Up the Rio Negro (October 1880)

Number 9 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 February 1, 1881 edition of the New York World.

Tauapessasu [Taucapeçaçu], Rio Negro, Brazil, October 10, 1880.—About sixty miles above the mouth of the Rio Negro and on its western bank is a little village bearing the euphonious name of Tauapessasu. There is nothing in the appearance of the village, as seen from the steamer, which would warrant one to pitch his tent here, even for a season. Its single street is grass-grown and most of the houses have long since been abandoned and are now overrun with a mass of creepers and other vines. The village stands on a high point of land. To the west are pathless forests; to the east is the broad River Negro fringed with white sandy beaches and dotted with islands, the habitat or those beautiful orchids, Cattleya superba and C. el dorado. Tauapessasu, which signifies “new village,” is one of the oldest settlements on the river. Some twenty-five years ago the village had a population of 600, and was famous for its coffee, indigo and tobacco; but since the outbreak of the India-rubber fever, if I may so call the working of rubber, the little plantations have all been abandoned and the remaining inhabitants, some hundred and fifty, gain a scanty living by cutting wood for a monthly steamer or cultivating small fields of mandioca.

I arrived at Tauapessasu in September, after a year’s hard work in the forests of eastern Peru. We were in search of some quiet place where we might rest, and the village just suited our whim. We liked the ruinous, vine-covered houses, the high, airy situation, and, above all, there were no insect pests or pests in the shape of painted Indians, howling dogs or inquisitive Peruvians. We were fortunate in obtaining the only good house in the village. It is surrounded by a large garden, full of orange and lime trees, and for it we pay the nominal sum of $3 a month. Once settled, however, our greatest difficulty was in obtaining a cook. We had numerous applicants for the place, but for various reasons they did not suit. Early one morning we received a visit from a woman, accompanied by her five children, in search of the situation. She took special pains not only to enumerate the names and ages of the children, but also the names and occupations of their respective fathers. We admired her candor and engaged her instantly.

For a few days everything went smoothly. Punctually on opening the door in the morning we would find coffee ready, our lunch put up for our day’s ramble in the forest and the cook ready to take orders for the day. We congratulated ourselves that we had secured such a splendid cook. Imagine our discomfort then on returning one day from a short ramble in the forest to find that cook seated in our hammock surrounded by her progeny, intently searching their heads and parting their hair with our table knives. I passed a year with the Mundurucus of the Upper Tapajos, visited many of the Indian tribes or the Amazon valley and witnessed the preparation of vile Peruvian chicha, but have never yet seen a more disgusting practice than the “lice-eating” of the so-called civilized Indians of the Amazon. I do my own cooking now and will dispense with female cooks in the future.

Since July we have been suffering severely from fever, but on our arrival at this village we gave up taking quinine and took to oranges. The fever has left us and we firmly believe that oranges, if indulged in at the proper time, are the best of medicines.

On the 11th of October the steamer Areman put in her appearance. She belongs to the regular Amazonian line and makes monthly trips to St. Isabel, some 460 miles above Manaos, or the mouth of the Rio Negro. We were anxiously awaiting the steamer, as life in this little village, though pleasant, was far too quiet for us. We had overhauled our worn outfit, packed our valise and resolved to make a trip to the Brazilian frontier, some twenty-five days’ journey in canoe from the head of steamer navigation, depending on the Indians and India-rubber gatherers for a passage in their canoes over the rapids. The steamer did not leave Tauapessasu until late in the day and we shrewdly suspected that the delay was caused by the owners of the wood, who wished to be asked to dine on board.

Life on board these steamers is somewhat monotonous. We left the sleepy little village of Tauapessasu just as the sun had touched the tops of the distant forest. We swung our hammocks well aft, where we could watch the setting sun and study our fellow-passengers, who were petty traders and India-rubber gatherers, with their families, returning to their homes far up the river. There were tall, cadaverous Spaniards on their way to Venezuela, many Portuguese with unkempt beards and the look and air of banditti, swarthy Brazilians, neatly dressed, with the perpetual cigarette between their teeth, and last, some of the prettiest Indian girls I have seen since leaving Peru, the wives of our fellow-passengers.

Sixteen hours above Tauapessasu we arrived at Moura, sometimes called Pedraira, a collection of ruined palm houses. Anchored in front of the village was a small steam launch which had been sent from Manaos, with some ten soldiers, to protect the inhabitants in case of an attack by the Waimiris Indians, the most warlike tribe north of the Amazon. This tribe inhabits the eastern bank of the river, and incursions are often made to the far western bank. Twice in the last year they have attacked this village. Many Jesuit missionaries have gone among them but the tribe have resisted all attempts at civilization. The Rio Negro opposite Moura is fully three miles wide and full of heavily wooded islands, and many a canoe while coasting along the shore has been surprised by these Indians and the crew robbed and murdered.

We remained at the village only an hour, which is a short delay for an Amazon steamer. Then we crossed the river and in an hour passed the mouth of the River Branco, the Rio Negro’s largest affluent, a dark muddy stream which rises in British Guiana and flowing southwest through a low region enters the Rio Negro by two mouths. Herds of wild cattle roam over the vast prairies, which are inhabited by many tribes of semi-civilized Indians. The frontier post is some twenty days by canoe from Moura.

The next stopping-place is Carvoeiro, another tumble-down village, whose only conspicuous feature was a large wood-pile. On anchoring the steamer was overrun with all the male population of the village, for a steamer today excites as much curiosity among the Indians as when first introduced, and the height of their ambition is to serve as a fogista (fireman). After a delay of some four hours we left Carvoeiro. The river runs northwest and is some four miles wide, with great islands of tucuma (Astrocaryum tucuma) and morete (Mauritia flexosa) palms. The water of this river is not Negro (black), but of a straw color, and when seen in a glass is as clear as crystal. The land through which these clear-water rivers flow, such as the Tapajos, the Negro, the Japara and the Napo, is generally high, rolling and rocky, and all the islands are subject to overflow. Chills and fevers of the worst type are prevalent, an the country bordering on the River Negro, though abounding in rubber and other natural products, is one of the most unhealthy. To this the almost deserted villages and the pale, sallow complexion of the inhabitants bear witness. I have often thought that these terrible fevers are due more to the manner of living than to the climate. Their houses are generally open palm structures, and the people subsist chiefly on palm fruits, which is a most indigestible diet, and when sick will take no medicine. Agriculture is almost unknown on the Amazon, and the curse of northern Brazil is the working of rubber. All articles of food are brought from Para or Manaos and retailed at enormous profit.

Some sixteen hours after leaving Carvoeiro we arrived at Barcelos, the largest village on the river, with a population of about four hundred. We were ten hours in discharging two tons of freight. On going ashore we were met by a Senor Soliacio, a merchant and an old fellow-traveler, who kindly invited me to his house, one of the best in the village, and did all in his power to persuade me to abandon our proposed trip to the rapids. As he failed to persuade me, he gave me letters to traders near the falls and wished us a boa viagem. Barcelos is the ant paradise. They swarm by myriads in the streets and in the houses, and nothing can be planted in or near Barcelos. Barcelos exports rubber of a superior quality, piassava, a palm cord, dyes, gums and hammocks.

We left Barcelos at sunrise, and during the day passed many little huts of the India-rubber gatherers and their little canoes moored in front of their dwellings. The river is falling but slowly and the islands, which contain more rubber than the high land, are yet under water. Ten hours after leaving Barcelos we arrived at Thomar, an irregular collection of palm houses situated on a high bank and the last village on the river though above the falls there are several little Indian settlements. We immediately went on shore and presented our letters of recommendation, which are of more value to a traveler in Brazil than bank notes. The port was full of canoes, and to our great joy we found a large canoe, whose owner, Germano Garrido y Otero, we were told would leave on the following day for Sao Felippe, only two days journey in canoe from the frontier. All that remained then was to see the owner and obtain passage.

Dressed in our best I again went on shore and had no sooner landed than a crowd of little naked rascals of both sexes set up a cry. “Oh, look at the priest! See that coat1” they yelled in chorus. I was very proud of that coat once, but it is now somewhat the worse for wear and exposure to tropical suns and rains. The noise and shouts of the children brought to the windows all the female population, and I was very much surprised that such a tumble-down village could contain so many bright faces. I soon found the owner of the canoe, a young Spaniard, who kindly invited me to make the trip with him, assuring me that I should find many rare orchids above the falls. The following day we stowed our cargo, bid good-by to the Captain and left on our long and dangerous journey to the upper river. –Ernest Morris

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