The Swiss Family Robinson

Author: Johann Wyss  | Date: 1813


Despatches from the Interior- The Pigeon Letter Post-

A Heron Royal- A Tapir- War with the Monkeys- Fearful Night Cries

THE NEXT MORNING, Ernest rose before me, and paid a visit to the dove-cot; I said nothing; and after breakfast I saw him coming in, holding in his hand a piece of paper, folded and sealed like a government letter, which he presented to me on bended knees, saying, as he did so, ’Noble and gracious lord of these lands, I beg you to excuse the postmaster of Felsenheim for the delay that the despatches from Sydney and New Holland have experienced; the packet was retarded, and did not arrive till very late last evening.’

His mother and I burst into a laugh at this ridiculous speech.

’Well,’ replied I, continuing the jest, ’what are our subjects in Sydney and New Holland engaged in? Will the secretary open and read the despatches?’

At these words, Ernest broke the seal of the paper, and, elevating his voice, commenced-

The Governor-General of New Holland, to the Governor of Felsenheim, Falcon’s Nest, Waldegg, the Field of the Sugar-Canes, and the surrounding country .


’Noble and faithful ally! We learn with displeasure that three men, whom we suppose to be part of your colony, are making inroads into our savannas, and doing much damage to the animals of the province; we have also learned that frightful hyenas have broken through the limits of our quarter, and killed many of the domestic animals of our colonists. We therefore beg you, on one part, to call back your starving huntsmen; on the other, to provide measures to purge the country of the hyenas and other ferocious beasts that infest it. Especially I pray God, my Lord Governor, that He will keep you under His holy protection.

’Done under our hand and seal at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, the twelfth day of the eighth month of the thirty-fourth year of the colony.


Ernest stopped in laughter at the effect the letter produced on us. I felt that there was some mystery, and I was anxious to get at the bottom of it. Ernest enjoyed my evident embarrassment, and, jumping up and down as children do, he let fall a new paper from his pocket. I caught it up, and was going to read it, when he laid his hand on my arm, saying-

’Those also are despatches; they came from Waldegg, and, although less pompous than General Phillipson’s, perhaps they are more truthful. Listen, then, to a letter from Waldegg-’

’Oh, do explain to us,’ said I, ’this prolonged enigma. Did your brothers leave a letter before they went? Is the news of the hyena true? Did they act so rashly as to attack the animal?’

’Here is a letter from Fritz,’ replied Ernest; ’my pigeon brought it to me last night.’

’Thanks, many thanks, my dear child, for your idea,’ said his mother; ’but this hyena! oh, quick, read me the letter.’

He opened the paper and read the following words:-

’DEAR PARENTS, and you, my good ERNEST- I will inform you of our arrival at Waldegg; we there found a hyena, who had devoured several of our sheep. Francis alone has all the honour of having killed the monster, and he deserves much praise for his intrepidity: we have passed the whole day in preparing the skin, which is very fine, and will be very useful. The pemmican is the most detestable stuff I ever tasted. Adieu! we embrace you tenderly in spirit.


’A true hunter’s letter,’ cried I. ’But this hyena, how could it have found its way into our domains? Has the palisade been overturned?’

’We shall probably receive another letter this evening,’ said Ernest, and that will give us further details of the expedition.’

After dinner a new pigeon was seen to enter the dove-cot. Ernest, who had not remained quiet one moment during the day, immediately shut the door of the dove-cot, removed from the wing of the aerial messenger the despatch he had brought, and delivered it to us; it read as follows:-

’The night has been fine- the weather beautiful- excursion in cajack on lake- capture of some black swans- several new animals- apparition and sudden flight of an aquatic beast, entirely unknown to us- to-morrow at Prospect Hill.

’Be of good cheer;

’Your sons,


’It is almost a telegraphic despatch,’ said I, laughing; ’it could not be more concise. Our huntsmen would rather fire a gun than write a sentence; nevertheless, their letter tranquillises me; but I really hope that the hyena which they killed is the only one in the country.’

We received other letters from them at intervals; but they were so concise that I will continue here the narration the boys made on their return.

Delivered from the terrible neighbourhood of the hyena, they had undertaken to explore the marsh around the Lake of Swans. Fritz embarked in the cajack, and his brothers followed, as near as possible to him, along the shore. The black swans afforded a fine chase to our young huntsmen. A loop of wire fastened to a long bamboo was the means they employed; but they captured only three young swans, the old ones being too strong, and defending themselves with their powerful wings.

After the swans came a bird of a new kind, who, by his majestic walk and noble appearance, seemed the king of birds. The boys threw the wire loop over his head, and, drawing him to the shore, fastened his feet and wings, and laid him alongside the swans.

While they were occupied in examining their magnificent prey, which Ernest afterward pronounced to be the ’heron royal,’ an extraordinary animal rushed out from the weeds, and passing close to their sides, struck them with terror. It was an animal about the size of a young foal, of a form like that of the rhinoceros, only it had not the horn on the nose which that animal has; the upper lip was very prominent, and the whole body of a very dark brown colour. My three huntsmen were not very distinguished naturalists, and the best name they could find for the beast was the Tapir or Anta of South America.

The tapir is an animal which is commonly found in Guiana and Brazil. The form of its body resembles that of the pig, and its upper lip is much longer than the lower; its throat is armed with four teeth, its eyes are small, its ears round and drooping; its tail is short, pyramidically shaped and destitute of hair. It has legs and feet like the wild boar, and has four nails on the hind, and three on the fore, feet. The hair of the tapir is short, and, when the animal is young, spotted with white; but as it grows older it becomes a dark, uniform brown. The tapir is a most excellent swimmer; it will dive down and pass a great distance under the water, thus defying all attempts of the hunters to take it. Naturalists say that the tapir sleeps all day under water, and at night roams through the forest in search of food. The Portuguese were the first that gave it the name of ’anta.’ The savages think the flesh of this animal equal to beef; they also cover their shields with the skin, which is very hard and durable.

Fritz was unacquainted with its characteristics when the animal appeared. He began, however, to pursue it in his cajack; but the tapir swam away so rapidly that he was soon obliged to desist. During this time Jack and Francis had set out for the hut, carrying with them the black swans and the beautiful heron royal. In their way thither they encountered a flock of cranes, which hovered around their heads, uttering piercing cries. A great number were soon brought down, not by fire-arms, but by the bows which the boys carried. These were provided with long, triangular-pointed arrows.

Our huntsmen, after all their exertions, had acquired a most ferocious appetite; and although their repast was frugal, yet they did it ample justice. The cold meat of the peccary, guavas, cinnamon apples, and potatoes cooked in the ashes, were all devoured with thankfulness. The pemmican alone was disdained, and declared unworthy of its reputation.

Before night, our young adventurers filled a sack with ripe rice; they also gathered a quantity of cotton, which they intended to carry the next day to Prospect Hill, the end of their proposed excursion. Fritz, who had brought with him some of the euphorbia to poison the monkeys, needed some cocoa-nuts, divided in two, to hold the baits for the mischievous animals. My sons did not like the trouble of climbing a tree, so they chose out one that was loaded with fruit, and cutting it down, as the Caribbees do, they obtained a supply of cocoa-nuts and two enormous palm cabbages.

When they told me of this, I reproved them for cutting down the tree, and forbade them ever doing the like again. The palm is one of the most beautiful trees in the country, and unites in itself the most precious vegetable riches; and I tried to impress it on their minds that it was wrong to cut down anything that could be rendered useful in its natural position.

My sons quitted Waldegg and directed their course toward Prospect Hill; but I will let Fritz tell the story himself.

’On entering the wood of pines,’ said he, ’we were greeted by a concert of sharp cries which proceeded from every tree; they came from the monkeys, who sat among the branches, grinning most horribly at us. From grimaces they passed to blows, and we soon felt a shower of pine-apples, which might have hurt us severely if we had not discharged our pistols, and frightened away the whole tribe. This reception did not increase my benevolent feelings toward the monkeys, and confirmed me in my project to chastise them. We found on the borders of the wood a sort of millet, about ten feet in height, which I easily recognised as being the doura, or black millet. This field was very large; but in different places the stalks were broken down, as if a hail-storm had passed over it. We hastened to reach Prospect Hill, and on approaching it we easily perceived that the monkeys had been there. Our plantations had been ravaged, and our little farm-house devastated and infected by the ordure the villainous animals had left behind them. We cleaned out the interior with a broom of millet. I cannot express our rage and disappointment. We passed the afternoon in endeavouring to construct a place to protect us against any attack from the horrid animals during the night. I must here, my dear parents,’ continued Fritz, ’beg pardon for a fault of which I must plead guilty. I took the gum of the euphorbia without asking your permission, for I was afraid that you would not trust me with it. We commenced the preparations for our work before night. The cocoa-nuts and calabashes which we had brought were all put into requisition; we filled them with rice, guavas, palm-wine, and all sorts of enticing ingredients. To each one of these articles I added a portion of the gum of the euphorbia, and then scattered those snares all over the forest, and awaited the issue of the morrow. We were about to retire to our mattresses of cotton, when suddenly a brilliant light lighted up the horizon, and we thought at first that it was a ship on fire. We immediately quitted the hut and ran as fast as possible to the summit of Cape Disappointment. It appeared to be a mass of fire, perfectly round, which arose from the bosom of the waves and elevated itself above their surface. It was the moon. I do not think I ever saw a more marvellous sight. The sea was calm, the waves were dashing gently against the foot of the cape; the evening breeze scarcely ruffled the smooth surface, on which the beautiful moon shone down, and in which she reflected all her splendour. We remained some time gazing on this scene in silence; but the calm contemplation in which we became absorbed was suddenly interrupted by a discord of the most diabolical sounds I ever heard. It was a confused mixture of bellowings, groans, and piercing screams. In answer to these formidable accents, our dogs responded by long-drawn barks, and the jackal yelled in sympathy with the cries of his fellows, that grated on our ears in the direction of the savanna. We heard the piercing cry of a wild horse, mingled with a deep, sonorous growl, which I felt sure proceeded from a lion or a tiger. This singular amalgamation of sounds lasted about a quarter of an hour. We were about to descend when we heard the galloping of a horse in the distance, and we regained our hut, full of apprehension that there was an elephant or a hippopotamus in the neighbourhood. We found everything tranquil about the hut; but we had scarcely laid our heads on our pillows when another outburst commenced in the pine wood. It was at first a solo; but voices gradually joined in, and the noise was so shrill and piercing that it nearly split our ears; and our dogs, whom we had fastened to the stakes of the hut, kept up a most deafening clamour in response. It was impossible for us to sleep a wink: the howling and screaming continued all night, and I felt heartily glad when morning arrived. We arose eager to ascertain the results of the night. Alas! we found all our musicians asleep on the earth; but it was an eternal sleep. There lay the monkeys, who had partaken of the fatal meal we had prepared for them. The earth was strewn with their dead bodies, evincing that the euphorbia had produced a most terrible effect. We threw the poisoned monkeys and the utensils we had used into the ocean, and felt rejoiced that our disgusting and hideous work was accomplished. It was then that Jack composed the famous letter, which you were so unfortunate as not to receive. Here it is, a splendid specimen of the sublime and beautiful:-


’"the llth, 12th, and 13th inst.

’"The caravansary of Prospect Hill has been cleaned and again rendered habitable; pain and trouble did the labour cost us; but the guilty ones have paid for it with their blood. Nemesis has poured poison into the cup of vengeance, and Ocean rolls its waves over the dead bodies of the traitors. The sun smiled benignly on our departure this morning; and he will bid us adieu this evening at the defile of the savanna.

’"Valete, valete."’ *

* Farewell, farewell.

I will now resume the narrative myself, and explain the effect of Jack’s letter, which we really had received. The passage about Ocean and the dead bodies puzzled me, as I did not then know what I have just now written, and which was afterward told me by Fritz. Another despatch arrived, which added to my anxiety. It contained the following words:-

’The palisade of the defile which leads to the savanna is destroyed; the sugar-canes have been all trampled down, and we have discovered large foot-prints, like those of the elephant, in the sands. There are also the prints of the hoofs of wild horses. Come quickly to our aid, dear parents; there is much to do for the safety of the colony. Lose not an instant, we beg of you.’

I leave it to the reader to imagine the inquietude into which this letter threw me. I saddled the onager without losing a moment, and, leaving Ernest and his mother to follow me on the next day, I set off for the defile. There was a distance of six leagues between my sons and me; but I accomplished it in three hours.

My children were surprised to see me arrive so promptly, and they received me with transports of joy. The idea I had entertained of the devastation was but faint in comparison with the reality. The sugar-canes were irretrievably lost: they had been trampled down, and the leaves torn off, by some animal that I was sure must have been an elephant. All our trouble in erecting the palisade had been wasted; the stakes had been all torn up, the trees near by deprived of their bark, the bamboos had been treated no better than the sugar-canes, and every young shrub I had planted had been torn up. I examined attentively the foot-prints in the sand, and was convinced that the larger ones were those of the elephant, and the smaller ones those of a hippopotamus; but I could discover no traces of the hyena. I surrounded our tent with dry branches, and amassed an abundant provision of combustibles, so that we might keep off any beasts by fires at night. We each took our turns in watching and replenishing them; but nothing troubled our repose.

Ernest and his mother arrived after dinner, bringing with them the waggon, the cow, the ass, and all necessary utensils for our encampment, which was likely to last a good while.

We immediately began the construction of a solid fortification across the defile, one that would effectually keep out all intruders. I will spare my readers the details of this tiresome work, which occupied us constantly for more than a month. My good Elizabeth shared in our toils, and inspired her sons with ardour and perseverance. Sometimes we would relax from our labours; Fritz would make excursions in his cajack, and the other boys would wander off, and always bring us home something useful.


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Chicago: Johann Wyss, "51," The Swiss Family Robinson Original Sources, accessed May 28, 2024,

MLA: Wyss, Johann. "51." The Swiss Family Robinson, Original Sources. 28 May. 2024.

Harvard: Wyss, J, '51' in The Swiss Family Robinson. Original Sources, retrieved 28 May 2024, from