—— nec herba, nec latens in asperis
Radix fefellit me locis.
In the month of April 1812 I left the town of Stabroek to travel through the wilds of Demerara and Essequibo, a part of ci-devant Dutch Guiana, in South America.
The chief objects in view were to collect a quantity of the strongest wourali poison and to reach the inland frontier-fort of Portuguese Guiana.
It would be a tedious journey for him who wishes to travel through these wilds to set out from Stabroek on foot. The sun would exhaust him in his attempts to wade through the swamps, and the mosquitos at night would deprive him of every hour of sleep.
The road for horses runs parallel to the river, but it extends a very little way, and even ends before the cultivation of the plantations ceases.
The only mode then that remains is to proceed by water; and when you come to the high-lands, you may make your way through the forest on foot or continue your route on the river.
After passing the third island in the River Demerara there are few plantations to be seen, and those not joining on to one another, but separated by large tracts of wood.
The Loo is the last where the sugar-cane is growing. The greater part of its negroes have just been ordered to another estate, and ere a few months shall have elapsed all signs of cultivation will be lost in underwood.
Higher up stand the sugar-works of Amelia’s Waard, solitary and abandoned; and after passing these there is not a ruin to inform the traveller that either coffee or sugar have ever been cultivated.
From Amelia’s Waard an unbroken range of forest covers each bank of the river, saving here and there where a hut discovers itself, inhabited by free people of colour, with a rood or two of bared ground about it; or where the wood-cutter has erected himself a dwelling and cleared a few acres for pasturage. Sometimes you see level ground on each side of you for two or three hours at a stretch; at other times a gently sloping hill presents itself; and often, on turning a point, the eye is pleased with the contrast of an almost perpendicular height jutting into the water. The trees put you in mind of an eternal spring, with summer and autumn kindly blended into it.
Here you may see a sloping extent of noble trees whose foliage displays a charming variety of every shade, from the lightest to the darkest green and purple. The tops of some are crowned with bloom of the loveliest hue, while the boughs of others bend with a profusion of seeds and fruits.
Those whose heads have been bared by time or blasted by the thunderstorm strike the eye, as a mournful sound does the ear in music, and seem to beckon to the sentimental traveller to stop a moment or two and see that the forests which surround him, like men and kingdoms, have their periods of misfortune and decay.
The first rocks of any considerable size that are observed on the side of the river are at a place called Saba, from the Indian word which means a stone. They appear sloping down to the water’s edge, not shelvy, but smooth, and their exuberances rounded off and, in some places, deeply furrowed, as though they had been worn with continual floods of water.
There are patches of soil up and down, and the huge stones amongst them produce a pleasing and novel effect. You see a few coffee-trees of a fine luxuriant growth, and nearly on the top of Saba stands the house of the post-holder.
He is appointed by Government to give in his report to the protector of the Indians of what is going on amongst them and to prevent suspicious people from passing up the river.
When the Indians assemble here, the stranger may have an opportunity of seeing the aborigines dancing to the sound of their country music and painted in their native style. They will shoot their arrows for him with an unerring aim and send the poisoned dart, from the blow-pipe, true to its destination: and here he may often view all the different shades, from the red savage to the white man; and from the white man to the sootiest son of Africa.
Beyond this post there are no more habitations of white men or free people of colour.
In a country so extensively covered with wood as this is, having every advantage that a tropical sun and the richest mould, in many places, can give to vegetation, it is natural to look for trees of very large dimensions. But it is rare to meet with them above six yards in circumference. If larger have ever existed they have fallen a sacrifice either to the axe or to fire.
If, however, they disappoint you in size, they make ample amends in height. Heedless, and bankrupt in all curiosity, must he be who can journey on without stopping to take a view of the towering mora. Its topmost branch, when naked with age or dried by accident, is the favourite resort of the toucan. Many a time has this singular bird felt the shot faintly strike him from the gun of the fowler beneath, and owed his life to the distance betwixt them.
The trees which form these far-extending wilds are as useful as they are ornamental. It would take a volume of itself to describe them.
The green-heart, famous for its hardness and durability; the hackea for its toughness; the ducalabali surpassing mahogany; the ebony and letter-wood vying with the choicest woods of the old world; the locust-tree yielding copal; and the hayawa — and olou-trees furnishing a sweet-smelling resin, are all to be met with in the forest betwixt the plantations and the rock Saba.
Beyond this rock the country has been little explored, but it is very probable that these, and a vast collection of other kinds, and possibly many new species, are scattered up and down, in all directions, through the swamps and hills and savannas of ci-devant Dutch Guiana.
On viewing the stately trees around him, the naturalist will observe many of them bearing leaves and blossoms and fruit not their own.
The wild fig-tree, as large as a common English apple-tree, often rears itself from one of the thick branches at the top of the mora, and when its fruit is ripe, to it the birds resort for nourishment. It was to an undigested seed passing through the body of the bird which had perched on the mora that the fig-tree first owed its elevated station there. The sap of the mora raised it into full bearing, but now, in its turn, it is doomed to contribute a portion of its own sap and juices towards the growth of different species of vines, the seeds of which also the birds deposited on its branches. These soon vegetate, and bear fruit in great quantities; so what with their usurpation of the resources of the fig-tree, and the fig-tree of the mora, the mora, unable to support a charge which nature never intended it should, languishes and dies under its burden; and then the fig-tree, and its usurping progeny of vines, receiving no more succour from their late foster-parent, droop and perish in their turn.
A vine called the bush-rope by the wood-cutters, on account of its use in hauling out the heaviest timber, has a singular appearance in the forests of Demerara. Sometimes you see it nearly as thick as a man’s body, twisted like a corkscrew round the tallest trees and rearing its head high above their tops. At other times three or four of them, like strands in a cable, join tree and tree and branch and branch together. Others, descending from on high, take root as soon as their extremity touches the ground, and appear like shrouds and stays supporting the mainmast of a line-of-battle ship; while others, sending out parallel, oblique, horizontal and perpendicular shoots in all directions, put you in mind of what travellers call a matted forest. Oftentimes a tree, above a hundred feet high, uprooted by the whirlwind, is stopped in its fall by these amazing cables of nature, and hence it is that you account for the phenomenon of seeing trees not only vegetating, but sending forth vigorous shoots, though far from their perpendicular, and their trunks inclined to every degree from the meridian to the horizon.
Their heads remain firmly supported by the bush-rope; many of their roots soon refix themselves in the earth, and frequently a strong shoot will sprout out perpendicularly from near the root of the reclined trunk, and in time become a fine tree. No grass grows under the trees and few weeds, except in the swamps.
The high grounds are pretty clear of underwood, and with a cutlass to sever the small bush-ropes it is not difficult walking among the trees.
The soil, chiefly formed by the fallen leaves and decayed trees, is very rich and fertile in the valleys. On the hills it is little better than sand. The rains seem to have carried away and swept into the valleys every particle which Nature intended to have formed a mould.
Four-footed animals are scarce considering how very thinly these forests are inhabited by men.
Several species of the animal commonly called tiger, though in reality it approaches nearer to the leopard, are found here, and two of their diminutives, named tiger-cats. The tapir, the lobba and deer afford excellent food, and chiefly frequent the swamps and low ground near the sides of the river and creeks.
In stating that four-footed animals are scarce, the peccari must be excepted. Three or four hundred of them herd together and traverse the wilds in all directions in quest of roots and fallen seeds. The Indians mostly shoot them with poisoned arrows. When wounded they run about one hundred and fifty paces; they then drop, and make wholesome food.
The red monkey, erroneously called the baboon, is heard oftener than it is seen, while the common brown monkey, the bisa, and sacawinki rove from tree to tree, and amuse the stranger as he journeys on.
A species of the polecat, and another of the fox, are destructive to the Indian’s poultry, while the opossum, the guana and salempenta afford him a delicious morsel.
The small ant-bear, and the large one, remarkable for his long, broad, bushy tail, are sometimes seen on the tops of the wood-ants’ nests; the armadillos bore in the sand-hills, like rabbits in a warren; and the porcupine is now and then discovered in the trees over your head.
This, too, is the native country of the sloth. His looks, his gestures and his cries all conspire to entreat you to take pity on him. These are the only weapons of defence which Nature hath given him. While other animals assemble in herds, or in pairs range through these boundless wilds, the sloth is solitary and almost stationary; he cannot escape from you. It is said his piteous moans make the tiger relent and turn out of the way. Do not then level your gun at him or pierce him with a poisoned arrow — he has never hurt one living creature. A few leaves, and those of the commonest and coarsest kind, are all he asks for his support. On comparing him with other animals you would say that you could perceive deficiency, deformity and superabundance in his composition. He has no cutting-teeth, and though four stomachs, he still wants the long intestines of ruminating animals. He has only one inferior aperture, as in birds. He has no soles to his feet nor has he the power of moving his toes separately. His hair is flat, and puts you in mind of grass withered by the wintry blast. His legs are too short; they appear deformed by the manner in which they are joined to the body, and when he is on the ground, they seem as if only calculated to be of use in climbing trees. He has forty-six ribs, while the elephant has only forty, and his claws are disproportionably long. Were you to mark down, upon a graduated scale, the different claims to superiority amongst the four-footed animals, this poor ill-formed creature’s claim would be the last upon the lowest degree.
Demerara yields to no country in the world in her wonderful and beautiful productions of the feathered race. Here the finest precious stones are far surpassed by the vivid tints which adorn the birds. The naturalist may exclaim that Nature has not known where to stop in forming new species and painting her requisite shades. Almost every one of those singular and elegant birds described by Buffon as belonging to Cayenne are to be met with in Demerara, but it is only by an indefatigable naturalist that they are to be found.
The scarlet curlew breeds in innumerable quantities in the muddy islands on the coasts of Pomauron; the egrets and crabiers in the same place. They resort to the mud-flats at ebbing water, while thousands of sandpipers and plovers, with here and there a spoonbill and flamingo, are seen amongst them. The pelicans go farther out to sea, but return at sundown to the courada-trees. The humming-birds are chiefly to be found near the flowers at which each of the species of the genus is wont to feed. The pie, the gallinaceous, the columbine and passerine tribes resort to the fruit-bearing trees.
You never fail to see the common vulture where there is carrion. In passing up the river there was an opportunity of seeing a pair of the king of the vultures; they were sitting on the naked branch of a tree, with about a dozen of the common ones with them. A tiger had killed a goat the day before; he had been driven away in the act of sucking the blood, and not finding it safe or prudent to return, the goat remained in the same place where he had killed it; it had begun to putrefy, and the vultures had arrived that morning to claim the savoury morsel.
At the close of day the vampires leave the hollow trees, whither they had fled at the morning’s dawn, and scour along the river’s banks in quest of prey. On waking from sleep the astonished traveller finds his hammock all stained with blood. It is the vampire that hath sucked him. Not man alone, but every unprotected animal, is exposed to his depredations; and so gently does this nocturnal surgeon draw the blood that, instead of being roused, the patient is lulled into a still profounder sleep. There are two species of vampire in Demerara, and both suck living animals: one is rather larger than the common bat, the other measures above two feet from wing to wing extended.
Snakes are frequently met with in the woods betwixt the sea-coast and the rock Saba, chiefly near the creeks and on the banks of the river. They are large, beautiful and formidable. The rattlesnake seems partial to a tract of ground known by the name of Canal Number-three: there the effects of his poison will be long remembered.
The camoudi snake has been killed from thirty to forty feet long; though not venomous, his size renders him destructive to the passing animals. The Spaniards in the Oroonoque positively affirm that he grows to the length of seventy or eighty feet and that he will destroy the strongest and largest bull. His name seems to confirm this: there he is called “matatoro,” which literally means “bull-killer.” Thus he may be ranked amongst the deadly snakes, for it comes nearly to the same thing in the end whether the victim dies by poison from the fangs, which corrupts his blood and makes it stink horribly, or whether his body be crushed to mummy, and swallowed by this hideous beast.
The whipsnake of a beautiful changing green, and the coral, with alternate broad traverse bars of black and red, glide from bush to bush, and may be handled with safety; they are harmless little creatures.
The labarri snake is speckled, of a dirty brown colour, and can scarcely be distinguished from the ground or stump on which he is coiled up; he grows to the length of about eight feet and his bite often proves fatal in a few minutes.
Unrivalled in his display of every lovely colour of the rainbow, and unmatched in the effects of his deadly poison, the counacouchi glides undaunted on, sole monarch of these forests; he is commonly known by the name of the bush-master. Both man and beast fly before him, and allow him to pursue an undisputed path. He sometimes grows to the length of fourteen feet.
A few small caymen, from two to twelve feet long, may be observed now and then in passing up and down the river; they just keep their heads above the water, and a stranger would not know them from a rotten stump.
Lizards of the finest green, brown and copper colour, from two inches to two feet and a half long, are ever and anon rustling among the fallen leaves and crossing the path before you, whilst the chameleon is busily employed in chasing insects round the trunks of the neighbouring trees.
The fish are of many different sorts and well-tasted, but not, generally speaking, very plentiful. It is probable that their numbers are considerably thinned by the otters, which are much larger than those of Europe. In going through the overflowed savannas, which have all a communication with the river, you may often see a dozen or two of them sporting amongst the sedges before you.
This warm and humid climate seems particularly adapted to the producing of insects; it gives birth to myriads, beautiful past description in their variety of tints, astonishing in their form and size, and many of them noxious in their qualities.
He whose eye can distinguish the various beauties of uncultivated nature, and whose ear is not shut to the wild sounds in the woods, will be delighted in passing up the River Demerara. Every now and then the maam or tinamou sends forth one long and plaintive whistle from the depth of the forest, and then stops; whilst the yelping of the toucan and the shrill voice of the bird called pi-pi-yo is heard during the interval. The campanero never fails to attract the attention of the passenger; at a distance of nearly three miles you may hear this snow-white bird tolling every four or five minutes, like the distant convent-bell. From six to nine in the morning the forests resound with the mingled cries and strains of the feathered race; after this they gradually die away. From eleven to three all nature is hushed as in a midnight silence, and scarce a note is heard, saving that of the campanero and the pi-pi-yo; it is then that, oppressed by the solar heat, the birds retire to the thickest shade and wait for the refreshing cool of evening.
At sundown the vampires, bats and goat-suckers dart from their lonely retreat and skim along the trees on the river’s bank. The different kinds of frogs almost stun the ear with their hoarse and hollow-sounding croaking, while the owls and goat-suckers lament and mourn all night long.
About two hours before daybreak you will hear the red monkey moaning as though in deep distress; the houtou, a solitary bird, and only found in the thickest recesses of the forest, distinctly articulates “houtou, houtou,” in a low and plaintive tone an hour before sunrise; the maam whistles about the same hour; the hannaquoi, pataca and maroudi announce his near approach to the eastern horizon, and the parrots and paroquets confirm his arrival there.
The crickets chirp from sunset to sunrise, and often during the day when the weather is cloudy. The bête-rouge is exceedingly numerous in these extensive wilds, and not only man, but beasts and birds, are tormented by it. Mosquitos are very rare after you pass the third island in the Demerara, and sand-flies but seldom appear.
Courteous reader, here thou hast the outlines of an amazing landscape given thee; thou wilt see that the principal parts of it are but faintly traced, some of them scarcely visible at all, and that the shades are wholly wanting. If thy soul partakes of the ardent flame which the persevering Mungo Park’s did, these outlines will be enough for thee; they will give thee some idea of what a noble country this is; and if thou hast but courage to set about giving the world a finished picture of it, neither materials to work on nor colours to paint it in its true shades will be wanting to thee. It may appear a difficult task at a distance, but look close at it, and it is nothing at all; provided thou hast but a quiet mind, little more is necessary, and the genius which presides over these wilds will kindly help thee through the rest. She will allow thee to slay the fawn and to cut down the mountain-cabbage for thy support, and to select from every part of her domain whatever may be necessary for the work thou art about; but having killed a pair of doves in order to enable thee to give mankind a true and proper description of them, thou must not destroy a third through wantonness or to show what a good marksman thou art: that would only blot the picture thou art finishing, not colour it.
Though retired from the haunts of men, and even without a friend with thee, thou wouldst not find it solitary. The crowing of the hannaquoi will sound in thine ears like the daybreak town-clock; and the wren and the thrush will join with thee in thy matin hymn to thy Creator, to thank Him for thy night’s rest.
At noon the genius will lead thee to the troely, one leaf of which will defend thee from both sun and rain. And if, in the cool of the evening, thou hast been tempted to stray too far from thy place of abode, and art deprived of light to write down the information thou hast collected, the fire-fly, which thou wilt see in almost every bush around thee, will be thy candle. Hold it over thy pocket-book, in any position which thou knowest will not hurt it, and it will afford thee ample light. And when thou hast done with it, put it kindly back again on the next branch to thee. It will want no other reward for its services.
When in thy hammock, should the thought of thy little crosses and disappointments, in thy ups and downs through life, break in upon thee and throw thee into a pensive mood, the owl will bear thee company. She will tell thee that hard has been her fate, too; and at intervals “Whip-poor-will” and “Willy come go” will take up the tale of sorrow. Ovid has told thee how the owl once boasted the human form and lost it for a very small offence; and were the poet alive now he would inform thee that “Whip-poor-will” and “Willy come go” are the shades of those poor African and Indian slaves who died worn out and broken-hearted. They wail and cry “Whip-poor-will,” “Willy come go,” all night long; and often, when the moon shines, you see them sitting on the green turf near the houses of those whose ancestors tore them from the bosom of their helpless families, which all probably perished through grief and want after their support was gone.
About an hour above the rock of Saba stands the habitation of an Indian called Simon, on the top of a hill. The side next the river is almost perpendicular, and you may easily throw a stone over to the opposite bank. Here there was an opportunity of seeing man in his rudest state. The Indians who frequented this habitation, though living in the midst of woods, bore evident marks of attention to their persons. Their hair was neatly collected and tied up in a knot; their bodies fancifully painted red, and the paint was scented with hayawa. This gave them a gay and animated appearance. Some of them had on necklaces composed of the teeth of wild boars slain in the chase; many wore rings, and others had an ornament on the left arm midway betwixt the shoulder and the elbow. At the close of day they regularly bathed in the river below, and the next morning seemed busy in renewing the faded colours of their faces.
One day there came into the hut a form which literally might be called the wild man of the woods. On entering he laid down a ball of wax which he had collected in the forest. His hammock was all ragged and torn, and his bow, though of good wood, was without any ornament or polish: “erubuit domino, cultior esse suo.” His face was meagre, his looks forbidding and his whole appearance neglected. His long black hair hung from his head in matted confusion; nor had his body, to all appearance, ever been painted. They gave him some cassava bread and boiled fish, which he ate voraciously, and soon after left the hut. As he went out you could observe no traces in his countenance or demeanour which indicated that he was in the least mindful of having been benefited by the society he was just leaving.
The Indians said that he had neither wife nor child nor friend. They had often tried to persuade him to come and live amongst them, but all was of no avail. He went roving on, plundering the wild bees of their honey and picking up the fallen nuts and fruits of the forest. When he fell in with game he procured fire from two sticks and cooked it on the spot. When a hut happened to be in his way he stepped in and asked for something to eat, and then months elapsed ere they saw him again. They did not know what had caused him to be thus unsettled: he had been so for years; nor did they believe that even old age itself would change the habits of this poor harmless, solitary wanderer.
From Simon’s the traveller may reach the large fall, with ease, in four days.
The first falls that he meets are merely rapids, scarce a stone appearing above the water in the rainy season; and those in the bed of the river barely high enough to arrest the water’s course, and by causing a bubbling show that they are there.
With this small change of appearance in the stream, the stranger observes nothing new till he comes within eight or ten miles of the great fall. Each side of the river presents an uninterrupted range of wood, just as it did below. All the productions found betwixt the plantations and the rock Saba are to be met with here.
From Simon’s to the great fall there are five habitations of the Indians: two of them close to the river’s side; the other three a little way in the forest. These habitations consist of from four to eight huts, situated on about an acre of ground which they have cleared from the surrounding woods. A few pappaw, cotton and mountain-cabbage trees are scattered round them.
At one of these habitations a small quantity of the wourali poison was procured. It was in a little gourd. The Indian who had it said that he had killed a number of wild hogs with it, and two tapirs. Appearances seemed to confirm what he said, for on one side it had been nearly taken out to the bottom, at different times, which probably would not have been the case had the first or second trial failed.
Its strength was proved on a middle-sized dog. He was wounded in the thigh, in order that there might be no possibility of touching a vital part. In three or four minutes he began to be affected, smelt at every little thing on the ground around him, and looked wistfully at the wounded part. Soon after this he staggered, laid himself down, and never rose more. He barked once, though not as if in pain. His voice was low and weak; and in a second attempt it quite failed him. He now put his head betwixt his fore-legs, and raising it slowly again he fell over on his side. His eye immediately became fixed, and though his extremities every now and then shot convulsively, he never showed the least desire to raise up his head. His heart fluttered much from the time he laid down, and at intervals beat very strong; then stopped for a moment or two, and then beat again; and continued faintly beating several minutes after every other part of his body seemed dead.
In a quarter of an hour after he had received the poison he was quite motionless.
A few miles before you reach the great fall, and which indeed is the only one which can be called a fall, large balls of froth come floating past you. The river appears beautifully marked with streaks of foam, and on your nearer approach the stream is whitened all over.
At first you behold the fall rushing down a bed of rocks with a tremendous noise, divided into two foamy streams which, at their junction again, form a small island covered with wood. Above this island, for a short space, there appears but one stream, all white with froth, and fretting and boiling amongst the huge rocks which obstruct its course.
Higher up it is seen dividing itself into a short channel or two, and trees grow on the rocks which cause its separation. The torrent, in many places, has eaten deep into the rocks, and split them into large fragments by driving others against them. The trees on the rocks are in bloom and vigour, though their roots are half bared and many of them bruised and broken by the rushing waters.
This is the general appearance of the fall from the level of the water below to where the river is smooth and quiet above. It must be remembered that this is during the periodical rains. Probably, in the dry season, it puts on a very different appearance. There is no perpendicular fall of water of any consequence throughout it, but the dreadful roaring and rushing of the torrent, down a long rocky and moderately sloping channel, has a fine effect; and the stranger returns well pleased with what he has seen. No animal, nor craft of any kind, could stem this downward flood. In a few moments the first would be killed, the second dashed in pieces.
The Indians have a path alongside of it, through the forest, where prodigious crabwood trees grow. Up this path they drag their canoes and launch them into the river above; and on their return bring them down the same way.
About two hours below this fall is the habitation of an Acoway chief called Sinkerman. At night you hear the roaring of the fall from it. It is pleasantly situated on the top of a sand-hill. At this place you have the finest view the River Demerara affords: three tiers of hills rise in slow gradation, one above the other, before you, and present a grand and magnificent scene, especially to him who has been accustomed to a level country.
Here, a little after midnight, on the first of May, was heard a most strange and unaccountable noise: it seemed as though several regiments were engaged and musketry firing with great rapidity. The Indians, terrified beyond description, left their hammocks and crowded all together like sheep at the approach of the wolf. There were no soldiers within three or four hundred miles. Conjecture was of no avail, and all conversation next morning on the subject was as useless and unsatisfactory as the dead silence which succeeded to the noise.
He who wishes to reach the Macoushi country had better send his canoe over-land from Sinkerman’s to the Essequibo.
There is a pretty good path, and meeting a creek about three-quarters of the way, it eases the labour, and twelve Indians will arrive with it in the Essequibo in four days.
The traveller need not attend his canoe; there is a shorter and a better way. Half an hour below Sinkerman’s he finds a little creek on the western bank of the Demerara. After proceeding about a couple of hundred yards up it, he leaves it, and pursues a west-north-west direction by land for the Essequibo. The path is good, though somewhat rugged with the roots of trees, and here and there obstructed by fallen ones; it extends more over level ground than otherwise. There are a few steep ascents and descents in it, with a little brook running at the bottom of them, but they are easily passed over, and the fallen trees serve for a bridge.
You may reach the Essequibo with ease in a day and a half; and so matted and interwoven are the tops of the trees above you that the sun is not felt once all the way, saving where the space which a newly-fallen tree occupied lets in his rays upon you. The forest contains an abundance of wild hogs, lobbas, acouries, powisses, maams, maroudis and waracabas for your nourishment, and there are plenty of leaves to cover a shed whenever you are inclined to sleep.
The soil has three-fourths of sand in it till you come within half an hour’s walk of the Essequibo, where you find a red gravel and rocks. In this retired and solitary tract Nature’s garb, to all appearance, has not been injured by fire nor her productions broken in upon by the exterminating hand of man.
Here the finest green-heart grows, and wallaba, purple-heart, siloabali, sawari, buletre, tauronira and mora are met with in vast abundance, far and near, towering up in majestic grandeur, straight as pillars, sixty or seventy feet high, without a knot or branch.
Traveller, forget for a little while the idea thou hast of wandering farther on, and stop and look at this grand picture of vegetable nature: it is a reflection of the crowd thou hast lately been in, and though a silent monitor, it is not a less eloquent one on that account. See that noble purple-heart before thee! Nature has been kind to it. Not a hole, not the least oozing from its trunk, to show that its best days are past. Vigorous in youthful blooming beauty, it stands the ornament of these sequestered wilds and tacitly rebukes those base ones of thine own species who have been hardy enough to deny the existence of Him who ordered it to flourish here.
Behold that one next to it! Hark how the hammerings of the red-headed woodpecker resound through its distempered boughs! See what a quantity of holes he has made in it, and how its bark is stained with the drops which trickle down from them. The lightning, too, has blasted one side of it. Nature looks pale and wan in its leaves, and her resources are nearly dried up in its extremities: its sap is tainted; a mortal sickness, slow as a consumption and as sure in its consequences, has long since entered its frame, vitiating and destroying the wholesome juices there.
Step a few paces aside and cast thine eye on that remnant of a mora behind it. Best part of its branches, once so high and ornamental, now lie on the ground in sad confusion, one upon the other, all shattered and fungus-grown and a prey to millions of insects which are busily employed in destroying them. One branch of it still looks healthy! Will it recover? No, it cannot; Nature has already run her course, and that healthy-looking branch is only as a fallacious good symptom in him who is just about to die of a mortification when he feels no more pain, and fancies his distemper has left him; it is as the momentary gleam of a wintry sun’s ray close to the western horizon. See! while we are speaking a gust of wind has brought the tree to the ground and made room for its successor.
Come farther on and examine that apparently luxuriant tauronira on thy right hand. It boasts a verdure not its own; they are false ornaments it wears. The bush-rope and bird-vines have clothed it from the root to its topmost branch. The succession of fruit which it hath borne, like good cheer in the houses of the great, has invited the birds to resort to it, and they have disseminated beautiful, though destructive, plants on its branches which, like the distempers vice brings into the human frame, rob it of all its health and vigour. They have shortened its days, and probably in another year they will finally kill it, long before Nature intended that it should die.
Ere thou leavest this interesting scene, look on the ground around thee, and see what everything here below must come to.
Behold that newly-fallen wallaba! The whirlwind has uprooted it in its prime, and it has brought down to the ground a dozen small ones in its fall. Its bark has already begun to drop off! And that heart of mora close by it is fast yielding, in spite of its firm, tough texture.
The tree which thou passedst but a little ago, and which perhaps has laid over yonder brook for years, can now hardly support itself, and in a few months more it will have fallen into the water.
Put thy foot on that large trunk thou seest to the left. It seems entire amid the surrounding fragments. Mere outward appearance, delusive phantom of what it once was! Tread on it and, like the fuss-ball, it will break into dust.
Sad and silent mementos to the giddy traveller as he wanders on! Prostrate remnants of vegetable nature, how incontestably ye prove what we must all at last come to, and how plain your mouldering ruins show that the firmest texture avails us naught when Heaven wills that we should cease to be!
The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inhabit, shall dissolve,
And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,
Leave not a wreck behind.
Cast thine eye around thee and see the thousands of Nature’s productions. Take a view of them from the opening seed on the surface sending a downward shoot, to the loftiest and the largest trees rising up and blooming in wild luxuriance: some side by side, others separate; some curved and knotty, others straight as lances; all, in beautiful gradation, fulfilling the mandates they had received from Heaven and, though condemned to die, still never failing to keep up their species till time shall be no more.
Reader, canst thou not be induced to dedicate a few months to the good of the public, and examine with thy scientific eye the productions which the vast and well-stored colony of Demerara presents to thee?
What an immense range of forest is there from the rock Saba to the great fall! and what an uninterrupted extent before thee from it to the banks of the Essequibo! No doubt there is many a balsam and many a medicinal root yet to be discovered, and many a resin, gum and oil yet unnoticed. Thy work would be a pleasing one, and thou mightest make several useful observations in it.
Would it be thought impertinent in thee to hazard a conjecture that, with the resources the Government of Demerara has, stones might be conveyed from the rock Saba to Stabroek to stem the equinoctial tides which are for ever sweeping away the expensive wooden piles round the mounds of the fort? Or would the timber-merchant point at thee in passing by and call thee a descendant of La Mancha’s knight, because thou maintainest that the stones which form the rapids might be removed with little expense, and thus open the navigation to the wood-cutter from Stabroek to the great fall? Or wouldst thou be deemed enthusiastic or biassed because thou givest it as thy opinion that the climate in these high-lands is exceedingly wholesome, and the lands themselves capable of nourishing and maintaining any number of settlers? In thy dissertation on the Indians thou mightest hint that possibly they could be induced to help the new settlers a little; and that, finding their labours well requited, it would be the means of their keeping up a constant communication with us which probably might be the means of laying the first stone towards their Christianity. They are a poor harmless, inoffensive set of people, and their wandering and ill-provided way of living seems more to ask for pity from us than to fill our heads with thoughts that they would be hostile to us.
What a noble field, kind reader, for thy experimental philosophy and speculations, for thy learning, for thy perseverance, for thy kindheartedness, for everything that is great and good within thee!
The accidental traveller who has journeyed on from Stabroek to the rock Saba, and from thence to the banks of the Essequibo, in pursuit of other things, as he told thee at the beginning, with but an indifferent interpreter to talk to, no friend to converse with, and totally unfit for that which he wishes thee to do, can merely mark the outlines of the path he has trodden, or tell thee the sounds he has heard, or faintly describe what he has seen in the environs of his resting-places; but if this be enough to induce thee to undertake the journey, and give the world a description of it, he will be amply satisfied.
It will be two days and a half from the time of entering the path on the western bank of the Demerara till all be ready and the canoe fairly afloat on the Essequibo. The new rigging it, and putting every little thing to rights and in its proper place, cannot well be done in less than a day.
After being night and day in the forest, impervious to the sun’s and moon’s rays, the sudden transition to light has a fine heart-cheering effect. Welcome as a lost friend, the solar beam makes the frame rejoice, and with it a thousand enlivening thoughts rush at once on the soul and disperse, as a vapour, every sad and sorrowful idea which the deep gloom had helped to collect there. In coming out of the woods you see the western bank of the Essequibo before you, low and flat. Here the river is two-thirds as broad as the Demerara at Stabroek.
To the northward there is a hill higher than any in the Demerara; and in the south-south-west quarter a mountain. It is far away, and appears like a bluish cloud in the horizon. There is not the least opening on either side. Hills, valleys and low-lands are all linked together by a chain of forest. Ascend the highest mountain, climb the loftiest tree, as far as the eye can extend, whichever way it directs itself, all is luxuriant and unbroken forest.
In about nine or ten hours from this you get to an Indian habitation of three huts, on the point of an island. It is said that a Dutch post once stood here. But there is not the smallest vestige of it remaining and, except that the trees appear younger than those on the other islands, which shows that the place has been cleared some time or other, there is no mark left by which you can conjecture that ever this was a post.
The many islands which you meet with in the way enliven and change the scene, by the avenues which they make, which look like the mouths of other rivers, and break that long-extended sameness which is seen in the Demerara.
Proceeding onwards you get to the falls and rapids. In the rainy season they are very tedious to pass, and often stop your course. In the dry season, by stepping from rock to rock, the Indians soon manage to get a canoe over them. But when the river is swollen, as it was in May 1812, it is then a difficult task, and often a dangerous one, too. At that time many of the islands were over-flowed, the rocks covered and the lower branches of the trees in the water. Sometimes the Indians were obliged to take everything out of the canoe, cut a passage through the branches which hung over into the river, and then drag up the canoe by main force.
At one place the falls form an oblique line quite across the river impassable to the ascending canoe, and you are forced to have it dragged four or five hundred yards by land.
It will take you five days, from the Indian habitation on the point of the island, to where these falls and rapids terminate.
There are no huts in the way. You must bring your own cassava bread along with you, hunt in the forest for your meat and make the night’s shelter for yourself.
Here is a noble range of hills, all covered with the finest trees rising majestically one above the other, on the western bank, and presenting as rich a scene as ever the eye would wish to look on. Nothing in vegetable nature can be conceived more charming, grand and luxuriant.
How the heart rejoices in viewing this beautiful landscape when the sky is serene, the air cool and the sun just sunk behind the mountain’s top!
The hayawa-tree perfumes the woods around: pairs of scarlet aras are continually crossing the river. The maam sends forth its plaintive note, the wren chants its evening song. The caprimulgus wheels in busy flight around the canoe, while “Whip-poor-will” sits on the broken stump near the water’s edge, complaining as the shades of night set in.
A little before you pass the last of these rapids two immense rocks appear, nearly on the summit of one of the many hills which form this far-extending range where it begins to fall off gradually to the south.
They look like two ancient stately towers of some Gothic potentate rearing their heads above the surrounding trees. What with their situation and their shape together, they strike the beholder with an idea of antiquated grandeur which he will never forget. He may travel far and near and see nothing like them. On looking at them through a glass the summit of the southern one appeared crowned with bushes. The one to the north was quite bare. The Indians have it from their ancestors that they are the abode of an evil genius, and they pass in the river below with a reverential awe.
In about seven hours from these stupendous sons of the hill you leave the Essequibo and enter the River Apoura-poura, which falls into it from the south. The Apoura-poura is nearly one-third the size of the Demerara at Stabroek. For two days you see nothing but level ground richly clothed in timber. You leave the Siparouni to the right hand, and on the third day come to a little hill. The Indians have cleared about an acre of ground on it and erected a temporary shed. If it be not intended for provision-ground alone, perhaps the next white man who travels through these remote wilds will find an Indian settlement here.
Two days after leaving this you get to a rising ground on the western bank where stands a single hut, and about half a mile in the forest there are a few more: some of them square and some round, with spiral roofs.
Here the fish called pacou is very plentiful: it is perhaps the fattest and most delicious fish in Guiana. It does not take the hook, but the Indians decoy it to the surface of the water by means of the seeds of the crab-wood tree and then shoot it with an arrow.
You are now within the borders of Macoushia, inhabited by a different tribe of people called Macoushi Indians, uncommonly dexterous in the use of the blow-pipe and famous for their skill in preparing the deadly vegetable-poison commonly called wourali.
It is from this country that those beautiful paroquets named kessi-kessi are procured. Here the crystal mountains are found; and here the three different species of the ara are seen in great abundance. Here too grows the tree from which the gum-elastic is got: it is large and as tall as any in the forest. The wood has much the appearance of sycamore. The gum is contained in the bark: when that is cut through it oozes out very freely; it is quite white and looks as rich as cream; it hardens almost immediately as it issues from the tree, so that it is very easy to collect a ball by forming the juice into a globular shape as fast as it comes out. It becomes nearly black by being exposed to the air, and is real india-rubber without undergoing any other process.
The elegant crested bird called cock-of-the-rock, admirably described by Buffon, is a native of the woody mountains of Macoushia. In the daytime it retires amongst the darkest rocks, and only comes out to feed a little before sunrise and at sunset: he is of a gloomy disposition and, like the houtou, never associates with the other birds of the forest.
The Indians in the just-mentioned settlement seemed to depend more on the wourali poison for killing their game than upon anything else. They had only one gun, and it appeared rusty and neglected, but their poisoned weapons were in fine order. Their blow-pipes hung from the roof of the hut, carefully suspended by a silk-grass cord, and on taking a nearer view of them no dust seemed to have collected there, nor had the spider spun the smallest web on them, which showed that they were in constant use. The quivers were close by them, with the jaw-bone of the fish pirai tied by a string to their brim and a small wicker-basket of wild cotton, which hung down to the centre; they were nearly full of poisoned arrows. It was with difficulty these Indians could be persuaded to part with any of the wourali poison, though a good price was offered for it: they gave to understand that it was powder and shot to them, and very difficult to be procured.
On the second day after leaving this settlement, in passing along, the Indians show you a place where once a white man lived. His retiring so far from those of his own colour and acquaintance seemed to carry something extraordinary along with it, and raised a desire to know what could have induced him to do so. It seems he had been unsuccessful, and that his creditors had treated him with as little mercy as the strong generally show to the weak. Seeing his endeavours daily frustrated and his best intentions of no avail, and fearing that when they had taken all he had they would probably take his liberty too, he thought the world would not be hardhearted enough to condemn him for retiring from the evils which pressed so heavily on him, and which he had done all that an honest man could do to ward off. He left his creditors to talk of him as they thought fit, and, bidding adieu for ever to the place in which he had once seen better times, he penetrated thus far into these remote and gloomy wilds and ended his days here.
According to the new map of South America, Lake Parima, or the White Sea, ought to be within three or four days’ walk from this place. On asking the Indians whether there was such a place or not, and describing that the water was fresh and good to drink, an old Indian, who appeared to be about sixty, said that there was such a place, and that he had been there. This information would have been satisfactory in some degree had not the Indians carried the point a little too far. It is very large, said another Indian, and ships come to it. Now these unfortunate ships were the very things which were not wanted: had he kept them out, it might have done, but his introducing them was sadly against the lake. Thus you must either suppose that the old savage and his companion had a confused idea of the thing, and that probably the Lake Parima they talked of was the Amazons, not far from the city of Para, or that it was their intention to deceive you. You ought to be cautious in giving credit to their stories, otherwise you will be apt to be led astray.
Many a ridiculous thing concerning the interior of Guiana has been propagated and received as true merely because six or seven Indians, questioned separately, have agreed in their narrative.
Ask those who live high up in the Demerara, and they will, every one of them, tell you that there is a nation of Indians with long tails; that they are very malicious, cruel and ill-natured; and that the Portuguese have been obliged to stop them off in a certain river to prevent their depredations. They have also dreadful stories concerning a horrible beast called the water-mamma which, when it happens to take a spite against a canoe, rises out of the river and in the most unrelenting manner possible carries both canoe and Indians down to the bottom with it, and there destroys them. Ludicrous extravagances! pleasing to those fond of the marvellous, and excellent matter for a distempered brain.
The misinformed and timid court of policy in Demerara was made the dupe of a savage who came down the Essequibo and gave himself out as king of a mighty tribe. This naked wild man of the woods seemed to hold the said court in tolerable contempt, and demanded immense supplies, all which he got; and moreover, some time after, an invitation to come down the ensuing year for more, which he took care not to forget.
This noisy chieftain boasted so much of his dynasty and domain that the Government was induced to send up an expedition into his territories to see if he had spoken the truth, and nothing but the truth. It appeared, however, that his palace was nothing but a hut, the monarch a needy savage, the heir-apparent nothing to inherit but his father’s club and bow and arrows, and his officers of state wild and uncultivated as the forests through which they strayed.
There was nothing in the hut of this savage, saving the presents he had received from Government, but what was barely sufficient to support existence; nothing that indicated a power to collect a hostile force; nothing that showed the least progress towards civilisation. All was rude and barbarous in the extreme, expressive of the utmost poverty and a scanty population.
You may travel six or seven days without seeing a hut, and when you reach a settlement it seldom contains more than ten.
The farther you advance into the interior, the more you are convinced that it is thinly inhabited.
The day after passing the place where the white man lived you see a creek on the left-hand, and shortly after the path to the open country. Here you drag the canoe up into the forest, and leave it there. Your baggage must now be carried by the Indians. The creek you passed in the river intersects the path to the next settlement; a large mora has fallen across it and makes an excellent bridge. After walking an hour and a half you come to the edge of the forest, and a savanna unfolds itself to the view.
The finest park that England boasts falls far short of this delightful scene. There are about two thousand acres of grass, with here and there a clump of trees and a few bushes and single trees scattered up and down by the hand of Nature. The ground is neither hilly nor level, but diversified with moderate rises and falls, so gently running into one another that the eye cannot distinguish where they begin nor where they end; while the distant black rocks have the appearance of a herd at rest. Nearly in the middle there is an eminence which falls off gradually on every side, and on this the Indians have erected their huts.
To the northward of them the forest forms a circle, as though it had been done by art; to the eastward it hangs in festoons; and to the south and west it rushes in abruptly, disclosing a new scene behind it at every step as you advance along.
This beautiful park of Nature is quite surrounded by lofty hills, all arrayed in superbest garb of trees: some in the form of pyramids, others like sugar-loaves, towering one above the other, some rounded off, and others as though they had lost their apex. Here two hills rise up in spiral summits, and the wooded line of communication betwixt them sinks so gradually that it forms a crescent; and there the ridges of others resemble the waves of an agitated sea. Beyond these appear others, and others past them, and others still farther on, till they can scarcely be distinguished from the clouds.
There are no sand-flies nor bête-rouge nor mosquitos in this pretty spot. The fire-flies, during the night, vie in numbers and brightness with the stars in the firmament above; the air is pure, and the north-east breeze blows a refreshing gale throughout the day. Here the white-crested maroudi, which is never found in the Demerara, is pretty plentiful; and here grows the tree which produces the moran, sometimes called balsam-capivi.
Your route lies south from this place; and at the extremity of the savanna you enter the forest and journey along a winding path at the foot of a hill. There is no habitation within this day’s walk. The traveller, as usual, must sleep in the forest; the path is not so good the following day. The hills over which it lies are rocky, steep and rugged; and the spaces betwixt them swampy and mostly knee-deep in water. After eight hours’ walk you find two or three Indian huts, surrounded by the forest; and in little more than half an hour from these you come to ten or twelve others, where you pass the night. They are prettily situated at the entrance into a savanna. The eastern and western hills are still covered with wood; but on looking to the south-west quarter you perceive it begins to die away. In these forests you may find plenty of the trees which yield the sweet-smelling resin called accaiari, and which, when pounded and burnt on charcoal, gives a delightful fragrance.
From hence you proceed, in a south-west direction, through a long swampy savanna. Some of the hills which border on it have nothing but a thin coarse grass and huge stones on them: others quite wooded; others with their summits crowned and their base quite bare; and others again with their summits bare and their base in thickest wood.
Half of this day’s march is in water nearly up to the knees. There are four creeks to pass: one of them has a fallen tree across it. You must make your own bridge across the other three. Probably, were the truth known, these apparently four creeks are only the meanders of one.
The jabiru, the largest bird in Guiana, feeds in the marshy savanna through which you have just passed. He is wary and shy, and will not allow you to get within gunshot of him.
You sleep this night in the forest, and reach an Indian settlement about three o’clock the next evening, after walking one-third of the way through wet and miry ground.
But bad as the walking is through it, it is easier than where you cross over the bare hills, where you have to tread on sharp stones, most of them lying edgewise.
The ground gone over these two last days seems condemned to perpetual solitude and silence. There was not one four-footed animal to be seen, nor even the marks of one. It would have been as silent as midnight, and all as still and unmoved as a monument, had not the jabiru in the marsh and a few vultures soaring over the mountain’s top shown that it was not quite deserted by animated nature. There were no insects, except one kind of fly about one-fourth the size of the common house-fly. It bit cruelly, and was much more tormenting than the mosquito on the sea-coast.
This seems to be the native country of the arrowroot. Wherever you passed through a patch of wood in a low situation, there you found it growing luxuriantly.
The Indian place you are now at is not the proper place to have come to in order to reach the Portuguese frontiers. You have advanced too much to the westward. But there was no alternative. The ground betwixt you and another small settlement (which was the right place to have gone to) was overflowed; and thus, instead of proceeding southward, you were obliged to wind along the foot of the western hills, quite out of your way.
But the grand landscape this place affords makes you ample amends for the time you have spent in reaching it. It would require great descriptive powers to give a proper idea of the situation these people have chosen for their dwelling.
The hill they are on is steep and high, and full of immense rocks. The huts are not all in one place, but dispersed wherever they have found a place level enough for a lodgment. Before you ascend the hill you see at intervals an acre or two of wood, then an open space with a few huts on it; then wood again, and then an open space, and so on, till the intervening of the western hills, higher and steeper still, and crowded with trees of the loveliest shades, closes the enchanting scene.
At the base of this hill stretches an immense plain which appears to the eye, on this elevated spot, as level as a bowling-green. The mountains on the other side are piled one upon the other in romantic forms, and gradually retire, till they are undiscernible from the clouds in which they are involved. To the south-southwest this far-extending plain is lost in the horizon. The trees on it, which look like islands on the ocean, add greatly to the beauty of the landscape, while the rivulet’s course is marked out by the æta-trees which follow its meanders.
Not being able to pursue the direct course from hence to the next Indian habitation, on account of the floods of water which fall at this time of the year, you take a circuit westerly along the mountain’s foot.
At last a large and deep creek stops your progress: it is wide and rapid, and its banks very steep. There is neither curial nor canoe nor purple-heart tree in the neighbourhood to make a wood-skin to carry you over, so that you are obliged to swim across; and by the time you have formed a kind of raft composed of boughs of trees and coarse grass to ferry over your baggage, the day will be too far spent to think of proceeding. You must be very cautious before you venture to swim across this creek, for the alligators are numerous and near twenty feet long. On the present occasion the Indians took uncommon precautions lest they should be devoured by this cruel and voracious reptile. They cut long sticks and examined closely the side of the creek for half a mile above and below the place where it was to be crossed; and as soon as the boldest had swum over he did the same on the other side, and then all followed.
After passing the night on the opposite bank, which is well wooded, it is a brisk walk of nine hours before you reach four Indian huts, on a rising ground, a few hundred paces from a little brook whose banks are covered over with coucourite — and æta-trees.
This is the place you ought to have come to two days ago, had the water permitted you. In crossing the plain at the most advantageous place you are above ankle-deep in water for three hours; the remainder of the way is dry, the ground gently rising. As the lower parts of this spacious plain put on somewhat the appearance of a lake during the periodical rains, it is not improbable but that this is the place which hath given rise to the supposed existence of the famed Lake Parima, or El Dorado; but this is mere conjecture.
A few deer are feeding on the coarse, rough grass of this far-extending plain; they keep at a distance from you, and are continually on the look-out.
The spur-winged plover and a species of the curlew, black with a white bar across the wings, nearly as large again as the scarlet curlew on the sea-coast, frequently rise before you. Here too the muscovy duck is numerous, and large flocks of two other kinds wheel round you as you pass on, but keep out of gunshot. The milk-white egrets and jabirus are distinguished at a great distance, and in the æta — and coucourite-trees you may observe flocks of scarlet and blue aras feeding on the seeds.
It is to these trees that the largest sort of toucan resorts. He is remarkable by a large black spot on the point of his fine yellow bill. He is very scarce in Demerara, and never seen except near the sea-coast.
The ants’ nests have a singular appearance on this plain; they are in vast abundance on those parts of it free from water, and are formed of an exceeding hard yellow clay. They rise eight or ten feet from the ground, in a spiral form, impenetrable to the rain and strong enough to defy the severest tornado.
The wourali poison procured in these last-mentioned huts seemed very good, and proved afterwards to be very strong.
There are now no more Indian settlements betwixt you and the Portuguese frontiers. If you wish to visit their fort, it would be advisable to send an Indian with a letter from hence and wait his return. On the present occasion a very fortunate circumstance occurred. The Portuguese commander had sent some Indians and soldiers to build a canoe not far from this settlement; they had just finished it, and those who did not stay with it had stopped here on their return.
The soldier who commanded the rest said he durst not, upon any account, convey a stranger to the fort: but he added, as there were two canoes, one of them might be despatched with a letter, and then we could proceed slowly on in the other.
About three hours from this settlement there is a river called Pirarara, and here the soldiers had left their canoes while they were making the new one. From the Pirarara you get into the River Maou, and then into the Tacatou; and just where the Tacatou falls into the Rio Branco there stands the Portuguese frontier-fort called Fort St. Joachim. From the time of embarking in the River Pirarara it takes you four days before you reach this fort.
There was nothing very remarkable in passing down these rivers. It is an open country, producing a coarse grass and interspersed with clumps of trees. The banks have some wood on them, but it appears stinted and crooked, like that on the bleak hills in England.
The tapir frequently plunged into the river; he was by no means shy, and it was easy to get a shot at him on land. The kessi-kessi paroquets were in great abundance, and the fine scarlet aras innumerable in the coucourite-trees at a distance from the river’s bank. In the Tacatou was seen the troupiale. It was charming to hear the sweet and plaintive notes of this pretty songster of the wilds. The Portuguese call it the nightingale of Guiana.
Towards the close of the fourth evening the canoe which had been sent on with a letter met us with the commander’s answer. During its absence the nights had been cold and stormy, the rain had fallen in torrents, the days cloudy, and there was no sun to dry the wet hammocks. Exposed thus, day and night, to the chilling blast and pelting shower, strength of constitution at last failed and a severe fever came on. The commander’s answer was very polite. He remarked, he regretted much to say that he had received orders to allow no stranger to enter the frontier, and this being the case he hoped I would not consider him as uncivil: “however,” continued he, “I have ordered the soldier to land you at a certain distance from the fort, where we can consult together.”
We had now arrived at the place, and the canoe which brought the letter returned to the fort to tell the commander I had fallen sick.
The sun had not risen above an hour the morning after when the Portuguese officer came to the spot where we had landed the preceding evening. He was tall and spare, and appeared to be from fifty to fifty-five years old; and though thirty years of service under an equatorial sun had burnt and shrivelled up his face, still there was something in it so inexpressibly affable and kind that it set you immediately at your ease. He came close up to the hammock, and taking hold of my wrist to feel the pulse, “I am sorry, Sir,” said he, “to see that the fever has taken such hold of you. You shall go directly with me,” continued he, “to the fort; and though we have no doctor there, I trust,” added he, “we shall soon bring you about again. The orders I have received forbidding the admission of strangers were never intended to be put in force against a sick English gentleman.”
As the canoe was proceeding slowly down the river towards the fort, the commander asked with much more interest than a question in ordinary conversation is asked, where was I on the night of the first of May? On telling him that I was at an Indian settlement a little below the great fall in the Demerara, and that a strange and sudden noise had alarmed all the Indians, he said the same astonishing noise had roused every man in Fort St. Joachim, and that they remained under arms till morning. He observed that he had been quite at a loss to form any idea what could have caused the noise; but now learning that the same noise had been heard at the same time far away from the Rio Branco, it struck him there must have been an earthquake somewhere or other.
Good nourishment and rest, and the unwearied attention and kindness of the Portuguese commander, stopped the progress of the fever and enabled me to walk about in six days.
Fort St. Joachim was built about five and forty years ago under the apprehension, it is said, that the Spaniards were coming from the Rio Negro to settle there. It has been much neglected; the floods of water have carried away the gate and destroyed the wall on each side of it, but the present commander is putting it into thorough repair. When finished it will mount six nine — and six twelve-pounders.
In a straight line with the fort, and within a few yards of the river, stand the commander’s house, the barracks, the chapel, the father-confessor’s house and two others, all at little intervals from each other; and these are the only buildings at Fort St. Joachim. The neighbouring extensive plains afford good pasturage for a fine breed of cattle, and the Portuguese make enough of butter and cheese for their own consumption.
On asking the old officer if there were such a place as Lake Parima, or El Dorado, he replied he looked upon it as imaginary altogether. “I have been above forty years,” added he, “in Portuguese Guiana, but have never yet met with anybody who has seen the lake.”
So much for Lake Parima, or El Dorado, or the White Sea. Its existence at best seems doubtful: some affirm that there is such a place and others deny it.
Grammatici certant, et adhuc sub judice lis est.
Having now reached the Portuguese inland frontier and collected a sufficient quantity of the wourali poison, nothing remains but to give a brief account of its composition, its effects, its uses and its supposed antidotes.
It has been already remarked that in the extensive wilds of Demerara and Essequibo, far away from any European settlement, there is a tribe of Indians who are known by the name of Macoushi.
Though the wourali poison is used by all the South American savages betwixt the Amazons and the Oroonoque, still this tribe makes it stronger than any of the rest. The Indians in the vicinity of the Rio Negro are aware of this, and come to the Macoushi country to purchase it.
Much has been said concerning this fatal and extraordinary poison. Some have affirmed that its effects are almost instantaneous, provided the minutest particle of it mixes with the blood; and others again have maintained that it is not strong enough to kill an animal of the size and strength of a man. The first have erred by lending a too willing ear to the marvellous and believing assertions without sufficient proof. The following short story points out the necessity of a cautious examination.
One day, on asking an Indian if he thought the poison would kill a man, he replied that they always go to battle with it; that he was standing by when an Indian was shot with a poisoned arrow, and that he expired almost immediately. Not wishing to dispute this apparently satisfactory information the subject was dropped.
However, about an hour after, having purposely asked him in what part of the body the said Indian was wounded, he answered without hesitation that the arrow entered betwixt his shoulders and passed quite through his heart. Was it the weapon or the strength of the poison that brought on immediate dissolution in this case? Of course the weapon.
The second have been misled by disappointment caused by neglect in keeping the poisoned arrows, or by not knowing how to use them, or by trying inferior poison. If the arrows are not kept dry the poison loses its strength, and in wet or damp weather it turns mouldy and becomes quite soft. In shooting an arrow in this state, upon examining the place where it has entered, it will be observed that, though the arrow has penetrated deep into the flesh, still by far the greatest part of the poison has shrunk back, and thus, instead of entering with the arrow, it has remained collected at the mouth of the wound. In this case the arrow might as well have not been poisoned. Probably it was to this that a gentleman, some time ago, owed his disappointment when he tried the poison on a horse in the town of Stabroek, the capital of Demerara; the horse never betrayed the least symptom of being affected by it.
Wishful to obtain the best information concerning this poison, and as repeated inquiries, in lieu of dissipating the surrounding shade, did but tend more and more to darken the little light that existed, I determined to penetrate into the country where the poisonous ingredients grow, where this pernicious composition is prepared and where it is constantly used. Success attended the adventure, and the information acquired made amends for one hundred and twenty days passed in the solitudes of Guiana, and afforded a balm to the wounds and bruises which every traveller must expect to receive who wanders through a thorny and obstructed path.
Thou must not, courteous reader, expect a dissertation on the manner in which the wourali poison operates on the system: a treatise has been already written on the subject, and, after all, there is probably still reason to doubt. It is supposed to affect the nervous system, and thus destroy the vital functions; it is also said to be perfectly harmless provided it does not touch the blood. However, this is certain: when a sufficient quantity of it enters the blood, death is the inevitable consequence; but there is no alteration in the colour of the blood, and both the blood and flesh may be eaten with safety.
All that thou wilt find here is a concise, unadorned account of the wourali poison. It may be of service to thee some time or other shouldst thou ever travel through the wilds where it is used. Neither attribute to cruelty, nor to a want of feeling for the sufferings of the inferior animals, the ensuing experiments. The larger animals were destroyed in order to have proof positive of the strength of a poison which hath hitherto been doubted, and the smaller ones were killed with the hope of substantiating that which has commonly been supposed to be an antidote.
It makes a pitying heart ache to see a poor creature in distress and pain; and too often has the compassionate traveller occasion to heave a sigh as he journeys on. However, here, though the kind-hearted will be sorry to read of an unoffending animal doomed to death in order to satisfy a doubt, still it will be a relief to know that the victim was not tortured. The wourali poison destroys life’s action so gently that the victim appears to be in no pain whatever; and probably, were the truth known, it feels none, saving the momentary smart at the time the arrow enters.
A day or two before the Macoushi Indian prepares his poison he goes into the forest in quest of the ingredients. A vine grows in these wilds which is called wourali. It is from this that the poison takes its name, and it is the principal ingredient. When he has procured enough of this he digs up a root of a very bitter taste, ties them together, and then looks about for two kinds of bulbous plants which contain a green and glutinous juice. He fills a little quake which he carries on his back with the stalks of these; and lastly ranges up and down till he finds two species of ants. One of them is very large and black, and so venomous that its sting produces a fever: it is most commonly to be met with on the ground. The other is a little red ant which stings like a nettle, and generally has its nest under the leaf of a shrub. After obtaining these he has no more need to range the forest.
A quantity of the strongest Indian pepper is used, but this he has already planted round his hut. The pounded fangs of the labarri snake and those of the counacouchi are likewise added. These he commonly has in store, for when he kills a snake he generally extracts the fangs and keeps them by him.
Having thus found the necessary ingredients, he scrapes the wourali vine and bitter root into thin shavings and puts them into a kind of colander made of leaves. This he holds over an earthen pot, and pours water on the shavings: the liquor which comes through has the appearance of coffee. When a sufficient quantity has been procured the shavings are thrown aside. He then bruises the bulbous stalks and squeezes a proportionate quantity of their juice through his hands into the pot. Lastly the snakes’ fangs, ants and pepper are bruised and thrown into it. It is then placed on a slow fire, and as it boils more of the juice of the wourali is added, according as it may be found necessary, and the scum is taken off with a leaf: it remains on the fire till reduced to a thick syrup of a deep brown colour. As soon as it has arrived at this state a few arrows are poisoned with it, to try its strength. If it answer the expectations it is poured out into a calabash, or little pot of Indian manufacture, which is carefully covered with a couple of leaves, and over them a piece of deer’s skin tied round with a cord. They keep it in the most dry part of the hut, and from time to time suspend it over the fire to counteract the effects of dampness.
The act of preparing this poison is not considered as a common one: the savage may shape his bow, fasten the barb on the point of his arrow and make his other implements of destruction either lying in his hammock or in the midst of his family; but if he has to prepare the wourali poison, many precautions are supposed to be necessary.
The women and young girls are not allowed to be present, lest the Yabahou, or evil spirit, should do them harm. The shed under which it has been boiled is pronounced polluted, and abandoned ever after. He who makes the poison must eat nothing that morning, and must continue fasting as long as the operation lasts. The pot in which it is boiled must be a new one, and must never have held anything before, otherwise the poison would be deficient in strength: add to this that the operator must take particular care not to expose himself to the vapour which arises from it while on the fire.
Though this and other precautions are taken, such as frequently washing the face and hands, still the Indians think that it affects the health; and the operator either is, or, what is more probable, supposes himself to be, sick for some days after.
Thus it appears that the making the wourali poison is considered as a gloomy and mysterious operation; and it would seem that they imagine it affects others as well as him who boils it, for an Indian agreed one evening to make some for me, but the next morning he declined having anything to do with it, alleging that his wife was with child!
Here it might be asked, are all the ingredients just mentioned necessary in order to produce the wourali poison? Though our opinions and conjectures may militate against the absolute necessity of some of them, still it would be hardly fair to pronounce them added by the hand of superstition till proof positive can be obtained.
We might argue on the subject, and by bringing forward instances of Indian superstition draw our conclusion by inference, and still remain in doubt on this head. You know superstition to be the offspring of ignorance, and of course that it takes up its abode amongst the rudest tribes of uncivilised man. It even too often resides with man in his more enlightened state.
The Augustan age furnishes numerous examples. A bone snatched from the jaws of a fasting bitch, and a feather from the wing of a night-owl —“ossa ab ore rapta jejunæ canis, plumamque nocturnæ strigis”— were necessary for Canidia’s incantations. And in after-times Parson Evans, the Welshman, was treated most ungenteelly by an enraged spirit solely because he had forgotten a fumigation in his witch-work.
If, then, enlightened man lets his better sense give way, and believes, or allows himself to be persuaded, that certain substances and actions, in reality of no avail, possess a virtue which renders them useful in producing the wished-for effect, may not the wild, untaught, unenlightened savage of Guiana add an ingredient which, on account of the harm it does him, he fancies may be useful to the perfection of his poison, though in fact it be of no use at all? If a bone snatched from the jaws of a fasting bitch be thought necessary in incantation; or if witchcraft have recourse to the raiment of the owl because it resorts to the tombs and mausoleums of the dead and wails and hovers about at the time that the rest of animated nature sleeps; certainly the savage may imagine that the ants, whose sting causes a fever, and the teeth of the labarri and counacouchi snakes, which convey death in a very short space of time, are essentially necessary in the composition of his poison; and being once impressed with this idea, he will add them every time he makes the poison and transmit the absolute use of them to his posterity. The question to be answered seems not to be if it is natural for the Indians to mix these ingredients, but if they are essential to make the poison.
So much for the preparing of this vegetable essence: terrible importer of death, into whatever animal it enters. Let us now see how it is used; let us examine the weapons which bear it to its destination, and take a view of the poor victim from the time he receives his wound till death comes to his relief.
When a native of Macoushia goes in quest of feathered game or other birds he seldom carries his bow and arrows. It is the blow-pipe he then uses. This extraordinary tube of death is, perhaps, one of the greatest natural curiosities of Guiana. It is not found in the country of the Macoushi. Those Indians tell you that it grows to the south-west of them, in the wilds which extend betwixt them and the Rio Negro. The reed must grow to an amazing length, as the part the Indians use is from ten to eleven feet long, and no tapering can be perceived in it, one end being as thick as the other. It is of a bright yellow colour, perfectly smooth both inside and out. It grows hollow, nor is there the least appearance of a knot or joint throughout the whole extent. The natives call it ourah. This of itself is too slender to answer the end of a blow-pipe, but there is a species of palma, larger and stronger, and common in Guiana, and this the Indians make use of as a case in which they put the ourah. It is brown, susceptible of a fine polish, and appears as if it had joints five or six inches from each other. It is called samourah, and the pulp inside is easily extracted by steeping it for a few days in water.
Thus the ourah and samourah, one within the other, form the blow-pipe of Guiana. The end which is applied to the mouth is tied round with a small silk-grass cord to prevent its splitting, and the other end, which is apt to strike against the ground, is secured by the seed of the acuero fruit cut horizontally through the middle, with a hole made in the end through which is put the extremity of the blow-pipe. It is fastened on with string on the outside, and the inside is filled up with wild-bees’ wax.
The arrow is from nine to ten inches long. It is made out of the leaf of a species of palm-tree called coucourite, hard and brittle, and pointed as sharp as a needle. About an inch of the pointed end is poisoned. The other end is burnt to make it still harder, and wild cotton is put round it for about an inch and a half. It requires considerable practice to put on this cotton well. It must just be large enough to fit the hollow of the tube and taper off to nothing downwards. They tie it on with a thread of the silk-grass to prevent its slipping off the arrow.
The Indians have shown ingenuity in making a quiver to hold the arrows. It will contain from five to six hundred. It is generally from twelve to fourteen inches long, and in shape resembles a dice-box used at backgammon. The inside is prettily done in basket-work with wood not unlike bamboo, and the outside has a coat of wax. The cover is all of one piece formed out of the skin of the tapir. Round the centre there is fastened a loop large enough to admit the arm and shoulder, from which it hangs when used. To the rim is tied a little bunch of silk-grass and half of the jaw-bone of the fish called pirai, with which the Indian scrapes the point of his arrow.
Before he puts the arrows into the quiver he links them together by two strings of cotton, one string at each end, and then folds them round a stick which is nearly the length of the quiver. The end of the stick, which is uppermost, is guarded by two little pieces of wood crosswise, with a hoop round their extremities, which appears something like a wheel, and this saves the hand from being wounded when the quiver is reversed in order to let the bunch of arrows drop out.
There is also attached to the quiver a little kind of basket to hold the wild cotton which is put on the blunt end of the arrow. With a quiver of poisoned arrows slung over his shoulder, and with his blow-pipe in his hand, in the same position as a soldier carries his musket, see the Macoushi Indian advancing towards the forest in quest of powises, maroudis, waracabas and other feathered game.
These generally sit high up in the tall and tufted trees, but still are not out of the Indian’s reach, for his blow-pipe, at its greatest elevation, will send an arrow three hundred feet. Silent as midnight he steals under them, and so cautiously does he tread the ground that the fallen leaves rustle not beneath his feet. His ears are open to the least sound, while his eye, keen as that of the lynx, is employed in finding out the game in the thickest shade. Often he imitates their cry, and decoys them from tree to tree, till they are within range of his tube. Then taking a poisoned arrow from his quiver, he puts it in the blow-pipe and collects his breath for the fatal puff.
About two feet from the end through which he blows there are fastened two teeth of the acouri, and these serve him for a sight. Silent and swift the arrow flies, and seldom fails to pierce the object at which it is sent. Sometimes the wounded bird remains in the same tree where it was shot, and in three minutes falls down at the Indian’s feet. Should he take wing his flight is of short duration, and the Indian, following the direction he has gone, is sure to find him dead.
It is natural to imagine that when a slight wound only is inflicted the game will make its escape. Far otherwise; the wourali poison almost instantaneously mixes with blood or water, so that if you wet your finger and dash it along the poisoned arrow in the quickest manner possible you are sure to carry off some of the poison. Though three minutes generally elapse before the convulsions come on in the wounded bird, still a stupor evidently takes place sooner, and this stupor manifests itself by an apparent unwillingness in the bird to move. This was very visible in a dying fowl.
Having procured a healthy full-grown one, a short piece of a poisoned blow-pipe arrow was broken off and run up into its thigh, as near as possible betwixt the skin and the flesh, in order that it might not be incommoded by the wound. For the first minute it walked about, but walked very slowly, and did not appear the least agitated. During the second minute it stood still, and began to peck the ground; and ere half another had elapsed it frequently opened and shut its mouth. The tail had now dropped and the wings almost touched the ground. By the termination of the third minute it had sat down, scarce able to support its head, which nodded, and then recovered itself, and then nodded again, lower and lower every time, like that of a weary traveller slumbering in an erect position; the eyes alternately open and shut. The fourth minute brought on convulsions, and life and the fifth terminated together.
The flesh of the game is not in the least injured by the poison, nor does it appear to corrupt sooner than that killed by the gun or knife. The body of this fowl was kept for sixteen hours in a climate damp and rainy, and within seven degrees of the equator, at the end of which time it had contracted no bad smell whatever and there were no symptoms of putrefaction, saving that just round the wound the flesh appeared somewhat discoloured.
The Indian, on his return home, carefully suspends his blow-pipe from the top of his spiral roof, seldom placing it in an oblique position, lest it should receive a cast.
Here let the blow-pipe remain suspended while you take a view of the arms which are made to slay the larger beasts of the forest.
When the Indian intends to chase the peccari, or surprise the deer, or rouse the tapir from his marshy retreat, he carries his bow and arrows, which are very different from the weapons already described.
The bow is generally from six to seven feet long and strung with a cord spun out of the silk-grass. The forests of Guiana furnish many species of hard wood, tough and elastic, out of which beautiful and excellent bows are formed.
The arrows are from four to five feet in length, made of a yellow reed without a knot or joint. It is found in great plenty up and down throughout Guiana. A piece of hard wood about nine inches long is inserted into the end of the reed, and fastened with cotton well waxed. A square hole an inch deep is then made in the end of this piece of hard wood, done tight round with cotton to keep it from splitting. Into this square hole is fitted a spike of coucourite-wood, poisoned, and which may be kept there or taken out at pleasure. A joint of bamboo, about as thick as your finger, is fitted on over the poisoned spike to prevent accidents and defend it from the rain, and is taken off when the arrow is about to be used. Lastly, two feathers are fastened the other end of the reed to steady it in its flight.
Besides his bow and arrows, the Indian carries a little box made of bamboo which holds a dozen or fifteen poisoned spikes six inches long. They are poisoned in the following manner: a small piece of wood is dipped in the poison, and with this they give the spike a first coat. It is then exposed to the sun or fire. After it is dry it receives another coat, and then dried again; after this a third coat, and sometimes a fourth.
They take great care to put the poison on thicker at the middle than at the sides, by which means the spike retains the shape of a two-edged sword. It is rather a tedious operation to make one of these arrows complete, and as the Indian is not famed for industry, except when pressed by hunger, he has hit upon a plan of preserving his arrows which deserves notice.
About a quarter of an inch above the part where the coucourite spike is fixed into the square hole he cuts it half through, and thus, when it has entered the animal, the weight of the arrow causes it to break off there, by which means the arrow falls to the ground uninjured, so that, should this be the only arrow he happens to have with him and should another shot immediately occur, he has only to take another poisoned spike out of his little bamboo box, fit it on its arrow, and send it to its destination.
Thus armed with deadly poison, and hungry as the hyæna, he ranges through the forest in quest of the wild-beasts’ track. No hound can act a surer part. Without clothes to fetter him or shoes to bind his feet, he observes the footsteps of the game where an European eye could not discern the smallest vestige. He pursues it through all its turns and windings with astonishing perseverance, and success generally crowns his efforts. The animal, after receiving the poisoned arrow, seldom retreats two hundred paces before it drops.
In passing over-land from the Essequibo to the Demerara we fell in with a herd of wild hogs. Though encumbered with baggage and fatigued with a hard day’s walk, an Indian got his bow ready and let fly a poisoned arrow at one of them. It entered the cheek-bone and broke off. The wild hog was found quite dead about one hundred and seventy paces from the place where he had been shot. He afforded us an excellent and wholesome supper.
Thus the savage of Guiana, independent of the common weapons of destruction, has it in his power to prepare a poison by which he can generally ensure to himself a supply of animal food: and the food so destroyed imbibes no deleterious qualities. Nature has been bountiful to him. She has not only ordered poisonous herbs and roots to grow in the unbounded forests through which he strays, but has also furnished an excellent reed for his arrows, and another still more singular for his blow-pipe, and planted trees of an amazing hard, tough and elastic texture out of which he forms his bows. And in order that nothing might be wanting, she has superadded a tree which yields him a fine wax and disseminated up and down a plant not unlike that of the pine-apple which affords him capital bow-strings.
Having now followed the Indian in the chase and described the poison, let us take a nearer view of its action and observe a large animal expiring under the weight of its baneful virulence.
Many have doubted the strength of the wourali poison. Should they ever by chance read what follows, probably their doubts on that score will be settled for ever.
In the former experiment on the dog some faint resistance on the part of Nature was observed, as if existence struggled for superiority, but in the following instance of the sloth life sunk in death without the least apparent contention, without a cry, without a struggle and without a groan. This was an ai, or three-toed sloth. It was in the possession of a gentleman who was collecting curiosities. He wished to have it killed in order to preserve the skin, and the wourali poison was resorted to as the easiest death.
Of all animals, not even the toad and tortoise excepted, this poor ill-formed creature is the most tenacious of life. It exists long after it has received wounds which would have destroyed any other animal, and it may be said, on seeing a mortally-wounded sloth, that life disputes with death every inch of flesh in its body.
The ai was wounded in the leg, and put down on the floor about two feet from the table; it contrived to reach the leg of the table, and fastened itself on it, as if wishful to ascend. But this was its last advancing step: life was ebbing fast though imperceptibly, nor could this singular production of Nature, which has been formed of a texture to resist death in a thousand shapes, make any stand against the wourali poison.
First one fore-leg let go its hold, and dropped down motionless by its side; the other gradually did the same. The fore-legs having now lost their strength, the sloth slowly doubled its body and placed its head betwixt its hind-legs, which still adhered to the table; but when the poison had affected these also it sunk to the ground, but sunk so gently that you could not distinguish the movement from an ordinary motion, and had you been ignorant that it was wounded with a poisoned arrow you would never have suspected that it was dying. Its mouth was shut, nor had any froth or saliva collected there.
There was no subsultus tendinum or any visible alteration in its breathing. During the tenth minute from the time it was wounded it stirred, and that was all; and the minute after life’s last spark went out. From the time the poison began to operate you would have conjectured that sleep was overpowering it, and you would have exclaimed: “Pressitque jacentem, dulcis et alta quies, placidæque simillima morti.”
There are now two positive proofs of the effect of this fatal poison: viz. the death of the dog and that of the sloth. But still these animals were nothing remarkable for size, and the strength of the poison in large animals might yet be doubted were it not for what follows.
A large well-fed ox, from nine hundred to a thousand pounds weight, was tied to a stake by a rope sufficiently strong to allow him to move to and fro. Having no large coucourite spikes at hand, it was judged necessary, on account of his superior size, to put three wild-hog arrows into him: one was sent into each thigh just above the hock in order to avoid wounding a vital part, and the third was shot traversely into the extremity of the nostril.
The poison seemed to take effect in four minutes. Conscious as though he would fall, the ox set himself firmly on his legs and remained quite still in the same place till about the fourteenth minute, when he smelled the ground and appeared as if inclined to walk. He advanced a pace or two, staggered and fell, and remained extended on his side, with his head on the ground. His eye, a few minutes ago so bright and lively, now became fixed and dim, and though you put your hand close to it, as if to give him a blow there, he never closed his eyelid.
His legs were convulsed and his head from time to time started involuntarily, but he never showed the least desire to raise it from the ground. He breathed hard and emitted foam from his mouth. The startings, or subsultus tendinum, now became gradually weaker and weaker; his hinder parts were fixed in death, and in a minute or two more his head and fore-legs ceased to stir.
Nothing now remained to show that life was still within him except that his heart faintly beat and fluttered at intervals. In five and twenty minutes from the time of his being wounded he was quite dead. His flesh was very sweet and savoury at dinner.
On taking a retrospective view of the two different kinds of poisoned arrows, and the animals destroyed by them, it would appear that the quantity of poison must be proportioned to the animal, and thus those probably labour under an error who imagine that the smallest particle of it introduced into the blood has almost instantaneous effects.
Make an estimate of the difference in size betwixt the fowl and the ox, and then weigh a sufficient quantity of poison for a blow-pipe arrow, with which the fowl was killed, and weigh also enough poison for three wild-hog arrows, which destroyed the ox, and it will appear that the fowl received much more poison in proportion than the ox. Hence the cause why the fowl died in five minutes and the ox in five and twenty.
Indeed, were it the case that the smallest particle of it introduced into the blood has almost instantaneous effects, the Indian would not find it necessary to make the large arrow: that of the blow-pipe is much easier made and requires less poison.
And now for the antidotes, or rather the supposed antidotes. The Indians tell you, that if the wounded animal be held for a considerable time up to the mouth in water the poison will not prove fatal; also that the juice of the sugar-cane poured down the throat will counteract the effects of it. These antidotes were fairly tried upon full-grown healthy fowls, but they all died, as though no steps had been taken to preserve their lives. Rum was recommended, and given to another, but with as little success.
It is supposed by some that wind introduced into the lungs by means of a small pair of bellows would revive the poisoned patient, provided the operation be continued for a sufficient length of time. It may be so; but this is a difficult and a tedious mode of cure, and he who is wounded in the forest, far away from his friends, or in the hut of the savages, stands but a poor chance of being saved by it.
Had the Indians a sure antidote, it is likely they would carry it about with them or resort to it immediately after being wounded, if at hand; and their confidence in its efficacy would greatly diminish the horror they betray when you point a poisoned arrow at them.
One day, while we were eating a red monkey erroneously called the baboon, in Demerara, an Arowack Indian told an affecting story of what happened to a comrade of his. He was present at his death. As it did not interest this Indian in any point to tell a falsehood, it is very probable that his account was a true one. If so, it appears that there is no certain antidote, or at least an antidote that could be resorted to in a case of urgent need, for the Indian gave up all thoughts of life as soon as he was wounded.
The Arowack Indian said it was but four years ago that he and his companion were ranging in the forest in quest of game. His companion took a poisoned arrow and sent it at a red monkey in a tree above him. It was nearly a perpendicular shot. The arrow missed the monkey, and in the descent struck him in the arm a little above the elbow. He was convinced it was all over with him. “I shall never,” said he to his companion, in a faltering voice, and looking at his bow as he said it, “I shall never,” said he, “bend this bow again.” And having said that, he took off his little bamboo poison-box, which hung across his shoulder, and putting it together with his bow and arrows on the ground, he laid himself down close by them, bid his companion farewell, and never spoke more.
He who is unfortunate enough to be wounded by a poisoned arrow from Macoushia had better not depend upon the common antidotes for a cure. Many who have been in Guiana will recommend immediate immersion in water, or to take the juice of the sugar-cane, or to fill the mouth full of salt; and they recommend these antidotes because they have got them from the Indians. But were you to ask them if they ever saw these antidotes used with success, it is ten to one their answer would be in the negative.
Wherefore let him reject these antidotes as unprofitable and of no avail. He has got an active and deadly foe within him which, like Shakespeare’s fell Serjeant Death, is strict in his arrest, and will allow him but little time — very, very little time. In a few minutes he will be numbered with the dead. Life ought, if possible, to be preserved, be the expense ever so great. Should the part affected admit of it, let a ligature be tied tight round the wound, and have immediate recourse to the knife:
Continuo, culpam ferro compesce, priusquam
Dira per infaustum serpant contagia corpus.
And now, kind reader, it is time to bid thee farewell. The two ends proposed have been obtained. The Portuguese inland frontier-fort has been reached and the Macoushi wourali poison acquired. The account of this excursion through the interior of Guiana has been submitted to thy perusal in order to induce thy abler genius to undertake a more extensive one. If any difficulties have arisen, or fevers come on, they have been caused by the periodical rains which fall in torrents as the sun approaches the Tropic of Cancer. In dry weather there would be no difficulties or sickness.
Amongst the many satisfactory conclusions which thou wouldest be able to draw during the journey there is one which, perhaps, would please thee not a little, and that is with regard to dogs. Many a time, no doubt, thou hast heard it hotly disputed that dogs existed in Guiana previously to the arrival of the Spaniards in those parts. Whatever the Spaniards introduced, and which bore no resemblance to anything the Indians had been accustomed to see, retains its Spanish name to this day.
Thus the Warow, the Arowack, the Acoway, the Macoushi and Carib tribes call a hat sombrero; a shirt or any kind of cloth camisa; a shoe zapalo; a letter carta; a fowl gallina; gunpowder colvora (Spanish polvora); ammunition bala; a cow vaca; and a dog perro.
This argues strongly against the existence of dogs in Guiana before it was discovered by the Spaniards, and probably may be of use to thee in thy next canine dispute.
In a political point of view this country presents a large field for speculation. A few years ago there was but little inducement for any Englishman to explore the interior of these rich and fine colonies, as the British Government did not consider them worth holding at the Peace of Amiens. Since that period their mother-country has been blotted out from the list of nations, and America has unfolded a new sheet of politics. On one side the Crown of Braganza, attacked by an ambitious chieftain, has fled from the palace of its ancestors, and now seems fixed on the banks of the Janeiro. Cayenne has yielded to its arms, La Plata has raised the standard of independence and thinks itself sufficiently strong to obtain a Government of its own. On the other side the Caraccas are in open revolt, and should Santa Fé join them in good earnest they may form a powerful association.
Thus on each side of ci-devant Dutch Guiana most unexpected and astonishing changes have taken place. Will they raise or lower it in the scale of estimation at the Court of St. James’s? Will they be of benefit to these grand and extensive colonies? Colonies enjoying perpetual summer. Colonies of the richest soil. Colonies containing within themselves everything necessary for their support. Colonies, in fine, so varied in their quality and situation as to be capable of bringing to perfection every tropical production, and only want the support of Government, and an enlightened governor, to render them as fine as the finest portions of the equatorial regions. Kind reader, fare thee well!
Letter to the Portuguese Commander
Como no tengo el honor, de ser conocido de VM. lo pienso mejor, y mas decoroso, quedarme aqui, hastaque huviere recibido su respuesta. Haviendo caminado hasta la choza, adonde estoi, no quisiere volverme, antes de haver visto la fortaleza de los Portugueses; y pido licencia de VM. para que me adelante. Honradissimos son mis motivos, ni tengo proyecto ninguno, o de comercio, o de la soldadesca, no siendo yo, o comerciante, o oficial. Hidalgo catolico soy, de hacienda in Ynglatierra, y muchos años de mi vida he pasado en caminar. Ultimamente, de Demeraria vengo, la quai dexé el 5 dia de Abril, para ver este hermoso pais, y coger unas curiosidades, especialmente, el veneno, que se llama wourali. Las mas recentes noticias que tenian en Demeraria, antes di mi salida, eran medias tristes, medias alegres. Tristes digo, viendo que Valencia ha caido en poder del enemigo comun, y el General Blake, y sus valientes tropas quedan prisioneros de guerra. Alegres, al contrario, porque Milord Wellington se ha apoderado de Ciudad Rodrigo. A pesar de la caida de Valencia, parece claro al mundo, que las cosas del enemigo, estan andando, de pejor a pejor cada dia. Nosotros debemos dar gracias al Altissimo, por haver sido servido dexarnos castigar ultimamente, a los robadores, de sus santas Yglesias. Se vera VM. que yo no escribo Portugues ni aun lo hablo, pero, haviendo aprendido el Castellano, no nos faltará medio de communicar y tener conversacion. Ruego se escuse esta carta escrita sin tinta, porque un Indio dexo caer mi tintero y quebrose. Dios le dé a VM. muchos años de salud. Entretanto, tengo el honor de ser
Su mas obedeciente servidor,
Incertus, quo fata ferant, ubi sistere detur.
Kind and gentle reader, if the journey in quest of the wourali poison has engaged thy attention, probably thou mayest recollect that the traveller took leave of thee at Fort St. Joachim, on the Rio Branco. Shouldest thou wish to know what befell him afterwards, excuse the following uninteresting narrative.
Having had a return of fever, and aware that the farther he advanced into these wild and lonely regions the less would be the chance of regaining his health, he gave up all idea of proceeding onwards, and went slowly back towards the Demerara, nearly by the same route he had come.
On descending the falls in the Essequibo, which form an oblique line quite across the river, it was resolved to push through them, the downward stream being in the canoe’s favour. At a little distance from the place a large tree had fallen into the river, and in the meantime the canoe was lashed to one of its branches.
The roaring of the water was dreadful: it foamed and dashed over the rocks with a tremendous spray, like breakers on a lee-shore, threatening destruction to whatever approached it. You would have thought, by the confusion it caused in the river and the whirlpools it made, that Scylla and Charybdis, and their whole progeny, had left the Mediterranean and come and settled here. The channel was barely twelve feet wide, and the torrent in rushing down formed traverse furrows which showed how near the rocks were to the surface.
Nothing could surpass the skill of the Indian who steered the canoe. He looked steadfastly at it, then at the rocks, then cast an eye on the channel, and then looked at the canoe again. It was in vain to speak. The sound was lost in the roar of waters, but his eye showed that he had already passed it in imagination. He held up his paddle in a position as much as to say that he would keep exactly amid channel, and then made a sign to cut the bush-rope that held the canoe to the fallen tree. The canoe drove down the torrent with inconceivable rapidity. It did not touch the rocks once all the way. The Indian proved to a nicety: “medio tutissimus ibis.”
Shortly after this it rained almost day and night, the lightning flashing incessantly and the roar of thunder awful beyond expression.
The fever returned, and pressed so heavy on him that to all appearance his last day’s march was over. However, it abated, his spirits rallied, and he marched again; and after delays and inconveniences he reached the house of his worthy friend Mr. Edmonstone, in Mibiri Creek, which falls into the Demerara. No words of his can do justice to the hospitality of that gentleman, whose repeated encounters with the hostile negroes in the forest have been publicly rewarded and will be remembered in the colony for years to come.
Here he learned that an eruption had taken place in St. Vincent’s, and thus the noise heard in the night of the first of May, which had caused such terror amongst the Indians and made the garrison at Fort St. Joachim remain under arms the rest of the night, is accounted for.
After experiencing every kindness and attention from Mr. Edmonstone he sailed for Granada, and from thence to St. Thomas’s, a few days before poor Captain Peake lost his life on his own quarter-deck bravely fighting for his country on the coast of Guiana.
At St. Thomas’s they show you a tower, a little distance from the town, which they say formerly belonged to a bucanier chieftain. Probably the fury of besiegers has reduced it to its present dismantled state. What still remains of it bears testimony of its former strength and may brave the attack of time for centuries. You cannot view its ruins without calling to mind the exploits of those fierce and hardy hunters, long the terror of the Western world. While you admire their undaunted courage, you lament that it was often stained with cruelty; while you extol their scrupulous justice to each other, you will find a want of it towards the rest of mankind. Often possessed of enormous wealth, often in extreme poverty, often triumphant on the ocean and often forced to fly to the forests, their life was an ever-changing scene of advance and retreat, of glory and disorder, of luxury and famine. Spain treated them as outlaws and pirates, while other European powers publicly disowned them. They, on the other hand, maintained that injustice on the part of Spain first forced them to take up arms in self-defence, and that, whilst they kept inviolable the laws which they had framed for their own common benefit and protection, they had a right to consider as foes those who treated them as outlaws. Under this impression they drew the sword and rushed on as though in lawful war, and divided the spoils of victory in the scale of justice.
After leaving St. Thomas’s, a severe tertian ague every now and then kept putting the traveller in mind that his shattered frame, “starting and shivering in the inconstant blast, meagre and pale, the ghost of what it was,” wanted repairs. Three years elapsed after arriving in England before the ague took its final leave of him.
During that time, several experiments were made with the wourali poison. In London an ass was inoculated with it and died in twelve minutes. The poison was inserted into the leg of another, round which a bandage had been previously tied a little above the place where the wourali was introduced. He walked about as usual and ate his food as though all were right. After an hour had elapsed the bandage was untied, and ten minutes after death overtook him.
A she-ass received the wourali poison in the shoulder, and died apparently in ten minutes. An incision was then made in its windpipe and through it the lungs were regularly inflated for two hours with a pair of bellows. Suspended animation returned. The ass held up her head and looked around, but the inflating being discontinued she sunk once more in apparent death. The artificial breathing was immediately recommenced, and continued without intermission for two hours more. This saved the ass from final dissolution: she rose up and walked about; she seemed neither in agitation nor in pain. The wound through which the poison entered was healed without difficulty. Her constitution, however, was so severely affected that it was long a doubt if ever she would be well again. She looked lean and sickly for above a year, but began to mend the spring after, and by midsummer became fat and frisky.
The kind-hearted reader will rejoice on learning that Earl Percy, pitying her misfortunes, sent her down from London to Walton Hall, near Wakefield. There she goes by the name of Wouralia. Wouralia shall be sheltered from the wintry storm; and when summer comes she shall feed in the finest pasture. No burden shall be placed upon her, and she shall end her days in peace.
For three revolving autumns, the ague-beaten wanderer never saw without a sigh the swallow bend her flight towards warmer regions. He wished to go too, but could not for sickness had enfeebled him, and prudence pointed out the folly of roving again too soon across the northern tropic. To be sure, the Continent was now open, and change of air might prove beneficial, but there was nothing very tempting in a trip across the Channel, and as for a tour through England! — England has long ceased to be the land for adventures. Indeed, when good King Arthur reappears to claim his crown, he will find things strangely altered here; and may we not look for his coming? for there is written upon his gravestone:
Hic jacet Arturus, Rex quondam Rexque futurus.
Here Arthur lies, who formerly
Was king — and king again to be.
Don Quixote was always of opinion that this famous king did not die, but that he was changed into a raven by enchantment and that the English are momentarily expecting his return. Be this as it may, it is certain that when he reigned here all was harmony and joy. The browsing herds passed from vale to vale, the swains sang from the bluebell-teeming groves, and nymphs, with eglantine and roses in their neatly-braided hair, went hand in hand to the flowery mead to weave garlands for their lambkins. If by chance some rude, uncivil fellow dared to molest them, or attempted to throw thorns in their path, there was sure to be a knight-errant not far off ready to rush forward in their defence. But alas! in these degenerate days it is not so. Should a harmless cottage-maid wander out of the highway to pluck a primrose or two in the neighbouring field, the haughty owner sternly bids her retire; and if a pitying swain hasten to escort her back, he is perhaps seized by the gaunt house-dog ere he reach her!
Æneas’s route on the other side of Styx could not have been much worse than this, though, by his account, when he got back to earth, it appears that he had fallen in with “Bellua Lernæ, horrendum stridens, flammisque, armata Chimæra.”
Moreover, he had a sibyl to guide his steps; and as such a conductress nowadays could not be got for love or money, it was judged most prudent to refrain from sauntering through this land of freedom, and wait with patience the return of health. At last this long-looked-for, ever-welcome stranger came.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01