Alexander von Humboldt.

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weather. It was only two in the afternoon, and they
yet entertained some hope of reaching the eastern sum-
mit before sunset, and of returning to the hollow
separating the two peaks, where they might pass the
night. With this view they sent half of their attendants
to procure a supply, not of olives but of salt beef.
These arrangements were scarcely made when the east
wind began to blow violently, and in less than two
minutes the clouds disappeared. The obstacles pre-
sented by the vegetation gradually diminished as they
approached the eastern summit, in order to attain which
it was necessary to go close to the great precipice.
Hitherto the gneiss had preserved its lamellar struc- Geological
ture ; but as they climbed the cone of the Silla they features.
found it passing into granite, containmg instead of
garnets a few scattered crystals of hornblende. In three
quarters of an hour they reached the top of the pyramid,
which was covered with grass, and for a few minutes
enjoyed all the serenity of the sky. The elevation
being 8683 feet, the eye commanded a vast range oi
country. The slope, which extends nearly to the sea,
had an angle of 53° 2B', though when viewed from the
coast it seems perpendicular. Humboldt remarks that
a precipice of 6000 or 7000 feet is a phenomenon much
rarer than is usually believed, and that a rock of 1600
feet of perpendicular height has in vain ])een sought for
among the Swiss Alps. That of the Silla is partly
covered with vegetation, tufts of befariae and andromedse
appearing as if suspended from the rock.

Seven months had elapsed since they were on the
summit of the Peak of Teneriffc, where the apparent



with Tene-


CHAP. XII horizon of the sea is six leagues farther distant tlian on
the Silla ; yet, wliile the boundary-line was seen dis-
tinct in the former place, it -was completely blended
with the air in the latter. The western dome concealed
the town of Caraccas ; but they distinguished tlie vil-
lages of Chacao and Petare, the cofFee-plantations, and
the course of tlie Rio Guayra. While they were
examining the part of tlie sea where the horizon was
well defined, and the great chain of mountains in the
distant south, & dense fog arose from tlie plains, and they
were obliged to use all expedition in completing their

When seated on the rock, employed in determining
the dip of the needle, Ilumlwldt found liis hand covered
by a species of hairy bee, a little smaller than the honey-
bee of Europe. These insects make their nest in the
ground, seklom fly, move very slowly, and arc not apt
to use their sting, the guides asserting that they do so
only when seized by the legs.

The temperature varied from 62° to 57°, according as
the weather was calm or otherwise. Tlie dip of the
needle was one centesimal degree less than at Caraccas.
The breeze was from the east, which might indicate
that the trade-winds extend in this latitude much higher
than 9000 feet. The blue of the atmosphere was
deeper than on the coasts, Saussure's cyanometer indi-
cating 2G'5°, while at Caraccas it generally gave only
18° in fine dry weather. The phenomenon that most
struck the travellers was the apparent aridity of the air,
which seemed to increase as the mist thickened, the hy-
grometer retrograding and their clothes remaining dry.

As it would have been imprudent to remain long in
a dense fog, on tlie brink of a precipice, the travellers
descended tlie eastern dome, and, on regaining the
iiollow between the two summits, were surprised to
find round pebl)les of quartz, — a plienomcnon which per-
haps indicates tliat tlie mountain has been raised by a
power ajiplicd from below. Relinquishing their design
of passing the night in that valley, and having again

Dip of tlie


from the


found the path which they had cut tlirougli the Avood, CliAP. xii.
they soon arrived at tlie district of resinous shrubs, Desertion of
where they lingered so long collecting plants that dark- guides,
ness surprised them as they entered the savannah. The
moon was uj), but every now and then obscured by
clouds. The guides who carried the instruments slunk
off" successively to sleep among the cliffs ; and it was
not until ten that the travellers arrived at the bottom
of the ravine, overcome by thirst and fatigue.

During the excursion to the Silla, and in all their indication cf
walks in the valley of Caraccas, they were very attentive °'^^^
to the indication of ores which they found in the gneiss
mountains. In America that rock has not hitlaerto been
found to be very rich in metals, the most celebrated
mines of Mexico and Peru being in primitive and
transition slate, trap, porphyry, graywacke, and Alpine
limestone. In several parts of the region now visited
small quantity of gold was found disseminated in veins Gold, silver
of quartz, sulphuretted silver, blue copper-ore, and lead- ^"gg'^"^'^'^'^
glance ; but these deposites did not seem of any import-
ance. In the group of the western mountains of Vene-
zuela, the Spaniards, in 1551, attempted tlie gold mine
of Buria, but the works were soon given up. In the
vicinity of Caraccas some had also been wrought, but to
no great extent. In short, the mines here afforded little
gratification to the cupidity of the conquerors, and were
almost totally abandoned ; those of Arva, near San Felipe
el Fuerte, being the only ones in operation when Hum-
boldt visited the country.

In the course of their investigations the travellers Ravine of
examined the ravine of Tipe, situated in that part of '^'P'^-
the valley which opens toward Cape Blanco. The first
portion of the road was over a barren and rocky soil, on
which grew a few plants of Argemone Mexk-ana. On
either side of the defile was a range of bare mountains,
and at this spot the plain on which the town is built
communicates with the coast near Catia by the valleys
of Tacagua and Tipe. In the former the}' found some
plantations of maize and plantains, and a very extensive

J 30 ORES.

CHAR xiL one of cactuses fifteen feet high. In tlie latter tlicy
i^r^ met with several veins of quai-tz, containing p^-rites,

""" carbonated iron-ore, sulphuretted silver, and gray copper.

The works that had been undertaken were superficial,

and now filled up.




Earthquakes of Caraccas.

Extensive Connexion of Earthquakes — Eniption of the Volcano of
St Vincent's— Eartliquake of the 26th March 1812— Destruc-
tion of the City — Ten Thousand of the Inhabitants killed Con-
sternation of the Jjurvivors — Extent of the Commotions.

The valley of Caraccas, a few years after Humboldt's CHAP, xili
visit, became the theatre of one of those physical revolu- EarthquaJies
tions which from time to time produce violent alterations
upon the surface of our planet ; involving the overthrow
of cities, the destruction of human life, and a temporary
agitation of those elements of nature on which the system
of the universe is founded. In the narrative of his
Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Conti-
nent, he has recorded all that he could collect Avith
certainty respecting the earthquake of the 26th March
1812, which destroyed the city of Caraccas, together witli
20,000 inhabitants of the province of Venezuela.

Wlien our travellers visited those countries, they found False ideas oi
it to be a general opinion, that the eastern parts of the *''6°*"^'^s-
coasts were most exposed to the destructive effects of
such concussions, and that the elevated districts, remote
from the shores, were in a great measure secure ; but in
1811 all these ideas were proved groundless.

At Humboldt's arrival in Terra Firma, he was struck
with the connexion whicii appeared between tlie destruc-
tion of Cumana in 1707 and the eruption of volcanoes in
the smaller West India islands. A similar principle was
manifested in 1812, in the case of Caraccas. From the




of earth-

Cessation of

ment of the


beginning of 1811 till 181-3, a vast extent of the earth's
surface, limited by the meridian of the Azores, the
valley of the Ohio, the cordilleras of New Grenada, the
coasts of Venezuela, and the volcanoes of the West Indies,
was shaken by subterranean commotions, indicative of a
common agency exerted at a great depth in the interior
of the globe. At the period when these eartliquakes
commenced in the valley of the Mississippi, the city of
Caraccas felt the first shock in December 1811, and on
the 20th of Mavdi 1812 it was totally destroyed,

" The inhal)itants of Terra Firma were ignorant of
the agitation, which on the one hand the volcano of the
island of St Vincent had experienced, and on the other
the basin of the Mississippi, where on the 7th and 8t]i
of February 1812 the ground was day and night in a
state of continual oscillation. At this period the province
of Venezuela laboured under great drought ; not a drop
of rain had fellen at Caraccas, or to the distance of 311
miles around, during the five months whicli preceded
tlie destruction of the capital. The 26th March was
excessively hot ; the air was calm and the sky cloudless.
It was Holy Thursday, and a great part of the popula-
tion was in the churches. Tlie calamities of the day
were preceded by no indications of danger. At seven
minutes after four in the evening the first commotion
was felt. It was so strong as to make the bells of the
churches ring. It lasted from five to six seconds, and
was immediately followed by another shock of from ten
to twelve seconds, during which the ground was in a
continual state of undulation, and heaved like a fluid
under cl)ullition. The danger was thought to be over,
when a prodigious subterranean noise was heard, re-
sembling the rolling of thunder, but louder and more
])rolonge(l than that heard within the tropics during
thunder-storms. This noise preceded a perpendicular
motion of about three or four seconds, followed by an
undulatory motion of somewhat longer duration. The
shocks were in opposite directions, from north to south
and from cast to west. It was impossible that any thing


could resist the motion from beneath upwards, and tlie chap. xiu.
undulations crossing each other. The city of Caraccas ovei-tiirow c
was completely overthrown. Thousands of the inhahi- Caiacciva.
tants (from nine to ten thousand) were buried under the
ruins of the churches and houses. The procession had
not yet set out ; but the crowd in the churches was so
great, that nearly three or four thousand individuals
were crushed to death by the falling in of the vaulted
roofs. The explosion was stronger on the north side of
the town, in the part nearest the mountain of Avila and
the Silla. The churches of the Trinity and Alta Gracia,
which were more than a hundred and fifty feet in height,
and of which the nave was supported by pillars from
twelve to fifteen feet in diameter, left a mass of ruins
nowhere higher than five or six feet. The sinking of
the ruins has been so great, that at present hardly any
vestige remains of the pillars and columns. The barracks
called El Quartel de San Carlos, situated further to the
north of the church of the Trinity, on the road to the
customhouse de la Pastora, almost entirely disappeared.
A regiment of troops of the line, which was assembled Bnrialofa
in it under arms to join in the procession, was, with the legimeut of
exception of a few individuals, buried under this large
building. Nine-tenths of the fine town of Caraccas
were entirely reduced to ruins. The liouses which did
not fall, as those of the street of San Juan, near the
Capuchin Hospital, were so cracked that no one could
venture to live in them. The eff"ects of the earthquake
were not quite so disastrous in the southern and western
parts of the town, between the great square and the ra-
vine of Caraguata ; — there the cathedral, supported by
enormous buttresses, remains standing.

" In estimating the number of persons killed in the Desolate
city of Caraccas at nine or ten thousand, we do not in- scenes.
elude those unhappy individuals who were severely
wounded, and perished several months after from want
of food and proper attention. The night of Holy
Thursday presented the most distressing scenes of desola-
tion and sorrow. The thick cloud of dust, which rose


CHAP. xiil. above the ruins and darkened the air like a mist, had
The succeed, fallen again to the ground ; the shocks had ceased ;
iiig night never was there a finer or quieter night, — the moon,
jiearly at tlie full, illuminated tlie rounded summits of
the Silla, and the serenity of the heavens contrasted
strongly with the state of the earth, which was strewed
with ruins and dead bodies. Mothers were seen carrying
in their arms children whom they hoped to recall to
life ; desolate females ran through the city in quest of a
brother, a husband, or a friend, of whose fate they were
ignorant, and whom they supposed to have been sepa-
rated from them in the crowd. The people pressed along
the streets, wliich now could only be distinguished by
heaps of ruins arranged in lines,
rescue of " All the calamities experienced in the great earth-

ti)f wouuded. quakes of Lisbon, Messina, Lima, and Riobaml)a, were
repeated on the fatal day of the 26tli ]\Lirch 1812. The
wounded, buried under the ruins, imploi'ed the assistance
of the passers-by with loud cries, and more than two
thousand of them were dug out. Never was pity dis-
plaj^ed in a more affecting manner ; never, we may say,
was it seen more ingeniously active, than in the efforts
made to succour the unhappy persons whose groans
reached the ear. There was an entire want of instru-
ments adapted for digging up the ground and clearing
away tlie ruins, and the peojile were ol)liged to use
their hands for tlie purpose of disinterring the living.
Wretched Thoso who were wounded, as well as the patients who
condition of ]^^^ escaped from the hosi)itals, wei*e placed on the bank
Uie wounded. »,,?, . r j-^ ^ i ii i

ot the little river or Guayra, where they liad no other

slielter than the foliage of the trees. Beds, linen for
dressing their wounds, surgical instruments, medicines,
in short every thing necessary for their treatment, had
been buried in the ruins. During the first days nothing
could be procured, — not even food. Witliin the city
water became equally scarce. Tlie commotion had
iiroken the pipes of the fountains, and the falling in of
the earth had obstructed the .springs which supplied
them. To obtain water it was necessary to descend as


far as the Rio Guayra, which was considerably swollen, chap, xiil
and there were no vessels for drawing it.

" There remained to be performed towards the dead a Buruing the
duty imposed alike by piety and the dread of infection. ^'^^'^
As it was impossible to inter so many thousands of
bodies half buried in the ruins, commissioners were
appointed to burn them. Funeral- piles were erected
among the heaps of rubbish. This ceremony lasted
several days. Amid so many public calamities, the
people ardently engaged in the religious exercises which p^,. .^^^
they thought best adapted to appease the anger of Heaven, exercises.
Some walked in bodies chanting funeral- hymns, while
others, in a state of distraction, confessed themselves
aloud in the streets. In this city was now repeated
what had taken place in the province of Quito after the
dreadful earthquake of the 4th February 1797. Mar-
riages were contracted between persons who for many
years had neglected to sanction their union by the sacer-
dotal blessing. Children found parents in persons who jf„j.,,i
had till then disavowed them ; restitution was promised effects.
by individuals who had never been accused of theft ;
and families who had long been at enmity drew together
from the feeling of a common evil. But while in some
this feeling seemed to soften the heart and open it to
compassion, it had a contrary effect on others, rendering
them more obdurate and inhumane. In great calamities
vulgar minds retain still less goodness than strength ;
for misfortune acts like the pursuit of literature and the
investigation of nature, which exercise their happy
influence only upon a few, giving more warmth to the
feelings, more elevation to the mind, and more benevo-
lence to the character.

"Shocks so violent as these, which in the space of jr^jfentofthe
one minute overthrew the city of Caraccas, could not be earthquake.
confined to a small portion of the continent. Their
fatal effects extended to the provinces of Venezuela,
Varinas, and Maracaybo, along the coast, and were more
especially felt in the mountains of the interior. La
Guayra, Mayquetia, Antimaua, Baruta, La Vega, San


CHAP. XIU. Felipe, and Merida, were almost entirely destroyed.
TowiiT" T!ie number of dead at La Guayra, and at the villa de
destiuyed. g^n Felipe, near the copper mines of Aroa, exceeded
four or five thousand. The earthquake vould appear
to have been most violent along a line running from
E. N. f}, to W. S. W., from Guayra and Caraccas to-
wards the high mountains of Niquitao and INIerida. It
was felt in the kingdom of New Grenada, from the
ramifications of the lofty Sierra of Santa IMartha to
Santa Fe de Bogota, and Honda on the banks of the
IMagdalena, 620 miles distant from Caraccas. In all
parts it was more violent in the cordilleras of gneiss and
mica-slate, or immediately at their base, than in the
plains. This difference was particularly remarkable in
the savannahs of Varinas and Casanare. In the valleys
of Aragua, situated between Caraccas and the town of
San Felipe, the shocks were very weak. La Victoria,
Maracay, and Valencia, scarcely suffered, notwithstand-
ing their proximity to the capital. At Valecillo, not
Sineniar many leagues distant from Valencia, the ground opened,
phenomena, jjnj emitted SO great a mass of water that a new torrent
was formed. The same phenomenon took place near
Porto Cabello. On the other hand, the Lake of Mara-
caybo underwent considerable diminution. At Coro no
commotion was felt, although the town was situated on
the coast between other towns which suffered. The
fishermen who had passed the day of the 2<)th ]\larch in
the island of Orchila, 103 miles N. E. of La Guayra,
were not sensible of any shock."
Valley of Toward the east of Caraccas the commotions were

Capuya. very violent, especially beyond Caurimare, in the valley
of Capaya, and as far as the meridian of Cape Codera,
■while they were very feeble on the coasts of New Barce-
lona, Cumana, and Paria, though these shores are known
to have been formerly shaken by volcanic vapours.
Successlre Fifteen or eighteen hours after the great catastrophe

commotions. i]^q ground ceased to be agitated ; but subsequently to
the 27th the tremblings vccommenced, and were accom-
panied with very lo"d subterranean noises. Frequently


not less than fifteen oscillations were felt in one day. chap. xili.
On the 6th April there was an earthquake almost as Number of
severe as that of the 12th March. The surface was in oscillations
continuous undulation during several hours, large masses
of earth fell in the mountains, and enormous rocks were
detached from the Silla.

While violent agitations were experienced in the Subterra-
valley of the Mississippi, in the island of St Vincent, •'«™ ^"-^^
and in the province of Venezuela, a subterranean noise,
resembling an explosion of artillery, was heard at
Caraccas, at Calabozo, and on the banks of the Rio Apure,
over the space of four thousand square leagues. This
sound began at two in the morning of the 80th April,
and was as loud on the coast as at the distance of 270
miles. It was every where taken for the firing of guns, volcanic
On the same day a great eruption of the volcano of the |l"^-'°".''t
island of St Vincent took place. This mountain had
not ejected lava since 1718, and hardly any smoke was
issuing from it, when in May 1811 frequent shocks
occurred, and a discharge of ashes, attended with a
tremendous bellowing, followed on the 27th April next
year. On the 80th the lava overflowed, and after a
course of four hours reached the sea. The explosions
resembled alternate volleys of very large cannon and
musketry. As the space between the volcano of St
Vincent and the Rio Apure is 725 miles, these were
heard at a distance equal to that between Vesuvius and
Paris, and must have been propagated by the earth, and
not by the air.

After adducing numerous instances of the coincidence subterra-
of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, Humboldt en- nean tom-
deavours to prove that subterranean communications
extend to vast distances, that the phenomena of volca-
noes and earthquakes are intimately connected, and
that the latter have certain lines of direction.




Journey from Caraccas to the Lake of Valencia.

Departure from Caraccas — La Buenavista — Valleys of San Pedro
and the Tuy — Manterola— Zamang-tree — Valleys of Aragua—
Lake of Vuicnria — Diminution of its Waters — Hot Springs —
Jaguar— New Valencia— Thermal Waters of La Trinchera—
Porto Cabello— Cow-tree — Cocoa-plantations — General View of
the Littoral District of Venezuela.

from Ca-

CTTAP. XIV. Lkavinq the city of Caraccas, on their way to the
DeparTui-e Orinoco, our travellers slept the first night at the base
of tile woody mountains whicli close the valley toward
the south-west. They followed the right bank of the
Rio Guayra, as far as the village of Antimano, by an
excellent road, partly scooped out of the rock. The
mountains were all of gneiss or mica-slate. A little
before reacliing that hamlet they observed two large
veins of gneiss in the slate, containing balls of granular
diabase or greenstone, composed of felspar and horn-
blende, with garnet disseminated. In the vicinity all
the orchards were full of peach-trees covered with
flowers. Between Antimano and Ajuntas they crossed
the Rio Guayra seventeen times, and proceeded along
the bottom of the valley. The river was bordered by a
gramineous plant, the Gynerium saccharoides, which
sometimes reaches tlie height of thirty-fwo feet, while
tlie huts were surrounded by enormous trees of Laurua
persra, covered by creepers. They passed the night in
a tiugar-plantation. In a square house were nearly



eighty negroes, lyin^' on skins of oxen spread on the CHAP. xrv.

floor, while a dozen fires were burning in the yard, at c.

which people were cooking. plantation.

A great predilection for the culture of the cofFee-tree Coffee
was entertained in the province. The young plants P''"it'i'^oo-
were chiefly procured by exposing the seeds to germina-
tion between plantain-leaves. They were then sown^
and produced shoots better adapted to bear the heat of the
sun than such as spring up in the shade of the planta-
tions. The tree bears flowers only the second year, and
its blossoms last only twenty-four hours. The returns
of the third year are very abundant ; at an average
each plant yielding a pound and a half or two pounds oi
coSiee. Humboldt remarks, that although it is not yet
a century since the first trees were introduced at
Surinam and in the West Indies, the produce of
America already amounts to fifteen millions of piastres,
or £3,1 87,500 jsterling.

On the 8th of February the travellers set out at sun- Ascent
rise, and after passing the junction of the two small *° ^* .
rivers San Pedro and Macarao, which form the Rio
Guayra, ascended a steep hill to the table-land of La
Buenavista. The country here had a wild appearance,
and was thickly wooded. The road, which was so much
frequented that long files of mules and oxen met them
at every step, was cut out of a talcose gneiss in a state
of decomposition. Descending from that point they
came upon a ravine, in which a fine spring formed
several cascades. Here they found an abundant and
diversified vegetation, consisting of arborescent ferns,
more than twenty-seven feet high, heliconias, plumerias,
browneas, gigantic figs, palms, and other plants. The
brownea, which bears four or five hundred purple

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 11 of 35)