Up the Amazon River with Ernest T. Morris (November 1878)

Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. By that year, Morris had already made four trips to Brazil starting in 1875, when he was nineteen. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty. Therefore, I intend to post his columns in whole, starting with the first: published in the World in March, 1879–but written by Morris the previous November. In this, he describes orchid collecting expeditions made up the Rio Negro, likely not far from Manaus–probably along the Tarumã-açu or Tarumã Mirim Rivers, or between them.

[Correspondence New York World.}
Cudujas [Codajás], Rio Amazon, Brazil, S. A., Nov. 30 [1878]

Since the failure or the Mackie-Scott expedition to Bolivia I have been wandering in the Upper Amazon or Solimoes [Solimões]. The Lower Amazon or Baixo Amazonas, as it is here known, has been so often described that I will not weary your readers by describing it over again. The Lower Amazon, with its great islands and flooded forests, with a fauna and flora only equaled by the East Indies, has been imperfectly explored. Travelers are too apt to pass rapidly by the delta in haste to reach the upper river. Although now a wanderer for four years on the Amazon and tributaries I have found the lower river to be healthier, and have always made better and larger collections in natural history on it, than on the upper river. Traveling on the Lower Amazon has been described as monotonous. It Is true there are no large cities on its banks and few steamers on its waters, but there is an ever-changing panorama in the dark green forests which line its banks, and always something new and interesting to a naturalist or stranger.

In October last I passed the Island of Marajó en route for Teffe [Tefé], distant 1,650 miles from Para, five days’ steaming, passing but few villages. We dropped anchor at Óbidos, 600 miles from the sea, with a population of 900, and the chief center for cacao (Theobroma cacao). The river at this point is very narrow and deep. An old fort, garrisoned by 10 soldiers and mounting two guns, overlooks the river. A 10-pounder would demolish it in about five minutes. The trade at Óbidos for the last three years has been steadily decreasing. The crops of chocolate have failed repeatedly, and much suffering has been caused by this. Nearly all cacao that is exported from Para is grown near Óbidos and Camita. Leaving Óbidos on the north, 10 miles above, you pass the river Trombetas, unknown and unexplored, though gold is said to abound in the falls, 10 days’ journey above. The river, which is about an large as the Wabash, is very unhealthy. Two beautiful orchids are found on the island in front—Ionopsis paniculata and Rodriguezia secunda. The latter is described as coming from and being a native of Mexico, but I have found it from Para nearly to Peru, and it is the most common of Brazilian orchids. Leaving the mouth of the Trombetas, you pass the high hill of Parintins on the south bank, which is the imaginary boundary line between the provinces of Para and Amazonas. Here the river is known as the Upper Amazon (Alto Amazonas.) Above the city of Manaos [Manaus] it is the Solimoes. After four hours’ steaming from Panulins, you pass the ruinous, grass-grown village above the Villa Bella, with a population of 700. Three hours above Villa Bella you enter a narrow channel of Pocoval, with a length of 25 miles and width of 150 yards. The white sandy beaches are inhabited only by gulls and turtle. The forests are high and lofty, and lack that rich tropical vegetation of the Lower Amazon. Yet the trees are corded with sepoys and clinging vines. The forests are also more open, and at times we could see far into the dark woods. Great bunches of Tillandsias nestled in the forks of trees, and epiphytes cling to every limb. Passing this channel, we emerge again into the Amazon, and in a few hours drop anchor at Serpa, 40 miles below the mouth of the Amazon’s great tributary, the Rio Maderia.

I here met many of P. & T. Collins’ men who had managed to reach Serpa. Many were sick and destitute. They gave anything but encouraging accounts of the railroad and life at San Antonia. At Serpa there is a custom house, and incoming travelers are obliged to pay provincial duty. Serpa is also called Itaguatiara [Itacoatiara], the name signifying painted rocks, and rocks covered with hieroglyphics being found in the vicinity. Twenty hours’ steaming, and slow steaming it was, we approached the mouth of the Rio Negro. Rounding the island of Marapata we entered the river, and how shall I describe it? The Amazon was low, the Negro rising, and the mingling of the Negro’s black waters with those of the Amazon formed a beautiful contrast—-as if smoky clouds were rolling beneath. From this point the great river is known by the name of the Solimoes and I can very easily understand why. The Amazon, or Solimoes, opposite the island Marapata, makes a sudden bend to the South, while the Rio Negro seems to be a continuation of the main stream. The black river is nearly two miles wide at its mouth. The east bank is high and hilly; the west, low, flooded lands, the shores white, the beach is sandy. The river was very low, and many beds of rocks were exposed. Ten miles from the mouth is Manaos, capital of the Upper Province, 1,000 miles from the sea. I went ashore in a heavy rain, thankful to get off the steamer, for the steamboats built in the States for use on the Amazon do not reflect credit on their builders. Manaos, on the right bank of the Negro, has a population of 5,000, in great part acquired within the last few years. The houses are well built. Near the river is a little hotel, opposite the market, and every morning one is awakened by the din of the merchants shouting their wares for sale, for it is a municipal ordinance of Manaos that all canoes which bring produce for sale shall dispose of it at the market and not on the beach. The owners find a ready sale for their fruits and turtle, etc., as Manaos is often short of provisions. Freight and duty on foreign articles is very high, and altogether Manaos is a dear place to live in. The greatest inconvenience a traveler encounters is the want of hotels. The only way is to provide letters from one village to another.

I remained in Manaos long enough to provide a canoe for my long voyage into the interior in search of orchids, and the numerous growers at home may be glad of some account of the voyage, omitting names and habitats, as a mere list of unpronounceable Indian names can not be rejoicing even to the specialists. The canoe was a large one, known in Brazil as igarite [igarité], with a palm toldy or cabin, in which I stored my salt fish and farina. My crew consisted of two men and a boy of 15, and a villainous-looking set they were. After embarking bag and baggage and one of the men, who was half drunk, we left Manaos with two paddling. The day was very hot, and the white sandy beaches were desolate. We passed no canoes and slowly drifted down the river without speaking a word; at the mouth we crossed and entered one of the smaller streams that intersect this whole region. As we slowly advanced I saw that the land through which we were passing was a flooded forest during the rainy season. The stream which wound its way through this wilderness was not deep, and every now and then we were forced to get out and find the channel. As I had by this time discovered there was a black bottle in the canoe, with too little rum in it and too much in the crew, a peremptory order to stop drinking was finally obeyed and the men resumed their paddles with more vigor. The forest bordering the stream was low, the trees covered with trailing dead grass, the debris of last year’s flood. There were no houses on the bank, and no water to drink, for every stroke of the paddle stirred up the rank ooze of the bottom. As we advanced the stream widened and at the same time shoaled, and we at last stuck fast in five inches of water only a mile from a lake of ample depth. The crew, except the young Indian, were now hopelessly drunk, for they had got their week’s pay before starting and had managed to get a supply of rum.

Leaving the two drunkards in the canoe and giving my boy the lantern we waded, waist deep in mud, ashore, unmindful of alligators, and set out for a hut half a mile away. The forest was very dark and the howling monkeys made it ring with their unearthly yells. In a few moments the storm was upon us; great gusts of wind were accompanied by terrific thunder and lightning and followed by a deluge of rain. A tropical storm can not be exaggerated. The crashing of trees, the tremendous thunder, the deluge of rain and the vivid lightning make an impression from the sublimity of which the howling of the monkeys does not detract. Guided by the lightning, (for our lantern had gone out), we trudged on, and in half an hour arrived at the low palm hut. Part of the roof was gone, but the place was still a shelter, and throwing ourselves on the dry sand in our wet clothes we listened to the distant peals of thunder until the pattering rain on the palm roof soothed us to sleep. On returning to the canoe next day we found the storm had demolished the cabin, and that most of our provisions were spoiled; but we pushed on.

This one day’s experience was repeated with variations for many weeks, during which I wandered this wilderness, often in want of things to eat and with rain nearly every day; but I succeeded in making a magnificent collection of orchids in the water paths of this great river. The canoe glides close to the bank and often the spreading branches of the trees interlace overhead, making night even of noonday. Countless species of sepoys (for by this name every climbing woody plant is known in Brazil) knit the whole forest into a tangled mass. Long aerial roots reach down from the tops of mighty trees; great bromelias cover the branches and throw great spikes of flaming scarlet high into the air; orchids in profusion cling to every limb, and ferns climb up the trees or wave graceful fronds from high in the air. Never have I (although accustomed to tropical scenery) been more impressed with the luxuriance and profusion of nature than here. Privations and hardships were worth undergoing for this grand sight! I have no language to describe it. At each turn of the creek there were always objects of beauty and wonder. Imagine a tree covered with plants of Cattleya superba in full bloom, the rosy purple petals and the deep purple lip, and in shading no two alike, the air full of perfume, the lovely little Cattleya luteola in full bloom, its plants covered with lemon-colored flowers. Maxillaria was not uncommon, hanging in masses many feet square. Oneldrums and brassavolas were common. Of epidendrums there was a great profusion—-many in bloom, and a few quite as beautiful at the cattleya. I hope I have given some idea, but it can only be a faint one, of the wonders that awaits the traveler who leaves the beaten road of Amazon travel and enters the unknown flooded forests of the Solimoes and Rio Negro. It was with regret I left this naturalist’s paradise, and with a feeling that I had done nothing. Years would not exhaust the flora of this region.

I shall be able to write you soon of Teffe and the Upper Solimoes.

ERNEST MORRIS

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