Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, by Alexander von Humboldt

Chapter 3.

Passage from Tenerife to South America. The Island of Tobago. Arrival at Cumana.

We left the road of Santa Cruz on the 25th of June, and directed our course towards South America. We soon lost sight of the Canary Islands, the lofty mountains of which were covered with a reddish vapour. The Peak alone appeared from time to time, as at intervals the wind dispersed the clouds that enveloped the Piton. We felt, for the first time, how strong are the impressions left on the mind from the aspect of those countries situated on the limits of the torrid zone, where nature appears at once so rich, so various, and so majestic. Our stay at Teneriffe had been very short, and yet we withdrew from the island as if it had long been our home.

Our passage from Santa Cruz to Cumana, the most eastern part of the New Continent, was very fine. We cut the tropic of Cancer on the 27th; and though the Pizarro was not a very fast sailer, we made, in twenty days, the nine hundred leagues, which separate the coast of Africa from that of the New Continent. We passed fifty leagues west of Cape Bojador, Cape Blanco, and the Cape Verd islands. A few land birds, which had been driven to sea by the impetuosity of the wind followed us for several days.

The latitude diminished rapidly, from the parallel of Madeira to the tropic. When we reached the zone where the trade-winds are constant, we crossed the ocean from east to west, on a calm sea, which the Spanish sailors call the Ladies’ Gulf, el Golfo de las Damas. In proportion as we advanced towards the west, we found the trade-winds fix to eastward.

These winds, the most generally adopted theory of which is explained in a celebrated treatise of Halley,* are a phenomenon much more complicated than most persons admit. In the Atlantic Ocean, the longitude, as well as the declination of the sun, influences the direction and limits of the trade-winds. In the direction of the New Continent, in both hemispheres, these limits extend beyond the tropics eight or nine degrees; while in the vicinity of Africa, the variable winds prevail far beyond the parallel of 28 or 27°. It is to be regretted, on account of the progress of meteorology and navigation, that the changes of the currents of the equinoctial atmosphere in the Pacific are much less known than the variation of these same currents in a sea that is narrower, and influenced by the proximity of the coasts of Guinea and Brazil. The difference with which the strata of air flow back from the two poles towards the equator cannot be the same in every degree of longitude, that is to say, on points of the globe where the continents are of very different breadths, and where they stretch away more or less towards the poles.

[* The existence of an upper current of air, which blows constantly from the equator to the poles, and of a lower current, which blows from the poles to the equator, had already been admitted, as M. Arago has shown, by Hooke. The ideas of the celebrated English naturalist are developed in a Discourse on Earthquakes published in 1686. “I think (adds he) that several phenomena, which are presented by the atmosphere and the ocean, especially the winds, may be explained by the polar currents.”— Hooke’s Posthumous Works page 364.]

It is known, that in the passage from Santa Cruz to Cumana, as in that from Acapulco to the Philippine Islands, seamen are scarcely ever under the necessity of working their sails. We pass those latitudes as if we were descending a river, and we might deem it no hazardous undertaking if we made the voyage in an open boat. Farther west, on the coast of Santa Martha and in the Gulf of Mexico, the trade-wind blows impetuously, and renders the sea very stormy.*

[* The Spanish sailors call the rough trade-winds at Carthagena in the West Indies los brisotes de Santa Martha; and in the Gulf of Mexico, las brizas pardas. These latter winds are accompanied with a grey and cloudy sky.]

The wind fell gradually the farther we receded from the African coast: it was sometimes smooth water for several hours, and these short calms were regularly interrupted by electrical phenomena. Black thick clouds, marked by strong outlines, rose on the east, and it seemed as if a squall would have forced us to hand our topsails; but the breeze freshened anew, there fell a few large drops of rain, and the storm dispersed without our hearing any thunder. Meanwhile it was curious to observe the effect of several black, isolated, and very low clouds, which passed the zenith. We felt the force of the wind augment or diminish progressively, according as small bodies of vesicular vapour approached or receded, while the electrometers, furnished with a long metallic rod and lighted match, showed no change of electric tension in the lower strata of the air. It is by help of these squalls, which alternate with dead calms, that the passage from the Canary Islands to the Antilles, or southern coast of America, is made in the months of June and July.

Some Spanish navigators have lately proposed going to the West Indies and the coasts of Terra Firma by a course different from that which was taken by Columbus. They advise, instead of steering directly to the south in search of the trade-winds, to change both latitude and longitude, in a diagonal line from Cape St. Vincent to America. This method, which shortens the way, cutting the tropic nearly twenty degrees west of the point where it is commonly cut by pilots, was several times successfully adopted by Admiral Gravina. That able commander, who fell at the battle of Trafalgar, arrived in 1802 at St. Domingo, by the oblique passage, several days before the French fleet, though orders of the court of Madrid would have forced him to enter Ferrol with his squadron, and stop there some time.

This new system of navigation shortens the passage from Cadiz to Cumana one-twentieth; but as the tropic is attained only at the longitude of forty degrees, the chance of meeting with contrary winds, which blow sometimes from the south, and at other times from the south-west, is more unfavourable. In the old system, the disadvantage of making a longer passage is compensated by the certainty of catching the trade-winds in a shorter space of time, and keeping them the greater part of the passage. At the time of my abode in the Spanish colonies, I witnessed the arrival of several merchant-ships, which from the fear of privateers had chosen the oblique course, and had had a very short passage.

Nothing can equal the beauty and mildness of the climate of the equinoctial region on the ocean. While the trade wind blew strongly, the thermometer kept at 23 or 24° in the day, and at 22 or 22.5° during the night. The charm of the lovely climates bordering on the equator, can be fully enjoyed only by those who have undertaken the voyage from Acapulco or the coasts of Chile to Europe in a very rough season. What a contrast between the tempestuous seas of the northern latitudes and the regions where the tranquillity of nature is never disturbed! If the return from Mexico or South America to the coasts of Spain were as expeditious and as agreeable as the passage from the old to the new continent, the number of Europeans settled in the colonies would be much less considerable than it is at present. To the sea which surrounds the Azores and the Bermuda Islands, and which is traversed in returning to Europe by the high latitudes, the Spaniards have given the singular name of Golfo de las Yeguas (the Mares’ Gulf). Colonists who are not accustomed to the sea, and who have led solitary lives in the forests of Guiana, the savannahs of the Caracas, or the Cordilleras of Peru, dread the vicinity of the Bermudas more than the inhabitants of Lima fear at present the passage round Cape horn.

To the north of the Cape Verd Islands we met with great masses of floating seaweeds. They were the tropic grape, (Fucus natans), which grows on submarine rocks, only from the equator to the fortieth degree of north and south latitude. These weeds seem to indicate the existence of currents in this place, as well as to south-west of the banks of Newfoundland. We must not confound the latitudes abounding in scattered weeds with those banks of marine plants, which Columbus compares to extensive meadows, the sight of which dismayed the crew of the Santa Maria in the forty-second degree of longitude. I am convinced, from the comparison of a great number of journals, that in the basin of the Northern Atlantic there exist two banks of weeds very different from each other. The most extensive is a little west of the meridian of Fayal, one of the Azores, between the twenty-fifth and thirty-sixth degrees of latitude.* The temperature of the Atlantic in those latitudes is from sixteen to twenty degrees, and the north winds, which sometimes rage there very tempestuously, drive floating isles of seaweed into the low latitudes as far as the parallels of twenty-four and even twenty degrees. Vessels returning to Europe, either from Monte Video or the Cape of Good Hope, cross these banks of Fucus, which the Spanish pilots consider as at an equal distance from the Antilles and Canaries; and they serve the less instructed mariner to rectify his longitude. The second bank of Fucus is but little known; it occupies a much smaller space, in the twenty-second and twenty-sixth degrees of latitude, eighty leagues west of the meridian of the Bahama Islands. It is found on the passage from the Caiques to the Bermudas.

[* It would appear that Phoenician vessels came “in thirty days’ sail, with an easterly wind,” to the weedy sea, which the Portuguese and Spaniards call mar de zargasso. I have shown, in another place (Views of Nature Bohn’s edition page 46), that the passage of Aristotle, De Mirabil. (ed. Duval page 1157), can scarcely be applied to the coasts of Africa, like an analogous passage of the Periplus of Scylax. Supposing that this sea, full of weeds, which impeded the course of the Phoenician vessels, was the mar de zargasso, we need not admit that the ancients navigated the Atlantic beyond thirty degrees of west longitude from the meridian of Paris.]

Though a species of seaweed* has been seen with stems eight hundred feet long, the growth of these marine cryptogamia being extremely rapid, it is nevertheless certain, that in the latitudes we have just described, the Fuci, far from being fixed to the bottom, float in separate masses on the surface of the water. In this state, the vegetation can scarcely last longer than it would in the branch of a tree torn from its trunk; and in order to explain how moving masses are found for ages in the same position, we must admit that they owe their origin to submarine rocks, which, lying at forty or sixty fathoms’ depth, continually supply what has been carried away by the equinoctial currents. This current bears the tropic grape into the high latitudes, toward the coasts of Norway and France; and it is not the Gulf-stream, as some mariners think, which accumulates the Fucus to the south of the Azores.

[* The baudreux of the Falkland Islands; Fucus giganteus, Forster; Laminaria pyrifera, Lamour.]

The causes that unroot these weeds at depths where it is generally thought the sea is but slightly agitated, are not sufficiently known. We learn only, from the observations of M. Lamouroux, that if the fucus adhere to the rocks with the greatest firmness before its fructification, it separates with great facility after that period, or during the season which suspends its vegetation like that of the terrestrial plants. The fish and mollusca which gnaw the stems of the seaweeds no doubt contribute also to detach them from their roots.

From the twenty-second degree of latitude, we found the surface of the sea covered with flying-fish,* which threw themselves up into the air, twelve, fifteen, or eighteen feet, and fell down on the deck. I do not hesitate to speak on a subject of which voyagers discourse as frequently as of dolphins, sharks, sea-sickness, and the phosphorescence of the ocean. None of these topics can fail to afford interesting observations to naturalists, provided they make them their particular study. Nature is an inexhaustible source of investigation, and in proportion as the domain of science is extended, she presents herself to those who know how to interrogate her, under forms which they have never yet examined.

[* Exocoetus volitans.]

I have named the flying-fish, in order to direct the attention of naturalists to the enormous size of their natatory bladder, which, in an animal of 6.4 inches, is 3.6 inches long, 0.9 of an inch broad, and contains three cubic inches and a half of air. As this bladder occupies more than half the size of the fish, it is probable that it contributes to its lightness. We may assert that this reservoir of air is more fitted for flying than swimming; for the experiments made by M. Provenzal and myself have proved, that, even in the species which are provided with this organ, it is not indispensably necessary for the ascending movement to the surface of the water. In a young flying-fish, 5.8 inches long, each of the pectoral fins, which serve as wings, presented a surface to the air of 3 7/16 square inches. We observed, that the nine branches of nerves, which go to the twelve rays of these fins, are almost three times the size of the nerves that belong to the ventral fins. When the former of these nerves are excited by galvanic electricity, the rays which support the membrane of the pectoral fin extend with five times the force with which the other fins move when galvanised by the same metals. Thus, the fish is capable of throwing itself horizontally the distance of twenty feet before retouching the water with the extremity of its fins. This motion has been aptly compared to that of a flat stone, which, thrown horizontally, bounds one or two feet above the water. Notwithstanding the extreme rapidity of this motion, it is certain, that the animal beats the air during the leap; that is, it alternately extends and closes its pectoral fins. The same motion has been observed in the flying scorpion of the rivers of Japan: they also contain a large air-bladder, with which the great part of the scorpions that have not the faculty of flying are unprovided. The flying-fish, like almost all animals which have gills, enjoy the power of equal respiration for a long time, both in water and in air, by the same organs; that is, by extracting the oxygen from the atmosphere as well as from the water in which it is dissolved. They pass a great part of their life in the air; but if they escape from the sea to avoid the voracity of the Dorado, they meet in the air the Frigate-bird, the Albatross, and others, which seize them in their flight. Thus, on the banks of the Orinoco, herds of the Cabiai, which rush from the water to escape the crocodile, become the prey of the jaguar, which awaits their arrival.

I doubt, however, whether the flying-fish spring out of the water merely to escape the pursuit of their enemies. Like swallows, they move by thousands in a right line, and in a direction constantly opposite to that of the waves. In our own climates, on the brink of a river, illumined by the rays of the sun, we often see solitary fish fearlessly bound above the surface as if they felt pleasure in breathing the air. Why should not these gambols be more frequent with the flying-fish, which from the strength of their pectoral fins, and the smallness of their specific gravity, can so easily support themselves in the air? I invite naturalists to examine whether other flying-fish, for instance the Exocoetus exiliens, the Trigla volitans, amid the T. hirundo, have as capacious an air-bladder as the flying-fish of the tropics. This last follows the heated waters of the Gulf-stream when they flow northward. The cabin-boys amuse themselves with cutting off a part of the pectoral fins, and assert, that these wings grow again; which seems to me not unlikely, from facts observed in other families of fishes.

At the time I left Paris, experiments made at Jamaica by Dr. Brodbelt, on the air contained in the natatory bladder of the sword-fish, had led some naturalists to think, that within the tropics, in sea-fish, that organ must be filled with pure oxygen gas. Full of this idea, I was surprised at finding in the air-bladder of the flying-fish only 0.04 of oxygen to 0.94 of azote and 0.02 of carbonic acid. The proportion of this last gas, measured by the absorption of lime-water in graduated tubes, appeared more uniform than that of the oxygen, of which some individuals yielded almost double the quantity. From the curious phenomena observed by MM. Biot, Configliachi, and Delaroche, we might suppose, that the swordfish dissected by Dr. Brodbelt had inhabited the lower strata of the ocean, where some fish* have as much as 0.92 of oxygen in the air-bladder.

[* Trigla cucullus.]

On the 3rd and 4th of July, we crossed that part of the Atlantic where the charts indicate the bank of the Maal-stroom; and towards night we altered our course to avoid the danger, the existence of which is, however, as doubtful as that of the isles Fonseco and St. Anne. It would have been perhaps as prudent to have continued our course. The old charts are filled with rocks, some of which really exist, though most of them are merely the offspring of those optical illusions which are more frequent at sea than in inland places. As we approached the supposed Maal-stroom, we observed no other motion in the waters than the effect of a current which bore to the north-west, and which hindered us from diminishing our latitude as much as we wished. The force of this current augments as we approach the new continent; it is modified by the configuration of the coasts of Brazil and Guiana, and not by the waters of the Orinoco and the Amazon, as some have supposed.

From the time we entered the torrid zone, we were never weary of admiring, at night, the beauty of the southern sky, which, as we advanced to the south, opened new constellations to our view. We feel an indescribable sensation when, on approaching the equator, and particularly on passing from one hemisphere to the other, we see those stars, which we have contemplated from our infancy, progressively sink, and finally disappear. Nothing awakens in the traveller a livelier remembrance of the immense distance by which he is separated from his country, than the aspect of an unknown firmament. The grouping of the stars of the first magnitude, some scattered nebulae, rivalling in splendour the milky way, and tracts of space remarkable for their extreme blackness, give a peculiar physiognomy to the southern sky. This sight fills with admiration even those who, uninstructed in the several branches of physical science, feel the same emotion of delight in the contemplation of the heavenly vault, as in the view of a beautiful landscape, or a majestic site. A traveller needs not to be a botanist, to recognize the torrid zone by the mere aspect of its vegetation. Without having acquired any notions of astronomy, without any acquaintance with the celestial charts of Flamsteed and De La Caille, he feels he is not in Europe, when he sees the immense constellation of the Ship, or the phosphorescent Clouds of Magellan, arise on the horizon. The heavens and the earth — everything in the equinoctial regions, presents an exotic character.

The lower regions of the air were loaded with vapours for some days. We saw distinctly for the first time the Southern Cross only on the night of the 4th of July, in the sixteenth degree of latitude. It was strongly inclined, and appeared from time to time between the clouds, the centre of which, furrowed by uncondensed lightnings, reflected a silvery light. If a traveller may be permitted to speak of his personal emotions, I shall add, that on that night I experienced the realization of one of the dreams of my early youth.

When we begin to fix our eyes on geographical maps, and to read the narratives of navigators, we feel for certain countries and climates a sort of predilection, which we know not how to account for at a more advanced period of life. These impressions, however, exercise a considerable influence over our determinations; and from a sort of instinct we endeavour to connect ourselves with objects on which the mind has long been fixed as by a secret charm. At a period when I studied the heavens, not with the intention of devoting myself to astronomy, but only to acquire a knowledge of the stars, I was disturbed by a feeling unknown to those who are devoted to sedentary life. It was painful to me to renounce the hope of beholding the beautiful constellations near the south pole. Impatient to rove in the equinoctial regions, I could not raise my eyes to the starry firmament without thinking of the Southern Cross, and recalling the sublime passage of Dante, which the most celebrated commentators have applied to that constellation:—

Io mi volsi a man’ destra e posi mente
All’ altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle
Non viste mai fuorch’ alla prima gente.

Goder parea lo ciel di lor fiammelle;
O settentrional vedovo sito
Poiche privato sei di mirar quelle!

The pleasure we felt on discovering the Southern Cross was warmly shared by those of the crew who had visited the colonies. In the solitude of the seas we hail a star as a friend, from whom we have long been separated. The Portuguese and the Spaniards are peculiarly susceptible of this feeling; a religious sentiment attaches them to a constellation, the form of which recalls the sign of the faith planted by their ancestors in the deserts of the New World.

The two great stars which mark the summit and the foot of the Cross having nearly the same right ascension, it follows that the constellation is almost perpendicular at the moment when it passes the meridian. This circumstance is known to the people of every nation situated beyond the tropics, or in the southern hemisphere. It has been observed at what hour of the night, in different seasons, the Cross is erect or inclined. It is a timepiece which advances very regularly nearly four minutes a-day, and no other group of stars affords to the naked eye an observation of time so easily made. How often have we heard our guides exclaim in the savannahs of Venezuela, or in the desert extending from Lima to Truxillo, “Midnight is past, the Cross begins to bend!” How often those words reminded us of that affecting scene, where Paul and Virginia, seated near the source of the river of Lataniers, conversed together for the last time, and where the old man, at the sight of the Southern Cross, warns them that it is time to separate.

The last days of our passage were not so felicitous as the mildness of the climate and the calmness of the ocean had led us to hope. The dangers of the sea did not disturb us, but the germs of a malignant fever became manifest on board our vessel as we drew near the Antilles. Between decks the ship was excessively hot, and very much crowded. From the time we passed the tropic, the thermometer was at thirty-four or thirty-six degrees. Two sailors, several passengers, and, what is remarkable enough, two negroes from the coast of Guinea, and a mulatto child, were attacked with a disorder which appeared to be epidemic. The symptoms were not equally alarming in all the cases; nevertheless, several persons, and especially the most robust, fell into delirium after the second day. No fumigation was made. A Gallician surgeon, ignorant and phlegmatic, ordered bleedings, because he attributed the fever to what he called heat and corruption of the blood. There was not an ounce of bark on board; for we had emitted to take any with us, under the impression that this salutary production of Peru could not fail to be found on board a Spanish vessel.

On the 8th of July, a sailor, who was near expiring, recovered his health from a circumstance worthy of being mentioned. His hammock was so hung, that there was not ten inches between his face and the deck. It was impossible to administer the sacrament in this situation; for, agreeably to the custom on board Spanish vessels, the viaticum must be carried by the light of tapers, and followed by the whole crew. The patient was removed into an airy place near the hatchway, where a small square berth had been formed with sailcloth. Here he was to remain till he died, which was an event expected every moment; but passing from an atmosphere heated, stagnant, and filled with miasma, into fresher and purer air, which was renewed every instant, he gradually revived from his lethargic state. His recovery dated from the day when he quitted the middle deck; and as it often happens in medicine that the same facts are cited in support of systems diametrically opposite, this recovery confirmed our doctor in his idea of the inflammation of the blood, and the necessity of bleeding, evacuating, and all the asthenic remedies. We soon felt the fatal effects of this treatment.

For several days the pilot’s reckoning differed 1 degree 12 minutes in longitude from that of my time. This difference was owing less to the general current, which I have called the current of rotation, than to that particular movement, which, drawing the waters toward the north-west, from the coast of Brazil to the Antilles, shortens the passage from Cayenne to Guadaloupe.* On the 12th of July, I thought I might foretell our seeing land next day before sunrise. We were then, according to my observations, in latitude 10° 46′, and west longitude 60° 54′. A few series of lunar distances confirmed the chronometrical result; but we were surer of the position of the vessel, than of that of the land to which we were directing our course, and which was so differently marked in the French, Spanish, and English charts. The longitudes deduced from the accurate observations of Messrs. Churruca, Fidalgo, and Noguera, were not then published.

[* In the Atlantic Ocean there is a space where the water is constantly milky, though the sea is very deep. This curious phenomenon exists in the parallel of the island of Dominica, very near the 57th degree of longitude. May there not be in this place some sunken volcanic islet, more easterly still than Barbadoes?]

The pilots trusted more to the log than the timekeeper; they smiled at the prediction of so speedily making land, and thought themselves two or three days’ sail from the coast. It was therefore with great pleasure, that on the 13th, about six in the morning, I learned that very high land was seen from the mast-head, though not clearly, as it was surrounded with a thick fog. The wind blew hard, and the sea was very rough. Large drops of rain fell at intervals, and every indication menaced tempestuous weather. The captain of the Pizarro intended to pass through the channel which separates the islands of Tobago and Trinidad; and knowing that our sloop was very slow in tacking, he was afraid of falling to leeward towards the south, and approaching the Boca del Drago. We were in fact surer of our longitude than of our latitude, having had no observation at noon since the 11th. Double altitudes which I took in the morning, after Douwes’s method, placed us in 11° 6′ 50″, consequently 15 minutes north of our reckoning. Though the result clearly proved that the high land on the horizon was not Trinidad, but Tobago, yet the captain continued to steer north-north-west, in search of this latter island.

An observation of the meridian altitude of the sun fully confirmed the latitude obtained by Douwes’s method. No more doubt remained as to the position of the vessel, with respect to the island, and we resolved to double Cape North (Tobago) to pass between that island and Grenada, and steer towards a port in Margareta.

The island of Tobago presents a very picturesque aspect. It is merely a heap of rocks carefully cultivated. The dazzling whiteness of the stone forms an agreeable contrast to the verdure of some scattered tufts of trees. Cylindric and very lofty cactuses crown the top of the mountains, and give a peculiar physiognomy to this tropical landscape. The sight of the trees alone is sufficient to remind the navigator that he has reached an American coast; for these cactuses are as exclusively peculiar to the New World, as the heaths are to the Old.

We crossed the shoal which joins Tobago to the island of Grenada. The colour of the sea presented no visible change; but the centigrade thermometer, plunged into the water to the depth of some inches, rose only to 23°; while farther at sea eastward on the same parallel, and equally near the surface, it kept at 25.6°. Notwithstanding the currents, the cooling of the water indicated the existence of the shoal, which is noted in only a very few charts. The wind slackened after sunset, and the clouds disappeared as the moon reached the zenith. The number of falling stars was very considerable on this and the following nights; they appeared less frequent towards the north than the south over Terra Firma, which we began to coast. This position seems to prove the influence of local causes on meteors, the nature of which is not yet sufficiently known to us.

On the 14th at sunrise, we were in sight of the Boca del Drago. We distinguished Chacachacarreo, the most westerly of the islands situated between Cape Paria and the north-west cape of Trinidad. When we were five leagues distant from the coast, we felt, near Punta de la Boca, the effect of a particular current which carried the ship southward. The motion of the waters which flow through the Boca del Draco, and the action of the tides, occasion an eddy. We cast the lead, and found from thirty-six to forty-three fathoms on a bottom of very fine green clay. According to the rules established by Dampier, we ought not to have expected so little depth near a coast formed by very high and perpendicular mountains. We continued to heave the lead till we reached Cabo de tres Puntas* and we every where found shallow water, apparently indicating the prolongation of the ancient coast. In these latitudes the temperature of the sea was from twenty-three to twenty-four degrees, consequently from 1.5 to two degrees lower than in the open ocean, beyond the edge of the bank.

[* Cape Three Points, the name given to it by Columbus.]

The Cabo de tres Puntas is, according to my observations, in 65° 4′ 5″ longitude. It seemed to us the more elevated, as the clouds concealed the view of its indented top. The aspect of the mountains of Paria, their colour, and especially their generally rounded forms, made us suspect that the coast was granitic; but we afterwards recognized how delusive, even to those who have passed their lives in scaling mountains, are impressions respecting the nature of rocks seen at a distance.

A dead calm, which lasted several hours, permitted us to determine with exactness the intensity of the magnetic forces opposite the Cabo de tres Puntas. This intensity was greater than in the open sea, to the east of the island of Tobago, in the ratio of from 237 to 229. During the calm the current drew us on rapidly to the west. Its velocity was three miles an hour, and it increased as we approached the meridian of Testigos, a heap of rocks which rises up amidst the waters. At the setting of the moon, the sky was covered with clouds, the wind freshened anew, and the rain descended in one of those torrents peculiar to the torrid zone.

The malady which had broken out on board the Pizarro had made rapid progress, from the time when we approached the coasts of Terra Firma; but having then almost reached the end of our voyage we flattered ourselves that all who were sick would be restored to health, as soon as we could land them at the island of St. Margareta, or the port of Cumana, places remarkable for their great salubrity.

This hope was unfortunately not realised. The youngest of the passengers attacked with the malignant fever fell a victim to the disease. He was an Asturian, nineteen years of age, the only son of a poor widow. Several circumstances rendered the death of this young man affecting. His countenance bore the expression of sensibility and great mildness of disposition. He had embarked against his own inclination; and his mother, whom he had hoped to assist by the produce of his efforts, had made a sacrifice of her affection in the hope of securing the fortune of her son, by sending him to the colonies to a rich relation, who resided at the island of Cuba. The unfortunate young man expired on the third day of his illness, having fallen from the beginning into a lethargic state interrupted only by fits of delirium. The yellow fever, or black vomit, at Vera Cruz, scarcely carries off the sick with so alarming a rapidity. Another Asturian, still younger, did not leave for one moment the bed of his dying friend; and, what is very remarkable, did not contract the disorder.

We were assembled on the deck, absorbed in melancholy reflections. It was no longer doubtful, that the fever which raged on board had assumed within the last few days a fatal aspect. Our eyes were fixed on a hilly and desert coast on which the moon, from time to time, shed her light athwart the clouds. The sea, gently agitated, emitted a feeble phosphoric light. Nothing was heard but the monotonous cry of a few large sea-birds, flying towards the shore. A profound calm reigned over these solitary regions, but this calm of nature was in discordance with the painful feelings by which we were oppressed. About eight o’clock the dead man’s knell was slowly tolled. At this lugubrious sound, the sailors suspended their labours, and threw themselves on their knees to offer a momentary prayer: an affecting ceremony, which brought to our remembrance those times when the primitive christians all considered themselves as members of the same family. All were united in one common sorrow for a misfortune which was felt to be common to all. The corpse of the young Asturian was brought upon deck during the night, but the priest entreated that it might not be committed to the waves till after sunrise, that the last rites might be performed, according to the usage of the Romish church. There was not an individual on board, who did not deplore the death of this young man, whom we had beheld, but a few days before, full of cheerfulness and health.

Those among the passengers who had not yet felt symptoms of the disease, resolved to leave the vessel at the first place where she might touch, and await the arrival of another packet, to pursue their course to the island of Cuba and to Mexico. They considered the between-decks of the ship as infected; and though it was by no means clear to me that the fever was contagious, I thought it most prudent to land at Cumana. I wished not to visit New Spain, till I had made some sojourn on the coasts of Venezuela and Paria; a few of the productions of which had been examined by the unfortunate Loefling. We were anxious to behold in their native site, the beautiful plants which Bose and Bredemeyer had collected during their journey to the continent, and which adorn the conservatories of Schoenbrunn and Vienna. It would have been painful to have touched at Cumana, or at Guayra, without visiting the interior of a country so little frequented by naturalists.

The resolution we formed during the night of the 14th of July, had a happy influence on the direction of our travels; for instead of a few weeks, we remained a whole year in this part of the continent. Had not the fever broken out on board the Pizarro, we should never have reached the Orinoco, the Cassiquiare, or even the limits of the Portuguese possessions on the Rio Negro. To this direction given to our travels we were perhaps also indebted for the good health we enjoyed during so long an abode in the equinoctial regions.

It is well known, that Europeans, during the first months after their arrival under the scorching sky of the tropics, are exposed to the greatest dangers. They consider themselves to be safe, when they have passed the rainy season in the West India islands, at Vera Cruz, or at Carthagena. This opinion is very general, although there are examples of persons, who, having escaped a first attack of the yellow fever, have fallen victims to the same disease in one of the following years. The facility of becoming acclimated, seems to be in the inverse ratio of the difference that exists between the mean temperature of the torrid zone, and that of the native country of the traveller, or colonist, who changes his climate; because the irritability of the organs, and their vital action, are powerfully modified by the influence of the atmospheric heat. A Prussian, a Pole, or a Swede, is more exposed on his arrival at the islands or on the continent, than a Spaniard, an Italian, or even an inhabitant of the South of France. With respect to the people of the north, the difference of the mean temperature is from nineteen to twenty-one degrees, while to the people of southern countries it is only from nine to ten. We were fortunate enough to pass safely through the interval during which a European recently landed runs the greatest danger, in the extremely hot, but very dry climate of Cumana, a city celebrated for its salubrity.

On the morning of the 15th, when nearly on a line with the hill of St. Joseph, we were surrounded by a great quantity of floating seaweed. Its stems had those extraordinary appendages in the form of little cups and feathers, which Don Hippolyto Ruiz remarked on his return from the expedition to Chile, and which he described in a separate memoir as the generative organs of the Fucus natans. A fortunate accident allowed us the means of verifying a fact which had been but once observed by naturalists. The bundles of fucus collected by M. Bonpland were completely identical with the specimens given us by the learned authors of the Flora of Peru. On examining both with the microscope, we found that the supposed parts of fructification, the stamina and pistils, belong to a new genus, of the family of the Ceratophytae.

The coast of Paria stretches to the west, forming a wall of rocks of no great height, with rounded tops and a waving outline. We were long without perceiving the bold coasts of the island of Margareta, where we were to stop for the purpose of ascertaining whether we could touch at Guayra. We had learned, by altitudes of the sun, taken under very favourable circumstances, how incorrect at that period were the most highly-esteemed marine charts. On the morning of the 15th, when the time-keeper placed us in 66° 1 minute 15 seconds longitude, we were not yet in the meridian of Margareta island; though according to the reduced chart of the Atlantic ocean, we ought to have passed the very lofty western cape of this island, which is laid down in longitude 66° 0′. The inaccuracy with which the coasts were delineated previously to the labours of Fidalgo, Noguera, and Tiscar, and I may venture to add, before the astronomical observations I made at Cumana, might have become dangerous to navigators, were not the sea uniformly calm in those regions. The errors in latitude were still greater than those in longitude, for the coasts of New Andalusia stretch to the westward of Cape Three Points (or tres Puntas) fifteen or twenty miles more to the north, than appears in the charts published before the year 1800.

About eleven in the morning we perceived a very low islet, covered with a few sandy downs, and on which we discovered with our glasses no trace of habitation or culture. Cylindrical cactuses rose here and there in the form of candelabra. The soil, almost destitute of vegetation, seemed to have a waving motion, in consequence of the extraordinary refraction which the rays of the sun undergo in traversing the strata of air in contact with plains strongly heated. Under every zone, deserts and sandy shores appear like an agitated sea, from the effect of mirage.

The coasts, seen at a distance, are like clouds, in which each observer meets the form of the objects that occupy his imagination. Our bearings and our chronometer being at variance with the charts which we had to consult, we were lost in vain conjectures. Some took mounds of sand for Indian huts, and pointed out the place where they alleged the fort of Pampatar was situated; others saw herds of goats, which are so common in the dry valley of St. John; or descried the lofty mountains of Macanao, which seemed to them partly hidden by the clouds. The captain resolved to send a pilot on shore, and the men were preparing to get out the long-boat when we perceived two canoes sailing along the coast. We fired a gun as a signal for them, and though we had hoisted Spanish colours, they drew near with distrust. These canoes, like all those in use among the natives, were constructed of the single trunk of a tree. In each canoe there were eighteen Guayqueria Indians, naked to the waist, and of very tall stature. They had the appearance of great muscular strength, and the colour of their skin was something between brown and copper-colour. Seen at a distance, standing motionless, and projected on the horizon, they might have been taken for statues of bronze. We were the more struck with their appearance, as it did not correspond with the accounts given by some travellers respecting the characteristic features and extreme feebleness of the natives. We afterwards learned, without passing the limits of the province of Cumana, the great contrast existing between the physiognomy of the Guayquerias and that of the Chaymas and the Caribs.

When we were near enough to hail them in Spanish, the Indians threw aside their mistrust, and came straight on board. They informed us that the low islet near which we were at anchor was Coche, which had never been inhabited; and that Spanish vessels coming from Europe were accustomed to sail farther north, between this island and that of Margareta, to take a coasting pilot at the port of Pampatar. Our inexperience had led us into the channel to the south of Coche; and as at that period the English cruisers frequented this passage, the Indians had at first taken us for an enemy’s ship. The southern passage is, in fact, highly advantageous for vessels going to Cumana and Barcelona. The water is less deep than in the northern passage, which is much narrower; but there is no risk of touching the ground, if vessels keep very close to the island of Lobos and the Moros del Tunal. The channel between Coche and Margareta is narrowed by the shoals off the north-west cape of Coche, and by the bank that surrounds La Punta de los Mangles.

The Guayquerias belong to that tribe of civilized Indians who inhabit the coasts of Margareta and the suburbs of the city of Cumana. Next to the Caribs of Spanish Guiana they are the finest race of men in Terra Firma. They enjoy several privileges, because from the earliest times of the conquest they remained faithful friends to the Castilians. The king of Spain styles them in his public acts, “his dear, noble, and loyal Guayquerias.” The Indians of the two canoes we had met had left the port of Cumana during the night. They were going in search of timber to the forests of cedar (Cedrela odorata, Linn.), which extend from Cape San Jose to beyond the mouth of Rio Carupano. They gave us some fresh cocoa-nuts, and very beautifully coloured fish of the Chaetodon genus. What riches to our eyes were contained in the canoes of these poor Indians! Broad spreading leaves of Vijao* covered bunches of plantains. The scaly cuirass of an armadillo (Dasypus), the fruit of the Calabash tree (Crescentia cujete), used as a cup by the natives, productions common in the cabinets of Europe, had a peculiar charm for us, because they reminded us that, having reached the torrid zone, we had attained the end to which our wishes had been so long directed.

[* Heliconia bihai.]

The master of one of the canoes offered to remain on board the Pizarro as coasting pilot (practico). He was a Guayqueria of an excellent disposition, sagacious in his observations, and he had been led by intelligent curiosity to notice the productions of the sea as well as the plants of the country. By a fortunate chance, the first Indian we met on our arrival was the man whose acquaintance became the most useful to us in the course of our researches. I feel a pleasure in recording in this itinerary the name of Carlos del Pino, who, during the space of sixteen months, attended us in our course along the coasts, and into the inland country.

The captain of the corvette weighed anchor towards evening. Before we left the shoal or placer of Coche, I ascertained the longitude of the east cape of the island, which I found to be 66° 11′ 53″. As we steered westward, we soon came in sight of the little island of Cubagua, now entirely deserted, but formerly celebrated for its fishery of pearls. There the Spaniards, immediately after the voyages of Columbus and Ojeda, founded, under the name of New Cadiz, a town, of which there now remains no vestige. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the pearls of Cubagua were known at Seville, at Toledo, and at the great fairs of Augsburg and Bruges. New Cadiz having no water, that of the Rio Manzanares was conveyed thither from the neighbouring coast, though for some reason, I know not what, it was thought to be the cause of diseases of the eyes. The writers of that period all speak of the riches of the first planters, and the luxury they displayed. At present, downs of shifting sand cover this uninhabited land, and the name of Cubagua is scarcely found in our charts.

Having reached these latitudes, we saw the high mountains of Cape Macanao, on the western side of the island of Margareta, which rose majestically on the horizon. If we might judge from the angles of altitude of the tops, taken at eighteen miles’ distance, they appeared to be about 500 or 600 toises high. According to Berthoud’s time-keeper, the longitude of Cape Macanao is 66° 47′ 5″. I speak of the rocks at the extremity of the cape, and not that strip of very low land which stretches to the west, and loses itself in a shoal. The position of Macanao and that which I have assigned to the east point of the island of Coche, differ only four seconds in time, from the results obtained by M. Fidalgo.

There being little wind, the captain preferred standing off and on till daybreak. We passed a part of the night on deck. The Guayqueria pilot conversed with us respecting the animals and plants of his country. We learned with great satisfaction that there was, a few leagues from the coast, a mountainous region inhabited by the Spaniards, in which the cold was sensibly felt; and that in the plains there were two species of crocodiles, very different from each other, besides, boas, electric eels, and several kinds of tigers. Though the words bava, cachicamo, and temblador, were entirely unknown to us, we easily guessed, from the pilot’s simple description of their manners and forms, the species which the creoles distinguished by these denominations.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56