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- Equinoctial Regions of America V2 - 60/97 -


(* Rays, on account of the pretended analogy with the fish of this name, the mouth of which seems as if forced downwards below the body. This singular legend has been spread far and wide over the earth. Shakespeare has described Othello as recounting marvellous tales:

"of cannibals that do each other eat: Of Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.")

An old Indian, whom we met at Carichana, and who boasted of having often eaten human flesh, had seen these acephali "with his own eyes." These absurd fables are spread as far as the Llanos, where you are not always permitted to doubt the existence of the Raya Indians. In every zone intolerance accompanies credulity; and it might be said that the fictions of ancient geographers had passed from one hemisphere to the other, did we not know that the most fantastic productions of the imagination, like the works of nature, furnish everywhere a certain analogy of aspect and of form.

We landed at the mouth of the Rio Vichada or Visata to examine the plants of that part of the country. The scenery is very singular. The forest is thin, and an innumerable quantity of small rocks rise from the plain. These form massy prisms, ruined pillars, and solitary towers fifteen or twenty feet high. Some are shaded by the trees of the forest, others have their summits crowned with palms. These rocks are of granite passing into gneiss. At the confluence of the Vichada the rocks of granite, and what is still more remarkable, the soil itself, are covered with moss and lichens. These latter resemble the Cladonia pyxidata and the Lichen rangiferinus, so common in the north of Europe. We could scarcely persuade ourselves that we were elevated less than one hundred toises above the level of the sea, in the fifth degree of latitude, in the centre of the torrid zone, which has so long been thought to be destitute of cryptogamous plants. The mean temperature of this shady and humid spot probably exceeds twenty-six degrees of the centigrade thermometer. Reflecting on the small quantity of rain which had hitherto fallen, we were surprised at the beautiful verdure of the forests. This peculiarity characterises the valley of the Upper Orinoco; on the coast of Caracas, and in the Llanos, the trees in winter (in the season called summer in South America, north of the equator) are stripped of their leaves, and the ground is covered only with yellow and withered grass. Between the solitary rocks just described arise some high plants of columnar cactus (Cactus septemangularis), a very rare appearance south of the cataracts of Atures and Maypures.

Amid this picturesque scene M. Bonpland was fortunate enough to find several specimens of Laurus cinnamomoides, a very aromatic species of cinnamon, known at the Orinoco by the names of varimacu and of canelilla.* (* The diminutive of the Spanish word canela, which signifies cinnamon.) This valuable production is found also in the valley of the Rio Caura, as well as near Esmeralda, and eastward of the Great Cataracts. The Jesuit Francisco de Olmo appears to have been the first who discovered the canelilla, which he did in the country of the Piaroas, near the sources of the Cataniapo. The missionary Gili, who did not advance so far as the regions I am now describing, seems to confound the varimacu, or guarimacu, with the myristica, or nutmeg-tree of America. These barks and aromatic fruits, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the Myrtus pimenta, and the Laurus pucheri, would have become important objects of trade, if Europe, at the period of the discovery of the New World, had not already been accustomed to the spices and aromatics of India. The cinnamon of the Orinoco, and that of the Andaquies missions, are, however, less aromatic than the cinnamon of Ceylon, and would still be so even if dried and prepared by similar processes.

Every hemisphere produces plants of a different species; and it is not by the diversity of climates that we can attempt to explain why equinoctial Africa has no laurels, and the New World no heaths; why calceolariae are found wild only in the southern hemisphere; why the birds of the East Indies glow with colours less splendid than those of the hot parts of America; finally, why the tiger is peculiar to Asia, and the ornithorynchus to Australia. In the vegetable as well as in the animal kingdom, the causes of the distribution of the species are among the mysteries which natural philosophy cannot solve. The attempts made to explain the distribution of various species on the globe by the sole influence of climate, take their date from a period when physical geography was still in its infancy; when, recurring incessantly to pretended contrasts between the two worlds, it was imagined that the whole of Africa and of America resembled the deserts of Egypt and the marshes of Cayenne. At present, when men judge of the state of things not from one type arbitrarily chosen, but from positive knowledge, it is ascertained that the two continents, in their immense extent, contain countries that are altogether analogous. There are regions of America as barren and burning as the interior of Africa. Those islands which produce the spices of India are scarcely remarkable for their dryness; and it is not on account of the humidity of the climate, as has been affirmed in recent works, that the New Continent is deprived of those fine species of lauriniae and myristicae, which are found united in one little corner of the earth in the archipelago of India. For some years past cinnamon has been cultivated with success in several parts of the New Continent; and a zone that produces the coumarouna, the vanilla, the pucheri, the pine-apple, the pimento, the balsam of tolu, the Myroxylon peruvianum, the croton, the citroma, the pejoa, the incienso of the Silla of Caracas, the quereme, the pancratium, and so many majestic liliaceous plants, cannot be considered as destitute of aromatics. Besides, a dry air favours the development of the aromatic or exciting properties, only in certain species of plants. The most inveterate poisons are produced in the most humid zone of America; and it is precisely under the influence of the long rains of the tropics that the American pimento (Capsicum baccatum), the fruit of which is often as caustic and fiery as Indian pepper, vegetates best. From all these considerations it follows, first, that the New Continent possesses spices, aromatics, and very active vegetable poisons, peculiar to itself, and differing specifically from those of the Old World; secondly, that the primitive distribution of species in the torrid zone cannot be explained by the influence of climate solely, or by the distribution of temperature, which we observe in the present state of our planet; but that this difference of climates leads us to perceive why a given type of organization develops itself more vigorously in such or such local circumstances. We can conceive that a small number of the families of plants, for instance the musaceae and the palms, cannot belong to very cold regions, on account of their internal structure, and the importance of certain organs; but we cannot explain why no one of the family of the Melastomaceae vegetates north of the parallel of the thirtieth degree of latitude, or why no rose-tree belongs to the southern hemisphere. Analogy of climates is often found in the two continents, without identity of productions.

The Rio Vichada, which has a small raudal at its confluence with the Orinoco, appeared to me, next to the Meta and the Guaviare, to be the most considerable river coming from the west. During the last forty years no European has navigated the Vichada. I could learn nothing of its sources; they rise, I believe, with those of the Tomo, in the plains that extend to the south of Casimena. Fugitive Indians of Santa Rosalia de Cabapuna, a village situate on the banks of the Meta, have arrived even recently, by the Rio Vichada, at the cataract of Maypures; which sufficiently proves that the sources of this river are not very distant from the Meta. Father Gumilla has preserved the names of several German and Spanish Jesuits, who in 1734 fell victims to their zeal for religion, by the hands of the Caribs on the now desert banks of the Vichada.

Having passed the Cano Pirajavi on the east, and then a small river on the west, which issues, as the Indians say, from a lake called Nao, we rested for the night on the shore of the Orinoco, at the mouth of the Zama, a very considerable river, but as little known as the Vichada. Notwithstanding the black waters of the Zama, we suffered greatly from insects. The night was beautiful, without a breath of wind in the lower regions of the atmosphere, but towards two in the morning we saw thick clouds crossing the zenith rapidly from east to west. When, declining toward the horizon, they traversed the great nebulae of Sagittarius and the Ship, they appeared of a dark blue. The light of the nebulae is never more splendid than when they are in part covered by sweeping clouds. We observe the same phenomenon in Europe in the Milky Way, in the aurora borealis when it beams with a silvery light; and at the rising and setting of the sun in that part of the sky that is whitened* from causes which philosophers have not yet sufficiently explained. (* The dawn: in French aube (alba, albente coelo.))

The vast tract of country lying between the Meta, the Vichada, and the Guaviare, is altogether unknown a league from the banks; but it is believed to be inhabited by wild Indians of the tribe of Chiricoas, who fortunately build no boats. Formerly, when the Caribs, and their enemies the Cabres, traversed these regions with their little fleets of rafts and canoes, it would have been imprudent to have passed the night near the mouth of a river running from the west. The little settlements of the Europeans having now caused the independent Indians to retire from the banks of the Upper Orinoco, the solitude of these regions is such, that from Carichana to Javita, and from Esmeralda to San Fernando de Atabapo, during a course of one hundred and eighty leagues, we did not meet a single boat.

At the mouth of the Rio Zama we approach a class of rivers, that merits great attention. The Zama, the Mataveni, the Atabapo, the Tuamini, the Temi, and the Guainia, are aguas negras, that is, their waters, seen in a large body, appear brown like coffee, or of a greenish black. These waters, notwithstanding, are most beautiful, clear, and agreeable to the taste. I have observed above, that the crocodiles, and, if not the zancudos, at least the mosquitos, generally shun the black waters. The people assert too, that these waters do not colour the rocks; and that the white rivers have black borders, while the black rivers have white. In fact, the shores of the Guainia, known to Europeans by the name of the Rio Negro, frequently exhibit masses of quartz issuing from granite, and of a dazzling whiteness. The waters of the Mataveni, when examined in a glass, are pretty white; those of the Atabapo retain a slight tinge of yellowish-brown. When the least breath of wind agitates the surface of these black rivers they appear of a fine grass-green, like the lakes of Switzerland. In the shade, the Zama, the Atabapo, and the Guainia, are as dark as coffee-grounds. These phenomena are so striking, that the Indians everywhere distinguish the waters by the terms black and white. The former have often served me for an artificial horizon; they reflect the image of the stars with admirable clearness.

The colour of the waters of springs, rivers, and lakes, ranks among those physical problems which it is difficult, if not impossible, to solve by direct experiments. The tints of reflected light are generally very different from the tints of transmitted light; particularly when the transmission takes place through a great portion of fluid. If there were no absorption of rays, the transmitted light would be of a colour corresponding with that of the reflected light; and in general we judge imperfectly of transmitted light, by filling with water a shallow glass with a narrow aperture. In a river, the colour of the reflected light comes to us always from the interior strata of the fluid, and not from the upper stratum.

Some celebrated naturalists, who have examined the purest waters of the glaciers, and those which flow from mountains covered with perpetual snow, where the earth is destitute of the relics of


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