On The Mighty Amazon
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
TRAVELLING ON AN OCEAN STEAMER UP THE GREATEST VALLEY IN THE WORLD -THE WONDERFUL SIZE OF THE AMAZON-ITS MANY TRIBUTARIES AND ITS FLOATING ISLANDS-STEAMING THROUGH THE DELTA—HOW THE RIVER LOOKS A THOUSAND MILES FROM THE SEA-SKETCHES OF THE PEOPLE AND THEIR HOMES-THE FLOODS IN THE AMAZON BASIN, THE RAINIEST PART OF THE WORLD-THE CACAO PLANTATION, AND HOW CHOCOLATE IS RAISED.
AFLOAT upon the mighty Amazon; steaming up the greatest river in the world ; riding on and on over a yellow in-land sea, now coasting shores lined with tropical vegetation, and now so far out that one bank is only a hazy line of blue as seen from the other. I am on an ocean steamer 800 miles from the Atlantic, in the greatest river valley in the world. I entered the Amazon on the south side of the island of Marajo and stopped some time at the city of Parâ, the metropolis of the region, which I shall describe farther on. I am now on my way up the river, and at the present moment am within half a mile of its southern bank.
The shores are lined with cacao orchards, and with my glass I can see the golden fruit from which our chocolate comes, shining out from among the green leaves. Back of the orchards are the lofty trees of the mighty Amazon forests, and close to the shore are the gray thatched huts of the people. The opposite bank is wooded, but it is so far away that it forms only a line of soft dark blue which fades into the lighter blue of the sky.
In front of and behind the steamer stretches the mighty stream, carrying the waters of the northern and central Andes down to the sea. It has in it the washings of more than half a continent; it is the down-spout of a watershed half as large as the whole United States. With it are mixed particles from the sluice-boxes of the gold mines of the Beni and the Maranon. Parts of its waters have received bitter kisses from the quinine trees of Peru, while other parts have trickled from the soil of Ecuador. It em-braces the drainings of the sacred cities of the Incas, and it may contain some of the washings of the diamond mines of upper Brazil. It has passed through countries inhabited by cannibals; it has come from wilds where the foot of the white man has never trod; from mountains and valleys and lofty plateaus; and is now on its way across the continent to its great mother, the ocean.
As I entered the river I coasted along the south side of the island of Marajo, which lies at the month; and then wound in and out through the narrows, a series of wonderful channels, which brought me into the main stream. I first sailed through the Pará river out of the Amazon's mouth. Farther on, I crossed the mouth of the Tocantins, up which you can steam for days into the wilds of Brazil. To-morrow I shall go past the mouth of the Madeira, and I have already crossed the mouths of other tributaries, a number of which are as large as some of the so-called great rivers of the world.
The Amazon system is unquestionably the greatest river system of the globe. It has 1, 100 branches and receives into itself more than 100 rivers. It has eight tributaries, each of which has a navigable length of 1,000 miles. The Amazon proper is navigable for large steamers as far up as Manáos, which is at the mouth of the Rio Negro, and as far inland from the ocean as Chicago. There are smaller steamers which go 1,350 miles farther on to Iquitos, Peru, so that you steam up the Amazon in an almost straight line 2,350 miles westward from the sea.
There are steamers on the Rio Negro that sail to the north-westward 470 miles from Manaos. You can get steamships on the Madeira that will take you to the borders of Bolivia, and, indeed, there are, all told, 5,000 miles of steamship navigation on the Amazon and its branches, while the whole river system is estimated as having something like 50,000 miles of navigable waterways. The whole valley is covered with a network of rivers and streams, and it is not until you realize its size that you can appreciate the extent of the system.
There is no valley in the world like that of the Amazon. It is 700 miles wide and 2,400 miles long. It is as wide as from New York to Cleveland, and is longer than from Philadelphia to Great Salt Lake. It is more like a sloping plain than a valley.
It has not the high walls of other valleys, and its slopes to the north and south are so gradual that by one short canal the water systems of all South America could be connected. The Parant and Paraguay system runs almost to the Amazon. You can go up the Paraguay and its tributaries, and by carrying your canoe a few miles can launch it on the tributaries of the Amazon and float down to the Atlantic. The waters of the Amazon and those of the Orinoco, which flow into the Atlantic at the northern part of South America, are actually united by the Cassiquiare river, so that with a short canal connecting with the Paraguay one could really sail from the edge of the Caribbean sea to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.
The slope of the valley from the Andes to the sea is very slight. Its fall in 2,000 miles is only 200 feet, 'or just about an inch to the mile. You would hardly think that the water would flow at all with so slight a fall, but it does flow, and it carries with it vast quantities of silt. Millions of tons of mud are taken down by it every day into the Atlantic. Tree trunks and bits of vegetation which grow only in the Peruvian Andes have been seen floating in the ocean 400 miles east of the mouth of the Amazon, and the waters are said to be stained quite 600 miles from its mouth.
Here the colour of the river is yellow. It is about as thick as pea-soup, and I can see not only trees and grass floating by, but great beds of vegetation, floating islands, which have been torn from the uplands, and are being carried down to the sea. Some of these islands are as large as an acre in size. They rise and fall in waves as our steamer goes by. Now and then they are caught by snags near the shore and held there for the floods or heavy winds to carry them off.
The greater part of the Amazon valley is made by the mud brought down by the river. Geologists say that there was originally a wide strait here joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. South America then consisted of two divisions, the highlands of Venezuela and the Guianas on the north, and the great island of Brazil on the south. Then the Andes were thrown up out of the sea on the west. The bottom of the Amazon valley was raised, the waters of the ocean rolled back, and this great Amazon plain was formed. During the centuries since then the waters have been rolling down through it to the Atlantic, loaded with mud. The city of Para stands on land made of this mud, and from it the great island of Marajo has been built up. Every year there are floods which turn this region into a vast inland sea. When the water subsides quantities of mud have been left, and thus year by year the delta of the Amazon has been formed.
The waterways of the delta are more wonderful than those of Holland. I saw something of them when I left the island of Marajo and sailed into the main body of the Amazon. The land there is cut up by natural canals, forming vast islands of curious shapes separated by narrow streams of water, walled with tropical vegetation. I have seen most of the great rivers of the world, but nowhere else have I seen anything like this. Let me give you some notes I made while sitting in the prow of the steamer as we passed through.
We are now in the great delta of the Amazon. We have left the rushing channel where the river rolls along in yellow waves on its turbid course, and are floating through canals, the waters of which are as smooth as burnished steel, but which the setting sun has changed to copper and to gold. On all sides are islands, floating as it were on a copper sea, masses of rich, dark navy blue and gorgeous green. Our steamer is passing between walls of emerald plush ioo feet high, which cut by other canals, similarly wooded, make it seem as though we were travelling through one of nature's great cities. It is a fairy city of the Amazon — a city not built with hands, a city populated by monkeys, jaguars, parrots, and butterflies. It is the haunt of the crocodile, which here grows to its greatest size. It is the home of the orchid and the palm, of the India rubber tree, and of countless other tropical plants, each of which would be a rarity in the botanical gardens of Europe.
Take a look at the trees; what a variety of palms! Some of them are only as big around as your arm, but they are as tall as a six-story house, extending from the ground to the top without branches, and ending in a waving tassel of leaves. There are others that sprout out in great bunches from the ground—palms loaded with cocoanuts, each nut in its green husk as large as a foot-ball. There are palms that branch out like fans, and there are royal palms 100 feet tall, that tower high above the smaller varieties. But the most striking trees of the Amazon are not the palm trees. We look in vain for a forest of palms. Palms grow among the other trees of the woods, and you seldom see many palms close together. The other forest trees in the distance look much like our trees at home. When you get close to the shore, however, you see that the trees are matted with vines. The bark of many of them is silver gray, and long creepers hang down from their branches to the ground, so that it would be almost impossible to make your way through without the aid of an axe.
Some of the trees are enormous. The one that bears the Brazil nut towers high above all others. It has a foliage of rich dark green, and this extends out in the shape of a great hill or mound of green away up there in the air. The Brazil nuts are like walnuts, only each nut is about twice the size of a base-ball. It has a thick husk over it, and inside of it there are from 15 to 20 of the Brazil nuts of commerce.
Some of the Amazon trees are covered with flowers. Over there at the right there is a haystack of violets poised up on the top of a huge trunk, sixty feet high. Farther over you may see a tree with blossoms like buttercups. Image in the eye of your mind a stack of buttercups as large as a circus tent, away up in the air, surrounded by green, and you have the effect. The most beautiful things, however, are the little things, the orchids that cling to the dead branches, the fern trees, and plants, that have leaves dusted with silver and copper and gold.
I saw but few people on my way up the Amazon. Along the banks, here and there, cut out of the woods, is a clearing just big enough for a but and a garden. The hut is made of poles and palm leaves, and the garden consists of a few banana plants an orange tree or so, and some palm trees. The huts are so rude that the wind whistles through them, and the roofs merely serve to keep out the rain and the sun. They are built close to the edge of the river. Naked babies play on the shores in front of them, and barefooted men and women, many of whom are mulattoes or negroes, stand and look at our steamer as it goes by. Most of these people are rubber-seekers, a few own cacao orchards, but all seem to be thriftless and poverty-stricken.
Many of the people can live in their huts only a part of the year. During the floods they have to go to the higher lands, for the Amazon valley is the rainiest region in the world. It is estimated that 1,500,000 cubic feet of rain falls upon it every day the year through. This is an average of 72 inches of rain per annum. In other words, if the water lay where it fell the whole valley would be covered with rain so deep that it would drown the average man. In many parts of the valley it rains every day. In Para I had to make my appointments to call after the usual afternoon shower, and here farther up the Amazon the air is full of moisture and mist. Everything is rusty; even my knife has rusted in my pocket. I have to keep my revolver well oiled, and if I leave my gun loaded over night it is sometimes so damp that it will not go off in the morning. My camera is freckled with rust, and my typewriter looks as though it came from a junk-shop.
The greatest rains are in our winter. In November and February the Amazon rises from 30 to 50 feet above its usual level. At this season a vast part of the valley is flooded, and thousands of square miles are covered with water for months. Many of the islands are submerged. The water flows out and in aiming the tops of the trees, and the valley for 1,000 miles and more is a vast inland sea from 15 to 100 miles wide. As you go up the river, you see here and there long stretches of meadows which are made by these floods. The trees will not grow upon the lands where ,the waters lie for months; the result is the pasture-fields of the Amazon, which are vast in extent. There are also many cattle, and I am told that thousands are pastured on the island of Marajo.
The people of the Amazon rely entirely upon boats for getting about. Every hut we have passed has had two or three boats tied to its wharf. Some are dug-out canoes, others are flatboats, and at one or two large houses we saw steam launches. Some of the row boats are painted in bright colours, and not a few have canopies or covers over them, under which their owners can climb to keep out of the sun.
As we passed the huts the people usually ran out and dragged the boats up on the banks. Sometimes they jumped into the boats and rowed them out from the land to prevent the waves made by the steamer from overturning them and filling them with water.
There are no roads in these Amazon forests The only paths are those that go from one rubber tree to another. These are too rough and winding for the people to use in the way of travel, and they lead to no particular place. The only roads are the streams, and the people go visiting in boats. They carry their cacao and rubber to market in boats, relying entirely upon this method of getting from place to place.
There are few villages along the banks of the river. We passed the towns of Santarem and Porto Alegre without stopping, but anchored for a time at Obidos, one of the well-known ports of the Amazon. It is about 500 miles from the sea, at the narrowest part of the channel. The river bed there is only a little more than a mile wide, so that the immense body of the Amazon rushes through with great force, having cut out a channel 240 feet deep. The current is so strong that anchors alone will not hold the steamers, and our ship was fastened by cables to the trees on the banks.
Obidos has been represented as having more than I,000 in-habitants; I doubt, however, whether an accurate census would give it 500. It is merely a collection of little one-story houses cut out of the woods, with a few stores and a billiard saloon. During my stay it was exceedingly hot, and the place was dreary in the extreme.
Above Obidos are many orchards of cacao trees; they line the Amazon for miles. The trees look much like lilac bushes; they are from 15 to 30 feet in height, and branch up in sprouts from the bottom. They are gnarly, and the leaves and fruit sprout directly from the limbs. The fruit, when ripe, is of an orange hue, streaked with red; it is the shape of a squash or a very large lemon; it has a thick shell, and inside there are many seeds enveloped in a soft pulp. The seeds are the cacao beans of commerce. They have black hearts full of oil. When ground the hearts make the chocolate, and the shells of the seeds form what we call cocoa.
The orchards as a rule are poorly cared for. Most of them are old, and although there is plenty of ground for new trees very few are planted. Still the business pays well. The trees begin to yield fruit three years after they are set out, and it is said they will continue to bear for fifty years. Two crops a year are gathered, and the only cultivation necessary is to keep down the weeds. The chocolate of the Amazon is excellent, the French preferring it to all others. About 5,000 tons are raised annually, and the yearly exports from Pará alone often amount to more than 7,000,000 pounds.