« PreviousContinue »
Ayres and of Chaco, which recall to mind incessantly, and during jourmies of twenty or thirty days, the smooth surface of the ocean.'— p. 292.
M. de Humboldt justly observes that erroneous notions are culcated by characterizing Europe by its heaths, Asia by its steppes, Africa by its deserts, and America by its suvannahs; because none of them are peculiar to any of the four quarters of the globe. Deserts, it is true, like those of Africa, are almost wanting in the new world; they exist, however, in the low part of Peru on the borders of the South Sea, and are called by the Spaniards, not Llanos, but desiertos. This solitary tract (our author says) is not broad, but four hundred and forty leagues long. The rock pierces every where through the quicksands. No drop of rain ever falls on it; and, like the desert of Sahara, to the north of Tombuctoo, the Peruvian desert affords, near Huaura, a rich mine of native salt. Every where else, in the new world, there are plains, desert because not inhabited, but no real deserts.'
The name of prairies, given to the savannahs of America, appears to M. de Humboldt to be little applicable to pastures that are often very dry, though covered with grass of four or five feet in height. The Llanos and the pampas of South America he considers as real steppes.
They display,' he says, ' a beautiful verdure in the rainy season, but in the time of great drought assume the aspect of a desert. The grass is then reduced to powder, the earth cracks, the alligator and the great serpents remain buried in the dried mud till awakened from their long lethargy by the first showers of spring.' These immense plains appear, as far as the eye can reach, to adopt our traveller's expression, like an ocean of verdure.' Their extent, however, great as it is, is apt to deceive the traveller. The uniform landscape of the Llanos; the extreme rarity of inhabitants; the fatigue of travelling beneath a burning sky, and an atmosphere darkened with dust, the view of that horizon which seems for ever to fly before us; those lowly trunks of palm trees, which have all the same aspect, and which we despair of reaching, because they are confounded with other trupks that rise by degrees on the visual horizon; all these causes combined make the steppes appear far greater than they are in reality. The chief characteristic of these savannahs is the absolute want of hills and inequalities, and the perfect level of every part of the soil, so remarkable, that often in the space of thirty square leagues, there is not an eminence of a foot high. This regularity of surface is said to reign without interruption from the mouth of the Oroonoko to La Villa de Araure and spinos under a parallel of a hundred and eighty leagues in length, and from San Carlos to the savannahs of Caqueta, on a meridian of two hundred leagues. There are, however, on the surface of these Llanos two kinds of inequali
ties which, M. de Humboldt remarks, will not escape the observation of an attentive traveller. The first is known by the name of Bancos, which he says are real shoals in the basin of the steppes, fractured strata of sandstone or compact limestone, standing four or five feet higher than the rest of the plain, and extending sometimes three or four leagues in length; being entirely smooth, with a horrizontal surface, their existence is discovered only by examining their borders. The second species of inequality is known by the name of Mesa, and is composed of small flats, or rather convex eminences, which rise insensibly to the height of a few toises, and are to be recognized only by geodesical or barometrical levellings, or by the course of rivers. Some of these, inconsiderable as they are, divide the waters between the Oroonoko and the northern coast of Terra Firma.
Our author has sketched a bold geographical outline of South America. He observes that in order to have an exact idea of the plains, their configuration and their limits, we must know the chains of mountains that form their boundary. From the great chain of the Andes, then, which bounds or nearly so the western side of South America throughout its whole extent in a north and south direction, branch out three distinct Cordilleras, or transverse chains, dividing this continent from east to west. The first to the northward is called by our author the Cordillera of the Coast, of which the highest summit is the Silla de Caraccas, and which runs across the country in about the tenth parallel of latitude. The second chain he has named the Cordillera of Parime, or of the great Cataracts of the Oroonoko; it extends between the parallels of 3° and 7° from the mouths of the Guaviare and the Meta to the sources of the Oroonoko, the Marony and the Esquibo, towards French and Dutch Guyana. The third chain is the Cordillera of Chiquitos, which divides the rivers flowing into the Amazon from those of the Rio de la Plata; and unites, in 16° and 18° of south latitude, the Andes of Peru to the mountains of Brazil. • The small elevation of the great plains inclosed within these Cordilleras and the Andes, but open to the east, would tempt one to consider them, says our traveller, 'as gulfs stretching in the direction of the current of rotation. If from the effect of some peculiar attraction, the waters of the Atlantic were to rise fifty toises at the mouth of the Oroonoko, and two hundred toises at the mouth of the Amazon, the great tide would cover more than half of South America. The eastern declivity of the foot of the Andes, now six hundred leagues distant from the coast of Brazil, would become a shore beaten by the waves. He might have added that such a tide would cover the plains of Hindostan and wash the feet of the Himalaya mountains; and we are not sure that one half of the globe, as well as half of
South America, would not be deluged by a tide of 600 feet in perpendicular height.
Having described the mountains, we have next the following grand outline of the three plains.
• These three transverse chains, or rather these three groups of mountains, stretching from west to east, within the limits of the torrid zone, are separated by tracts entirely level, the plains of Caraccas, or of the Lower Oroonoko; the plains of the Amazon and the Rio Negro; and the plains of Buenos Ayres, or of La Plata. I do not use the name of valley, because the Lower Oroonoko and the Amazon, far from flowing in a valley, form but a little furrow in the midst of a vast plain. The two basins, placed at the extremities of South America, are savannahs or steppes, pasturage without trees; the intermediate basin, which receives the equatorial rains during the whole year, is almost entirely one vast forest, in which no other road is known than the rivers. That strength of vegetation which conceals the soil, renders also the uniformity of its level less perceptible; and the plains of Caraccas and La Plata alone bear this name. The three basins we have just described are called, in the language of the colonists, the Llanos of Varinas and of Caraccas, the bosques or selras (forests) of the Amazon, and the Pampas of Buenos Ayres. The trees not only for the most part cover the plains of the Amazon, from the Cordillera of Chiquitos, as far as that of Parime; they crown also these two chains of mountains, which rarely attain the height of the Pyrenees. On this account the vast plains of the Amazon, the Madeira, and the Rio Negro, are not so distinctly bounded as the Llanos of Caraccas and the Pampas of Buenos Ayres. As the region of forests comprises at once the plains and the mountains, it extends from 18° south to 7o and 8° north, and occupies an extent of near a hundred and twenty thousand square leagues. This forest of South America, for in fact there is only one, is six times larger than France.'
Some faint traces of the industry of an ancient people that has disappeared, are afforded on the northern plains of Varinas in a few scattered hillocks, or tumuli, of a conical shape, called by the Spaniards the Serillos de los Indios ; and in a causeway of earth five leagues in length, and fifteen feet high, crossing a plain which is frequently overflowed. These were constructed long before the conquest; and M. de Humboldt seems at a loss to account for their appearance.
• Did nations,' he says, “farther advanced in civilization descend from the mountains of Truxillo towards the plain of the Apure? the Indians, whom we now find between the Apure and the Meta, are in too rude a state to think of making roads or raising tumuli.'
The paucity and the poverty of the lactiferous animals, and the consequent absence of pastoral nations in the New World, afford a powerful argument against the theory which would people America from Eastern Asia, to which, if we mistake not, M. de Humboldt
rather inclines; for we can hardly suppose that any of the pastoral hordes of Tartars would emigrate across the strait of Behring, or pass the bridge formed by the Aleutian islands, without carrying with them a supply of those cattle on which their whole subsistence depended. That America was admirably suited for the propagation of them is proved by the extraordinary herds of wild cattle and horses which have overrun the plains from the few originally carried over by the Spaniards. In the northern plains alone, from the Oroonoko to the lake of Maracaybo, M. Depons reckons that 1,200,000 oxen, 180,000 horses, and 90,000 mules, wander at large; and M. de Humboldt observes, on the authority of Azzora, that it is believed there exist in the Pampas of Buenos Ayres 12,000,000 cows, and 3,000,000 horses, without comprizing in this enumeration the cattle that have no acknowledged proprietor. In the Llanos of Caraccas the rich hateros, or proprietors of pastoral farms, are entirely ignorant of the number of cattle they possess. The young are branded with a mark peculiar to each
. herd, and some of the most wealthy owners mark as many as 14,000 a year.
Several species of the palm tribe are scattered over the northern Llanos, especially the palma de cobija, (the corypha tectorum,) the wood of which is so hard that it is difficult to drive a nail into it. It is therefore excellent for building, and its fanlike leaves afford a thatch for the roofs of the huts, which will last more than twenty years. Another species of corypha is known by the name of the palma real de los Llanos.
Other palm-trees rise to the South of Guayaval, especially the piritu with pinnate leaves, and the murichi, (moriche,) celebrated by father Gumilla under the name of arbol de la vida. It is the sago-tree of America, furnishing 6 victum et amictum," flour, wire, and thread to weave hammocks, baskets, nets, and clothing. Its fruit, of the form of the cones of the pine, and covered with scales, perfectly resemble those of the calamus rotang. It has somewhat the taste of the apple. When arrived at its maturity it is yellow within and red without. The araguato monkeys eat it with avidity; and the nation of Guaraounoes, whose whole existence, it may be said, is closely linked with that of the murichi palm-tree, draw from it a fermented liquor, slightly acid, and extremely refreshing. This palm-tree, with large shining leaves folded like a fan, preserves a beautiful verdure at the period of the greatest drought. Its sight alone produces an agreeable sensation of coolness, and the murichi, loaded with scaly fruit, contrasts singularly with the mournful aspect of the palma de cobija, the foliage of which is always gray and covered with dust. The Llaneros believe that the former attracts the vapours in the air; and that for this reason water is constantly found at its foot when dug for to a certain depth. The effect is confounded with the cause. The murichi grows best in moist places;
VOL. XXI. NO, XLII.
and it may rather be said, that the water attracts the tree. The natives of the Oroonoko, by analogous reasoning, admit that the great serpents contribute to preserve humidity in a canton. “You would look in vain for water-serpents,” said an old Indian of Javita to us gravely,
“ where there are no marshes; because the water collects no more when you inprudently kill the serpents that attract it.” '—p. 334.
Our travellers having passed two nights on horseback, and sought in vain by day for some shelter from the ardour of the sun beneath the tufts of the murichi palm-trees, arrived just before the third night set in at the little farin of El Cayman, or the Alligator, a solitary house surrounded by a few small huts, covered with reeds and skins: no enclosure of any kind appeared; the horses, oxen and mules rambled where they pleased, and were brought together by men naked to the waist, and arıned with a lance, who scour the savannahs on horseback for that purpose. These people are known by the name of Peones Llaneros, and are partly free and partly slaves. A little meat dried in the air and spriukled with salt constitutes the chief part of their food. An old negro slave had the management of the farm in question. Though he had several thousand cow's under his care, it was in vain our travellers asked for a bowl of milk; and they were fain to put up with some fetid water drawn from a neighbouring pool, which he advised them to drink through a piece of linen cloth, that they might not be incommoded by the smell, or swallow the fine yellowish clay suspended in the water.
After suffering greatly from the excessive heat of the sun they reached Calabozo, a flourishing little town in the midst of the Llanos, with a population of about 5000 souls, their wealth consisting chiefly of herds of cattle. Here an ingenious inhabitant, of the name of Carlos del Pozo, had constructed an electrical machine with large plates, electrophori, batteries and electrometers, forming an apparatus nearly as complete as the first scientific men in Europe possessed, and which he had constructed entirely from reading the treatise of Sigaud de la Fond and Franklin's Memoirs. The joy of this curious and ingenious native of the Llanos may be easily conceived on meeting with such intelligent travellers as MM. de Humboldt and Bonpland. They shewed him the effect of the contact of heterogeneous metals on the nerves of frogs; and thus, for the first time, the names of Galvani and Volta resounded in those vast solitudes.
Men of science and ingenuity seldom communicate without deriving mutual advantage. The electrical apparatus and the Voltaic pile led to the subject of the gymnoti, or electrical eels, which had been an object of research to M. de Humboldt from the time of his arrival at Cumana. He wished to procure so
me of these eels at Calabozo, but the dread of them is so great among the