Till the second half of the eighteenth century the names of the great rivers Apure, Arauca, and Meta were scarcely known in Europe: certainly less than they had been in the two preceding centuries, when the valiant Felipe de Urre and the conquerors of Tocuyo traversed the Llanos, to seek, beyond the Apure, the great legendary city of El Dorado, and the rich country of the Omeguas, the Timbuctoo of the New Continent. Such daring expeditions could not be carried out without all the apparatus of war; and the weapons, which had been destined for the defence of the new colonists, were employed without intermission against the unhappy natives. When more peaceful times succeeded to those of violence and public calamity, two powerful Indian tribes, the Cabres and the Caribs of the Orinoco, made themselves masters of the country which the Conquistadores had ceased to ravage. None but poor monks were then permitted to advance to the south of the steppes. Beyond the Uritucu an unknown world opened to the Spanish colonists; and the descendants of those intrepid warriors who had extended their conquests from Peru to the coasts of New Grenada and the mouth of the Amazon, knew not the roads that lead from Coro to the Rio Meta. The shore of Venezuela remained a separate country; and the slow conquests of the Jesuit missionaries were successful only by skirting the banks of the Orinoco. These fathers had already penetrated beyond the great cataracts of Atures and Maypures, when the Andalusian Capuchins had scarcely reached the plains of Calabozo, from the coast and the valleys of Aragua. It would be difficult to explain these contrasts by the system according to which the different monastic orders are governed; for the aspect of the country contributes powerfully to the more or less rapid progress of the Missions. They extend but slowly into the interior of the land, over mountains, or in steppes, wherever they do not follow the course of a particular river. It will scarcely be believed, that the Villa de Fernando de Apure, only fifty leagues distant in a direct line from that part of the coast of Caracas which has been longest inhabited, was founded at no earlier a date than 1789. We were shown a parchment, full of fine paintings, containing the privileges of this little town. The parchment was sent from Madrid at the solicitation of the monks, whilst yet only a few huts of reeds were to be seen around a great cross raised in the centre of the hamlet. The missionaries and the secular governments being alike interested in exaggerating in Europe what they have done to augment the culture and population of the provinces beyond the sea, it often happens that names of towns and villages are placed on the list of new conquests, long before their foundation.
The situation of San Fernando, on a large navigable river, near the mouth of another river which traverses the whole province of Varinas, is extremely advantageous for trade. Every production of that province, hides, cacao, cotton, and the indigo of Mijagual, which is of the first quality, passes through this town towards the mouths of the Orinoco. During the season of rains large vessels go from Angostura as far as San Fernando de Apure, and by the Rio Santo Domingo as far as Torunos, the port of the town of Varinas. At that period the inundations of the rivers, which form a labyrinth of branches between the Apure, the Arauca, the Capanaparo, and the Sinaruco, cover a country of nearly four hundred square leagues. At this point, the Orinoco, turned aside from its course, not by neighbouring mountains, but by the rising of counterslopes, runs eastward instead of following its previous direction in the line of the meridian. Considering the surface of the globe as a polyhedron, formed of planes variously inclined, we may conceive by the mere inspection of the maps, that the intersection of these slopes, rising towards the north, the west, and south,* between San Fernando de Apure, Caycara, and the mouth of the Meta, must cause a considerable depression. The savannahs in this basin are covered with twelve or fourteen feet of water, and present, at the period of rains, the aspect of a great lake. The farms and villages which seem as if situated on shoals, scarcely rise two or three feet above the surface of the water. Everything here calls to mind the inundations of Lower Egypt, and the lake of Xarayes, heretofore so celebrated among geographers, though it exists only during some months of the year. The swellings of the rivers Apure, Meta, and Orinoco, are also periodical. In the rainy season, the horses that wander in the savannah, and have not time to reach the rising grounds of the Llanos, perish by hundreds. The mares are seen, followed by their colts,* swimming during a part of the day to feed upon the grass, the tops of which alone wave above the waters. (The colts are drowned everywhere in large numbers, because they are sooner tired of swimming, and strive to follow the mares in places where the latter alone can touch the ground.) In this state they are pursued by the crocodiles, and it is by no means uncommon to find the prints of the teeth of these carnivorous reptiles on their thighs. The carcases of horses, mules, and cows, attract an innumerable quantity of vultures. The zamuros are the ibisis of this country, and they render the same service to the inhabitants of the Llanos as the Vultur percnopterus to the inhabitants of Egypt.
[* The risings towards the north and west are connected with two lines of ridges, the mountains of Villa de Cura and of Merida. The third slope, running from north to south, is that of the land-strait between the Andes and the chain of Parime. It determines the general inclination of the Orinoco, from the mouth of the Guaviare to that of the Apure.]
We cannot reflect on the effects of these inundations without admiring the prodigious pliability of the organization of the animals which man has subjected to his sway. In Greenland the dog eats the refuse of the fisheries; and when fish are wanting, feeds on seaweed. The ass and the horse, originally natives of the cold and barren plains of Upper Asia, follow man to the New World, return to the wild state, and lead a restless and weary life in the burning climates of the tropics. Pressed alternately by excess of drought and of humidity, they sometimes seek a pool in the midst of a bare and dusty plain, to quench their thirst; and at other times flee from water, and the overflowing rivers, as menaced by an enemy that threatens them on all sides. Tormented during the day by gadflies and mosquitos, the horses, mules, and cows find themselves attacked at night by enormous bats, which fasten on their backs, and cause wounds that become dangerous, because they are filled with acaridae and other hurtful insects. In the time of great drought the mules gnaw even the thorny cactus* in order to imbibe its cooling juice, and draw it forth as from a vegetable fountain. During the great inundations these same animals lead an amphibious life, surrounded by crocodiles, water-serpents, and manatees. Yet, such are the immutable laws of nature, that their races are preserved in the struggle with the elements, and amid so many sufferings and dangers. When the waters retire, and the rivers return again into their beds, the savannah is overspread with a beautiful scented grass; and the animals of Europe and Upper Asia seem to enjoy, as in their native climes, the renewed vegetation of spring.
[* The asses are particularly adroit in extracting the moisture contained in the Cactus melocatus. They push aside the thorns with their hoofs; but sometimes lame themselves in performing this feat.]
During the time of great floods, the inhabitants of these countries, to avoid the force of the currents, and the danger arising from the trunks of trees which these currents bring down, instead of ascending the beds of rivers in their boats, cross the savannahs. To go from San Fernando to the villages of San Juan de Payara, San Raphael de Atamaica, or San Francisco de Capanaparo, they direct their course due south, as if they were crossing a single river of twenty leagues broad. The junctions of the Guarico, the Apure, the Cabullare, and the Arauca with the Orinoco, form, at a hundred and sixty leagues from the coast of Guiana, a kind of interior Delta, of which hydrography furnishes few examples in the Old World. According to the height of the mercury in the barometer, the waters of the Apure have only a fall of thirty-four toises from San Fernando to the sea. The fall from the mouths of the Osage and the Missouri to the bar of the Mississippi is not more considerable. The savannahs of Lower Louisiana everywhere remind us of the savannahs of the Lower Orinoco.
During our stay of three days in the little town of San Fernando, we lodged with the Capuchin missionary, who lived much at his ease. We were recommended to him by the bishop of Caracas, and he showed us the most obliging attention. He consulted me on the works that had been undertaken to prevent the flood from undermining the shore on which the town was built. The flowing of the Portuguesa into the Apure gives the latter an impulse towards south-east; and, instead of procuring a freer course for the river, attempts were made to confine it by dykes and piers. It was easy to predict that these would be rapidly destroyed by the swell of the waters, the shore having been weakened by taking away the earth from behind the dyke to employ it in these hydraulic constructions.
San Fernando is celebrated for the excessive heat which prevails there the greater part of the year; and before I begin the recital of our long navigation on the rivers, I shall relate some facts calculated to throw light on the meteorology of the tropics. We went, provided with thermometers, to the flat shores covered with white sand which border the river Apure. At two in the afternoon I found the sand, wherever it was exposed to the sun, at 52.5°. The instrument, raised eighteen inches above the sand, marked 42.8°, and at six feet high 38.7°. The temperature of the air under the shade of a ceiba was 36.2°. These observations were made during a dead calm. As soon as the wind began to blow, the temperature of the air rose 3° higher, yet we were not enveloped by a wind of sand, but the strata of air had been in contact with a soil more strongly heated, or through which whirlwinds of sand had passed. This western part of the Llanos is the hottest, because it receives air that has already crossed the rest of the barren steppe. The same difference has been observed between the eastern and western parts of the deserts of Africa, where the trade-winds blow.
The heat augments sensibly in the Llanos during the rainy season, particularly in the month of July, when the sky is cloudy, and reflects the radiant heat toward the earth. During this season the breeze entirely ceases; and, according to good thermometrical observations made by M. Pozo, the thermometer rises in the shade to 39 and 39.5°, though kept at the distance of more than fifteen feet from the ground. As we approached the banks of the Portuguesa, the Apure, and the Apurito, the air became cooler from the evaporation of so considerable a mass of water. This effect is more especially perceptible at sunset. During the day the shores of the rivers, covered with white sand, reflect the heat in an insupportable degree, even more than the yellowish brown clayey grounds of Calabozo and Tisnao.
On the 28th of March I was on the shore at sunrise to measure the breadth of the Apure, which is two hundred and six toises. The thunder rolled in all directions around. It was the first storm and the first rain of the season. The river was swelled by the easterly wind; but it soon became calm, and then some great cetacea, much resembling the porpoises of our seas, began to play in long files on the surface of the water. The slow and indolent crocodiles seem to dread the neighbourhood of these animals, so noisy and impetuous in their evolutions, for we saw them dive whenever they approached. It is a very extraordinary phenomenon to find cetacea at such a distance from the coast. The Spaniards of the Missions designate them, as they do the porpoises of the ocean, by the name of toninas. The Tamanacs call them orinucna. They are three or four feet long; and bending their back, and pressing with their tail on the inferior strata of the water, they expose to view a part of the back and of the dorsal fin. I did not succeed in obtaining any, though I often engaged Indians to shoot at them with their arrows. Father Gili asserts that the Gumanos eat their flesh. Are these cetacea peculiar to the great rivers of South America, like the manatee, which, according to Cuvier, is also a fresh water cetaceous animal? or must we admit that they go up from the sea against the current, as the beluga sometimes does in the rivers of Asia? What would lead me to doubt this last supposition is, that we saw toninas above the great cataracts of the Orinoco, in the Rio Atabapo. Did they penetrate into the centre of equinoctial America from the mouth of the Amazon, by the communication of that river with the Rio Negro, the Cassiquiare, and the Orinoco? They are found here at all seasons, and nothing seems to denote that they make periodical migrations like salmon.
While the thunder rolled around us, the sky displayed only scattered clouds, that advanced slowly toward the zenith, and in an opposite direction. The hygrometer of Deluc was at 53°, the centigrade thermometer 23.7°, and Saussure’s hygrometer 87.5°. The electrometer gave no sign of electricity. As the storm gathered, the blue of the sky changed at first to deep azure and then to grey. The vesicular vapour became visible, and the thermometer rose three degrees, as is almost always the case, within the tropics, from a cloudy sky which reflects the radiant heat of the soil. A heavy rain fell. Being sufficiently habituated to the climate not to fear the effect of tropical rains, we remained on the shore to observe the electrometer. I held it more than twenty minutes in my hand, six feet above the ground, and observed that in general the pith-balls separated only a few seconds before the lightning was seen. The separation was four lines. The electric charge remained the same during several minutes; and having time to determine the nature of the electricity, by approaching a stick of sealing-wax, I saw here what I had often observed on the ridge of the Andes during a storm, that the electricity of the atmosphere was first positive, then nil, and then negative. These oscillations from positive to negative were often repeated. Yet the electrometer constantly denoted, a little before the lightning, only E., or positive E., and never negative E. Towards the end of the storm the west wind blew very strongly. The clouds dispersed, and the thermometer sunk to 22° on account of the evaporation from the soil, and the freer radiation towards the sky.
I have entered into these details on the electric charge of the atmosphere because travellers in general confine themselves to the description of the impressions produced on a European newly arrived by the solemn spectacle of a tropical storm. In a country where the year is divided into great seasons of drought and wet, or, as the Indians say in their expressive language, of sun* and rain*, it is highly interesting to follow the progress of meteorological phenomena in the transition from one season to another. We had already observed, in the valleys of Aragua from the 18th and 19th of February, clouds forming at the commencement of the night. In the beginning of the month of March the accumulation of the vesicular vapours, visible to the eye, and with them signs of atmospheric electricity, augmented daily. We saw flashes of heat-lightning to the south; and the electrometer of Volta constantly displayed, at sunset, positive electricity. The pith balls, unexcited during the day, separated to the width of three or four lines at the commencement of the night, which is triple what I generally observed in Europe, with the same instrument, in calm weather. Upon the whole, from the 26th of May, the electrical equilibrium of the atmosphere seemed disturbed. During whole hours the electricity was nil, then it became very strong, and soon after was again imperceptible. The hygrometer of Deluc continued to indicate great dryness (from 33 to 35°), and yet the atmosphere appeared no longer the same. Amidst these perpetual variations of the electric state of the air, the trees, divested of their foliage, already began to unfold new leaves, and seemed to feel the approach of spring.
[* In the Maypure dialect camoti, properly the heat [of the sun]. The Tamanacs call the season of drought uamu, the time of grasshoppers.]
[* In the Tamanac language canepo. The year is designated, among several nations, by the name of one of the two seasons. The Maypures say, so many suns, (or rather so many heats;) the Tamanacs, so many rains.]
The variations which we have just described are not peculiar to one year. Everything in the equinoctial zone has a wonderful uniformity of succession, because the active powers of nature limit and balance each other, according to laws that are easily recognized. I shall here note the progress of atmospherical phenomena in the islands to the east of the Cordilleras of Merida and of New Grenada, in the Llanos of Venezuela and the Rio Meta, from four to ten degrees of north latitude, wherever the rains are constant from May to October, and comprehending consequently the periods of the greatest heats, which occur in July and August.*
[* The maximum of the heat is not felt on the coast, at Cumana, at La Guayra, and in the neighbouring island of Margareta, before the month of September; and the rains, if the name can be given to a few drops that fall at intervals, are observed only in the months of October and November.]
Nothing can equal the clearness of the atmosphere from the month of December to that of February. The sky is then constantly without clouds; and if one should appear, it is a phenomenon that engages the whole attention of the inhabitants. A breeze from the east, and from east-north-east, blows with violence. As it brings with it air always of the same temperature, the vapours cannot become visible by cooling.
About the end of February and the beginning of March, the blue of the sky is less intense, the hygrometer indicates by degrees greater humidity, the stars are sometimes veiled by a slight stratum of vapour, and their light is no longer steady and planetary; they are seen twinkling from time to time when at 20° above the horizon. The breeze at this period becomes less strong, less regular, and is often interrupted by dead calms. The clouds accumulate towards south-south-east, appearing like distant mountains, with outlines strongly marked. From time to time they detach themselves from the horizon, and traverse the vault of the sky with a rapidity which little corresponds with the feeble wind prevailing in the lower strata of the air. At the end of March, the southern region of the atmosphere is illumined by small electric explosions. They are like phosphorescent gleams, circumscribed by vapour. The breeze then shifts from time to time, and for several hours together, to the west and south-west. This is a certain sign of the approach of the rainy season, which begins at the Orinoco about the end of April. The blue sky disappears, and a grey tint spreads uniformly over it. At the same time the heat of the atmosphere progressively increases; and soon the heavens are no longer obscured by clouds, but by condensed vapours. The plaintive cry of the howling apes begins to be heard before sunrise. The atmospheric electricity, which, during the season of drought, from December to March, had been constantly, in the day-time, from 1.7 to 2 lines, becomes extremely variable from the month of March. It appears nil during whole days; and then for some hours the pith-balls diverge three or four lines. The atmosphere, which is generally, in the torrid as well as in the temperate zone, in a state of positive electricity, passes alternately, for eight or ten minutes, to the negative state. The season of rains is that of storms; and yet a great number of experiments made during three years, prove to me that it is precisely in this season of storms we find the smallest degree of electric tension in the lower regions of the atmosphere. Are storms the effect of this unequal charge of the different superincumbent strata of air? What prevents the electricity from descending towards the earth, in air which becomes more humid after the month of March? The electricity at this period, instead of being diffused throughout the whole atmosphere, appears accumulated on the exterior envelope, at the surface of the clouds. According to M. Gay–Lussac it is the formation of the cloud itself that carries the fluid toward its surface. The storm rises in the plains two hours after the sun has passed the meridian; consequently a short time after the moment of the maximum of diurnal heat within the tropics. It is extremely rare in the islands to hear thunder during the night, or in the morning. Storms at night are peculiar to certain valleys of rivers, having a peculiar climate.
What then are the causes of this rupture of the equilibrium in the electric tension of the air? of this continual condensation of the vapours into water? of this interruption of the breezes? of this commencement and duration of the rainy seasons? I doubt whether electricity has any influence on the formation of vapours. It is rather the formation of these vapours that augments and modifies the electrical tension. North and south of the equator, storms or great explosions take place at the same time in the temperate and in the equinoctial zone. Is there an action propagated through the great aerial ocean from the temperate zone towards the tropics? How can it be conceived, that in that zone where the sun rises constantly to so great a height above the horizon, its passage through the zenith can have so powerful an influence on the meteorological variations? I am of opinion that no local cause determines the commencement of the rains within the tropics; and that a more intimate knowledge of the higher currents of air will elucidate these problems, so complicated in appearance. We can observe only what passes in the lower strata of the atmosphere. The Andes are scarcely inhabited beyond the height of two thousand toises; and at that height the proximity of the soil, and the masses of mountains, which form the shoals of the aerial ocean, have a sensible influence on the ambient air. What we observe on the table-land of Antisana is not what we should find at the same height in a balloon, hovering over the Llanos or the surface of the ocean.
We have just seen that the season of rains and storms in the northern equinoctial zone coincides with the passage of the sun through the zenith of the place,* with the cessation of the north-east breezes, and with the frequency of calms and bendavales, which are stormy winds from south-east and south-west, accompanied by a cloudy sky. I believe that, in reflecting on the general laws of the equilibrium of the gaseous masses constituting our atmosphere, we may find, in the interruption of the current that blows from an homonymous pole, in the want of the renewal of air in the torrid zone, and in the continued action of an ascending humid current, a very simple cause of the coincidence of these phenomena. While the north-easterly breeze blows with all its violence north of the equator, it prevents the atmosphere which covers the equinoctial lands and seas from saturating itself with moisture. The hot and moist air of the torrid zone rises aloft, and flows off again towards the poles; while inferior polar currents, bringing drier and colder strata, are every instant taking the place of the columns of ascending air. By this constant action of two opposite currents, the humidity, far from being accumulated in the equatorial region, is carried towards the cold and temperate regions. During this season of breezes, which is that when the sun is in the southern signs, the sky in the northern equinoctial zone is constantly serene. The vesicular vapours are not condensed, because the air, unceasingly renewed, is far from the point of saturation. In proportion as the sun, entering the northern signs, rises towards the zenith, the breeze from the north-east moderates, and by degrees entirely ceases. The difference of temperature between the tropics and the temperate northern zone is then the least possible. It is the summer of the boreal pole; and, if the mean temperature of the winter, between 42 and 52° of north latitude, be from 20 to 26° of the centigrade thermometer less than the equatorial heat, the difference in summer is scarcely from 4 to 6°. The sun being in the zenith, and the breeze having ceased, the causes which produce humidity, and accumulate it in the northern equinoctial zone, become at once more active. The column of air reposing on this zone, is saturated with vapours, because it is no longer renewed by the polar current. Clouds form in this air saturated and cooled by the combined effects of radiation and the dilatation of the ascending air. This air augments its capacity for heat in proportion as it rarefies. With the formation and collection of the vesicular vapours, electricity accumulates in the higher regions of the atmosphere. The precipitation of the vapours is continual during the day; but it generally ceases at night, and frequently even before sunset. The showers are regularly more violent, and accompanied with electric explosions, a short time after the maximum of the diurnal heat. This state of things remains unchanged, till the sun enters into the southern signs. This is the commencement of cold in the northern temperate zone. The current from the north-pole is then re-established, because the difference between the heat of the equinoctial and temperate regions augments daily. The north-east breeze blows with violence, the air of the tropics is renewed, and can no longer attain the degree of saturation. The rains consequently cease, the vesicular vapour is dissolved, and the sky resumes its clearness and its azure tint. Electrical explosions are no longer heard, doubtless because electricity no longer comes in contact with the groups of vesicular vapours in the high regions of the air, I had almost said the coating of clouds, on which the fluid can accumulate.
[* These passages take place, in the fifth and tenth degrees of north latitude between the 3rd and the 16th of April, and between the 27th of August and the 8th of September.]
We have here considered the cessation of the breezes as the principal cause of the equatorial rains. These rains in each hemisphere last only as long as the sun has its declination in that hemisphere. It is necessary to observe, that the absence of the breeze is not always succeeded by a dead calm; but that the calm is often interrupted, particularly along the western coast of America, by bendavales, or south-west and south-east winds. This phenomenon seems to demonstrate that the columns of humid air which rise in the northern equatorial zone, sometimes flow off toward the south pole. In fact, the countries situated in the torrid zone, both north and south of the equator, furnish, during their summer, while the sun is passing through their zenith, the maximum of difference of temperature with the air of the opposite pole. The southern temperate zone has its winter, while it rains on the north of the equator; and while a mean heat prevails from 5 to 6° greater than in the time of drought, when the sun is lower.* The continuation of the rains, while the bendavales blow, proves that the currents from the remoter pole do not act in the northern equinoctial zone like the currents of the nearer pole, on account of the greater humidity of the southern polar current. The air, wafted by this current, comes from a hemisphere consisting almost entirely of water. It traverses all the southern equatorial zone to reach the parallel of 8° north latitude; and is consequently less dry, less cold, less adapted to act as a counter-current to renew the equinoctial air and prevent its saturation, than the northern polar current, or the breeze from the north-east.* We may suppose that the bendavales are impetuous winds which, on some coasts, for instance on that of Guatimala, (because they are not the effect of a regular and progressive descent of the air of the tropics towards the south pole, but they alternate with calms), are accompanied by electrical explosions, and are in fact squalls, that indicate a reflux, an abrupt and instantaneous rupture, of equilibrium in the aerial ocean.
[* From the equator to 10° of north latitude the mean temperatures of the summer and winter months scarcely differ 2 or 3°; but at the limits of the torrid zone, toward the tropic of Cancer, the difference amounts to 8 or 9°.]
[* In the two temperate zones the air loses its transparency every time that the wind blows from the opposite pole, that is to say, from the pole that has not the same denomination as the hemisphere in which the wind blows.]
We have here discussed one of the most important phenomena of the meteorology of the tropics, considered in its most general view. In the same manner as the limits of the trade-winds do not form circles parallel with the equator, the action of the polar currents is variously felt in different meridians. The chains of mountains and the coasts in the same hemisphere have often opposite seasons. There are several examples of these anomalies; but, in order to discover the laws of nature, we must know, before we examine into the causes of local perturbations, the average state of the atmosphere, and the constant type of its variations.
The aspect of the sky, the progress of the electricity, and the shower of the 28th of March, announced the commencement of the rainy season; we were still advised, however, to go from San Fernando de Apure by San Francisco de Capanaparo, the Rio Sinaruco, and the Hato de San Antonio, to the village of the Ottomacs, recently founded near the banks of the Meta, and to embark on the Orinoco a little above Carichana. This way by land lies across an unhealthy and feverish country. An old farmer named Francisco Sanchez obligingly offered to conduct us. His dress denoted the great simplicity of manners prevailing in those distant countries. He had acquired a fortune of more than 100,000 piastres, and yet he mounted on horseback with his feet bare, and wearing large silver spurs. We knew by the experience of several weeks the dull uniformity of the vegetation of the Llanos, and preferred the longer road, which leads by the Rio Apure to the Orinoco. We chose one of those very large canoes called lanchas by the Spaniards. A pilot and four Indians were sufficient to manage it. They constructed, near the stern, in the space of a few hours, a cabin covered with palm-leaves, sufficiently spacious to contain a table and benches. These were made of ox-hides, strained tight, and nailed to frames of brazil-wood. I mention these minute circumstances, to prove that our accommodations on the Rio Apure were far different from those to which we were afterwards reduced in the narrow boats of the Orinoco. We loaded the canoe with provision for a month. Fowls, eggs, plantains, cassava, and cacao, are found in abundance at San Fernando. The good Capuchin, Fray Jose Maria de Malaga, gave us sherry wine, oranges, and tamarinds, to make cooling beverages. We could easily foresee that a roof constructed of palm-tree leaves would become excessively hot on a large river, where we were almost always exposed to the perpendicular rays of the sun. The Indians relied less on the provision we had purchased, than on their hooks and nets. We took also some fire-arms, which we found in general use as far as the cataracts; but farther south the great humidity of the air prevents the missionaries from using them. The Rio Apure abounds in fish, manatees, and turtles, the eggs of which afford an aliment more nutritious than agreeable to the taste. Its banks are inhabited by an innumerable quantity of birds, among which the pauxi and the guacharaca, which may be called the turkeys and pheasants of those countries, are found to be the most useful. Their flesh appeared to be harder and less white than that of the gallinaceous tribe in Europe, because they use much more muscular exercise. We did not forget to add to our provision, fishing-tackle, fire-arms, and a few casks of brandy, to serve as a medium of barter with the Indians of the Orinoco.
We departed from San Fernando on the 30th of March, at four in the afternoon. The weather was extremely hot; the thermometer rising in the shade to 34°, though the breeze blew very strongly from the south-east. Owing to this contrary wind we could not set our sails. We were accompanied, in the whole of this voyage on the Apure, the Orinoco, and the Rio Negro, by the brother-inlaw of the governor of the province of Varinas, Don Nicolas Soto, who had recently arrived from Cadiz. Desirous of visiting countries so calculated to excite the curiosity of a European, he did not hesitate to confine himself with us during seventy-four days in a narrow boat infested with mosquitos. His amiable disposition and gay temper often helped to make us forget the sufferings of a voyage which was not wholly exempt from danger. We passed the mouth of the Apurito, and coasted the island of the same name, formed by the Apure and the Guarico. This island is in fact only a very low spot of ground, bordered by two great rivers, both of which, at a little distance from each other, fall into the Orinoco, after having formed a junction below San Fernando by the first bifurcation of the Apure. The Isla del Apurito is twenty-two leagues in length, and two or three leagues in breadth. It is divided by the Cano de la Tigrera and the Cano del Manati into three parts, the two extremes of which bear the names of Isla de Blanco and Isla de los Garzitas. The right bank of the Apure, below the Apurito, is somewhat better cultivated than the left bank, where the Yaruros, or Japuin Indians, have constructed a few huts with reeds and stalks of palm-leaves. These people, who live by hunting and fishing, are very skilful in killing jaguars. It is they who principally carry the skins, known in Europe by the name of tiger-skins, to the Spanish villages. Some of these Indians have been baptized, but they never visit the Christian churches. They are considered as savages because they choose to remain independent. Other tribes of Yaruros live under the rule of the missionaries, in the village of Achaguas, situated south of the Rio Payara. The individuals of this nation, whom I had an opportunity of seeing at the Orinoco, have a stern expression of countenance; and some features in their physiognomy, erroneously called Tartarian, belong to branches of the Mongol race, the eye very long, the cheekbones high, but the nose prominent throughout its whole length. They are taller, browner, and less thick-set than the Chayma Indians. The missionaries praise the intellectual character of the Yaruros, who were formerly a powerful and numerous nation on the banks of the Orinoco, especially in the environs of Cuycara, below the mouth of the Guarico. We passed the night at Diamante, a small sugar-plantation formed opposite the island of the same name.
During the whole of my voyage from San Fernando to San Carlos del Rio Negro, and thence to the town of Angostura, I noted down day by day, either in the boat or where we disembarked at night, all that appeared to me worthy of observation. Violent rains, and the prodigious quantity of mosquitos with which the air is filled on the banks of the Orinoco and the Cassiquiare, necessarily occasioned some interruptions; but I supplied the omission by notes taken a few days after. I here subjoin some extracts from my journal. Whatever is written while the objects we describe are before our eyes bears a character of truth and individuality which gives attraction to things the least important.
On the 31st March a contrary wind obliged us to remain on shore till noon. We saw a part of some cane-fields laid waste by the effect of a conflagration which had spread from a neighbouring forest. The wandering Indians everywhere set fire to the forest where they have encamped at night; and during the season of drought, vast provinces would be the prey of these conflagrations if the extreme hardness of the wood did not prevent the trees from being entirely consumed. We found trunks of desmanthus and mahogany which were scarcely charred two inches deep.
Having passed the Diamante we entered a land inhabited only by tigers, crocodiles, and chiguires; the latter are a large species of the genus Cavia of Linnaeus. We saw flocks of birds, crowded so closely together as to appear against the sky like a dark cloud which every instant changed its form. The river widens by degrees. One of its banks is generally barren and sandy from the effect of inundations; the other is higher, and covered with lofty trees. In some parts the river is bordered by forests on each side, and forms a straight canal a hundred and fifty toises broad. The manner in which the trees are disposed is very remarkable. We first find bushes of sauso,* forming a kind of hedge four feet high, and appearing as if they had been clipped by the hand of man. A copse of cedar, brazilletto, and lignum-vitae, rises behind this hedge. Palm-trees are rare; we saw only a few scattered trunks of the thorny piritu and corozo. The large quadrupeds of those regions, the jaguars, tapirs, and peccaries, have made openings in the hedge of sauso which we have just described. Through these the wild animals pass when they come to drink at the river. As they fear but little the approach of a boat, we had the pleasure of viewing them as they paced slowly along the shore till they disappeared in the forest, which they entered by one of the narrow passes left at intervals between the bushes. These scenes, which were often repeated, had ever for me a peculiar attraction. The pleasure they excite is not owing solely to the interest which the naturalist takes in the objects of his study, it is connected with a feeling common to all men who have been brought up in the habits of civilization. You find yourself in a new world, in the midst of untamed and savage nature. Now the jaguar — the beautiful panther of America — appears upon the shore; and now the hocco,* with its black plumage and tufted head, moves slowly along the sausos. Animals of the most different classes succeed each other. “Esse como en el Paradiso,” “It is just as it was in Paradise,” said our pilot, an old Indian of the Missions. Everything, indeed, in these regions recalls to mind the state of the primitive world with its innocence and felicity. But in carefully observing the manners of animals among themselves, we see that they mutually avoid and fear each other. The golden age has ceased; and in this Paradise of the American forests, as well as everywhere else, sad and long experience has taught all beings that benignity is seldom found in alliance with strength.
[* Hermesia castaneifolia. This is a new genus, approaching the alchornea of Swartz.]
[* Ceyx alector, the peacock-pheasant; C. pauxi, the cashew-bird.]
When the shore is of considerable breadth, the hedge of sauso remains at a distance from the river. In the intermediate space we see crocodiles, sometimes to the number of eight or ten, stretched on the sand. Motionless, with their jaws wide open, they repose by each other, without displaying any of those marks of affection observed in other animals living in society. The troop separates as soon as they quit the shore. It is, however, probably composed of one male only, and many females; for as M. Descourtils, who has so much studied the crocodiles of St. Domingo, observed to me, the males are rare, because they kill one another in fighting during the season of their loves. These monstrous creatures are so numerous, that throughout the whole course of the river we had almost at every instant five or six in view. Yet at this period the swelling of the Rio Apure was scarcely perceived; and consequently hundreds of crocodiles were still buried in the mud of the savannahs. About four in the afternoon we stopped to measure a dead crocodile which had been cast ashore. It was only sixteen feet eight inches long; some days after M. Bonpland found another, a male, twenty-two feet three inches long. In every zone, in America as in Egypt, this animal attains the same size. The species so abundant in the Apure, the Orinoco,* and the Rio de la Magdalena, is not a cayman, but a real crocodile, analogous to that of the Nile, having feet dentated at the external edges. When it is recollected that the male enters the age of puberty only at ten years, and that its length is then eight feet, we may presume that the crocodile measured by M. Bonpland was at least twenty-eight years old. The Indians told us, that at San Fernando scarcely a year passes, without two or three grown-up persons, particularly women who fetch water from the river, being drowned by these carnivorous reptiles. They related to us the history of a young girl of Uritucu, who by singular intrepidity and presence of mind, saved herself from the jaws of a crocodile. When she felt herself seized, she sought the eyes of the animal, and plunged her fingers into them with such violence, that the pain forced the crocodile to let her go, after having bitten off the lower part of her left arm. The girl, notwithstanding the enormous quantity of blood she lost, reached the shore, swimming with the hand that still remained to her. In those desert countries, where man is ever wrestling with nature, discourse daily turns on the best means that may be employed to escape from a tiger, a boa, or a crocodile; every one prepares himself in some sort for the dangers that may await him. “I knew,” said the young girl of Uritucu coolly, “that the cayman lets go his hold, if you push your fingers into his eyes.” Long after my return to Europe, I learned that in the interior of Africa the negroes know and practise the same means of defence. Who does not recollect, with lively interest, Isaac, the guide of the unfortunate Mungo Park, who was seized twice by a crocodile, and twice escaped from the jaws of the monster, having succeeded in thrusting his fingers into the creature’s eyes while under water. The African Isaac, and the young American girl, owed their safety to the same presence of mind, and the same combination of ideas.
[* It is the arua of the Tamanac Indians, the amana of the Maypure Indians, the Crocodilus acutus of Cuvier.]
The movements of the crocodile of the Apure are sudden and rapid when it attacks any object; but it moves with the slowness of a salamander, when not excited by rage or hunger. The animal in running makes a rustling noise, which seems to proceed from the rubbing of the scales of its skin one against another. In this movement it bends its back, and appears higher on its legs than when at rest. We often heard this rattling of the scales very near us on the shore; but it is not true, as the Indians pretend, that, like the armadillo, the old crocodiles “can erect their scales, and every part of their armour.” The motion of these animals is no doubt generally in a straight line, or rather like that of an arrow, supposing it to change its direction at certain distances. However, notwithstanding the little apparatus of false ribs, which connects the vertebrae of the neck, and seems to impede the lateral movement, crocodiles can turn easily when they please. I often saw young ones biting their tails; and other observers have seen the same action in crocodiles at their full growth. If their movements almost always appear to be straight forward, it is because, like our small lizards, they move by starts. Crocodiles are excellent swimmers; they go with facility against the most rapid current. It appeared to me, however, that in descending the river, they had some difficulty in turning quickly about. A large dog, which had accompanied us in our journey from Caracas to the Rio Negro, was one day pursued in swimming by an enormous crocodile. The latter had nearly reached its prey, when the dog escaped by turning round suddenly and swimming against the current. The crocodile performed the same movement, but much more slowly than the dog, which succeeded in gaining the shore.
The crocodiles of the Apure find abundant food in the chiguires (thick-nosed tapirs),* which live fifty or sixty together in troops on the banks of the river. These animals, as large as our pigs, have no weapons of defence; they swim somewhat better than they run: yet they become the prey of the crocodiles in the water, and of the tigers on land. It is difficult to conceive, how, being thus persecuted by two powerful enemies, they become so numerous; but they breed with the same rapidity as the little cavies or guinea-pigs, which come to us from Brazil.
[* Cavia capybara, Linn. The word chiguire belongs to the language of the Palenkas and the Cumanagotos. The Spaniards call this animal guardatinaja; the Caribs, capigua; the Tamanacs, cappiva; and the Maypures, chiato. According to Azara, it is known at Buenos Ayres by the Indian names of capiygua and capiguara. These various denominations show a striking analogy between the languages of the Orinoco and those of the Rio de la Plata.]
We stopped below the mouth of the Cano de la Tigrera, in a sinuosity called la Vuelta del Joval, to measure the velocity of the water at its surface. It was not more than 3.2 feet* in a second, which gives 2.56 feet for the mean velocity. The height of the barometer indicated barely a slope of seventeen inches in a mile of nine hundred and fifty toises. The velocity is the simultaneous effect of the slope of the ground, and the accumulation of the waters by the swelling of the upper parts of the river. We were again surrounded by chiguires, which swim like dogs, raising their heads and necks above the water. We saw with surprise a large crocodile on the opposite shore, motionless, and sleeping in the midst of these nibbling animals. It awoke at the approach of our canoe, and went into the water slowly, without frightening the chiguires. Our Indians accounted for this indifference by the stupidity of the animals, but it is more probable that the chiguires know by long experience, that the crocodile of the Apure and the Orinoco does not attack upon land, unless he finds the object he would seize immediately in his way, at the instant when he throws himself into the water.
[* In order to measure the velocity of the surface of a river, I generally measured on the beach a base of 250 feet, and observed with the chronometer the time that a floating body, abandoned to the current, required to reach this distance.]
Near the Joval nature assumes an awful and extremely wild aspect. We there saw the largest jaguar we had ever met with. The natives themselves were astonished at its prodigious length, which surpassed that of any Bengal tiger I had ever seen in the museums of Europe. The animal lay stretched beneath the shade of a large zamang.* It had just killed a chiguire, but had not yet touched its prey, on which it kept one of its paws. The zamuro vultures were assembled in great numbers to devour the remains of the jaguar’s repast. They presented the most curious spectacle, by a singular mixture of boldness and timidity. They advanced within the distance of two feet from the animal, but at the least movement he made they drew back. In order to observe more nearly the manners of these creatures, we went into the little skiff that accompanied our canoe. Tigers very rarely attack boats by swimming to them; and never but when their ferocity is heightened by a long privation of food. The noise of our oars led the animal to rise slowly, and hide itself behind the sauso bushes that bordered the shore. The vultures tried to profit by this moment of absence to devour the chiguire; but the tiger, notwithstanding the proximity of our boat, leaped into the midst of them, and in a fit of rage, expressed by his gait and the movement of his tail, carried off his prey to the forest. The Indians regretted that they were not provided with their lances, in order to go on shore and attack the tiger. They are accustomed to this weapon, and were right in not trusting to our fire-arms. In so excessively damp an atmosphere muskets often miss fire.
[* A species of mimosa.]
Continuing to descend the river, we met with the great herd of chiguires which the tiger had put to flight, and from which he had selected his prey. These animals saw us land very unconcernedly; some of them were seated, and gazed upon us, moving the upper lip like rabbits. They seemed not to be afraid of man, but the sight of our dog put them to flight. Their hind legs being longer than their fore legs, their pace is a slight gallop, but with so little swiftness that we succeeded in catching two of them. The chiguire, which swims with the greatest agility, utters a short moan in running, as if its respiration were impeded. It is the largest of the family of rodentia or gnawing animals. It defends itself only at the last extremity, when it is surrounded and wounded. Having great strength in its grinding teeth,* particularly the hinder ones, which are pretty long, it can tear the paw of a tiger, or the leg of a horse, with its bite. Its flesh has a musky smell somewhat disagreeable; yet hams are made of it in this country, a circumstance which almost justifies the name of water-hog, given to the chiguire by some of the older naturalists. The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed tapir, and the manatee, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious. The chiguires are found in such numbers on the banks of the rivers Santo Domingo, Apure, and Arauca, in the marshes and in the inundated savannahs* of the Llanos, that the pasturages suffer from them. They browze the grass which fattens the horses best, and which bears the name of chiguirero, or chiguire-grass. They feed also upon fish; and we saw with surprise, that, when scared by the approach of a boat, the animal in diving remains eight or ten minutes under water.
[* We counted eighteen on each side. On the hind feet, at the upper end of the metatarsus, there is a callosity three inches long and three quarters of an inch broad, destitute of hair. The animal, when seated, rests upon this part. No tail is visible externally; but on putting aside the hair we discover a tubercle, a mass of naked and wrinkled flesh, of a conical figure, and half an inch long.]
[* Near Uritucu, in the Cano del Ravanal, we saw a flock of eighty or one hundred of these animals.]
We passed the night as usual, in the open air, though in a plantation, the proprietor of which employed himself in hunting tigers. He wore scarcely any clothing, and was of a dark brown complexion like a Zambo. This did not prevent his classing himself amongst the Whites. He called his wife and his daughter, who were as naked as himself, Dona Isabella and Dona Manuela. Without having ever quitted the banks of the Apure, he took a lively interest in the news of Madrid — enquiring eagerly respecting those never-ending wars, and everything down yonder (todas las cosas de alla). He knew, he said, that the king was soon to come and visit the grandees of the country of Caracas, but he added with some pleasantry, as the people of the court can eat only wheaten bread, they will never pass beyond the town of Victoria, and we shall not see them here. I had brought with me a chiguire, which I had intended to have roasted; but our host assured us, that such Indian game was not food fit for nos otros caballeros blancos, (white gentlemen like ourselves and him). Accordingly he offered us some venison, which he had killed the day before with an arrow, for he had neither powder nor fire-arms.
We supposed that a small wood of plantain-trees concealed from us the hut of the farm; but this man, so proud of his nobility and the colour of his skin, had not taken the trouble of constructing even an ajoupa, or hut of palm-leaves. He invited us to have our hammocks hung near his own, between two trees; and he assured us, with an air of complacency, that, if we came up the river in the rainy season, we should find him beneath a roof (baxo techo). We soon had reason to complain of a system of philosophy which is indulgent to indolence, and renders a man indifferent to the conveniences of life. A furious wind arose after midnight, lightnings flashed over the horizon, thunder rolled, and we were wet to the skin. During this storm a whimsical incident served to amuse us for a moment. Dona Isabella’s cat had perched upon the tamarind-tree, at the foot of which we lay. It fell into the hammock of one of our companions, who, being hurt by the claws of the cat, and suddenly aroused from a profound sleep, imagined he was attacked by some wild beast of the forest. We ran to him on hearing his cries, and had some trouble to convince him of his error. While it rained in torrents on our hammocks and on our instruments which we had brought ashore, Don Ignacio congratulated us on our good fortune in not sleeping on the strand, but finding ourselves in his domain, among whites and persons of respectability (entre gente blanca y de trato). Wet as we were, we could not easily persuade ourselves of the advantages of our situation, and we listened with some impatience to the long narrative our host gave us of his pretended expedition to the Rio Meta, of the valour he had displayed in a sanguinary combat with the Guahibo Indians, and “the services that he had rendered to God and his king, in carrying away Indian children (los Indiecitos) from their parents, to distribute them in the Missions.” We were struck with the singularity of finding in that vast solitude a man believing himself to be of European race and knowing no other shelter than the shade of a tree, and yet having all the vain pretensions, hereditary prejudices, and errors of long-standing civilization!
On the 1st of April, at sunrise, we quitted Senor Don Ignacio and Senora Dona Isabella his wife. The weather was cooler, for the thermometer (which generally kept up in the daytime to 30 or 35°) had sunk to 24°. The temperature of the river was little changed: it continued constantly at 26 or 27°. The current carried with it an enormous number of trunks of trees. It might be imagined that on ground entirely smooth, and where the eye cannot distinguish the least hill, the river would have formed by the force of its current a channel in a straight line; but a glance at the map, which I traced by the compass, will prove the contrary. The two banks, worn by the waters, do not furnish an equal resistance; and almost imperceptible inequalities of the level suffice to produce great sinuosities. Yet below the Joval, where the bed of the river enlarges a little, it forms a channel that appears perfectly straight, and is shaded on each side by very tall trees. This part of the river is called Cano Rico. I found it to be one hundred and thirty-six toises broad. We passed a low island, inhabited by thousands of flamingos, rose-coloured spoonbills, herons, and moorhens, which displayed plumage of the most various colours. These birds were so close together that they seemed to be unable to stir. The island they frequent is called Isla de Aves, or Bird Island. Lower down we passed the point where the Rio Arichuna, an arm of the Apure, branches off to the Cabulare, carrying away a considerable body of its waters. We stopped, on the right bank, at a little Indian mission, inhabited by the tribe of the Guamos, called the village of Santa Barbara de Arichuna.
The Guamos* are a race of Indians very difficult to fix on a settled spot. They have great similarity of manners with the Achaguas, the Guajibos,* and the Ottomacs, partaking their disregard of cleanliness, their spirit of vengeance, and their taste for wandering; but their language differs essentially. The greater part of these four tribes live by fishing and hunting, in plains often inundated, situated between the Apure, the Meta, and the Guaviare. The nature of these regions seems to invite the natives to a wandering life. On entering the mountains of the Cataracts of the Orinoco, we shall soon find, among the Piraoas, the Macos, and the Maquiritaras, milder manners, a love of agriculture, and great cleanliness in the interior of their huts. On mountain ridges, in the midst of impenetrable forests, man is compelled to fix himself; and cultivate a small spot of land. This cultivation requires little care; while, in a country where there are no other roads than rivers, the life of the hunter is laborious and difficult. The Guamos of the mission of Santa Barbara could not furnish us with the provision we wanted. They cultivate only a little cassava. They appeared hospitable; and when we entered their huts, they offered us dried fish, and water cooled in porous vessels.
[* Father Gili observes that their Indian name is Uamu and Pau, and that they originally dwelt on the Upper Apure.]
[* Their Indian name is Guahiva.]
Beyond the Vuelta del Cochino Roto, in a spot where the river has scooped itself a new bed, we passed the night on a bare and very extensive strand. The forest being impenetrable, we had the greatest difficulty to find dry wood to light fires, near which the Indians believe themselves in safety from the nocturnal attacks of the tiger. Our own experience seems to bear testimony in favour of this opinion; but Azara asserts that, in his time, a tiger in Paraguay carried off a man who was seated near a fire lighted in the savannah.
The night was calm and serene, and there was a beautiful moonlight. The crocodiles, stretched along the shore, placed themselves in such a manner as to be able to see the fire. We thought we observed that its blaze attracted them, as it attracts fishes, crayfish, and other inhabitants of the water. The Indians showed us the tracks of three tigers in the sand, two of which were very young. A female had no doubt conducted her little ones to drink at the river. Finding no tree on the strand, we stuck our oars in the ground, and to these we fastened our hammocks. Everything passed tranquilly till eleven at night; and then a noise so terrific arose in the neighbouring forest, that it was almost impossible to close our eyes. Amid the cries of so many wild beasts howling at once, the Indians discriminated such only as were at intervals heard separately. These were the little soft cries of the sapajous, the moans of the alouate apes, the howlings of the jaguar and couguar, the peccary, and the sloth, and the cries of the curassao, the parraka, and other gallinaceous birds. When the jaguars approached the skirt of the forest, our dog, which till then had never ceased barking, began to howl and seek for shelter beneath our hammocks. Sometimes, after a long silence, the cry of the tiger came from the tops of the trees; and then it was followed by the sharp and long whistling of the monkeys, which appeared to flee from the danger that threatened them. We heard the same noises repeated, during the course of whole months, whenever the forest approached the bed of the river. The security evinced by the Indians inspires confidence in the minds of travellers, who readily persuade themselves that the tigers are afraid of fire, and that they do not attack a man lying in his hammock. These attacks are in fact extremely rare; and, during a long abode in South America, I remember only one example, of a llanero, who was found mutilated in his hammock opposite the island of Achaguas.
When the natives are interrogated on the causes of the tremendous noise made by the beasts of the forest at certain hours of the night, the answer is, “They are keeping the feast of the full moon.”
I believe this agitation is most frequently the effect of some conflict that has arisen in the depths of the forest. The jaguars, for instance, pursue the peccaries and the tapirs, which, having no defence but in their numbers, flee in close troops, and break down the bushes they find in their way. Terrified at this struggle, the timid and mistrustful monkeys answer, from the tops of the trees, the cries of the large animals. They awaken the birds that live in society, and by degrees the whole assembly is in commotion. It is not always in a fine moonlight, but more particularly at the time of a storm and violent showers, that this tumult takes place among the wild beasts. “May Heaven grant them a quiet night and repose, and us also!” said the monk who accompanied us to the Rio Negro, when, sinking with fatigue, he assisted in arranging our accommodations for the night. It was indeed strange, to find no silence in the solitude of woods. In the inns of Spain we dread the sound of guitars from the next apartment; on the Orinoco, where the traveller’s resting-place is the open beach, or beneath the shelter of a solitary tree, his slumbers are disturbed by a serenade from the forest.
We set sail before sunrise, on the 2nd of April. The morning was beautiful and cool, according to the feelings of those who are accustomed to the heat of these climates. The thermometer rose only to 28° in the air, but the dry and white sand of the beach, notwithstanding its radiation towards a cloudless sky, retained a temperature of 36°. The porpoises (toninas) ploughed the river in long files. The shore was covered with fishing-birds. Some of these perched on the floating wood as it passed down the river, and surprised the fish that preferred the middle of the stream. Our canoe was aground several times during the morning. These shocks are sufficiently violent to split a light bark. We struck on the points of several large trees, which remain for years in an oblique position, sunk in the mud. These trees descend from Sarare, at the period of great inundations, and they so fill the bed of the river, that canoes in going up find it difficult sometimes to make their way over the shoals, or wherever there are eddies. We reached a spot near the island of Carizales, where we saw trunks of the locust-tree, of an enormous size, above the surface of the water. They were covered with a species of plotus, nearly resembling the anhinga, or white bellied darter. These birds perch in files, like pheasants and parrakas, and they remain for hours entirely motionless, with their beaks raised toward the sky.
Below the island of Carizales we observed a diminution of the waters of the river, at which we were the more surprised, as, after the bifurcation at la Boca de Arichuna, there is no branch, no natural drain, which takes away water from the Apure. The loss is solely the effect of evaporation, and of filtration on a sandy and wet shore. Some idea of the magnitude of these effects may be formed, from the fact that we found the heat of the dry sands, at different hours of the day, from 36 to 52°, and that of sands covered with three or four inches of water 32°. The beds of rivers are heated as far as the depth to which the solar rays can penetrate without undergoing too great an extinction in their passage through the superincumbent strata of water. Besides, filtration extends in a lateral direction far beyond the bed of the river. The shore, which appears dry to us, imbibes water as far up as to the level of the surface of the river. We saw water gush out at the distance of fifty toises from the shore, every time that the Indians struck their oars into the ground. Now these sands, wet below, but dry above, and exposed to the solar rays, act like sponges, and lose the infiltrated water every instant by evaporation. The vapour that is emitted, traverses the upper stratum of sand strongly heated, and becomes sensible to the eye when the air cools towards evening. As the beach dries, it draws from the river new portions of water; and it may be easily conceived that this continual alternation of vaporization and lateral absorption must cause an immense loss, difficult to submit to exact calculation. The increase of these losses would be in proportion to the length of the course of the rivers, if from their source to their mouth they were equally surrounded by a flat shore; but these shores being formed by deposits from the water, and the water having less velocity in proportion as it is more remote from its source, throwing down more sediment in the lower than in the upper part of its course, many rivers in hot climates undergo a diminution in the quantity of their water, as they approach their outlets. Mr. Barrow observed these curious effects of sands in the southern part of Africa, on the banks of the Orange River. They have also become the subject of a very important discussion, in the various hypotheses that have been formed respecting the course of the Niger.*
[* Geographers supposed, for a long period, that the Niger was entirely absorbed by the sands, and evaporated by the heat of the tropical sun, as no embouchure could be found on the western coast of Africa to meet the requirements of so enormous a river. It was discovered, however, by the Landers, in 1830, that it does really flow into the Atlantic; yet the cause mentioned above is so powerful, that of all the numerous branches into which it separates at its mouth, only one (the Nun River) is navigable even for light ships, and for half the year even those are unable to enter.]
Near the Vuelta de Basilio, where we landed to collect plants, we saw on the top of a tree two beautiful little monkeys, black as jet, of the size of the sai, with prehensile tails. Their physiognomy and their movements sufficiently showed that they were neither the quato (Simia beelzebub) nor the chamek, nor any of the Ateles. Our Indians themselves had never seen any that resembled them. Monkeys, especially those living in troops, make long emigrations at certain periods, and consequently it happens that at the beginning of the rainy seasons the natives discover round their huts different kinds which they have not before observed. On this same bank our guides showed us a nest of young iguanas only four inches long. It was difficult to distinguish them from common lizards. There was no distinguishing mark yet formed but the dewlap below the throat. The dorsal spines, the large erect scales, all those appendages that render the iguana so remarkable when it attains its full growth, were scarcely traceable.
The flesh of this animal of the saurian family appeared to us to have an agreeable taste in every country where the climate is very dry; we even found it so at periods when we were not in want of other food. It is extremely white, and next to the flesh of the armadillo, one of the best kinds of food to be found in the huts of the natives.
It rained toward evening, and before the rain fell, swallows, exactly resembling our own, skimmed over the surface of the water. We saw also a flock of paroquets pursued by little goshawks without crests. The piercing cries of these paroquets contrasted singularly with the whistling of the birds of prey. We passed the night in the open air, upon the beach, near the island of Carizales. There were several Indian huts in the neighbourhood, surrounded with plantations. Our pilot assured us beforehand that we should not hear the cries of the jaguar, which, when not extremely pressed by hunger, withdraws from places where he does not reign unmolested. “Men put him out of humour” (los hombres lo enfadan), say the people in the Missions. A pleasant and simple expression, that marks a well-observed fact.
Since our departure from San Fernando we had not met a single boat on this fine river. Everything denoted the most profound solitude. On the morning of the 3rd of April our Indians caught with a hook the fish known in the country by the name of caribe,* or caribito, because no other fish has such a thirst for blood. It attacks bathers and swimmers, from whom it often bites away considerable pieces of flesh. The Indians dread extremely these caribes; and several of them showed us the scars of deep wounds in the calf of the leg and in the thigh, made by these little animals. They swim at the bottom of rivers; but if a few drops of blood be shed on the water, they rise by thousands to the surface, so that if a person be only slightly bitten, it is difficult for him to get out of the water without receiving a severer wound. When we reflect on the numbers of these fish, the largest and most voracious of which are only four or five inches long, on the triangular form of their sharp and cutting teeth, and on the amplitude of their retractile mouths, we need not be surprised at the fear which the caribe excites in the inhabitants of the banks of the Apure and the Orinoco. In places where the river was very limpid, where not a fish appeared, we threw into the water little morsels of raw flesh, and in a few minutes a perfect cloud of caribes had come to dispute their prey. The belly of this fish has a cutting edge, indented like a saw, a characteristic which may be also traced in the serra-salmes, the myletes, and the pristigastres. The presence of a second adipous dorsal fin, and the form of the teeth, covered by lips distant from each other, and largest in the lower jaw, place the caribe among the serra-salmes. Its mouth is much wider than that of the myletes of Cuvier. Its body, toward the back, is ash-coloured with a tint of green, but the belly, the gill-covers, and the pectoral, anal, and ventral fins, are of a fine orange hue. Three species are known in the Orinoco, and are distinguished by their size. The intermediate appears to be identical with the medium species of the piraya, or piranha, of Marcgrav.* The caribito has a very agreeable flavour. As no one dares to bathe where it is found, it may be considered as one of the greatest scourges of those climates, in which the sting of the mosquitos and the general irritation of the skin render the use of baths so necessary.
[* Caribe in the Spanish language signifies cannibal.]
[* Salmo rhombeus, Linn.]
We stopped at noon in a desert spot called Algodonal. I left my companions while they drew the boat ashore and were occupied in preparing our dinner. I went along the beach to get a near view of a group of crocodiles sleeping in the sun, and lying in such a manner as to have their tails, which were furnished with broad plates, resting on one another. Some little herons,* white as snow, walked along their backs, and even upon their heads, as if passing over trunks of trees. The crocodiles were of a greenish grey, half covered with dried mud; from their colour and immobility they might have been taken for statues of bronze. This excursion had nearly proved fatal to me. I had kept my eyes constantly turned towards the river; but, whilst picking up some spangles of mica agglomerated together in the sand, I discovered the recent footsteps of a tiger, easily distinguishable from their form and size. The animal had gone towards the forest, and turning my eyes on that side, I found myself within eighty paces of a jaguar that was lying under the thick foliage of a ceiba. No tiger had ever appeared to me so large.
[* Garzon chico. It is believed, in Upper Egypt, that herons have an affection for crocodiles, because they take advantage in fishing of the terror that monstrous animal causes among the fishes, which he drives from the bottom to the surface of the water; but on the banks of the Nile, the heron keeps prudently at some distance from the crocodile.]
There are accidents in life against which we may seek in vain to fortify our reason. I was extremely alarmed, yet sufficiently master of myself and of my motions to enable me to follow the advice which the Indians had so often given us as to how we ought to act in such cases. I continued to walk on without running, avoided moving my arms, and I thought I observed that the jaguar’s attention was fixed on a herd of capybaras which was crossing the river. I then began to return, making a large circuit toward the edge of the water. As the distance increased, I thought I might accelerate my pace. How often was I tempted to look back in order to assure myself that I was not pursued! Happily I yielded very tardily to this desire. The jaguar had remained motionless. These enormous cats with spotted robes are so well fed in countries abounding in capybaras, pecaries, and deer, that they rarely attack men. I arrived at the boat out of breath, and related my adventure to the Indians. They appeared very little interested by my story; yet, after having loaded our guns, they accompanied us to the ceiba beneath which the jaguar had lain. He was there no longer, and it would have been imprudent to have pursued him into the forest, where we must have dispersed, or advanced in single file, amidst the intertwining lianas.
In the evening we passed the mouth of the Cano del Manati, thus named on account of the immense quantity of manatees caught there every year. This herbivorous animal of the cetaceous family, is called by the Indians apcia and avia,* and it attains here generally ten or twelve feet in length. It usually weighs from five hundred to eight hundred pounds, but it is asserted that one has been taken of eight thousand pounds weight. The manatee abounds in the Orinoco below the cataracts, in the Rio Meta, and in the Apure, between the two islands of Carizales and Conserva. We found no vestiges of nails on the external surface or the edges of the fins, which are quite smooth; but little rudiments of nails appear at the third phalanx, when the skin of the fins is taken off. We dissected one of these animals, which was nine feet long, at Carichana, a Mission of the Orinoco. The upper lip was four inches longer than the lower one. It was covered with a very fine skin, and served as a proboscis. The inside of the mouth, which has a sensible warmth in an animal newly killed, presented a very singular conformation. The tongue was almost motionless; but in front of the tongue there was a fleshy excrescence in each jaw, and a cavity lined with a very hard skin, into which the excrescence fitted. The manatee eats such quantities of grass, that we have found its stomach, which is divided into several cavities, and its intestines, (one hundred and eight feet long,) filled with it. On opening the animal at the back, we were struck with the magnitude, form, and situation of its lungs. They have very large cells, and resemble immense swimming-bladders. They are three feet long. Filled with air, they have a bulk of more than a thousand cubic inches. I was surprised to see that, possessing such considerable receptacles for air, the manatee comes so often to the surface of the water to breathe. Its flesh is very savoury, though, from what prejudice I know not, it is considered unwholesome and apt to produce fever. It appeared to me to resemble pork rather than beef. It is most esteemed by the Guamos and the Ottomacs; and these two nations are particularly expert in catching the manatee. Its flesh, when salted and dried in the sun, can be preserved a whole year; and, as the clergy regard this mammiferous animal as a fish, it is much sought during Lent. The vital principal is singularly strong in the manatee; it is tied after being harpooned, but is not killed till it has been taken into the canoe. This is effected, when the animal is very large, in the middle of the river, by filling the canoe two-thirds with water, sliding it under the animal, and then baling out the water by means of a calabash. This fishery is most easy after great inundations, when the manatee has passed from the great rivers into the lakes and surrounding marshes, and the waters diminish rapidly. At the period when the Jesuits governed the Missions of the Lower Orinoco, they assembled every year at Cabruta, below the mouth of the Apure, to have a grand fishing for manatees, with the Indians of their Missions, at the foot of the mountain now called El Capuchino. The fat of the animal, known by the name of manatee-butter (manteca de manati,) is used for lamps in the churches; and is also employed in preparing food. It has not the fetid smell of whale-oil, or that of the other cetaceous animals which spout water. The hide of the manati, which is more than an inch and a half thick, is cut into slips, and serves, like thongs of ox-leather, to supply the place of cordage in the Llanos. When immersed in water, it has the defect of undergoing a slight degree of putrefaction. Whips are made of it in the Spanish colonies. Hence the words latigo and manati are synonymous. These whips of manatee-leather are a cruel instrument of punishment for the unhappy slaves, and even for the Indians of the Missions, though, according to the laws, the latter ought to be treated like freemen.
[* The first of these words belongs to the Tamanac language, and the second to the Ottomac. Father Gili proves, in opposition to Oviedo, that manati (fish with hands) is not Spanish, but belongs to the languages of Hayti (St. Domingo) and the Maypures. I believe also that, according to the genius of the Spanish tongue, the animal would have been called manudo or manon, but not manati.]
We passed the night opposite the island of Conserva. In skirting the forest we were surprised by the sight of an enormous trunk of a tree seventy feet high, and thickly set with branching thorns. It is called by the natives barba de tigre. It was perhaps a tree of the berberideous family.* The Indians had kindled fires at the edge of the water. We again perceived that their light attracted the crocodiles, and even the porpoises (toninas), the noise of which interrupted our sleep, till the fire was extinguished. A female jaguar approached our station whilst taking her young one to drink at the river. The Indians succeeded in chasing her away, but we heard for a long time the cries of the little jaguar, which mewed like a young cat. Soon after, our great dog was bitten, or, as the Indians say, stung, at the point of the nose, by some enormous bats that hovered around our hammocks. These bats had long tails, like the Molosses: I believe, however, that they were Phyllostomes, the tongue of which, furnished with papillae, is an organ of suction, and is capable of being considerably elongated. The dog’s wound was very small and round; and though he uttered a plaintive cry when he felt himself bitten, it was not from pain, but because he was frightened at the sight of the bats, which came out from beneath our hammocks. These accidents are much more rare than is believed even in the country itself. In the course of several years, notwithstanding we slept so often in the open air, in climates where vampire-bats,* and other analogous species are so common, we were never wounded. Besides, the puncture is no-way dangerous, and in general causes so little pain, that it often does not awaken the person till after the bat has withdrawn.
[* We found, on the banks of the Apure, Ammania apurensis, Cordia cordifolia, C. grandiflora, Mollugo sperguloides, Myosotis lithospermoides, Spermacocce diffusa, Coronilla occidentalis, Bignonia apurensis, Pisonia pubescens, Ruellia viscosa, some new species of Jussieua, and a new genus of the composite family, approximating to Rolandra, the Trichospira menthoides of M. Kunth.]
[* Verspertilio spectrum.]
The 4th of April was the last day we passed on the Rio Apure. The vegetation of its banks became more and more uniform. During several days, and particularly since we had left the Mission of Arichuna, we had suffered cruelly from the stings of insects, which covered our faces and hands. They were not mosquitos, which have the appearance of little flies, or of the genus Simulium, but zancudos, which are really gnats, though very different from our European species.*
[* M. Latreille has discovered that the mosquitos of South Carolina are of the genus Simulium (Atractocera meigen.) These insects appear only after sunset. Their proboscis is so long that, when they fix on the lower surface of a hammock, they pierce through it and the thickest garments with their sting.]
We had intended to pass the night at the Vuelta del Palmito, but the number of jaguars at that part of the Apure is so great, that our Indians found two hidden behind the trunk of a locust-tree, at the moment when they were going to sling our hammocks. We were advised to re-embark, and take our station in the island of Apurito, near its junction with the Orinoco. That portion of the island belongs to the province of Caracas, while the right banks of the Apure and the Orinoco form a part, the one of the province of Varinas, the other of Spanish Guiana. We found no trees to which we could suspend our hammocks, and were obliged to sleep on ox-hides spread on the ground. The boats were too narrow and too full of zancudos to permit us to pass the night in them.
In the place where we had landed our instruments, the banks being steep, we saw new proofs of the indolence of the gallinaceous birds of the tropics. The curassaos and cashew-birds* have the habit of going down several times a day to the river to allay their thirst. They drink a great deal, and at short intervals. A vast number of these birds had joined, near our station, a flock of parraka pheasants. They had great difficulty in climbing up the steep banks; they attempted it several times without using their wings. We drove them before us, as if we had been driving sheep. The zamuro vultures raise themselves from the ground with great reluctance.
[* The latter (Crax pauxi) is less common than the former.]
We were singularly struck at the small quantity of water which the Rio Apure furnishes at this season to the Orinoco. The Apure, which, according to my measurements, was still one hundred and thirty-six toises broad at the Cano Rico, was only sixty or eighty at its mouth.* Its depth here was only three or four toises. It loses, no doubt, a part of its waters by the Rio Arichuna and the Cano del Manati, two branches of the Apure that flow into the Payara and the Guarico; but its greatest loss appears to be caused by filtrations on the beach, of which we have before spoken. The velocity of the Apure near its mouth was only 3.2 feet per second; so that I could easily have calculated the whole quantity of the water if I had taken, by a series of proximate soundings, the whole dimensions of the transverse section.
[* Not quite so broad as the Seine at the Pont Royal, opposite the palace of the Tuileries, and a little more than half the width of the Thames at Westminster Bridge.]
We touched several times on shoals before we entered the Orinoco. The ground gained from the water is immense towards the confluence of the two rivers. We were obliged to be towed along by the bank. What a contrast between this state of the river immediately before the entrance of the rainy season, when all the effects of dryness of the air and of evaporation have attained their maximum, and that autumnal state when the Apure, like an arm of the sea, covers the savannahs as far as the eye can reach! We discerned towards the south the lonely hills of Coruato; while to the east the granite rocks of Curiquima, the Sugar Loaf of Caycara, and the mountains of the Tyrant* (Cerros del Tirano) began to rise on the horizon. It was not without emotion that we beheld for the first time, after long expectation, the waters of the Orinoco, at a point so distant from the coast.
[* This name alludes, no doubt, to the expedition of Antonio Sedeno. The port of Caycara, opposite Cabruta, still bears the name of that Conquistador.]
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10