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saccharine matter, and the fibres of its petioles, furnish them with
food, wine, and thread proper for making cords and weaving hammocks.
These customs of the Indians of the delta of the Oroonoco were found
formerly in the Gulf of Darien (Uraba), and in the greater part of
the inundated lands between the Guerapiche and the mouths of the
Amazon. It is curious to observe in the lowest degree of human
civilisation the existence of a whole tribe depending on one single
species of palm-tree, similar to those insects which feed on one and
the same flower, or on one and the same part of a plant.' {160}

In a hundred yards more we were on dry ground, and the vegetation
changed at once. The Mauritias stopped short at the edge of the
swamp; and around us towered the smooth stems of giant Mombins,
which the English West Indians call hog-plums, according to the
unfortunate habit of the early settlers of discarding the sonorous
and graceful Indian and Spanish names of plants, and replacing them
by names English, or corruptions of the original, always ugly, and
often silly and vulgar. So the English call yon noble tree a hog-
plum; the botanist (who must, of course, use his world-wide Latin
designation), Spondias lutea; I shall, with the reader's leave, call
it a Mombin, by which name it is, happily, known here, as it was in
the French West Indies in the days of good Pere Labat. Under the
Mombins the undergrowth is, for the most part, huge fans of Cocorite
palm, thirty or forty feet high, their short rugged trunks, as
usual, loaded with creepers, orchids, birds'-nests, and huge round
black lumps, which are the nests of ants; all lodged among the butts
of old leaves and the spathes of old flowers. Here, as at
Chaguanas, grand Cerimans and Seguines scrambled twenty feet up the
Cocorite trunks, delighting us by the luscious life in the fat stem
and fat leaves, and the brilliant, yet tender green, which literally
shone in the darkness of the Cocorite bower; and all, it may be, the
growth of the last six months; for, as was plain from the charred
stems of many Cocorites and Moriches, the fire had swept through the
wood last summer, destroying all that would burn. And at the foot
of the Cocorites, weltering up among and over their roots, was pitch
again; and here and there along the side of the path were pitch
springs, round bosses a yard or two across and a foot or two high,
each with a crater atop a few inches across, filled either with
water or with liquid and oozing pitch; and yet not interfering, as
far as could be seen, with the health of the vegetation which
springs out of it.

We followed the trace which led downhill, to the shore of the
peninsula farthest from the village. As we proceeded we entered
forest still unburnt, and a tangle of beauty such as we saw at
Chaguanas. There rose, once more, the tall cane-like Manacque
palms, which we christened the forest nymphs. The path was lined,
as there, with the great leaves of the Melastomas, throwing russet
and golden light down from their undersides. Here, as there, Mimosa
leaflets, as fine as fern or sea-weed, shiver in the breeze. A
species of Balisier, which we did not see there, carried crimson and
black parrot beaks with blue seed-vessels; a Canne de Riviere,
{161a} with a stem eight feet high, wreathed round with pale green
leaves in spiral twists, unfolded hooded flowers of thinnest
transparent white wax, with each a blush of pink inside. Bunches of
bright yellow Cassia blossoms dangled close to our heads; white
Ipomoeas scrambled over them again; and broad-leaved sedges, five
feet high, carrying on bright brown flower-heads, like those of our
Wood-rush, blue, black, and white shot for seeds. {161b} Overhead,
sprawled and dangled the common Vine-bamboo, {161c} ugly and
unsatisfactory in form, because it has not yet, seemingly, made up
its mind whether it will become an arborescent or a climbing grass;
and, meanwhile, tries to stand upright on stems quite unable to
support it, and tumbles helplessly into the neighbouring copsewood,
taking every one's arm without asking leave. A few ages hence, its
ablest descendants will probably have made their choice, if they
have constitution enough to survive in the battle of life - which,
from the commonness of the plant, they seem likely to have. And
what their choice will be, there is little doubt. There are trees
here of a truly noble nature, whose ancestors have conquered ages
since; it may be by selfish and questionable means. But their
descendants, secure in their own power, can afford to be generous,
and allow a whole world of lesser plants to nestle in their
branches, another world to fatten round their feet. There are
humble and modest plants, too, here - and those some of the
loveliest - which have long since cast away all ambition, and are
content to crouch or perch anywhere, if only they may be allowed a
chance ray of light, and a chance drop of water wherewith to perfect
their flowers and seed. But, throughout the great republic of the
forest, the motto of the majority is - as it is, and always has been,
with human beings - 'Every one for himself, and the devil take the
hindmost.' Selfish competition, overreaching tyranny, the temper
which fawns and clings as long as it is down, and when it has risen,
kicks over the stool by which it climbed - these and the other 'works
of the flesh' are the works of the average plant, as far as it can
practise them. So by the time the Bamboo-vine makes up its mind, it
will have discovered, by the experience of many generations, the
value of the proverb, 'Never do for yourself what you can get
another to do for you,' and will have developed into a true high
climber, selfish and insolent, choking and strangling, like yonder
beautiful green pest, of which beware; namely, a tangle of Razor-
grass. {162a} The brother, in old times, of that broad-leaved sedge
which carries the shot-seeds, it has long since found it more
profitable to lean on others than to stand on its own legs, and has
developed itself accordingly. It has climbed up the shrubs some
fifteen feet, and is now tumbling down again in masses of the purest
deep green, which are always softly rounded, because each slender
leaf is sabre-shaped, and always curves inward and downward into the
mass, presenting to the paper thousands of minute saw-edges, hard
enough and sharp enough to cut clothes, skin, and flesh to ribands,
if it is brushed in the direction of the leaves. For shape and
colour, few plants would look more lovely in a hothouse; but it
would soon need to be confined in a den by itself, like a jaguar or
an alligator.

Here, too, we saw a beautiful object, which was seen again more than
once about the high woods; a large flower, {162b} spreading its five
flat orange-scarlet lobes round yellow bells. It grows in little
bunches, in the axils of pairs of fleshy leaves, on a climbing vine.
When plucked, a milky sap exudes from it. It is a cousin of our
periwinkles, and cousin, too, of the Thevetia, which we saw at St.
Thomas's, and of the yellow Allamandas which ornament hothouses at
home, as this, and others of its family, especially the yellow
Odontadenia, surely ought to do. There are many species of the
family about, and all beautiful.

We passed too, in the path, an object curious enough, if not
beautiful. Up a smooth stem ran a little rib, seemingly of earth
and dead wood, almost straight, and about half an inch across,
leading to a great brown lump among the branches, as big as a bushel
basket. We broke it open, and found it a covered gallery, swarming
with life. Brown ant-like creatures, white maggot-like creatures,
of several shapes and sizes, were hurrying up and down, as busy as
human beings in Cheapside. They were Termites, 'white ants' - of
which of the many species I know not - and the lump above was their
nest. But why they should find it wisest to perch their nest aloft
is as difficult to guess, as to guess why they take the trouble to
build this gallery up to it, instead of walking up the stem in the
open air. It may be that they are afraid of birds. It may be, too,
that they actually dislike the light. At all events, the majority
of them - the workers and soldiers, I believe, without exception - are
blind, and do all their work by an intensely developed sense of
touch, and it may be of smell and hearing also. Be that as it may,
we should have seen them, had we had time to wait, repair the breach
in their gallery, with as much discipline and division of labour as
average human workers in a manufactory, before the business of food-
getting was resumed.

We hurried on along the trace, which now sloped rapidly downhill.
Suddenly, a loathsome smell defiled the air. Was there a gas-house
in the wilderness? Or had the pales of Paradise been just smeared
with bad coal-tar? Not exactly: but across the path crept,
festering in the sun, a black runnel of petroleum and water; and
twenty yards to our left stood, under a fast-crumbling trunk, what
was a year or two ago a little engine-house. Now roof, beams,
machinery, were all tumbled and tangled in hideous and somewhat
dangerous ruin, over a shaft, in the midst of which a rusty pump-
cylinder gurgled, and clicked, and bubbled, and spued, with black
oil and nasty gas; a foul ulcer in Dame Nature's side, which happily
was healing fast beneath the tropic rain and sun. The creepers were
climbing over it, the earth crumbling into it, and in a few years
more the whole would be engulfed in forest, and the oil-spring, it
is to be hoped, choked up with mud.

This is the remnant of one of the many rash speculations connected
with the Pitch Lake. At a depth of some two hundred and fifty feet
'oil was struck,' as the American saying is. But (so we were told)
it would not rise in the boring, and had to be pumped up. It could
not, therefore, compete in price with the Pennsylvanian oil, which,
when tapped, springs out of the ground of itself, to a height
sometimes of many feet, under the pressure of the superincumbent
rocks, yielding enormous profits, and turning needy adventurers into
millionaires, though full half of the oil is sometimes wasted for
the want of means to secure it.

We passed the doleful spot with a double regret - for the nook of
Paradise which had been defiled, and for the good money which had
been wasted: but with a hearty hope, too, that, whatever natural
beauty may be spoilt thereby, the wealth of these asphalt deposits
may at last be utilised. Whether it be good that a few dozen men
should 'make their fortunes' thereby, depends on what use the said
men make of the said 'fortunes'; and certainly it will not be good
for them if they believe, as too many do, that their dollars, and
not their characters, constitute their fortunes. But it is good,
and must be, that these treasures of heat and light should not
remain for ever locked up and idle in the wilderness; and we wished
all success to the enterprising American who had just completed a
bargain with the Government for a large supply of asphalt, which he
hoped by his chemical knowledge to turn to some profitable use.

Another turn brought us into a fresh nook of Paradise; and this time
to one still undefiled. We hurried down a narrow grass path, the
Cannes de Riviere and the Balisiers brushing our heads as we passed;
while round us danced brilliant butterflies, bright orange, sulphur-
yellow, black and crimson, black and lilac, and half a dozen hues
more, till we stopped, surprised and delighted. For beneath us lay
the sea, seen through a narrow gap of richest verdure.

On the left, low palms feathered over the path, and over the cliff.
On the right - when shall we see it again? - rose a young 'Bois flot,'
{164} of which boys make their fishing floats, with long, straight,
upright shoots, and huge crumpled, rounded leaves, pale rusty
underneath - a noble rastrajo plant, already, in its six months'
growth, some twenty feet high. Its broad pale sulphur flowers were
yet unopened; but, instead, an ivy-leaved Ipomoea had climbed up it,
and shrouded it from head to foot with hundreds of white
convolvulus-flowers; while underneath it grew a tuft of that
delicate silver-backed fern, which is admired so much in hothouses
at home. Between it and the palms we saw the still, shining sea;
muddy inshore, and a few hundred yards out changing suddenly to
bright green; and the point of the cove, which seemed built up of
bright red brick, fast crumbling into the sea, with all its palms
and cactuses, lianes and trees. Red stacks and skerries stood
isolated and ready to fall at the end of the point, showing that the
land has, even lately, extended far out to sea; and that Point
Rouge, like Point Courbaril and Point Galba - so named, one from some
great Locust-tree, the other from some great Galba - must have once
stood there as landmarks. Indeed all the points of the peninsula
are but remnants of a far larger sheet of land, which has been
slowly eaten up by the surges of the gulf; which has perhaps
actually sunk bodily beneath them, even as the remnant, I suspect,
is sinking now. We scrambled twenty feet down to the beach, and lay
down, tired, under a low cliff, feathered with richest vegetation.
The pebbles on which we sat were some of pitch, some of hard
sandstone, but most of them of brick; pale, dark, yellow, lavender,
spotted, clouded, and half a dozen more delicate hues; some coarse,
some fine as Samian ware; the rocks themselves were composed of an
almost glassy substance, strangely jumbled, even intercalated now
and then with soft sand. This, we were told, is a bit of the
porcellanite formation of Trinidad, curious to geologists, which
reappears at several points in Erin, Trois, and Cedros, in the
extreme south-western horn of the island.

How was it formed, and when? That it was formed by the action of
fire, any child would agree who had ever seen a brick-kiln. It is
simply clay and sand baked, and often almost vitrified into
porcelain-jasper. The stratification is gone; the porcellanite has
run together into irregular masses, or fallen into them by the
burning away of strata beneath; and the cracks in it are often lined
with bubbled slag.

But whence carne the fire? We must be wary about calling in the
Deus e machina of a volcano. There is no volcanic rock in the
neighbourhood, nor anywhere in the island; and the porcellanite,
says Mr. Wall, 'is identically the same with the substances produced
immediately above or below seams of coal, which have taken fire, and
burnt for a length of time.' There is lignite and other coaly
matter enough in the rocks to have burnt like coal, if it had once
been ignited; and the cause of ignition may be, as Mr. Wall
suggests, the decomposition of pyrites, of which also there is
enough around. That the heat did not come from below, as volcanic
heat would have done, is proved by the fact that the lignite beds
underneath the porcellanite are unburnt. We found asphalt under the
porcellanite. We found even one bit of red porcellanite with
unburnt asphalt included in it.

May not this strange formation of natural brick and china-ware be of
immense age - humanly, not geologically, speaking? May it not be far
older than the Pitch Lake above - older, possibly, than the formation
of any asphalt at all? And may not the asphalt mingled with it have
been squeezed into it and round it, as it is being squeezed into and
through the unburnt strata at so many points in Guapo, La Brea,
Oropuche, and San Fernando? At least, so it seemed to us, as we sat
on the shore, waiting for the boat to take us round to La Brea, and
drank in dreamily with our eyes the beauty of that strange lonely
place. The only living things, save ourselves, which were visible
were a few pelicans sleeping on a skerry, and a shoal of dolphins
rolling silently in threes - husband, wife, and little child - as they
fished their way along the tide mark between the yellow water and
the green. The sky blazed overhead, the sea below; the red rocks
and green forests blazed around; and we sat enjoying the genial
silence, not of darkness, but of light, not of death, but of life,
as the noble heat permeated every nerve, and made us feel young, and
strong, and blithe once more.



CHAPTER IX: SAN JOSEF



The road to the ancient capital of the island is pleasant enough,
and characteristic of the West Indies. Not, indeed, as to its
breadth, make, and material, for they, contrary to the wont of West
India roads, are as good as they would be in England, but on account
of the quaint travellers along it, and the quaint sights which are
to be seen over every hedge. You pass all the races of the island
going to and from town or field-work, or washing clothes in some
clear brook, beside which a solemn Chinaman sits catching for his
dinner strange fishes, known to my learned friend, Dr. Gunther, and
perhaps to one or two other men in Europe; but certainly not to me.
Always somebody or something new and strange is to be seen, for
eight most pleasant miles.

The road runs at first along a low cliff foot, with an ugly Mangrove
swamp, looking just like an alder-bed at home, between you and the
sea; a swamp which it would be worth while to drain by a steam-pump,
and then plant with coconuts or bamboos; for its miasma makes the
southern corner of Port of Spain utterly pestilential. You cross a
railroad, the only one in the island, which goes to a limestone
quarry, and so out along a wide straight road, with negro cottages
right and left, embowered in fruit and flowers. They grow fewer and
finer as you ride on; and soon you are in open country, principally
of large paddocks. These paddocks, like all West Indian ones, are
apt to be ragged with weeds and scrub. But the coarse broad-leaved
grasses seem to keep the mules in good condition enough, at least in
the rainy season. Most of these paddocks have, I believe, been
under cane cultivation at some time or other; and have been thrown
into grass during the period of depression dating from 1845. It has
not been worth while, as yet, to break them up again, though the
profits of sugar-farming are now, or at least ought to be, very
large. But the soil along this line is originally poor and sandy;
and it is far more profitable to break up the rich vegas, or low
alluvial lands, even at the trouble of clearing them of forest. So
these paddocks are left, often with noble trees standing about in
them, putting one in mind - if it were not for the Palmistes and
Bamboos and the crowd of black vultures over an occasional dead
animal - of English parks.

But few English parks have such backgrounds. To the right, the vast
southern flat, with its smoking engine-house chimneys and bright
green cane-pieces, and, beyond all, the black wall of the primeval
forest; and to the left, some half mile off, the steep slopes of the
green northern mountains blazing in the sun, and sending down, every
two or three miles, out of some charming glen, a clear pebbly brook,
each winding through its narrow strip of vega. The vega is usually
a highly cultivated cane-piece, where great lizards sit in the
mouths of their burrows, and watch the passer by with intense
interest. Coolies and Negroes are at work in it: but only a few;
for the strength of the hands is away at the engine-house, making
sugar day and night. There is a piece of cane in act of being cut.
The men are hewing down the giant grass with cutlasses; the women
stripping off the leaves, and then piling the cane in carts drawn by
mules, the leaders of which draw by rope traces two or three times
as long as themselves. You wonder why such a seeming waste of power
is allowed, till you see one of the carts stick fast in a mud-hole,
and discover that even in the West Indies there is a good reason for
everything, and that the Creoles know their own business best. For
the wheelers, being in the slough with the cart, are powerless; but
the leaders, who have scrambled through, are safe on dry land at the
end of their long traces, and haul out their brethren, cart and all,
amid the yells, and I am sorry to say blows, of the black gentlemen
in attendance. But cane cutting is altogether a busy, happy scene.
The heat is awful, and all limbs rain perspiration: yet no one
seems to mind the heat; all look fat and jolly; and they have cause
to do so, for all, at every spare moment, are sucking sugar-cane.

You pull up, and take off your hat to the party. The Negroes shout,
'Marnin', sa!' The Coolies salaam gracefully, hand to forehead.
You return the salaam, hand to heart, which is considered the
correct thing on the part of a superior in rank; whereat the Coolies
look exceedingly pleased; and then the whole party, without visible
reason, burst into shouts of laughter.

The manager rides up, probably under an umbrella, as you are, and a
pleasant and instructive chat follows, wound up, usually, if the
house be not far off, by an invitation to come in and have a light
drink; an invitation which, considering the state of the
thermometer, you will be tempted to accept, especially as you know
that the claret and water will be excellent. And so you dawdle on,
looking at this and that new and odd sight, but most of all feasting
your eyes on the beauty of the northern mountains, till you reach
the gentle rise on which stands, eight miles from Port of Spain, the
little city of San Josef. We should call it, here in England, a
village: still, it is not every village in England which has fought
the Dutch, and earned its right to be called a city by beating some
of the bravest sailors of the seventeenth century. True, there is
not a single shop in it with plate-glass windows: but what matters
that, if its citizens have all that civilised people need, and more,
and will heap what they have on the stranger so hospitably that they
almost pain him by the trouble which they take? True, no carriages
and pairs, with powdered footmen, roll about the streets; and the
most splendid vehicles you are likely to meet are American buggies -
four-wheeled gigs with heads, and aprons through which the reins can
be passed in wet weather. But what matters that, as long as the
buggies keep out sun and rain effectually, and as long as those who
sit in them be real gentlemen, and those who wait for them at home,
whether in the city, or the estates around, be real ladies? As for
the rest - peace, plenty, perpetual summer, time to think and read -
(for there are no daily papers in San Josef) - and what can man want
more on earth? So I thought more than once, as I looked at San
Josef nestling at the mouth of its noble glen, and said to myself, -
If the telegraph cable were but laid down the islands, as it will be
in another year or two, and one could hear a little more swiftly and
loudly the beating of the Great Mother's heart at home, then would
San Josef be about the most delectable spot which I have ever seen
for a cultivated and civilised man to live, and work, and think, and
die in.

San Josef has had, nevertheless, its troubles and excitements more
than once since it defeated the Dutch. Even as late as 1837, it
was, for a few hours, in utter terror and danger from a mutiny of
free black recruits. No one in the island, civil or military, seems
to have been to blame for the mishap. It was altogether owing to
the unwisdom of military authorities at home, who seem to have
fancied that they could transform, by a magical spurt of the pen,
heathen savages into British soldiers.

The whole tragedy - for tragedy it was - is so curious, and so
illustrative of the negro character, and of the effects of the slave
trade, that I shall give it at length, as it stands in that clever
little History of Trinidad, by M. Thomas, which I have quoted more
than once: -

'Donald Stewart, or rather Daaga, {170} was the adopted son of
Madershee, the old and childless king of the tribe called Paupaus, a
race that inhabit a tract of country bordering on that of the
Yarrabas. These races are constantly at war with each other.

'Daaga was just the man whom a savage, warlike, and depredatory
tribe would select for their chieftain, as the African Negroes
choose their leaders with reference to their personal prowess.



Online LibraryCharles KingsleyAt Last → online text (page 18 of 36)