Tuesday, 10 April 2012
Thirty Years in the Jungle -Chs 12-14
Chapter 12 The Generalissimo
To Venezuela—The Orinoco labyrinth—Among the swamp-dwellers—The last outpost—Across the boundary—An international birthday party—I meet the Generalissimo!—Attacked!— Retreat!—Wounded!—The Generalissimo's mishap—The triumph of the Generalissimo.
HAVING completed my work among the Indian tribes of the Guiana hinterland, I turned my attention to the swampy areas near the coast. Here dwelt the Arowaks and Warraus, and here travelling was by no means as pleasant—even if in some ways easier—as through the rapids and cataracts and heavy forests of the interior. It is the rainiest part of the country, and often it rained incessantly for day after day—on one trip it poured without cessation for nearly three weeks—and at such times the low, swampy forest and jungle is flooded and there is no spot to camp.
On one occasion, after a long search in pouring rain, we found a small spot of partly dry land and, spreading the tarpaulin and slinging our hammocks, made the best of our cheerless, miserable, water-soaked condition. Everything was wet; our matches, tobacco, food, blankets, hammocks and clothing. But one of my Indians made fire by rubbing two sticks together, using the flower-stalk and the bark of the etah palm, which—in the hands of an Indian—will generate fire even when wet, and after a meal of sorts we managed to go to sleep, for we were all dog-tired.
At dawn I was aroused by a shout from one of the men, and opening my eyes, gazed about in bewilderment. We had camped at the edge of the forest with big trees back of the camp, and now the forest had vanished. We were surrounded with water and seemed to be rocking gently. Then I glanced about to find the forest on the west instead of the east, and separated from our camp by several hundred feet of open water. Not until then did the truth dawn upon me.
During the night the rising water had lifted a mass of the forest floor—trees, camp and all—and the floating island thus formed had drifted down-stream, carrying us with it. By the merest chance it had not broken apart, and by a still smaller chance, the boat had remained with us, although we were nearly twenty miles down river from where we had gone to sleep. Such floating sections of the forests are not uncommonly seen when travelling on the rivers near the coast during the wet season. The trees have no deep-growing roots, all their roots being surface-roots which are twined, entangled and knotted together to form an almost solid mass. And as the soil is only a few feet in thickness and rests upon a rocky or hard clay foundation, the water floats the whole mass free. But in nine cases out of ten, the "islands" thus formed topple over from the weight of the great trees, or break into fragments as the trees sway to the wind and motion of the current.
The Warraus were a degenerate, filthy, semi-civilized lot. They dwelt in flimsy shacks or even on platforms in trees, they ate anything and everything, they ornamented their hair by smearing it with honey and plastering it with fish-scales, and they possessed very little in the way of native handiwork.
The Arowaks, on the other hand, were nearly all civilized and, with a few exceptions, dwelt in quite modern houses and had lost practically all their tribal customs, arts and ways. A few, however, were still somewhat primitive, and from them I secured many interesting specimens. But the most interesting thing I found among the Arowaks was an aged chief, a veritable patriarch, the oldest Indian I met in Guiana. He was a fine, erect, keen-eyed old fellow with grey hair and wrinkled face, and when I first came upon him he was sitting in the sun outside an immense benab and was engaged in drying several dozen ancient pin-fire cartridges. These as well as a gun had been given him—many years before, how long he could not say—and although of no earthly use, he punctiliously dried then whenever they became damp.
When I asked how old he was he replied that he did not know, but was "too old," and pointed out a wrinkled, middle-aged Indian as his son.
Then, rummaging in a basket, he produced a faded, yellow, ragged letter. This proved to be a letter from the governor of the colony, assuring the chief of His Excellency's good wishes and stating that the annual New Year's gift of supplies, beads, axes, etc, was being sent by the bearer of the missive. But it was dated eighty-two years back!
So, assuming that old Joseph became a chief at the early age of eighteen, which is scarcely probable, he would have been one hundred years of age when I first met him. Moreover, when I was last in Guiana in 1925 I found that the aged chieftain was still hale and hearty—and had recently taken unto himself another wife—even though he must then have been at least one hundred and eleven years old!
At the time of my first visit, he had three wives living, the eldest a wrinkled, blind and grey-headed old hag, the youngest a woman of eighteen or twenty, and his progeny seemed legion. Indeed, judging from appearances, a goodly portion of his tribe in that vicinity must have been his own offspring. One of his boys had been educated in Georgetown and could read and write, and from him the old chief had heard of the World War. He was keenly interested in the struggle and asked me to send him daily papers from Georgetown so he could keep conversant with the events of the times. After my return to the capital an Arowak arrived punctually each week for Chief Joseph's papers, and with thanks and salutations from the patriarchal chieftain who, though a centenarian and more, was as lively, as strong, as virile, as keen-sighted and as youthful in many ways as any young buck of his tribe.
Although there were many Arowaks—among them those under the centenarian chief—in the north-eastern district, there were far more in the north-west. Formerly this area was a subject of dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela, and for many years was occupied by the Venezuelans. Hence many if not most of the Indians speak a Spanish jargon instead of English, and are known as " Spanish Arowaks." Although semi-civilized, industrious and—many of them at least—well-to-do, they were in some ways more primitive than their fellow-tribesmen elsewhere, and retained many of their tribal customs and habits, such as the remarkable Maquarrie dance. In this dance the participants are equipped with shields made of palm-leaf stems, and cat-o'-nine-tails-like whips of braided bark. Jumping and leaping about, they lash and beat one another unmercifully, until quite frequently, covered with welts and blood, they fall exhausted. But despite this savage and rather sanguinary ceremonial they are a gentle, quiet and peaceable lot, and seem to have a mania for keeping pets. At every hut or village one sees scores of tame birds and quadrupeds—parrots, macaws, curassows, guans, toucans, ducks, troopials, pigeons, song birds; squirrels, agouti, kinka-jous, deer, monkeys, peccaries, ocelots, and in fact almost every bird and mammal found in the district—a veritable menagerie. Seldom are these pets confined, but are free to come or go as they please, and thoroughly at home about the houses—and in them—as the domestic poultry and emaciated dogs.
These Indians are a superstitious lot, like their wilder cousins of the interior, and have many strange beliefs. Among these is the belief, common to many Indians, that the prehistoric stone implements found from time to time fall from the sky. In the hut of one of the Arowaks I saw several fine stone axe-heads and tried to secure them. But the old fellow who owned the relics would not dream of selling or trading them. He informed me they had fallen to earth during thunderstorms and were most valuable, and he even vowed he actually had seen them fall. Carried away by his enthusiasm at discovering he possessed knowledge that a white man lacked, he waxed eloquent upon the marvellous properties of these remarkable stones. Among other things he mentioned that lightning always struck where these stones rested, and this choice bit of information gave me an idea. In that case, I informed him, quite seriously, his house was sure to be destroyed by lightning as it contained not one but three of the magic stones. This floored him. He had never thought of it before; but he was quick-witted, and almost instantly turned the tables by asking why I wanted to jeopardize my house. But I was not to be caught so easily, and assured him that in my country thunder-stones did not fall from the sky and did not attract lightning, and, moreover, as my house was of stone it was perfectly safe. For a moment he pondered on this and then, hurriedly getting the three axe-heads, he insisted upon my taking them, and, not content with this, he carried them some distance from his hut and placed them beside the trail where I could gather them up when I left. Once the idea had taken possession of him he was taking no chances of having his benab destroyed through the agency of the mysterious thunder-stones.
Here in the north-west are innumerable streams separated by swampy jungles and forests broken by low "ironstone" hills, and forming a veritable labyrinth of waterways by which one may travel by canoe to the mazes of the Orinoco delta.
Learning from the Spanish Arowaks that there were other Indians over the boundary in Venezuela, I headed westward through the swamps, following winding, sluggish streams, until finally we came to the last outpost of British territory. Here, perched on a hilltop, was the neat white police-station with its surrounding huts and houses in charge of a coal-black, gigantic negro corporal of police and two equally black constables. At the foot of the hill flowed the broad river that formed the boundary between Guiana and Venezuela. On the farther side of the mile-wide stream stood the last outpost of Venezuela, a large shed-like building, and a few thatched huts wherein the commandante—a youthful sergeant—and half a dozen barefooted Venezuelan soldiers safeguarded the frontier of their native land. Above the Guiana police station, the British ensign with the colonial coat-of-arms fluttered bravely against the sky; while opposite, the red, blue and yellow banner of Venezuela flaunted its gay colours against the background of trackless jungle.
The huge, good-natured black corporal welcomed us like old friends, and when, quite casually, my boy Sam mentioned that it was my birthday, he insisted that such an auspicious occasion must be fittingly celebrated.
From somewhere among the reports, official papers and requisition forms in his office he produced a bottle of most excellent rum, and innumerable toasts to my health, my success and my prosperity were drunk as long as any liquor remained in the bottle. No doubt the three black representatives of law and order in this isolated God-forsaken spot were lonely and longed for the companionship of civilized human beings, and they seemed quite sad and disappointed when they learned that I was not to pass the night at their post but intended to cross into Venezuelan territory and make as much progress as possible before nightfall. And so, bidding farewell to the genial corporal and his black "Bobbies," we re-embarked, and, with the staccato exhaust of the motor arousing new echoes in this land where motors had never before been heard, we headed towards the Venezuelan shore.
The current was against us, however; it was farther than I had thought, and by the time we drew near the Venezuelan frontier post the sun had set. The entire "garrison" was lined up to meet us, and the welcome accorded me by the Commandante was as hospitable and wholehearted as that I had received from the black corporal on the other side of the boundary. The building, the houses, the entire post were mine to do with as I pleased, he assured me, and the comprehensive wave of his arm included his little "army," the brown, black and yellow onlookers and—for all I know—the entire republic as well. Anyhow, it was not a bad spot to camp, and the obliging Commandante ordered his six soldiers to shift for themselves, and turned their quarters over to me and my men. He served a really excellent meal, chatted volubly and then, by some means, occult or otherwise, he, too, discovered it was my birthday. Instantly he was all excitement. Caramba! Of a truth such a glorious event must be celebrated—there must be a fiesta. Por Dios, yes! The birthday of the Americano caballero! What an event! It was his duty as the representative of a great and glorious country to see to it!
He clapped his hands, rattled off orders, and was all bustle and animation. A battered guitar, a mandolin and a piccolo were conjured from somewhere, the soldiers threw aside arms and equipment and tuned up the instruments, the floor was cleared of tables and chairs, and the Commandante produced several bottles of most excellent rum which looked and tasted most suspiciously like that in which my health had been drunk over the line. Presently the guests began to arrive; the men, barefooted or wearing alpagatos, and looking rather ill at ease and a bit shamefaced in their calico shirts and white cotton trousers, and with their hair reeking with castor-oil; the señoras and señoritas, with flashing bold eyes, their dusky sldns ghastly with powder, red hibiscus flowers in their blue-black hair, and their stiffly-starched, gaudy dresses leaving an almost visible trail of heavy perfume wherever they passed. But under the cheering influence of the rum they were soon laughing and gabbling, and as the improvised orchestra commenced playing, the fiesta began.
Judging from results, I should not hesitate to say that the khaki-clad, barefooted soldiers were much better musicians than warriors, and I am sure that guitars and mandolins were far more familiar to their hands than rifles. Never have I heard the haunting melody of La Valoma played better than in that thatch-roofed shack on the edge of the jungle, and never, I am sure, has La Golondrina been rendered with greater pathos and feeling. And I am equally certain that no state ball in the Casa Amarillo at Caracas ever held a happier, more hilarious crowd than the throng that danced and laughed and drank to the "Señor Americano's" health in that isolated Venezuelan outpost.
At the height of festivities, heavy feet were heard crunching on the gravel path, heavy footsteps resounded from the wooden gallery, and into the open doorway stepped the grinning black corporal and his two companions from British territory. No doubt innumerable rules, regulations and international agreements were ruthlessly shattered by their invasion of Venezuelan territory. No doubt official red-tape had been torn to shreds, and, for all I know, my birthday party might have caused a rupture of diplomatic relations between England and Venezuela, or worse—wars have resulted from less—but neither the representatives of Venezuela or Great Britain were bothering their heads over questions of State or officialdom that night.
A fiesta was a fiesta, the faint sound of tinkling guitars and merrymaking wafted to the ears of the guardians of the Guiana frontier had been too much to resist, and leaving the colony to its fate, they had come across to have a share in the fun. And by the familiarity with which they were greeted by the Commandante and the others, especially the feminine members of the gathering, I strongly suspected that it was not the first time that the forces of the Crown had invaded the sovereign territory of the neighbouring republic.
Dawn was breaking over the river and jungle when at last the fiesta broke up. The bedraggled, dull-eyed señoritas vanished like spirits of the night; the perspiring men reeled off to their own huts; the musical soldiers laid aside their instruments and slouched away to their quarters; the Commandante yawned and vowed by all the saints it had been a most glorious, a magnifico fiesta, and the blue-clad constables, led by their ebony-skinned corporal, saluted stiffly, and, as smartly as if on dress-parade, marched to their boat and headed back for the Guiana shore.
Leaving the scene of my international birthday celebration the next day, we headed down the river towards a creek near the head-waters of which I had been told there was a large Indian village. Skirting the interminable jungle along the shore and searching for the entrance to the creek, we rounded a point and came suddenly upon a clearing and a house. A couple of canoes were moored to the bank, a number of huge logs were pulled up on the shore, and in a rude shed two magnificently-muscled half-naked men were whip-sawing a log. Beyond this, surrounded by a rather pathetic attempt at a garden, was the house, a well-built affair constructed of sawn slabs and roofed with palm-thatch, and with the Venezuelan flag flying from a bamboo pole before it. As we appeared a man rose from his seat on a section of log in the doorway and came towards us. He was short, immensely fat, with a florid face and triple chins. His short black hair was brushed up in a stiff, bristling pompadour, and his upper lip and half of his pendulous cheeks were hidden by an immense, upturned, bushy black moustache. He was clad in a cotton singlet open to the waist, a pair of stained and patched cotton trousers, held in place by a scarlet sash, and his feet were thrust into the typical Venezuelan sandals or alpagatos.
"Ah!" he cried, as I stepped ashore. "Visitors, by the grace of God! Valgame Dios, and a white Caballero at that! Ah, señor mio," he continued as he threw his arms around me, patted me on the back and saluted me in Spanish fashion, "I am honoured, overcome, blessed by the saints, favoured by God; it is the happiest day of my life, the most glorious of moments, the event of events to welcome you to my miserable and disgraceful home. It is yours, Señor, yours to do with as you please. But observe! It is nothing—a mere hut, a kennel, a pig-sty and not fit for your excellency. But what would you? It is in the wilderness, in the jungle; miles, leagues, hundreds of leagues from anywhere; and here I must dwell, I myself, a generalissimo of the great and glorious republic. Si, señor, by a whim of fate, by the will of God am I here; trying to live, striving to earn honest money by having these lazy pigs saw logs into timber that I may sell. Caramba, yes! a generalissimo of Don Cipriano Castro forced to live like an Indio and do nothing but watch these miserable peons saw wood! And to think that I, the honoured, the admired, the feared, the envied, the courageous, the heroic Generalissimo Don Demitrio Alvarado Leon de la Guardia, should come to this! That I, a generalissimo who has been—but, señor, a thousand, ten thousand pardons. I forget myself. Caramba, I have lost my manners, I am becoming like a peon; but what would you? It is the wilderness, the jungle. Señor, enter, I beseech you, my miserable house and do me the honour to have a drink."
By this time we had already entered the house, which was not at all miserable but quite comfortable and well furnished, and as the "Generalissimo" resumed his briefly interrupted flow of conversation he clapped his fat pudgy hands and shouted for "Maria." When she appeared, a rival of the General in size, a veritable mountain of a woman, with olive skin, at least six chins, long frowsy black hair and a decided moustache on her upper lip, she proved to be the señora herself.
"Ah, flower of my dreams!" cried the general, beaming, "we have a visitor. Caramba, yes, heart of my soul, a caballero from that great and glorious Estados Unidos, the country whose President is a great Generalissimo like myself, the illustrious General Jorge Washington. Caramba, yes, Maria, a wonderful man! Do you not remember his statue in the Plaza Washington in Caracas? Let me introduce to you, my beloved, this caballero who has so honoured our miserable home with his illustrious presence; this Norte Americano, this excellency who knows a generalissimo of Don Cipriano's army when he sees him. Bring the drinks, Carissima, and prepare a feast and, be quick about it. His excellency is desolated with fatigue, he expires with thirst, he succumbs with hunger."
Leisurely and with flip-flopping heelless slippers, the "flower of his dreams" moved off, to return presently bearing a wooden tray with bottles, decanters and glasses. Even if it was "in the wilderness, the jungle," the Generalissimo possessed a rare stock of drinkables; the finest of Spanish wines, Benedictine and cognac, curacao and creme-de-cacao, and the inevitable rum. As I sampled his liquors and listened to his rapid-fire flow of words, I suspected that lumbering was not by any means the chief source of my host's income, and that his self-imposed exile was due to a deeper cause than he would have me believe. He was not so far from the coast, and it was a fairly short and easy boat trip from Trinidad, and with no inquisitive customs officials to investigate what might be hidden under the piles of lumber in his dug-outs. But it was no business of mine; he was a genial soul even if he did talk one deaf, dumb and blind, and when I gazed at the meal which the "heart of his soul" placed before us, I no longer marvelled at the corpulence of the Generalissimo and his wife.
To my questions regarding the location of the creek and the Indian village, he replied that he knew the creek but had never visited the village of the Indios, although his labourers had told him of it.
"Caramba, yes, but I, I myself, shall accompany you!" he cried. "It is an honour, a privilege, a delight. I insist, I beg of you that I may go. Wait but just one little momentito, your excellency; one little moment until I attire myself fittingly and I will join you."
The momentito expanded into nearly half an hour, at the expiration of which he reappeared. But what a transformation! The figure that held my gaze absolutely fascinated, was glorious to behold. The sloppy alpagatos had been replaced by shiny polished cavalry boots with great silver spurs. Scarlet trousers with broad sky-blue stripes fitted skin-tight over his fat bowed legs. He wore a tunic of emerald green resplendent with gold braid and buttons. Immense epaulettes were on his shoulders; a crimson sash; and a broad white belt supported a heavy cavalry sabre and a pearl-handled revolver; while to top all his bristly hair was concealed under a dark-blue gold-visored hat adorned with a pom-pom of white and scarlet.
"Behold!" he exclaimed, clicking his heels together and saluting. "Once more am I the Generalissimo. Once more do I go forth as befits me. Señor, I am at your service. Vamonos, let us go, let us embark that I may see these savages, that I may let them gaze upon me, upon a Generalissimo."
Striving with difficulty to repress bursting into laughter at the striking but ridiculous costume the General had donned for entering the jungles, I led the way to the waiting boat. Perhaps the Indians thought that the get-up of the General was a ceremonial costume, perhaps they thought all Venezuelans dressed in that style, or perchance, Indianlike, they considered it beneath them to show surprise at anything. At any rate, not one of the crew showed the least sign of curiosity or amazement at the gorgeous individual who, not without considerable effort and imminent danger of ripping his trousers seams, at last seated his ponderous person in the boat. But I caught black Sam fairly choking with laughter, and the grizzled captain stared at the green and gold of the General's back as if wondering whether he was seeing aright.
The Generalissimo may have been the brave, admired, victorious, and great soldier that he claimed to be. But he was no sailor, and each time the boat tipped or bumped upon a submerged log as we paddled up the dark creek he caught his breath, gripped the gunwales and was obviously terrified. Moreover, it was hot, the heavy, tight-fitting uniform was a most uncomfortable and unsuitable costume for the tropical jungle, and great beads of perspiration rolled down the General's fat, nappy cheeks. But he manfully endured his discomfort, and nothing could repress his garrulity.
"Ah, Excellencia!" he exclaimed, peering about through the surrounding forest, "what a spot for lurking savages! What a place for an ambush, a surprise, a massacre, an attack. Caramba, yes! It was in such a forest, such a wilderness, such a jungle that I, Generalissimo Leon de la Guardia, distinguished myself and won glory for Don Cipriano. Si, señor, in the Goajira forest it was, and that swine, that dog, that sin verguenza, Agramonte, attacked us with his savages, his Indios. Valgame Dios, but it was a battle! And I, I with my handful of men routed them, destroyed them, won the day. But what would you? It was my duty, my work, my profession, and it was in the wilderness, in the jungle. And my valour, my courage, my victory was rewarded. When I returned to Caracas, Don Cipriano shook me by the hand, he kissed my cheek, he said—"
At that moment the boat grated on a tacuba, water sloshed over the rails upon the corpulent soldier's polished boots, and, in striving madly to balance the craft, he came very near upsetting it completely.
The Indians grinned, Sam chuckled audibly, and the old captain snorted. "Hoop-la!" he exclaimed. "Takin de fac's o' de case in consid'ation I boun' he goin' calpsize de coorial an' meet he meta 'fore we wins out de bush."
Then it began to rain. Not a light drizzle, but a torrential downpour that rattled like hail on the leafy canopy far overhead, and which descended in streams from the dripping foliage. It spattered upon the General's ornate headpiece, it trickled from his epaulettes, it ran down his trousers into his boots. For a moment he stood it; then, regardless of danger, he seized the tarpaulin, dragged it to him and tried to wrap the stiff, heavy canvas about his person. I was really sorry for him, but, as he was so fond of saying, "what would you, it was the wilderness, the jungle." The rain, luckily for him, did not last long, and casting off his extemporized rain-cloak he glanced ruefully at his gorgeous garments and water-soaked boots. At this moment the bowman gave a warning shout, and we ducked low as the boat swept under a drooping twisted liana that stretched across the creek; but the Generalissimo was too fat to double far. The vine caught the pompom of his hat, snatched the latter from his head, and then let it drop into the creek. The General ripped out a volley of oaths that should have shrivelled the surrounding vegetation, grabbed wildly for his hat, struck his pudgy hand against a thorn-covered palm-leaf and yelled in terror. "Madre de Dios!" he cried. "I am killed, poisoned, dying! I have been bitten, struck, by a serpent, by a culebra! For the love of God, señor, turn back. Let me reach my casa before I die; let me say farewell to my beloved Maria!"
"It is nothing," I assured him. "It was no snake, but a palm-spine. Painful but not dangerous."
One of the Indians picked the thorn from his hand, the fellow was at last convinced of his error, and, his hat having been recovered, we proceeded.
The creek was narrow but deep, the vegetation grew low above it, and it was full of sharp twists and turns. Often we were forced to push or break our way through screens of foliage and vines and, presently, as the bow of the boat butted into such an obstruction, the bowman gave a yell and instantly leaped overboard. The next instant we were surrounded by thousands of maddened, angry hornets, for we had bumped into a marabuntas' nest, and the vicious inmates were intent on exacting full retribution for disturbing them. It was an experience we had had many a time; there was but one thing to do, and very promptly we all followed the bowman's example and sought refuge in the water.
Only the Generalissimo kept his seat. But even the flower of the army of ex-president Castro could not long withstand an attack by such an enemy. Waving his hand, cursing, dodging, he fought valiantly for a moment and then, half-rising, he plumped into the creek like a gigantic bull-frog. He came to the surface spluttering and blowing like a porpoise, only to be met by a waiting hornet that buried its sting in the General's nose, and with a cry of pain the valiant soldier ducked beneath the water again. Luckily he was not beyond his depth—for I doubt if he was able to swim under the best of conditions—and, following our examples, he floundered down stream, constantly ducking under, until the hornets, having abandoned the chase, retired to their damaged nest.
Fortunately we did not have to burn the nest in order to go farther, for, as we retrieved the boat and scrambled ashore, one of the men discovered a trail leading into the forest. Several woodskins were hidden in the bushes, and evidently the pathway led to the Indian village we sought. So, fastening our boat, we gathered our loads and made preparations for the tramp through the jungle.
But the poor Generalissimo had had quite enough of it. Bedraggled, covered with mud and slime, his boots spouting water at every step, with water-plants entangled on his sword, with his moustache wilted and drooping lugubriously, and with his nose swollen to thrice its size and already purple, the mighty warrior was a pitiful and a ludicrous figure as he clambered from the creek on to dryland.
But he would not admit defeat and was irrepressible. "Caramba!" he exclaimed. "We survive, we live, we are saved. Por Dios, yes; as a great campaigner, as a soldier of experience, as a Generalissimo I know when to retreat, when to advance, when to fight. But what would you? We are attacked, set upon, ambushed, by superior forces, by greater numbers, by savage enemies. Santissima Maria, yes! We are surprised, taken unawares, outflanked. We have no time for defence, for resistance, for using our weapons. I order a retreat, we fall back, we give way, we retire, but I save the day. But I, Generalissimo Leon de la Guardia, have been wounded. Caramba, yes! I have been shot in the nose!"
He burst into a roar of laughter at his own mishap. Any man who could see the funny side of it, could laugh at what he had been through, must have been all that he claimed for himself, and my heart warmed to him and I really liked the bombastic old fellow.
But he drew the line at tramping into the jungle. Seating himself upon a log he drew his sabre, wiped the blade on his sash, took out his revolver, examined it carefully, mopped his face, readjusted his moustache and announced that he would remain until we returned.
"Mil diablos!" he cried. "What would you? It is not for me to tramp like a savage through the jungle. I have been shipwrecked, wounded, injured, drowned. I am a Generalissimo, accustomed to a horse, but it is the forest, the wilderness, and there is no horse, no steed, no mount. Caramba, no! I remain here, I entrench myself, I guard the rear, I dry myself, I nurse my wounds, I cogitate, I think of the glory of my campaigns, of my triumphs. I am armed, I am equipped; if I am beset by savages, attacked, besieged, I can protect myself. I have my sword, my pistol, which have never failed me, which have destroyed many enemies, many foes. But, Valgame Dios! I have no tobacco, no cigarettes, nothing to smoke! If your Excellency could do me the favour, the kindness, the honour—"
I supplied the needful tobacco and papers, together with the matches, and, regretting I must abandon him to his cogitations as he shivered in his wet uniform, I hurried after my men.
Four hours later, when we returned, the Generalissimo was still seated upon the log. A dead cigarette drooped from one corner of his lips, his hat with its wilted pompom was jammed down over his eyes, his head was resting against a branch, and he was snoring lustily!
My trip had been in vain. I had found the village deserted, its inhabitants off on some trip or business of their own, and I was decidedly disgruntled and disappointed at having had all my trouble for nothing.
The old soldier woke up with a start at sound of our approach. "Gracias a Dios!" he cried, readjusting his hat and jumping to his feet. "Your Excellency returns. I have slept, slumbered, dreamed, rested. But my stomach hungers for food, for sustenance, for a meal cooked by my beloved, my adored Maria. Let us return, señor, to my miserable home, to my house, to my unworthy abode. Caramba! but I forget myself, I lose my manners, I omitted to ask if your Excellency was successful, if you found the Indios, if you had good fortune."
I shook my head, and, in rather curt words I fear, explained matters.
The General's fat face fairly beamed, his eyes twinkled, he twirled his moustache, he threw out his emblazoned chest.
"Que lastima!" he cried. "I am desolated, grieved, distracted, overcome to hear it. But what would you? It is the fortunes of war, or perhaps the misfortunes, as Napoleon said, or was it your own countryman, the illustrious Generalissimo Washington, or perhaps Bolivar or San Martin or—perhaps another. But what matters it? You are safe, you were not beset, attacked, ambushed. You return unscathed, unhurt, unwounded. Caramba, yes! that is something. And I remained entrenched, in the rear, and though I slept, though I dozed, though I, Generalissimo Leon de la Guardia, should have known better; though I should have court-martialled, shot, punished, executed a sentry who did likewise when I was the feared, the victorious, the courageous leader of Don Cipriano's forces, yet, señor mio, of a truth I have not been idle. Behold, your Excellency! "
As he spoke he pointed dramatically at the boat. Wondering what on earth he was talking about, I stepped forward, and glancing into the craft, stared incredulously. Lying on the tarpaulin were bows and arrows, a long blow-gun, a quiver of poisoned darts, a bark-cloth lap, a long string of jaguar teeth, a feather cape, a carved wooden club, and a feather head-dress.
Where had they come from? By what magic had the General conjured them from the air?
But before I could frame a question, the Generalissimo, his face wreathed in smiles, was explaining.
"Nombre de Dios, yes!" he exclaimed. "Does your Excellency approve? Are they what he desires, what he seeks, what he wants? I, Generalissimo Leon de la Guardia, sit here, at rest, at ease, cogitating, upon a fallen tree, when the savages, the Indios, arrive. I am but one and they are six, but I surprise them, I overwhelm them, I impress them with my presence. Caramba, yes! Never have they seen a Generalissimo in the uniform of Don Cipriano's army, and I draw my sword, I flourish my revolver, I confront them. Santissima Madre! but what would you? They have weapons, they have plumas, they have the things which your Excellency craves. I speak with them, I thunder at them, I command them to deliver. Are they not in Venezuela, am I not a Generalissimo in the army of that great and glorious Republic? Do I not own this land? Do I not saw the wood? Do I not have the right? Valgame Dios, yes! They are savages, heathens, Indios, and they have that which my friend, my guest, my illustrious Señor Americano so much desires. So what would you? It is the wilderness, the jungle. To them the things are nothing, to your Excellency much. I call upon them to deliver; they obey, and I let them go in peace. Carrajo, yes! Does your Excellency approve?"
What could I say? Naturally I did not approve. But the things were there, the Indians—probably frightened out of their wits by the apparition of the General—had vanished, no one knew where, and even if I had tried it would have been impossible to have made the old rascal see things from my point of view, to have convinced him that his methods were out-and-out highway robbery.
So I thanked him effusively, assured him I "approved," and, for the first time, was glad that the Generalissimo had joined our party.
Chapter 13 In the Haunts of the Buccaneers
Bocas del Toro Panama, 1914—At Panama again—Great changes—Unknown tribes—A nightmare voyage—The lunatic—At Bocas—Paradoxical towns—The haunt of the Buccaneers—Descendants of the freebooters—Across the bay—The first Indians.
HAVING completed my work among the Indians of Guiana, I was asked to carry out exhaustive ethnological studies among the tribes of Panama, and once more I landed in Colon. But time had wrought vast changes since my first visit.
The great Canal had been completed and was in operation, the Isthmus was as safe and as healthful as any northern city; the new and modern towns of Balboa, Cristobal, Ancon and others had sprung into existence, and the once pestilential and primitive "Bridge of the World," as Bolivar called it, had been thoroughly modernized, sanitized and mechanized. Still, outside the Canal Zone, much of the country was as wild, as untamed, as little known and as unexplored as ever, and in the mountains and jungles were countless Indians. Some were civilized or semi-civilized. Others, like the San Blas or Towalis and the peaceful, good-natured Chokois of Darien, were well known—although living as primitively and in much the same way as in the days of Balboa, despite the fact that they dwelt within one hundred and fifty miles of the busy up-to-date cities and the Canal—and in the remote mountains and jungles were tribes of whom practically nothing was known. Indeed, no one knew how many tribes there were, what their racial status, what their customs, arts or dialects, although some were reputed to be hostile, others savages, and others cannibals.
Among these aborigines of whom nothing definite was known, either by the natives or by ethnologists, were the various Indians dwelling in the north-western portion of the republic in the vicinity of Bocas del Toro and the unmapped, jungle-covered mountains beyond. Some of these, I was told, were "Valientes" and some were known as "Bluefields"; but these were obviously names given to them by the natives, and not of Indian origin.
So, as this seemed a promising district in which to begin my scientific investigations, I embarked on a Panamanean coasting vessel for the run up the coast to Bocas.
Twelve hours at sea may not sound like a long voyage, but twelve hours in a modern steamship and twelve hours in a Panama coaster are two very different matters. The craft on which I embarked at midnight in Colon Harbour would have puzzled the most cosmopolitan of seamen when it came to classifying her. Built originally as a yacht for a temporary and ostentatiously inclined President of a Central American republic, when the meteoric career of her original owner had come to an abrupt end at the hands of a firing-squad she had been stripped of her ornate fittings and converted into a logwood schooner. Wrecked on a coral reef, she had ultimately been salvaged and had been patched up by native labour, and for several seasons had made a notorious name for herself as a smuggler. Ultimately she had been captured and confiscated, had been sold for a song, and had been transformed into a fishing smack. Then had come the era of motors, and minus her bowsprit, with her masts cut down to stumps, and with clumsily-built, roughly-boarded superstructures fore and aft—which resembled the fore and stern castles of an ancient galleon—she had been fitted with a third or fourth-hand oil-burning motor, and turned coaster. Plying up and down the Isthmus from Port Limon to Colombia, carrying cargoes of cattle, pigs, coco-nuts, logwood, fruit, lumber, fish, and malodorous natives, she had accumulated as choice a collection of odours, vermin, and filth as can well be imagined. Judging by the results, I should say she had never been washed, disinfected, nor painted. Her hold reeked; her decks were hidden under a half-inch coating of dark brown dirt; her topsides were variegated with streaks of iron rust, black oil, tar, grease, and filth; and her stumpy masts, patched sails, deck-houses, slack riggings, and all upper works were blackened by the smoke from the galley fire and the soot-belching exhaust. Her accommodation consisted of two tiny box-like kennels, dignified by the name of cabins, directly over the rattling, coughing, snorting motor, and unfit for occupation by any human being—and the decks.
Obviously I chose the decks, and selecting the least filthy and smelly spot I could find, I told Tom, my West Indian camp-boy, to stake out our claim with our luggage, and sling the hammocks between stanchions. But staking a claim is one thing and holding it against claim-jumpers is another proposition. Within half an hour after I arrived on board, boat-load after boat-load of passengers put in their appearance. Men, women, and children—black, brown, and yellow; shouting, cursing, chattering, laughing; chaffing in English, French, Chinese, Spanish, and Jamaican patois-cockney, they swarmed on board accompanied by their multitudinous possessions. Huge baskets, bulging gunny-sacks, bundles, rolls of bedding, hammocks, matting, wash-tubs filled with household utensils; pots and kettles, charcoal braziers; squalling infants, chairs, and tables; parrots in cages, monkeys on chains, dogs and cats, pigs and fowls, soon filled the decks. Back and forth, over and under this maze of dunnage and live-stock, the sweating perfumed negresses, the odorous half-naked negroes, the rum-exuding greasy natives and their fellow-voyagers fought, tugged, struggled, and swore in a dozen dialects as they strove to drag their individual belongings from the mass. In the dim light of the lanterns they resembled nothing so much as a pack of hyenas upon a burial-mound, and the smell wafted from them added to the illusion.
To attempt to hold our own against that mob was hopeless, and, seeing how matters stood, I had Tom gather our belongings into the smallest space possible, sought refuge in my hammock, and prayed that those who took possession of the deck around and beneath me might not possess either pigs, fowls or infants.
Heaven must have heard my prayer. The first fellow to ensconce himself upon the hatch-cover under my hammock was a grey-haired, monkey-faced negro in ragged but clean blue denim, and who, in lieu of a bed, laid a sheet of corrugated iron on the deck! I was gazing at this procedure in amazement when Tom nudged me, and whispered that the fellow was a well-known lunatic who had killed two men and had just been released from the local asylum. This was far from reassuring news, but I decided that even a crazy negro with homicidal tendencies was preferable to some of the others as a near-by neighbour. Meanwhile the old fellow was mumbling and muttering to himself as he unfolded and set up a steamer-chair, extracted a tin cup, plate, and a package of mange (pounded salt fish, rice, and yams) from somewhere, and proceeded to dine. Hardly had he started when two burly mulattoes ducked under my hammock and threw their bundles of dunnage on to the hatch. With a snarl like that of a wild beast, the old negro sprang forward, kicked their bundles aside, and, whipping out a knife, rushed at the mulattoes.
"Don' come humbuggin' roun' me," he shouted. "Ah ain' standin' for yeller niggers near 'bout wher' Ah be."
The mulattoes, who had beat a hasty retreat and now stood at a safe distance, began to expostulate. "Ain' yo' nigger yo'self?" they demanded. "An' ain't they a nigger boy an' a Bukra (white man) alarng 'side yo'?"
The lunatic, who had resumed his interrupted meal, glared.
"Wa-la!" he exclaimed, waving his knife. "Wha' fo' yo' argyfyin' 'bout da' perzacness o' mah promulgashun fo'? I give yo' mah final'ty ult'matum. Ah ain' mindin' niggers larngside me, an' Ah ain' objectionin' to bein' larng-side a white gent'man. But Ah don' qual'fy mah 'sershun that Ah ain' standin' fo' yo yaller half-breed mulatters. Mulatters is corruption an' don' fit for assoc'ate alarng decent folk. They ain' nat'ral. God made tha nigger, an' God made tha white man, but God doan' make no mulatters."
Obviously there was no reply to this argument, and the mulattoes sought repose elsewhere. Three times after that various individuals endeavoured to smuggle themselves and their belongings into the sphere of the lunatic's control, but with no better success, until at last he held the fort in undisputed possession.
After all, I decided, as the motley noisy crowd at last settled down to comparative peace and quiet, a crazy negro isn't the worst neighbour one might have, and, putting all thoughts of a possible attack of homicidal mania and of his keen knife from my mind, I turned over and tried to sleep.
Sleep, however, was out of the question. The craft was now chugging, with loudly protesting engine, towards the open sea, and presently, as we passed the breakwaters and the red eye of the lighthouse flashed luridly astern, the overloaded vessel got the full sweep of the long Caribbean swell.
Instantly, as she rolled and pitched, shipping water through her scuppers, and causing the loosely-stayed masts to buckle and groan, pandemonium broke loose upon the decks.
Children squalled, women shrieked, men cursed, pigs grunted, fowls cackled, dogs howled, as the close-packed passengers and their dunnage were rolled and tumbled about, and the incoming water swashed among them. And they were not good sailors. Within five minutes 90 per cent of the crowd were deathly sea-sick; groans and moans took the place of screams and curses, and the decks were literally an unholy mess. But stretched at full length upon his corrugated iron bed, and covered with a brilliant purple and green blanket, the lunatic snored unconscious of all, and safe from the swashing water on his island-like hatch-cover.
As the motions of the vessel increased, the sounds of human and animal freight decreased, until presently the groanings of ancient timbers, the gurgle and splash of water, the creaking of masts and the rattlety-bang of the coughing, spitting motor were the only sounds.
But to sleep in a hammock that was jerking, pitching, and swinging wildly to the crazy motions of the old tub was quite impossible. At last, however, I managed to rig stays to stanchions and rigging, and wondering vaguely if the vessel would go to pieces or would founder, and speculating upon the relative advantages of a steamer-chair or a duffle-bag as a life-preserver, I fell asleep.
I was aroused by a shaft of sunlight upon my face, and found the craft riding slightly more steadily. The sea had gone down, the waves were on our quarter, and to the west stretched the endless forest-covered shores and hazy mountains of the isthmus. The passengers, now too weak and helpless even to move, littered the filth-covered decks, sprawling like dead bodies among the soaked miscellany of their innumerable belongings.
Our crazy friend had stripped to the skin, and entirely oblivious of his surroundings and audience, was assiduously scrubbing his black body from head to foot. As mysteriously as a conjurer, he had produced a tin wash-basin, had materialized a scrubbing-brush and a cake of carbolic soap, and was making a thorough job of his morning bath. Then, donning a sky-blue singlet, he emptied his basin of suds over the rail, dipped up a fresh basin of sea-water, and using a strip of sugar-cane as a brush, he proceeded to brush his three or four stumps of teeth. Most assuredly, I thought, he had not acquired those habits in the lunatic asylum.
By the time Tom had started our coffee going over our alcohol stove, the cleanly lunatic was again fully clad, and was breakfasting on the remains of his supper.
Then, rolling his iron mattress into a bulky cylinder, he lashed it with rope, shoved his other belongings within it, and seating himself in his steamer-chair, inquired if I could spare him some tobacco.
I had already decided that he was a good deal more knave than fool, and I was not surprised when, with a simian-like grimace of his black wrinkled face, and a sly wink, he informed me in a hoarse whisper that I needn't be afraid, as he was no more crazy than myself. Quite as a matter of course he mentioned the murders, which he declared were justified, and added that as Panamanean prisons were far worse than Panamanean lunatic asylums, he had pretended to be a lunatic. Being a West Indian and a British subject, and with no friends or relatives who would pay for his keep, the officials had been only too glad to rid themselves of him at the earliest opportunity. But his temporarily assumed lunacy had taught him that there are advantages in being a crazy man at times, as witness his victory the previous evening, and so he had decided to keep up the deception for his personal benefit. He informed me that he made an easy living, and managed to have everything quite his own way by this means, and that he even was given free passage on the vessel on account of his supposed lunacy. But as I knew that crazy people usually suffer from the hallucination that they are sane, I decided that his statement might be proof of his insanity, and I declined his offer of accompanying me as a sort of personal bodyguard in return for his keep.
Bad as the night had been, the daytime was, if anything, worse. Many of the passengers had recovered sufficiently to commence preparations for breakfast, the sun beat down upon the weltering mass of humanity and live-stock, and no attempt had been made to clear up the mess or wash the decks. The water that had sopped in had done little in the way of cleansing, and now swashed back and forth in the scuppers, together with all the miscellaneous debris it had collected. Many of the voyagers still wallowed in their own filth like pigs in a sty, while others, who apparently had unbounded faith in their two reputed cures for seasickness—rum and cologne,—were partaking recklessly of the former and laving themselves in the latter. As a result, the combined odours of vile rum, cheap cologne, human effluvia, live-stock and frying rancid fat and stale fish became almost beyond human endurance. But there was no escape, and I thanked God that I possessed a strong stomach, and had learned to "take the rough with the smooth," as Tom put it.
Presently the captain appeared, the first time I had seen him since I had embarked, and seeming quite disturbed to find me quartered on deck, invited me to move to the top of the after deck-house. But as the "hurricane-deck" was already occupied by a group of highly perfumed and noisy natives, apparently local officials, who showed very obvious indications of being far from sober, I declined his invitation, for I saw no advantage in moving out of the frying-pan into the fire, so to say.
The skipper, a stocky pock-marked mulatto, seemed anxious to do his best to make me comfortable, and apologized for the condition of his craft. He was a pleasant enough chap, but was woefully handicapped by an impediment in his speech, which caused him to stutter so badly that it was actually painful to hear him. How he ever managed to give orders was a mystery; but evidently he accomplished the feat somehow, and he must assuredly have been a competent seaman to have navigated the Mary Lindy up and down the coast for years without mishap.
Glancing at the aged lunatic, who was now dozing in his deck-chair, the skipper grinned. "H-h-h-h-he's no m-m-m-more c-c-c-c-crazy t-t-t-t-than I a-am," he declared in a loud whisper. "B-b-b-b-b-but e-e-e-ev-every-body t-t-th-th-thinks he is, so i-it a-a-am-amounts t-t-to t-t-the s-s-same t-t-thing."
Following this sage if difficult observation, he retired to the wheel-house to navigate the Mary Lindy through the Bocas we were now approaching.
Threading the narrow and somewhat dangerous channel between the rocky promontories, we entered the tranquil lake-like waters of Almirante Bay, a magnificent and most historic spot. Here Columbus' fleet anchored in May 1502, when, on his fourth and last voyage, the great discoverer found his way to India barred by a new continent. And here, a century and more later, the fleets of the buccaneers swung to their moorings in the shelter of the wooded palm-fringed islands that dot the great lagoon. It was a favourite rendezvous of those swashbuckling sea-rovers in the days when the British freebooters harassed the Spanish Main and "synged ye beard of ye kynge of Spain," as they put it. There were few of the famous, or perhaps infamous, buccaneer leaders who did not know Bocas del Toro as well as they knew the decks of their own ships, and to Almirante Bay they flocked to divide booty, plot new schemes to confound the Dons and win loot, and to refit their sea-worn ships and carouse ashore. L'Olonais, Brazilero, Montbars, Morgan, Hawkins, Red Legs, and scores of others made the lagoon their haunt, and in later years, when buccaneers had given place to pirates, Blackbeard and Augur, Bonnett and Morley, and even those remarkable petticoated pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Reid, were familiar figures in this safe refuge in the heart of New Spain. It was here, too, that Captain Bartholomew Sharpe, Sawkins, Dampier, Wafer, and Ringrose met and hatched out their scheme of crossing the isthmus and sacking the west coast of South America. And it was to this spot also that the survivors of the ill-fated filibustering expedition of the famed Walker fled for safety when driven out of Nicaragua with prices on their heads.
But to-day the bay is peaceful enough. The crumbling remains of a few ancient walls and buildings, and an occasional rust-covered cannon upon the islets, are all that remain of buccaneering and piratical days. Except for a few fishing boats, a few Indian canoes, and the white fruit steamers, the vast body of water, large enough to shelter all the navies of the world, is deserted. And aside from the semi-civilized Valiente Indians on the southern shores, and the towns of Bocas del Toro, Almirante, and Old Bank on the north, it is a wild uninhabited district.
But at the time my mind was not dwelling on the past, other than the past twelve hours that had seemed like twelve days, and I was temporarily far more interested in getting ashore and bidding a fond farewell to the Mary Lindy than in the Indian tribes of the interior which I had come to study.
Seldom has a town looked more attractive to my eyes than did Bocas del Toro as the Mary Lindy drew in towards the wharf. But distance lent enchantment, as always, and the settlement proved anything but inviting once we were ashore.
The houses, mostly of wood and badly in need of paint, straggled along the sandy spit of land, with here and there moth-eaten palms and a few trees rising above the roofs. The streets were sadly in need of attention, buzzards and mangy dogs took the place of street-cleaners, and the sun blazed down as if determined to roast every one alive. It was not, however, quite so bad as it looked. There were several really good buildings, two pretty plazas, and many busy shops, for Bocas del Toro is the entreport of an extensive district, and a good trade is carried on in tortoise-shell, native produce, dye woods and medicinal plants, hides, and innumerable other articles.
But it is a most incongruous and paradoxical place. Although in the Republic of Panama, and the capital of a province, yet the inhabitants are nearly all British West Indian negroes, and English is the universal language. There are two reasons for this state of affairs. In the first place, the inhabitants are largely West Indians, who work or have worked upon the vast banana plantations on the neighbouring mainland. In the second place, it was first settled by British buccaneers, and their descendants, of mixed blood of course, held tenaciously to the language of their buccaneer forbears, and considered themselves "Englishmen." At Old Bank, a tiny settlement on a neighbouring island, which was the site of the original town, the influence of the old sea-rovers is very evident. Here every one, with very few exceptions, boasts of British blood—be they yellow, brown, or black,—and all speak English, if such their jargon may be called; at any rate it is not Spanish. And here, too, many of the names leave no doubt as to ancestry. There are Sawkins, Sharps, Coxons, Watlings, Gaynys, Jobsons, Fosters, a few Morgans, and, for all I know, there may be Teaches, Bonnets, Wafers, Ringroses, or even a Dampier or two.
But I was searching for Indians and not for dusky off-spring of old-time freebooters, and my association with them was forced rather than sought when I endeavoured to secure a launch and crew to transport myself, my outfit, and Tom to the Indian districts on the farther side of the vast lagoon.
Eventually I obtained a craft of sorts, a dingy, battered, but apparently seaworthy and serviceable twenty-five foot launch with a fairly efficient but woefully inadequate motor, together with two equally dingy, battered, and, as it turned out, inadequate, negro youths for a crew. From the few Indians who were to be seen about the town every day I tried to obtain information, but without much result. All pretended to be members of the so-called Valiente tribe of semi-civilized aborigines; but as some were obviously "tame," and wore "store clothes," while others were as evidently "wild" and had sharpened teeth, long hair, and painted faces, I felt certain that their assertions were far from truthful. Moreover, all claimed to be unacquainted with Spanish and English, and as soon as interrogated as to their identity, the location of their homes or any personal or tribal matter, they shut up like oysters or merely grinned inanely.
I was not, however, discouraged by this. It takes time and close association to win the Indians' confidence, and until their confidence is won, they invariably feel suspicious when a stranger questions them. But everyone agreed that there were plenty of Indians along the shores and rivers and among the hills and mountains to the west and south, although who they were,—other than the Valientes,—what their habits or precisely where they dwelt, were matters regarding which the public, as well as the officials, appeared ignorant. The fiercely moustached, mahogany skinned, roly-poly Gobernador declared them all Valientes and quite civilized. His confrere, the bony-skinned monocled Alcalde, flatly contradicted his superior, and assured me that all but the Bluefields Valientes were "muy bravo" and hostile, and that my life would be in jeopardy if I visited them. The Commandante, a leathery-faced, white-bearded fellow, told wild tales of having been driven off, when on one occasion he had attempted to ascend the Crikamola (Cricamola) River, and declared the Indians of that district were cannibals. Last but not least, a Bahamian tortoise-fisher informed me that there were two or perhaps three tribes in the district; that some were quite like "gente," while others were shy and wild, but that none were hostile except the mountain Indians who dwelt beyond the crest of the Cordillera. "But they's a wery queer t'ing 'bout they, Chief," he added. "'Way back beyon' yander they talks Henglish, Chief. Yaas, Chief, Ah ain' humbuggin'. Tha Valientes talks Henglish laik me an' yo', but tha mos' remotes' ones talks Henglish of a distin' specie. Yaas, Chief, it's mos' stranges' Henglish Ah ever hear, an' some o' they has Henglish names, beside. 'Pon mah word tha does, Chief."
This amazing statement was altogether too much, although it was apparent that the Bahamian had a more accurate knowledge of the Indians than anyone else I had met. However, I decided that I could best find out for myself, and, having no desire to call on the civilized Valientes with their schools, missions, and churches, we headed across the bay towards the endless green hills that rose on the western shores.
It was late afternoon when we came under the land, a beautiful forested country with jungle-covered bluffs rising abruptly from the calm water, with deep, almost landlocked, bays dotted with islets, and with stretches of sandy beaches between the headlands. Rounding a point we entered one of the lake-like bays. To the left was a high hill, covered with a riotous tangle of creepers, palms, tree-ferns, and dense tropical growth.
Against the deep green of the jungle a thin blue thread of smoke rose upward, and between the trees I caught a glimpse of a thatched roof. No one but an Indian would be found in this spot, I felt sure, and working close inshore we searched the overhanging drapery of shrubs and vines for some sign of a landing-place or trail. Presently, hidden in a tiny cove, we spied a dug-out canoe, and running ashore I soon located the narrow trail leading upwards through the bush. With Tom at my heels, for the two boatmen declined to land, I started up the pathway. The hill was of tufa, the path was as slippery as soap, and it was by no means an easy climb. But at last we neared the summit of the hill, and came upon a small clearing in the centre of which was the house we sought. It was raised a few feet above the earth on short posts, was partially walled with wattled palm-leaves, and had a steep thatched roof. A few fowl scratched about in the clearing, a large wooden mortar stood near the hut, and a ring-tailed monkey chattered at us from his perch on a post. For a space I thought the place was deserted, but as I approached closer I discovered an Indian woman crouching in the shadows and peering half-curiously and half-timidly at us. She was dressed in a single dark blue garment, her long black hair hung about her bare shoulders, and an inverted V of scarlet paint crossed her cheeks and nose. Beside her a young child was playing on a bark-cloth mat, and within reach an infant swung in a miniature hammock.
I spoke to her in Spanish, in Towali, and even in English; but she might have been deaf and dumb as far as any results were concerned. Then I tried other tactics. Approaching quietly and slowly to avoid frightening her or arousing suspicions, I seated myself on the edge of the floor, took a small hand-mirror from my pocket, and handed it to the youngster. With chuckles of delight the brown-skinned little chap toddled to his mother, and exhibited the new treasure. A second mirror and a comb were tossed into the woman's lap, and the charm worked. She smiled, forgot her fears, at once put mirror and comb to their proper, and it must be confessed much-needed, uses, and found her voice at last.
"You want see my man?" she asked. "He come bimeby pretty soon."
I was absolutely bowled over, completely flabbergasted, at hearing the woman speaking English.
"Why, you talk English!" I ejaculated.
She nodded. "You Englishman?" she asked.
"No, American," I replied.
"American," she repeated. "Then you good man. Plenty American this way," she waved her hand towards the west (east).
"Hmm," I thought, "that explains it. She has been on the Zone, perhaps as a servant."
At the yapping of a dog I glanced around to see a stocky Indian, naked to the waist, approaching. He carried a broad-bladed axe in one hand, a gun in the other, and a small deer was slung over his shoulders. He was a pleasant-faced fellow with the same scarlet paint mark as the woman's across his cheeks and nose, and he grinned good-naturedly as he saw me.
Laying aside his gun and axe he shook hands, and remarked, "How do? What you want?"
In rapid words in her own tongue the woman spoke, showing her presents, and in a few words he replied. Then, evidently satisfied that my visit was peaceable, he listened while I explained my purpose and asked questions, to which he replied in short terse English.
They were Valiente, he said, but did not belong to the semi-civilized Bluefields tribe. How did they happen to speak English? He couldn't say, but his father and grandfather and all the Indians of the vicinity spoke English. Spanish? No; they understood it but never spoke it. The Spaniards were bad—not to be trusted; but the Englishmen, perhaps, and Americans, yes. He knew Americans. Some lived in the bush. And the chief of the Boorabbees was American, too. Boorabbees was the real name of his tribe. Valientes was only the Spanish name. Because they were brave and always fought the Spanish. What did I wish to trade? He had nothing. Where were there other Indians? Everywhere (he waved his arms to include all the surrounding country in his gesture). How many? He could not say: plenty. And back in the hills more. All Boorabbees, but of many clans; many chiefs. Some very wild. Maybe bad. Up the bay three houses. Maybe they had something I wanted. I was becoming more and more puzzled, more and more astonished at his statements. What on earth could he mean when he spoke of Americans living in the bush, when he said the Boorabbee chief was an American? There was a mystery somewhere, or else it was the aborigine's desire to please that caused him to make the statements. I couldn't think of an answer to the puzzle. But as he had been speaking I had been searching the interior of the hut with trained eyes and had discovered a dozen things I wished for my collection. No doubt he was sincere in saying he had nothing to trade—from his point of view he had not. But I knew better. Peeping from a roll of bark-cloth on the rafters were the tips of bright-coloured feathers, which looked suspiciously like a headdress. In a corner were several baskets; behind the woman was a carved wooden stool; and Tom, who had learned to spot specimens almost as skilfully as myself, nudged me and pointed to a bow and arrows and a long fish-spear.
The owner seemed highly amused at the idea of my wishing these things; but he was quite willing to trade, and once bartering started both the man and the woman entered into the spirit of the thing. From various hiding-places she produced utensils, ornaments, and handiwork, and from the rafters and timbers overhead he brought weapons, nets, dance ornaments, and other possessions. Evidently, too, he possessed a keen sense of humour, for, after having exchanged everything he and his wife could find, he pointed to an empty kerosene tin, and with a broad grin asked what I would give for it.
Obviously, also, I had won his confidence, for as we started off, with quite a load of specimens, he gave me directions for reaching the three Indian houses, and volunteered the information that he would "make a walk," and tell them I was coming so they might have plenty of things ready to trade.
Chapter 14 Surprising Discoveries
Bocas del Toro, Panama, 1914—A daughter of the filibusters—The "American" chief—Among the Boorabbees—The devil-strings—The chief's son to the rescue—Off to the "wild" Indians—Over the top—An amazing discovery—English of a different "species "—Friends of the buccaneers—Boorabbees and buccaneers.
BY the time we reached the launch—where we found our boatmen about to pull up anchor and return to Bocas, being quite convinced we had run upon hostile savages—it was too late to find a camping spot, so we headed up the bay, hoping to find a small cove where we could pull in and pass the night in the launch.
Night came on rapidly, and no cove or inlet materialized. The shores loomed high and black, shutting out the faint light of the stars, and throwing the water into impenetrable shadows. It was almost impossible to tell where land ended and water began, and we were on the point of anchoring where we were when Tom pointed ahead and declared he had seen a light on shore. We all peered into the blackness, and I had about decided he had seen a firefly, when a twinkling light showed among the trees on a hill-side. Where there was a light there would be a house or a camp, and, ready to welcome any sort of shelter and fire rather than pass the night in the chilly air and cramped quarters of the launch, we felt our way at quarter speed along the shore. Half a mile or so farther we came upon a little cove, and after a deal of searching by means of my electric torch, we discovered a path. As our crew were far more afraid of landing at night than they had been in the day-time, they remained on the launch while Tom and I picked our way towards whatever habitation might lie at the end of the trail. Presently a light glimmered through the trees, and a moment later we came in sight of a small house surrounded by a clearing perhaps an acre in extent. Our approach was signalled by the yelping of dogs, and at the sounds a woman appeared in the open doorway, peering into the night. She was clearly outlined in the light of a lantern she held, and at sight of her I stood gaping, too amazed to speak. She was white, or nearly so. An elderly lady with grey hair, and dressed in a black waist and long skirt of old-fashioned cut. Astonishing as was her appearance here, where only Indians were supposed to dwell, her words were more astonishing still.
"Good evening," she said in perfect English, as she caught sight of me. "Won't you come in? The dogs are not savage."
I haven't the slightest idea what I said in reply, or if I said anything. In fact, I had hardly come to my senses when I found myself within the house and shaking hands with the little old lady, who, now that I was closer, I could see was of mixed blood, but with no trace of the African in her straight hair, her fine regular features, or her blue eyes. Who on earth was she, what was she doing in this wild jungle-covered land? were the questions that were racing through my mind as I stammered an apology for intruding, and asked if we could obtain shelter for the night. Inviting me to be seated, asking solicitously if I had dined, she apologized for the lack of accommodation in her house, but hospitably begged me to take possession of the large room where we sat. I introduced myself, and at the mention of my nationality she became quite excited. "Why!" she exclaimed, "you are the first strange American I have seen for many years. I am American also. I am Miss Smith."
Another bombshell. But before I could ask a question she continued: "Yes, my father was Henry Smith; he came from Pennsylvania, and was with Walker in Nicaragua. He and several of his friends came over here and settled down. There are only three of us left now; but we have always remained Americans, and always speak English, although, of course," she added rather apologetically, "there were no American women, so our people had to marry Indians."
So that was the explanation; simple enough, and I might have thought of it myself. And no doubt, I decided, the Boorabbees had learned English from these isolated expatriated American adventurers and their descendants. But in this surmise I was mistaken. "No; the Indians spoke English when my father first came here," Miss Smith informed me. "He often used to speak of it, and it was partly because they were so friendly with the Americans, although hostile to the Spanish in those days, and because they understood English, that caused my father and others to settle here."
Then I told her of what my friend the turde-fisherman had said and what the Indian down the bay had told me.
She laughed. "He meant Chief Charley," she said. "He's pure Boorabbee, but he is very proud of being American. You see, my father was a great friend of the Indians, and old chief Namakandi asked him to christen his son in the American way. He named the boy after his brother—Charles Smith—and in the Indian's eyes that made him American. Yes; there are some very wild Indians back in the hills and along the rivers. But even they speak English, I understand. I don't know why; I've often wondered about it."
Then she prattled on about herself, her family history, and how these self-exiled Americans and their descendants had lived. They had cleared patches in the jungles, had tilled the ground, had lived upon the produce of their own labour and bountiful Nature, and, through the friendly Indians as intermediaries, had traded forest products at Bocas for what tools, cloth, and other articles they had needed.
Never once in all the years since the fugitives had reached this secluded out-of-the-way spot had any one of them visited the settlements nor mingled with the Spanish-speaking natives. And no one, except the Indians, knew of their presence. They had lived comfortably, happily, and peacefully in the heart of the jungle, knowing no want nor necessity they could not secure by their own efforts or with the Indians' help, and entirely cut off from the rest of the world. They were veritable pioneers, and yet throughout they had not degenerated, had not reverted to the primitive conditions of life, and had somehow managed to educate their children, to maintain the traditions of the white man, to live and dwell as they would in a civilized land, and even, to a certain extent, to keep in touch with the rest of the world. The old lady possessed quite a little library of books, though most of them were thirty or forty years old, a few magazines and some newspapers dated several months previously. These, she explained, were brought her by the Indians when they returned from their occasional trips to the settlements, while the books had belonged to her father, who, she said, had been very fond of reading. Sitting there in that neatly kept thatched house in the heart of the jungle, I could picture the ex-soldier of fortune poring over the thumbed pages of the battered volumes, reading them again and again until he knew them by heart, his thoughts for the time far from his surroundings, and in his mind living once again the stirring adventurous days of his fiery youth. I wondered if he and his handful of comrades had ever been homesick; if they had ever longed for the green fields and valleys, the fruit-laden orchards, the elm-shaded roads, the sweet-scented hay, the white farmhouses and stock-filled barns, and the relatives and friends in their far-off homes in the States. Perhaps they had; but the chances are that they had not. They were reckless dare-devil fellows, men of the open and the wild; and as they were badly "wanted" by more than one Government, freedom in the jungle probably meant far more to them than the scenes of their youth. At any rate, it is certain that the grey-haired daughter of adventurous Henry Smith had no desire to move from the spot where she had always dwelt, like the queen of a miniature kingdom, surrounded by quite a retinue of Indian servants, as well as friends and relatives of various ages, sexes, and colours, all members of her household and all claiming to be Americans. Obviously Henry Smith had "wandered a bit," as the old negro said to the minister when called to account for his shortcomings.
Following the directions given me by the first Indian and by Miss Smith, we headed up the long, winding, island-studded bay. Several times we caught glimpses of thatched huts half-hidden in the jungle on the hillsides, and once or twice we saw Indian canoes, their single occupants standing motionless with poised spears ready to harpoon fish or turtles. But I had decided that my best plan was to visit the Indians who were to be apprised of my approach, and one of whom, I hoped, I could secure as a guide.
Owing to the innumerable coves, bays, estuaries, and creeks that indented the shores, the countless wooded islets and the eternal sameness of the forested hillsides, it was a difficult matter to follow directions or a given route, and I had begun to think that we might never find the spot we sought when a canoe shot out from some hidden cove and headed towards us. As it came nearer I recognized my Indian friend of the previous afternoon. He grinned, greeted me in English like an old acquaintance and informed me that the launch could not approach nearer, and that I would have to go ashore in his canoe. Bundling my trade boxes into the dug-out, Tom and I scrambled in, leaving the two negroes in charge of the launch, much to their relief.
Heading under the low-hanging branches, the Boorabbee paddled up a narrow winding water-way or creek so choked with dead trees and snags that only an Indian could have threaded it. Half a mile or so inland the canoe was run inshore on a wide mud-flat, across the oozy black surface of which a line of slender logs stretched to the solid ground several hundred feet distant. Several dugouts were drawn on to the mud, and it was evident that the only route to shore was via those wet and slippery tree-trunks across a bottomless sea of ooze. To the Indian who led the way laden with my boxes, the logs formed a safe and easy path; but it was quite a different matter for me. To attempt the crossing with boots was out of the question, so stripping off my footwear I started forth, trusting to luck and Providence. Both apparently were with me, for despite a dozen narrow escapes, innumerable slips, some wild balancing, and hearty laughter from the Indian who had gained the shore and was watching me, I made the passage in safety.
Then we toiled up a steep path as slippery as grease, descended on the opposite side of the hill, where one slid rather than walked, climbed a second hill, and came upon three Indian huts on the summit of a low ridge.
Half a dozen men, four or five women, and an indefinite number of children were there awaiting us. All had the red tribal mark across cheeks and nose, several of the men had the savage-looking sharpened teeth, and all wore clothing of some sort. The men's costumes varied from sack-like shirts of homespun cotton or trade calico, and reaching to mid-thighs, to pantaloons minus shirts. Apparently it was not de rigueur among the Indians to wear both garments at the same time. The younger women wore loose wrapper-like garments of bright-coloured cloth, while the elderly dames were quite satisfied with a handkerchief-sized apron. Strings of teeth, shells, bright-coloured seeds, and glass beads adorned the necks of both sexes, and several of the men wore tight collars and broad breast-bands of magnificently woven beadwork. Some were bare-headed, some wore plaited palm-leaf hats of their own make woven in patterns of black and white, while two of the men had on head-dresses of wild-turkey and eagle feathers.
They were a wild-looking lot, although peaceable and pleasant enough, and it sounded most incongruous and unreal to hear them speaking English. They had brought practically all of their earthly possessions with them, and were keen to trade; but what was of more importance to me was that, as I had hoped, I secured the services of one of the number as a guide. He was young, well set-up, and a good-looking youth, and claimed to know the location of every Indian house in the entire district, every channel, cove, and waterway, and he assured me that he could even guide me to the really "wild" tribesmen back in the hills and up the rivers. He would, I felt, be invaluable, and in addition to his services as a guide and pilot, I felt sure that he would be of great help in inducing the Indians to trade by explaining in their own language the purposes of my visit and what I desired.
For the first few days he fulfilled all my expectations. He led us to many houses quite invisible from the launch, he seemed on excellent terms with every one, and several times, when the Indians appeared a bit suspicious or surly and declared they had nothing, his arguments and explanations won the day. He suggested that it would be a good plan to visit the chief, and guided us to a hidden and secluded estuary where a small wharf or landing-place jutted into the water with a cluster of four or five huts nestling under the palms on the hill-side above. Here we were met by a fine-looking young Boorabbee, who proved to be the chief's son, and who informed me that his father had already heard of my presence, and would be delighted to meet another American. Chief Charley Smith, whose history I had already learned, was an elderly, sphinx-faced Indian dressed in denim trousers much the worse for wear, a gay-coloured calico shirt, a magnificent beadwork collar and breast-band, and a crown of eagle and macaw feathers. His household consisted of four wives ranging in ages from a young girl to a blind and toothless old hag, a dozen or so daughters, and his one son, who was destined to succeed him as chief. As a matter of fact, the prince was de facto chief, old Charley being little more than a figurehead, and preferring quiet and ease to the duties of king. But he was a shrewd, suspicious, and very intelligent old fellow, immensely proud of being American, and was constantly interrupting any conversation by tapping his chest and announcing "Me American, me Charley Smith."
It appeared that I had unwittingly violated both customs and laws of the tribe by visiting or trading with the Indians without first securing permission from the chief, and I felt quite guilty when the old chief reprimanded me, and demanded to know why I had not sought him out first. But the gift of some American tobacco and a small American flag smoothed over the difficulty, and I was presented with a passport or permit in the form of a bundle of peculiarly knotted strings, together with a beaded collar bearing the chief's symbol. These, he assured me, would serve as my credentials, and would be recognized by all the tribe. But when I asked about the remote Indians whom I particularly wished to visit, the old fellow became reticent. They were not under his jurisdiction, he declared, and were very dangerous. Once in a great while his people and the "wild ones" met for a ceremonial dance; but he really, so he said, knew little about them. At any rate, he added, it would be dangerous to attempt to visit them, and he advised me not to try it. Something in his manner, however, caused me to feel that he had some reason of his own for not wishing me to extend my visits beyond the limits of his chiefdom; but as I knew he was a wily old fellow, I forbore pressing the matter or questioning him further. He was a born trader, a hard bargainer, and I wondered if he had not learned much of the Yankee's proverbial shrewdness in trading from his soldier-of-for-tune godfather. Although I secured some very interesting specimens, still, when I finally bade him farewell and sailed away, I felt that the chief had really got much the better of the bargain.
At the next two or three houses we visited my knotted strings and collar proved "Open sesames," and all went smoothly. But at the next stop we were faced with a very different proposition. The house stood on the summit of a hill in plain view, and a canoe was drawn upon the shore at the foot of the trail. As we approached, my Indian guide seemed a bit troubled. "Maybe we better not stop this place," he remarked as I prepared to step ashore. "Mebbe nobody home."
"Yes, there is," I declared. "The canoe's here. Come on."
Hesitatingly and muttering, the Indian disembarked; but instead of leading the way up the path he stood motionless, staring up the hill. Following his gaze, I noticed a number of slender strings stretched across the pathway between rudely carved posts.
"Me think mebbe we better go," exclaimed my guide. "This feller not want us come him house."
"How do you know?" I demanded. "What's wrong here? We've got the chief's permission."
"You see them strings?" asked the Indian. "Them mean keep away. Them 'devil strings.' Very bad feller live here."
Laughing at his fears, I started forward; but the next instant a wild-looking, half-naked Indian appeared at the summit of the hill brandishing a gun, and shouting excitedly in his own dialect.
At sight of him my guide beat a hasty retreat towards the launch.
"Here!" I cried, "come back. What's that fellow saying? Tell him who we are and what we want, and that we have the chief's permission."
Shaking and trembling the fellow obeyed, keeping well sheltered behind me, and calling in half-hearted tones to the excited and obviously angry Indian above us.
"He say we no come," announced the guide, after a moment's parley. "He say he not give damn for chief. He say we not go way he shoot. He got 'devil strings', very bad."
As he had been speaking I had been examining the nearest post supporting the "devil strings," and had discovered it was carved to represent a misshapen human being. My interest was aroused. Here was something worth investigating. What were the "devil strings"? What the significance of the carved idol-like posts, and why did the fellow above us defy his chief and threaten violence if we did not withdraw?
I intended to find out, but I had no desire to do so at the cost of a charge of buckshot. Discretion, I decided, was much the better part of valour under the circumstances, and in as good order as possible we withdrew our forces.
"Go back to the chief's house," I directed my crew, for I had determined to make the chief fulfill his promise that I could visit any of the Indian's homes in safety.
An hour later, when still a long distance from the royal residence, my Indian guide pointed to a canoe crossing the bay and announced that it was the chief's son. That he could recognize an individual at that distance seemed incredible, but trusting to Indian instinct or eyesight, or whatever it may be, I headed the launch towards the canoe. Sure enough, it was the prince, and to him I related my experience.
As I told him what had occurred he fairly bristled. "That man big damn fool," he declared. "But he kill you sure if you pass 'devil strings.' Nobody dare pass those things. My father tell you can go every place, nobody can stop you. Come on, I go along and show him."
As he spoke he made fast his canoe to the launch, climbed aboard, and the launch was headed back towards the scene of our repulse. As we went the prince tried to explain to me the significance of the "devil strings." It seemed that when an Indian wished to be left severely alone, if there was sickness in his family, if he feared an enemy, if he were in mourning, if he were busy at some religious rite, or if for any one of innumerable reasons he desired to be undisturbed, he placed "devil strings" and "devil sticks" about his house and across the path leading to it. These served not only as no-trespassing warnings, but in addition were as effectual barriers as barbed-wire entanglements. In fact they were far more effective, for the Indian fully believed that most terrible results would follow any attempt to pass "devil strings," and that even devils and evil spirits could not pass them.
But the chief's son apparently had no such fears. "Me, I not believe that foolishness," he declared. "I American like my father. I not afraid devils."
And, very evidently, he was not. As we reached the spot once more, the owner reappeared at the summit of the hill, shouting, threatening, and cocking his gun. But the prince paid no heed to him or his "devil strings." Leaping ashore, shouting peremptorily to the fellow, he strode up the trail, thrusting the "devil strings" aside, while I followed at his heels. For a moment the excited Indian with his gun seemed about to shoot; then, as he recognized the prince, he hesitated, and the next instant turned tail and vanished. He could not, dared not, injure the chief's son and heir; he could not shoot at me without hitting the prince; and he was no doubt so utterly amazed at anyone braving the "devil strings" that he was completely at a loss.
At any rate, when we reached the house we found him cowering in a corner, seething with anger, sullen, and yet frightened half out of his wits. I really pitied the fellow, and I felt still more sympathy for him when I discovered that his wife was ill and apparently dying, and that the "devil strings" and "devil sticks" (which completely-surrounded the house) had been erected to prevent evil spirits from taking possession of her body when she passed away.
I suggested that I might be able to help her, and despite the fellow's glares and mutterings, the prince told me to go ahead.
She was suffering from a rather bad attack of malaria and had a high temperature, but by the liberal use of quinine and aspirin the fever was reduced, and within three hours of my arrival she was sleeping comfortably and naturally. Even the Indian realized that she was better and in no danger of death for the present, and his reactions were typical and rather amusing. Without expressing any gratitude for my services he left the house, and proceeded to tear down his elaborate network of "devil strings." As long as his woman was not going to die there was no fear of evil spirits. Moreover, his faith in the charms had been greatly shaken. They had been disregarded by the chief's son and me, and no dire results had followed, nor had devils entered with us, as by all rights they should have done. This task completed, the fellow returned to the house, looking rather sheepish, grunted words in his own dialect to the prince, and presented me with a beaded breast-band and feather crown; but whether in payment for my services or to show his appreciation I do not know. Having supplied him with quinine, and after explaining how it should be used, we left him in peace and continued on our way.
Once Prince Charley—for his father, perhaps thinking the name carried with it the nationality, had so christened his son—had joined my expedition he became quite fascinated with the idea of remaining as an integral part of it. This suited me immensely, for with the acting chief along I felt sure my way would be easy, and I gladly accepted his offer, and placed him in charge. His first act was to dismiss the other Indian, whom he declared was "No damn good and a plenty liar," adding that the fellow had been romancing when he had claimed to know the "wild Indians"; but that he himself would take me to them. The other, who at first had demurred at being summarily dispensed with, instantly changed his mind when he heard this, and could not get away quickly enough.
This amused Prince Charles immensely, and he informed me quite in confidence that the "wild" Indians were not bad fellows, that there would be no danger nor trouble in visiting them with him along, and that his father had not wished me to visit them merely because he had hoped I might confine my trading to his own people, from whom he could later obtain most of the articles they had secured by trading with me. Surely the wily old chief had nothing to learn in the line of graft, and, as I subsequently discovered, the prince was by no means a duffer at the same game.
But, on the whole, he proved a real treasure. No Indian dared refuse the demands nor disobey the orders of their hereditary ruler to be; neither "devil strings" nor "devil sticks"—which barred our way more than once—held terrors for him, and he several times took my part in haggling over a trade, and actually secured specimens for less than I would have been willing to give. But it was not long before I noticed that somehow, by hook or by crook, our royal henchman always possessed some particularly desirable articles after a visit to an Indian's house, and which he invariably disposed of to me at top prices. However, as these things were always the specimens I most wanted, I winked at his double dealings and said nothing.
All this time we were gradually working westward, and at last His Royal Highness announced that we had visited the last of his tribe, and suggested we should make for the district of the "wild" Indians.
For miles we chugged along the shores, passing scores of islands, traversing innumerable hidden waterways known only to the Indians, crossing the mouths of several good-sized rivers, but never catching a glimpse of a human being, a house, or even a canoe. The whole vast area seemed uninhabited, but game and fish were abundant. We were never in want of fresh game, and a flashing king-fish or bonito could always be had for the trouble of dropping a line over the launch's stern.
Ahead the mountains loomed higher and higher in the distance, and the extreme western shores of the great bay became clearly visible. Swinging into a deep bay we anchored, and the prince informed me that the first of the "wild" Indians' houses was a short distance up the creek.
Paddling up the stream in the royal canoe, Charley ran the craft ashore at the edge of a wide muddy playa. Before he had left the launch he had painted his face with the tribal mark and numerous supplementary designs, had donned bead-collar and breast-band, had stripped to the waist, and had placed a macaw feather crown upon his head. He appeared quite a different personage as he forced the canoe on to the mud, and seemed every bit a "wild" Indian himself.
Since my first experience in crossing a mud-flat on a primitive bridge of logs, I had become quite an expert at the feat. But the one that stretched before us now rather stumped me. The mud was unusually black and slimy, the logs were smaller and more slippery than any I had seen, they moved and rolled on their bed of ooze at a touch, and the forbidding-looking bottomless mud was fully two hundred feet in width. But it had to be done, and by some miracle I accomplished it. Beyond the mud-flat there was a steep high ridge, and reaching the summit of this we came in sight of the Indian huts. The four houses were built on a second ridge separated from the one whereon we stood by a deep gully, the bottom of which was filled with stagnant green-coated water of unknown depth and littered with jagged broken branches. Across this dismal spot a single tree had been felled to form a bridge. It would have been a ticklish thing to cross even had the bark and branches remained on the log. But the branches had been trimmed away, every atom of bark had been removed or had fallen off, and the muddy bare feet of Indians, traversing the tree trunk for years, had polished its surface until it was as smooth as glass.
At the moment, however, I scarcely noticed this, for my attention was all focused upon the Indians on the farther side of the gully.
I had expected to see naked savages, but the fellows intently watching our every move differed hardly at all from the other Boorabbees I had seen. All wore shirts or trousers or both, and although their faces were hidden by painting, though their hair fell over their shoulders, though they were bedecked with beads, teeth, and feathers, and though they carried bows and arrows, still they appeared no wilder, no more savage than Prince Charley, who was shouting to them in his own dialect.
" 'Sail right," he announced presently. "He say come on."
Without so much as glancing downwards at the treacherous surface of the log, he walked boldly on to the extemporized bridge, as confidently and as much at home as if treading a pathway on solid ground. Tom looked at it and shook his woolly head. "No, sir, chief," he exclaimed. "Ah ain' makin' to walk that. It ain' made for a civ'lized man. No, sir. Ah's goin' to stroddle it."
Personally I felt the same, and I had an almost irresistible desire to "stroddle" the log and hitch my way across as Tom suggested. But the "wild" Indians' eyes were on me. The prince, who had joined them, was looking on, and it would never do for an American to show the white feather or for a white man to lose prestige in Indians' eyes. So, barefooted and assuming a vast amount of confidence which I did not feel, I started boldly across the log. All went well until I had reached the centre.
Then one foot slipped, I swayed, waved my arms wildly to recover my balance, dropped the shoes I was carrying into the slimy pool below, and with a sudden flash of sense, remembering that a rapidly moving body maintains its equilibrium more readily than one moving slowly, I made a reckless dash for the opposite bank. Just as I reached the farther end of the log I stubbed my toe, plunged forward, and butted headlong into the watching Indians, knocking two of them over like ninepins.
I came to a standstill, or more correctly a sit-still, staring incredulously at one of the Indians, utterly unable to believe my ears. Roaring with laughter, he had greeted my precipitate arrival with the weirdest, most incongruous exclamation that ever issued from an aborigine's lips.
"Gadzooks!" he had ejaculated. " 'Merican makeum passing funny ent'prise."
Was I dreaming, or had my violent collision with the Indians affected my hearing? He was speaking English, of course, but what English! By Jove! The old turtle-fisher had been right! Here, indeed, was English of a "different species."
I picked myself up, my brain in a whirl. But another shock was coming to me. Another of the Indians, apparently the local chief, who had been talking with the prince, extended his hand. "Me admire ye makeum come this side," he remarked. "Me fren' Sharlie speechun ye he fren' so makeum me fren' ye forsoot'; hell, yes!"
I cannot describe the strange sensation I felt at hearing the chief interlard his broken English with the quaint obsolete words. "Admire," "said," "speech," "forsooth," "passing," "gadzooks!" Shades of good Queen Bess! It was like reading some old book. What did it mean? Where on earth had these Boorabbees in the back of beyond picked up the old-fashioned, long-forgotten words and expressions? I was far too astonished to think collectedly. And each minute my wonder increased. Within an hour I had heard more than a score of words of similar vintage, and several times I was on the point of saying "prithee" or "forsooth" myself.
The chief had asked me to "bide" in his house. I was informed how many "leagues" it was to the next village; I had exchanged a denim "jerkin" for a "pike," had given a "bauble" (string of beads) for a woven pita hemp "wallet"; had secured a bow and "shafts"; had been told that there were "full" many Indians farther up the river; had heard the women referred to as "lassies"; had heard "perchance," "mayhap," "aforesaid," and many other less strikingly obsolete words used dozens of times, and had been assured that I could meet with good "cheer" if I "enterprised" the trip to the other villages among the hills. During my stay at these first houses I heard an Indian exclaim "Zounds!" I secured a "pollard," which the Boorabbees used to "clout" an enemy or a wounded animal; had learned that there were not "monstrous" many of the tribe, and had both "drained" and "quaffed" chicha and palm-wine with my new-made friends. They "guzzled" their food, did not "wot" how they happened to speak such quaint English—in fact, knew "nowt" about it, and that "gain" I visited the other tribesmen I would find them all using the same words. Of course many of the words and ejaculations were so garbled or mispronounced that it was sometimes difficult to recognize them, and there was a strange ludicrous commingling of quite up-to-date oaths, modern slang, and even Boorabbee words with those of bygone days.
For a time it puzzled me, mystified me. The Indians I had first visited had used none of these obsolete expressions, and it seemed only natural and reasonable to assume that these more isolated tribesmen had acquired a working knowledge of English from those under Chief Charley. Their slang and expletives could only have been acquired in that way, but where, when, and how had they picked up the words and expression of centuries past?
And then suddenly the explanation dawned upon me, the buccaneers! Strange I had not thought of it before. The bay had been a favourite haunt of the freebooters. They had always been on good terms with the Indians. Nearly every buccaneer of note had made use of the aborigines as guides, hunters, and fishermen, and on more than one occasion the successful outcome of a raid on Spain's cities or commerce had been due directly to the Indian allies of the buccaneers. Ringrose, Wafer, Dampier, Esquemelling, and other chroniclers of those days had particularly mentioned this, had minutely described the customs, canoes, habits, weapons, and life of the natives, and, now I thought of it, their descriptions fitted the Boorabbees perfectly. The fish-spears, bows, arrows, clubs, canoes, houses, ornaments, everything, aside from such few modernities as they had acquired, were the exact counterparts of the same things described and even figured by the buccaneer authors.
And, of course, beyond the shadow of doubt, the Indians had learned the language of their British buccaneer friends and allies. With their hereditary hatred of the Spaniards increased by their association with the freebooters, they had never acquired a knowledge of the detested language of their foes, but had clung steadfastly to the English. Those nearest the settlements, who used English in their dealings with the inhabitants of Bocas and other towns, had gradually lost all traces of its ancient origin. But here, back in the remote jungles, isolated, never mingling with the outer world, the quaint old-fashioned English words and phrases of buccaneering days had been preserved, handed down from generation to generation exactly as their forefathers heard them from the unshaven lips of many a blood-stained, devil-may-care buccaneer. The marvel was that all knowledge of English had not passed from the tribe generations before, for among themselves they had no real occasion to use it. But Indians have long memories, and perhaps, unconsciously and without knowing the reason or the source, they had some sort of superstition or belief that the English words were a heritage that must be kept alive, a sort of fetish, a charm, a part of their religion even, or a possession peculiar to their tribe and which distinguished them from all others. Whatever the underlying reason, the English and the old-fashioned words were there, and, to my further surprise, I discovered that the Boorabbees used their English almost as much as their own dialect when conversing among themselves.
But regardless of their amazing use of the language of our Elizabethan ancestors, the Boorabbees were a fine lot; and while "tame" and friendly enough at ordinary times, they were "monstrous" wild when they let themselves go and took part in some dance or ceremonial. Without exception they had sharpened teeth, and when stripped to a scanty breech-clout of bark-cloth, with faces and bodies elaborately painted and wearing feather head-dresses, with bead-collars, strings of teeth and shells about their necks; with bunches of long eagle feathers fastened to their upper arms; with the stuffed skins of jaguars, ocelots, or other beasts upon their backs, and with girdles of human scalp-locks about their waists, they appeared veritable savages as fierce and as dangerous as one could wish—or rather not wish—to meet. Seeing them thus, brandishing weapons, beating their deep-toned drums, dancing and prancing about a glowing fire in the heart of the jungle, or taking part in a wild stick-dance, they were demoniacal. I could well imagine what terror they must have caused as, with the shouting, cursing, cutlass-waving buccaneers at their heels, they boarded a Spanish ship or swarmed over the walls of a Spanish town in the olden days.
It was not until I had left the district and was on my way back towards civilization that I began to wonder about the name of the tribe. Boorabbees; there was something peculiar about the word. It did not fit in with the other words of their vocabulary I had acquired. The termination was all right (many of their words, and particularly names, ended in an accented "e"), but the rest of the word?
Over and over again I repeated the name to myself as the launch chugged steadily down the bay, and I busied myself labelling and cataloguing the hundreds of ethnological specimens I had secured.
And then suddenly, like an inspiration, it came to me. Boorabbee—Buccaneer! There was a marvellous similarity about the two. No more difference than one might reasonably expect to find between the Indian and the English pronunciation. Was it not possible, even probable, that was the explanation; that the Indians, who long ago allied themselves with the buccaneers, adopted the name, regarding it as a term denoting bravery, prowess, and enemies of Spain, just as their relatives nearer the settlements had accepted the name "Valientes," despite their hatred of all things Spanish?
And, if so, was it not quite natural and to be expected that, through the years that had passed, the name Buccaneer had become Indianized to Boorabbee?
Boorabbee—Buccaneer? As the Spaniards say, "Quien sabe?"
Note.—Following is a partial list of obsolete English words I heard used by the Boorabbees.
Gadsoot (Gadzooks). Forsoo' (Forsooth). Lassa (Lassie). Che-ah (Cheer). Mai-api (Mayhap). Entpr's (Enterprise). Eimpres (Emprise). Adimir (Admire, used as enjoy or like). 'Forset (Aforesaid). Nauit (Nowt). Dout (Dolt, fool). Heirkn (Jerkin). Mons'os (Monstrous, very or much). Drah-ian (Drain, drink). Gaussle (Guzzle). Kuahfi (Quaff). Mah'y (Marry, maybe, perhaps). Per-shan' (Perchance). Wot (Wot know). Pauart (Pollard, staff or pole). Full (Full, much). Pyki (Pike, spear). Shaaf (Shaft, arrow). By-e-di (Bide). Soun' (Zounds). Huallet (Wallet). Boubel (Bauble, any ornament). Meh-he-ri' (Merry). Gaen (Gain). Say-id (Said). Passint (Passing, very). Belike. Hosummewer (Howsomever). Met'ink (Methinks). Ye. Yea. Ne'er. Me be (for I am). Parat (Parade, for walk). Main (Very much). Misdahb (Misdoubt). Daerk (Dirk, knife). Tafeti (Taffeta, for any cloth). Mani' (Money, used for any sort ot payment or trade). Gererff (Grieve, sorry) Shew (for show). Lay (Share or payment). Hastli (Hoist or lift). Beli' (Belay, to fasten or secure anything) Takli (tackle, anykind of device or fastening). Albeet (Albeit). Blood, Bloody (used as adjectives, not as oaths). Beyont (Beyond, for distance). Juarran (Warrant, to assure or promise).
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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.