Young Morris in Brazil (August 1879)

Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. 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. The column below was written in August, 1879 and published just a month later, in late September. Morris was once again gathering orchids from the same area he had visited the previous fall, between the Taruma-Minim and Taruma-Acu streams, on the Rio Negro not far above Manaus. Earlier in 1879 he had returned briefly to the USA.

In Camp Terema (Rio Negro), August 15 — The Rio Negro, which flows into the Amazon 1,000 miles from the sea, is narrow at its mouth and has as its western bank low flooded forests; on the eastern high rolling land. Its vegetation is the richest found on any of the Amazonian tributaries and the population is the poorest. Excepting Manaos [Manaus] there are but three small villages on the river, and the inhabitants above Manaos will not exceed 4,000 in number. This river has long been known as a highway between the Amazon and Orinoco. Two days journey above its mouth it expands into a large bay, the surface of which is dotted by numerous low islands, heavily wooded. They are uninhabited save by flocks of parrots, which roost by thousands in the wide-spreading branches of the Arrepe trees. Opposite one of these large islands, on the eastern shore, is a high hill which commands a beautiful view both up and down stream. Numerous igarapes (creeks) can be seen winding through the distant forest; to the south is the high rolling land which extends far back into the interior, and is inhabited only by the wild Yuneris [Carabayo?] Indians.

On this bluff is my camp, a low shed built of poles and thatched with the leaves of the Carna palm (Attalea spectabilis). My hammock, which is both bed and chair, swings from two pegs in the wall, and, with the exception of a rude table, contrived by placing my bird-skinning board across the top of a barrel, and which serves both as writing-desk and dinner-table, my house contains no other furniture. In front of the hut is the fire on which in an old iron pot, companion of my two years’ wanderings, is simmering my evening meal—a titie [titi] monkey. Since my return to the United States I have grown, I fear, quite fastidious in my eating, as I pause often in my writing and my eyes wander to the fire, where the monkey’s legs and arms are protruding from the pot, and I shudder and turn away in disgust, as visions of spring dinners at home rise up before me. My companions are but two–regular Indians–who love this wild life, know the forest and are content with rough food and a liberal allowance of caxica ( cachaça rum). My object here is the collection of orchids, the Rio Negro being the home of many beautiful species.

Near our camp is the mouth of a large stream of inky black waters called teremas [the area between the Taruma-Minim and Taruma-Acu streams]. Along its shores I have taken many a ramble, and a description of one of these trips may be of interest. We leave the camp early of an August morning and slowly drift down the river, the Indians making their bark cigarettes which are to last them for the day. The sun is now above the tops of the distant forest; flock after flock of parrots fly over, and from out the woods on our right comes the hum of countless insects and the notes of the onambti. We slowly drift on for half an hour, then, turning to our right, pass through a narrow channel into the Terema. Here the forests are very dense, the great trees are covered with sepoys and clinging vines, one called matador-—a sepoy, which beginning a clinging plant growing by the side of some forest monarch, using it as a support, gradually throws out little shoots which wrap themselves around the tree’s trunk so closely as to appear as if the tree had been bound with ropes. After it has thus got its hold it mounts higher and higher, throwing out a succession of coils every few feet. Then commences its deadly work of choking the tree to death, which it does in a very snort time, killing itself together with the tree. The forests of the Rio Negro are strewn with these fallen trees entwined with this sepoy. One who has not traveled in the tropics has no idea of the constant struggle for life which is always going on in these dense forests where the soil is all monopolized and where light and air are necessary for the growth of plants, and one also is bewildered at the diversity cf growth. Slowly paddling along the igarape, passing numerous little creeks, we occasionally see as through a tunnel far up some stream over which the trees had interlaced their branches, shutting out the noonday sun. Here bromelias throw their long spike of scarlet flowers into the air and caladiums carpet the ground. At 11 o’clock we arrived at the first house on the Terema-—the home of an Indian who had cleared a little patch of ground, built his palm hut and surrounded himself with a dozen starved dogs and numerous dirty children.

At this house we were invited to enter in God’s name. The homes of the Indians are often clean, but those of the Terema are generally filthy. The people are very poor and lazy; their labor consists of raising some little mandioca, out of which they make their bread, and more children, and as the latter are not fit to eat, there is frequently a famine. In the rainy season these people fare better, as then the clear waters of the streams become muddy, and fish and then turtle can be caught. The house where we first entered was that of the Delagado, a petty magistrate, whose boast was that he was a white man. This we did not dispute, and we were soon on the best of terms. The house was mud, thatched with palm; the furniture, pegs in the wall for hammocks, bows and arrows on the wall, and empty St. Louis lager-beer bottles behind the door, a rude wooden case in which he enshrined the Saint, to which be resorted in time of trouble, and last of all a bottle of Florida water. Go where you will in Brazil, ascend the tributaries, penetrate into the interior, visit the out-of-the-way Indian villages, and the first thing you will see is Florida water. The Indians will go without clothes to obtain this perfume.

The land bordering the Teremas is generally high, though often one sees low land subject to overflow. As a collecting ground for a naturalist the Teremas are unsurpassed; of birds and insects there is no lack, the butterflies vying with the birds in richness of color, but most of this region is thinly inhabited. Often in voyaging a rude house is passed whose only beauty consists in the little clearing which surrounds it. Here you see the tall Prepuna palm, which is never found growing wild, its presence in the forest always denoting the place of a former house. Often the tall Assai palm towers above the hut, showing its feathery white flowers or large bunches of purple fruit which grow from the trunk beneath the crown of leaves. One may often see patches of bright flowers; generally red and yellow colors predominate with large bushes of the white jasmine, the flowers of which the Indian girls delight to wear in their dark hair. During this trip I was surprised to find so many flowers in bloom as now it is the height of the dry season. I had been led to believe that the rainy season was the only time tn which plants bloomed; this is a mistake. Many trees only flower during the dry season. Certain orchids, as for example Cattleya superba, may be found in bloom any month in the year. Let any one appreciate as little as possible the beauties of nature in the floral world, one cannot be insensible to much he will see in Brazil. The short duration of the flowering season is also noticeable; one day a plant will be a mass of bloom, the next all bare. Nature does her work quickly in the tropics, and fertilization is soon effected. Of water plants I saw but one worthy of notice, namely, Eichornia speciosa, formerly known as Pontedaria crassipes, with a beautiful blue flower.

We left the Indian hut early the following morning without regret, as we had had nothing to eat during twenty-four hours. Hoisting our sail we slowly proceeded up stream, stopping to gather an orchid and shoot toucans which, roasted over the fire, made our morning meal. Four days’ journey up the stream gave me but few rare plants, for although the trees were covered with epiphytes they were mostly common epidendrums. I noticed many valuable trees; the Muruchy, the bark yielding a beautiful dye of dark-brown which is known only to the Indians; Sapayira wood, yellow and very bitter, from which a tonic is made; Jutahy accea, which yields a gum used in glazing earthenware, and many other valuable woods. With the Indians nearly every plant is a medicinal one, and if I had accepted all that were tendered me my canoe would not have been big enough to carry them. The inhabitants not only of the Teremas, but of the Rio Negro, suffer greatly from chills and fevers, which are brought on by their mode of living, as they subsist often on boiled palm fruit for days, drinking a vile liquor called tereha [tucupi], made out of the mandioca root. Even the children look pale and sickly, having an unhealthy yellow complexion caused by eating clay.

The waters of the clear streams contain but few fish, the forests are bare of game and the male members of the families are all India-rubber gatherers, who spend their time in the forests working for unprincipled traders, and at the end of the season return to their homes in debt. The working of rubber, although a great industry, has done more harm than can be easily imagined to the Amazon; agriculture has wholly neglected, rice is brought from Europe, coffee from Rio and sugar from the north of Brazil, whereas all could be readily grown at home with a little attention. The Amazon valley is to-day what it was a hundred years ago, with the exception of the line of steamers, and they would be withdrawn were it not for the heavy subsidy they receive from the Government. Santarem, Óbidos and other villages—-here called cities because they contain a population of two thousand—-are the same quiet tropical places as before navigation, showing no growth or improvement. The capital of the upper province, Manaus, which I have described in my previous letters to THE WORLD, presents a more thrifty appearance. Trade and commerce I believe have reached their height on the Amazon, but without new systems of development and a different form of government the Amazon Valley will always remain what it is to-day–a much exaggerated country–the paradise for a lazy man and a rich field for the naturalist and collector.

Such is our life on the banks of the Terema. I leave the Rio Negro on the 26th [August 1879] for the Rio Japura, 800 miles above the mouth of the Solimoes. –Ernest Morris

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