Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

The Wonderful Amazon

The Amazon is the most wonderful river in the world. In the first place, it is the largest river in the world and has more navigable tributaries than any other. Ocean steamers may ascend it for more than two thousand miles and smaller steamers for nearly a thousand miles further.

At its mouth it is about two hundred miles wide. It is a vast river system, containing more than three hundred and fifty branches and tributaries and draining nearly half of South America.

In fact, the Amazon is too large even to have one name, and until South America was explored the various tribes of Indians gave different names to the parts inhabited by them. Even today it is divided' into three parts and called by three names. It is the Amazon from its mouth to where the Rio Negro empties into it. From the Rio Negro to the Peruvian border it is called the Solimoes; and in Peru it is known as the Maranon. People say that it has many tributaries as large as the Hudson or the Potomac that have never been explored and are wholly unknown to geography.

The great valley had much interest for former President Roosevelt, who had a desire to visit this back country of Brazil and explore some of its rivers. In 1914, five years after his term of office as president of the United States had expired, he explored one of the Amazonian tributaries, which he called "The River of Doubt." He chose to enter the country not by way of the Amazon but by the Rio de la Plata. Thence he sailed up the Paraguay several hundred miles and, crossing overland a comparatively small distance, came to "The River of Doubt." Few knew anything of this river at that time, what its source was, or into what body of water it flowed. Following the course of the stream, he proved to the world that it emptied into the Madeira, which flows into the Amazon just below the Rio Negro. The Brazilian government named the new river Rio Roosevelt, in honor of President Roosevelt, but later it was changed to Rio Teodoro (The river of Theodore) , after President Roosevelt's Christian name. One of the tributaries was named Rio Kermit in honor of Kermit Roosevelt, President Roosevelt's son, who accompanied his father on this expedition.

The towns and cities on the Amazon are very interesting to travelers. They are the outgrowth of the resources of the great Amazon valley, which is more varied in its products and perhaps more interesting than any other river valley in the world. Para (Belem), one of the oldest cities in Brazil, is situated near the mouth of the Amazon. It was a prosperous city of several thousand inhabitants long before any English settlements were made in North America. Para is famous as the greatest rubber market in the world. The Amazon valley is the original home of the rubber tree, from which India rubber is extracted. As Santos in southern Brazil is the greatest coffee port in the world, so Para in the north is the greatest rubber port in the world. Para rubber is known wherever rubber is used.

About five hundred miles up the Amazon is Santarem, a place of considerable size. Soon after the North Americans came to Brazil, after the War between the States, about fifty families of them settled on the Amazon near Santarem and, establishing plantations, began the cultivation of cotton, sugar cane, and rice. About five hundred miles beyond Santarem is Manaos, another large city. It is situated on the Rio Negro, a few miles above the Amazon; back of Manaos is a vast country still unexplored and, of course, undeveloped.

A traveler going from Para to Manaos would see many strange things. In fact, Para itself would present surprises to him. He would see all types of the population of Brazil and even of South America. He would see the swarthy Portuguese, cultured and prosperous. He would see foreigners from every country North Americans, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and others: some prosperous and some of the lowest poverty. He would see the Brazilian proud of his country, the office-holder, or, perhaps, the bandit type. He would see many negroes, some almost naked, doing odd jobs for a living. Moreover, he might see, in the wealthier and more cultured classes, representatives of many races, including negroes, Indians, foreigners, and Brazilians, all associating on terms of equality. All races and classes and degrees of people meet in the streets of Para. Street peddlers may be seen offering for sale birds, snakes, monkeys, and the various strange products of a tropical clime.



If the traveler wished to visit the homes he would find every sort, from palaces to filthy hovels. In many homes he would be surprised on entering to see a snake coiled up in the corner of the room and protected as a household pet, in much the same manner as cats and dogs are in our homes. These snakes, as a rule, are of the boa-constrictor type and are useful in keeping the place free from mice and rats, which are a great pest in Para. Poisonous serpents, of course, are not domesticated. It is said the snakes do their work very well and live on terms of peace and harmony with the members of the family. On the streets, one will find peddlers offering for sale a choice selection of rat-killers and advertising their rare qualities in truly salesman-like manner.

The Amazon valley seems to be the home of all the snakes in the world, but not many species are poisonous. However, they are numerous enough to destroy much life. The Brazilian government, therefore, has established a hospital in which to treat people bitten by snakes, and a staff of physicians is employed to find a cure or a remedy that will make the individual immune from snake poison.

Thousands of adventurers annually visit the wonderful valley. Some seek the rubber tree, or the crude rubber collected by the natives; others gather Brazilian nuts and cocoa; others hunt wild game; still others collect specimens of beautiful birds, curious insects and monkeys, or inspect the fine lumber trees and dye-woods and purchase stock-farms or cotton and sugar plantations. So little of this wonderful country has been developed that it is a fair field for all comers.

If you will take your map and follow the Amazon from Para to Manaos, you will see a number of islands. One of them near the mouth of the river is about a hundred miles in breadth. This will give you an idea of the width of the Amazon river. Many foreigners have settled along the banks of the river and on the islands. Great stock-farms have been developed here and there, and numbers of cattle and horses are raised.

As one proceeds westward, the Amazon presents new sights at every turn. The forest is alive with insects, birds and beasts. The most beautiful birds in the world are found here, birds of such gorgeous plumage of every color and hue that they delight the naturalist. The Amazon is the hunter's paradise. Every kind of game may be found monkeys, wild fowl, jaguars, wild pigs, tremendous serpents that roll over in the water like sea dragons; all these and many other forms of life unlike those of any other continent keep the hunter busy.

However, the insects are a pestilence. Mosquitoes are so bad in some sections that it is almost impossible for travelers to live unless they take precautions in advance and protect themselves with great care.

As the steamer plows its way up the river, numerous flocks of parrots may be seen every morning and evening flying across the boat. The sluggish streams flowing into the Amazon are alive with alligators and all kinds of fish. The mornings and evenings are filled with the chatter and challenge of monkeys swinging from limb to limb and from tree to tree.

Hunting alligators was at one time a favorite occupation of the natives. They would rush into the water in dull and sluggish streams and with long poles drive the animals to the bank, where other natives stood ready to lasso or harpoon them. When the brutes had been pulled out of the water, a native would creep up with an ax and cut a deep gash in his tail, for the alligator fights with his tail. Another blow across the neck would keep him from biting. Thus disabled and rendered harmless, he was left alone while the natives went off to capture others. When a number of alligators had been killed, they were cut open and the fat was taken out and stuffed in their skins. The oil made from alligator fat is very valuable. There is a smaller kind of alligator that is good to eat.

When travelers run short of food, they hunt wild pigs or monkeys. Monkey meat is considered by the natives a delicious food. When prepared for cooking, it looks much like dressed rabbit. A traveler on the Amazon may sit down to a dinner where many strange dishes are served. He may choose between fried monkey, alligator tail, boiled turtle eggs, wild pig, and a variety of fish and game.

In going from Para to Manaos one still hears strange stories of river serpents that live in the Amazon and of wild Indians, who at one time made travel dangerous and difficult. What would you do if you suddenly saw a frightful water monster raise his body about ten feet out of the water, shake his head and neck savagely, and roll over with so much force as to rock the steamboat? Such is the anaconda, the largest snake in the world, being from thirty to forty feet long and about five or six feet around. Some people say that the anaconda has been known to attain a length of sixty feet and a girth of fifteen feet. When not hungry this immense snake usually lies in the mud sunning himself, but when seeking food it climbs a tree near the water and waits quietly until dark. Then it is able to choose its food from the beasts that come to drink. The serpent belongs to the same family as the boa constrictor, which is much smaller. The Brazilians frequently capture the boa constrictor, it is so lazy and harmless. They even train it to protect the home, as was told above.

One of the most valuable products of the river is the sea cow, which is half fish and half animal, and about fifteen or twenty feet long. It is usually taken with the harpoon. As the oil is exceedingly valuable, it has been much hunted.

Another interesting game animal is the wild pig. Pigs were found in Peru by Pizarro when he first landed. They are not very harmful unless they are hunted, but when one is killed or wounded the whole drove turns on the hunter and, unless he is very agile, kills him.

All along the river one may see Indians, but the farther one goes from the coast the less civilized they are. When a traveler enters the part of Brazil west or north of Manoas, he may encounter bands of Indians almost as wild as they were when the Portuguese first entered the country. One still hears stories of fierce cannibals who used to capture prisoners and make a feast for the tribe. It is said that it was the custom for the women to lead the prisoners in. The men, after drinking a strong beverage until they became savagely drunk, would torture the prisoners to the great delight of the assembly. Then the chief would enter with a club and kill the victims one by one. The cannibals all disappeared many years ago.

Nearly all of the population west of Santarem is Indian, and travelers tell even today of their strange manners and customs. Their method of hunting in certain wild sections of the Amazon valley is as primitive as in the days of Pizarro. The blow-gun is one of the weapons still used among the most uncivilized tribes. This consists of a large reed ten or twelve feet long, perfectly straight, through which are blown small arrows tipped at one end with a sharp metal while the other end contains a piece of cotton to prevent the air from passing through as the arrow is being shot. The natives hide in trees until a bird appears within twenty or thirty feet. With the blow-gun they can pierce the bird by blowing an arrow through the reed. For killing large animals, they use arrows tipped with poison so deadly that it paralyzes the muscles, and the victims die a horrible death. These arrows are likewise used in war and the effect on human beings is almost instantaneous: death results in a few minutes. Bows and arrows are also used. A skillful hunter shoots with unerring aim and can pierce a turtle through the neck at an incredible distance. It is doubtful whether Robin Hood was more skillful than these Indians in the use of bow and arrow.

A traveler must respect the customs of the Indians in this wilderness if he expects to continue his journey without trouble. One may travel for miles without seeing any sign of a human being. In fact it often appears that the entire country is uninhabited. But at nightfall, while the traveler is sitting at the campfire and fighting mosquitoes or other pests, he will hear a strange, shrill cry. If he is acquainted with the habits of the Indians, he knows at once that a band of them surrounds him and that a warning has been given.

Nothing is done until next morning, when the traveler hangs some presents of colored cloth or beads, or a small mirror, on the trees in the neighborhood whence the warning came. Then the traveler returns to camp and waits. No Indians appear, but the journey must not be continued until the unseen natives give some sign. If no cries are heard the second night and the presents are taken, the traveler will find on the following morning an arrow sticking in the ground. This is a token that the Indians are friendly and that the journey may be continued. But if the cries are heard again and the presents remain untouched, the meaning is that the journey must be abandoned. To disregard the warning and go on, is very dangerous.

If you will take your map and follow the Rio Negro northward, you will come to another river, called the Rio Branco. At one time it was believed that a race of female warriors lived in the mountains between these two rivers. The country they inhabited was El Dorado, supposed to contain vast treasures of gold and silver and precious stones. These women wore their hair short like men and were very skillful hunters with the bow and arrow. It was told that wherever one of them went she was accompanied by a waiting maid, who served her very much as the pages in the Middle Ages served knights.

The Indians, in speaking of this strange country, said that it lay between two great rivers, one of which flowed with black water and the other with white water hence, the names Rio Negro and Rio Branco. Between these two rivers lie mountains that contained, they said, great treasures guarded by Amazons.

No man has yet been found who has actually seen an army composed of women. Long before South America was discovered the people of Europe heard stories of female warriors, and it was supposed that they lived somewhere near the Black Sea, where an independent kingdom existed under the government of a queen, who occasionally with her fierce women would swoop down on neighboring regions and play havoc with her armies. Men were not permitted to reside in this country ruled by women. If any of the women left the country and married, when they returned their husbands were not permitted to accompany them and all male children were put to death. Female children were kept and brought up by their mothers and trained in agriculture, hunting, and the arts of war. These warlike women were called Amazons.

Such legends were told throughout Europe long before Columbus was born and were handed down in much the same manner as folk stories are told by father to son today.

Orellana, a Spanish soldier serving under Pizarro, crossed the Andes from Peru and, descending, explored the headwaters of the great river. When he and his men entered this wild country, they were surrounded by a tribe of very warlike Indians, and, to their surprise, they saw women fighting side by side with men. The Spaniards believed that they had encountered Amazons, and a story arose that a race of warlike women lived to the north of this country. In such fashion the name Amazon came to be applied to the great river.

Many people actually believed that a race of female warriors guarded treasures in the mountains between the Rio Negro and the Rio Branco. Sir Walter Raleigh, you will remember, sought to find this fabled land. Numbers of other expeditions went in search of it. Companies were actually formed to encounter these strange women. All that remains today of these stories and the expeditions is the name given to the most wonderful river in the world.