Traveling in Brazil (October 1881)

Number 15 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 column was printed on January 3, 1882. Morris’s long, nearly two-year fifth journey to the Amazon had ended in April, 1881. In August, 1881, he married his Indiana sweetheart and convinced her to honeymoon on the Amazon. The below represents the first column of this sixth journey; throughout these reports, to maintain privacy, he does not mention his new bride. Some of his remarks, however, appear pointed at Herbert Huntington Smith, who had just published an Amazon travel narrative.

Rio Amazon, Brazil, October 10 [1881]. — The Amazon and its tributaries have been often explored and described since Orellana, Pizarro’s adventurous lieutenant, made his famous voyage down the great river in 1541, yet it is in a great measure unknown. Who has not been astonished by the wonderful descriptions of the great rivers, the Indians who inhabit their banks and the wonderful aquatic plants whose leaves “will support a child twelve years old,” written by “steamboat travelers,” who do not omit to modestly add their opinions on the commercial or economical prospects of the valley? Did travelers but write from their own observations and not depend upon the plausible tales of the smooth-tongued Brazilians we would have an entirely different story of the valley of the Amazon, and it would be understood how much of the natural wealth of the country has been exaggerated beyond the warrant of facts, great as that wealth undoubtedly is.

One warm afternoon recently I found myself on the deck of a slow-going Amazonian steamer ascending the great estuary of the River Para and on the way to the upper Amazon. Many of the passengers, divested of coat and waistcoat, and with shirt unbuttoned as if to catch the faintest breeze, were dozing in their hammocks. I was not especially interested in the scenery, for we were too far from shore to see well the vegetation, which to me is a source of unfailing interest, so I walked to the captain’s room in the prow where were several Brazilians, one of whom was “taking notes” of the conversation, which was about the Amazon and its effluents. He afterwards informed me that he intended publishing his notes at Rio. I listened with much amusement to stories of the Indians, of gold found on the tributaries, and of the rich and accessible rubber forests. But, after all, one can hardly blame the Brazilians for their enthusiasm about the natural wealth of their country. Certain statements made on this occasion, however, seemed to me to call for a decided protest, and protest I did, only to experience how impossible it is to convince a Brazilian that he is wrong, and how foolish to lose one’s temper. Nine out of ten Brazilians will tell you that the Amazon is longer than the Mississippi with its tributaries, and all the talking in the world won’t convince them they are mistaken.

On leaving the estuary of the Para River we entered a narrow channel known as Rio das Breves and, late in the evening, anchored at the only village of any importance on the island of Marajo, an island which, according to alleged authorities, is twice the size of the state of Massachusetts. While the steamer was taking on wood I went ashore and walked through the narrow, grass-grown streets, which were silent and deserted. Breves, a wretched village of perhaps 500 inhabitants, is the center of the rubber industry of Marajo. On either side of the village is a low, swampy forest, a malaria-breeding district inhabited by the India-rubber gatherers, many of whom might be seen in the little shops buying amazing quantities of caxaca rum and quinine pills. A rubber-maker may generally be known by his pale, sallow complexion. A strange fact is that these poor fellows become so much attached to their peculiar life that they will not give it up for much more remunerative labor. This attachment of the natives to the wild, roving life of a rubber-maker, with the freedom from restraint which they enjoy while in the forests, causes the neglect of other branches of labor.

From Breves north and westward through the narrow channels which connect the two great rivers, the Para and Amazon, we were forty-eight hours steaming close to shore and very slowly. The forests which border these channels are subject to overflow half the year, and on this low, moist land is to be seen a vegetation unsurpassed in any other part of the Amazon Valley. The beauty of a tropical forest lies chiefly in its palms, and in the forests of the great river they are often wanting, but here on the delta we see palms of numerous and varied species growing by the thousands, often presenting a solid wall eighty feet high. Just imagine a narrow stream lined for miles with such noble trees as the great fan-leaf species (Miritis), with heavy bunches of dark fruit among their stiff crowns; low bushes overrun with a multitude of gay creepers, covered with white, purple or yellow blossoms, and in the shallows or growing by the water’s edge, broad-leafed acacias with large curious white flowers, and you will have a faint idea of the beauty of these channels. Westward the voyage is monotonous; you steam for miles through forest-covered islands–lonely, yet beautiful. Occasionally we stop to take on wood, when we go on shore and again see the pale, malarial faces of the inhabitants.

Passing out of the channel we emerged late in the afternoon into the broad Amazon itself. Notwithstanding a fresh breeze and somewhat heavy sea we crossed the river to a large island some six miles distant. While crossing we had a grand view of the river looking westward; the view was unbroken by any islands, and as far as the eye could reach was the broad river around us, and above us a horizon of fleecy clouds. We stopped but once on the Amazon before reaching Santarem, some five hundred miles from Para. Here the Amazon receives the dark blue water of the Tapajos, a river which recalled to my mind former journeys and adventures in the rapids and among the Indians. We anchored some two hundred yards from shore and the steamer was soon overrun with fruit-sellers, their trays laden with attas (Anona squamosa), a fruit which foreigners soon grow very fond of, and which only grows plentifully in the vicinity of Santarem.

Santarem is one of the oldest villages on the Amazon, being founded some two hundred years ago. To-day it is a quiet place of some twenty-five hundred inhabitants, occupying a situation unsurpassed; and possessing a good climate and fertile lands, one naturally would suppose Santarem would show some growth or improvement. But there is among the inhabitants no enterprise or thrift, if we except the few Americans who live near the village. The natives are content with simple existence.

We often hear of the wonderful future that awaits the Amazon, but a voyage up the river will convince a traveler that its future is far distant, and that the development of a country must depend upon its inhabitants as well as upon its natural wealth. When the Government encourages emigration and abolishes its heavy export duties it will be time enough to talk of improvement on the Amazon. Leaving the Tapajos, we steamed westward along a low shore, where are many little houses of the cacao or chocolate-growers.

Rounding island after island and repeatedly crossing the river, we reached Obidos, the center of the cacao trade on the Amazon, which numbers some eight hundred inhabitants. At one of these plantations, some distance above Obidos, we anchored, and here we had a long ramble under the dense shade of the cacao-tree. This tree rarely exceeds fifteen feet in height; its leaves are oblong, tapering to a point. The flowers are very small, fragrant, and grow in clusters on the trunk and larger branches. The fruit, when ripe, is of a golden yellow, with a hard shell which encloses some fifty seeds embedded in a semi-acid pulp. It is from the seeds that the cacao of commerce is prepared. The pulp is made into a delicious drink known as the “wine of cacao,” and the shell is used ni making soap. The tree produces fruit in three years and continues to bear for as long as seventy years.

With the usual hospitality of the country, as we went from house to house, many little presents, such as fruit, and paroquettes, were forced upon me, and one old woman insisted that we should accept a large land tortoise as a pet. Around these mud-houses, which were clean and neat without and within, were growing many beautiful flowers, and often the air was redolent with the perfume of the cape jasmine. Unlike the inhabitants of the delta and swamps of the lower river, none of these people were unhealthy-looking, and all were neatly dressed and looked cheerful and contented. This part of the Amazon, from Santarem westward a distance of 300 miles—is the most healthy and prosperous region of the Valley of the Amazon. Chills and fevers, so common to the the lower river and tributaries, are unknown.

We returned to the steamer accompanied by two boys, who carried our presents of fruit in two large baskets. We also found growing in the calabash trees that beautiful little orchid, Ionopsis panculata, which is found only in the calabash trees of the Middle Amazon. From Obidos to Manaos, the capital of the upper provinces, is 400 miles, and Villa Bella, now called the city of Parintins, and Serpa, are the only two villages in this long reach; true, there are several little settlements on the side channels, but we did not stop at any of them. Keeping on our way for three days up the broad river until we sighted the high rolling land which borders the Rio Negro, once more we entered the dark waters of the tributary, and after one hour’s steaming we saw the lights of Manaos. The festa of Remedies was in progress and the air was ablaze with fire-rockets, while the noise of bells mingled with the discordant music of an alleged brass-band, telling us that the festa was at its height and consequently that there was no hope of our going ashore that night. In vain did we sound the whistle; but we received no visit from the Chief of Police, who would not leave the fun to answer the summons of our whistle, and without his visit we could not disembark. So we swung our hammocks and retired to rest. –Ernest Morris

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