The Naturalist on the River Amazons

Author: Henry Walter Bates


Modes of Travelling on the Amazons—Historical Sketch of the Early Explorations of the River—Preparations for Voyage—Life on Board a Large Trading Vessel—The narrow channels joining the Para to the Amazons—First Sight of the Great River—Gurupa—The Great Shoal—Flat-topped Mountains—Santarem—Obydos

At the time of my first voyage up the Amazons—namely, in 1849— nearly all communication with the interior was by means of small sailing-vessels, owned by traders residing in the remote towns and villages, who seldom came to Para themselves, but entrusted vessels and cargoes to the care of half-breeds or Portuguese cabos. Sometimes, indeed, they risked all in the hands of the Indian crew, making the pilot, who was also steersman, do duty as supercargo. Now and then, Portuguese and Brazilian merchants at Para furnished young Portuguese with merchandise, and dispatched them to the interior to exchange the goods for produce among the scattered population. The means of communication, in fact, with the upper parts of the Amazons had been on the decline for some time, on account of the augmented difficulty of obtaining hands to navigate vessels. Formerly, when the Government wished to send any important functionary, such as a judge or a military commandant, into the interior, they equipped a swift-sailing galliota manned with ten or a dozen Indians. These could travel, on the average, in one day farther than the ordinary sailing craft could in three. Indian paddlers were now, however, almost impossible to be obtained, and Government officers were obliged to travel as passengers in trading-vessels. The voyage made in this way was tedious in the extreme. When the regular east-wind blew—the "vento geral," or trade-wind of the Amazons—sailingvessels could get along very well; but when this failed, they were obliged to remain, sometimes many days together, anchored near the shore, or progress laboriously by means of the "espia."

The latter mode of travelling was as follows. The montaria, with twenty or thirty fathoms of cable, one end of which was attached to the foremast, was sent ahead with a couple of hands, who secured the other end of the rope to some strong bough or treetrunk; the crew then hauled the vessel up to the point, after which the men in the boat re-embarked the cable, and paddled forwards to repeat the process. In the dry season, from August to December, when the trade-wind is strong and the currents slack, a schooner could reach the mouth of the Rio Negro, a thousand miles from Para, in about forty days; but in the wet season, from January to July, when the east-wind no longer blows and the Amazons pours forth its full volume of water, flooding the banks and producing a tearing current, it took three months to travel the same distance. It was a great blessing to the inhabitants when, in 1853, a line of steamers was established, and this same journey could be accomplished with ease and comfort, at all seasons, in eight days!

It is, perhaps, not generally known that the Portuguese, as early as 1710, had a fair knowledge of the Amazons; but the information gathered by their Government, from various expeditions undertaken on a grand scale, was long withheld from the rest of the world, through the jealous policy which ruled in their colonial affairs. From the foundation of Para by Caldeira, in 1615, to the settlement of the boundary line between the Spanish and Portuguese possessions, Peru and Brazil, in 1781-91, numbers of these expeditions were undertaken in succession . The largest was the one commanded by Pedro Texeira in 1637-9, who ascended the river to Quito by way of the Napo, a distance of about 2800 miles, with 45 canoes and 900 men, and returned to Para without any great misadventure by the same route. The success of this remarkable undertaking amply proved, at that early date, the facility of the river navigation, the practicability of the country, and the good disposition of the aboriginal inhabitants. The river, however, was first discovered by the Spaniards, the mouth having been visited by Pinzon in 1500, and nearly the whole course of the river navigated by Orellana in 1541-2. The voyage of the latter was one of the most remarkable on record. Orellana was a lieutenant of Gonzalo Pizarro, Governor of Quito, and accompanied the latter in an adventurous journey which he undertook across the easternmost chain of the Andes, down into the sweltering valley of the Napo, in search of the land of El Dorado, or the Gilded King. They started with 300 soldiers and 4000 Indian porters; but, arrived on the banks of one of the tributaries of the Napo, their followers were so greatly decreased in number by disease and hunger, and the remainder so much weakened, that Pizarro was obliged to despatch Orellana with fifty men, in a vessel they had built, to the Napo, in search of provisions. It can be imagined by those acquainted with the Amazons country how fruitless this errand would be in the wilderness of forest where Orellana and his followers found themselves when they reached the Napo, and how strong their disinclination would be to return against the currents and rapids which they had descended. The idea then seized them to commit themselves to the chances of the stream, although ignorant whither it would lead. So onward they went. From the Napo they emerged into the main Amazons, and, after many and various adventures with the Indians on its banks, reached the Atlantic— eight months from the date of their entering the great river. [It was during this voyage that the nation of female warriors was said to have been met with; a report which gave rise to the Portuguese name of the river, Amazonas. It is now pretty well known that this is a mere fable, originating in the love of the marvellous which distinguished the early Spanish adventurers, and impaired the credibility of their narratives.]

Another remarkable voyage was accomplished, in a similar manner, by a Spaniard named Lopez d’Aguirre, from Cusco, in Peru, down the Ucayali, a branch of the Amazons flowing from the south, and therefore, from an opposite direction to that of the Napo. An account of this journey was sent by D’Aguirre, in a letter to the King of Spain, from which Humboldt has given an extract in his narrative. As it is a good specimen of the quaintness of style and looseness of statement exhibited by these early narrators of adventures in South America, I will give a translation of it:

"We constructed rafts, and, leaving behind our horses and baggage, sailed down the river (the Ucayali) with great risk, until we found ourselves in a gulf of fresh water. In this river Maranon we continued more than ten months and a half, down to its mouth, where it falls into the sea. We made one hundred days’ journey, and travelled 1500 leagues. It is a great and fearful stream, has 80 leagues of fresh water at its mouth, vast shoals, and 800 leagues of wilderness without any kind of inhabitants, [This account disagrees with that of Acunna, the historiographer of Texeira’s expedition, who accompanied him, in 1639, on his return voyage from Quito. Acunna speaks of a very numerous population on the banks of the Amazons.] as your Majesty will see from the true and correct narrative of the journey which we have made. It has more than 6000 islands. God knows how we came out of this fearful sea!"

Many expeditions were undertaken in the course of the eighteenth century; in fact, the crossing of the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic, by way of the Amazons, seems to have become by this time a common occurrence. The only voyage, however, which yielded much scientific information to the European public was that of the French astronomer, La Condamine, in 1743-4. The most complete account yet published of the river is that given by Von Martius in the third volume of Spix and Martius’ Travels. These most accomplished travellers were eleven months in the country— namely, from July, 1819, to June, 1820—and ascended the river to the frontiers of the Brazilian territory. The accounts they have given of the geography, ethnology, botany, history, and statistics of the Amazons region are the most complete that have ever been given to the world. Their narrative was not published until 1831, and was unfortunately inaccessible to me during the time I travelled in the same country.

While preparing for my voyage it happened, fortunately, that the half-brother of Dr. Angelo Custodio, a young mestizo named Joao da Cunha Correia, was about to start for the Amazons on a trading expedition in his own vessel, a schooner of about forty tons’ burthen. A passage for me was soon arranged with him through the intervention of Dr. Angelo, and we started on the 5th of September, 1849. I intended to stop at some village on the northern shore of the Lower Amazons, where it would be interesting to make collections, in order to show the relations of the fauna to those of Para and the coast region of Guiana. As I should have to hire a house or hut wherever I stayed, I took all the materials for housekeeping—cooking utensils, crockery, and so forth. To these were added a stock of such provisions as it would be difficult to obtain in the interior—also ammunition, chests, store-boxes, a small library of natural history books, and a hundredweight of copper money. I engaged, after some trouble, a Mameluco youth to accompany me as servant—a short, fat, yellow-faced boy named Luco, whom I had already employed at Para in collecting. We weighed anchor at night, and on the following day found ourselves gliding along the dark-brown waters of the Moju.

Joao da Cunha, like most of his fellow countrymen, took matters very easily. He was going to be absent in the interior several years, and therefore, intended to diverge from his route to visit his native place, Cameta, and spend a few days with his friends. It seemed not to matter to him that he had a cargo of merchandise, vessel, and crew of twelve persons, which required an economical use of time; "pleasure first and business afterwards" appeared to be his maxim. We stayed at Cameta twelve days. The chief motive for prolonging the stay to this extent was a festival at the Aldeia, two miles below Cameta, which was to commence on the 21st, and which my friend wished to take part in. On the day of the festival the schooner was sent down to anchor off the Aldeia, and master and men gave themselves up to revelry. In the evening a strong breeze sprang up, and orders were given to embark. We scrambled down in the dark through the thickets of cacao, orange, and coffee trees which clothed the high bank, and, after running great risk of being swamped by the heavy sea in the crowded montaria, got all aboard by nine o’clock. We made all sail amidst the "adios" shouted to us by Indian and mulatto sweethearts from the top of the bank, and, tide and wind being favourable, were soon miles away.

Our crew consisted, as already mentioned, of twelve persons. One was a young Portuguese from the province of Traz os Montes, a pretty sample of the kind of emigrants which Portugal sends to Brazil. He was two or three and twenty years of age, and had been about two years in the country, dressing and living like the Indians, to whom he was certainly inferior in manners. He could not read or write, whereas one at least of our Tapuyos had both accomplishments. He had a little wooden image of Nossa Senora in his rough wooden clothes-chest, and to this he always had recourse when any squall arose, or when we ran aground on a shoal. Another of our sailors was a tawny white of Cameta; the rest were Indians, except the cook, who was a Cafuzo, or halfbreed between the Indian and negro. It is often said that this class of mestizos is the most evilly-disposed of all the numerous crosses between the races inhabiting Brazil; but Luiz was a simple, good-hearted fellow, always ready to do one a service. The pilot was an old Tapuyo of Para, with regular oval face and well-shaped features. I was astonished at his endurance. He never quitted the helm night or day, except for two or three hours in the morning. The other Indians used to bring him his coffee and meals, and after breakfast one of them relieved him for a time, when he used to lie down on the quarterdeck and get his two hours nap. The Indians forward had things pretty much their own way. No system of watches was followed; when any one was so disposed, he lay down on the deck and went to sleep; but a feeling of good fellowship seemed always to exist amongst them. One of them was a fine specimen of the Indian race— a man just short of six feet high, with remarkable breadth of shoulder and full muscular chest. His comrades called him the commandant, on account of his having been one of the rebel leaders when the Indians and others took Santarem in 1835. They related of him that, when the legal authorities arrived with an armed flotilla to recapture the town, he was one of the last to quit, remaining in the little fortress which commands the place to make a show of loading the guns, although the ammunition had given out long ago. Such were our travelling companions. We lived almost the same as on board ship. Our meals were cooked in the galley; but, where practicable, and during our numerous stoppages, the men went in the montaria to fish near the shore, so that our breakfasts and dinners of salt pirarucu were sometimes varied with fresh food.

September 24th—We passed Entre-as-Ilhas with the morning tide yesterday, and then made across to the eastern shore—the starting-point for all canoes which have to traverse the broad mouth of the Tocantins going west. Early this morning we commenced the passage. The navigation is attended with danger on account of the extensive shoals in the middle of the river, which are covered only by a small depth of water at this season of the year. The wind was fresh, and the schooner rolled and pitched like a ship at sea. The distance was about fifteen miles. In the middle, the river-view was very imposing. Towards the northeast there was a long sweep of horizon clear of land, and on the southwest stretched a similar boundless expanse, but varied with islets clothed with fan-leaved palms, which, however, were visible only as isolated groups of columns, tufted at the top, rising here and there amidst the waste of waters. In the afternoon we rounded the westernmost point; the land, which is not terra firma, but simply a group of large islands forming a portion of the Tocantins delta, was then about three miles distant.

On the following day (25th) we sailed towards the west, along the upper portion of the Para estuary, which extends seventy miles beyond the mouth of the Tocantins. It varies in width from three to five miles, but broadens rapidly near its termination, where it is eight or nine miles wide. The northern shore is formed by the island of Marajo, and is slightly elevated and rocky in some parts. A series of islands conceals the southern shore from view most of the way. The whole country, mainland and islands, is covered with forest. We had a good wind all day, and about 7 p.m. entered the narrow river of Breves, which commences abruptly the extensive labyrinth of channels that connects the Para with the Amazons. The sudden termination of the Para at a point where it expands to so great a breadth is remarkable; the water, however, is very shallow over the greater portion of the expanse. I noticed both on this and on the three subsequent occasions of passing this place in ascending and descending the river, that the flow of the tide from the east along the estuary, as well as up the Breves, was very strong. This seems sufficient to prove that no considerable volume of water passes by this medium from the Amazons to the Para, and that the opinion of those geographers is an incorrect one, who believe the Para to be one of the mouths of the great river. There is, however, another channel connecting the two rivers, which enters the Para six miles to the south of the Breves. The lower part of its course for eighteen miles is formed by the Uanapu, a large and independent river flowing from the south. The tidal flow is said by the natives to produce little or no current up this river—a fact which seems to afford a little support to the view just stated.

We passed the village of Breves at 3 p.m. on the 26th. It consists of about forty houses, most of which are occupied by Portuguese shopkeepers. A few Indian families reside here, who occupy themselves with the manufacture of ornamental pottery and painted cuyas, which they sell to traders or passing travellers. The cuyas—drinking-cups made from gourds—are sometimes very tastefully painted. The rich black ground colour is produced by a dye made from the bark of a tree called Comateu, the gummy nature of which imparts a fine polish. The yellow tints are made with the Tabatinga clay; the red with the seeds of the Urucu, or anatto plant; and the blue with indigo, which is planted round the huts. The art is indigenous with the Amazonian Indians, but it is only the settled agricultural tribes belonging to the Tupi stock who practise it.

September 27th-30th.—After passing Breves, we continued our way slowly along a channel, or series of channels, of variable width. On the morning of the 27th we had a fair wind, the breadth of the stream varying from about 150 to 400 yards. About midday we passed, on the western side, the mouth of the Aturiazal, through which, on account of its swifter current, vessels pass in descending from the Amazons to Para. Shortly afterwards we entered the narrow channel of the Jaburu, which lies twenty miles above the mouth of the Breves. Here commences the peculiar scenery of this remarkable region. We found ourselves in a narrow and nearly straight canal, not more than eighty to a hundred yards in width, and hemmed in by two walls of forest, which rose quite perpendicularly from the water to a height of seventy or eighty feet. The water was of great and uniform depth, even close to the banks. We seemed to be in a deep gorge, and the strange impression the place produced was augmented by the dull echoes wakened by the voices of our Indians and the splash of their paddles. The forest was excessively varied. Some of the trees, the dome-topped giants of the Leguminous and Bombaceous orders, reared their heads far above the average height of the green walls. The fan-leaved Miriti palm was scattered in some numbers amidst the rest, a few solitary specimens shooting up their smooth columns above the other trees. The graceful Assai palm grew in little groups, forming feathery pictures set in the rounder foliage of the mass. The Ubussu, lower in height, showed only its shuttlecock shaped crowns of huge undivided fronds, which, being of a vivid pale-green, contrasted forcibly against the sombre hues of the surrounding foliage. The Ubussu grew here in great numbers; the equally remarkable Jupati palm (Rhaphia taedigera), which, like the Ubussu, is peculiar to this district, occurred more sparsely, throwing its long shaggy leaves, forty to fifty feet in length, in broad arches over the canal. An infinite diversity of smaller-sized palms decorated the water’s edge, such as the Maraja-i (Bactris, many species), the Ubim (Geonoma), and a few stately Bacabas (Oenocarpus Bacaba). The shape of this last is exceedingly elegant, the size of the crown being in proper proportion to the straight smooth stem. The leaves, down even to the bases of the glossy petioles, are of a rich dark-green colour, and free from spines.

"The forest wall"—I am extracting from my journal-"under which we are now moving, consists, besides palms, of a great variety of ordinary forest trees. From the highest branches of these down to the water sweep ribbons of climbing plants of the most diverse and ornamental foliage possible. Creeping convolvuli and others have made use of the slender lianas and hanging air roots as ladders to climb by. Now and then appears a Mimosa or other tree having similar fine pinnate foliage, and thick masses of Inga border the water, from whose branches hang long bean-pods, of different shape and size according to the species, some of them a yard in length. Flowers there are very few. I see, now and then, a gorgeous crimson blossom on long spikes ornamenting the sombre foliage towards the summits of the forest. I suppose it to belong to a climber of the Combretaceous order. There are also a few yellow and violet Trumpet-flowers (Bignoniae). The blossoms of the Ingas, although not conspicuous, are delicately beautiful. The forest all along offers so dense a front that one never obtains a glimpse into the interior of the wilderness."

The length of the Jaburu channel is about thirty-five miles, allowing for the numerous abrupt bends which occur between the middle and the northern end of its course. We were three days and a half accomplishing the passage. The banks on each side seemed to be composed of hard river-mud with a thick covering of vegetable mold, so that I should imagine this whole district originated in a gradual accumulation of alluvium, through which the endless labyrinths of channels have worked their deep and narrow beds. The flood-tide as we travelled northward became gradually of less assistance to us, as it caused only a feeble current upwards. The pressure of the waters from the Amazons here makes itself felt; as this is not the case lower down, I suppose the currents are diverted through some of the numerous channels which we passed on our right, and which traverse, in their course towards the sea, the northwestern part of Marajo. In the evening of the 29th we arrived at a point where another channel joins the Jaburu from the northeast. Up this the tide was flowing; we turned westward, and thus met the flood coming from the Amazons. This point is the object of a strange superstitious observance on the part of the canoemen. It is said to be haunted by a Paje, or Indian wizard, whom it is necessary to propitiate by depositing some article on the spot, if the voyager wishes to secure a safe return from the "sertao," as the interior of the country is called. The trees were all hung with rags, shirts, straw hats, bunches of fruit, and so forth. Although the superstition doubtless originated with the aborigines, I observed in both my voyages, that it was only the Portuguese and uneducated Brazilians who deposited anything. The pure Indians gave nothing, and treated the whole affair as a humbug; but they were all civilised Tapuyos.

On the 30th, at 9 p.m., we reached a broad channel called Macaco, and now left the dark, echoing Jaburu. The Macaco sends off branches towards the northwest coast of Marajo. It is merely a passage amongst a cluster of islands, between which a glimpse is occasionally obtained of the broad waters of the main Amazons. A brisk wind carried us rapidly past its monotonous scenery, and early in the morning of the 1st of October we reached the entrance of the Uituquara, or the Wind-hole, which is fifteen miles distant from the end of the Jaburu. This is also a winding channel, thirty-five miles in length, threading a group of islands, but it is much narrower than the Macaco.

On emerging from the Uituquara on the 2nd, we all went ashore— the men to fish in a small creek; Joao da Cunha and I to shoot birds. We saw a flock of scarlet and blue macaws (Macrocercus Macao) feeding on the fruits of a Bacaba palm, and looking like a cluster of flaunting banners beneath its dark-green crown. We landed about fifty yards from the place, and crept cautiously through the forest, but before we reached them they flew off with loud harsh screams. At a wild fruit tree we were more successful, as my companion shot an anaca (Derotypus coronatus), one of the most beautiful of the parrot family. It is of a green colour, and has a hood of feathers, red bordered with blue, at the back of its head, which it can elevate or depress at pleasure. The anaca is the only new-world parrot which nearly resembles the cockatoo of Australia. It is found in all the lowlands throughout the Amazons region, but is not a common bird anywhere. Few persons succeed in taming it, and I never saw one that had been taught to speak. The natives are very fond of the bird nevertheless, and keep it in their houses for the sake of seeing the irascible creature expand its beautiful frill of feathers, which it readily does when excited.

The men returned with a large quantity of fish. I was surprised at the great variety of species; the prevailing kind was a species of Loricaria, a foot in length, and wholly encased in bony armour. It abounds at certain seasons in shallow water. The flesh is dry, but very palatable. They brought also a small alligator, which they called Jacare curua, and said it was a kind found only in shallow creeks. It was not more than two feet in length, although full-grown according to the statement of the Indians, who said it was a "mai d’ovos," or mother of eggs, as they had pillaged the nest, which they had found near the edge of the water. The eggs were rather larger than a hen’s, and regularly oval in shape, presenting a rough hard surface of shell. Unfortunately, the alligator was cut up ready for cooking when we returned to the schooner, and I could not therefore make a note of its peculiarities. The pieces were skewered and roasted over the fire, each man being his own cook. I never saw this species of alligator afterwards.

October 3rd—About midnight the wind, for which we had long been waiting, sprang up; the men weighed anchor, and we were soon fairly embarked on the Amazons. I rose long before sunrise to see the great river by moonlight. There was a spanking breeze, and the vessel was bounding gaily over the waters. The channel along which we were sailing was only a narrow arm of the river, about two miles in width: the total breadth at this point is more than twenty miles, but the stream is divided into three parts by a series of large islands. The river, notwithstanding this limitation of its breadth, had a most majestic appearance. It did not present that lake-like aspect which the waters of the Para and Tocantins affect, but had all the swing, so to speak, of a vast flowing stream. The ochre-coloured turbid waters offered also a great contrast to the rivers belonging to the Para system. The channel formed a splendid reach, sweeping from southwest to northeast, with a horizon of water and sky both upstream and down. At 11 a.m. we arrived at Gurupa, a small village situated on a rocky bank thirty or forty feet high. Here we landed, and I had an opportunity of rambling in the neighbouring woods, which are intersected by numerous pathways, and carpeted with Lycopodia growing to a height of eight or ten inches, and enlivened by numbers of glossy blue butterflies of the Theclidae or hairstreak family. At 5 p.m. we were again under way. Soon after sunset, as we were crossing the mouth of the Xingu, the first of the great tributaries of the Amazons, 1200 miles in length, a black cloud arose suddenly in the northeast. Joao da Cunha ordered all sails to be taken in, and immediately afterwards a furious squall burst forth, tearing the waters into foam, and producing a frightful uproar in the neighbouring forests. A drenching rain followed, but in half an hour all was again calm and the full moon appeared sailing in a cloudless sky.

From the mouth of the Xingu the route followed by vessels leads straight across the river, here ten miles broad. Towards midnight the wind failed us, when we were close to a large shoal called the Baixo Grande. We lay here becalmed in the sickening heat for two days, and when the trade-wind recommenced with the rising moon at 10 p.m. on the 6th, we found ourselves on a ice-shore. Notwithstanding all the efforts of our pilot to avoid it, we ran aground. Fortunately the bottom consisted only of soft mud, so that by casting anchor to windward, and hauling in with the whole strength of crew and passengers, we got off after spending an uncomfortable night. We rounded the point of the shoal in two fathoms’ water; the head of the vessel was then put westward, and by sunrise we were bounding forward before a steady breeze, all sail set and everybody in good humour.

The weather was now delightful for several days in succession, the air transparently clear, and the breeze cool and invigorating. At daylight, on the 6th, a chain of blue hills, the Serra de Almeyrim, appeared in the distance on the north bank of the river. The sight was most exhilarating after so long a sojourn in a flat country. We kept to the southern shore, passing in the course of the day the mouths of the Urucuricaya and the Aquiqui, two channels which communicate with the Xingu. The whole of this southern coast hence to near Santarem, a distance of 130 miles, is lowland and quite uninhabited. It is intersected by short arms or back waters of the Amazons, which are called in the Tupi language Paranamirims, or little rivers. By keeping to these, small canoes can travel a great part of the distance without being much exposed to the heavy seas of the main river. The coast throughout has a most desolate aspect; the forest is not so varied as on the higher land; and the water-frontage, which is destitute of the green mantle of climbing plants that form so rich a decoration in other parts, is encumbered at every step with piles of fallen trees; and peopled by white egrets, ghostly storks, and solitary herons.

In the evening we passed Almeyrim. The hills, according to Von Martius, who landed here, are about 800 feet above the level of the river, and are thickly wooded to the summit. They commence on the east by a few low isolated and rounded elevations; but towards the west of the village, they assume the appearance of elongated ridges which seem as if they had been planed down to a uniform height by some external force. The next day we passed in succession a series of similar flat-topped hills, some isolated and of a truncated-pyramidal shape, others prolonged to a length of several miles. There is an interval of low country between these and the Almeyrim range, which has a total length of about twenty-five miles; then commences abruptly the Serra de Marauaqua, which is succeeded in a similar way by the Velha Pobre range, the Serras de Tapaiuna-quara, and Paraua-quara. All these form a striking contrast to the Serra de Almeyrim in being quite destitute of trees. They have steep rugged sides, apparently clothed with short herbage, but here and there exposing bare white patches. Their total length is about forty miles. In the Tear, towards the interior, they are succeeded by other ranges of hills communicating with the central mountain-chain of Guiana, which divides Brazil from Cayenne.

As we sailed along the southern shore, during the 6th and two following days, the table-topped hills on the opposite side occupied most of our attention. The river is from four to five miles broad, and in some places long, low wooded islands intervene in mid-stream, whose light-green, vivid verdure formed a strangely beautiful foreground to the glorious landscape of broad stream and grey mountain. Ninety miles beyond Almeyrim stands the village of Monte Alegre, which is built near the summit of the last hill visible of this chain. At this point the river bends a little towards the south, and the hilly country recedes from its shores to reappear at Obydos, greatly decreased in height, about a hundred miles further west.

We crossed the river three times between Monte Alegre and the next town, Santarem. In the middle the waves ran very high, and the vessel lurched fearfully, hurling everything that was not well secured from one side of the deck to the other. On the morning of the 9th of October, a gentle wind carried us along a "remanso," or still water, under the southern shore. These tracts of quiet water are frequent on the irregular sides of the stream, and are the effect of counter movements caused by the rapid current of its central parts. At 9 a.m. we passed the mouth of a Parana-mirim, called Mahica, and then found a sudden change in the colour of the water and aspect of the banks. Instead of the low and swampy water-frontage which had prevailed from the mouth of the Xingu, we saw before us a broad sloping beach of white sand. The forest, instead of being an entangled mass of irregular and rank vegetation as hitherto, presented a rounded outline, and created an impresssion of repose that was very pleasing. We now approached, in fact, the mouth of the Tapajos, whose clear olivegreen waters here replaced the muddy current against which we had so long been sailing. Although this is a river of great extent— 1000 miles in length, and, for the last eighty miles of its course, four to ten in breadth—its contribution to the Amazons is not perceptible in the middle of the stream. The white turbid current of the main river flows disdainfully by, occupying nearly the whole breadth of the channel, while the darker water of its tributary seems to creep along the shore, and is no longer distinguishable four or five miles from its mouth.

We reached Santarem at 11 a.m. The town has a clean and cheerful appearance from the river. It consists of three long streets, with a few short ones crossing them at right angles, and contains about 2500 inhabitants. It lies just within the mouth of Tapajos, and is divided into two parts, the town and the aldeia or village. The houses of the white and trading classes are substantially built, many being of two and three stories, and all white-washed and tiled. The aldeia, which contains the Indian portion of the population, or did so formerly, consists mostly of mud huts, thatched with palm leaves. The situation of the town is very beautiful. The land, although but slightly elevated, does not form, strictly speaking, a portion of the alluvial river plains of the Amazons, but is rather a northern prolongation of the Brazilian continental land. It is scantily wooded, and towards the interior consists of undulating campos, which are connected with a series of hills extending southward as far as the eye can reach. I subsequently made this place my headquarters for three years; an account of its neighbourhood is therefore, reserved for another chapter. At the first sight of Santarem, one cannot help being struck with the advantages of its situation. Although 400 miles from the sea, it is accessible to vessels of heavy tonnage coming straight from the Atlantic. The river has only two slight bends between this port and the sea, and for five or six months in the year the Amazonian trade wind blows with very little interruption, so that sailing ships coming from foreign countries could reach the place with little difficulty. We ourselves had accomplished 200 miles, or about half the distance from the sea, in an ill-rigged vessel, in three days and a half. Although the land in the immediate neighbourhood is perhaps ill adapted for agriculture, an immense tract of rich soil, with forest and meadowland, lies on the opposite banks of the river, and the Tapajos leads into the heart of the mining provinces of interior Brazil. But where is the population to come from to develop the resources of this fine country? At present, the district within a radius of twenty-five miles contains barely 6500 inhabitants; behind the town, towards the interior, the country is uninhabited, and jaguars roam nightly, at least in the rainy season, close up to the ends of the suburban streets.

From information obtained here, I fixed upon the next town, Obydos, as the best place to stay for a few weeks, in order to investigate the natural productions of the north side of the Lower Amazons. We started at sunrise on the 10th, and being still favoured by wind and weather, made a pleasant passage, reaching Obydos, which is nearly fifty miles distant from Santarem, by midnight. We sailed all day close to the southern shore, and found the banks here and there dotted with houses of settlers, each surrounded by its plantation of cacao, which is the staple product of the district. This coast has an evil reputation for storms and mosquitoes, but we fortunately escaped both. It was remarkable that we had been troubled by mosquitoes only on one night, and then to a small degree, during the whole of our voyage.

I landed at Obydos the next morning, and then bid adieu to my kind friend Joao da Cunha, who, after landing my baggage, got up his anchor and continued on his way. The town contains about 1200 inhabitants, and is airily situated on a high bluff, ninety or a hundred feet above the level of the river. The coast is precipitous for two or three miles hence to the west. The cliffs consist of the parti-coloured clay, or Tabatinga, which occurs so frequently throughout the Amazons region; the strong current of the river sets full against them in the season of high water, and annually carries away large portions. The clay in places is stratified alternately pink and yellow, the pink beds being the thickest and of much harder texture than the others.

When I descended the river in 1859, a German Major of Engineers, in the employ of the Government, told me that he had found calcareous layers, thickly studded with marine shells interstratified with the clay. On the top of the Tabatinga lies a bed of sand, in some places several feet thick, and the whole formation rests on strata of sandstone, which are exposed only when the river reaches its lowest level. Behind the town rises a fine rounded hill, and a range of similar elevations extends six miles westward, terminating at the mouth of the Trombetas, a large river flowing through the interior of Guiana. Hills and lowlands alike are covered with a sombre rolling forest. The river here is contracted to a breadth of rather less than a mile (1738 yards), and the entire volume of its waters, the collective product of a score of mighty streams, is poured through the strait with tremendous velocity. It must be remarked, however, that the river valley itself is not contracted to this breadth, the opposite shore not being continental land, but a low alluvial tract, subject to inundation more or less in the rainy season. Behind it lies an extensive lake, called the Lago Grande da Villa Franca, which communicates with the Amazons, both above and below Obydos, and has therefore, the appearance of a by-water or an old channel of the river. This lake is about thirty-five miles in length, and from four to ten in width; but its waters are of little depth, and in the dry season its dimensions are much lessened. It has no perceptible current, and does not therefore, now divert any portion of the waters of the Amazons from their main course past Obydos.

I remained at Obydos from the 11th of October to the 19th of November. I spent three weeks here, also, in 1859, when the place was much changed through the influx of Portuguese immigrants and the building of a fortress on the top of the bluff. It is one of the pleasantest towns on the river. The houses are all roofed with tiles, and are mostly of substantial architecture. The inhabitants, at least at the time of my first visit, were naive in their ways, kind and sociable. Scarcely any palm-thatched huts are to be seen, for very few Indians now reside here. It was one of the early settlements of the Portuguese, and the better class of the population consists of old-established white families, who exhibit however, in some cases, traces of cross with the Indian and negro. Obydos and Santarem have received, during the last eighty years, considerable importations of negro slaves; before that time, a cruel traffic was carried on in Indians for the same purpose of forced servitude, but their numbers have gradually dwindled away, and Indians now form an insignificant element in the population of the district.

Most of the Obydos townsfolk are owners of cacao plantations, which are situated on the low lands in the vicinity. Some are large cattle proprietors, and possess estates of many square leagues’ extent in the campo, or grass-land districts, which border the Lago Grande, and other similar inland lakes, near the villages of Faro and Alemquer. These campos bear a crop of nutritious grass; but in certain seasons, when the rising of the Amazons exceeds the average, they are apt to be flooded, and then the large herds of half wild cattle suffer great mortality from drowning, hunger, and alligators. Neither in cattle-keeping nor cacao-growing are any but the laziest and most primitive methods followed, and the consequence is that the proprietors are generally poor. A few, however, have become rich by applying a moderate amount of industry and skill to the management of their estates. People spoke of several heiresses in the neighbourhood whose wealth was reckoned in oxen and slaves; a dozen slaves and a few hundred head of cattle being considered a great fortune. Some of them I saw had already been appropriated by enterprising young men, who had come from Para and Maranham to seek their fortunes in this quarter.

The few weeks I spent here passed away pleasantly. I generally spent the evenings in the society of the townspeople, who associated together (contrary to Brazilian custom) in European fashion; the different families meeting at one another’s houses for social amusement, bachelor friends not being excluded, and the whole company, married and single, joining in simple games. The meetings used to take place in the sitting-rooms, and not in the open verandas—a fashion almost compulsory on account of the mosquitoes; but the evenings here are very cool, and the closeness of a room is not so much felt as it is in Para. Sunday was strictly observed at Obydos—at least all the shops were closed, and almost the whole population went to church. The Vicar, Padre Raimundo do Sanchez Brito, was an excellent old man, and I fancy the friendly manners of the people, and the general purity of morals at Obydos, were owing in great part to the good example he set to his parishioners.

The forest at Obydos seemed to abound in monkeys, for I rarely passed a day without seeing several. I noticed four species: the Coaita (Ateles paniscus), the Chrysothrix sciureus, the Callithrix torquatus, and our old Para friend, Midas ursulus. The Coaita is a large black monkey, covered with coarse hair, and having the prominent parts of the face of a tawny flesh-coloured hue. It is the largest of the Amazonian monkeys in stature, but is excelled in bulk by the "Barrigudo" (Lagothrix Humboldtii) of the Upper Amazons. It occurs throughout the lowlands of the Lower and Upper Amazons, but does not range to the south beyond the limits of the river plains. At that point an allied species, the White-whiskered Coaita (Ateles marginatus) takes its place. The Coaitas are called by zoologists spider monkeys, on account of the length and slenderness of their body and limbs. In these apes the tail, as a prehensile organ, reaches its highest degree of perfection; and on this account it would, perhaps, be correct to consider the Coaitas as the extreme development of the American type of apes. As far as we know, from living and fossil species, the New World has progressed no farther than the Coaita towards the production of a higher form of the Quadrumanous order. The tendency of Nature here has been, to all appearance, simply to perfect those organs which adapt the species more and more completely to a purely arboreal life; and no nearer approach has been made towards the more advanced forms of anthropoid apes, which are the products of the Old World solely. The flesh of this monkey is much esteemed by the natives in this part of the country, and the Military Commandant of Obydos, Major Gama, every week sent a negro hunter to shoot one for his table. One day I went on a Coaita hunt, borrowing a negro slave of a friend to show me the way. When in the deepest part of a ravine we heard a rustling sound in the trees overheard, and Manoel soon pointed out a Coaita to me. There was something human-like in its appearance, as the lean, dark, shaggy creature moved deliberately amongst the branches at a great height. I fired, but unfortunately only wounded it in the belly. It fell with a crash headlong about twenty or thirty feet, and then caught a bough with its tail, which grasped it instantaneously, and then the animal remained suspended in mid-air. Before I could reload, it recovered itself and mounted nimbly to the topmost branches out of the reach of a fowling-piece, where we could perceive the poor thing apparently probing the wound with its fingers.

Coaitas are more frequently kept in a tame state than any other kind of monkey. The Indians are very fond of them as pets, and the women often suckle them when young at their breasts. They become attached to their masters, and will sometimes follow them on the ground to considerable distances. I once saw a most ridiculously tame Coaita. It was an old female which accompanied its owner, a trader on the river, in all his voyages. By way of giving me a specimen of its intelligence and feeling, its master set to and rated it soundly, calling it scamp, heathen, thief, and so forth, all through the copious Portuguese vocabulary of vituperation. The poor monkey, quietly seated on the ground, seemed to be in sore trouble at this display of anger. It began by looking earnestly at him, then it whined, and lastly rocked its body to and fro with emotion, crying piteously, and passing its long gaunt arms continually over its forehead; for this was its habit when excited, and the front of the head was worn quite bald in consequence. At length its master altered his tone. "It’s all a lie, my old woman; you’re an angel, a flower, a good affectionate old creature," and so forth. Immediately the poor monkey ceased its wailing, and soon after came over to where the man sat. The disposition of the Coaita is mild in the extreme— it has none of the painful, restless vivacity of its kindred, the Cebi, and no trace of the surly, untameable temper of its still nearer relatives, the Mycetes, or howling monkeys. It is, however, an arrant thief, and shows considerable cunning in pilfering small articles of clothing, which it conceals in its sleeping place. The natives of the Upper Amazons procure the Coaita, when full grown, by shooting it with the blowpipe and poisoned darts, and restoring life by putting a little salt (the antidote to the Urari poison with which the darts are tipped) in its mouth. The animals thus caught become tame forthwith. Two females were once kept at the Jardin des Plantes of Paris, and Geoffroy St. Hilaire relates of them that they rarely quitted each other, remaining most of the time in close embrace, folding their tails around one another’s bodies. They took their meals together; and it was remarked on such occasions, when the friendship of animals is put to a hard test, that they never quarrelled or disputed the possession of a favourite fruit with each other.

The neighbourhood of Obydos was rich also in insects. In the broad alleys of the forest a magnificent butterfly of the genus Morpho, six to eight inches in expanse, the Morpho Hecuba, was seen daily gliding along at a height of twenty feet or more from the ground. Amongst the lower trees and bushes numerouskinds of Heliconii, a group of butterflies peculiar to tropical America, having long narrow wings, were very abundant. The prevailing ground colour of the wings of these insects is a deep black, and on this are depicted spots and streaks of crimson, white, and bright yellow, in different patterns according to the species. Their elegant shape, showy colours, and slow, sailing mode of flight, make them very attractive objects, and their numbers are so great that they form quite a feature in the physiognomy of the forest, compensating for the scarcity of flowers.

Next to the Heliconii, the Catagrammas (C. astarte and C. peristera) were the most conspicuous. These have a very rapid and short flight, settling frequently and remaining stationary for a long time on the trunks of trees. The colours of their wings are vermilion and black, the surface having a rich velvety appearance. The genus owes its Greek name Catagramma (signifying "a letter beneath") to the curious markings of the underside of the wings, resembling Arabic numerals. The species and varieties are of almost endless diversity, but the majority inhabit the hot valleys of the eastern parts of the Andes. Another butterfly nearly allied to these, Callithea Leprieurii, was also very abundant here at the marshy head of the pool before mentioned. The wings are of a rich dark-blue colour, with a broad border of silvery green. These two groups of Callithea and Catagramma are found only in tropical America, chiefly near the equator, and are certainly amongst the most beautiful productions of a region where the animals and plants seem to have been fashioned in nature’s choicest moulds.

A great variety of other beautiful and curious insects adorned these pleasant woods. Others were seen only in the sunshine in open places. As the waters retreated from the beach, vast numbers of sulphur-yellow and orange coloured butterflies congregated on the moist sand. The greater portion of them belonged to the genus Callidryas. They assembled in densely-packed masses, sometimes two or three yards in circumference, their wings all held in an upright position, so that the beach looked as though variegated with beds of crocuses. These Callidryades seem to be migratory insects, and have large powers of dissemination. During the last two days of our voyage, the great numbers constantly passing over the river attracted the attention of every one on board. They all crossed in one direction, namely, from north to south, and the processions were uninterrupted from an early hour in the morning until sunset. All the individuals which resort to the margins of sandy beaches are of the male sex. The females are much more rare, and are seen only on the borders of the forest, wandering from tree to tree, and depositing their eggs on low mimosas which grow in the shade. The migrating hordes, as far as I could ascertain, are composed only of males, and on this account I believe their wanderings do not extend very far.

A strange kind of wood-cricket is found in this neighbourhood, the males of which produce a very loud and not unmusical noise by rubbing together the overlapping edges of their wing-cases. The notes are certainly the loudest and most extraordinary that I ever heard produced by an orthopterous insect. The natives call it the Tanana, in allusion to its music, which is a sharp, resonant stridulation resembling the syllables ta-na-na, ta-nana, succeeding each other with little intermission. It seems to be rare in the neighbourhood. When the natives capture one, they keep it in a wicker-work cage for the sake of hearing it sing. A friend of mine kept one six days. It was lively only for two or three, and then its loud note could be heard from one end of the village to the other. When it died he gave me the specimen, the only one I was able to procure. It is a member of the family Locustidae, a group intermediate between the Cricket (Achetidae) and the Grasshoppers (Acridiidae). The total length of the body is two inches and a quarter; when the wings are closed the insect has an inflated vesicular or bladder-like shape, owing to the great convexity of the thin but firm parchmenty wing-cases, and the colour is wholly pale-green. The instrument by which the Tanana produces its music is curiously contrived out of the ordinary nervures of the wing-cases. In each wing-case the inner edge, near its origin, has a horny expansion or lobe; on one wing (b) this lobe has sharp raised margins; on the other (a), the strong nervure which traverses the lobe on the under side is crossed by a number of fine sharp furrows like those of a file. When the insect rapidly moves its wings, the file of the one lobe is scraped sharply across the horny margin of the other, thus producing the sounds; the parchmenty wing-cases and the hollow drum-like space which they enclose assist in giving resonance to the tones. The projecting portions of both wing-cases are traversed by a similar strong nervure, but this is scored like a file only in one of them, in the other remaining perfectly smooth.

Other species of the family to which the Tanana belongs have similar stridulating organs, but in none are these so highly developed as in this insect; they exist always in the males only, the other sex having the edges of the wing-cases quite straight and simple. The mode of producing the sounds and their object have been investigated by several authors with regard to certain European species. They are the call-notes of the males. In the common field-cricket of Europe the male has been observed to place itself, in the evening, at the entrance of its burrow, and stridulate until a female approaches, when the louder notes are succeeded by a more subdued tone, while the successful musician caresses with his antennae the mate he has won. Anyone who will take the trouble may observe a similar proceeding in the common house-cricket. The nature and object of this insect music are more uniform than the structure and situation of the instrument by which it is produced. This differs in each of the three allied families above mentioned. In the crickets the wing-cases are symmetrical; both have straight edges and sharply-scored nervures adapted to produce the stridulation. A distinct portion of their edges is not, therefore, set apart for the elaboration of a sound-producing instrument. In this family the wing-cases lie flat on the back of the insect, and overlap each other for a considerable portion of their extent. In the Locustidae the same members have a sloping position on each side of the body, and do not overlap, except to a small extent near their bases; it is out of this small portion that the stridulating organ is contrived. Greater resonance is given in most species by a thin transparent plate, covered by a membrane, in the centre of the overlapping lobes. In the Grasshoppers (Acridiidae) the wing-cases meet in a straight suture, and the friction of portions of their edges is no longer possible. But Nature exhibits the same fertility of resource here as elsewhere; and in contriving other methods of supplying the males with an instrument for the production of call-notes indicates the great importance which she attaches to this function. The music in the males of the Acridiidae is produced by the scraping of the long hind thighs against the horny nervures of the outer edges of the wing-cases; a drumshaped organ placed in a cavity near the insertion of the thighs being adapted to give resonance to the tones.

I obtained very few birds at Obydos. There was no scarcity of birds, but they were mostly common Cayenne species. In early morning, the woods near my house were quite animated with their songs—an unusual thing in this country. I heard here for the first time the pleasing wild notes of the Carashue, a species of thrush, probably the Mimus lividus of ornithologists. I found it afterwards to be a common bird in the scattered woods of the campo district near Santarem. It is a much smaller and plainercoloured bird than our thrush, and its song is not so loud, varied, or so long sustained; but the tone is of a sweet and plaintive quality, which harmonises well with the wild and silent woodlands, where alone it is heard in the mornings and evenings of sultry tropical days. In course of time the song of this humble thrush stirred up pleasing associations in my mind, in the same way as those of its more highly endowed sisters formerly did at home. There are several allied species in Brazil; in the southern provinces they are called Sabiahs. The Brazilians are not insensible to the charms of this their best songster, for I often heard some pretty verses in praise of the Sabiah sung by young people to the accompaniment of the guitar.

I found several times the nest of the Carashue, which is built of dried grass and slender twigs, and lined with mud; the eggs are coloured and spotted like those of our blackbird, but they are considerably smaller. I was much pleased with a brilliant little red-headed mannikin, which I shot here (Pipra cornuta). There were three males seated on a low branch, and hopping slowly backwards and forwards, near to one another, as though engaged in a kind of dance. In the pleasant airy woods surrounding the sandy shores of the pool behind the town, the yellow-bellied Trogon (T. viridis) was very common. Its back is of a brilliant metallicgreen colour, and the breast steel blue. The natives call it the Suruqua do Ygapo, or Trogon of the flooded lands, in contradistinction to the red-breasted species, which are named Surtiquas da terra firma. I often saw small companies of half a dozen individuals quietly seated on the lower branches of trees. They remained almost motionless for an hour or two at a time, simply moving their heads, on the watch for passing insects; or, as seemed more generally to be the case, scanning the neighbouring trees for fruit, which they darted off now and then, at long intervals to secure, returning always to the same perch.


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Chicago: Henry Walter Bates, "Chapter VI the Lower Amazons-Para to Obydos," The Naturalist on the River Amazons, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in The Naturalist on the River Amazons (London: Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues)), Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2022,

MLA: Bates, Henry Walter. "Chapter VI the Lower Amazons-Para to Obydos." The Naturalist on the River Amazons, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in The Naturalist on the River Amazons, Vol. Volume One, London, Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Bates, HW, 'Chapter VI the Lower Amazons-Para to Obydos' in The Naturalist on the River Amazons, ed. and trans. . cited in November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), The Naturalist on the River Amazons, Smith, Elder & Co., London. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2022, from