Alexander von Humboldt.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt online

. (page 17 of 35)
Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 17 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Arrival at the Rio Nej^ro, a Branch of the Amazon — Ascent of
the Casiquiare.

CHAP.xvilL Leaving the island of Panumana at an early hour the
navigators continued to ascend the Orinoco, the scenery
on which became more interesting the nearer they ap-
proached the great cataracts. The sky was in part
obscured, and lightnings flashed among the dense clouds ;
but no thunder was heard. On the western bank of
the river they perceived the fires of an encampment of
Guahiboes, to intimidate whom some shots were dis-
charged by the direction of the missionary. In the
evening they arrived at the foot of the great fall, and
passed the niglit at the mission of Atures in its neigh-
bourhood. Tile flat savannah which surrounds the
village seemed to Humboldt to have formerly been the
bed of the Orinoco.

This station was found to be in a deplorable state,
the Indians having gradually deserted it until only






forty-seven remained. At its foundation m 1748 several chap.xviii

tribes had been assembled, which subsequently dispersed, j,jss~ ~

and their places were supplied by the Guahiboes, who Btation.

belong to the lowest grade of uncivilized society, and a

few families of Macocs. The epidemic fevers, which

prevail here at the commencement of the rainy season,

contributed greatly to the decay of the establishment.

This distemper is ascribed to the violent heats, excessive

humidity of the air, bad food, and, as the natives believe,

to the noxious exhalations that rise from the bare rocks

of the rapids. This last is a curious circumstance, and,

as Humboldt remarks, is the more worthy of attention

on account of its being connected with a fact that has

been observed in several parts of the world, although it

has not yet been sufficiently explained.

Among the cataracts and ftills of the Orinoco, the Cataracts of
granitic rocks, wherever they are periodically submersed, '^^ Orinoco.
become smooth, and seem as if coated with black lead.
The crust is only 0"8 of a line in thickness, and occurs
chiefly on the quartzy parts of the stone, which is
coarse-grained, and contains solitary crystals of horn-
blende. The same appearance is presented at the cata-
racts of Syene as well as those of the Congo. This black
deposite, according to Mr Children's analysis, consists of
oxide of iron and manganese, to which some experiments
of Humboldt induced him to add carbon and supercar-
buretted iron. The phenomenon has hitherto been singular
observed only in the torrid zone, in rivers that overflow piienomenon.
periodically and are bounded by primitive rocks, and i=!
supposed by our author to arise from the precipitation
of substances chemically dissolved in the water, and not
from an efflorescence of matters contained in the rocks
themselves. The Indians and missionaries assert, that
the exhalations from these rocks are unwholesome, and
consider it dangerous to sleep on granite near the river ;
and our travellers, without entirely crediting this asser-
tion, usually took care to avoid the black rocks at night.
But the danger of reposing on them, Humboldt thinks,
may rather be owing to the very great degree of warmtli



of cliinute-

tioii of

CHAP.xviil. they retain during the night, which was found to be
— 9()-8^ while that of tlie air was 78-8°. In the day their
temperature was 118-4°, and the heat which they
emitted wivs stifling.

Among the causes of the depopulation of the missions,
Humboldt mentions the general insalubrity of the cli-
mate, bad nouiishment, want of proper treatment in the
diseases of children, and the practice of preventing
pregnancy by the use of deleterious herbs. Among the
savages 'of Guiana, when twins are produced one is
always destroyed, from the idea that to bring more than
one at a time into the world is to resemble rats, opos-
sums, and the vilest animals, and that two children born
at once cannot l)eIong to the same father. When any
physical deformity occurs in an infant, the father puts
it to death, and those of a feeble constitution sometimes
unilergo the same fate, because the care which they
require is disagreeable. " Such," says Humboldt, " is
the simplicity of manners, — the boasted happiness of
man, in the state of nature ! He kills his son to escape
the ridicule of having twins, or to avoid travelling more
slowly, — in fact, to avoid a little inconvenience."

The two great cataracts of the Orinoco are formed by
the passage of the river across a chain of granitic moun-
tains, constituting part of the Parime range. By the
natives they are called Mapara and Quittuna ; but the
missionaries have denominated them the falls of Atures
and Maypures, after the first tribes which they assembled
in the nearest villages. They are only 41 miles distant
from each other, and are not more than 845 miles west
of the Cordilleras of New Grenada. They divide the
Christian establishments of Spanish Guiana into two
unequal parts ; those situated l)et\vccn the lower cata-
ract, or that of Apures, and the mouth of the river,
being called the missions of tlie Lower Orinoco, and
those between the upper cataract and the mountains of
Duida, being called the missions of the Upper Orinoco.
The length of the lower section, including: its sinuosities,
ia 807 miles, while that of the upper is 57G miles. The




navigation of the river extends from its mouth to the cilAP.xvill.
[joint where it meets the Anaveni near the lower cata- —
ract, although in the upper part of this division there the nnvu"
are rapids which can be passed only in small boats, eatiou.
The principal danger, however, is that which arises
from natural rafts, consisting of trees interwoven with
lianas, and covered with aquatic plants carried down by
the current. The cataracts are formed by bars stretch-
ing across the bed of the river, which forces its way
through a break in the mountains ; but beyond this
rugged pass the course is again open for a length of
more than 676 miles.

The scenery in the vicinity of the lower fall is de- ggg^j^ ^
scribed as exceedingly beautiful. To the west of Atures, the scenery.
a pyramidal mountain, the Peak of Uniana, rises from
a plain to the height of nearly 3200 feet. The savan-
nahs, which are covered with grasses and slender plants,
though never inundated by the river, present a sur-
prising luxuriance and diversity of vegetation. Piles of
granitic blocks rise here and there, and at the margins
of the plains occur deep valleys and ravines, the humid
soil of which is covered with arums, heliconias, and
lianas. The shelves of primitive rocks, scarcely ele-
vated above the plain, are partially coated with lichens
and mosses, together with succulent plants, and tufts of
evergreen shrubs with shining leaves. On all sides the
horizon is bounded by mountains, overgrown Avith
forests of laurels, among which clusters of palms rise to
the height of more than a hundred feet, their slender
stems supporting tufts of feathery foliage. To the east
of Atures other mountains appear, the ridge of which is
composed of pointed cliffs rising like huge pillars above
the trees. When these columnar masses are situated
near the Orinoco, flamingoes, herons, and other wading
birds, perch on their summits, and look like sentinels.
In the vicinity of the cataracts, the moisture which is
diffused in the air produces a perpetual verdure, and
wherever soil has accumulated on the plains, it is occu-
pied by the beautiful shrubs of the mountains.





Dikes of

Pftssatre of
tUe falls.

Height of

The rainy season had scarcely commenced, yet the
vegetation displayed all the vigour and brilliancy which,
on the coast, it assumes only towards the end of the
rains. The old trunks were decorated with orchides,
bannisterias, bignonias, arums, and other parasitic plants.
IMimosas, figs, and laurels, were the prevailing trees in
the woody spots ; and in the vicinity of the cataract
were groups of heliconias, bamboos, and palms.

Along a space of more than five miles, the bed of the
Orinoco is traversed by numerous dikes of rock, forming
natural dams, filled with islands of every form, some
rocky and precipitous, while others resemble shoals.
By these the river is broken up into torrents, which are
ever dashing their spray against the rocks. They are
all furnished with sylvan vegetation, and resembled a
mass of palm-trees rising amidst the foam of the watere.
The current is divided into a multitude of rapids, each
endeavouring to force a passage through the narrows,
and is every where engulfed in caverns ; in one of which
the travellers heard the water rolling at once over their
heads and beneath their feet.

Notwithstanding the formidable aspect of this long
succession of falls, the Indians pass many of them in
their canoes. When ascending they swim on before,
and after repeated efforts succeed in fixing a rope to a
point of rock, and thus draw the canoe up the rapid.
Sometimes it fills with water, and is not unfrequently
dashed to pieces against the shelves ; upon which the
Bailors again swim, though not without difficulty,
through the whirlpools to the nearest island. When the
bars are very high the vessels are taken ashore, and
drawn upon rollers, made of the branches of trees, to a
place wlicrc the river agaui becomes navigable. During
the flood, however, this operation is seldom necessary.

Although tlie rapids of the Orinoco form a long series
of falls, the noise of which is heard at the distance of
more than three miles, yet the rocks were found by
Humboldt not to have a greater height than thirty feet
per])endicular. He thinks it probable that a consider-


able part of tlie water is lost by passing into subterranean CHAP.XVIII.

cavities, independently of that which disappears by

being dispersed in the atmosphere. Numberless holes tiieiivci-bc<l.

and sinuosities are formed in the crevices by the friction

of the sand and quartz pebbles ; but he does not considci

that any great change is effected in the general form of

the cataracts by the action of the water, the granite being

too hard to be worn away to a great extent. The

Indians assert that the stony barriers preserve the same

aspect ; but that the partial torrents into which the

river divides itself are changed in their direction, and

carry sometimes more sometimes less water towards one

or other bank.

When the rush of the cataracts is heard in the plain Noise of tiie
that surrounds the mission of Atures, one imagines he is cataracts.
near a coast skirted by reefs and breakers. The noise
is thrice as loud by night as by day. This circumstance
had struck the padre and the Indians, and Humboldt
attributes it to the cessation of the sun's action, wliich is
productive of numberless currents and undulations of
the air, impeding the progress of sound by presenting
spaces of different density.

The jaguars, which abound every where pn the Orinoco, N„j„ber of
are so numerous here that they come into the village, ^^^ jaguars,
and devour the pigs of the poor Indians, The mission-
ary related a striking instance of the f;imiliarity of these
animals : — " Two Indian children, a boy and girl eight
or nine years of age, were sitting among the grass, near
the village of Atures, in the midst of a savannah. It sirrruiar
was two in the afternoon when a jaguar issued from the sport
forest and approached the children, gamboling around
them ; sometimes concealing itself among the long grass,
and again springing forward, with his back curved and
his head lowered, as is usual with our cats. Tlie little
boy was unaware of the danger in which he was placed,
and became sensible of it only when the jaguar struck
him on the head with one of his paws. Tiie blows thus
inflicted were at first slight, but gradually became ruder.
The claws of the jaguar wounded the child, and blood


CHAP.. Will, flowed with violence. Tlic little girl then took up a
— branch of a tree and struck the animal, which fled before
her. The Indians hearing the cries of the children, ran
up and saw the jaguar, whicli bounded off^ without
neflections of showing any disposition to defend itself." "What,"
Humboldt. ^]^.g nu,„i3o"i(jt, " meant this fit of playfulness in an ani-
mal which, although not difficult to be tamed in our
menageries, is always so ferocious and cruel in the state
of freedom ] If we chose to admit that, being sure of
its prey, it played with the young Indian as the domestic
cat plays with a bird, the wings of which have been
clipped, how can we account for the forbearance of a
large jaguar wlien pursued by a little girl ] If the
jaguar was not pressed by hunger, why should it have
gone up to the children ? There are mysteries in the
affections and hatreds of animals. We have seen lions
kill three or four dogs which were put into their cage,
and instantly caress another which had the courage to
seize the royal beast l)y the mane. Man is ignorant of
the sources of these instincts. It would seem that
weakness inspii'es more interest the more confiding it is."
American The cattle introduced by the Jesuits had entirely dis-

^°fi* appeared ; but the Indians rear the common pig and

another kind peculiar to America, and known in Europe
by the name of pccari. A third species of hog, the
Apidii, which is of a dark-brown colour, wanders in
large herds composed of several hundreds. M. Bonpland,
when upon a botanical excursion, saw a drove of these
animals pass near him. It marched in a close body ;
the males before, and each sow accompanied by her
young. The natives kill thein with small lances tied to
cords. At the mission they saw a monkey of a new
species, wliich hud been brought up in captivity, and
whicli every day seized a pig in the court-yard, and
remained upon it from morning to night, in all its
wanderings in tlie savannahs. Here, for tlie first time,
they lic.ird of tiie hairy man of the woods, a large ani-
mal of the apo kind, whicli, according to report, carries
off women, buills huts, and sometimes eats human flesh.


Father Gili gravely relates the history of a lady of San CHAP.XVIll.
Carlos, who passed several years with one, which she n,,irv imin of
left only hccause she and the children she had to him timwooOa.
were tired of livings far from the church and the sacra-
ments. In all his travels in America, llunil^oldt found
no traces of a large anthropomorjDhous monkey, although
in several places, very distant from each other, he heard
similar accounts of it.

Flies of various kinds unceasingly tormented the tra- Torment
vellers ; mosquitoes and simulia by day, and zancudoes '""" ^""^^
by night. 'J'he missionary, observing that the insects
were more abundant in the lowest sti'atum of the atmo-
sphere, had constructed near the church a small
apartment supported upon palm-trunks, to which they
retired in the evening to dry their plants and write their
jotirnals.* At IMayjiures the Indians leave the village
at night, and sleep on the little islands in the midst of
the cataracts, where the insects are less numerous.
Humboldt gives an elaborate account of these creatures, Hiunboldt's
of which, however, the most interesting particulars "^^' *"
alone can be here extracted. In the missions of the
Orinoco, when two persons meet in the morning the
first questions are, — " How did you tind the zancudoes
during the night ? How are we to-day for the mos-
quitoes I" The plague of these animals, however, is not
so general in the torrid zone as is commonly believed.

* A similar expedient was tried by a British officer who had
joined the insiir^^eiits under Bolivar, liilfJ. "• Tliese insects," (the
mosquitoes), says he, " do not rise high in the air, but are gene-
rated and remain near the wot banks of tiie river. I found a tree
in the neighbourhood, wliich I ascended nearly to its top with a
cord. Tliis I attached firmly to the branches, and then fixed it
round me, so that I could not fall, but sit witii safety, although not
with much comfort. It was, however, with me here as with many
in various situations in life— -I could estimate the nature and ex-
tent of my pleasures and my difficulties merely by comparison ; and,
certainly, although the being tied to the top of a tree as a sleeping-
place was not very agreealile, it was far preferable to being among
swarms of hungry mosquitoes where I had previously lodged. I
enjoyed several hours' sleep, and awoke considerably refreslied."
—Robinson's Journal of an Expedition up the Orinoco and



Hnbitals of

species of

CUAP.Xvm On the table-lands that have an elevation of more than
2558 feet, and in very dry plains at a distance from
rivers, tliey are not more numerous than in Europe ;
but along the valleys, as well as in moist places on the
coast, they continually harass the traveller ; the lower
stratum of air, to the lieight of fifteen or twenty feet,
being filled with a cloud of venomous insects. It is a
remarkable circumstance, that on the streams, the water
of which is of a yellowish-brown colour, the tipulary
flics do not make tlieir appearance. Not less astonish-
ing is the fact, that the different kinds do not associate
together : but that at certain hours of the day distinct
species, as the missionaries say, mount guard. From
half after six in the morning till five in the afternoon
the air is filled with mosquitoes, which are of the genus
Simulium, and resemble a common fly. An hour before
sunset small gnats, called tempraneroes, succeeded
them, to disappear between six and seven ; after which
zancudoes, a species of gnat, with very long legs, come
abroad and continue until near sunrise, when the former
again take their turn. Persons bom in the country,
whether whites, mulattoes, negroes, or Indians, all suffer
from the sting of these insects, although not so severely
as recently-arrived Europeans.

The travellers, after remaining two days in the vici-
nity of the cataract of Atures, proceeded on the 17th to
rejoin their canoe, already conducted by eight Indians
of the mission through the rapids, and reached it about
eleven in the morning, accompanied by Father Zca, who
had procured a small stock of provisions, consisting of
plantains, cassava, and fowls. The river was now free
from shoals ; and after a few hours they passed the
rapids of Garcita, and perceived numerous small holes,
at an elevation of more than 190 feet above the level of
the current, which appeared to have been caused by the
erosion of tiie waters. The night was spent in the
open air, on the left bank.

On the inih they set out at three in the morning, ana
near five in the afternoon reached the Baudal des Gua-



liiboes, on the dike of which they landed while the ciL\p.xvili,
Indians were drawing up the boat. The gneiss-rock u.„„^jj^
exhibited circular holes, produced by the friction of Guaiiiboca.
pebbles, in one of which they prepared a beverag-c con-
sisting of water, sugar, and tlie juice of acid fruits, for
the purpose of allaying the thirst of the missionary, who
was seized by a fever-fit ; after which they had the
pleasure of bathing in a quiei place in the midst of the
cataracts. After an hour's dela}', the boat having been got
up, they re-embarked their instruments and provisions
The river was 1705 yards broad, and had to be crossed
obliquely, at a part where the waters rushed with ex-
treme rapidity towards the bar, over which they were
precipitated. In the midst of this dangerous navigation
they were overtaken by a thunder-storm accompanied Thimder-

bv torrents of rain : and, after rowing; twenty minutes, '*'^?"^ "'^'^
*■ 3 7 n tj 7 ruixL

found that so far from having made progress they were
approaching the fall. But, as the Indians redoubled
their efforts, the danger was escaped, and the boat arrived
at nightfall in the port of Maypures. The night was
extremely dark, and the village was at a considerable
distance ; still, as the missionary caused copal-torches to
be lighted, they proceeded. As the rain ceased the zan-
cudoes reappeared, and the flambeaux being extinguished,
they had to grope tlieir way. One of their fellow-tra-
vellers, Don Nicolas Soto, slipped from a round trunk
on which he attempted to cross a gully, but fortunately
received no injury. To add to their distress, the pilot
talked incessantly of venomous snakes, water-serpents,
and tigers. On their arrival at the mission they found
the inhabitants immersed in profound sleep, and nothing
was heard but the cries of nocturnal birds and the dis-
tant roar of tlie cataract.

At the village of Maypures they remained three days, Ma\-purca
for the purpose of examining the neighbourhood. TJie
cataract, called by the Indians Quittuna, is formed by
an archipelago of islands, filling the bed of the river to
the length of G395 yards, and by dikes of rock which
occasionally join them together. The largest of these



CiiAP.Xvail shelves or bars are at Purimarimi, Manimi, and the
jy ~ Salto de la Sardina, the last of which is about nine feet
high. To obtain a full view of the falls, the travellers
frequently ascended the eminence of Manimi, a granitic
ridge rising from the savannah, to the north of the
church. " When one attains the summit of the rock,"
says Humboldt, "he suddenly sees a sheet of foam a
mile in extent. Enormous masses of rock, of an iron
blackness, emerge from its bosom, some of a mammillar
form, and grouped like basaltic hills ; others resembling
towers, castles, and ruins. Their dark colour contrasts
View of the '^vith the silvery whiteness of the foam. Every rock
^^ and islet is covered with tufts of stately trees. From

the base of these prominences, as far as the eye can
reach, there hangs over the river a dense mist, through
which the tops of majestic palms are seen to penetrate.
At every hour of the day this sheet of foam presents a
different aspect. Sometimes the mountain-isles and
palms project their long shadows over it ; sometimes
the rays of the setting sun are refracted in the humid
cloud that covers the cataract, when coloured arches
form, vanish, and reappear by turns."

The mountain of iManimi forms the eastern limit of a
plain, which presented the same appearance as that of
Atures. Toward the west is a level space formerly
occupied by the waters of the river, and exhibiting
rocks similar to the islands of the cataracts. These
masses are also crowned with palms ; and one of them,
called Keri, is celebrated in the country for a white
spot, which Humboldt supposed to be a large nodule of
quartz. In an islet amidst the rush of waters there is
a similar spot. The Indians view them with a myste-
rious interest, believing they see in the former the image
of the moon, and in the latter that of the sun.

The inhabitants of the mission were Guahiboes and
Macoes. In the time of the Jesuits the number was six
Imudred, but it had gradually fallen to less than sixty.
Tliey are represented as gentle, temperate, and cleanly.
They cultivate plantains and cassava, and, like most cf

Moontain of

Native* if
the muuioD.


tlie Indians of the Orinoco, prepare nourishing drinks CHAP.XVIII
from the fruits of palms and other plants. Some of jjanlinii^mrc
them were occupied in manufacturing a coarse pottery, of pottery.
Cattle, and especially goats, had at one time multiplied
considerably at Maypures ; but at the period of Hum-
boldt's visit none were to be seen in any mission of the
Orinoco. Tame macaws Avere seen round the huts, and
flying in the fields like pigeons. Their plumage being
of the most vivid tints of purple, blue, and yellow,
these birds are a great ornament to tlie Indian farm-

Round the village there grows a majestic tree of the unona tree,
genus Unona, Avith straight branches rising in the form
of a pyramid. The infusion of the aromatic fruit is a
powerful febrifuge, and is used as such in preference to
the astringent bark of the Cinchona or Bonplandia

The longitude of this place was found to be 68° 17' 0",
the latitude 6° 18' 67", differing from the best maps

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 17 of 35)