In the year 1816, two days before the vernal equinox, I sailed from Liverpool for Pernambuco, in the southern hemisphere, on the coast of Brazil. There is little at this time of the year, in the European part of the Atlantic, to engage the attention of the naturalist. As you go down the Channel you see a few divers and gannets. The middle-sized gulls, with a black spot at the end of the wings, attend you a little way into the Bay of Biscay. When it blows a hard gale of wind the stormy petrel makes its appearance. While the sea runs mountains high, and every wave threatens destruction to the labouring vessel, this little harbinger of storms is seen enjoying itself, on rapid pinion, up and down the roaring billows. When the storm is over it appears no more. It is known to every English sailor by the name of Mother Carey’s chicken. It must have been hatched in Æolus’s cave, amongst a clutch of squalls and tempests, for whenever they get out upon the ocean it always contrives to be of the party.
Though the calms and storms and adverse winds in these latitudes are vexatious, still, when you reach the trade-winds, you are amply repaid for all disappointments and inconveniences. The trade-winds prevail about thirty degrees on each side of the equator. This part of the ocean may be called the Elysian Fields of Neptune’s empire; and the torrid zone, notwithstanding Ovid’s remark, “non est habitabilis æstu,” is rendered healthy and pleasant by these gently-blowing breezes. The ship glides smoothly on, and you soon find yourself within the northern tropic. When you are on it Cancer is just over your head, and betwixt him and Capricorn is the high-road of the Zodiac, forty-seven degrees wide, famous for Phaeton’s misadventure. His father begged and entreated him not to take it into his head to drive parallel to the five zones, but to mind and keep on the turnpike which runs obliquely across the equator. “There you will distinctly see,” said he, “the ruts of my chariot wheels, ‘manifesta rotæ vestigia cernes.’” “But,” added he, “even suppose you keep on it, and avoid the by-roads, nevertheless, my dear boy, believe me, you will be most sadly put to your shifts; ‘ardua prima via est,’ the first part of the road is confoundedly steep! ‘ultima via prona est,’ and after that, it is all down-hill! Moreover, ‘per insidias iter est, formasque ferarum,’ the road is full of nooses and bull-dogs, ‘Hæmoniosque arcus,’ and spring guns, ‘sævaque circuitu, curvantem brachia longo, Scorpio,’ and steel traps of uncommon size and shape.” These were nothing in the eyes of Phaeton; go he would, so off he set, full speed, four in hand. He had a tough drive of it, and after doing a prodigious deal of mischief, very luckily for the world he got thrown out of the box, and tumbled into the River Po.
Some of our modern bloods have been shallow enough to try to ape this poor empty-headed coachman on a little scale, making London their Zodiac. Well for them if tradesmen’s bills and other trivial perplexities have not caused them to be thrown into the King’s Bench.
The productions of the torrid zone are uncommonly grand. Its plains, its swamps, its savannas and forests abound with the largest serpents and wild beasts; and its trees are the habitation of the most beautiful of the feathered race. While the traveller in the Old World is astonished at the elephant, the tiger, the lion and rhinoceros, he who wanders through the torrid regions of the New is lost in admiration at the cotingas, the toucans, the humming-birds and aras.
The ocean likewise swarms with curiosities. Probably the flying-fish may be considered as one of the most singular. This little scaled inhabitant of water and air seems to have been more favoured than the rest of its finny brethren. It can rise out of the waves and on wing visit the domain of the birds.
After flying two or three hundred yards, the intense heat of the sun has dried its pellucid wings, and it is obliged to wet them in order to continue its flight. It just drops into the ocean for a moment, and then rises again and flies on; and then descends to remoisten them, and then up again into the air; thus passing its life, sometimes wet, sometimes dry, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in the pale moon’s nightly beam, as pleasure dictates or as need requires. The additional assistance of wings is not thrown away upon it. It has full occupation both for fins and wings, as its life is in perpetual danger.
The bonito and albicore chase it day and night, but the dolphin is its worst and swiftest foe. If it escape into the air, the dolphin pushes on with proportional velocity beneath, and is ready to snap it up the moment it descends to wet its wings.
You will often see above one hundred of these little marine aerial fugitives on the wing at once. They appear to use every exertion to prolong their flight, but vain are all their efforts, for when the last drop of water on their wings is dried up their flight is at an end, and they must drop into the ocean. Some are instantly devoured by their merciless pursuer, part escape by swimming, and others get out again as quick as possible, and trust once more to their wings.
It often happens that this unfortunate little creature, after alternate dips and flights, finding all its exertions of no avail, at last drops on board the vessel, verifying the old remark:
Incidit in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdim.
There, stunned by the fall, it beats the deck with its tail and dies. When eating it you would take it for a fresh herring. The largest measure from fourteen to fifteen inches in length. The dolphin, after pursuing it to the ship, sometimes forfeits his own life.
In days of yore the musician used to play in softest, sweetest strain, and then take an airing amongst the dolphins: “inter delphinas Arion.” But nowadays our tars have quite capsized the custom, and instead of riding ashore on the dolphin, they invite the dolphin aboard. While he is darting and playing around the vessel a sailor goes out to the spritsail yard-arm, and with a long staff, leaded at one end, and armed at the other with five barbed spikes, he heaves it at him. If successful in his aim there is a fresh mess for all hands. The dying dolphin affords a superb and brilliant sight:
Mille trahit moriens, adverse sole colores.
All the colours of the rainbow pass and repass in rapid succession over his body, till the dark hand of death closes the scene.
From the Cape de Verd Islands to the coast of Brazil you see several different kinds of gulls, which, probably, are bred in the Island of St. Paul. Sometimes the large bird called the frigate pelican soars majestically over the vessel, and the tropic bird comes near enough to let you have a fair view of the long feathers in his tail. On the line, when it is calm, sharks of a tremendous size make their appearance. They are descried from the ship by means of the dorsal fin, which is above the water.
On entering the Bay of Pernambuco, the frigate pelican is seen watching the shoals of fish from a prodigious height. It seldom descends without a successful attack on its numerous prey below.
As you approach the shore the view is charming. The hills are clothed with wood, gradually rising towards the interior, none of them of any considerable height. A singular reef of rocks runs parallel to the coast and forms the harbour of Pernambuco. The vessels are moored betwixt it and the town, safe from every storm. You enter the harbour through a very narrow passage, close by a fort built on the reef. The hill of Olinda, studded with houses and convents, is on your right-hand, and an island thickly planted with cocoa-nut trees adds considerably to the scene on your left. There are two strong forts on the isthmus betwixt Olinda and Pernambuco, and a pillar midway to aid the pilot.
Pernambuco probably contains upwards of fifty thousand souls. It stands on a flat, and is divided into three parts: a peninsula, an island and the continent. Though within a few degrees of the line, its climate is remarkably salubrious and rendered almost temperate by the refreshing sea-breeze. Had art and judgment contributed their portion to its natural advantages, Pernambuco at this day would have been a stately ornament to the coast of Brazil. On viewing it, it will strike you that everyone has built his house entirely for himself, and deprived public convenience of the little claim she had a right to put in. You would wish that this city, so famous for its harbour, so happy in its climate and so well situated for commerce, could have risen under the flag of Dido, in lieu of that of Braganza.
As you walk down the streets the appearance of the houses is not much in their favour. Some of them are very high, and some very low; some newly whitewashed, and others stained and mouldy and neglected, as though they had no owner.
The balconies, too, are of a dark and gloomy appearance. They are not, in general, open as in most tropical cities, but grated like a farmer’s dairy-window, though somewhat closer.
There is a lamentable want of cleanliness in the streets. The impurities from the houses and the accumulation of litter from the beasts of burden are unpleasant sights to the passing stranger. He laments the want of a police as he goes along, and when the wind begins to blow his nose and eyes are too often exposed to a cloud of very unsavoury dust.
When you view the port of Pernambuco, full of ships of all nations; when you know that the richest commodities of Europe, Africa and Asia are brought to it; when you see immense quantities of cotton, dye-wood and the choicest fruits pouring into the town, you are apt to wonder at the little attention these people pay to the common comforts which one always expects to find in a large and opulent city. However, if the inhabitants are satisfied, there is nothing more to be said. Should they ever be convinced that inconveniences exist, and that nuisances are too frequent, the remedy is in their own hands. At present, certainly, they seem perfectly regardless of them; and the Captain–General of Pernambuco walks through the streets with as apparent content and composure as an English statesman would proceed down Charing Cross. Custom reconciles everything. In a week or two the stranger himself begins to feel less the things which annoyed him so much upon his first arrival, and after a few months’ residence he thinks no more about them, while he is partaking of the hospitality and enjoying the elegance and splendour within doors in this great city.
Close by the river-side stands what is called the palace of the Captain–General of Pernambuco. Its form and appearance altogether strike the traveller that it was never intended for the use it is at present put to.
Reader, throw a veil over thy recollection for a little while, and forget the cruel, unjust and unmerited censures thou hast heard against an unoffending order. This palace was once the Jesuits’ college, and originally built by those charitable fathers. Ask the aged and respectable inhabitants of Pernambuco, and they will tell thee that the destruction of the Society of Jesus was a terrible disaster to the public, and its consequences severely felt to the present day.
When Pombal took the reins of power into his own hands, virtue and learning beamed bright within the college walls. Public catechism to the children, and religious instruction to all, flowed daily from the mouths of its venerable priests.
They were loved, revered and respected throughout the whole town. The illuminating philosophers of the day had sworn to exterminate Christian knowledge, and the college of Pernambuco was doomed to founder in the general storm. To the long-lasting sorrow and disgrace of Portugal, the philosophers blinded her king and flattered her prime minister. Pombal was exactly the tool these sappers of every public and private virtue wanted. He had the naked sword of power in his own hand, and his heart was hard as flint. He struck a mortal blow and the Society of Jesus, throughout the Portuguese dominions, was no more.
One morning all the fathers of the college in Pernambuco, some of them very old and feeble, were suddenly ordered into the refectory. They had notice beforehand of the fatal storm, in pity, from the governor, but not one of them abandoned his charge. They had done their duty and had nothing to fear. They bowed with resignation to the will of Heaven. As soon as they had all reached the refectory they were there locked up, and never more did they see their rooms, their friends, their scholars, or acquaintance. In the dead of the following night a strong guard of soldiers literally drove them through the streets to the water’s edge. They were then conveyed in boats aboard a ship and steered for Bahia. Those who survived the barbarous treatment they experienced from Pombal’s creatures, were at last ordered to Lisbon. The college of Pernambuco was plundered, and some time after an elephant was kept there.
Thus the arbitrary hand of power, in one night, smote and swept away the sciences: to which succeeded the low vulgar buffoonery of a showman. Virgil and Cicero made way for a wild beast from Angola! and now a guard is on duty at the very gate where, in times long past, the poor were daily fed!
Trust not, kind reader, to the envious remarks which their enemies have scattered far and near; believe not the stories of those who have had a hand in the sad tragedy. Go to Brazil, and see with thine own eyes the effect of Pombal’s short-sighted policy. There vice reigns triumphant and learning is at its lowest ebb. Neither is this to be wondered at. Destroy the compass, and will the vessel find her far-distant port? Will the flock keep together, and escape the wolves, after the shepherds are all slain? The Brazilians were told that public education would go on just as usual. They might have asked Government, who so able to instruct our youth as those whose knowledge is proverbial? who so fit as those who enjoy our entire confidence? who so worthy as those whose lives are irreproachable?
They soon found that those who succeeded the fathers of the Society of Jesus had neither their manner nor their abilities. They had not made the instruction of youth their particular study. Moreover, they entered on the field after a defeat where the officers had all been slain; where the plan of the campaign was lost; where all was in sorrow and dismay. No exertions of theirs could rally the dispersed, or skill prevent the fatal consequences. At the present day the seminary of Olinda, in comparison with the former Jesuits’ college, is only as the waning moon’s beam to the sun’s meridian splendour.
When you visit the places where those learned fathers once flourished, and see with your own eyes the evils their dissolution has caused; when you hear the inhabitants telling you how good, how clever, how charitable they were; what will you think of our poet laureate for calling them, in his History of Brazil, “Missioners whose zeal the most fanatical was directed by the coolest policy”?
Was it fanatical to renounce the honours and comforts of this transitory life in order to gain eternal glory in the next, by denying themselves, and taking up the cross? Was it fanatical to preach salvation to innumerable wild hordes of Americans? to clothe the naked? to encourage the repenting sinner? to aid the dying Christian? The fathers of the Society of Jesus did all this. And for this their zeal is pronounced to be the most fanatical, directed by the coolest policy. It will puzzle many a clear brain to comprehend how it is possible, in the nature of things, that zeal the most fanatical should be directed by the coolest policy. Ah, Mr. Laureate, Mr. Laureate, that “quidlibet audendi” of yours may now and then gild the poet at the same time that it makes the historian cut a sorry figure!
Could Father Nobrega rise from the tomb, he would thus address you: “Ungrateful Englishman, you have drawn a great part of your information from the writings of the Society of Jesus, and in return you attempt to stain its character by telling your countrymen that ‘we taught the idolatry we believed’! In speaking of me, you say it was my happy fortune to be stationed in a country where none but the good principles of my order were called into action. Ungenerous laureate, the narrow policy of the times has kept your countrymen in the dark with regard to the true character of the Society of Jesus; and you draw the bandage still tighter over their eyes by a malicious insinuation. I lived and taught and died in Brazil, where you state that none but the good principles of my order were called into action, and still, in most absolute contradiction to this, you remark we believed the idolatry we taught in Brazil. Thus we brought none but good principles into action, and still taught idolatry!
“Again, you state there is no individual to whose talents Brazil is so greatly and permanently indebted as mine, and that I must be regarded as the founder of that system so successfully pursued by the Jesuits in Paraguay: a system productive of as much good as is compatible with pious fraud. Thus you make me, at one and the same time, a teacher of none but good principles, and a teacher of idolatry, and a believer in idolatry, and still the founder of a system for which Brazil is greatly and permanently indebted to me, though, by the by, the system was only productive of as much good as is compatible with pious fraud!
“What means all this? After reading such incomparable nonsense, should your countrymen wish to be properly informed concerning the Society of Jesus, there are in England documents enough to show that the system of the Jesuits was a system of Christian charity towards their fellow-creatures administered in a manner which human prudence judged best calculated to ensure success; and that the idolatry which you uncharitably affirm they taught was really and truly the very same faith which the Catholic Church taught for centuries in England, which she still teaches to those who wish to hear her, and which she will continue to teach, pure and unspotted, till time shall be no more.”
The environs of Pernambuco are very pretty. You see country houses in all directions, and the appearance of here and there a sugar-plantation enriches the scenery. Palm-trees, cocoanut-trees, orange and lemon groves, and all the different fruits peculiar to Brazil, are here in the greatest abundance.
At Olinda there is a national botanical garden: it wants space, produce and improvement. The forests, which are several leagues off, abound with birds, beasts, insects and serpents. Besides a brilliant plumage, many of the birds have a very fine song. The troupiale, noted for its rich colours, sings delightfully in the environs of Pernambuco. The red-headed finch, larger than the European sparrow, pours forth a sweet and varied strain, in company with two species of wrens, a little before daylight. There are also several species of the thrush, which have a song somewhat different from that of the European thrush; and two species of the linnet, whose strain is so soft and sweet that it dooms them to captivity in the houses. A bird called here sangre-do-buey, blood of the ox, cannot fail to engage your attention: he is of the passerine tribe, and very common about the houses; the wings and tail are black and every other part of the body a flaming red. In Guiana there is a species exactly the same as this in shape, note and economy, but differing in colour, its whole body being like black velvet; on its breast a tinge of red appears through the black. Thus Nature has ordered this little tangara to put on mourning to the north of the line and wear scarlet to the south of it.
For three months in the year the environs of Pernambuco are animated beyond description. From November to March the weather is particularly fine; then it is that rich and poor, young and old, foreigners and natives, all issue from the city to enjoy the country till Lent approaches, when back they hie them. Villages and hamlets, where nothing before but rags was seen, now shine in all the elegance of dress; every house, every room, every shed become eligible places for those whom nothing but extreme necessity could have forced to live there a few weeks ago: some join in the merry dance, others saunter up and down the orange groves; and towards evening the roads become a moving scene of silk and jewels. The gaming-tables have constant visitors: there thousands are daily and nightly lost and won — parties even sit down to try their luck round the outside of the door as well as in the room:
Vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus aulæ
Luctus et ultrices, posucre sedilia curæ.
About six or seven miles from Pernambuco stands a pretty little village called Monteiro. The river runs close by it, and its rural beauties seem to surpass all others in the neighbourhood. There the Captain–General of Pernambuco resides during this time of merriment and joy.
The traveller who allots a portion of his time to peep at his fellow-creatures in their relaxations, and accustoms himself to read their several little histories in their looks and gestures as he goes musing on, may have full occupation for an hour or two every day at this season amid the variegated scenes around the pretty village of Monteiro. In the evening groups sitting at the door, he may sometimes see with a sigh how wealth and the prince’s favour cause a booby to pass for a Solon, and be reverenced as such, while perhaps a poor neglected Camoens stands silent at a distance, awed by the dazzling glare of wealth and power. Retired from the public road he may see poor Maria sitting under a palm-tree, with her elbow in her lap and her head leaning on one side within her hand, weeping over her forbidden bans. And as he moves on “with wandering step and slow,” he may hear a broken-hearted nymph ask her faithless swain:
How could you say my face was fair,
And yet that face forsake?
How could you win my virgin heart,
Yet leave that heart to break?
One afternoon, in an unfrequented part not far from Monteiro, these adventures were near being brought to a speedy and a final close: six or seven blackbirds, with a white spot betwixt the shoulders, were making a noise and passing to and fro on the lower branches of a tree in an abandoned, weed-grown orange-orchard. In the long grass underneath the tree apparently a pale green grasshopper was fluttering, as though it had got entangled in it. When you once fancy that the thing you are looking at is really what you take it for, the more you look at it the more you are convinced it is so. In the present case this was a grasshopper beyond all doubt, and nothing more remained to be done but to wait in patience till it had settled, in order that you might run no risk of breaking its legs in attempting to lay hold of it while it was fluttering — it still kept fluttering; and having quietly approached it, intending to make sure of it — behold, the head of a large rattlesnake appeared in the grass close by: an instantaneous spring backwards prevented fatal consequences. What had been taken for a grasshopper was, in fact, the elevated rattle of the snake in the act of announcing that he was quite prepared, though unwilling, to make a sure and deadly spring. He shortly after passed slowly from under the orange-tree to the neighbouring wood on the side of a hill: as he moved over a place bare of grass and weeds he appeared to be about eight feet long; it was he who had engaged the attention of the birds and made them heedless of danger from another quarter: they flew away on his retiring — one alone left his little life in the air, destined to become a specimen, mute and motionless, for the inspection of the curious in a far distant clime.
It was now the rainy season. The birds were moulting — fifty-eight specimens of the handsomest of them in the neighbourhood of Pernambuco had been collected; and it was time to proceed elsewhere. The conveyance to the interior was by horses, and this mode, together with the heavy rains, would expose preserved specimens to almost certain damage. The journey to Maranham by land would take at least forty days. The route was not wild enough to engage the attention of an explorer, or civilised enough to afford common comforts to a traveller. By sea there were no opportunities, except slave-ships. As the transporting poor negroes from port to port for sale pays well in Brazil, the ships’ decks are crowded with them. This would not do.
Excuse here, benevolent reader, a small tribute of gratitude to an Irish family whose urbanity and goodness have long gained it the esteem and respect of all ranks in Pernambuco. The kindness and attention I received from Dennis Kearney, Esq., and his amiable lady will be remembered with gratitude to my dying day.
After wishing farewell to this hospitable family, I embarked on board a Portuguese brig, with poor accommodations, for Cayenne in Guiana. The most eligible bedroom was the top of a hen-coop on deck. Even here an unsavoury little beast, called bug, was neither shy nor deficient in appetite.
The Portuguese seamen are famed for catching fish. One evening, under the line, four sharks made their appearance in the wake of the vessel. The sailors caught them all.
On the fourteenth day after leaving Pernambuco, the brig cast anchor off the Island of Cayenne. The entrance is beautiful. To windward, not far off, there are two bold wooded islands called the Father and Mother, and near them are others, their children, smaller, though as beautiful as their parents. Another is seen a long way to leeward of the family, and seems as if it had strayed from home and cannot find its way back. The French call it “l’enfant perdu.” As you pass the islands the stately hills on the main, ornamented with ever-verdant foliage, show you that this is by far the sublimest scenery on the sea-coast from the Amazons to the Oroonoque. On casting your eye towards Dutch Guiana you will see that the mountains become unconnected and few in number, and long before you reach Surinam the Atlantic wave washes a flat and muddy shore.
Considerably to windward of Cayenne, and about twelve leagues from land, stands a stately and towering rock called the Constable. As nothing grows on it to tempt greedy and aspiring man to claim it as his own, the sea-fowl rest and raise their offspring there. The bird called the frigate is ever soaring round its rugged summit. Hither the phaeton bends his rapid flight, and flocks of rosy flamingos here defy the fowler’s cunning. All along the coast, opposite the Constable, and indeed on every uncultivated part of it to windward and leeward, are seen innumerable quantities of snow-white egrets, scarlet curlews, spoonbills and flamingos.
Cayenne is capable of being a noble and productive colony. At present it is thought to be the poorest on the coast of Guiana. Its estates are too much separated one from the other by immense tracts of forest; and the revolutionary war, like a cold eastern wind, has chilled their zeal and blasted their best expectations.
The clove-tree, the cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg, and many other choice spices and fruits of the Eastern and Asiatic regions, produce abundantly in Cayenne.
The town itself is prettily laid out, and was once well fortified. They tell you it might easily have been defended against the invading force of the two united nations; but Victor Hugues, its governor, ordered the tri-coloured flag to be struck; and ever since that day the standard of Braganza has waved on the ramparts of Cayenne.
He who has received humiliations from the hand of this haughty, iron-hearted governor may see him now, in Cayenne, stripped of all his revolutionary honours, broken down and ruined, and under arrest in his own house. He has four accomplished daughters, respected by the whole town. Towards the close of day, when the sun’s rays are no longer oppressive, these much-pitied ladies are seen walking up and down the balcony with their aged parent, trying, by their kind and filial attention, to remove the settled gloom from his too guilty brow.
This was not the time for a traveller to enjoy Cayenne. The hospitality of the inhabitants was the same as ever, but they had lost their wonted gaiety in public, and the stranger might read in their countenances, as the recollection of recent humiliations and misfortunes every now and then kept breaking in upon them, that they were still in sorrow for their fallen country: the victorious hostile cannon of Waterloo still sounded in their ears: their emperor was a prisoner amongst the hideous rocks of St. Helena; and many a Frenchman who had fought and bled for France was now amongst them begging for a little support to prolong a life which would be forfeited on the parent soil. To add another handful to the cypress and wormwood already scattered amongst these polite colonists, they had just received orders from the Court of Janeiro to put on deep mourning for six months, and half-mourning for as many more, on account of the death of the queen of Portugal.
About a day’s journey in the interior is the celebrated national plantation. This spot was judiciously chosen, for it is out of the reach of enemies’ cruisers. It is called La Gabrielle. No plantation in the Western world can vie with La Gabrielle. Its spices are of the choicest kind, its soil particularly favourable to them, its arrangements beautiful, and its directeur, Monsieur Martin, a botanist of first-rate abilities. This indefatigable naturalist ranged through the East, under a royal commission, in quest of botanical knowledge; and during his stay in the Western regions has sent over to Europe from twenty to twenty-five thousand specimens in botany and zoology. La Gabrielle is on a far-extending range of woody hills. Figure to yourself a hill in the shape of a bowl reversed, with the buildings on the top of it, and you will have an idea of the appearance of La Gabrielle. You approach the house through a noble avenue, five hundred toises long, of the choicest tropical fruit-trees, planted with the greatest care and judgment; and should you chance to stray through it, after sunset, when the clove-trees are in blossom, you would fancy yourself in the Idalian groves or near the banks of the Nile, where they were burning the finest incense as the queen of Egypt passed.
On La Gabrielle there are twenty-two thousand clove-trees in full bearing. They are planted thirty feet asunder. Their lower branches touch the ground. In general the trees are topped at five and twenty feet high, though you will see some here towering up above sixty. The black pepper, the cinnamon and nutmeg are also in great abundance here, and very productive.
While the stranger views the spicy groves of La Gabrielle, and tastes the most delicious fruits which have been originally imported hither from all parts of the tropical world, he will thank the Government which has supported, and admire the talents of the gentleman who has raised to its present grandeur, this noble collection of useful fruits. There is a large nursery attached to La Gabrielle where plants of all the different species are raised and distributed gratis to those colonists who wish to cultivate them.
Not far from the banks of the River Oyapoc, to windward of Cayenne, is a mountain which contains an immense cavern. Here the cock-of-the-rock is plentiful. He is about the size of a fantail pigeon, his colour a bright orange and his wings and tail appear as though fringed; his head is ornamented with a superb double-feathery crest edged with purple. He passes the day amid gloomy damps and silence, and only issues out for food a short time at sunrise and sunset. He is of the gallinaceous tribe. The South–American Spaniards call him “Gallo del Rio Negro” (Cock of the Black River), and suppose that he is only to be met with in the vicinity of that far-inland stream; but he is common in the interior of Demerara, amongst the huge rocks in the forests of Macoushia, and he has been shot south of the line, in the captainship of Para.
The bird called by Buffon grand gobe-mouche has never been found in Demerara, although very common in Cayenne. He is not quite so large as the jackdaw, and is entirely black, except a large spot under the throat, which is a glossy purple.
You may easily sail from Cayenne to the River Surinam in two days. Its capital, Paramaribo, is handsome, rich and populous: hitherto it has been considered by far the finest town in Guiana, but probably the time is not far off when the capital of Demerara may claim the prize of superiority. You may enter a creek above Paramaribo and travel through the interior of Surinam till you come to the Nicari, which is close to the large River Coryntin. When you have passed this river there is a good public road to New Amsterdam, the capital of Berbice.
On viewing New Amsterdam, it will immediately strike you that something or other has intervened to prevent its arriving at that state of wealth and consequence for which its original plan shows it was once intended. What has caused this stop in its progress to the rank of a fine and populous city remains for those to find out who are interested in it; certain it is that New Amsterdam has been languid for some years, and now the tide of commerce seems ebbing fast from the shores of Berbice.
Gay and blooming is the sister colony of Demerara. Perhaps, kind reader, thou hast not forgot that it was from Stabroek, the capital of Demerara, that the adventurer set out, some years ago, to reach the Portuguese frontier-fort and collect the wourali poison. It was not intended, when this second sally was planned in England, to have visited Stabroek again by the route here described. The plan was to have ascended the Amazons from Para and got into the Rio Negro, and from thence to have returned towards the source of the Essequibo, in order to examine the crystal mountains and look once more for Lake Parima, or the White Sea; but on arriving at Cayenne the current was running with such amazing rapidity to leeward that a Portuguese sloop, which had been beating up towards Para for four weeks, was then only half-way. Finding, therefore, that a beat to the Amazons would be long, tedious and even uncertain, and aware that the season for procuring birds in fine plumage had already set in, I left Cayenne in an American ship for Paramaribo, went through the interior to the Coryntin, stopped a few days in New Amsterdam, and proceeded to Demerara. If, gentle reader, thy patience be not already worn out, and thy eyes half-closed in slumber by perusing the dull adventures of this second sally, perhaps thou wilt pardon a line or two on Demerara; and then we will retire to its forests to collect and examine the economy of its most rare and beautiful birds, and give the world a new mode of preserving them.
Stabroek, the capital of Demerara, has been rapidly increasing for some years back; and if prosperity go hand in hand with the present enterprising spirit, Stabroek, ere long, will be of the first colonial consideration. It stands on the eastern bank at the mouth of the Demerara, and enjoys all the advantages of the refreshing sea-breeze; the streets are spacious, well bricked and elevated, the trenches clean, the bridges excellent, and the houses handsome. Almost every commodity and luxury of London may be bought in the shops at Stabroek: its market wants better regulations. The hotels are commodious, clean and well-attended. Demerara boasts as fine and well-disciplined militia as any colony in the Western world.
The court of justice, where in times of old the bandage was easily removed from the eyes of the goddess and her scales thrown out of equilibrium, now rises in dignity under the firmness, talents and urbanity of Mr. President Rough.
The plantations have an appearance of high cultivation; a tolerable idea may be formed of their value when you know that last year Demerara numbered 72,999 slaves. They made above 44,000,000 pounds of sugar, near 2,000,000 gallons of rum, above 11,000,000 pounds of coffee, and 3,819,512 pounds of cotton; the receipt into the public chest was 553,956 guilders; the public expenditure 451,603 guilders.
Slavery can never be defended. He whose heart is not of iron can never wish to be able to defend it: while he heaves a sigh for the poor negro in captivity, he wishes from his soul that the traffic had been stifled in its birth; but unfortunately the Governments of Europe nourished it, and now that they are exerting themselves to do away the evil, and ensure liberty to the sons of Africa, the situation of the plantation-slaves is depicted as truly deplorable and their condition wretched. It is not so. A Briton’s heart, proverbially kind and generous, is not changed by climate or its streams of compassion dried up by the scorching heat of a Demerara sun: he cheers his negroes in labour, comforts them in sickness, is kind to them in old age, and never forgets that they are his fellow-creatures.
Instances of cruelty and depravity certainly occur here as well as all the world over, but the edicts of the colonial Government are well calculated to prevent them, and the British planter, except here and there one, feels for the wrongs done to a poor ill-treated slave, and shows that his heart grieves for him by causing immediate redress and preventing a repetition.
Long may ye flourish, peaceful and liberal inhabitants of Demerara. Your doors are ever open to harbour the harbourless; your purses never shut to the wants of the distressed: many a ruined fugitive from the Oroonoque will bless your kindness to him in the hour of need, when flying from the woes of civil discord, without food or raiment, he begged for shelter underneath your roof. The poor sufferer in Trinidad who lost his all in the devouring flames will remember your charity to his latest moments. The traveller, as he leaves your port, casts a longing, lingering look behind: your attentions, your hospitality, your pleasantry and mirth are uppermost in his thoughts; your prosperity is close to his heart. Let us now, gentle reader, retire from the busy scenes of man and journey on towards the wilds in quest of the feathered tribe.
Leave behind you your high-seasoned dishes, your wines and your delicacies: carry nothing but what is necessary for your own comfort and the object in view, and depend upon the skill of an Indian, or your own, for fish and game. A sheet about twelve feet long, ten wide, painted, and with loop-holes on each side, will be of great service: in a few minutes you can suspend it betwixt two trees in the shape of a roof. Under this, in your hammock, you may defy the pelting shower, and sleep heedless of the dews of night. A hat, a shirt and a light pair of trousers will be all the raiment you require. Custom will soon teach you to tread lightly and barefoot on the little inequalities of the ground, and show you how to pass on unwounded amid the mantling briers.
Snakes, in these wilds, are certainly an annoyance, though perhaps more in imagination than reality, for you must recollect that the serpent is never the first to offend: his poisonous fang was not given him for conquest — he never inflicts a wound with it but to defend existence. Provided you walk cautiously and do not absolutely touch him, you may pass in safety close by him. As he is often coiled up on the ground, and amongst the branches of the trees above you, a degree of circumspection is necessary lest you unwarily disturb him.
Tigers are too few, and too apt to fly before the noble face of man, to require a moment of your attention.
The bite of the most noxious of the insects, at the very worst, only causes a transient fever with a degree of pain more or less.
Birds in general, with a few exceptions, are not common in the very remote parts of the forest. The sides of rivers, lakes and creeks, the borders of savannas, the old abandoned habitations of Indians and wood-cutters, seem to be their favourite haunts.
Though least in size, the glittering mantle of the humming-bird entitles it to the first place in the list of the birds of the new world. It may truly be called the bird of paradise: and had it existed in the Old World, it would have claimed the title instead of the bird which has now the honour to bear it. See it darting through the air almost as quick as thought! — now it is within a yard of your face! — in an instant gone! — now it flutters from flower to flower to sip the silver dew — it is now a ruby — now a topaz — now an emerald — now all burnished gold! It would be arrogant to pretend to describe this winged gem of Nature after Buffon’s elegant description of it.
Cayenne and Demerara produce the same hummingbirds. Perhaps you would wish to know something of their haunts. Chiefly in the months of July and August, the tree called bois immortel, very common in Demerara, bears abundance of red blossom which stays on the tree for some weeks; then it is that most of the different species of humming-birds are very plentiful. The wild red sage is also their favourite shrub, and they buzz like bees round the blossom of the wallaba tree. Indeed, there is scarce a flower in the interior, or on the sea-coast, but what receives frequent visits from one or other of the species.
On entering the forests, on the rising land in the interior, the blue and green, the smallest brown, no bigger than the humble-bee, with two long feathers in the tail, and the little forked-tail purple-throated humming-birds, glitter before you in ever-changing attitudes. One species alone never shows his beauty to the sun: and were it not for his lovely shining colours, you might almost be tempted to class him with the goat-suckers, on account of his habits. He is the largest of all the humming-birds, and is all red and changing gold-green, except the head, which is black. He has two long feathers in the tail which cross each other, and these have gained him the name of karabimiti, or ara humming-bird, from the Indians. You never find him on the sea-coast, or where the river is salt, or in the heart of the forest, unless fresh water be there. He keeps close by the side of woody fresh-water rivers and dark and lonely creeks. He leaves his retreat before sunrise to feed on the insects over the water; he returns to it as soon as the sun’s rays cause a glare of light, is sedentary all day long, and comes out again for a short tune after sunset. He builds his nest on a twig over the water in the unfrequented creeks: it looks like tanned cow-leather.
As you advance towards the mountains of Demerara other species of humming-birds present themselves before you. It seems to be an erroneous opinion that the humming-bird lives entirely on honey-dew. Almost every flower of the tropical climates contains insects of one kind or other. Now the humming-bird is most busy about the flowers an hour or two after sunrise and after a shower of rain, and it is just at this time that the insects come out to the edge of the flower in order that the sun’s rays may dry the nocturnal dew and rain which they have received. On opening the stomach of the humming-bird dead insects are almost always found there.
Next to the humming-birds, the cotingas display the gayest plumage. They are of the order of Passer, and you number five species betwixt the sea-coast and the rock Saba. Perhaps the scarlet cotinga is the richest of the five, and is one of those birds which are found in the deepest recesses of the forest. His crown is flaming red; to this abruptly succeeds a dark shining brown, reaching half-way down the back: the remainder of the back, the rump and tail, the extremity of which is edged with black, are a lively red; the belly is a somewhat lighter red; the breast reddish-black; the wings brown. He has no song, is solitary, and utters a monotonous whistle which sounds like “quet.” He is fond of the seeds of the hitia-tree and those of the siloabali — and bastard siloabali-trees, which ripen in December and continue on the trees for above two months. He is found throughout the year in Demerara; still nothing is known of his incubation. The Indians all agree in telling you that they have never seen his nest.
The purple-breasted cotinga has the throat and breast of a deep purple, the wings and tail black, and all the rest of the body a most lovely shining blue.
The purple-throated cotinga has black wings and tail, and every other part a light and glossy blue, save the throat, which is purple.
The pompadour cotinga is entirely purple, except his wings, which are white, their four first feathers tipped with brown. The great coverts of the wings are stiff, narrow and pointed, being shaped quite different from those of any other bird. When you are betwixt this bird and the sun, in his flight, he appears uncommonly brilliant. He makes a hoarse noise which sounds like “wallababa.” Hence his name amongst the Indians.
None of these three cotingas have a song. They feed on the hitia, siloabali — and bastard siloabali-seeds, the wild guava, the fig, and other fruit-trees of the forest. They are easily shot in these trees during the months of December, January and part of February. The greater part of them disappear after this, and probably retire far away to breed. Their nests have never been found in Demerara.
The fifth species is the celebrated campanero of the Spaniards, called dara by the Indians, and bell-bird by the English. He is about the size of the jay. His plumage is white as snow. On his forehead rises a spiral tube nearly three inches long. It is jet black, dotted all over with small white feathers. It has a communication with the palate, and when filled with air looks like a spire; when empty it becomes pendulous. His note is loud and clear, like the sound of a bell, and may be heard at the distance of three miles. In the midst of these extensive wilds, generally on the dried top of an aged mora, almost out of gun-reach, you will see the campanero. No sound or song from any of the winged inhabitants of the forest, not even the clearly pronounced “Whip-poor-will” from the goat-sucker, cause such astonishment as the toll of the campanero.
With many of the feathered race he pays the common tribute of a morning and an evening song; and even when the meridian sun has shut in silence the mouths of almost the whole of animated nature the campanero still cheers the forest. You hear his toll, and then a pause for a minute, then another toll, and then a pause again, and then a toll, and again a pause. Then he is silent for six or eight minutes, and then another toll, and so on. Acteon would stop in mid-chase, Maria would defer her evening song, and Orpheus himself would drop his lute to listen to him, so sweet, so novel and romantic is the toll of the pretty snow-white campanero. He is never seen to feed with the other cotingas, nor is it known in what part of Guiana he makes his nest.
While the cotingas attract your attention by their superior plumage, the singular form of the toucan makes a lasting impression on your memory. There are three species of toucans in Demerara, and three diminutives, which may be called toucanets. The largest of the first species frequents the mangrove trees on the sea-coast. He is never seen in the interior till you reach Macoushia, where he is found in the neighbourhood of the River Tacatou. The other two species are very common. They feed entirely on the fruits of the forest and, though of the pie kind, never kill the young of other birds or touch carrion. The larger is called bouradi by the Indians (which means nose), the other scirou. They seem partial to each other’s company, and often resort to the same feeding-tree and retire together to the same shady noon-day retreat. They are very noisy in rainy weather at all hours of the day, and in fair weather at morn and eve. The sound which the bouradi makes is like the clear yelping of a puppy-dog, and you fancy he says “pia-po-o-co,” and thus the South–American Spaniards call him piapoco.
All the toucanets feed on the same trees on which the toucan feeds, and every species of this family of enormous bill lays its eggs in the hollow trees. They are social, but not gregarious. You may sometimes see eight or ten in company, and from this you would suppose they are gregarious; but upon a closer examination you will find it has only been a dinner-party, which breaks up and disperses towards roosting-time.
You will be at a loss to conjecture for what ends Nature has overloaded the head of this bird with such an enormous bill. It cannot be for the offensive, as it has no need to wage war with any of the tribes of animated nature, for its food is fruits and seeds, and those are in superabundance throughout the whole year in the regions where the toucan is found. It can hardly be for the defensive, as the toucan is preyed upon by no bird in South America and, were it obliged to be at war, the texture of the bill is ill-adapted to give or receive blows, as you will see in dissecting it. It cannot be for any particular protection to the tongue, as the tongue is a perfect feather.
The flight of the toucan is by jerks: in the action of flying it seems incommoded by this huge disproportioned feature, and the head seems as if bowed down to the earth by it against its will. If the extraordinary form and size of the bill expose the toucan to ridicule, its colours make it amends. Were a specimen of each species of the toucan presented to you, you would pronounce the bill of the bouradi the most rich and beautiful: on the ridge of the upper mandible a broad stripe of most lovely yellow extends from the head to the point; a stripe of the same breadth, though somewhat deeper yellow, falls from it at right angles next the head down to the edge of the mandible; then follows a black stripe, half as broad, falling at right angles from the ridge and running narrower along the edge to within half an inch of the point. The rest of the mandible is a deep bright red. The lower mandible has no yellow: its black and red are distributed in the same manner as on the upper one, with this difference, that there is black about an inch from the point. The stripe corresponding to the deep yellow stripe on the upper mandible is sky-blue. It is worthy of remark that all these brilliant colours of the bill are to be found in the plumage of the body and the bare skin round the eye.
All these colours, except the blue, are inherent in the horn: that part which appears blue is in reality transparent white, and receives its colour from a thin piece of blue skin inside. This superb bill fades in death, and in three or four days’ time has quite lost its original colours.
Till within these few years no idea of the true colours of the bill could be formed from the stuffed toucans brought to Europe. About eight years ago, while eating a boiled toucan, the thought struck me that the colours in the bill of a preserved specimen might be kept as bright as those in life. A series of experiments proved this beyond a doubt. If you take your penknife and cut away the roof of the upper mandible, you will find that the space betwixt it and the outer shell contains a large collection of veins and small osseous fibres running in all directions through the whole extent of the bill. Clear away all these with your knife, and you will come to a substance more firm than skin, but of not so strong a texture as the horn itself. Cut this away also, and behind it is discovered a thin and tender membrane: yellow where it has touched the yellow part of the horn, blue where it has touched the red part, and black towards the edge and point; when dried this thin and tender membrane becomes nearly black; as soon as it is cut away nothing remains but the outer horn, red and yellow, and now become transparent. The under mandible must undergo the same operation. Great care must be taken and the knife used very cautiously when you are cutting through the different parts close to where the bill joins on to the head: if you cut away too much the bill drops off; if you press too hard the knife comes through the horn; if you leave too great a portion of the membrane it appears through the horn and, by becoming black when dried, makes the horn appear black also, and has a bad effect. Judgment, caution, skill and practice will ensure success.
You have now cleared the bill of all those bodies which are the cause of its apparent fading, for, as has been said before, these bodies dry in death and become quite discoloured, and appear so through the horn; and reviewing the bill in this state, you conclude that its former bright colours are lost.
Something still remains to be done. You have rendered the bill transparent by the operation, and that transparency must be done away to make it appear perfectly natural. Pound some clean chalk and give it enough water till it be of the consistency of tar, add a proportion of gum-arabic to make it adhesive, then take a camel-hair brush and give the inside of both mandibles a coat; apply a second when the first is dry, then another, and a fourth to finish all. The gum-arabic will prevent the chalk from cracking and falling off. If you remember, there is a little space of transparent white in the lower mandible which originally appeared blue, but which became transparent white as soon as the thin piece of blue skin was cut away: this must be painted blue inside. When all this is completed the bill will please you: it will appear in its original colours. Probably your own abilities will suggest a cleverer mode of operating than the one here described. A small gouge would assist the penknife and render the operation less difficult.
The houtou ranks high in beauty amongst the birds of Demerara. His whole body is green, with a bluish cast in the wings and tail; his crown, which he erects at pleasure, consists of black in the centre, surrounded with lovely blue of two different shades; he has a triangular black spot, edged with blue, behind the eye extending to the ear, and on his breast a sable tuft consisting of nine feathers edged also with blue. This bird seems to suppose that its beauty can be increased by trimming the tail, which undergoes the same operation as our hair in a barber’s shop, only with this difference, that it uses its own beak, which is serrated, in lieu of a pair of scissors. As soon as his tail is full grown, he begins about an inch from the extremity of the two longest feathers in it and cuts away the web on both sides of the shaft, making a gap about an inch long. Both male and female adonise their tails in this manner, which gives them a remarkable appearance amongst all other birds. While we consider the tail of the houtou blemished and defective, were he to come amongst us he would probably consider our heads, cropped and bald, in no better light. He who wishes to observe this handsome bird in his native haunts must be in the forest at the morning’s dawn. The houtou shuns the society of man: the plantations and cultivated parts are too much disturbed to engage it to settle there; the thick and gloomy forests are the places preferred by the solitary houtou.
In those far-extending wilds, about daybreak, you hear him articulate, in a distinct and mournful tone, “houtou, houtou.” Move cautious on to where the sound proceeds from, and you will see him sitting in the underwood about a couple of yards from the ground, his tail moving up and down every time he articulates “houtou.” He lives on insects and the berries amongst the underwood, and very rarely is seen in the lofty trees, except the bastard siloabali-tree, the fruit of which is grateful to him. He makes no nest, but rears his young in a hole in the sand, generally on the side of a hill.
While in quest of the houtou, you will now and then fall in with the jay of Guiana, called by the Indians ibibirou. Its forehead is black, the rest of the head white, the throat and breast like the English magpie; about an inch of the extremity of the tail is white, the other part of it, together with the back and wings, a greyish changing purple; the belly is white. There are generally six or eight of them in company: they are shy and garrulous, and tarry a very short time in one place. They are never seen in the cultivated parts.
Through the whole extent of the forest, chiefly from sunrise till nine o’clock in the morning, you hear a sound of “wow, wow, wow, wow.” This is the bird called boclora by the Indians. It is smaller than the common pigeon, and seems, in some measure, to partake of its nature: its head and breast are blue; the back and rump somewhat resemble the colour on the peacock’s neck; its belly is a bright yellow. The legs are so very short that it always appears as if sitting on the branch: it is as ill-adapted for walking as the swallow. Its neck, for above an inch all round, is quite bare of feathers, but this deficiency is not seen, for it always sits with its head drawn in upon its shoulders. It sometimes feeds with the cotingas on the guava — and hitia-trees, but its chief nutriment seems to be insects, and, like most birds which follow this prey, its chaps are well armed with bristles: it is found in Demerara at all times of the year, and makes a nest resembling that of the stock-dove. This bird never takes long nights, and when it crosses a river or creek it goes by long jerks.
The boclora is very unsuspicious, appearing quite heedless of danger: the report of a gun within twenty yards will not cause it to leave the branch on which it is sitting, and you may often approach it so near as almost to touch it with the end of your bow. Perhaps there is no bird known whose feathers are so slightly fixed to the skin as those of the boclora. After shooting it, if it touch a branch in its descent, or if it drop on hard ground, whole heaps of feathers fall off: on this account it is extremely hard to procure a specimen for preservation. As soon as the skin is dry in the preserved specimen the feathers become as well fixed as those in any other bird.
Another species, larger than the boclora, attracts much of your notice in these wilds: it is called cuia by the Indians, from the sound of its voice. Its habits are the same as those of the boclora, but its colours different: its head, breast, back and rump are a shining, changing green; its tail not quite so bright; a black bar runs across the tail towards the extremity, and the outside feathers are partly white, as in the boclora; its belly is entirely vermilion, a bar of white separating it from the green on the breast.
There are diminutives of both these birds: they have the same habits, with a somewhat different plumage, and about half the size. Arrayed from head to tail in a robe of richest sable hue, the bird called rice-bird loves spots cultivated by the hand of man. The woodcutter’s house on the hills in the interior, and the planter’s habitation on the sea-coast, equally attract this songless species of the order of pie, provided the Indian-corn be ripe there. He is nearly of the jackdaw’s size and makes his nest far away from the haunts of men. He may truly be called a blackbird: independent of his plumage, his beak, inside and out, his legs, his toes and claws are jet black.
Mankind, by clearing the ground and sowing a variety of seeds, induces many kinds of birds to leave their native haunts and come and settle near him: their little depredations on his seeds and fruits prove that it is the property, and not the proprietor, which has the attractions.
One bird, however, in Demerara is not actuated by selfish motives: this is the cassique. In size he is larger than the starling: he courts the society of man, but disdains to live by his labours. When Nature calls for support he repairs to the neighbouring forest, and there partakes of the store of fruits and seeds which she has produced in abundance for her aerial tribes. When his repast is over he returns to man, and pays the little tribute which he owes him for his protection. He takes his station on a tree close to his house, and there, for hours together, pours forth a succession of imitative notes. His own song is sweet, but very short. If a toucan be yelping in the neighbourhood, he drops it, and imitates him. Then he will amuse his protector with the cries of the different species of the woodpecker, and when the sheep bleat he will distinctly answer them. Then comes his own song again; and if a puppy-dog or a guinea-fowl interrupt him, he takes them off admirably, and by his different gestures during the time you would conclude that he enjoys the sport.
The cassique is gregarious, and imitates any sound he hears with such exactness that he goes by no other name than that of mocking bird amongst the colonists.
At breeding-time a number of these pretty choristers resort to a tree near the planter’s house, and from its outside branches weave their pendulous nests. So conscious do they seem that they never give offence, and so little suspicious are they of receiving any injury from man, that they will choose a tree within forty yards from his house, and occupy the branches so low down that he may peep into the nests. A tree in Waratilla Creek affords a proof of this.
The proportions of the cassique are so fine that he may be said to be a model of symmetry in ornithology. On each wing he has a bright yellow spot, and his rump, belly and half the tail are of the same colour. All the rest of the body is black. His beak is the colour of sulphur, but it fades in death, and requires the same operation as the bill of the toucan to make it keep its colours. Up the rivers, in the interior, there is another cassique, nearly the same size and of the same habits, though not gifted with its powers of imitation. Except in breeding-time, you will see hundreds of them retiring to roost amongst the moca-moca-trees and low shrubs on the banks of the Demerara, after you pass the first island. They are not common on the sea-coast. The rump of this cassique is a flaming scarlet. All the rest of the body is a rich glossy black. His bill is sulphur-colour. You may often see numbers of this species weaving their pendulous nests on one side of a tree, while numbers of the other species are busy in forming theirs on the opposite side of the same tree. Though such near neighbours, the females are never observed to kick up a row or come to blows!
Another species of cassique, as large as a crow, is very common in the plantations. In the morning he generally repairs to a large tree, and there, with his tail spread over his back and shaking his lowered wings, he produces notes which, though they cannot be said to amount to a song, still have something very sweet and pleasing in them. He makes his nest in the same form as the other cassiques. It is above four feet long, and when you pass under the tree, which often contains fifty or sixty of them, you cannot help stopping to admire them as they wave to and fro, the sport of every storm and breeze. The rump is chestnut; ten feathers of the tail are a fine yellow, the remaining two, which are the middle ones, are black, and an inch shorter than the others. His bill is sulphur-colour; all the rest of the body black, with here and there shades of brown. He has five or six long narrow black feathers on the back of his head, which he erects at pleasure.
There is one more species of cassique in Demerara which always prefers the forests to the cultivated parts. His economy is the same as that of the other cassiques. He is rather smaller than the last described bird. His body is greenish, and his tail and rump paler than those of the former. Half of his beak is red.
You would not be long in the forests of Demerara without noticing the woodpeckers. You meet with them feeding at all hours of the day. Well may they do so. Were they to follow the example of most of the other birds, and only feed in the morning and evening, they would be often on short allowance, for they sometimes have to labour three or four hours at the tree before they get to their food. The sound which the largest kind makes in hammering against the bark of the tree is so loud that you would never suppose it to proceed from the efforts of a bird. You would take it to be the woodman, with his axe, trying by a sturdy blow, often repeated, whether the tree were sound or not. There are fourteen species here: the largest the size of a magpie, the smallest no bigger than the wren. They are all beautiful, and the greater part of them have their heads ornamented with a fine crest, movable at pleasure.
It is said, if you once give a dog a bad name, whether innocent or guilty, he never loses it. It sticks close to him wherever he goes. He has many a kick and many a blow to bear on account of it; and there is nobody to stand up for him. The woodpecker is little better off. The proprietors of woods in Europe have long accused him of injuring their timber by boring holes in it and letting in the water, which soon rots it. The colonists in America have the same complaint against him. Had he the power of speech, which Ovid’s birds possessed in days of yore, he could soon make a defence: “Mighty lord of the woods,” he would say to man, “why do you wrongfully accuse me? Why do you hunt me up and down to death for an imaginary offence? I have never spoiled a leaf of your property, much less your wood. Your merciless shot strikes me at the very time I am doing you a service. But your shortsightedness will not let you see it, or your pride is above examining closely the actions of so insignificant a little bird as I am. If there be that spark of feeling in your breast which they say man possesses, or ought to possess, above all other animals, do a poor injured creature a little kindness and watch me in your woods only for one day. I never wound your healthy trees. I should perish for want in the attempt. The sound bark would easily resist the force of my bill; and were I even to pierce through it, there would be nothing inside that I could fancy or my stomach digest. I often visit them it is true, but a knock or two convince me that I must go elsewhere for support; and were you to listen attentively to the sound which my bill causes, you would know whether I am upon a healthy or an unhealthy tree. Wood and bark are not my food. I live entirely upon the insects which have already formed a lodgment in the distempered tree. When the sound informs me that my prey is there, I labour for hours together till I get at it, and by consuming it for my own support, I prevent its further depredations in that part. Thus I discover for you your hidden and unsuspected foe, which has been devouring your wood in such secrecy that you had not the least suspicion it was there. The hole which I make in order to get at the pernicious vermin will be seen by you as you pass under the tree. I leave it as a signal to tell you that your tree has already stood too long. It is past its prime. Millions of insects, engendered by disease, are preying upon its vitals. Ere long it will fall a log in useless ruins. Warned by this loss, cut down the rest in time, and spare, O spare the unoffending woodpecker.”
In the rivers and different creeks you number six species of the kingfisher. They make their nest in a hole in the sand on the side of the bank. As there is always plenty of foliage to protect them from the heat of the sun, they feed at all hours of the day. Though their plumage is prettily varied, still it falls far short of the brilliancy displayed by the English kingfisher. This little native of Britain would outweigh them altogether in the scale of beauty.
A bird called jacamar is often taken for a kingfisher, but it has no relationship to that tribe. It frequently sits in the trees over the water, and as its beak bears some resemblance to that of the kingfisher, this may probably account for its being taken for one; it feeds entirely upon insects; it sits on a branch in motionless expectation, and as soon as a fly, butterfly, or moth pass by, it darts at it, and returns to the branch it had just left. It seems an indolent, sedentary bird, shunning the society of all others in the forest. It never visits the plantations, but is found at all times of the year in the woods. There are four species of jacamar in Demerara. They are all beautiful: the largest, rich and superb in the extreme. Its plumage is of so fine a changing blue and golden-green that it may be ranked with the choicest of the humming-birds. Nature has denied it a song, but given a costly garment in lieu of it. The smallest species of jacamar is very common in the dry savannas. The second size, all golden-green on the back, must be looked for in the wallaba-forest. The third is found throughout the whole extent of these wilds, and the fourth, which is the largest, frequents the interior, where you begin to perceive stones in the ground.
When you have penetrated far into Macoushia, you hear the pretty songster called troupiale pour forth a variety of sweet and plaintive notes. This is the bird which the Portuguese call the nightingale of Guiana. Its predominant colours are rich orange and shining black, arrayed to great advantage. His delicate and well-shaped frame seems unable to bear captivity. The Indians sometimes bring down troupiales to Stabroek, but in a few months they languish and die in a cage. They soon become very familiar, and if you allow them the liberty of the house, they live longer than in a cage and appear in better spirits, but when you least expect it they drop down and die in epilepsy.
Smaller in size, and of colour not so rich and somewhat differently arranged, another species of troupiale sings melodiously in Demerara. The woodcutter is particularly favoured by him, for while the hen is sitting on her nest, built in the roof of the woodcutter’s house, he sings for hours together close by. He prefers the forests to the cultivated parts.
You would not grudge to stop for a few minutes, as you are walking in the plantations, to observe a third species of troupiale: his wings, tail and throat are black; all the rest of the body is a bright yellow. There is something very sweet and plaintive in his song, though much shorter than that of the troupiale in the interior.
A fourth species goes in flocks from place to place, in the cultivated parts, at the time the indian-corn is ripe; he is all black, except the head and throat, which are yellow. His attempt at song is not worth attending to.
Wherever there is a wild fig-tree ripe, a numerous species of birds called tangara is sure to be on it. There are eighteen beautiful species here. Their plumage is very rich and diversified. Some of them boast six separate colours; others have the blue, purple, green and black so kindly blended into each other that it would be impossible to mark their boundaries; while others again exhibit them strong, distinct and abrupt. Many of these tangaras have a fine song. They seem to partake much of the nature of our linnets, sparrows and finches. Some of them are fond of the plantations; others are never seen there, preferring the wild seeds of the forest to the choicest fruits planted by the hand of man.
On the same fig-trees to which they repair, and often accidentally up and down the forest, you fall in with four species of manikin. The largest is white and black, with the feathers on the throat remarkably long; the next in size is half red and half black; the third black, with a white crown; the fourth black, with a golden crown, and red feathers at the knee. The half-red and half-black species is the scarcest. There is a creek in the Demerara called Camouni. About ten minutes from the mouth you see a common-sized fig-tree on your right hand, as you ascend, hanging over the water; it bears a very small fig twice a year. When its fruit is ripe this manikin is on the tree from morn till eve.
On all the ripe fig-trees in the forest you see the bird called the small tiger-bird. Like some of our belles and dandies, it has a gaudy vest to veil an ill-shaped body. The throat, and part of the head, are a bright red; the breast and belly have black spots on a yellow ground; the wings are a dark green, black, and white; and the rump and tail black and green. Like the manikin, it has no song: it depends solely upon a showy garment for admiration.
Devoid, too, of song, and in a still superber garb, the yawaraciri comes to feed on the same tree. It has a bar like black velvet from the eyes to the beak; its legs are yellow; its throat, wings and tail black; all the rest of the body a charming blue. Chiefly in the dry savannas, and here and there accidentally in the forest, you see a songless yawaraciri still lovelier than the last: his crown is whitish blue, arrayed like a coat of mail; his tail is black, his wings black and yellow; legs red; and the whole body a glossy blue. Whilst roving through the forest, ever and anon you see individuals of the wren species busy amongst the fallen leaves, or seeking insects at the roots of the trees.
Here, too, you find six or seven species of small birds whose backs appear to be overloaded with silky plumage. One of these, with a chestnut breast, smoke-coloured back, tail red, white feathers like horns on his head, and white narrow-pointed feathers under the jaw, feeds entirely upon ants. When a nest of large light-brown ants emigrates, one following the other in meandering lines above a mile long, you see this bird watching them and every now and then picking them up. When they disappear he is seen no more: perhaps this is the only kind of ant he is fond of. When these ants are stirring, you are sure to find him near them. You cannot well mistake the ant after you have once been in its company, for its sting is very severe, and you can hardly shoot the bird and pick it up without having five or six upon you.
Parrots and paroquets are very numerous here, and of many different kinds. You will know when they are near you in the forest not only by the noise they make, but also by the fruits and seeds which they let fall while they are feeding.
The hia-hia parrot, called in England the parrot of the sun, is very remarkable: he can erect at pleasure a fine radiated circle of tartan feathers quite round the back of his head from jaw to jaw. The fore-part of his head is white; his back, tail and wings green; and his breast and belly tartan.
Superior in size and beauty to every parrot of South America, the ara will force you to take your eyes from the rest of animated nature and gaze at him: his commanding strength, the flaming scarlet of his body, the lovely variety of red, yellow, blue and green in his wings, the extraordinary length of his scarlet and blue tail, seem all to join and demand for him the title of emperor of all the parrots. He is scarce in Demerara till you reach the confines of the Macoushi country: there he is in vast abundance. He mostly feeds on trees of the palm species. When the coucourite-trees have ripe fruit on them they are covered with this magnificent parrot. He is not shy or wary: you may take your blow-pipe and quiver of poisoned arrows and kill more than you are able to carry back to your hut. They are very vociferous, and, like the common parrots, rise up in bodies towards sunset and fly two and two to their place of rest. It is a grand sight in ornithology to see thousands of aras flying over your head, low enough to let you have a full view of their flaming mantle. The Indians find their flesh very good, and the feathers serve for ornaments in their head-dresses. They breed in the holes of trees, are easily reared and tamed, and learn to speak pretty distinctly.
Another species frequents the low-lands of Demerara. He is nearly the size of the scarlet ara, but much inferior in plumage. Blue and yellow are his predominant colours.
Along the creeks and river-sides, and in the wet savannas, six species of the bittern will engage your attention. They are all handsome, the smallest not so large as the English water-hen.
In the savannas, too, you will sometimes surprise the snow-white egret, whose back is adorned with the plumes from which it takes its name. Here, too, the spur-winged water-hen, the blue and green water-hen and two other species of ordinary plumage are found. While in quest of these, the blue heron, the large and small brown heron, the boatbill and muscovy duck now and then rise up before you.
When the sun has sunk in the western woods, no longer agitated by the breeze; when you can only see a straggler or two of the feathered tribe hastening to join its mate, already at its roosting-place, then it is that the goat-sucker comes out of the forest, where it has sat all day long in slumbering ease, unmindful of the gay and busy scenes around it. Its eyes are too delicately formed to bear the light, and thus it is forced to shun the flaming face of day and wait in patience till night invites him to partake of the pleasures her dusky presence brings.
The harmless, unoffending goat-sucker, from the time of Aristotle down to the present day, has been in disgrace with man. Father has handed down to son, and author to author, that this nocturnal thief subsists by milking the flocks. Poor injured little bird of night, how sadly hast thou suffered, and how foul a stain has inattention to facts put upon thy character! Thou hast never robbed man of any part of his property nor deprived the kid of a drop of milk.
When the moon shines bright you may have a fair opportunity of examining the goat-sucker. You will see it close by the cows, goats and sheep, jumping up every now and then under their bellies. Approach a little nearer — he is not shy: “he fears no danger, for he knows no sin.” See how the nocturnal flies are tormenting the herd, and with what dexterity he springs up and catches them as fast as they alight on the belly, legs and udder of the animals. Observe how quiet they stand, and how sensible they seem of his good offices, for they neither strike at him nor hit him with their tail, nor tread on him, nor try to drive him away as an uncivil intruder. Were you to dissect him, and inspect his stomach, you would find no milk there. It is full of the flies which have been annoying the herd.
The prettily-mottled plumage of the goat-sucker, like that of the owl, wants the lustre which is observed in the feathers of the birds of day. This at once marks him as a lover of the pale moon’s nightly beams. There are nine species here. The largest appears nearly the size of the English wood-owl. Its cry is so remarkable that, having once heard it, you will never forget it. When night reigns over these immeasurable wilds, whilst lying in your hammock you will hear this goat-sucker lamenting like one in deep distress. A stranger would never conceive it to be the cry of a bird. He would say it was the departing voice of a midnight murdered victim or the last wailing of Niobe for her poor children before she was turned into stone. Suppose yourself in hopeless sorrow, begin with a high loud note, and pronounce “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” each note lower and lower, till the last is scarcely heard, pausing a moment or two betwixt every note, and you will have some idea of the moaning of the largest goat-sucker in Demerara.
Four other species of the goat-sucker articulate some words so distinctly that they have received their names from the sentences they utter, and absolutely bewilder the stranger on his arrival in these parts. The most common one sits down close by your door, and flies and alights three or four yards before you, as you walk along the road, crying, “Who-are-you, who-who-who-are-you.” Another bids you “Work-away, work-work-work-away.” A third cries, mournfully, “Willy-come-go, willy-willy-willy-come-go.” And high up in the country a fourth tells you to “Whip-poor-will, whip-whip-whip-poor-will.”
You will never persuade the negro to destroy these birds or get the Indian to let fly his arrow at them. They are birds of omen and reverential dread. Jumbo, the demon of Africa, has them under his command, and they equally obey the Yabahou, or Demerara Indian devil. They are the receptacles for departed souls, who come back again to earth, unable to rest for crimes done in their days of nature; or they are expressly sent by Jumbo, or Yabahou, to haunt cruel and hard-hearted masters and retaliate injuries received from them. If the largest goat-sucker chance to cry near the white man’s door, sorrow and grief will soon be inside: and they expect to see the master waste away with a slow consuming sickness. If it be heard close to the negro’s or Indian’s hut, from that night misfortune sits brooding over it: and they await the event in terrible suspense.
You will forgive the poor Indian of Guiana for this. He knows no better; he has nobody to teach him. But shame it is that in our own civilised country the black cat and broomstaff should be considered as conductors to and from the regions of departed spirits.
Many years ago I knew poor harmless Mary: old age had marked her strongly, just as he will mark you and me, should we arrive at her years and carry the weight of grief which bent her double. The old men of the village said she had been very pretty in her youth, and nothing could be seen more comely than Mary when she danced on the green. He who had gained her heart left her for another, less fair, though richer, than Mary. From that time she became sad and pensive; the rose left her cheek, and she was never more seen to dance round the maypole on the green. Her expectations were blighted; she became quite indifferent to everything around her, and seemed to think of nothing but how she could best attend her mother, who was lame and not long for this life. Her mother had begged a black kitten from some boys who were going to drown it, and in her last illness she told Mary to be kind to it for her sake.
When age and want had destroyed the symmetry of Mary’s fine form, the village began to consider her as one who had dealings with spirits: her cat confirmed the suspicion. If a cow died, or a villager wasted away with an unknown complaint, Mary and her cat had it to answer for. Her broom sometimes served her for a walking-stick: and if ever she supported her tottering frame with it as far as the maypole, where once, in youthful bloom and beauty, she had attracted the eyes of all, the boys would surround her and make sport of her, while her cat had neither friend nor safety beyond the cottage-wall. Nobody considered it cruel or uncharitable to torment a witch; and it is probable, long before this, that cruelty, old age and want have worn her out, and that both poor Mary and her cat have ceased to be.
Would you wish to pursue the different species of game, well-stored and boundless is your range in Demerara. Here no one dogs you, and afterwards clandestinely inquires if you have a hundred a year in land to entitle you to enjoy such patrician sport. Here no saucy intruder asks if you have taken out a licence, by virtue of which you are allowed to kill the birds which have bred upon your own property. Here
You are as free as when God first made man,
Ere the vile laws of servitude began,
And wild in woods the noble savage ran.
Before the morning’s dawn you hear a noise in the forest which sounds like “duraquaura” often repeated. This is the partridge, a little smaller than and differing somewhat in colour from the English partridge: it lives entirely in the forest, and probably the young brood very soon leaves its parents, as you never flush more than two birds in the same place, and in general only one.
About the same hour, and sometimes even at midnight, you hear two species of maam, or tinamou, send forth their long and plaintive whistle from the depth of the forest. The flesh of both is delicious. The largest is plumper, and almost equals in size the blackcock of Northumberland. The quail is said to be here, though rare.
The hannaquoi, which some have compared to the pheasant, though with little reason, is very common.
Here are also two species of the powise, or hocco, and two of the small wild turkeys called maroudi: they feed on the ripe fruits of the forest and are found in all directions in these extensive wilds. You will admire the horned screamer as a stately and majestic bird: he is almost the size of the turkey-cock, on his head is a long slender horn, and each wing is armed with a strong, sharp, triangular spur an inch long.
Sometimes you will fall in with flocks of two or three hundred waracabas, or trumpeters, called so from the singular noise they produce. Their breast is adorned with beautiful changing blue and purple feathers; their head and neck like velvet; their wings and back grey, and belly black. They run with great swiftness, and when domesticated attend their master in his walks with as much apparent affection as his dog. They have no spurs, but still, such is their high spirit and activity, they browbeat every dunghill fowl in the yard and force the guinea-birds, dogs and turkeys to own their superiority.
If, kind and gentle reader, thou shouldst ever visit these regions with an intention to examine their productions, perhaps the few observations contained in these wanderings may be of service to thee. Excuse their brevity: more could have been written, and each bird more particularly described, but it would have been pressing too hard upon thy time and patience.
Soon after arriving in these parts thou wilt find that the species here enumerated are only as a handful from a well-stored granary. Nothing has been said of the eagles, the falcons, the hawks and shrikes; nothing of the different species of vultures, the king of which is very handsome, and seems to be the only bird which claims regal honours from a surrounding tribe. It is a fact beyond all dispute that, when the scent of carrion has drawn together hundreds of the common vultures, they all retire from the carcass as soon as the king of the vultures makes his appearance. When his majesty has satisfied the cravings of his royal stomach with the choicest bits from the most stinking and corrupted parts, he generally retires to a neighbouring tree, and then the common vultures return in crowds to gobble down his leavings. The Indians, as well as the whites, have observed this, for when one of them, who has learned a little English, sees the king, and wishes you to have a proper notion of the bird, he says: “There is the governor of the carrion-crows.”
Now the Indians have never heard of a personage in Demerara higher than that of governor; and the colonists, through a common mistake, call the vultures carrion-crows. Hence the Indian, in order to express the dominion of this bird over the common vultures, tells you he is governor of the carrion-crows. The Spaniards have also observed it, for through all the Spanish Main he is called Rey de Zamuros, king of the vultures. The many species of owls, too, have not been noticed; and no mention made of the columbine tribe. The prodigious variety of water-fowl on the sea-shore has been but barely hinted at.
There, and on the borders and surface of the inland waters, in the marshes and creeks, besides the flamingos, scarlet curlews and spoonbills already mentioned, will be found greenish-brown curlews, sandpipers, rails, coots, gulls, pelicans, jabirus, nandapoas, crabiers, snipes, plovers, ducks, geese, cranes and anhingas; most of them in vast abundance; some frequenting only the sea-coast, others only the interior, according to their different natures; all worthy the attention of the naturalist, all worthy of a place in the cabinet of the curious.
Should thy comprehensive genius not confine itself to birds alone, grand is the appearance of other objects all around. Thou art in a land rich in botany and mineralogy, rich in zoology and entomology. Animation will glow in thy looks and exercise will brace thy frame in vigour. The very time of thy absence from the tables of heterogeneous luxury will be profitable to thy stomach, perhaps already sorely drenched with Londo–Parisian sauces, and a new stock of health will bring thee an appetite to relish the wholesome food of the chase. Never-failing sleep will wait on thee at the time she comes to soothe the rest of animated nature, and ere the sun’s rays appear in the horizon thou wilt spring from thy hammock fresh as the April lark. Be convinced also that the dangers and difficulties which are generally supposed to accompany the traveller in his journey through distant regions are not half so numerous or dreadful as they are commonly thought to be.
The youth who incautiously reels into the lobby of Drury Lane after leaving the table sacred to the god of wine is exposed to more certain ruin, sickness and decay than he who wanders a whole year in the wilds of Demerara. But this will never be believed because the disasters arising from dissipation are so common and frequent in civilised life that man becomes quite habituated to them, and sees daily victims sink into the tomb long before their time without ever once taking alarm at the causes which precipitated them headlong into it.
But the dangers which a traveller exposes himself to in foreign parts are novel, out-of-the-way things to a man at home. The remotest apprehension of meeting a tremendous tiger, of being carried off by a flying dragon, or having his bones picked by a famished cannibal: oh, that makes him shudder. It sounds in his ears like the bursting of a bombshell. Thank Heaven he is safe by his own fireside.
Prudence and resolution ought to be the traveller’s constant companions. The first will cause him to avoid a number of snares which he will find in the path as he journeys on; and the second will always lend a hand to assist him if he has unavoidably got entangled in them. The little distinctions which have been shown him at his own home ought to be forgotten when he travels over the world at large, for strangers know nothing of his former merits, and it is necessary that they should witness them before they pay him the tribute which he was wont to receive within his own doors. Thus to be kind and affable to those we meet, to mix in their amusements, to pay a compliment or two to their manners and customs, to respect their elders, to give a little to their distressed and needy, and to feel, as it were, at home amongst them, is the sure way to enable you to pass merrily on, and to find other comforts as sweet and palatable as those which you were accustomed to partake of amongst your friends and acquaintance in your own native land.
We will now ascend in fancy on Icarian wing and take a view of Guiana in general. See an immense plain! betwixt two of the largest rivers in the world, level as a bowling-green, save at Cayenne, and covered with trees along the coast quite to the Atlantic wave, except where the plantations make a little vacancy amongst the foliage.
Though nearly in the centre of the Torrid Zone, the sun’s rays are not so intolerable as might be imagined, on account of the perpetual verdure and refreshing north-east breeze. See what numbers of broad and rapid rivers intersect it in their journey to the ocean, and that not a stone or a pebble is to be found on their banks, or in any part of the country, till your eye catches the hills in the interior. How beautiful and magnificent are the lakes in the heart of the forests, and how charming the forests themselves, for miles after miles on each side of the rivers! How extensive appear the savannas or natural meadows, teeming with innumerable herds of cattle, where the Portuguese and Spaniards are settled, but desert as Saara where the English and Dutch claim dominion! How gradually the face of the country rises! See the sandhills all clothed in wood first emerging from the level, then hills a little higher, rugged with bold and craggy rocks, peeping out from amongst the most luxuriant timber. Then come plains and dells and far-extending valleys, arrayed in richest foliage; and beyond them mountains piled on mountains, some bearing prodigious forests, others of bleak and barren aspect. Thus your eye wanders on over scenes of varied loveliness and grandeur, till it rests on the stupendous pinnacles of the long-continued Cordilleras de los Andes, which rise in towering majesty and command all America.
How fertile must the low-lands be from the accumulation of fallen leaves and trees for centuries! How propitious the swamps and slimy beds of the rivers, heated by a downward sun, to the amazing growth of alligators, serpents and innumerable insects! How inviting the forests to the feathered tribes, where you see buds, blossoms, green and ripe fruit, full grown and fading leaves all on the same tree! How secure the wild beasts may rove in endless mazes! Perhaps those mountains, too, which appear so bleak and naked, as if quite neglected, are, like Potosi, full of precious metals.
Let us now return the pinions we borrowed from Icarus, and prepare to bid farewell to the wilds. The time allotted to these wanderings is drawing fast to a close. Every day for the last six months has been employed in paying close attention to natural history in the forests of Demerara. Above two hundred specimens of the finest birds have been collected and a pretty just knowledge formed of their haunts and economy. From the time of leaving England, in March 1816, to the present day, nothing has intervened to arrest a fine flow of health, saving a quartan ague which did not tarry, but fled as suddenly as it appeared.
And now I take leave of thee, kind and gentle reader. The new mode of preserving birds heretofore promised thee shall not be forgotten. The plan is already formed in imagination, and can be penned down during the passage across the Atlantic. If the few remarks in these wanderings shall have any weight in inciting thee to sally forth and explore the vast and well-stored regions of Demerara, I have gained my end. Adieu.
April 6, 1817.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01