Sunday, 8 April 2012
Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 9-11
From Thirty Years in the Jungle -chapters 9-11 by A. Hyatt Verrill, 1929; digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2012.
See Here, under 'nonfiction' and the title for the other chapters.
Chapter 9 Into the Hinterland
MY first experimental trip had proved a great success. I had secured a good number of interesting ethnological specimens, I had obtained a vast amount of information from the Indians, I had made firm friends of the three Indian boatmen, two of whom were Akawoias and the third a Myangong, and I had learned exactly what I had set out to learn regarding the necessities of traversing the jungles by boat.
It was evident that one could not depend upon game or fish to eke out the food supply, and that everything in the way of provisions for a trip must be carried. I had watched the work of the men and had abundant proof that the Indians were far superior to the negroes or mixed-bloods as boatmen. I was convinced that the ordinary method of letting the captain dole out the allotted rations of the men each night was far from satisfactory, for the men grumbled, they often preferred more meat and less rice, or vice versa, and when, through their own greediness, they ran short of some one thing they accused the captain of cheating them. It would be far better, I decided, to let each man purchase the amount of supplies required by law, look after it himself and be entirely responsible for the way in which he used it. Finally there was the boat. The twenty-eight foot boat was, I felt, larger than I needed, and would not serve my purpose on long trips. It required eight paddlers, and when loaded with my outfit, provisions and trade goods, with Sam, myself and his things, it could not hold enough provisions for the crew for a trip of more than two weeks' duration. A larger boat would be impracticable, but with a boat somewhat smaller, handled by six paddlers, the space and weight of the two superfluous men could be used for provisions which for the reduced crew would last for six weeks. I had also noticed that in the tranquil stretches between falls, where normally we should have made the best speed, we made the worst time. After hauling through a series of rapids the men were tired and loafed along, exerting themselves as little as possible. In such places an outboard motor would be most valuable, for while the men rested in preparation for the next series of rapids we could rush along at eight or ten miles an hour, and if used only on such stretches one or two tins of petrol would serve for a very long trip. I had also learned much about trade goods. I had discovered that certain articles I should never have thought of were in demand, that each tribe desired a particular size and certain colours of beads, that the matter of relative values had no weight with the Indians, and that it was wholly a matter of what they happened to want or require at the time of the trade.
Until one has undertaken to outfit a long trip into the uninhabited jungle one has little idea of the multiplicity of things required, the omission of any one of which might result seriously for all concerned.
In addition to the necessary provisions for myself, Sam, and my crew, there were the trade goods, scientific instruments, cameras and films, arms and ammunition, electric torches, cooking utensils, cutlery, dishes, hammocks, waterproof boxes and "war-bags" containing clothing, a medicine chest, fishing-tackle, axes and machetes, spare paddles, lanterns, a motor, tobacco and matches, petrol, oil, ropes, hammers, nails, saws, etc., and last and by no means least the huge tarpaulin that was to serve as a shelter at night and a rainproof covering for the load in the boat during the day. A rather impressive assortment which, reduced to the minimum, weighed very nearly 1,500 pounds. To pack that weight into a twenty-four foot boat and yet leave room for six husky Indians, a stalwart bowman, a sizable captain, Sam, and myself was some problem. When all was aboard, I saw with misgivings that my boat was fully two inches below the licensed burden mark, and I realized it would never pass the inspection of the lynx-eyed Lands and Mines officials. But my boat's crew were all old hands at the game and, by judicious stowing of cargo, one side of the craft was raised above the required line—even though the other was sunk three inches below it. As my captain manoeuvred the boat so that the highest side was towards shore, the officials passed it without question.
With the motor humming merrily and driving the heavily laden boat at an eight-knot clip, while the Indians grinned and laughed at this new and easy mode of travel, we rounded the point and headed westward up the Mazaruni.
The Indians I had met on my former trip were not by any means the Indians I most desired to find. To be sure, I had secured a number of specimens from them ; but they were semi-civilized, and, like all semi-civilized Indians, they had acquired all of the white and black men's vices with few of their virtues, and had little left in the way of their own customs and handiwork. I wished to find Indians who were beyond or comparatively beyond the influences of civilization, but from what I could learn in Georgetown this had seemed a hopeless undertaking. I had discovered, however, that the inhabitants of the city knew practically nothing of the country beyond the outlying settlements, and took no interest whatsoever in the aborigines. On the other hand, Bagot and others of my Indian crew had assured me that there were plenty of " wild " tribes to be found and that the nearest of the " wild " Indian villages was " topside " a certain creek on the Upper Mazaruni, and I had decided to make this my first objective point.
Swiftly the little town dropped astern. On our right the extensive buildings of the penal settlement gleamed on a grassy hill, and ahead loomed Kartabo Point with the Cuyuni mouth just beyond. Beyond Kartabo Point the scattered huts and cleared lands became fewer, and by sundown the last vestige of civilization had disappeared and our boat was run ashore below Marshall Falls, and camp was made in the primeval forest that hemmed the river on both sides.
It is an interesting sight to watch the experienced river-men prepare camp. While one or two men rapidly clear brush and small growths from the selected site, the captain and two helpers cut and trim small saplings. Placing the ridge-pole on the ground between two trees the tarpaulin is spread over it. Then one end is lifted, placed in the forked end of another pole, and is quickly shoved up and rested against a tree-trunk. The process is repeated at the other end of the ridge-pole; the tarpaulin is spread out and its edges lashed to light poles set in the ground; a few lengths of saplings are laid to serve as a floor, and camp is complete. Meanwhile one of the men has "caught" a fire, pots and pans are sizzling and boiling, and by the time the hammocks are swung between the trees under the canvas shelter the meal is ready.
As with satisfied appetites we lit pipes and lolled in our hammocks, the roar of the falls seemed close at hand. And here let me explain that the so-called falls of the Guiana rivers are not true falls but rapids; the real falls, no matter how small, being known locally as cataracts.
Long before daylight we were aroused by the reverberating roars of the howling-monkeys, although after a few days in the bush, one becomes accustomed to the weird, rolling, thunderous voices of the "baboons," as they are called, and sleeps soundly through their uproar, which invariably heralds the approaching dawn.
It was still dark when we broke camp, and dunnage and tarpaulin were stowed and the men took their places at the paddles. Through the soft river mist we slipped away and headed for the falls. Soon we were in the grip of the current, and the men paddled lustily, breasting the foam-flecked waters diagonally until a rugged mass of rocks was gained and we disembarked preparatory to hauling through the rapids. The sun had not risen above the forest, the last thin wisps of vapour were being whisked away by the cool morning breeze, the rushing brown water glimmered and sparkled in the early light, flocks of parrots winged screeching overhead, and all about us the tumbling, foaming falls roared, plunging between the sharp black rocks.
There is always a thrill, an excitement in hauling through falls, no matter how often it is accomplished, and I never tired of watching the bronze-skinned men straining and labouring, fighting their way inch by inch against the angry waters, shouting and laughing, wading, swimming, holding their own on submerged rocks and, at last, winning their battle.
Many boats have been sunk, many lives lost in these rapids and the whirlpools, but in nearly every case it has been due to incompetent or intoxicated captains or bowmen, to overloaded boats or to ignorance of the river. I have travelled up and down nearly every river in Guiana, have run many prohibited rapids, and have never met with a serious accident, my only real mishap being a washout when hauling through a supposedly impassable fall on the Potaro. Very often, in fact usually, however, the newcomer sits gripping the boat's rails and gasping with terror, for it seems as if no craft made by man could withstand the knocking about that the river boats receive, and it is trying to the novice to find himself surrounded by a seething maelstrom amid innumerable jagged rocks where no living man could survive in case of accident. But the old hand takes it all as matter of course, and trusts implicitly to his captain and crew.
At the end of two hours' terrific labour, for the tide was out and the falls were at their worst, the last of the Marshall rapids were passed, and resuming our seats, and with the motor again chugging merrily we sped through the smooth tranquil river beyond, while the Indians took their ease and rested tired limbs and bodies.
In a sheer two-hundred-foot wall the vast forest rose from the river's edge in a thousand shades of vivid green, so interwoven and dense that they seemed draped in folds like a gigantic curtain of plush, while beneath the banks, the water was a multicoloured mosaic of flowers fallen from the trees above.
And such trees! Nothing I had seen on my former trip could compare with them. Gigantic moras with huge, buttressed roots and gnarled trunks towering in massive five-foot columns for two hundred feet and more; dark, brown-red purplehearts as smooth and symmetrical as titanic iron pipes; scaly, pale-grey greenhearts; balata and locusts; souris and letter-wood—a score of varieties of baltis and a hundred trees known only to the Indians and bushmen—sprang upward and were lost to sight amid the canopy of foliage that formed an impenetrable, almost solid, roof more than a hundred feet above the jungle floor. Swinging down from the far-off branches, shooting upward from the earth, draping the trees, crawling on the ground, clambering across rotting logs, knotted, twisted, inextricably tangled and interlaced, were the lianas, vines and creepers; some delicate as threads, others great six-inch cables, and all binding and knotting the entire fabric into an impassable maze, everywhere decked with strange orchids and weird air-plants. It was as if Nature had gone mad and, in a debauch of floral extravagance, had exhausted all her resources to produce this grotesquely beautiful, this impossibly unreal "bush" so full of surprises and contradictions.
Here one sees huge trees with trunks ending a yard or more above the earth and supported only by scores of tiny, stilt-like roots no thicker than a lead-pencil; soft, moss-grown palm-trunks are armed with a myriad encircling rows of six-inch poisonous spikes ; a gorgeously flowered trailer hides wicked recurved thorns beneath each blossom ; a mass of maidenhair ferns forms a jungle higher than one's head, and with each fragile, delicate frond armed with needle-like spines; a dainty, fairy-like flower gives off the stench of putrid flesh, and mosses upon the trees are so magnified that they appear as though viewed through a microscope.
Everything is on the same monstrous, gigantic scale in this wonderland, and man seems puny, insignificant, and overwhelmed. Instead of the forest appearing gigantic, one feels that one has been transformed to a tiny insectlike being in a normal-sized forest. And at every turn one meets some new and amazing surprise, some dream-like, incredible condition.
One brushes against a swinging tuft of grass and finds its innocent-looking blades shear through clothing and flesh like the keenest razor; one plucks a charming orchid and instantly, from hidden recesses, a horde of ants swarm forth and bite viciously at the offending hand; thoughtlessly, one strikes with a machete at a six-inch shaft of silvery-white and the blade slices through it as through paper, and, as the lofty top crashes to earth, crimson blood oozes from the severed trunk; a moment later, the way is barred by a slender sapling, and one gapes dumbfounded when the keen-edged machete glances from it as though it were a bar of steel; a severed vine spouts a stream of clear cool water; a tree may be tapped and from the wound the traveller may draw excellent milk; one's Indian companion chips some bark from one tree, cuts a papery-thin piece of bark from another, rolls a cigarette and enjoys a delightful smoke; and one finds that there are woods in these forests that are as non-inflammable as concrete, that may be placed across a blazing fire and will remain as untouched, almost as little charred, as though they were iron bars.
To move about in this forest, even for a few yards, is next to impossible; only by hewing, forcing a passage and by constant efforts can any progress be made. If the traveller covers a mile an hour he is doing well, for at every step he is tripped, bound, barred, scratched, torn as if the vegetation were endowed with life and, with devilish ingenuity, were striving to keep back the intruder. Were it not for the rivers the exploration of the country would be impossible, and one realizes why even the aborigines dwell close beside the streams.
It is impossible to move quietly in these forests, and all living things take warning and become invisible, so that one imagines the jungle is barren of all life. But in reality birds and beasts are all about, and the Indian, naked but for his scarlet lap, glides like a shadow through the labyrinth and finds the game he seeks. Upon the wet and muddy ground his sharp eyes note the tracks of jaguar, deer, peccary or tapir; a fragment of nibbled root or fruit tells him an agouti or a paca is close at hand; bits of seed or fruit drop from the tree-tops, and his sharp vision discerns a troop of monkeys or a flock of curassows among the foliage.
At times even the clumsy blundering white man may stumble within sight of some bird or quadruped. It may be a huge ant-bear, so engrossed in tearing a dead tree to bits that he fails to hear your approach and continues his labours and laps up the swarming ants with his yard-long tongue while you watch him; or it may be a lithe, graceful ocelot, so intent on stalking an unsuspecting bush-turkey or a sleepy monkey that your nearness is unnoticed; or again it may be a flock of trumpet-birds or waracabras feeding and dancing in some tiny open glade. Far overhead, unseen, unknown, for ever out of reach of insignificant man, is another world, for in the dense roof of the jungle dwells a host of creatures who never descend to earth. Here is the home of the huge-billed toucans, the parrots and the loud-voiced macaws, here troops of howlers and scores of smaller monkeys pass their lives ; here myriads of birds twitter and sing and flit from twig to twig and rear their young as safe from molestation by man as though in another world ; here the slow-moving sloths pass their upside-down lives; and here the fierce harpy-eagles, the ocelots, the margay cats, the puma and even the great spotted jaguar find a happy hunting-ground.
But don't expect to find the tropical jungles as pictured in the geographies of school days, or disappointment will follow. Such forests with their veritable menageries are things of the imagination, and one may travel for days and never see a four-footed creature nor any feathered life other than toucans, parrots and small birds.
At other times the traveller may be fortunate enough to see many denizens of the wilderness as he makes his way up the rivers by boat. Close to the banks, alligators and crocodiles rest like floating logs ; otters and nutria swim and frolic in the stream and voice their resentment at the intruders by sharp, dog-like barks; monkeys may chatter from a safe vantage-point in the mazetta trees along the shores; capybaras may be inquisitive enough to stand their ground until the boat is near before seeking refuge under water; deer, tapir or jaguars may be surprised in swimming from shore to shore, or if luck favours, huge boas or anacondas may be seen as they lie coiled on the weathered snags or sun-warmed rocks.
Amid such sights and through such scenery we sped up the Mazaruni until, all too soon, the still waters were wrinkled with the current and floating masses of creamy froth announced rapids ahead. A dozen times that day the boat was hauled through falls, and by ten o'clock in the forenoon we landed at Tarpi Island for breakfast. Breakfast in the bush is not an early morning meal, but corresponds to lunch, and is usually taken between ten and twelve.
While the meal was being prepared one of the Indians took his bow and arrows and started across the rocks to the nearest falls in search of fish. I have never tired of watching these Indians at this feat of shooting fish, and I followed Joseph, the Arekuna, as he hurried towards the rapids. To my eyes there was nothing to be seen but a tumbling mass of water and foam; but the Indian evidently discerned a pacu or a lukanani, for, crouching low, he slipped rapidly towards the falls with weapons ready for instant use. Gaining a jutting spur of rock, he suddenly rose, drew his bow and drove the arrow half its length under water. Dropping bow and extra arrows, he plunged into the torrent, and seizing the bobbing shaft, scrambled back to land. Quickly he hauled in the line, and, an instant later, a ten-pound pacu was flopping about on the rocks. In almost as many minutes he shot five fish, and grinned with well-merited pride at his success.
That afternoon we hauled through one rapid after another. Sometimes they were small, and I remained seated in the boat under the awning or "tent"; but oftener they were swift and dangerous and I was forced to go ashore and clamber over the rough rocks to the head of the rapids. Strangely enough these forbidding, water-worn rocks are by no means devoid of life. In the crevices stunted wild guava trees find root; upon stranded logs and dead trees bright-flowered orchids grow in profusion, and every inch of the surface above the high-water mark is covered with a miniature jungle and a number of good-sized trees. Upon the bare, sun-baked ledges scores of nightjars roost and flit away a few yards at one's approach; humming-birds and tyrant flycatchers nest in the guavas; troopials hang their pendent pouch-like nests in clusters at the tips of branches; and parrots, parroquets and red-headed finches are always present. And when the queer heather-pink stubble I have mentioned is in bloom, immense flocks of yellow butterflies frequent it and transform the ledges into sheets of gold, and ever winging back and forth across the streams, appear like clouds of wind-blown autumn leaves.
Crab Falls, Mope, Okami, Maripa, and Popikai Falls were all safely overcome, and well satisfied with the day's work I let the weary men go into camp at Wasai Itabu soon after four o'clock.
Here we were in a wonderful timber country, and camp was made in a vast greenheart forest. From my hammock I counted no fewer than fifty-five trees of this hardest and densest of wood, every one of which would have squared lo eighteen inches or more, and yet, owing to lack of transportation, not a single timber had ever been cut here. Throughout a large part of the colony it is the same. There a re vast resources in timber, forest products and minerals, but between lack of transportation, an inert Government, and the total lack of progressive energy on the part of the people, this incredibly rich land remains undeveloped, unproductive and largely unknown.
So far we had seen no game, and I went into camp by three o'clock in order to send two of my Indians on a hunt. Shortly after they had left the report of gunshots reached us, and I felt sure of fresh meat for dinner, for very rarely indeed does an Indian miss his quarry. They feel disgraced and ashamed at wasting a charge of powder and shot, and, to make sure of every shot, they invariably get very close to their game before firing. As a result, small creatures are usually blown to bits, and the largest game, such as tapir, peccary, etc., are killed with B.B. shot.
My faith in the Indians was well founded, for just before sundown they stepped from the forest, one carrying a good-sized deer and a pair-of curassows or poms; the other with a peccary or bush-hog across his shoulders. We dined royally that night, the Indians gorging themselves in their customary way, and the meat left from our feast was prepared for future use by babricotting. This is done by suspending the meat on a grid above a smoky fire for a few hours. Partly dried and smoked in this way, the meat will keep tender and fresh for weeks, and is as nourishing and palatable as when first killed.
As the Indians squatted about the glowing fires or lounged in their hammocks, while waiting for the meat to cure, they whiled away their time by telling stories. These Indian tales are always of a highly imaginative character, and are usually founded on a basis of fact. Some are weird, others symbolical, many are humorous, a few poetical and all are fascinating. There were tales of the Kenaima— the fearful, mysterious blood-avenger; tales of Gungas, Warracabra Tigers, and other fierce, mythical, man-eating beasts; yarns of Didoes and Hoories or bush devils; of the awful two-toed, claw-handed monkey-men, and of many other uncanny creatures and spirits.
All these were so convincingly told that one felt decidedly "creepy" and started involuntarily and glanced nervously about when some soft-winged night-bird uttered its plaintive call or a tree-frog croaked unexpectedly in the black forest about us.
It was nearly midnight when the last of the babricotted meat had been hung out of reach of prowling beasts, and, the fires having died to smouldering coals, the Indians wrapped themselves in their hammocks like giant caterpillars in their cocoons. No doubt the Indians' habit of thus completely enshrouding themselves is partly due to superstitious fears, but mainly it is to protect themselves from vampire bats. These repulsive blood-sucking creatures abound in the Guiana jungles, and, when passing up the rivers in the daytime one may see them by hundreds as, alarmed at the boat's approach, they flit from their resting-places on tree-trunks. Although greatly feared by the Indians and negroes, in reality there is little danger of being bitten, for the bats will not enter a camp where a light is showing and in all my experience in tropical jungles I have never been attacked by a vampire, although on several occasions my men have had ears, toes and fingers nipped by them. Having breakfasted and rested, the difficult and dangerous haul through Farawakash was begun. Here an impassable cataract bars the river and passage is made through a narrow channel or itabu which rushes like a mill-race through the jungle around the cataract. So swift is its current that, time and time again, the men were swept from their feet and saved themselves only by seizing overhanging lianas or jutting roots. Often, too, they were compelled to make the ropes fast to trees and to rest from their labours, while in many places it was impossible to drag the boat against the current without taking a turn around a tree and hauling in the slack inch by inch. But after three hours of heart-breaking exertions the boat emerged safely from the jungle-walled itabu, and was run ashore for reloading.
Ten minutes' paddling carried us across to the foot of Kaburi Cataract, a lovely cascade twenty-five feet in height, and stretching across the river from shore to shore. Here we were forced to portage the boat as well as its contents. Every article had to be unloaded and carried on the men's heads or backs over the wide stretch of land and rocks, after which the task of getting the boat overland was faced. All hands were needed to get the craft on shore, but once it was high and dry it was not difficult to keep it moving on hastily cut rollers, and, an hour later, everything had been restowed and we were again motoring up river. Morawa and Makasi Falls were easily passed, and camp was made in the dense jungle-forest below Koimara Hole.
While camp was being made an Indian coorial or light dug-out arrived with a party of Patamonas on a hunting and fishing trip. The frail and cranky craft was loaded to the gunwales with the two men, their wives, half a dozen children, several flea-bitten emaciated dogs, bundles of cassava bread, hammocks and cooking utensils, in addition to the weapons and fishing paraphernalia.
The men were short, finely-built fellows, broad-shouldered, deep-chested and small-limbed like all the bush Indians; the women were as unprepossessing as usual, and bore the blue tattooed beena or charm lines about their mouths which are typical of their race, and in addition had designs painted in red upon their cheeks and foreheads— potent charms to keep off evil spirits and to safeguard the wearers when on a journey. All were as yet unspoiled by missionaries or civilization, and were garbed in their native costume or lack of costume, consisting of scarlet laps or breech-cloths for the men, beautifully made bead queyus for the women, and with innumerable strings of beads, seeds, teeth, etc., about necks, arms and legs, while the children were as innocent of clothing as so many brown monkeys. The men were armed with bows and arrows, and, in addition, one carried an ancient muzzle-loading gun and the other a twelve-foot blow-gun with a quiver full of deadly poisoned arrows slung at his side.
With a guttural greeting of "Howdy" they made themselves at home with the confident freemasonry of the bush, while the women, ever shy and silent, erected a rude shelter of palm-leaves, slung the hammocks and prepared the evening meal As usual, presents were exchanged, the Patamonas giving us a haunch of labba (paca) a lukanani and some cassava bread in exchange for black leaf tobacco, sugar and salt. Friendly relations thus having been formally established, the Patamonas cast aside their dignified reserve and were soon chatting and laughing with us on the best of terms. From them we obtained more definite information of the village I was searching for. To be sure, they had never been there and had come from much farther up-stream; but they knew of the settlement. To my surprise they said that the village was not on a stream, as is almost always the case, but was back in the mountains "plenty far topside walk um" as they put it. But they accurately described the location of the creek whence the trail led to the village, and, feeling that, after all, I was not on a "wild-goose chase," we resumed our journey with far more confidence.
Chapter 10 Among the Poison Makers
TWELVE days after leaving Bartica, twelve days of constant hauling through rapids, portaging around cataracts, paddling through racing currents and motoring through tranquil stretches, we reached the end of our journey by water and the bow of the boat grated on the shore where, supposedly, we would find the trail to the village.
We had now come to the most difficult and uncertain stage of my trip. I was dependent upon vague rumours and hearsay knowledge of the Indians; and my Indians had no idea of either the distance to the village nor where to search for the trail. Even our Patamona visitors of the river camp could give no exact data on these matters, and we had no means of knowing whether—even if we found the trail—the village was one day's or several days' walk back in the jungle-covered mountains.
Luck was with us, however. Scarcely had we stepped ashore when we found evidences of Indians: a broken, rotted woodskin rested, half-buried in the mud of the creek; charred sticks told of camp-fires; a discarded suriana or pack-basket was discovered in the underbrush, and, presently, one of my men called out that he had located the trail. My hopes rose, and after eating a hearty breakfast the boat was unloaded, necessary provisions, hammocks, trade goods and other essentials were packed in bags and surianas, and, leaving two men in charge of the boat, we shouldered our loads and plunged into the jungle. Only the trained eye of an Indian could have followed that trail, and time and time again my Indians were obliged to halt and search about until the faint, indistinct, all but invisible signs of a pathway were again found.
Once, no doubt, a well-travelled way had been cut through the jungle; but the vines and creepers now draped in festoons across it, fallen trees or tacubas barred it with their enormous trunks, and thorny scrub and weeds had encroached upon it until there was scarcely a sign of men ever having passed that way.
And yet it was a trail beyond question, and travelled recently at that, for the dead leaves and the mosses were pressed together in a narrow, winding path, and where it crossed the muddy beds of forest streams the imprints of bare feet could be distinguished. Around and about it wound, as erratic and uncertain as though made by some wandering animal in search of food or prey, and I could not help thinking that the man who made the trail had been following an agouti or other game when he blazed the way for others to follow.
Soon the ground commenced to rise, and we began laboriously climbing the foothills. Before long we were toiling with panting breaths up the precipitous mountainside, a mass of rugged, loose boulders and sharp stones seemingly without end. But at last the summit was reached, and, having stopped a moment to regain our breaths and cool our sweltering, aching bodies, we again resumed our journey through the semi-twilight of the interminable forest.
Now that we were on the high plateau of the range the way was less fatiguing and the air cooler, and for hour after hour we marched on. Macaws screamed angrily at us, wild pigeons cooed above our heads, birds of brilliant plumage flashed in the foliage, and marvellous blue, orange, scarlet and green butterflies flitted in the dim shadows. In this open forest there seemed to be more life than in the denser jungles, and when the Indians from time to time slipped away and returned with agoutis, tinamous and other game, I knew how unfrequented, how seldom traversed was the district through which our way led.
Time and again the trail forked, and the Indians themselves were at a loss, for it was impossible to say which path was the better, or rather the worse, which the more travelled of the two; but, trusting to luck and always keeping to the right, we pressed on.
Then at last we passed the remains of a rude thatched shelter in the forest. Near it was a flimsy platform in a tree a dozen feet above the ground, and my Indians explained this was a stand where Indians sat with ready bows and arrows or poised blow-guns to shoot agoutis. A little later we saw sunlight and flecks of blue sky through the forest ahead, and came to a small clearing.
Very promptly the leading Indian halted. "You make-um walk first one, Chief," he requested me in low tones. "Mebbe this feller bucks no sabby me fren' an' make for shoot."
I was amazed. The Guiana Indians have always been most peaceable and hospitable, and while I knew that the Arekunas and the Patamonas had once been deadly enemies, yet I did not dream that there was any inter-tribal enmity remaining.
"You makeum 'fraid, Abraham?" I asked.
"Mebbe this feller worthless peoples, Chief," replied the Arekuna. "Mebbe no likeum Arekuna, no likeum other kind buck men. Mebbe see um buck come, thinkum Kenaima, make for killum. No make killum white man, him all same God. This fellers no Christians, Chief; no sabby Communion an' Jesus an' Sacrament all same me."
I laughed. Considering that Abraham believed implicitly in good and evil spirits, that he had absolute faith in the "water-mama," that he had sublime confidence in the half-mystical, half-supernatural powers of the peaimen or medicine-men, and that he never started on a voyage, a hunt or any other undertaking without first resorting to a charm or beena to ensure success, his reference to his own "Christianity" and his contempt for the other Indians' paganism was amusing.
Not until later did I learn that his fear of the tribe we were searching for was not without reason, for these particular aborigines are famed throughout the land as poison-makers. Not only do they make and use the terrible wurali, but they are also adepts at preparing various subtle and deadly poisons with which they destroy their enemies, either real or fancied. Cases are on record of these Indians poisoning entire crews of balata-bleeders or gold-diggers in revenge for the black men interfering with the Indian women, and woe be it to an Indian of another tribe who earns the poison-makers' enmity.
Moreover, they have the reputation of sending forth most of the mysterious Kenaimas, and their peaimen frequently possess considerable powers of hypnotism. For all these reasons the tribe is held in superstitious dread and is looked upon with genuine fear by the other tribes, and no strange Indian will venture into one of the villages alone or, if he can avoid it, partake of their food and drink.
That I was perfectly safe, I felt sure, and I greatly doubted if there was the least danger to the Indians accompanying me, for, at the time, I was convinced that the Arekuna had merely displayed the instinctive caution of the aborigine when approaching a strange place or the home of another tribe.
In a moment more we reached the clearing, but a glance was enough to assure us that no Indians were there. The cassava and plantain fields had grown up to brush; the remains of deserted benabs were rotting amid the weeds, and the spot obviously had not been inhabited for several years.
I was greatly disappointed, for I had expected to find a good-sized camp, and only an abandoned provision ground rewarded my long river trip and my heart-breaking tramp through the forest. But the next instant Abraham called out that he had found a trail leading onward, and once more we plunged into the wilderness, hurrying along the dim trail towards whatever might lie beyond. Fully twenty miles had been covered since we had left the riverside; we were on high land and in unmapped country, and I had begun to think the trail was endless or led clear through to Venezuela, when I saw light ahead, and, a moment later, stepped from the dark forest into the brilliant sunlight of an extensive clearing.
Instantly I knew that my long journey had not been in vain. Before me were a dozen large benabs, and, standing about, resting in their hammocks and gazing curiously at us, were Indians by the score—men, women and children—naked except for loin-cloths or bead-queyus, their limbs wrapped with bands of beads; strings of teeth about their necks, and with their bronze skins elaborately painted and tattooed. I had found my first "wild" Indians at last!
They were Patamonas, a branch or sub-tribe of the Akawoias or Kapohn race, and they received us hospitably. Abraham's fears were groundless, and he and his companions were soon chatting and laughing in most friendly fashion with the villagers.
A large new benab was allotted us, the owner and his wife moving bag and baggage to a smaller hut near by, and our dunnage was scarcely placed within our new home before a Patamona girl brought us large calabashes of cassiri. This is the favourite beverage of all the Guiana tribes and is made by grating the roots of sweet cassava or sweet potatoes, boiling them to a syrupy consistency, and slightly fermenting the liquor, which is then coloured pink with annoto seeds or the juice of red yams. As it is never well strained it is far from appetizing in appearance, but it is very refreshing, with a slightly sour and not unpleasant taste. Although intoxicating, yet it is so slightly alcoholic that an enormous quantity—a gallon at least—must be imbibed before an Indian feels its effects, and no white man could possibly drink enough at one sitting to befuddle his mind. Indeed, I found it quite beyond my powers to swallow more than a small portion of the welcoming draught presented to me, and I was, I presume, regarded with secret contempt for my limited capacity, for my companions gulped down the contents of their calabashes at a single draught.
Another favourite beverage of the Guiana Indians is a vile concoction called paiwarrie. This is made by scorching the cassava bread, which is then chewed by the women and is spat into a huge wooden trough where it is left to ferment. The resulting liquor is intoxicating, and although a considerable amount must be taken to obtain the desired effects, yet the Indians get outrageously drunk at their paiwarrie feasts, which become filthy orgies in which men, women and children take part, and which frequently continue for several days, or until the stock of liquor is exhausted or a general fight breaks up the merrymaking. As, in order to absorb enough alcohol for their purpose, an inordinate quantity of paiwarrie must be consumed, the Indians at times of these feasts become deathly nauseated and vomit the liquor almost as fast as swallowed, and the condition of a village under such circumstances can better be imagined than described. But the worst features of the paiwarrie feasts are that the participants are left in a state of weakness and collapse from which many never recover, and that, very often, the entire stock of cassava is used in making the liquor, and the villagers actually starve to death before they have sufficiently recovered to secure more food.
Although the method of preparing the paiwarrie appears filthy and disgusting, yet it is not quite as bad as might be imagined. The women selected to masticate the cassava are, in a way, professionals at the task and are distinguished by tattooed paiwarrie beena or drink-charm marks about the lips. Before they begin preparing the cassava they thoroughly wash their mouths, scrub their teeth and make use of a root which is supposed to purify them and ensure good paiwarrie. Many tribes now make the liquor by pounding or boiling the charred cassava, but even then a certain amount of the masticated material must be added to ensure fermentation, and the result is much the same, for the liquor is always a muddy, ill-smelling, evil-tasting liquid which resembles nothing so much as a mixture of stale beer and tea-dregs.
Nevertheless, if paiwarrie is offered to the stranger who visits an Indian camp, custom and courtesy require him to drink it. And if it is refused the too squeamish visitor is given the cold shoulder and broad hints that he is unwelcome, for to refuse the welcoming draught—whether cassari or paiwarrie—is an unforgivable insult to the Indians. As none of the Patamonas of the village spoke English or even the lingua franca of the bush known as "talky-talky," I called upon my Patamona paddler as my interpreter and, to my delight, I learned that no white man had ever before visited the village and that many of the people had never seen a man of any other race, although some of the tribe had been to the gold-diggings, a few had visited Bartica, and one or two had even travelled as far as Georgetown.
But while I must have appeared a very strange being to their eyes, yet the men, women and children who gathered about were quiet and respectful, although evidently consumed with curiosity as to the contents of my bags and the purpose of my visit, and they chattered and laughed among themselves at a great rate. As the afternoon sun was rapidly dipping towards the west, I decided to take advantage of the light and secure photographs without further delay, and, much to my surprise, the people lined up before my camera without hesitation. This in itself was ample proof of the isolation of the village and people, and the fact that the Patamonas were wholly unfamiliar with civilization, for the Guiana Indian, as a rule, has a strong and deep-seated objection to being photographed. In fact the willingness with which these Indians posed for their pictures convinced me that they did not even know the nature or purpose of the camera.
This important matter over, the bags containing my trade goods were opened, and the contents spread upon the floor of the benab. Instantly the Indians crowded about, squatting on their haunches, examining every article with the greatest interest and excitement, and gabbling with delight like a flock of parrots. The chief now arrived on the scene—a lean, sharp-featured, shrewd-faced old fellow—with no distinguishing regalia, and as simply clad as his subjects.
Presents were handed around—combs, soap, perfumes, beads, pins, needles and similar articles to the women, and tobacco, fish-hooks, knives, etc., to the men. Much to my amusement, the chief appropriated a full box of fishhooks as his due, taking possession so calmly and innocently that I found it impossible to object, although he left me woefully short of this useful medium of barter.
Amicable relations having thus been firmly established, a brisk trade commenced, and in exchange for my articles, I secured baskets, bows and arrows, blow-guns, poisoned darts, ornaments, feather head-dresses, necklaces of seeds, bones, teeth, etc., and a number of queyus. Meanwhile I was noting the characteristics of the Indians, jotting down words of their dialect and making hurried sketches of their painted and tattooed decorations.
Most of these consisted of blue lines, dots and geometrical designs on the cheeks, lips and chins, and were charms or beenas to ensure good success, good fortune or skill in various occupations and undertakings. In addition to these the women wore numerous designs in black, temporary ornamental marks made with the fruit juice of the Karoo (Genipa americand) which turns blue-black when applied to the skin and remains indelible for a few days. Among the designs were also red markings made with the anotto fruit, potent to keep off evil spirits, while the black patterns, I found, were love and dance beenas. In addition to all these many of the girls were elaborately painted with ornamental designs from head to foot, for the feminine desire for personal adornment is as strong among savages as among civilized races, and lack of clothing is no bar to woman's vanity.
Few of the men were painted or tattooed, the only markings being beenas consisting of straight or curved lines about the mouth, and which were hunting beenas. The Guiana Indians have absolute faith in the potency of beenas, and even the civilized bucks have an implicit belief in their efficiency. As a rule, hunting-beenas consist of rubbing certain plants or other objects into incisions in the skin. Most of the plants thus used are caladiums, but certain grasses and nuts are also employed, and one of the most potent hunting-beenas is the mucus of a living frog, or the ashes of a burned frog, rubbed into a cut. In every case, however, a particular plant or material must be used for a certain kind of game.
Thus a deer-beena is a white and green caladium, a tapir-beena is a black-spotted caladium, the agouti-beena is a red-leafed caladium, and a jaguar-beena is a caladium variegated with red and white spots. Most of the beenas used by the men are supposed to lose all their virtues if touched or even looked upon by a woman, and women's beenas must not be seen or touched by men. Even the dogs have their special beenas, a certain kind of grass which is rubbed upon their noses to ensure greater success in trailing game. Another powerful beena is the ant-beena. This is a frame of parallel strips of bamboo or palm, through the interstices of which living ants are thrust with their heads exposed on one side. This array of biting jaws is then pressed against the skin, causing excruciating pain, which in the mind of the Indian proves it a most potent charm, for the worse the pain caused by a beena the better it is. Still another beena commonly used is the nose-beena. This is a long plait of fibres, tapering from a point to a diameter of half an inch or more, and finished off with a tassel of loose strands. At the tip a biting-ant is secured by means of a bit of wax or gum, and this is inserted in the Indian's nostril. The ant, biting as it moves, climbs up the nose and emerges in the mouth, and the Indian, grasping the end of the beena, pulls the entire affair through the nasal passages. One can scarcely conceive of the torture this must cause, and blood flows freely from nose and mouth; but the Indian will endure any agony for the purpose of a beena.
Soon after my arrival at the Patamona village, I learned that a second village was situated a short distance away, and, securing a guide and leaving two of my men in charge of our benab, I set out through the forest. Although the Patamonas had assured us it was a short walk, yet we tramped for more than an hour before we came to a huge fallen tree spanning a wide creek, and, beyond, saw the benabs of the village perched upon a bluff at the edge of the forest. The inhabitants of this village were, if anything, more primitive than their neighbours, and while there were only seven benabs there were more Indians than at the first camp. It was too late to take photographs, but a good collection of specimens was obtained, and as the sun sank beyond the sea of forest, I retraced my way to our benab, having first promised to return on the following day to furnish medical aid to some of the people who were ill with "fever." This did not, however, mean they had any real fever, such as malaria. A severe cold, indigestion, neuralgia or any complaint other than an injury is a "fever" to the aborigines, and one case of "fever" proved to be a case of boils, while another was the result of a snake-bite. Personally I felt as if I might have a "fever" from flea-bites, for never, in any place I have ever visited, were fleas so abundant as in the Patamona village, and they welcomed us strangers with open arms, or rather, open mouths. As in every Indian camp, there were innumerable dogs of uncertain antecedents and of the class known to the natives as mowger dogs, a most appropriate name, for they are "mowger," or in plain English meagre, beyond belief. No doubt, under normal conditions, the fleas eked out a precarious existence on the emaciated canines, but the arrival of new blood must have appeared a regular dispensation of Providence to them, and deserting their customary foraging ground en masse, they devoted all their energies and attentions to us. Only by liberal applications of formaldehyde were they discouraged and even then I found life miserable for the first night I spent in the village. Despite this, however, I found much to interest me, for the Patamonas went about their usual tasks utterly oblivious of our presence. Resting in my hammock, I watched my Indian hosts as they prepared their evening meals and busied themselves at their various occupations in full view, for the benabs were merely open sheds consisting of thatched roofs supported on posts, and housekeeping was of the simplest form.
Of furnishings there were none worthy of the name, for the indispensable hammocks served as beds, couches and chairs, and a log of wood or a carved wooden stool provided additional seats. On the rafters under the high peaked roofs were stored bows and arrows, blow-guns and other articles. From posts and rafters were suspended baskets of raw cotton, dance and ceremonial articles, beads, feathers, bunches of peppers, and ears of maize. Here and there in the under-side of the thatch were tucked knives, machetes and bundles of feathers, cotton-spindles and small articles. Somewhere about the premises would be a supply of cassava cakes, a metapee, and numerous baskets, mats and cooking pots, as well as an open pack-basket or suriana and a cassava-grater. In the centre of each benab a fire was kept burning day and night, and over this all cooking was done. The pungent smoke fills the benabs and seems a great nuisance to a visitor, but it is of real value and importance, for it keeps the thatched roof dry and waterproof, it prevents ants and insects from taking up their abodes in the thatch, and it serves to preserve the meat and fish hung overhead. At night the fires also keep the benabs warm and dry, and at the same time they serve to keep prowling beasts and vampire-bats from coming too near. Even with the fires, it was a mystery to me how the Indians managed to keep from freezing. At night the temperature fell to 6o°F., and despite blankets, outer garments and my rain-coat, I shivered with the chilly air, yet the Indians slept soundly and apparently in comfort despite the fact that they were nude and had no bedding or coverings of any sort. The benab nearest to my own was occupied by a young man, his wife and two children—the youngest less than a month old—and how the woman could sleep in her hammock with the infant beside her and yet not roll on to her offspring or let it fall from the hammock during her sleep, was a puzzle I never solved.
Every one rose with, or a little before, dawn, and for half an hour or so, the Indians gathered about their fires, warming themselves after the chill of the night before going about their various tasks. The daily life of these aborigines is as simple as their costume, and yet their every want is fully satisfied and they are perfectly and supremely happy. For three hundred and sixty-five days in the year their menu consists of cassava with the addition of game or fish when these are procurable, the purple yams, sweet potatoes and, occasionally, bananas or plantains.
To these people, cassava is the very staff of life, and much of their lives is devoted to its cultivation and preparation. The prime requisite in selecting a village-site is land suitable for growing the cassava or manioc plant, and every Indian village or camp has its cassava fields. The term is, however, a misnomer, for they bear little resemblance to the ordinarily accepted idea of a field, but consist of a waste of fallen, charred trees and enormous stumps with the spaces between filled with a jungle of ten-foot cassava bushes. The men fell the trees, burn the brush and limbs and the "field" is ready for planting. This is done by the women, and consists of sticking cassava roots or cuttings into holes made in the earth with a sharp stick. In addition to the cassava there are usually a number of other cultivated plants, such as yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, pine-apples, caladiums, arrow-grass, silk-grass for bow-strings, a few cotton bushes, some gourd vines, etc.
Once the field is cleared and planted, the men's duties are over and all cultivation and harvesting is done by the women and children, the men devoting all their time to hunting and fishing, making bows and arrows, cutting timber and thatch for houses, building woodskins or dugout canoes, weaving baskets, making cotton line, or fashioning their dance ornaments, for despite prevalent ideas to the contrary, the Indian is seldom idle even when reclining in his hammock.
The preparation of the cassava, the transformation of a deadly poisonous root to a nutritious and palatable article of diet, is most interesting, and I never cease wondering how the Indians first discovered the complex process. Certainly it could not have been by experiment, for those who experimented with the raw cassava, or tried to make it edible by cooking in the ordinary way, must have died far too precipitately to have imparted any information of value to their fellows. Perchance the whole process was discovered by accident, like many other inventions. But whether by accident or design probably never will be known, for cassava has been used by the Indians of tropical America for countless centuries, the method of its preparation is identical among widely separated tribes, and its history is one of the unsolved mysteries of prehistoric America. In the Patamona village the women were constantly occupied at one step or another in the preparation of cassava, and I had an exceptional opportunity of watching the entire elaborate process.
The roots are first washed and scraped and are then grated on a slab of wood provided with chips of quartz set in a cement-like gum, a utensil made by certain remote tribes, principally by the Wai-Wois of the Brazilian border and the Myangongs of the Venezuela boundary. These graters are in great demand and form an important intertribal article of exchange among the Indians, and it was one of these boards that first led to the discovery of diamonds in Guiana. Some scientist, examining the bits of mineral set in the gum, discovered that there were diamonds among them, and by following up the clue the Guiana diamond fields were found.
After being grated, the pasty resultant mass is packed into a long, cylindrical wicker-work affair known as a metapee, so woven that it may be pressed lengthwise to form a short cylinder of large diameter, or drawn out to a long slender cylinder. The metapee, pressed down and packed with the grated roots, is then suspended from a beam or rafter, a stick or lever is inserted through a loop at the other end, a bowl or calabash is placed below it, and one or more women seat themselves on the stick. Their weight stretches the metapee, contracting it with tremendous pressure, and as result the juice of the grated cassava is forced out through the interstices of the metapee, leaving the pulp dry and compressed in the form of a solid cylinder, which is removed piecemeal from the metapee. These hard, cylindrical cores are then pounded in a wooden mortar—some of the Indians use prehistoric stone mortars and the resultant meal is sifted through a wicker-work sieve held between the toes of the women. The fine meal thus obtained is then dampened with water and is spread, by the aid of a wooden trowel or waiso, upon a hot stone or a piece of sheet iron, over a fire. As the big circular cakes harden and bake they are turned and lifted by means of small woven mats or fans, and are placed on a frame of sticks, or in a basketry tray, in the sunshine until thoroughly dried. The cooking or baking is not, as is often supposed, for the sole purpose of cooking the cassava meal, but is mainly for the purpose of ensuring perfect elimination of the poisonous juice containing prussic acid, which is driven off by heat.
This poisonous juice, as squeezed from the metapee, is carefully preserved and is known as cassareep. This is the basis of the famous Guiana "pepper-pot." The juice is boiled to the consistency of thick syrup in order to evaporate all the poison it contains, and into this are thrown bits of meat, vegetables and almost anything edible. The cassareep preserves the food, gives it a delicious flavour, renders the toughest meat tender, and, by occasional boiling, the mess remains fresh and edible for months or even years. Although the pepper-pot is not appetizing in appearance, for it resembles a mass of asphalt or coal-tar in colour and consistence, it is really excellent, despite the fact that one frequently comes upon the hand of a monkey, the head or foot of a fowl or some similar anatomical fragment savouring of cannibalism.
In addition to the cassava bread and the pepper-pot, the useful manioc serves to provide the paiwarrie drink, which I have already described, farine—which is the dried granular flour of the root, tapioca—made by soaking the meal and dropping the glutinous material on a hot stone or plate, and starch.
Cassava making, however, was not the only occupation of the Patamonas. For hours at a time the girls and women would recline in their hammocks spinning raw cotton into thread, and the skill they exhibited in this art was astounding. The only implement used was a slender ten-inch stick of hard wood with a tiny notch at one end and a disk of turtle-shell at the other extremity. Wrapping a wisp of the cotton around the left wrist, the spinner hooks a fibre to the primitive spindle, gives the latter a quick twirl, and raising the left hand, spins out a long, thin thread the size and smoothness of which is regulated by running the thumb and finger of the right hand up and down the strand as it is drawn out by the rotating spindle. As soon as the motion of the spindle becomes reduced, the spun thread is wound upon it, a new hold is secured with the notch, and more thread spun, until the spindle is filled with the thread. The strands thus made are used for sewing, for making various articles and ornaments, and are twisted together to form larger cords, which are used in weaving hammocks or ropes.
The hammocks are woven upon a rude frame of timbers or poles, and are usually made by the old women who are too feeble to do field work. To spin a ball of twine of sufficient size to make a hammock requires about three months' work, and the weaving of the hammock itself requires from three weeks to two months, according to size. All the work in making a hammock is performed by the women, with the exception of twisting the cords to form head-lines and ropes, which is always a man's occupation.
Although these hammocks are beautifully made, yet less dexterity is required in making them than in weaving the bead-aprons or queyus worn by the women. Probably the first queyus were made of seeds, but to-day they are always of glass beads—even among the most remote and primitive tribes, and are often very elaborate in design. Although there is no tribal significance in the patterns of the queyus, they do have a meaning, for they carry the totem or clan-mark of the maker. In weaving a queyu a frame is constructed of light pliant sticks, one of which is bent in the form of a bow with the other fastened across the two ends. On this frame the fine cotton threads are stretched, and the beads, strung on another thread, are woven in and out, much in the manner of weaving an Oriental rug. To the casual observer the form of the queyu frame appears to be of no importance, but in reality it is of the greatest importance and is designed for a specific purpose. The curved, bow-shaped stick exactly fits the hammock in which the woman sits while weaving her sole article of apparel, while her legs, placed through the bow and hanging over the edges of the hammock, hold the frame immovable, thus leaving her two hands free to weave the queyu.
The men were usually fully as busy as the women. Making bows and arrows, feather head-dresses or crowns, carving stools or clubs, or cutting out paddles kept them occupied constantly. All of the Patamonas used bows and arrows and nearly all possessed blow-guns and poisoned darts. These weapons, however, were not made by these Indians, but were secured by exchange from the Arekuna and Myangong tribes who are the only makers of the blow-guns for only in their district are suitable materials to be found. The gun's or "pipes" are beautifully made, are often twelve feet or more in length, and are as straight and true as rifle barrels.
In various parts of tropical America blow-guns are used, and they vary greatly in design and construction. Those of the Guiana tribes are made of two tubes, one within the other, the outer casing consisting of the stem of a species of palm which is soaked in water until soft, when the central portion or pith is forced out by means of a stick. The palm tube is then suspended from the roof of a benab with a heavy weight attached to the lower end to straighten it as it dries. Within this tube a perfectly straight, hollow reed is inserted and cemented in place by means of a tenacious cement-like gum at the ends. Finally, one or two peccary or agouti teeth are attached to one side of the weapon by means of wax. These serve as a sight; and the gun is complete. Oftentimes, after the blow-gun is finished, it will be discarded because it is slightly crooked or does not shoot true, or, if the bend or other fault is near one end, a section may be cut off and a shorter weapon results The longer the blow-gun the more accurate it is, and the more highly it is valued, and while six-foot weapons are often seen they are usually employed solely for killing small birds with non-poisonous darts. Unlike the guns, the wurali poison is prepared by many tribes, but principally by the Patamonas, the Macushis and the Arekunas; but only a few men of the tribes know the secret of its preparation and composition, and these secrets are carefully guarded.
Several species of strychnine-like lianas are used, as well as gums, snake-poison and poisonous ants; but it is probable that its character is due entirely to the vegetable poisons and that the snake and ant venoms are added merely for effect and have no real value. The effects of wurali are almost instantaneous, and a bird shot with a poisoned dart rarely has time to flutter away, but falls helpless and dying to the earth. A deer, when struck, may run a few rods but no more, and even a jaguar dies before it can spring away for any distance. As far as known, there is no real antidote for wurali, although the Indians claim that cane-juice and salt will prevent death from the poison; but I noticed that they were extremely careful not to prick themselves with the wurali-tipped darts, and nothing would induce them to demonstrate the efficacy of the antidote on themselves. However, it is a common practice for the Indians to shoot parrots, macaws and toucans with poisoned arrows, and, by the use of cane-juice and salt, revive the birds and keep them alive as pets. Indeed, most of the live macaws are secured in that way.
If the wurali is allowed to get damp or cold, it loses much of its deadly properties, and for this reason, the box or receptacle containing the poison is very carefully made and rendered waterproof by a coating of wax, while to prevent at being chilled it is invariably suspended near a fire when not in use, or is kept in the hammock beside the sleeping Indian.
In addition to the gun and the poison, the blow-gun user's equipment consists of a neat cylindrical case and a small bottle-shaped basket slung over the shoulder. The former is woven of fine basketry coated with wax or gum and contains the darts—slender, fragile splinters of bamboo or palm-leaf midribs. Those that are not poisoned are tied loosely together in a sheaf, while the poisoned darts are carefully placed in a sheet of soft bark and are rolled up like a mechanic's roll of tools, so that a dart may be drawn out without danger of touching the poisoned tip.
The basket contains the soft silk-cotton from the ceiba tree, which is wrapped around the butt of the dart to make it fit snugly in the barrel of the gun. Attached to one side of this basket is the skeleton jaw of the perai or cannibal-fish. When a poisoned dart is to be used the wurali-tipped end is inserted between the knife-like teeth of the fish-jaw and is twirled about until the tip is nearly severed from the shaft. When the dart thus treated enters the body of a bird or beast, or strikes any object, the tip breaks off, leaving the poison-coated splinter in the wound while the harmless part of the missile falls to the ground. Not only does this ensure more certain death to the stricken creature, but it also guards against the danger of people treading upon poisoned darts which otherwise would fall to earth and would menace life.
Few persons realize the accuracy with which the Indians can use the blow-gun. I have seen an Indian fire six darts in quick succession into a visiting-card at forty yards' distance, and, on many occasions, I have seen them bring down small birds from the topmost branches of lofty trees. In the hands of the Indian, the blow-gun with its poisoned darts is a most terrible and deadly weapon, for its speeding arrow is as swift and silent as the death it carries, and its tiny wound, scarcely more than a pin-prick, is sufficient to kill the largest and most powerful of creatures. Oddly enough, game killed by the wurali-tipped arrows is not injured for eating purposes, for wurali is not poisonous if swallowed—unless one has a cut or an open sore in the mouth or throat—and the minute quantity that enters the stricken creature's blood is negligible.
Of course, one cannot see all these various things and learn all the Indians' ways in a single visit. One must dwell long among them, must win their confidence and affection, and must almost become one of themselves before they will talk of their lives, their beliefs, their habits and their customs or will give any information regarding their beenas, fetishes and charms. It is still more difficult to get them to speak of their peaimen or witch-doctors, or of the dreaded, half-supernatural Kenaima.
Fortunately, I was able to establish myself in the Patamonas' confidence by curing many of their ills with my slender stock of medicines. Not only were they very grateful; but I soon found that they regarded me as a sort of peaiman, and when I brought out a number of the harmless fireworks known as "sparklets" and produced showers of brilliant sparks which did not burn or injure the skin, my status as a magician was firmly established.
When at last the time came for our departure, it was with real regret that I packed my belongings, my large collection of specimens and my luggage, and prepared to bid farewell to the poison-makers. The collection I had made and the store of cassava and other provisions we had obtained fully trebled the loads we had brought to the village, and I was forced to hire three of the Patamonas to help carry the additional burdens through the twenty-five miles of mountain and forest to the river.
The individual loads were packed in surianas, which are carried on the back supported by a brow-band, and weighed over one hundred pounds each. As we were preparing to leave, one of the girls—the young wife of one of the carriers I had engaged—approached and asked permission to accompany her man to the boat, stating that she, too, would carry a load.
It seemed a physical impossibility that this young girl, under five feet in height, and with delicate hands and feet, could even lift the heavy pack-basket, much less carry it over the mountains for more than twenty miles. And I gazed at her with absolute amazement as two men lifted the loaded suriana to her back, and adjusting the brow-band, she trotted off, grinning with undisguised amusement at my surprise.
How she ever negotiated that fearful trail or clambered down those precipitous slopes with her burden, I shall never know, for she travelled so rapidly I was left hopelessly behind. When at last, tired out and breathless, I arrived at the river-side, she was seated beside her husband chatting and laughing as unconcernedly as possible. She had made the trip of her own free will, and expected no remuneration whatever, and when I allowed her to select what she chose from the trade goods, her surprise was unbounded and she fairly squealed with delight.
She finally decided upon a small hand-mirror and a paper of pins, and appeared to think it a huge joke that she had been paid so liberally for such a trivial matter as carrying a one-hundred-pound load for a mere matter of twenty-five miles. Indeed, she was so delighted that she could not wait for her husband before hurrying back over that fearful trail in order to exhibit her treasures to her envious girl friends in the distant village.
Chapter 11 The People Who Eat Alone
EVER since coming to Guiana I had been anxious to visit the Caribs. These Indians held a particular interest for me, for I had met and dwelt among the few surviving Caribs in Dominica, had become very fond of them, and had acquired something of a knowledge of their language. And I was very much interested in learning if the Caribs of the mainland were similar in their characteristics to those of the islands. It was a long, hard trip to the Carib country, a journey up jungle rivers and across country through great forests to the district wherein, so my half-civilized Carib carriers assured me, I would find the untamed, wild Caribs.
We had made woodskins—frail craft of bark stripped from forest trees—and now floated upon a narrow lane of brown, tranquil water, its glassy surface marred by innumerable tacubas or fallen trees, their gaunt, water-worn trunks and branches looking like half-submerged skeletons of prehistoric monsters. Silence reigned, a silence so intense that all Nature seemed hushed, as if breathlessly awaiting some momentous event. And, as if awed by the soundless encompassing forest, I found myself half expecting some imminent occurrence, speaking in whispers, as we slipped soundlessly along the dark stream.
Then suddenly to our ears came a faint, far-away sound; a pulsating rhythmic beat. Instantly the paddles were poised motionless, my men sat like statues, until once again our ears caught that shadow of a sound, so thin and dim it seemed felt rather than heard. But it was unmistakable, unlike any other sound in the jungles—the measured boom of an Indian drum; the sound I had been hoping to hear, the proof that a Carib village was somewhere beyond. And at the sound my pulses quickened, for there is something inexpressibly wild, something that savours of savage dances and cannibal feasts, in the sound of a tom-tom quavering through the still, humid air of a tropical jungle. Then the paddles dug into the water, the woodskins leaped forward and the spell was broken. Louder and louder the resonant throbbing boomed through the forest as we sped on, until it seemed to encompass us, to fill the whole atmosphere, to issue from every side. Into the mouth of a half-hidden creek our craft turned; in a moment the river was lost to view, and as the men ran the woodskin upon the muddy bank beside a dozen similar canoes, we stepped ashore. Up from the landing-place a fallen tree-trunk formed a bridge, a pathway led to the summit of the bank, and in single file we picked our way through the forest. Now the deep notes roared and thundered in our ears, and, a moment later, we stepped from the jungle into brilliant sunlight and a large clearing wherein were a dozen or more wattle-walled, thatch-roofed huts in the shade of a few giant trees.
A few yards distant, in the shelter of an open shed of thatch, a tall Carib was seated. Between his knees was a drum of cedar wood with heads of baboon hide, and steadily, with the regularity of an automaton, he beat the barbaric rhythm with a human leg-bone for a drumstick. With a rapt expression on his stern features, a far-away look in his keen brown eyes, he pounded out the measured beat and never glanced up nor spoke a word of greeting or welcome as I entered his village.
He was a splendid figure of an Indian; muscled like an athlete, golden-yellow skinned, naked but for his long, fringed and beaded lap; with finely-chiselled features, and with his thick black hair half-hidden by tufts of the snow-white down from the breast of the king-vulture—the tribal emblem of the true Caribs.
Thus I first saw Kumwarry, chieftain of the Caribs, as splendid a specimen of his race as any of those who, in the past, fought and battled and ate Dons, Dutch and English with equal impartiality or raided the timid Arowaks and Warraus.
As I stood there, in the Carib village, and watched old Kumwarry beating his drum with that fragment of some defunct human being, and noted the fierce gleam in his dark eyes, and the set of his thin lips, I could easily picture the chief making a meal of some chance visitor like myself.
All about us stood other Caribs, men and women; all had muttered greetings and all seemed good-natured, peaceful and friendly with the exception of the chief. Something most certainly was amiss. Something had aroused the latent spark of savagery in Kumwarry's broad chest. But what it was I could not imagine. Perhaps, I thought, he was dreaming of the former greatness of his tribe, of days when none dared enter the territory of his race, of the times when the Caribs were supreme among the red men of Guiana, and when, on the menu of every Carib feast, there appeared the delectable flesh of fellow-men.
Still he kept up his incessant thumping on the great drum, and presently it seemed to me that the blows fell harder, had something of savage viciousness in their strokes, and certainly the music was becoming wilder, more rapid. I glanced about to see the other Caribs talking together, looks of apprehension on their faces, while my men showed every evidence of being frightened. Indeed, Sam, my black camp boy, had backed into a corner of the hut, and, with rolling eyes fixed on Kumwarry, was holding a cocked and loaded shot-gun in a shaky grasp, evidently convinced that the chief intended to make a meal of him, and determined to sell his life dearly.
That there was any real danger never occurred to me. The Caribs were quite peaceable, and, for more than half a century, had abandoned their savage ways and cannibalistic propensities. So I stepped boldly forward and, touching the chief on his shoulder, spoke to him in his own tongue and in the talky-talky of the bush. But the only reply was a grunt, a savage glare, and even more terrific and angry blows upon the drum.
At that instant one of my Indian boatmen beckoned me aside. And at his revelations I gasped. No wonder old Kumwarry was mad clear through; no wonder his eyes blazed and he pounded the drum as if anxious to burst its taut-drawn head. But the mystery was solved. One of my semi-civilized Carib porters had brought his wife along, had brazenly brought her into the presence of Kumwarry, and—so my informant assured me—she was the chief's former wife who had deserted him and had run off with the renegade rascal who now flaunted his amorous victory in the old man's face!
Never was there greater effrontery, never a greater insult, and I should not have blamed Kumwarry in the least had he used his rival's head as a substitute for the drum. In fact I was almost as angry as Kumwarry, for Peter's act had brought me into disrepute with the Caribs, and I realized I had my work cut out for me if I were to reinstate myself in their good graces. Moreover, Peter had made me, figuratively, the goat. Never would he have dared to enter or even approach the village by himself, or accompanied only by other Indians; but with a white man along it was different, and, relying upon my presence to protect him, he had taken advantage of the opportunity to insult the chief, and he now stood grinning from ear to ear at his success.
But his self-satisfaction was short. Within five minutes he and his female companion were speeding, as fast as they could wield paddles, down the river after having received—at my hands—as thorough a trouncing as Peter had ever had in his devious life.
With never a sign that he had seen, Kumwarry had continued banging away upon his drum throughout the scene enacted before him, but nothing had escaped him. The day was won, and, as I returned after seeing Peter and his woman safely on their involuntary way, the old chief laid aside his leg-bone drumstick, placed his drum carefully on a rafter overhead, and, with a broad grin on his face, rose and held out his hand.
All was as it should be. Peace and friendship were established. Sam, tremendously relieved, laid aside his gun, and, in lieu of the pipe of peace, the calabash of cassiri was passed around and all drank copiously of the liquor.
Perhaps Peter had really helped my cause by his rash act, and Kumwarry may have liked me all the better for dealing out swift and sound punishment to Peter. At any rate, we were fast friends from that instant. Indeed, Kumwarry vowed I must be his blood-brother, and we accordingly went through the ceremony of exchanging blood.
Kumwarry, I found, was something of a linguist. Aside from his native tongue and talky-talky, he could speak Arowak, Akawoia and several other Guiana dialects, and, having visited Venezuelan territory, he had picked up a smattering of Spanish. In fact I was rather sorry I had let him know I could understand and speak a certain amount of the Carib language, for once he knew it, he would willingly converse in nothing else. But it was a good thing for me after all, for it forced me to master his tongue, which I found later of great advantage.
Although I speak of him as old, yet I do not mean he was either grey-headed, wrinkled or aged. Kumwarry was old only in a comparative sense—perhaps thirty-five or forty—for the Guiana Indians seldom live to be sixty. But no doubt to the other Caribs he seemed a veritable patriarch. Many of the men still under twenty-one were the heads of families of a couple of wives and half a dozen children, and many a girl of thirteen or fourteen was a wife and mother, for like all the tropical Indians, the Caribs mature as rapidly as the vegetation of their jungles and fade, wither away and die as quickly as the orchid flowers that deck the forest trees. Kumwarry himself was several times a grandfather, and, judging from the number of his own progeny, there was no danger of his line dying out or the sovereignty of his tribe falling to other than the Kumwarry family.
A strange name that for a Carib king, for a stalwart man, a giant of his race, for Kumwarry is the Carib—or better the Carinya—equivalent for humming-bird. But one finds strange and seemingly most inappropriate names among these Indians. The gnat, the ant, the butterfly, the orchid may be the names of men, while women may rejoice in such names as falling tree, thin dog, otter or leaping fish, for, with few exceptions, these people bestow cognomens upon their children in an odd way. Shutting his eyes, the proud father goes forth, turns around several times, and opening his eyes glances about. The first object that crosses his vision gives him the name for his child, and as an insect, a flower, a beast or a bird it is known to all. But it would never do to have the child bear but one name. No, indeed. In that case some evil spirit or enemy might learn its name, and, by magic or witchcraft, injure the child. Hence there is a second christening, a most solemn and secret rite, at which the peaimen or witch-doctor selects a name of his own choosing and whispers it to but one living soul—the godmother or godfather of the child. Never, during life, is that name spoken—even the bearer is often in ignorance of it—and thus the devils are powerless to do harm, as without knowing the secret name how can they work a spell about it?
All this and much more of Carib lore Kumwarry told me, but not all at any one time by any means. Never does the Indian tell a story or impart information without a reason, without something, some occurrence, some chance remark leading up to it. And seldom indeed does the Indian tell an entire tale or relate an anecdote in full at one sitting. In fragments, little by little at a time, it comes—like a serial in a magazine—and often with long lapses between instalments as if the periodical had been delayed temporarily in publication. So, as we sat about the camp fire, as we lolled in hammocks and watched the great blundering fire-beetles, like animated electric lights, winging their erratic ways among the forest shadows, as we navigated long stretches of rivers or tramped through the jungle, Kumwarry, during the weeks I was with him, would fill my ears with bits of Carib mythology, quaint folk-tales or anecdotes of man, beasts and wild things. Gradually, as I came to know him better and to understand his psychology, I learned to turn the conversation, or to ask some question or make some remark that would produce the desired reaction. Thus, I once noticed that a Warrau Indian, who was a member of my crew, invariably waited, leaving his food untouched, until after Kumwarry had dined. This was interesting, and, once having had my attention drawn to the Warrau's behaviour, I watched more closely and made another discovery. The Warrau made his own fire and never attempted to make use of the Carib's. Here, I felt sure, was some strange custom, some deference on the Warrau's part for the yellow-skinned Carib. Here, too, I felt, lay a story; and so, without showing undue curiosity, I questioned my friend the Humming-bird.
"Umph!" he grunted. "My gran'fadder he eatum tha' feller."
That was all, and while it partially solved the puzzle it left much more untold. That Kumwarry's ancestors had fed upon luckless Warraus who fell into their hands was indisputable, and, no doubt, the Caribs still regarded the dark-skinned swamp Indians as inferior beings—merely as beasts whose flesh was edible, but whom they were constrained to leave unmolested—and hence would not deign to eat with them. But wherefore the Warrau's deference, his care not to use my blood-brother's fire?
But it was useless to ask. In time, in due time, Kumwarry would elucidate, and patiently I waited. The next night, as the chief stretched himself in his hammock after a good meal, and we watched the timid Warrau withdraw and wolf down his food, Kumwarry spoke, using the tongue of his tribe.
I replied in the affirmative.
"And has my brother not seen that the king-vulture eats alone?" he queried.
Once more I assented.
"And that, as the great bird feasts, the black vultures stay near, but eat not until their lord has ended?" continued Kumwarry. "So," he went on, "it is with us of the Carinya—the People-who-eat-alone. And know you, my brother, why we of the Carinya wear always the down of the king-vulture upon our foreheads, that all men may see and know that we are of the People-who-eat-alone?"
"Oua (no), Kumwarry," I replied. "That it is the mark of the Carinya I know, but why I know not. Does man know why the balli tree bears flowers of tamooni (white) to mark it from the other trees?"
"Ooparmon ! (good)," muttered the chief. "Then will I tell you, kaipidi (brother), and perhaps in the story you may find pleasure and thought."
Thus Kumwarry began to relate the tale of the first Carib, but long before he was half through the story his voice droned off into sleep, and not until two nights later —in the middle of the night at that—did he continue, beginning at the exact point where he had left off two nights before.
"Many salichias (years) ago," he began, "when men could talk with birds and beasts and could travel to sky-land, there lived a man who fell in love with a beautiful maiden of the king-vultures. Having won her with presents, he took her to wife. As you know, when an Indian marries, he goes to his father-in-law's home to dwell until such time as he can build a benab and plant a field for himself. So the man who married the king-vulture went with her to skyland and was received with feasts and drinking by the king-vultures who dwelt there. But after a time he became lonely and desired to see his old friends upon earth, and told his wife and her people that he was going to the earth for a visit. This enraged the king-vultures, who thought the man had tired of his wife and would desert her, and hard things were said. One word led to another, until at last the vultures seized the man, and swooping off with him, placed him in the top of a tall awarra palm. Here he was in a sorry plight, for he could not climb to earth over the sharp poisonous thorns, and neither dared he go back to skyland. But at last a spider saw him, and, taking pity on him, the creature spun a strong web down which the man slid in safety to the ground.
"For a long time the man dwelt on earth, visiting his own people, but he pined for his king-vulture wife and his son in skyland, and again and again he tried to return. Each time, however, the king-vultures drove him back, until the man became sad and told his troubles to all the beasts and birds; and the birds, feeling sorry for the man, agreed to help him fight the king-vultures. So the man gathered a great army of birds. There were eagles and hawks, owls and macaws, parrots and toucans, herons and curri-curri (ibis), trumpet-birds and powis, and birds of every kind—even to the tiny humming-bird whose name I bear.
"With this great army the man set out for skyland, and, after a mighty battle, the king-vultures were beaten and driven from their homes and scattered far and wide, while the birds burned and destroyed the vultures' benabs. Then the birds began gathering up all the things left by the fleeing vultures, and soon a quarrel commenced over the division of the plunder. The trumpet-bird and the heron both seized the same object and, pulling and struggling, they rolled over and over in the ashes until the trumpet-bird landed among some hot coals. The pain of the burns made him let go his hold, but his back was scorched, and both birds were covered with grey ashes. That, my brother, is why the heron is still grey and the warracabra's (trumpet-bird's) back still bears the brown, scorched spot and ash-coloured feathers.
"Meanwhile the owl kept by himself and prowled about to see what he could find, for in those days he moved by day and saw as well in sunlight as any bird. While the other birds fought he found a neatly-tied package, and, thinking it held something of value, he carried it to a secluded spot and tore it open. But the package contained darkness, and out from the wrapping it came and surrounded the owl. So, ever since then, the owl has been compelled to dwell in darkness and cannot bear the light of day. At last all the loot had been secured and the birds prepared to return to earth. The eagle called them together and spoke the name of each to be sure all were there. Among them he saw the kiskadee (flycatcher) with a bandage of white cotton around his head as if wounded. Now throughout the battle no one had seen the kiskadee, and, when the eagle asked where he had been, the kiskadee answered that he had been wounded early in the fight. But when the humming-bird—who was the doctor—lifted the bandage to dress the wound, he found no injury at all. Then the birds became angry and cried out that the kiskadee was a coward and had shirked, and they drove him off, declaring that for ever his kind must wear a white bandage about the head as a mark of disgrace. So, to-day, brother, you will see all the kiskadee tribe have white bands on their heads, and whenever they see an eagle or a hawk, or a large bird, they fly into a temper and scold and scream and impudently chase and peck at the large bird, although too cowardly to come within reach and fight openly. At last, when all the birds had been gathered together and were ready to fly back to earth, they looked about for the man. Then, to their sorrow, they found he had been killed by his own son during the battle. So the birds made peace with the son, and he led them back safely to earth, for he was but half king-vulture and had no home in skyland now that the vultures had been driven off.
"When he reached the earth this son of the man and a king-vulture maiden became a mighty warrior. He and his children founded the Carinya (the Caribs) and, in memory of the first Carib—who was half king-vulture—we of the Carinya to this day wear upon our foreheads the white feathers of the king-vulture. And like the king-vultures we eat alone, while those of other tribes wait until we finish as did that black Warrau whom you saw, my brother."
It was a quaint, picturesque fable. But Kumwarry believed implicitly in its truth. To his primitive mind, filled with superstition and credulous to a degree, there was nothing impossible nor improbable about the tale. Had not his father told it to him, and his father's father told it before? For countless generations it had been handed down. Did not he and all of his race wear the king-vultures' down as their tribal emblem? Surely. And so there must be a reason why the custom was followed, and the story gave the reason. To Kumwarry that was positive proof of the veracity of the tale, for the Indian reasons, not from cause to effect, but from effect back to cause, and where a cause is not obvious he manufactures one to suit himself. Also Kumwarry of course believed thoroughly in spirits, in supernatural beings and in the "water-mamma," a malicious being who inhabits the streams. Once, when we were fishing, there was a strong tug at his line and, drawing it in, he found hook and sinker missing. Very deliberately he wound up the line and abandoned fishing for the day. We needed fish badly, and, somewhat impatiently, I asked the chief why he had stopped.
"Water-mamma takeum line," he replied.
It was useless to argue, to cajole, or to scoff. He was convinced the water-sprite had taken his hook, and nothing would tempt him to try his luck again on that day.
And there were his beenas. He never set out on any trip or undertaking without resorting to them. But if he was superstitious, still he possessed a lot of common sense, was a true friend and absolutely honest. Perhaps my blood-brother the Humming-bird was not quite the "noble red man" of fiction. He could lay no claim to being an eloquent orator, as were many of the North American chiefs, but he was as romantic and as poetical a soul as any red man of Fenimore Cooper's tales, and he always was ready with a picturesque or an appropriate story or sentiment at sight of a beautiful or strange scene, bird or insect. And, like all true poets and artists, he possessed a most vivid imagination.
Falsehood was unknown to him, but his imagination, coupled with his poetic nature, often led to statements which, to one unacquainted with him, might well have passed as stretching the truth beyond the breaking-point.
Among other matters that I was anxious to settle was the size actually attained by the boas and anacondas. I had heard stories of serpents thirty, forty or even fifty feet in length, but during all my travels I had never succeeded in finding a snake over twenty-one feet long. Kumwarry was at once interested in my search for the "father of snakes," as he put it, and was constantly on the alert to run the record-breaking creature down. And when one day he came to me with a most thrilling tale, I felt sure he had succeeded; that he must have made use of a most powerful beena, for his story bore all the earmarks of the unvarnished truth, and was told in such a simple and convincing manner that no one could have doubted it.
He had, he declared, found a huge serpent in a distant wet savanna, a monster of a snake, a creature that—sleeping coiled under some palmettoes—formed a pile reaching as high as his chest and of incalculable length.
More, he vowed that he had traced the serpent to its lair by the trail it had left through the rank grass—a pathway, so he said, fully four feet in width. Furthermore, he insisted that the snake had dined on a full-grown tapir and would remain quiet and sluggish in the spot where he had found it, and he begged me most earnestly to set out at once and kill or capture his find.
Nothing loath, I started, Kumwarry paddling furiously down the river as though fearful of losing a moment's time. At the edge of a wet savanna he ran the woodskin ashore, and, in awed tones, stated that the monster's trail was just ahead. Sure enough, there in the stiff grass was a deep, plainly-marked rut, as though some huge body had dragged its sinuous way across the savanna, and while it was not quite four feet in width it was large enough to give promise of the biggest snake that human eyes had ever seen. Cautiously we proceeded, Kumwarry leading the way, and following the trough-like trail towards a distant clump of etah palms on a little knoll. As we drew near, Kumwarry was all excitement, and presently signalled for me to go ahead. Almost as excited as the chief, I approached the palms, pushed through the fringe of weeds and saw, coiled in the shadow of a palm tree—an anaconda barely fifteen feet long!
Was Kumwarry perturbed at the shrinkage of his monstrous snake? Not he. No, indeed. There was the huge trail; here were the palms; here was the anaconda. Had he not told the truth? he asked. And the explanation was magic. No doubt, he averred, the snake had known we were approaching. It knew the white man would either capture or kill it if it remained gigantic, and so, by some sort of witchcraft, it had caused itself to shrink to the size of a commonplace snake!
"All camudis (anacondas) are filled with great wisdom," he declared. "Do not the peaimen know this and keep snakes' skins among their charms to give wisdom to themselves? And," he added with finality, and with a triumphant tone as though the matter were ended beyond question or doubt, "does not my brother see the trail? Could any snake less great than I said have made such a wallow? And beyond—by the farther palm tree—are the tracks of a maipuri (tapir). They go no farther, so who can say he was not devoured by the serpent? And could this little camudi swallow a tapir?"
There was no use arguing with him, no use in pointing out that the big trail led to a crocodile's nest beyond the knoll, that many things might have happened to a tapir other than being eaten by a snake. Kumwarry was adamant. A snake might reduce itself by magic—that was quite within reason from the Carib view-point—but the trail remained and the tapir's tracks vanished, so that proved the truth of his tale, for magic could not alter such indisputable evidence. So, knowing the weird reasoning, the strange psychology of my Carib brother, I ceased trying to make him see matters from my point of view. Moreover, I knew that he thought he had told the truth, that only his desire to discover the " father of snakes," and his thoughts constantly dwelling upon the subject, had led his imagination astray once more.
Such incidents, however, are merely side-lights on Kumwarry's character, affording brief glimpses of the workings of his mind; and although I was long associated with him, and was on more intimate terms with the chief than many of his own tribe, yet I never could fathom his innermost thoughts or know what was taking place in his primitive brain. His good-natured, smiling face, with his keen brown eyes, was as much a mask as the impassive, stern expression of the North American red man or the bland face of a Chinaman. And it was often hard to say if Kumwarry was joking or was serious, for, unlike the Indian of fiction, he dearly loved a joke and possessed a keen sense of humour.
In some ways, too, he was very childish, and his curiosity was as insatiable as that of a monkey. He never tired of examining my belongings, and of all the equipment I carried the object he most coveted was a bath-towel! Not that the chief had the least desire to use it for the purpose for which it was intended. Like all his race, he was for ever bathing; but as his entire costume consisted of a breech-cloth, a towel was quite unnecessary. But the soft towel with its fluffy surface appealed to him, and, anxious to find out just what use he would make of it, I presented him with it. He was as pleased as a child with a new toy, and the simile is the more fitting inasmuch as Kumwarry looked upon the towel as a toy. He was never without it for a moment. Wherever he went—whether on long trips by canoe or on hunts through the jungle— the towel was an essential part of his equipment, either knotted to his belt or tied about his shoulders. He took it to bed—or rather to hammock—with him, and he guarded it as though it were a priceless fetish or talisman. Indeed, I really believe he looked upon it in that light, and considered it a most potent beena.
At times I even caught him talking to it, much as a child will converse with a doll, and whenever he visited a strange tribe or village he invariably exhibited the towel and boasted of it to his less fortunate and always envious fellows.
I have often wondered what became of that towel; whether it was handed down in the Kumwarry family as an insignia of royalty, whether it was added to the witchdoctor's collection of potent charms, or whether, beaded and fringed, it was transformed into a breech-cloth for some young Carib buck.
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- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 9-11
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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.