Up and Down the Napo (April 1880)

Number 8 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–but also his cultural chauvinism (which, considering his era, was mild by comparison to other travel narratives). The following was printed in the August 3, 1880 edition of the New York World.

On board the Mairo, Rio Napo, Peru, April 20 [1880]-Twenty-five hundred miles above the mouth of the Amazon, and sixty miles below the village of Iquitos, Peru, is the mouth of an almost unknown river, the Napo. It is to Prof. James Orton, who descended this river from Ecuador some thirteen years ago, that we are indebted for the only reliable information yet made public respecting the so-called “Napo country” and Rio Napo. The first steamer that ever entered this river was the Mairo, sent by the Peruvian Government for the purpose of exploration, but for some unknown cause she returned in a few days to Iquitos. I have examined the journal from this expedition, but obtained little information from it. In a previous letter to the World I have endeavored to explain how utterly ignorant of their own country are the inhabitants of this region. Geography is unknown in eastern Peru, and I never yet have been able to make my acquaintances here clearly understand why I should not know their relatives who reside “somewhere in Nueva York.”

For several months past it was known in Iquitos that the “Peruvian Company” would again send the Mairo (which, by the way, is an American-built boat and was brought to Peru by the somewhat well-known Admiral Tucker) to the Napo, solely for the purpose of ascertaining how far the river was navigable for steamers. On March 17, the usual crowd of idlers gathered on the bank to watch our departure, the anchor was soon raised, and amid the shouts of “the happiest people of Peru” we rapidly steamed down the Amazon. We had a curious crew-Peruvian captain, English engineer, Chinese cook and seventeen deck hands of all ages, sizes, and colors. The Mairo is a small side-wheel boat, and when loaded draws but three feet of water. From stem to stern, about twelve feet above the deck, the boat was roofed with thin pine boards on which many of the crew spread their blankets and slept in the open air. Others used the coal bunkers, while our Chinese cook slept on the dinner table. As we had left Iquitos late in the day, we stopped for the night at a wood station near the mouth of a small river called the Nanay. We were kindly invited to a home by the owner, a woman and a perfect Amazon, who in ten minutes smoked all my tobacco, knew where I came from and where I was going, whether I was married or single, and the rest of my private history. She invited us to bring our beds up to the house, saying there were no mosquitoes, but we preferred to sleep on board and be eaten by the mosquitoes rather than be talked to death by a woman. During the night we embarked 2,000 sticks of wood, and on the following morning were again steaming down the broad river.

At 10 a.m. we entered the upper mouth of the Napo. This river enters the Amazon from the north by two channels, which are separated by a long, low island, subject to overflow. Half a mile above the mouth is a collection of four houses, called Destacamento. Here we anchored and sent our small canoe ashore for a pilot. The canoe soon returned, bringing an old Indian, who smilingly shook hands with all on board and said he knew the river and could pilot us to the mouth of a tributary stream, the Aguarico, about six weeks’ journey in a canoe. A bargain was made with him immediately, and the captain joyfully went to take his afternoon nap. But a few moments after embarking the old pilot, and while steaming along rapidly, there was a sudden rattling of dishes; the boat lurched to one side, and we grounded with a shock in two and a half feet of water, amid the carambas of all on board. The pilot seemed very much astonished, and said he had no idea that there were any bars in this part of the river. When asked when he made his last trip to the Aguarico, the old Indian replied, “Forty-eight years ago.” “What? Caramba!” Nothing more was said, and after some hard work we again backed into deep water; but thereafter we kept the sounding line going, and the old pilot was never seen to smile again, for we kept him busy from morning till night shelling rice, cutting wood, and washing table linen.


Twelve miles above the mouth we arrived at the small settlement of Magua [Mangua], on the eastern bank, twenty-five feet above the water. It is a charming little place of seven well-made houses inhabited by civilized Indians (I use the word civilized in an Amazonian sense–i.e. those who wear trousers and occasionally a shirt). Surrounding the houses were numerous Punpunha palms, with ripe bunches of red fruit hanging among the crown of dark-green leaves. This fruit is eaten boiled and is a good substitute for the potato. The houses were neat and clean. The men were hardy-looking fellows, but the women, I regret to say, were positively ugly, with hands and faces smeared with black dye. The dress of the women consisted of a narrow piece of dyed cloth worn around the waist, but what they lack in cloth they make up in beads. The language spoken is called Inca , and indeed all the Indian population of eastern Peru speak Inca, which corresponds to the língua geral of Brazil. During the short time we stopped at Magua I caught twenty-five different species of butterflies, and I believe it would be a good place for a naturalist. The forests which hem the little village are very rich in tropical plants. Of orchids, I saw many varieties, principally Oncidiums. It may be of interest to the growers of these beautiful plants to know that one reason why so many of the Amazonian orchids do not survive in American hothouses is that they are subjected to entirely too much heat. So cool is it at night on the Napo that we wear a thick coat and sleep under a heavy blanket.

In thirteen hours we arrived at Mazán, a ruinous settlement of four houses on the western bank. Many of the inhabitants were suffering from chills and one man was dying from the bite of a poisonous snake. The poor fellow begged piteously for a remedio, but we had none to give him. A few miles above this settlement we pass the mouth of the small river Mazán, which enters from the west. Its banks are inhabited by the wild Iquitos Indians. All day we have been winding in and out of narrow channels, or steaming close to the bank, where we often see brilliant birds or flocks of monkeys. At night we pass three houses known as Cayapas, and on the following day, March 20, thirty-one hours of steaming time from Iquitos, we reach Tuta Pisco (nightbird), the last settlement on the lower Napo. Above Tuta Pisco for a distance of over four hundred miles there are no settlements and the banks of the Napo are inhabited only by savages. On a point of land, composed of red clay, which juts far into the river, are several roofed stockades inhabited by 120 Indians of at least five different tribes. These Indians are employed by Señor Harra, an Ecuadorian, and owner of this settlement. We entered his house, which was no better or cleaner than those of his dependents, though he is said to be a wealthy man, and is engaged in collecting gold dust and rubber. He was very much opposed to opening the river to navigation, and expressed his opinion in a most surly manner. His wife, however, was very glad to see us, and asked whether we would take a cocktail (spoken in plain English) or a punch. On being told the latter she gave us two dozen eggs to beat while she procured cachaça rum and sugar. Filling several large bowls with a hot mixture-I suppose it was punch, an Ecuadorian punch-she passed them around saying “Sabi” (“your health”) . Steaming hot punch was anything but refreshing with the thermometer at 98 degrees in the shade, but we partook of her hospitality.

The forests surrounding Tuta Pisco are full of marfim vegetal or ivory palms, which yield the vegetable ivory of commerce. This palm attains the height of only twenty feet with a crown of stiff dark leaves, which are used by the Indians in thatching their houses. The fruit grows in clusters, enclosed in a rough capsule. A tree will yield from fort to sixty nuts. On the lower Napo, at Magua and Mazán, these nuts are collected by the Indians, who sell them to Señor Harra for four reals (forty cents) per barrel. This enterprising person disposes of them in Iquitos for $4 per barrel. Indians are often compelled to take goods in trade at exorbitant prices, and it is to the patron’s interest to keep them always in debt. An Indian once in debt virtually belongs to his patron. There is no country where there are so many unprincipled traders as on the Amazon and its tributaries.

We remained twenty hours at Tuta Pisco. While here I obtained two skulls of wild Indians known as Tuta Piscos. During the evening, while busily engaged in cleaning my Indian skulls, we heard the low tap of a drum in one of the adjoining houses. A dance was going on. Calling our pilot to act as interpreter, we entered the house, which had but one long, dimly-lit room. On either side, seated on the ground, were some fifty persons of both sexes daubed with black dye. The music and dance ceased on our entrance and I plainly saw they did not like our intrusion. Nevertheless, a few wished us boa noite and the women offered us large wooden bowls of masato, which is made by the women, who chew the yucca and throw it into an earthen pot, where it is allowed to ferment. When fresh it is not intoxicating, but the Indians prefer it when it is about a week old, and it is difficult to tell at the end of that time what the chicha jar contains–masato or Limburger cheese. Should one look into the jar he will see a moving mass, or as Prof. Orton expresses it, “writhing articulates.”

So much chicha is used in the little villages of Cholquinas and Maucallacta, of which I have written the World, that there is not a good set of teeth among the women. We gave offense by not drinking the masato, and the dancing was not resumed during our stay. No sooner had we left the house, however, then we again heard the tap of the drum, and as we had determined to see that dance we stole through the woods to the rear of the house, where we witnessed their movements unobserved. Six couples danced at a time, the men all facing their partners and keeping step to the monotonous tap of the drum. Not a word was spoken by the dancers and not a smile was to be seen on their faces. Returning to my narrow quarters on board the boat I found many of our crew stretched across the wood sleeping off the effects of chicha.

We did not leave Tuta Pisco until late the following morning, when Señor Harra gave us an Indian to act as pilot. He came on board in his paint and with a jar of masato under his arm, which we quickly dropped overboard. Bidding adieu to our friends, after politely refusing another “Ecuadorian punch,” we steamed slowly up the western bank. The more I see of the Napo the more I am impressed with it. Its picturesque islands are far more beautiful than those of the Amazon, and there is a greater diversity of tropical plants. Seen from a distance these islands present but a wall of living green, yet all the apparent sameness vanishes when the steamer nears the bank, and each moment of progress reveals wonderful variety. The vines which climb up the bank or trail in the water are often a mass of morning-glories, or are covered with a multitude of red or white flowers. Above the flowering vines are the palms, shaded by the tops of great trees, many belonging to the great family of Leguminosae. On a high point of land we saw many of these great trees in bloom, their wide-spreading tops one mass of colored flowers.

On the evening of March 22, we anchored in front of a high bank called Puca Urcu. Villavicencio , an Ecuadorian, in a work published in 1850 [1858], states that steamers can here be supplied with coal. So we anchored early in the morning, purposing to explore the surrounding country. Early the following morning the captain, with ten bushwhackers, armed to the teeth, entered the forest, while the pilots and I lowered a boat and paddled along the high bank. About fifty yards below our anchorage we found a narrow creek. The land bordering this creek, whose waters were black, was about twenty-five feet high, and here we saw a strata of clay entirely new to us, being pure white, free from sand and exceedingly plastic. At Iquitos and Pebas one sees a thin strata of lignite, which the inhabitants of the latter village have told me was carbon nueva or new coal , but we at Puca Urcu saw no signs of lignite or bituminous shale, but in all probability it exists and has been mistaken by the Indians as real coal.

Leaving Puca Urcu we steamed slowly all morning. The river, as usual, is filled with islands and bars. At 11 a.m. the thermometer was at 82 degrees, but the hottest part of the day was between 2 and 3 p.m., when the thermometer often registers 96 degrees. This afternoon (March 23) we had a heavy thunderstorm, accompanied by wind and rain, which was quite refreshing and cleared the boat of pium, a small fly whose bite draws the blood. Our hands and faces are black with their punctures. At 5 p.m. we reached the mouth of the river Chia Curaray (chia signifying little) which enters the Napo from the west. Some forty miles from Chia Curaray we entered the Napo’s largest tributary, the Curaray Grande, eighty four hours’ steaming time from Destacamento, or the mouth of the Napo. This tributary, which also enters from the west, is 200 yards wide, with seven fathoms of water and a sluggish current. Its banks are higher than those of the Napo and slope gently to the water. We explored the river for a considerable distance and have no doubt that a small steamer could ascend it for twenty days. During the dry season the Indians of Señor Harra of Tuta Pisco wash gold dust from the sands. There are no settlements on this river; and its banks are inhabited by savages.

Soon after leaving the mouth of the Curaray we grounded in midriver. After hard pushing and pulling we got off the bar and steamed to the bank, where we spent six hours in cutting wood. This wood-cutting delays us very much, though it gives us the opportunity to hunt. I never saw game more plentiful than in the forests of Napo. Monkeys, wild hogs, and deer abound, and there are also numerous game birds. While cutting wood we entered the forest, and had not gone 200 yards from the bank when we heard the call of the maquisapa monkey. The Indians imitated his cry, and soon we saw them slowly approaching us, swinging from branch to branch. Monkey-shooting is great sport, but when one who has only wounded a large monkey watches it picking out the pellets of shot and listens to its plaintive whining, he feels that he is anything but a true sportsman. The maquisapa, or long arm, is the largest monkey in eastern Peru. The color is black on the back and gray on the belly and under the arms and legs. The hair is long and coarse. We had monkey curried, boiled, and fried for dinner. Monkey meat is good, but we can never get over the idea that one may possibly be eating his ancestors.

We steamed until late in the night. It is a pleasure to lie full length on the top of the boat and listen to the howling imps of Satan, the guariba monkeys, and watch the fire-flies and bats. Occasionally we hear a grating noise, which we know is made by a tiger [jaguar]. To me these night voices add a charm to these forests. The river looks most beautiful and there is something more than mere poetry in “a starry night in the tropics.” One never feels the want of words and his own insignificance so much as when he attempts to describe the beauties of nature.

After forty-seven hours of steaming time above the Curaray Grande, we pass on the right hand or eastern bank the mouth of the river Santa Maria. It does not deserve the name of a river. In Brazil this stream would be an igarapé (creek). The Santa Maria takes its name from a tribe of Indians who wander along its banks. Since leaving the Curaray, we have found no less than six fathoms of water, which is now becoming muddy.

On April 2, thirty-two hours of steaming time above the Santa Maria, we entered the river Aguarico (rich water) which enters the Napo from the east. This river rises in the Cordilleras of Pimampiro and flows directly south nearly 300 miles. In the rainy season it furnishes a vast amount of water to the Napo. It is 400 feet wide at the mouth, with eight fathoms of water. This river, as well as its largest tributaries, the San Miguel, Azuela, and Cofanes–abounds in gold dust, specimens or rather ounces of which I saw in the possession of Señor de Sousa, whom I met in Iquitos and who lives in the Indian village of San Miguel on the Aguarico, thirty days in canoe above its mouth. To Señor de Sousa I am indebted for much information respecting this river. Not only does the Aguarico receive the three above-mentioned tributaries but numerous smaller streams, all of which he tells us are auriferous. The village of San Miguel is only inhabited by Indians of the Aguarico tribe. From San Miguel there is a path leading to the river Ica. About a half-mile inside the mouth we cleared a large space of the underbrush, and on one tree nailed a large board bearing our names and the date of the expedition. I left one of the World’s colored envelopes for the savages. The river Napo above the Aguarico bends to the north, and is at least a half a mile wide but shallow, and islands are not so numerous. At 8 p.m. we saw the campfires of the Indians, which were quickly extinguished on catching sight of the side lights of the steamer.

On Saturday, April 3, we espied a canoe moored near the mouth of a small creek. We anchored, lowered a boat, and, accompanied by the pilot, went in search of the owner of the canoe. Twenty yards up the creek we saw a rude shelter of palm leaves, and on our approach all the inhabitants fled into the woods; but the pilot, who up to this time had proved worthless, shouted in their language that we were friends. Two Indians, armed with long lances, soon made their appearance. They proved to be man and woman of the Santa Maria tribe. Both were dressed in short, sleeveless bark shirts reaching to the knees. The man accompanied us in his canoe to the steamer. He was terribly frightened. He said his tribe was encamped near the mouth of the Aguarico, and had watched the steamer from the woods. This was the first human being-though he looked more like a wild animal-that we had seen in thirteen days. He was below the average stature, with coarse long hair which reached below his waist. His face was round, with small obliquely set eyes, and his legs and arms were covered with white blotches. Through the pilot I obtained a list of words, and I am almost positive that the language spoken by the Santa Marias is the same as that of the Cotos, who inhabit the land near the mouth of the Napo.

Eleven hours above the mouth of the Aguarico we reached the river Yasuni, which enters from the west, with four fathoms of water at the mouth and a very strong current. On this river live the Shuripunos and Yasuni tribes of Indians. The former are said to have fishhooks made of gold. These tribes are but branches of the Zaparo nation, which occupies all the land on the western bank of the Napo, between this river and the Pastassa [Pastaza] . This afternoon we fell in with a canoe of Zaparo Indians, who told us that there were some 200 of their tribe camped in front of the Jupitini [Tiputini] , nine hours above the Yasuni. On April 4, we arrived at the mouth of the Jupitini, where on a long sandbar where the rude shelters of the Zaparos. On landing, we were met by the men and women; the children had fled into the woods. We were very much surprised at finding these Indians were a fine-looking, light-complexioned race of people. Many of the men have beards and were tall and muscular, with oval face, deeply set eyes and wearing a dull, restless expression. They showed no curiosity, but seemed anxious to trade with us. Some wore trousers, but the majority were dressed in long bark shirts. The women were smaller than the men and of a darker color. They evinced a good deal of curiosity (as might be expected) and wanted to handle everything they saw. They wore the usual strip of cloth and beads, and their fingers were covered with rings. Many also wore earrings, and all above ten years of age had a young Zaparo strapped to her back. I also saw many very old people. Their huts were of palm leaves, open on all sides. A thin strip of bark is used as a bed. The weapons are long lances and blow-guns with poisoned arrows. Here we bought animals and birds, hammocks and chambiri cord, all for a few beads, and our boat now is a floating menagerie. These Indians trade with the whites of the villages of Coca and Santa Rosa, a week’s journey above in a canoe, and frequently make long voyages to the salt mines on the river Huallaga, the round trip occupying some five months. The curaca, or chief, at Jupitini tells us that the river Jupintini is navigable for thirty days in a large canoe, and that gold is abundant. The Shuripunos Indians, he says, have fishhooks and instruments made of gold. This possibly may be an El Dorado story.

Twelve hours above Jupitini we arrived at a new settlement of the Zaparos, called Sinchi Cheita (strong party). Here the Indians had cleared about ten acres of land and had planted corn, cane, yucca, and bananas. The chief came on board accompanied by at least thirty persons. They were prepared to trade with us for poison. From this point northward, the Napo is about 300 yards wide and very shallow. On the 7th of April, we saw the high land of Panacocha Urcu, and were then only ten hours from the village of Coca, which is nearly 500 miles above the mouth of the Napo. Our steam pumps constantly filled up with sand, and at 2 p.m. we were hard aground with a sand bar forming around us. For five days we did not make ten miles. As fast as we got off one bar we got on another. I sounded the river near the outlet of the lake Yuturi, which is only half a mile above where we are aground, and found only three feet of water in the deepest part. Many of the crew have waded the river from bank to bank. We spent five days in trying to pass these bars, and by our watermark find the river to be falling.

We began our return voyage at 6 p.m. on the 13th, but did not reach Jupitini until the 15th, having grounded no less than ten times. After leaving Jupitini we steamed rapidly and, aided by a strong current, soon passed the mouths of the river Aguarico, Santa Maria, and Curaray Grande, and on the 19th reached Tuta Pisco, where we gave the boat a cleaning, and the men drank their fill of chichi. We also stopped at Mazán and Magua. Here the captain, through his carelessness, lost his diary overboard, and is now hard at work trying to copy from my numerous notes. If a future traveler should wish to see the Mairo‘s log-book, he will be shown but two pages of foolscap which reads: “Entered the Napo; cut 600 sticks of wood and grounded,” and will obtain no other information. On the 21st of April, we again caught sight of the Amazon, and our voyage on the Napo was over. We shall never forget the lonely river with its picturesque islands, its long sandbars and miles upon miles of magnificent forests. To Don Carlos Mourraille, of Iquitos, I am indebted for much kindness, and I here wish to express my obligation. –Ernest Morris

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