« PreviousContinue »
Indians that the offer of 'reward was unavailing; though they pretended that, by only chewing a little tobacco, they might venture to touch them with impunity. This fable,' says M. de Humboldt,
of the influence of tobacco on animal electricity, is as general on the continent of South America, as the belief anong mariners of the effect of garlic and tallow on the magnetic needle'-he might have added, as groundless too. Impatient of waiting longer for the Indians, they proceeded to the Cano de Bera, from whence they were conducted to a stream, which in the time of drought forms a basin of muddy water surrounded by fine trees. The gymnoti are difficult to be taken by nets on account of their extreme agility, and their burying themselves in the mud like serpents; they are more easily caught by the roots of the piscidea erithryna, jacquinia urmillaris, and some species of phyllanthus, which, when thrown into the pool, intoxicate or benumb them; this, however, would have enfeebled the gymnoti, and our philosophers wished to procure them in full vigour. The Indians therefore told them that ihey would embarbascar con cavallos-set the fish to sleep, or intoxicate them with horses. They found it difficult to conceive what this meant; but they saw the guides, who had gone to the savannah, return presently with about thirty horses and mules which they had collected. The novel and singular scene which ensued is thus described.
' The extraordinary noise caused by the horses' hoofs makes the fish issue from the mud, and excites them to combat. These yellowish and livid eels, resembling large aquatic serpents, swim on the surface of the water, and crowd under the bellies of the horses and mules. A contest between animals of so different an organization furnishes a very striking spectacle. The Indians, provided with harpoons and long slender reeds, surround the pool closely; and some climb upon the trees, the branches of which estend horizontally over the surface of the water. By their wild cries, and the length of their reeds, they prevent the horses from running away and reaching the bank of the pool. The eels, stunned by the noise, defend themselves by the repeated discharge of their electric batteries. During a long time they seem to prove victorious. Several horses sink beneath the violence of the invisible strokes, which they receive from all sides in orgáns the most essential to life; and stunned by the force and frequency of the shocks, disappear under the water. . Others, panting, with mane erect and haggard eyes, expressing anguish, raise themselves, and endeavour to flee from the storm by which they are overtaken. They are driven back by the Indians into the middle of the water; but a small number succeed in eluding the active vigilance of the fishermen. These regain the shore, stumbling at every step, and stretch themselves on the sand, exhausted with fatigue, and their limbs benumbed by the electric shocks of the gymnoti.
'In less than five minutes two horses were drowned. The eel, being five feet long, and pressing itself against the belly of the horses, makes
a discharge along the whole extent of its electric organ. It attacks at unce the heart, the intestines, and the plexus cæliacus of the abdominal nerves. It is natural that the effect felt by the horses should be more powerful than that produced upon man by the touch of the same fish at only one of his extremities. The horses are probably not killed, but only stunned. They are drowned from the impossibility of rising annid the prolonged struggle between the other horses and the eels.
• We had little doubt that the fishing would terminate by killing successively all the animals engaged; but by degrees the impetuosity of this unequal combat diminished, and the wearied gymnoti dispersed. They require a long rest, and abundant nourishment, to repair what they have lost of galvanic force. The mules and horses appear less frightened; their manes are no longer bristled, and their eyes express less dread. The gymnoti approach timidly the edge of the marsh, where they are taken by means of small barpoons fastened to long cords. When the cords are very dry the Indians feel no shock in raising the fish into the air. In a few minutes we had five large eels, the greater part of which were but slightly wounded. Some were taken by the same means toward the evening.'--pp. 348–350.
M. de Humboldt says it would be temerity to expose oneself to the first shocks of a large and strongly irritated gymnotus; that a stroke from such a fish is productive of more pain and numbness than from the discharge of a large Leyden jar; and that he received so dreadful a shock by imprudently placing his feet on one just taken out of the water, that he was affected the rest of the day with a violent pain in the knees, and in almost every joint. He adds, that the electric action of the fish depends entirely on its will, and that it has the power of directing the action of its organs to any particular part of the external object that may affect it, or towards the point where it finds itself the most strongly irritated.
We have now a dissertation of about twenty pages on the nature and quality of the electrical action of fishes, of which we can only find room for the following curious paragraph.
The presence of the gymnoti is considered as the principal cause of the want of fish in the ponds and pools of the Llanos. The gymnoti kill many more than they devour; and the Indians told us, that when they take young alligators and gymnoti at the same time in very strong nets, the latter never display the slightest trace of a wound, because they disable the young alligators before they are attacked by them. All the inhabitants of the waters dread the society of the gymnoti. Lizards, tortoises, and frogs seek the pools, where they are secure from their action.
It became necessary to change the direction of a road near Uritucu, because these electrical eels were so numerous in one river that they every year killed a great number of mules of burden as they forded the water.-P. 374.
Our travellers left Calabozo on the 24th of March, highly satishod with the experiments which they had made.
• As we advanced,' M. de Humboldt says, ' into the southern part of the Llanos, we found the ground more dusty, more destitute of herbage, and more cracked by the effect of long drought. The palm-trees disappeared by degrees. The thermometer kept, from eleven in the morning till sunset, at 34° or 35o. The more the air appeared calm at eight or ten feet bigh, the more we were enveloped in those whirlwinds of dust caused by the little currents of air that sweep the ground. About four o'clock in the afternoon we found a young Indian girl stretched upon the savannah. She was quite naked, lay upon her back, and appeared to be only twelve or thirteen years of age. Exhausted with fatigue and thirst, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth filled with dust, she breathed with a rattling in her throat, and was unable to answer our questions. A pitcher overturned, and half filled with sand, was lying at her side, Happily one of our mules was laden with water; and we roused the young girl from her lethargic state by washing her face, and forcing her to drink a few drops of wine. She was at first frightened at seeing herself surrounded by so many persons; but by degrees she took courage and conversed with our guides. She judged from the position of the sun that she must have remained during several hours in that state of lethargy-pp. 378, 379.
During the night they forded the Rio Uritucu, which is infested with a breed of crocodiles remarkable for their ferocity. We were advised,' M. de Humboldt
says, to prevent our dogs from going to drink in the rivers, for it often happens that the crocodiles come out of the water and pursue dogs on the shore.
• The manners of animals,' he continues, 'vary in the same species according to local circumstances difficult to investigate. We were shown a hut, or rather a kind of shed, in which our host of Calabozo, Don Miguel Cousin, had witnessed a very extraordinary scene. Sleeping with one of his friends on a bench covered with leather, Don Miguel was awakened early in the morning by violent shakes and a horrible noise. Clods of earth were thrown into the middle of the hut. Presently a young crocodile two or three feet long issued from under the bed, darted at a dog that lay on the threshold of the door, and, missing him in the impetuosity of his spring, ran toward the beach to attain the river. On examining the spot where the barbacon, or bedstead, was placed, the cause of this strange adventure was easily discovered. The ground was disturbed to a considerable depth. It was dried inud that had covered the crocodile in that state of lethargy, or summer sleep, in which many of the species lie during the absence of the rains amid the Llanos. The noise of men and horses, perhaps the smell of the dog, had awakened the crocodile. The hut being placed at the edge of the pool, and inundated during part of the year, the crocodile had no doubt entered, at the time of the inundation of the savannahs, by the same opening by which Mr. Pozo saw it go out'—pp. 380, 381.
On the 27th our travellers arrived at the Villa de San Fera nando, the capital of the missions of the Capuchins, in the pro
vince of Varenas, which terminated their journey over the Llanos. The breadth of the Apure on which they were about to embark was found to be 200 toises. This river, like the Meta and the Oroonoko, has its periodical swellings, when the horses that wander in the savannah and have not time to reach the rising grounds of the Llanos, perish by thousands. The mares, followed by their colts, may be seen swimming about, and feeding on the grass of which the top alone waves above the waters. In this state they are pursued by the crocodiles; and their thighs, should they be fortunate enough to escape, frequently bear the prints of the teeth of these carnivorous reptiles. The carcasses of such as perish attract innumerable vultures, which have the mien of Pharaoh's chicken, and render the same service to the inhabitants of the Llanos as the vultur percnopterus to the inhabitants of Egypt.'
• We cannot reflect on the effects of these inundations without admiring the prodigious pliability of the organization of the animals that man has subjected to his sway. In Greenland the dog eats the refuse of the fisheries; and, when fish are wanting, feeds on seaweed. The ass and the horse, originally natives of the cold and barren plains of Upper Asia, follow man to the New World, return to the savage state, and lead a restless and painful life in the burning climate of the tropics. Pressed alternately by excess of drought and of humidity, they sometimes seek a pool in the midst of a bare and dusty soil to quench their thirst; and at other times flee from water, and the overflowing rivers, as menaced by an enemy that threatens them on all sides. Harassed during the day by gadties and moschettoes, the horses, mules and cows find themselves attacked at night by enormous bats, that fasten on their backs, and cause wounds that become dangerous, because they are filled with acaridæ and other hurtful insects. In the time of great drought the mules gnaw even the thorny melocactus, melon thistle, in order to drink its cooling juice, and draw it forth as from a vegetable fountain. During the great inundations these same animals lead an amphibious life, surrounded by crocodiles, water-serpents, and manatees. Yet, such are the immutable laws of nature, their races are preserved in the struggle with the elements, and amid so many sufferings and dangers. When the waters retire, and the rivers return again into their beds, the savannah is spread over with a fine odoriferous grass; and the animals of Europe and Upper Asia seem to enjoy, as in their native climate, the renewed vegetation of spring.'-pp. 394-396.
An old farmer of the name of Don Francisco Sanchez obligingly offered to conduct our travellers overland to the Oroonoko. His dress denoted the great simplicity of manners that prevails in these distant regions. He had acquired a fortune of more than 100,000 piastres, and yet he mounted his horse bare-legged and bare-footed, though armed with large silver spurs. They preferred however the longer road by the Rio Apure, and hired a large canoe, called by
the Spaniards lancha, managed by a pilot and four Indians. A sort of cabin was constructed in the stern, covered with the leaves of the corypha; and some ox hides stretched on frames of brazilwood served for a table and benches. They laid in a month's provisions. The Apure abounds in fish, manatees, and turtles ; its banks are frequented by an innumerable quantity of birds, among which are the pauri and the guacharuca, which may be called the turkies and pheasants of these countries.
The Yaruroes inhabit the left bank of the Apure below the Apurito. They live by hunting and fishing, and supply the European markets chiefly with the skins of the jaguar, kuown generally as those of the tiger. M. de Humboldt thinks they have some features which belong to the Mongul species,-a stern look, an elongated eye, high cheek-bones—but the nose prominent throughout its whole length. The missionaries praise their intellectual cha
Having passed the sugar plantation called Diamante, they entered a land inhabited only by tigers, crocodiles and chiguires, the latter being a large species of the
genus cavia of Linnæus: flights of birds were crowded so closely together as to appear like a dark cloud. The banks of the river were generally covered with a forest, the trees of which were singularly disposed. First, bushes of sauso (hermesia castaneifolia), forming a kind of hedge four feet high, appeared as if they had been clipped by the hand of man. Behind these, copses of cedars, brazillettoes, and lignum vitæ reared their heads; with here and there a palm tree, and a few scattered trunks of the thorny piritu and corozo. In this scene of untamed and savage nature, the traveller at one moment is delighted with the sight of the jaguar, the beautiful panther of America, at another with the peacock, pheasant, or cashew bird with its black plumage and its tufted head, moving slowly along the sausos. Gliding down the stream, animals of the most different classes succeed each other. · Esse como en el Paradiso,'— it is just as it was in Paradise,' said the old Indian pilot of the missions to our travellers; and M. de Humboldt observes, that every thing indeed here recals to mind that state of the primitive world, the innocence and felicity of which ancient and venerable traditions have transmitted to all nations; but in carefully observing the manners of animals among themselves, we see that they punctually avoid each other. The golden age has ceased ; and in this paradise of American forests, as well as every where else, sad and long experience has taught all beings, that benignity is seldom found in alliance with strength !
Crocodiles to the number of eight or ten were frequently seen stretched motionless on the sand, and with jaws open at right angles, reposing by each other, along the whole course of the river; yet the