During the night, we had left, almost unperceived, the waters of the Orinoco; and at sunrise found ourselves as if transported to a new country, on the banks of a river the name of which we had scarcely ever heard pronounced, and which was to conduct us, by the portage of Pimichin, to the Rio Negro, on the frontiers of Brazil. “You will go up,” said the president of the missions, who resides at San Fernando, “first the Atabapo, then the Temi, and finally, the Tuamini. When the force of the current of black waters hinders you from advancing, you will be conducted out of the bed of the river through forests, which you will find inundated. Two monks only are settled in those desert places, between the Orinoco and the Rio Negro; but at Javita you will be furnished with the means of having your canoe drawn over land in the course of four days to Cano Pimichin. If it be not broken to pieces you will descend the Rio Negro without any obstacle (from north-west to south-east) as far as the little fort of San Carlos; you will go up the Cassiquiare (from south to north), and then return to San Fernando in a month, descending the Upper Orinoco from east to west.” Such was the plan traced for our passage, and we carried it into effect without danger, though not without some suffering, in the space of thirty-three days. The Orinoco runs from its source, or at least from Esmeralda, as far as San Fernando de Atabapo, from east to west; from San Fernando, (where the junction of the Guaviare and the Atabapo takes place,) as far as the mouth of the Rio Apure, it flows from south to north, forming the Great Cataracts; and from the mouth of the Apure as far as Angostura and the coast of the Atlantic its direction is from west to east. In the first part of its course, where the river flows from east to west, it forms that celebrated bifurcation so often disputed by geographers, of which I was the first enabled to determine the situation by astronomical observations. One arm of the Orinoco, (the Cassiquiare,) running from north to south, falls into the Guainia, or Rio Negro, which, in its turn, joins the Maranon, or river Amazon. The most natural way, therefore, to go from Angostura to Grand Para, would be to ascend the Orinoco as far as Esmeralda, and then to go down the Cassiquiare, the Rio Negro, and the Amazon; but, as the Rio Negro in the upper part of its course approaches very near the sources of some rivers that fall into the Orinoco near San Fernando de Atabapo (where the Orinoco abruptly changes its direction from east to west to take that from south to north), the passage up that part of the river between San Fernando and Esmeralda, in order to reach the Rio Negro, may be avoided. Leaving the Orinoco near the mission of San Fernando, the traveller proceeds up the little black rivers (the Atabapo, the Temi, and the Tuamini), and the boats are carried across an isthmus six thousand toises broad, to the banks of a stream (the Cano Pimichin) which flows into the Rio Negro. This was the course which we took.
The road from San Carlos to San Fernando de Atabapo is far more disagreeable, and is half as long again by the Cassiquiare as by Javita and the Cano Pimichin. In this region I determined, by means of a chronometer by Berthoud, and by the meridional heights of stars, the situation of San Balthasar de Atabapo, Javita, San Carlos del Rio Negro, the rock Culimacavi, and Esmeralda. When no roads exist save tortuous and intertwining rivers, when little villages are hidden amid thick forests, and when, in a country entirely flat, no mountain, no elevated object is visible from two points at once, it is only in the sky that we can read where we are upon the earth.
San Fernando de Atabapo stands near the confluence of three great rivers; the Orinoco, the Guaviare, and the Atabapo. Its situation is similar to that of Saint Louis or of New Madrid, at the junction of the Mississippi with the Missouri and the Ohio. In proportion as the activity of commerce increases in these countries traversed by immense rivers, the towns situated at their confluence will necessarily become bustling ports, depots of merchandise, and centre points of civilization. Father Gumilla confesses, that in his time no person had any knowledge of the course of the Orinoco above the mouth of the Guaviare.
D’Anville, in the first edition of his great map of South America, laid down the Rio Negro as an arm of the Orinoco, that branched off from the principal body of the river between the mouths of the Meta and the Vichada, near the cataract of Atures. That great geographer was entirely ignorant of the existence of the Cassiquiare and the Atabapo; and he makes the Orinoco or Rio Paragua, the Japura, and the Putumayo, take their rise from three branchings of the Caqueta. The expedition of the boundaries, commanded by Iturriaga and Solano, corrected these errors. Solano, who was the geographical engineer of this expedition, advanced in 1756 as far as the mouth of the Guaviare, after having passed the Great Cataracts. He found that, to continue to go up the Orinoco, he must direct his course towards the east; and that the river received, at the point of its great inflection, in latitude 4° 4′, the waters of the Guaviare, which two miles higher had received those of the Atabapo. Interested in approaching the Portuguese possessions as near as possible, Solano resolved to proceed onward to the south. At the confluence of the Atabapo and the Guaviare he found an Indian settlement of the warlike nation of the Guaypunaves. He gained their favour by presents, and with their aid founded the mission of San Fernando, to which he gave the appellation of villa, or town.
To make known the political importance of this Mission, we must recollect what was at that period the balance of power between the petty Indian tribes of Guiana. The banks of the Lower Orinoco had been long ensanguined by the obstinate struggle between two powerful nations, the Cabres and the Caribs. The latter, whose principal abode since the close of the seventeenth century has been between the sources of the Carony, the Essequibo, the Orinoco, and the Rio Parima, once not only held sway as far as the Great Cataracts, but made incursions also into the Upper Orinoco, employing portages between the Paruspa* and the Caura, the Erevato and the Ventuari, the Conorichite and the Atacavi. None knew better than the Caribs the intertwinings of the rivers, the proximity of the tributary streams, and the roads by which distances might be diminished. The Caribs had vanquished and almost exterminated the Cabres. Having made themselves masters of the Lower Orinoco, they met with resistance from the Guaypunaves, who had founded their dominion on the Upper Orinoco; and who, together with the Cabres, the Manitivitanos, and the Parenis, are the greatest cannibals of these countries. They originally inhabited the banks of the great river Inirida, at its confluence with the Chamochiquini, and the hilly country of Mabicore. About the year 1744, their chief, or as the natives call him, their king (apoto), was named Macapu. He was a man no less distinguished by his intelligence than his valour; had led a part of the nation to the banks of the Atabapo; and when the Jesuit Roman made his memorable expedition from the Orinoco to the Rio Negro, Macapu suffered that missionary to take with him some families of the Guaypunaves to settle them at Uruana, and near the cataract of Maypures. This people are connected by their language with the great branch of the Maypure nations. They are more industrious, we might also say more civilized, than the other nations of the Upper Orinoco. The missionaries relate, that the Guaypunaves, at the time of their sway in those countries, were generally clothed, and had considerable villages. After the death of Macapu, the command devolved on another warrior, Cuseru, called by the Spaniards El capitan Cusero. He established lines of defence on the banks of the Inirida, with a kind of little fort, constructed of earth and timber. The piles were more than sixteen feet high, and surrounded both the house of the apoto and a magazine of bows and arrows. These structures, remarkable in a country in other respects so wild, have been described by Father Forneri.
[* The Rio Paruspa falls into the Rio Paragua, and the latter into the Rio Carony, which is one of the tributary streams of the Lower Orinoco. There is also an ancient portage of the Caribs between the Paruspa and the Rio Chavaro, which flows into the Rio Caura above the mouth of the Erevato. In going up the Erevato you reach the savannahs that are traversed by the Rio Manipiare above the tributary streams of the Ventuari. The Caribs in their distant excursions sometimes passed from the Rio Caura to the Ventuari, thence to the Padamo, and then by the Upper Orinoco to the Atacavi, which, westward of Manuteso, takes the name of the Atabapo.]
The Marepizanas and the Manitivitanos were the preponderant nations on the banks of the Rio Negro. The former had for its chiefs, about the year 1750, two warriors called Imu and Cajamu. The king of the Manitivitanos was Cocuy, famous for his cruelty. The chiefs of the Guaypunaves and the Manitivitanos fought with small bodies of two or three hundred men; but in their protracted struggles they destroyed the missions, in some of which the poor monks had only fifteen or twenty Spanish soldiers at their disposal. When the expedition of Iturriaga and Solano arrived at the Orinoco, the missions had no longer to fear the incursions of the Caribs. Cuseru, the chief of the Guaypunaves, had fixed his dwelling behind the granitic mountains of Sipapo. He was the friend of the Jesuits; but other nations of the Upper Orinoco and the Rio Negro, led by Imu, Cajamu, and Cocuy, penetrated from time to time to the north of the Great Cataracts. They had other motives for fighting than that of hatred; they hunted men, as was formerly the custom of the Caribs, and is still the practice in Africa. Sometimes they furnished slaves (poitos) to the Dutch (in their language, Paranaquiri — inhabitants of the sea); sometimes they sold them to the Portuguese (Iaranavi — sons of musicians).* In America, as in Africa, the cupidity of the Europeans has produced the same evils, by exciting the natives to make war, in order to procure slaves. Everywhere the contact of nations, widely different from each other in the scale of civilization, leads to the abuse of physical strength, and of intellectual preponderance. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians formerly sought slaves in Europe. Europe now presses in her turn both on the countries whence she gathered the first germs of science, and on those where she now almost involuntarily spreads them by carrying thither the produce of her industry.
[* The savage tribes designate every commercial nation of Europe by surnames, the origin of which appears altogether accidental. The Spaniards were called clothed men, Pongheme or Uavemi, by way of distinction.]
I have faithfully recorded what I could collect on the state of these countries, where the vanquished nations have become gradually extinct, leaving no other signs of their existence than a few words of their language, mixed with that of the conquerors. In the north, beyond the cataracts, the preponderant nations were at first the Caribs and the Cabres; towards the south, on the Upper Orinoco, the Guaypunaves; and on the Rio Negro, the Marepizanos and the Manitivitanos. The long resistance which the Cabres, united under a valiant chief, had made to the Caribs, became fatal to the latter subsequently to the year 1720. They at first vanquished their enemies near the mouth of the Rio Caura; and a great number of Caribs perished in a precipitate flight, between the rapids of Torno and the Isla del Infierno. The prisoners were devoured; and, by one of those refinements of cunning and cruelty which are common to the savage nations of both North and South America, the Cabres spared the life of one Carib, whom they forced to climb up a tree to witness this barbarous spectacle, and carry back the tidings to the vanquished. The triumph of Tep, the chief of the Cabres, was but of short duration. The Caribs returned in such great numbers that only a feeble remnant of the Cabres was left on the banks of the Cuchivero.
Cocuy and Cuseru were carrying on a war of extermination on the Upper Orinoco when Solano arrived at the mouth of the Guaviare. The former had embraced the cause of the Portuguese; the latter was a friend of the Jesuits, and gave them warning whenever the Manitivitanos were marching against the christian establishments of Atures and Carichana. Cuseru became a christian only a few days before his death; but in battle he had for some time worn on his left hip a crucifix, given him by the missionaries, and which he believed rendered him invulnerable. We were told an anecdote that paints the violence of his character. He had married the daughter of an Indian chief of the Rio Temi. In a paroxysm of rage against his father-inlaw, he declared to his wife that he was going to fight against him. She reminded him of the courage and singular strength of her father; when Cuseru, without uttering a single word, took a poisoned arrow, and plunged it into her bosom. The arrival of a small body of Spaniards in 1756, under the order of Solano, awakened suspicion in this chief of the Guaypunaves. He was on the point of attempting a contest with them, when the Jesuits made him sensible that it would be his interest to remain at peace with the Christians. Whilst dining at the table of the Spanish general, Cuseru was allured by promises, and the prediction of the approaching fall of his enemies. From being a king he became the mayor of a village; and consented to settle with his people at the new mission of San Fernando de Atabapo. Such is most frequently the end of those chiefs whom travellers and missionaries style Indian princes. “In my mission,” says the honest father Gili “I had five reyecillos, or petty kings, those of the Tamanacs, the Avarigotes, the Parecas, the Quaquas, and the Maypures. At church I placed them in file on the same bench; but I took care to give the first place to Monaiti, king of the Tamanacs, because he had helped me to found the village; and he seemed quite proud of this precedency.”
When Cuseru, the chief of the Guaypunaves, saw the Spanish troops pass the cataracts, he advised Don Jose Solano to wait a whole year before he formed a settlement on the Atabapo; predicting the misfortunes which were not slow to arrive. “Let me labour with my people in clearing the ground,” said Cuseru to the Jesuits; I will plant cassava, and you will find hereafter wherewith to feed all these men.” Solano, impatient to advance, refused to listen to the counsel of the Indian chief, and the new inhabitants of San Fernando had to suffer all the evils of scarcity. Canoes were sent at a great expense to New Grenada, by the Meta and the Vichada, in search of flour. The provision arrived too late, and many Spaniards and Indians perished of those diseases which are produced in every climate by want and moral dejection.
Some traces of cultivation are still found at San Fernando. Every Indian has a small plantation of cacao-trees, which produce abundantly in the fifth year; but they cease to bear fruit sooner than in the valleys of Aragua. There are some savannahs and good pasturage round San Fernando, but hardly seven or eight cows are to be found, the remains of a considerable herd which was brought into these countries at the expedition for settling the boundaries. The Indians are a little more civilized here than in the rest of the missions, and we found to our surprise a blacksmith of the native race.
In the mission of San Fernando, a tree which gives a peculiar physiognomy to the landscape, is the piritu or pirijao palm. Its trunk, armed with thorns, is more than sixty feet high; its leaves are pinnated, very thin, undulated, and frizzled towards the points. The fruits of this tree are very extraordinary; every cluster contains from fifty to eighty; they are yellow like apples, grow purple in proportion as they ripen, two or three inches thick, and generally, from abortion, without a kernel. Among the eighty or ninety species of palm-trees peculiar to the New Continent, which I have enumerated in the Nova Genera Plantarum Aequinoctialum, there are none in which the sarcocarp is developed in a manner so extraordinary. The fruit of the pirijao furnishes a farinaceous substance, as yellow as the yolk of an egg, slightly saccharine, and extremely nutritious. It is eaten like plantains or potatoes, boiled or roasted in the ashes, and affords a wholesome and agreeable aliment. The Indians and the missionaries are unwearied in their praises of this noble palm-tree, which might be called the peach-palm. We found it cultivated in abundance at San Fernando, San Balthasar, Santa Barbara, and wherever we advanced towards the south or the east along the banks of the Atabapo and the Upper Orinoco. In those wild regions we are involuntarily reminded of the assertion of Linnaeus, that the country of palm-trees was the first abode of our species, and that man is essentially palmivorous.* On examining the provision accumulated in the huts of the Indians, we perceive that their subsistence during several months of the year depends as much on the farinaceous fruit of the pirijao, as on the cassava and plantain. The tree bears fruit but once a year, but to the amount of three clusters, consequently from one hundred and fifty to two hundred fruits.
[* Homo HABITAT intra tropicos, vescitur palmis, lotophagus; HOSPITATUR extra tropicos sub novercante Cerere, carnivorus. Man DWELLS NATURALLY within the tropics, and lives on the fruits of the palm-tree; he EXISTS in other parts of the world, and there makes shift to feed on corn and flesh. Syst. Nat. volume 1 page 24.]
San Fernando de Atabapo, San Carlos, and San Francisco Solano, are the most considerable settlements among the missions of the Upper Orinoco. At San Fernando, as well as in the neighbouring villages of San Balthasar and Javita, the abodes of the priests are neatly-built houses, covered by lianas, and surrounded by gardens. The tall trunks of the pirijao palms were the most beautiful ornaments of these plantations. In our walks, the president of the mission gave us an animated account of his incursions on the Rio Guaviare. He related to us how much these journeys, undertaken “for the conquest of souls;” are desired by the Indians of the missions. All, even women and old men, take part in them. Under the pretext of recovering neophytes who have deserted the village, children above eight or ten years of age are carried off, and distributed among the Indians of the missions as serfs, or poitos. According to the astronomical observations I took on the banks of the Atabapo, and on the western declivity of the Cordillera of the Andes, near the Paramo de la suma Paz, the distance is one hundred and seven leagues only from San Fernando to the first villages of the provinces of Caguan and San Juan de los Llanos. I was assured also by some Indians, who dwelt formerly to the west of the island of Amanaveni, beyond the confluence of the Rio Supavi, that going in a boat on the Guaviare (in the manner of the savages) beyond the strait (angostura) and the principal cataract, they met, at three days’ distance, bearded and clothed men, who came in search of the eggs of the terekay turtle. This meeting alarmed the Indians so much, that they fled precipitately, redescending the Guaviare. It is probable, that these bearded white men came from the villages of Aroma and San Martin, the Rio Guaviare being formed by the union of the rivers Ariari and Guayavero. We must not be surprised that the missionaries of the Orinoco and the Atabapo little suspect how near they live to the missionaries of Mocoa, Rio Fragua, and Caguan. In these desert countries, the real distances can be known only by observations of the longitude. It was in consequence of astronomical data, and the information I gathered in the convents of Popayan and of Pasto, to the west of the Cordillera of the Andes, that I formed an accurate idea of the respective situations of the christian settlements on the Atabapo, the Guayavero, and the Caqueta.*
[* The Caqueta bears, lower down, the name of the Yupura.]
Everything changes on entering the Rio Atabapo; the constitution of the atmosphere, the colour of the waters, and the form of the trees that cover the shore. You no longer suffer during the day the torment of mosquitos; and the long-legged gnats (zancudos) become rare during the night. Beyond the mission of San Fernando these nocturnal insects disappear altogether. The water of the Orinoco is turbid, and loaded with earthy matter; and in the coves, from the accumulation of dead crocodiles and other putrescent substances, it diffuses a musky and faint smell. We were sometimes obliged to strain this water through a linen cloth before we drank it. The water of the Atabapo, on the contrary, is pure, agreeable to the taste, without any trace of smell, brownish by reflected, and of a pale yellow by transmitted light. The people call it light, in opposition to the heavy and turbid waters of the Orinoco. Its temperature is generally two degrees, and when you approach the mouth of the Rio Temi, three degrees, cooler than the temperature of the Upper Orinoco. After having been compelled during a whole year to drink water at 27 or 28°, a lowering of a few degrees in the temperature produces a very agreeable sensation. I think this lowering of the temperature may be attributed to the river being less broad, and without the sandy beach, the heat of which, at the Orinoco, is by day more than 50°, and also to the thick shade of the forests which are traversed by the Atabapo, the Temi, the Tuamini, and the Guainia, or Rio Negro.
The extreme purity of the black waters is proved by their limpidity, their transparency, and the clearness with which they reflect the images and colours of surrounding objects. The smallest fish are visible in them at a depth of twenty or thirty feet; and most commonly the bottom of the river may be distinguished, which is not a yellowish or brownish mud, like the colour of the water, but a quartzose and granitic sand of dazzling whiteness. Nothing can be compared to the beauty of the banks of the Atabapo. Loaded with plants, among which rise the palms with feathery leaves; the banks are reflected in the waters, and this reflex verdure seems to have the same vivid hue as that which clothes the real vegetation. The surface of the fluid is homogeneous, smooth, and destitute of that mixture of suspended sand and decomposed organic matter, which roughens and streaks the surface of less limpid rivers.
On quitting the Orinoco, several small rapids must be passed, but without any appearance of danger. Amid these raudalitos, according to the opinion of the missionaries, the Rio Atabapo falls into the Orinoco. I am however disposed to think that the Atabapo falls into the Guaviare. The Rio Guaviare, which is much wider than the Atabapo, has white waters, and in the aspect of its banks, its fishing-birds, its fish, and the great crocodiles which live in it, resembles the Orinoco much more than that part of the Atabapo which comes from the Esmeralda. When a river springs from the junction of two other rivers, nearly alike in size, it is difficult to judge which of the two confluent streams must be regarded as its source. The Indians of San Fernando affirm that the Orinoco rises from two rivers, the Guaviare and the Rio Paragua. They give this latter name to the Upper Orinoco, from San Fernando and Santa Barbara to beyond the Esmeralda, and they say that the Cassiquiare is not an arm of the Orinoco, but of the Rio Paragua. It matters but little whether or not the name of Orinoco be given to the Rio Paragua, provided we trace the course of these rivers as it is in nature, and do not separate by a chain of mountains, (as was done previously to my travels,) rivers that communicate together, and form one system. When we would give the name of a large river to one of the two branches by which it is formed, it should be applied to that branch which furnishes most water. Now, at the two seasons of the year when I saw the Guaviare and the Upper Orinoco or Rio Paragua (between the Esmeralda and San Fernando), it appeared to me that the latter was not so large as the Guaviare. Similar doubts have been entertained by geographers respecting the junction of the Upper Mississippi with the Missouri and the Ohio, the junction of the Maranon with the Guallaga and the Ucayale, and the junction of the Indus with the Chunab (Hydaspes of Cashmere) and the Gurra, or Sutlej.* To avoid embroiling farther a nomenclature of rivers so arbitrarily fixed, I will not propose new denominations. I shall continue, with Father Caulin and the Spanish geographers, to call the river Esmeralda the Orinoco, or Upper Orinoco; but I must observe that if the Orinoco, from San Fernando de Atabapo as far as the delta which it forms opposite the island of Trinidad, were regarded as the continuance of the Rio Guaviare, and if that part of the Upper Orinoco between the Esmeralda and the mission of San Fernando were considered a tributary stream, the Orinoco would preserve, from the savannahs of San Juan de los Llanos and the eastern declivity of the Andes to its mouth, a more uniform and natural direction, that from south-west to north-east.
[* The Hydaspes is properly a tributary stream of the Chunab or Acesines. The Sutlej or Hysudrus forms, together with the Beyah or *** Gurra. These are the beautiful regions of the *** celebrated from the time of Alexander to the ***]
The Rio Paragua, or that part of the Orinoco east of the mouth of the Guaviare, has clearer, more transparent, and purer water than the part of the Orinoco below San Fernando. The waters of the Guaviare, on the contrary, are white and turbid; they have the same taste, according to the Indians (whose organs of sense are extremely delicate and well practised), as the waters of the Orinoco near the Great Cataracts. “Bring me the waters of three or four great rivers of these countries,” an old Indian of the mission of Javita said to us; “on tasting each of them I will tell you, without fear of mistake, whence it was taken; whether it comes from a white or black river; the Orinoco or the Atabapo, the Paragua or the Guaviare.” The great crocodiles and porpoises (toninas) which are alike common in the Rio Guaviare and the Lower Orinoco, are entirely wanting, as we were told, in the Rio Paragua (or Upper Orinoco, between San Fernando and the Esmeralda). These are very remarkable differences in the nature of the waters, and the distribution of animals. The Indians do not fail to mention them, when they would prove to travellers that the Upper Orinoco, to the east of San Fernando, is a distinct river which falls into the Orinoco, and that the real origin of the latter must be sought in the sources of the Guaviare.
The astronomical observations made in the night of the 25th of April did not give me the latitude with satisfactory precision. The latitude of the mission of San Fernando appeared to me to be 4° 2′ 48″. In Father Caulin’s map, founded on the observations of Solano made in 1756, it is 4° 1 minute. This agreement proves the justness of a result which, however, I could only deduce from altitudes considerably distant from the meridian. A good observation of the stars at Guapasoso gave me 4° 2′ for San Fernando de Atabapo. I was able to fix the longitude with much more precision in my way to the Rio Negro, and in returning from that river. It is 70° 30′ 46″ (or 4° 0′ west of the meridian of Cumana).
On the 26th of April we advanced only two or three leagues, and passed the night on a rock near the Indian plantations or conucos of Guapasoso. The river losing itself by its inundations in the forests, and its real banks being unseen, the traveller can venture to land only where a rock or a small table-land rises above the water. The granite of those countries, owing to the position of the thin laminae of black mica, sometimes resembles graphic granite; but most frequently (and this determines the age of its formation) it passes into a real gneiss. Its beds, very regularly stratified, run from south-west to north-east, as in the Cordillera on the shore of Caracas. The dip of the granite-gneiss is 70° north-west. It is traversed by an infinite number of veins of quartz, which are singularly transparent, and three or four, and sometimes fifteen inches thick. I found no cavity (druse), no crystallized substance, not even rock-crystal; and no trace of pyrites, or any other metallic substance. I enter into these particulars on account of the chimerical ideas that have been spread ever since the sixteenth century, after the voyages of Berreo and Raleigh,* “on the immense riches of the great and fine empire of Guiana.”
[* Raleigh’s work bears the high sounding title of The Discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, London 1596. See also Raleghi admiranda Descriptio Regni Guianae, auri abundantissimi, Hondius Noribergae 1599.]
The river Atabapo presents throughout a peculiar aspect; you see nothing of its real banks formed by flat lands eight or ten feet high; they are concealed by a row of palms, and small trees with slender trunks, the roots of which are bathed by the waters. There are many crocodiles from the point where you quit the Orinoco to the mission of San Fernando, and their presence indicates that this part of the river belongs to the Rio Guaviare and not to the Atabapo. In the real bed of the latter river, above the mission of San Fernando, there are no crocodiles: we find there some bavas, a great many fresh-water dolphins, but no manatees. We also seek in vain on these banks for the thick-nosed tapir, the araguato, or great howling monkey, the zamuro, or Vultur aura, and the crested pheasant, known by the name of guacharaca. Enormous water-snakes, in shape resembling the boa, are unfortunately very common, and are dangerous to Indians who bathe. We saw them almost from the first day we embarked, swimming by the side of our canoe; they were at most twelve or fourteen feet long. The jaguars of the banks of the Atabapo and the Temi are large and well fed; they are said, however, to be less daring than the jaguars of the Orinoco.
The night of the 27th was beautiful; dark clouds passed from time to time over the zenith with extreme rapidity. Not a breath of wind was felt in the lower strata of the atmosphere; the breeze was at the height of a thousand toises. I dwell upon this peculiarity; for the movement we saw was not produced by the counter-currents (from west to east) which are sometimes thought to be observed in the torrid zone on the loftiest mountains of the Cordilleras; it was the effect of a real breeze, an east wind. We left the conucos of Guapasoso at two o’clock; and continued to ascend the river toward the south, finding it (or rather that part of its bed which is free from trees) growing more and more narrow. It began to rain toward sunrise. In these forests, which are less inhabited by animals than those of the Orinoco, we no longer heard the howlings of the monkeys. The dolphins, or toninas, sported by the side of our boat. According to the relation of Mr. Colebrooke, the Delphinus gangeticus, which is the fresh-water porpoise of the Old World, in like manner accompanies the boats that go up towards Benares; but from Benares to the point where the Ganges receives the salt waters is only two hundred leagues, while from the Atabapo to the mouth of the Orinoco is more than three hundred and twenty.
About noon we passed the mouth of the little river Ipurichapano on the east, and afterwards the granitic rock, known by the name of Piedra del Tigre. Between the fourth and fifth degrees of latitude, a little to the south of the mountains of Sipapo, we reach the southern extremity of that chain of cataracts, which I proposed, in a memoir published in 1800, to call the Chain of Parima. At 4° 20′ it stretches from the right bank of the Orinoco toward the east and east-south-east. The whole of the land extending from the mountains of the Parima towards the river Amazon, which is traversed by the Atabapo, the Cassiquiare, and the Rio Negro, is an immense plain, covered partly with forests, and partly with grass. Small rocks rise here and there like castles. We regretted that we had not stopped to rest near the Piedra del Tigre; for on going up the Atabapo we had great difficulty to find a spot of dry ground, open and spacious enough to light a fire, and place our instrument and our hammocks.
On the 28th of April, it rained hard after sunset, and we were afraid that our collections would be damaged. The poor missionary had his fit of tertian fever, and besought us to re-embark immediately after midnight. We passed at day-break the Piedra and the Raudalitos* of Guarinuma. The rock is on the east bank; it is a shelf of granite, covered with psora, cladonia, and other lichens. I could have fancied myself transported to the north of Europe, to the ridge of the mountains of gneiss and granite between Freiberg and Marienberg in Saxony. The cladonias appeared to me to be identical with the Lichen rangiferinus, the L. pixidatus, and the L. polymorphus of Linnaeus. After having passed the rapids of Guarinuma, the Indians showed us in the middle of the forest, on our right, the ruins of the mission of Mendaxari, which has been long abandoned. On the east bank of the river, near the little rock of Kemarumo, in the midst of Indian plantations, a gigantic bombax* attracted our curiosity. We landed to measure it; the height was nearly one hundred and twenty feet, and the diameter between fourteen and fifteen. This enormous specimen of vegetation surprised us the more, as we had till then seen on the banks of the Atabapo only small trees with slender trunks, which from afar resembled young cherry-trees. The Indians assured that these small trees do not form a very extensive group. They are checked in their growth by the inundations of the river; while the dry grounds near the Atabapo, the Temi, and the Tuamini, furnish excellent timber for building. These forests do not stretch indefinitely to the east and west, toward the Cassiquiare and the Guaviare; they are bounded by the open savannahs of Manuteso, and the Rio Inirida. We found it difficult in the evening to stem the current, and we passed the night in a wood a little above Mendaxari; which is another granitic rock traversed by a stratum of quartz. We found in it a group of fine crystals of black schorl.
[* The rock and little cascades.]
[* Bombax ceiba.]
On the 29th, the air was cooler. We had no zancudos, but the sky was constantly clouded, and without stars. I began to regret the Lower Orinoco. We still advanced but slowly from the force of the current, and we stopped a great part of the day to seek for plants. It was night when we arrived at the mission of San Balthasar, or, as the monks style it, the mission of la divina Pastora de Balthasar de Atabapo. We were lodged with a Catalonian missionary, a lively and agreeable man, who displayed in these wild countries the activity that characterises his nation. He had planted a garden, where the fig-tree of Europe was found in company with the persea, and the lemon-tree with the mammee. The village was built with that regularity which, in the north of Germany, and in protestant America, we find in the hamlets of the Moravian brethren; and the Indian plantations seemed better cultivated than elsewhere. Here we saw for the first time that white and fungous substance which I have made known by the name of dapicho and zapis.* We immediately perceived that it was analogous to india-rubber; but, as the Indians made us understand by signs, that it was found underground, we were inclined to think, till we arrived at the mission of Javita, that the dapicho was a fossil caoutchouc, though different from the elastic bitumen of Derbyshire. A Pomisano Indian, seated by the fire in the hut of the missionary, was employed in reducing the dapicho into black caoutchouc. He had spitted several bits on a slender stick, and was roasting them like meat. The dapicho blackens in proportion as it grows soft, and becomes elastic. The resinous and aromatic smell which filled the hut, seemed to indicate that this coloration is the effect of the decomposition of a carburet of hydrogen, and that the carbon appears in proportion as the hydrogen burns at a low heat. The Indian beat the softened and blackened mass with a piece of brazil-wood, formed at one end like a club; he then kneaded the dapicho into balls of three or four inches in diameter, and let it cool. These balls exactly resemble the caoutchouc of the shops, but their surface remains in general slightly viscous. They are used at San Balthasar in the Indian game of tennis, which is celebrated among the inhabitants of Uruana and Encaramada; they are also cut into cylinders, to be used as corks, and are far preferable to those made of the bark of the cork-tree.
[* These two words belong to the Poimisano and Paragini tongues.]
This use of caoutchouc appeared to us the more worthy notice, as we had been often embarrassed by the want of European corks. The great utility of cork is fully understood in countries where trade has not supplied this bark in plenty. Equinoctial America nowhere produces, not even on the back of the Andes, an oak resembling the Quercus suber; and neither the light wood of the bombax, the ochroma, and other malvaceous plants, nor the rhachis of maize, of which the natives make use, can well supply the place of our corks. The missionary showed us, before the Casa de los Solteros (the house where the young unmarried men reside), a drum, which was a hollow cylinder of wood, two feet long and eighteen inches thick. This drum was beaten with great masses of dapicho, which served as drumsticks; it had openings which could be stopped by the hand at will, to vary the sounds, and was fixed on two light supports. Savage notions love noisy music; the drum and the botuto, or trumpet of baked earth, in which a tube of three or four feet long communicates with several barrels, are indispensable instruments among the Indians for their grand pieces of music.
The night of the 30th of April was sufficiently fine for observing the meridian heights of x of the Southern Cross, and the two large stars in the feet of the Centaur. I found the latitude of San Balthasar 3° 14′ 23″. Horary angles of the sun gave 70° 14′ 21″ for the longitude by the chronometer. The dip of the magnetic needle was 27.8° (cent div). We left the mission at a late hour in the morning, and continued to go up the Atabapo for five miles; then, instead of following that river to its source in the east, where it bears the name of Atacavi, we entered the Rio Temi. Before we reached its confluence, a granitic eminence on the western bank, near the mouth of the Guasacavi, fixed our attention: it is called Piedra de la Guahiba (Rock of the Guahiba woman), or the Piedra de la Madre (Mother’s Rock.) We inquired the cause of so singular a denomination. Father Zea could not satisfy our curiosity; but some weeks after, another missionary, one of the predecessors of that ecclesiastic, whom we found settled at San Fernando as president of the missions, related to us an event which excited in our minds the most painful feelings. If, in these solitary scenes, man scarcely leaves behind him any trace of his existence, it is doubly humiliating for a European to see perpetuated by so imperishable a monument of nature as a rock, the remembrance of the moral degradation of our species, and the contrast between the virtue of a savage, and the barbarism of civilized man!
In 1797 the missionary of San Fernando had led his Indians to the banks of the Rio Guaviare, on one of those hostile incursions which are prohibited alike by religion and the Spanish laws. They found in an Indian hut a Guahiba woman with her three children (two of whom were still infants), occupied in preparing the flour of cassava. Resistance was impossible; the father was gone to fish, and the mother tried in vain to flee with her children. Scarcely had she reached the savannah when she was seized by the Indians of the mission, who hunt human beings, like the Whites and the Negroes in Africa. The mother and her children were bound, and dragged to the bank of the river. The monk, seated in his boat, waited the issue of an expedition of which he shared not the danger. Had the mother made too violent a resistance the Indians would have killed her, for everything is permitted for the sake of the conquest of souls (la conquista espirituel), and it is particularly desirable to capture children, who may be treated in the Mission as poitos, or slaves of the Christians. The prisoners were carried to San Fernando, in the hope that the mother would be unable to find her way back to her home by land. Separated from her other children who had accompanied their father on the day in which she had been carried off, the unhappy woman showed signs of the deepest despair. She attempted to take back to her home the children who had been seized by the missionary; and she fled with them repeatedly from the village of San Fernando. But the Indians never failed to recapture her; and the missionary, after having caused her to be mercilessly beaten, took the cruel resolution of separating the mother from the two children who had been carried off with her. She was conveyed alone to the missions of the Rio Negro, going up the Atabapo. Slightly bound, she was seated at the bow of the boat, ignorant of the fate that awaited her; but she judged by the direction of the sun, that she was removing farther and farther from her hut and her native country. She succeeded in breaking her bonds, threw herself into the water, and swam to the left bank of the Atabapo. The current carried her to a shelf of rock, which bears her name to this day. She landed and took shelter in the woods, but the president of the missions ordered the Indians to row to the shore, and follow the traces of the Guahiba. In the evening she was brought back. Stretched upon the rock (la Piedra de la Madre) a cruel punishment was inflicted on her with those straps of manatee leather, which serve for whips in that country, and with which the alcaldes are always furnished. This unhappy woman, her hands tied behind her back with strong stalks of mavacure, was then dragged to the mission of Javita.
She was there thrown into one of the caravanserais, called las Casas del Rey. It was the rainy season, and the night was profoundly dark. Forests till then believed to be impenetrable separated the mission of Javita from that of San Fernando, which was twenty-five leagues distant in a straight line. No other route is known than that by the rivers; no man ever attempted to go by land from one village to another. But such difficulties could not deter a mother, separated from her children. The Guahiba was carelessly guarded in the caravanserai. Her arms being wounded, the Indians of Javita had loosened her bonds, unknown to the missionary and the alcaldes. Having succeeded by the help of her teeth in breaking them entirely, she disappeared during the night; and at the fourth sunrise was seen at the mission of San Fernando, hovering around the hut where her children were confined. “What that woman performed,” added the missionary, who gave us this sad narrative, “the most robust Indian would not have ventured to undertake!” She traversed the woods at a season when the sky is constantly covered with clouds, and the sun during whole days appears but for a few minutes. Did the course of the waters direct her way? The inundations of the rivers forced her to go far from the banks of the main stream, through the midst of woods where the movement of the water is almost imperceptible. How often must she have been stopped by the thorny lianas, that form a network around the trunks they entwine! How often must she have swum across the rivulets that run into the Atabapo! This unfortunate woman was asked how she had sustained herself during four days. She said that, exhausted with fatigue, she could find no other nourishment than those great black ants called vachacos, which climb the trees in long bands, to suspend on them their resinous nests. We pressed the missionary to tell us whether the Guahiba had peacefully enjoyed the happiness of remaining with her children; and if any repentance had followed this excess of cruelty. He would not satisfy our curiosity; but at our return from the Rio Negro we learned that the Indian mother was again separated from her children, and sent to one of the missions of the Upper Orinoco. There she died, refusing all kind of nourishment, as savages frequently do in great calamities.
Such is the remembrance annexed to this fatal rock, the Piedra de la Madre. In this relation of my travels I feel no desire to dwell on pictures of individual suffering — evils which are frequent wherever there are masters and slaves, civilized Europeans living with people in a state of barbarism, and priests exercising the plenitude of arbitrary power over men ignorant and without defence. In describing the countries through which I passed, I generally confine myself to pointing out what is imperfect, or fatal to humanity, in their civil or religious institutions. If I have dwelt longer on the Rock of the Guahiba, it was to record an affecting instance of maternal tenderness in a race of people so long calumniated; and because I thought some benefit might accrue from publishing a fact, which I had from the monks of San Francisco, and which proves how much the system of the missions calls for the care of the legislator.
Above the mouth of the Guasucavi we entered the Rio Temi, the course of which is from south to north. Had we continued to ascend the Atabapo, we should have turned to east-south-east, going farther from the banks of the Guainia or Rio Negro. The Temi is only eighty or ninety toises broad, but in any other country than Guiana it would be a considerable river. The country exhibits the uniform aspect of forests covering ground perfectly flat. The fine pirijao palm, with its fruit like peaches, and a new species of bache, or mauritia, its trunk bristled with thorns, rise amid smaller trees, the vegetation of which appears to be retarded by the continuance of the inundations. The Mauritia aculeata is called by the Indians juria or cauvaja; its leaves are in the form of a fan, and they bend towards the ground. At the centre of every leaf, no doubt from the effect of some disease of the parenchyma, concentric circles of alternate blue and yellow appear, the yellow prevailing towards the middle. We were singularly struck by this appearance; the leaves, coloured like the peacock’s tail, are supported by short and very thick trunks. The thorns are not slender and long like those of the corozo and other thorny palm-trees; but on the contrary, very woody, short, and broad at the base, like the thorns of the Hura crepitans. On the banks of the Atabapo and the Temi, this palm-tree is distributed in groups of twelve or fifteen stems, close together, and looking as if they rose from the same root. These trees resemble in their appearance, form, and scarcity of leaves, the fan-palms and palmettos of the Old World. We remarked that some plants of the juria were entirely destitute of fruit, and others exhibited a considerable quantity; this circumstance seems to indicate a palm-tree of separate sexes.
Wherever the Rio Temi forms coves, the forest is inundated to the extent of more than half a square league. To avoid the sinuosities of the river and shorten the passage, the navigation is here performed in a very extraordinary manner. The Indians made us leave the bed of the river; and we proceeded southward across the forest, through paths (sendas), that is, through open channels of four or five feet broad. The depth of the water seldom exceeds half a fathom. These sendas are formed in the inundated forest like paths on dry ground. The Indians, in going from one mission to another, pass with their boats as much as possible by the same way; but the communications not being frequent, the force of vegetation sometimes produces unexpected obstacles. An Indian, furnished with a machete (a great knife, the blade of which is fourteen inches long), stood at the head of our boat, employed continually in chopping off the branches that crossed each other from the two sides of the channel. In the thickest part of the forest we were astonished by an extraordinary noise. On beating the bushes, a shoal of toninas (fresh-water dolphins) four feet long, surrounded our boat. These animals had concealed themselves beneath the branches of a fromager, or Bombax ceiba. They fled across the forest, throwing out those spouts of compressed air and water which have given them in every language the name of blowers. How singular was this spectacle in an inland spot, three or four hundred leagues from the mouths of the Orinoco and the Amazon! I am aware that the pleuronectes (dabs) of the Atlantic go up the Loire as far as Orleans; but I am, nevertheless, of opinion that the dolphins of the Temi, like those of the Ganges, and like the skate (raia) of the Orinoco, are of a species essentially different from the dolphins and skates of the ocean. In the immense rivers of South America, and the great lakes of North America, nature seems to repeat several pelagic forms. The Nile has no porpoises:* those of the sea go up the Delta no farther than Biana and Metonbis towards Selamoun.
[* Those dolphins that enter the mouth of the Nile, did not escape the observation of the ancients. In a bust in syenite, preserved in the museum at Paris, the sculptor has represented them half concealed in the undulatory beard of the god of the river.]
At five in the evening we regained with some difficulty the bed of the river. Our canoe remained fast for some minutes between two trunks of trees; and it was no sooner disengaged than we reached a spot where several paths, or small channels, crossed each other, so that the pilot was puzzled to distinguish the most open path. We navigated through a forest so thick that we could guide ourselves neither by the sun nor by the stars. We were again struck during this day by the want of arborescent ferns in that country; they diminish visibly from the sixth degree of north latitude, while the palm-trees augment prodigiously towards the equator. Fern-trees belong to a climate less hot, and a soil but little mountainous. It is only where there are mountains that these majestic plants descend towards the plains; they seem to avoid perfectly flat grounds, as those through which run the Cassiquiare, the Temi, Inirida, and the Rio Negro. We passed in the night near a rock, called the Piedra de Astor by the missionaries. The ground from the mouth of the Guaviare constantly displays the same geological formation. It is a vast granitic plain, in which from league to league the rock pierces the soil, and forms, not hillocks, but small masses, that resemble pillars or ruined buildings.
On the 1st of May the Indians chose to depart long before sunrise. We were stirring before them, however, because I waited (though vainly) for a star ready to pass the meridian. In those humid regions covered with forests, the nights became more obscure in proportion as we drew nearer to the Rio Negro and the interior of Brazil. We remained in the bed of the river till daybreak, being afraid of losing ourselves among the trees. At sunrise we again entered the inundated forest, to avoid the force of the current. On reaching the junction of the Temi with another little river, the Tuamini, the waters of which are equally black, we proceeded along the latter to the south-west. This direction led us near the mission of Javita, which is founded on the banks of the Tuamini; and at this christian settlement we were to find the aid necessary for transporting our canoe by land to the Rio Negro. We did not arrive at San Antonio de Javita till near eleven in the morning. An accident, unimportant in itself, but which shows the excessive timidity of the little sagoins detained us some time at the mouth of the Tuamini. The noise of the blowers had frightened our monkeys, and one of them fell into the water. Animals of this species, perhaps on account of their extreme meagreness, swim badly; and consequently it was saved with some difficulty.
At Javita we had the pleasure of finding a very intelligent and obliging monk, at whose mission we were forced to remain four or five days, the time required for transporting our boat across the portage of Pimichin. This delay enabled us to visit the surrounding country, as also to relieve ourselves from an annoyance which we had suffered for two days. We felt an extraordinary irritation on the joints of our fingers, and on the backs of our hands. The missionary told us it was caused by the aradores,* which get under the skin. We could distinguish with a lens nothing but streaks, or parallel and whitish furrows. It is the form of these furrows, that has obtained for the insect the name of ploughman. A mulatto woman was sent for, who professed to be thoroughly acquainted with all the little insects that burrow in the human skin; the chego, the nuche, the coya, and the arador; she was the curandera, or surgeon of the place. She promised to extirpate, one by one, the insects which caused this smarting irritation. Having heated at a lamp the point a little bit of hard wood, she dug with it into the furrows that marked the skin. After long examination, she announced with the pedantic gravity peculiar to the mulatto race, that an arador was found. I saw a little round bag, which I suspected to be the egg of an acarus. I was to find relief when the mulatto woman had succeeded in taking out three or four of these aradores. Having the skin of both hands filled with acari, I had not the patience to wait the end of an operation, which had already lasted till late at night. The next day an Indian of Javita cured us radically, and with surprising promptitude. He brought us the branch of a shrub, called uzao, with small leaves like those of cassia, very coriaceous and glossy. He made a cold infusion of the bark of this shrub, which had a bluish colour, and the taste of liquorice. When beaten, it yields a great deal of froth. The irritation of the aradores ceased by using simple lotions of this uzao-water. We could not find this shrub in flower, or bearing fruit; it appears to belong to the family of the leguminous plants, the chemical properties of which are singularly varied. We dreaded so much the sufferings to which we had been exposed, that we constantly kept some branches of the uzao in our boat, till we reached San Carlos. This shrub grows in abundance on the banks of the Pimichin. Why has no remedy been discovered for the irritation produced by the sting of the zancudos, as well as for that occasioned by the aradores or microscopic acari?
[* Literally the ploughers.]
In 1755, before the expedition for fixing the boundaries, better known by the name of the expedition of Solano, the whole country between the missions of Javita and San Balthasar was regarded as dependent on Brazil. The Portuguese had advanced from the Rio Negro, by the portage of the Cano Pimichin, as far as the banks of the Temi. An Indian chief of the name of Javita, celebrated for his courage and his spirit of enterprise, was the ally of the Portuguese. He pushed his hostile incursions from the Rio Jupura, or Caqueta, one of the great tributary streams of the Amazon, by the rivers Uaupe and Xie, as far as the black waters of the Temi and the Tuamini, a distance of more than a hundred leagues. He was furnished with letters patent, which authorised him to bring the Indians from the forest, for the conquest of souls. He availed himself amply of this permission; but his incursions had an object which was not altogether spiritual, that of making slaves to sell to the Portuguese. When Solano, the second chief of the expedition of the boundaries, arrived at San Fernando de Atabapo, he had Javita seized, in one of his incursions to the banks of the Temi. He treated him with gentleness, and succeeded in gaining him over to the interests of the Spanish government by promises that were not fulfilled. The Portuguese, who had already formed some stable settlements in these countries, were driven back as far as the lower part of the Rio Negro; and the mission of San Antonio, of which the more usual name is Javita, so called after its Indian founder, was removed farther north of the sources of the Tuamini, to the spot where it is now established. This captain, Javita, was still living, at an advanced age, when we proceeded to the Rio Negro. He was an Indian of great vigour of mind and body. He spoke Spanish with facility, and preserved a certain influence over the neighbouring nations. As he attended us in all our herborizations, we obtained from his own mouth information so much the more useful, as the missionaries have great confidence in his veracity. He assured us that in his youth he had seen almost all the Indian tribes that inhabit the vast regions between the Upper Orinoco, the Rio Negro, the Inirida, and the Jupura, eat human flesh. The Daricavanas, the Puchirinavis, and the Manitivitanos, appeared to him to be the greatest cannibals among them. He believes that this abominable practice is with them the effect of a system of vengeance; they eat only enemies who are made prisoners in battle. The instances where, by a refinement of cruelty, the Indian eats his nearest relations, his wife, or an unfaithful mistress, are extremely rare. The strange custom of the Scythians and Massagetes, the Capanaguas of the Rio Ucayale, and the ancient inhabitants of the West Indian Islands, of honouring the dead by eating a part of their remains, is unknown on the banks of the Orinoco. In both continents this trait of manners belongs only to nations that hold in horror the flesh of a prisoner. The Indian of Hayti (Saint Domingo) would think himself wanting in regard to the memory of a relation, if he did not throw into his drink a small portion of the body of the deceased, after having dried it like one of the mummies of the Guanches, and reduced it to powder. This gives us just occasion to repeat with an eastern poet, “of all animals man is the most fantastic in his manners, and the most disorderly in his propensities.”
The climate of the mission of San Antonio de Javita is extremely rainy. When you have passed the latitude of three degrees north, and approach the equator, you have seldom an opportunity of observing the sun or the stars. It rains almost the whole year, and the sky is constantly cloudy. As the breeze is not felt in these immense forests of Guiana, and the refluent polar currents do not penetrate them, the column of air which reposes on this wooded zone is not renewed by dryer strata. It is saturated with vapours which are condensed into equatorial rains. The missionary assured us that it often rains here four or five months without cessation.
The temperature of Javita is cooler than that of Maypures, but considerably hotter than that of the Guainia or Rio Negro. The centigrade thermometer kept up in the day to twenty-six or twenty-seven degrees; and in the night to twenty-one degrees.
From the 30th of April to the 11th of May, I had not been able to see any star in the meridian so as to determine the latitude of places. I watched whole nights in order to make use of the method of double altitudes; but all my efforts were useless. The fogs of the north of Europe are not more constant than those of the equatorial regions of Guiana. On the 4th of May, I saw the sun for some minutes; and found by the chronometer and the horary angles the longitude of Javita to be 70° 22′, or 1 degree 15 minutes farther west than the longitude of the junction of the Apure with the Orinoco. This result is interesting for laying down on our maps the unknown country lying between the Xie and the sources of the Issana, situated on the same meridian with the mission of Javita.
The Indians of Javita, whose number amounts to one hundred and sixty, now belong for the most part to the nations of the Poimisanos, the Echinavis, and the Paraganis. They are employed in the construction of boats, formed of the trunks of sassafras, a large species of laurel, hollowed by means of fire and the hatchet. These trees are more than one hundred feet high; the wood is yellow, resinous, almost incorruptible in water, and has a very agreeable smell. We saw them at San Fernando, at Javita, and more particularly at Esmeralda, where most of the canoes of the Orinoco are constructed, because the adjacent forests furnish the largest trunks of sassafras.
The forest between Javita and the Cano Pimichin, contains an immense quantity of gigantic trees, ocoteas, and laurels, the Amasonia arborea,* the Retiniphyllum secundiflorum, the curvana, the jacio, the iacifate, of which the wood is red like the brazilletto, the guamufate, with its fine leaves of calophyllum from seven to eight inches long, the Amyris carana, and the mani. All these trees (with the exception of our new genus Retiniphyllum) were more than one hundred or one hundred and ten feet high. As their trunks throw out branches only toward the summit, we had some trouble in procuring both leaves and flowers. The latter were frequently strewed upon the ground at the foot of the trees; but, the plants of different families being grouped together in these forests, and every tree being covered with lianas, we could not, with any degree of confidence, rely on the authority of the natives, when they assured us that a flower belonged to such or such a tree. Amid these riches of nature heborizations caused us more chagrin than satisfaction. What we could gather appeared to us of little interest, compared to what we could not reach. It rained unceasingly during several months, and M. Bonpland lost the greater part of the specimens which he had been compelled to dry by artificial heat. Our Indians distinguished the leaves better than the corollae or the fruit. Occupied in seeking timber for canoes, they are inattentive to flowers. “All those great trees bear neither flowers nor fruits,” they repeated unceasingly. Like the botanists of antiquity, they denied what they had not taken the trouble to observe. They were tired with our questions, and exhausted our patience in return.
[* This is a new species of the genus taligalea of Aublet. On the same spot grow the Bignonia magnoliaefolia, B. jasminifolia, Solanum topiro, Justicia pectoralis, Faramea cymosa, Piper javitense, Scleria hirtella, Echites javitensis, Lindsea javitensis, and that curious plant of the family of the verbenaceae, which I have dedicated to the illustrious Leopold von Buch, in whose early labours I participated.]
We have already mentioned that the same chemical properties being sometimes found in the same organs of different families of plants, these families supply each other’s places in various climates. Several species of palms* furnish the inhabitants of equinoctial America and Africa with the oil which we derive from the olive. What the coniferae are to the temperate zone, the terebinthaceae and the guttiferae are to the torrid. In the forests of those burning climates, (where there is neither pine, thuya, taxodium, nor even a podocarpus,) resins, balsams, and aromatic gums, are furnished by the maronobea, the icica, and the amyris. The collecting of these gummy and resinous substances is a trade in the village of Javita. The most celebrated resin bears the name of mani; and of this we saw masses of several hundred-weight, resembling colophony and mastic. The tree called mani by the Paraginis, which M. Bonpland believes to be the Moronobaea coccinea, furnishes but a small quantity of the substance employed in the trade with Angostura. The greatest part comes from the mararo or caragna, which is an amyris. It is remarkable enough, that the name mani, which Aublet heard among the Galibis* of Cayenne, was again heard by us at Javita, three hundred leagues distant from French Guiana. The moronobaea or symphonia of Javita yields a yellow resin; the caragna, a resin strongly odoriferous, and white as snow; the latter becomes yellow where it is adherent to the internal part of old bark.
[* In Africa, the elais or maba; in America the cocoa-tree. In the cocoa-tree it is the perisperm; and in the elais (as in the olive, and the oleineae in general) it is the sarcocarp, or the pulp of the pericarp, that yields oil. This difference, observed in the same family, appears to me very remarkable, though it is in no way contradictory to the results obtained by De Candolle in his ingenious researches on the chemical properties of plants. If our Alfonsia oleifera belong to the genus Elais (as Brown, with great reason believes), it follows, that in the same genus the oil is found in the sarcocarp and in the perisperm.]
[* The Galibis or Caribis (the r has been changed into l, as often happens) are of the great stock of the Carib nations. The products useful in commerce and in domestic life have received the same denomination in every part of America which this warlike and commercial people have overrun.]
We went every day to see how our canoe advanced on the portages. Twenty-three Indians were employed in dragging it by land, placing branches of trees to serve as rollers. In this manner a small boat proceeds in a day or a day and a half, from the waters of the Tuamini to those of the Cano Pimichin, which flow into the Rio Negro. Our canoe being very large, and having to pass the cataracts a second time, it was necessary to avoid with particular care any friction on the bottom; consequently the passage occupied more than four days. It is only since 1795 that a road has been traced through the forest. By substituting a canal for this portage, as I proposed to the ministry of king Charles IV, the communication between the Rio Negro and Angostura, between the Spanish Orinoco and the Portuguese possessions on the Amazon, would be singularly facilitated.
In this forest we at length obtained precise information respecting the pretended fossil caoutchouc, called dapicho by the Indians. The old chief Javita led us to the brink of a rivulet which runs into the Tuamini; and showed us that, after digging two or three feet deep, in a marshy soil, this substance was found between the roots of two trees known by the name of the jacio and the curvana. The first is the hevea of Aublet, or siphonia of the modern botanists, known to furnish the caoutchouc of commerce in Cayenne and Grand Para; the second has pinnate leaves, and its juice is milky, but very thin, and almost destitute of viscosity. The dapicho appears to be the result of an extravasation of the sap from the roots. This extravasation takes place more especially when the trees have attained a great age, and the interior of the trunk begins to decay. The bark and alburnum crack; and thus is effected naturally, what the art of man performs for the purpose of collecting the milky juices of the hevea, the castilloa, and the caoutchouc fig-tree. Aublet relates, that the Galibis and the Garipons of Cayenne begin by making a deep incision at the foot of the trunk, so as to penetrate into the wood; soon after they join with this horizontal notch others both perpendicular and oblique, reaching from the top of the trunk nearly to the roots. All these incisions conduct the milky juice towards one point, where the vase of clay is placed, in which the caoutchouc is to be deposited. We saw the Indians of Carichana operate nearly in the same manner.
If, as I suppose, the accumulation and overflowing of the milk in the jacio and the curvana be a pathological phenomenon, it must sometimes take place at the extremity of the longest roots, for we found masses of dapicho two feet in diameter and four inches thick, eight feet distant from the trunks. Sometimes the Indians dig in vain at the foot of dead trees; at other times the dapicho is found beneath the hevea or jacio still green. The substance is white, corky, fragile, and resembles by its laminated structure and undulating edge, the Boletus ignarius. The dapicho perhaps takes a long time to form; it is probably a juice thickened by a particular disposition of the vegetable organs, diffused and coagulated in a humid soil secluded from the contact of light; it is caoutchouc in a particular state, I may almost say an etiolated caoutchouc. The humidity of the soil seems to account for the undulating form of the edges of the dapicho, and its division into layers.
I often observed in Peru, that on pouring slowly the milky juice of the hevea, or the sap of the carica, into a large quantity of water, the coagulum forms undulating outlines. The dapicho is certainly not peculiar to the forest that extends from Javita to Pimichin, although that is the only spot where it has hitherto been found. I have no doubt, that on digging in French Guiana beneath the roots and the old trunks of the hevea, those enormous masses of corky caoutchouc,* which I have just described, would from time to time be found. As it is observed in Europe, that at the fall of the leaf the sap is conveyed towards the root, it would be curious to examine whether, within the tropics, the milky juices of the urticeae, the euphorbiaceae, and the apocyneae, descend also at certain seasons. Notwithstanding a great equality of temperature, the trees of the torrid zone follow a cycle of vegetation; they undergo changes periodically returning. The existence of the dapicho is more interesting to physiology than to vegetable chemistry. A yellowish-white caoutchouc is now to be found in the shops, which may be easily distinguished from the dapicho, because it is neither dry like cork, nor friable, but extremely elastic, glossy, and soapy. I lately saw considerable quantities of it in London. This caoutchouc, white, and greasy to the touch, is prepared in the East Indies. It exhales that animal and fetid smell which I have attributed in another place to a mixture of caseum and albumen.* When we reflect on the immense variety of plants in the equinoctial regions that are capable of furnishing caoutchouc, it is to be regretted that this substance, so eminently useful, is not found among us at a lower price. Without cultivating trees with a milky sap, a sufficient quantity of caoutchouc might be collected in the missions of the Orinoco alone for the consumption of civilized Europe.* In the kingdom of New Grenada some successful attempts have been made to make boots and shoes of this substance without a seam. Among the American nations, the Omaguas of the Amazon best understand how to manufacture caoutchouc.
[* Thus, at five or six inches depth, between the roots of the Hymenea courbaril, masses of the resin anime (erroneously called copal) are discovered, and are sometimes mistaken for amber in inland places. This phenomenon seems to throw some light on the origin of those large masses of amber which are picked up from time to time on the coast of Prussia.]
[* The pellicles deposited by the milk of hevea, in contact with the atmospheric oxygen, become brown on exposure to the sun. If the dapicho grow black as it is softened before the fire, it is owing to a slight combustion, to a change in the proportion of its elements. I am surprised that some chemists consider the black caoutchouc of commerce, as being mixed with soot, blackened by the smoke to which it has been exposed.]
[* We saw in Guiana, besides the jacio and the curvana, two other trees that yield caoutchouc in abundance; on the banks of the Atabapo the guamaqui with jatropha leaves, and at Maypures the cime.]
Four days had passed, and our canoe had not yet arrived at the landing-place of the Rio Pimichin. “You want for nothing in my mission,” said Father Cereso; “you have plantains and fish; at night you are not stung by mosquitos; and the longer you stay, the better chance you will have of seeing the stars of my country. If your boat be destroyed in the portage, we will give you another; and I shall have had the satisfaction of passing some weeks con gente blanca y de razon.” (“With white and rational people.” European self-love usually opposes the gente de razon to the gente parda, or coloured people.) Notwithstanding our impatience, we listened with interest to the information given us by the worthy missionary. It confirmed all we had already heard of the moral state of the natives of those countries. They live, distributed in hordes of forty or fifty, under a family government; and they recognise a common chief (apoto, sibierene) only at times when they make war against their neighbours. The mistrust of these hordes towards one another is increased by the circumstance that those who live in the nearest neighbourhood speak languages altogether different. In the open plains, in the countries with savannahs, the tribes are fond of choosing their habitations from an affinity of origin, and a resemblance of manners and idioms. On the table-land of Tartary, as in North America, great families of nations have been seen, formed into several columns, extending their migrations across countries thinly-wooded, and easily traversed. Such were the journeys of the Toltec and Aztec race in the high plains of Mexico, from the sixth to the eleventh century of our era; such probably was also the movement of nations by which the petty tribes of Canada were grouped together. As the immense country between the equator and the eighth degree of north latitude forms one continuous forest, the hordes were there dispersed by following the branchings of the rivers, and the nature of the land compelled them to become more or less agriculturists. Such is the labyrinth of these rivers, that families settled themselves without knowing what race of men lived nearest the spot. In Spanish Guiana a mountain, or a forest half a league broad, sometimes separates hordes who could not meet in less than two days by navigating rivers. In open countries, or in a state of advanced civilization, communication by rivers contributes powerfully to generalize languages, manners, and political institutions; but in the impenetrable forests of the torrid zone, as in the first rude condition of our species, rivers increase the dismemberment of great nations, favour the transition of dialects into languages that appear to us radically distinct, and keep up national hatred and mistrust. Between the banks of the Caura and the Padamo everything bears the stamp of disunion and weakness. Men avoid, because they do not understand, each other; they mutually hate, because they mutually fear.
When we examine attentively this wild part of America, we fancy ourselves transported to those primitive times when the earth was peopled by degrees, and we seem to be present at the birth of human societies. In the old world we see that pastoral life has prepared the hunting nations for agriculture. In the New World we seek in vain these progressive developments of civilization, these intervals of repose, these stages in the life of nations. The luxury of vegetation embarrasses the Indians in the chase; and in their rivers, resembling arms of the sea, the depth of the waters prevents fishing during whole months. Those species of ruminating animals, that constitute the wealth of the nations of the Old World, are wanting in the New. The bison and the musk-ox have never been reduced to a domestic state; the breeding of llamas and guanacos has not created the habits of pastoral life. In the temperate zone, on the banks of the Missouri, as well as on the tableland of New Mexico, the American is a hunter; but in the torrid zone, in the forests of Guiana, he cultivates cassava, plantains, and sometimes maize. Such is the admirable fertility of nature, that the field of the native is a little spot of land, to clear which requires only setting fire to the brambles; and putting a few seeds or slips into the ground is all the husbandry it demands. If we go back in thought to the most remote ages, in these thick forests we must always figure to ourselves nations deriving the greater part of their nourishment from the earth; but, as this earth produces abundance in a small space, and almost without toil, we may also imagine these nations often changing their dwellings along the banks of the same river. Even now the native of the Orinoco travels with his seeds; and transports his farm (conuco) as the Arab transports his tent, and changes his pasturage. The number of cultivated plants found wild amid the woods, proves the nomad habits of an agricultural people. Can we be surprised, that by these habits they lose almost all the advantages that result in the temperate zone from stationary culture, from the growth of corn, which requires extensive lands and the most assiduous labour?
The nations of the Upper Orinoco, the Atabapo, and the Inirida, like the ancient Germans and the Persians, have no other worship than that of the powers of nature. They call the good principle Cachimana; it is the Manitou, the Great Spirit, that regulates the seasons, and favours the harvests. Along with Cachimana there is an evil principle, Iolokiamo, less powerful, but more artful, and in particular more active. The Indians of the forest, when they occasionally visit the missions, conceive with difficulty the idea of a temple or an image. “These good people,” said the missionary, “like only processions in the open air. When I last celebrated the festival of San Antonio, the patron of my village, the Indians of Inirida were present at mass. ‘Your God,’ said they to me, ‘keeps himself shut up in a house, as if he were old and infirm; ours is in the forest, in the fields, and on the mountains of Sipapu, whence the rains come.’” Among the more numerous, and on this account less barbarous tribes, religious societies of a singular kind are formed. Some old Indians pretend to be better instructed than others on points regarding divinity; and to them is confided the famous botuto, of which I have spoken, and which is sounded under the palm-trees that they may bear abundance of fruit. On the banks of the Orinoco there exists no idol, as among all the nations who have remained faithful to the first worship of nature, but the botuto, the sacred trumpet, is an object of veneration. To be initiated into the mysteries of the botuto, it is requisite to be of pure morals, and to have lived single. The initiated are subjected to flagellations, fastings, and other painful exercises. There are but a small number of these sacred trumpets. The most anciently celebrated is that upon a hill near the confluence of the Tomo and the Guainia. It is pretended, that it is heard at once on the banks of the Tuamini, and at the mission of San Miguel de Davipe, a distance of ten leagues. Father Cereso assured us, that the Indians speak of the botuto of Tomo as an object of worship common to many surrounding tribes. Fruit and intoxicating liquors are placed beside the sacred trumpet. Sometimes the Great Spirit himself makes the botuto resound; sometimes he is content to manifest his will through him to whom the keeping of the instrument is entrusted. These juggleries being very ancient (from the fathers of our fathers, say the Indians), we must not be surprised that some unbelievers are already to be found; but they express their disbelief of the mysteries of the botuto only in whispers. Women are not permitted to see this marvellous instrument; and are excluded from all the ceremonies of this worship. If a woman have the misfortune to see the trumpet, she is put to death without mercy. The missionary related to us, that in 1798 he was happy enough to save a young girl, whom a jealous and vindictive lover accused of having followed, from a motive of curiosity, the Indians who sounded the botuto in the plantations. “They would not have murdered her publicly,” said father Cesero, “but how was she to be protected from the fanaticism of the natives, in a country where it is so easy to give poison? The young girl told me of her fears, and I sent her to one of the missions of the Lower Orinoco.” If the people of Guiana had remained masters of that vast country; if, without having been impeded by Christian settlements, they could follow freely the development of their barbarous institutions; the worship of the botuto would no doubt become of some political importance. That mysterious society of the initiated, those guardians of the sacred trumpet, would be transformed into a ruling caste of priests, and the oracle of Tomo would gradually form a link between the bordering nations.
In the evening of the 4th of May we were informed, that an Indian, who had assisted in dragging our bark over the portage of Pimichin, had been stung by a viper. He was a tall strong man, and was brought to the mission in a very alarming state. He had dropped down senseless; and nausea, vertigo, and congestions in the head, had succeeded the fainting. The liana called vejeco de guaco,* which M. Mutis has rendered so celebrated, and which is the most certain remedy for the bite of venomous serpents, is yet unknown in these countries. A number of Indians hastened to the hut of the sick man, and he was cured by an infusion of raiz de mato. We cannot indicate with certainty what plant furnishes this antidote; but I am inclined to think, that the raiz de mato is an apocynea, perhaps the Cerbera thevetia, called by the inhabitants of Cumana lingua de mato or contra-culebra, and which they also use against the bite of serpents. A genus nearly allied to the cerbera* is employed in India for the same purpose. It is common enough to find in the same family of plants vegetable poisons, and antidotes against the venom of reptiles. Many tonics and narcotics are antidotes more or less active; and we find these in families very different* from each other, in the aristolochiae, the apocyneae, the gentianae, the polygalae, the solaneae, the compositae, the malvaceae, the drymyrhizeae, and, which is still more surprising, even in the palm-trees.
[* This is a mikania, which was confounded for some time in Europe with the ayapana. De Candolle thinks that the guaco may be the Eupatorium satureiaefolium of Lamarck; but this Eupatorium differs by its lineary leaves, while the Mikania guaco has triangular, oval, and very large leaves.]
[* Ophioxylon serpentinum.]
[* I shall mention as examples of these nine families; Aristolochia anguicida, Cerbera thevetia, Ophoiorhiza mungos, Polygala senega, Nicotiana tabacum, (One of the remedies most used in Spanish America). Mikanua guaco, Hibiscus abelmoschus (the seeds of which are very active), Lanpujum rumphii, and Kunthia montana (Cana de la Vibora).]
In the hut of the Indian who had been so dangerously bitten by the viper, we found balls two or three inches in diameter, of an earthy and impure salt called chivi, which is prepared with great care by the natives. At Maypures a conferva is burnt, which is left by the Orinoco on the neighbouring rocks, when, after high swellings, it again enters its bed. At Javita a salt is fabricated by the incineration of the spadix and fruit of the palm-tree seje or chimu. This fine palm-tree, which abounds on the banks of the Auvana, near the cataract of Guarinumo, and between Javita and the Cano Pimichin, appears to be a new species of cocoa-tree. It may be recollected, that the fluid contained in the fruit of the common cocoa-tree is often saline, even when the tree grows far from the sea shore. At Madagascar salt is extracted from the sap of a palm-tree called ciro. Besides the spadix and the fruit of the seje palm, the Indians of Javita lixiviate also the ashes of the famous liana called cupana, which is a new species of the genus paullinia, consequently a very different plant from the cupania of Linnaeus. I may here mention, that a missionary seldom travels without being provided with some prepared seeds of the cupana. This preparation requires great care. The Indians scrape the seeds, mix them with flour of cassava, envelope the mass in plantain leaves, and set it to ferment in water, till it acquires a saffron-yellow colour. This yellow paste dried in the sun, and diluted in water, is taken in the morning as a kind of tea. The beverage is bitter and stomachic, but it appeared to me to have a very disagreeable taste.
On the banks of the Niger, and in a great part of the interior of Africa, where salt is extremely rare, it is said of a rich man, “he is so fortunate as to eat salt at his meals.” This good fortune is not too common in the interior of Guiana. The whites only, particularly the soldiers of the little fort of San Carlos, know how to procure pure salt, either from the coast of Caracas, or from Chita* by the Rio Meta. Here, as throughout America, the Indians eat little meat, and consume scarcely any salt. The chivi of Javita is a mixture of muriate of potash and of soda, of caustic lime, and of several other earthy salts. The Indians dissolve a few particles in water, fill with this solution a leaf of heliconia folded in a conical form, and let drop a little, as from the extremity of a filter, on their food.
[* North of Morocote, at the eastern declivity of the Cordillera of New Grenada. The salt of the coasts, which the Indians call yuquira, costs two piastres the almuda at San Carlos.]
On the 5th of May we set off, to follow on foot our canoe, which had at length arrived, by the portage, at the Cano Pimichin. We had to ford a great number of streams; and these passages require some caution on account of the vipers with which the marshes abound. The Indians pointed out to us on the moist clay the traces of the little black bears so common on the banks of the Temi. They differ at least in size from the Ursus americanus. The missionaries call them osso carnicero, to distinguish them from the osso palmero or tamanoir (Myrmecophaga jubata), and from the osso hormigero, or anteater (tamandua). The flesh of these animals is good to eat; the first two defend themselves by rising on their hind feet. The tamanoir of Buffon is called uaraca by the Indians; it is irascible and courageous, which is extraordinary in an animal without teeth. We found, as we advanced, some vistas in the forest, which appeared to us the richer, as it became more accessible. We here gathered some new species of coffee (the American tribe, with flowers in panicles, forms probably a particular genus); the Galega piscatorum, of which the Indians make use, as they do of jacquinia, and of a composite plant of the Rio Temi, as a kind of barbasco, to intoxicate fish; and finally, the liana, known in those countries by the name of vejuco de mavacure, which yields the famous curare poison. It is neither a phyllanthus, nor a coriaria, as M. Willdenouw conjectured, but, as M. Kunth’s researches show, very probably a strychnos. We shall have occasion, farther on, to speak of this venomous substance, which is an important object of trade among the savages.
The trees of the forest of Pimichin have the gigantic height of from eighty to a hundred and twenty feet. In these burning climates the laurineae and amyris* furnish that fine timber for building, which, on the north-west coast of America, on mountains where the thermometer falls in winter to 20° centigrade below zero, we find in the family of the coniferae. Such, in every zone, and in all the families of American plants, is the prodigious force of vegetation, that, in the latitude of fifty-seven degrees north, on the same isothermal line with St. Petersburgh and the Orkneys, the Pinus canadensis displays trunks one hundred and fifty feet high, and six feet in diameter.* Towards night we arrived at a small farm, in the puerto or landing place of Pimichin. We were shown a cross near the road, which marked the spot where a poor capuchin missionary had been killed by wasps. I state this on the authority of the monks of Javita and the Indians. They talk much in these countries of wasps and venomous ants, but we saw neither one nor the other of these insects. It is well known that in the torrid zone slight stings often cause fits of fever almost as violent as those that with us accompany severe organic injuries. The death of this poor monk was probably the effect of fatigue and damp, rather than of the venom contained in the stings of wasps, which the Indians dread extremely. We must not confound the wasps of Javita with the melipones bees, called by the Spaniards angelitos (little angels) which covered our faces and hands on the summit of the Silla de Caracas.
[* The great white and red cedars of these countries are not the Cedrela odorata, but the Amyris altissima, which is an icica of Aublet.]
[* Langsdorf informs us that the inhabitants of Norfolk Sound make boats of a single trunk, fifty feet long, four feet and a half broad, and three high at the sides. They contain thirty persons. These boats remind us of the canoes of the Rio Chagres in the isthmus of Panama, in the torrid zone. The Populus balsamifera also attains an immense height, on the mountains that border Norfolk Sound.]
The landing place of Pimichin is surrounded by a small plantation of cacao-trees; they are very vigorous, and here, as on the banks of the Atabapo and the Guainia, they are loaded with flowers and fruits at all seasons. They begin to bear from the fourth year; on the coast of Caracas they do not bear till the sixth or eighth year. The soil of these countries is sandy, wherever it is not marshy; but the light lands of the Tuamini and Pimichin are extremely productive.* Around the conucos of Pimichin grows, in its wild state, the igua, a tree resembling the Caryocar nuciferum which is cultivated in Dutch and French Guiana, and which, with the almendron of Mariquita (Caryocar amygdaliferum), the juvia of the Esmeralda (Bertholletia excelsa), and the Geoffroea of the Amazon, yields the finest almonds of all South America. No commercial advantage is here made of the igua; but I saw vessels arrive on the coast of Terra Firma, that came from Demerara laden with the fruit of the Caryocar tomentosum, which is the Pekea tuberculosa of Aublet. These trees reach a hundred feet in height, and present, by the beauty of their corolla, and the multitude of their stamens, a magnificent appearance. I should weary the reader by continuing the enumeration of the vegetable wonders which these vast forests contain. Their variety depends on the coexistence of such a great number of families in a small space of ground, on the stimulating power of light and heat, and on the perfect elaboration of the juices that circulate in these gigantic plants.
[* At Javita, an extent of fifty feet square, planted with Jatropha manihot (yucca) yields in two years, in the worst soil, a harvest of six tortas of cassava: the same extent on a middling soil yields in fourteen months a produce of nine tortas. In an excellent soil, around clumps of mauritia, there is every year from fifty feet square a produce of thirteen or fourteen tortas. A torta weighs three quarters of a pound, and three tortas cost generally in the province of Caracas one silver rial, or one-eighth of a piastre. These statements appear to me to be of some importance, when we wish to compare the nutritive matter which man can obtain from the same extent of soil, by covering it, in different climates, with bread-trees, plantains, jatropha, maize, potatoes, rice, and corn. The tardiness of the harvest of jatropha has, I believe, a beneficial influence on the manners of the natives, by fixing them to the soil, and compelling them to sojourn long on the same spot.]
We passed the night in a hut lately abandoned by an Indian family, who had left behind them their fishing-tackle, pottery, nets made of the petioles of palm-trees; in short, all that composes the household furniture of that careless race of men, little attached to property. A great store of mani (a mixture of the resin of the moronoboea and the Amyris carana) was accumulated round the house. This is used by the Indians here, as at Cayenne, to pitch their canoes, and fix the bony spines of the ray at the points of their arrows. We found in the same place jars filled with a vegetable milk, which serves as a varnish, and is celebrated in the missions by the name of leche para pintar (milk for painting). They coat with this viscous juice those articles of furniture to which they wish to give a fine white colour. It thickens by the contact of the air, without growing yellow, and it appears singularly glossy. We have already mentioned that the caoutchouc is the oily part, the butter of all vegetable milk. It is, no doubt, a particular modification of caoutchouc that forms this coagulum, this white and glossy skin, that seems as if covered with copal varnish. If different colours could be given to this milky varnish, a very expeditious method would be found of painting and varnishing our carriages by one process. The more we study vegetable chemistry in the torrid zone, the more we shall discover, in remote spots, and half-prepared in the organs of plants, products which we believe belong only to the animal kingdom, or which we obtain by processes which are often tedious and difficult. Already we have found the wax that coats the palm-tree of the Andes of Quindiu, the silk of the palm-tree of Mocoa, the nourishing milk of the palo de vaca, the butter-tree of Africa, and the caseous substances obtained from the almost animalized sap of the Carica papaya. These discoveries will be multiplied, when, as the political state of the world seems now to indicate, European civilization shall flow in a great measure toward the equinoctial regions of the New Continent.
The marshy tract between Javita and the embarcadero of Pimichin is infested with great numbers of vipers. Before we took possession of the deserted hut, the Indians killed two great mapanare serpents.* These grow to four or five feet long. They appeared to me to be the same species as those I saw in the Rio Magdalena. This serpent is a beautiful animal, but extremely venomous, white on the belly, and spotted with brown and red on the back. As the inside of the hut was filled with grass, and we were lying on the ground, there being no means of suspending our hammocks, we were not without inquietude during the night. In the morning a large viper was found on lifting the jaguar-skin upon which one of our domestics had slept. The Indians say that these reptiles, slow in their movements when they are not pursued, creep near a man because they are fond of heat. In fact, on the banks of the Magdalena a serpent entered the bed of one of our fellow-travellers, and remained there a part of the night, without injuring him. Without wishing to take up the defence of vipers and rattlesnakes, I believe it may be affirmed that, if these venomous animals had such a disposition for offence as is supposed, the human species would certainly not have withstood their numbers in some parts of America; for instance, on the banks of the Orinoco and the humid mountains of Choco.
[* This name is given in the Spanish colonies to very different species. The Coluber mapanare of the province of Caracas has one hundred and forty-two ventral plates, and thirty-eight double caudal scales. The Coluber mapanare of the Rio Magdalena has two hundred and eight ventral plates, and sixty-four double caudal scales.]
We embarked on the 8th of May at sunrise, after having carefully examined the bottom of our canoe. It had become thinner, but had received no crack in the portage. We reckoned that it would still bear the voyage of three hundred leagues, which we had yet to perform, in going down the Rio Negro, ascending the Cassiquiare, and redescending the Orinoco as far as Angostura. The Pimichin, which is called a rivulet (cano) is tolerably broad; but small trees that love the water narrow the bed so much that there remains open a channel of only fifteen or twenty toises. Next to the Rio Chagres this river is one of the most celebrated in America for the number of its windings: it is said to have eighty-five, which greatly lengthen it. They often form right angles, and occur every two or three leagues. To determine the difference of longitude between the landing-place and the point where we were to enter the Rio Negro, I took by the compass the course of the Cano Pimichin, and noted the time during which we followed the same direction. The velocity of the current was only 2.4 feet in a second; but our canoe made by rowing 4.6 feet. The embarcadero of the Pimichin appeared to me to be eleven thousand toises west of its mouth, and 0° 2′ west of the mission of Javita. This Cano is navigable during the whole year, and has but one raudal, which is somewhat difficult to go up; its banks are low, but rocky. After having followed the windings of the Pimichin for four hours and a half we at length entered the Rio Negro.
The morning was cool and beautiful. We had now been confined thirty-six days in a narrow boat, so unsteady that it would have been overset by any person rising imprudently from his seat, without warning the rowers. We had suffered severely from the sting of insects, but we had withstood the insalubrity of the climate; we had passed without accident the great number of waterfalls and bars, which impede the navigation of the rivers, and often render it more dangerous than long voyages by sea. After all we had endured, it may be conceived that we felt no little satisfaction in having reached the tributary streams of the Amazon, having passed the isthmus that separates two great systems of rivers, and in being sure of having fulfilled the most important object of our journey, namely, to determine astronomically the course of that arm of the Orinoco which falls into the Rio Negro, and of which the existence has been alternately proved and denied during half a century. In proportion as we draw near to an object we have long had in view, its interest seems to augment. The uninhabited banks of the Cassiquiare, covered with forests, without memorials of times past, then occupied my imagination, as do now the banks of the Euphrates, or the Oxus, celebrated in the annals of civilized nations. In that interior part of the New Continent one may almost accustom oneself to regard men as not being essential to the order of nature. The earth is loaded with plants, and nothing impedes their free development. An immense layer of mould manifests the uninterrupted action of organic powers. Crocodiles and boas are masters of the river; the jaguar, the peccary, the dante, and the monkeys traverse the forest without fear and without danger; there they dwell as in an ancient inheritance. This aspect of animated nature, in which man is nothing, has something in it strange and sad. To this we reconcile ourselves with difficulty on the ocean, and amid the sands of Africa; though in scenes where nothing recalls to mind our fields, our woods, and our streams, we are less astonished at the vast solitude through which we pass. Here, in a fertile country, adorned with eternal verdure, we seek in vain the traces of the power of man; we seem to be transported into a world different from that which gave us birth. These impressions are the more powerful in proportion as they are of long duration. A soldier, who had spent his whole life in the missions of the Upper Orinoco, slept with us on the bank of the river. He was an intelligent man, who, during a calm and serene night, pressed me with questions on the magnitude of the stars, on the inhabitants of the moon, on a thousand subjects of which I was as ignorant as himself. Being unable by my answers to satisfy his curiosity, he said to me in a firm tone of the most positive conviction: “with respect to men, I believe there are no more up there than you would have found if you had gone by land from Javita to Cassiquiare. I think I see in the stars, as here, a plain covered with grass, and a forest (mucho monte) traversed by a river.” In citing these words I paint the impression produced by the monotonous aspect of those solitary regions. May this monotony not be found to extend to the journal of our navigation, and weary the reader accustomed to the description of the scenes and historical memorials of the old continent!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10