Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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into my hand, " My young friend," said he, in a
very feeling tone, " I shall either have to see you
sunk by the cannon of the fort, or hear of your
being sent prisoner for life to the fortress of Ceuta,
on the coast of Africa.

I now endeavoured to persuade my remaining
uncle to try his fortune with me ; but my entreaties
were of no avail. He fell an early victim to the
fever, which returneJ with increased virulence the
following spring. A letter which I received from
my worthy friend, Mr. Dillon of Alhaurin, some
twenty miles from Malaga, informed me that it
swept away 36,000 souls.

Our captain had taken the precaution to make
out false papers, in case of need, on account of the
war betwixt Great Britain and France. My brother
was entered as a passenger, myself as a Swedish
carpenter. We slept on board for many successive
nights, in hopes of a fair wind to carry us through
the Straits. At last a real east wind did come, and
it blew with great violence. The captain, whose
foresight and precautions were truly admirable, had
given the strictest orders to the crew that not a
word should be spoken whilst we were preparing to
escape. We lay in close tier amongst forty sail of


merchantmen. The harbour-master, having come
his usual rounds, and found all right, passed on
without making any observations. At one o'clock,
post meridiem, just as the governor had gone to the
eastward to i^.ke an airing in his carriage, as was
his custom every day ; and the boats of two Spanish
brigs of war at anchor in the harbour had landed
their officers for the afternoon's amusements, our
vessel worked out clear of the rest, and instantly
became a cloud of canvass. The captain's counte-
nance, which was very manly, exhibited a portrait
of cool intrepidity rarely seen : had I possessed the
power, I would have made him an admiral on the
spot. The vessel drove through the surge with
such a press of sail, that I expected every moment
to see her topmasts carried away. Long before the
brigs of war had got their officers on board, and had
weighed in chase of us, we were far at sea; and
when night had set in, we lost sight of them for
ever ; our vessel passing Gibraltar at the rate of
nearly eleven knots an hour.

The wind headed us the following night. After
thirty days of cold and stormy weather, we ran the
risk of following a fishing boat, for want of a pilot,
and anchored off Brownsea Castle, near Poole, in
Dorsetshire ; an adverse wind not permitting us to
proceed up Channel. Here we sent our papers, and
Consul Laird's certificate, up to London. Contrary
to my expectations, we received permission, in due
time, to proceed up the Thames. I had often told
Captain Bolin, during the voyage, that we should
be sent back to the Mediterranean for a regular
b 4


bill of health ; but he thought otherwise, and he was

I brought over with me from Spain a superbly
mounted Spanish gun, and a beautiful ivory cruci-
fix : they had been a present from the Duchess of
Alva to my deceased uncle. The gun is the iden-
tical one which the famous Duke of Alva had with
him in the Low Countries: my uncle always in-
tended it for his relative, the late Sir Richard
Bedingfeld, Bart., of Oxburgh, in Norfolk, to which
place I sent it. The crucifix had been taken away
from Rome, by a French general, in 1796 : it was a
present to ray mother, and is now at Walton Hall.

Up to the time of my leaving England for the
Mediterranean, I had been accustomed to drink a
little beer at dinner; but, finding the taste of it
bitter on my return, I put the glass down upon the
table without swallowing its contents, and have
never since drunk one drop of fermented liquors.

The pestilence at Malaga had shaken me con-
siderably. Being but thinly clad, in coming up the
Channel I caught a cold, which attacked the lungs,
and reduced me to the brink of the grave. I must
have sunk, had it not been for the skill of the late
celebrated surgeon, Mr. Hey of Leeds : he set me
on my legs again; and I again hunted with Lord
Darlington. But the bleak and wintry wind of
England ill suited a frame naturally chilly, and in-
jured by what had already happened. I longed to
bask in a warmer sun.

My paternal uncle having estates in Demerara,
and my father having lately made a purchase there>


for the benefit of his younger children, I petitioned
to be allowed to go out and superintend them ;
seeing that there was no chance of travelling with
comfort in Europe, on account of the war, which
had all the appearance of becoming general.

Our family found its way to the New World in
the following manner : My father's sister was re-
markably handsome. As she was one day walking
in the streets of Wakefield, a gentleman, by name
Daly, from Demerara, met her accidentally, and fell
desperately in love with her : they were married in
due course of time, although the family was very
much averse to the match. Soon after this, my
father's younger brother, who had no hopes at home
on account of the penal laws, followed his sister to
Demerara, and settled there.

All having been arranged for my departure, I
proceeded to London, where my maternal uncle,
the late intrepid Sir John Bedingfeld, who had
saved the king's life in the year 1796, introduced
me to Sir Joseph Banks, who ever after took a
warm interest in my adventures. He particularly
impressed upon my mind his conviction that all
low and swampy countries within the tropics are in
general very insalubrious, and fatal tojpuropean
constitutions. " You may stay in them," said he
to me, " for three years or so, and not suffer much.
After that period, fever and ague, and probably a
liver disease, will attack you, and you will die at
last, worn out, unless you remove in time to a more
favoured climate. Wherefore," continued he, " as
you have not your bread to seek, you must come


home once in three years, at farthest, and then all
will go right." I followed this admirable advice
with great success : still, I used to think that I ran
less risk of perishing in those unwholesome swamps
than most other Europeans, as I never found the
weather too hot, and I could go bareheaded under
a nearly equatorial sun, without experiencing any
inconvenience. Too often, however, might others
have exclaimed with Admiral Hosier's ghost :
" Sent in this foul clime to languish,

Think what thousands fall in vain,
Wasted with disease and anguish,

Not in glorious battle slain."

I sailed from Portsmouth in the ship Fame,
Captain Brand, on November 29. 1804, and landed
at the town of Stabroek, in ci-devant Dutch Guiana,
after a passage of about six weeks. I liked the
country uncommonly, and administered to the es-
tates till 1812; coming home at intervals, agreeably
to the excellent and necessary advice which I had
received from Sir Joseph Banks. In the month of
April, 1812, my father and uncle being dead, I
delivered over the estates to those concerned in
them, and never more put foot upon them.

In my subsequent visits to Guiana, having no
other object in view than that of natural history,
I merely stayed a day or two in the town of Stabroek
(now called George Town), to procure what ne-
cessaries I wanted ; and then I hastened up into
the forests of the interior, as the Wanderings will
. Whilst I was on the estates, I had the finest


opportunity in the world of examining the water-
fowl of Guiana : they were in vast abundance all
along the sea shore, and in the fresh-water swamps
behind the plantations. No country in the world can
offer a more extensive and fertile field to the orni-
thologist, than our celebrated colony of Demerara.

I had several adventures during the time that the
estates were under my charge. Perhaps it will be
well to recount them here: they will tend to en-
liven a little this dull attempt on my part at auto-
biography ; or, more properly speaking, an attempt
to amuse the reader of these Essays at my own
cost, should my memoirs fall into the hands of a
surly critic. However, be this as it may, let me
here inform the reader fliat there shall not be a
single exaggeration in any part of them.

During the war betwixt Spain and England,
the privateers from the Orinoco were perpetually
scouring the coast of Essequibo, and committing
ruinous devastations on the property of the British
planters. One morning, five or six English gentle-
men, amongst whom was my friend Mr. Robert
Gordon, afterwards Governor of Berbice, went out
in a schooner, with Mr. Hubbard, an American, to
attack a privateer which had appeared in the offing.
A person by the name of Lynch (I knew him
well) was one of the party. He had a foreboding
that all would not go right ; for, just as he was
entering the vessel which was to take him out to
battle, he gave his watch to a friend, and he begged
it might be sent to his father in Ireland, should he
not return. He was a light little man, apparently


not cut out for rough or hazardous undertakings.
Our adventurers had better staid at home. The
Spaniard bore down upon their schooner, and im-
mediately took possession of her.

As these gentlemen had gone out to battle on the
high seas without a commission from government,
their friends in Demerara had serious apprehensions,
and not without reason, that they ran a risk of being
tucked up for pirates on their reaching the Spanish
settlements in the Orinoco.

Being the only person in Demerara acquainted
with the Spanish language, I volunteered my ser-
vices to go in quest of the unfortunates. Their
friends accepted the offer with abundant thanks ;
and, having engaged a vessel for me, I sailed with a
Mr. Charles Gordon (a relative of one of the prison-
ers), for Barbadoes, to receive letters and instruc-
tions from Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. My
instructions from Colonel Nicholson, the governor
of Demerara, bear date October 24. 1807.

A little before this (that is, on the llth of Sep-
tember in the same year), I had received from
Colonel Nicholson my commission of lieutenant in
the 2d regiment of militia. As no declaration had
been previously required from me against transub-
stautiation, nor any promise that I would support
the nine and thirty articles of faith by law esta-
blished, nor any inuendos thrown out touching the
" devil, the Pope, and the Pretender," I was free
in conscience to accept of this commission. It was
the first commission that any one of the name of
Waterton had received from Queen Mary's days.


During that long interval, not a Waterton could be
found vicious enough to regain his lost birthright at
the incalculable sacrifice of conscience. It had been
the object of those in power to tempt us to deviate
into their new road, which they said would lead to
heaven, but we were quite satisfied with the old
beaten path; so that the threats, and the allure*
ments, and the cruel enactments of our would-be
seducers were of no avail ; saving that we were
brought down from our once high estate, and ren-
dered very small (and are yet very small) in the
eyes of our fellow-subjects. But every dog has his
day : To-day for thee, to-morrow for me, as Sancho
Panza says. And now to Barbadoes.

During our passage, I observed that the sailors
were far too often at the pump, which forced up
clear sea-water from the vessel's hold ; so, without
making any remarks on what I had witnessed, I
took care to put Daniel's life-preserver under my
pillow, in case of need ; I had bought it at Ports-
mouth, on the recommendation of a Captain Baker.
The schooner went down at anchor, on the night of
the day that we reached Barbadoes.

The Admiral had unfortunately sailed for the
Saintes ; but, as he was expected to return imme-
diately, it was judged best to await his arrival in
Carlisle Bay.

Some time before this, Captain Rogers, of the
Windsor Castle packet, had had his celebrated en-
gagement with the Jeune Adele French privateer,
from Martinique. Her captain had fallen in the
contest ; and her lieutenant, Monsieur Flagelle, was


a prisoner of war in Bridgetown. I was introduced
to him ; and, finding him an officer of most amiable
manners and superior education, I helped him a
little in money matters, and did him other trivial
acts of kindness. He told me that he had been
brought up for the marine marchande ; and that he
never thought he should be reduced to the necessity
of going on board a privateer ; but the English
cruisers having nearly put an end to French com-
merce by sea, there was no other way left open for
him to get on in the world. He was sorry he could
make me no return, as he was a prisoner in a
foreign land; but he would write a letter for me,
which possibly might be of service to me on some
future day. Next morning, Lieutenant Flagelle pre-
sented me with a letter, in which he requested that
all captains of French men-of-war and of privateers
in the Caribbean Sea would treat me with kindness
and attention, should misfortune throw me into
their power.

It was at Barbadoes that I made the acquaintance
of Captain Beaver, who commanded the Acasta
frigate of 44 guns. I was told, some years ago, that
this scientific officer died an admiral, whilst at
anchor at the Cape of Good Hope. Mr. Maxwell,
the navy agent in Barbadoes, had given a large
dinner party at his country house near Bridgetown.
I sat next Captain Beaver at dinner. During the
dessert, he amused the company with a facetious
story of an interview which formerly had taken
place betwixt Lord Melville and John Bedingfeld


of the Navy Pay-Office. When he had finished his
story, I told him that Mr. Bedingfield was my uncle.

I was breakfasting one morning on board the
Acasta, when I perceived that Captain Beaver
seemed to be very particular in having his crest on
different articles of furniture in the cabin : his crest
was a beaver, and mine is an otter. My uncle
Bedingfeld had invented a dagger of curious con-
struction, adapted to the boarding of vessels. I had
got one made in London, under his directions. It
was silver mounted, and had my crest upon it ; so
I begged Captain Beaver to accept it as a keep-
sake from me. I mention this little anecdote merely
in order that his relatives may know whence the
dagger came, should it be now in their possession.

Whilst I was waiting in Bridgetown for Admiral
Cochrane's return from the Saintes, a letter arrived
to inform me that there was no necessity for my
proceeding to the Orinoco, as all the English
gentlemen were safe. They had risen on the
Spanish crew, at the mouth of the Orinoco, and
had retaken their vessel. During the scuffle, poor
little Lynch got jostled overboard and was drowned,
being the only white man who lost his life in the
frav. After the retaking of the vessel, our English-
men steered for Tobago, whither they arrived just
in time to save their lives, for they were nearly in a
dying state for want of water.

I left Barbadoes with regret. It was head-quar-
ters, during the war, for the navy and the army.
Our troops and tars kept it in one perpetual round
of gaiety.


" Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero

Pulsanda tellus,"
was all the go in Bridgetown.

Notwithstanding the most guarded sobriety and
abstinence on my part, the fever and ague would at
times assault me with great obstinacy. The attacks
could always be traced to my getting wet, and re-
maining in my wet clothes until the sun had dried
them ; a custom never to be sufficiently condemned
in any country. But, as Fenelon remarks, " La
jeunesse est presomptueuse : elle se promet tout
d'elle-meme ; quoique fragile, elle croit pouvoir
tout, et n'avoir jamais rien a craindre : elle se
confie legerement, et sans precaution."

When the ague came on to any serious extent, I
would go up to Mr. Edmonstone's house, in Mibiri
Creek, for change of air. He was the most valued
friend I ever had in the world ; and I seldom failed
to recover my health during the time that I remained
with him. His nephew, Mr. Archibald Edmon-
stone, was all hospitality and kindness. He was
very knowing in the woods, and would find out the
fruit-bearing trees, where the finest birds in Guiana
were to be seen. Nobody was better acquainted
with the forest trees than he was. I have by me a
catalogue of his, in which he enumerates nearly
seventy trees found in that neighbourhood ; and he
gives the size at which they generally arrive, their
Indian names, their qualities, and their uses.

In the year 1808, Admiral Collingwood having
sent despatches to Demerara for the Spanish govern-
ment in the Orinoco, I was requested by Governor
Ross to be the bearer of them.


As my friend Mr. Edmonstone was but in a
poor state of health, I thought a change of air
would be of service to him. At my earnest entreaty,
his name was included in the commission. The
governor, at first, intimated a wish for him to go as
a private friend ; but, on my remarking that the
Spanish forts in the lower part of the Orinoco
might refuse assent to his proceeding to Angustura,
the capital, unless his name appeared in the com-
mission, there was no farther objection on the part
of the governor, and his name was put in the com-

I rashly procured the same favour for a person
who had better have staid at home. He never let
me rest one moment until I had got the governor to
allow him to accompany us. He was in years, and
could not speak one word of Spanish. I only saw
my error when it was too late. He ill-requited the
favour which I had procured for him.

I now waited on the governor for the last time ;
and, after he had imparted to me his private instruc-
tions on certain points which he wished me to ascer-
tain during my stay in Angustura, he gave me my
commission, together with the despatches of Ad-
miral Collingwood, for the captain general of the
Orinoco. The commission is dated Aug. 2. 1808.

I sailed from Demerara in the Levina flag of truce.
After we had doubled Point Barim'a, we found the
current rushing down with astonishing rapidity, and
carrying with it enormous fragments of trees into
the Atlantic Ocean. We soon found it necessary to
get the vessel into the eddy water, close to the bank ;


and at all the points where the stream met us, we
carried out a hawser in the small boat, and lashed it
to the branches of the trees which overhung the
river. By means of this perpetual warping, we
worked our slow and tedious way up to Sacopan,
and thence to the fort at Barrancas, where the
Spanish officers provided us with a craft of their own.
It was a long boat, schooner-rigged, and admirably
adapted to the service for which it was intended.
During the whole of the passage up the river, there
was a grand feast for the eyes and ears of an or-
nithologist. In the swampy parts of the wooded
islands, which abound in this mighty river, we saw
water fowl innumerable ; and when we had reached
the higher grounds, it was quite charming to observe
the immense quantities of parrots and scarlet aras
which passed over our heads. The loud, harsh
screams of the bird called the horned-screamer,
were heard far and near; and I could frequently
get a sight of this extraordinary bird, as we passed
along ; but I never managed to bring one down with
the gun, on account of the difficulty of approaching
it. John Edmonstone, who is now in Edinburgh,
will remember well this expedition.

Whilst we were wending our way up the river, an
accident happened of a somewhat singular nature.
There was a large labarri snake coiled up in a bush,
which was close to us. I fired at it, and wounded
it so severely that it could not escape. Being wish-
ful to dissect it, I reached over into the bush, with
the intention to seize it by the throat, and convey it
aboard. The Spaniard at the tiller, on seeing this,


took the alarm, and immediately put his helm aport.
This forced the vessel's head to the stream, and I
was left hanging to the bush with the snake close to
me, not having been able to recover my balance as
the vessel veered from the land. I kept firm hold
of the branch to which I was clinging, and was three
times over-head in the water below, presenting an
easy prey to any alligator that might have been on
the look-out for a meal. Luckily, a man who was
standing near the pilot, on seeing what had hap-
pened, rushed to the helm, seized hold of it, and put
it hard a-starboard, in time to bring the head of the
vessel back again. As they were pulling me up, I
saw that the snake was evidently too far gone to do
mischief; and so I laid hold of it, and brought it
aboard with me, to the horror and surprise of the
crew. It measured eight feet in length. As soon
as I had got a change of clothes, I killed it, and
made a dissection of the head.

I would sometimes go ashore in the swamps to
shoot maroudies, which are somewhat related to the
pheasant ; but they were very shy, and it required
considerable address to get within shot of them. In
these little excursions, I now and then smarted for my
pains. More than once, I got among some hungry
leeches, which made pretty free with my legs. The
morning after I had had the adventure with the la-
barri snake, a cayman slowly passed our vessel. All
on board agreed that this tyrant of the fresh waters
could not be less than thirty feet long.

On arriving at Angustura, the capital of the Ori-
noco, we were received with great politeness by the
c 2


governor. Nothing could surpass the hospitality of
the principal inhabitants. They never seemed satis-
fied unless we were partaking of the dainties which
their houses afforded. Indeed, we had feasting,
dancing, and music, in superabundance. The go-
vernor, Don Felipe de Ynciarte, was tall and corpu-
lent. On our first introduction, he told me that he
expected the pleasure of our company to dinner
every day during our stay in Angustura. We had
certainly every reason to entertain very high notions
of the plentiful supply of good things which the
Orinoco afforded ; for, at the first day's dinner, we
counted no less than forty dishes of fish and flesh.

The governor was superbly attired in full uniform
of gold and blue ; the weight of which alone, in that
hot climate, and at such a repast, was enough to
have melted him down. He had not got half through
his soup, before he began visibly to liquefy. I looked
at him, and bethought me of the old saying, " How
I sweat ! said the mutton chop to the gridiron." He
now became exceedingly uneasy ; and I myself had
cause for alarm ; but our sensations arose from very
different causes. He, no doubt, already felt that the
tightness of his uniform, and the weight of the orna-
ments upon it, would never allow him to get through
that day's dinner with any degree of comfort to
himself. I, on the other hand (who would have been
amply satisfied with one dish well done), was horri-
fied at the appalling sight of so many meats before
me. Good breeding whispered to me, and said, " Try
a little of most of them." Temperance replied, "Do
so at your peril: and, for your over-strained courtesy,


you shall have yellow fever before midnight." At
last, the governor said to me in Spanish, " Don
Carlos, this is more than man can bear. No puedo
sufrir tanto. Pray pull off your coat, and tell your
companions to do the same ; and I '11 show them the
example." On saying this, he stripped to the waist-
coat; and I and my friends, and every officer at table,
did the same. The next day, at dinner time, we
found his Excellency clad in a uniform of blue Sa-
lempore, slightly edged with gold lace.

Don Felipe de Ynciarte had been a great explorer
of Spanish Guiana in his day. He told me that he,
in person, dressed as a common sailor, had surveyed
the whole of the sea coast from the Orinoco to
the river Essequibo. He let me look at a superl
map of his own drawing. It was beautifully finished,
and my lips certainly watered to have a copy taken
of it. After my return to Demerara, I sent this
courteous governor a fine telescope, which had just
arrived from London. I corresponded with him until
I sailed to Europe for my health. During his go-
vernment, beef was so plentiful, that the heads and
tongues of the slaughtered oxen were thrown to the
vultures. Indeed, beef was only one penny a pound,

Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 3 of 28)