Saturday, 24 September 2011
In Unknown British Guiana -Part 5
This is part 5 of Verrill's Guiana travels, Part One is here and a link to all Verrill's work is here---this is a nonfiction series. Link to PDF of this story./drf
By A. HYATT VERRILL.
ILLUSTRATED FROM PHOTOGRAPHS.
THE WIDE WORLD MAGAZINE, JANUARY, 1919. Researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, September 2011.
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.
ALTHOUGH the north-west district of British Guiana has been fairly well explored and mapped, yet it holds much of interest to the geographer, the naturalist, the geologist, and the ethnologist. Moreover, travelling in the north-west is much easier and less dangerous than in most portions of Guiana, for it is mainly low, flat country with few hills, and the rivers, being unimpeded by falls or rapids for long distances, are navigable for steamers and launches for nearly a hundred and fifty miles inland, while the streams are so numerous that one may visit nearly every part of the district by boat.
Until quite recently the north-west was claimed by Venezuela, and it was not until 1899 that it was definitely awarded to the British by the Boundary Arbitration Commission at Paris.
The present boundary line is formed mainly by the Amakura River, and, oddly enough, this arbitrary boundary seems to be a natural boundary as well, for there is a distinct line of demarcation between the two neighbouring countries in flora, fauna, geology, and people.
Thus, while the head-waters of the Yarikita River and the Aruau are separated only by a low sand-ridge less than three-fourths of a mile wide, yet many of the aquatic plants of the two streams are distinct, and species found on the Venezuelan watershed do not, and will not, thrive on the Guiana side, and vice versa. So, too, many of the birds found west of the Amakura are rare or lacking east of that river, and certain of the aboriginal Indians look upon the Amakura as the boundary to their tribal territory. This is the case with the true Caribs and the Chiamas, and although civilized members of the two tribes may be found on the other's territory, yet the primitive Caribs are confined to British Guiana and the primitive Chiamas to Venezuela all along the Amakura.
As in all other parts of British Guiana, lack of adequate transportation has greatly hampered the development and prosperity of the north-west. Although the mouth of the Waini River is scarcely one hundred miles from Georgetown, yet to make the journey one must travel in a small, uncomfortable, poorly-conducted steamer for twenty-four hours or more.
Entering the Waini, the traveller looks upon a vast area of mud flats and swamp, covered by a dense growth of mangroves. But as the steamer leaves the river and enters the Mora Passage the swamps rapidly give place to dry land and forest. This Mora Passage is a natural canal, or "itabu," connecting the Barima and Waini rivers, and is very deep—one hundred feet or more—and yet is so narrow, and with so many sharp turns, that there seems scarce space for the steamer to pass between the walls of verdure; and one constantly expects the vessel to crash into the forest. It is an interesting trip, and the stranger's interest is constantly aroused by the wealth of rank tropical growths, and the flocks of gorgeous scarlet ibis, which are always in sight, either flapping lazily ahead in a wonderful cloud of vivid red, or alighting upon the waterside trees, where they appear like masses of intense vermilion flowers, and marvellously beautiful against the background of greenery.
Morawhanna, the chief port of the north-west, is a tiny town on the eastern bank of the Barima, a few rods above the mouth of the Mora Passage; but, small as it is, it is the most cosmopolitan spot in Guiana. From this little outpost of civilization launches ply up the rivers to Mount Everard and Arekaka on the Barima, to the estates and plantations on the Aruka, and to the sawmills on the Waini; while an occasional boat makes the trip to the head of the Aruau, where goods are portaged over to the head of the Yarikita, and thence to Venezuela.
There is one great drawback to the northwest district, and that is rain. According to popular tradition and belief, there are two wet and two dry seasons in Guiana; but in the north-west there are two wet and two wetter seasons. To be sure, during the so-called dry months the rivers are lower than in the wet season, and one may have some pleasant weather; but I have travelled over the district in both seasons and have invariably been drenched from start to finish of my trips. On one expedition it rained incessantly for twenty-one days and nights, and only on three days did the sun break through the clouds for a few brief moments. Travelling and camping under such conditions are most trying. The rivers rise and flood the level, forest-covered land, and to leave the boat means to flounder through mud and water up to one's waist. It was impossible to dry our clothing; blankets or hammocks were wringing wet; food moulded and supplies spoiled; it was often impossible to find dry fuel or to build fires for two days at a time; our matches were ruined and we were compelled to fall back upon the primitive Indian method of making fire with two sticks; and, worst of all, it was next to impossible to find a camping-spot. Indeed, on several occasions my tarpaulin was spread between trees on floating islands—accumulations of leaves and roots—which tipped and rocked if several of us stood near one side, and which had a disconcerting habit of breaking away from the surrounding forest and drifting down stream while we slept.
But, as a rule, we could not even find such accommodation, and we were obliged to paddle up tortuous, tacuba-choked creeks for miles in search of isolated Indian settlements, which were frequently reached long after midnight. And, in addition to such little inconveniences, there are other difficulties brought about by the excessive rise of the rivers. In the main streams the current becomes so swift that it is impossible to make headway against it, even with a motor. On one occasion I attempted to run up the Barima, and although my boat was capable of making eight miles an hour in still water, yet for two hours the boat remained practically motionless, and finally I gave up the attempt. In navigating the smaller streams and creeks during rainy weather one is obliged constantly to cut a way through fallen trees and a tangle of vegetation which at other times would be far above the level of the water. At such times it is often necessary actually to hew a passage through the jungle, and three miles a day is good progress; while, to add to the travellers troubles, biting ants, scorpions, and centipedes fall in showers from the retreats to which they have been driven by the flood.
Many a time have I been obliged to jump overboard into four feet of mud, while my men unloaded the boat and destroyed the unwelcome voyagers who had taken possession of our craft.
But such matters are mere incidentals and all in the day's work when travelling through the Guiana bush, and one soon becomes accustomed to them.
My first expedition into the north-west was made with the object of visiting the Carib Indians, who are almost entirely confined to the interior of this portion of British Guiana. On a later expedition I visited the Warraus of the swampy coast-lands and the Chiamas of the Venezuelan border, and also excavated numerous prehistoric mounds in the district, with very interesting results.
Although many Indians may be seen at Morawhanna, and there are camps and villages scattered all along the rivers, yet these are civilized, uninteresting vagabonds who, as is invariably the case, acquired all the vices of the whites and blacks when they donned the garb of civilization. To find the Guiana aborigine in his unspoiled, primitive state one must journey far from the beaten track, and my objective-point in the north-west was the wild, little-known country between the head-waters of the Barima and the upper Cuyuni rivers.
From Morawhanna a noisy, malodorous kerosene launch carried me and my belongings for some fifty miles up the Barima to Mount Everard—a low hill of lateritic formation, which, with a similar eminence on the other side of the river, known as Mount Terminus, is the first high land one sees on the Barima.
Mount Everard—named in honour of Sir Everard Imthurn, whose house still stands above the landing-place—is a tiny settlement consisting of three or four huts, a couple of shops, and a few rude open sheds, and is only of importance as a stopping-place for gold-diggers and balata-bleeders bound to or from the interior.
Continuing our journey, our ancient rattle-bang craft roared and pounded its noisy way up stream for twenty hours, until Arekaka was reached, about one hundred miles from Mount Everard and at the head of navigation on the Barima. Arekaka is a small settlement of little importance. From here a twenty-eight-mile road has been built across country to Towakaima, on the Barima.
The Government warden at Morawhanna had kindly offered me the use of the Government mule at Arekaka, and I looked forward to a very easy trip over the road to the Barima. Had I dreamed what was in store for me I would have avoided that beast as I would the plague, for he was the most obstinate, contrary, perverse, and abominable creature that ever stood on four legs, and it required far more exertion to keep him going than to walk.
When a bridge was reached—and there proved to be something over two hundred on that miserable road—it was necessary to dismount and lead the beast across the slippery, shaky structure, and at the first night's camp he broke loose and led us a chase of several miles through a drenching rain. Not content with this, he had a playful habit of walking on the very verge of every precipice we passed, as if intent on trying to see how far he could tempt Providence. His only redeeming feature was that he was not gun-shy, and as the forest roadside teemed with game I shot enough to supply all our needs without moving from the saddle.
Twenty-eight miles may seem a short distance, but when travelling with Indian carriers loaded with one hundred pounds each and riding over a slippery, muddy road through a tropic jungle in drenching rain, twelve miles a day is good going. On the afternoon of the second day Sam (my black boy-of-all-work) and myself had far outdistanced the Indian droghers, when we found a huge fallen tree barring our way, only four miles from our destination.
The mule could not go under the tacuba and he refused to climb over. We had neither hatchet, axe, nor cutlass, and the rain was pouring down in sheets. Sam was carrying the lantern, and we made futile attempts to start a fire by means of kerosene, but everything was so sodden and it was raining so hard that even when a fire was started the flames were extinguished in an instant.
For hour after hour we waited, cold, wet, hungry, and miserable, each moment expecting the Indians to arrive with axes and machetes, until finally, at 10 p.m. deciding they had camped for the night, we tethered the source of our troubles in the bush and started forward on foot. It was fortunate for us that we had the lantern, for by its flickering gleams we managed to avoid breaking our necks on fallen trees and limbs, and succeeded in keeping to the road without tumbling into the river or the ravines which bordered the path.
Never have four miles stretched into such an interminable distance. At last we heard the yelping of dogs and caught the gleam of a fire, and knew we had reached Towakaima. The dogs and fires were in a tiny Indian logi, or camp, and, passing this, we clambered up the steps of the Government rest-house and threw ourselves down in the welcome shelter of the gallery.
We had had nothing to eat since daybreak, we were chilled and wet through, we were utterly exhausted, and all our provisions, dry clothes, and hammocks were with the Indians somewhere on the road.
Stripping off our wet garments, we dried them slowly over the lantern, and then prepared to sleep upon the bare floor. Hardly had we settled down when a voice called out of the inky darkness, and in response to our reply a light gleamed in a hitherto invisible shack, and presently arrived a black man. He proved to be the Government caretaker and the sole representative of law, order, and civilization in the district, and to us he proved a friend indeed. In a few moments he had provided us with clean, dry garments, blankets, and hammocks, and then busied himself preparing a welcome, if simple, meal.
Our troubles were over for the night, and soon after daybreak the Indian carriers arrived, and with them the accursed mule.
It appeared as if good luck was with me after all, however, for Shepard, the warden, told me there were a number of Caribs camping near, and that they were all going up the Barima to a grand Cassiri feast and dance. The dance, it seemed, was a very important affair, and was being held as part of the ceremonies attendant upon deserting a camp where a woman had died two months previously.
Most of the Guiana Indians desert their homes or villages when one of their number dies, the body being buried in the hut of the deceased; but the Caribs go a step farther, and, burying their dead in their provision fields, abandon crops, fields, and village after two months' time, and celebrate the occasion by a feast and dance as a sort of farewell to the spirit of the departed.
Shepard also told me that he had been expecting us since the day before our arrival, as some of the Caribs had told him a white man was coming to take them to the war. This advance notice of my movements puzzled me, for no one had passed us on the road and no word had been sent ahead. Later, I discovered that the Caribs have a marvellously perfect method of signalling by means of blasts upon a large fresh-water shell used as a horn, and that my departure from Arekaka had been signalled to Towakaima, twenty-nine miles distant. As the noise produced by blasts on the shell is not audible for more than a few miles, I have no doubt that the message was relayed from one Indian to another, for there are numerous individuals and families dwelling in the bush between the two settlements.
The explanation of the Caribs' belief that I was coming to carry them to the war proved somewhat humorous. It appeared that in their wireless code there was no provision made for signals meaning I was studying Indians and collecting specimens, the nearest approach being a signal denoting “catch," and as the Caribs could see no other reason for an armed white man "catching" Indians, they assumed it was to conscript them.
While Shepard was telling me of the forthcoming dance, several Carib women passed down the trail, on their way to the river for their morning bath, and at Shepard's call three of them approached the house, followed by a couple of men
They were fine-looking people and far superior to the other Guiana aborigines in physical development and features. In colour they were clear brownish-yellow, much lighter in tint than the other tribes, and there was little of the Mongolian in their faces. One very old woman was naked save for a lap or breech-clout of blue cotton, but the other girls and women were all clad in single skirt-like garments, suspended over one shoulder. These I afterwards learned are donned only when near the settlements, or when walking through the bush, the women at other times wearing only their cotton breech-cloths. Around their necks were immense coils of beads, and their legs were decorated with fringed and cotton bands woven tightly about the limb. All had their lower lips pierced and carried pins in the aperture, and as they chatted they would slip these pins out and in their lips by means of their tongues in a most remarkable manner. The men were naked with the exception of long fringed and beaded laps held in place with woven cotton belts, and all were armed with long, powerful bows and arrows, while several carried lances or javelins of Etah-palm tipped with ten-inch steel heads.
The women's hair was coiled upon their heads, while the men wore theirs cut short, except for a tuft of long hair over the forehead. This scalp-lock-like tuft is typical of the Caribs, and to it is attached the white down of the king vulture, the tribal emblem of the true Carib.
The Caribs, shy and reticent at first, became very friendly when I spoke to them in the dialect of the Dominican Caribs. They willingly consented to be photographed, and agreed to take me and my party to the Wanu dance in the afternoon. Then, chattering and laughing like a bevy of children, they scampered off to their delayed bath.
An hour later we strolled over to their camp and found our Carib friends absolutely unrecognizable in their festive attire. Their smooth yellow skins were painted vivid red with anotto and grease, their faces were decorated with wonderful designs in blue, black, scarlet, and white, their hair was wound and tied with bright-hued ribbons, great necklaces of jaguar and peccary teeth were about their necks, and their cheeks and foreheads bore great tufts of the white vulture down. Altogether they presented a most wild and savage appearance, and it was hard to believe we were not in the heart of the jungle amid untamed cannibals.
Some time was devoted to distributing presents to the score or more of Caribs at the camp and to securing measurements and photographs, and then, everything being in readiness, we embarked in the big Carib woodskins and started on our journey tip the Barima.
For some distance we paddled up stream until the first falls were reached, where all disembarked, and loads and woodskins were portaged around the cataract and the journey was resumed. Suddenly, through the silence of the wilderness, came a faint, far-away sound, a rhythmic, pulsating beat, and though so thin and dim that it seemed felt rather than heard, yet it was unmistakable—the measured boom of an Indian drum. And as again the throbbing sound was borne to us on the bosom of the forest-bordered river my pulses quickened, for there is something indescribably wild, something that savours of primitive, savage man, of cannibal feasts and weird orgies, in the sound of an Indian tomtom quivering through the still and humid air of a tropic jungle.
Then, as our craft swept towards the half-hidden entrance to a narrow creek, the resonant throb of the drum-beats reverberated louder and louder, until, in a moment, the river was lost to view, and, rounding a bend in the creek, the woodskin was run gently upon the muddy shore beside a dozen others of its kind.
Up from the landing-place a gigantic fallen tree formed a natural bridge and pathway to the summit of the bank, and in single file we picked our way along the slippery log and entered a narrow, winding trail through the forest. Ever louder boomed the drum as we proceeded, and presently, emerging from the woods, we came forth upon a good-sized clearing, within which stood half-a-dozen benabs, or native dwellings.
Close at hand stood a neatly-wattled hut; adjoining it was a large, open benab, and in its shelter, standing about, reclining in hammocks, or squatting on low carved, wooden stools, were a score or more of women. Some were clad only in their laps, others were garbed in their single bag-like garments, but all were arrayed in barbaric finery and were gorgeous with paint and colour. A few yards distant, beneath another thatched shed were the men, one and all hideously painted, while upon the forelock of each, as well as on each woman's forehead, was the tuft of snowy king vulture down, the symbol of their race.
At the entrance to the men's benab was seated a very tall and splendidly-built Carib, wearing the ornamented, fringed, and tasselled cotton crown of a chief, and holding between his knees a drum of cedar and baboon hide, upon which he beat the monotonous rhythm of the Wanu dance with human bones for drumsticks.
Close by stood two great troughs of paiwarrie, and constantly to and fro between these and the men and women passed a young girl, with her face curiously adorned with scarlet—the "paiwarrie governor," whose sole duty was to keep the drinkers' calabashes ever filled with the vile liquor.
Although I had come unbidden and unannounced, yet the Caribs showed no surprise at my arrival, and while at the time I attributed this to true Indian stoicism, I learned later that my coning had been signalled to the camp by shell-blasts from Towakaima. Seating myself in an unoccupied hammock, I accepted the proffered calabash of paiwarrie, for to refuse this is to offend and insult the Indians beyond words; and while a squeamish person might refuse to swallow the beverage—knowing how it is prepared—yet, if one is to win the Indians' confidence and obtain an insight into their lives, all such scruples must be cast aside and one must do as they do as far as possible.
A liberal distribution of presents soon established friendly relations, and even old Komwari, the chief and master of ceremonies, unbent from his surly aloofness and, vowing I was his brother, took me in charge and placed his benab at my disposal. He was a very intelligent old chap, a peaiman, or medicine-man, as well as a chief, and, as he spoke both Spanish and English in addition to his own tongue, he proved a most valuable friend, and furnished me with vocabularies, folk-tales, and general information, besides disposing of his choicest possessions to add to my collection. Moreover, he stated that if I would accompany him and his people to the Takutu I would have an opportunity of seeing "much plenty” Caribs who were truly primitive—an invitation which I lost no time in accepting.
The dance had not as yet commenced, and I wandered at will among the people and explored their benabs, much to the delight and amusement of the Caribs, who thought it great fun to watch me rummaging among their goods and chattels, stowed in baskets and hidden in out-of-the-way nooks and corners. The Guiana Indians possess an enormous amount of curiosity, and whenever I arrived at a camp or village they invariably went through my belongings with a thoroughness which would shame the most officious Customs officer; but they are absolutely honest, and replaced every article with the greatest care. Evidently they judged others by themselves and thought it nothing strange that a white man should wish to paw over their things, and whenever I brought to light some choice specimen of bead or feather work they would go into peals of laughter. Indeed, they seemed to look upon my specimen-hunting as a sort of "hide the thimble" game, which they enjoyed almost as much as haggling over the trades when my house-to-house search was ended.
But the Caribs’ interest in my movements did not interrupt their drinking, which continued without pause. Much to my surprise, however, there were no signs of intoxication, although the Indians had consumed enormous quantities of the sour, ill-smelling paiwarrie. The only visible effect of the liquor was to produce a lethargic, listless, dull condition, the men and women lying or sitting motionless and silent, but with no signs of drowsiness, and apparently wrapped in the most serious and profound thoughts. They were often so inert that they would not trouble to lift the drink to their lips, but, opening their mouths, waited for the serving-maid to pour the liquor down their throats.
In an hour or two after my arrival the paiwarrie began to exert its secondary effect: the lethargic, morose attitude of the Caribs gave way to laughter and gaiety; they chattered and sang; the droning boom of the drum became a lively tattoo; rude fiddle-like instruments squeaked; bone flutes added their shrill notes to the barbaric discord; and the boys and girls commenced to prance about, turning and twisting, stamping their feet, and stepping high in time with the drum-beats.
Soon the men joined the dance, always in couples, and, casting aside their single garments, the women followed in rapid succession. Each sex, however, formed a separate group, the women and girls dancing on the smooth open space before their benab and the men occupying a similar space before their shelter, while the boys dashed about here, there, and everywhere, shaking calabash rattles and yelling like fiends.
Doubtless there were definite steps and figures to the dance, and these unquestionably had their symbolic meanings, for the “spree" was of a ceremonial character; but only a Carib could have interpreted the intricate movements and the mad gyrations of the dancers or the significance of the various forms of ceremonial clubs wielded by the men. To civilized eyes it appeared a confused jumble of leaping, prancing, naked bronze figures; a kaleidoscopic whirl of colour and a deafening din of yells, shouts, the piercing sound of flutes, the thumping of wooden clubs, the stamp and shuffle of bare feet, and the whir of rattles, the whole punctuated and impelled by the resonant hollow boom of the drum.
For a time I, an interested spectator, watched, making notes and taking photographs as opportunity offered; but as paiwarrie was constantly pressed upon me, and as I had no desire either to drink more or to offend the Caribs by refusals, and as there was nothing more to be accomplished, I prepared to leave the dancing, half-drunken throng to themselves. We had been given the chief's house, but realizing that it would be impossible to obtain any rest while festivities continued, I decided to drop down the river a few miles and go into camp until old Komwari was ready to start on his promised journey into the Carib country.
But my "civilized" Carib boatmen could not be coaxed, cajoled, or threatened into leaving—such an event as a paiwarrie spree did not fail to their lot every day, and they were determined to make the most of their opportunity. Luckily, one of my men was a Waika, and, being unfamiliar with the Carib tongue or Carib ways, found himself a mere wallflower. With him and trusty Sam I slipped away unnoticed, and, embarking in my woodskin, dropped down the river to a promising camping-spot. As we drifted down with the current in the waning light the distant boom of the drum was borne to us on the breeze, and far into the night the faint, faraway reverberations told us that hilarity still held sway among our Carib friends.
(To be continued.)
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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.