquistadores. These mountains join the Cordilleras of New Grenada (those of Santa Fe, Pamplona, la Grita, and Merida) to the littoral chain of Caracas. It is a land the more interesting in a geognostical point of view, as no map has yet made known the mountainous ramifications which the paramos of Niquitao and Las Rosas send out towards the north-east. Between Tocuyo, Araure, and Barquisimeto, rises the group of the Altar Mountains, connected on the south-east with the paramo of Las Rosas. A branch of the Altar stretches north-east by San Felipe el Fuerte, joining the granitic mountains of the coast near Porto Cabello. The other branch takes an eastward direction towards Nirgua and Tinaco, and joins the chain of the interior, that of Yusma, Villa de Cura, and Sabana de Ocumare.
The region we have been here describing separates the waters which flow to the Orinoco from those which run into the immense lake of Maracaybo and the Caribbean Sea. It includes climates which may be termed temperate rather than hot; and it is looked upon in the country, notwithstanding the distance of more than a hundred leagues, as a prolongation of the metalliferous soil of Pamplona. It was in the group of the western mountains of Venezuela, that the Spaniards, in the year 1551, worked the gold mine of Buria,* which was the origin of the foundation of the town of Barquisimeto.* But these works, like many other mines successively opened, were soon abandoned. Here, as in all the mountains of Venezuela, the produce of the ore has been found to be very variable. The lodes are very often divided, or they altogether cease; and the metals appear only in kidney-ores, and present the most delusive appearances. It is, however, only in this group of mountains of San Felipe and Barquisimeto, that the working of mines has been continued till the present time. Those of Aroa, near San Felipe el Fuerte, situated in the centre of a very insalubrious country, are the only mines which are wrought in the whole capitania-general of Caracas. They yield a small quantity of copper.
[* Real de Minas de San Felipe de Buria.]
[* Nueva Segovia.]
Next to the works at Buria, near Barquisimeto, those of the valley of Caracas, and of the mountains near the capital, are the most ancient. Francisco Faxardo and his wife Isabella, of the nation of the Guaiquerias,* often visited the table-land where the capital of Venezuela is now situated. They had given this table-land the name of Valle de San Francisco; and having seen some bits of gold in the hands of the natives, Faxardo succeeded, in the year 1560, in discovering the mines of Los Teques,* to the south-west of Caracas, near the group of the mountains of Cocuiza, which separate the valleys of Caracas and Aragua. It is thought that in the first of these valleys, near Baruta, south of the village of Valle, the natives had made some excavations in veins of auriferous quartz; and that, when the Spaniards first settled there, and founded the town of Caracas, they filled the shafts, which had been dry, with water. It is now impossible to ascertain this fact; but it is certain that, long before the Conquest, grains of gold were a medium of exchange, I do not say generally, but among certain nations of the New Continent. They gave gold for the purchase of pearls; and it does not appear extraordinary, that, after having for a long time picked up grains of gold in the rivulets, people who had fixed habitations, and were devoted to agriculture, should have tried to trace the auriferous veins in the superior surface of the soil. The mines of Los Teques could not be peaceably wrought, till the defeat of the Cacique Guaycaypuro, a celebrated chief of the Teques, who long contested with the Spaniards the possession of the province of Venezuela.
[* Faxardo and his wife were the founders of the town of the Collado, now called Caravalleda.]
[* Thirteen years later, in 1573, Gabriel de Avila, one of the alcaldes of the new town of Caracas, renewed the working of these mines, which were from that time called the “Real de Minas de Nuestra Senora.” Probably this same Avila, on account of a few farms which he possessed in the mountains adjacent to La Guayra and Caracas, has occasioned the Cumbre to receive the name of Montana de Avila. This name has subsequently been applied erroneously to the Silla, and to all the chain which extends towards cape Codera.]
We have yet to mention a third point to which the attention of the Conquistadores was called by indications of mines, so early as the end of the sixteenth century. In following the valley of Caracas eastward beyond Caurimare, on the road to Caucagua, we reach a mountainous and woody country, where a great quantity of charcoal is now made, and which anciently bore the name of the Province of Los Mariches. In these eastern mountains of Venezuela, the gneiss passes into the state of talc. It contains, as at Salzburg, lodes of auriferous quartz. The works anciently begun in those mines have often been abandoned and resumed.
The mines of Caracas were forgotten during more than a hundred years. But at a period comparatively recent, about the end of the last century, an Intendant of Venezuela, Don Jose Avalo, again fell into the illusions which had flattered the cupidity of the Conquistadores. He fancied that all the mountains near the capital contained great metallic riches. Some Mexican miners were engaged, and their operations were directed to the ravine of Tipe, and the ancient mines of Baruta to the south of Caracas, where the Indians gather even now some little gold-washings. But the zeal which had prompted the enterprise soon diminished, and after much useless expense, the working of the mines of Caracas was totally abandoned. A small quantity of auriferous pyrites, sulphuretted silver, and a little native gold, were found; but these were only feeble indications; and in a country where labour is extremely dear, there was no inducement to pursue works so little productive.
We visited the ravine of Tipe, situated in that part of the valley which opens in the direction of Cabo Blanco. Proceeding from Caracas, we traverse, in the direction of the great barracks of San Carlos, a barren and rocky soil. Only a very few plants of Argemone mexicana are to be found. The gneiss appears everywhere above ground. We might have fancied ourselves on the table-land of Freiberg. We crossed first the little rivulet of Agua Salud, a limpid stream, which has no mineral taste, and then the Rio Garaguata. The road is commanded on the right by the Cerro de Avila and the Cumbre; and on the left, by the mountains of Aguas Negras. This defile is very interesting in a geological point of view. At this spot the valley of Caracas communicates, by the valleys of Tacagua and of Tipe, with the coast near Catia. A ridge of rock, the summit of which is forty toises above the bottom of the valley of Caracas, and more than three hundred toises above the valley of Tacagua, divides the waters which flow into the Rio Guayra and towards Cabo Blanco. On this point of division, at the entrance of the branch, the view is highly pleasing. The climate changes as we descend westward. In the valley of Tacagua we found some new habitations, and also conucos of maize and plantains. A very extensive plantation of tuna, or cactus, stamps this barren country with a peculiar character. The cactuses reach the height of fifteen feet, and grow in the form of candelabra, like the euphorbia of Africa. They are cultivated for the purpose of selling their refreshing fruits in the market of Caracas. The variety which has no thorns is called, strangely enough, in the colonies, tuna de Espana (Spanish cactus). We measured, at the same place, magueys or agaves, the long stems of which, laden with flowers, were forty-four feet high. However common this plant is become in the south of Europe, the native of a northern climate is never weary of admiring the rapid development of a liliaceous plant, which contains at once a sweet juice and astringent and caustic liquids, employed to cauterize wounds.
We found several veins of quartz in the valley of Tipe visible above the soil. They contained pyrites, carbonated iron-ore, traces of sulphuretted silver (glasserz), and grey copper-ore (fahlerz). The works which had been undertaken, either for extracting the ore, or exploring the nature of its bed, appeared to be very superficial. The earth falling in had filled up those excavations, and we could not judge of the richness of the lode. Notwithstanding the expense incurred under the intendancy of Don Jose Avalo, the great question whether the province of Venezuela contains mines rich enough to be worked, is yet problematical. Though in countries where hands are wanting, the culture of the soil demands unquestionably the first care of the government, yet the example of New Spain sufficiently proves that mining is not always unfavourable to the progress of agriculture. The best-cultivated Mexican lands, those which remind the traveller of the most beautiful districts of France and the south of Germany, extend from Silao towards the Villa of Leon: they are in the neighbourhood of the mines of Guanaxuato, which alone furnish a sixth part of all the silver of the New World.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10