Canoeing on the Rio Negro (October 1880)

Number 10 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 8, 1881 edition of the New York World.

Upper Rio Negro, Brazil, October 19 [1880] –On Saturday, October 16, three days after leaving Thomar [Tomar], I arrived at Codetro, a small settlement of but three houses, situated on the western bank of the Rio Negro, 460 miles above its mouth and at the head of steamer navigation. On leaving Thomar I assisted the owner of the canoe by which I was to travel to stow his cargo. There were many boxes of American soap, perfumery, cutlery, kerosene and large bundles of cotton goods. I suppose two-thirds of his cargo consisted of goods of American manufacture, which are fast superseding those of the English.

Our canoe was large and stoutly built and manned by a crew of ten Indians. Above the toldy or palm-cabin was a wide platform on which the Indians stood while working their long paddles. Below this platform and well aft was stowed ten large coils of rope made of the fibers of the piasava palm to be used in ascending the rapids. The canoe was very heavily loaded and even the cabin was full of merchandise. So we were to travel thirty days perched on the toldy exposed to the sun and rain.

At 4 p.m. the cargo was all on board and several or the crew were lustily blowing cow-horns to “call up the wind “(para chamar vento). The pilot, who is also captain, is an old Indian, distinguished from the rest by a large straw hat painted in many colors and very dirty clothes. The rest of the crew were tall, good-looking Indians, who worked bare-headed and shirtless and promptly obeyed all orders of the pilot. A breeze answering the call of the cow-horns sprung up, we set the large square sail and moved slowly across the river. It was long after dark when we reached the white sandy beach on the western bank, where we found a camp of twenty India-rubber gatherers with their families on their way to the rubber forests near Thomar. The night was a glorious one, the air was soft and balmy, and there were no insect pests. Camping out on the black-watered river where we swung our hammocks that night is in marked contrast with camping on the Amazon, where sleep is rendered impossible by the swarms of mosquitos.

We were aroused in the early maaruguda [?]—that is between midnight and dawn–by the shouting of the pilot and the blowing of the cow-horns. In Brazil an early start is necessary, for during the hot part of the day we do not travel, but idly pass the hours in the shade of the forest. Faint flashes of light were seen in the eastern horizon before we were well under way, and soon the short twilight melted into dawn and the sun arose round and red over the low islands. The woods along the bank were alive with toucans and parrots. I took my gun, embarked in a small canoe which serves as a tender and paddled to the shore, where in less than ten minutes I killed enough toucans for our breakfast. The flesh of the toucan—a bird with wonderful beak and beautiful plumage, is very good eating. At 9 a.m. a strong breeze sprang up and we again set sail and moved swiftly up the river, which was full of rocky islands and bars. At 3 p.m. we heard the noise of the cachoeira or rapids of Saint Isabel, and rounding a small island we came in sight of the first of a long series of rapids of the Rio Negro. This rapid is not considered dangerous, yet great masses of rocks and low islands obstruct the channel and cause a swift current. We passed it under sail, without unloading or using ropes or paddles. The most dangerous rapids we will not reach in less than twelve days.

About two miles above this rapid is Saint Isabel Nova–the new village–consisting of three houses and a rude little church, where lie buried many or the principal inhabitants and merchants of the upper river. Only one of the three houses was occupied, and several or the Indians were suffering from fever. We again slept in our hammocks under the trees, and towards morning we were drenched by a passing shower.

After two tablespoonfuls of coffee we resumed our voyage Espando. This mode of traveling is very slow. A rope some two hundred yards long is carried forward in the small canoe, made fast to a tree on the bank and the crew slowly pulls the canoe up stream. At 6 a.m. we reached the hut of an India-rubber gatherer, and as there was no sign of a breeze, I took our little canoe and went on shore. The hut was open on all sides. Two cord hammocks and a few earthen pots were the only furniture, and starved dogs and children the only occupants. The owner was in the forest, but he soon returned with a large pan of the white milk of the Seringa, or rubber tree. He laughed when I expressed a desire to see the trees and the mode of tapping, but kindly accompanied me to the forest. He was working, he told me, with his wife, 125 trees, which yielded six pounds a day, an amount far below the average yield of the same number of trees on the river Tapajos.

The rubber tree, or Seringueira, of the Negro grows on lowlands and is much smaller than those of the southern effluents of the Amazon or Siphonia brasiliensis, and is only distinguished from the rest or the trees of the forest by its glossy green leaf. In September (May on the Tapajos) the seringueiro, or India-rubber gatherer, enters the forest, cuts his picados, or paths, from tree to tree and prepares to tap them. In Peru the inhabitants and Yaguas Indians, to obtain a very inferior quality of rubber, cut down the tree. The rubber gatherers of Brazil would no more think of cutting or destroying a rubber tree than an American farmer would think of cutting down his maples. After the seringueiro has cleared his paths he proceeds to form a trough by coiling around each tree thin strips of pith taken from the miriti palm (Mauritia flexosa). Below the trough he places a little earthen pot, in which to catch the milk. Next, the tree is carefully tapped, and the white sap drops slowly in the trough and from the trough into the cup. From each tree the Indian gathers from two to to four tablespoonfuls of milk. It is sweet to the taste and resembles cow’s milk, and the children who had followed us rubbed each other’s nose with it and tasted more than I thought good for them.

I also saw the Macaranduba [Maçaranduba], or the “cow tree” of travelers, but of travelers only. I have read in almost every book of Amazon travel of this wonderful cow tree. It yields, we are told, a sweet and palatable milk, which is used by the Indians in their coffee, and when several hours old turns into a delicious cream. Many other stories are told of this tree and of the climate of the Amazon Valley that Munchhausen himself might have fathered.

The milk taken from the India-rubber tree next undergoes the process of smoking. On several effluents of the Amazon this is done only with the nuts of the Anaja palms, but on the Negro any hard wood is used. The milk is exposed to the smoke on a thin paddle until it hardens. This process is repeated until five or six pounds are collected, when the rubber is cut, the paddle withdrawn and the rubber allowed to dry. This is known as seringa fina, or fine rubber, and is worth 25$000 milreis, or $12.50 per arroba of thirty-two pounds. The merchant who buys rubber gives merchandise for it, and as he sells all articles at exorbitant prices an arroba does not really cost him $5. The rubber which adheres to the trees, troughs, and cups is sold at about one-half the cost of fine rubber. The rubber I have seen on the Rio Negro seems to be of a better quality than that of the Amazon, but this may be due to the manner in which it is hardened or smoked.

After watching the smoking process for a long time I gave the owner a piece of tobacco and a word of advice as to selling his rubber, and bade him adieu, add after four hours’ hard paddling caught up with the large canoe in time for my breakfast of salt fish and farina. At noon we passed the mouth of a tributary stream called Marauija [Rio Marauiá] which enters from the east. Its waters are muddy and for a long distance colored the clear waters of the Negro. The old pilot, to whom I had presented a bar of soap, and with whom I am most friendly, told me that rubber, sarsaparilla and copaiba abound in the forests of this river, but that they are not worked because of the unhealthy climate. The Negro, opposite the mouth of the Marauija, is fully a mile wide and far in the distance rise high blue hills with ragged summits. The day was terribly hot, but at 4 p.m. a faint breeze sprang up to my great relief and we again set sail, the crew meanwhile nearly deafening us by blowing on the horns. Several of these instruments of torture I have dropped unseen into the river and I hope to rid the canoe of them before many days at the expense of wind. We camped at 6 p.m., but did not swing our hammocks on shore as the place was alive with ants; so after another thimbleful of coffee (how I did long for a cup–an American cup–of coffee) and smoking nearly a dozen cigarettes I wrapped myself up in an old blanket and threw myself down on a hard platform in company with all the crew, not to sleep, but to wait until morning.

We got under way again at 4 a.m. and after a plunge in the cool water I again left the large canoe and taking gun and knife paddled up the river. I like this mode of traveling; it gives me
a good opportunity to enter the forest and make my collection of orchids. Occasionally entering the forest, which are rich in palms and other curious plants and flowers, I saw the trunks of trees covered with a thick, green moss, in which were growing many plants, neither orchids nor parasites, deriving their nourishment from the never-failing moisture. There was a wonderful variety of delicate ferns and lycopodiums, and I saw some orchids in bloom, but they were far over head and out of reach. Vegetation was most profuse, but I saw no butterflies and heard no sound of bird or insect.

Aided by a light breeze, by noon we were opposite the high hill of Jacomin, on the western bank, about two miles from the water’s edge. This hill can not be less than 700 feet high, and its steep sides, clothed with dark forests, present a pleasing appearance. All the afternoon we have been sailing slowly along the right hand or eastern bank. Tomorrow we hope to reach a little settlement known as Castanheiro, where I shall post my letters to THE WORLD. At sunset I drank a bowl of [illegible], a thickened soup made out of almost anything, and sat down by the light of the camp fire to finish this letter. –Ernest Morris

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