The river of the Orinoco, in running from south to north, is crossed by a chain of granitic mountains. Twice confined in its course, it turbulently breaks on the rocks, that form steps and transverse dykes. Nothing can be grander than the aspect of this spot. Neither the fall of the Tequendama, near Santa Fe de Bogota, nor the magnificent scenes of the Cordilleras, could weaken the impression produced upon my mind by the first view of the rapids of Atures and of Maypures. When the spectator is so stationed that the eye can at once take in the long succession of cataracts, the immense sheet of foam and vapours illumined by the rays of the setting sun, the whole river seems as it were suspended over its bed.
Scenes so astonishing must for ages have fixed the attention of the inhabitants of the New World. When Diego de Todaz, Alfonzo de Herrera, and the intrepid Raleigh, anchored at the mouth of the Orinoco, they were informed by the Indians of the Great Cataracts, which they themselves had never visited, and which they even confounded with cascades farther to the east. Whatever obstacles the force of vegetation under the torrid zone may throw in the way of intercourse among nations, all that relates to the course of great rivers acquires a celebrity which extends to vast distances. The Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Uruguay, traverse, like inland arms of seas, in different directions, a land covered with forests, and inhabited by tribes, part of whom are cannibals. It is not yet two hundred years since civilization and the light of a more humane religion have pursued their way along the banks of these ancient canals traced by the hand of nature; long, however, before the introduction of agriculture, before communications for the purposes of barter were established among these scattered and often hostile tribes, the knowledge of extraordinary phenomena, of falls of water, of volcanic fires, and of snows resisting all the ardent heat of summer, was propagated by a thousand fortuitous circumstances. Three hundred leagues from the coast, in the centre of South America, among nations whose excursions do not extend to three days’ journey, we find an idea of the ocean, and words that denote a mass of salt water extending as far as the eye can discern. Various events, which repeatedly occur in savage life, contribute to enlarge these conceptions. In consequence of the petty wars between neighbouring tribes, a prisoner is brought into a strange country, and treated as a poito or mero, that is to say, as a slave. After being often sold, he is dragged to new wars, escapes, and returns home; he relates what he has seen, and what he has heard from those whose tongue he has been compelled to learn. As on discovering a coast, we hear of great inland animals, so, on entering the valley of a vast river, we are surprised to find that savages, who are strangers to navigation, have acquired a knowledge of distant things. In the infant state of society, the exchange of ideas precedes, to a certain point, the exchange of productions.
The two great cataracts of the Orinoco, the celebrity of which is so far-spread and so ancient, are formed by the passage of the river across the mountains of Parima. They are called by the natives Mapara and Quittuna; but the missionaries have substituted for these names those of Atures and Maypures, after the names of the tribes which were first assembled together in the nearest villages. On the coast of Caracas, the two Great Cataracts are denoted by the simple appellation of the two Raudales, or rapids; a denomination which implies that the other falls of water, even the rapids of Camiseta and of Carichana, are not considered as worthy of attention when compared with the cataracts of Atures and Maypures.
These last, situated between five and six degrees of north latitude, and a hundred leagues west of the Cordilleras of New Grenada, in the meridian of Porto Cabello, are only twelve leagues distant from each other. It is surprising that their existence was not known to D’Anville, who, in his fine map of South America, marks the inconsiderable cascades of Marimara and San Borja, by the names of the rapids of Carichana and Tabaje. The Great Cataracts divide the Christian establishments of Spanish Guiana into two unequal parts. Those situated between the Raudal of Atures and the mouth of the river are called the Missions of the Lower Orinoco; the Missions of the Upper Orinoco comprehend the villages between the Raudal of Maypures and the mountains of Duida. The course of the Lower Orinoco, if we estimate the sinuosities at one-third of the distance in a direct line, is two hundred and sixty nautical leagues: the course of the Upper Orinoco, supposing its sources to be three degrees east of Duida, includes one hundred and sixty-seven leagues.
Beyond the Great Cataracts an unknown land begins. The country is partly mountainous and partly flat, receiving at once the confluents of the Amazon and the Orinoco. From the facility of its communications with the Rio Negro and Grand Para, it appears to belong still more to Brazil than to the Spanish colonies. None of the missionaries who have described the Orinoco before me, neither Father Gumilla, Gili, nor Caulin, had passed the Raudal of Maypures. We found but three Christian establishments above the Great Cataracts, along the shores of the Orinoco, in an extent of more than a hundred leagues; and these three establishments contained scarcely six or eight white persons, that is to say, persons of European race. We cannot be surprised that such a desert region should have been at all times the land of fable and fairy visions. There, according to the statements of certain missionaries, are found races of men, some of whom have an eye in the centre of the forehead, whilst others have dogs’ heads, and mouths below their stomachs. There they pretend to have found all that the ancients relate of the Garamantes, of the Arimaspes, and of the Hyperboreans. It would be an error to suppose that these simple and often rustic missionaries had themselves invented all these exaggerated fictions; they derived them in great part from the recitals of the Indians. A fondness for narration prevails in the Missions, as it does at sea, in the East, and in every place where the mind seeks amusement. A missionary, from his vocation, is not inclined to scepticism; he imprints on his memory what the natives have so often repeated to him; and, when returned to Europe, and restored to the civilized world, he finds a pleasure in creating astonishment by a recital of facts which he thinks he has collected, and by an animated description of remote things. These stories, which the Spanish colonists call tales of travellers and of monks (cuentos de viageros y frailes), increase in improbability in proportion as you increase your distance from the forests of the Orinoco, and approach the coasts inhabited by the whites. When, at Cumana, Nueva Barcelona, and other seaports which have frequent communication with the Missions, you betray any sign of incredulity, you are reduced to silence by these few words: The fathers have seen it, but far above the Great Cataracts (mas arriba de los Raudales).
On the 15th of April, we left the island of Panumana at four in the morning, two hours before sunrise. The sky was in great part obscured, and lightnings flashed over dense clouds at more than forty degrees of elevation. We were surprised at not hearing thunder; but possibly this was owing to the prodigious height of the storm? It appears to us, that in Europe the electric flashes without thunder, vaguely called heat-lightning, are seen generally nearer the horizon. Under a cloudy sky, that sent back the radiant caloric of the soil, the heat was stifling; not a breath of wind agitated the foliage of the trees. The jaguars, as usual, had crossed the arm of the Orinoco by which we were separated from the shore, and we heard their cries extremely near. During the night the Indians had advised us to quit our station in the open air, and retire to a deserted hut belonging to the conucos of the inhabitants of Atures. They had taken care to barricade the opening with planks, a precaution which seemed to us superfluous; but near the Cataracts tigers are very numerous, and two years before, in these very conucos of Panumana, an Indian returning to his hut, towards the close of the rainy season, found a tigress settled in it with her two young. These animals had inhabited the dwelling for several months; they were dislodged from it with difficulty, and it was only after an obstinate combat that the former master regained possession of his dwelling. The jaguars are fond of retiring to deserted ruins, and I believe it is more prudent in general for a solitary traveller to encamp in the open air, between two fires, than to seek shelter in uninhabited huts.
On quitting the island of Panumana, we perceived on the western bank of the river the fires of an encampment of Guahibo savages. The missionary who accompanied us caused a few musket-shots to be fired in the air, which he said would intimidate them, and shew that we were in a state to defend ourselves. The savages most likely had no canoes, and were not desirous of troubling us in the middle of the river. We passed at sunrise the mouth of the Rio Anaveni, which descends from the eastern mountains. On its banks, now deserted, Father Olmos had established, in the time of the Jesuits, a small village of Japuins or Jaruros. The heat was so excessive that we rested a long time in a woody spot, to fish with a hook and line, and it was not without some trouble that we carried away all the fish we had caught. We did not arrive till very late at the foot of the Great Cataract, in a bay called the lower harbour (puerto de abaxo); and we followed, not without difficulty, in a dark night, the narrow path that leads to the Mission of Atures, a league distant from the river. We crossed a plain covered with large blocks of granite.
The little village of San Juan Nepomuceno de los Atures was founded by the Jesuit Francisco Gonzales, in 1748. In going up the river this is the last of the Christian missions that owe their origin to the order of St. Ignatius. The more southern establishments, those of Atabapo, of Cassiquiare, and of Rio Negro, were formed by the fathers of the Observance of St. Francis. The Orinoco appears to have flowed heretofore where the village of Atures now stands, and the flat savannah that surrounds the village no doubt formed part of the river. I saw to the east of the mission a succession of rocks, which seemed to have been the ancient shore of the Orinoco. In the lapse of ages the river has been impelled westward, in consequence of the accumulations of earth, which occur more frequently on the side of the eastern mountains, that are furrowed by torrents. The cataract bears the name of Mapara,* as we have mentioned above; while the name of the village is derived from that of the nation of Atures, now believed to be extinct. I find on the maps of the seventeenth century, Island and Cataract of Athule; which is the word Atures written according to the pronunciation of the Tamanacs, who confound, like so many other people, the consonants l and r. This mountainous region was so little known in Europe, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, that D’Anville, in the first edition of his South America, makes a branch issue from the Orinoco, near Salto de los Atures, and fall into the Amazon, to which branch he gives the name of Rio Negro.
[* I am ignorant of the etymology of this word, which I believe means only a fall of water. Gili translates into Maypure a small cascade (raudalito) by uccamatisi mapara canacapatirri. Should we not spell this word matpara? mat being a radical of the Maypure tongue, and meaning bad (Hervas, Saggio N. 29). The radical par (para) is found among American tribes more than five hundred leagues distant from each other, the Caribs, Maypures, Brazilians, and Peruvians, in the words sea, rain, water, lake. We must not confound mapara with mapaja; this last word signifies, in Maypure and Tamanac, the papaw or melon-tree, no doubt on account of the sweetness of its fruit, for mapa means in the Maypure, as well as in the Peruvian and Omagua tongues, the honey of bees. The Tamanacs call a cascade, or raudal, in general uatapurutpe; the Maypures, uca.]
Early maps, as well as Father Gumilla’s work, place the Mission in latitude 1 degree 30 minutes. Abbe Gili gives it 3° 50′. I found, by meridian altitudes of Canopus and a of the Southern Cross, 5° 38′ 4″ for the latitude; and by the chronometer 4 hours 41 minutes 17 seconds of longitude west of the meridian of Paris.
We found this small Mission in the most deplorable state. It contained, even at the time of the expedition of Solano, commonly called the expedition of the boundaries, three hundred and twenty Indians. This number had diminished, at the time of our passage by the Cataracts, to forty-seven; and the missionary assured us that this diminution became from year to year more sensible. He showed us, that in the space of thirty-two months only one marriage had been entered in the registers of the parish church. Two others had been contracted by uncatechised natives, and celebrated before the Indian Gobernador. At the first foundation of the Mission, the Atures, Maypures, Meyepures, Abanis, and Quirupas, had been assembled together. Instead of these tribes we found only Guahibos, and a few families of the nation of Macos. The Atures have almost entirely disappeared; they are no longer known, except by the tombs in the cavern of Ataruipe, which recall to mind the sepulchres of the Guanches at Teneriffe. We learned on the spot, that the Atures, as well as the Quaquas, and the Macos or Piaroas, belong to the great stock of the Salive nations; while the Maypures, the Abanis, the Parenis, and the Guaypunaves, are of the same race as the Cabres or Caveres, celebrated for their long wars with the Caribs. In this labyrinth of petty nations, divided from one another as the nations of Latium, Asia Minor, and Sogdiana, formerly were, we can trace no general relations but by following the analogy of tongues. These are the only monuments that have reached us from the early ages of the world; the only monuments, which, not being fixed to the soil, are at once moveable and lasting, and have as it were traversed time and space. They owe their duration, and the extent they occupy, much less to conquering and polished nations, than to those wandering and half-savage tribes, who, fleeing before a powerful enemy, carried along with them in their extreme wretchedness only their wives, their children, and the languages of their fathers.
Between the latitudes of 4 and 8°, the Orinoco not only separates the great forest of the Parime from the bare savannahs of the Apure, Meta, and Guaviare, but also forms the boundary between tribes of very different manners. To the westward, over treeless plains, wander the Guahibos, the Chiricoas, and the Guamos; nations, proud of their savage independence, whom it is difficult to fix to the soil, or habituate to regular labour. The Spanish missionaries characterise them well by the name of Indios andantes (errant or vagabond Indians), because they are perpetually moving from place to place. To the east of the Orinoco, between the neighbouring sources of the Caura, Cataniapo, and Ventuari, live the Macos, the Salives, the Curacicanas, Parecas, and Maquiritares, mild, tranquil tribes, addicted to agriculture, and easily subjected to the discipline of the Missions. The Indian of the plains differs from the Indian of the forests in language as well as manners and mental disposition; both have an idiom abounding in spirited and bold terms; but the language of the former is harsher, more concise, and more impassioned; that of the latter, softer, more diffuse, and fuller of ambiguous expressions.
The Mission of Atures, like most of the Missions of the Orinoco, situated between the mouths of the Apure and the Atabapo, is composed of both the classes of tribes we have just described. We there find the Indians of the forests, and the Indians heretofore nomadic* (Indios monteros and Indios llaneros, or andantes). We visited with the missionary the huts of Macos, whom the Spaniards call Piraoas, and those of the Guahibos. The first indicated more love of order, cleanliness, and ease. The independent Macos (I do not designate them by the name of savages) have their rochelas, or fixed dwellings, two or three days’ journey east of Atures, toward the sources of the little river Cataniapo. They are very numerous. Like most of the natives of the woods, they cultivate, not maize, but cassava; and they live in great harmony with the Christian Indians of the mission. The harmony was established and wisely cultivated by the Franciscan monk, Bernardo Zea. This alcalde of the reduced Macos quitted the village of Atures for a few months every year, to live in the plantations which he possessed in the midst of the forests near the hamlet of the independent Macos. In consequence of this peaceful intercourse, many of the Indios monteros came and established themselves some time ago in the mission. They asked eagerly for knives, fishing hooks, and those coloured glass beads, which, notwithstanding the positive prohibition of the priests, were employed not as necklaces, but as ornaments of the guayuco (perizoma). Having obtained what they sought, they returned to the woods, weary of the regulations of the mission. Epidemic fevers, which prevailed with violence at the entrance of the rainy season, contributed greatly to this unexpected flight. In 1799 the mortality was very considerable at Carichana, on the banks of the Meta, and at the Raudal of Atures. The Indian of the forest conceives a horror of the life of the civilized man, when, I will not say any misfortune befalls his family settled in the mission, but merely any disagreeable or unforeseen accident. Natives, who were neophytes, have been known to desert for ever the Christian establishments, on account of a great drought; as if this calamity would not have reached them equally in their plantations, had they remained in their primitive independence.
[* I employ the word nomadic as synonymous with wandering, and not in its primitive signification. The wandering nations of America (those of the indigenous tribes, it is to be understood) are never shepherds; they live by fishing and hunting, on the fruit of a few trees, the farinaceous pith of palm-trees, etc.]
The fevers which prevail during a great part of the year in the villages of Atures and Maypures, around the two Great Cataracts of the Orinoco, render these spots highly dangerous to European travellers. They are caused by violent heats, in combination with the excessive humidity of the air, bad nutriment, and, if we may believe the natives, the pestilent exhalations rising from the bare rocks of the Raudales. These fevers of the Orinoco appeared to us to resemble those which prevail every year between New Barcelona, La Guayra, and Porto Cabello, in the vicinity of the sea; and which often degenerate into adynamic fevers. “I have had my little fever (mi calenturita) only eight months,” said the good missionary of the Atures, who accompanied us to the Rio Negro; speaking of it as of an habitual evil, easy to be borne. The fits were violent, but of short duration. He was sometimes seized with them when lying along in the boat under a shelter of branches of trees, sometimes when exposed to the burning rays of the sun on an open beach. These tertian agues are attended with great debility of the muscular system; yet we find poor ecclesiastics on the Orinoco, who endure for several years these calenturitas, or tercianas: their effects are not so fatal as those which are experienced from fevers of much shorter duration in temperate climates.
I have just alluded to the noxious influence on the salubrity of the atmosphere, which is attributed by the natives, and even the missionaries, to the bare rocks. This opinion is the more worthy of attention, as it is connected with a physical phenomenon lately observed in different parts of the globe, and not yet sufficiently explained. Among the cataracts, and wherever the Orinoco, between the Missions of Carichana and of Santa Barbara, periodically washes the granitic rocks, they become smooth, black, and as if coated with plumbago. The colouring matter does not penetrate the stone, which is coarse-grained granite, containing a few solitary crystals of hornblende. Taking a general view of the primitive formation of Atures, we perceive, that, like the granite of Syene in Egypt, it is a granite with hornblende, and not a real syenite formation. Many of the layers are entirely destitute of hornblende. The black crust is 0.3 of a line in thickness; it is found chiefly on the quartzose parts. The crystals of feldspar sometimes preserve externally their reddish-white colour, and rise above the black crust. On breaking the stone with a hammer, the inside is found to be white, and without any trace of decomposition. These enormous stony masses appear sometimes in rhombs, sometimes under those hemispheric forms, peculiar to granitic rocks when they separate in blocks. They give the landscape a singularly gloomy aspect; their colour being in strong contrast with that of the foam of the river which covers them, and of the vegetation by which they are surrounded. The Indians say, that the rocks are burnt (or carbonized) by the rays of the sun. We saw them not only in the bed of the Orinoco, but in some spots as far as five hundred toises from its present shore, on heights which the waters now never reach even in their greatest swellings.
What is this brownish black crust, which gives these rocks, when they have a globular form, the appearance of meteoric stones? What idea can we form of the action of the water, which produces a deposit, or a change of colour, so extraordinary? We must observe, in the first place, that this phenomenon does not belong to the cataracts of the Orinoco alone, but is found in both hemispheres. At my return from Mexico in 1807, when I showed the granites of Atures and Maypures to M. Roziere, who had travelled over the valley of Egypt, the coasts of the Red Sea, and Mount Sinai, this learned geologist pointed out to me that the primitive rocks of the little cataracts of Syene display, like the rocks of the Orinoco, a glossy surface, of a blackish-grey, or almost leaden colour, and of which some of the fragments seem coated with tar. Recently, in the unfortunate expedition of Captain Tuckey, the English naturalists were struck with the same appearance in the yellalas (rapids and shoals) that obstruct the river Congo or Zaire. Dr. Koenig has placed in the British Museum, beside the syenites of the Congo, the granites of Atures, taken from a series of rocks which were presented by M. Bonpland and myself to the illustrious president of the Royal Society of London. “These fragments,” says Mr. Koenig, “alike resemble meteoric stones; in both rocks, those of the Orinoco and of Africa, the black crust is composed, according to the analysis of Mr. Children, of the oxide of iron and manganese.” Some experiments made at Mexico, conjointly with Senor del Rio, led me to think that the rocks of Atures, which blacken the paper in which they are wrapped,* contain, besides oxide of manganese, carbon, and supercarburetted iron. At the Orinoco, granitic masses of forty or fifty feet thick are uniformly coated with these oxides; and, however thin these crusts may appear, they must nevertheless contain pretty considerable quantities of iron and manganese, since they occupy a space of above a league square.
[* I remarked the same phenomenon from spongy grains of platina one or two lines in length, collected at the stream-works of Taddo, in the province of Choco. Having been wrapped up in white paper during a journey of several months, they left a black stain, like that of plumbago or supercarburetted iron.]
It must be observed that all these phenomena of coloration have hitherto appeared in the torrid zone only, in rivers that have periodical overflowings, of which the habitual temperature is from twenty-four to twenty-eight centesimal degrees, and which flow, not over gritstone or calcareous rocks, but over granite, gneiss, and hornblende rocks. Quartz and feldspar scarcely contain five or six thousandths of oxide of iron and of manganese; but in mica and hornblende these oxides, and particularly that of iron, amount, according to Klaproth and Herrmann, to fifteen or twenty parts in a hundred. The hornblende contains also some carbon, like the Lydian stone and kieselschiefer. Now, if these black crusts were formed by a slow decomposition of the granitic rock, under the double influence of humidity and the tropical sun, how is it to be conceived that these oxides are spread so uniformly over the whole surface of the stony masses, and are not more abundant round a crystal of mica or hornblende than on the feldspar and milky quartz? The ferruginous sandstones, granites, and marbles, that become cinereous and sometimes brown in damp air, have an aspect altogether different. In reflecting upon the lustre and equal thickness of the crusts, we are rather inclined to think that this matter is deposited by the Orinoco, and that the water has penetrated even into the clefts of the rocks. Adopting this hypothesis, it may be asked whether the river holds the oxides suspended like sand and other earthy substances, or whether they are found in a state of chemical solution. The first supposition is less admissible, on account of the homogeneity of the crusts, which contain neither grains of sand, nor spangles of mica, mixed with the oxides. We must then recur to the idea of a chemical solution; and this idea is no way at variance with the phenomena daily observable in our laboratories. The waters of great rivers contain carbonic acid; and, were they even entirely pure, they would still be capable, in very great volumes, of dissolving some portions of oxide, or those metallic hydrates which are regarded as the least soluble. The mud of the Nile, which is the sediment of the matters which the river holds suspended, is destitute of manganese; but it contains, according to the analysis of M. Regnault, six parts in a hundred of oxide of iron; and its colour, at first black, changes to yellowish brown by desiccation and the contact of air. The mud consequently is not the cause of the black crusts on the rocks of Syene. Berzelius, who, at my request, examined these crusts, recognized in them, as in those of the granites of the Orinoco and River Congo, the union of iron and manganese. That celebrated chemist was of opinion that the rivers do not take up these oxides from the soil over which they flow, but that they derive them from their subterranean sources, and deposit them on the rocks in the manner of cementation, by the action of particular affinities, perhaps by that of the potash of the feldspar. A long residence at the cataracts of the Orinoco, the Nile, and the Rio Congo, and an examination of the circumstances attendant on this phenomenon of coloration, could alone lead to the complete solution of the problem we have discussed. Is this phenomenon independent of the nature of the rocks? I shall content myself with observing, in general, that neither the granitic masses remote from the ancient bed of the Orinoco, but exposed during the rainy season to the alternations of heat and moisture, nor the granitic rocks bathed by the brownish waters of the Rio Negro, assume the appearance of meteoric stones. The Indians say, that the rocks are black only where the waters are white. They ought, perhaps, to add, where the waters acquire great swiftness, and strike with force against the rocks of the banks. Cementation seems to explain why the crusts augment so little in thickness.
I know not whether it be an error, but in the Missions of the Orinoco, the neighbourhood of bare rocks, and especially of the masses that have crusts of carbon, oxide of iron, and manganese, are considered injurious to health. In the torrid zone, still more than in others, the people multiply pathogenic causes at will. They are afraid to sleep in the open air, if forced to expose the face to the rays of the full moon. They also think it dangerous to sleep on granite near the river; and many examples are cited of persons, who, after having passed the night on these black and naked rocks, have awakened in the morning with a strong paroxysm of fever. Without entirely lending faith to the assertions of the missionaries and natives, we generally avoided the laxas negras, and stretched ourselves on the beach covered with white sand, when we found no tree from which to suspend our hammocks. At Carichana, the village is intended to be destroyed, and its place changed, merely to remove it from the black rocks, or from a site where, for a space of more than ten thousand square toises, banks of bare granite form the surface. From similar motives, which must appear very chimerical to the naturalists of Europe, the Jesuits Olmo, Forneri, and Mellis, removed a village of Jaruros to three different spots, between the Raudal of Tabaje and the Rio Anaveni. I merely state these facts as they were related to me, because we are almost wholly ignorant of the nature of the gaseous mixtures which cause the insalubrity of the atmosphere. Can it be admitted that, under the influence of excessive heat and of constant humidity, the black crusts of the granitic rocks are capable of acting upon the ambient air, and producing miasmata with a triple basis of carbon, azote, and hydrogen? This I doubt. The granites of the Orinoco, it is true, often contain hornblende; and those who are accustomed to practical labour in mines are not ignorant that the most noxious exhalations rise from galleries wrought in syenitic and hornblende rocks: but in an atmosphere renewed every instant by the action of little currents of air, the effect cannot be the same as in a mine.
It is probably dangerous to sleep on the laxas negras, only because these rocks retain a very elevated temperature during the night. I have found their temperature in the day at 48°, the air in the shade being at 29.7°; during the night the thermometer on the rock indicated 36°, the air being at 26°. When the accumulation of heat in the stony masses has reached a stationary degree, these masses become at the same hours nearly of the same temperature. What they have acquired more in the day they lose at night by radiation, the force of which depends on the state of the surface of the radiating body, the interior arrangement of its particles, and, above all, on the clearness of the sky, that is, on the transparency of the atmosphere and the absence of clouds. When the declination of the sun varies very little, this luminary adds daily nearly the same quantities of heat, and the rocks are not hotter at the end than in the middle of summer. There is a certain maximum which they cannot pass, because they do not change the state of their surface, their density, or their capacity for caloric. On the shores of the Orinoco, on getting out of one’s hammock during the night, and touching with the bare feet the rocky surface of the ground, the sensation of heat experienced is very remarkable. I observed pretty constantly, in putting the bulb of the thermometer in contact with the ledges of bare rocks, that the laxas negras are hotter during the day than the reddish-white granites at a distance from the river; but the latter cool during the night less rapidly than the former. It may be easily conceived that the emission and loss of caloric is more rapid in masses with black crusts than in those which abound in laminae of silvery mica. When walking between the hours of one and three in the afternoon, at Carichana, Atures, or Maypures, among those blocks of stone destitute of vegetable mould, and piled up to great heights, one feels a sensation of suffocation, as if standing before the opening of a furnace. The winds, if ever felt in those woody regions, far from bringing coolness, appear more heated when they have passed over beds of stone, and heaps of rounded blocks of granite. This augmentation of heat adds to the insalubrity of the climate.
Among the causes of the depopulation of the Raudales, I have not reckoned the small-pox, that malady which in other parts of America makes such cruel ravages that the natives, seized with dismay, burn their huts, kill their children, and renounce every kind of society. This scourge is almost unknown on the banks of the Orinoco, and should it penetrate thither, it is to be hoped that its effects may be immediately counteracted by vaccination, the blessings of which are daily felt along the coasts of Terra Firma. The causes which depopulate the Christian settlements are, the repugnance of the Indians for the regulations of the missions, insalubrity of climate, bad nourishment, want of care in the diseases of children, and the guilty practice of preventing pregnancy by the use of deleterious herbs. Among the barbarous people of Guiana, as well as those of the half-civilized islands of the South Sea, young wives are fearful of becoming mothers. If they have children, their offspring are exposed not only to the dangers of savage life, but also to other dangers arising from the strangest popular prejudices. When twins are born, false notions of propriety and family honour require that one of them should be destroyed. To bring twins into the world, say the Indians, is to be exposed to public scorn; it is to resemble rats, opossums, and the vilest animals, which bring forth a great number of young at a time. Nay, more, they affirm that two children born at the same time cannot belong to the same father. This is an axiom of physiology among the Salives; and in every zone, and in different states of society, when the vulgar seize upon an axiom, they adhere to it with more stedfastness than the better-informed men by whom it was first hazarded. To avoid the disturbance of conjugal tranquillity, the old female relations of the mother take care, that when twins are born one of them shall disappear. If a new-born infant, though not a twin, have any physical deformity, the father instantly puts it to death. They will have none but robust and well-made children, for deformities indicate some influence of the evil spirit Ioloquiamo, or the bird Tikitiki, the enemy of the human race. Sometimes children of a feeble constitution undergo the same fate. When the father is asked what is become of one of his sons, he will pretend that he has lost him by a natural death. He will disavow an action that appears to him blameable, but not criminal. “The poor boy,” he will tell you, “could not follow us; we must have waited for him every moment; he has not been seen again; he did not come to sleep where we passed the night.” Such is the candour and simplicity of manners — such the boasted happiness — of man in the state of nature! He kills his son to escape the ridicule of having twins, or to avoid journeying more slowly; in fact, to avoid a little inconvenience.
These acts of cruelty, I confess, are less frequent than they are believed to be; yet they occur even in the Missions, during the time when the Indians leave the village, to retire to the conucos of the neighbouring forests. It would be erroneous to attribute these actions to the state of polygamy in which the uncatechized Indians live. Polygamy no doubt diminishes the domestic happiness and internal union of families; but this practice, sanctioned by Ismaelism, does not prevent the people of the east from loving their children with tenderness. Among the Indians of the Orinoco, the father returns home only to eat, or to sleep in his hammock; he lavishes no caresses on his infants, or on his wives, whose office it is to serve him. Parental affection begins to display itself only when the son has become strong enough to take a part in hunting, fishing, and the agricultural labours of the plantations.
While our boat was unloading, we examined closely, wherever the shore could be approached, the terrific spectacle of a great river narrowed and reduced as it were to foam. I shall endeavour to paint, not the sensations we felt, but the aspect of a spot so celebrated among the scenes of the New World. The more imposing and majestic the objects we describe, the more essential it becomes to seize them in their smallest details, to fix the outline of the picture we would present to the imagination of the reader, and to describe with simplicity what characterises the great and imperishable monuments of nature.
The navigation of the Orinoco from its mouth as far as the confluence of the Anaveni, an extent of 260 leagues, is not impeded. There are shoals and eddies near Muitaco, in a cove that bears the name of the Mouth of Hell (Boca del Infierno); and there are rapids (raudalitos) near Carichana and San Borja; but in all these places the river is never entirely barred, as a channel is left by which boats can pass up and down.
In all this navigation of the Lower Orinoco travellers experience no other danger than that of the natural rafts formed by trees, which are uprooted by the river, and swept along in its great floods. Woe to the canoes that during the night strike against these rafts of wood interwoven with lianas! Covered with aquatic plants, they resemble here, as in the Mississippi, floating meadows, the chinampas or floating gardens of the Mexican lakes. The Indians, when they wish to surprise a tribe of their enemies, bring together several canoes, fasten them to each other with cords, and cover them with grass and branches, to imitate this assemblage of trunks of trees, which the Orinoco sweeps along in its middle current. The Caribs are accused of having heretofore excelled in the use of this artifice; at present the Spanish smugglers in the neighbourhood of Angostura have recourse to the same expedient to escape the vigilance of the custom-house officers.
After proceeding up the Orinoco beyond the Rio Anaveni, we find, between the mountains of Uniana and Sipapu, the Great Cataracts of Mapara and Quittuna, or, as they are more commonly called by the missionaries, the Raudales of Atures and Maypures. These bars, which extend from one bank to the other, present in general a similar aspect: they are composed of innumerable islands, dikes of rock, and blocks of granite piled on one another and covered with palm-trees. But, notwithstanding a uniformity of aspect, each of these cataracts preserves an individual character. The first, the Atures, is most easily passable when the waters are low. The Indians prefer crossing the second, the Maypures, at the time of great floods. Beyond the Maypures and the mouth of the Cano Cameji, the Orinoco is again unobstructed for the length of more than one hundred and sixty-seven leagues, or nearly to its source; that is to say, as far as the Raudalito of Guaharibos, east of the Cano Chiguire and the lofty mountains of Yumariquin.
Having visited the basins of the two rivers Orinoco and Amazon, I was singularly struck by the differences they display in their course of unequal extent. The falls of the Amazon, which is nearly nine hundred and eighty nautical leagues (twenty to a degree) in length, are pretty near its source in the first sixth of its total length, and five-sixths of its course are entirely free. We find the great falls of the Orinoco on a point far more unfavourable to navigation; if not at the half, at least much beyond the first third of its length. In both rivers it is neither the mountains, nor the different stages of flat lands lying over one another, whence they take their origin, that cause the cataracts; they are produced by other mountains, other ledges which, after a long and tranquil course, the rivers have to pass over, precipitating themselves from step to step.
The Amazon does not pierce its way through the principal chain of the Andes, as was affirmed at a period when it was gratuitously supposed that, wherever mountains are divided into parallel chains, the intermedial or central ridge must be more elevated than the others. This great river rises (and this is a point of some importance to geology) eastward of the western chain, which alone in this latitude merits the denomination of the high chain of the Andes. It is formed by the junction of the river Aguamiros with the Rio Chavinillo, which issues from the lake Llauricocha in a longitudinal valley bounded by the western and the intermedial chain of the Andes. To form an accurate idea of these hydrographical relations, it must be borne in mind that a division into three chains takes place in the colossal group or knot of the mountains of Pasco and Huanuco. The western chain, which is the loftiest, and takes the name of the Cordillera Real de Nieve, directs its course (between Huary and Caxatamba, Guamachuco and Luema, Micuipampa and Guangamarca) by the Nevados of Viuda, Pelagatos, Moyopata, and Huaylillas, and by the Paramos of Guamani and Guaringa, towards the town of Loxa. The intermedial chain separates the waters of the Upper Maranon from those of the Guallaga, and over a long space reaches only the small elevation of a thousand toises; it enters the region of perpetual snow to the south of Huanuco in the Cordillera of Sasaguanca. It stretches at first northward by Huacrachuco, Chachapoyas, Moyobamba, and the Paramo of Piscoguannuna; then it progressively lowers toward Peca, Copallin, and the Mission of Santiago, at the eastern extremity of the province of Jaen de Bracamoros. The third, or easternmost chain, skirts the right bank of the Rio Guallaga, and loses itself in the seventh degree of latitude. So long as the Amazon flows from south to north in the longitudinal valley, between two chains of unequal height (that is, from the farms of Quivilla and Guancaybamba, where the river is crossed on wooden bridges, as far as the confluence of the Rio Chinchipe), there are neither bars, nor any obstacle whatever to the navigation of boats. The falls of water begin only where the Amazon turns toward the east, crossing the intermedial chain of the Andes, which widens considerably toward the north. It meets with the first rocks of red sandstone, or ancient conglomerate, between Tambillo and the Pongo of Rentema (near which I measured the breadth, depth, and swiftness of the waters), and it leaves the rocks of red sandstone east of the famous strait of Manseriche, near the Pongo of Tayuchuc, where the hills rise no higher than forty or fifty toises above the level of its waters. The river does not reach the most easterly chain, which bounds the Pampas del Sacramento. From the hills of Tayuchuc as far as Grand Para, during a course of more than seven hundred and fifty leagues, the navigation is free from obstacles. It results from this rapid sketch, that, if the Maranon had not to pass over the hilly country between Santiago and Tomependa (which belongs to the central chain of the Andes) it would be navigable from its mouth as far as Pumpo, near Piscobamba in the province of Conchucos, forty-three leagues north of its source.
We have just seen that, in the Orinoco, as in the Amazon, the great cataracts are not found near the sources of the rivers. After a tranquil course of more than one hundred and sixty leagues from the little Raudal of Guaharibos, east of Esmeralda, as far as the mountains of Sipapu, the river, augmented by the waters of the Jao, the Ventuari, the Atabapo, and the Guaviare, suddenly changes its primitive direction from east to west, and runs from south to north: then, in crossing the land-strait* in the plains of Meta, meets the advanced buttresses of the Cordillera of Parima. This obstacle causes cataracts far more considerable, and presents greater impediments to navigation, than all the Pongos of the Upper Maranon, because they are proportionally nearer to the mouth of the river. These geographical details serve to prove, in the instances of the two greatest rivers of the New World, first, that it cannot be ascertained in an absolute manner that, beyond a certain number of toises, or a certain height above the level of the sea, rivers are not navigable; secondly, that the rapids are not always occasioned, as several treatises of general topography affirm, by the height of the first obstacles, by the first lines of ridges which the waters have to surmount near their sources.
[* This strait, which I have several times mentioned, is formed by the Cordilleras of the Andes of New Granada, and the Cordillera of Parima.]
The most northern of the great cataracts of the Orinoco is the only one bounded on each side by lofty mountains. The left bank of the river is generally lower, but it makes part of a plane which rises again west of Atures, towards the Peak of Uniana, a pyramid nearly three thousand feet high, and placed on a wall of rock with steep slopes. The situation of this solitary peak in the plain contributes to render its aspect more imposing and majestic. Near the Mission, in the country which surrounds the cataract, the aspect of the landscape varies at every step. Within a small space we find all that is most rude and gloomy in nature, united with an open country and lovely pastoral scenery. In the physical, as in the moral world, the contrast of effects, the comparison of what is powerful and menacing with what is soft and peaceful, is a never-failing source of our pleasures and our emotions.
I shall here repeat some scattered features of a picture which I traced in another work shortly after my return to Europe.* The savannahs of Atures, covered with slender plants and grasses, are really meadows resembling those of Europe. They are never inundated by the rivers, and seem as if waiting to be ploughed by the hand of man. Notwithstanding their extent, these savannahs do not exhibit the monotony of our plains; they surround groups of rocks and blocks of granite piled on one another. On the very borders of these plains and this open country, glens are seen scarcely lighted by the rays of the setting sun, and hollows where the humid soil, loaded with arums, heliconias, and lianas, manifests at every step the wild fecundity of nature. Everywhere, just rising above the earth, appear those shelves of granite completely bare, which we saw at Carichana, and which I have already described. Where springs gush from the bosom of these rocks, verrucarias, psoras, and lichens are fixed on the decomposed granite, and have there accumulated mould. Little euphorbias, peperomias, and other succulent plants, have taken the place of the cryptogamous tribes; and evergreen shrubs, rhexias, and purple-flowered melastomas, form verdant isles amid desert and rocky plains. The distribution of these spots, the clusters of small trees with coriaceous and shining leaves scattered in the savannahs, the limpid rills that dig channels across the rocks, and wind alternately through fertile places and over bare shelves of granite, all call to mind the most lovely and picturesque plantations and pleasure-grounds of Europe. We seem to recognise the industry of man, and the traces of cultivation, amid this wild scenery.
[* Views of Nature page 153 Bohn’s edition.]
The lofty mountains that bound the horizon on every side, contribute also, by their forms and the nature of their vegetation, to give an extraordinary character to the landscape. The average height of these mountains is not more than seven or eight hundred feet above the surrounding plains. Their summits are rounded, as for the most part in granitic mountains, and covered with thick forests of the laurel-tribe. Clusters of palm-trees,* the leaves of which, curled like feathers, rise majestically at an angle of seventy degrees, are dispersed amid trees with horizontal branches; and their bare trunks, like columns of a hundred or a hundred and twenty feet high, shoot up into the air, and when seen in distinct relief against the azure vault of the sky, they resemble a forest planted upon another forest. When, as the moon was going down behind the mountains of Uniana, her reddish disc was hidden behind the pinnated foliage of the palm-trees, and again appeared in the aerial zone that separates the two forests, I thought myself transported for a few moments to the hermitage which Bernardin de Saint–Pierre has described as one of the most delicious scenes of the Isle of Bourbon, and I felt how much the aspect of the plants and their groupings resembled each other in the two worlds. In describing a small spot of land in an island of the Indian Ocean, the inimitable author of Paul and Virginia has sketched the vast picture of the landscape of the tropics. He knew how to paint nature, not because he had studied it scientifically, but because he felt it in all its harmonious analogies of forms, colours, and interior powers.
[* El cucurito.]
East of the Atures, near these rounded mountains crowned, as it were, by two superimposed forests of laurels and palms, other mountains of a very different aspect arise. Their ridge is bristled with pointed rocks, towering like pillars above the summits of the trees and shrubs. These effects are common to all granitic table-lands, at the Harz, in the metalliferous mountains of Bohemia, in Galicia, on the limit of the two Castiles, or wherever a granite of new formation appears above the ground. The rocks, which are at distances from each other, are composed of blocks piled together, or divided into regular and horizontal beds. On the summits of those situated near the Orinoco, flamingos, soldados,* and other fishing-birds perch, and look like men posted as sentinels. This resemblance is so striking, that the inhabitants of Angostura, soon after the foundation of their city, were one day alarmed by the sudden appearance of soldados and garzas, on a mountain towards the south. They believed they were menaced with an attack of Indios monteros (wild Indians called mountaineers); and the people were not perfectly tranquilized, till they saw the birds soaring in the air, and continuing their migration towards the mouths of the Orinoco.
[* The soldado (soldier) is a large species of heron.]
The fine vegetation of the mountains spreads over the plains, wherever the rock is covered with mould, We generally find that this black mould, mixed with fibrous vegetable matter, is separated from the granitic rock by a layer of white sand. The missionary assured us that verdure of perpetual freshness prevails in the vicinity of the cataracts, produced by the quantity of vapour which the river, broken into torrents and cascades for the length of three or four thousand toises, diffuses in the air.
We had not heard thunder more than once or twice at Atures, and the vegetation everywhere displayed that vigorous aspect, that brilliancy of colour, seen on the coast only at the end of the rainy season. The old trees were decorated with beautiful orchideas,* yellow bannisterias, blue-flowered bignonias, peperomias, arums, and pothoses. A single trunk displays a greater variety of vegetable forms than are contained within an extensive space of ground in our countries. Close to the parasite plants peculiar to very hot climates we observed, not without surprise, in the centre of the torrid zone, and near the level of the sea, mosses resembling in every respect those of Europe. We gathered, near the Great Cataract of Atures, that fine specimen of Grimmia* with fontinalis leaves, which has so much fixed the attention of botanists. It is suspended to the branches of the loftiest trees. Of the phaenerogamous plants, those which prevail in the woody spots are the mimosa, ficus, and laurinea. This fact is the more characteristic as, according to the observations of Mr. Brown, the laurineae appear to be almost entirely wanting on the opposite continent, in the equinoctial part of Africa. Plants that love humidity adorn the scenery surrounding the cataracts. We there find in the plains groups of heliconias and other scitamineae with large and glossy leaves, bamboos, and the three palm-trees, the murichi, jagua, and vadgiai, each of which forms a separate group. The murichi, or mauritia with scaly fruits, is the celebrated sago-tree of the Guaraon Indians. It has palmate leaves, and has no relation to the palm-trees with pinnate and curled leaves; to the jagua, which appears to be a species of the cocoa-tree; or to the vadgiai or cucurito, which may be assimilated to the fine species Oreodoxa. The cucurito, which is the palm most prevalent around the cataracts of the Atures and Maypures, is remarkable for its stateliness. Its leaves, or rather its palms, crown a trunk of eighty or one hundred feet high; their direction is almost perpendicular when young, as well as at their full growth, the points only being incurvated. They look like plumes of the most soft and verdant green. The cucurito, the pirijao, the fruit of which resembles the apricot, the Oreodoxa regia or palma real of the island of Cuba, and the ceroxylon of the high Andes, are the most majestic of all the palm-trees we saw in the New World. As we advance toward the temperate zone, the plants of this family decrease in size and beauty. What a difference between the species we have just mentioned, and the date-tree of the East, which unfortunately has become to the landscape painters of Europe the type of a group of palm-trees!
[* Cymbidium violaceum, Habenaria angustifolia, etc.]
[* Grimmia fontinaloides. See Hooker’s Musci Exotici, 1818 tab. 2. The learned author of the Monography of the Jungermanniae (Mr. Jackson Hooker), with noble disinterestedness, published at his own expense, in London, the whole collection of cryptogamous plants, brought by Bonpland and Humboldt from the equinoctial regions of America.]
It is not suprising that persons who have travelled only in the north of Africa, in Sicily, or in Spain, cannot conceive that, of all large trees, the palm is the most grand and beautiful in form. Incomplete analogies prevent Europeans from having a just idea of the aspect of the torrid zone. All the world knows, for instance, that this zone is embellished by the contrasts exhibited in the foliage of the trees, and particularly by the great number of those with pinnate leaves. The ash, the service-tree, the inga, the acacia of the United States, the gleditsia, the tamarind, the mimosa, the desmanthus, have all pinnate leaves, with foliolae more or less long, slender, tough, and shining. But can a group of ash-trees, of service-trees, or of sumach, recall the picturesque effect of tamarinds or mimosas, when the azure of the sky appears through their small, slender, and delicately pinnated leaves? These considerations are more important than they may at first seem. The forms of plants determine the physiognomy of nature; and this physiognomy influences the moral dispositions of nations. Every type comprehends species, which, while exhibiting the same general appearance, differ in the varied development of the similar organs. The palm-trees, the scitamineae, the malvaceae, the trees with pinnate leaves, do not all display the same picturesque beauties; and generally the most beautiful species of each type, in plants as in animals, belong to the equinoctial zone.
The proteaceae,* crotons, agaves, and the great tribe of the cactuses, which inhabit exclusively the New World, disappear gradually, as we ascend the Orinoco above the Apure and the Meta. It is, however, the shade and humidity, rather than the distance from the coast, which oppose the migration of the cactuses southward. We found forests of them mingled with crotons, covering a great space of arid land to the east of the Andes, in the province of Bracamoros, towards the Upper Maranon. The arborescent ferns seem to fail entirely near the cataracts of the Orinoco; we found no species as far as San Fernando de Atabapo, that is, to the confluence of the Orinoco and the Guaviare.
[* Rhopalas, which characterise the vegetation of the Llanos.]
Having now examined the vicinity of the Atures, it remains for me to speak of the rapids themselves, which occur in a part of the valley where the bed of the river, deeply ingulfed, has almost inaccessible banks. It was only in a very few spots that we could enter the Orinoco to bathe, between the two cataracts, in coves where the waters have eddies of little velocity. Persons who have dwelt in the Alps, the Pyrenees, or even the Cordilleras, so celebrated for the fractures and the vestiges of destruction which they display at every step, can scarcely picture to themselves, from a mere narration, the state of the bed of the river. It is traversed, in an extent of more than five miles, by innumerable dikes of rock, forming so many natural dams, so many barriers resembling those of the Dnieper, which the ancients designated by the name of phragmoi. The space between the rocky dikes of the Orinoco is filled with islands of different dimensions; some hilly, divided into several peaks, and two or three hundred toises in length, others small, low, and like mere shoals. These islands divide the river into a number of torrents, which boil up as they break against the rocks. The jaguas and cucuritos with plumy leaves, with which all the islands are covered, seem like groves of palm-trees rising from the foamy surface of the waters. The Indians, whose task it is to pass the boats empty over the raudales, distinguish every shelf, and every rock, by a particular name. On entering from the south you find first the Leap of the Toucan (Salto del Piapoco); and between the islands of Avaguri and Javariveni is the Raudal of Javariveni, where, on our return from Rio Negro, we passed some hours amid the rapids, waiting for our boat. A great part of the river appeared dry. Blocks of granite are heaped together, as in the moraines which the glaciers of Switzerland drive before them. The river is ingulfed in caverns; and in one of these caverns we heard the water roll at once over our heads and beneath our feet. The Orinoco seems divided into a multitude of arms or torrents, each of which seeks to force a passage through the rocks. We were struck with the little water to be seen in the bed of the river, the frequency of subterraneous falls, and the tumult of the waters breaking on the rocks in foam.
Cuncta fremunt undis; ac multo murmure montis Spumeus invictis canescit fluctibus amnis.*
[* Lucan, Pharsalia lib 10 v 132.]
Having passed the Raudal of Javariveni (I name here only the principal falls) we come to the Raudal of Canucari, formed by a ledge of rocks uniting the islands of Surupamana and Uirapuri. When the dikes, or natural dams, are only two or three feet high, the Indians venture to descend them in boats. In going up the river, they swim on before, and if, after many vain efforts, they succeed in fixing a rope to one of the points of rock that crown the dike, they then, by means of that rope, draw the bark to the top of the raudal. The bark, during this arduous task, often fills with water; at other times it is stove against the rocks, and the Indians, their bodies bruised and bleeding, extricate themselves with difficulty from the whirlpools, and reach, by swimming, the nearest island. When the steps or rocky barriers are very high, and entirely bar the river, light boats are carried on shore, and with the help of branches of trees placed under them to serve as rollers, they are drawn as far as the place where the river again becomes navigable. This operation is seldom necessary when the water is high. We cannot speak of the cataracts of the Orinoco without recalling to mind the manner heretofore employed for descending the cataracts of the Nile, of which Seneca has left us a description probably more poetical than accurate. I shall cite the passage, which traces with fidelity what may be seen every day at Atures, Maypures, and in some pongos of the Amazon. “Two men embark in a small boat; one steers, and the other empties it as it fills with water. Long buffeted by the rapids, the whirlpools, and the contrary currents, they pass through the narrowest channels, avoid the shoals, and rush down the whole river, guiding the course of the boat in its accelerated fall.” (Nat. Quaest. lib 4 cap 2 edit. Elzev. tome 2 page 609.)
In hydrographic descriptions of countries, the vague names of cataracts, cascades, falls, and rapids,* denoting those tumultuous movements of water which arise from very different circumstances, are generally confounded with one another. Sometimes a whole river precipitating itself from a great height, and by one single fall, renders navigation impossible. Such is the majestic fall of the Rio Tequendama, which I have represented in my Views of the Cordilleras; such are the falls of Niagara and of the Rhine, much less remarkable for their elevation, than for the mass of water they contain. Sometimes stony dikes of small height succeed each other at great distances, and form distinct falls; such are the cachoeiras of the Rio Negro and the Rio Madeira, the saltos of the Rio Cauca, and the greater part of the pongos that are found in the Upper Maranon, from the confluence of the Chinchipe to the village of San Borja. The highest and most formidable of these pongos, which are descended on rafts, that of Mayasi, is however only three feet in height. Sometimes small rocky dikes are so near each other that they form for several miles an uninterrupted succession of cascades and whirlpools (chorros and remolinos); these are properly what are called rapids (raudales). Such are the yellalas, or rapids of the River Zaire,* or Congo, which Captain Tuckey has recently made known to us; the rapids of the Orange River in Africa, above Pella; and the falls of the Missouri, which are four leagues in length, where the river issues from the Rocky Mountains. Such also are the cataracts of Atures and Maypures; the only cataracts which, situated in the equinoctial region of the New World, are adorned with the noble growth of palm-trees. At all seasons they exhibit the aspect of cascades, and present the greatest obstacles to the navigation of the Orinoco, while the rapids of the Ohio and of Upper Egypt are scarcely visible at the period of floods. A solitary cataract, like Niagara, or the cascade of Terni, affords a grand but single picture, varying only as the observer changes his place. Rapids, on the contrary, especially when adorned with large trees, embellish a landscape during a length of several leagues. Sometimes the tumultuous movement of the waters is caused only by extraordinary contractions of the beds of the rivers. Such is the angostura of Carare, in the river Magdalena, a strait that impedes communication between Santa Fe de Bogota and the coast of Carthagena; and such is the pongo of Manseriche, in the Upper Maranon.
[* The corresponding terms in use among the people of South America, are saltos, chorros, pongos, cachoeiras, and raudales.]
[* Voyage to explore the River Zaire, 1818, pages 152, 327, 340. What the inhabitants of Upper Egypt and Nubia call chellal in the Nile, is called yellala in the River Congo. This analogy between words signifying rapids is remarkable, on account of the enormous distance of the yellalas of the Congo from the chellal and djenadel of the Nile. Did the word chellal penetrate with the Moors into the west of Africa? If, with Burckhardt, we consider the origin of this word as Arabic (Travels in Nubia, 1819), it must be derived from the root challa, to disperse, which forms chelil, water falling through a narrow channel.]
The Orinoco, the Rio Negro, and almost all the confluents of the Amazon and the Maranon, have falls or rapids, either because they cross the mountains where they take rise, or because they meet other mountains in their course. If the Amazon, from the pongo of Manseriche (or, to speak with more precision, from the pongo of Tayuchuc) as far as its mouth, a space of more than seven hundred and fifty leagues, exhibit no tumultuous movement of the waters, the river owes this advantage to the uniform direction of its course. It flows from west to east in a vast plain, forming a longitudinal valley between the mountains of Parima and the great mass of the mountains of Brazil.
I was surprised to find by actual measurement that the rapids of the Orinoco, the roar of which is heard at the distance of more than a league, and which are so eminently picturesque from the varied appearance of the waters, the palm-trees and the rocks, have not probably, on their whole length, a height of more than twenty-eight feet perpendicular. In reflecting on this, we find that it is a great deal for rapids, while it would be very little for a single cataract. The Yellalas of the Rio Congo, in the contracted part of the river from Banza Noki as far as Banza Inga, furnish, between the upper and lower levels, a much more considerable difference; but Mr. Barrow observes, that among the great number of these rapids there is one fall, which alone is thirty feet high. On the other hand, the famous pongos of the river Amazon, so dangerous to go up, the falls of Rentema, of Escurrebragas, and of Mayasi, are but a few feet in perpendicular height. Those who are engaged in hydraulic works know the effect that a bar of eighteen or twenty inches’ height produces in a great river. The whirling and tumultuous movement of the water does not depend solely on the greatness of partial falls; what determines the force and impetuosity is the nearness of these falls, the steepness of the rocky ledges, the returning sheets of water which strike against and surmount each other, the form of the islands and shoals, the direction of the counter-currents, and the contraction and sinuosity of the channels through which the waters force a passage between two adjacent levels. In two rivers equally large, that of which the falls have least height may sometimes present the greatest dangers and the most impetuous movements.
It is probable that the river Orinoco loses part of its waters in the cataracts, not only by increased evaporation, caused by the dispersion of minute drops in the atmosphere, but still more by filtrations into the subterraneous cavities. These losses, however, are not very perceptible when we compare the mass of waters entering into the raudal with that which issues out near the mouth of the Rio Anaveni. It was by a similar comparison that the existence of subterraneous cavities in the yellalas or rapids of the river Congo was discovered. The pongo of Manseriche, which ought rather to be called a strait than a fall, ingulfs, in a manner not yet sufficiently explored, a part of the waters and all the floating wood of the Upper Maranon.
The spectator, seated on the bank of the Orinoco, with his eyes fixed on those rocky dikes, is naturally led to inquire whether, in the lapse of ages, the falls change their form or height. I am not much inclined to believe in such effects of the shock of water against blocks of granite, and in the erosion of siliceous matter. The holes narrowed toward the bottom, the funnels that are discovered in the raudales, as well as near so many other cascades in Europe, are owing only to the friction of the sand, and the movement of quartz pebbles. We saw many such, whirled perpetually by the current at the bottom of the funnels, and contributing to enlarge them in every direction. The pongos of the river Amazon are easily destroyed, because the rocky dikes are not granite, but a conglomerate, or red sandstone with large fragments. A part of the pongo of Rentama was broken down eighty years ago, and the course of the waters being interrupted by a new bar, the bed of the river remained dry for some hours, to the great astonishment of the inhabitants of the village of Payaya, seven leagues below the pongo. The Indians of Atures assert (and in this their testimony is contrary to the opinion of Caulin) that the rocks of the raudal preserve the same aspect; but that the partial torrents into which the great river divides itself as it passes through the heaped blocks of granite, change their direction, and carry sometimes more, sometimes less water towards one or the other bank; but the causes of these changes may be very remote from the cataracts, for in the rivers that spread life over the surface of the globe, as in the arteries by which it is diffused through organized bodies, all the movements are propagated to great distances. Oscillations, that at first seem partial, react on the whole liquid mass contained in the trunk as well as in its numerous ramifications.
Some of the Missionaries in their writings have alleged that the inhabitants of Atures and Maypures have been struck with deafness by the noise of the Great Cataracts, but this is untrue. When the noise is heard in the plain that surrounds the mission, at the distance of more than a league, you seem to be near a coast skirted by reefs and breakers. The noise is three times as loud by night as by day, and gives an inexpressible charm to these solitary scenes. What can be the cause of this increased intensity of sound, in a desert where nothing seems to interrupt the silence of nature? The velocity of the propagation of sound, far from augmenting, decreases with the lowering of the temperature. The intensity diminishes in air agitated by a wind which is contrary to the direction of the sound; it diminishes also by dilatation of the air, and is weaker in the higher than in the lower regions of the atmosphere, where the number of particles of air in motion is greater in the same radius. The intensity is the same in dry air, and in air mingled with vapours; but it is feebler in carbonic acid gas than in mixtures of azote and oxygen. From these facts, which are all we know with any certainty, it is difficult to explain a phenomenon observed near every cascade in Europe, and which, long before our arrival in the village of Atures, had struck the missionary and the Indians.
It may be thought that, even in places not inhabited by man, the hum of insects, the song of birds, the rustling of leaves agitated by the feeblest winds, occasion during the day a confused noise, which we perceive the less because it is uniform, and constantly strikes the ear. Now this noise, however slightly perceptible it may be, may diminish the intensity of a louder noise; and this diminution may cease if during the calm of the night the song of birds, the hum of insects, and the action of the wind upon the leaves be interrupted. But this reasoning, even admitting its justness, can scarcely be applied to the forests of the Orinoco, where the air is constantly filled by an innumerable quantity of mosquitos, where the hum of insects is much louder by night than by day, and where the breeze, if ever it be felt, blows only after sunset.
I rather think that the presence of the sun acts upon the propagation and intensity of sound by the obstacles met in currents of air of different density, and by the partial undulations of the atmosphere arising from the unequal heating of different parts of the soil. In calm air, whether dry or mingled with vesicular vapours equally distributed, sound-waves are propagated without difficulty. But when the air is crossed in every direction by small currents of hotter air, the sonorous undulation is divided into two undulations where the density of the medium changes abruptly; partial echoes are formed that weaken the sound, because one of the streams comes back upon itself; and those divisions of undulations take place of which M. Poisson has developed the theory with great sagacity.* It is not therefore the movement of the particles of air from below to above in the ascending current, or the small oblique currents that we consider as opposing by a shock the propagation of the sonorous undulations. A shock given to the surface of a liquid will form circles around the centre of percussion, even when the liquid is agitated. Several kinds of undulations may cross each other in water, as in air, without being disturbed in their propagation: little movements may, as it were, ride over each other, and the real cause of the less intensity of sound during the day appears to be the interpretation of homogeneity in the elastic medium. During the day there is a sudden interruption of density wherever small streamlets of air of a high temperature rise over parts of the soil unequally heated. The sonorous undulations are divided, as the rays of light are refracted and form the mirage wherever strata of air of unequal density are contiguous. The propagation of sound is altered when a stratum of hydrogen gas is made to rise in a tube closed at one end above a stratum of atmospheric air; and M. Biot has well explained, by the interposition of bubbles of carbonic acid gas, why a glass filled with champagne is not sonorous so long as that gas is evolved, and passing through the strata of the liquid.
[* Annales de Chimie tome 7 page 293.]
In support of these ideas, I might almost rest on the authority of an ancient philosopher, whom the moderns do not esteem in proportion to his merits, though the most distinguished zoologists have long rendered ample justice to the sagacity of his observations. “Why,” says Aristotle in his curious book of Problems, “why is sound better heard during the night? Because there is more calmness on account of the absence of caloric (of the hottest).* This absence renders every thing calmer, for the sun is the principle of all movement.” Aristotle had no doubt a vague presentiment of the cause of the phenomenon; but he attributes to the motion of the atmosphere, and the shock of the particles of air, that which seems to be rather owing to abrupt changes of density in the contiguous strata of air.
[* I have placed in a parenthesis, a literal version of the term employed by Aristotle, to express in reality what we now term the matter of heat. Theodore of Gaza, in his Latin translation, expresses in the shape of a doubt what Aristotle positively asserts. I may here remark, that, notwithstanding the imperfect state of science among the ancients, the works of the Stagirite contain more ingenious observations than those of many later philosophers. It is in vain we look in Aristoxenes (De Musica), in Theophylactus Simocatta (De Quaestionibus physicis), or in the 5th Book of the Quest. Nat. of Seneca, for an explanation of the nocturnal augmentation of sound.]
On the 16th of April, towards evening, we received tidings that in less than six hours our boat had passed the rapids, and had arrived in good condition in a cove called el Puerto de arriba, or the Port of the Expedition. We were shown in the little church of Atures some remains of the ancient wealth of the Jesuits. A silver lamp of considerable weight lay on the ground half-buried in the sand. Such an object, it is true, would nowhere tempt the cupidity of a savage; yet I may here remark, to the honor of the natives of the Orinoco, that they are not addicted to stealing, like the less savage tribes of the islands in the Pacific. The former have a great respect for property; they do not even attempt to steal provision, hooks, or hatchets. At Maypures and Atures, locks on doors are unknown: they will be introduced only when whites and men of mixed race establish themselves in the missions.
The Indians of Atures are mild and moderate, and accustomed, from the effects of their idleness, to the greatest privations. Formerly, being excited to labour by the Jesuits, they did not want for food. The fathers cultivated maize, French beans (frijoles), and other European vegetables; they even planted sweet oranges and tamarinds round the villages; and they possessed twenty or thirty thousand head of cows and horses, in the savannahs of Atures and Carichana. They had at their service a great number of slaves and servants (peones), to tend their herds. Nothing is now cultivated but a little cassava, and a few plantains. Such however is the fertility of the soil, that at Atures I counted on a single branch of a musa one hundred and eight fruits, four or five of which would almost have sufficed for a man’s daily food. The culture of maize is entirely neglected, and the horses and cows have entirely disappeared. Near the raudal, a part of the village still bears the name of Passo del ganado (ford of the cattle), while the descendants of those very Indians whom the Jesuits had assembled in a mission, speak of horned cattle as of animals of a race now lost. In going up the Orinoco, toward San Carlos del Rio Negro, we saw the last cow at Carichana. The Fathers of the Observance, who now govern these vast countries, did not immediately succeed the Jesuits. During an interregnum of eighteen years, the missions were visited only from time to time, and by Capuchin monks. The agents of the secular government, under the title of Royal Commissioners, managed the hatos or farms of the Jesuits with culpable negligence. They killed the cattle for the sake of selling the hides. Many heifers were devoured by the jaguars, and a great number perished in consequence of wounds made by the bats of the raudales, which, though smaller, are far bolder than the bats of the Llanos. At the time of the expedition of the boundaries, horses from Encaramada, Carichana, and Atures, were conveyed as far as San Jose de Maravitanos, where, on the banks of the Rio Negro, the Portuguese could only procure them, after a long passage, and of a very inferior quality, by the rivers Amazon and Grand Para. Since the year 1795, the cattle of the Jesuits have entirely disappeared. There now remain as monuments of the ancient cultivation of these countries, and the active industry of the first missionaries, only a few trunks of the orange and tamarind, in the savannahs, surrounded by wild trees.
The tigers, or jaguars, which are less dangerous for the cattle than the bats, come into the village at Atures, and devour the swine of the poor Indians. The missionary related to us a striking instance of the familiarity of these animals, usually so ferocious. Some months before our arrival, a jaguar, which was thought to be young, though of a large size, had wounded a child in playing with him. The facts of this case, which were verified to us on the spot, are not without interest in the history of the manners of animals. Two Indian children, a boy and a girl, about eight and nine years of age, were seated on the grass near the village of Atures, in the middle of a savannah, which we several times traversed. At two o’clock in the afternoon, a jaguar issued from the forest, and approached the children, bounding around them; sometimes he hid himself in the high grass, sometimes he sprang forward, his back bent, his head hung down, in the manner of our cats. The little boy, ignorant of his danger, seemed to be sensible of it only when the jaguar with one of his paws gave him some blows on the head. These blows, at first slight, became ruder and ruder; the claws of the jaguar wounded the child, and the blood flowed freely. The little girl then took a branch of a tree, struck the animal, and it fled from her. The Indians ran up at the cries of the children, and saw the jaguar, which then bounded off without making the least show of resistance.
The little boy was brought to us, who appeared lively and intelligent. The claw of the jaguar had torn away the skin from the lower part of the forehead, and there was a second scar at the top of the head. This was a singular fit of playfulness in an animal which, though not difficult to be tamed in our menageries, nevertheless shows itself always wild and ferocious in its natural state. If we admit that, being sure of its prey, it played with the little Indian as our cats play with birds whose wings have been clipped, how shall we explain the patience of a jaguar of large size, which finds itself attacked by a girl? If the jaguar were not pressed by hunger, why did it approach the children at all? There is something mysterious in the affections and hatreds of animals. We have known lions kill three or four dogs that were put into their den, and instantly caress a fifth, which, less timid, took the king of animals by the mane. These are instincts of which we know not the secret.
We have mentioned that domestic pigs are attacked by the jaguars. There are in these countries, besides the common swine of European race, several species of peccaries, or pigs with lumbar glands, two of which only are known to the naturalists of Europe. The Indians call the little peccary (Dicotiles torquatus, Cuv.), in the Maypure tongue, chacharo; while they give the name of apida to a species of pig which they say has no pouch, is larger, and of a dark brown colour, with the belly and lower jaw white. The chacharo, reared in the houses, becomes tame like our sheep and goats. It reminds us, by the gentleness of its manners, of the curious analogies which anatomists have observed between the peccaries and the ruminating animals. The apida, which is domesticated like our swine in Europe, wanders in large herds composed of several hundreds. The presence of these herds is announced from afar, not only by their hoarse gruntings, but above all by the impetuosity with which they break down the shrubs in their way. M. Bonpland, in an herborizing excursion, warned by his Indian guide to hide himself behind the trunk of a tree, saw a number of these peccaries (cochinos or puercos del monte) pass close by him. The herd marched in a close body, the males proceeding first; and each sow was accompanied by her young. The flesh of the chacharo is flabby, and not very agreeable; it affords, however, a plentiful nourishment to the natives, who kill these animals with small lances tied to cords. We were assured at Atures, that the tiger dreads being surrounded in the forests by these herds of wild pigs; and that, to avoid being stifled, he tries to save himself by climbing up a tree. Is this a hunter’s tale, or a fact that has really been observed? In several parts of America the hunters believe in the existence of a javali, or native boar with tusks curved outwardly. I never saw one, but this animal is mentioned in the works of the Spanish missionaries, a source too much neglected by zoologists; for amidst much incorrectness and extravagance, they contain many curious local observations.
Among the monkeys which we saw at the mission of the Atures, we found one new species, of the tribe of sais and sajous, which the Creoles vulgarly call machis. It is the Guvapavi with grey hair and a bluish face. It has the orbits of the eyes and the forehead as white as snow, a peculiarity which at first sight distinguishes it from the Simia capucina, the Simia apella, the Simia trepida, and the other weeping monkeys hitherto so confusedly described. This little animal is as gentle as it is ugly. A monkey of this species, which was kept in the courtyard of the missionary, would frequently mount on the back of a pig, and in this manner traverse the savannahs. We have also seen it upon the back of a large cat, which had been brought up with it in Father Zea’s house.
It was among the cataracts that we began to hear of the hairy man of the woods, called salvaje, that carries off women, constructs huts, and sometimes eats human flesh. The Tamanacs call it achi, and the Maypures vasitri, or great devil. The natives and the missionaries have no doubt of the existence of this man-shaped monkey, of which they entertain a singular dread. Father Gili gravely relates the history of a lady in the town of San Carlos, in the Llanos of Venezuela, who much praised the gentle character and attentions of the man of the woods. She is stated to have lived several years with one in great domestic harmony, and only requested some hunters to take her back, because she and her children (a little hairy also) were weary of living far from the church and the sacraments. The same author, notwithstanding his credulity, acknowledges that he never knew an Indian who asserted positively that he had seen the salvaje with his own eyes. This wild legend, which the missionaries, the European planters, and the negroes of Africa, have no doubt embellished with many features taken from the description of the manners of the orang-otang,* the gibbon, the jocko or chimpanzee, and the pongo, followed us, during five years, from the northern to the southern hemisphere. We were everywhere blamed, in the most cultivated class of society, for being the only persons to doubt the existence of the great anthropomorphous monkey of America. There are certain regions where this belief is particularly prevalent among the people; such are the banks of the Upper Orinoco, the valley of Upar near the lake of Maracaybo, the mountains of Santa Martha and of Merida, the provinces of Quixos, and the banks of the Amazon near Tomependa. In all these places, so distant one from the other, it is asserted that the salvaje is easily recognized by the traces of its feet, the toes of which are turned backward. But if there exist a monkey of a large size in the New Continent, how has it happened that for three centuries no man worthy of belief has been able to procure the skin of one? Several hypotheses present themselves to the mind, in order to explain the source of so ancient an error or belief. Has the famous capuchin monkey of Esmeralda (Simia chiropotes), with its long canine teeth, and physiognomy much more like man’s* than that of the orang-otang, given rise to the fable of the salvaje? It is not so large indeed as the coaita (Simia paniscus); but when seen at the top of a tree, and the head only visible, it might easily be taken for a human being. It may be also (and this opinion appears to me the most probable) that the man of the woods was one of those large bears, the footsteps of which resemble those of a man, and which are believed in every country to attack women. The animal killed in my time at the foot of the mountains of Merida, and sent, by the name of salvaje, to Colonel Ungaro, the governor of the province of Varinas, was in fact a bear with black and smooth fur. Our fellow-traveller, Don Nicolas Soto, had examined it closely. Did the strange idea of a plantigrade animal, the toes of which are placed as if it walked backward, take its origin from the habit of the real savages of the woods, the Indians of the weakest and most timid tribes, of deceiving their enemies, when they enter a forest, or cross a sandy shore, by covering the traces of their feet with sand, or walking backward?
[* Simia satyrus. We must not believe, notwithstanding the assertions of almost all zoological writers, that the word orang-otang is applied exclusively in the Malay language to the Simia satyrus of Borneo. This expression, on the contrary, means any very large monkey, that resembles man in figure. Marsden’s History of Sumatra 3rd edition page 117. Modern zoologists have arbitrarily appropriated provincial names to certain species; and by continuing to prefer these names, strangely disfigured in their orthography, to the Latin systematic names, the confusion of the nomenclature has been increased.]
[* The whole of the features — the expression of the physiognomy; but not the forehead.]
Though I have expressed my doubts of the existence of an unknown species of large monkey in a continent which appears entirely destitute of quadrumanous animals of the family of the orangs, cynocephali, mandrils, and pongos; yet it should be remembered that almost all matters of popular belief, even those most absurd in appearance, rest on real facts, but facts ill observed. In treating them with disdain, the traces of a discovery may often be lost, in natural philosophy as well as in zoology. We will not then admit, with a Spanish author, that the fable of the man of the woods was invented by the artifice of Indian women, who pretended to have been carried off, when they had been long absent unknown to their husbands. Travellers who may hereafter visit the missions of the Orinoco will do well to follow up our researches on the salvaje or great devil of the woods; and examine whether it be some unknown species of bear, or some very rare monkey analogous to the Simia chiropotes, or Simia satanas, which may have given rise to such singular tales.
After having spent two days near the cataract of Atures, we were not sorry when our boat was reladen, and we were enabled to leave a spot where the temperature of the air is generally by day twenty-nine degrees, and by night twenty-six degrees, of the centigrade thermometer. This temperature seemed to us to be still much more elevated, from the feeling of heat which we experienced. The want of concordance between the instruments and the sensations must be attributed to the continual irritation of the skin excited by the mosquitos. An atmosphere filled with venomous insects always appears to be more heated than it is in reality. We were horribly tormented in the day by mosquitos and the jejen, a small venomous fly (simulium), and at night by the zancudos, a large species of gnat, dreaded even by the natives. Our hands began to swell considerably, and this swelling increased daily till our arrival on the banks of the Temi. The means that are employed to escape from these little plagues are very extraordinary. The good missionary Bernardo Zea, who passed his life tormented by mosquitos, had constructed near the church, on a scaffolding of trunks of palm-trees, a small apartment, in which we breathed more freely. To this we went up in the evening, by means of a ladder, to dry our plants and write our journal. The missionary had justly observed, that the insects abounded more particularly in the lowest strata of the atmosphere, that which reaches from the ground to the height of twelve or fifteen feet. At Maypures the Indians quit the village at night, to go and sleep on the little islets in the midst of the cataracts. There they enjoy some rest; the mosquitoes appearing to shun air loaded with vapours. We found everywhere fewer in the middle of the river than near its banks; and thus less is suffered in descending the Orinoco than in going up in a boat.
Persons who have not navigated the great rivers of equinoctial America, for instance, the Orinoco and the Magdalena, can scarcely conceive how, at every instant, without intermission, you may be tormented by insects flying in the air; and how the multitude of these little animals may render vast regions almost uninhabitable. Whatever fortitude be exercised to endure pain without complaint, whatever interest may be felt in the objects of scientific research, it is impossible not to be constantly disturbed by the mosquitos, zancudos, jejens, and tempraneros, that cover the face and hands, pierce the clothes with their long needle-formed suckers, and getting into the mouth and nostrils, occasion coughing and sneezing whenever any attempt is made to speak in the open air. In the missions of the Orinoco, in the villages on the banks of the river, surrounded by immense forests, the plaga de las moscas, or the plague of the mosquitos, affords an inexhaustible subject of conversation. When two persons meet in the morning, the first questions they address to each other are: How did you find the zancudos during the night? How are we today for the mosquitos?* These questions remind us of a Chinese form of politeness, which indicates the ancient state of the country where it took birth. Salutations were made heretofore in the Celestial empire in the following words, vou-to-hou, Have you been incommoded in the night by the serpents?
[* Que le han parecido los zancudos de noche? Como stamos hoy de mosquitos?]
The geographical distribution of the insects of the family of tipulae presents very remarkable phenomena. It does not appear to depend solely on heat of climate, excess of humidity, or the thickness of forests, but on local circumstances that are difficult to characterise. It may be observed that the plague of mosquitos and zancudos is not so general in the torrid zone as is commonly believed. On the table-lands elevated more than four hundred toises above the level of the ocean, in the very dry plains remote from the beds of great rivers (for instance, at Cumana and Calabozo), there are not sensibly more gnats than in the most populous parts of Europe. They are perceived to augment enormously at Nueva Barcelona, and more to the west, on the coast that extends towards Cape Codera. Between the little harbour of Higuerote and the mouth of the Rio Unare, the wretched inhabitants are accustomed to stretch themselves on the ground, and pass the night buried in the sand three or four inches deep, leaving out the head only, which they cover with a handkerchief. You suffer from the sting of insects, but in a manner easy to bear, in descending the Orinoco from Cabruta towards Angostura, and in going up from Cabruta towards Uruana, between the latitudes of 7 and 8°. But beyond the mouth of the Rio Arauca, after having passed the strait of Baraguan, the scene suddenly changes. From this spot the traveller may bid farewell to repose. If he have any poetical remembrance of Dante, he may easily imagine he has entered the citta dolente, and he will seem to read on the granite rocks of Baraguan these lines of the Inferno:
Noi sem venuti al luogo, ov’ i’ t’ho detto Che tu vedrai le genti dolorose.
The lower strata of air, from the surface of the ground to the height of fifteen or twenty feet, are absolutely filled with venomous insects. If in an obscure spot, for instance in the grottos of the cataracts formed by superincumbent blocks of granite, you direct your eyes toward the opening enlightened by the sun, you see clouds of mosquitos more or less thick. At the mission of San Borja, the suffering from mosquitos is greater than at Carichana; but in the Raudales, at Atures, and above all at Maypures, this suffering may be said to attain its maximum. I doubt whether there be a country upon earth where man is exposed to more cruel torments in the rainy season. Having passed the fifth degree of latitude, you are somewhat less stung; but on the Upper Orinoco the stings are more painful, because the heat and the absolute want of wind render the air more burning and more irritating in its contact with the skin.
“How comfortable must people be in the moon!” said a Salive Indian to Father Gumilla; “she looks so beautiful and so clear, that she must be free from mosquitos.” These words, which denote the infancy of a people, are very remarkable. The satellite of the earth appears to all savage nations the abode of the blessed, the country of abundance. The Esquimaux, who counts among his riches a plank or trunk of a tree, thrown by the currents on a coast destitute of vegetation, sees in the moon plains covered with forests; the Indian of the forests of Orinoco there beholds open savannahs, where the inhabitants are never stung by mosquitos.
After proceeding further to the south, where the system of yellowish-brown waters commences,* on the banks of the Atabapo, the Tuni, the Tuamini, and the Rio Negro, we enjoyed an unexpected repose. These rivers, like the Orinoco, cross thick forests, but the tipulary insects, as well as the crocodiles, shun the proximity of the black waters. Possibly these waters, which are a little colder, and chemically different from the white waters, are adverse to the larvae of tipulary insects and gnats, which may be considered as real aquatic animals. Some small rivers, the colour of which is deep blue, or yellowish-brown (as the Toparo, the Mataveni, and the Zama), are exceptions to the almost general rule of the absence of mosquitos over the black waters. These three rivers swarm with them; and the Indians themselves fixed our attention on the problematic causes of this phenomenon. In going down the Rio Negro, we breathed freely at Maroa, Daripe, and San Carlos, villages situated on the boundaries of Brazil. But this improvement of our situation was of short continuance; our sufferings recommenced as soon as we entered the Cassiquiare. At Esmeralda, at the eastern extremity of the Upper Orinoco, where ends the known world of the Spaniards, the clouds of mosquitos are almost as thick as at the Great Cataracts. At Mandavaca we found an old missionary, who told us with an air of sadness, that he had had his twenty years of mosquitos in America*. He desired us to look at his legs, that we might be able to tell one day, beyond sea (por alla), what the poor monks suffer in the forests of Cassiquiare. Every sting leaving a small darkish brown point, his legs were so speckled that it was difficult to recognize the whiteness of his skin through the spots of coagulated blood. If the insects of the genus Simulium abound in the Cassiquiare, which has white waters, the culices or zancudos are so much the more rare; you scarcely find any there; while on the rivers of black waters, in the Atabapo and the Rio, there are generally some zancudos and no mosquitos.
[* Generally called black waters, aguas negras.]
[* “Yo tengo mis veinte anos de mosquitos.”]
I have just shown, from my own observations, how much the geographical distribution of venomous insects varies in this labyrinth of rivers with white and black waters. It were to be wished that a learned entomologist could study on the spot the specific differences of these noxious insects,* which in the torrid zone, in spite of their minute size, act an important point in the economy of nature. What appeared to us very remarkable, and is a fact known to all the missionaries, is, that the different species do not associate together, and that at different hours of the day you are stung by distinct species. Every time that the scene changes, and, to use the simple expression of the missionaries, other insects mount guard, you have a few minutes, often a quarter of an hour, of repose. The insects that disappear have not their places instantly supplied by their successors. From half-past-six in the morning till five in the afternoon, the air is filled with mosquitos; which have not, as some travellers have stated, the form of our gnats,* but that of a small fly. They are simuliums of the family Nemocera of the system of Latreille. Their sting is as painful as that of the genus Stomox. It leaves a little reddish brown spot, which is extravased and coagulated blood, where their proboscis has pierced the skin. An hour before sunset a species of small gnats, called tempraneros,* because they appear also at sunrise, take the place of the mosquitos. Their presence scarcely lasts an hour and a half; they disappear between six and seven in the evening, or, as they say here, after the Angelus (a la oracion). After a few minutes’ repose, you feel yourself stung by zancudos, another species of gnat with very long legs. The zancudo, the proboscis of which contains a sharp-pointed sucker, causes the most acute pain, and a swelling that remains several weeks. Its hum resembles that of the European gnat, but is louder and more prolonged. The Indians pretend to distinguish the zancudos and the tempraneros by their song; the latter are real twilight insects, while the zancudos are most frequently nocturnal insects, and disappear toward sunrise.
[* The mosquito bovo or tenbiguai; the melero, which always settles upon the eyes; the tempranero, or putchiki; the jejen; the gnat rivau, the great zancudo, or matchaki; the cafafi, etc.]
[* Culex pipiens. This difference between mosquito (little fly, simulium) and zancudo (gnat, culex) exists in all the Spanish colonies. The word zancudo signifies long legs, qui tiene las zancas largas. The mosquitos of the Orinoco are the moustiques; the zancudos are the maringouins of French travellers.]
[* Which appear at an early hour (temprano). Some persons say, that the zancudo is the same as the tempranero, which returns at night, after hiding itself for some time. I have doubts of this identity of the species; the pain caused by the sting of the two insects appeared to me different.]
In our way from Carthagena to Santa Fe de Bogota, we observed that between Mompox and Honda, in the valley of the Rio Magdalena, the zancudos darkened the air from eight in the evening till midnight; that towards midnight they diminished in number, and were hidden for three or four hours; and lastly that they returned in crowds, about four in the morning. What is the cause of these alternations of motion and rest? Are these animals fatigued by long flight? It is rare on the Orinoco to see real gnats by day; while at the Rio Magdalena we were stung night and day, except from noon till about two o’clock. The zancudos of the two rivers are no doubt of different species.
We have seen that the insects of the tropics everywhere follow a certain standard in the periods at which they alternately arrive and disappear. At fixed and invariable hours, in the same season, and the same latitude, the air is peopled with new inhabitants, and in a zone where the barometer becomes a clock,* where everything proceeds with such admirable regularity, we might guess blindfold the hour of the day or night, by the hum of the insects, and by their stings, the pain of which differs according to the nature of the poison that each species deposits in the wound.
[* By the extreme regularity of the horary variations of the atmospheric pressure.]
At a period when the geography of animals and of plants had not yet been studied, the analogous species of different climates were often confounded. It was believed that the pines and ranunculuses, the stags, the rats, and the tipulary insects of the north of Europe, were to be found in Japan, on the ridge of the Andes, and at the Straits of Magellan. Justly celebrated naturalists have thought that the zancudo of the torrid zone was the gnat of our marshes, become more vigorous, more voracious, and more noxious, under the influence of a burning climate. This is a very erroneous opinion. I carefully examined and described upon the spot those zancudos, the stings of which are most tormenting. In the rivers Magdalena and Guayaquil alone there are five distinct species.
The culices of South America have generally the wings, corslet, and legs of an azure colour, ringed and variegated with a mixture of spots of metallic lustre. Here as in Europe, the males, which are distinguished by their feathered antennae, are extremely rare; you are seldom stung except by females. The preponderance of this sex explains the immense increase of the species, each female laying several hundred eggs. In going up one of the great rivers of America, it is observed, that the appearance of a new species of culex denotes the proximity of a new stream flowing in. I shall mention an instance of this curious phenomenon. The Culex lineatus, which belongs to the Cano Tamalamec, is only perceived in the valley of the Rio Grande de la Magdalena, at a league north of the junction of the two rivers; it goes up, but scarcely ever descends the Rio Grande. It is thus, that, on a principal vein, the appearance of a new substance in the gangue indicates to the miner the neighbourhood of a secondary vein that joins the first.
On recapitulating the observations here recorded, we see, that within the tropics, the mosquitos and zancudos do not rise on the slope of the Cordilleras* toward the temperate region, where the mean heat is below 19 or 20°; and that, with few exceptions, they shun the black waters, and dry and unwooded spots.* The atmosphere swarms with them much more in the Upper than in the Lower Orinoco, because in the former the river is surrounded with thick forests on its banks, and the skirts of the forests are not separated from the river by a barren and extensive beach. The mosquitos diminish on the New Continent with the diminution of the water, and the destruction of the woods; but the effects of these changes are as slow as the progress of cultivation. The towns of Angostura, Nueva Barcelona, and Mompox, where from the want of police, the streets, the great squares, and the interior of court-yards are overgrown with brushwood, are sadly celebrated for the abundance of zancudos.
[* The culex pipiens of Europe does not, like the culex of the torrid zone, shun mountainous places. Giesecke suffered from these insects in Greenland, at Disco, in latitude 70°. They are found in Lapland in summer, at three or four hundred toises high, and at a temperature of 11 or 12°.]
[* Trifling modifications in the waters, or in the air, often appear to prevent the development of the mosquitos. Mr. Bowdich remarks that there are none at Coomassie, in the kingdom of the Ashantees, though the town is surrounded by marshes, and though the thermometer keeps up between seventeen and twenty-eight centesimal degrees, day and night.]
People born in the country, whether whites, mulattoes, negroes, or Indians, all suffer from the sting of these insects. But as cold does not render the north of Europe uninhabitable, so the mosquitos do not prevent men from dwelling in the countries where they abound, provided that, by their situation and government, they afford resources for agriculture and industry. The inhabitants pass their lives in complaining of the insufferable torment of the mosquitos, yet, notwithstanding these continual complaints, they seek, and even with a sort of predilection, the commercial towns of Mompox, Santa Marta, and Rio de la Hacha. Such is the force of habit in evils which we suffer every hour of the day, that the three missions of San Borja, Atures, and Esmeralda, where, to make use of an hyperbolical expression of the monks, there are more mosquitos than air,* would no doubt become flourishing towns, if the Orinoco afforded planters the same advantages for the exchange of produce, as the Ohio and the Lower Mississippi.
[* Mas moscas que aire.]
It is a curious fact, that the whites born in the torrid zone may walk barefoot with impunity, in the same apartment where a European recently landed is exposed to the attack of the nigua or chegoe (Pulex penetrans). This animal, almost invisible to the eye, gets under the toe-nails, and there acquires the size of a small pea, by the quick increase of its eggs, which are placed in a bag under the belly of the insect. The nigua therefore distinguishes what the most delicate chemical analysis could not distinguish, the cellular membrane and blood of a European from those of a creole white. The mosquitos, on the contrary, attack equally the natives and the Europeans; but the effects of the sting are different in the two races of men. The same venomous liquid, deposited in the skin of a copper-coloured man of Indian race, and in that of a white man newly landed, causes no swelling in the former, while in the latter it produces hard blisters, greatly inflamed, and painful for several days; so different is the action on the epidermis, according to the degree of irritability of the organs in different races and different individuals!
I shall here recite several facts, which prove that the Indians, and in general all the people of colour, at the moment of being stung, suffer like the whites, although perhaps with less intensity of pain. In the day-time, and even when labouring at the oar, the natives, in order to chase the insects, are continually giving one another smart slaps with the palm of the hand. They even strike themselves and their comrades mechanically during their sleep. The violence of their blows reminds one of the Persian tale of the bear that tried to kill with his paw the insects on the forehead of his sleeping master. Near Maypures we saw some young Indians seated in a circle and rubbing cruelly each others’ backs with the bark of trees dried at the fire. Indian women were occupied, with a degree of patience of which the copper-coloured race alone are capable, in extracting, by means of a sharp bone, the little mass of coagulated blood that forms the centre of every sting, and gives the skin a speckled appearance. One of the most barbarous nations of the Orinoco, that of the Ottomacs, is acquainted with the use of mosquito-curtains (mosquiteros) woven from the fibres of the moriche palm-tree. At Higuerote, on the coast of Caracas, the copper-coloured people sleep buried in the sand. In the villages of the Rio Magdalena the Indians often invited us to stretch ourselves as they did on ox-skins, near the church, in the middle of the plaza grande, where they had assembled all the cows in the neighbourhood. The proximity of cattle gives some repose to man. The Indians of the Upper Orinoco and the Cassiquiare, seeing that M. Bonpland could not prepare his herbal, owing to the continual torment of the mosquitos, invited him to enter their ovens (hornitos). Thus they call little chambers, without doors or windows, into which they creep horizontally through a very low opening. When they have driven away the insects by means of a fire of wet brushwood, which emits a great deal of smoke, they close the opening of the oven. The absence of the mosquitos is purchased dearly enough by the excessive heat of the stagnated air, and the smoke of a torch of copal, which lights the oven during your stay in it. M. Bonpland, with courage and patience well worthy of praise, dried hundreds of plants, shut up in these hornitos of the Indians.
These precautions of the Indians sufficiently prove that, notwithstanding the different organization of the epidermis, the copper-coloured man, like the white man, suffers from the stings of insects; but the former seems to feel less pain, and the sting is not followed by those swellings which, during several weeks, heighten the irritability of the skin, and throw persons of a delicate constitution into that feverish state which always accompanies eruptive maladies. Whites born in equinoctial America, and Europeans who have long sojourned in the Missions, on the borders of forests and great rivers, suffer much more than the Indians, but infinitely less than Europeans newly arrived. It is not, therefore, as some travellers assert, the thickness of the skin that renders the sting more or less painful at the moment when it is received; nor is it owing to the particular organization of the integuments, that in the Indians the sting is followed by less of swelling and inflammatory symptoms; it is on the nervous irritability of the epidermis that the acuteness and duration of the pain depend. This irritability is augmented by very warm clothing, by the use of alcoholic liquors, by the habit of scratching the wounds, and lastly, (and this physiological observation is the result of my own experience,) that of baths repeated at too short intervals. In places where the absence of crocodiles permits people to enter a river, M. Bonpland and myself observed that the immoderate use of baths, while it moderated the pain of old stings of zancudos, rendered us more sensible to new stings. By bathing more than twice a day, the skin is brought into a state of nervous irritability, of which no idea can be formed in Europe. It would seem as if all feeling were carried toward the integuments.
As the mosquitos and gnats pass two-thirds of their lives in the water, it is not surprising that these noxious insects become less numerous in proportion as you recede from the banks of the great rivers which intersect the forests. They seem to prefer the spots where their metamorphosis took place, and where they go to deposit their eggs. In fact the wild Indians (Indios monteros) experience the greater difficulty in accustoming themselves to the life of the missions, as they suffer in the Christian establishments a torment which they scarcely know in their own inland dwellings. The natives at Maypures, Atures, and Esmeralda, have been seen fleeing to the woods, or, as they say, al monte, solely from the dread of mosquitos. Unfortunately, all the Missions of the Orinoco have been established too near the banks of the river. At Esmeralda the inhabitants assured us that if the village were situated in one of the five plains surrounding the high mountains of Duida and Maraguaca, they should breathe freely, and enjoy some repose. The great cloud of mosquitos (la nube de moscas) to use the expression of the monks, is suspended only over the Orinoco and its tributary streams, and is dissipated in proportion as you remove from the rivers. We should form a very inaccurate idea of Guiana and Brazil, were we to judge of that great forest four hundred leagues wide, lying between the sources of the Madeira and the Lower Orinoco, from the valleys of the rivers by which it is crossed.
I learned that the little insects of the family of the nemocerae migrate from time to time like the alouate monkeys, which live in society. In certain spots, at the commencement of the rainy season, different species appear, the sting of which has not yet been felt. We were informed at the Rio Magdalena, that at Simiti no other culex than the jejen was formerly known; and it was then possible to enjoy a tranquil night’s rest, for the jejen is not a nocturnal insect. Since the year 1801, the great blue-winged gnat (Culex cyanopterus) has appeared in such numbers, that the poor inhabitants of Simiti know not how to procure an undisturbed sleep. In the marshy channels (esteros) of the isle of Baru, near Carthagena, is found a little white fly called cafafi. It is scarcely visible to the naked eye, and causes very painful swellings. The toldos or cottons used for mosquito-curtains, are wetted to prevent the cafafi penetrating through the interstices left by the crossing threads. This insect, happily rare elsewhere, goes up in January, by the channel (dique) of Mahates, as far as Morales. When we went to this village in the month of May, we found there cimuliae and zancudos, but no jejens.
The insects most troublesome at Orinoco, or as the Creoles say, the most ferocious (los mas feroces), are those of the great cataracts of Esmeralda and Mandavaca. On the Rio Magdalena the Culex cyanopterus is dreaded, particularly at Mompox, Chiloa, and Tamalameca. At these places this insect is larger and stronger, and its legs blacker. It is difficult to avoid smiling on hearing the missionaries dispute about the size and voracity of the mosquitos at different parts of the same river. In a region the inhabitants of which are ignorant of all that is passing in the rest of the world, this is the favourite subject of conversation. “How I pity your situation!” said the missionary of the Raudales to the missionary of Cassiquiare, at our departure; “you are alone, like me, in this country of tigers and monkeys; with you fish is still more rare, and the heat more violent; but as for my mosquitos (mias moscas) I can boast that with one of mine I would beat three of yours.”
This voracity of insects in certain spots, the fury with which they attack man,* the activity of the venom varying in the same species, are very remarkable facts; which find their analogy, however, in the classes of large animals. The crocodile of Angostura pursues men, while at Nueva Barcelona you may bathe tranquilly in the Rio Neveri amidst these carnivorous reptiles. The jaguars of Maturin, Cumanacoa, and the isthmus of Panama, are timid in comparison of those of the Upper Orinoco. The Indians well know that the monkeys of some valleys are easily tamed, while others of the same species, caught elsewhere, will rather die of hunger than submit to slavery.*
[* This voracity, this appetite for blood, seems surprising in little insects, that live on vegetable juices, and in a country almost entirely uninhabited. “What would these animals eat, if we did not pass this way?” say the Creoles, in going through countries where there are only crocodiles covered with a scaly skin, and hairy monkeys.]
[* I might have added the example of the scorpion of Cumana, which it is very difficult to distinguish from that of the island of Trinidad, Jamaica, Carthagena, and Guayaquil; yet the former is not more to be feared than the Scorpio europaeus (of the south of France), while the latter produces consequences far more alarming than the Scorpio occitanus (of Spain and Barbary). At Carthagena and Guayaquil, the sting of the scorpion (alacran) instantly causes the loss of speech. Sometimes a singular torpor of the tongue is observed for fifteen or sixteen hours. The patient, when stung in the legs, stammers as if he had been struck with apoplexy.]
The common people in America have framed systems respecting the salubrity of climates and pathological phenomena, as well as the learned of Europe; and their systems, like ours, are diametrically opposed to each other, according to the provinces into which the New Continent is divided. At the Rio Magdalena the frequency of mosquitos is regarded as troublesome, but salutary. These animals, say the inhabitants, give us slight bleedings, and preserve us, in a country excessively hot, from the scarlet fever, and other inflammatory diseases. But at the Orinoco, the banks of which are very insalubrious, the sick blame the mosquitos for all their sufferings. It is unnecessary to refute the fallacy of the popular belief that the action of the mosquitos is salutary by its local bleedings. In Europe the inhabitants of marshy countries are not ignorant that the insects irritate the epidermis, and stimulate its functions by the venom which they deposit in the wounds they make. Far from diminishing the inflammatory state of the skin, the stings increase it.
The frequency of gnats and mosquitos characterises unhealthy climates only so far as the development and multiplication of these insects depend on the same causes that give rise to miasmata. These noxious animals love a fertile soil covered with plants, stagnant waters, and a humid air never agitated by the wind; they prefer to an open country those shades, that softened day, that tempered degree of light, heat, and moisture which, while it favours the action of chemical affinities, accelerates the putrefaction of organised substances. May not the mosquitos themselves increase the insalubrity of the atmosphere? When we reflect that to the height of three or four toises a cubic foot of air is often peopled by a million of winged insects,* which contain a caustic and venomous liquid; when we recollect that several species of culex are 1.8 lines long from the head to the extremity of the corslet (without reckoning the legs); lastly, when we consider that in this swarm of mosquitos and gnats, diffused in the atmosphere like smoke, there is a great number of dead insects raised by the force of the ascending air, or by that of the lateral currents which are caused by the unequal heating of the soil, we are led to inquire whether the presence of so many animal substances in the air must not occasion particular miasmata. I think that these substances act on the atmosphere differently from sand and dust; but it will be prudent to affirm nothing positively on this subject. Chemistry has not yet unveiled the numerous mysteries of the insalubrity of the air; it has only taught us that we are ignorant of many things with which a few years ago we believed we were acquainted.
[* It is sufficient to mention, that the cubic foot contains 2,985,984 cubic lines.]
Daily experience appears in a certain degree to prove the fact that at the Orinoco, Cassiquiare, Rio Caura, and wherever the air is very unhealthy, the sting of the mosquito augments the disposition of the organs to receive the impression of miasmata. When you are exposed day and night, during whole months, to the torment of insects, the continual irritation of the skin causes febrile commotions; and, from the sympathy existing between the dermoid and the gastric systems, injures the functions of the stomach. Digestion first becomes difficult, the cutaneous inflammation excites profuse perspirations, an unquenchable thirst succeeds, and, in persons of a feeble constitution, increasing impatience is succeeded by depression of mind, during which all the pathogenic causes act with increased violence. It is neither the dangers of navigating in small boats, the savage Indians, nor the serpents, crocodiles, or jaguars, that make Spaniards dread a voyage on the Orinoco; it is, as they say with simplicity, “el sudar y las moscas,” (the perspiration and the flies). We have reason to believe that mankind, as they change the surface of the soil, will succeed in altering by degrees the constitution of the atmosphere. The insects will diminish when the old trees of the forest have disappeared; when, in those countries now desert, the rivers are seen bordered with cottages, and the plains covered with pastures and harvests.
Whoever has lived long in countries infested by mosquitos will be convinced, as we were, that there exists no remedy for the torment of these insects. The Indians, covered with anoto, bolar earth, or turtle oil, are not protected from their attacks. It is doubtful whether the painting even relieves: it certainly does not prevent the evil. Europeans, recently arrived at the Orinoco, the Rio Magdalena, the river Guayaquil, or Rio Chagres (I mention the four rivers where the insects are most to be dreaded) at first obtain some relief by covering their faces and hands, but they soon feel it difficult to endure the heat, are weary of being condemned to complete inactivity, and finish with leaving the face and hands uncovered. Persons who would renounce all kind of occupation during the navigation of these rivers, might bring some particular garment from Europe in the form of a bag, under which they could remain covered, opening it only every half-hour. This bag should be distended by whalebone hoops, for a close mask and gloves would be perfectly insupportable. Sleeping on the ground, on skins, or in hammocks, we could not make use of mosquito-curtains (toldos) while on the Orinoco. The toldo is useful only where it forms a tent so well closed around the bed that there is not the smallest opening by which a gnat can pass. This is difficult to accomplish; and often when you succeed (for instance, in going up the Rio Magdalena, where you travel with some degree of convenience), you are forced, in order to avoid being suffocated by the heat, to come out from beneath your toldo, and walk about in the open air. A feeble wind, smoke, and powerful smells, scarcely afford any relief in places where the insects are very numerous and very voracious. It is erroneously affirmed that these little animals fly from the peculiar smell emitted by the crocodile. We were fear fully stung at Bataillez, in the road from Carthagena to Honda, while we were dissecting a crocodile eleven feet long, the smell of which infested all the surrounding atmosphere. The Indians much commend the fumes of burnt cow-dung. When the wind is very strong, and accompanied by rain, the mosquitos disappear for some time: they sting most cruelly at the approach of a storm, particularly when the electric explosions are not followed by heavy showers.
Anything waved about the head and the hands contributes to chase away the insects. “The more you stir yourself, the less you will be stung,” say the missionaries. The zancudo makes a buzzing before it settles; but, when it has assumed confidence, when it has once begun to fix its sucker, and distend itself, you may touch its wings without its being frightened. It remains the whole time with its two hind legs raised; and, if left to suck to satiety, no swelling takes place, and no pain is left behind. We often repeated this experiment on ourselves in the valley of the Rio Magdalena. It may be asked whether the insect deposits the stimulating liquid only at the moment of its flight, when it is driven away, or whether it draws the liquid up again when left to suck undisturbed. I incline to this latter opinion; for on quietly presenting the back of my hand to the Culex cyanopterus, I observed that the pain, though violent in the beginning, diminishes in proportion as the insect continues to suck, and ceases altogether when it voluntarily flies away. I also wounded my skin with a pin, and rubbed the pricks with bruised mosquitos, and no swelling ensued. The irritating liquid, in which chemists have not yet recognized any acid properties, is contained, as in the ant and other hymenopterous insects, in particular glands; and is probably too much diluted, and consequently too much weakened, if the skin be rubbed with the whole of the bruised insect.
I have thrown together at the close of this chapter all we learned during the course of our travels on phenomena which naturalists have hitherto singularly neglected, though they exercise a great influence on the welfare of the inhabitants, the salubrity of the climate, and the establishment of new colonies on the rivers of equinoctial America. I might justly have incurred the charge of having treated this subject too much in detail, were it not connected with general physiological views. Our imagination is struck only by what is great; but the lover of natural philosophy should reflect equally on little things. We have just seen that winged insects, collected in society, and concealing in their sucker a liquid that irritates the skin, are capable of rendering vast countries almost uninhabitable. Other insects equally small, the termites (comejen),* create obstacles to the progress of civilization, in several hot and temperate parts of the equinoctial zone, that are difficult to be surmounted. They devour paper, pasteboard, and parchment with frightful rapidity, utterly destroying records and libraries. Whole provinces of Spanish America do not possess one written document that dates a hundred years back. What improvement can the civilization of nations acquire if nothing link the present with the past; if the depositories of human knowledge must be repeatedly renewed; if the records of genius and reason cannot be transmitted to posterity?
[* Literally, the eaters or the devourers.]
In proportion as you ascend the table-land of the Andes these evils disappear. Man breathes a fresh and pure air. Insects no more disturb the labours of the day or the slumbers of the night. Documents can be collected in archives without our having to complain of the voracity of the termites. Mosquitos are no longer feared at a height of two hundred toises; and the termites, still very frequent at three hundred toises of elevation,* become very rare at Mexico, Santa Fe de Bogota, and Quito. In these great capitals, situated on the back of the Cordilleras, we find libraries and archives, augmented from day to day by the enlightened zeal of the inhabitants. These circumstances, combined with others, insure a moral preponderance to the Alpine region over the lower regions of the torrid zone. If we admit, agreeably to the ancient traditions collected in both the old and new worlds, that at the time of the catastrophe which preceded the renewal of our species, man descended from the mountains into the plains, we may admit, with still greater confidence, that these mountains, the cradle of so many various nations, will for ever remain the centre of human civilization in the torrid zone. From these fertile and temperate table-lands, from these islets scattered in the aerial ocean, knowledge and the blessings of social institutions will be spread over those vast forests extending along the foot of the Andes, now inhabited only by savage tribes whom the very wealth of nature has retained in indolence and barbarism.
[* There are some at Popayan (height 910 toises; mean temperature 18.7°), but they are species that gnaw wood only.]
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10