Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Shayshan Indians and the Tsingal Mine

From the memoirs of A. Hyatt Verrill
Chapter XXXII [Duplicated 33, not in the book] 1920 - 1922
At Bocos de Toro, I had heard innumerable tales of a tribe of Indians far back in the interior. According to some, the Indians were hostile and never permitted outsiders to enter that area. Some claimed they were cannibals, some said they were savages, some said they wore semi-civilized but all agreed that they lived far in the interior in an unexplored district about the headwaters of the Palenque River close to or over the Costa Rican border. There was no such tribe indicated on the ethnological maps and as they were apparently unknown to ethnologists, I decided then and there to visit them. I knew it was to be a very difficult trip and I realised that it might become hazardous for the rainy season was approaching and if the river rose in flood I might be drowned or marooned indefinitely in the jungle.
I travelled from Almirante in an apology for a coach attached to a banana train. After miles of bumping, jerking travel over the ill-laid track we finally arrived at a tiny, remote station beside the river I planned to ascend. Space forbids a description of the place or the amazing character Señor Toro who was station master, comandante, alcalde, boarding-house keeper end proprietor of a strange combination of general store, trading post and saloon.

(For a detailed account of this expedition see “My Jungle Trails” published by L.C.Page)

Neither he, nor anyone else would believe that I was seeking Indians, and not the fabulous lost mine of Tsingal, although like most Latin Americans he considered all ‘Norte Americanos’ crazy. He could not imagine anyone crazy enough to plunge into the unknown with its reputedly savage Indians with any reason other than to search for Tsingal. Toro, however, did know something of the Indians. The Terribis, he stated, were decent fellows for Indians. Peaceful, if unmolested, although they resented strangers entering their territory. He had traded with them and had visited some of the nearer villages. But— “Beyond them— quien sabe?" Somewhere in the remote impenetrable interior was a village of a cacique, the king of a fierce, hostile tribe. For me to reach this area would be absolutely impossible, he declared and he added, if I should reach it, I would never live to return. Very obviously every man in the settlement felt the same way and it was impossible to induce anyone, to accompany me.
To attempt the trip with only my camp boy was out of the question and I was beginning to fear that I would be forced to abandon my trip when two Colombians arrived on the scene. One was a huge brawny brigandish-looking Negro, the other a wiry mestizo, but they solved my problem. They were utterly fearless, devil-may-care rascals and they were expert river men. As the Negro, who bore the grandiose name of Jesus Mario de Cordoba declared he knew the river “as well as I know my wife”. At which Pepe, the mestizo, chuckled and observed "in that case thou knowest nothing of it." Whether or not Jesus Maria de Cordoba knew the ways of his soñora might be a matter of opinion but he most certainly did know the river, or at least that portion of the stream which was ordinarily navigated. In all my jungle experiences I had never employed more willing, cheerful workers.
It was the most strenuous, difficult journey I had ever experienced. The river was very low and in many places there was not enough water to float the loaded cayuca and we tramped for miles over stony playas where a misstep meant a broken leg or a disabling sprain and the blazing sun heated the rocks until one might literally fry an egg upon them.
In other places long series of rapids forced us to haul the cayuca with tow-lines and there were thorny jungles through which we had to hew a path with a machete in order to portage our goods to the head of the rapids, but the two Colombians never complained.
For days we had seen no trace of human beings; the river and its shores showed no signs of inhabitants, then one day we sighted a thatched house perched high on posts a few hundred feet beyond the river bank. Awaiting us on the shore was a man. I had expected to see an Indian, but the wild-looking, ragged fellow was obviously white. He was shouting to us in Spanish and his face was half-hidden by a gray beard and moustache. "Señor," he cried as soon as we were within talking distance- "It is the will of God that I saw you approaching in the distance. For three months I have not known the taste of tobacco. Can the señor, by the grace of God, have a trifle to spare, that he can sell me? But a thousand pardons caballero permit me to introduce myself. Señor, I am General Valdez Jimenez at your service and if the Señor will do me the honor of accepting such hospitality as I can offer, my house and all it contains are yours."
To say that we wore astonished, is putting it mildly. Here, in the back of beyond, where I thought none but Indios lived, was an educated Spaniard who, despite his rags, had the dignity and manners of a grandee. His story was simple. A former general of the Colombian army, he had become so disgusted with the politics of that republic, that he had taken to the jungle and for thirty years had dwelt with his Indian wife far from the haunts of civilized man. Only once had he left his home in the wilderness, when by a round-about means, the news of Panama’s declaration of independence reached him he buckled on his rusty sword and in his dugout canoe had set out for civilization to offer his services in behalf of the new republic. Long before he had reached Toro's place the bloodless revolution was over and Panama was under the protective arm of Uncle Sam. Finding his services not needed the general, like the King of France, had turned about and gone right home again.
Like all the others, General Jimenez assumed that I was on my way to search for Tsingal. It was difficult to convince him of the truth, but once he fully realized that I was searching for semi-mythical Indians, and not the lost mine, I found that he actually knew the cacique of the bravos, or wild Indians whom he called Shayshans.
When I asked him if he thought I might meet the tribe and the home of the chief, he shrugged— "We Spaniards have a proverb which says the fortune teller of Valencia can say that when it rains, the streets will be wet, but there is no proverb which tells us the fortune teller can say when it will rain. I am no fortune teller. King Polu of the Shayshans, I have seen thrice in thirty years, but whether or not the Americano will see him, quien sabe?” He assured me, however, that the cacique was not hostile, but that he and his people believed that no strangers would enter the territory except to search for Tsingal and as the Indians knew that their fate would be sealed if white men discovered the mine, they took no chances end kept them out.
I was greatly encouraged. There was no longer any doubt of the existence of the tribe and their cacique. My greatest problem would be to convince the king that I was not interested in Tsingal.
The general could not give me much detailed information. King Polu was a strange man, he said, and surrounded with mystery. Then a boy, he had lived for a time in the settlements and had acquired a knowledge of civilized ways, the Spanish language and Christianity. Also, he informed me, one of the chief's legs was shorter then the other causing him to limp. Then, piously crossing himself and speaking in lowered tones he continued, “He is a great magician and deals in un-holy matters. All the Indios know that he flies through the night in the form of a great bird and watches what goes on. I cannot say if this is true, but once I saw a monstrous bird fly past, such a bird as never before had I seen and” again crossing himself—“the thing flew unsteadily because one wing was shorter than the other. I am a Christian and a devout Catholic and believe not in supernatural matters. Perchance Indios, being pagans, may deal with the devil, therefore I always carry an Indian charm, the image of a Shayshan god, for who can say that in their country their gods may not have power to protect one from evil." As he spoke, he produced from his ragged shirt, a greasy scapular and a little golden image. I stared in speechless wonder for it was a beautifully, made figure of Kukulcan the Plumed Serpent of the Mayas.
Nothing would induce him to part with the talisman which he said he had found on a mountainside where it had been exposed by a landslide. However he did help me, and if it had not been for him, I might never have succeeded in my quest. A few miles further up the river, he told me, there was a Terribi Indian house. The Indio who dwelt there was semi-civilized and spoke Spanish. Perhaps, the general thought, Juan, which was the Indio's name, might be able to help me. We found the thatched hut and the Terribi owner proved to be an intelligent and sophisticated, wrinkled old fellow. Then questioned about the Indians further inland he answered willingly. Many of his people had died of influenza brought in by Indians who had visited the settlements to trade. How many were left, he could not say. The cacique dwelt far away, but the Indians of the lower river knew nothing of them. They were gente, civilized people, while the cacique and his people of the mountains were bravos, although of the same tribe.
Terribis was the name given then by the Spaniards, but in their own tongue, they wore Shayshans, “But” he added, "beyond the lands of the cacique were the Doraks, who were truly savages.” when I asked him if I could visit the cacique, he smiled. "Once", he replied, "I went to Bocos de Toro. There I saw boats that moved without sails or paddles. Where I saw great birds made by white men to fly in the air. Can the white men visit the Shayshan king? Who can say? To the white man all things are possible." But he could not, or would not give me any definite information. Turning, he spoke to his wife in their native tongue, and instantly my interest was aroused, for many of the words were identical with those of the Quiche-Maya. Was I on the brink of a most remarkable ethnological discovery? Did the general's image of Kukulcan and the Maya words in the Terribi language mean that the Shayshans were remnants of some long-forgotten Maya colony?
During my conversation with Juan I had seen a young Indian arrive in a dugout canoe. He was talking with Cordova, the latter arose and spoke to me—"Señor” he announced "I have good news, Chico, standing yonder, will go with us. He knows the river better than I and as he is an Indio, we will be safe with him. All he asks is a knife and tobacco," and he added "there will be two more hands to help carry the cargo across the playa. With Chico along, the patron will not be forced to work like a peon." “Bueno”, I told him. “But” I asked “does Chico know the way to the house of the cacique?" "Señor", he whispered, "all the Indios know where the king dwells, but none will tell, unless they are a friend. With Chico we can reach the hone of a comisario, and if you can win friendship all will be well." I was puzzled, but Cordoba explained that an Indian comisario as a sort of sub-chief who ruled the people within his district and acted as a watch-dog and spy and reported the presence of strangers to the cacique.
Although the labor of portaging was made easier by Chico and his cayuca the travelling was indescribably bad. Portages five or six miles in length were frequent. Instead of playas of small water-worn stones there were rocks of every size, some weighing many tons, scattered in wild confusion, while clouds of biting flies and gnats made life miserable, but after a week of this heart-breaking travel we reached the home of the comisario. As he stepped from his home he appeared more like a well-to-do planter than an uncivilized Indian, for he wore white home-spun cotton clothing. His costume, however, proved merely a veneer and a short time later he was more at ease clad only in a breech-cloth, within his house there was not an article or utensil of civilized man aside from an ancient muzzle-loading shot gun.
He did not appear at all surprised at our arrival and Chico, grinning, assured me that the comisario had known of our approach for the past four days. Toluka, as he was called, was friendly and made no objections to my proposed visit to the king. I was rather puzzled at this for I had fully expected him to try to induce me to turn back. But when, three days later, we passed through a deep cañon and saw cleared land stretching from the river to the forest, with a large thatched house upon a low hill, the mystery was solved. Pointing to the house, Chico exclaimed, "Mira, Señor, the home of the cacique— my father's house!"
No wonder Toluka had not protested when the king's son accompanied us. Chico considered it a great joke and when, at his shouts, a canoe manned by a stocky youth crossed the river and reached the shore where we stood Chico spoke rapidly in his native dialect and both fellows roared with laughter.
My mission had been accomplished. I had reached the home of the great king of the Shayshans, and a very pleasant, likeable, intelligent man I found him. I was rather surprised to find him wearing a cotton shirt and trousers but what surprised me far more was his crown of Harpey eagle feathers and macaw plumes, for it was the exact counterpart of the chieftan's headdresses depicted on Mayan sculptures and unlike those of any other known race. If, as I now felt sure, the Shayshans were descendants of the ancient Mayas, it was only natural that they should wear cotton garments. #
# Footnote: After I returned to New York, a study of the Shayshan collection and their vocabulary proved that the tribe was of the Mayan race and as far as known it is the most southerly outpost of the Mayas.

To make a long story short, Polu and I became good friends. He understood Spanish perfectly but insisted he could not speak it well so our conversation was in a trialogue with his son Chico helping out when the cacique was at a loss for a Spanish word. Although, as the old General had said Polu walked with a limp he was not in the least handicapped by his short leg, and I couldn't by any stretch of my imagination picture him flying about the country in the form of a giant bird. It was almost as impossible to believe that he actually was the mysterious, unapproachable chief of whom so many strange tales had been told. He and his family gladly traded weapons, ornaments and artifacts of all kinds, and he assured me that a number of his tribe had been summoned to gather at his house to trade, for it would be a hopeless task for me to attempt to visit even a portion of the Shayshan villages.
So docile and friendly did the Indians appear that I could not imagine them dangerous or hostile, and Polu assured me the tribe always had been peaceful but disliked and distrusted the Spanish and Panamanians and for their own protection had moved farther and farther into the wilderness.
Never was the lost mine of Tsingal mentioned. Yet I was fated to be the first white man to visit the mine in over a century and live to tell of it.
It was all because the king's daughter, a chubby "princess" of seven or eight, gorged herself on rich, oily, piva-palm nuts, seized with a violent tummy ache her screams aroused everyone in the middle of the night and the Indians, believing some evil spirit had taken possession of her, added their wails, lamentations and incantations to the uproar. For a time Polu and his wife would have none of my medicine. But when beating of drums, slaying a fowl and rubbing magic charms on the kiddy's stomach failed to drive off the "devils" the cacique turned to me for aid.
In a very short time the princess’ pain was over, and she was soon sleeping quietly. To the Indians it savoured of magic and they regarded me with awe.
My reward came the next morning. Expressing his gratitude in his mixture of hesitating Spanish and the few Shayshan words I had learned, he pointed to the sombre green mountains with their mysterious, fathomless purple shadows. "Vamonos!" he exclaimed, "Tsingal!"
I scarcely could believe my ears. Polu knew the location of the lost mine and was about to lead me to it as proof of his gratitude for curing his daughter!
It is needless to describe that momentous tramp through the vast forest. I lost all sense of direction and I was soaked to the skin by the ever-dripping moisture when at last Polu halted. Parting a mass of interlacing vines and drooping ferns he pointed to a heap of moss-grown masonry rent apart by the roots of giant trees. Here, buried in the jungle, were the ruins of ages-old buildings erected by civilized white men. A few steps farther on the cacique showed me a stretch of roughly paved roadway and to one side, half-buried beneath the trees, were moss-covered bronze cannon, ornately ringed, bell-muzzled. Carefully scraping away the moss and verdigris I could distinguish letters and figures upon the breeches of the guns. Only here and there was a letter-decipherable, but the word "Toledo” and the date "1515” were quite plain. Beyond any doubt I was gazing at the remains of the Spaniards’ fort that once had guarded the approach to the richest mine in the New World at that time.
I had seen nothing of the Doraks— the fierce, hostile savages of whom I had been warned, and Polu claimed he knew nothing of them. It was not until I was preparing to leave for my down-river journey that I learned the truth. The Doraks and the Shayshans were one and the same! Polu, with a humorous twinkle in his keen eyes, revealed the secret as we were parting. Peaceful, friendly and with a veneer of civilization, the Shayshans transformed themselves into wild, naked and hostile savages when strangers sought to learn the secret of the lost mine.

for more of this story see A. Hyatt Verrill's autobiography. There are links to some of the chapters in the sidebar. The Autobiography, titled Never a Dull Moment may be obtained at Stillwood Books

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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.