Friday, 30 March 2012
This blog entry is the first two chapters of an autobiography by Hyatt Verrill; I hope to add more chapters as time permits/drf
Thirty Years in the Jungle
By A. Hyatt Verrill
With 60 illustrations and a Sketch Map
John Lane The Bodley Head Limited
First Published in 1929
Made and Printed in Great Britain by Butler & Tanner Ltd., Frome and London
Digitized March 2012 by Doug Frizzle
THIS volume is neither a book of travel, a novel, a narrative of adventure, nor a treatise on jungle life; but, in a way, is a combination of all, for it is an account of the more interesting and unusual experiences of the author during more than thirty years devoted (though not consecutively) to explorations and scientific investigations in the West Indies, Central and South America.
The book therefore contains much of travel, no little adventure, a great deal about jungle life, and not a few stories which might well be embodied in a novel.
As my earlier expeditions were largely devoted to Natural History, and as many persons are deeply interested in the birds, mammals and vegetation of the jungles of America, I have given considerable space to descriptions of the fauna and flora, and as my later expeditions have been in the interests of The Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, of New York City, I have devoted even more space to descriptions of the aborigines or Indians, and my experiences among them. Indians are, in fact, the most interesting features of the jungle. In my ethnological researches I have visited many tribes credited with being hostile and reputed to prevent all strangers from entering their districts by the simple and efficient method of killing off trespassers with poisoned arrows or other equally unpleasant means.
I have also visited a number of tribes who had never previously seen a civilized man, but I have always been well treated and received by all, even, if at times, there were rather exciting and far from comfortable moments.
I am often asked if I do not have innumerable adventures, and if I do not run grave risks in my work. To the first query I might reply that I do not have "adventures" because it is one continuous adventure from the time one starts into the wilds until one is safely back to civilization. In answering the second question, I should like first to point out that the dangers dwelt upon in most stories of jungle life in America are by no means the real dangers. In the majority of such tales wild animals, snakes and hostile savages usually play the most important parts when it comes to perils menacing the white man in the tropical bush.
In reality these are the most negligible of all dangers, if dangers they may be called, and the real perils one faces are sickness, starvation, insects and rapids—all matters which are seldom mentioned in tales of adventures in the American tropics.
There is not a wild animal in tropical America that is dangerous to man unless wounded. During all the years I have been in the wildest and most remote—often unexplored—portions of the American tropics I have never been bitten by a poisonous snake, and never have had but one of my men bitten, and that not seriously. Poisonous snakes, in fact, are about the rarest forms of animal life, and the Indians, who travel everywhere barefooted and usually nearly nude, seldom or never give a thought to the danger of venomous serpents. Hostile Indians may exist, but if so I have failed to meet them, though Heaven knows many of those I have visited have had cause enough to distrust and hate every white man. Personally I do not believe that any South or Central American tribe ever molested a white man unless the white man was the aggressor or unless the aborigines had suffered at the hands of the whites and did not discriminate.
Sickness is an ever-present and grave danger, even though the districts are not unhealthful, as so many writers would have the public believe. But no matter how well one guards one's health, no matter what precautions are taken, there is always the danger of accident or disease, and, in the jungle far from civilization, an accident or sickness that would be trivial elsewhere becomes a very serious matter. Personally I have had every tropical fever known to the medical world, I believe, including yellow fever, black-water fever, dengue fever, typhoid, Chagres and pernicious malaria, and I am still alive and as fit as ever. With a good constitution as a foundation, and with reasonable care, these tropical diseases are by no means as deadly as supposed.
Starvation, or, better, hunger, is another grave peril. I do not know of any place in the American jungle where a man can live off the country.
Game invariably is hardest to find or to secure when most needed. Fish have a most perverse and remarkable habit of being non-obtainable when one is hungry; while vegetables, roots, berries, fruits and nuts are either devoured before they ripen by the flocks of birds in the tree-tops or are gobbled up the moment they fall to earth by the rodents and small animals. It is absolutely essential that all provisions be carried on a trip, and any unforeseen incident or accident that delays matters usually results in short rations or worse. In addition to all this, there is the ever-present, constant danger of losing one's entire outfit, provisions and all, in some rapid or cataract. Rapids are another source of great danger. Much, in fact most, travelling in the South American jungle is by canoes or river boats, for moving through the almost impenetrable bush is slow, laborious work where, very often, it is necessary to cut a way with machetes, and where four or five miles a day is good progress. Nature, however, has provided innumerable streams and waterways, and one may reach almost any desired destination by following these. Usually they are filled with rapids and cataracts, and, when hauling slowly and by main strength up-stream or shooting the rapids coming down, life and property are in constant jeopardy.
But neither rapids, hunger nor disease, nor all together, are as great a danger to the traveller in the American jungle as are the insects.
Mosquitoes are the most negligible of all, for, with the exception of the low lands below the first rapids, and the swampy areas, the jungle is remarkably free from mosquitoes, especially those which are carriers of malaria and other fevers. Moreover, they are avoided quite easily by the use of nets, whereas the sand-flies, which swarm in clouds in many places, make life miserable, carry many diseases, and will find their way through anything coarser than cheese-cloth. Biting-flies are at times a pest, but not a danger; ants are legion and a nuisance, but, unless one inadvertently runs afoul of a large column of army-ants, they are comparatively harmless.
Jiggers or chigoes, a species of flea that burrows under one's skin and deposits its eggs, are everywhere, and if neglected may cause ulcers and the loss of toes or even feet. But they soon make their presence felt, by a peculiar, rather pleasant, itching sensation, and may easily be removed with no resultant ill effects. Throughout the bush, ticks abound, and these are far more dangerous than any other denizens of the jungles. The ordinary large wood-ticks are bothersome; but they may be picked from one's body without difficulty and without danger. But not so with the tiny flesh-coloured maipuri ticks that, at certain seasons, swarm on leaves and grass by millions and fairly rain upon the passer-by. Being almost invisible and no larger than the head of a pin, they are not easily detected, and at once bury themselves in one's skin. An intolerable itching ensues, and rubbing and scratching only make matters worse, for the ticks are thus killed or injured and infect the blood, causing sores or ulcers.
The only remedy I have found is a weak solution of formaldehyde (about one per cent), and even this at times proves ineffectual. Very often the infection from these ticks strikes inward, and internal abscesses and death may follow. Finally there are the microscopic mites known by various names such as "foot-rot," "yen-yi," "mud-itch," etc. These minute beasts are found in mud and damp earth and infect one's feet. The skin and flesh are eaten away and become putrid; and, unless the utmost care and attention is given, a man's foot or even a leg may be lost in a remarkably short time. Moreover, the creatures appear to convey a fungus disease, and once foot-rot is contracted it is liable to recur at any time, even when apparently cured, if the victim gets his feet wet or muddy.
Hence it will be seen that even if there is little if any danger from snakes, wild beasts or wild Indians, life in the tropical jungle of the New World is not by any means all "beer and skittles." It is no place for a tenderfoot, no place for the inexperienced, and even the man accustomed to roughing it in the north or in temperate zones, or who has had a wide experience in camping, tramping, hunting, exploring or canoeing in other districts, is usually as badly off in the tropical bush as is the greenest beginner.
Even with the greatest care, with the longest experience, and after innumerable expeditions, one never can prepare for every eventuality that may arise. One is cut off from the entire world for weeks, often for months. There is no means of communication with civilization, no means of making one's plight known if anything does go wrong, nothing to do but fight it out.
And, in the early days of my explorations, conditions were far worse and the difficulties were far greater than to-day. Thirty-five or forty years ago—even eight or ten years back—places now readily accessible were remote, isolated, even unknown.
When I first visited Santo Domingo, the interior was a wilderness where law and order were unknown, where there were no roads, and the half-savage natives lived more primitively than aboriginal Indians. To cross the island necessitated a terrible journey of several weeks in those days. But to-day one may cross from coast to coast in a few hours by automobile, and the interior of the republic is safer and tamer than many of the environs of our great cities.
Five years ago the man who set out from Cochabamba in Bolivia en route to the Beni was regarded by the natives as one bent upon suicide, and, if he reached his destination alive, he was lucky if he made the trip in three weeks. To-day one may fly across in a few hours in perfect safety, and may sleep and eat in a fairly comfortable hotel, instead of trusting to the hospitality of Indians who were not averse to dining on human flesh.
Until within a few months ago the journey from Lima, Peru, to Iquitos on the Amazon was a heart-breaking trip by foot, horseback and canoes requiring five or six weeks. At the present time, thanks to motor-trucks and aeroplanes, the traveller leaves Lima in the morning and, on the afternoon of the third day, is safely ensconced in a good hotel at Iquitos.
No doubt, within a few years, regular sightseeing trips will be made to Indian villages in the heart of the Amazonas jungle; tourists will swarm about the headwaters of the Orinoco, and localities now known only to the jungle beasts and birds and the naked Indian huntsmen will be winter playgrounds for wealthy men and women from the north.
I have recorded my own experiences and have written of my trips and of conditions as they were at the time they were made, beginning some forty years ago. Hence, if I mention some spots as being remote, or almost unknown, but which to-day are scarcely off the beaten tracks, or if I refer to some tribe as savage or primitive, when the same Indians are now civilized, supposedly Christians and wear store clothes, it must be borne in mind by the reader that I am describing things as they were and not as they are.
To write of all my experiences in detail, to describe all of my trips and expeditions, would require many volumes and would result in many repetitions. Very often one trip into the bush is very like another, and, on my hundreds of expeditions, incidents, scenery, experiences, hardships and even adventures have been repeatedly duplicated. I have therefore endeavoured to select the most varied of my experiences in different localities and to avoid, as far in possible, repeating descriptions of scenery and conditions.
It is probable that among the great variety of readers who may find the time or the inclination to peruse this hook there will be an equally wide variety of tastes, and what may interest one may fail to interest another. I have therefore endeavoured to embody as great a variety of experiences and of subjects as possible in my narratives, a range varying from scenery to hunting, from camp-life to running rapids, from geography to ethnology, from botany to zoology, from adventures to the peaceful home-life of the aborigines.
Particularly I have tried to bring out the human side of my various experiences—the characters and characteristics of the men who have been with me through manifold hardships and dangers; the psychology of the Indians with whom I have dwelt; the strange, often weird and paradoxical individuals I have met; the almost uncanny lure and appeal of the vast tropical wilderness; and the customs, beliefs, habits and admirable traits of the wild, unspoiled aborigines, for the purpose of studying whom most of my expeditions have been undertaken.
September 27, 1928.
Introduction ......... v
My First Trip to the Jungle ..... i
Travelling to the Tropics forty years ago—St. Thomas—Down the Islands—A friend in need—"Cockroach"—Off to the mountains—Plants and birds—Strange tales—Vegetation—The Mountain-Whistler—Insects—Where rain is measured by the yard!
Among the Mountaineers . . . . . .11
Laudat, a patriarchal village—At home in the village—Strange customs—Jumbies—Telling tales—Obeah—Voodoo—Hercules beetles—My captive jumbie—Off to the Boiling Lake—In the crater—Nature's cooking-stove—The Diablotin—The Mountain Lake—Giant parrots—At the Carib village—Tribal customs—I purchase the chief's daughter.
Marooned in the Forest ...... 31
On the Diablotin mountain—Above the clouds—Short rations—Marooned—Starvation—Through the torrent— Weird tales—Papa Kali—Showers of stones—A mysterious disappearance—Power of Obeah men—Down with Yellow Jack—Nursed by the mountaineers—Old friends.
Off to Central America ...... 47
Lure of the Tropics—Havana in Spanish days—Colon—The Ithmus before the Canal—Over the mountains to San Jose—An earthquake-wrecked city—Outlaws and bad men—Costa Rican types—Revolutions with coffee—The "calico " army—Spotless town—Honesty.
In the Costa Rican Jungles . . . . . 57
Jimenez—In the jungle—An adventure with army-ants—A narrow escape—Tapir—The tapir hunt—A mutual surprise—A lucky shot.
El Tigre ......... 65
The mountain jungles—Strata of wild life—Jaguars—After the black jaguar—A narrow escape—Killing a jaguar with the machete—A jaguar tale—A morning surprise party—At bay—In a tight corner—In the nick of time—The woman who was killed by a jaguar—A midnight visitor—Seeking shelter with a jaguar—Drowning a jaguar.
In the Land of El Dorado ...... 79
New work—Off to South America—The front door to the wilderness—The jumping-off place of civilization—Getting a crew—Up river—In the creek—The Boer exile—Hermanas's camp—A wily savage—A midnight scare—The ghost laid.
My first Boat Trip through the Wilderness . . 95
The start—The camp—The first falls—Hauling through the rapids—Whirlpools—A close shave—Wild life and vegetation—A strange way of fishing—Indians—Travellers from Brazil—Back to civilization.
Into the Hinterland . . . . . . .107
Preparations—Multum in parvo—Easy going—Making camp—Through the falls—The jungle—Botanical marvels—Indian hunters—The tree-top world—Shooting fish—Creepy tales—Babricotting—Visitors—Definite news.
Among the Poison Makers......123
The trail—Into the bush—The deserted benab—The Patamonas—Strange drinks—The poison-makers—Trading— Charms and beenas—Tattooing—Unwelcome attentions— Indian housekeeping—A food made from poison—The most deadly savage weapon—Wurali—Witch-doctors—An amazing feat.
The People who Eat Alone......145
Into the Carib country—At the Carib village—The surly chief—Adding insult to injury—Swift retribution—I meet Kumwarry—My blood-brother—Strange names—Superstitions—Stories and tales—The People-who-eat-alone—The story of the first Carib—The "father of snakes "—A queer talisman.
The Generalissimo ......
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.
In the Haunts of the Buccaneers . . . .181
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.
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.
Off for the Unknown....... 221
The end of the line—Señor Toro—Simple housekeeping—Tisingal—The story of the lost mine—Discouraging news—I meet Cordova.
In the Land of Tisingal......33
Hard going—At the Indian hut—Word of the king—Hard going—Terrible days—The soldier-hermit—The Indians' god—Tisingal again—At the Commisario's—We are given an escort.
The Guardians of the Lost Mine.....
We meet the Crown Prince—In the palace of the king— Descendants of the Mayas—Home life at the palace—A wily chief—The Princess has a tummy ache—The king's gratitude—A surprising invitation—At the gateway to Tisingal—The Doraks arrive—A Jekyll and Hyde tribe.
How I Became an Indian Chief.....
Wild tales—An unconquered race—In the Guaymi country—My friend, Neonandi—Descendants of the Aztecs— The council—Letter-strings—The temple on the mountain-top—The sick dance-chief—The coming of Montezuma— The ceremonial—I become an Indian chief—The strange stick-dance—Tense moments—Montezuma's farewell.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The Author in Indian Dress
Beché, The Carib Boy
Dominican Carib Woman
The Haunt of the Tapir
A Toucan posing for the Camera in the Jungle
The Giant Ant Bear
The Tapir's Friend, the Sun Bittern
"Pork Knockers" (Gold Diggers) going down the River
In The Land of El Dorado
The South American Wax Palm
"It is difficult to say where Water ends and Land begins”
Indian making a Feather Head-dress
The Edge of the Jungle
Hauling the Boat through the Rapids
“Through such rapids we won our way"
“There are many long stretches of still water"
Calling the Fish
Paddling up the River
Off for the Hinterland
Contemplation. An Indian looks down on the World from the Brink of Kaietuerk Falls
My Indian Hunter
Indians Shooting Fish in Rapids
In the Guiana Mountains
A Forest Indian using the deadly Blow Gun
A Woman of the Poison Makers
A Forest Chief in Full Regalia
Indian In Full Dress
"She shouldered her load and walked off"
An Indian Dance
A Carib Indian Family
Carib Girl, British Guiana
A Carib Musician
My "Blood-Brother" Kumwarry -Note the bath-towel talisman
A Carib Warrior
The Boat in which the Author travelled more than 5,000 miles on the Jungle streams
"The Father of Snakes "—an Anaconda that weighed 300 lbs. and was 19 ft. long and 33 inches in circumference
An Arowak Village
Indian Women's Full Dress, Bead Aprons
Boorabbee House, Bocas del Toro, Valiente Peninsula
Boorabbee Indians in their Devil-Dance
Boorabbee Indian with his Girdle of Scalps
An Indian Belle
Headhunters (Mundurucos Indians) in their Canoe
Carajas Indians of Brazilian Jungles
In the Land of Tisingal
The "Palace" of King Polu
"They were shock-headed, wild-looking savages"
King Polu of the Shayshans (The King refused to be photographed until he had donned a shirt and necktie.)
Two Guaymi Chiefs—Left Montezuma, Right Neonandi
Guaymi Indian in Full Dress
The Guaymi Ceremonial Houses on the Mountain top nearly 4,000 ft. above sea level
In the heart of the Guaymi Country
The Gathering of the Clans. Guaymis and Sabaneros arriving at the Ceremonial Hut
Guaymi Woman pounding Rice
The Guaymi Jazz Band in full action, Montezuma and Neonandi in centre
A Sketch Map illustrating the Author's Travels .
THIRTY YEARS IN THE JUNGLE
Chapter 1 My First Trip To the Jungle
HOW vividly I remember my first trip to the tropical jungle, although forty years have passed since then. It was a cold, raw day in February—the 22nd: Washington's birthday—when I started on my first jungle expedition for the purpose of collecting ornithological specimens in the West Indies.
In those days tourists, and fugitives from northern winters, did not flock to the West Indies and South America. Such places were regarded as remote, wild, uncivilized, pestilential; the homes of deadly serpents, desperadoes, noxious insects and implacable savages. Their towns were thought of—when thought of at all—as pest-holes of yellow fever (which was not far from the truth) and other diseases; it was considered suicidal for a white man to visit them, and they were looked upon as localities to be avoided rather than sought.
Our first landfall was St. Thomas, and I never shall forget my wonder and amazement as I gazed for the first time upon the West Indian isles.
Each day thereafter we cast anchor off a different island —British, Dutch, French in turn—and each more beautiful, more astonishing and interesting, than those which had gone before.
St. Croix, with its broad fields of cane, its park-like hill-sides, its dazzling white coral beaches. Saba, that strange, upflung volcanic peak whose sturdy Dutch inhabitants dwell in the village of Bottom within a crater, and whose chief industry is building boats which are lowered over a precipice as though the island were a ship.
Statia, where Admiral Rodney held the greatest auction in the history of the world, when he sold the captured fleet of privateers and blockade-runners with millions of pounds' worth of illicit merchandise, and where the American flag was first saluted by a foreign power.
Then St. Kitts, with its rolling green downs that might well be a bit of the Surrey coast were it not for the palm trees; with its majestic, frowning Mt. Misery, its wild apes, its far-flung cane-fields, and its romantic history.
Nevis next, with its lofty, sugar-loaf volcanic peak, its submerged city, and its associations with Lord Nelson, who was married to the widow Nesbit in the quaint little parish church. Nevis, once known as "The Gorgeous Isle," the fashionable spa of the West Indies; but now moribund, down at heel and almost deserted.
Then to Montserrat, Antigua, mighty Guadeloupe, and past Marie Galante and Desiderde to wondrous Dominica. Here was the end of my journey, and I gazed fascinated as we slipped along the coast and the vast panorama of endless forests, sky-piercing mountains, dashing cataracts and purple cañons was unrolled. How, I wondered, would I ever manage to tramp those mountains, penetrate those interminable forests, search that dense jungle, and feel sure I had secured all or even most of the species of birds that inhabited the then little known island? I was green, a veritable tenderfoot, at tropical exploration; I had no idea of what lay before me, and I had not the remotest idea where to begin.
But I had a good friend in the French-Canadian steward, and he proved a friend in need. Scarcely had our anchor chain roared through the hawse-holes when we were surrounded by a fleet of dug-out canoes filled with laughing, chattering negroes talking an incomprehensible jargon which I later discovered was the local patois, a weird combination of poor French, Carib, Negro, Spanish and English.
From one of the canoes a fascinatingly strange-looking character leaped to the gangway and came, like a giant black spider, up the ship's side to the deck. He was as black as coal, his face was scarred and disfigured with small-pox, his small ferret-like eyes were lustreless and bloodshot, his enormous lips hung flabbily, exposing two great yellow tusks, and his chin and cheeks were dotted with little tight-curled wisps of wool. His shoulders were bent and his scrawny neck stretched forward, giving him the effect of being in too much of a hurry to wait for his feet; his gorilla-like arms hung flapping, like the arms of a scarecrow; and as half of one foot was missing and the other was swollen to immense size with elephantiasis he moved with a half-hop, half-scuffle like some enormous insect.
Grinning from ear to ear, he grabbed his battered hat from his kinky head and bobbed to the steward. "How can do?" he exclaimed. "Bo'soi', M'sieu! How you ketchum, t'ank you ver' kin'ly ma'am, how can do? "
"Hello, you old rascal," chuckled the steward. "Here, sir," turning to me, "I want to introduce you to Cockroach. He's the fellow to help you out." Then, to the other: "Cockroach, you old thief, this gentleman has come to Dominica to get birds—wild birds—up in the bush. He'll want a guide or a porter—some boy who can talk English or near it, and he'll want to know where to go. You look after him, you black devil, and if I hear you haven't, when I stop in on the up trip, I'll kick you overboard and never give you another order."
Cockroach, or as he preferred to be called "M'sieu Cricket," grinned and cackled. "Oui, M'sieu," he exclaimed. "Me man fo' tha' job, yes, ma'am, kind sir t'ank you. Me ketchum mángé, ketchum boy, garde Men all t'ing M'sieu need for know, how can do."
And Cockroach kept his word and proved an invaluable aid and firm friend throughout my long stay on the island. He had my luggage carried ashore, found me a place to stop, sent me a bull-necked, good-natured English-speaking porter, and informed me that Laudat was the best spot at which to start my collecting and that he would "Ketchum one garçón Laudat boy" at the market the following morning. The Laudat boy proved a sinewy mountaineer whose straight hair and yellow skin showed more Carib than negro blood, and who, through the medium of an interpreter—for on this British island the country folk all spoke patois and no English—agreed to have a house provided for me at his mountain village and to act as my guide and hunter.
Soon after daybreak the next morning we started on our long tramp into the hills, my porter, Charles, carrying my boxes poised on his woolly head as easily and unconcernedly as though they weighed a few trifling pounds instead of more than a hundredweight.
Leaving the town, we crossed the rushing river, followed the road through seemingly endless lime-groves, and followed an easy gradient around precipitous hill-sides. Wherever I glanced I found strange, interesting plants, insects and birds to study. Above our heads palm fronds rustled in the cool breeze. From the limbs of the giant trees long vines trailed downward, and orchids and air-plants covered the tree-trunks. Ferns, flowering plants, vines and spiny shrubs grew in a miniature jungle beside the pathway. The moist, moss-grown limestone of the cliffs supported a thousand strange and beautiful forms of plant life. Lizards scuttled over rocks and bushes; gorgeous tropical butterflies flitted back and forth in the early morning sunshine, and the twitter and songs of unseen birds issued from underbrush and tree-tops. A saucy, sulphur-crested Kiskadee flycatcher scolded us from its perch on a dead limb. Perky black Pe'noie finches and their brown Me'sang mates chirped and garnered their breakfasts beside the road. Tiny black mites of Zee-zee-zeb buntings greeted us with their insect-like attempts at song. Golden-yellow warblers flashed among the green leaves. From somewhere high up on the cliff-side a Grieve thrush poured out its melody, and flashing darting hummingbirds with scintillating ruby throats or emerald crests hovered before the odorous blossoms of wild plantains and jasmine.
Charles proved a veritable mine of information, though its accuracy was doubtful. He informed me that the little green-crested humming-bird was the Fou-fou Bequaa, and the large ruby-throated fellow the Fou-fou Mardette, and explained that Fou-fou meant "Crazy-crazy," and the hummers were so called because they dashed aimlessly from flower to flower. He plucked a wayside fern, laid it upon my coat-sleeve, slapped it with his palm and, withdrawing it, chuckled and grinned as I gazed at the perfect silver-white imprint it had left. He translated the patois name of each bird, insect and plant into English and, pointing to an immense ceiba or silk-cotton tree, he solemnly informed me that: "Tha' th' debbil-tree, Chief. No mon be dare fo' parse tha' tree af'er night makes, Chief; no, sir! When tha' night make, tha' jumbie folk does gather roun' 'bout tha' debbil-tree, an' they cotch any mon as make walk near to he. Yes, sir, Chief; Ah ain' humbuggin', they plenty bad 'nough jumbies this side. Yes, sir; and they's tha Siconier. Yo' don' know wha' tha Siconier are, Chief! She tha mos' worses' of all Jumbie, Chief. All tha day she jus' like any of womans, but when tha night-time makes she come by tha debbil-tree an' she take off she skin, an' she hang she skin on tha' debbil-tree an' she fly way to some one' house an' she suck they blood. Yes, sir, Chief; she bad, she damn bad. An' when tha night finish an' that mawnin' make, she fly back to tha debbil-tree an' she put on she skin an' she jus' common ol' womans again."
For the next half hour Charles related hair-raising, awesome tales of the "Jumbies" and their doings. Like all the other natives, he believed implicitly in these evil spirits, and, like the majority of the islanders, he was an equally firm believer in Obeah or witchcraft. At the time I laughed at his stories, chaffed him a bit, and found the tales interesting and amusing folk-lore. But before I left the island I saw, and heard of, many things which, though no doubt natural, have ever remained inexplicable mysteries.
Meanwhile, as Charles talked, we had steadily ascended, until now we were panting and puffing up the steep pathway which zigzagged up and up towards the forest-covered mountain sides ahead. Far below us the river sparkled and foamed along its rocky bed. Across the valley the mountains reared their forest-covered sides in a vast rampart for a thousand feet and more, and in the distance, at the head of the valley, tier after tier of mighty peaks and serrated ridges loomed hazily blue to the clouds that hid their lofty summits.
Presently, we topped a rise and came to a rest in the shelter of a clump of giant bamboos, their great, shining, beautiful stems shooting like vegetable rockets sixty feet in air, and their delicate leaves forming a lattice-work screen against the sun-bright sky. Just beyond us was the first of the mountain forest; cool, dark, casting a dense shade over the road. It was the first tropical forest I had ever seen, and as we entered it I stood gazing, almost awed, into its depths. The giant trees with their outflung buttress-like roots, their air-plant covered limbs, their drapery of gnarled, twisted, rope-like lianas and their hundred-foot tapering trunks fascinated me. Among them grew wonderful tree-ferns with twenty-foot lacework fronds. Many of the trees were masses of gorgeous pink, mauve or yellow flowers, and the air was heavy with their perfume. From beside the pathway the land sloped sharply down in a deep ravine to a tumbling mountain stream, and from somewhere in the cool twilight depths of the forest came a clear, inexpressibly melodious bell-like note followed by a long-drawn, plaintively sweet flute-like whistle. Never before or since have I heard a song so mysterious, so fascinating, so musical. It was as if some wood-nymph had struck a fairy bell and a dryad had responded on an elfin flute.
"Siffleur montagne!" exclaimed Charles. "He one kind bird make song too sweet. Yes, sir, Chief. He make to live in tha high bush an' never show heself. He make to hide from we all time. Yes, sir, yo' mus' to make mighty sharp an' smart fo' to cotch he, Chief."
Later I obtained many specimens of the bird, but never have I so greatly regretted the necessity of killing a bird in the interests of science. Shy and retiring, the siffleur montagne seems the very spirit of the "high bush." It never leaves the shelter of the dense forests of the mountains above the two-thousand-foot level, and haunts the semi-twilight of the woods like some flitting grey ghost, pausing now and again to utter its half-plaintive, half-mournful, wholly sweet song.
Leaving the Mountain Whistler behind, we resumed our climb, and for several hours toiled ever upward through the forest. Here plant, insect and bird forms were wholly distinct from those of the coastal district and lower altitudes. Immense clumps of sweet-scented pink-flowered begonias grew in profusion. Wherever there was an open space the earth was starred with golden-yellow dwarf iris. The stiff, upright stalks of crimson and orange-flowered Mussas flamed in the shadows. Bromeliads of scores of species were everywhere. Night-blooming Cereus decked trees and rocks. The silver-fern had given place to its more beautiful gold-fern relative. Breast-high bracken, giant tree-ferns, palmettoes, climbing cacti and broad-leaved, fantastic air-plants formed impenetrable jungles at the edges of the forest. The sun-loving, bright-eyed lizards had disappeared. The butterflies were mainly dark-coloured Heliconida with splashes of green and scarlet on their narrow wings. Trilling grasshoppers and crickets had been replaced by huge brown locusts whose startlingly loud explosive notes of "Crak! Crak!" had given them their patois name. Invisible wild doves cooed in the interlaced tree-tops. Trembleur and Gros Grieve thrushes poured their melodious notes from the leafy canopy above our heads. A perky Kosignol wren cocked its head on one side, eyed us speculatively and burst into a perfect torrent of rollicking song. Mountain flycatchers and blue-grey warblers chirped and flitted about, and flashing, sapphire-breasted and gloriously emerald-throated humming-birds poised on vibrating wings before the blooms of arboreal calks and flaming orchids.
It was all an entrancing wonderland to a nature-lover, and so interested was I in my surroundings that I scarcely realized that we had travelled many weary miles since dawn, had climbed upwards for three thousand feet, and still had far to go. But Charles had a practical mind and suggested it was "Time for make to res' an' mange"
So, where a little rill spouted from among the rocks into a fern-shaded basin, we halted for our noonday meal. Near me was a clump of bracken, and perched upon one of the blue-green fronds a tiny mite of a humming-bird squeaked and chirped, raising its helmet-like crest, ruffling its jewelled feathers and exhibiting every symptom of diminutive fury at my presence. Its actions could mean but one thing, and presently as I searched carefully among the ferns, I found the hidden nest. Built of spiders' webs and fern down, decorated with bits of green moss and grey lichens, it was fastened to the under-side of a frond within a few inches of the miniature cataract among the rocks.
Much as I would have valued it for my collections, I could not bring myself to disturb it, and left the angry atom of birddom to enjoy its dainty home in peace.
So far we had been fortunate in having clear weather. But as we resumed our way the sky became overcast, a cloud mass drifted across the forest-clad mountain side, and rain commenced to fall in torrents. Even partly sheltered as we were by the trees, we were soon drenched to the skin and chilled by the cold wind. The road of volcanic tufa became slippery and treacherous and, at this point, skirted the verge of a thousand-foot precipice with nothing visible beneath but the all-enveloping clouds. But Charles merely grinned and assured me this was the rule rather than the exception, and that "it make plenty rain in tha high bush all time like so." His statement I discovered was far too conservative, for there was a superabundance rather than "plenty" of rain in the Dominican mountains. In fact, Dominica is one of the rainiest countries on earth, and its mountainous districts hold all world records for rainfall. It is a common saying in the island that the precipitation is measured by yards and not inches, which is no exaggeration, for the average rainfall at Laudat is over three hundred inches a year!
The precipitation is practically incessant, for even when no real rain falls the mountains are bathed in clouds and water drips steadily from the trees, and, except for brief intervals, there is a steady drizzle. But one becomes accustomed to almost anything in time, and I soon became as heedless of rain and soaked garments as the mountaineers themselves.
But on that first day, when, shivering, soaked, mud-spattered and miserable, we turned into a narrow side path, and passing through a dense dripping jungle came to a fence with a clearing and houses beyond, I felt as if a shelter and dry garments would be heaven indeed. I found my Laudat boy, Rolles by name, awaiting us, and a few moments later I was in the quarters he had provided for me, and which were to be my home for many months to come.
Chapter 2 Among the Mountaineers
LAUDAT, I found, was a tiny hamlet of perhaps a dozen thatched huts scattered at random over a clearing of several hundred acres, on the brow of a mountain overlooking the magnificent panorama of the Roseau Valley nearly five thousand feet below. I say magnificent, but that applies only to the rare intervals when the sky cleared and the sun appeared. Ordinarily Laudat was isolated from the rest of the world in an all-enveloping mass of clouds, and the valley was a vast sea of drifting, billowy mist.
The village was, in a way, a strictly family affair, for all the inhabitants were related, and all were governed by the eldest of the clan or patriarch of the village. Originally, no doubt, some Frenchman had settled there and had taken unto himself a mulatto or perhaps a Carib wife. But there was little of the French left, aside from the local patois, the courtesy and hospitality of the people and their names. Largely they were more Carib than negro, though some were nearly black and had kinky heads, while others had the Carib skin and features with African hair or the straight black hair of the aborigine combined with negroid features. But all were alike in their cleanliness, their anxiety to please, in their welcome, and in their pride at being Laudats.
The hut in which accommodation for me had been arranged was large and well built of hand-sawn slabs with a thatched roof, and was floored with boards. Its furnishings were simple, consisting of hand-made chairs, benches, tables and beds. A few chromos of religious subjects were on the walls, which were papered from floor to rafters with old newspaper and magazine pages. In a way I had been greatly honoured, for it was the home of the village patriarch, Andre Laudat, an old dignified man with dark brown skin, straight hair, and Carib features, who welcomed me with the formality of a reigning potentate— which in fact he was.
His family consisted of a wrinkled, wizened, deaf and nearly blind wife who sat mumbling to herself in a corner; a buxom, full-bosomed Amazon of a russet-brown daughter named Le Brun; a stocky, magnificently-muscled son named Leon; and a shy-eyed, golden-skinned quiet-voiced Carib boy named Beché, who appeared to be a sort of general servant. Rolles, I learned, was the old man's son-in-law; but I soon gave up all attempts at solving the mysteries of Laudat relationships, for they were far too complicated to master.
My room, separated from the others by a flimsy partition of cane and newspapers, contained a home-made bedstead minus springs or mattress and which might well have served a penitent monk, two hand-made benches, and a rough table. But it was ample for my needs, and, having donned dry clothing, I felt quite comfortable and at home, and ready to do full justice to the meal which was being served in the next room.
With the inborn courtesy of these people, a separate table had been prepared for me in deference to my supposed prejudice against dining with coloured folk, and Beché had been assigned to attend to my wants.
My appetite was excellent, and the food, consisting of highly seasoned salt codfish, baked breadfruit, boiled yams, fried eggs, roast agouti and stewed guavas, was far better than anything I had reason to expect, even though my throat was raw from the fiery red peppers which were used in profusion.
Even before the meal was over visitors began to arrive, partly to welcome but largely to look curiously upon the white man from America.
Both Leon and his father spoke a sort of English, so that conversation was possible, and very soon the little house was filled to overflowing with Laudats young and old from every hut in the village. Every one smoked, every one drank, but all were orderly, and though they laughed and chattered, joked and sang, they were not boisterous.
Mainly the conversation seemed to be of Jumbies and spirits, of which Laudat appeared to have more than its due share; and I very quickly learned some most surprising and interesting facts about the local Jumbies. Although door and windows were wide open, I noticed that as darkness came on the daughter of the house stuffed bits of paper into the keyhole in the door lock and into the bolt-holes in the window shutters. But imagine my astonishment when I was informed that this was to prevent a certain species of Jumbie from entering the house! This particular spirit was known as "La Fl'emme," and appeared in the form of a dancing light. But its most remarkable characteristic was that it could only enter a house by way of a keyhole. Doors and windows might be open, but unless there was an unstopped keyhole available poor La Fl'emme must remain outside. La Fl’emme was a rather harmless sort of Jumbie and no one present could recall ever having known or heard of anyone being injured by it. But there were others of most dangerous, unpleasant, and malignant character. "Le Buk," for example, who took the form of a goat and frequented the roads at dead of night. His favourite pastime was to dash at the lone wayfarer, suddenly change into his normal form as a monstrous, fiery-eyed, horned devil, and wrestle with his victim until he had broken all his bones. As no one could tell the Buk from a real goat until too late, the only safe procedure was to shoot any goat met on a road at night, for once the Buk's goat form had been destroyed he was quite harmless until he could find another goat to enter.
Even more awesome was "Chawah," a demon who in the shape of an owl perched by the wayside or upon a fence and, at the approach of a human being, swelled into enormous proportions, and seizing the unfortunate one carried him off to some unknown lair where he could be devoured at leisure. Then there was the Siconier of whom Charles had told me—a sort of island vampire; the Jumbie who took possession of the dead and appeared as a decomposed awful corpse to see which was to die a lingering death; and scores of others, each more weird, malignant and terrifying than the rest.
As the tales were told and the people, wide-eyed and nervous, drew closer together, numerous moths, beetles and other insects buzzed about, attracted by the flickering candles. Each time a moth would appear some member of the gathering would seize it, scorch its wings in the candle flame, and toss it out of doors. This needless cruelty struck me as strange, and I inquired the reason.
"Eh! Eh!" exclaimed Leon. "M'sieu not know La Belle, no? Oui, M'sieu, dese t'ing mek plenty trouble, yes. M'sieu t'ink dey eensec', yes; but non, M'sieu, dey peoples. Dey obeah peoples come spy on we, yes. When we mek burn he wings he go home, yes, an' t'morrow we mek s'arch an' we mek fin' some mans, some womans mek to get burn han's, mebbe burn foots an' we mek know she de La Belle we mek burn in candle, yes. Oui, M'sieu, I say true, yes."
I forbore to laugh at the childish superstition, for Leon was very much in earnest, and all the others believed implicitly in what he said. And the next day, when, with Leon, I wandered about the village and in one hut Leon spied a woman with a bandaged hand and arm, he declared she was one of the La Belles which had been scorched the previous night. Moreover, she admitted it herself, which left me absolutely flabbergasted at the time. But when I came to know these people better, her actions, I found, were perfectly logical.
To be considered an Obeah person, a witch doctor, is a distinction and gives the person great power and influence. In fact, a recognized Obeah man or woman can do pretty much as he or she pleases, for no one dares cross them or interfere with them. Even the head-man of the village would not dream of attempting to enforce laws or regulations on an Obeah practitioner, and the woman, who had no doubt burned her hand in her own cooking—if indeed she had burned it at all—saw in her accident a chance to rise to local fame and power. Moreover, as I learned subsequently, there is a still more remarkable and underlying reason for this sort of thing. A woman burning her hand accidentally and being a firm believer in Obeah and the practice of singeing moths, would, by a queer kink of inverted reasoning and superstition, feel perfectly convinced that she had taken the form of a moth, had been singed in a candle, and that the actual burning was the imaginary event as manifested to her at the moment she resumed her human form.
Such things seem incredible, but the negro's psychology is a mystery to the white man, and the African mind is capable of twisting actualities in a most amazing manner. I have repeatedly known of the natives dying merely because some Obeah man or woman told them they would die on a certain date, although they were perfectly strong and healthy. I have known of a man confessing to a crime which he did not commit, merely because an Obeah man tossed a "charm" into a crowd and declared that the one whom it struck was the guilty person. And I have known of a man recovering from sickness and approaching death by drinking plain water which an Obeah man administered. Obeah consists mainly of hypnotic or autosuggestion, and, when this fails, poison. But with the negroes the Obeah man seldom is obliged to resort to the latter course, for absolute faith in his supernatural power is usually quite sufficient to bring about any result he desires.
Neither should Obeah be confused with Voodoo. The one is witchcraft, chicanery or what you will, while Voodoo is a true religion of African origin. Obeah was, and to a less extent is, rampant in the West Indies, but with the exception of Hayti I have never found Voodooism in vogue to any extent. At any rate my Laudat friends were no Voodooists, and all were, so they professed, devout Catholics, although just how they could square Catholicism with Jumbies and Obeah was difficult to understand.
My friend Cockroach had, I found, shown remarkable foresight in selecting Laudat as the best spot at which to start my scientific work. Bird life was abundant in the vicinity, the clearing and cultivated land attracted species not met with in the forests, and the Laudat men and boys were all born hunters and most experienced bushmen. They knew the names, habits and haunts of every bird, quadruped, reptile and insect of the island, and they took to collecting as a duck takes to water. Even the children became ardent naturalists (at so much per specimen), and I was kept busy caring for the innumerable birds, birds' eggs, insects, etc., brought in by my small army of collectors. Very often live creatures would be brought to me, and among these were numbers of the gigantic and rare Hercules beetles. The males of this insect have a long horn-like projection on the forward part of the thorax, and extending four inches or more beyond the head, which carries a second shorter horn. Although perfectly harmless, the male beetles have a dangerous appearance, while the females, lacking the horns, look most inoffensive. During the day the creatures remain almost motionless, feeding upon the sap of forest trees, but at night they fly about in the forests, their great wings humming like the roar of a distant aeroplane. Wishing to study the habits of these little-known beetles, I kept several alive, tethering them by means of cords attached to the thorax, and it was one of these captives that caused a most amusing and, for the time being, exciting episode.
As usual a crowd of the people had gathered in the outer room, and, as was invariably the case, their conversation was entirely of Jumbies, ghosts and Obeah. Wishing to secure some tobacco, I stepped into my room, leaving the door ajar. As I reached for my tobacco box I dislodged one of my captive beetles. The next instant there was a whirr like a gust of wind as the disturbed insect took flight and headed through the open door for the candle in the room beyond. At the unwonted sound of vibrating wings the already nervous people screamed, shrieked and cowered, thoroughly believing one of their own Jumbies had put in an unexpected appearance. The next second they were in total darkness, for the beetle had reached its goal and the draught from its beating wings had extinguished the candle. But the insect had at the same time reached the end of its tether and was whirring in circles and looping the loop in the blackness over the heads of the terrified people. Yelling like maniacs, praying, cursing, screaming, they huddled together, while from time to time a shriek rose high above the hubbub as the confused and blundering beetle swooped down and roared past the face of some girl or woman. Shaking with laughter, I at last found the cord, hauled in my struggling captive, replaced her in a box, and shutting the door of my room stepped forward to relight the candle. Never have I seen such abject terror on any human faces as was depicted on the features of the cowering crowd in the hut. They were livid with fright, their teeth chattered, their eyes rolled wildly, and it was fully an hour before they calmed down. For a long time they refused to believe my explanation of what had occurred, declaring that I had been mistaken and that the intruder had been a Jumbie, and it was not until I demonstrated my claim by producing the beetle, and allowing it to fly across the room once more, that they were convinced. Once they realized the truth they took it as a huge joke and laughed as gaily as myself over their own terror. But they were very careful thereafter to make sure my door was closed when they told Jumbie tales in the evenings.
From the time I had reached Laudat I had heard stories of the Boiling Lake, and on clear days the natives had pointed out a lofty jagged peak, above which a slender column of steam drifted upward, as the site of the phenomenon. From all accounts it was an active crater, and I was of course anxious to have a look at it. Moreover, the Laudat men claimed that certain birds not found elsewhere were common on the volcano. Even the sturdy mountaineers admitted it was a terrible climb, and they averred that the Boiling Lake could only be visited in safety in clear weather and under certain conditions, stating that the rain caused immense masses of poisonous vapours to rise from the crater, while winds from certain quarters blew the invisible but deadly gases across the only possible trail. For several weeks it appeared as if the combination of meteorological conditions would never occur, but at last the hoped-for miracle transpired, and soon after daylight we set out. Rolles led the way as guide, two other men acted as escort, and Beché trailed alone like a faithful dog.
For several hours we toiled up the mountains through the high bush, as the natives call the heavier forests, splashed through icy-cold streams and crossed innumerable ridges. Gradually the lofty trees became fewer, and presently we were traversing a marvellous forest of giant tree-ferns. Steeper and steeper the ascent became; the tree-ferns gave way to a jungle of dwarf palmettoes, thorny brush and tangled vines, and before us the mountain-side reared itself in grass-grown slopes for a thousand feet and more.
Scattered over the bare, wind-swept area were charred blackened trees; the air was heavy with the smell of sulphur; above the summit of the peak a column of steam drifted, and to our ears came a dull rumbling roar like the sound of a distant railway train. Panting, slipping, helping our progress by grasping bushes and wisps of grass, we climbed inch by inch up the precipitous slope and gamed a narrow hog-backed ridge with yawning cañons on either side of the two-foot trail. Bending to the wind pushing our way through the thick wiry grass, we crossed the ridge and stood upon the verge of the crater's rim.
Below us the earth dropped in a sheer brick-red and yellow wall for more than five hundred feet to the great bowl-like crater of the volcano; a veritable inferno lay beneath us. From where we stood the rim swept in a vast irregular oval several miles in length and a mile across. Everywhere the bare burned surface was gaudy with reds, yellows, pinks and snowy-white tufa, ash and sulphur! Through the centre of the crater's floor a stream of inky black water flowed, its surface seething and sending up clouds of steam, while on every side, spurting from the bottom of the crater, were innumerable geysers. It was a marvellous, a fascinating sight, but the Laudat men assured me it was nothing compared to the Boiling Lake itself and pointed to a great mass of steam rising above a low ridge that spanned the main crater.
Leading the way along the crater's rim, Rolles turned to the right and guided us to a place where there was a deep gap in the ridge. From this spot a narrow zigzag track led down the perpendicular wall towards the bottom of the crater. It was barely a foot in width, a mere shelf-like projection, and seemingly passable only for a goat.
That any human being could descend appeared impossible, and I felt a dizzy, sickening sensation as I gazed at the steam-spewing surface far beneath and realized what a misstep or a slip would mean. But Rolles and the others took it as a matter of course, dropped over the edge, and stood waiting on the narrow trail for me to follow. To hesitate was to lose, and summoning all my courage I lowered myself gingerly over the verge of the precipice. To this day I do not know how we ever reached the bottom in safety. The volcanic ash was as slippery as soap; at every footstep dislodged pebbles and bits of tufa went rattling down the sheer wall below us, and there was nothing to grasp, no hand-hold to steady us or to prevent us from plunging down head-foremost.
The almost prehensile bare toes of my companions dug into the tufa and prevented them from slipping to any great extent, but the soles and heels of my boots slid, slipped and skidded in horrible fashion. A dozen times my heart skipped a beat and I felt certain I was lost, but each time, by a seeming miracle, I recovered my balance, checked myself and continued on my way, until at last, shaken, scared, but whole, I stood at the base of the cliff.
The earth upon which we stood was boiling hot and the surface seemed to undulate and vibrate. Rolles warned me not to remain in one spot for long and, to illustrate the danger of so doing, he pushed a stick into the cinders, and, withdrawing it, jumped to one side as a gush of scalding black water spouted from the hole. We were standing on a crust only a few inches in thickness, that covered a bottomless pit of boiling water, and for a moment I devoutly wished I were safely back on the top of the mountain. On every side the geysers hissed and roared, sometimes spouting steadily in one spot, sometimes suddenly dying down to reappear in unexpected places several rods distant; sometimes throwing their columns of steam and water for fifty feet perpendicularly, or again spouting at an angle like the streams of water from gigantic hose-nozzles. Rapidly we crossed this area, reached solid ground on the further side, and followed the course of the boiling black stream beside a low ridge. Here, to my surprise, was a fairly dense growth of plants. There were a number of species of cacti, some low fleshy-leaved shrubs pink-flowered mallows, coarse grasses, a magenta convolvulus and wild portulaca, besides gold and silver ferns. How they subsisted in this barren mass of burned ash where the only water was at the boiling-point was a mystery beyond me. Even more astonishing was the fact that animal life existed here. Several species of butterflies, two varieties of flower-beetles, numerous ants and dragon-flies represented the insect world, while the avifauna consisted of two species of flycatcher, a humming-bird and some small falcons or sparrowhawks. But the most amazing discovery of all was yet to come.
Stopping to examine a pool of clear steaming water I was absolutely astounded to find that it was alive with the larvae of a gnat-like fly! Although the pool was practically at the boiling-point, yet the little “wigglers" seemed as much at home as mosquito larvæ in a rain barrel.
After that nothing would have surprised me. I should not have been astonished to find fishes swimming in the boiling stream or turtles basking on the rim of a geyser, and, as I walked onward, I realized for the first time how ridiculous it is to assume that life cannot exist on another planet, even though that planet may be a mass of molten matter. If Nature could produce fly larvae capable of thriving in boiling water, why should she not have evolved higher forms of life capable of existing in the midst of flaming gases?
As these thoughts passed through my mind, we ascended a mound of broken stone, sulphur and ash, and the Boiling Lake was before us. A few yards beneath us was an immense bowl-like depression perhaps a third of a mile in diameter and filled with a pool of milky-white water. About the edges it was tranquil, but in the centre it rose and fell, sending little waves towards the shores, as if some hidden monster were striving to emerge from the depths. More and more violent it became, great masses of water bubbled and burst, sending up clouds of steam, and presently the entire pond was a churning, seething, hissing cauldron hidden by the dense vapour that rose from it. For perhaps ten minutes the boiling continued, and then, suddenly, the steam drifted away, the water calmed, and before my eyes drew away from the shores and vanished, leaving the great bowl empty and with nothing but an irregular hole to show where the water had gone. Calling to me, Rolles beckoned me to follow, and scrambling downward to the edge of the lake led the way across the hot, muddy bottom. Scarcely realizing what I was doing, I followed with the others in his tracks and reached the opposite shore. There had not been an instant to spare. Scarcely had we reached firm ground when the boiling water came pouring upward through its vent, and five minutes later the bowl was again filled to its brim with the hissing, seething mass.
It was an interesting, wonderful sight, this gigantic intermittent geyser, but we had come a long distance, the way had been hard, it was high noon, and our stomachs felt unusually empty. Selecting a sheltered spot a few rods from the Boiling Lake, where the Laudat men declared we would be safe from the poisonous gases, Beché opened the packs, undid the broad, green plantain-leaf wrappings, and produced eggs, plantains, yams, a chicken and a can of coffee. To my surprise I noticed that the chicken and plantains were raw, but I had much to learn. Wrapping the fowl in a plantain leaf, and picking up the can of coffee, Beché stepped a few yards to one side, dug a little pit with his machete, dropped the chicken into the hole and covered it up. Then he pushed the can of coffee into another hole. Returning, he wrapped each egg in a leaf, hurried to a pool near and dropped them into the water. Then it dawned upon me. He was cooking the food in Nature's stove. In four minutes the eggs were ready to be eaten, and a little later we were dining on smoking hot steamed chicken and were sipping scalding coffee.
By the time we had finished our meal clouds were appearing above the rim of the crater, and hastily gathering up their belongings the men hurried on the return journey, declaring that to be caught in the crater meant certain death. Possibly their fears were exaggerated, but I could well believe that a downfall of rain, striking that vast hot surface, would result in a mass of steam which would be far from comfortable, aside from the gases it might generate, and that the trail up which we must climb to the crater's rim would be utterly impassable when drenched with falling rain.
Climbing up was not nearly so bad as coming down; we reached the top of the wall in safety, and as we hurried away from the edge of the crater the first big drops came pattering down from the low-hung clouds. When, tired, wet and hungry, I reached my home at Laudat that night, I felt that my day had been well spent. I had looked upon one of Nature's wonders, a wonder which few white men had ever seen, and I had added greatly to my ornithological collection. Several species of birds obtained I never saw elsewhere on the island, and among them was a hummingbird and a thrush, both new to science.
One evening, as I was preparing my specimens, Leon asked me if I had ever heard of the Diablotin or Devil-bird. I had not; and in his weird English, and aided by the others who constantly added bits of fact and fancy, he told me of these strange creatures.
According to the tales, the Diablotin had formerly been common on the upper slopes of the higher mountains and especially on Morne Diablotin, where it had last been seen. It was a night bird, as large as a small turkey, with a stout hooked bill, a fat round body, and lived in holes in the mountain side. As it had been regarded as a great delicacy by the natives, it had been so assiduously hunted with the aid of trained dogs that it had become exterminated. Possibly, my informant told me, there might be a few lone individuals remaining, and, he asked, would I care to go on a hunt for them?
Needless to say I would. That the bird was some species of nocturnal sea-bird seemed certain, and from the description and the habits, it seemed most probably a petrel. But that any human beings could stomach a petrel, much less consider it a delicacy, seemed incredible. At any rate, whatever it was, the Diablotin was unquestionably a species unknown to science, and I was thoroughly excited at the possibility of finding at least one remaining Devil-bird.
The trip was planned for a few days later, and with Leon, Rolles, the inevitable Beché, and several woefully thin hunting dogs, we started off. Beché and each of the men carried packs of basket-work slung on their backs and supported by chest bands, and the two men were armed with muzzle-loading shotguns, while all three carried the essential machete or "cutlass," the most useful tool or implement in tropical America.
For a short distance from Laudat we followed the main road to the very summit of the divide, where, gleaming like a bowl of silver in the heart of the forest, is the Mountain Lake, a deep, practically fathomless cairn filling the crater of an extinct volcano. On the wind-swept, cloud-draped ridge above it we stopped for a few moments to gaze across endless forest-clad ranges to the shimmering Atlantic, and then plunged into the high bush. For a space the ground was dense with a tangled jungle beneath the trees, and slashing right and left with their cutlasses, the men hewed a narrow trail. But as we penetrated deeper into the forest and the towering trees with their interlaced tops shut out all sunlight, the low growths disappeared, and we were soon walking over open ground between the mighty boles of the trees that soared upward like mighty columns to the first branches, fully one hundred feet above the earth. So silent, so dim, so peaceful was this high bush that it seemed like a vast deserted cathedral rather than a forest, and the effect was heightened by the arching roof above, the fluted trunks of the trees, and the drapery of vines and lianas hanging from the lofty branches. Yet life was not lacking.
Far above our heads birds busily garnered their food in silence; great soft-winged brown and grey "ghost" moths flitted through the shadows; an occasional brown agouti dashed like a flash of light to its burrow, and from the recesses of the forest came the notes of the Siffleur montagne, the soft cooing of Ramier pigeons, and the occasional piping note of a tree-frog.
Suddenly a harsh, raucous cry rang through the forest, drowning all other sounds. Instantly my companions stopped in their tracks and froze into immobility. "Cieeroo!" whispered Beché, as the others silently and cautiously cocked their guns and peered with keen searching eyes at the leafy roof ahead. Ciceroo!
At the Carib's words my blood tingled, for Ciceroo was the native name of the Imperial parrot, the shyest, wariest and one of the rarest of West Indian birds, and found only on Dominica. Ever since my arrival it had been my dream to secure a specimen of this magnificent bird, and now, within a few hundred feet of where I stood, one or more of the creatures were concealed in the tree-tops. Presently, a few rods ahead of us, a golden-yellow fruit dropped to earth, followed by another and another. At this telltale sign that the parrots were feeding and unsuspicious, we crept forward as silently as shadows. Still the bits of fruit dropped from the mazes of leaves, and with straining eyes and ready guns we peered upward. No sign of a bird, no movement of the branches could I see; all was a maze of leaves, vines, branches and flecks of sunlight. But the eyes of the Carib were far sharper than mine or than those of the Laudat men. Touching my arm, Beché pointed a slim, brown finger at a clump of broad-leaved air-plants clinging to an out-jutting limb. Tense with suppressed excitement, I peered at the spot. And suddenly, as if it had been materialized from nothing, I saw the Ciceroo clearly.
The next second the forest echoed to the roar of my gun; wild, hoarse screams came from the tree-tops; there was a dual report as the two men fired, and down from their lofty perches hurtled two of the giant parrots. Elated, thrilled, I dashed forward, while Beché, as if frightened by the hubbub, raced off through the forest, my gun in his hand. As I picked up the first of the fallen Ciceroos and gazed in admiration at its green and purple plumage, the sound of a gunshot came from the direction the Carib had taken, and a moment later he came back, carrying a third parrot. As I carefully wrapped the three specimens and placed them tenderly, almost reverently, in my bag, I thought that even the taking of a Diablotin could not give me greater elation than thus securing the three Imperial Parrots. But before the day was done I had far more cause to congratulate myself upon my success, for a few hours later, when we heard parrot's scream again, and by a fortunate shot I brought down two birds at once, they proved to be not Ciceroos but the far rarer and almost unknown Nicholls' Parrot, a species now believed to be extinct and, at that time, known to science by only three specimens in all the museums of the world.
We camped that night in the forest, our shelter a hastily constructed Ajupa of palm leaves, and by the light of flaring torches of aromatic Gomier resin I skinned and prepared my priceless specimens. Throughout the following day we tramped through the high bush, and late in the afternoon we came to a small clearing planted with yams and pigeon-peas, and stepping from the jungle, looked across a cultivated hill-side with the sparkling sea beyond. White surf thundered upon a black beach where were drawn a number of sharp-ended dug-out canoes, and above the beach a village of thatched huts was clustered beneath a grove of coco-nut palms. "La soir!" exclaimed Leon. "Dees place da Ca'ib mek to live, M'sieu." It was the Carib settlement, the home of the few remaining aborigines of the island, and Beché's native village.
A few moments later we were in the village, and Beché was leading us to his parents' house. All the inhabitants were Caribs, mostly of pure blood, with the clear yellow skins, the round faces, the soft eyes and the high cheek-bones of the once ferocious cannibal race; but among them were many of mixed negro and Carib blood—"black Caribs," as they were called. But there was nothing savage nor wild about the villagers. They were shy, friendly, smiling and hospitable, and it was hard to believe that it was these peaceful, timid aborigines who, for nearly two hundred years, defied the armies and navies of France, Spain and Great Britain and brought terror to the hearts of all enemies, white, black or yellow.
At the time of my first visit, when we were quartered in Beché's house, the tribe numbered about two hundred, and yet less than a score could speak the Carib tongue. They dressed, lived and conversed in much the same way as the coloured folk at Laudat or other mountain villages, but they still wove—as they do still—their wonderful waterproof baskets; they still prepared the cassava in the aboriginal manner and used the woven basketry metapees for extracting the poisonous juice, and they still kept up some of their tribal customs, their tribal laws, their tribal religion and—so Leon assured me in a whisper—they still practised cannibalism at certain ceremonial feasts. Whether or not this was true I cannot say. I found no evidences of the practice being in vogue, and I had little more faith in Leon's statement than in his tales of Jumbies. The Caribs did, however, sell their children, or perhaps better, hire them out. Beché had been purchased and was virtually a slave—although a very well-treated one, and I came very near finding myself the owner of a member of the tribe, despite my own wishes. The chief, an elderly fine chap, became fascinated with a pair of scissors I was using, and as I had bestowed several small gifts on Beché's parents and other members of the tribe, I presented the scissors to the chief. The old fellow grunted, grinned, and hurrying off returned presently leading a very pretty Carib girl, perhaps fifteen years of age. Through the medium of Leon as interpreter, he informed me she was his daughter and that she was mine in exchange for the scissors.
In vain I protested and declined to accept the girl, who appeared to take the deal as a matter of course. To the chief my protests meant merely that I was not satisfied with the bargain, and he became quite excited, declaring she was the prettiest girl in the village, and he appeared quite peeved and even insulted at my attitude. It would never do to incur the displeasure of the chief, and something had to be done which would satisfy all the parties concerned. So I accepted my involuntary purchase, appeased the ruffled chief by giving him a file and a knife for full measure, and, explaining that I could not be encumbered by the girl on my long trip to Morne Diablotin, I gave her into her father's keeping until I should return to claim her. Evidently Carib custom provides that goods left unclaimed beyond a certain time can be disposed of, for when I next visited La Soir, nearly twenty years later, I found my feminine chattel married to a strapping Carib in whom I failed to recognize my old friend Beché, and the mother of several yellow-skinned aborigines.
Needless to say I did not claim her; but she recognized me, recalled the incident, and laughed merrily over it, informing me that "M'sieu was very stupid not to have known when he had such a good bargain." A statement which amused Beché immensely.
- ► 2013 (41)
- Thirty Years in the Jungle -Ch 1and 2
- His Vain Search for Adventure
- Book Review-The Trail of the White Indian
- Built of Mud
- On Mesmerizing Things
- Ants Have Beauty Doctors
- Thousand Dollar Chinchilla Hat
- One Shell Builds a Raft to Live Upon
- Verrill Cottage Burns on Island
- Lola's and Valerie's Pets
- How the Animals Were Made
- Ƶ and ƶ
- Heads You Lose
- What We Saw -Part 5
- What We Saw Part4
- What We Saw -Part3
- The Story of Sugar
- When the Doctor Came to Labrador
- What We Saw in the West Indies 2
- What We Saw in the West Indies
- Insect Ogres
- Three Funny Birds
- Fish that Walk and Fly
- Beche's Fishing
- The Kuna Woman
- The Diving Boys of the Caribbees
- Beche, The Carib Boy
- A Whaler's Christmas and Another
- The Bird That Shaves
- Turkish Nonsense Tales
- The Bell-Tower of P'an-ku
- Who are the Mysterious Bearded Indians 2
- ▼ March (32)
- ► 2011 (104)
- ► 2010 (43)
- ► 2009 (40)
- ► 2008 (48)
- 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.