Ernest Morris in Peru (December 1879)

Number 4 in a series. 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 December, 1879. The letter that Morris refers to in the first sentence may have been lost, although his next World column, datelined December 29, recounts events that occurred before those mentioned below.

Cochiquinas, Peru, December 13,–My last letter to THE WORLD was written while at the houses of the Yuguas Indiana. For many days I remained with them in hopes of being able to reach the River Ica; but the rains had now become continuous, and suffering severely from fever I returned to the Muranham [Marañón, or Amazon] and to this little village of Cochiquinas [San José de Cochiquinas], there to remain until the rains have somewhat abated before going again into the interior. We left the Indian houses without regret, for during our stay we had been obliged to live wholly on roasted green plantains (bananas) and yuca [cassava], and our nights were spent in fighting mosquitoes and dogs. I thought I had seen the worst specimens of the canine race in the towns on the lower river, but words would fail me did I attempt to describe these Indian dogs. They were lean and mangy, covered with sores, full of fleas, half-starved, without strength to bark, but continually yelping. They usually carried their tails between their legs and ran if you approached them, but night seemed to give them courage and they made its hours hideous by their continual yelping and fighting. The Yaguas use the urucu, or annotta, mixed with oil in painting their bodies, and so vilely did they smell that we preferred to sleep in the open air with mosquitoes rather than in the houses.

The urucu is used by almost all the Indian tribes in the Amazon Valley, and on the Lower Amazon it forms a considerable article of export. The plant which yields the annotta of commerce is known botanically as Bixa Orellana, so called after Francisco Orellana, who in 1541 reported his encounter with the women warriors (Amazons) near the mouth of the River Trombetas, a river which enters the mighty stream since called the Amazons near the village of Óbidos. Authorities state that B. Orellana is a tree growing 80 feet in height, but of the hundreds of plants I have seen growing in many different localities I have yet to see one that will exceed 12 feet in height. The plant is bushy in appearance; the leaves are heart-shaped and pointed. The fruit, which is dull-red in color, is covered with prickles and is borne on the ends of the branches. Each fruit contains from thirty to fifty seeds, which are covered with a thin coating of red pulp. When ripe the fruit splits open; and the seeds then become shriveled and do not yield as much annotta as if gathered when not fully ripe. There is a variety of B. Orellana found growing here and at Pebas, Peru, which I never met with on the lower river. In general appearance it resembles the above with the exception of the fruit, which is yellow, and bears a pure white flower. These plants grow in immense numbers in all the old Indian clearings, but they are not gathered for export, and hundreds of pounds are annually lost. In Pebas I have often seen the women using annotta in cooking. Washing the seeds in water, they boil the meat or fish sprinkled with it. It is said to make meat tender.

From the first houses of the Yaguas Indians to the igarape (creek) of Cheta, where we had left our canoe, was twenty miles, so we made an early start, accompanied by several Indians. The path in many places was knee-deep In mud, and often for many miles wound through dark ygapo or flooded forests. By 4 o’clock we had reached the port, where we found our canoe full of water, and ordering the crew to bail out the water and fix the palm cabin I wandered up the bank and took my usual afternoon chill under the shade of the calabash or coia tree (Crescentia Cujeta). This tree is small, the fruit is borne on the trunk and larger branches; it is round or oval and often very large and contains numerous seeds embedded in a white pulp; the shell is very hard and of a dark green. How these immense fruits hang on the tree was always a wonder to me. Nature seems for once to have forgotten the fitness of things and to be growing pumpkins on trees. The bark is soft and is the favorite home of many small orchids in Brazil, and especially on the Rio Negro, one seldom finds a calabash-tree without Rodriguezia secunda, small oncidiums and epidendrums growing on its branches. The fruit is made into coias or cups, and is much used by the Indians.

The trees were casting long shadows across the igarape as we embarked and pushed off from the bank, and as the current was in our favor we made rapid progress. The day had been cool and cloudy, and strongly reminded me of an October day at home, but towards evening the clouds rolled away and the sun set in a clear sky, the first time in ten days. Traveling on these igarapes or forest streams is always lonely and oppressive, especially at night when the woods are almost silent. All around us towered the dense forest from the depths of which ever and anon come such strange sounds, now like the barking of dogs, then a shriek, which dies a away in a low sobbing wail, sounds which no man can account for. The Indians say these noises are made by the curupira, or wood demon, who is described as being of the size of a man, his body covered with hair and his feet turned backward, and many a story have I heard the Indians tell of his powers as we lay around our camp-fire or silently drifted down these igarapes.

The Indians at night always work better, for it is cooler, so we made very rapid progress, and near midnight we heard the rushing sound of the waters of the Amazon, and in a few moments our little canoe shot from beneath the forest-covered igarape into the broad river. The moon was silvering the waters and the stars, which seemed like lamps set against the sky, shone with a brilliancy unknown to our northern clime. The paddles were now laid aside and we floated with the strong current. In lieu of anything to eat we smoked cigarettes, and as the night was too beautiful to sleep we again resumed our paddles. The Maranham or Amazon at this point is fully three miles wide, but the river is here divided by three large islands, namely, Brea, Sancudo and Fraile, that of Sancudo being the largest. Although this island is almost under water there are three small huts of Yaguas Indians, numbering some twenty persons, upon it.

Here we crossed to the southern bank and in three hours arrived at the little village of Cochiquinas, where we were greeted by the howling of innumerable dogs. Throwing our mattresses on the floor of a deserted hovel we slept as soundly as dogs, mosquitoes and fleas would allow until morning. The little village of Cochiquinas is sixty miles below Pebas and has a population of fifty humans and somewhere near six hundred dogs, the former by actual count, the latter by estimation. The houses are nine in number, covered with palm and built of poles, and are not as well constructed as those of the Yaguas Indians. The inhabitants are semi-civilized Peruvians, lazy and shiftless. They have small fields of yuca, which are tended by the women, who, as on the Amazons, do all the work. The only thing that impresses a stranger favorably is the beauty of the women; such forms, such eyes and such hair are not to be met with out of Peru. They are also India-rubber gatherers, who tap a tree that yields a very poor quality of rubber, which does not bring one-half the price of the gum of Siphonia brasiliensis.

This village, as well as that of Mancallact, which is fifteen miles below, are both in the jurisdiction of Pebas, and are governed by a Teniente, who is appointed by the Governor of Pebas and serves without pay. The Teniente of Cochiquinas was an old Indian who had a family of thirteen daughters, all old enough to be useful and who were all India-rubber gatherers. They wore many bracelets made of lizard skin on their arms, to give them, as they said, strength. The land to the south of the village is Terra Preta, or black land, and intersected by numerous cold, clear-watered streams. Here the trees seemed alive with monkeys and tigers were very numerous. In these dense forests I have wandered for days, accompanied only by a small boy, whose duty was to carry a gun or an insect-net.

The wonderful luxuriance which nature here displays in the trees and plants has often bewildered me, although accustomed to tropical scenery. So beautiful are the flowering vines and trees, so strange are the fruits, that one never knows where to begin to observe, and his first experience if he attempts more than to look and enjoy is wont to be wholly unsatisfactory. Often one falls to recognize that the great palms one hundred feet in height, waving lazily their long leaves in the warm breeze are the same that he has seen in diminutive pot specimens in our greenhouses. The greatest drawback in studying the flora of these forests is that the flowers are often perched on the topmost branches and as at horticultural exhibitions, where one can see but not touch, we have to content ourselves with a distant view or examine the faded flowers which often carpet the ground. There is a sepoy or large vine, botanically unknown to me, which la abundant in these forests. It is called Cumaca by the Indians. The vine is large, often measuring eight inches in diameter and covered with a thick bark. The leaves are of a light green and deeply serrated. The flower is unknown to us. This bark when stripped from the vine and pressed yields a dark red but oily liquid. When dried and pulverized a small portion is sufficient to dye cloth a most beautiful dark brown, and as it can be obtained in immense quantities it possibly might be used in our manufactories.

The land in front of the village is vargia or low land, on which are a few huts of the Indians, who have small fields of yams and corn; they also raise a very poor quality of tobacco. The river here is contracted to the width of only three-fourths of a mile, and is very deep, with a strong current. During my visit to Cochiquinas we 1ived at the house of the Teniente. The surroundings were filthy in the extreme. We always ate off the floor, all out of the same plate, and with our fingers, and as my seat was near the door I was kept constantly dodging the bones which were thrown to the dogs but which seemed especially aimed at my head. Dogs swarmed in and out of the house, while the hogs with their heads between the pole sides of the house kept up an incessant grunting. We never had a quiet meal in that house.

Pium and mosquitoes, to say nothing of fleas, maguim, matuca and other insect pests abound, and rendered life almost a burden. Our hands end faces were covered with sores caused by the bite of the pium. We also experienced much difficulty in obtaining food. Although hogs and chickens were plenty we never could purchase one. They keep the hogs for the tigers and the chickens for their eggs and for the hawks to carry off. Fifteen miles below Cochiquinas is a little village called Mancallacta, numbering some sixty persons, mostly children. The Teniente is a Bolivian, who met us on landing clad only in his drawers, and carried a white umbrella. He received us kindly, saying he had often heard of us, and expressed a desire to become a naturalist. We advised him to work India-rubber, as he would find it more profitable, as the life of a naturalist, although pleasant, varied and exciting, is full of hardships and is not by any means one which brings money to the pocket.

In honor of our arrival the Teniente took from his trunk a case, old and rusty, which was labelled salmon. This he proceeded to open carefully. His numerous children and dependents crowding eagerly around him, all received a piece from the paternal fingers; the rest, say a spoonful, was placed for us on a rude table. It was quite sufficient. I thought it probably was the result of the first experiment ever made in canning salmon. After this the Teniente got gloriously drunk on Peruvian caxaca [cachaça], a vile liquor made of cane, possibly also in honor of our arrival. This village has but ten houses, all in a most dilapidated condition and surrounded by a tall growth of rank grass. The inhabitants were engaged in completing a little church, and although the village has no priest I have often watched them kneeling before two rude wooden images, dressed in faded blue calico, and softly singing not unmusical hymns. The church contains no altar, an earthen lamp filled with turtle oil gives both smoke and light, but never at home, in the churches of my own land, have I seen such earnest devotion as I here have met with among the poor and ignorant people of the little villages on the Maranham.

After a few days’ stay we returned to Cochiquinas, from whence I go to Pebas. The rains have somewhat abated, and I have hopes that by January I will be able to go again into the interior. Twice I have failed, but I shall remain here until I make the journey. The days go quietly by. Often we wander in the forests where we always find objects of interest, or in the evening we sit in the open air under the lime trees and watch the sun go down behind the distant forest. Often, too, we smoke, surrounded by pretty girls, neatly dressed and wearing in their dark hair starry Jasmines. So that, in spite of the ruinous villages and clouds of mosquitoes, we have come to the conclusion that Eastern Peru is not such a bad place after all.

–Ernest Morris

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