The chain of mountains, bordering the lake of Tacarigua towards the south, forms in some sort the northern shore of the great basin of the Llanos or savannahs of Caracas. To descend from the valleys of Aragua into these savannahs, it is necessary to cross the mountains of Guigue and of Tucutunemo. From a peopled country embellished by cultivation, we plunge into a vast solitude. Accustomed to the aspect of rocks, and to the shade of valleys, the traveller beholds with astonishment these savannahs without trees, these immense plains, which seem to ascend to the horizon.
Before I trace the scenery of the Llanos, or of the region of pasturage, I will briefly describe the road we took from Nueva Valencia, by Villa de Cura and San Juan, to the little village of Ortiz, at the entrance of the steppes. We left the valleys of Aragua on the 6th of March before sunrise. We passed over a plain richly cultivated, keeping along the south-west side of the lake of Valencia, and crossing the ground left uncovered by the waters of the lake. We were never weary of admiring the fertility of the soil, covered with calabashes, water-melons, and plantains. The rising of the sun was announced by the distant noise of the howling monkeys. Approaching a group of trees, which rise in the midst of the plain, between those parts which were anciently the islets of Don Pedro and La Negra, we saw numerous bands of araguatos moving as in procession and very slowly, from one tree to another. A male was followed by a great number of females; several of the latter carrying their young on their shoulders. The howling monkeys, which live in society in different parts of America, everywhere resemble each other in their manners, though the species are not always the same. The uniformity with which the araguatos* perform their movements is extremely striking. Whenever the branches of neighbouring trees do not touch each other, the male who leads the party suspends himself by the callous and prehensile part of his tail; and, letting fall the rest of his body, swings himself till in one of his oscillations he reaches the neighbouring branch. The whole file performs the same movements on the same spot. It is almost superfluous to add how dubious is the assertion of Ulloa, and so many otherwise well-informed travellers, according to whom, the marimondos,* the araguatos, and other monkeys with a prehensile tail, form a sort of chain, in order to reach the opposite side of a river.* We had opportunities, during five years, of observing thousands of these animals; and for this very reason we place no confidence in statements possibly invented by the Europeans themselves, though repeated by the Indians of the Missions, as if they had been transmitted to them by their fathers. Man, the most remote from civilization, enjoys the astonishment he excites in recounting the marvels of his country. He says he has seen what he imagines may have been seen by others. Every savage is a hunter, and the stories of hunters borrow from the imagination in proportion as the animals, of which they boast the artifices, are endowed with a high degree of intelligence. Hence arise the fictions of which foxes, monkeys, crows, and the condor of the Andes, have been the subjects in both hemispheres.
[* Simia ursina.]
[* Simia belzebuth.]
[* Ulloa has not hesitated to represent in an engraving this extraordinary feat of the monkeys with a prehensile tail. — See Viage a la America Meridional, Madrid 1748.]
The araguatos are accused of sometimes abandoning their young, that they may be lighter for flight when pursued by the Indian hunters. It is said that mothers have been seen removing their young from their shoulders, and throwing them down to the foot of the tree. I am inclined to believe that a movement merely accidental has been mistaken for one premeditated. The Indians have a dislike and a predilection for certain races of monkeys; they love the viuditas, the titis, and generally all the little sagoins; while the araguatos, on account of their mournful aspect, and their uniform howling, are at once detested and abused. In reflecting on the causes that may facilitate the propagation of sound in the air during the night, I thought it important to determine with precision the distance at which, especially in damp and stormy weather, the howling of a band of araguatos is heard. I believe I obtained proof of its being distinguished at eight hundred toises distance. The monkeys which are furnished with four hands cannot make excursions in the Llanos; and it is easy, amidst vast plains covered with grass, to recognize a solitary group of trees, whence the noise proceeds, and which is inhabited by howling monkeys. Now, by approaching or withdrawing from this group of trees, the maximum of the distance may be measured, at which the howling is heard. These distances appeared to me sometimes one-third greater during the night, especially when the weather was cloudy, very hot, and humid.
The Indians pretend that when the araguatos fill the forests with their howling, there is always one that chaunts as leader of the chorus. The observation is pretty accurate. During a long interval one solitary and strong voice is generally distinguished, till its place is taken by another voice of a different pitch. We may observe from time to time the same instinct of imitation among frogs, and almost all animals which live together and exert their voices in union. The Missionaries further assert, that, when a female among the araguatos is on the point of bringing forth, the choir suspends its howlings till the moment of the birth of the young. I could not myself judge of the accuracy of this assertion; but I do not believe it to be entirely unfounded. I have observed that, when an extraordinary incident, the moans for instance of a wounded araguato, fixed the attention of the band, the howlings were for some minutes suspended. Our guides assured us gravely, that, to cure an asthma, it is sufficient to drink out of the bony drum of the hyoidal bone of the araguato. This animal having so extraordinary a volume of voice, it is supposed that its larynx must necessarily impart to the water poured into it the virtue of curing affections of the lungs. Such is the science of the vulgar, which sometimes resembles that of the ancients.
We passed the night at the village of Guigue, the latitude of which I found by observations of Canopus to be 10° 4′ 11″. The village, surrounded with the richest cultivation, is only a thousand toises distant from the lake of Tacarigua. We lodged with an old sergeant, a native of Murcia, a man of a very original character. To prove to us that he had studied among the Jesuits, he recited the history of the creation of the world in Latin. He knew the names of Augustus, Tiberius, and Diocletian; and while enjoying the agreeable coolness of the nights in an enclosure planted with bananas, he employed himself in reading all that related to the courts of the Roman emperors. He inquired of us with earnestness for a remedy for the gout, from which he suffered severely. “I know,” said he, “a Zambo of Valencia, a famous curioso, who could cure me; but the Zambo would expect to be treated with attentions which I cannot pay to a man of his colour, and I prefer remaining as I am.”
On leaving Guigue we began to ascend the chain of mountains, extending on the south of the lake towards Guacimo and La Palma. From the top of a table-land, at three hundred and twenty toises of elevation, we saw for the last time the valleys of Aragua. The gneiss appeared uncovered, presenting the same direction of strata, and the same dip towards the north-west. Veins of quartz, that traverse the gneiss, are auriferous; and hence the neighbouring ravine bears the name of Quebrada del Oro. We heard with surprise at every step the name of “ravine of gold,” in a country where only one single mine of copper is wrought. We travelled five leagues to the village of Maria Magdalena, and two leagues more to the Villa de Cura. It was Sunday, and at the village of Maria Magdalena the inhabitants were assembled before the church. They wanted to force our muleteers to stop and hear mass. We resolved to remain; but, after a long altercation, the muleteers pursued their way. I may observe, that this is the only dispute in which we became engaged from such a cause. Very erroneous ideas are formed in Europe of the intolerance, and even of the religious fervour of the Spanish colonists.
San Luis de Cura, or, as it is commonly called, the Villa de Cura, lies in a very barren valley, running north-west and south-east, and elevated, according to my barometrical observations, two hundred and sixty-six toises above the level of the ocean. The country, with the exception of some fruit-trees, is almost destitute of vegetation. The dryness of the plateau is the greater, because (and this circumstance is rather extraordinary in a country of primitive rocks) several rivers lose themselves in crevices in the ground. The Rio de Las Minas, north of the Villa de Cura, is lost in a rock, again appears, and then is ingulphed anew without reaching the lake of Valencia, towards which it flows. Cura resembles a village more than a town. We lodged with a family who had excited the resentment of government during the revolution at Caracas in 1797. One of the sons, after having languished in a dungeon, had been sent to the Havannah, to be imprisoned in a strong fortress. With what joy his mother heard that after our return from the Orinoco, we should visit the Havannah! She entrusted me with five piastres, “the whole fruit of her savings.” I earnestly wished to return them to her; but I feared to wound her delicacy, and give pain to a mother, who felt a pleasure in the privations she imposed on herself.
All the society of the town was assembled in the evening, to admire in a magic lantern views of the great capitals of Europe. We were shown the palace of the Tuileries, and the statue of the Elector at Berlin.
An apothecary who had been ruined by an unhappy propensity for working mines, accompanied us in our excursion to the Serro de Chacao, very rich in auriferous pyrites. We continued to descend the southern declivity of the Cordillera of the coast, in which the plains of Aragua form a longitudinal valley. We passed a part of the night of the 11th of March at the village of San Juan, remarkable for its thermal waters, and the singular form of two neighbouring mountains, called the Morros of San Juan. They form slender peaks, which rise from a wall of rocks with a very extensive base. The wall is perpendicular, and resembles the Devil’s Wall, which surrounds a part of the group of mountains in the Hartz.* These peaks, when seen from afar in the Llanos, strike the imagination of the inhabitants of the plain, who are not accustomed to the least unequal ground, and the height of the peaks is singularly exaggerated by them. They were described to us as being in the middle of the steppes (which they in reality bound on the north) far beyond a range of hills called La Galera. Judging from angles taken at the distance of two miles, these hills are scarcely more than a hundred and fifty-six toises higher than the village of San Juan, and three hundred and fifty toises above the level of the Llanos. The thermal waters glide out at the foot of these hills, which are formed of transition-limestone. The waters are impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen, like those of Mariara, and form a little pool or lagoon, in which the thermometer rose only to 31.3°. I found, on the night of the 9th of March, by very satisfactory observations of the stars, the latitude of Villa de Cura to be 10° 2′ 47″.
[* Die Teufels Mauer near Wernigerode in Germany.]
The Villa de Cura is celebrated in the country for the miracles of an image of the Virgin, known by the name of Nuestra Senora de los Valencianos. This image was found in a ravine by an Indian, about the middle of the eighteenth century, when it became the object of a contest between the towns of Cura and San Sebastian de los Reyes. The vicars of the latter town asserting that the Virgin had made her first appearance on the territory of their parish, the Bishop of Caracas, in order to put an end to the scandal of this long dispute, caused the image to be placed in the archives of his bishopric, and kept it thirty years under seal. It was not restored to the inhabitants of Cura till 1802.
After having bathed in the cool and limpid water of the little river of San Juan, the bottom of which is of basaltic grunstein, we continued our journey at two in the morning, by Ortiz and Parapara, to the Mesa de Paja. The road to the Llanos being at that time infested with robbers, several travellers joined us so as to form a sort of caravan. We proceeded down hill during six or seven hours; and we skirted the Cerro de Flores, near which the road turns off, leading to the great village of San Jose de Tisnao. We passed the farms of Luque and Juncalito, to enter the valleys which, on account of the bad road, and the blue colour of the slates, bear the names of Malpaso and Piedras Azules.
This ground is the ancient shore of the great basin of the steppes, and it furnishes an interesting subject of research to the geologist. We there find trap-formations, probably more recent than the veins of diabasis near the town of Caracas, which seem to belong to the rocks of igneous formation. They are not long and narrow streams as in Auvergne, but large sheets, streams that appear like real strata. The lithoid masses here cover, if we may use the expression, the shore of the ancient interior sea; everything subject to destruction, such as the liquid dejections, and the scoriae filled with bubbles, has been carried away. These phenomena are particularly worthy of attention on account of the close affinities observed between the phonolites and the amygdaloids, which, containing pyroxenes and hornblende-grunsteins, form strata in a transition-slate. The better to convey an idea of the whole situation and superposition of these rocks, we will name the formations as they occur in a profile drawn from north to south.
We find at first, in the Sierra de Mariara, which belongs to the northern branch of the Cordillera of the coast, a coarse-grained granite; then, in the valleys of Aragua, on the borders of the lake, and in the islands, it contains, as in the southern branch of the chain of the coast, gneiss and mica-slate. These last-named rocks are auriferous in the Quebrada del Oro, near Guigue; and between Villa de Cura and the Morros de San Juan, in the mountain of Chacao. The gold is contained in pyrites, which are found sometimes disseminated almost imperceptibly in the whole mass of the gneiss,* and sometimes united in small veins of quartz. Most of the torrents that traverse the mountains bear along with them grains of gold. The poor inhabitants of Villa de Cura and San Juan have sometimes gained thirty piastres a-day by washing the sand; but most commonly, in spite of their industry, they do not in a week find particles of gold of the value of two piastres. Here, however, as in every place where native gold and auriferous pyrites are disseminated in the rock, or by the destruction of the rocks, are deposited in alluvial lands, the people conceive the most exaggerated ideas of the metallic riches of the soil. But the success of the workings, which depends less on the abundance of the ore in a vast space of land than on its accumulation in one point, has not justified these favourable prepossessions. The mountain of Chacao, bordered by the ravine of Tucutunemo, rises seven hundred feet above the village of San Juan. It is formed of gneiss, which, especially in the superior strata, passes into mica-slate. We saw the remains of an ancient mine, known by the name of Real de Santa Barbara. The works were directed to a stratum of cellular quartz,* full of polyhedric cavities, mixed with iron-ore, containing auriferous pyrites and small grains of gold, sometimes, it is said, visible to the naked eye. It appears that the gneiss of the Cerro de Chacao also furnishes another metallic deposit, a mixture of copper and silver-ores. This deposit has been the object of works attempted with great ignorance by some Mexican miners under the superintendance of M. Avalo. The gallery* directed to the north-east, is only twenty-five toises long. We there found some fine specimens of blue carbonated copper mingled with sulphate of barytes and quartz; but we could not ourselves judge whether the ore contained any argentiferous fahlerz, and whether it occurred in a stratum, or, as the apothecary who was our guide asserted, in real veins. This much is certain, that the attempt at working the mine cost more than twelve thousand piastres in two years. It would no doubt have been more prudent to have resumed the works on the auriferous stratum of the Real de Santa Barbara.
[* The four metals, which are found disseminated in the granite rocks, as if they were of contemporaneous formation, are gold, tin, titanium, and cobalt.]
[* This stratum of quartz, and the gneiss in which it is contained, lie hor 8 of the Freyberg compass, and dip 70° to the south-west. At a hundred toises distance from the auriferous quartz, the gneiss resumes its ordinary situation, hor 3 to 4, with 60° dip to the north-west. A few strata of gneiss abound in silvery mica, and contain, instead of garnets, an immense quantity of small octohedrons of pyrites. This silvery gneiss resembles that of the famous mine of Himmelsfurst, in Saxony.]
[* La Cueva de los Mexicanos.]
The zone of gneiss just mentioned is, in the coast-chain from the sea to the Villa de Cura, ten leagues broad. In this great extent of land, gneiss and mica-slate are found exclusively, and they constitute one formation.* Beyond the town of Villa de Cura and the Cerro de Chacao the aspect of the country presents greater geognostic variety. There are still eight leagues of declivity from the table-land of Cura to the entry of the Llanos; and on the southern slope of the mountains of the coast, four different formations of rock cover the gneiss. We shall first give the description of the different strata, without grouping them systematically.
[* This formation, which we shall call gneiss-mica-slate, is peculiar to the chain of the coast of Caracas. Five formations must be distinguished, as MM. von Buch and Raumer have so ably demonstrated in their excellent papers on Landeck and the Riesengebirge, namely, granite, granite-gneiss, gneiss, gneiss-mica-slate, and mica-slate. Geologists whose researches have been confined to a small tract of land, having confounded these formations which nature has separated in several countries in the most distinct manner, have admitted that the gneiss and mica-slate alternate everywhere in superimposed beds, or furnish insensible transitions from one rock to the other. These transitions and alternating superpositions take place no doubt in formations of granite-gneiss and gneiss-mica-slate; but because these phenomena are observed in one region, it does not follow that in other regions we may not find very distinct circumscribed formations of granite, gneiss, and mica-slate. The same considerations may be applied to the formations of serpentine, which are sometimes isolated, and sometimes belong to the eurite, mica-slate, and grunstein.]
On the south of the Cerro de Chacao, between the ravine of Tucutunemo and Piedras Negras, the gneiss is concealed beneath a formation of serpentine, of which the composition varies in the different superimposed strata. Sometimes it is very pure, very homogeneous, of a dusky olive-green, and of a conchoidal fracture: sometimes it is veined, mixed with bluish steatite, of an unequal fracture, and containing spangles of mica. In both these states I could not discover in it either garnets, hornblende, or diallage. Advancing farther to the south (and we always passed over this ground in that direction) the green of the serpentine grows deeper, and feldspar and hornblende are recognised in it: it is difficult to determine whether it passes into diabasis or alternates with it. There is, however, no doubt of its containing veins of copper-ore.* At the foot of this mountain two fine springs gush out from the serpentine. Near the village of San Juan, the granular diabasis appears alone uncovered, and takes a greenish black hue. The feldspar intimately mixed with the mass, may be separated into distinct crystals. The mica is very rare, and there is no quartz. The mass assumes at the surface a yellowish crust like dolerite and basalt.
[* One of these veins, on which two shafts have been sunk, was directed hor. 2.1, and dipped 80° east. The strata of the serpentine, where it is stratified with some regularity, run hor. 8, and dip almost perpendicularly. I found malachite disseminated in this serpentine, where it passes into grunstein.]
In the midst of this tract of trap-formation, the Morros of San Juan rise like two castles in ruins. They appear linked to the mornes of St. Sebastian, and to La Galera which bounds the Llanos like a rocky wall. The Morros of San Juan are formed of limestone of a crystalline texture; sometimes very compact, sometimes spongy, of a greenish-grey, shining, composed of small grains, and mixed with scattered spangles of mica. This limestone yields a strong effervescence with acids. I could not find in it any vestige of organized bodies. It contains in subordinate strata, masses of hardened clay of a blackish blue, and carburetted. These masses are fissile, very heavy, and loaded with iron; their streak is whitish, and they produce no effervescence with acids. They assume at their surface, by their decomposition in the air, a yellow colour. We seem to recognize in these argillaceous strata a tendency either to the transition-slates, or to the kieselschiefer (schistose jasper), which everywhere characterise the black transition-limestones. When in fragments, they might be taken at first sight for basalt or hornblende.* Another white limestone, compact, and containing some fragments of shells, backs the Morros de San Juan. I could not see the line of junction of these two limestones, or that of the calcareous formation and the diabasis.
[* I had an opportunity of examining again, with the greatest care, the rocks of San Juan, of Chacao, of Parapara, and of Calabozo, during my stay at Mexico, where, conjointly with M. del Rio, one of the most distinguished pupils of the school of Freyberg, I formed a geognostical collection for the Colegio de Mineria of New Spain.]
The transverse valley which descends from Piedras Negras and the village of San Juan, towards Parapara and the Llanos, is filled with trap-rocks, displaying close affinity with the formation of green slates, which they cover. Sometimes we seem to see serpentine, sometimes grunstein, and sometimes dolerite and basalt. The arrangement of these problematical masses is not less extraordinary. Between San Juan, Malpaso, and Piedras Azules, they form strata parallel to each other; and dipping regularly northward at an angle of 40 or 50°, they cover even the green slates in concordant stratification. Lower down, towards Parapara and Ortiz, where the amygdaloids and phonolites are connected with the grunstein, everything assumes a basaltic aspect. Balls of grunstein heaped one upon another, form those rounded cones, which are found so frequently in the Mittelgebirge in Bohemia, near Bilin, the country of phonolites. The following is the result of my partial observations.
The grunstein, which at first alternated with strata of serpentine, or was connected with that rock by insensible transitions, is seen alone, sometimes in strata considerably inclined, and sometimes in balls with concentric strata, imbedded in strata of the same substance. It lies, near Malpaso, on green slates, steatitic, mingled with hornblende, destitute of mica and grains of quartz, dipping, like the grunsteins, 45° toward the north, and directed, like them, 75° north-west.
A great sterility prevails where these green slates predominate, no doubt on account of the magnesia they contain, which (as is proved by the magnesian-limestone of England*) is very hurtful to vegetation. The dip of the green slates continues the same; but by degrees the direction of their strata becomes parallel to the general direction of the primitive rocks of the chain of the coast. At Piedras Azules these slates, mingled with hornblende, cover in concordant stratification a blackish-blue slate, very fissile, and traversed by small veins of quartz. The green slates include some strata of grunstein, and even contain balls of that substance. I nowhere saw the green slates alternate with the black slates of the ravine of Piedras Azules: at the line of junction these two slates appear rather to pass one into the other, the green slates becoming of a pearl-grey in proportion as they lose their hornblende.
[* Magnesian limestone is of a straw-yellow colour, and contains madrepores: it lies beneath red marl, or muriatiferous red sandstone.]
Farther south, towards Parapara and Ortiz, the slates disappear. They are concealed under a trap-formation more varied in its aspect. The soil becomes more fertile; the rocky masses alternate with strata of clay, which appear to be produced by the decomposition of the grunsteins, the amygdaloids, and the phonolites.
The grunstein, which farther north was less granulous, and passed into serpentine, here assumes a very different character. It contains balls of mandelstein, or amygdaloid, eight or ten inches in diameter. These balls, sometimes a little flattened, are divided into concentric layers: this is the effect of decomposition. Their nucleus is almost as hard as basalt, and they are intermingled with little cavities, owing to bubbles of gas, filled with green earth, and crystals of pyroxene and mesotype. Their basis is greyish blue, rather soft, and showing small white spots which, by the regular form they present, I should conceive to be decomposed feldspar. M. von Buch examined with a powerful lens the species we brought. He discovered that each crystal of pyroxene, enveloped in the earthy mass, is separated from it by fissures parallel to the sides of the crystal. These fissures seem to be the effect of a contraction which the mass or basis of the mandelstein has undergone. I sometimes saw these balls of mandelstein arranged in strata, and separated from each other by beds of grunstein of ten or fourteen inches thick; sometimes (and this situation is most common) the balls of mandelstein, two or three feet in diameter, are found in heaps, and form little mounts with rounded summits, like spheroidal basalt. The clay which separates these amygdaloid concretions arises from the decomposition of their crust. They acquire by the contact of the air a very thin coating of yellow ochre.
South-west of the village of Parapara rises the little Cerro de Flores, which is discerned from afar in the steppes. Almost at its foot, and in the midst of the mandelstein tract we have just been describing, a porphyritic phonolite, a mass of compact feldspar of a greenish grey, or mountain-green, containing long crystals of vitreous feldspar, appears exposed. It is the real porphyrschiefer of Werner; and it would be difficult to distinguish, in a collection of stones, the phonolite of Parapara from that of Bilin, in Bohemia. It does not, however, here form rocks in grotesque shapes, but little hills covered with tabular blocks, large plates extremely sonorous, translucid on the edges, and wounding the hands when broken.
Such are the successions of rocks, which I described on the spot as I progressively found them, from the lake of Tacarigua to the entrance of the steppes. Few places in Europe display a geological arrangement so well worthy of being studied. We saw there in succession six formations: namely, mica-slate-gneiss, green transition-slate, black transition-limestone, serpentine and grunstein, amygdaloid (with pyroxene), and phonolite.
I must observe, in the first place, that the substance just described under the name of grunstein, in every respect resembles that which forms layers in the mica-slate of Cabo Blanco, and veins near Caracas. It differs only by containing neither quartz, garnets, nor pyrites. The close relations we observed near the Cerro de Chacao, between the grunstein and the serpentine, cannot surprise these geologists who have studied the mountains of Franconia and Silesia. Near Zobtenberg* a serpentine rock alternates also with gabbro. In the district of Glatz the fissures of the gabbro are filled with a steatite of a greenish white colour, and the rock which was long thought to belong to the grunsteins* is a close mixture of feldspar and diallage.
[* Between Tampadel and Silsterwiz.]
[* In the mountains of Bareuth, in Franconia, so abundant in grunstein and serpentine, these formations are not connected together. The serpentine there belongs rather to the schistose hornblende (hornblendschiefer), as in the island of Cuba. Near Guanaxuato, in Mexico, I saw it alternating with syenite. These phenomena of serpentine rocks forming layers in eurite (weisstein), in schistose hornblende, in gabbro, and in syenite, are so much the more remarkable, as the great mass of garnetiferous serpentines, which are found in the mountains of gneiss and mica-slate, form little distinct mounts, masses not covered by other formations. It is not the same in the mixtures of serpentine and granulated limestone.]
The grunsteins of Tucutunemo, which we consider as constituting the same formation as the serpentine rock, contain veins of malachite and copper-pyrites. These same metalliferous combinations are found also in Franconia, in the grunsteins of the mountains of Steben and Lichtenberg. With respect to the green slates of Malpaso, which have all the characters of transition-slates, they are identical with those which M. von Buch has so well described, near Schonau, in Silesia. They contain beds of grunstein, like the slates of the mountains of Steben just mentioned.* The black limestone of the Morros de San Juan is also a transition-limestone. It forms perhaps a subordinate stratum in the slates of Malpaso. This situation would be analogous to what is observed in several parts of Switzerland.* The slaty zone, the centre of which is the ravine of Piedras Azules, appears divided into two formations. On some points we think we observe one passing into the other.
[* On advancing into the adit for draining the Friedrich–Wilhelmstollen mine, which I caused to be begun in 1794, near Steben, and which is yet only 340 toises long, there have successively been found, in the transition-slate subordinate strata of pure and porphyritic grunstein, strata, of Lydian stone and ampelite (alaunschiefer), and strata of fine-grained grunstein. All these strata characterise the transition-slates.]
[* For Instance, at the Glyshorn, at the Col de Balme, etc.]
The grunsteins, which begin again to the south of these slates, appear to me to differ little from those found north of the ravine of Piedras Azules. I did not see there any pyroxene; but on the very spot I recognized a number of crystals in the amygdaloid, which appears so strongly linked to the grunstein that they alternate several times.
The geologist may consider his task as fulfilled when he has traced with accuracy the positions of the diverse strata; and has pointed out the analogies traceable between these positions and what has been observed in other countries. But how can he avoid being tempted to go back to the origin of so many different substances, and to inquire how far the dominion of fire has extended in the mountains that bound the great basin of the steppes? In researches on the position of rocks we have generally to complain of not sufficiently perceiving the connection between the masses, which we believe to be superimposed on one another. Here the difficulty seems to arise from the too intimate and too numerous relations observed in rocks that are thought not to belong to the same family.
The phonolite (or leucostine compacte of Cordier) is pretty generally regarded by all who have at once examined burning and extinguished volcanoes, as a flow of lithoid lava. I found no real basalt or dolerite; but the presence of pyroxene in the amygdaloid of Parapara leaves little doubt of the igneous origin of those spheroidal masses, fissured, and full of cavities. Balls of this amygdaloid are enclosed in the grunstein; and this grunstein alternates on one side with a green slate, on the other with the serpentine of Tucutunemo. Here, then, is a connexion sufficiently close established between the phonolites and the green slates, between the pyroxenic amygdaloids and the serpentines containing copper-ores, between volcanic substances and others that are included under the vague name of transition-traps. All these masses are destitute of quartz like the real trap-porphyries, or volcanic trachytes. This phenomenon is the more remarkable, as the grunsteins which are called primitive almost always contain quartz in Europe. The most general dip of the slates of Piedras Azules, of the grunsteins of Parapara, and of the pyroxenic amygdaloids embedded in strata of grunstein, does not follow the slope of the ground from north to south, but is pretty regular towards the north. The strata incline towards the chain of the coast, as substances which had not been in fusion might be supposed to do. Can we admit that so many alternating rocks, imbedded one in the other, have a common origin? The nature of the phonolites, which are lithoid lavas with a feldspar basis, and the nature of the green slates intermixed with hornblende, oppose this opinion. In this state of things we may choose between two solutions of the problem in question. In one of these solutions the phonolite of the Cerro de Flores is to be regarded as the sole volcanic production of the tract; and we are forced to unite the pyroxenic amygdaloids with the rest of the grunsteins, in one single formation, that which is so common in the transition-mountains of Europe, considered hitherto as not volcanic. In the other solution of the problem, the masses of phonolite, amygdaloid, and grunstein, which are found in the south of the ravine of Piedras Azules, are separated from the grunsteins and serpentine rocks that cover the declivity of the mountains north of the ravine. In the present state of knowledge I find difficulties almost equally great in adopting either of these suppositions; but I have no doubt that, when the real grunsteins (not the hornblende-grunsteins) contained in the gneiss and mica-slates, shall have been more attentively examined in other places; when the basalts (with pyroxene) forming strata in primitive rocks* and the diabases and amygdaloids in the transition mountains, shall have been carefully studied; when the texture of the masses shall have been subjected to a kind of mechanical analysis, and the hornblendes better distinguished from the pyroxenes,* and the grunsteins from the dolerites; a great number of phenomena which now appear isolated and obscure, will be ranged under general laws. The phonolite and other rocks of igneous origin at Parapara are so much the more interesting, as they indicate ancient eruptions in a granite zone; as they belong to the shore of the basin of the steppes, as the basalts of Harutsh belong to the shore of the desert of Sahara; and lastly, as they are the only rocks of the kind we observed in the mountains of the Capitania–General of Caracas, which are also destitute of trachytes or trap-porphyry, basalts, and volcanic productions.*
[* For instance, at Krobsdorf, in Silesia, a stratum of basalt has been recognized in the mica-slate by two celebrated geologists, MM. von Buch and Raumer. (Vom Granite des Riesengebirges, 1813.)]
[* The grunsteins or diabases of the Fichtelgebirge, in Franconia, which belong to the transition-slate, sometimes contain pyroxenes.]
[* From the Rio Negro to the coasts of Cumana and Caracas, to the east of the mountains of Merida, which we did not visit.]
The southern declivity of the western chain is tolerably steep; the steppes, according to my barometrical measurements, being a thousand feet lower than the bottom of the basin of Aragua. From the extensive table-land of the Villa de Cura we descended towards the banks of the Rio Tucutunemo, which has hollowed for itself, in a serpentine rock, a longitudinal valley running from east to west, at nearly the same level as La Victoria. A transverse valley, lying generally north and south, led us into the Llanos, by the villages of Parapara and Ortiz. It grows very narrow in several parts. Basins, the bottoms of which are perfectly horizontal, communicate together by narrow passes with steep declivities. They were, no doubt, formerly small lakes, which, owing to the accumulation of the waters, or some more violent catastrophe, have broken down the dykes by which they were separated. This phenomenon is found in both continents, wherever we examine the longitudinal valleys forming the passages of the Andes, the Alps,* or the Pyrenees. It is probable, that the irruption of the waters towards the Llanos have given, by extraordinary rents, the form of ruins to the Morros of San Juan and of San Sebastian. The volcanic tract of Parapara and Ortis is now only 30 or 40 toises above the Llanos. The eruptions consequently took place at the lowest point of the granitic chain.
[* For example, the road from the valley of Ursern to the Hospice of St. Gothard, and thence to Airolo.]
In the Mesa de Paja, in the ninth degree of latitude, we entered the basin of the Llanos. The sun was almost at its zenith; the earth, wherever it appeared sterile and destitute of vegetation, was at the temperature of 48 or 50°.* Not a breath of air was felt at the height at which we were on our mules; yet, in the midst of this apparent calm, whirls of dust incessantly arose, driven on by those small currents of air which glide only over the surface of the ground, and are occasioned by the difference of temperature between the naked sand and the spots covered with grass. These sand-winds augment the suffocating heat of the air. Every grain of quartz, hotter than the surrounding air, radiates heat in every direction; and it is difficult to observe the temperature of the atmosphere, owing to these particles of sand striking against the bulb of the thermometer. All around us the plains seemed to ascend to the sky, and the vast and profound solitude appeared like an ocean covered with sea-weed. According to the unequal mass of vapours diffused through the atmosphere, and the variable decrement in the temperature of the different strata of air, the horizon in some parts was clear and distinct; in other parts it appeared undulating, sinuous, and as if striped. The earth there was confounded with the sky. Through the dry mist and strata of vapour the trunks of palm-trees were seen from afar, stripped of their foliage and their verdant summits, and looking like the masts of a ship descried upon the horizon.
[* A thermometer, placed in the sand, rose to 38.4 and 40° Reaumur.]
There is something awful, as well as sad and gloomy, in the uniform aspect of these steppes. Everything seems motionless; scarcely does a small cloud, passing across the zenith, and denoting the approach of the rainy season, cast its shadow on the earth. I know not whether the first aspect of the Llanos excite less astonishment than that of the chain of the Andes. Mountainous countries, whatever may be the absolute elevation of the highest summits, have an analogous physiognomy; but we accustom ourselves with difficulty to the view of the Llanos of Venezuela and Casanare, to that of the Pampas of Buenos Ayres and of Chaco, which recal to mind incessantly, and during journeys of twenty or thirty days, the smooth surface of the ocean. I had seen the plains or llanos of La Mancha in Spain, and the heaths (ericeta) that extend from the extremity of Jutland, through Luneburg and Westphalia, to Belgium. These last are really steppes, and, during several ages, only small portions of them have yielded to cultivation; but the plains of the west and north of Europe present only a feeble image of the immense llanos of South America. It is in the south-east of our continent, in Hungary, between the Danube and the Theiss; in Russia, between the Borysthenes, the Don, and the Volga, that we find those vast pastures, which seem to have been levelled by a long abode of the waters, and which meet the horizon on every side. The plains of Hungary, where I traversed them on the frontiers of Germany, between Presburg and Oedenburg, strike the imagination of the traveller by the constant mirage; but their greatest extent is more to the east, between Czegled, Debreczin, and Tittel. There they present the appearance of a vast ocean of verdure, having only two outlets, one near Gran and Waitzen, the other between Belgrade and Widdin.
The different quarters of the world have been supposed to be characterized by the remark, that Europe has its heaths, Asia its steppes, Africa its deserts, and America its savannahs; but by this distinction, contrasts are established that are not founded either on the nature of things, or the genius of languages. The existence of a heath always supposes an association of plants of the family of ericae; the steppes of Asia are not everywhere covered with saline plants; the savannahs of Venezuela furnish not only the gramina, but with them small herbaceous mimosas, legumina, and other dicotyledonous plants. The plains of Songaria, those which extend between the Don and the Volga, and the puszta of Hungary, are real savannahs, pasturages abounding in grasses;* while the savannahs to the east and west of the Rocky Mountains and of New Mexico produce chenopodiums containing carbonate and muriate of soda. Asia has real deserts destitute of vegetation, in Arabia, in Gobi, and in Persia. Since we have become better acquainted with the deserts in the interior of Africa, so long and so vaguely confounded together under the name of desert of Sahara (Zahra); it has been observed, that in this continent, towards the east, savannahs and pastures are found, as in Arabia, situated in the midst of naked and barren tracts. It is these deserts, covered with gravel and destitute of plants, which are almost entirely wanting in the New World. I saw them only in that part of Peru, between Amotape and Coquimbo, on the shores of the Pacific. These are called by the Spaniards, not llanos, but the desiertos of Sechura and Atacamez. This solitary tract is not broad, but it is four hundred and forty leagues long. The rock pierces everywhere through the quicksands. No drop of rain ever falls on it; and, like the desert of Sahara, north of Timbuctoo, the Peruvian desert affords, near Huaura, a rich mine of native salt. Everywhere else, in the New World, there are plains desert because not inhabited, but no real deserts.*
[* These vast steppes of Hungary are elevated only thirty or forty toises above the level of the sea, which is more than eighty leagues distant from them. See Wahlenberg’s Flora Carpathianica. Baron Podmanitzky, an Hungarian nobleman, highly distinguished for his knowledge of the physical sciences, caused the level of these plains to be taken, to facilitate the formation of a canal then projected between the Danube and the Theiss. He found the line of division, or the convexity of the ground, which slopes on each side towards the beds of the two rivers, to be only thirteen toises above the height of the Danube. The widely extended pastures, which reach in every direction to the horizon, are called in the country, Puszta, and, over a distance of many leagues, are without any human habitation. Plains of this kind, intermingled with marshes and sandy tracts, are found on the western side of the Theiss, between Czegled, Csaba, Komloss, and Szarwass; and on the eastern side, between Debreczin, Karczag, and Szoboszlo. The area of these plains of the interior basin of Hungary has been estimated, by a pretty accurate calculation, to be between two thousand five hundred and three thousand square leagues (twenty to a degree). Between Czegled, Szolnok, and Ketskemet, the plain resembles a sea of sand.]
[* We are almost tempted, however, to give the name of desert to that vast and sandy table-land of Brazil, the Campos dos Parecis, which gives birth to the rivers Tapajos, Paraguay, and Madeira, and which reaches the summit of the highest mountains. Almost destitute of vegetation, it reminds us of Gobi, in Mongolia.]
The same phenomena are repeated in the most distant regions; and, instead of designating those vast treeless plains in accordance with the nature of the plants they produce, it seems natural to class them into deserts, steppes, or savannahs; into bare lands without any appearance of vegetation, and lands covered with gramina or small plants of the dicotyledonous tribe. The savannahs of America, especially those of the temperate zone, have in many works been designated by the French term prairies; but this appears to me little applicable to pastures which are often very dry, though covered with grass of four or five feet in height. The Llanos and the Pampas of South America are really steppes. They are covered with beautiful verdure in the rainy season, but in the time of great drought they assume the aspect of a desert. The grass is then reduced to powder; the earth cracks; the alligators and the great serpents remain buried in the dried mud, till awakened from their long lethargy by the first showers of spring. These phenomena are observed on barren tracts of fifty or sixty leagues in length, wherever the savannahs are not traversed by rivers; for on the borders of rivulets, and around little pools of stagnant water, the traveller finds at certain distances, even during the period of the great droughts, thickets of mauritia, a palm, the leaves of which spread out like a fan, and preserve a brilliant verdure.
The steppes of Asia are all beyond the tropics, and form very elevated table-lands. America also has savannahs of considerable extent on the backs of the mountains of Mexico, Peru, and Quito; but its most extensive steppes, the Llanos of Cumana, Caracas, and Meta, are little raised above the level of the ocean, and all belong to the equinoctial zone. These circumstances give them a peculiar character. They have not, like the steppes of southern Asia, and the deserts of Persia, those lakes without issue, those small systems of rivers which lose themselves either in the sands, or by subterranean filtrations. The Llanos of America incline to the east and south; and their running waters are branches of the Orinoco.
The course of these rivers once led me to believe, that the plains formed table-lands, raised at least from one hundred to one hundred and fifty toises above the level of the ocean. I supposed that the deserts of interior Africa were also at a considerable height; and that they rose one above another as in tiers, from the coast to the interior of the continent. No barometer has yet been carried into the Sahara. With respect to the Llanos of America, I found by barometric heights observed at Calabozo, at the Villa del Pao, and at the mouth of the Meta, that their height is only forty or fifty toises above the level of the sea. The fall of the rivers is extremely gentle, often nearly imperceptible; and therefore the least wind, or the swelling of the Orinoco, causes a reflux in those rivers that flow into it. The Indians believe themselves to be descending during a whole day, when navigating from the mouths of these rivers to their sources. The descending waters are separated from those that flow back by a great body of stagnant water, in which, the equilibrium being disturbed, whirlpools are formed very dangerous for boats.
The chief characteristic of the savannahs or steppes of South America is the absolute want of hills and inequalities — the perfect level of every part of the soil. Accordingly the Spanish conquerors, who first penetrated from Coro to the banks of the Apure, did not call them deserts or savannahs, or meadows, but plains (llanos). Often within a distance of thirty square leagues there is not an eminence of a foot high. This resemblance to the surface of the sea strikes the imagination most powerfully where the plains are altogether destitute of palm-trees; and where the mountains of the shore and of the Orinoco are so distant that they cannot be seen, as in the Mesa de Pavones. A person would be tempted there to take the altitude of the sun with a quadrant, if the horizon of the land were not constantly misty on account of the variable effects of refraction. This equality of surface is still more perfect in the meridian of Calabozo, than towards the east, between Cari, La Villa del Pao, and Nueva Barcelona; but it extends without interruption from the mouths of the Orinoco to La Villa de Araure and to Ospinos, on a parallel of a hundred and eighty leagues in length; and from San Carlos to the savannahs of Caqueat, on a meridian of two hundred leagues. It particularly characterises the New Continent, as it does the low steppes of Asia, between the Borysthenes and the Volga, between the Irtish and the Obi. The deserts of central Africa, of Arabia, Syria, and Persia, Gobi, and Casna, present, on the contrary, many inequalities, ranges of hills, ravines without water, and rocks which pierce the sands.
The Llanos, however, notwithstanding the apparent uniformity of their surface, present two kinds of inequalities, which cannot escape the observation of the traveller. The first is known by the name of banks (bancos); they are in reality shoals in the basin of the steppes, fractured strata of sandstone, or compact limestone, standing four or five feet higher than the rest of the plain. These banks are sometimes three or four leagues in length; they are entirely smooth, with a horizontal surface; their existence is perceived only by examining their margins. The second species of inequality can be recognised only by geodesical or barometric levellings, or by the course of rivers. It is called a mesa or table, and is composed of small flats, or rather convex eminences, that rise insensibly to the height of a few toises. Such are, towards the east, in the province of Cumana, on the north of the Villa de la Merced and Candelaria, the Mesas of Amana, of Guanipa, and of Jonoro, the direction of which is south-west and north-east; and which, in spite of their inconsiderable elevation, divide the waters between the Orinoco and the northern coast of Terra Firma. The convexity of the savannah alone occasions this partition: we there find the dividing of the waters (divortia aquarum*), as in Poland, where, far from the Carpathian mountains, the plain itself divides the waters between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Geographers, who suppose the existence of a chain of mountains wherever there is a line of division, have not failed to mark one in the maps, at the sources of the Rio Neveri, the Unare, the Guarapiche, and the Pao. Thus the priests of Mongol race, according to ancient and superstitious custom, erect oboes, or little mounds of stone, on every point where the rivers flow in an opposite direction.
[* “C. Manlium prope jugis [Tauri] ad divortia aquarum castra posuisse.” Livy lib. 38 c. 75.]
The uniform landscape of the Llanos; the extremely small number of their inhabitants; the fatigue of travelling beneath a burning sky, and an atmosphere darkened by dust; the view of that horizon, which seems for ever to fly before us; those lonely trunks of palm-trees, which have all the same aspect, and which we despair of reaching, because they are confounded with other trunks that rise by degrees on the visual horizon; all these causes combine to make the steppes appear far more extensive than they are in reality. The planters who inhabit the southern declivity of the chain of the coast see the steppes extend towards the south, as far as the eye can reach, like an ocean of verdure. They know that from the Delta of the Orinoco to the province of Varinas, and thence, by traversing the banks of the Meta, the Guaviare, and the Caguan, they can advance three hundred and eighty leagues* into the plains, first from east to west, and then from north-east to south-east beyond the Equator, to the foot of the Andes of Pasto. They know by the accounts of travellers the Pampas of Buenos Ayres, which are also Llanos covered with fine grass, destitute of trees, and filled with oxen and horses become wild. They suppose that, according to the greater part of our maps of America, this continent has only one chain of mountains, that of the Andes, which stretches from south to north; and they form a vague idea of the contiguity of all the plains from the Orinoco and the Apure to the Rio de la Plata and the Straits of Magellan.
[* This is the distance from Timbuctoo to the northern coast of Africa.]
Without stopping here to give a mineralogical description of the transverse chains which divide America from east to west, it will be sufficient to notice the general structure of a continent, the extremities of which, though situated in climates little analogous, nevertheless present several features of resemblance. In order to have an exact idea of the plains, their configuration, and their limits, we must know the chains of mountains that form their boundaries. We have already described the Cordillera of the coast, of which the highest summit is the Silla de Caraccas, and which is linked by the Paramo de las Rosas to the Nevada de Merida, and the Andes of New Grenada. We have seen that, in the tenth degree of north latitude, it stretches from Quibor and Barquesimeto as far as the point of Paria. A second chain of mountains, or rather a less elevated but much larger group, extends between the parallels of 3 and 7° from the mouths of the Guaviare and the Meta to the sources of the Orinoco, the Marony, and the Essequibo, towards French and Dutch Guiana. I call this chain the Cordillera of Parime, or of the great cataracts of the Orinoco. It may be followed for a length of two hundred and fifty leagues; but it is less a chain, than a collection of granitic mountains, separated by small plains, without being everywhere disposed in lines. The group of the mountains of Parime narrows considerably between the sources of the Orinoco and the mountains of Demerara, in the Sierras of Quimiropaca and Pacaraimo, which divide the waters between the Carony and the Rio Parime, or Rio de Aguas Blancas. This is the scene of the expeditions which were undertaken in search of El Dorado, and the great city of Manoa, the Timbuctoo of the New Continent. The Cordillera of Parime does not join the Andes of New Grenada, but is separated from them by a space eighty leagues broad. If we suppose it to have been destroyed in this space by some great revolution of the globe (which is scarcely probable) we must admit that it anciently branched off from the Andes between Santa Fe de Bogota and Pamplona. This remark serves to fix more easily in the memory of the reader the geographical position of a Cordillera till now very imperfectly known. A third chain of mountains unites in 16 and 18° south latitude (by Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the Serranias of Aguapehy, and the famous Campos dos Parecis) the Andes of Peru, to the mountains of Brazil. It is the Cordillera of Chiquitos which widens in the Capitania de Minas Geraes, and divides the rivers flowing into the Amazon from those of the Rio de la Plata,* not only in the interior of the country, in the meridian of Villa Boa, but also at a few leagues from the coast, between Rio Janeiro and Bahia.*
[* There is only a portage or carrying-place of 5322 bracas between the Guapore (a branch of the Marmore and of the Madeira), and the Rio Aguapehy (a branch of the Jaura and of the Paraguay).]
[* The Cordillera of Chiquitos and of Brazil stretches toward the south-east, in the government of the Rio Grande, beyond the latitude of 30° south.]
These three transverse chains, or rather these three groups of mountains stretching from west to east, within the limits of the torrid zone, are separated by tracts entirely level, the plains of Caracas, or of the Lower Orinoco; the plains of the Amazon and the Rio Negro; and the plains of Buenos Ayres, or of La Plata. I use the term plains, because the Lower Orinoco and the Amazon, far from flowing in a valley, form but a little furrow in the midst of a vast level. The two basins, placed at the extremities of South America, are savannahs or steppes, pasturage without trees; the intermediate basin, which receives the equatorial rains during the whole year, is almost entirely one vast forest, through which no other roads are known save the rivers. The strong vegetation which conceals the soil, renders also the uniformity of its level less perceptible; and the plains of Caracas and La Plata bear no other name. The three basins we have just described are called, in the language of the colonists, the Llanos of Varinas and of Caracas, the bosques or selvas (forests) of the Amazon, and the Pampas of Buenos Ayres. The trees not only for the most part cover the plains of the Amazon, from the Cordillera de Chiquitos, as far as that of Parime; they also crown these two chains of mountains, which rarely attain the height of the Pyrenees.* On this account, the vast plains of the Amazon, the Madeira, and the Rio Negro, are not so distinctly bounded as the Llanos of Caracas, and the Pampas of Buenos Ayres. As the region of forests comprises at once the plains and the mountains, it extends from 18° south to 7 and 8° north,* and occupies an extent of near a hundred and twenty thousand square leagues. This forest of South America, for in fact there is only one, is six times larger than France. It is known to Europeans only on the shores of a few rivers, by which it is traversed; and has its openings, the extent of which is in proportion to that of the forests. We shall soon skirt the marshy savannahs, between the Upper Orinoco, the Conorichite, and the Cassiquiare, in the latitude of 3 and 4°. There are other openings, or as they are called, clear savannahs,* in the same parallel, between the sources of the Mao and the Rio de Aguas Blancas, south of the Sierra de Pacaraima. These last savannahs, which are inhabited by Caribs, and nomad Macusis, lie near the frontiers of Dutch and French Guiana.
[* We must except the most western part of the Cordillera of Chiquitos, between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra where the summits are covered with snow; but this colossal group almost belongs to the Andes de la Paz, of which it forms a promontory or spur, directed toward the east.]
[* To the west, in consequence of the Llanos of Manso, and the Pampas de Huanacos, the forests do not extend generally beyond the parallels of 18 or 19° south latitude; but to the east, in Brazil (in the capitanias of San Pablo and Rio Grande) as well as in Paraguay, on the borders of the Parana, they advance as far as 25° south.]
[* Savannas limpias, that is to say, clear of trees.]
Having noticed the geological constitution of South America, we shall now mark its principal features. The western coasts are bordered by an enormous wall of mountains, rich in precious metals wherever volcanic fire has not pierced through the eternal snow. This is the Cordillera of the Andes. Summits of trap-porphyry rise beyond three thousand three hundred toises, and the mean height of the chain* is one thousand eight hundred and fifty toises. It stretches in the direction of a meridian, and sends into each hemisphere a lateral branch, in the latitudes of 10° north, and 16 and 18° south. The first of these two branches, that of the coast of Caracas, is of considerable length, and forms in fact a chain. The second branch, the Cordillera of Chiquitos and of the sources of the Guapore, is very rich in gold, and widens toward the east, in Brazil, into vast tablelands, having a mild and temperate climate. Between these two transverse chains, contiguous to the Andes, an isolated group of granitic mountains is situated, from 3 to 7° north latitude; which also runs parallel to the Equator, but, not passing the meridian of 71°, terminates abruptly towards the west, and is not united to the Andes of New Grenada. These three transverse chains have no active volcanoes; we know not whether the most southern, like the two others, be destitute of trachytes or trap-porphyry. None of their summits enter the limit of perpetual snow; and the mean height of the Cordillera of La Parime, and of the littoral chain of Caracas, does not reach six hundred toises, though some of its summits rise fourteen hundred toises above the level of the sea.* The three transverse chains are separated by plains entirely closed towards the west, and open towards the east and south-east. When we reflect on their small elevation above the surface of the ocean, we are tempted to consider them as gulfs stretching in the direction of the current of rotation. If, from the effect of some peculiar attraction, the waters of the Atlantic were to rise fifty toises at the mouth of the Orinoco, and two hundred toises at the mouth of the Amazon, the flood would submerge more than the half of South America. The eastern declivity, or the foot of the Andes, now six hundred leagues distant from the coast of Brazil, would become a shore beaten by the waves. This consideration is the result of a barometric measurement, taken in the province of Jaen de Bracamoros, where the river Amazon issues from the Cordilleras. I found the mean height of this immense river only one hundred and ninety-four toises above the present level of the Atlantic. The intermediate plains, however, covered with forests, are still five times higher than the Pampas of Buenos Ayres, and the grass-covered Llanos of Caracas and the Meta.
[* In New Grenada, Quito, and Peru, according to measurements taken by Bouguer, La Condamine, and myself.]
[* We do not reckon here, as belonging to the chain of the coast, the Nevados and Paramos of Merida and of Truxillo, which are a prolongation of the Andes of New Grenada.]
Those Llanos which form the basin of the Orinoco, and which we crossed twice in one year, in the months of March and July, communicate with the basin of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, bounded on one side by the Cordillera of Chiquitos, and on the other by the mountains of Parime. The opening which is left between the latter and the Andes of New Grenada, occasions this communication. The aspect of the country here reminds us, but on a much larger scale, of the plains of Lombardy, which also are only fifty or sixty toises above the level of the ocean; and are directed first from La Brenta to Turin, east and west; and then from Turin to Coni, north and south. If we were authorized, from other geological facts, to regard the three great plains of the Lower Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Rio de la Plata as basins of ancient lakes,* we should imagine we perceived in the plains of the Rio Vichada and the Meta, a channel by which the waters of the upper lake (those of the plains of the Amazon) forced their way towards the lower basin, (that of the Llanos of Caracas,) separating the Cordillera of La Parime from that of the Andes. This channel is a kind of land-strait. The ground, which is perfectly level between the Guaviare, the Meta, and the Apure, displays no vestige of a violent irruption of the waters; but on the edge of the Cordillera of Parime, between the latitudes of 4 and 7°, the Orinoco, flowing in a westerly direction from its source to the mouth of the Guaviare, has forced its way through the rocks, directing its course from south to north. All the great cataracts, as we shall soon see, are within the latitudes just named. When the river has reached the mouth of the Apure in that very low ground where the slope towards the north is met by the counter-slope towards the south-east, that is to say, by the inclination of the plains which rise imperceptibly towards the mountains of Caracas, the river turns anew and flows eastward. It appeared to me, that it was proper to fix the attention of the reader on these singular inflexions of the Orinoco because, belonging at once to two basins, its course marks, in some sort, even on the most imperfect maps, the direction of that part of the plains intervening between New Grenada and the western border of the mountains of La Parime.
[* In Siberia, the great steppes between the Irtish and the Obi, especially that of Baraba, full of salt lakes (Tchabakly, Tchany, Karasouk, and Topolony), appear to have been, according to the Chinese traditions, even within historical times, an inland sea.]
The Llanos or steppes of the Lower Orinoco and of the Meta, like the deserts of Africa, bear different names in different parts. From the mouths of the Dragon the Llanos of Cumana, of Barcelona, and of Caracas or Venezuela,* follow, running from east to west. Where the steppes turn towards the south and south-south-west, from the latitude of 8°, between the meridians of 70 and 73°, we find from north to south, the Llanos of Varinas, Casanare, the Meta, Guaviare, Caguau, and Caqueta.* The plains of Varinas contain some few monuments of the industry of a nation that has disappeared. Between Mijagual and the Cano de la Hacha, we find some real tumuli, called in the country the Serillos de los Indios. They are hillocks in the shape of cones, artificially formed of earth, and probably contain bones, like the tumuli in the steppes of Asia. A fine road is also discovered near Hato de la Calzada, between Varinas and Canagua, five leagues long, made before the conquest, in the most remote times, by the natives. It is a causeway of earth fifteen feet high, crossing a plain often overflowed. Did nations farther advanced in civilization descend from the mountains of Truxillo and Merido to the plains of the Rio Apure? The Indians whom we now find between this river and the Meta, are in too rude a state to think of making roads or raising tumuli.
[* The following are subdivisions of these three great Llanos, as I marked them down on the spot. The Llanos of Cumana and New Andalusia include those of Maturin and Terecen, of Amana, Guanipa, Jonoro, and Cari. The Llanos of Nueva Barcelona comprise those of Aragua, Pariaguan, and Villa del Pao. We distinguish in the Llanos of Caracas those of Chaguaramas, Uritucu, Calabozo or Guarico, La Portuguesa, San Carlos, and Araure.]
[* The inhabitants of these plains distinguish as subdivisions, from the Rio Portuguesa to Caqueta, the Llanos of Guanare, Bocono, Nutrius or the Apure, Palmerito near Quintero, Guardalito and Arauca, the Meta, Apiay near the port of Pachaquiaro, Vichada, Guaviare, Arriari, Inirida, the Rio Hacha, and Caguan. The limits between the savannahs and the forests, in the plains that extend from the sources of the Rio Negro to Putumayo, are not sufficiently known.]
I calculated the area of these Llanos from the Caqueta to the Apure, and from the Apure to the Delta of the Orinoco, and found it to be seventeen thousand square leagues twenty to a degree. The part running from north to south is almost double that which stretches from east to west, between the Lower Orinoco and the littoral chain of Caracas. The Pampas on the north and north-west of Buenos Ayres, between this city and Cordova, Jujuy, and the Tucuman, are of nearly the same extent as the Llanos; but the Pampas stretch still farther on to the length of 18° southward; and the land they occupy is so vast, that they produce palm-trees at one of their extremities, while the other, equally low and level, is covered with eternal frost.
The Llanos of America, where they extend in the direction of a parallel of the equator, are three-fourths narrower then the great desert of Africa. This circumstance is very important in a region where the winds constantly blow from east to west. The farther the plains stretch in this direction, the more ardent is their climate. The great ocean of sand in Africa communicates by Yemen* with Gedrosia and Beloochistan, as far as the right bank of the Indus. It is from the effect of winds that have passed over the deserts situated to the east, that the little basin of the Red Sea, surrounded by plains which send forth from all sides radiant caloric, is one of the hottest regions of the globe. The unfortunate captain Tuckey relates,* that the centigrade thermometer keeps there generally in the night at 34°, and by day from 40 to 44°. We shall soon see that, even in the westernmost part of the steppes of Caracas, we seldom found the temperature of the air, in the shade, above 37°.
[* We cannot be surprised that the Arabic should be richer than any other language of the East in words expressing the ideas of desert, uninhabited plains, and plains covered with gramina. I could give a list of thirty-five of these words, which the Arabian authors employ without always distinguishing them by the shades of meaning which each separate word expresses. Makadh and kaah indicate, in preference, plains; bakaak, a table-land; kafr, mikfar, smlis, mahk, and habaucer, a naked desert, covered with sand and gravel; tanufah, a steppe. Zahra means at once a naked desert and a savannah. The word steppe, or step, is Russian, and not Tartarian. In the Turco–Tartar dialect a heath is called tala or tschol. The word gobi, which Europeans have corrupted into cobi, signifies in the Mongol tongue a naked desert. It is equivalent to the scha-mo or khan-hai of the Chinese. A steppe, or plain covered with herbs, is in Mongol, kudah; in Chinese, kouana.]
[* Expedition to explore the river Zahir, 1818.]
These physical considerations on the steppes of the New World are linked with others more interesting, inasmuch as they are connected with the history of our species. The great sea of sand in Africa, the deserts without water, are frequented only by caravans, that take fifty days to traverse them.* Separating the Negro race from the Moors, and the Berber and Kabyle tribes, the Sahara is inhabited only in the oases. It affords pasturage only in the eastern part, where, from the effect of the trade-winds, the layer of sand being less thick, the springs appear at the surface of the earth. In America, the steppes, less vast, less scorching, fertilized by fine rivers, present fewer obstacles to the intercourse of nations. The Llanos separate the chain of the coast of Caracas and the Andes of New Grenada from the region of forests; from that woody region of the Orinoco which, from the first discovery of America, has been inhabited by nations more rude, and farther removed from civilization, than the inhabitants of the coast, and still more than the mountaineers of the Cordilleras. The steppes, however, were no more heretofore the rampart of civilization than they are now the rampart of the liberty of the hordes that live in the forests. They have not hindered the nations of the Lower Orinoco from going up the little rivers and making incursions to the north and the west. If, according to the various distribution of animals on the globe, the pastoral life could have existed in the New World — if, before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Llanos and the Pampas had been filled with those numerous herds of cows and horses that graze there, Columbus would have found the human race in a state quite different. Pastoral nations living on milk and cheese, real nomad races, would have spread themselves over those vast plains which communicate with each other. They would have been seen at the period of great droughts, and even at that of inundations, fighting for the possession of pastures; subjugating one another mutually; and, united by the common tie of manners, language, and worship, they would have risen to that state of demi-civilization which we observe with surprise in the nations of the Mongol and Tartar race. America would then, like the centre of Asia, have had its conquerors, who, ascending from the plains to the tablelands of the Cordilleras, and abandoning a wandering life, would have subdued the civilized nations of Peru and New Grenada, overturned the throne of the Incas and of the Zaque,* and substituted for the despotism which is the fruit of theocracy, that despotism which arises from the patriarchal government of a pastoral people. In the New World the human race has not experienced these great moral and political changes, because the steppes, though more fertile than those of Asia, have remained without herds; because none of the animals that furnish milk in abundance are natives of the plains of South America; and because, in the progressive unfolding of American civilization, the intermediate link is wanting that connects the hunting with the agricultural nations.
[* This is the maximum of the time, according to Major Rennell, Travels of Mungo Park volume 2.]
[* The Zaque was the secular chief of Cundinamarca. His power was shared with the high priest (lama) of Iraca.]
We have thought proper to bring together these general notions on the plains of the New Continent, and the contrast they exhibit to the deserts of Africa and the fertile steppes of Asia, in order to give some interest to the narrative of a journey across lands of so monotonous an aspect. Having now accomplished this task, I shall trace the route by which we proceeded from the volcanic mountains of Parapara and the northern side of the Llanos, to the banks of the Apure, in the province of Varinas.
After having passed two nights on horseback, and sought in vain, by day, for some shelter from the heat of the sun beneath the tufts of the moriche palm-trees, we arrived before night at the little Hato del Cayman,* called also La Guadaloupe. It was a solitary house in the steppes, surrounded by a few small huts, covered with reeds and skins. The cattle, oxen, horses, and mules are not penned, but wander freely over an extent of several square leagues. There is nowhere any enclosure; men, naked to the waist and armed with a lance, ride over the savannahs to inspect the animals; bringing back those that wander too far from the pastures of the farm, and branding all that do not already bear the mark of their proprietor. These mulattos, who are known by the name of peones llaneros, are partly freed-men and partly slaves. They are constantly exposed to the burning heat of the tropical sun. Their food is meat, dried in the air, and a little salted; and of this even their horses sometimes partake. Being always in the saddle, they fancy they cannot make the slightest excursion on foot. We found an old negro slave, who managed the farm in the absence of his master. He told us of herds composed of several thousand cows, that were grazing in the steppes; yet we asked in vain for a bowl of milk. We were offered, in a calabash, some yellow, muddy, and fetid water, drawn from a neighbouring pool. The indolence of the inhabitants of the Llanos is such that they do not dig wells, though they know that almost everywhere, at ten feet deep, fine springs are found in a stratum of conglomerate, or red sandstone. After suffering during one half of the year from the effect of inundations, they quietly resign themselves, during the other half; to the most distressing deprivation of water. The old negro advised us to cover the cup with a linen cloth, and drink as through a filter, that we might not be incommoded by the smell, and might swallow less of the yellowish mud suspended in the water. We did not then think that we should afterwards be forced, during whole months, to have recourse to this expedient. The waters of the Orinoco are always loaded with earthy particles; they are even putrid, where dead bodies of alligators are found in the creeks, lying on banks of sand, or half-buried in the mud.
[* The Farm of the Alligator.]
No sooner were our instruments unloaded and safely placed, than our mules were set at liberty to go, as they say here, para buscar agua, that is, “to search for water.” There are little pools round the farm, which the animals find, guided by their instinct, by the view of some scattered tufts of mauritia, and by the sensation of humid coolness, caused by little currents of air amid an atmosphere which to us appears calm and tranquil. When the pools of water are far distant, and the people of the farm are too lazy to lead the cattle to these natural watering-places, they confine them during five or six hours in a very hot stable before they let them loose. Excess of thirst then augments their sagacity, sharpening as it were their senses and their instinct. No sooner is the stable opened, than the horses and mules, especially the latter (for the penetration of these animals exceeds the intelligence of the horses), rush into the savannahs. With upraised tails and heads thrown back they run against the wind, stopping from time to time as if exploring space; they follow less the impressions of sight than of smell; and at length announce, by prolonged neighings, that there is water in the direction of their course. All these movements are executed more promptly, and with readier success, by horses born in the Llanos, and which have long enjoyed their liberty, than by those that come from the coast, and descend from domestic horses. In animals, for the most part, as in man, the quickness of the senses is diminished by long subjection, and by the habits that arise from a fixed abode and the progress of cultivation.
We followed our mules in search of one of those pools, whence the muddy water had been drawn, that so ill quenched our thirst. We were covered with dust, and tanned by the sandy wind, which burns the skin even more than the rays of the sun. We longed impatiently to take a bath, but we found only a great pool of feculent water, surrounded with palm-trees. The water was turbid, though, to our great astonishment, a little cooler than the air. Accustomed during our long journey to bathe whenever we had an opportunity, often several times in one day, we hastened to plunge into the pool. We had scarcely begun to enjoy the coolness of the bath, when a noise which we heard on the opposite bank, made us leave the water precipitately. It was an alligator plunging into the mud.
We were only at the distance of a quarter of a league from the farm, yet we continued walking more than an hour without reaching it. We perceived too late that we had taken a wrong direction. Having left it at the decline of day, before the stars were visible, we had gone forward into the plain at hazard. We were, as usual, provided with a compass, and it might have been easy for us to steer our course from the position of Canopus and the Southern Cross; but unfortunately we were uncertain whether, on leaving the farm, we had gone towards the east or the south. We attempted to return to the spot where we had bathed, and we again walked three quarters of an hour without finding the pool. We sometimes thought we saw fire on the horizon; but it was the light of the rising stars enlarged by the vapours. After having wandered a long time in the savannah, we resolved to seat ourselves beneath the trunk of a palm-tree, in a spot perfectly dry, surrounded by short grass; for the fear of water-snakes is always greater than that of jaguars among Europeans recently disembarked. We could not flatter ourselves that our guides, of whom we knew the insuperable indolence, would come in search of us in the savannah before they had prepared their food and finished their repast. Whilst somewhat perplexed by the uncertainty of our situation, we were agreeably affected by hearing from afar the sound of a horse advancing towards us. The rider was an Indian, armed with a lance, who had just made the rodeo, or round, in order to collect the cattle within a determinate space of ground. The sight of two white men, who said they had lost their way, led him at first to suspect some trick. We found it difficult to inspire him with confidence; he at last consented to guide us to the farm of the Cayman, but without slackening the gentle trot of his horse. Our guides assured us that “they had already begun to be uneasy about us;” and, to justify this inquietude, they gave a long enumeration of persons who, having lost themselves in the Llanos, had been found nearly exhausted. It may be supposed that the danger is imminent only to those who lose themselves far from any habitation, or who, having been stripped by robbers, as has happened of late years, have been fastened by the body and hands to the trunk of a palm-tree.
In order to escape as much as possible from the heat of the day, we set off at two in the morning, with the hope of reaching Calabozo before noon, a small but busy trading-town, situated in the midst of the Llanos. The aspect of the country was still the same. There was no moonlight; but the great masses of nebulae that spot the southern sky enlighten, as they set, a part of the terrestrial horizon. The solemn spectacle of the starry vault, seen in its immense expanse — the cool breeze which blows over the plain during the night — the waving motion of the grass, wherever it has attained any height; everything recalled to our minds the surface of the ocean. The illusion was augmented when the disk of the sun appearing on the horizon, repeated its image by the effects of refraction, and, soon losing its flattened form, ascended rapidly and straight towards the zenith.
Sunrise in the plains is the coolest moment of the day; but this change of temperature does not make a very lively impression on the organs. We did not find the thermometer in general sink below 27.5; while near Acapulco, at Mexico, and in places equally low, the temperature at noon is often 32, and at sunrise only 17 or 18°. The level surface of the ground in the Llanos, which, during the day, is never in the shade, absorbs so much heat that, notwithstanding the nocturnal radiation toward a sky without clouds, the earth and air have not time to cool very sensibly from midnight to sunrise.
In proportion as the sun rose towards the zenith, and the earth and the strata of superincumbent air took different temperatures, the phenomenon of the mirage displayed itself in its numerous modifications. This phenomenon is so common in every zone, that I mention it only because we stopped to measure with some precision the breadth of the aerial distance between the horizon and the suspended object. There was a constant suspension, without inversion. The little currents of air that swept the surface of the soil had so variable a temperature that, in a drove of wild oxen, one part appeared with the legs raised above the surface of the ground, while the other rested on it. The aerial distance was, according to the distance of the animal, from 3 to 4 minutes. Where tufts of the moriche palm were found growing in long ranges, the extremities of these green rows were suspended like the capes which were, for so long a time, the subject of my observations at Cumana. A well-informed person assured us, that he had seen, between Calabozo and Uritucu, the image of an animal inverted, without there being any direct image. Niebuhr made a similar observation in Arabia. We several times thought we saw on the horizon the figures of tumuli and towers, which disappeared at intervals, without our being able to discern the real shape of the objects. They were perhaps hillocks, or small eminences, situated beyond the ordinary visual horizon. I need not mention those tracts destitute of vegetation, which appear like large lakes with an undulating surface. This phenomenon, observed in very remote times, has occasioned the mirage to receive in Sanscrit the expressive name of desire of the antelope. We admire the frequent allusions in the Indian, Persian, and Arabic poets, to the magical effects of terrestrial refraction. It was scarcely known to the Greeks and Romans. Proud of the riches of their soil, and the mild temperature of the air, they would have felt no envy of this poetry of the desert. It had its birth in Asia; and the oriental poets found its source in the nature of the country they inhabited. They were inspired with the aspect of those vast solitudes, interposed like arms of the sea or gulfs, between lands which nature had adorned with her most luxuriant fertility.
The plain assumes at sunrise a more animated aspect. The cattle, which had reposed during the night along the pools, or beneath clumps of mauritias and rhopalas, were now collected in herds; and these solitudes became peopled with horses, mules, and oxen, that live here free, rather than wild, without settled habitations, and disdaining the care and protection of man. In these hot climates, the oxen, though of Spanish breed, like those of the cold table-lands of Quito, are of a gentle disposition. A traveller runs no risk of being attacked or pursued, as we often were in our excursions on the back of the Cordilleras, where the climate is rude, the aspect of the country more wild, and food less abundant. As we approached Calabozo, we saw herds of roebucks browsing peacefully in the midst of horses and oxen. They are called matacani; their flesh is good; they are a little larger than our roes, and resemble deer with a very sleek skin, of a fawn-colour, spotted with white. Their horns appear to me to have single points. They had little fear of the presence of man: and in herds of thirty or forty we observed several that were entirely white. This variety, common enough among the large stags of the cold climates of the Andes, surprised us in these low and burning plains. I have since learned, that even the jaguar, in the hot regions of Paraguay, sometimes affords albino varieties, the skin of which is of such uniform whiteness that the spots or rings can be distinguished only in the sunshine. The number of matacani, or little deer,* is so considerable in the Llanos, that a trade might be carried on with their skins.* A skilful hunter could easily kill more than twenty in a day; but such is the indolence of the inhabitants, that often they will not give themselves the trouble of taking the skin. The same indifference is evinced in the chase of the jaguar, a skin of which fetches only one piastre in the steppes of Varinas, while at Cadiz it costs four or five.
[* They are called in the country Venados de tierras calientes (deer of the warm lands.)]
[* This trade is carried on, but on a very limited scale, at Carora and at Barquesimeto.]
The steppes that we traversed are principally covered with grasses of the genera Killingia, Cenchrus, and Paspalum.* At this season, near Calabozo and San Jerome del Pirital, these grasses scarcely attain the height of nine or ten inches. Near the banks of the Apure and the Portuguesa they rise to four feet in height, so that the jaguar can conceal himself among them, to spring upon the mules and horses that cross the plain. Mingled with these gramina some plants of the dicotyledonous class are found; as turneras, malvaceae, and, what is very remarkable, little mimosas with irritable leaves,* called by the Spaniards dormideras. The same breed of cows, which fatten in Europe on sainfoin and clover, find excellent nourishment in the herbaceous sensitive plants. The pastures where these shrubs particularly abound are sold at a higher price than others. To the east, in the llanos of Cari and Barcelona, the cypura and the craniolaria,* the beautiful white flower of which is from six to eight inches long, rise solitarily amid the gramina. The pastures are richest not only around the rivers subject to inundations, but also wherever the trunks of palm-trees are near each other. The least fertile spots are those destitute of trees; and attempts to cultivate them would be nearly fruitless. We cannot attribute this difference to the shelter afforded by the palm-trees, in preventing the solar rays from drying and burning up the soil. I have seen, it is true, trees of this family, in the forests of the Orinoco, spreading a tufted foliage; but we cannot say much for the shade of the palm-tree of the llanos, the palma de cobija,* which has but a few folded and palmate leaves, like those of the chamaerops, and of which the lower-most are constantly withered. We were surprised to see that almost all these trunks of the corypha were nearly of the same size, namely, from twenty to twenty-four feet high, and from eight to ten inches diameter at the foot. Nature has produced few species of palm-trees in such prodigious numbers. Amidst thousands of trunks loaded with olive-shaped fruits we found about one hundred without fruit. May we suppose that there are some trees with flowers purely monoecious, mingled with others furnished with hermaphrodite flowers?
[* Killingia monocephala, K. odorata, Cenchrus pilosus, Vilfa tenacissima, Andropogon plumosum, Panicum micranthum, Poa repens, Paspalum leptostachyum, P. conjugatum, Aristida recurvata. (Nova Genera et Species Plantarum, volume 1 pages 84 to 243.)]
[* The sensitive-plant Mimosa dormiens.]
[* Cypura graminea, Craniolaria annua, the scorzonera of the natives.]
[* The roofing palm-tree Corypha tectorum.]
The Llaneros, or inhabitants of the plains, believe that all these trees, though so low, are many centuries old. Their growth is almost imperceptible, being scarcely to be noticed in the lapse of twenty or thirty years. The wood of the palma de cobija is excellent for building. It is so hard, that it is difficult to drive a nail into it. The leaves, folded like a fan, are employed to cover the roofs of the huts scattered through the Llanos; and these roofs last more than twenty years. The leaves are fixed by bending the extremity of the footstalks, which have been beaten beforehand between two stones, so that they may bend without breaking.
Beside the solitary trunks of this palm-tree, we find dispersed here and there in the steppes a few clumps, real groves (palmares), in which the corypha is intermingled with a tree of the proteaceous family, called chaparro by the natives. It is a new species of rhopala,* with hard and resonant leaves. The little groves of rhopala are called chaparales; and it may be supposed that, in a vast plain, where only two or three species of trees are to be found, the chaparro, which affords shade, is considered a highly valuable plant. The corypha spreads through the Llanos of Caracas from Mesa de Peja as far as Guayaval; farther north and north-west, near Guanare and San Carlos, its place is taken by another species of the same genus, with leaves alike palmate but larger. It is called the royal palm of the plains (palma real de los Llanos).* Other palm-trees rise south of Guayaval, especially the piritu with pinnate leaves,* and the moriche (Mauritia flexuosa), celebrated by Father Gumilla under the name of arbol de la vida, or tree of life. It is the sago-tree of America, furnishing flour, wine, thread for weaving hammocks, baskets, nets, and clothing. Its fruit, of the form of the cones of the pine, and covered with scales, perfectly resembles that of the Calamus rotang. It has somewhat the taste of the apple. When arrived at its maturity it is yellow within and red without. The araguato monkeys eat it with avidity; and the nation of the Guaraounos, whose whole existence, it may be said, is closely linked with that of the moriche palm-tree, produce from it a fermented liquor, slightly acid, and extremely refreshing. This palm-tree, with its large shining leaves, folded like a fan, preserves a beautiful verdure at the period of the greatest drought. The mere sight of it produces an agreeable sensation of coolness, and when loaded with scaly fruit, it contrasts singularly with the mournful aspect of the palma de cobija, the foliage of which is always grey and covered with dust. The Llaneros believe that the former attracts the vapours in the air;* and that for this reason, water is constantly found at its foot, when dug for to a certain depth. The effect is confounded with the cause. The moriche grows best in moist places; and it may rather be said that the water attracts the tree. The natives of the Orinoco, by analogous reasoning, admit, that the great serpents contribute to preserve humidity in a province. “You would look in vain for water-serpents,” said an old Indian of Javita to us gravely, “where there are no marshes; because the water ceases to collect when you imprudently kill the serpents that attract it.”
[* Resembling the Embothrium, of which we found no species in South America. The embothriums are represented in American vegetation by the genera Lomatia and Oreocallis.]
[* This palm-tree of the plains must not be confounded with the palma real of Caracas and of Curiepe, with pinnate leaves.]
[* Perhaps an Aiphanes.]
[* If the head of the moriche were better furnished with leaves than it generally is, we might perhaps admit that the soil round the tree preserves its humidity through the influence of the shade.]
We suffered greatly from the heat in crossing the Mesa de Calabozo. The temperature of the air augmented sensibly every time that the wind began to blow. The air was loaded with dust; and during these gusts the thermometer rose to 40 or 41°. We went slowly forward, for it would have been dangerous to leave the mules that carried our instruments. Our guides advised us to fill our hats with the leaves of the rhopala, to diminish the action of the solar rays on the hair and the crown of the head. We found relief from this expedient, which was particularly agreeable, when we could procure the thick leaves of the pothos or some other similar plant.
It is impossible to cross these burning plains, without inquiring whether they have always been in the same state; or whether they have been stripped of their vegetation by some revolution of nature. The stratum of mould now found on them is in fact very thin. The natives believe that the palmares and the chaparales (the little groves of palm-trees and rhopala) were more frequent and more extensive before the arrival of the Spaniards. Since the Llanos have been inhabited and peopled with cattle become wild, the savannah is often set on fire, in order to ameliorate the pasturage. Groups of scattered trees are accidentally destroyed with the grasses. The plains were no doubt less bare in the fifteenth century, than they now are; yet the first Conquistadores, who came from Coro, described them then as savannahs, where nothing could be perceived but the sky and the turf, generally destitute of trees, and difficult to traverse on account of the reverberation of heat from the soil. Why does not the great forest of the Orinoco extend to the north, on the left bank of that river? Why does it not fill that vast space that reaches as far as the Cordillera of the coast, and which is fertilized by numerous rivers? These questions are connected with all that relates to the history of our planet. If, indulging in geological reveries, we suppose that the steppes of America, and the desert of Sahara, have been stripped of their vegetation by an irruption of the ocean, or that they formed originally the bottom of an inland sea, we may conceive that thousands of years have not sufficed for the trees and shrubs to advance from the borders of the forests, from the skirts of the plains either naked or covered with turf, toward the centre, and darken so vast a space with their shade. It is more difficult to explain the origin of bare savannahs, encircled by forests, than to recognize the causes that maintain forests and savannahs within their ancient limits, like continents and seas.
We found the most cordial hospitality at Calabozo, in the house of the superintendent of the royal plantations, Don Miguel Cousin. The town, situated between the banks of the Guarico and the Uritucu, contained at this period only five thousand inhabitants; but everything denoted increasing prosperity. The wealth of most of the inhabitants consists in herds, under the management of farmers, who are called hateros, from the word hato, which signifies in Spanish a house or farm placed in the midst of pastures. The scattered population of the Llanos being accumulated on certain points, principally around towns, Calabozo reckons already five villages or missions in its environs. It is computed, that 98,000 head of cattle wander in the pastures nearest to the town. It is very difficult to form an exact idea of the herds contained in the Llanos of Caracas, Barcelona, Cumana, and Spanish Guiana. M. Depons, who lived in the town of Caracas longer than I, and whose statistical statements are generally accurate, reckons in those vast plains, from the mouths of the Orinoco to the lake of Maracaybo, 1,200,000 oxen, 180,000 horses, and 90,000 mules. He estimates the produce of these herds at 5,000,000 francs; adding to the value of the exportation the price of the hides consumed in the country. There exist, it is believed, in the Pampas of Buenos Ayres, 12,000,000 cows, and 3,000,000 horses, without comprising in this enumeration the cattle that have no acknowledged proprietor.
I shall not hazard any general estimates, which from their nature are too uncertain; but shall only observe that, in the Llanos of Caracas, the proprietors of the great hatos are entirely ignorant of the number of the cattle they possess. They only know that of the young cattle, which are branded every year with a letter or mark peculiar to each herd. The richest proprietors mark as many as 14,000 head every year; and sell to the number of five or six thousand. According to official documents, the exportation of hides from the whole capitania-general of Caracas amounted annually to 174,000 skins of oxen, and 11,500 of goats. When we reflect, that these documents are taken from the books of the custom-houses, where no mention is made of the fraudulent dealings in hides, we are tempted to believe that the estimate of 1,200,000 oxen wandering in the Llanos, from the Rio Carony and the Guarapiche to the lake of Maracaybo, is much underrated. The port of La Guayra alone exported annually from 1789 to 1792, 70,000 or 80,000 hides, entered in the custom-house books, scarcely one-fifth of which was sent to Spain. The exportation from Buenos Ayres, at the end of the eighteenth century, was, according to Don Felix de Azara, 800,000 skins. The hides of Caracas are preferred in the Peninsula to those of Buenos Ayres; because the latter, on account of a longer passage, undergo a loss of twelve per cent in the tanning. The southern part of the savannahs, commonly called the Upper Plains (Llanos de arriba), is very productive in mules and oxen; but the pasturage being in general less good, these animals are obliged to be sent to other plains to be fattened before they are sold. The Llano de Monai, and all the Lower Plains (Llanos de abaxo), abound less in herds, but the pastures are so fertile, that they furnish meat of an excellent quality for the supply of the coast. The mules, which are not fit for labour before the fifth year, are purchased on the spot at the price of fourteen or eighteen piastres. The horses of the Llanos, descending from the fine Spanish breed, are not very large; they are generally of a uniform colour, brown bay, like most of the wild animals. Suffering alternately from drought and floods, tormented by the stings of insects and the bites of the large bats, they lead a sorry life. After having enjoyed for some months the care of man, their good qualities are developed. Here there are no sheep: we saw flocks only on the table-land of Quito.
The hatos of oxen have suffered considerably of late from troops of marauders, who roam over the steppes killing the animals merely to take their hides. This robbery has increased since the trade of the Lower Orinoco has become more flourishing. For half a century, the banks of that great river, from the mouth of the Apure as far as Angostura, were known only to the missionary-monks. The exportation of cattle took place from the ports of the northern coast only, namely from Cumana, Barcelona, Burburata, and Porto Cabello. This dependence on the coast is now much diminished. The southern part of the plains has established an internal communication with the Lower Orinoco; and this trade is the more brisk, as those who devote themselves to it easily escape the trammels of the prohibitory laws.
The greatest herds of cattle in the Llanos of Caracas are those of the hatos of Merecure, La Cruz, Belen, Alta Gracia, and Pavon. The Spanish cattle came from Coro and Tocuyo into the plains. History has preserved the name of the colonist who first conceived the idea of peopling these pasturages, inhabited only by deer, and a large species of cavy.* Christoval Rodriguez sent the first horned cattle into the Llanos, about the year 1548. He was an inhabitant of the town of Tocuyo, and had long resided in New Grenada.
[* The thick-nosed tapir, or river cavy (Cavia capybara), called chiguire in those countries.]
When we hear of the innumerable quantity of oxen, horses, and mules, that are spread over the plains of America, we seem generally to forget that in civilized Europe, on lands of much less extent, there exist, in agricultural countries, quantities no less prodigious. France, according to M. Peuchet, feeds 6,000,000 large horned cattle, of which 3,500,000 are oxen employed in drawing the plough. In the Austrian monarchy, the number of oxen, cows, and calves, has been estimated at 13,400,000 head. Paris alone consumes annually 155,000 horned cattle. Germany receives 150,000 oxen yearly from Hungary. Domestic animals, collected in small herds, are considered by agricultural nations as a secondary object in the riches of the state. Accordingly they strike the imagination much less than those wandering droves of oxen and horses which alone fill the uncultivated tracts of the New World. Civilization and social order favour alike the progress of population, and the multiplication of animals useful to man.
We found at Calabozo, in the midst of the Llanos, an electrical machine with large plates, electrophori, batteries, electrometers; an apparatus nearly as complete as our first scientific men in Europe possess. All these articles had not been purchased in the United States; they were the work of a man who had never seen any instrument, who had no person to consult, and who was acquainted with the phenomena of electricity only by reading the treatise of De Lafond, and Franklin’s Memoirs. Senor Carlos del Pozo, the name of this enlightened and ingenious man, had begun to make cylindrical electrical machines, by employing large glass jars, after having cut off the necks. It was only within a few years he had been able to procure, by way of Philadelphia, two plates, to construct a plate machine, and to obtain more considerable effects. It is easy to judge what difficulties Senor Pozo had to encounter, since the first works upon electricity had fallen into his hands, and that he had the courage to resolve to procure himself, by his own industry, all that he had seen described in his books. Till now he had enjoyed only the astonishment and admiration produced by his experiments on persons destitute of all information, and who had never quitted the solitude of the Llanos; our abode at Calabozo gave him a satisfaction altogether new. It may be supposed that he set some value on the opinions of two travellers who could compare his apparatus with those constructed in Europe. I had brought with me electrometers mounted with straw, pith-balls, and gold-leaf; also a small Leyden jar which could be charged by friction according to the method of Ingenhousz, and which served for my physiological experiments. Senor del Pozo could not contain his joy on seeing for the first time instruments which he had not made, yet which appeared to be copied from his own. We also showed him the effect of the contact of heterogeneous metals on the nerves of frogs. The name of Galvani and Volta had not previously been heard in those vast solitudes.
Next to his electrical apparatus, the work of the industry and intelligence of an inhabitant of the Llanos, nothing at Calabozo excited in us so great an interest as the gymnoti, which are animated electrical apparatuses. I was impatient, from the time of my arrival at Cumana, to procure electrical eels. We had been promised them often, but our hopes had always been disappointed. Money loses its value as you withdraw from the coast; and how is the imperturbable apathy of the ignorant people to be vanquished, when they are not excited by the desire of gain?
The Spaniards confound all electric fishes under the name of tembladores.* There are some of these in the Caribbean Sea, on the coast of Cumana. The Guayquerie Indians, who are the most skilful and active fishermen in those parts, brought us a fish, which, they said, benumbed their hands. This fish ascends the little river Manzanares. It is a new species of ray, the lateral spots of which are scarcely visible, and which much resembles the torpedo. The torpedos, which are furnished with an electric organ externally visible, on account of the transparency of the skin, form a genus or subgenus different from the rays properly so called.* The torpedo of Cumana was very lively, very energetic in its muscular movements, and yet the electric shocks it gave us were extremely feeble. They became stronger on galvanizing the animal by the contact of zinc and gold. Other tembladores, real gymnoti or electric eels, inhabit the Rio Colorado, the Guarapiche, and several little streams which traverse the Missions of the Chayma Indians. They abound also in the large rivers of America, the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Meta; but the force of the currents and the depth of the water, prevent them from being caught by the Indians. They see these fish less frequently than they feel shocks from them when swimming or bathing in the river. In the Llanos, particularly in the environs of Calabozo, between the farms of Morichal and the Upper and Lower Missions, the basins of stagnant water and the confluents of the Orinoco (the Rio Guarico and the canos Rastro, Berito, and Paloma) are filled with electric eels. We at first wished to make our experiments in the house we inhabited at Calabozo; but the dread of the shocks caused by the gymnoti is so great, and so exaggerated among the common people, that during three days we could not obtain one, though they are easily caught, and we had promised the Indians two piastres for every strong and vigorous fish. This fear of the Indians is the more extraordinary, as they do not attempt to adopt precautions in which they profess to have great confidence. When interrogated on the effect of the tembladores, they never fail to tell the Whites, that they may be touched with impunity while you are chewing tobacco. This supposed influence of tobacco on animal electricity is as general on the continent of South America, as the belief among mariners of the effect of garlic and tallow on the magnetic needle.
[* Literally “tremblers,” or “producers of trembling.”]
[* Cuvier, Regne Animal volume 2. The Mediterranean contains, according to M. Risso, four species of electrical torpedos, all formerly confounded under the name of Raia torpedo; these are Torpedo narke, T. unimaculata, T. galvanii, and T. marmorata. The torpedo of the Cape of Good Hope, the subject of the recent experiments of Mr. Todd, is, no doubt, a nondescript species.]
Impatient of waiting, and having obtained very uncertain results from an electric eel which had been brought to us alive, but much enfeebled, we repaired to the Cano de Bera, to make our experiments in the open air, and at the edge of the water. We set off on the 19th of March, at a very early hour, for the village of Rastro; thence we were conducted by the Indians to a stream, which, in the time of drought, forms a basin of muddy water, surrounded by fine trees,* the clusia, the amyris, and the mimosa with fragrant flowers. To catch the gymnoti with nets is very difficult, on account of the extreme agility of the fish, which bury themselves in the mud. We would not employ the barbasco, that is to say, the roots of the Piscidea erithyrna, the Jacquinia armillaris, and some species of phyllanthus, which thrown into the pool, intoxicate or benumb the eels. These methods have the effect of enfeebling the gymnoti. The Indians therefore told us that they would “fish with horses,” (embarbascar con caballos.*) We found it difficult to form an idea of this extraordinary manner of fishing; but we soon saw our guides return from the savannah, which they had been scouring for wild horses and mules. They brought about thirty with them, which they forced to enter the pool.
[* Amyris lateriflora, A. coriacea, Laurus pichurin. Myroxylon secundum, Malpighia reticulata.]
[* Meaning to excite the fish by horses.]
The extraordinary noise caused by the horses’ hoofs, makes the fish issue from the mud, and excites them to the attack. These yellowish and livid eels, resembling large aquatic serpents, swim on the surface of the water, and crowd under the bellies of the horses and mules. A contest between animals of so different an organization presents a very striking spectacle. The Indians, provided with harpoons and long slender reeds, surround the pool closely; and some climb up the trees, the branches of which extend horizontally over the surface of the water. By their wild cries, and the length of their reeds, they prevent the horses from running away and reaching the bank of the pool. The eels, stunned by the noise, defend themselves by the repeated discharge of their electric batteries. For a long interval they seem likely to prove victorious. Several horses sink beneath the violence of the invisible strokes which they receive from all sides, in organs the most essential to life; and stunned by the force and frequency of the shocks, they disappear under the water. Others, panting, with mane erect, and haggard eyes expressing anguish and dismay, raise themselves, and endeavour to flee from the storm by which they are overtaken. They are driven back by the Indians into the middle of the water; but a small number succeed in eluding the active vigilance of the fishermen. These regain the shore, stumbling at every step, and stretch themselves on the sand, exhausted with fatigue, and with limbs benumbed by the electric shocks of the gymnoti.
In less than five minutes two of our horses were drowned. The eel being five feet long, and pressing itself against the belly of the horses, makes a discharge along the whole extent of its electric organ. It attacks at once the heart, the intestines, and the caeliac fold of the abdominal nerves. It is natural that the effect felt by the horses should be more powerful than that produced upon man by the touch of the same fish at only one of his extremities. The horses are probably not killed, but only stunned. They are drowned from the impossibility of rising amid the prolonged struggle between the other horses and the eels.
We had little doubt that the fishing would terminate by killing successively all the animals engaged; but by degrees the impetuosity of this unequal combat diminished, and the wearied gymnoti dispersed. They require a long rest, and abundant nourishment, to repair the galvanic force which they have lost.* The mules and horses appear less frightened; their manes are no longer bristled, and their eyes express less dread. The gymnoti approach timidly the edge of the marsh, where they are taken by means of small harpoons fastened to long cords. When the cords are very dry the Indians feel no shock in raising the fish into the air. In a few minutes we had five large eels, most of which were but slightly wounded. Some others were taken, by the same means, towards evening.
[* The Indians assured us that when the horses are made to run two days successively into the same pool, none are killed the second day. See, on the fishing for gymnoti Views of Nature Bohn’s edition page 18.]
The temperature of the waters in which the gymnoti habitually live, is from 26 to 27°. Their electric force diminishes it is said, in colder waters; and it is remarkable that, in general, animals endowed with electromotive organs, the effects of which are sensible to man, are not found in the air, but in a fluid that is a conductor of electricity. The gymnotus is the largest of electrical fishes. I measured some that were from five feet to five feet three inches long; and the Indians assert that they have seen them still larger. We found that a fish of three feet ten inches long weighed twelve pounds. The transverse diameter of the body, without reckoning the anal fin, which is elongated in the form of a keel, was three inches and a half. The gymnoti of the Cano de Bera are of a fine olive-green. The under part of the head is yellow mingled with red. Two rows of small yellow spots are placed symmetrically along the back, from the head to the end of the tail. Every spot contains an excretory aperture. In consequence, the skin of the animal is constantly covered with a mucous matter, which, as Volta has proved, conducts electricity twenty or thirty times better than pure water. It is in general somewhat remarkable, that no electric fish yet discovered in the different parts of the world, is covered with scales.*
[* We yet know with certainty only seven electric fishes; Torpedo narke, Risso, T. unimaculata, T. marmorata, T. galvanii, Silurus electricus, Tetraodon electricus, Gymnotus electricus. It appears uncertain whether the Trichiurus indicus has electrical properties or not. See Cuvier’s Regne Animal volume 2. But the genus Torpedo, very different from that of the rays properly so called, has numerous species in the equatorial seas; and it is probable that there exist several gymnoti specifically different. The Indians mentioned to us a black and very powerful species, inhabiting the marshes of the Apure, which never attains a length of more than two feet, but which we were not able to procure. The raton of the Rio de la Magdalena, which I have described under the name of Gymnotus aequilabiatus (Observations de Zoologie volume 1) forms a particular sub-genus. This is a Carapa, not scaly, and without an electric organ. This organ is also entirely wanting in the Brazilian Carapo, and in all the rays which were carefully examined by Cuvier.]
The gymnoti, like our eels, are fond of swallowing and breathing air on the surface of the water; but we must not thence conclude that the fish would perish if it could not come up to breathe the air. The European eel will creep during the night upon the grass; but I have seen a very vigorous gymnotus that had sprung out of the water, die on the ground. M. Provencal and myself have proved by our researches on the respiration of fishes, that their humid bronchiae perform the double function of decomposing the atmospheric air, and of appropriating the oxygen contained in water. They do not suspend their respiration in the air; but they absorb the oxygen like a reptile furnished with lungs. It is known that carp may be fattened by being fed, out of the water, if their gills are wet from time to time with humid moss, to prevent them from becoming dry. Fish separate their gill-covers wider in oxygen gas than in water. Their temperature however, does not rise; and they live the same length of time in pure vital air, and in a mixture of ninety parts nitrogen and ten oxygen. We found that tench placed under inverted jars filled with air, absorb half a cubic centimetre of oxygen in an hour. This action takes place in the gills only; for fishes on which a collar of cork has been fastened, and leaving their head out of the jar filled with air, do not act upon the oxygen by the rest of their body.
The swimming-bladder of the gymnotus is two feet five inches long in a fish of three feet ten inches.* It is separated by a mass of fat from the external skin; and rests upon the electric organs, which occupy more than two-thirds of the animal’s body. The same vessels which penetrate between the plates or leaves of these organs, and which cover them with blood when they are cut transversely, also send out numerous branches to the exterior surface of the air-bladder. I found in a hundred parts of the air of the swimming-bladder four of oxygen and ninety-six of nitrogen. The medullary substance of the brain displays but a feeble analogy with the albuminous and gelatinous matter of the electric organs. But these two substances have in common the great quantity of arterial blood which they receive, and which is deoxidated in them. We may again remark, on this occasion, that an extreme activity in the functions of the brain causes the blood to flow more abundantly towards the head, as the energy of the movement of the muscles accelerates the deoxidation of the arterial blood. What a contrast between the multitude and the diameter of the blood-vessels of the gymnotus, and the small space occupied by its muscular system! This contrast reminds the observer, that three functions of animal life, which appear in other respects sufficiently distinct — the functions of the brain, those of the electrical organ, and those of the muscles, all require the afflux and concourse of arterial or oxygenated blood.
[* Cuvier has shown that in the Gymnotus electricus there exists, besides the large swimming-bladder, another situated before it, and much smaller. It looks like the bifurcated swimming-bladder in the Gymnotus aequilabiatus.]
It would be temerity to expose ourselves to the first shocks of a very large and strongly irritated gymnotus. If by chance a stroke be received before the fish is wounded or wearied by long pursuit, the pain and numbness are so violent that it is impossible to describe the nature of the feeling they excite. I do not remember having ever received from the discharge of a large Leyden jar, a more dreadful shock than that which I experienced by imprudently placing both my feet on a gymnotus just taken out of the water. I was affected during the rest of the day with a violent pain in the knees, and in almost every joint. To be aware of the difference that exists between the sensation produced by the Voltaic battery and an electric fish, the latter should be touched when they are in a state of extreme weakness. The gymnoti and the torpedos then cause a twitching of the muscles, which is propagated from the part that rests on the electric organs, as far as the elbow. We seem to feel, at every stroke, an internal vibration, which lasts two or three seconds, and is followed by a painful numbness. Accordingly, the Tamanac Indians call the gymnotus, in their expressive language, arimna, which means something that deprives of motion.
The sensation caused by the feeble shocks of an electric eel appeared to me analogous to that painful twitching with which I have been seized at each contact of two heterogeneous metals applied to wounds which I had made on my back by means of cantharides. This difference of sensation between the effects of electric fishes and those of a Voltaic battery or a Leyden jar feebly charged has struck every observer; there is, however, nothing in this contrary to the supposition of the identity of electricity and the galvanic action of fishes. The electricity may be the same; but its effects will be variously modified by the disposition of the electrical apparatus, by the intensity of the fluid, by the rapidity of the current, and by the particular mode of action.
In Dutch Guiana, at Demerara for instance, electric eels were formerly employed to cure paralytic affections. At a time when the physicians of Europe had great confidence in the effects of electricity, a surgeon of Essequibo, named Van der Lott, published in Holland a treatise on the medical properties of the gymnotus. These electric remedies are practised among the savages of America, as they were among the Greeks. We are told by Scribonius Largus, Galen, and Dioscorides, that torpedos cure the headache and the gout. I did not hear of this mode of treatment in the Spanish colonies which I visited; and I can assert that, after having made experiments during four hours successively with gymnoti, M. Bonpland and myself felt, till the next day, a debility in the muscles, a pain in the joints, and a general uneasiness, the effect of a strong irritation of the nervous system.
The gymnotus is neither a charged conductor, nor a battery, nor an electromotive apparatus, the shock of which is received every time they are touched with one hand, or when both hands are applied to form a conducting circle between the opposite poles. The electric action of the fish depends entirely on its will; because it does not keep its electric organs always charged, or whether by the secretion of some fluid, or by any other means alike mysterious to us, it be capable of directing the action of its organs to an external object. We often tried, both insulated and otherwise, to touch the fish, without feeling the least shock. When M. Bonpland held it by the head, or by the middle of the body, while I held it by the tail, and, standing on the moist ground, did not take each other’s hand, one of us received shocks, which the other did not feel. It depends upon the gymnotus to direct its action towards the point where it finds itself most strongly irritated. The discharge is then made at one point only, and not at the neighbouring points. If two persons touch the belly of the fish with their fingers, at an inch distance, and press it simultaneously, sometimes one, sometimes the other, will receive the shock. In the same manner, when one insulated person holds the tail of a vigorous gymnotus, and another pinches the gills or pectoral fin, it is often the first only by whom the shock is received. It did not appear to us that these differences could be attributed to the dryness or moisture of our hands, or to their unequal conducting power. The gymnotus seemed to direct its strokes sometimes from the whole surface of its body, sometimes from one point only. This effect indicates less a partial discharge of the organ composed of an innumerable quantity of layers, than the faculty which the animal possesses, (perhaps by the instantaneous secretion of a fluid spread through the cellular membrane,) of establishing the communication between its organs and the skin only, in a very limited space.
Nothing proves more strongly the faculty, which the gymnotus possesses, of darting and directing its stroke at will, than the observations made at Philadelphia and Stockholm,* on gymnoti rendered extremely tame. When they had been made to fast a long time, they killed small fishes put into the tub. They acted from a distance; that is to say, their electrical shock passed through a very thick stratum of water. We need not be surprised that what was observed in Sweden, on a single gymnotus only, we could not perceive in a great number of individuals in their native country. The electric action of animals being a vital action, and subject to their will, it does not depend solely on their state of health and vigour. A gymnotus that has been kept a long time in captivity, accustoms itself to the imprisonment to which it is reduced; it resumes by degrees the same habits in the tub, which it had in the rivers and marshes. An electrical eel was brought to me at Calabozo: it had been taken in a net, and consequently having no wound. It ate meat, and terribly frightened the little tortoises and frogs which, not aware of their danger, placed themselves on its back. The frogs did not receive the stroke till the moment when they touched the body of the gymnotus. When they recovered, they leaped out of the tub; and when replaced near the fish, they were frightened at the mere sight of it. We then observed nothing that indicated an action at a distance; but our gymnotus, recently taken, was not yet sufficiently tame to attack and devour frogs. On approaching the finger, or the metallic points, very close to the electric organs, no shock was felt. Perhaps the animal did not perceive the proximity of a foreign body; or, if it did, we must suppose that in the commencement of its captivity, timidity prevented it from darting forth its energetic strokes except when strongly irritated by an immediate contact. The gymnotus being immersed in water, I placed my hand, both armed and unarmed with metal, within a very small distance from the electric organs; yet the strata of water transmitted no shock, while M. Bonpland irritated the animal strongly by an immediate contact, and received some very violent shocks. Had we placed a very delicate electroscope in the contiguous strata of water, it might possibly have been influenced at the moment when the gymnotus seemed to direct its stroke elsewhere. Prepared frogs, placed immediately on the body of a torpedo, experience, according to Galvani, a strong contraction at every discharge of the fish.
[* By MM. Williamson and Fahlberg. The following account is given by the latter gentleman. “The gymnotus sent from Surinam to M. Norderling, at Stockholm, lived more than four months in a state of perfect health. It was twenty-seven inches long; and the shocks it gave were so violent, especially in the open air, that I found scarcely any means of protecting myself by non-conductors, in transporting the fish from one place to another. Its stomach being very small, it ate little at a time, but fed often. It approached living fish, first sending them from afar a shock, the energy of which was proportionate to the size of the prey. The gymnotus seldom failed in its aim; one single stroke was almost always sufficient to overcome the resistance which the strata of water, more or less thick according to the distance, opposed to the electrical current. When very much pressed by hunger, it sometimes directed the shocks against the person who daily brought its food of boiled meat. Persons afflicted with rheumatism came to touch it in hopes of being cured. They took it at once by the neck and tail the shocks were in this case stronger than when touched with one hand only. It almost entirely lost its electrical power a short time before its death.”]
The electrical organ of the gymnoti acts only under the immediate influence of the brain and the heart. On cutting a very vigorous fish through the middle of the body, the fore part alone gave shocks. These are equally strong in whatever part of the body the fish is touched; it is most disposed, however, to emit them when the pectoral fin, the electrical organ, the lips, the eyes, or the gills, are pinched. Sometimes the animal struggles violently with a person holding it by the tail, without communicating the least shock. Nor did I feel any when I made a slight incision near the pectoral fin of the fish, and galvanized the wound by the contact of two pieces of zinc and silver. The gymnotus bent itself convulsively, and raised its head out of the water, as if terrified by a sensation altogether new; but I felt no vibration in the hands which held the two metals. The most violent muscular movements are not always accompanied by electric discharges.
The action of the fish on the human organs is transmitted and intercepted by the same bodies that transmit and intercept the electrical current of a conductor charged by a Leyden jar, or Voltaic battery. Some anomalies, which we thought we observed, are easily explained, when we recollect that even metals (as is proved from their ignition when exposed to the action of the battery) present a slight obstacle to the passage of electricity; and that a bad conductor annihilates the effect, on our organs, of a feeble electric charge, whilst it transmits to us the effect of a very strong one. The repulsive force which zinc and silver exercise together being far superior to that of gold and silver, I have found that when a frog, prepared and armed with silver, is galvanized under water, the conducting arc of zinc produces contraction as soon as one of its extremities approaches the muscles within three lines distance; while an arc of gold does not excite the organs, when the stratum of water between the gold and the muscles is more than half a line thick. In the same manner, by employing a conducting arc composed of two pieces of zinc and silver soldered together endways; and resting, as before, one of the extremities of the metallic circuit on the femoral nerve, it is necessary, in order to produce contractions, to bring the other extremity of the conductor nearer and nearer to the muscles, in proportion as the irritability of the organs diminishes. Toward the end of the experiment the slightest stratum of water prevents the passage of the electrical current, and it is only by the immediate contact of the arc with the muscles, that the contractions take place. These effects are, however, dependent on three variable circumstances; the energy of the electromotive apparatus, the conductibility of the medium, and the irritability of the organs which receive the impressions: it is because experiments have not been sufficiently multiplied with a view to these three variable elements, that, in the action of electric eels and torpedos, accidental circumstances have been taken for absolute conditions, without which the electric shocks are not felt.
In wounded gymnoti, which give feeble but very equal shocks, these shocks appeared to us constantly stronger on touching the body of the fish with a hand armed with metal, than with the naked hand. They are stronger also, when, instead of touching the fish with one hand, naked, or armed with metal, we press it at once with both hands, either naked or armed. These differences become sensible only when one has gymnoti enough at disposal to be able to choose the weakest; and when the extreme equality of the electric discharges admits of distinguishing between the sensations felt alternately by the hand naked or armed with a metal, by one or both hands naked, and by one or both hands armed with metal. It is also in the case only of small shocks, feeble and uniform, that they are more sensible on touching the gymnotus with one hand (without forming a chain) with zinc, than with copper or iron.
Resinous substances, glass, very dry wood, horn, and even bones, which are generally believed to be good conductors, prevent the action of the gymnoti from being transmitted to man. I was surprised at not feeling the least shock on pressing wet sticks of sealing-wax against the organs of the fish, while the same animal gave me the most violent strokes, when excited by means of a metallic rod. M. Bonpland received shocks, when carrying a gymnotus on two cords of the fibres of the palm-tree, which appeared to us extremely dry. A strong discharge makes its way through very imperfect conductors. Perhaps also the obstacle which the conductor presents renders the discharge more painful. I touched the gymnotus with a wet pot of brown clay, without effect; yet I received violent shocks when I carried the gymnotus in the same pot, because the contact was greater.
When two persons, insulated or otherwise, hold each other’s hands, and only one of these persons touches the fish with the hand, either naked or armed with metal, the shock is most commonly felt by both at once. However, it sometimes happens that, in the most severe shocks, the person who comes into immediate contact with the fish alone feels them. When the gymnotus is exhausted, or in a very reduced state of excitability, and will no longer emit strokes on being irritated with one hand, the shocks are felt in a very vivid manner, on forming the chain, and employing both hands. Even then, however, the electric shock takes place only at the will of the animal. Two persons, one of whom holds the tail, and the other the head, cannot, by joining hands and forming a chain, force the gymnotus to dart his stroke.
Though employing the most delicate electrometers in various ways, insulating them on a plate of glass, and receiving very strong shocks which passed through the electrometer, I could never discover any phenomenon of attraction or repulsion. The same observation was made by M. Fahlberg at Stockholm. That philosopher, however, has seen an electric spark, as Walsh and Ingenhousz had before him, in London, by placing the gymnotus in the air, and interrupting the conducting chain by two gold leaves pasted upon glass, and a line distant from each other. No person, on the contrary, has ever perceived a spark issue from the body of the fish itself. We irritated it for a long time during the night, at Calabozo, in perfect darkness, without observing any luminous appearance. Having placed four gymnoti, of unequal strength, in such a manner as to receive the shocks of the most vigorous fish by contact, that is to say, by touching only one of the other fishes, I did not observe that these last were agitated at the moment when the current passed their bodies. Perhaps the current did not penetrate below the humid surface of the skin. We will not, however, conclude from this, that the gymnoti are insensible to electricity; and that they cannot fight with each other at the bottom of the pools. Their nervous system must be subject to the same agents as the nerves of other animals. I have indeed seen, that, on laying open their nerves, they undergo muscular contractions at the mere contact of two opposite metals; and M. Fahlberg, of Stockholm, found that his gymnotus was convulsively agitated when placed in a copper vessel, and feeble discharges from a Leyden jar passed through its skin.
After the experiments I had made on gymnoti, it became highly interesting to me, on my return to Europe, to ascertain with precision the various circumstances in which another electric fish, the torpedo of our seas, gives or does not give shocks. Though this fish had been examined by numerous men of science, I found all that had been published on its electrical effects extremely vague. It has been very arbitrarily supposed, that this fish acts like a Leyden jar, which may be discharged at will, by touching it with both hands; and this supposition appears to have led into error observers who have devoted themselves to researches of this kind. M. Gay–Lussac and myself, during our journey to Italy, made a great number of experiments on torpedos taken in the gulf of Naples. These experiments furnish many results somewhat different from those I collected on the gymnoti. It is probable that the cause of these anomalies is owing rather to the inequality of electric power in the two fishes, than to the different disposition of their organs.
Though the power of the torpedo cannot be compared with that of the gymnotus, it is sufficient to cause very painful sensations. A person accustomed to electric shocks can with difficulty hold in his hands a torpedo of twelve or fourteen inches, and in possession of all its vigour. When the torpedo gives only very feeble strokes under water, they become more sensible if the animal be raised above the surface. I have often observed the same phenomenon in experimenting on frogs.
The torpedo moves the pectoral fins convulsively every time it emits a stroke; and this stroke is more or less painful, according as the immediate contact takes place by a greater or less surface. We observed that the gymnotus gives the strongest shocks without making any movement with the eyes, head, or fins.* Is this difference caused by the position of the electric organ, which is not double in the gymnoti? or does the movement of the pectoral fins of the torpedo directly prove that the fish restores the electrical equilibrium by its own skin, discharges itself by its own body, and that we generally feel only the effect of a lateral shock?
[* The anal fin of the gymnoti only has a sensible motion when these fishes are excited under the belly, where the electric organ is placed.]
We cannot discharge at will either a torpedo or a gymnotus, as we discharge at will a Leyden jar or a Voltaic battery. A shock is not always felt, even on touching the electric fish with both hands. We must irritate it to make it give the shock. This action in the torpedos, as well as in the gymnoti, is a vital action; it depends on the will only of the animal, which perhaps does not always keep its electric organs charged, or does not always employ the action of its nerves to establish the chain between the positive and negative poles. It is certain that the torpedo gives a long series of shocks with astonishing celerity; whether it is that the plates or laminae of its organs are not wholly exhausted, or that the fish recharges them instantaneously.
The electric stroke is felt, when the animal is disposed to give it, whether we touch with a single finger only one of the surfaces of the organs, or apply both hands to the two surfaces, the superior and inferior, at once. In either case it is altogether indifferent whether the person who touches the fish with one finger or both hands be insulated or not. All that has been said on the necessity of a communication with the damp ground to establish a circuit, is founded on inaccurate observations.
M. Gay–Lussac made the important observation that when an insulated person touches the torpedo with one finger, it is indispensible that the contact be direct. The fish may with impunity be touched with a key, or any other metallic instrument; no shock is felt when a conducting or non-conducting body is interposed between the finger and the electrical organ of the torpedo. This circumstance proves a great difference between the torpedo and the gymnotus, the latter giving his strokes through an iron rod several feet long.
When the torpedo is placed on a metallic plate of very little thickness, so that the plate touches the inferior surface of the organs, the hand that supports the plate never feels any shock, though another insulated person may excite the animal, and the convulsive movement of the pectoral fins may denote the strongest and most reiterated discharges.
If, on the contrary, a person support the torpedo placed upon a metallic plate, with the left hand, as in the foregoing experiment, and the same person touch the superior surface of the electrical organ with the right hand, a strong shock is then felt in both arms. The sensation is the same when the fish is placed between two metallic plates, the edges of which do not touch, and the person applies both hands at once to these plates. The interposition of one metallic plate prevents the communication if that plate be touched with one hand only, while the interposition of two metallic plates does not prevent the shock when both hands are applied. In the latter case it cannot be doubted that the circulation of the fluid is established by the two arms.
If, in this situation of the fish between two plates, there exist any immediate communication between the edges of these two plates, no shock takes place. The chain between the two surfaces of the electric organ is then formed by the plates, and the new communication, established by the contact of the two hands with the two plates, remains without effect. We carried the torpedo with impunity between two plates of metal, and felt the strokes it gave only at the instant when they ceased to touch each other at the edges.
Nothing in the torpedo or in the gymnotus indicates that the animal modifies the electrical state of the bodies by which it is surrounded. The most delicate electrometer is no way affected in whatever manner it is employed, whether bringing it near the organs or insulating the fish, covering it with a metallic plate, and causing the plate to communicate by a conducting wire with the condenser of Volta. We were at great pains to vary the experiments by which we sought to render the electrical tension of the torpedo sensible; but they were constantly without effect, and perfectly confirmed what M. Bonpland and myself had observed respecting the gymnoti, during our abode in South America.
Electrical fishes, when very vigorous, act with equal energy under water and in the air. This observation led us to examine the conducting property of water; and we found that, when several persons form the chain between the superior and inferior surface of the organs of the torpedo, the shock is felt only when these persons join hands. The action is not intercepted if two persons, who support the torpedo with their right hands, instead of taking one another by the left hand, plunge each a metallic point into a drop of water placed on an insulating substance. On substituting flame for the drop of water, the communication is interrupted, and is only re-established, as in the gymnotus, when the two points immediately touch each other in the interior of the flame.
We are, doubtless, very far from having discovered all the secrets of the electrical action of fishes which is modified by the influence of the brain and the nerves; but the experiments we have just described are sufficient to prove that these fishes act by a concealed electricity, and by electromotive organs of a peculiar construction, which are recharged with extreme rapidity. Volta admits that the discharges of the opposite electricities in the torpedos and the gymnoti are made by their own skin, and that when we touch them with one hand only, or by means of a metallic point, we feel the effect of a lateral shock, the electrical current not being directed solely the shortest way. When a Leyden jar is placed on a wet woollen cloth (which is a bad conductor), and the jar is discharged in such a manner that the cloth makes part of the chain, prepared frogs, placed at different distances, indicate by their contractions that the current spreads itself over the whole cloth in a thousand different ways. According to this analogy, the most violent shock given by the gymnotus at a distance would be but a feeble part of the stroke which re-establishes the equilibrium in the interior of the fish.* As the gymnotus directs its stroke wherever it pleases, it must also be admitted that the discharge is not made by the whole skin at once, but that the animal, excited perhaps by the motion of a fluid poured into one part of the cellular membrane, establishes at will the communication between its organs and some particular part of the skin. It may be conceived that a lateral stroke, out of the direct current, must become imperceptible under the two conditions of a very weak discharge, or a very great obstacle presented by the nature and length of the conductor. Notwithstanding these considerations, it appears to me very surprising that shocks of the torpedo, strong in appearance, are not propagated to the hand when a very thin plate of metal is interposed between it and the fish.
[* The heterogeneous poles of the double electrical organs must exist in each organ. Mr. Todd has recently proved, by experiments made on torpedos at the Cape of Good Hope, that the animal continues to give violent shocks when one of these organs is extirpated. On the contrary, all electrical action is stopped (and this point, as elucidated by Galvani, is of the greatest importance) if injury be inflicted on the brain, or if the nerves which supply the plates of the electrical organs be divided. In the latter case, the nerves being cut, and the brain left untouched, the torpedo continues to live, and perform every muscular movement. A fish, exhausted by too numerous electrical discharges, suffered much more than another fish deprived, by dividing the nerves, of any communication between the brain and the electromotive apparatus. Philosophical Transactions 1816.]
Schilling declared that the gymnotus approached the magnet involuntarily. We tried in a thousand ways this supposed influence of the magnet on the electrical organs, without having ever observed any sensible effect. The fish no more approached the magnet, than a bar of iron not magnetic. Iron-filings, thrown on its back, remained motionless.
The gymnoti, which are objects of curiosity and of the deepest interest to the philosophers of Europe, are at once dreaded and detested by the natives. They furnish, indeed, in their muscular flesh, pretty good aliment; but the electric organ fills the greater part of their body, and this organ is slimy, and disagreeable to the taste; it is accordingly separated with care from the rest of the eel. The presence of gymnoti is also considered as the principal cause of the want of fish in the ponds and pools of the Llanos. They, however, kill many more than they devour: and the Indians told us, that when young alligators and gymnoti are caught at the same time in very strong nets, the latter never show the slightest trace of a wound, because they disable the young alligators before they are attacked by them. All the inhabitants of the waters dread the society of the gymnoti. Lizards, tortoises, and frogs, seek pools where they are secure from the electric action. It became necessary to change the direction of a road near Uritucu, because the electric eels were so numerous in one river, that they every year killed a great number of mules, as they forded the water with their burdens.
Though in the present state of our knowledge we may flatter ourselves with having thrown some light on the extraordinary effects of electric fishes, yet a vast number of physical and physiological researches still remain to be made. The brilliant results which chemistry has obtained by means of the Voltaic battery, have occupied all observers, and turned attention for some time from the examinations of the phenomena of vitality. Let us hope that these phenomena, the most awful and the most mysterious of all, will in their turn occupy the earnest attention of natural philosophers. This hope will be easily realized if they succeed in procuring anew living gymnoti in some one of the great capitals of Europe. The discoveries that will be made on the electromotive apparatus of these fish, much more energetic, and more easy of preservation, than the torpedos,* will extend to all the phenomena of muscular motion subject to volition. It will perhaps be found that, in most animals, every contraction of the muscular fibre is preceded by a discharge from the nerve into the muscle; and that the mere simple contact of heterogeneous substances is a source of movement and of life in all organized beings. Did an ingenious and lively people, the Arabians, guess from remote antiquity, that the same force which inflames the vault of Heaven in storms, is the living and invisible weapon of inhabitants of the waters? It is said, that the electric fish of the Nile bears a name in Egypt, that signifies thunder.*
[* In order to investigate the phenomena of the living electromotive apparatus in its greatest simplicity, and not to mistake for general conditions circumstances which depend on the degree of energy of the electric organs, it is necessary to perform the experiments on those electrical fishes most easily tamed. If the gymnoti were not known, we might suppose, from the observations made on torpedos, that fishes cannot give their shocks from a distance through very thick strata of water, or through a bar of iron, without forming a circuit. Mr. Williamson has felt strong shocks when he held only one hand in the water, and this hand, without touching the gymnotus, was placed between it and the small fish towards which the stroke was directed from ten or fifteen inches distance. Philosophical Transactions volume 65 pages 99 and 108. When the gymnotus was enfeebled by bad health, the lateral shock was imperceptible; and in order to feel the shock, it was necessary to form a chain, and touch the fish with both hands at once. Cavendish, in his ingenious experiments on an artificial torpedo, had well remarked these differences, depending on the greater or less energy of the charge. Philosophical Transactions 1776 page 212.]
[* It appears, however, that a distinction is to be made between rahd, thunder, and rahadh, the electrical fish; and that this latter word means simply that which causes trembling.]
We left the town of Calabozo on the 24th of March, highly satisfied with our stay, and the experiments we had made on an object so worthy of the attention of physiologists. I had besides obtained some good observations of the stars; and discovered with surprise, that the errors of maps amounted here also to a quarter of a degree of latitude. No person had taken an observation before me on this spot; and geographers, magnifying as usual the distance from the coast to the islands, have carried back beyond measure all the localities towards the south.
As we advanced into the southern part of the Llanos, we found the ground more dusty, more destitute of herbage, and more cracked by the effect of long drought. The palm-trees disappeared by degrees. The thermometer kept, from eleven in the morning till sunset, at 34 or 35°. The calmer the air appeared at eight or ten feet high, the more we were enveloped in those whirlwinds of dust, caused by the little currents of air that sweep the ground. About four o’clock in the afternoon, we found a young Indian girl stretched upon the savannah. She was almost in a state of nudity, and appeared to be about twelve or thirteen years of age. Exhausted with fatigue and thirst, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth filled with dust, she breathed with a rattling in her throat, and was unable to answer our questions. A pitcher, overturned, and half filled with sand, was lying at her side. Happily one of our mules was laden with water; and we roused the girl from her lethargic state by bathing her face, and forcing her to drink a few drops of wine. She was at first alarmed on seeing herself surrounded by so many persons; but by degrees she took courage, and conversed with our guides. She judged, from the position of the sun, that she must have remained during several hours in that state of lethargy. We could not prevail on her to mount one of our beasts of burden, and she would not return to Uritucu. She had been in service at a neighbouring farm; and she had been discharged, because at the end of a long sickness she was less able to work than before. Our menaces and prayers were alike fruitless; insensible to suffering, like the rest of her race, she persisted in her resolution of going to one of the Indian Missions near the city of Calabozo. We removed the sand from her pitcher, and filled it with water. She resumed her way along the steppe, before we had remounted our horses, and was soon separated from us by a cloud of dust. During the night we forded the Rio Uritucu, which abounds with a breed of crocodiles remarkable for their ferocity. We were advised to prevent our dogs from going to drink in the rivers, for it often happens that the crocodiles of Uritucu come out of the water, and pursue dogs upon the shore. This intrepidity is so much the more striking, as at eight leagues distance, the crocodiles of the Rio Tisnao are extremely timid, and little dangerous. The manners of animals vary in the same species according to local circumstances difficult to be determined. We were shown a hut, or rather a kind of shed, in which our host of Calabozo, Don Miguel Cousin, had witnessed a very extraordinary scene. Sleeping with one of his friends on a bench or couch covered with leather, Don Miguel was awakened early in the morning by a violent shaking and a horrible noise. Clods of earth were thrown into the middle of the hut. Presently a young crocodile two or three feet long issued from under the bed, darted at a dog which lay on the threshold of the door, and, missing him in the impetuosity of his spring, ran towards the beach to gain the river. On examining the spot where the barbacoa, or couch, was placed, the cause of this strange adventure was easily discovered. The ground was disturbed to a considerable depth. It was dried mud, which had covered the crocodile in that state of lethargy, or summer-sleep, in which many of the species lie during the absence of the rains in the Llanos. The noise of men and horses, perhaps the smell of the dog, had aroused the crocodile. The hut being built at the edge of the pool, and inundated during part of the year, the crocodile had no doubt entered, at the time of the inundation of the savannahs, by the same opening at which it was seen to go out. The Indians often find enormous boas, which they call uji, or water-serpents,* in the same lethargic state. To reanimate them, they must be irritated, or wetted with water. Boas are killed, and immersed in the streams, to obtain, by means of putrefaction, the tendinous parts of the dorsal muscles, of which excellent guitar-strings are made at Calabozo, preferable to those furnished by the intestines of the alouate monkeys.
[* Culebra de agua, named by the common people traga-venado, the swallower of stags. The word uji belongs to the Tamanac language.]
The drought and heat of the Llanos act like cold upon animals and plants. Beyond the tropics the trees lose their leaves in a very dry air. Reptiles, particularly crocodiles and boas, having very indolent habits, leave with reluctance the basins in which they have found water at the period of great inundations. In proportion as the pools become dry, these animals penetrate into the mud, to seek that degree of humidity which gives flexibility to their skin and integuments. In this state of repose they are seized with stupefaction; but possibly they preserve a communication with the external air; and, however little that communication may be, it possibly suffices to keep up the respiration of an animal of the saurian family, provided with enormous pulmonary sacs, exerting no muscular motion, and in which almost all the vital functions are suspended. It is probable that the mean temperature of the dried mud, exposed to the solar rays, is more than 40°. When the north of Egypt, where the coolest month does not fall below 13.4°, was inhabited by crocodiles, they were often found torpid with cold. They were subject to a winter-sleep, like the European frog, lizard, sand-martin, and marmot. If the hibernal lethargy be observed, both in cold-blooded and in hot-blooded animals, we shall be less surprised to learn, that these two classes furnish alike examples of a summer-sleep. In the same manner as the crocodiles of South America, the tanrecs, or Madagascar hedgehogs, in the midst of the torrid zone, pass three months of the year in lethargy.
On the 25th of March we traversed the smoothest part of the steppes of Caracas, the Mesa de Pavones. It is entirely destitute of the corypha and moriche palm-trees. As far as the eye can reach, not a single object fifteen inches high can be discovered. The air was clear, and the sky of a very deep blue; but the horizon reflected a livid and yellowish light, caused no doubt by the quantity of sand suspended in the atmosphere. We met some large herds of cattle, and with them flocks of birds of a black colour with an olive shade. They are of the genus Crotophaga,* and follow the cattle. We had often seen them perched on the backs of cows, seeking for gadflies and other insects. Like many birds of these desert places, they fear so little the approach of man, that children often catch them in their hands. In the valleys of Aragua, where they are very common, we have seen them perch upon the hammocks on which we were reposing, in open day.
[* The Spanish colonists call the Crotophaga ani, zamurito (little carrion vulture — Vultur aura minuta), or garapatero, the eater of garaparas, insects of the Acarus family.]
We discover, between Calabozo, Uritucu, and the Mesa de Pavones, wherever there are excavations of some feet deep, the geological constitution of the Llanos. A formation of red sandstone (ancient conglomerate) covers an extent of several thousand square leagues. We shall find it again in the vast plains of the Amazon, on the eastern boundary of the province of Jaen de Bracamoros. This prodigious extension of red sandstone in the low grounds stretching along the east of the Andes, is one of the most striking phenomena I observed during my examination of rocks in the equinoctial regions.
The red sandstone of the Llanos of Caracas lies in a concave position, between the primitive mountains of the shore and of Parime. On the north it is backed by the transition-slates,* and on the south it rests immediately on the granites of the Orinoco. We observed in it rounded fragments of quartz (kieselschiefer), and Lydian stone, cemented by an olive-brown ferruginous clay. The cement is sometimes of so bright a red that the people of the country take it for cinnabar. We met a Capuchin monk at Calabozo, who was in vain attempting to extract mercury from this red sandstone. In the Mesa de Paja this rock contains strata of another quartzose sandstone, very fine-grained; more to the south it contains masses of brown iron, and fragments of petrified trees of the monocotyledonous family, but we did not see in it any shells. The red sandstone, called by the Llaneros, the stone of the reefs (piedra de arrecifes), is everywhere covered with a stratum of clay. This clay, dried and hardened in the sun, splits into separate prismatic pieces with five or six sides. Does it belong to the trap-formation of Parapara? It becomes thicker, and mixed with sand, as we approach the Rio Apure; for near Calabozo it is one toise thick, near the mission of Guayaval five toises, which may lead to the belief that the strata of red sandstone dips towards the south. We gathered in the Mesa de Pavones little nodules of blue iron-ore disseminated in the clay.
[* At Malpaso and Piedras Azules.]
A dense whitish-gray limestone, with a smooth fracture, somewhat analogous to that of Caripe, and consequently to that of Jura, lies on the red sandstone between Tisnao and Calabozo.* In several other places, for instance in the Mesa de San Diego, and between Ortiz and the Mesa de Paja,* we find above the limestone lamellar gypsum alternating with strata of marl. Considerable quantities of this gypsum are sent to the city of Caracas,* which is situated amidst primitive mountains.
[* Does this formation of secondary limestone of the Llanos contain galena? It has been found in strata of black marl, at Barbacoa, between Truxillo and Barquesimeto, north-west of the Llanos.]
[* Also near Cachipe and San Joacquim, in the Llanos of Barcelona.]
[* This trade is carried on at Parapara. A load of eight arrobas sells at Caracas for twenty-four piastres.]
This gypsum generally forms only small beds, and is mixed with a great deal of fibrous gypsum. Is it of the same formation as that of Guire, on the coast of Paria, which contains sulphur? or do the masses of this latter substance, found in the valley of Buen Pastor and on the banks of the Orinoco, belong, with the argillaceous gypsum of the Llanos, to a secondary formation much more recent.
These questions are very interesting in the study of the relative antiquity of rocks, which is the principal basis of geology. I know not of any salt-deposits in the Llanos. Horned cattle prosper here without those famous bareros, or muriatiferous lands, which abound in the Pampas of Buenos Ayres.*
[* Known in North America under the name of salt-licks.]
After having wandered for a long time, and without any traces of a road, in the desert savannahs of the Mesa de Pavones, we were agreeably surprised when we came to a solitary farm, the Hato de Alta Gracia, surrounded with gardens and basins of limpid water. Hedges of bead-trees encircled groups of icacoes laden with fruit. Farther on we passed the night near the small village of San Geronymo del Guayaval, founded by Capuchin missionaries. It is situated near the banks of the Rio Guarico, which falls into the Apure. I visited the missionary, who had no other habitation than his church, not having yet built a house. He was a young man, and he received us in the most obliging manner, giving us all the information we desired. His village, or to use the word established among the monks, his Mission, was not easy to govern. The founder, who had not hesitated to establish for his own profit a pulperia, in other words, to sell bananas and guarapo in the church itself, had shown himself to be not very nice in the choice of the new colonists. Many marauders of the Llanos had settled at Guayaval, because the inhabitants of a Mission are exempt from the authority of secular law. Here, as in Australia, it cannot be expected that good colonists will be formed before the second or third generation.
We passed the Guarico, and encamped in the savannahs south of Guayaval. Enormous bats, no doubt of the tribe of Phyllostomas, hovered as usual over our hammocks during a great part of the night. Every moment they seemed to be about to fasten on our faces. Early in the morning we pursued our way over low grounds, often inundated. In the season of rains, a boat may be navigated, as on a lake, between the Guarico and the Apure. We arrived on the 27th of March at the Villa de San Fernando, the capital of the Mission of the Capuchins in the province of Varinas. This was the termination of our journey over the Llanos; for we passed the three months of April, May, and June on the rivers.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10