The Rio Negro Country (February 1881)

Number 13 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 April 12, 1881 edition of the New York World.

Tauapassua [Taucapeçaçu], Rio Negro, Brazil, February 27, 1881.–February in this little settlement of Tauapassua has been a month or feasting and drunken revelry. Every other day was a saint’s day, and Indians from all parts or the surrounding country moored their curious canoes near the white sandy beaches and swung their hammocks in the old palm houses, which had been untenanted save by bats and lizards for more than eight months. The numerous vines and creepers which had overrun these old houses were ruthlessly torn away and even the grass-grown street was thoroughly cleaned, so that now it is difficult to recognize the little settlement where over six months ago we pitched our tent. Since descending the rapids of the Negro I have made no excursions to the neighboring forests, having been troubled with a severe attack of jaundice, but this “festa” decided us. We could stand the noise, but when it came to forcibly ejecting drunken Indians from my house, or receiving visits from all the women, who left as a reminder numerous cigarette stumps scattered over the floor and tables, my perhaps unusually large stock of patience was exhausted.

I resolved to leave the settlement for the eastern bank—but how and where was I to obtain men to paddle my canoe? I have long since learned that it is two different things to plan a journey and to execute it. At all times it is difficult to obtain men, but during feast-days it is almost impossible. After four days spent in trying to obtain Indians, I left the village accompanied only by a boy. Our outfit consisted of a gun and, this time, a plentiful supply of ammunition and provisions, as well as medicine in the shape of bone-set and Epson salts, of which compound my boy and I took small doses daily as recommended by a learned doctor of Manaos.

The rainy season is now upon us, and it is a very disagreeable as well as dangerous season of the year to make an excursion in the forests, or even to travel in a canoe on the broad river, the heavy rains being accompanied by violent wind storms. The Rio Negro from far above Tauapassua to its mouth resembles a vast lake more than a river, and were it not for the large islands which obstruct the channel and break the force of the winds, no canoe could navigate with safety the lower Negro. The lower river has but little current and for two months of the year all its islands are flooded. The annual rise at Tauapassua is thirty feet.

This settlement is situated on the western bank. The high laud extends southward, or toward the mouth of the river, for a distance of about thirty miles, when vagia, or low lands, occur. In these low lands near the mouth are many lakes which at high water are connected by narrow and shallow creeks both with the Negro and the Amazon. Professor Orton speaks of a channel (Rio Guariba) connecting the Amazon with the Rio Negro some sixty miles above the mouth of the latter, which discharges the muddy waters of the Amazon into the Negro. I have failed to find this channel and am inclined to believe that the professor meant the Furo or outlet of the Lago de Lemouns, which is connected by smaller lakes with the large igarape (creek) of Manacapani [Manacapuru]. This creek enters the Amazon near a settlement of the same name, some seventy miles from Manaos. During high water this large igarape overflows its banks and in March one may see its muddy waters mingling with the clear water of the lakes. I am well acquainted with the low lands and lakes which are on the western bank of the Negro, between the tributary and the Amazon, having in 1878 made a large collection of orchids in the low forests.

The opposite or eastern bank of the Negro, which I propose to visit, is high, rocky land covered with dense forests. In the forest near Tauapassua I have found no orchids, though the low islands are the habitat of Cattleya superba, many Oncideums, Galeandras, Maxillaria and Epidendrums. That prince of Cattleyas, C. El Dorado, is a inhabitant of high forests. I wish to correct a statement made in a former letter to THE WORLD that this orchid was a native of the low lands, having mistaken a Schomburgkia for the Cattleya—a mistake which I wish to correct.

On leaving the settlement we coasted along the bank for about a quarter of a mile, when I crossed the channel to a large island. The crossing was somewhat dangerous, as the canoe was small and the water rather rough, so that long before the island was reached I realized that my state of my health made it imprudent to undertake this trip, being forced by weakness to drop my paddle and rest at short intervals. The noise of the big drum and firing of guns, however, warned me not to return if I did not wish to repeat my experience of the past week. On reaching the island I administered a couple of vigorous shakes to my surly Indian, which proved doubly beneficial, as it aroused him and made me feet better. I then cut and fixed a mast, rigged a sail and continued on my voyage.

In some respects these islands ot the Negro remind me of those of the Napo, though the great variety of palms and tall bamboos so common to the latter river are hardly to be seen on the lower Negro. Many valuable woods are found growing on these islands, the soil is very rich and for eight months of the year it could be cultivated, although I do not remember having seen a single field on the islands. On the low islands of the lower Amazon many fields of corn, cane and even tobacco are to be met with. In agricultural products, fertile soil and genial climate no part or the Amazon valley surpasses that of the lower Negro; yet its inhabitants are lazy and shiftless. I am told that the valley of the Negro once exported coffee of a superior quality, indigo and tobacco. To-day all these products, even farina, made from the mandioca root, which is the common bread of the country, is brought from Para or Manaos. The trade in India-rubber, sarsaparilla and piasava (a palm fiber) along the banks of the River Negro, is said to be increasing. If so, this Increase, as on the Amazon, is not due so much to native as to foreign industry, principally that of the Portuguese, who are hardworking, energetic, and the very back-bone, if I may so speak, of the Amazon valley, although they are the most unwelcome of all immigrants.

We have received many letters from friends both in the East and West regarding the commercial and agricultural prospects of the Amazon, and many express a desire to emigrate to this country. If they take my advice they will not come to the Amazon. In fact, I would rather farm an acre in the White or Wabash bottoms of Indiana, and have the chills and fever four months in the year, than own ten square miles on the Amazon. No doubt that there is a glorious future for the Amazon country, but its agricultural and commercial advantages have been greatly exaggerated, although it is a perfect paradise for a naturalist.

Steamers heavily subsidized have navigated the Amazon and its tributaries for many years, and they have done wonders for Brazil in opening to commerce many rich and hitherto unknown tributaries on that mighty stream. Para, at the mouth of the Amazon, and Manaos on the Negro, particularly, have been largely benefited by steam navigation. Breves, on the great island of Marajo; Porto de Moz, at the mouth of the river Xingu, and Santarem (whose situation is unsurpassed), at the mouth of the Tapajos, have shown no growth or improvement (if we except marble tombstones and a billiard-table) for the last fifty years.

Late in the afternoon I arrived at a palm hut on the eastern bank. The inhabitants were wretched-looking people; even the children were pale and sickly, the effect probably of eating clay. They, however, bade us welcome and swung our hammock in a low shed which was full of old earthen jars, pots and pans. Many of these vessels are most curiously made, and one in particular, a small basin, attracted my attention by its fancy coloring and I bought it for a pound of rice. Coarse pottery is made by the inhabitants throughout the valley of the Amazon, but it is only at Breves that fancy painted ware may be found.

I had brought with me from my collection of orchids in Tauapassua several plants of Cattleya El Dorado, which I showed to the Indians, who told me that I could load my canoe with them by making a trip to a large igarape some miles below the house. After considerable talking (in which the women, of course, took as usual a prominent part) it was finally arranged that the old Indian who inhabited the hut and his son should accompany me, for a consideration, in a search for the plants. A miserable night did I pass in that hut, sleep bring rendered impossible by fleas and the hungry children, who yelled all night. Long before morning I aroused the Indians and left the house, my boy taking my place at the helm, while I took a needed siesta on the hard boards of the canoe.

At sunrise we had entered the igarape. In many places the banks were composed of terrigenous sandstone, and on the bare rocks grew many beautiful ferns, some with delicate fronds four feet long. The forest trees were tall and the air gloomy and silent. But the only palms I saw were the thorny astrocaryums. About five miles up the igarape I saw the first Cattleya El Dorado. Here we landed and, after a meal of rice and salt meat, securely tied the canoe and taking a gun and axes entered the forest, which was so dark that it was with difficulty we could distinguish the plants growing in the highest forks of the trees. Often we spent half an hour in felling a tree only to find that the supposed Cattleya was but a common epidendrum. Cattleya El Dorado is found only on the Negro, but C. superba has an immense range, being found not only throughout the whole Rio Negro region but up the Amazon as far as Teffe and at the mouth of the Japara. There are several varieties of C. El Dorado. The most beautiful has sepals and petals of a clear rose, with lips of a most beautiful crimson and throat of deep orange. The flowers are large and delicately fragrant and bloom in January or February. Among other orchids collected (and the first that I have seen) was a tall growing epidendrum (?) which produces its
flowers from the top of the stem.

On the following day I obtained one of the species in bloom. The flowers, some twelve in number, were of medium size and of a deep red, and every plant I found growing in an ants nest. Of this orchid we obtained but six specimens. Late in the afternoon I returned to the canoe with some twenty plants, and we built a shelter near by with palm leaves. It was well we took this precaution, for it rained all night. We were camped on the high land, but had we a larger canoe I would have anchored in the stream and slept on board, for we had no camp fire and jaguars were numerous in the neighborhood.

Often the old Indian would exclaim, “Listen, patron!,” when we would hear a strange, far-off noise. In these vast forests are many nocturnal animals and birds unknown. I have long since ceased to be startled by the familiar cries of the tiger or the bowling Guariba monkeys, but when I near the “unaccountable noises” so common to these forests I am half-inclined to believe with the Indians in their supposed caipora, or wood demon. To me there is a charm about this. In the day you are startled at the sound of dropping fruit or pause and cock your gun at a noise made by a harmless lizard, but it is only at night when in these forests that one feels with all its force the magnitude of nature.

The following morning was gloomy and damp, and although I felt very unwell we pushed further into the interior. As we advanced I was surprised to find the land lower and numerous small streams flowing from the south. I have no doubt that this large igarape is connected with a tributary of the Negro known as the Rio Cuieiras. On coming opposite a low tree covered with bromelias and large tillandsias the Indians ran the canoe ashore and one of their number proceeded to climb the tree. “Those are not orchids,” said I. “No matter, patron,” replied the Indian, “we want iscal (bait).” Wondering at this, I watched the boy as hand over hand, with knife held between his teeth, he passed from limb to limb. Soon a large tillandsia, several feet square, fell to the ground. “Where is your bait?” said I. “Look,” said the Indian, who was cutting the leaves close at the base, where I saw between the leaves a mass of worms resembling our common ground-worm. How they got there puzzled me. The Indian said they climbed the tree, but this I doubt. At all events, there was bait. What a blessing it would be considered by the American small-boy if instead of digging up flower-beds or turning over old boards, thus losing much valuable time, he could fill his can of bait by climbing a tree. I have caught fish with the fruit of the tucuma (Astrocaryum tucuma), but this was the first time I ever found actual live bait in the trees. This tillandsia is called carawata by the Indians and is very common in low forests.

I spent several days on and near this igarape, and after obtaining many good plants I returned to the nut on the river. I then bade good by to the Indians and on the following day arrived at Tauapassua. Besides the orchids I brought with me numerous twigs and branches which were covered with cauchy (a sediment deposited by the water, and very common in low forests), which has poisoned my hands and face. I propose to distribute among the orchid growers at home specimens of this cauchy. It should be found in every hothouse, and it would show the lover of orchids, did he but touch it, what a collector undergoes, and I venture to say no one would then grumble at the high price asked for orchids. I have seen several notices in the small paper of Manaos of a commission sent by Mr. Edison for the purpose of collecting the bark of trees and palm fibers, and the more intelligent inhabitants of the upper Amazon are looking forward to the time when Mr. Edison will have solved his problem, when they anticipate exporting to the States whole ship loads of bamboo, barks of trees and palm fibers at a large profit. –Ernest Morris

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