IN UNKNOWN BRITISH GUIANA.
By A. HYATT VERRILL.
ILLUSTRATED FROM PHOTOGRAPHS.
It is no exaggeration to say that British Guiana, a vast stretch of territory on the shoulders of the South American Continent, is one of the least-known portions of the globe. Here are great primeval forests, mighty rivers, huge waterfalls, extensive plateaus, and great mountain ranges, where dwell strange Indian tribes and quaint animal life of which virtually nothing is known. The Author, who has made it his business to penetrate into the unknown interior of this land, has specially written for "The Wide World Magazine" an account of his journeys and adventures, which will be found of absorbing interest. He discovered large rivers and mountains whose existence was unknown, and stumbled across primitive races who had never seen a white man before. His striking photographs give an added value to a fascinating narrative.
OF all British Guiana rivers the Demerara is commercially the most important. Its banks are cultivated for many miles above Georgetown; it is navigable for ocean-going vessels as far as Wismar, some sixty-five miles from the sea, and river steamboats make regular trips forty-five miles farther to Malali. And yet its upper reaches are almost unknown, and its source remained undiscovered until the head-waters were explored by the author in January, 1917.
This is the more remarkable inasmuch as the Demerara is a comparatively short river, its total length being little over two hundred miles in a direct line, and its source is scarcely thirty miles above Canister Falls, or about one hundred miles beyond Malali. The river beyond the falls has never been surveyed by the Government, and its course as indicated on the maps is purely guesswork. As a consequence, the maps are exceedingly inaccurate, the river following a very different course from that shown; numerous creeks that appear on the maps do not exist; others are many miles out of position, and large lakes and savannas are not indicated at all; while Canister Falls is miles out of its true location on the best maps.
My inquiries in regard to the Indians on the Demerara elicited no definite information, local knowledge of the aborigines proving even more vague and uncertain than knowledge of the river itself. By some I was assured that there were no uncivilized Indians on the river; others affirmed that there were, and no two people could agree as to the tribes to be met above Malali; while one man, who had walked across from the Essequibo to the Berbice, told of meeting Indians of an unknown tribe whose customs, decorations, and appearance were totally distinct from any Indians known to me.
Finally, however, I had the good fortune to meet an Indian who lived far above Great Falls and who proved to be a Makushi. He stated that there were "plenty much" Indians about the head-waters of the river; that many were still uncivilized, and that among them were individuals of numerous tribes. He had brought down a number of curios to sell, and among them several paddles, stirrers, and other articles of a type unlike anything I had found in British Guiana.
These he said were brought from "too far topside" (meaning an indefinite place) by Akawoia traders, but he could, or would, not furnish any information as to the identity or location of the people who made them. Moreover, he flatly refused to accompany me on an expedition into the unknown district, averring that the country was "peai" (or supernatural), that the river came from a "hole in the mountains” and that it was a district inhabited by weird savage monsters, half-man and half-jaguar.
Convinced that there was abundant and interesting material to be found in the unknown district, I determined to explore the headwaters of the Demerara, discover the source, and visit the Indians of the adjacent country.
But I soon found that the difficulties in the way of carrying out my plans were almost insurmountable. Even the civilized Indians about Wismar looked upon the unknown district with as much superstitious fear as my Makushi informant; while the fact that it was the holiday season, which the Bovianders were fully occupied in celebrating by indulging in prolonged sprees, made it impossible to secure a boat-crew of these efficient coloured men. Luck favoured me, however, and by merest chance I found four young fellows who agreed to "take a walk topside," as they expressed it, the love of adventure proving more potent than the lure of good wages.
To be sure, I was woefully short-handed, four men being but half a crew, and only one of my men was a pure Indian—a civilized Akawoia—the others being of mixed Indian and negro blood. But they were all good men, young, light-hearted, happy-go-lucky, and tireless, and throughout the trip, which proved the hardest and most trying in all my experience in the tropics, they never grumbled and never failed.
I had been assured in Georgetown, and also at Wismar, that I should have no trouble in obtaining a boat or coorial at Malali; but upon reaching that little jumping-off place of civilization, my chagrin and disappointment may be imagined when I found that not a coorial, bateau, ballyhoo, or even a woodskin, was to be had for love or money, while the only craft available was a heavy river-boat belonging to the Consolidated Rubber Company, which had been sunk for months.
When this boat was at last raised and baled out it was found to be fairly serviceable, and although it leaked like a sieve and was water logged and heavy, yet it was our only chance, and I was obliged to make the best of it. Paddles there were none, and we were compelled to fashion makeshift oars by lashing blades hewn from hard wood to saplings; clumsy, heavy, and unwieldy, to be sure, but capable of propelling the boat in still water; while for the rapids and in narrow stretches of river we depended upon push-poles.
Thus equipped we set forth at last, and having successfully won our way through the rapids at Malali we left the little frontier settlement astern and headed up the stream towards the head-waters and the unknown.
For many miles above Malali cultivated lands were scattered along the river-banks, and we constantly met coorials and woodskins filled with a motley array of Arowaks, Portuguese, Bovianders, and negroes. All were arrayed in their best and bent on merrymaking, and in nearly every craft were rude musical instruments of one sort or another, while the roistering occupants made the river resound with their noisy songs. Many villages and settlements of civilized Arowaks were also passed, and in all holiday revels were in full swing.
But by the third day we had left all these signs of civilization behind, and soon after noon reached a landing-place where several wood-skins gave promise of a village in the neighbouring "bush." From the waterside a well-marked trail led inland, and following this we came to a clearing and a number of benabs, or native huts. The inhabitants were Akawoias, and the dirtiest, most slovenly, and unattractive lot of aborigines it has ever been my misfortune to meet. Both men and women were dressed in ragged, filthy European garments, and all were in the early stages of a paiwarrie spree, paiwarrie being the favourite alcoholic drink of the Indians.
But while outwardly civilized they were far more primitive in some respects than many of the more uncivilized Indians, and the women were elaborately painted and tattooed, while drums, dance-sticks, rattles, and other aboriginal utensils were everywhere in evidence.
I soon found this camp was merely an outlying portion, a sort of suburb, of the settlement, and the numerous hammocks, slung between trees in the surrounding woods, were many visitors to the village. The main camp consisted of about a dozen benabs, while in the centre of the village was a large oval structure, over sixty feet in length—the great-house of the village. The place swarmed with men, women, and children, for the feast was in full swing. It was a strange commingling of Christianity and paganism, for the Red men were celebrating Christmas and New Years Day with aboriginal accompaniments, following the Parasara dances and Bimiti running in villages far up the river.
In the centre of the great-house was an enormous tree-trunk, hollowed out into a huge trough and with the two ends carved into grotesque semblances of human heads. This immense receptacle, which held about five hundred gallons, was completely filled with evil-smelling paiwarrie, and every man, woman, and child was trying his or her best to drain the trough to the dregs. As yet, however, few of the Indians were intoxicated, although they were boisterous, good-humoured, and jolly from the effects of the liquor, while many, of the younger set were dancing and prancing about to the boom of drums, the shrill notes of reed and bone flutes and whistles, and the noise of rattle-sticks and "shake-shakes."
Although it was nominally a village of the Akawoias, yet no fewer than six tribes were represented in the crowd, and Makushis, Wapisianas, Akawoias, Patamonas. Arekunas, and Arowaks drank, danced, and fraternized on the best of terms. Among this choice assortment I noticed a very old man, who was apparently recognized as the village "governor," and, hoping to secure information regarding the head-waters of the river and its inhabitants, I questioned him at length. He was unusually intelligent, but as superstitiously afraid of the mountainous district at the river's source as the other Indians.
At the first glance he replied "Akurias," and informed me that the tribe dwelt far to the south about the head-waters of the Berbice. He had been among them, he stated, and added that I might find a few beyond the head of the Demerara, as he thought there was a camp of the tribe in the bush in the unknown district.
I was highly elated at this, for while the information was most indefinite, yet I was convinced that if Akuria paddles could be brought down the river I could trace them up to the place of their origin. As there was little to be gained by remaining among these carousing Indians, I soon left the camp and pushed on upstream, resting that night near the abandoned village site of Kenaimapoo. Camp was made a short distance above this spot, where, on a hill above the river, we found a solitary logi, or open-sided thatched hut, occupied by two Indian women and their several children. Soon after our arrival two bucks arrived in woodskins, one of whom I at once recognized as a Carib owing to the peculiar way in which his hair was trimmed and which is distinctive of the Carib tribe.
He was somewhat loath to admit his racial identity at first, but a few words of Caribi soon won his confidence. Later I discovered that, in common with the Makushis, Wapisianas, Arekunas, and other Indians (with the exception of the Akawoias and Arowaks), he was a fugitive or renegade from his own people. I also learned that for some inexplicable reason, known only to the Indians, the Demerara is considered a safe refuge for such fugitives, and while murders and feuds may occur among the denizens of the river, yet the district is a well-recognized taboo for avengers from other portions of the country. This, no doubt, explains in great measure the worthless character of the Indians on the upper Demerara and the contempt in which they are held by the Indians elsewhere.
My Carib renegade proved a fairly decent sort of rascal, and finding we were going beyond Great Falls, he offered to help us in portaging our goods around the cataract. He stated that he and his brother were the only Caribs on the river, that they lived back in the bush a number of miles above the Falls, and that he knew of several good-sized camps on the river; but he added that we should not find many people, as they were all absent at a Parasara dance farther up-stream.
As we poled slowly up-river the next day we were joined by several more woodskins filled with Indians, and when, early in the afternoon, we reached Great Falls we were surrounded by quite a little flotilla of these frail but buoyant craft. We had been told that we should find another submerged boat of the rubber company above the Falls, but I was somewhat doubtful, and at once sent some of my men ahead to ascertain if the boat was there.
In the meantime we discharged our belongings, while our Indian friends busied themselves in emptying their woodskins and then hauled their craft on to the rocks preparatory to transporting them overland to the head of the Falls. By the time our boat was unloaded the men returned and reported the finding of the other boat, but that its condition could not be learned as it was sunk in deep water. By the aid of the Indians the heavy boxes and bags were carried through the mile or more of forest between the foot and the head of the Falls and camp was made. The next morning, by the united efforts of all hands, the boat was dragged into shallow water and emptied, and was found to be in far better shape than the one in which we had journeyed from Malali.
During the first day above Great Falls we saw no signs of Indians or villages, but we passed several large lakes not on the maps, while the forest-growth which stretched away on every hand was the heaviest I had seen in British Guiana. The following day we found several small camps by the river. The only one inhabited was that belonging to the Carib, which was occupied by his brother and several women and children.
Soon after starting the next morning we passed a tacuba, or fallen tree, on which was suspended a palm-leaf mantle worn in the Parasara dance, and throughout the day we passed various portions of Parasara costumes hung upon the numerous tacubas in mid-stream. Sometimes it was a crown, in other cases a skirt, and then, again, a mantle, the total number of pieces representing over one hundred complete costumes.
The custom of suspending these dancing suits on the tacubas is an essential part of the Parasara dance, which is held annually, the Indians believing that the garments ward off the evil spirits and supernatural beings of the rivers and appease the water-sprites, thus safeguarding travellers. For similar reasons the suits are frequently hung on trees or stumps in the provision fields or clearings, and it is considered most dangerous, and a sacrilege as well, to remove or disturb the costumes. Anyone doing so commits a serious offence, and I was very doubtful as to the results which might follow when I collected several complete costumes from their resting-places on tacubas and concealed them under my baggage in the bottom of the boat.
The Parasara dance, in its true form, is more in the nature of a religious rite than a celebration, although among the civilized and semi-civilized Indians a so-called makeshift Parasara is held as an accompaniment to any spree. The true Parasara is confined to the men, who don elaborate and weird costumes, consisting of skirt, mantle, and crown of palm-leaves, and who dance to the barbaric music of drums, flutes, and rattles. Each dancer carries a shake-shake or a rattle-stick in one hand and a dance-trumpet in the other, and at the close of the dance these are broken and destroyed. For this reason they are very rare in collections, and I was exceedingly fortunate in being able to obtain a number of different forms.
There are two kinds of rattles used: one consisting of a calabash filled with pebbles and fastened to a wooden handle decorated with tufts and streamers of parrot feathers; the other is made by winding a beltlike string of "lucky seeds" on a short stick or staff which is ornamented with a tuft of feathers at one end. The "trumpets" are sections of branches of the "Gunga-pump" tree painted with various designs in blue, pink, red, and purple, and with a rudely-carved figure of an animal, bird, or other object attached to one end.
During the dance the Indians produce a loud roaring noise by blowing into these, while others make shrill musical notes on "flutes" which closely resemble the trumpets in appearance, but which are provided with a whistling device cleverly constructed of balatagum. Each dancer is supposed to assume the character of the creature whose image decorates his trumpet or flute, while others represent the winds, thunder, or various other natural forces, and the noises, contortions, and actions of the dancers, while striving to interpret the characteristics of their various namesakes, are indescribably weird, grotesque, and ludicrous.
As soon as the Parasara dancing is over the Indians journey to another village to hold the Bimiti running. This is purely in the nature of sport and has no sacred significance. The Bimiti is in reality a curious form of foot-race with a supply of paiwarrie for the goal. A number of young men don feather mantles and are lined up at one end of the course, while at the other end is a trough of the native alcoholic drink. At a given signal the runners dash forward, each doing his utmost to gain the trough first, for the winner has the unenviable privilege of bathing in the liquor, and is looked upon as a great man. Along the course stand numerous girls and women armed with handfuls of pepper, which they throw at the faces and eyes of the runners other than the favourite each has selected. Half-blinded, the contestants trip and stumble, often rolling in a confused heap on the earth, and frequently gaining the trough in a struggling knot and all tumbling into the liquor together.
Soon after we passed the last of the Parasara suits upon the tacubas we sighted a landing where a number of woodskins were moored, and stepping ashore followed the muddy, well trodden path into the bush. Long before we came to the village sounds of revelry reached our ears, and we gained the clearing with its benabs just in time to witness the Bimiti. Fortunately, only one contestant succeeded in reaching the paiwarrie well ahead of his competitors, for anyone visiting an Indian village during a spree must partake of their liquor or give serious offence, and I thanked my lucky stars that only one buck had plunged into the beverage served to us with liberal hospitality.
Here, as in the first village, we found individuals of several tribes, but very few of the men wore any clothing save their laps, and many were decked out in full festive regalia of gorgeous feather crowns, necklets of teeth, bobs of bird-skins, and capes of ibis, curassow, or macaw feathers, while several bore heavy "kenaima" clubs of hardwood decorated with cotton-strings, tassels, beads, and feathers. In the midst of this display of savage finery and brilliant colour one individual stood out in sharp relief. He was even shorter than the short Akawoias, his skin was a pale reddish or pinkish hue, his hair was white, and a thin white moustache and straggling chin-beard adorned his face, which was wrinkled and seamed in a manner bespeaking great age. But even more striking than his appearance was his costume, for instead of the halo-like crown of the others he wore a magnificent head-dress of blue and scarlet macaw feathers standing upright above his forehead, from which long streamers of feathers hung down across shoulders and chest to below his waist.
Instantly I realized that he was of a tribe unknown to me, and to my delight he informed me he was an Akuria, that his camp was near the head-waters of the river, and that I could easily find it if I followed the minute directions he gave me. Here, indeed, was good luck, for by merest chance I had stumbled upon the trail of an almost unknown, long-lost tribe, and had actually found an Akuria in full dancing costume. I did my best to induce the old fellow to accompany us, but the attractions of paiwarrie were too great for him, old as he was. He was a born trader, however, and a sharp bargainer to boot, and he readily parted with his various adornments and possessions in exchange for knives, powder, and other products of civilization.
Although much interesting material was obtained at this village, an Indian camp during a paiwarrie spree is not a pleasant or attractive spot, and we soon left the settlement and resumed our journey up the river.
No camps or villages were seen on the first day, but the following morning we landed at the foot of a high sand-hill on which were several benabs. Some of these were of the circular savanna type, while others were square and neatly walled with slabs of bark, but the inhabitants were absent. Beyond here we found several ancient, abandoned village sites, whose extent proclaimed large numbers of Indians in days long past; but every vestige of human life and habitation had long since been destroyed by the swarms of "cushi" ants.
Little game could be found, but a couple of marudis (a kind of pheasant) were shot, and made a very acceptable change in our menu. Alligators were abundant, but were mainly of small or medium size, the largest we saw scarcely eight feet in length; and otters barked at us from a safe distance. Parrots and macaws were noticeably scarce, and toucans were seldom seen; but the beautiful Pompador cotingas, several species of hawks, bitterns and tiger-birds, herons, egrets, pigeons, and glossy ibis, as well as small birds, were very abundant. Several times, too, we caught glimpses of the magnificent harpy eagle, perched on dead trees or wheeling on ten-foot pinions far above the interminable forest. Sometimes troops of monkeys chattered at us from the verdure of the banks, and tapir and peccary tracks were seen whenever we landed, but no four-footed game ventured within sight.
We skirted several small savannas and a number of lakes, passing one morning a large savanna about ten miles long and five miles wide, which was not indicated on any map. The high forest had now been left behind, and the low, flat country was covered with a dense growth of shrub, stretching away for miles to the distant hills and mountains. Progress was slow and difficult, for the stream turned and twisted in short bends; it was choked by tacubas and sand-bars, and the men were compelled to follow a most erratic zigzag course to avoid obstacles in one spot and water too deep for their poles in another.
When the last of the savannas and ponds were passed the brush gave way to lofty trees, and once more we were in the heart of the forest. Here the river often narrowed to a few feet in width and many logs were seen, caught in the branches of trees twenty feet or more above our heads, evidences of the tremendous rise and irresistible force of the river during freshets, when the water backed up in the narrow reaches and overflowed the country for miles on every hand.
In many places the banks had been undermined and immense trees had fallen across the river, and upon these a tangle of vines, creepers, lianas, and air-plants had grown, the whole forming a dense, impenetrable barrier across the stream. Only by hewing a way through these masses could we push on, and sometimes from early morning until late afternoon we laboured steadily, hacking, chopping, cutting, and prising away these accumulations of tacubas, and scarce progressing a yard an hour.
Hitherto we had been favoured with pleasant sunny weather, but now the rain came down in torrents, and for the next ten days and nights we were constantly soaked to the skin. It was impossible to keep anything dry, and difficult even to light fires or to cook any food. We were almost eaten alive by mosquitoes, and the minute flesh-coloured "Mabuli" ticks swarmed and buried themselves in our skins by hundreds whenever we ventured into the bush in search of game.
On the second day of this abominable weather we reached a district utterly forlorn and desolate, the area destroyed by the terrible forest fires of 1913, where as far as eye could see the dead and blackened trees stood like gaunt skeletons above the tangled growth of saw-grass, brush, and creepers which covered the earth with a breast-high, impassable jungle.
Then floating masses of yellow foam were met; we knew we were nearing our goal, and early in the afternoon we shoved the boat ashore at the foot of Canister Falls. At the summit of the high sandbank were the tumbledown, deserted buildings of the Bugle Company, and we lost no time in seeking the meagre shelter they afforded. Here at least we could build fires and dry our soaking clothes and sodden hammocks, and it seemed a veritable luxury to have a roof over our heads, albeit innumerable miniature cataracts and rivulets of water found their way through the holes in the rotten thatch.
Exhausted as we were, we had little time to linger here, for provisions were becoming woefully low owing to the lack of game and fish on which we had counted, and as soon as we had eaten and our garments and belongings were dry we set forth on foot towards the source of the river and the mysterious mountains.
For some distance we clambered up the Falls, the rocky bed of the river forming an easier pathway than the forest, and ever and anon we stopped to gaze in wonder and admiration at the weird, wild beauty of the spot. Titanic boulders of the multi-coloured conglomerate were scattered about, and the solid ledges were cut into canyons and gorges, among which the stream divided and split and formed a hundred tumbling cataracts and roaring cascades, often disappearing from sight in the chasms or spreading into miniature lakes over the ledges, which gleamed and glistened through the shallow water as though studded with millions of priceless gems.
Soon we were compelled to abandon the bed of the river and enter the woods. Here travelling was difficult indeed, for the forest which clothed the mountain-side hid a chaotic mass of huge rocks and boulders, which formed the slopes. Over and under these slippery moss-grown masses we crawled, slid, slipped, and floundered, constantly plunging into or leaping across the innumerable rushing streams which issued from the crevices and caverns between the gigantic boulders. But a ducking was of no moment, for we were so thoroughly drenched that we scarcely knew when we were in the water or on the land.
At last we reached a fairly level stretch of forest upon the borders of a little tranquil lake above the head of the Falls. It was easy travelling now, and for mile after mile we tramped on, following numerous game trails, cutting a way through dense jungles, and at times proceeding along the narrow strip of shore bordering the river. Meanwhile, the ceaseless torrential downpour increased, the forest became a huge morass, and the tumbling streams from the mountain were transformed into roaring torrents. By an exhausting forced march, made indescribably difficult by the ceaseless rain, the mud, the torturing ticks, the fallen trees, and the rough, broken country, I succeeded at last in reaching the foot of the mountains. For near two thousand feet they rose above the forest, towering, butte-like ramparts; their summits worn into grotesque forms, their lower slopes a mass of broken conglomerate covered with jungle, from which a myriad streams gushed forth to form the Demerara. Amid the moss-grown, fern-draped rocks, countless cascades tumbled through the greenery, all pouring their waters into the miniature lake from which the mighty river started on its long and tortuous journey to the distant sea. In one spot a water-worn ledge bordered the pond, and from dark caverns in its face water issued in bubbling springs. Truly the Indians were right when they said the river "came forth from a hole in the mountains"; I had found the source of the Demerara, I had literally run the river to earth.
It being impossible to ascend the mountains under such weather conditions, we sought for the trail leading to the Akuria village. It was a long time before we located it, and even then we had the greatest difficulty in following it, for it divided, forked, and disappeared time and time again. Several times we followed it for weary miles, only to find that it ended in an indefinite maze of game paths or an impassable jungle. Again and again we retraced our lagging steps, and at last found what appeared to be a fresh and oft-travelled path. Backwards and forwards through the dripping, sodden forest it wound; for hour after hour we trudged doggedly on; the path seemed interminable, and a dozen times we were on the point of turning back convinced that the trail led through to the Berbice or had no end. Then we caught the distant sound of a dog's bark and, encouraged, hurried forward. Presently we reached a large new clearing, and our spirits rose, for, hanging upon a stump, like the skeleton of a scarecrow, was a Parasara suit, and we knew that Indians were close at hand.
Rapidly we hurried forward, and a moment later came in full view of the Akuria village. In a small clearing, bare of vegetation, it stood, sharply outlined against the dark forest beyond, and thus hidden, here in the depths of the unknown bush, this tiny settlement of a disappearing race was picturesque to a degree, perfect in its setting, and fascinating to me for its strangeness, for it was totally different from any Indian camp I had ever seen.
In the centre stood an enormous circular house, some sixty feet in diameter, and with its steep conical roof of palm-thatch ending in a central post full fifty feet above the ground. Clustered about this central structure, in more or less circular array, were a dozen or more smaller buildings, mostly square or rectangular, with peaked thatched roofs and open sides. Our approach had been noted, and from the great round benab a number of brown-skinned children and a man or two peered curiously forth, while with blows and sharp words they quieted and drove off the snarling, snapping curs which disputed our way.
Stooping low we entered the building, leaving the sopping, rain-filled, dismal world behind, and looked curiously about. Between the supporting posts were slung a score of hammocks, and every post was decorated with strange devices in black and red pigments, each the totem or family mark of the Indians who occupied that section of the building. On the rafters overhead were stored bows and arrows, blow-guns, and quivers of poisoned darts, a few ancient muzzle-loading guns, and some decorated drums. About the earthen floor were scattered calabashes, rough unglazed pots, cassava graters and sieves, baskets, and rudely-carved wooden stools, while in the thatch were tucked half-finished arrows, bunches of curassow and macaw feathers, skulls and teeth of animals, beautifully-carved stirrers, cotton spindles, and various small articles. Here and there a gorgeous feather head-dress, or a sheaf of bright-hued feathers, gave splashes of brilliant colour to the smoke-browned interior, and near each hammock a fire glowed brightly and filled the atmosphere with pungent, aromatic smoke and a most welcome warmth and dryness. Everything was wonderfully neat and clean, a marvellous contrast to the filthy, evil smelling benabs of the drinking Akawoias down the river.
At first sight the big benab seemed deserted, for only one or two men, a couple of women, and a few children were visible, but the "hang" of the hammocks was suspicious, and an investigation disclosed a girl or woman shyly, hiding herself in each cocoon-like refuge.
Oddly enough, some of these Akuria women wore garments of a sort; some a single, skirt-like frock suspended from one shoulder, others a petticoat-like skirt of scarlet cloth, while the majority were clad only in their beautifully-woven "queyus," or bead-aprons, and their smooth brown skins. The men wore naught save their laps or loin-cloths, of scarlet cloth, and men and women alike were undersized, heavily built, pot-bellied, and very homely—even for Indians. Most of the villagers, it transpired, were absent, tilling the fields or hunting, and at a word from one of the women several boys and girls scurried out into the rain to notify the other Akurias of our arrival.
Meanwhile, we carried on a conversation with those present in the Akawoia tongue, and gradually, curiosity overcoming their shyness, the occupants of the hammocks emerged from their chrysalides and drew near, and soon all were chatting and laughing over the presents I distributed.
Presently the men and women arrived from the fields, and the great-house was filled with a score of the Indians, a gathering of dwarfs seemingly, for many of the women were under five feet in height, and the men were little taller, the tallest man being five feet four and a half inches and the tallest woman five feet two inches, while the average height of the men proved to be five feet two inches and of the women five feet.
In colour the Akurias ranged from a clear brownish-yellow to a pronounced red—the only really "red" Indians I have ever seen; but the predominant shade was a pinkish-brown or madder, very different from the other Guiana tribes. They were a wonderfully good-natured, light-hearted lot, despite their gnomish appearance, and while many were repulsively ugly owing to the disfiguring scars of smallpox, yet others, especially the younger members of the tribe, were beautifully built and remarkably good-looking bucks. But whatever their physical appearance, they were marvellously interesting as representatives of a tribe of which little or nothing is known and whose presence in British Guiana has not been suspected hitherto.
In some respects the Akurias are very distinct from all other tribes of Guiana. Thus they are communistic, the large benab in the centre of the village serving as a common meeting and living room for all, with the exception of those who are ill, newly-married couples, women about to bear or who have just borne children, and men confined to their hammocks through the curious custom of couvade. These occupy the small buildings scattered about the clearing, each of which belongs to a family, the single men and women having no benabs of their own. Fields, crops, and provisions are owned in common, and all members of the village take part in tilling the soil, hunting, felling trees, and building houses; but weapons, utensils, ornaments, etc., are the private property of individuals. In weapons, ornaments, accessories of dances, and physical characters, as well as in their customs and mode of life, the Akurias are distinct from every other Guiana tribe.
The old Peaiman, or chief of the village, was suffering tortures and was almost blind from ophthalmia, and after some time I succeeded in inducing him to submit to my treatment. A twenty per cent. solution of argerol was dropped into his eyes, and his improvement was so rapid and his relief so great that he was firmly convinced I used sorcery. His respect for my power and his appreciation of my services were so great—as he expressed it, my peai was stronger than his—that he presented me with his most sacred and cherished possession—his balata mask, although before so doing he went through a weird and mystical process of removing its magical power. Then, not satisfied that he had amply repaid or appeased me, he explained how the mask was used.
The "governor" appeared to command little respect from his subjects, and was evidently a ruler in name only. I was told that no Akuria had more than one wife—which did not surprise me when I looked upon the fat and far from attractive ladies of the village—and that there were no marriage or burial ceremonies. As far as I could learn, the people had no legends as to the origin of the tribe.
So interesting did the Akurias prove, and so much of value and novelty was obtained at their village, that all the hardships and sufferings of my trip were forgotten; but they came back to us with redoubled force when, bidding farewell to the Akurias, we again set forth on our way towards civilization. Of the return trip little need be said. It was a succession of nightmarish days, of deluging rain, of unspeakable hardships and discomforts, of pestilential insects, of poor and insufficient food, and of sleepless nights.
Never have I felt more thankful than when, at last, we reached Malali and for the first time in many weeks we could dry our clothes, could sleep in dry hammocks protected from constant drenchings, and could secure decent food. But the hardships, the swarms of Anopholes mosquitoes, and the long and constant exposure had won, and for days after my return I was down with a nearly fatal dose of malignant malaria, my first attack in fifteen years. But such things are all in the day's work of those who would wrest Nature's secrets from the depths of the vast tropical bush. I had accomplished my purpose; I had been where no other white man had trod, I had found an unknown tribe, I had been to the Demerara's head. The results were all that mattered, and I felt that the end justified the means.
(Next month the Author will describe his journey through the wilderness to the little-known Kaietuerk-Falls);