Desertosque videre locos, littusque relictum.
Gentle reader, after staying a few months in England, I strayed across the Alps and the Apennines, and returned home, but could not tarry. Guiana still whispered in my ear, and seemed to invite me once more to wander through her distant forests.
Shouldst thou have a leisure hour to read what follows, I pray thee pardon the frequent use of that unwelcome monosyllable I. It could not well be avoided, as will be seen in the sequel. In February 1820 I sailed from the Clyde, on board the Glenbervie, a fine West–Indiaman. She was driven to the north-west of Ireland, and had to contend with a foul and wintry wind for above a fortnight. At last it changed, and we had a pleasant passage across the Atlantic.
Sad and mournful was the story we heard on entering the River Demerara. The yellow fever had swept off numbers of the old inhabitants, and the mortal remains of many a new-comer were daily passing down the streets in slow and mute procession to their last resting-place.
After staying a few days in the town, I went up the Demerara to the former habitation of my worthy friend Mr. Edmonstone, in Mibiri Creek.
The house had been abandoned for some years. On arriving at the hill, the remembrance of scenes long past and gone naturally broke in upon the mind. All was changed: the house was in ruins and gradually sinking under the influence of the sun and rain; the roof had nearly fallen in; and the room, where once governors and generals had caroused, was now dismantled and tenanted by the vampire. You would have said:
’Tis now the vampire’s bleak abode,
’Tis now the apartment of the toad:
’Tis here the painful chegoe feeds,
’Tis here the dire labarri breeds
Conceal’d in ruins, moss, and weeds.
On the outside of the house Nature had nearly reassumed her ancient right: a few straggling fruit-trees were still discernible amid the varied hue of the near-approaching forest; they seemed like strangers lost and bewildered and unpitied in a foreign land, destined to linger a little longer, and then sink down for ever.
I hired some negroes from a woodcutter in another creek to repair the roof; and then the house, or at least what remained of it, became headquarters for natural history. The frogs, and here and there a snake, received that attention which the weak in this world generally experience from the strong, and which the law commonly denominates an ejectment. But here neither the frogs nor serpents were ill-treated: they sallied forth, without buffet or rebuke, to choose their place of residence — the world was all before them. The owls went away of their own accord, preferring to retire to a hollow tree rather than to associate with their new landlord. The bats and vampires stayed with me, and went in and out as usual.
It was upon this hill in former days that I first tried to teach John, the black slave of my friend Mr. Edmonstone, the proper way to do birds. But John had poor abilities, and it required much time and patience to drive anything into him. Some years after this his master took him to Scotland, where, becoming free, John left him, and got employed in the Glasgow, and then the Edinburgh, Museum. Mr. Robert Edmonstone, nephew to the above gentleman, had a fine mulatto capable of learning anything. He requested me to teach him the art. I did so. He was docile and active, and was with me all the time in the forest. I left him there to keep up this new art of preserving birds and to communicate it to others. Here, then, I fixed my headquarters, in the ruins of this once gay and hospitable house. Close by, in a little hut which, in times long past, had served for a store to keep provisions in, there lived a coloured man and his wife, by name Backer. Many a kind turn they did to me; and I was more than once a service to them and their children, by bringing to their relief in time of sickness what little knowledge I had acquired of medicine.
I would here, gentle reader, wish to draw thy attention, for a few minutes, to physic, raiment and diet. Shouldst thou ever wander through these remote and dreary wilds, forget not to carry with thee bark, laudanum, calomel and jalap, and the lancet. There are no druggist-shops here, nor sons of Galen to apply to in time of need. I never go encumbered with many clothes. A thin flannel waistcoat under a check shirt, a pair of trousers and a hat were all my wardrobe: shoes and stockings I seldom had on. In dry weather they would have irritated the feet and retarded me in the chase of wild beasts; and in the rainy season they would have kept me in a perpetual state of damp and moisture. I eat moderately, and never drink wine, spirits or fermented liquors in any climate. This abstemiousness has ever proved a faithful friend; it carried me triumphant through the epidemia at Malaga, where death made such havoc about the beginning of the present century; and it has since befriended me in many a fit of sickness brought on by exposure to the noon-day sun, to the dews of night, to the pelting shower and unwholesome food.
Perhaps it will be as well here to mention a fever which came on, and the treatment of it: it may possibly be of use to thee, shouldst thou turn wanderer in the tropics; a word or two also of a wound I got in the forest, and then we will say no more of the little accidents which sometimes occur, and attend solely to natural history. We shall have an opportunity of seeing the wild animals in their native haunts, undisturbed and unbroken in upon by man. We shall have time and leisure to look more closely at them, and probably rectify some errors which, for want of proper information or a near observance, have crept into their several histories.
It was in the month of June, when the sun was within a few days of Cancer, that I had a severe attack of fever. There had been a deluge of rain, accompanied with tremendous thunder and lightning, and very little sun. Nothing could exceed the dampness of the atmosphere. For two or three days I had been in a kind of twilight state of health, neither ill nor what you may call well: I yawned and felt weary without exercise, and my sleep was merely slumber. This was the time to have taken medicine, but I neglected to do so, though I had just been reading: “O navis, referent in mare te novi fluctus, O quid agis? fortiter occupa portum.” I awoke at midnight: a cruel headache, thirst and pain in the small of the back informed me what the case was. Had Chiron himself been present he could not have told me more distinctly that I was going to have a tight brush of it, and that I ought to meet it with becoming fortitude. I dozed and woke and startled, and then dozed again, and suddenly awoke thinking I was falling down a precipice.
The return of the bats to their diurnal retreat, which was in the thatch above my hammock, informed me that the sun was now fast approaching to the eastern horizon. I arose in languor and in pain, the pulse at one hundred and twenty. I took ten grains of calomel and a scruple of jalap, and drank during the day large draughts of tea, weak and warm. The physic did its duty, but there was no remission of fever or headache, though the pain of the back was less acute. I was saved the trouble of keeping the room cool, as the wind beat in at every quarter.
At five in the evening the pulse had risen to one hundred and thirty, and the headache almost insupportable, especially on looking to the right or left. I now opened a vein, and made a large orifice, to allow the blood to rush out rapidly; I closed it after losing sixteen ounces. I then steeped my feet in warm water and got into the hammock. After bleeding the pulse fell to ninety, and the head was much relieved, but during the night, which was very restless, the pulse rose again to one hundred and twenty, and at times the headache was distressing. I relieved the headache from time to time by applying cold water to the temples and holding a wet handkerchief there. The next morning the fever ran very high, and I took five more grains of calomel and ten of jalap, determined, whatever might be the case, this should be the last dose of calomel. About two o’clock in the afternoon the fever remitted, and a copious perspiration came on: there was no more headache nor thirst nor pain in the back, and the following night was comparatively a good one. The next morning I swallowed a large dose of castor-oil: it was genuine, for Louisa Backer had made it from the seeds of the trees which grew near the door. I was now entirely free from all symptoms of fever, or apprehensions of a return; and the morning after I began to take bark, and continued it for a fortnight. This put all to rights.
The story of the wound I got in the forest and the mode of cure are very short. I had pursued a redheaded woodpecker for above a mile in the forest without being able to get a shot at it. Thinking more of the woodpecker, as I ran along, than of the way before me, I trod upon a little hardwood stump which was just about an inch or so above the ground; it entered the hollow part of my foot, making a deep and lacerated wound there. It had brought me to the ground, and there I lay till a transitory fit of sickness went off. I allowed it to bleed freely, and on reaching headquarters washed it well and probed it, to feel if any foreign body was left within it. Being satisfied that there was none, I brought the edges of the wound together and then put a piece of lint on it, and over that a very large poultice, which was changed morning, noon and night. Luckily Backer had a cow or two upon the hill; now as heat and moisture are the two principal virtues of a poultice, nothing could produce those two qualities better than fresh cow-dung boiled: had there been no cows there I could have made out with boiled grass and leaves. I now took entirely to the hammock, placing the foot higher than the knee: this prevented it from throbbing, and was, indeed, the only position in which I could be at ease. When the inflammation was completely subdued I applied a wet cloth to the wound, and every now and then steeped the foot in cold water during the day, and at night again applied a poultice. The wound was now healing fast, and in three weeks from the time of the accident nothing but a scar remained: so that I again sallied forth sound and joyful, and said to myself:
I, pedes quo te rapiunt et aurae
Dum favet sol, et locus, i secundo
Omine, et conto latebras, ut olim,
Now this contus was a tough, light pole eight feet long, on the end of which was fixed an old bayonet. I never went into the canoe without it: it was of great use in starting the beasts and snakes out of the hollow trees, and in case of need was an excellent defence.
In 1819 I had the last conversation with Sir Joseph Banks. I saw with sorrow that death was going to rob us of him. We talked much of the present mode adopted by all museums in stuffing quadrupeds, and condemned it as being very imperfect: still we could not find out a better way, and at last concluded that the lips and nose ought to be cut off and replaced with wax, it being impossible to make those parts appear like life, as they shrink to nothing and render the stuffed specimens in the different museums horrible to look at. The defects in the legs and feet would not be quite so glaring, being covered with hair.
I had paid great attention to this subject for above fourteen years; still it would not do. However, one night, while I was lying in the hammock and harping on the string on which hung all my solicitude, I hit upon the proper mode by inference: it appeared clear to me that it was the only true way of going to work, and ere I closed my eyes in sleep I was able to prove to myself that there could not be any other way that would answer. I tried it the next day, and succeeded according to expectation.
By means of this process, which is very simple, we can now give every feature back again to the animal’s face after it has been skinned; and when necessary stamp grief or pain, or pleasure, or rage, or mildness upon it. But more of this hereafter.
Let us now turn our attention to the sloth, whose native haunts have hitherto been so little known and probably little looked into. Those who have written on this singular animal have remarked that he is in a perpetual state of pain, that he is proverbially slow in his movements, that he is a prisoner in space, and that, as soon as he has consumed all the leaves of the tree upon which he had mounted, he rolls himself up in the form of a ball and then falls to the ground. This is not the case.
If the naturalists who have written the history of the sloth had gone into the wilds in order to examine his haunts and economy, they would not have drawn the foregoing conclusions. They would have learned that, though all other quadrupeds may be described while resting upon the ground, the sloth is an exception to this rule, and that his history must be written while he is in the tree.
This singular animal is destined by Nature to be produced, to live and to die in the trees; and to do justice to him naturalists must examine him in this his upper element. He is a scarce and solitary animal, and being good food he is never allowed to escape. He inhabits remote and gloomy forests where snakes take up their abode, and where cruelly-stinging ants and scorpions and swamps and innumerable thorny shrubs and bushes obstruct the steps of civilised man. Were you to draw your own conclusions from the descriptions which have been given of the sloth, you would probably suspect that no naturalist has actually gone into the wilds with the fixed determination to find him out and examine his haunts, and see whether Nature has committed any blunder in the formation of this extraordinary creature, which appears to us so forlorn and miserable, so ill put together, and so totally unfit to enjoy the blessings which have been so bountifully given to the rest of animated nature; for, as it has formerly been remarked, he has no soles to his feet, and he is evidently ill at ease when he tries to move on the ground, and it is then that he looks up in your face with a countenance that says: “Have pity on me, for I am in pain and sorrow.”
It mostly happens that Indians and negroes are the people who catch the sloth and bring it to the white man: hence it may be conjectured that the erroneous accounts we have hitherto had of the sloth have not been penned down with the slightest intention to mislead the reader or give him an exaggerated history, but that these errors have naturally arisen by examining the sloth in those places where Nature never intended that he should be exhibited.
However, we are now in his own domain. Man but little frequents these thick and noble forests, which extend far and wide on every side of us. This, then, is the proper place to go in quest of the sloth. We will first take a near view of him. By obtaining a knowledge of his anatomy we shall be enabled to account for his movements hereafter, when we see him in his proper haunts. His fore-legs, or, more correctly speaking, his arms, are apparently much too long, while his hind-legs are very short, and look as if they could be bent almost to the shape of a corkscrew. Both the fore-and hind-legs, by their form and by the manner in which they are joined to the body, are quite incapacitated from acting in a perpendicular direction, or in supporting it on the earth, as the bodies of other quadrupeds are supported by their legs. Hence, when you place him on the floor, his belly touches the ground. Now, granted that he supported himself on his legs like other animals, nevertheless he would be in pain, for he has no soles to his feet, and his claws are very sharp and long and curved; so that were his body supported by his feet, it would be by their extremities, just as your body would be were you to throw yourself on all-fours and try to support it on the ends of your toes and fingers — a trying position. Were the floor of glass, or of a polished surface, the sloth would actually be quite stationary; but as the ground is generally rough, with little protuberances upon it, such as stones, or roots of grass, etc., this just suits the sloth, and he moves his fore-legs in all directions, in order to find something to lay hold of; and when he has succeeded he pulls himself forward, and is thus enabled to travel onwards, but at the same time in so tardy and awkward a manner as to acquire him the name of sloth.
Indeed his looks and his gestures evidently betray his uncomfortable situation: and as a sigh every now and then escapes him, we may be entitled to conclude that he is actually in pain.
Some years ago I kept a sloth in my room for several months. I often took him out of the house and placed him upon the ground, in order to have an opportunity of observing his motions. If the ground were rough, he would pull himself forwards by means of his fore-legs at a pretty good pace, and he invariably immediately shaped his course towards the nearest tree. But if I put him upon a smooth and well-trodden part of the road, he appeared to be in trouble and distress. His favourite abode was the back of a chair and, after getting all his legs in a line upon the topmost part of it, he would hang there for hours together, and often with a low and inward cry would seem to invite me to take notice of him.
The sloth, in its wild state, spends its whole life in trees, and never leaves them but through force or by accident. An all-ruling Providence has ordered man to tread on the surface of the earth, the eagle to soar in the expanse of the skies, and the monkey and squirrel to inhabit the trees: still these may change their relative situations without feeling much inconvenience; but the sloth is doomed to spend his whole life in the trees, and, what is more extraordinary, not upon the branches, like the squirrel and the monkey, but under them. He moves suspended from the branch, he rests suspended from it, and he sleeps suspended from it. To enable him to do this he must have a very different formation from that of any other known quadruped.
Hence his seemingly bungled conformation is at once accounted for; and in lieu of the sloth leading a painful life, and entailing a melancholy and miserable existence on its progeny, it is but fair to surmise that it just enjoys life as much as any other animal, and that its extraordinary formation and singular habits are but further proofs to engage us to admire the wonderful works of Omnipotence.
It must be observed that the sloth does not hang head-downwards like the vampire. When asleep he supports himself from a branch parallel to the earth. He first seizes the branch with one arm, and then with the other; and after that brings up both his legs, one by one, to the same branch; so that all four are in a line: he seems perfectly at rest in this position. Now had he a tail, he would be at a loss to know what to do with it in this position: were he to draw it up within his legs it would interfere with them, and were he to let it hang down it would become the sport of the winds. Thus his deficiency of tail is a benefit to him; it is merely an apology for a tail, scarcely exceeding an inch and a half in length.
I observed, when he was climbing, he never used his arms both together, but first one and then the other, and so on alternately. There is a singularity in his hair, different from that of all other animals, and, I believe, hitherto unnoticed by naturalists. His hair is thick and coarse at the extremity, and gradually tapers to the root, where it becomes fine as a spider’s web. His fur has so much the hue of the moss which grows on the branches of the trees that it is very difficult to make him out when he is at rest.
The male of the three-toed sloth has a longitudinal bar of very fine black hair on his back, rather lower than the shoulder-blades; on each side of this black bar there is a space of yellow hair, equally fine; it has the appearance of being pressed into the body, and looks exactly as if it had been singed. If we examine the anatomy of his fore-legs, we shall immediately perceive by their firm and muscular texture how very capable they are of supporting the pendent weight of his body, both in climbing and at rest; and, instead of pronouncing them a bungled composition, as a celebrated naturalist has done, we shall consider them as remarkably well calculated to perform their extraordinary functions.
As the sloth is an inhabitant of forests within the tropics, where the trees touch each other in the greatest profusion, there seems to be no reason why he should confine himself to one tree alone for food, and entirely strip it of its leaves. During the many years I have ranged the forests I have never seen a tree in such a state of nudity; indeed, I would hazard a conjecture that, by the time the animal had finished the last of the old leaves, there would be a new crop on the part of the tree he had stripped first, ready for him to begin again, so quick is the process of vegetation in these countries.
There is a saying amongst the Indians that, when the wind blows, the sloth begins to travel. In calm weather he remains tranquil, probably not liking to cling to the brittle extremity of the branches, lest they should break with him in passing from one tree to another; but as soon as the wind rises the branches of the neighbouring trees become interwoven, and then the sloth seizes hold of them and pursues his journey in safety. There is seldom an entire day of calm in these forests. The tradewind generally sets in about ten o’clock in the morning, and thus the sloth may set off after breakfast, and get a considerable way before dinner. He travels at a good round pace; and were you to see him pass from tree to tree, as I have done, you would never think of calling him a sloth.
Thus it would appear that the different histories we have of this quadruped are erroneous on two accounts: first, that the writers of them, deterred by difficulties and local annoyances, have not paid sufficient attention to him in his native haunts; and secondly, they have described him in a situation in which he was never intended by Nature to cut a figure: I mean on the ground. The sloth is as much at a loss to proceed on his journey upon a smooth and level floor as a man would be who had to walk a mile in stilts upon a line of feather-beds.
One day, as we were crossing the Essequibo, I saw a large two-toed sloth on the ground upon the bank. How he had got there nobody could tell: the Indian said he had never surprised a sloth in such a situation before. He would hardly have come there to drink, for both above and below the place the branches of the trees touched the water, and afforded him an easy and safe access to it. Be this as it may, though the trees were not above twenty yards from him, he could not make his way through the sand time enough to escape before we landed. As soon as we got up to him he threw himself upon his back, and defended himself in gallant style with his fore-legs. “Come, poor fellow,” said I to him, “if thou hast got into a hobble today, thou shalt not suffer for it. I’ll take no advantage of thee in misfortune; the forest is large enough both for thee and me to rove in: go thy ways up above, and enjoy thyself in these endless wilds; it is more than probable thou wilt never have another interview with man. So fare thee well.” On saying this, I took a long stick which was lying there, held it for him to hook on, and then conveyed him to a high and stately mora. He ascended with wonderful rapidity, and in about a minute he was almost at the top of the tree. He now went off in a side direction, and caught hold of the branch of a neighbouring tree; he then proceeded towards the heart of the forest. I stood looking on, lost in amazement at his singular mode of progress. I followed him with my eye till the intervening branches closed in betwixt us; and then I lost sight for ever of the two-toed sloth. I was going to add that I never saw a sloth take to his heels in such earnest: but the expression will not do, for the sloth has no heels.
That which naturalists have advanced of his being so tenacious of life is perfectly true. I saw the heart of one beat for half an hour after it was taken out of the body. The wourali poison seems to be the only thing that will kill it quickly. On reference to a former part of these wanderings, it will be seen that a poisoned arrow killed the sloth in about ten minutes.
So much for this harmless, unoffending animal. He holds a conspicuous place in the catalogue of the animals of the new world. Though naturalists have made no mention of what follows, still it is not less true on that account. The sloth is the only quadruped known which spends its whole life from the branch of a tree, suspended by his feet. I have paid uncommon attention to him in his native haunts. The monkey and squirrel will seize a branch with their fore-feet, and pull themselves up, and rest or run upon it; but the sloth, after seizing it, still remains suspended, and suspended moves along under the branch, till he can lay hold of another. Whenever I have seen him in his native woods, whether at rest or asleep or on his travels, I have always observed that he was suspended from the branch of a tree. When his form and anatomy are attentively considered, it will appear evident that the sloth cannot be at ease in any situation where his body is higher, or above, his feet. We will now take our leave of him.
In the far-extending wilds of Guiana the traveller will be astonished at the immense quantity of ants which he perceives on the ground and in the trees. They have nests in the branches four or five times as large as that of the rook; and they have a covered way from them to the ground. In this covered way thousands are perpetually passing and repassing; and if you destroy part of it, they turn to and immediately repair it.
Other species of ants again have no covered way, but travel exposed to view upon the surface of the earth. You will sometimes see a string of these ants a mile long, each carrying in its mouth, to its nest, a green leaf the size of a sixpence. It is wonderful to observe the order in which they move, and with what pains and labour they surmount the obstructions of the path.
The ants have their enemies as well as the rest of animated nature. Amongst the foremost of these stand the three species of ant-bears. The smallest is not much larger than a rat; the next is nearly the size of a fox; and the third a stout and powerful animal, measuring about six feet from the snout to the end of the tail. He is the most inoffensive of all animals, and never injures the property of man. He is chiefly found in the inmost recesses of the forest, and seems partial to the low and swampy parts near creeks, where the troely-tree grows. There he goes up and down in quest of ants, of which there is never the least scarcity; so that he soon obtains a sufficient supply of food with very little trouble. He cannot travel fast; man is superior to him in speed. Without swiftness to enable him to escape from his enemies, without teeth, the possession of which would assist him in self-defence, and without the power of burrowing in the ground, by which he might conceal himself from his pursuers, he still is capable of ranging through these wilds in perfect safety; nor does he fear the fatal pressure of the serpent’s fold or the teeth of the famished jaguar. Nature has formed his fore-legs wonderfully thick and strong and muscular, and armed his feet with three tremendous sharp and crooked claws. Whenever he seizes an animal with these formidable weapons he hugs it close to his body, and keeps it there till it dies through pressure or through want of food. Nor does the ant-bear, in the meantime, suffer much from loss of aliment, as it is a well-known fact that he can go longer without food than, perhaps, any other animal, except the land-tortoise. His skin is of a texture that perfectly resists the bite of a dog; his hinder-parts are protected by thick and shaggy hair, while his immense tail is large enough to cover his whole body.
The Indians have a great dread of coming in contact with the ant-bear and, after disabling him in the chase, never think of approaching him till he be quite dead. It is perhaps on account of this caution that naturalists have never yet given to the world a true and correct drawing of this singular animal, or described the peculiar position of his fore-feet when he walks or stands. If, in taking a drawing from a dead ant-bear, you judge of the position in which he stands from that of all other terrestrial animals, the sloth excepted, you will be in error. Examine only a figure of this animal in books of natural history, or inspect a stuffed specimen in the best museums, and you will see that the fore-claws are just in the same forward attitude as those of a dog, or a common bear when he walks or stands. But this is a distorted and unnatural position, and in life would be a painful and intolerable attitude for the ant-bear. The length and curve of his claws cannot admit of such a position. When he walks or stands his feet have somewhat the appearance of a club-hand. He goes entirely on the outer side of his fore-feet, which are quite bent inwards, the claws collected into a point, and going under the foot. In this position he is quite at ease, while his long claws are disposed of in a manner to render them harmless to him and are prevented from becoming dull and worn, like those of the dog, which would inevitably be the case did their points come in actual contact with the ground; for his claws have not that retractile power which is given to animals of the feline species, by which they are enabled to preserve the sharpness of their claws on the most flinty path. A slight inspection of the fore-feet of the ant-bear will immediately convince you of the mistake artists and naturalists have fallen into by putting his fore-feet in the same position as those of other quadrupeds, for you will perceive that the whole outer side of his foot is not only deprived of hair, but is hard and callous: proof positive of its being in perpetual contact with the ground. Now, on the contrary, the inner side of the bottom of his foot is soft and rather hairy.
There is another singularity in the anatomy of the ant-bear, I believe as yet unnoticed in the page of natural history. He has two very large glands situated below the root of the tongue. From these is emitted a glutinous liquid, with which his long tongue is lubricated when he puts it into the ants’ nests. These glands are of the same substance as those found in the lower jaw of the woodpecker. The secretion from them, when wet, is very clammy and adhesive, but on being dried it loses these qualities, and you can pulverise it betwixt your finger and thumb; so that in dissection, if any of it has got upon the fur of the animal or the feathers of the bird, allow it to dry there, and then it may be removed without leaving the least stain behind.
The ant-bear is a pacific animal. He is never the first to begin the attack. His motto may be “Noli me tangere.” As his habits and his haunts differ materially from those of every other animal in the forest, their interests never clash, and thus he might live to a good old age, and die at last in peace, were it not that his flesh is good food. On this account the Indian wages perpetual war against him and, as he cannot escape by flight, he falls an easy prey to the poisoned arrow shot from the Indian’s bow at a distance. If ever he be closely attacked by dogs, he immediately throws himself on his back, and if he be fortunate enough to catch hold of his enemy with his tremendous claws, the invader is sure to pay for his rashness with the loss of life.
We will now take a view of the vampire. As there was a free entrance and exit to the vampire in the loft where I slept, I had many a fine opportunity of paying attention to this nocturnal surgeon. He does not always live on blood. When the moon shone bright, and the fruit of the banana-tree was ripe, I could see him approach and eat it. He would also bring into the loft, from the forest, a green round fruit something like the wild guava and about the size of a nutmeg. There was something also in the blossom of the sawarri nut-tree which was grateful to him, for on coming up Waratilla Creek, in a moonlight night, I saw several vampires fluttering round the top of the sawarri-tree, and every now and then the blossoms, which they had broken off, fell into the water. They certainly did not drop off naturally, for on examining several of them they appeared quite fresh and blooming. So I concluded the vampires pulled them from the tree either to get at the incipient fruit or to catch the insects which often take up their abode in flowers.
The vampire, in general, measures about twenty-six inches from wing to wing extended, though I once killed one which measured thirty-two inches. He frequents old abandoned houses and hollow trees; and sometimes a cluster of them may be seen in the forest hanging head downwards from the branch of a tree.
Goldsmith seems to have been aware that the vampire hangs in clusters; for in the Deserted Village, speaking of America, he says:
And matted woods, where birds forget to sing,
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling.
The vampire has a curious membrane which rises from the nose, and gives it a very singular appearance. It has been remarked before that there are two species of vampire in Guiana, a larger and a smaller. The larger sucks men and other animals; the smaller seems to confine himself chiefly to birds. I learnt from a gentleman high up in the River Demerara that he was completely unsuccessful with his fowls on account of the small vampire. He showed me some that had been sucked the night before, and they were scarcely able to walk.
Some years ago I went to the River Paumaron with a Scotch gentleman, by name Tarbet. We hung our hammocks in the thatched loft of a planter’s house. Next morning I heard this gentleman muttering in his hammock, and now and then letting fall an imprecation or two just about the time he ought to have been saying his morning prayers. “What is the matter, sir?” said I softly. “Is anything amiss?” “What’s the matter?” answered he surlily; “why, the vampires have been sucking me to death.” As soon as there was light enough I went to his hammock and saw it much stained with blood. “There,” said he, thrusting his foot out of the hammock, “see how these infernal imps have been drawing my life’s blood.” On examining his foot I found the vampire had tapped his great toe: there was a wound somewhat less than that made by a leech; the blood was still oozing from it; I conjectured he might have lost from ten to twelve ounces of blood. Whilst examining it, I think I put him into a worse humour by remarking that a European surgeon would not have been so generous as to have blooded him without making a charge. He looked up in my face, but did not say a word: I saw he was of opinion that I had better have spared this piece of ill-timed levity.
It was not the last punishment of this good gentleman in the River Paumaron. The next night he was doomed to undergo a kind of ordeal unknown in Europe. There is a species of large red ant in Guiana sometimes called ranger, sometimes coushie. These ants march in millions through the country in compact order, like a regiment of soldiers: they eat up every insect in their march; and if a house obstruct their route, they do not turn out of the way, but go quite through it. Though they sting cruelly when molested, the planter is not sorry to see them in his house, for it is but a passing visit, and they destroy every kind of insect-vermin that has taken shelter under his roof.
Now in the British plantations of Guiana, as well as in Europe, there is always a little temple dedicated to the goddess Cloacina. Our dinner had chiefly consisted of crabs dressed in rich and different ways. Paumaron is famous for crabs, and strangers who go thither consider them the greatest luxury. The Scotch gentleman made a very capital dinner on crabs; but this change of diet was productive of unpleasant circumstances: he awoke in the night in that state in which Virgil describes Caeleno to have been, viz. “faedissima ventris proluvies.” Up he got to verify the remark:
Serius aut citius, sedem properamus ad unam.
Now, unluckily for himself and the nocturnal tranquillity of the planter’s house, just at that unfortunate hour the coushie-ants were passing across the seat of Cloacina’s temple. He had never dreamed of this; and so, turning his face to the door, he placed himself in the usual situation which the votaries of the goddess generally take. Had a lighted match dropped upon a pound of gunpowder, as he afterwards remarked, it could not have caused a greater recoil. Up he jumped and forced his way out, roaring for help and for a light, for he was worried alive by ten thousand devils. The fact is he had sat down upon an intervening body of coushie-ants. Many of those which escaped being crushed to death turned again, and in revenge stung the unintentional intruder most severely. The watchman had fallen asleep, and it was some time before a light could be procured, the fire having gone out; in the meantime the poor gentleman was suffering an indescribable martyrdom, and would have found himself more at home in the Augean stable than in the planter’s house.
I had often wished to have been once sucked by the vampire in order that I might have it in my power to say it had really happened to me. There can be no pain in the operation, for the patient is always asleep when the vampire is sucking him; and as for the loss of a few ounces of blood, that would be a trifle in the long run. Many a night have I slept with my foot out of the hammock to tempt this winged surgeon, expecting that he would be there, but it was all in vain; the vampire never sucked me, and I could never account for his not doing so, for we were inhabitants of the same loft for months together.
The armadillo is very common in these forests; he burrows in the sandhills like a rabbit. As it often takes a considerable time to dig him out of his hole, it would be a long and laborious business to attack each hole indiscriminately without knowing whether the animal were there or not. To prevent disappointment the Indians carefully examine the mouth of the hole, and put a short stick down it. Now if, on introducing the stick, a number of mosquitos come out, the Indians know to a certainty that the armadillo is in it: whenever there are no mosquitos in the hole there is no armadillo. The Indian having satisfied himself that the armadillo is there by the mosquitos which come out, he immediately cuts a long and slender stick and introduces it into the hole. He carefully observes the line the stick takes, and then sinks a pit in the sand to catch the end of it: this done, he puts it farther into the hole, and digs another pit, and so on, till at last he comes up with the armadillo, which had been making itself a passage in the sand till it had exhausted all its strength through pure exertion. I have been sometimes three-quarters of a day in digging out one armadillo, and obliged to sink half a dozen pits seven feet deep before I got up to it. The Indians and negroes are very fond of the flesh, but I considered it strong and rank.
On laying hold of the armadillo you must be cautious not to come in contact with his feet: they are armed with sharp claws, and with them he will inflict a severe wound in self-defence. When not molested he is very harmless and innocent: he would put you in mind of the hare in Gay’s fables:
Whose care was never to offend,
And every creature was her friend.
The armadillo swims well in time of need, but does not go into the water by choice. He is very seldom seen abroad during the day; and when surprised, he is sure to be near the mouth of his hole. Every part of the armadillo is well protected by his shell, except his ears. In life this shell is very limber, so that the animal is enabled to go at full stretch or roll himself up into a ball, as occasion may require.
On inspecting the arrangement of the shell, it puts you very much in mind of a coat of armour; indeed, it is a natural coat of armour to the armadillo, and being composed both of scale and bone it affords ample security, and has a pleasing effect.
Often, when roving in the wilds, I would fall in with the land-tortoise; he too adds another to the list of unoffending animals. He subsists on the fallen fruits of the forest. When an enemy approaches he never thinks of moving, but quietly draws himself under his shell and there awaits his doom in patience. He only seems to have two enemies who can do him any damage: one of these is the boa-constrictor — this snake swallows the tortoise alive, shell and all. But a boa large enough to do this is very scarce, and thus there is not much to apprehend from that quarter. The other enemy is man, who takes up the tortoise and carries him away. Man also is scarce in these never-ending wilds, and the little depredations he may commit upon the tortoise will be nothing, or a mere trifle. The tiger’s teeth cannot penetrate its shell, nor can a stroke of his paws do it any damage. It is of so compact and strong a nature that there is a common saying, a London waggon might roll over it and not break it.
Ere we proceed, let us take a retrospective view of the five animals just enumerated: they are all quadrupeds, and have some very particular mark or mode of existence different from all other animals. The sloth has four feet, but never can use them to support his body on the earth: they want soles, which are a marked feature in the feet of other animals. The ant-bear has not a tooth in his head, still he roves fearless on in the same forests with the jaguar and boa-constrictor. The vampire does not make use of his feet to walk, but to stretch a membrane which enables him to go up into an element where no other quadruped is seen. The armadillo has only here and there a straggling hair, and has neither fur nor wool nor bristles, but in lieu of them has received a movable shell on which are scales very much like those of fishes. The tortoise is oviparous, entirely without any appearance of hair, and is obliged to accommodate itself to a shell which is quite hard and inflexible, and in no point of view whatever obedient to the will or pleasure of the bearer. The egg of the tortoise has a very hard shell, while that of the turtle is quite soft.
In some parts of these forests I saw the vanilla growing luxuriantly. It creeps up the trees to the height of thirty or forty feet. I found it difficult to get a ripe pod, as the monkeys are very fond of it, and generally took care to get there before me. The pod hangs from the tree in the shape of a little scabbard. Vayna is the Spanish for a scabbard, and vanilla for a little scabbard. Hence the name.
In Mibiri Creek there was a cayman of the small species, measuring about five feet in length; I saw it in the same place for months, but could never get a shot at it, for, the moment I thought I was sure of it, it dived under the water before I could pull the trigger. At last I got an Indian with his bow and arrow: he stood up in the canoe with his bow ready bent, and as we drifted past the place he sent his arrow into the cayman’s eye, and killed it dead. The skin of this little species is much harder and stronger than that of the large kind; it is good food, and tastes like veal.
My friend Mr. Edmonstone had very kindly let me have one of his old negroes, and he constantly attended me: his name was Daddy Quashi. He had a brave stomach for heterogeneous food; it could digest and relish, too, caymen, monkeys, hawks and grubs. The Daddy made three or four meals on this cayman while it was not absolutely putrid, and salted the rest. I could never get him to face a snake; the horror he betrayed on seeing one was beyond description. I asked him why he was so terribly alarmed. He said it was by seeing so many dogs from time to time killed by them.
Here I had a fine opportunity of examining several species of the caprimulgus. I am fully persuaded that these innocent little birds never suck the herds, for when they approach them, and jump up at their udders, it is to catch the flies and insects there. When the moon shone bright I would frequently go and stand within three yards of a cow, and distinctly see the caprimulgus catch the flies on its udder. On looking for them in the forest during the day, I either found them on the ground, or else invariably sitting longitudinally on the branch of a tree, not crosswise, like all other birds.
The wasps, or maribuntas, are great plagues in these forests, and require the naturalist to be cautious as he wanders up and down. Some make their nests pendent from the branches; others have them fixed to the underside of a leaf. Now, in passing on, if you happen to disturb one of these, they sally forth and punish you severely. The largest kind is blue: it brings blood where its sting enters, and causes pain and inflammation enough to create a fever. The Indians make a fire under the nest, and, after killing or driving away the old ones, they roast the young grubs in the comb and eat them. I tried them once by way of dessert after dinner, but my stomach was offended at their intrusion; probably it was more the idea than the taste that caused the stomach to rebel.
Time and experience have convinced me that there is not much danger in roving amongst snakes and wild beasts, provided only that you have self-command. You must never approach them abruptly; if so, you are sure to pay for your rashness, because the idea of self-defence is predominant in every animal, and thus the snake, to defend himself from what he considers an attack upon him, makes the intruder feel the deadly effect of his poisonous fangs. The jaguar flies at you, and knocks you senseless with a stroke of his paw; whereas, if you had not come upon him too suddenly, it is ten to one but that he had retired in lieu of disputing the path with you. The labarri-snake is very poisonous, and I have often approached within two yards of him without fear. I took care to move very softly and gently, without moving my arms, and he always allowed me to have a fine view of him without showing the least inclination to make a spring at me. He would appear to keep his eye fixed on me as though suspicious, but that was all. Sometimes I have taken a stick ten feet long and placed it on the labarri’s back. He would then glide away without offering resistance. But when I put the end of the stick abruptly to his head, he immediately opened his mouth, flew at it, and bit it.
One day, wishful to see how the poison comes out of the fang of the snake, I caught a labarri alive. He was about eight feet long. I held him by the neck, and my hand was so near his jaw that he had not room to move his head to bite it. This was the only position I could have held him in with safety and effect. To do so it only required a little resolution and coolness. I then took a small piece of stick in the other hand and pressed it against the fang, which is invariably in the upper jaw. Towards the point of the fang there is a little oblong aperture on the convex side of it. Through this there is a communication down the fang to the root, at which lies a little bag containing the poison. Now, when the point of the fang is pressed, the root of the fang also presses against the bag, and sends up a portion of the poison therein contained. Thus, when I applied a piece of stick to the point of the fang, there came out of the hole a liquor thick and yellow, like strong camomile-tea. This was the poison which is so dreadful in its effects as to render the labarri-snake one of the most poisonous in the forests of Guiana. I once caught a fine labarri and made it bite itself. I forced the poisonous fang into its belly. In a few minutes I thought it was going to die, for it appeared dull and heavy. However, in half an hour’s time he was as brisk and vigorous as ever, and in the course of the day showed no symptoms of being affected. Is then the life of the snake proof against its own poison? This subject is not unworthy of the consideration of the naturalist.
In Guiana there is a little insect in the grass and on the shrubs which the French call bête-rouge. It is of a beautiful scarlet colour, and so minute that you must bring your eye close to it before you can perceive it. It is most numerous in the rainy season. Its bite causes an intolerable itching. The best way to get rid of it is to rub the part affected with oil or rum. You must be careful not to scratch it. If you do so, and break the skin, you expose yourself to a sore. The first year I was in Guiana the bête-rouge and my own want of knowledge, and, I may add, the little attention I paid to it, created an ulcer above the ankle which annoyed me for six months, and if I hobbled out into the grass a number of bête-rouge would settle on the edges of the sore and increase the inflammation.
Still more inconvenient, painful and annoying is another little pest called the chegoe. It looks exactly like a very small flea, and a stranger would take it for one. However, in about four and twenty hours he would have several broad hints that he had made a mistake in his ideas of the animal. It attacks different parts of the body, but chiefly the feet, betwixt the toe-nails and the flesh. There it buries itself, and at first causes an itching not unpleasant. In a day or so, after examining the part, you perceive a place about the size of a pea, somewhat discoloured, rather of a blue appearance. Sometimes it happens that the itching is so trivial, you are not aware that the miner is at work. Time, they say, makes great discoveries. The discoloured part turns out to be the nest of the chegoe, containing hundreds of eggs, which, if allowed to hatch there, the young ones will soon begin to form other nests, and in time cause a spreading ulcer. As soon as you perceive that you have got the chegoe in your flesh, you must take a needle or a sharp-pointed knife and take it out. If the nest be formed, great care must be taken not to break it, otherwise some of the eggs remain in the flesh, and then you will soon be annoyed with more chegoes. After removing the nest it is well to drop spirit of turpentine into the hole: that will most effectually destroy any chegoe that may be lurking there. Sometimes I have taken four nests out of my feet in the course of the day.
Every evening, before sundown, it was part of my toilette to examine my feet and see that they were clear of chegoes. Now and then a nest would escape the scrutiny, and then I had to smart for it a day or two after. A chegoe once lit upon the back of my hand; wishful to see how he worked, I allowed him to take possession. He immediately set to work, head foremost, and in about half an hour he had completely buried himself in the skin. I then let him feel the point of my knife, and exterminated him.
More than once, after sitting down upon a rotten stump, I have found myself covered with ticks. There is a short and easy way to get quit of these unwelcome adherents. Make a large fire and stand close to it, and if you be covered with ticks they will all fall off.
Let us now forget for awhile the quadrupeds, serpents and insects, and take a transitory view of the native Indians of these forests.
There are five principal nations or tribes of Indians in ci-devant Dutch Guiana, commonly known by the name of Warow, Arowack, Acoway, Carib and Macoushi. They live in small hamlets, which consist of a few huts, never exceeding twelve in number. These huts are always in the forest, near a river or some creek. They are open on all sides (except those of the Macoushi), and covered with a species of palm-leaf.
Their principal furniture is the hammock. It serves them both for chair and bed. It is commonly made of cotton; though those of the Warows are formed from the æta-tree. At night they always make a fire close to it. The heat keeps them warm, and the smoke drives away the mosquitos and sand-flies. You sometimes find a table in the hut; but it was not made by the Indians, but by some negro or mulatto carpenter.
They cut down about an acre or two of the trees which surround the huts, and there plant pepper, papaws, sweet and bitter cassava, plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, pine-apples and silk-grass. Besides these, they generally have a few acres in some fertile part of the forest for their cassava, which is as bread to them. They make earthen pots to boil their provisions in; and they get from the white men flat circular plates of iron on which they bake their cassava. They have to grate the cassava before it is pressed preparatory to baking; and those Indians who are too far in the wilds to procure graters from the white men make use of a flat piece of wood studded with sharp stones. They have no cows, horses, mules, goats, sheep or asses. The men hunt and fish, and the women work in the provision-ground and cook their victuals.
In each hamlet there is the trunk of a large tree hollowed out like a trough. In this, from their cassava, they make an abominable ill-tasted and sour kind of fermented liquor called piwarri. They are very fond of it, and never fail to get drunk after every brewing. The frequency of the brewing depends upon the superabundance of cassava.
Both men and women go without clothes. The men have a cotton wrapper, and the women a bead-ornamented square piece of cotton about the size of your hand for the fig-leaf. Those far away in the interior use the bark of a tree for this purpose. They are a very clean people, and wash in the river or creek at least twice every day. They paint themselves with the roucou, sweetly perfumed with hayawa or accaiari. Their hair is black and lank, and never curled. The women braid it up fancifully, something in the shape of Diana’s head-dress in ancient pictures. They have very few diseases. Old age and pulmonary complaints seem to be the chief agents for removing them to another world. The pulmonary complaints are generally brought on by a severe cold, which they do not know how to arrest in its progress by the use of the lancet. I never saw an idiot amongst them, nor could I perceive any that were deformed from their birth. Their women never perish in childbed, owing, no doubt, to their never wearing stays.
They have no public religious ceremony. They acknowledge two superior beings — a good one and a bad one. They pray to the latter not to hurt them, and they are of opinion that the former is too good to do the man injury. I suspect, if the truth were known, the individuals of the village never offer up a single prayer or ejaculation. They have a kind of a priest called a Pee-ay-man, who is an enchanter. He finds out things lost. He mutters prayers to the evil spirit over them and their children when they are sick. If a fever be in the village, the Pee-ay-man goes about all night long howling and making dreadful noises, and begs the bad spirit to depart. But he has very seldom to perform this part of his duty, as fevers seldom visit the Indian hamlets. However, when a fever does come, and his incantations are of no avail, which I imagine is most commonly the case, they abandon the place for ever and make a new settlement elsewhere. They consider the owl and the goat-sucker as familiars of the evil spirit, and never destroy them.
I could find no monuments or marks of antiquity amongst these Indians; so that, after penetrating to the Rio Branco from the shores of the Western Ocean, had anybody questioned me on this subject I should have answered, I have seen nothing amongst these Indians which tells me that they have existed here for a century; though, for aught I know to the contrary, they may have been here before the Redemption, but their total want of civilisation has assimilated them to the forests in which they wander. Thus an aged tree falls and moulders into dust and you cannot tell what was its appearance, its beauties, or its diseases amongst the neighbouring trees; another has shot up in its place, and after Nature has had her course it will make way for a successor in its turn. So it is with the Indian of Guiana. He is now laid low in the dust; he has left no record behind him, either on parchment or on a stone or in earthenware to say what he has done. Perhaps the place where his buried ruins lie was unhealthy, and the survivors have left it long ago and gone far away into the wilds. All that you can say is, the trees where I stand appear lower and smaller than the rest, and from this I conjecture that some Indians may have had a settlement here formerly. Were I by chance to meet the son of the father who moulders here, he could tell me that his father was famous for slaying tigers and serpents and caymen, and noted in the chase of the tapir and wild boar, but that he remembers little or nothing of his grandfather.
They are very jealous of their liberty, and much attached to their own mode of living. Though those in the neighbourhood of the European settlements have constant communication with the whites, they have no inclination to become civilised. Some Indians who have accompanied white men to Europe, on returning to their own land have thrown off their clothes and gone back into the forests.
In Georgetown, the capital of Demerara, there is a large shed, open on all sides, built for them by order of Government. Hither the Indians come with monkeys, parrots, bows and arrows, and pegalls. They sell these to the white men for money, and too often purchase rum with it, to which they are wonderfully addicted.
Government allows them annual presents in order to have their services when the colony deems it necessary to scour the forests in quest of runaway negroes. Formerly these expeditions were headed by Charles Edmonstone, Esq., now of Cardross Park, near Dumbarton. This brave colonist never returned from the woods without being victorious. Once, in an attack upon the rebel-negroes’ camp, he led the way and received two balls in his body; at the same moment that he was wounded two of his Indians fell dead by his side; he recovered, after his life was despaired of, but the balls could never be extracted.
Since the above appeared in print I have had the account of this engagement with the negroes in the forest from Mr. Edmonstone’s own mouth.
He received four slugs in his body, as will be seen in the sequel.
The plantations of Demerara and Essequibo are bounded by an almost interminable extent of forest. Hither the runaway negroes repair, and form settlements from whence they issue to annoy the colonists, as occasion may offer.
In 1801 the runaway slaves had increased to an alarming extent. The Governor gave orders that an expedition should be immediately organised and proceed to the woods under the command of Charles Edmonstone, Esq. General Hislop sent him a corporal, a sergeant and eleven men, and he was joined by a part of the colonial militia and by sixty Indians. With this force Mr. Edmonstone entered the forest and proceeded in a direction towards Mahaica.
He marched for eight days through swamps and over places obstructed by fallen trees and the bush-rope; tormented by myriads of mosquitos, and ever in fear of treading on the poisonous snakes which can scarcely be distinguished from the fallen leaves.
At last he reached a wooded sandhill, where the Maroons had entrenched themselves in great force. Not expecting to come so soon upon them, Mr. Edmonstone, his faithful man Coffee and two Indian chiefs found themselves considerably ahead of their own party. As yet they were unperceived by the enemy, but unfortunately one of the Indian chiefs fired a random shot at a distant Maroon. Immediately the whole negro camp turned out and formed themselves in a crescent in front of Mr. Edmonstone. Their chief was an uncommonly fine negro, above six feet in height; and his head-dress was that of an African warrior, ornamented with a profusion of small shells. He advanced undauntedly with his gun in his hand, and, in insulting language, called out to Mr. Edmonstone to come on and fight him.
Mr. Edmonstone approached him slowly in order to give his own men time to come up; but they were yet too far off for him to profit by this manoeuvre. Coffee, who carried his master’s gun, now stepped up behind him, and put the gun into his hand, which Mr. Edmonstone received without advancing it to his shoulder.
He was now within a few yards of the Maroon chief, who seemed to betray some symptoms of uncertainty, for, instead of firing directly at Mr. Edmonstone, he took a step sideways, and rested his gun against a tree; no doubt with the intention of taking a surer aim. Mr. Edmonstone, on perceiving this, immediately cocked his gun and fired it off, still holding it in the position in which he had received it from Coffee. The whole of the contents entered the negro’s body, and he dropped dead on his face.
The negroes, who had formed in a crescent, now in their turn fired a volley, which brought Mr. Edmonstone and his two Indian chiefs to the ground. The Maroons did not stand to reload, but, on Mr. Edmonstone’s party coming up, they fled precipitately into the surrounding forest.
Four slugs had entered Mr. Edmonstone’s body. After coming to himself, on looking around he saw one of the fallen Indian chiefs bleeding by his side. He accosted him by name and said he hoped he was not much hurt. The dying Indian had just strength enough to answer, “Oh no,”— and then expired. The other chief was lying quite dead. He must have received his mortal wound just as he was in the act of cocking his gun to fire on the negroes; for it appeared that the ball which gave him his death-wound had carried off the first joint of his thumb and passed through his forehead. By this time his wife, who had accompanied the expedition, came up. She was a fine young woman, and had her long black hair fancifully braided in a knot on the top of her head, fastened with a silver ornament. She unloosed it, and, falling on her husband’s body, covered it with her hair, bewailing his untimely end with the most heart-rending cries.
The blood was now running out of Mr. Edmonstone’s shoes. On being raised up, he ordered his men to pursue the flying Maroons, requesting at the same time that he might be left where he had fallen, as he felt that he was mortally wounded. They gently placed him on the ground, and, after the pursuit of the Maroons had ended, the corporal and sergeant returned to their commander and formed their men. On his asking what this meant, the sergeant replied, “I had the General’s orders, on setting out from town, not to leave you in the forest, happen what might.” By slow and careful marches, as much as the obstructions in the woods would admit of, the party reached Plantation Alliance, on the bank of the Demerara, and from thence it crossed the river to Plantation Vredestein.
The news of the rencounter had been spread far and wide by the Indians, and had already reached town. The General, Captains Macrai and Johnstone and Doctor Dunkin proceeded to Vredestein. On examining Mr. Edmonstone’s wounds, four slugs were found to have entered the body: one was extracted, the rest remained there till the year 1824, when another was cut out by a professional gentleman of Port Glasgow. The other two still remain in the body; and it is supposed that either one or both have touched a nerve, as they cause almost continual pain. Mr. Edmonstone has commanded fifteen different expeditions in the forest in quest of the Maroons. The Colonial Government has requited his services by freeing his property from all taxes and presenting him a handsome sword and a silver urn, bearing the following inscription:
Presented to CHARLES EDMONSTONE, Esq., by the Governor
and Court of Policy of the Colony of Demerara, as a token of
their esteem and the deep sense they entertain of the very great
activity and spirit manifested by him, on various occasions, in
his successful exertions for the internal security of the Colony.
—January 1st, 1809.
I do not believe that there is a single Indian in ci-devant Dutch Guiana who can read or write, nor am I aware that any white man has reduced their language to the rules of grammar; some may have made a short manuscript vocabulary of the few necessary words, but that is all. Here and there a white man, and some few people of colour, talk the language well. The temper of the Indian of Guiana is mild and gentle, and he is very fond of his children.
Some ignorant travellers and colonists call these Indians a lazy race. Man in general will not be active without an object. Now when the Indian has caught plenty of fish, and killed game enough to last him for a week, what need has he to range the forest? He has no idea of making pleasure-grounds. Money is of no use to him, for in these wilds there are no markets for him to frequent, nor milliners’ shops for his wife and daughters; he has no taxes to pay, no highways to keep up, no poor to maintain, nor army nor navy to supply; he lies in his hammock both night and day (for he has no chair or bed, neither does he want them), and in it he forms his bow and makes his arrows and repairs his fishing-tackle. But as soon as he has consumed his provisions, he then rouses himself and, like the lion, scours the forest in quest of food. He plunges into the river after the deer and tapir, and swims across it; passes through swamps and quagmires, and never fails to obtain a sufficient supply of food. Should the approach of night stop his career while he is hunting the wild boar, he stops for the night and continues the chase the next morning. In my way through the wilds to the Portuguese frontier I had a proof of this: we were eight in number, six Indians, a negro and myself. About ten o’clock in the morning we observed the feet-mark of the wild boars; we judged by the freshness of the marks that they had passed that way early the same morning. As we were not gifted, like the hound, with scent, and as we had no dog with us, we followed their track by the eye. The Indian after game is as sure with his eye as the dog is with his nose. We followed the herd till three in the afternoon, then gave up the chase for the present, made our fires close to a creek where there was plenty of fish, and then arranged the hammocks. In an hour the Indians shot more fish with their arrows than we could consume. The night was beautifully serene and clear, and the moon shone as bright as day. Next morn we rose at dawn, got breakfast, packed up, each took his burden, and then we put ourselves on the track of the wild boars which we had been following the day before. We supposed that they too would sleep that night in the forest, as we had done; and thus the delay on our part would be no disadvantage to us. This was just the case, for about nine o’clock their feet-marks became fresher and fresher: we now doubled, our pace, but did not give mouth like hounds. We pushed on in silence, and soon came up with them: there were above one hundred of them. We killed six and the rest took off in different directions. But to the point.
Amongst us the needy man works from light to dark for a maintenance. Should this man chance to acquire a fortune, he soon changes his habits. No longer under “strong necessity’s supreme command,” he contrives to get out of bed betwixt nine and ten in the morning. His servant helps him to dress, he walks on a soft carpet to his breakfast-table, his wife pours out his tea, and his servant hands him his toast. After breakfast the doctor advises a little gentle exercise in the carriage for an hour or so. At dinner-time he sits down to a table groaning beneath the weight of heterogeneous luxury: there he rests upon a chair for three or four hours, eats, drinks and talks (often unmeaningly) till tea is announced. He proceeds slowly to the drawing-room, and there spends best part of his time in sitting, till his wife tempts him with something warm for supper. After supper he still remains on his chair at rest till he retires to rest for the night. He mounts leisurely upstairs upon a carpet, and enters his bedroom: there, one would hope that at least he mutters a prayer or two, though perhaps not on bended knee. He then lets himself drop in to a soft and downy bed, over which has just passed the comely Jenny’s warming-pan. Now, could the Indian in his turn see this, he would call the white men a lazy, indolent set.
Perhaps, then, upon due reflection you would draw this conclusion: that men will always be indolent where there is no object to rouse them.
As the Indian of Guiana has no idea whatever of communicating his intentions by writing, he has fallen upon a plan of communication sure and simple. When two or three families have determined to come down the river and pay you a visit, they send an Indian beforehand with a string of beads. You take one bead off every day, and on the day that the string is beadless they arrive at your house.
In finding their way through these pathless wilds the sun is to them what Ariadne’s clue was to Theseus. When he is on the meridian they generally sit down, and rove onwards again as soon as he has sufficiently declined to the west; they require no other compass. When in chase, they break a twig on the bushes as they pass by, every three or four hundred paces, and this often prevents them from losing their way on their return.
You will not be long in the forests of Guiana before you perceive how very thinly they are inhabited. You may wander for a week together without seeing a hut. The wild beasts, snakes, the swamps, the trees, the uncurbed luxuriance of everything around you conspire to inform you that man has no habitation here — man has seldom passed this way.
Let us now return to natural history. There was a person making shingles with twenty or thirty negroes not far from Mibiri Hill. I had offered a reward to any of them who would find a good-sized snake in the forest and come and let me know where it was. Often had these negroes looked for a large snake, and as often been disappointed.
One Sunday morning I met one of them in the forest, and asked him which way he was going: he said he was going towards Waratilla Creek to hunt an armadillo; and he had his little dog with him. On coming back, about noon, the dog began to bark at the root of a large tree which had been upset by the whirlwind and was lying there in a gradual state of decay. The negro said he thought his dog was barking at an acouri which had probably taken refuge under the tree, and he went up with an intention to kill it; he there saw a snake, and hastened back to inform me of it.
The sun had just passed the meridian in a cloudless sky; there was scarcely a bird to be seen, for the winged inhabitants of the forest, as though overcome by heat, had retired to the thickest shade: all would have been like midnight silence were it not for the shrill voice of the pi-pi-yo, every now and then resounded from a distant tree. I was sitting with a little Horace in my hand, on what had once been the steps which formerly led up to the now mouldering and dismantled building. The negro and his little dog came down the hill in haste, and I was soon informed that a snake had been discovered; but it was a young one, called the bush-master, a rare and poisonous snake.
I instantly rose up, and laying hold of the eight-foot lance which was close by me, “Well, then, Daddy,” said I, “we’ll go and have a look at the snake.” I was barefoot, with an old hat, and check shirt, and trousers on, and a pair of braces to keep them up. The negro had his cutlass, and as we ascended the hill another negro, armed with a cutlass, joined us, judging from our pace that there was something to do. The little dog came along with us, and when we had got about half a mile in the forest the negro stopped and pointed to the fallen tree: all was still and silent. I told the negroes not to stir from the place where they were, and keep the little dog in, and that I would go in and reconnoitre.
I advanced up to the place slow and cautious. The snake was well concealed, but at last I made him out; it was a coulacanara, not poisonous, but large enough to have crushed any of us to death. On measuring him afterwards he was something more than fourteen feet long. This species of snake is very rare, and much thicker in proportion to his length than any other snake in the forest. A coulacanara of fourteen feet in length is as thick as a common boa of twenty-four. After skinning this snake I could easily get my head into his mouth, as the singular formation of the jaws admits of wonderful extension.
A Dutch friend of mine, by name Brouwer, killed a boa twenty-two feet long with a pair of stag’s horns in his mouth. He had swallowed the stag, but could not get the horns down; so he had to wait in patience with that uncomfortable mouthful till his stomach digested the body, and then the horns would drop out. In this plight the Dutchman found him as he was going in his canoe up the river, and sent a ball through his head.
On ascertaining the size of the serpent which the negro had just found, I retired slowly the way I came, and promised four dollars to the negro who had shown it to me, and one to the other who had joined us. Aware that the day was on the decline, and that the approach of night would be detrimental to the dissection, a thought struck me that I could take him alive. I imagined if I could strike him with the lance behind the head, and pin him to the ground, I might succeed in capturing him. When I told this to the negroes they begged and entreated me to let them go for a gun and bring more force, as they were sure the snake would kill some of us.
I had been at the siege of Troy for nine years, and it would not do now to carry back to Greece “nil decimo nisi dedecus anno.” I mean I had been in search of a large serpent for years, and now having come up with one it did not become me to turn soft. So, taking a cutlass from one of the negroes, and then ranging both the sable slaves behind me, I told them to follow me, and that I would cut them down if they offered to fly. I smiled as I said this, but they shook their heads in silence and seemed to have but a bad heart of it.
When we got up to the place the serpent had not stirred, but I could see nothing of his head, and I judged by the folds of his body that it must be at the farthest side of his den. A species of woodbine had formed a complete mantle over the branches of the fallen tree, almost impervious to the rain or the rays of the sun. Probably he had resorted to this sequestered place for a length of time, as it bore marks of an ancient settlement.
I now took my knife, determining to cut away the woodbine and break the twigs in the gentlest manner possible, till I could get a view of his head. One negro stood guard close behind me with the lance; and near him the other with a cutlass. The cutlass which I had taken from the first negro was on the ground close by me in case of need.
After working in dead silence for a quarter of an hour, with one knee all the time on the ground, I had cleared away enough to see his head. It appeared coming out betwixt the first and second coil of his body, and was flat on the ground. This was the very position I wished it to be in.
I rose in silence and retreated very slowly, making a sign to the negroes to do the same. The dog was sitting at a distance in mute observance. I could now read in the face of the negroes that they considered this as a very unpleasant affair; and they made another attempt to persuade me to let them go for a gun. I smiled in a good-natured manner, and made a feint to cut them down with the weapon I had in my hand. This was all the answer I made to their request, and they looked very uneasy.
It must be observed we were now about twenty yards from the snake’s den. I now ranged the negroes behind me, and told him who stood next to me to lay hold of the lance the moment I struck the snake, and that the other must attend my movements. It now only remained to take their cutlasses from them, for I was sure if I did not disarm them they would be tempted to strike the snake in time of danger, and thus for ever spoil his skin. On taking their cutlasses from them, if I might judge from their physiognomy, they seemed to consider it as a most intolerable act of tyranny in me. Probably nothing kept them from bolting but the consolation that I was to be betwixt them and the snake. Indeed, my own heart, in spite of all I could do, beat quicker than usual; and I felt those sensations which one has on board a merchant-vessel in war-time, when the captain orders all hands on deck to prepare for action, while a strange vessel is coming down upon us under suspicious colours.
We went slowly on in silence without moving our arms or heads, in order to prevent all alarm as much as possible, lest the snake should glide off or attack us in self-defence. I carried the lance perpendicularly before me, with the point about a foot from the ground. The snake had not moved; and on getting up to him I struck him with the lance on the near-side, just behind the neck, and pinned him to the ground. That moment the negro next to me seized the lance and held it firm in its place, while I dashed head foremost into the den to grapple with the snake and to get hold of his tail before he could do any mischief.
On pinning him to the ground with the lance he gave a tremendous loud hiss, and the little dog ran away, howling as he went. We had a sharp fray in the den, the rotten sticks flying on all sides, and each party struggling for superiority. I called out to the second negro to throw himself upon me, as I found I was not heavy enough. He did so, and the additional weight was of great service. I had now got firm hold of his tail; and after a violent struggle or two he gave in, finding himself overpowered. This was the moment to secure him. So while the first negro continued to hold the lance firm to the ground, and the other was helping me, I contrived to unloose my braces and with them tied up the snake’s mouth.
The snake, now finding himself in an unpleasant situation, tried to better himself, and set resolutely to work, but we overpowered him. We contrived to make him twist himself round the shaft of the lance, and then prepared to convey him out of the forest. I stood at his head and held it firm under my arm, one negro supported the belly and the other the tail. In this order we began to move slowly towards home, and reached it after resting ten times: for the snake was too heavy for us to support him without stopping to recruit our strength. As we proceeded onwards with him he fought hard for freedom, but it was all in vain. The day was now too far spent to think of dissecting him. Had I killed him, a partial putrefaction would have taken place before morning. I had brought with me up into the forest a strong bag large enough to contain any animal that I should want to dissect. I considered this the best mode of keeping live wild animals when I was pressed for daylight; for the bag yielding in every direction to their efforts, they would have nothing solid or fixed to work on, and thus would be prevented from making a hole through it. I say fixed, for after the mouth of the bag was closed the bag itself was not fastened or tied to anything, but moved about wherever the animal inside caused it to roll. After securing afresh the mouth of the coulacanara, so that he could not open it, he was forced into this bag and left to his fate till morning.
I cannot say he allowed me to have a quiet night. My hammock was in the loft just above him, and the floor betwixt us half gone to decay, so that in parts of it no boards intervened betwixt his lodging-room and mine. He was very restless and fretful; and had Medusa been my wife, there could not have been more continued and disagreeable hissing in the bed-chamber that night. At daybreak I sent to borrow ten of the negroes who were cutting wood at a distance; I could have done with half that number, but judged it most prudent to have a good force, in case he should try to escape from the house when we opened the bag. However, nothing serious occurred.
We untied the mouth of the bag, kept him down by main force, and then I cut his throat. He bled like an ox. By six o’clock the same evening he was completely dissected. On examining his teeth I observed that they were all bent like tenter-hooks, pointing down his throat, and not so large or strong as I expected to have found them; but they are exactly suited to what they are intended by Nature to perform. The snake does not masticate his food, and thus the only service his teeth have to perform is to seize his prey and hold it till he swallows it whole.
In general, the skins of snakes are sent to museums without the head: for when the Indians and negroes kill a snake they seldom fail to cut off the head, and then they run no risk from its teeth. When the skin is stuffed in the museum a wooden head is substituted, armed with teeth which are large enough to suit a tiger’s jaw; and this tends to mislead the spectator and give him erroneous ideas.
During this fray with the serpent the old negro, Daddy Quashi, was in Georgetown procuring provisions, and just returned in time to help to take the skin off. He had spent best part of his life in the forest with his old master, Mr. Edmonstone, and amused me much in recounting their many adventures amongst the wild beasts. The Daddy had a particular horror of snakes, and frankly declared he could never have faced the one in question.
The week following his courage was put to the test, and he made good his words. It was a curious conflict, and took place near the spot where I had captured the large snake. In the morning I had been following a new species of paroquet, and, the day being rainy, I had taken an umbrella to keep the gun dry, and had left it under a tree; in the afternoon I took Daddy Quashi with me to look for it. Whilst he was searching about, curiosity took me towards the place of the late scene of action. There was a path where timber had formerly been dragged along. Here I observed a young coulacanara, ten feet long, slowly moving onwards. I saw he was not thick enough to break my arm, in case he got twisted round it. There was not a moment to be lost. I laid hold of his tail with the left hand, one knee being on the ground; with the right I took off my hat, and held it as you would hold a shield for defence.
The snake instantly turned and came on at me, with his head about a yard from the ground, as if to ask me what business I had to take liberties with his tail. I let him come, hissing and open-mouthed, within two feet of my face, and then with all the force I was master of I drove my fist, shielded by my hat, full in his jaws. He was stunned and confounded by the blow, and ere he could recover himself I had seized his throat with both hands in such a position that he could not bite me. I then allowed him to coil himself round my body, and marched off with him as my lawful prize. He pressed me hard, but not alarmingly so.
In the meantime Daddy Quashi, having found the umbrella and having heard the noise which the fray occasioned, was coming cautiously up. As soon as he saw me and in what company I was, he turned about and ran off home, I after him, and shouting to increase his fear. On scolding him for his cowardice, the old rogue begged that I would forgive him, for that the sight of the snake had positively turned him sick at stomach.
When I had done with the carcass of the large snake it was conveyed into the forest, as I expected that it would attract the king of the vultures as soon as time should have rendered it sufficiently savoury. In a few days it sent forth that odour which a carcass should send forth, and about twenty of the common vultures came and perched on the neighbouring trees. The king of the vultures came, too; and I observed that none of the common ones seemed inclined to begin breakfast till his majesty had finished. When he had consumed as much snake as Nature informed him would do him good, he retired to the top of a high mora-tree, and then all the common vultures fell to and made a hearty meal.
The head and neck of the king of the vultures are bare of feathers; but the beautiful appearance they exhibit fades in death. The throat and the back of the neck are of a fine lemon colour; both sides of the neck, from the ears downwards, of a rich scarlet; behind the corrugated part there is a white spot. The crown of the head is scarlet; betwixt the lower mandible and the eye and close by the ear there is a part which has a fine silvery-blue appearance; the corrugated part is of a dirty light brown; behind it and just above the white spot a portion of the skin is blue, and the rest scarlet; the skin which juts out behind the neck, and appears like an oblong caruncle, is blue in part and part orange.
The bill is orange and black, the caruncles on his forehead orange, and the cere orange; the orbits scarlet, and the irides white. Below the bare part of the neck there is a cinereous ruff. The bag of the stomach, which is only seen when distended with food, is of a most delicate white, intersected with blue veins, which appear on it just like the blue veins on the arm of a fair-complexioned person. The tail and long wing-feathers are black, the belly white, and the rest of the body a fine satin colour.
I cannot be persuaded that the vultures ever feed upon live animals, not even upon lizards, rats, mice or frogs. I have watched them for hours together, but never could see them touch any living animals, though innumerable lizards, frogs and small birds swarmed all around them. I have killed lizards and frogs, and put them in a proper place for observation; as soon as they began to stink the aura vulture invariably came and took them off. I have frequently observed that the day after the planter had burnt the trash in a cane-field the aura vulture was sure to be there, feeding on the snakes, lizards and frogs which had suffered in the conflagration. I often saw a large bird (very much like the common gregarious vulture, at a distance) catch and devour lizards; after shooting one it turned out to be not a vulture but a hawk, with a tail squarer and shorter than hawks have in general. The vultures, like the goat-sucker and woodpecker, seem to be in disgrace with man. They are generally termed a voracious, stinking, cruel and ignoble tribe. Under these impressions the fowler discharges his gun at them, and probably thinks he has done well in ridding the earth of such vermin.
Some Governments impose a fine on him who kills a vulture. This is a salutary law, and it were to be wished that other Governments would follow so good an example. I would fain here say a word or two in favour of this valuable scavenger.
Kind Providence has conferred a blessing on hot countries in giving them the vulture; He has ordered it to consume that which, if left to dissolve in putrefaction, would infect the air and produce a pestilence. When full of food the vulture certainly appears an indolent bird; he will stand for hours together on the branch of a tree, or on the top of a house, with his wings drooping, and, after rain, with them spread and elevated to catch the rays of the sun. It has been remarked by naturalists that the flight of this bird is laborious. I have paid attention to the vulture in Andalusia and to those in Guiana, Brazil, and the West Indies, and conclude that they are birds of long, even and lofty flight. Indeed, whoever has observed the aura vulture will be satisfied that his flight is wonderfully majestic and of long continuance.
This bird is above five feet from wing to wing extended. You will see it soaring aloft in the aerial expanse on pinions which never flutter, and which at the same time carry him through the fields of ether with a rapidity equal to that of the golden eagle. In Paramaribo the laws protect the vulture, and the Spaniards of Angustura never think of molesting him. In 1808 I saw the vultures in that city as tame as domestic fowls; a person who had never seen a vulture would have taken them for turkeys. They were very useful to the Spaniards. Had it not been for them, the refuse of the slaughter-houses in Angustura would have caused an intolerable nuisance.
The common black, short, square-tailed vulture is gregarious, but the aura vulture is not so; for though you may see fifteen or twenty of them feeding on the dead vermin in a cane-field, after the trash has been set fire to, still, if you have paid attention to their arrival, you will have observed that they came singly and retired singly; and thus their being altogether in the same field was merely accidental and caused by each one smelling the effluvia as he was soaring through the sky to look out for food. I have watched twenty come into a cane-field; they arrived one by one, and from different parts of the heavens. Hence we may conclude that, though the other species of vulture are gregarious, the aura vulture is not.
If you dissect a vulture that has just been feeding on carrion, you must expect that your olfactory nerves will be somewhat offended with the rank effluvia from his craw; just as they would be were you to dissect a citizen after the Lord Mayor’s dinner. If, on the contrary, the vulture be empty at the time you commence the operation, there will be no offensive smell, but a strong scent of musk.
I had long wished to examine the native haunts of the cayman, but as the River Demerara did not afford a specimen of the large kind, I was obliged to go to the River Essequibo to look for one.
I got the canoe ready, and went down in it to Georgetown, where, having put in the necessary articles for the expedition, not forgetting a couple of large shark-hooks with chains attached to them, and a coil of strong new rope, I hoisted a little sail which I had got made on purpose, and at six o’clock in the morning shaped our course for the River Essequibo. I had put a pair of shoes on to prevent the tar at the bottom of the canoe from sticking to my feet. The sun was flaming hot, and from eleven o’clock till two beat perpendicularly upon the top of my feet, betwixt the shoes and the trousers. Not feeling it disagreeable, or being in the least aware of painful consequences, as I had been barefoot for months, I neglected to put on a pair of short stockings which I had with me. I did not reflect that sitting still in one place, with your feet exposed to the sun, was very different from being exposed to the sun while in motion.
We went ashore in the Essequibo about three o’clock in the afternoon, to choose a place for the night’s residence, to collect firewood, and to set the fish-hooks. It was then that I first began to find my legs very painful: they soon became much inflamed and red and blistered; and it required considerable caution not to burst the blisters, otherwise sores would have ensued. I immediately got into the hammock, and there passed a painful and sleepless night, and for two days after I was disabled from walking.
About midnight, as I was lying awake and in great pain, I heard the Indian say, “Massa, massa, you no hear tiger?” I listened attentively, and heard the softly sounding tread of his feet as he approached us. The moon had gone down, but every now and then we could get a glance of him by the light of our fire. He was the jaguar, for I could see the spots on his body. Had I wished to have fired at him I was not able to take a sure aim, for I was in such pain that I could not turn myself in my hammock. The Indian would have fired, but I would not allow him to do so, as I wanted to see a little more of our new visitor, for it is not every day or night that the traveller is favoured with an undisturbed sight of the jaguar in his own forests.
Whenever the fire got low the jaguar came a little nearer, and when the Indian renewed it he retired abruptly. Sometimes he would come within twenty yards, and then we had a view of him sitting on his hind-legs like a dog; sometimes he moved slowly to and fro, and at other times we could hear him mend his pace, as if impatient. At last the Indian, not relishing the idea of having such company in the neighbourhood, could contain himself no longer, and set up a most tremendous yell. The jaguar bounded off like a racehorse, and returned no more. It appeared by the print of his feet the next morning that he was a full-grown jaguar.
In two days after this we got to the first falls in the Essequibo. There was a superb barrier of rocks quite across the river. In the rainy season these rocks are for the most part under water, but it being now dry weather we had a fine view of them, while the water from the river above them rushed through the different openings in majestic grandeur. Here, on a little hill jutting out into the river, stands the house of Mrs. Peterson, the last house of people of colour up this river. I hired a negro from her and a coloured man who pretended that they knew the haunts of the cayman and understood everything about taking him. We were a day in passing these falls and rapids, celebrated for the pacou, the richest and most delicious fish in Guiana. The coloured man was now in his element: he stood in the head of the canoe, and with his bow and arrow shot the pacou as they were swimming in the stream. The arrow had scarcely left the bow before he had plunged headlong into the river and seized the fish as it was struggling with it. He dived and swam like an otter, and rarely missed the fish he aimed at.
Did my pen, gentle reader, possess descriptive powers, I would here give thee an idea of the enchanting scenery of the Essequibo; but that not being the case, thou must be contented with a moderate and well-intended attempt.
Nothing could be more lovely than the appearance of the forest on each side of this noble river. Hills rose on hills in fine gradation, all covered with trees of gigantic height and size. Here their leaves were of a lively purple, and there of the deepest green. Sometimes the caracara extended its scarlet blossoms from branch to branch, and gave the tree the appearance as though it had been hung with garlands.
This delightful scenery of the Essequibo made the soul overflow with joy, and caused you to rove in fancy through fairyland; till, on turning an angle of the river, you were recalled to more sober reflections on seeing the once grand and towering mora now dead and ragged in its topmost branches, while its aged trunk, undermined by the rushing torrent, hung as though in sorrow over the river, which ere long would receive it and sweep it away for ever.
During the day the trade-wind blew a gentle and refreshing breeze, which died away as the night set in, and then the river was as smooth as glass.
The moon was within three days of being full, so that we did not regret the loss of the sun, which set in all its splendour. Scarce had he sunk behind the western hills when the goat-suckers sent forth their soft and plaintive cries; some often repeating, “Who are you — who, who, who are you?” and others “Willy, willy, willy come go.”
The Indian and Daddy Quashi often shook their head at this, and said they were bringing talk from Yabahou, who is the Evil Spirit of the Essequibo. It was delightful to sit on the branch of a fallen tree near the water’s edge and listen to these harmless birds as they repeated their evening song; and watch the owls and vampires as they every now and then passed up and down the river.
The next day, about noon, as we were proceeding onwards, we heard the campanero tolling in the depth of the forest. Though I should not then have stopped to dissect even a rare bird, having a greater object in view, still I could not resist the opportunity offered of acquiring the campanero. The place where he was tolling was low and swampy, and my legs not having quite recovered from the effects of the sun, I sent the Indian to shoot the campanero. He got up to the tree, which he described as very high, with a naked top, and situated in a swamp. He fired at the bird, but either missed it or did not wound it sufficiently to bring it down. This was the only opportunity I had of getting a campanero during this expedition. We had never heard one toll before this morning, and never heard one after.
About an hour before sunset we reached the place which the two men who had joined us at the falls pointed out as a proper one to find a cayman. There was a large creek close by and a sandbank gently sloping to the water. Just within the forest, on this bank, we cleared a place of brushwood, suspended the hammocks from the trees, and then picked up enough of decayed wood for fuel.
The Indian found a large land-tortoise, and this, with plenty of fresh fish which we had in the canoe, afforded a supper not to be despised.
The tigers had kept up a continual roaring every night since we had entered the Essequibo. The sound was awfully fine. Sometimes it was in the immediate neighbourhood; at other times it was far off, and echoed amongst the hills like distant thunder.
It may, perhaps, not be amiss to observe here that when the word tiger is used it does not mean the Bengal tiger. It means the jaguar, whose skin is beautifully spotted, and not striped like that of the tiger in the East. It is, in fact, the tiger of the new world, and receiving the name of tiger from the discoverers of South America it has kept it ever since. It is a cruel, strong and dangerous beast, but not so courageous as the Bengal tiger.
We now baited a shark-hook with a large fish, and put it upon a board about a yard long and one foot broad which we had brought on purpose. This board was carried out in the canoe, about forty yards into the river. By means of a string long enough to reach the bottom of the river, and at the end of which string was fastened a stone, the board was kept, as it were, at anchor. One end of the new rope I had bought in town was reeved through the chain of the shark-hook and the other end fastened to a tree on the sandbank.
It was now an hour after sunset. The sky was cloudless, and the moon shone beautifully bright. There was not a breath of wind in the heavens, and the river seemed like a large plain of quicksilver. Every now and then a huge fish would strike and plunge in the water; then the owls and goat-suckers would continue their lamentations, and the sound of these was lost in the prowling tiger’s growl. Then all was still again and silent as midnight.
The caymen were now upon the stir, and at intervals their noise could be distinguished amid that of the jaguar, the owls, the goat-suckers and frogs. It was a singular and awful sound. It was like a suppressed sigh bursting forth all of a sudden, and so loud that you might hear it above a mile off. First one emitted this horrible noise, and then another answered him; and on looking at the countenances of the people round me I could plainly see that they expected to have a cayman that night.
We were at supper when the Indian, who seemed to have had one eye on the turtle-pot and the other on the bait in the river, said he saw the cayman coming. Upon looking towards the place there appeared something on the water like a black log of wood. It was so unlike anything alive that I doubted if it were a cayman; but the Indian smiled and said he was sure it was one, for he remembered seeing a cayman some years ago when he was in the Essequibo.
At last it gradually approached the bait, and the board began to move. The moon shone so bright that we could distinctly see him open his huge jaws and take in the bait. We pulled the rope. He immediately let drop the bait; and then we saw his black head retreating from the board to the distance of a few yards; and there it remained quite motionless.
He did not seem inclined to advance again; and so we finished our supper. In about an hour’s time he again put himself in motion, and took hold of the bait. But probably suspecting that he had to deal with knaves and cheats, he held it in his mouth but did not swallow it. We pulled the rope again, but with no better success than the first time.
He retreated as usual, and came back again in about an hour. We paid him every attention till three o’clock in the morning, when, worn out with disappointment, we went to the hammocks, turned in and fell asleep.
When day broke we found that he had contrived to get the bait from the hook, though we had tied it on with string. We had now no more hopes of taking a cayman till the return of night. The Indian took off into the woods and brought back a noble supply of game. The rest of us went into the canoe and proceeded up the river to shoot fish. We got even more than we could use.
As we approached the shallows we could see the large sting-rays moving at the bottom. The coloured man never failed to hit them with his arrow. The weather was delightful. There was scarcely a cloud to intercept the sun’s rays.
I saw several scarlet aras, anhingas and ducks, but could not get a shot at them. The parrots crossed the river in innumerable quantities, always flying in pairs. Here, too, I saw the sun-bird, called tirana by the Spaniards in the Oroonoque, and shot one of them. The black and white scarlet-headed finch was very common here. I could never see this bird in the Demerara, nor hear of its being there.
We at last came to a large sandbank, probably two miles in circumference. As we approached it we could see two or three hundred fresh-water turtle on the edge of the bank. Ere we could get near enough to let fly an arrow at them they had all sunk into the river and appeared no more.
We went on the sandbank to look for their nests, as this was the breeding-season. The coloured man showed us how to find them. Wherever a portion of the sand seemed smoother than the rest there was sure to be a turtle’s nest. On digging down with our hands about nine inches deep we found from twenty to thirty white eggs; in less than an hour we got above two hundred. Those which had a little black spot or two on the shell we ate the same day, as it was a sign that they were not fresh, and of course would not keep; those which had no speck were put into dry sand, and were good some weeks after.
At midnight two of our people went to this sandbank while the rest stayed to watch the cayman. The turtle had advanced on to the sand to lay their eggs, and the men got betwixt them and the water; they brought off half a dozen very fine and well-fed turtle. The eggshell of the fresh-water turtle is not hard like that of the land-tortoise, but appears like white parchment, and gives way to the pressure of the fingers; but it is very tough, and does not break. On this sandbank, close to the forest, we found several guana’s nests; but they had never more than fourteen eggs apiece. Thus passed the day in exercise and knowledge, till the sun’s declining orb reminded us it was time to return to the place from whence we had set out.
The second night’s attempt upon the cayman was a repetition of the first, quite unsuccessful. We went a-fishing the day after, had excellent sport, and returned to experience a third night’s disappointment. On the fourth evening, about four o’clock, we began to erect a stage amongst the trees close to the water’s edge. From this we intended to shoot an arrow into the cayman: at the end of this arrow was to be attached a string which would be tied to the rope, and as soon as the cayman was struck we were to have the canoe ready and pursue him in the river.
While we were busy in preparing the stage a tiger began to roar. We judged by the sound that he was not above a quarter of a mile from us, and that he was close to the side of the river. Unfortunately the Indian said it was not a jaguar that was roaring, but a couguar. The couguar is of a pale, brownish-red colour, and not as large as the jaguar. As there was nothing particular in this animal I thought it better to attend to the apparatus for catching the cayman than to go in quest of the couguar. The people, however, went in the canoe to the place where the couguar was roaring. On arriving near the spot they saw it was not a couguar, but an immense jaguar, standing on the trunk of an aged mora-tree which bended over the river; he growled and showed his teeth as they approached; the coloured man fired at him with a ball, but probably missed him, and the tiger instantly descended and took off into the woods. I went to the place before dark, and we searched the forest for about half a mile in the direction he had fled, but we could see no traces of him or any marks of blood; so I concluded that fear had prevented the man from taking steady aim.
We spent best part of the fourth night in trying for the cayman, but all to no purpose. I was now convinced that something was materially wrong. We ought to have been successful, considering our vigilance and attention, and that we had repeatedly seen the cayman. It was useless to tarry here any longer; moreover, the coloured man began to take airs, and fancied that I could not do without him. I never admit of this in any expedition where I am commander; and so I convinced the man, to his sorrow, that I could do without him, for I paid him what I had agreed to give him, which amounted to eight dollars, and ordered him back in his own curial to Mrs. Peterson’s, on the hill at the first falls. I then asked the negro if there were any Indian settlements in the neighbourhood; he said he knew of one, a day and a half off. We went in quest of it, and about one o’clock the next day the negro showed us the creek where it was.
The entrance was so concealed by thick bushes that a stranger would have passed it without knowing it to be a creek. In going up it we found it dark, winding, and intricate beyond any creek that I had ever seen before. When Orpheus came back with his young wife from Styx his path must have been similar to this, for Ovid says it was
Arduus, obliquus, caligine densus opaca,
and this creek was exactly so.
When we had got about two-thirds up it we met the Indians going a-fishing. I saw by the way their things were packed in the curial that they did not intend to return for some days. However, on telling them what we wanted, and by promising handsome presents of powder, shot and hooks, they dropped their expedition and invited us up to the settlement they had just left, and where we laid in a provision of cassava.
They gave us for dinner boiled ant-bear and red monkey: two dishes unknown even at Beauvilliers in Paris or at a London city feast. The monkey was very good indeed, but the ant-bear had been kept beyond its time: it stunk as our venison does in England; and so, after tasting it, I preferred dining entirely on monkey. After resting here we went back to the river. The Indians, three in number, accompanied us in their own curial, and, on entering the river, pointed to a place a little way above well calculated to harbour a cayman. The water was deep and still, and flanked by an immense sandbank; there was also a little shallow creek close by.
On this sandbank, near the forest, the people made a shelter for the night. My own was already made, for I always take with me a painted sheet about twelve feet by ten. This thrown over a pole, supported betwixt two trees, makes you a capital roof with very little trouble.
We showed one of the Indians the shark-hook. He shook his head and laughed at it, and said it would not do. When he was a boy he had seen his father catch the caymen, and on the morrow he would make something that would answer.
In the meantime we set the shark-hook, but it availed us naught: a cayman came and took it, but would not swallow it.
Seeing it was useless to attend the shark-hook any longer, we left it for the night and returned to our hammocks.
Ere I fell asleep a reflection or two broke in upon me. I considered that as far as the judgment of civilised man went, everything had been procured and done to ensure success. We had hooks and lines and baits and patience; we had spent nights in watching, had seen the cayman come and take the bait, and after our expectations had been wound up to the highest pitch all ended in disappointment. Probably this poor wild man of the woods would succeed by means of a very simple process, and thus prove to his more civilised brother that, notwithstanding books and schools, there is a vast deal of knowledge to be picked up at every step, whichever way we turn ourselves.
In the morning, as usual, we found the bait gone from the shark-hook. The Indians went into the forest to hunt, and we took the canoe to shoot fish and get another supply of turtle’s eggs, which we found in great abundance on this large sandbank.
We went to the little shallow creek, and shot some young caymen about two feet long. It was astonishing to see what spite and rage these little things showed when the arrow struck them; they turned round and bit it: and snapped at us when we went into the water to take them up. Daddy Quashi boiled one of them for his dinner, and found it very sweet and tender. I do not see why it should not be as good as frog or veal.
The day was now declining apace, and the Indian had made his instrument to take the cayman. It was very simple. There were four pieces of tough, hardwood a foot long, and about as thick as your little finger, and barbed at both ends; they were tied round the end of the rope in such a manner that if you conceive the rope to be an arrow, these four sticks would form the arrow’s head; so that one end of the four united sticks answered to the point of the arrowhead, while the other end of the sticks expanded at equal distances round the rope, thus:
Now it is evident that, if the cayman swallowed this (the other end of the rope, which was thirty yards long, being fastened to a tree), the more he pulled the faster the barbs would stick into his stomach. This wooden hook, if you may so call it, was well-baited with the flesh of the acouri, and the entrails were twisted round the rope for about a foot above it.
Nearly a mile from where we had our hammocks the sandbank was steep and abrupt, and the river very still and deep; there the Indian pricked a stick into the sand. It was two feet long, and on its extremity was fixed the machine: it hung suspended about a foot from the water, and the end of the rope was made fast to a stake driven well into the sand.
The Indian then took the empty shell of a land-tortoise and gave it some heavy blows with an axe. I asked why he did that. He said it was to let the cayman hear that something was going on. In fact, the Indian meant it as the cayman’s dinner-bell.
[Illustration: cayman bait]
Having done this we went back to the hammocks, not intending to visit it again till morning. During the night the jaguars roared and grumbled in the forest as though the world was going wrong with them, and at intervals we could hear the distant cayman. The roaring of the jaguars was awful, but it was music to the dismal noise of these hideous and malicious reptiles.
About half-past five in the morning the Indian stole off silently to take a look at the bait. On arriving at the place he set up a tremendous shout. We all jumped out of our hammocks and ran to him. The Indians got there before me, for they had no clothes to put on, and I lost two minutes in looking for my trousers and in slipping into them.
We found a cayman ten feet and a half long fast to the end of the rope. Nothing now remained to do but to get him out of the water without injuring his scales: “hoc opus, hic labor.” We mustered strong: there were three Indians from the creek, there was my own Indian Yan, Daddy Quashi, the negro from Mrs. Peterson’s, James, Mr. R. Edmonstone’s man, whom I was instructing to preserve birds, and lastly myself.
I informed the Indians that it was my intention to draw him quietly out of the water and then secure him. They looked and stared at each other, and said I might do it myself, but they would have no hand in it; the cayman would worry some of us. On saying this, “consedere duces,” they squatted on their hams with the most perfect indifference.
The Indians of these wilds have never been subject to the least restraint, and I knew enough of them to be aware that if I tried to force them against their will they would take off and leave me and my presents unheeded, and never return.
Daddy Quashi was for applying to our guns, as usual, considering them our best and safest friends. I immediately offered to knock him down for his cowardice, and he shrunk back, begging that I would be cautious, and not get myself worried, and apologising for his own want of resolution. My Indian was now in conversation with the others, and they asked if I would allow them to shoot a dozen arrows into him, and thus disable him. This would have ruined all. I had come above three hundred miles on purpose to get a cayman uninjured, and not to carry back a mutilated specimen. I rejected their proposition with firmness, and darted a disdainful eye upon the Indians.
Daddy Quashi was again beginning to remonstrate, and I chased him on the sandbank for a quarter of a mile. He told me afterwards he thought he should have dropped down dead with fright, for he was firmly persuaded if I had caught him I should have bundled him into the cayman’s jaws. Here, then, we stood in silence like a calm before a thunderstorm. “Hoc res summa loco. Scinditur in contraria vulgus.” They wanted to kill him, and I wanted to take him alive.
I now walked up and down the sand, revolving a dozen projects in my head. The canoe was at a considerable distance, and I ordered the people to bring it round to the place where we were. The mast was eight feet long, and not much thicker than my wrist. I took it out of the canoe and wrapped the sail round the end of it. Now it appeared clear to me that, if I went down upon one knee and held the mast in the same position as the soldier holds his bayonet when rushing to the charge, I could force it down the cayman’s throat should he come open-mouthed at me. When this was told to the Indians they brightened up, and said they would help me to pull him out of the river.
“Brave squad!” said I to myself. “‘Audax omnia perpeti,’ now that you have got me betwixt yourselves and danger.” I then mustered all hands for the last time before the battle. We were four South American savages, two negroes from Africa, a creole from Trinidad, and myself a white man from Yorkshire. In fact, a little tower of Babel group, in dress, no dress, address, and language.
Daddy Quashi hung in the rear. I showed him a large Spanish knife which I always carried in the waistband of my trousers: it spoke volumes to him, and he shrugged up his shoulders in absolute despair. The sun was just peeping over the high forests on the eastern hills, as if coming to look on and bid us act with becoming fortitude. I placed all the people at the end of the rope, and ordered them to pull till the cayman appeared on the surface of the water, and then, should he plunge, to slacken the rope and let him go again into the deep.
I now took the mast of the canoe in my hand (the sail being tied round the end of the mast) and sunk down upon one knee, about four yards from the water’s edge, determining to thrust it down his throat in case he gave me an opportunity. I certainly felt somewhat uncomfortable in this situation, and I thought of Cerberus on the other side of the Styx ferry. The people pulled the cayman to the surface; he plunged furiously as soon as he arrived in these upper regions, and immediately went below again on their slackening the rope. I saw enough not to fall in love at first sight. I now told them we would run all risks and have him on land immediately. They pulled again, and out he came —“monstrum horrendum, informe.” This was an interesting moment. I kept my position firmly, with my eye fixed steadfast on him.
By the time the cayman was within two yards of me I saw he was in a state of fear and perturbation. I instantly dropped the mast, sprung up and jumped on his back, turning half round as I vaulted, so that I gained my seat with my face in a right position. I immediately seized his fore-legs, and by main force twisted them on his back; thus they served me for a bridle.
He now seemed to have recovered from his surprise, and probably fancying himself in hostile company he began to plunge furiously, and lashed the sand with his long and powerful tail. I was out of reach of the strokes of it by being near his head. He continued to plunge and strike and made my seat very uncomfortable. It must have been a fine sight for an unoccupied spectator.
The people roared out in triumph, and were so vociferous that it was some time before they heard me tell them to pull me and my beast of burden farther inland. I was apprehensive the rope might break, and then there would have been every chance of going down to the regions under water with the cayman. That would have been more perilous than Arion’s marine morning ride:
Delphini insidens vada cærula sulcat Arion.
The people now dragged us above forty yards on the sand: it was the first and last time I was ever on a cayman’s back. Should it be asked how I managed to keep my seat, I would answer, I hunted some years with Lord Darlington’s fox-hounds.
After repeated attempts to regain his liberty the cayman gave in and became tranquil through exhaustion. I now managed to tie up his jaws and firmly secured his fore-feet in the position I had held them. We had now another severe struggle for superiority, but he was soon overcome and again remained quiet. While some of the people were pressing upon his head and shoulders I threw myself on his tail, and by keeping it down to the sand prevented him from kicking up another dust. He was finally conveyed to the canoe, and then to the place where we had suspended our hammocks. There I cut his throat; and after breakfast was over commenced the dissection.
Now that the affray had ceased, Daddy Ouashi played a good finger and thumb at breakfast: he said he found himself much revived, and became very talkative and useful, as there was no longer any danger. He was a faithful, honest negro. His master, my worthy friend Mr. Edmonstone, had been so obliging as to send out particular orders to the colony that the Daddy should attend me all the time I was in the forest. He had lived in the wilds of Demerara with Mr. Edmonstone for many years, and often amused me with the account of the frays his master had had in the woods with snakes, wild beasts and runaway negroes. Old age was now coming fast upon him; he had been an able fellow in his younger days, and a gallant one, too, for he had a large scar over his eyebrow caused by the stroke of a cutlass from another negro while the Daddy was engaged in an intrigue.
The back of the cayman may be said to be almost impenetrable to a musket-ball, but his sides are not near so strong, and are easily pierced with an arrow; indeed, were they as strong as the back and the belly, there would be no part of the cayman’s body soft and elastic enough to admit of expansion after taking in a supply of food.
The cayman has no grinders; his teeth are entirely made for snatch and swallow: there are thirty-two in each jaw. Perhaps no animal in existence bears more decided marks in his countenance of cruelty and malice than the cayman. He is the scourge and terror of all the large rivers in South America near the line.
One Sunday evening, some years ago, as I was walking with Don Felipe de Ynciarte, Governor of Angustura, on the bank of the Oroonoque, “Stop here a minute or two, Don Carlos,” said he to me, “while I recount a sad accident. One fine evening last year, as the people of Angustura were sauntering up and down here in the Alameda, I was within twenty yards of this place when I saw a large cayman rush out of the river, seize a man, and carry him down before anybody had it in his power to assist him. The screams of the poor fellow were terrible as the cayman was running off with him. He plunged into the river with his prey; we instantly lost sight of him, and never saw or heard him more.”
I was a day and a half in dissecting our cayman, and then we got all ready to return to Demerara.
It was much more perilous to descend than to ascend the falls in the Essequibo.
The place we had to pass had proved fatal to four Indians about a month before. The water foamed and dashed and boiled amongst the steep and craggy rocks, and seemed to warn us to be careful how we ventured there.
I was for all hands to get out of the canoe, and then, after lashing a long rope ahead and astern, we might have climbed from rock to rock and tempered her in her passage down, and our getting out would have lightened her much. But the negro who had joined us at Mrs. Peterson’s said he was sure it would be safer to stay in the canoe while she went down the fall. I was loath to give way to him, but I did so this time against my better judgment, as he assured me that he was accustomed to pass and repass these falls.
Accordingly we determined to push down: I was at the helm, the rest at their paddles. But before we got half-way through the rushing waters deprived the canoe of all power of steerage, and she became the sport of the torrent; in a second she was half-full of water, and I cannot comprehend to this day why she did not go down; luckily the people exerted themselves to the utmost, she got headway, and they pulled through the whirlpool: I being quite in the stern of the canoe, part of a wave struck me, and nearly knocked me overboard.
We now paddled to some rocks at a distance, got out, unloaded the canoe and dried the cargo in the sun, which was very hot and powerful. Had it been the wet season almost everything would have been spoiled.
After this the voyage down the Essequibo was quick and pleasant till we reached the sea-coast: there we had a trying day of it; the wind was dead against us, and the sun remarkably hot; we got twice aground upon a mud-flat, and were twice obliged to get out, up to the middle in mud, to shove the canoe through it. Half-way betwixt the Essequibo and Demerara the tide of flood caught us, and, after the utmost exertions, it was half-past six in the evening before we got to Georgetown.
We had been out from six in the morning in an open canoe on the sea-coast, without umbrella or awning, exposed all day to the fiery rays of a tropical sun. My face smarted so that I could get no sleep during the night, and the next morning my lips were all in blisters. The Indian Yan went down to the Essequibo a copper-colour, but the reflection of the sun from the sea and from the sandbanks in the river had turned him nearly black. He laughed at himself, and said the Indians in the Demerara would not know him again. I stayed one day in Georgetown, and then set off the next morning for headquarters in Mibiri Creek, where I finished the cayman.
Here the remaining time was spent in collecting birds and in paying particular attention to their haunts and economy. The rainy season having set in, the weather became bad and stormy; the lightning and thunder were incessant; the days cloudy, and the nights cold and misty. I had now been eleven months in the forests, and collected some rare insects, two hundred and thirty birds, two land-tortoises, five armadillos, two large serpents, a sloth, an ant-bear and a cayman.
I left the wilds and repaired to Georgetown to spend a few days with Mr. R. Edmonstone previous to embarking for Europe. I must here return my sincerest thanks to this worthy gentleman for his many kindnesses to me; his friendship was of the utmost service to me, and he never failed to send me supplies up into the forest by every opportunity.
I embarked for England on board the Dee, West–Indiaman, commanded by Captain Grey.
Sir Joseph Banks had often told me he hoped that I would give a lecture in public on the new mode I had discovered of preparing specimens in natural history for museums. I always declined to do so, as I despaired of ever being able to hit upon a proper method of doing quadrupeds; and I was aware that it would have been an imperfect lecture to treat of birds only. I imparted what little knowledge I was master of at Sir Joseph’s, to the unfortunate gentlemen who went to Africa to explore the Congo; and that was all that took place in the shape of a lecture. Now that I had hit upon the way of doing quadrupeds, I drew up a little plan on board the Dee, which I trusted would have been of service to naturalists, and by proving to them the superiority of the new plan they would probably be induced to abandon the old and common way, which is a disgrace to the present age, and renders hideous every specimen in every museum that I have as yet visited. I intended to have given three lectures: one on insects and serpents; one on birds; and one on quadrupeds. But, as it will be shortly seen, this little plan was doomed not to be unfolded to public view. Illiberality blasted it in the bud.
We had a pleasant passage across the Atlantic, and arrived in the Mersey in fine trim and good spirits. Great was the attention I received from the commander of the Dee. He and his mate, Mr. Spence, took every care of my collection.
On our landing the gentlemen of the Liverpool Custom House received me as an old friend and acquaintance, and obligingly offered their services.
Twice before had I landed in Liverpool, and twice had I reason to admire their conduct and liberality. They knew I was incapable of trying to introduce anything contraband, and they were aware that I never dreamed of turning to profit the specimens I had procured. They considered that I had left a comfortable home in quest of science; and that I had wandered into far-distant climes, and gone barefooted, ill-clothed and ill-fed, through swamps and woods, to procure specimens, some of which had never been seen in Europe. They considered that it would be difficult to fix a price upon specimens which had never been bought or sold, and which never were to be, as they were intended to ornament my own house. It was hard, they said, to have exposed myself for years to danger, and then be obliged to pay on returning to my native land. Under these considerations they fixed a moderate duty which satisfied all parties.
However, this last expedition ended not so. It taught me how hard it is to learn the grand lesson, “æquam memento rebus in arduis, servare mentem.”
But my good friends in the Custom House of Liverpool were not to blame. On the contrary, they did all in their power to procure balm for me instead of rue. But it would not answer.
They appointed a very civil officer to attend me to the ship. While we were looking into some of the boxes to see that the specimens were properly stowed, previous to their being conveyed to the king’s depôt, another officer entered the cabin. He was an entire stranger to me, and seemed wonderfully aware of his own consequence. Without preface or apology he thrust his head over my shoulder and said we had no business to have opened a single box without his permission. I answered they had been opened almost every day since they had come on board, and that I considered there was no harm in doing so.
He then left the cabin, and I said to myself as he went out, I suspect I shall see that man again at Philippi. The boxes, ten in number, were conveyed in safety from the ship to the depôt. I then proceeded to the Custom House. The necessary forms were gone through, and a proportionate duty, according to circumstances, was paid.
This done, we returned from the Custom House to the depôt, accompanied by several gentlemen who wished to see the collection. They expressed themselves highly gratified. The boxes were closed, and nothing now remained but to convey them to the cart, which was in attendance at the door of the depôt. Just as one of the inferior officers was carrying a box thither, in stepped the man whom I suspected I should see again at Philippi. He abruptly declared himself dissatisfied with the valuation which the gentlemen of the customs had put upon the collection, and said he must detain it. I remonstrated, but it was all in vain.
After this pitiful stretch of power and bad compliment to the other officers of the customs, who had been satisfied with the valuation, this man had the folly to take me aside, and after assuring me that he had a great regard for the arts and sciences, he lamented that conscience obliged him to do what he had done, and he wished he had been fifty miles from Liverpool at the time that it fell to his lot to detain the collection. Had he looked in my face as he said this he would have seen no marks of credulity there.
I now returned to the Custom House, and after expressing my opinion of the officer’s conduct at the depôt, I pulled a bunch of keys (which belonged to the detained boxes) out of my pocket, laid them on the table, took my leave of the gentlemen present, and soon after set off for Yorkshire.
I saved nothing from the grasp of the stranger officer but a pair of live Malay fowls, which a gentleman in Georgetown had made me a present of. I had collected in the forest several eggs of curious birds in hopes of introducing the breed into England, and had taken great pains in doing them over with gum arabic, and in packing them in charcoal, according to a receipt I had seen in the gazette from the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. But these were detained in the depôt, instead of being placed under a hen; which utterly ruined all my hopes of rearing a new species of birds in England. Titled personages in London interested themselves in behalf of the collection, but all in vain. And vain also were the public and private representations of the first officer of the Liverpool Custom House in my favour.
At last there came an order from the Treasury to say that any specimens Mr. Waterton intended to present to public institutions might pass duty free; but those which he intended to keep for himself must pay the duty! A friend now wrote to me from Liverpool requesting that I would come over and pay the duty in order to save the collection, which had just been detained there six weeks. I did so. On paying an additional duty (for the moderate duty first imposed had already been paid), the man who had detained the collection delivered it up to me, assuring me that it had been well taken care of, and that a fire had been frequently made in the room. It is but justice to add that on opening the boxes there was nothing injured.
I could never get a clue to these harsh and unexpected measures, except that there had been some recent smuggling discovered in Liverpool, and that the man in question had been sent down from London to act the part of Argus. If so, I landed in an evil hour: “nefasto die,” making good the Spanish proverb, “Pagan a las veces, justos por pecadores”: At times the innocent suffer for the guilty. After all, a little encouragement, in the shape of exemption from paying the duty on this collection, might have been expected, but it turned out otherwise; and after expending large sums in pursuit of natural history, on my return home I was doomed to pay for my success:
Hic finis, Caroli fatorum, hic exitus illum,
Thus my fleece, already ragged and torn with the thorns and briers which one must naturally expect to find in distant and untrodden wilds, was shorn, I may say, on its return to England.
However, this is nothing new. Sancho Panza must have heard of similar cases, for he says, “Muchos van por lana, y vuelven trasquilados”: Many go for wool and come home shorn. In order to pick up matter for natural history I have wandered through the wildest parts of South America’s equatorial regions. I have attacked and slain a modern Python, and rode on the back of a cayman close to the water’s edge; a very different situation from that of a Hyde Park dandy on his Sunday prancer before the ladies. Alone and barefoot I have pulled poisonous snakes out of their lurking-places; climbed up trees to peep into holes for bats and vampires, and for days together hastened through sun and rain to the thickest parts of the forest to procure specimens I had never got before. In fine, I have pursued the wild beasts over hill and dale, through swamps and quagmires, now scorched by the noon-day sun, now drenched by the pelting shower, and returned to the hammock to satisfy the cravings of hunger, often on a poor and scanty supper.
These vicissitudes have turned to chestnut hue a once English complexion, and changed the colour of my hair before Father Time had meddled with it. The detention of the collection after it had fairly passed the Customs, and the subsequent order from the Treasury that I should pay duty for the specimens unless they were presented to some public institution, have cast a damp upon my energy, and forced, as it were, the cup of Lethe to my lips, by drinking which I have forgot my former intention of giving a lecture in public on preparing specimens to adorn museums. In fine, it is this ungenerous treatment that has paralysed my plans, and caused me to give up the idea I once had of inserting here the newly-discovered mode of preparing quadrupeds and serpents; and without it the account of this last expedition to the wilds of Guiana is nothing but a — fragment.
Farewell, gentle reader.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14