Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Chapter 21 1889 – 1890 Dominica

Chapter 21 1889 – 1890 Dominica

I soon found that collecting in tropical jungles is not by any means all "beer and skittles" as the saying goes. Every morning I was off before daybreak, tramping the "high bush" of the mountain slopes or searching the clearings and gardens for specimens. Returning to the village by nine I would be busy skinning, labelling and cataloging my birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. Then toward sundown, back to the forest until lengthening shadows warned me it was time to head villageward. And until midnight I would be again busy preparing the specimens collected in the afternoon. It made no difference whether the sun was shining or the rain poured down. For that matter had I restricted my collecting to fair weather I would have had few specimens indeed for it rained almost constantly day and night, an average of over 300 inches a year at Laudat.

Sometimes Leon, Jules or Deglassé would take me on long tramps into the distant mountains, trips lasting for several days, in search of the great Imperial Parrot or "Ciceroo", the rare Nicholas Parrot, white-crowned pigeons, blue-headed quail-doves and other rare birds not found near Laudat. On these trips an "ajupa" or tiny lean-to hut of wild plantain and palm leaves would be our only shelter at night, The only provisions we carried with us were a few small loaves of the native bread, coffee and sometimes a piece of salt pork and we depended mainly upon agoutis, wild pigeons, iguanas and other game for food. Naturally we were soaked to the skin the entire time, for even if no rain were falling water dripped constantly from moisture-laden trees and, much of the time, we were in the clouds. But I seemed to thrive on it. I never caught cold and I gained strength and weight and I began at last to realize I was no longer a boy but actually had grown up.

We also made a trip to the famed Boiling Lake - a vast active volcanic crater about eight miles from Laudat, over the highest mountains. It was an awful trip - fording rushing mountain streams, struggling up the slippery precipitous mountain sides, often having to hew a way through dense jungles of bamboo, tree ferns or spine covered palm trees. But I felt that it had been worth while when at last we reached the mighty crater with its geysers, fumaroles, steaming bubbling streams and its great boiling lake. We even descended into the crater and guided by Deglassé picked our way carefully across the throbbing shaky bottom to the verge of the boiling lake itself. But it was a risky business. New steam jets were constantly bursting out and 1 felt that at any moment one might open up under our feet and in many places the floor of the crater was so thin that when Leon poked a stick into it hissing, sulphurous steam appeared. I had taken the trip for the sake of seeing this vast crater and had no expectations of finding any particularly rare or interesting specimens. But within the crater itself, over one thousand feet below the surrounding ridges, I found several species of birds, numerous reptiles and many insects some of which proved new to Science - among them a new species of Hercules beetle.

One of my most interesting and enjoyable experiences was my visit to the Carib settlement at Salybia or La Soir on the windward coast of the island.

It was Beché's home and he took me first to his parents' house. But the next day I was alotted a new thatched hut or ajupa. All the inhabitants were Caribs, with clear yellow skins, round faces and lustrous soft-brown eyes, although there were a few of mixed Carib and Negro blood or "black Caribs” as they were called. All spoke the Creole patois, a few had some knowledge of English of a sort and nearly all spoke the Carib or "Carina” language although only about twenty elderly people used it to any extent. But there was nothing savage nor wild about the villagers, nothing to hint that they were only a few generations removed from cannibalism, and it was hard to believe that these peaceful, timid aborigines defied the armies of

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years until the Europeans decided the game not worth the candle so to speak, and left Dominica to the unconquered and apparently unconquerable Caribs.

At the time of my visit the tribe numbered about two hundred. They lived, dressed and conversed much in the same manner as the colored folk of Laudat but they still wove their wonderful waterproof baskets, they still prepared cassava in the aboriginal manner using woven "metapees” for extracting the poisonous juice from the grated roots, and they still retained some of their tribal customs, tribal laws and tribal religion, although nominally Christians. Also they sold or rather I might say “bound-out” their children for a consideration. Beché himself had been thus purchased and virtually was a slave, although as well treated as any member of his owner's family and I came very near finding myself the owner of a member of the tribe despite my own wishes.

The chief, a fine elderly Indian, became fascinated with a pair of curved bladed surgeon's scissors I used in skinning birds and as I had presented several gifts to Beché’s parents and others I gave the chief the much coveted scissors. He grunted, grinned and hurried off to return in a short time leading his pretty daughter and informed me that the ten year old girl was mine in exchange for the scissors .

In vain I protested and declined the gift who appeared to take the deal as a matter of course. To the chief, my refusal merely meant that I was not satisfied, and he became quite excited, declaring she was the prettiest girl in the village, that she was an expert at basketry and at preparing cassava. In fact he appeared decidedly peeved and quite deeply insulted at my attitude.

I felt it would never do to incur his displeasure and that something must be done to satisfy all parties concerned. So I accepted my involuntary purchase, appeased the chief by giving him a file and a knife for full measure, and then explained that I could not be encumbered by the girl on my long trip to Morne Diablotin and that I would leave her in her father’s keeping until I returned to claim her.

Apparently Carib custom provides that goods left unclaimed beyond a certain time may be otherwise disposed of, for when I next visited the village, nearly twenty years later, I found my feminine chattel married to a strapping Carib, whom I at first failed to recognize as my old friend Beché, and the mother of several yellow-skinned children.

Needless, to say I did not claim her; but she recognized me, recalled the incident and laughing merrily exclaimed: "M'sieu was very stupid not to have know when he had such a good bargain", a statement which tickled Beché immensely.

I had some real adventures, too. On one trip to the northern part of the island our camp, on a small peninsula with the river on two sides, we became isolated by the suddenly-rising stream. The spot was transformed into a tiny island and we were as effectively prisoners as if behind steel bars. The worst of it was we were woefully short of food. Game had been scarce, edible land crabs had been few and far between and we were almost out of coffee, cassava, pork and other provisions, and as I had planned to remain a week longer I had sent Rolles to the nearest settlement for supplies. He should have been back by the third day but there was no sign of him. For that matter even had he appeared he could not have crossed the raging torrent that had marooned us.

Our meals that day consisted of a few land crabs, snails and two small thrushes. The next day our rations were reduced to a few snails, a couple of small lizards and an unwary snake. Even these might have kept us from starving had there been more, but search as we might no more snails or reptiles could be found. Until then I had never known the meaning of real hunger. I was ravenous, as were the others, and could well understand how famishing men could devour the flesh of their comrades. At last, gathering the remains of our past meals, the bones and legs of pigeons, parrots and agoutis, plantain skins and yam rinds, crab shells and other garbage, and quite unmindful of mould, ants and maggots, we made the offal into a thin stew. And never has anything tasted better.

The next morning Rolles appeared on the opposite bank of the river. Although the rain had ceased and the stream had fallen considerably it was still a turgid rushing torrent with good-sized trees tossing on its surface like matchsticks and of course utterly impassable for any living being. But as we gazed with longing hungry eyes at the maelstrom I had an idea. If, I explained to my companions, we attached a bush rope (liana) to a small log and tossed it into the stream some distance above the camp, the current sweeping around the bend, might carry the billet across to within reach of Rolles. Then he had only to tie his basket of food to the line and we could haul it back. Of course the food would be soaked, but what mattered wet bread and cassava, water-logged pork and salt codfish when one was starving? Shouting and gesturing to Rolles we explained our plan. The scheme promised to be a great success. The billet of balsa wood went bobbing down stream, the coil of lianas unwound and it moved swiftly nearer and nearer to Rolles who, up to his armpits in the river was ready to grasp it. With shouts of joy we saw him seize it and a moment later, he had tied the basket to the line and signalled for us to pull in. At last we would have plenty of food, licking our chops in anticipation we hauled in the line. The basket was half way across, nearer and nearer it came. It was almost within reach when, just as we felt certain it was safe, an uprooted tree fern came leaping, twisting down stream. It was all over in an instant. The tossing, gyrating tree swept past carrying our precious food and the severed liana with it.

Utterly discouraged we stood gazing dazed and hopelessly at the swollen river. Rolles shouted to us, waved a hand and turning, vanished in the forest.

For the next two days we starved. But the third day was clear and the river had gone down a lot. To be sure it was still high, it ran like a mill race and branches and other debris covered its surface. But it was just as well to drown as to starve, and with stout staffs to aid us we took our lives in our hands and waded into the stream. Slipping on the rounded stones of the bottom, dodging floating branches, half-swimming at times we forced our way across and at last climbed safely up the farther bank. Half-drowned, famished and exhausted yet we made better time through that forest than ever we had made before. We scarcely noticed how bad the trail was blocked by fallen trees, washed out in places, the hollows miniature lakes, for visions of food at the settlement shut all other thoughts from our minds. Once, Leon stepped on a thorn that penetrated an inch into his bare foot. Scarcely hesitating he muttered an oath, jerked the thorn from his foot and hurried on. Several times I barked my shins against rocks and logs but I did not realize it until at the end of our journey I found my trousers legs red with blood. Five hours of this and with a wild shout Leon pointed ahead to where sunlight showed between the tree trunks. Racing forward we came to a small clearing and a thatched hut. No one was at home but within the deserted house was a jug of molasses and a slab of rank rancid, mouldy salt codfish. Never in my life has any food tasted as delicious as that malodorous salt fish and the black sticky treacle sprinkled with flies. With our worst pangs of hunger eased we took matters more calmly. A lone coconut palm towered above the hut and Jean climbed this and threw down a dozen or more green nuts. Having finished these and thus having completely exhausted the edible resources of the place, we headed for the nearest settlement in the Layou Valley.

All things must have an end and at last the time came to leave Dominica and board ship for home. As a collecting trip my first expedition had been a great success. I had secured an almost complete collection of the birds, mammals and reptiles of the island and hundreds of insects. I had added a number of species of birds to the avifauna and, as it turned out later, had secured four species new to Science.

But the most far reaching and important result of my trip was that it shaped my entire career and my life work. For more than fifty years after, I made scientific explorations throughout tropical America, much of the time making studies of the native Indians and collecting their weapons, artifacts and handiwork. And it was an article on the Dominican Caribs that I wrote for a leading magazine that paved the way for my literary work - my magazine articles and stories and my 108 books.

Many a tropical land have I known since that first trip to Dominica. I have roamed every island of the Caribbean, I have had many an adventure more thrilling than any experience of those youthful days. I have made expeditions into the trackless jungles of the Amazon, across the burning rock-strewn deserts of Peru and Chile, among the snow clad summits of the mighty Andes and to uninhabited island Edens. I have penetrated jungles where no white man had trod before, I have visited savage head-hunting tribes and have been made blood brother to a Carib chief yet my first trip to the West Indies remains the most vivid in my memory and my favorite spot on all this green earth is lovely Dominica. Many times have I revisited the island, many times I have gone hundreds, yes thousands of miles out of my way in order to again visit it. Old Andre and his Carib wife died years ago. Beché is a gray headed dignified chief. Leon's broad shoulders are bent with the years that have passed, and "Jimmy" whom I taught to read and write, is a grizzled, wrinkled, gray-headed great grandfather, But Laudat remains almost unchanged. The same houses are still the homes of the same families as of old, and when we meet, Rolles and Leon and I chuckle over our soup of garbage and our "mange" of molasses and salt codfish. And to them, one and all - to those who were my comrades sixty years ago, to those who then were tiny boys and girls but now are grown up men and women, I always remain “Moin Papa”.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.