A Day on the Amazon (December 1881)

Number 17 and last 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 March 30, 1882, while on his sixth journey. Morris made one more short trip to South America, to British Guiana, in 1883. However, collecting orchids was no longer profitable; and a change of ownership at The New York World spelled an end to their sponsorship of his journeys. Morris supported his family as a wholesale produce salesman for the next several years, but died of consumption in 1891 at age 34. Many suspected that his illness was aggravated by lingering effects of his rain-forest fevers.

Manacapuru, Brazil, December 21 [1881].—The river Patawa [Igarape do Pataua], so named from the abundance of Patawa palms (Oenocarpus batava) which line its banks, is one of the large streams which flow into Lake Manacapuru. Its mouth in some sixty yards wide, the waters black and the banks of high rolling land. The valley is uninhabited save by one small maloca of the Muras Indians. We entered the Patawa on a bright sunny morning which reminded us of the “verao” or dry season, as for weeks past we have been having rainy weather; to be soaking wet half the time seems to be our normal condition.

The sun seemed to have brought all the forest birds to the banks of the river. Rarely do we hear any musical notes in the woods. Parrots and paroquets fly by in flocks, and often we hear the harsh scream of the red macaws or see their bright plumage among the branches. Alligators are very plentiful, crossing and re-crossing the stream, and showing no fear of our canoe, diving only when we are within a few feet of them. The Indians bathe in these waters without fear, and I have not heard that they have ever been attacked — “too many fish,” they say.

After paddling on for several hours we left the canoe and entered the forest. Although the sun was shining but few rays found their way through the dense interlocked branches far overhead. The ground was damp, the low bushes wet and great was the contrast between the woods bordering the stream, so full of life, and these dense, silent, virgin forests. Hanging from or coiled around many of the tall trees I was surprised to see growing so plentifully a sepoy, or vine, called by the Indians “barbaruta.” I write the name as pronounced. This vine is much used by the Indians for all cases of blood disorder. The thick bark which covers the vine is often seen in their houses. We can attest to its medicinal qualities. This sepoy, although found on the far upper Amazon, grows in greater abundance in the forest of Manacapuru. It is a native of the high land and is never found growing in low or flooded lands. The vine averages about three inches in diameter and is covered with a rough, reddish bark one-fourth of an inch thick. The leaves are small, oblong and of a shining green. The bark alone is used. Sometimes it is pulverized and taken internally, but more frequently a reddish liquid is extracted by boiling and applied by cloths dipped into the liquid. It is a sure cure for all old sores or wounds.

Why could not this bark or liquid extract be sent to the United States, where it would most certainly in time supersede all poisonous salves or ointments. I have grown tired of sending or bringing home many of the curious barks and roots used by the Indians. I get no thanks for them and am always told that it will not pay to export them. I have noticed that these forests are full of valuable timber which could be floated down the river to Manaos on rafts built of the light varzea woods, at a small outlay. As yet there is but little timber exported from the Amazon Valley. The English steamers between Liverpool and Manaos frequently take some twenty or thirty cedar logs at Serpa, on the Amazon, but the heavy, dark-grained woods have not, so far as I know, ever been exported.

I find growing in these forests those curious orchids, cataseteums, not appreciated by growers at home because they do not bear large or showy flowers, but I know of no class of orchids that produce such singular flowers or emit such strange perfumes. This orchid is known to the inhabitants as pacova paulista — pacova (banana), from the shape of the pseudo bulb ; paulista (Paul), from the old custom of naming flowers after saints. A grude, or mucilage, is made from the bulb and used by the Indians.

Emerging from the forest we soon reach the Patawa, and see before us the low maloca of the Muras Indians. We are greeted by a chorus of dogs, native Indian dogs, covered with sores, lean, mangy and half starved. The men were not at home, and the house was tenanted only by several women and numerous children, the filthiest-looking people I ever saw. Everything bespoke laziness and poverty. The women are of a medium height, but strongly built, with muscles in their arms that would shame a blacksmith. They speak a dialect peculiar to their tribe, but I understand many speak linguia geral and Portuguese. The men are great fishermen, spending most of their time on the lake, though a few work in the rubber forests of the interior.

This tribe formerly occupied not only the banks of the lake but the low forests near the mouth of the Negro, opposite the city of Manaos. Wallace speaks of them as being lazy and indolent. If all reports are true the tribe is fast becoming extinct; there are now but three houses on or near the lake, and none in the low forests near the Negro. The numerous old abandoned fields which are found near Manacapuru show that this region was inhabited years ago by other tribes than the Muras. The remnant of this tribe, however, have gone deeper into the forest, and have built their malocas—low, dark houses—in all the most impenetrable woods. During our stay I never once saw a smile upon the faces of the women; they talked but little, and always in a low tone, with frequent gestures.

We watched the women busy in making a mingau (soup) out of green pacovas, or bananas. They tore off the skin with their teeth, grated the banana and threw it into a large earthen pot full of hot water and stirred the bananas with a stick, which they occasionally used to strike a prowling dog. We were served with this mixture in little wooden cups, and while sipping the unpalatable dish wondered if banana soup made those muscles. All fruit is generally made into a drink or mingau, and no matter what Indian tribes you are among, you are compelled to live upon these mingaus. Some are palatable, but the majority are simply disgusting, many being seasoned with the larvae of insects.

The sun was low down, almost touching the tree-tops, when we reached the canoe, and the dark clouds on the horizon told us that we were to pay for this bright day by a violent night storm. Once in the canoe the Indians took off their shirts and put them under the “toldy,” or palm cabin; then, grasping their broad paddles, pushed into the stream. How we did shoot down that igarape, the water fairly boiling around our canoe. We were anxious to reach the lake, for the igarape was narrow and there was danger from falling branches or trees. The sky was now intensely black, the air full of flying leaves, and often we heard the crash of felling trees in the forest. “More force,” I shouted, and the men dipped their paddles in the water. Another roll of thunder and down came the rain. Soon we shot into the lake, where our canoe tossed up and down, and we ran no little risk of being upset.

A bright light on the shore was seen, towards which I steered. We pulled the canoe ashore, climbed the muddy bank to the house and shouted, “Are we welcome?” We waited a moment, the door was opened and we were invited to “Enter with God” (entre con Deos). We asked shelter for the night which was granted, and while our host, a young Indian, slung our hammock and his wife, a pretty Indian girl, made the coffee, we inspected the dwelling. The floor was clean; clean hammocks swung from poles; everything was neat and in order. I dwell on this because I have never found an Indian hut so clean. On the wall was drying a large jaguar skin, the largest I ever saw. After a bowl of hot coffee I asked the Indian to tell us how he killed the tiger.

I wish your readers could have seen that young Indian as he stood, gun in hand, and told his story with many a gesture; his wife sitting quietly by sewing, but with a proud look in her eyes, while over all danced the fire-light. “You know the large creek below my house, Patron,” he said. “It was there I killed the onca. While paddling up this stream in search of palm fruit I heard a noise as if some one was beating the water with a pole. I listened and heard nothing but the wind in the trees. Again I resumed my paddle. Again I heard the splash of the water. I paddled to shore, and, taking my gun, crept up the bank in the direction of the noise. At intervals the noise would stop, only to be renewed more violently. After a short distance I saw, lying full length on a log in the water, an onca, or jaguar, engaged in fishing; calling the fish by beating the water with its tail. There are many fruit-eating fish in the Amazon waters, and it is known to us that the jaguar frequently imitates the splashing of palm fruit by striking the water with its tail, hooking the fish, as they rise, with their long claws. (In fishing for piranha we always beat the water with our poles and then throw in the line). He was very big, Patron, but I crept nearer.”

“Did he get any fish?” said I.

Nemhum” (not one), said our host–“and he seemed angry about it. The old tiger looked awful cross, and I saw he was tired of fishing, for he slowly arose from the log. I quickly dropped a ball on top of the shot, and fired. He sprang into the air and fell into the water morte (dead). I fished him out with my harpoon. That is all, my white man.”

The Indian took his seat, rolled a bark cigarette, then said: “Patron, there are many kinds of onca; they are afraid, are cowards, but beware of the black tiger; he never will run from you.” After this advice he stretched himself in his hammock and was soon asleep. We lay listening to the rain on the roof and thinking of our return to-morrow to our home far down the Amazon, where we will fatten up a bit, have something better to eat than salt meat and find that which at times is sweetest of all–rest.

–Ernest Morris

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