The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 101/An Amazonian Picnic

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AN AMAZONIAN PICNIC.

IT was about half past six o'clock on the morning of the 27th of October, 1865, that we left Manaos, (or as the maps usually call it, Barra do Rio Negro,) on an excursion to the Lake of Hyanuary, on the western side of the Rio Negro. The morning was unusually fresh for these latitudes, and a strong wind was blowing up so heavy a sea in the river, that, if it did not actually make one sea-sick, it certainly called up very vivid and painful associations. We were in a large eight-oared custom-house barge, our company consisting of his Excellency, Dr. Epaminondas, President of the Province,[1] his secretary, Senhor Codicera, Senhor Tavares Bastos, the distinguished young deputy from the Province of Alagoas, Major Coutinho, of the Brazilian Engineer Service, Mr. Agassiz and myself, Mr. Bourkhardt, his artist, and two of our volunteer assistants. We were preceded by a smaller boat, an Indian montaria, in which was our friend and kind host, Senhor Honorio, who had undertaken to provide for our creature comforts, and had the care of a boatful of provisions. After an hour's row we left the rough waters of the Rio Negro, and rounding a wooded point, turned into one of those narrow, winding igarapés (literally, "boat-paths"), with green forest walls, which make the charm of canoe excursions in this country. A ragged drapery of long, faded grass hung from the lower branches of the trees, marking the height of the last rise of the river,—some eighteen or twenty feet above its present level. Here and there a white heron stood on the shore, his snowy plumage glittering in the sunlight; numbers of ciganas (the pheasants of the Amazons) clustered in the bushes; once a pair of king vultures rested for a moment within gunshot, but flew out of sight as our canoe approached; and now and then an alligator showed his head above water. As we floated along through this picturesque channel, so characteristic of the wonderful region to which we were all more or less strangers,—for even Dr. Epaminondas and Senhor Tavares Bastos were here for the first time,—the conversation turned naturally enough upon the nature of this Amazonian Valley, its physical conformation, its origin and resources, its history past and to come, both alike and obscure, both the subject of wonder and speculation. Senhor Tavares Bastos, although not yet thirty, is already distinguished in the politics of his country; and from the moment he entered upon public life to the present time, the legislation in regard to the Amazons, its relation to the future progress and development of the Brazilian empire, has been the object of his deepening interest. He is a leader in that class of men who advocate the most liberal policy in this matter, and has already urged upon his countrymen the importance, even from selfish motives, of sharing their great treasure with the world. He was little more than twenty years of age when he published his papers on the opening of the Amazons, which have done more, perhaps, than anything else of late years to attract attention to the subject.

There are points where the researches of the statesman and the investigator meet, and natural science is not without its influence, even on the practical bearings of this question. Shall this region be legislated for as sea or land? Shall the interests of agriculture or navigation prevail in its councils? Is it essentially aquatic or terrestrial? Such were some of the inquiries which came up in the course of the discussion. A region of country which stretches across a whole continent, and is flooded for half the year, where there can never be railroads, or highways, or even pedestrian travelling, to any great extent, can hardly be considered as dry land. It is true that, in this oceanic river system, the tidal action has an annual, instead of a daily, ebb and flow; that its rise and fall obey a larger light, and are regulated by the sun, and not the moon; but it is nevertheless subject to all the conditions of a submerged district, and must be treated as such. Indeed, these semiannual changes of level are far more powerful in their influence on the life of the inhabitants than any marine tides. People sail half the year over districts where, for the other half, they walk, though hardly dry-shod, over the soaked ground; their occupations, their dress, their habits, are modified in accordance with the dry and wet seasons. And not only the ways of life, but the whole aspect of the country, the character of the landscape, are changed. At this moment there are two most picturesque falls in the neighborhood of Manaos,—the Great and Little Cascades, as they are called,—favorite resorts for bathing, picnics, etc., which, in a few months, when the river shall have risen above their highest level, will have completely disappeared. Their bold rocks and shady nooks will have become river-bottom. All that one hears or reads of the extent of the Amazons and its tributaries does not give one an idea of its immensity as a whole. One must float for months upon its surface, in order to understand how fully water has the mastery over land along its borders. Its watery labyrinth is not so much a network of rivers, as an ocean of fresh water cut up and divided by land, the land being often nothing more than an archipelago of islands in its midst. The valley of the Amazons is indeed an aquatic, not a terrestrial, basin; and it is not strange, when looked upon from this point of view, that its forests should be less full of life, comparatively, than its rivers.

But while we were discussing these points, talking of the time when the banks of the Amazons will teem with a population more active and vigorous than any it has yet seen,—when all civilized nations shall share in its wealth,—when the twin continents will shake hands, and Americans of the North come to help Americans of the South in developing its resources,—when it will be navigated from north to south, as well as from east to west, and small steamers will run up to the head-waters of all its tributaries,—while we were speculating on these things, we were approaching the end of our journey; and, as we neared the lake, there issued from its entrance a small, two-masted canoe, evidently bound on some official mission, for it carried the Brazilian flag, and was adorned with many brightly colored streamers. As it drew near we heard music; and a salvo of rockets, the favorite Brazilian artillery on all festive occasions, whether by day or night, shot up into the air. Our arrival had been announced by Dr. Carnavaro of Manaos, who had come out the day before to make some preparations for our reception, and this was a welcome to the President on his first visit to the Indian village. When they came within speaking distance, a succession of hearty cheers went up for the President; for Tavares Bastos, whose character as the political advocate of the Amazons makes him especially welcome here; for Major Coutinho, already well known from his former explorations in this region; and for the strangers within their gates,—for the Professor and his party. When the reception was over, they fell into line behind our boat, and so we came into the little port with something of state and ceremony.

This pretty Indian village is hardly recognized as a village at once, for it consists of a number of sitios (palm-thatched houses), scattered through the forest; and though the inhabitants look on each other as friends and neighbors, yet from our landing-place only one sitio was to be seen,—that at which we were to stay. It stood on a hill which sloped gently up from the lake shore, and consisted of a mud house,—the rough frame being filled in and plastered with mud,—containing two rooms, beside several large palm-thatched sheds outside. The word shed, which we connect with a low, narrow out-house, gives no correct idea, however, of this kind of structure, universal throughout the Indian settlements, and common also among the whites. The space enclosed is generally large, the sloping roof of palm-thatch is lifted very high on poles made of the trunks of trees, thus allowing a free circulation of air, and there are usually no walls at all. They are great open porches, or verandas, rather than sheds. One of these rooms was used for the various processes by which the mandioca root is transformed into farinha, tapioca, and tucupi, a kind of intoxicating liquor. It was furnished with the large clay ovens, covered with immense shallow copper pans, for drying the farinha, with the troughs for kneading the mandioca, the long straw tubes for expressing the juice, and the sieves for straining the tapioca. The mandioca room is an important part of every Indian sitio; for the natives not only depend, in a great degree, upon the different articles manufactured from this root for their own food, but it makes an essential part of the commerce of the Amazons. Another of these open rooms was a kitchen; while a third, which served as our dining-room, is used on festa days and occasional Sundays as a chapel. It differed from the rest in having the upper end closed in with a neat thatched wall, against which, in time of need, the altar-table may stand, with candles and rough prints or figures of the Virgin and Saints. A little removed from this more central part of the establishment was another smaller mud house, where most of the party arranged their hammocks; Mr. Agassiz and myself being accommodated in the other one, where we were very hospitably received by the senhora of the sitio, an old Indian woman, whose gold ornaments, necklace, and ear-rings were rather out of keeping with her calico skirt and cotton waist. This is, however, by no means an unusual combination here. Beside the old lady, the family consisted, at this moment, of her afilhada (god-daughter), with her little boy, and several other women employed about the place; but it is difficult to judge of the population of the sitios now, because a great number of the men have been taken as recruits for the war with Paraguay, and others are hiding in the forest for fear of being pressed into the same service.

The breakfast-table, covered with dishes of fish fresh from the lake, and dressed in a variety of ways, with stewed chicken, rice, etc., was by no means an unwelcome sight, as it was already eleven o'clock, and we had had nothing since rising, at half past five in the morning, except a hot cup of coffee; nor was the meal the less appetizing that it was spread under the palm-thatched roof of our open, airy dining-room, surrounded by the forest, and commanding a view of the lake and wooded hillside opposite, the little landing below, where were moored our barge with its white awning, the gay canoe, and two or three Indian montarias, making the foreground of the picture. After breakfast our party dispersed, some to rest in their hammocks, others to hunt or fish, while Mr. Agassiz was fully engaged in examining a large basket of fish,—Tucunarés, Acaras, Curimatas, Surubims, etc.,—just brought in from the lake for his inspection, and showing again what every investigation demonstrates afresh, namely, the distinct localization of species in every different water-basin, be it river, lake, igarapé, or forest pool. Though the scientific results of the expedition have no place in this little sketch of a single excursion, let me make a general statement as to Mr. Agassiz's collections, to give you some idea of his success. Since arriving in Pará, although his exploration of the Amazonian waters is but half completed, he has collected more species than were known to exist in the whole world fifty years ago. Up to this time, something more than a hundred species of fish were known to science from the Amazons;[2] Mr. Agassiz has already more than eight hundred on hand, and every day adds new treasures. He is himself astonished at this result, revealing a richness and variety in the distribution of life throughout these waters of which he had formed no conception. As his own attention has been especially directed to their localization and development, his collection of fishes is larger than any other; still, with the help of his companions, volunteers as well as regular assistants, he has a good assortment of specimens from all the other classes of the animal kingdom likewise.

One does not see much of the world between one o'clock and four in this climate. These are the hottest hours of the day, and there are few who can resist the temptation of the cool swinging hammock, slung in some shady spot within doors or without. I found a quiet retreat by the lake shore, where, though I had a book in my hand, the wind in the trees overhead, and the water rippling softly around the montarias moored at my side, lulled me into that mood of mind when one may be lazy without remorse or ennui, and one's highest duty seems to be to do nothing. The monotonous notes of a violon, a kind of lute or guitar, came to me from a group of trees at a little distance, where our boatmen were resting in the shade, the red fringes of their hammocks giving to the landscape just the bit of color which it needed. Occasionally a rustling flight of paroquets or ciganas overhead startled me for a moment, or a large pirarucu plashed out of the water; but except for these sounds, Nature was silent, and animals as well as men seemed to pause in the heat and seek shelter.

Dinner brought us all together again at the close of the afternoon in our airy banqueting-hall. As we were with the President, our picnic was of a much more magnificent character than are our purely scientific excursions, of which we have had many. On such occasions, we are forced to adapt our wants to our means; and the make-shifts to which we are obliged to resort, if they are sometimes inconvenient, are often very amusing. But now, instead of teacups doing duty as tumblers, empty barrels serving as chairs, and the like incongruities, we had a silver soup tureen and a cook and a waiter, and knives and forks enough to go round, and many other luxuries which such wayfarers as ourselves learn to do without. While we were dining, the Indians began to come in from the surrounding forest to pay their respects to the President; for his visit was the cause of great rejoicing, and there was to be a ball in his honor in the evening. They brought an enormous cluster of game as an offering. What a mass of color it was, looking more like an immense bouquet of flowers than like a bunch of birds! It was composed entirely of toucans with their red and yellow beaks, blue eyes, and soft white breasts bordered with crimson, and of parrots, or papagaios, as they call them here, with their gorgeous plumage of green, blue, purple, and red.

When we had dined we took coffee outside, while our places around the table were filled by the Indian guests, who were to have a dinner-party in their turn. It was pleasant to see with how much courtesy several of the Brazilian gentlemen of our party waited upon these Indian senhoras, passing them a variety of dishes, helping them to wine, and treating them with as much attention as if they had been the highest ladies of the land. They seemed, however, rather shy and embarrassed, scarcely touching the nice things placed before them, till one of the gentlemen who has lived a good deal among the Indians, and knows their habits perfectly, took the knife and fork from one of them, exclaiming,—"Make no ceremony, and don't be ashamed; eat with your fingers, all of you, as you're accustomed to do, and then you'll find your appetites and enjoy your dinner." His advice was followed; and I must say they seemed much more comfortable in consequence, and did better justice to the good fare. Although the Indians who live in the neighborhood of the towns have seen too much of the conventionalities of civilization not to understand the use of a knife and fork, no Indian will eat with one if he can help it; and, strange to say, there are many of the whites in the upper Amazonian settlements who have adopted the same habits. I have dined with Brazilian senhoras of good class and condition, belonging to the gentry of the land, who, although they provided a very nice service for their guests, used themselves only the implements with which Nature had provided them.

When the dinner was over, the room was cleared of the tables, and swept; the music, consisting of a guitar, flute, and violin, called in; and the ball was opened. At first the forest belles were rather shy in the presence of strangers; but they soon warmed up, and began to dance with more animation. They were all dressed in calico or muslin skirts, with loose white cotton waists, finished around the neck with a kind of lace they make themselves by drawing out the threads from cotton or cambric so as to form an open pattern, sewing those which remain over and over to secure them. Much of this lace is quite elaborate, and very fine. Many of them had their hair dressed either with white jessamine or with roses stuck into their round combs, and several wore gold beads and ear-rings. Some of the Indian dances are very pretty; but one thing is noticeable, at least in all that I have seen. The man makes all the advances, while the woman is coy and retiring, her movements being very languid. Her partner throws himself at her feet, but does not elicit a smile or a gesture; he stoops, and pretends to be fishing, making motions as if he were drawing her in with a line; he dances around her, snapping his fingers as though playing on the castanets, and half encircling her with his arms; but she remains reserved and cold. Now and then they join together in something like a waltz; but this is only occasionally, and for a moment. How different from the negro dances, of which we saw many in the neighborhood of Rio! In those the advances come chiefly from the women, and are not always of a very modest character.

The moon was shining brightly over lake and forest, and the ball was gayer than ever, at ten o'clock, when I went to my room, or rather to the room where my hammock was slung, and which I shared with Indian women and children, with a cat and her family of kittens, who slept on the edge of my mosquito-net, and made frequent inroads upon the inside, with hens and chickens and sundry dogs, who went in and out at will. The music and dancing, the laughter and talking outside, continued till the small hours. Every now and then an Indian girl would come in to rest for a while, take a nap in a hammock, and then return to the dance. When we first arrived in South America, we could hardly have slept soundly under such circumstances; but one soon becomes accustomed, on the Amazons, to sleeping in rooms with mud floors and mud walls, or with no walls at all, where rats and birds and bats rustle about in the thatch over one's head, and all sorts of unwonted noises in the night remind you that you are by no means the sole occupant of your apartment. This remark does not apply to the towns, where the houses are comfortable enough; but if you attempt to go off the beaten track, to make canoe excursions, and see something of the forest population, you must submit to these inconveniences. There is one thing, however, which makes it far pleasanter to lodge in the Indian houses here than in the houses of our poorer class at home. One is quite independent in the matter of bedding; no one travels without his own hammock and the net which in many places is a necessity on account of the mosquitoes. Beds and bedding are almost unknown here; and there are none so poor as not to possess two or three of the strong and neat twine hammocks made by the Indians themselves from the fibres of the palm. Then the open character of their houses, as well as the personal cleanliness of the Indians, makes the atmosphere fresher and purer there than in the houses of our poor. However untidy they may be in other respects, they always bathe once or twice a day, if not oftener, and wash their clothes frequently. We have never yet entered an Indian house where there was any disagreeable odor, unless it might be the peculiar smell from the preparation of the mandioca in the working-room outside, which has, at a certain stage in the process, a slightly sour smell. We certainly could not say as much for many houses where we have lodged when travelling in the West, or even "Down East," where the suspicious look of the bedding and the close air of the room often make one doubtful about the night's rest.

We were up at five o'clock; for the morning hours are very precious in this climate, and the Brazilian day begins with the dawn. At six o'clock we had had coffee, and were ready for the various projects suggested for our amusement. Our sportsmen were already in the forest; others had gone off on a fishing excursion in a montaria; and I joined a party on a visit to a sitio higher up the lake. Mr. Agassiz, as has been constantly the case throughout our journey, was obliged to deny himself all these parties of pleasure; for the novelty and variety of the species of fish brought in kept him and his artist constantly at work. In this climate the process of decomposition goes on so rapidly, that, unless the specimens are attended to at once, they are lost; and the paintings must be made while they are quite fresh, in order to give any idea of their vividness of tint. We therefore left Mr. Agassiz busy with the preparation of his collections, and Mr. Bourkhardt painting, while we went up the lake through a strange, half-aquatic, half-terrestrial region, where the land seemed hardly redeemed from the water. Groups of trees rose directly from the lake, their roots hidden below its surface, while numerous blackened and decayed trunks stood up from the water in all sorts of picturesque and fantastic forms. Sometimes the trees had thrown down from their branches those singular aerial roots so common here, and seemed standing on stilts. Here and there, when we coasted along by the bank, we had a glimpse into the deeper forest, with its drapery of lianas and various creeping vines, and its parasitic sipos twining close around the trunks, or swinging themselves from branch to branch like loose cordage. But usually the margin of the lake was a gently sloping bank, covered with a green so vivid and yet so soft that it seemed as if the earth had been born afresh in its six months' baptism, and had come out like a new creation. Here and there a palm lifted its head above the line of the forest, especially the light, graceful Assai palm, with its tall, slender, smooth stem and crown of feathery leaves vibrating with every breeze.

Half an hour's row brought us to the landing of the sitio for which we were bound. Usually the sitios stand on the bank of the lake or river, a stone's throw from the shore, for convenience of fishing, bathing, etc. But this one was at some distance, with a very nicely-kept winding path leading through the forest; and as it was far the neatest and prettiest sitio I have seen here, I may describe it more at length. It stood on the brow of a hill which dipped down on the other side into a wide and deep ravine. Through this ravine ran an igarapé, beyond which the land rose again in an undulating line of hilly ground, most refreshing to the eye after the flat character of the upper Amazonian scenery. The fact that this sitio, standing now on a hill overlooking the valley and the little stream at its bottom, will have the water nearly flush with the ground around it when the igarapé is swollen by the rise of the river, gives an idea of the change of aspect between the dry and wet seasons. The establishment consisted of a number of buildings, the most conspicuous of which was a large and lofty open room, which the Indian senhora told me was their reception-room, and was often used, she said, by the brancos (whites) from Manaos and the neighborhood for an evening dance, when they came out in a large company, and passed the night. A low wall, some three or four feet in height, ran along the sides of this room, wooden benches being placed against them for their whole length. The two ends were closed from top to bottom by very neat thatched walls; the palm-thatch here, when it is made with care, being exceedingly pretty, fine, and smooth, and of a soft straw color. At the upper end stood an immense embroidery-frame, looking as if it might have served for Penelope's web, but in which was stretched an unfinished hammock of palm-thread, the senhora's work. She sat down on the low stool before it, and worked a little for my benefit, showing me how the two layers of transverse threads were kept apart by a thick, polished piece of wood, something like a long, broad ruler. Through the opening thus made the shuttle is passed with the cross-thread, which is then pushed down and straightened in its place by means of the same piece of wood.

When we arrived, with the exception of the benches I have mentioned and a few of the low wooden stools roughly cut out of a single piece of wood and common in every sitio, this room was empty; but immediately a number of hammocks, of various color and texture, were brought and slung across the room from side to side, between the poles supporting the roof, and we were invited to rest. This is the first act of hospitality on arriving at a country-house here; and the guests are soon stretched in every attitude of luxurious ease. After we had rested, the gentlemen went down to the igarapé to bathe, while the senhora and her daughter, a very pretty Indian woman, showed me over the rest of the establishment. She had the direction of everything now; for the master of the house was absent, having a captain's commission in the army; and I heard here the same complaints which meet you everywhere in the forest settlements, of the deficiency of men on account of the recruiting. The room I have described stood on one side of a cleared and neatly swept ground, around which, at various distances, stood a number of little thatched houses,—casinhas, as they call them,—consisting mostly only of one room. But beside these there was one larger house, with mud walls and floor, containing two or three rooms, and having a wooden veranda in front. This was the senhora's private establishment. At a little distance farther down on the hill was the mandioca kitchen, with several large ovens, troughs, etc. Nothing could be neater than the whole area of this sitio; and while we were there, two or three black girls were sent out to sweep it afresh with their stiff twig brooms. Around was the plantation of mandioca and cacao, with here and there a few coffee-shrubs. It is difficult to judge of the extent of these sitio plantations, because they are so irregular, and comprise such a variety of trees,—mandioca, coffee, cacao, and often cotton, being planted pellmell together. But every sitio has its plantation, large or small, of one or other or all of these productions.

On the return of the gentlemen from the igarapé, we took leave, though very kindly pressed to stay and breakfast. At parting, the senhora presented me with a wicker-basket of fresh eggs, and some abacatys, or alligator pears, as we call them. We reached the house just in time for a ten-o'clock breakfast, which assembled all the different parties once more from their various occupations, whether of work or play. The sportsmen returned from the forest, bringing a goodly supply of toucans, papagaios, and paroquets, with a variety of other birds; and the fishermen brought in treasures again for Mr. Agassiz.

After breakfast I retired to the room where we had passed the night, hoping to find a quiet time for writing up letters and journal. But it was already occupied by the old senhora and her guests, lounging about in the hammocks or squatting on the floor and smoking their pipes. The house was, indeed, full to overflowing, as the whole party assembled for the ball were to stay during the President's visit. In this way of living it is an easy matter to accommodate any number of people; for if they cannot all be received under the roof, they are quite as well satisfied to put up their hammocks under the trees outside. As I went to my room the evening before, I stopped to look at quite a pretty picture of an Indian mother with her two little children asleep on either arm, all in one hammock, in the open air.

My Indian friends were too much interested in my occupations to allow of my continuing them uninterruptedly. They were delighted with my books, (I happened to have Bates's "Naturalist on the Amazons" with me, in which I showed them some pictures of Amazonian scenery and insects,) and asked me many questions about my country, my voyage, and my travels here. In return, they gave me much information about their own way of life. They said the present gathering of neighbors and friends was no unusual occurrence; for they have a great many festas which, though partly religious in character, are also occasions of great festivity. These festas are celebrated at different sitios in turn, the saint of the day being carried, with all his ornaments, candles, bouquets, etc., to the house where the ceremony is to take place, and where all the people of the the village congregate. Sometimes they last for several days, and are accompanied by processions, music, and dances in the evening. But the women said the forest was very sad now, because their men had all been taken as recruits, or were seeking safety in the woods. The old senhora told me a sad story of the brutality exercised in recruiting the Indians. She assured me that they were taken wherever they were caught, without reference to age or circumstances, often having women and children dependent upon them; and, if they made resistance, were carried off by force, frequently handcuffed, or with heavy weights attached to their feet. Such proceedings are entirely illegal; but these forest villages are so remote, that the men employed to recruit may practise any cruelty without being called to account for it. If they bring in their recruits in good condition, no questions are asked. These women assured me that all the work of the sitios—the making of farinha, the fishing, the turtle-hunting—was stopped for want of hands. The appearance of things certainly confirms this, for one sees scarcely any men about in the villages, and the canoes one meets are mostly rowed by women.

I must say that the life of the Indian woman, so far as we have seen it, and this is by no means the only time that we have been indebted to Indians for hospitality, seems to me enviable in comparison with that of the Brazilian lady in the Amazonian towns. The former has a healthful out-of-door life; she has her canoe on the lake or river, and her paths through the forest, with perfect liberty to come and go; she has her appointed daily occupations, being busy not only with the care of her house and children, but in making farinha or tapioca, or in drying and rolling tobacco, while the men are fishing and turtle-hunting; and she has her frequent festa days to enliven her working life. It is, on the contrary, impossible to imagine anything more dreary and monotonous than the life of the Brazilian senhora in any of the smaller towns. In the northern provinces, especially, old Portuguese notions about shutting women up and making their home-life as colorless as that of a cloistered nun, without even the element of religious enthusiasm to give it zest, still prevail. Many a Brazilian lady passes day after day without stirring beyond her four walls, scarcely even showing herself at the door or window; for she is always in a careless dishabille, unless she expects company. It is sad to see these stifled existences; without any contact with the world outside, without any charm of domestic life, without books or culture of any kind, the Brazilian senhora in this part of the country either sinks contentedly into a vapid, empty, aimless life, or frets against her chains, and is as discontented as she is useless.

On the day of our arrival the dinner had been interrupted by the entrance of the Indians with their greetings and presents of game to the President; but on the second day it was enlivened by quite a number of appropriate toasts and speeches. I thought, as we sat around the dinner-table, there had probably never before been gathered under the palm-roof of an Indian house on the Amazons a party combining so many different elements and objects. There was the President, whose interest is, of course, in administering the affairs of the province, in which the Indians come in for a large share of his attention;—there was the young statesman, whose whole heart is in the great national question of peopling the Amazonian region and opening it to the world, and in the effect this movement is to have upon his country;—there was the able engineer, whose scientific life has been passed in surveying the great river and its tributaries with a view to their future navigation;—and there was the man of pure science, come to study the distribution of animal life in their waters, with no view to practical questions. The speeches touched upon all these interests, and were received with enthusiasm, each one closing with a toast and music, for our little band of the night before had been brought in to enliven the scene. The Brazilians are very happy in their after-dinner speeches, and have great facility in them, whether from a natural gift or from much practice. The habit of drinking healths and giving toasts is very general throughout the country; and the most informal dinner among intimate friends does not conclude without some mutual greetings of this kind.

As we were sitting under the trees afterwards, having yielded our places in the primitive dining-room to the Indian guests, the President suggested a sunset row on the lake. The hour and the light were most tempting; and we were soon off in the canoe, taking no boatmen, the gentlemen preferring to row themselves. We went through the same lovely region, half water, half land, over which we had passed in the morning, floating between patches of greenest grass, and large forest-trees, and blackened trunks standing out of the lake like ruins. We did not go very fast nor very far, for our amateur boatmen found the evening warm, and their rowing was rather play than work; they stopped, too, every now and then, to get a shot at a white heron or into a flock of paroquets or ciganas, whereby they wasted a good deal of powder to no effect. As we turned to come back, we were met by one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen. The Indian women, having finished their dinner, had taken the little two-masted canoe, dressed with flags, which had been prepared for the President's reception, and had come out to meet us. They had the music on board, and there were two or three men in the boat; but the women were some twelve or fifteen in number, and seemed, like genuine Amazons, to have taken things into their own hands. They were rowing with a will; and as the canoe drew near, with music playing and flags flying, the purple lake, dyed in the sunset and smooth as a mirror, gave back the picture. Every tawny figure at the oars, every flutter of the crimson and blue streamers, every fold of the green and yellow national flag at the prow, was as distinct below the surface as above it. The fairy boat, for so it looked floating between glowing sky and water, and seeming to borrow color from both, came on apace, and as it approached our friends greeted us with many a Viva! to which we responded as heartily. Then the two canoes joined company, and we went on together, taking the guitar sometimes into one and sometimes into the other, while Brazilian and Indian songs followed each other. Anything more national, more completely imbued with tropical coloring and character, than this evening scene on the lake, can hardly be conceived. When we reached the landing, the gold and rose-colored clouds were fading into soft masses of white and ashen gray, and moonlight was taking the place of sunset. As we went up the green slope to the sitio, a dance on the grass was proposed, and the Indian girls formed a quadrille; for thus much of outside civilization has crept into their native manners, though they throw into it so much of their own characteristic movements that it loses something of its conventional aspect. Then we returned to the house, where while here and there groups sat about on the ground laughing and talking, and the women smoking with as much enjoyment as the men. Smoking is almost universal among the common women here, nor is it confined to the lower classes. Many a senhora, at least in this part of Brazil, (for one must distinguish between the civilization upon the banks of the Amazons and in the interior, and that in the cities along the coast,) enjoys her pipe while she lounges in her hammock through the heat of the day.

The following day the party broke up. The Indian women came to bid us good by after breakfast, and dispersed in various directions, through the forest paths, to their several homes, going off in little groups, with their babies, of whom there were a goodly number, astride on their hips, and the older children following. Mr. Agassiz passed the morning in packing and arranging his fishes, having collected in these two days more than seventy new species: such is the wealth of life everywhere in these waters. His studies had been the subject of great curiosity to the people about the sitio; one or two were always hovering around to look at his work, and to watch Mr. Bourkhardt's drawing. They seemed to think it extraordinary that any one should care to take the portrait of a fish. The familiarity of these children of the forest with the natural objects about them—plants, birds, insects, fishes—is remarkable. They frequently ask to see the drawings, and, in turning over a pile containing several hundred colored drawings of fish, they will scarcely make a mistake; even the children giving the name instantly, and often adding, "He filho d'elle,"—"It is the child of such a one,"—thus distinguishing the young from the adult, and pointing out their relation. The scientific work excites great wonder among the Indians, wherever we go; and when Mr. Agassiz succeeds in making them understand the value he attaches to his collections, he often finds them efficient assistants.

We dined rather earlier than usual,—our chief dish being a stew of parrots and toucans,—and left the sitio at about five o'clock, in three canoes, the music accompanying us in the smaller boat. Our Indian friends stood on the shore as we left, giving us a farewell greeting with cheers and waving hats and hands. The row through the lake and igarapé was delicious; and we saw many alligators lying lazily about in the quiet water, who seemed to enjoy it, after their fashion, as much as we did. The sun had long set as we issued from the little river, and the Rio Negro, where it opens broadly out into the Amazons, was a sea of silver. The boat with the music presently joined our canoe; and we had a number of the Brazilian modinhas, as they call them,—songs which seem especially adapted for the guitar and moonlight. These modinhas have quite a peculiar character. They are little, graceful, lyrical snatches of song, with a rather melancholy cadence; even those of which the words are gay not being quite free from this undertone of sadness. One hears them constantly sung to the guitar, a favorite instrument with the Brazilians as well as the Indians. This put us all into a somewhat dreamy mood, and we approached the end of our journey rather silently. But as we came toward the landing, we heard the sound of a band of brass instruments, effectually drowning our feeble efforts, and saw a crowded canoe coming towards us. They were the boys from an Indian school in the neighborhood of Manaos, where a certain number of boys of Indian parentage, though not all of pure descent, receive an education at the expense of the province, and are taught a number of trades. Among other things, they are trained to play on a variety of instruments, and are said to show a remarkable facility for music. The boat, which, from its size, was a barge rather than a canoe, looked very pretty as it came towards us in the moonlight; it seemed full to overflowing, the children all standing up, dressed in white uniforms. This little band comes always on Sunday evenings and festa days to play before the President's house. They were just returning, it being nearly ten o'clock; but the President called to them to turn back, and they accompanied us to the beach, playing all the while. Thus our pleasant three-days picnic ended with music and moonlight.


  1. Without entering here upon the generosity shown not only by the Brazilian government, but by individuals also, to this expedition,—a debt which it will be my pleasant duty to acknowledge fully hereafter in a more extended report of our journey,—I cannot omit this opportunity of thanking Dr. Epaminondas, the enlightened President of the Province of the Amazonas, for the facilities accorded to me during my whole stay in the region now under his administration.—Louis Agassiz.
  2. Mr. Wallace speaks of having collected over two hundred species in the Rio Negro; but as these were unfortunately lost, and never described, they cannot be counted as belonging among the possessions of the scientific world.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.