Ernest Morris’s Diary: How the Young Naturalist Ascended the Amazon Into Peruvian Waters (October 1879)

Number 3 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 October, 1879. Morris traveled by steamer up the Amazon to the border area between Brazil and Peru.

Pevas, Peru, October 9 [1879]. — A thousand miles away from the sea and near the confluence of the Rio Negro and Amazon is the so-called St. Louis of the Amazon, Manaos [Manaus], which I have described in former letters to THE WORLD. Ten miles below is the large island of Marapata. From this point westward the river Amazon is called the Solimoes, after an extinct tribe of Indians. But two steamers now navigate the upper waters of the Solimoes; one the Ajusto, runs when she can get freight and is not aground, and the other is the Obidos, of the Amazon Navigation Company. Leaving my camp on the river Negro last August, I took passage on the Obidos for Pevas, Peru, distant 1300 miles above Manaos.

I embarked the night of the 28th [August 1879]. Nine p.m., the hour of our departure, came, but we did not leave our moorings until after midnight. Numerous young Brazilians, nicely dressed, came aboard to drink the health of our captain and wish him a prosperous voyage. The captain of an Amazon steamer is no ordinary person, you know, and ranks next to the President of the province in the estimation of the Brazilians. At 11 the mail, which consisted of two small bags, came on board, accompanied by numerous officials. Then there was much embracing, for a Brazilian is never content with mere handshaking. Never did I see such a bustle aboard an Amazon steamer; whites, negroes and Indians moved about the deck.

On the following morning we were aroused by the coffee-bell, and we all make a run for the table in various states of undress, for the lady passengers never appear at the table, as the morning coffee is served to them in their state-rooms or in the ladies’ saloon. Coffee over, we went on deck and saw nothing but sky and water both up and down stream, far-reaching and heavily wooded islands, long sandbars extending far out into the river, over which countless flocks of gulls were hovering and where numerous alligators were basking in the morning sun.

When the steamer ran near the bank we could watch the vegetation, which to any one except a naturalist would have appeared monotonous. The banks are fringed for miles upon miles with low Embaiiba trees (Cecropia) and Monguba (Bombax monguba), which bears a large red fruit and has a large white flower. At this season both fruit and flower are often to be seen upon the leafless trees. The foliage, which is large, glossy and very beautiful, does not appear until later. Often we passed bluffs of variegated clays, white, red and yellow, all in alternate rows.

At 11 we breakfasted on meat and rice cooked in various ways. Often in traveling on these Amazon steamers I have looked for that snow-white cleanliness, those nicely dressed and tidy servants of which Orton wrote, and have yet to find them. The table linen is generally clean, but the servants are Indians and are chiefly remarkable for their dirty shirts, which show to the best advantage, as neither coats nor waistcoats are worn. Seated at the table I looked around for the rest of our passengers, but I saw only three, as the majority of the passengers had purchased third-class tickets, which do not entitle holders to come to the table. By this time these passengers had put away carefully in their little tin trunks their dresses of the day before and had taken out their rough shirts, with collars thrown back, and in barefooted ease they swung in their hammocks and smoke unlimited cigarettes. It would be difficult to recognize them as the same persons who came aboard the night previous dressed in their best.

From Manaos to Teffe [Tefé], distant 475 miles, we passed but two little villages—Cudujas, on the north bank, population 250; Coary, on the south, population 300. Cudujas is one of the best localities on the Upper Amazon for orchidaceous plants. There are to be found four species of
cattleyas, with numerous Oncidiums, Galeandra and Spidendrums. Coary exports but little India-rubber and salt fish, although the forests are composed chiefly of India-rubber trees. Teffe and the mouth of the river Japura I have described in letters to THE WORLD. It deserves all the praise that naturalists and travelers have given it. Its situation is most beautiful, the climate glorious, with plenty of fruit and game, and its absolute freedom from insect pests render it the most desirable place of residence the Solimoes. It is also the largest village on the Solimoes, having a population of 800, which does not include the population living in the district. Teffe is now called a city, but is to-day what it was fifty years ago, a quiet, sleepy place, showing no growth or improvement. Near Teffe are the large rivers, Jarua [Juruá] and Japura. Above Teffe the river resembles more our Ohio in size and in many places is very shallow.

September 2, we arrived at Fonte Boa, a most miserable and tumbled-down looking village on the south bank. Fonte Boa is said to be the paradise of all insect pests. This the one hundred and fifty inhabitants deny. Fonte Boa exports salt fish and turtle. As we advanced the river became very shallow and we frequently had to anchor and send the pilot to find the channel. Ten hours above Fonte Boa at the mouth of a large and unknown river, the Jutuhij [Jutaí], which is a black-watered stream. This river is said to be navigable ten days by steamer. The next day we passed the mouth of a small stream called Coantins [Tocantins]. A village of the game name is situated three miles above its mouth. Numerous tribes of Indians live in the vicinity. Four hours above Coantins is the month of the river Ica [known as Putumayo in Peru], which, since 1875, when it was explored by Rafael Reyes, has yielded a large quantity of Peruvian bark. Steamers are now building to navigate this river. The river is very unhealthy and insect pests abound.

On September 4 we reached the little village of Sao Paulo on the south bank, which presents a pleasing appearance from the water, as it is situated on one of the numerous high clay bluffs which are to be met with only on the Upper Amazon. The nights at this time were very cool—so cool that a heavy blanket in our hammocks did not keep us warm—-but the days are hot. On September 6 we passed but few houses. All day we steamed against a strong current, the river full of islands and sand-bars and the banks covered with forests dense and dark. We saw no house, passed no canoes, and only a floating island of grass greeted the eye. Flocks of macaws flew over the river and from out of the woods came the sweet odors of tropical flowers. Occasionally swarms of minute insects called pium, whose bite draws the blood, would come on board, when we would all seek shelter under our mosquito nets, for in traveling on the upper Solimoes or Amazon a mosquito net is indispensable. At 6 p.m. we passed the mouth of the river Javary, which enters the Amazon from the south by three mouths. This river is claimed by Peru as the boundary line with Brazil. The river is navigable for steamers. At 5 p.m. we anchored in eight fathoms of water and under the guns of the fort at Labintinga [Tabatinga], which is Brazil’s frontier post. The village is on the north bank. The population is nearly two hundred, and a fort garrisoned by twenty soldiers commands the river, which is very narrow. As it was dark I did not go ashore, but numerous officials came on board, where the mail was opened and six letters and two papers distributed. Here we were asked for our passports. We remained at anchor six hours. During all this time unlimited gin and water was drank by the captain and officers of the fort, then there was more embracing and we left Labintinga.

From Labintinga on the north bank extending westward for twenty-five miles is a strip of land which is disputed territory. On September 8 we anchored in front of the first Peruvian village of Soreto, with a population of eighty. There is a resident Brazilian Consul at this place, a position which is equivalent to banishment from all civilization. The inhabitants eat and sleep under nettings. A large tribe of Indians called Incunas [Yaguas] live in the district. Here the Amazon is called by the Peruvians Maranhad [Marañón]. At this point a great change is noticed in vegetation, and we no longer saw banks covered with monguba and numerous palms, but with a forest composed chiefly of trees of low growth. On September 9 as we were sitting down to dinner the whistle of the steamer sounded. “You are at Pevas,” said the captain. We went on deck, but saw nothing but a naked Indian and a wood-pile and a narrow creek winding away into the forest. “The village of Pevas,” said the captain, “is situated a quarter of a mile up this stream, which is called Yaguas, and in a few minutes there will be canoes here.”

By this time the steamer had reached the bank and began to take on wood, sounding the whistle at intervals to give notice to the villagers of our arrival. Presently two canoes, regular dug-outs, appeared, which were made of single tree-trunks. Embarking my baggage and giving the captain the customary embrace, we pushed off from the steamer and paddled westward towards the setting sun and Pevas. The banks of this stream, Yaguas, were covered with low forests, but many of the trees were in bloom. The soil was composed of a red clay, and although late in the afternoon numerous beautiful butterflies were to be seen. After half an hour’s paddling we arrived at a little port where there were a dozen canoes, all dug-outs. Disembarking we ascended a steep bank, and at last after eleven days’ travel I had arrived at my destination– a low line of houses built of poles and thatched with palm, four boasting of mudwalls and a frame covered with tile. I succeeded in obtaining a small room, where I stored my baggage and swung my hammock.

I shall not venture to give your readers an account of my first few days in Pevas. From morn to night hogs wandered in and out the homes and naked Yaguas Indians watched my movements through the half-finished walls. Were it not for the enjoyment I find in wandering in the forests, which are very beautiful, and studying the habits of the numerous tribes of Indians which live in the surrounding forests, I would leave Pevas. The inhabitants number some two hundred, mostly children. They live almost entirely on roasted green bananas and their chief amusement is dancing all night and drinking vile liquor by day. There is no padre in the village, consequently no one is married, though in morality Pevas compares favorably with other towns on the Amazon in Brazil and Peru.

The land to the north and east of Pevas is undulating and covered with forests, not as lofty and dense as on lower Amazon, but far richer in vegetation. Numerous clear and cold water streams whose banks are covered with many species of ferns and gesneraceae plants are to be met with in the forests, while caladiums and calocasia grow in countless numbers. Of orchids I have as yet found but few. One called Oncidium bifolium–which is the smallest of the oncidiums–bears a large yellow flower, often vying in size with the plant. This beautiful orchid, of which there are none in cultivation in the United States, is to be found here growing by the hundreds on a low, spreading tree [latin name illegible]. Strange to say, I have found this orchid on the island of Marajo, 2,000 miles below. It is a tender plant, and will not bear exportation. Numerous other orchids which I have also met with on the Rio Negro are found growing here, although there is a marked difference in the climate. Two most beautiful bulbous plants are here found-one a native of the open forest, namely, Amaryllis fulgida, with large, showy pink flowers five inches in diameter, and Caliphruria subedentata, whose beautiful white flowers are only to be met with in the open glades of the dense forests. I also found here many caladiums that are also to be met with growing near Para, 2,000 miles below.

I have given but a short account and convey no idea of the richness of the flora in the neighborhood of Pevas. Insects and brilliant butterflies frequent the narrow paths in the forest, but notes on natural history are nor interesting to the general reader. My object in coming to Pevas is to march eastward, visiting the Yuagas, Ticuna, and Aguaruna tribes of Indians, who have their malocas, or houses in the distant forests, and to descend the river Ica, but at present I can find no Indians who will undertake to make the trip with me, but I will accomplish it sooner or later. The hardest lesson a traveler has to learn in coming to this country is to have patience.

Pevas is not a desirable place to live in; not withstanding the river is full of fish and the forest full of game, we have to live on roasted green pacovas and salt fish (pirarucu). The climate is unhealthy, the nights very cool and with hot days, and early in the morning heavy mists overhang the river. Chills and fevers are not uncommon. Heavy rains are now falling and the Maranhad (Marañón or Amazon) is rising very rapidly. For the last month we have had but very few days of good weather. The inhabitants ascribe it to the moon, which appears to be responsible for all the ills that befall a sojourner in Pevas. As I can do no collecting in this rainy season I sit in my little hut before a rude table, on which are numerous wild flowers, and such flowers, too, as no hothouse could produce. I read often my only paper, THE WORLD of July 3, and am surprised to find how interesting the railway timetables and advertisements are. Dirty children play around my door, hogs roam in and out of the houses across the way, and when the Yaguas Indians come to the village they are sure to spend much of their time looking through the half- finished walls of my hut. So the days have gone by for a month, and so they will doubtless for another month, when I will visit the Indian villages and write to THE WORLD of the manners and customs of the Indians.

–Ernest Morris.

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