Ernest Morris’s Travels (October 1880)

Number 12 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 22, 1881 edition of the New York World.

Ca-Manaos-Alto [Camanaús], Rio Negro, Brazil, October 26, 1880–After twelve days of travel from the head of steamer navigation I have reached the foot of the great rapid of Ca-manaos, one of the longest as well as the most dangerous rapid of the Rio Negro. We are now in camp on the eastern bank, in a grove of palms, where for several days we have been waiting the arrival of two canoes from Sao Fillippi with more men and ropes. The roar of the rapid has banished sleep for to-night, and I have prepared my plants, written up my journal for the day and begun my weekly letter to THE WORLD.

Over one of the camp-fires the crew are roasting with boisterous merriment a live alligator (Jacare tinga), about five feet long. When I asked why they did not kill the animal before roasting, the pilot, who is always the spokesman of the party, answered that it would spoil the meat. The white alligator is highly relished by both whites and Indians. It differs entirely from the Jacare Assu, or large alligator, rarely attaining five feet in length, and is distinguished from the larger species by its pointed nozzle, somewhat rounded tail, whiter color and its freedom from the acatinga (or smell). Though it is found throughout the whole course of the Amazon, it abounds more in clear-watered rivers and creeks. I have often found this alligator in streams of the high hills, miles away from any river or lake, and have frequently seen the skulls and bones in the forest. That it travels far and well on land there can be no doubt; and the Indians say that its eggs are deposited in the forests. The flesh resembles veal in appearance, but has a fishy taste. I left the crew to enjoy their feast.

At 4 o’clock on the following morning the camp was astir and each of the crew vied with the other in torturing the silence of the forest with hideous blasts on the bojenias, or cow-horns, which have been the most abominable nuisance of my voyage. Soon two long canoes made of cedar (Icica altisima) touched the bank. “Jani ouema” (good morning), shouted our men. “Indani,” (we wish you the same), answered the newcomers, Indians from the river Isauna [Río Içana], in the lingua geral, the original language of Brazil and spoken on the Rio Negro. While at Santarem [Santarém], on the lower Amazon, I met an old Indian, Marcial by name, who had given Professor Hart, than chief geologist of Brazil, many lessons in lingua geral, and who told me that on the Amazon some thirty years ago it was universally spoken; but the lingua geral is now rarely heard on the lower Amazon, except among the old inhabitants.

At 10 a m. we entered the rabo (or tail) at the foot of Ca-manaos, where it became necessary for us to cross the river, which is about a quarter of a mile wide. This we did by running ropes from island to island. Our crew now numbers twenty men and the pilot, in honor of this addition to his forces, appeared resplendent in a clean shirt, much to my surprise and the great admiration of all the crew. As he stands upright on the palm cabin, clad in a pair of tight-fitting drawers, clean shirt and broad-brimmed hat, I notice that his hand is not nearly as steady on the helm as when we passed the whirlpool of Macamby rapid. I strongly suspect that there is a black bottle in the canoe containing something stronger than agua Florida and that this is responsible for the clean shirt and the unsteady hand.

About noon we had reached the western bank, where the current, though running like a mill-race, was not dangerous. One long rope was tied to the bank far ahead of the canoe and two others were carried to a rocky island. I was left with an Indian on the rock to see that the rope did not chafe and the rest of the crew slowly pulled the canoe up stream. I was hatless and shirtless and I was compelled to stand for an hour under the broiling sun on that bare rock before the small canoe came for us and took us on board. At 4 p.m. a perfect hurrican broke upon us. The air was filled with leaves and branches and the booming of the thunder, heard above the roar of the rapids, completely demoralized the crew. One of the canoes which had been sent on ahead was split into pieces by a falling limb, but the Indians escaped unhurt.

At 6 p.m. we camped on the wet rocks, where we dined and supped on a package of cigarettes and went to sleep lulled by the noise of the waters. After the customary tablespoonful of coffee on the following morning I accompanied the owner of the canoe, with several Indians, in a small boat to the head of the rapid. At Ca-Manaos the river is half a mile wide, but is divided into several channels by low, black rocks, on which were growing curious little moss-like plants, with pink stems and sweet white flowers. On the higher rocks the dead moss gave to the rocks the appearance of being covered with frost. We slowly paddled up the bank, often taking to the cold water and pulling the canoe around some projecting rock. But we soon reached a high island in the river, from which we a beautiful view of the rapid and the high, blue hills of Curicuriary [Curicuriari].

After carefully examining the different channels we decided to unload and pass the canoe through the middle channel, carrying the cargo over the rocks. Again we returned to our small canoe, and instead of coasting the bank on our return the pilot put the canoe out into the foaming waters and we shot down the channel, winding in and out of the rocks with lightning speed, the Indians, as usual, yelling like demons. It was a short and dangerous run, and when we reached the large canoe our boat was half full of water. After a great deal of hard work and great risk we passed the canoe through the whirlpool, and leaving the crew to carry the cargo over the rocks, I went to visit the sub-delegato, or petty magistrate, whose little house is prettily situated at the head of the rapid. I found him to be a most pleasant old Indian and spent some six hours with him, drinking coffee every fifteen minutes and listening to his experiences among the Indians of the Uapes, a tributary of the Negro, and of the travels of Spruce and Wallace. We camp at the head of Ca-manaos.

October 30.–After passing Ca-manaos we came to the rapid of Tabocal (Bamboo). Here we nearly lost two of the crew, who through carelessness upset the canoe, and were carried far down the river before gaining the rocks. When they came on board they were laughed at and the whole matter was treated as a joke. Some two hundred yards above Tabocal is the rapid of Perna de Veado (Deersfoot), which we passed easily, but it is a dangerous rapid in high or very low water. Next we passed the strong currents of Page (Medicine Man), and camped early at the foot of Cujubim (a bird).

All day I have been in the woods, wandering along the banks of the river and looking for orchids, but have found only two good ones, though the trees in many places were covered with common epidendrums. I am surprised to find so great a variety of tillandsias and bromelias, as well as melastomas, and often with pink or whit blossoms. The woods were so silent and gloomy that I was glad to go on board again.

While in camp one of the crew caught a large stingray, which was quickly roasted over the fire. A question from my companion about New York oysters set me to thinking of home, and effectually spoiled my appetite for a supper of stingray.

October 31.–“Do you know it is Domingo (Sunday),” said I, as I rolled out of my hammock this morning and addressed myself to the owner of the canoe. “Deos a grande (the Lord is great),” he answered, “and knows I have twenty men to feed; so pilot, blow the horn.” The pilot blew a mighty blast and we went on board to hard work, but all day long my friend was silent, and I am now sure that henceforth I shall not be taunted for my Protestantism.

We passed the rapid of Cupinim with hard work and great risk, and at noon reached Fornor, a rapid which takes its name from a peculiar flat rock resembling a fornor “pan,” which at high water is one of the most dangerous on the Negro. Great rocks, some now thirty feet above the water, extend from the eastern bank far into the river, and are rent into great fissures, through which the water rushes, boiling and hissing with fearful velocity. After passing this rapid we had over a mile of comparatively still water and we traveled briskly with two ropes, and near dark passed the strong currents of Pica-Pao (Woodpecker) and camped for the night near Saint Gabriel, whose roar is far louder than that of Ca-manaos and is the most dangerous of the many rapids of the Negro.

Near our camp on the high bank were several little palm huts, and as the night was threatening I took my hammock and climbed up the rocky bank and soon reached the houses. In one of them I saw a light and heard low moaning. It is customary on approaching a house in that part of Brazil to shout “Da licenca” (am I welcome), but I quietly walked to the hut and, unobserved, looked in through an opening in the palm. The moaning came from a sick child who was being doctored to death by a page or medicine man. Between his teeth the page held the lighted end of a long bark cigarette, the smoke from which he blew up and down the arms and legs of the child. Page doctoring is not confined to the Negro but is practiced also on the Amazon and its tributaries, and no tribe among whom I have wandered is without this fraud.

A page of a Mundurucu village on the Tapajos ranks with the chief, and is always consulted by the Campineiros before they go “head hunting.” The more civilized Indians will not take the medicine of the branco (whites) until all hope is given up and all other remedies have failed. Children on the Negro are habitual “clay-eaters” and I believe that nearly 20 per cent die before reaching the age of ten. I did not swing my hammock at this hut, but returned to the camp-fire of the Indians, which lit up the woods around, and fell asleep listening to the “ha! ha! ha!” of a bird called jurutany. If any of your readers should ever visit these great rapids of the Negro let him ask his pilot to tell the story of the jurutany and the sapo (frog), and he will learn why the bird is always laughing and what a wise animal was the frog. To-morrow I hope to reach St. Gabriel, whence I will send letters to THE WORLD. –Ernest Morris.

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