Ascending the Rio Negro (October 1880)

Number 11 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 15, 1881 edition of the New York World.

Saint Jose Alto Rio Negro, Brazil, October 21, 1880–On the eastern bank of the Rio Negro, some five days’ journey in canoe from the rapid of St. Isabel, is the old settlement of Castanheiro. There are but ten houses in the village, and on our arrival October 21 but one was occupied; the rest of the inhabitants were rubber-making in the forest to the south. The site of this little settlement is a most beautiful one, commanding an extensive view for miles both up and down the broad river; tall coconut, featherly assai and pupuna palms grow in groups in the clearing, and cattle graze in front of the ruined dwellings.

We found the sole occupant, Senhor Paulo, a very sociable and well-informed old Indian, who told us many pleasing anecdotes of Spruce and Wallace who traveled on this river many years ago. We spent but a few hours in this village, but long enough to collect several beautiful orchids with snowy white flowers. Near the settlement enters the River Abuara [Igarape Abuara] whose banks are uninhabited, and Senhor Paulo as well as several of our crew tell strange stories of the Aueaulo [Aüeauló], who is a woman with long black hair, armed with blow-gun and arrows and who wanders the banks of this river, and until the Aueaulo is seen on some other river the exceedingly rich forests of rubber and sarsaparilla will remain untouched.

The Negro above Castanheiro is over a mile wide and with rapid current. All day we have been working hard; often we would ground on some low rock when we all would take to the water, which is cold, and by much pushing and pushing again get the heavy canoe afloat. Our frequent baths have brought on a severe attack of fever and many of our crew are unwell. Camped at sunset in front of a small island called Gaviao Hawk. These Indians have a name for every bend, rock and island in the river, and we forgot that we had a fever on beholding two trees which stood near our hammock, loaded with that most beautiful orchid, Cattleya superba, in full bloom. We were surprised to find this orchid, whose habitat is in the dark low forests near the mouth of the river, growing on trees in the high rocky soil. Many have had a better bed, but few, if any, slept in such a bedroom as we, under trees loaded with fragrant flowers. What if we were unwell, tired and hungry? Why,such a sight more than repaid all the discomforts of the voyage. Your readers may think I am enthusiastic. I am in our work. Enthusiasm is our capital, and I am sure that, did our Albany orchid-growers see those trees as I saw them, the owner of our canoe would find use for his strongest ropes.

We called the attention of our companion to the plants, saying how much those orchids would be appreciated at home. “Hum!” said he, “go tell your friends to plant potatoes.” As if there was any comparison between an orchid and a potato! But our companion is not the only one who goes through the world with his eyes open seeing nothing. He can see no beauty in the plants or forests, but I know he would travel two days journey out of his way to make fifty cents or cheat an Indian out of an arroba of rubber.

October 22. We resumed our voyage at twilight, and early in the day passed with some difficulty the strong currents near Carmo, which formerly was a large settlement, but now pupuna palms, which are always planted, and low forest, alone mark the site. I have noticed that the numerous deserted villages which we have passed all have a high, rocky situation, which I know to be more unhealthy than those of the lower land, as the underlying rocks, often not more than a foot below the surface, prevent the heavy rain from soaking into the earth. Add to this a long rainy season, hot suns, and we have the cause of these terrible fevers and chills which have almost depopulated the Rio Negro.

At 10 a.m. the wind began to blow and we hoisted our large sails, and at noon passed the mouth of the river Cauabury [Rio Cauaburi], a muddy-water effluent. As we passed the mouth, pium, an insect whose bite draws blood, came on board by the millions, and in a short time fairly tattooed us. This river communicates with the Basimony, which is a tributary to the Casiquiare, by means of the rivers Maturaca and Baria. Our pilot has traveled on these rivers in search of gold, and tells me one can reach the Casiquiare, which is the connecting channel between the Negro and the Orinoco, in twenty days’ travel.

A rubber which is called Barrigoda (“big belly”) grows very plentifully on this river, but it is not worked, as the milk, when hard, has no elasticity. Looking to the eastward we see in the far distance the high hills–I should call them mountains–of Pirapueu. We camped at 5 p.m. on a large flat rock, about a quarter of a mile below the rapid of Macaraby [Massarabi], which my companion, hearing the roaring, said was bravo (wild). We slept on the flat rock, which was rather hard, but liked the warmth, and at 7 a.m. on the following morning entered the strong currents of the Macaraby . The river at this rapid is not a quarter of a mile wide, and rocky islands, on which were growing small trees,, obstructed the channel. Near the banks the water was white with foam, but a small canoe could pass without danger on the right-hand or eastern bank, where the water, though swift, is shallow; but we, who were heavily loaded and in a large canoe, must pass between the two currents and over the fornor (a pass), or what we would call a whirlpool. These fornors to me are the most dangerous part of a rapid. At intervals they are comparatively quiet, when all of a sudden the water is in a boil and no canoe can pass. We have good cause to dread these fornors, for we nearly lost our canoe in the fornor of Quata, Rio Tapajos, some few years ago.

We halted below this rapid, and prepared our long bark ropes. We took three pieces of capia (rope), each about twenty-five yards in length, and, carefully tying them together, sent the small canoe up the eastern bank to the head of the rapid, where one end was securely fastened. All things being in readiness we gave the signal for the Indians in the small canoe to bring the rope on board. They pushed off from the island and as quick as lightning shot down the river, yelling like demons, and in a few moments the other end of the long rope was on board. We now slowly moved out into the river, and inch by inch pulled the canoe up to the fornor, the owner calling on all saints to protect us.

The pilot was standing upright, firmly grasping the helm, and was the only cool fellow on board. In some twenty minutes we had reached the whirlpool, but we had no sooner entered the boiling waters when snap went the rope and in a moment the heavy canoe was tearing down the river. Quickly the crew jumped to the paddles, but the paddles aided us but little, and we, after narrowly missing some black rocks, brought up near the bank far down the river. After thanks had been given to all the unheard-of saints, and a glass of rum to the crew, we again prepared to ascend the rapid, this time using new and larger ropes. While preparing the ropes I asked the pilot what he thought of this rapid. “Why,” said he. “This is nothing; just wait until you see Saint Gabriel.” We thought we had come very near seeing the saint, but said nothing, and the pilot went on to explain what a dangerous rapid it was.

After five hours’ work we reached the head of the Quata rapid and I was much surprised, as well as amused, at the owner of the canoe ascribing all our ill-luck to my being a Protestant. Mr friend and the pilot are constantly calling on Saint Laurence to send us a breeze. If a breeze should blow he, the saint, is called the “golden beard;” if not, barba de Pisava–with a beard of palm fibers. The crew don’t talk much. I wish they did, for then they would not deafen us by blowing on bojenias, or cow-horns, their mode of charman-do vento, or calling a breeze. By actual count I have dropped overboard ten of these horns,but they seem to be as plentiful as ever.

At 5 p.m. we passed several little houses on the eastern bank and near groups of feathery bamboos, the first I had seen on the Negro. We camped at the head of this rapid; the rain fell in showers, soon drenching us to the skin, while our companion sat under a ten-dollar umbrella and smoked cigarettes. We did not care much for the wetting, but would have liked a cigarette.

October 24.–The sun arose in a dark mass of clouds; the scene was not inspiring, a broad river bordered with high forest, over which hung clouds of mist, and the air was damp and chilly. Early in the day we had a strong breeze and we laid aside the rope and paddles. The Negro above the rapid of Macaraby is free from islands, wide and shallow. At 11 a.m. we caught sight of the settlement of St. Jose [São José], but did not reach the village (which boasted of ten houses and a church) until 2 p.m. We remained long enough for the Indians to go on shore and fill their pockets with red peppers. About eight miles above St. Jose is a small rapid which we passed without difficulty. From the foot of this rapid we had an extensive view, both up and down the broad river, and far to the northward loom up the high, broken hills of Curicuriary [Curicuriari].

The forest on the western bank is inhabited by a wandering tribe of Indians, the Macona [Makuna]. The day has been very hot, and we believe the climate to be the hottest of Brazil. The nights are cool with heavy dews. We have been sailing slowly all day, passing near great forests of palms, many species new to us and peculiar to the Rio Negro. At 6 p.m. we camped in the forest, but did not rest well, as the air was alive with great bats, which, though harmless, flapped their wings in our faces; and the frogs were making a perfect racket.

Next morning we were aroused by the Indians saying yaurate piscuna, which we knew to be the only animal in the forests of which the Indians are afraid, namely, the black tiger, which is not uncommon on the Rio Negro. The animal passed near the camp, occasionally making that peculiar “grating sound” which, once heard, is never forgotten. On the following morning, after drinking a mixture of of hard farina and water, which resembles and tastes like sawdust, but which is “very filling,” we resumed our voyage.

In spite of fifteen grains of quinine my fever returned, and after paddling an hour and getting myself into a perspiration I felt better. At noon we pass the mouth of the river Marié, which enters from the west. This river is said to communicate with the Japura, a river which enters the Amazon some fifteen hundred miles above the mouth. The Marié is uninhabited and abounds in pissava palms, from which cords, brooms, and ropes are made. From the mouth of this river northward, the Negro narrows perceptibly, both banks being terra firma. We now pass numerous little houses prettily situated on the edge of the forests, many of which are surrounded with coconut palms, and it seemed strange to see this palm so far from the ocean.

Late in the afternoon we anchored in front of a neat house built of adobe and palm. The owner invited us to enter with Deos and prepared us a dinner of monkey meat, fish, and fowl. While sitting at the table we saw the rest of the family, among whom were several pretty Indian girls, regarding us intently, and hearing the word “naturalista” we stopped eating (for on one of our numerous voyages on the lower Amazon we had arrived late one night, tired and hungry, at an Indian hut. The owner received us with the accustomed hospitality and placed before us a small fish and a bowl of farina for our supper, which we quickly ate and went to our hammock, hungry; when we overheard the mistress of the house scolding her husband for letting “the blanco” eat all the provisions in the house, while the family went supperless to bed)–“but continuia,” said our host, and we did, soon finishing our repast.

On rising from the table the owner came forward and requested me to loan him my shirt, and it was several minutes before I could clearly understand why he wanted my shirt. Seeing that I was somewhat surprised he explained that his wife had admired my open back shirt and wished to cut a pattern. Of course I obliged her, so I off with it and a pattern was soon cut. Next I obliged her with a pattern of my sleeveless undershirt and stood ready for further favors. Spruce has discovered many rare plants on the Negro; Wallace, birds and insects. As yet we have discovered no new plant or insect, but we flatter ourself that we are not without credit for introducing a new style, namely, the open-back shirt, on the Upper Negro.

We remained several hours at this house, my companion talking rubber to our host while we conversed with the girls, who wanted to know why we collected orchids, and if they were used as medicine? The pilot blowing on a horn warned us that the crew had finished their “sheba,” so we said good-bye to the owner, blessed the little children, kissed the older girls, one of whom gave me a chicken, the other a bunch of bananas, and went on board. On the following day we arrived at Cajutine, a settlement of two houses on the western bank, where we rested the crew, examined the ropes and prepared to ascend the now most dangerous rapids of the Rio Negro, Ca-Mamanos [Camanaus] and Saint Gabriel [São Gabriel]. This delay has given me an opportunity to add to my collection many rare and beautiful orchids, and if my health permits will make a large collection this coming month near the frontier and on the Rio Isuana [Rio Içana]. Shall send letters to THE WORLD from Saint Gabriel. — Ernest Morris

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