Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Through the Brazilian Wilderness. 1914.II
Up the Paraguay
For three days, as we steamed northward toward the Tropic of Capricorn, and then passed it, we were within the Republic of Paraguay. On our right, to the east, there was a fairly well-settled country, where bananas and oranges were cultivated and other crops of hot countries raised. On the banks we passed an occasional small town, or saw a ranch-house close to the river’s brink, or stopped for wood at some little settlement. Across the river to the west lay the level, swampy, fertile wastes known as the Chaco, still given over either to the wild Indians or to cattle-ranching on a gigantic scale. The broad river ran in curves between mud-banks where terraces marked successive periods of flood. A belt of forest stood on each bank, but it was only a couple of hundred yards wide. Back of it was the open country; on the Chaco side this was a vast plain of grass, dotted with tall, graceful palms. In places the belt of forest vanished and the palm-dotted prairie came to the river’s edge. The Chaco is an ideal cattle country, and not really unhealthy. It will be covered with ranches at a not distant day. But mosquitoes and many other winged insect pests swarm over it. Cherrie and Miller had spent a week there collecting mammals and birds prior to my arrival at Asuncion. They were veterans of the tropics, hardened to the insect plagues of Guiana and the Orinoco. But they reported that never had they been so tortured as in the Chaco. The sand-flies crawled through the meshes in the mosquito-nets, and forbade them to sleep; if in their sleep a knee touched the net the mosquitoes fell on it so that it looked as if riddled by birdshot; and the nights were a torment, although they had done well in their work, collecting some two hundred and fifty specimens of birds and mammals.
Nevertheless for some as yet inscrutable reason the river served as a barrier to certain insects which are menaces to the cattlemen. With me on the gunboat was an old Western friend, Tex Rickard, of the Panhandle and Alaska and various places in between. He now has a large tract of land and some thirty-five thousand head of cattle in the Chaco, opposite Concepcion, at which city he was to stop. He told me that horses did not do well in the Chaco but that cattle throve, and that while ticks swarmed on the east bank of the great river, they would not live on the west bank. Again and again he had crossed herds of cattle which were covered with the loathsome bloodsuckers; and in a couple of months every tick would be dead. The worst animal foes of man, indeed the only dangerous foes, are insects; and this is especially true in the tropics. Fortunately, exactly as certain differences too minute for us as yet to explain render some insects deadly to man or domestic animals, while closely allied forms are harmless, so, for other reasons, which also we are not as yet able to fathom, these insects are for the most part strictly limited by geographical and other considerations. The war against what Sir Harry Johnston calls the really material devil, the devil of evil wild nature in the tropics, has been waged with marked success only during the last two decades. The men, in the United States, in England, France, Germany, Italy—the men like Doctor Cruz in Rio Janeiro and Doctor Vital Brazil in Sao Paulo—who work experimentally within and without the laboratory in their warfare against the disease and death bearing insects and microbes, are the true leaders in the fight to make the tropics the home of civilized man.
Late on the evening of the second day of our trip, just before midnight, we reached Concepcion. On this day, when we stopped for wood or to get provisions—at picturesque places, where the women from rough mud and thatched cabins were washing clothes in the river, or where ragged horsemen stood gazing at us from the bank, or where dark, well-dressed ranchmen stood in front of red-roofed houses—we caught many fish. They belonged to one of the most formidable genera of fish in the world, the piranha or cannibal fish, the fish that eats men when it can get the chance. Farther north there are species of small piranha that go in schools. At this point on the Paraguay the piranha do not seem to go in regular schools, but they swarm in all the waters and attain a length of eighteen inches or over. They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness. They will tear wounded wild fowl to pieces; and bite off the tails of big fish as they grow exhausted when fighting after being hooked. Miller, before I reached Asuncion, had been badly bitten by one. Those that we caught sometimes bit through the hooks, or the double strands of copper wire that served as leaders, and got away. Those that we hauled on deck lived for many minutes. Most predatory fish are long and slim, like the alligator-gar and pickerel. But the piranha is a short, deep-bodied fish, with a blunt face and a heavily undershot or projecting lower jaw which gapes widely. The razor-edged teeth are wedge-shaped like a shark’s, and the jaw muscles possess great power. The rabid, furious snaps drive the teeth through flesh and bone. The head with its short muzzle, staring malignant eyes, and gaping, cruelly armed jaws, is the embodiment of evil ferocity; and the actions of the fish exactly match its looks. I never witnessed an exhibition of such impotent, savage fury as was shown by the piranhas as they flapped on deck. When fresh from the water and thrown on the boards they uttered an extraordinary squealing sound. As they flapped about they bit with vicious eagerness at whatever presented itself. One of them flapped into a cloth and seized it with a bulldog grip. Another grasped one of its fellows; another snapped at a piece of wood, and left the teeth-marks deep therein. They are the pests of the waters, and it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about either swimming or wading where they are found. If cattle are driven into, or of their own accord enter, the water, they are commonly not molested; but if by chance some unusually big or ferocious specimen of these fearsome fishes does bite an animal—taking off part of an ear, or perhaps of a teat from the udder of a cow—the blood brings up every member of the ravenous throng which is anywhere near, and unless the attacked animal can immediately make its escape from the water it is devoured alive. Here on the Paraguay the natives hold them in much respect, whereas the caymans are not feared at all. The only redeeming feature about them is that they are themselves fairly good to eat, although with too many bones.
At daybreak of the third day, finding we were still moored off Concepcion, we were rowed ashore and strolled off through the streets of the quaint, picturesque old town; a town which, like Asuncion, was founded by the conquistadores three-quarters of a century before our own English and Dutch forefathers landed in what is now the United States. The Jesuits then took practically complete possession of what is now Paraguay, controlling and Christianizing the Indians, and raising their flourishing missions to a pitch of prosperity they never elsewhere achieved. They were expelled by the civil authorities (backed by the other representatives of ecclesiastical authority) some fifty years before Spanish South America became independent. But they had already made the language of the Indians, Guaran&ygrave;, a culture-tongue, reducing it to writing, and printing religious books in it. Guaran&ygrave; is one of the most wide-spread of the Indian tongues, being originally found in various closely allied forms not only in Paraguay but in Uruguay and over the major part of Brazil. It remains here and there, as a lingua geral at least, and doubtless in cases as an original tongue, among the wild tribes. In most of Brazil, as around Para and around Sao Paulo, it has left its traces in place-names, but has been completely superseded as a language by Portuguese. In Paraguay it still exists side by side with Spanish as the common language of the lower people and as a familiar tongue among the upper classes. The blood of the people is mixed, their language dual; the lower classes are chiefly of Indian blood but with a white admixture; while the upper classes are predominantly white, with a strong infusion of Indian. There is no other case quite parallel to this in the annals of European colonization, although the Goanese in India have a native tongue and a Portuguese creed, while in several of the Spanish-American states the Indian blood is dominant and the majority of the population speak an Indian tongue, perhaps itself, as with the Quichuas, once a culture-tongue of the archaic type. Whether in Paraguay one tongue will ultimately drive out the other, and, if so, which will be the victor, it is yet too early to prophesy. The English missionaries and the Bible Society have recently published parts of the Scriptures in Guaran&ygrave;; and in Asuncion a daily paper is published with the text in parallel columns, Spanish and Guaran&ygrave;—just as in Oklahoma there is a similar paper published in English and in the tongue which the extraordinary Cherokee chief Sequoia, a veritable Cadmus, made a literary language.
The Guaraný-speaking Paraguayan is a Christian, and as much an inheritor of our common culture as most of the peasant populations of Europe. He has no kinship with the wild Indian, who hates and fears him. The Indian of the Chaco, a pure savage, a bow-bearing savage, will never come east of the Paraguay, and the Paraguayan is only beginning to venture into the western interior, away from the banks of the river—under the lead of pioneer settlers like Rickard, whom, by the way, the wild Indians thoroughly trust, and for whom they work eagerly and faithfully. There is a great development ahead for Paraguay, as soon as they can definitely shake off the revolutionary habit and establish an orderly permanence of government. The people are a fine people; the strains of blood—white and Indian—are good.
We walked up the streets of Concepcion, and interestedly looked at everything of interest: at the one-story houses, their windows covered with gratings of fretted ironwork, and their occasional open doors giving us glimpses into cool inner courtyards, with trees and flowers; at the two-wheel carts, drawn by mules or oxen; at an occasional rider, with spurs on his bare feet, and his big toes thrust into the small stirrup-rings; at the little stores, and the warehouses for matté and hides. Then we came to a pleasant little inn, kept by a Frenchman and his wife, of old Spanish style, with its patio, or inner court, but as neat as an inn in Normandy or Brittany. We were sitting at coffee, around a little table, when in came the colonel of the garrison—for Concepcion is the second city in Paraguay. He told me that they had prepared a reception for me! I was in my rough hunting-clothes, but there was nothing to do but to accompany my kind hosts and trust to their good nature to pardon my shortcomings in the matter of dress. The colonel drove me about in a smart open carriage, with two good horses and a liveried driver. It was a much more fashionable turnout than would be seen in any of our cities save the largest, and even in them probably not in the service of a public official. In all the South American countries there is more pomp and ceremony in connection with public functions than with us, and at these functions the liveried servants, often with knee-breeches and powdered hair, are like those seen at similar European functions; there is not the democratic simplicity which better suits our own habits of life and ways of thought. But the South Americans often surpass us, not merely in pomp and ceremony but in what is of real importance, courtesy; in civility and courtesy we can well afford to take lessons from them.
We first visited the barracks, saw the troops in the setting-up exercises, and inspected the arms, the artillery, the equipment. There was a German lieutenant with the Paraguayan officers; one of several German officers who are now engaged in helping the Paraguayans with their army. The equipments and arms were in good condition; the enlisted men evidently offered fine material; and the officers were doing hard work. It is worth while for anti-militarists to ponder the fact that in every South American country where a really efficient army is developed, the increase in military efficiency goes hand in hand with a decrease in lawlessness and disorder, and a growing reluctance to settle internal disagreements by violence. They are introducing universal military service in Paraguay; the officers, many of whom have studied abroad, are growing to feel an increased esprit de corps, an increased pride in the army, and therefore a desire to see the army made the servant of the nation as a whole and not the tool of any faction or individual. If these feelings grow strong enough they will be powerful factors in giving Paraguay what she most needs, freedom from revolutionary disturbance and therefore the chance to achieve the material prosperity without which as a basis there can be no advance in other and even more important matters.
Then I was driven to the City Hall, accompanied by the intendente, or mayor, a German long settled in the country and one of the leading men of the city. There was a breakfast. When I had to speak I impressed into my service as interpreter a young Paraguayan who was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He was able to render into Spanish my ideas—on such subjects as orderly liberty and the far-reaching mischief done by the revolutionary habit—with clearness and vigor, because he thoroughly understood not only how I felt but also the American way of looking at such things. My hosts were hospitality itself, and I enjoyed the unexpected greeting.
We steamed on up the river. Now and then we passed another boat—a steamer, or, to my surprise, perhaps a barkentine or schooner. The Paraguay is a highway of traffic. Once we passed a big beef-canning factory. Ranches stood on either bank a few leagues apart, and we stopped at wood-yards on the west bank. Indians worked around them. At one such yard the Indians were evidently part of the regular force. Their squaws were with them, cooking at queer open-air ovens. One small child had as pets a parrot and a young coati—a kind of long-nosed raccoon. Loading wood, the Indians stood in a line, tossing the logs from one to the other. These Indians wore clothes.
On this day we got into the tropics. Even in the heat of the day the deck was pleasant under the awnings; the sun rose and set in crimson splendor; and the nights, with the moon at the full, were wonderful. At night Orion blazed overhead; and the Southern Cross hung in the star-brilliant heavens behind us. But after the moon rose the constellations paled; and clear in her light the tree-clad banks stood on either hand as we steamed steadily against the swirling current of the great river.
At noon on the twelfth we were at the Brazilian boundary. On this day we here and there came on low, conical hills close to the river. In places the palm groves broke through the belts of deciduous trees and stretched for a mile or so right along the river’s bank. At times we passed cattle on the banks or sand-bars, followed by their herders; or a handsome ranch-house, under a cluster of shady trees, some bearing a wealth of red and some a wealth of yellow blossoms; or we saw a horse-corral among the trees close to the brink, with the horses in it and a barefooted man in shirt and trousers leaning against the fence; or a herd of cattle among the palms; or a big tannery or factory or a little native hamlet came in sight. We stopped at one tannery. The owner was a Spaniard, the manager an “Orientál,” as he called himself, a Uruguayan, of German parentage. The peons, or workers, who lived in a long line of wooden cabins back of the main building, were mostly Paraguayans, with a few Brazilians, and a dozen German and Argentine foremen. There were also some wild Indians, who were camped in the usual squalid fashion of Indians who are hangers-on round the white man but have not yet adopted his ways. Most of the men were at work cutting wood for the tannery. The women and children were in camp. Some individuals of both sexes were naked to the waist. One little girl had a young ostrich as a pet.
Water-fowl were plentiful. We saw large flocks of wild muscovy ducks. Our tame birds come from this wild species and its absurd misnaming dates back to the period when the turkey and guinea-pig were misnamed in similar fashion—our European forefathers taking a large and hazy view of geography, and including Turkey, Guinea, India, and Muscovy as places which, in their capacity of being outlandish, could be comprehensively used as including America. The muscovy ducks were very good eating. Darters and cormorants swarmed. They waddled on the sand-bars in big flocks and crowded the trees by the water’s edge. Beautiful snow-white egrets also lit in the trees, often well back from the river. A full-foliaged tree of vivid green, its round surface crowded with these birds, as if it had suddenly blossomed with huge white flowers, is a sight worth seeing. Here and there on the sand-bars we saw huge jabiru storks, and once a flock of white wood-ibis among the trees on the bank.
On the Brazilian boundary we met a shallow river steamer carrying Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon and several other Brazilian members of the expedition. Colonel Rondon immediately showed that he was all, and more than all, that could be desired. It was evident that he knew his business thoroughly, and it was equally evident that he would be a pleasant companion. He was a classmate of Mr. Lauro Müller at the Brazilian Military Academy. He is of almost pure Indian blood, and is a Positivist—the Positivists are a really strong body in Brazil, as they are in France and indeed in Chile. The colonel’s seven children have all been formally made members of the Positivist Church in Rio Janeiro. Brazil possesses the same complete liberty in matters religious, spiritual, and intellectual as we, for our great good fortune, do in the United States, and my Brazilian companions included Catholics and equally sincere men who described themselves as “libres penseurs.” Colonel Rondon has spent the last twenty-four years in exploring the western highlands of Brazil, pioneering the way for telegraph-lines and railroads. During that time he has travelled some fourteen thousand miles, on territory most of which had not previously been traversed by civilized man, and has built three thousand miles of telegraph. He has an exceptional knowledge of the Indian tribes and has always zealously endeavored to serve them and indeed to serve the cause of humanity wherever and whenever he was able. Thanks mainly to his efforts, four of the wild tribes of the region he has explored have begun to tread the road of civilization. They have taken the first steps toward becoming Christians. It may seem strange that among the first-fruits of the efforts of a Positivist should be the conversion of those he seeks to benefit to Christianity. But in South America Christianity is at least as much a status as a theology. It represents the indispensable first step upward from savagery. In the wilder and poorer districts men are divided into the two great classes of “Christians” and “Indians.” When an Indian becomes a Christian he is accepted into and becomes wholly absorbed or partly assimilated by the crude and simple neighboring civilization, and then he moves up or down like any one else among his fellows.
Among Colonel Rondon’s companions were Captain Amilcar de Magalhães, Lieutenant João Lyra, Lieutenant Joaquin de Mello Filho, and Doctor Euzebio de Oliveira, a geologist.
The steamers halted; Colonel Rondon and several of his officers, spick and span in their white uniforms, came aboard; and in the afternoon I visited him on his steamer to talk over our plans. When these had been fully discussed and agreed on we took tea. I happened to mention that one of our naturalists, Miller, had been bitten by a piranha, and the man-eating fish at once became the subject of conversation. Curiously enough, one of the Brazilian taxidermists had also just been severely bitten by a piranha. My new companions had story after story to tell of them. Only three weeks previously a twelve-year-old boy who had gone in swimming near Corumbá was attacked, and literally devoured alive by them. Colonel Rondon during his exploring trips had met with more than one unpleasant experience in connection with them. He had lost one of his toes by the bite of a piranha. He was about to bathe and had chosen a shallow pool at the edge of the river, which he carefully inspected until he was satisfied that none of the maneating fish were in it; yet as soon as he put his foot into the water one of them attacked him and bit off a toe. On another occasion while wading across a narrow stream one of his party was attacked; the fish bit him on the thighs and buttocks, and when he put down his hands tore them also; he was near the bank and by a rush reached it and swung himself out of the water by means of an overhanging limb of a tree; but he was terribly injured, and it took him six months before his wounds healed and he recovered. An extraordinary incident occurred on another trip. The party were without food and very hungry. On reaching a stream they dynamited it, and waded in to seize the stunned fish as they floated on the surface. One man, Lieutenant Pyrineus, having his hands full, tried to hold one fish by putting its head into his mouth; it was a piranha and seemingly stunned, but in a moment it recovered and bit a big section out of his tongue. Such a hemorrhage followed that his life was saved with the utmost difficulty. On another occasion a member of the party was off by himself on a mule. The mule came into camp alone. Following his track back they came to a ford, where in the water they found the skeleton of the dead man, his clothes uninjured but every particle of flesh stripped from his bones. Whether he had drowned, and the fishes had then eaten his body, or whether they had killed him it was impossible to say. They had not hurt the clothes, getting in under them, which made it seem likely that there had been no struggle. These man-eating fish are a veritable scourge in the waters they frequent. But it must not be understood by this that the piranhas—or, for the matter of that, the New-World caymans and crocodiles—ever become such dreaded foes of man as for instance the man-eating crocodiles of Africa. Accidents occur, and there are certain places where swimming and bathing are dangerous; but in most places the people swim freely, although they are usually careful to find spots they believe safe or else to keep together and make a splashing in the water.
During his trips Colonel Rondon had met with various experiences with wild creatures. The Paraguayan caymans are not ordinarily dangerous to man; but they do sometimes become man-eaters and should be destroyed whenever the opportunity offers. The huge caymans and crocodiles of the Amazon are far more dangerous, and the colonel knew of repeated instances where men, women and children had become their victims. Once while dynamiting a stream for fish for his starving party he partially stunned a giant anaconda, which he killed as it crept slowly off. He said that it was of a size that no other anaconda he had ever seen even approached, and that in his opinion such a brute if hungry would readily attack a full-grown man. Twice smaller anacondas had attacked his dogs; one was carried under water—for the anaconda is a water-loving serpent—but he rescued it. One of his men was bitten by a jararaca; he killed the venomous snake, but was not discovered and brought back to camp until it was too late to save his life. The puma Colonel Rondon had found to be as cowardly as I have always found it, but the jaguar was a formidable beast, which occasionally turned man-eater, and often charged savagely when brought to bay. He had known a hunter to be killed by a jaguar he was following in thick grass cover.
All such enemies, however, he regarded as utterly trivial compared to the real dangers of the wilderness—the torment and menace of attacks by the swarming insects, by mosquitoes and the even more intolerable tiny gnats, by the ticks, and by the vicious poisonous ants which occasionally cause villages and even whole districts to be deserted by human beings. These insects, and the fevers they cause, and dysentery and starvation and wearing hardship and accidents in rapids are what the pioneer explorers have to fear. The conversation was to me most interesting. The colonel spoke French about to the extent I did; but of course he and the others preferred Portuguese; and then Kermit was the interpreter.
In the evening, soon after moonrise, we stopped for wood at the little Brazilian town of Porto Martinho. There are about twelve hundred inhabitants. Some of the buildings were of stone; a large private house with a castellated tower was of stone; there were shops, and a post-office, stores, a restaurant and billiard-hall, and warehouses for matté, of which much is grown in the region roundabout. Most of the houses were low, with overhanging, sloping caves; and there were gardens with high wal’s, inside of which trees rose, many of them fragrant. We wandered through the wide, dusty streets, and along the narrow sidewalks. It was a hot, still evening; the smell of the tropics was on the heavy December air. Through the open doors and windows we caught dim glimpses of the half-clad inmates of the poorer houses; women and young girls sat outside their thresholds in the moonlight. All whom we met were most friendly: the captain of the little Brazilian garrison; the intendente, a local trader; another trader and ranchman, a Uruguayan, who had just received his newspaper containing my speech in Montevideo, and who, as I gathered from what I understood of his rather voluble Spanish, was much impressed by my views on democracy, honesty, liberty, and order (rather well-worn topics); and a Catalan who spoke French, and who was accompanied by his pretty daughter, a dear little girl of eight or ten, who said with much pride that she spoke three languages—Brazilian, Spanish, and Catalan! Her father expressed strongly his desire for a church and for a school in the little city.
When at last the wood was aboard we resumed our journey. The river was like glass. In the white moonlight the palms on the edge of the banks stood mirrored in the still water. We sat forward and as we rounded the curves the long silver reaches of the great stream stretched ahead of us, and the ghostly outlines of hills rose in the distance. Here and there prairie fires burned, and the red glow warred with the moon’s radiance.
Next morning was overcast. Occasionally we passed a wood-yard, or factory, or cabin, now on the eastern, the Brazilian, now on the western, the Paraguayan, bank. The Paraguay was known to men of European birth, bore soldiers and priests and merchants as they sailed and rowed up and down the current of its stream, and beheld little towns and forts rise on its banks, long before the Mississippi had become the white man’s highway. Now, along its upper course, the settlements are much like those on the Mississippi at the end of the first quarter of the last century; and in the not distant future it will witness a burst of growth and prosperity much like that which the Mississippi saw when the old men of today were very young.
In the early forenoon we stopped at a little Paraguayan hamlet, nestling in the green growth under a group of low hills by the river-brink. On one of these hills stood a picturesque old stone fort, known as Fort Bourbon in the Spanish, the colonial, days. Now the Paraguayan flag floats over it, and it is garrisoned by a handful of Paraguayan soldiers. Here Father Zahm baptized two children, the youngest of a large family of fair-skinned, light-haired small people, whose father was a Paraguayan and the mother an “Orientál,” or Uruguayan. No priest had visited the village for three years, and the children were respectively one and two years of age. The sponsors included the local commandante and a married couple from Austria. In answer to what was supposed to be the perfunctory question whether they were Catholics, the parents returned the unexpected answer that they were not. Further questioning elicited the fact that the father called himself a “free-thinking Catholic,” and the mother said she was a “Protestant Catholic,” her mother having been a Protestant, the daughter of an immigrant from Normandy. However, it appeared that the older children had been baptized by the Bishop of Asuncion, so Father Zahm at the earnest request of the parents proceeded with the ceremony. They were good people; and, although they wished liberty to think exactly as they individually pleased, they also wished to be connected and to have their children connected with some church, by preference the church of the majority of their people. A very short experience of communities where there is no church ought to convince the most heterodox of the absolute need of a church. I earnestly wish that there could be such an increase in the personnel and equipment of the Catholic Church in South America as to permit the establishment of one good and earnest priest in every village or little community in the far interior. Nor is there any inconsistency between this wish and the further wish that there could be a marked extension and development of the native Protestant churches, such as I saw established here and there in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, and of the Y. M. C. Associations. The bulk of these good people who profess religion will continue to be Catholics, but the spiritual needs of a more or less considerable minority will best be met by the establishment of Protestant churches, or in places even of a Positivist Church or Ethical Culture Society. Not only is the establishment of such churches a good thing for the body politic as a whole, but a good thing for the Catholic Church itself; for their presence is a constant spur to activity and clean and honorable conduct, and a constant reflection on sloth and moral laxity. The government in each of these commonwealths is doing everything possible to further the cause of education, and the tendency is to treat education as peculiarly a function of government and to make it, where the government acts, non-sectarian, obligatory, and free—a cardinal doctrine of our own great democracy, to which we are committed by every principle of sound Americanism. There must be absolute religious liberty, for tyranny and intolerance are as abhorrent in matters intellectual and spiritual as in matters political and material; and more and more we must all realize that conduct is of infinitely greater importance than dogma. But no democracy can afford to overlook the vital importance of the ethical and spiritual, the truly religious, element in life; and in practice the average good man grows clearly to understand this, and to express the need in concrete form by saying that no community can make much headway if it does not contain both a church and a school.
We took breakfast—the eleven-o’clock Brazilian breakfast—on Colonel Rondon’s boat. Caymans were becoming more plentiful. The ugly brutes lay on the sand-flats and mud-banks like logs, always with the head raised, sometimes with the jaws open. They are often dangerous to domestic animals, and are always destructive to fish, and it is good to shoot them. I killed hafl a dozen, and missed nearly as many more—a throbbing boat does not improve one’s aim. We passed forests of palms that extended for leagues, and vast marshy meadows, where storks, herons, and ibis were gathered, with flocks of cormorants and darters on the sand-bars, and stilts, skimmers, and clouds of beautiful swaying terns in the foreground. About noon we passed the highest point which the old Spanish conquistadores and explorers, Irala and Ayolas, had reached in the course of their marvellous journeys in the first half of the sixteenth century—at a time when there was not a settlement in what is now the United States, and when hardly a single English sea captain had ventured so much as to cross the Atlantic.
By the following day the country on the east bank had become a vast marshy plain dotted here and there by tree-clad patches of higher land. The morning was rainy; a contrast to the fine weather we had hitherto encountered. We passed wood-yards and cattle-ranches. At one of the latter the owner, an Argentine of Irish parentage, who still spoke English with the accent of the land of his parents’ nativity, remarked that this was the first time the American flag had been seen on the upper Paraguay; for our gunboat carried it at the masthead. Early in the afternoon, having reached the part where both banks of the river were Brazlian territory, we came to the old colonial Portuguese fort of Coimbra. It stands where two steep hills rise, one on either side of the river, and it guards the water-gorge between them. It was captured by the Paraguayans in the war of nearly half a century ago. Some modern guns have been mounted, and there is a garrison of Brazilian troops. The white fort is perched on the hillside, where it clings and rises, terrace above terrace, with bastion and parapet and crenellated wall. At the foot of the hill, on the riverine plain, stretches the old-time village with its roofs of palm. In the village dwell several hundred souls, almost entirely the officers and soldiers and their families. There is one long street. The one-story, daub-and-wattle houses have low eaves and steep sloping roofs of palm-leaves or of split palm-trunks. Under one or two old but small trees there are rude benches; and for a part of the length of the street there is a rough stone sidewalk. A little graveyard, some of the tombs very old, stands at one end. As we passed down the street the wives and the swarming children of the garrison were at the doors and windows; there were women and girls with skins as fair as any in the northland, and others that were predominantly negro. Most were of intervening shades. All this was paralleled among the men; and the fusion of the colors was going on steadily.
Around the village black vultures were gathered. Not long before reaching it we passed some rounded green trees, their tops covered with the showy wood-ibis; at the same time we saw behind them, farther inland, other trees crowded with the more delicate forms of the shining white egrets.
The river now widened so that in places it looked like a long lake; it wound in every direction through the endless marshy plain, whose surface was broken here and there by low mountains. The splendor of the sunset I never saw surpassed. We were steaming east toward clouds of storm. The river ran, a broad highway of molten gold, into the flaming sky; the far-off mountains loomed purple across the marshes; belts of rich green, the river banks stood out on either side against the rose-hues of the rippling water; in front, as we forged steadily onward, hung the tropic night, dim and vast.
On December 15 we reached Corumbá. For three or four miles before it is reached the west bank, on which it stands, becomes high rocky ground, falling away into cliffs. The country roundabout was evidently well peopled. We saw gauchos, cattle-herders—the equivalent of our own cowboys—riding along the bank. Women were washing clothes, and their naked children bathing, on the shore; we were told that caymans and piranhas rarely ventured near a place where so much was going on, and that accidents generally occurred in ponds or lonely stretches of the river. Several steamers came out to meet us, and accompanied us for a dozen miles, with bands playing and the passengers cheering, just as if we were nearing some town on the Hudson.
Corumbá is on a steep hillside, with wide, roughly paved streets, some of them lined with beautiful trees that bear scarlet flowers, and with well-built houses, most of them of one story, some of two or three stories. We were greeted with a reception by the municipal council, and were given a state dinner. The hotel, kept by an Italian, was as comfortable as possible—stone floors, high ceilings, big windows and doors, a cool, open courtyard, and a shower-bath. Of course Corumbá is still a frontier town. The vehicles ox-carts and mule-carts; there are no carriages; and oxen as well as mules are used for riding. The water comes from a big central well; around it the water-carts gather, and their contents are then peddled around at the different houses. The families showed the mixture of races characteristic of Brazil; one mother, after the children had been photographed in their ordiary costume, begged that we return and take them in their Sunday clothes, which was accordingly done. In a year the railway from Rio will reach Corumbá; and then this city, and the country roundabout, will see much development.
At this point we rejoined the rest of the party, and very glad we were to see them. Cherrie and Miller had already collected some eight hundred specimens of mammals and birds.