History of the Republic of Guyana

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Reports and Letters of Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk with reference to his
Surveys of the Boundaries of British Guiana.

No. 15: Report of Mr. Schomburgk to Governor Light.
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Georgetown, October 13, 1843.


I have the honour to report to your Excellency the full success of the last Expedition to survey the boundaries of British Guiana.

While I cannot feel thankful enough to a kind Providence, which so visibly protected us during so dangerous a journey as I have now to relate, that satisfaction is in a great measure lessened by the impossibility of my returning within the period prescribed by your Excellency's instructions. A perusal of the extracts from my journal, which I promise myself the honour of placing before your Excellency in a few days, will, I trust, satisfactorily prove that I used every exertion to accomplish the survey within that time; meanwhile I shall in this place touch on the chief causes of the delay.

Your Excellency will please to remember that, while I was yet travelling under the direction of the Royal Geographical Society, I visited already the sources of the River Essequibo, and traced the rivers which flow southward into the Amazon to some distance. It remained now to search for the sources of the first river of any consequence, which flows north-eastwards of the Essequibo into the Amazon, and from thence to accomplish the line towards the headwaters of the River Corentyn, where the British, the Dutch, and the Brazilian boundaries were likely to concentrate.

The party under my command left a village of Taruma Indians at the Upper Essequibo (approximate latitude 1 45' N.) on the 8th of July, and tracing the River Onoro, or Onororo, a tributary to the Essequibo, to its sources, we traversed the ridge of mountains which divides the basin of the Amazon from that of the Essequibo, and stood, on the 13th of July, at the sources of the River Caphiwuin, or Apiniau, most likely the River Trombetas of the maps. We entered soon after a village of Maopityan, or Frog Indians, from whence, according to the information which I procured, we had to continue our journey by water upon the Caphiwuin as far as the junction of that River with the Wanamu, and to ascend the latter to the settlements of the Pianaghotto and Drio Indians, an undertaking, we were told, which it would occupy us eight days to execute. As the Maopityans did not possess any crafts, we had to prepare our canoes of the bark of trees, and we continued on the 19th of July our journey the Caphiwuin downwards.

Acquainted with the suspecting character of the uncivilised Indians, who fancy in every stranger an enemy, I dispatched several days previous to our departure, two Maopityans as messengers to inform the Pianaghottos of our intended visit, and to desire them to have a supply of provisions ready for us, as the Maopityans were so short that they were obliged to mix rotten wood with their cassava flour, to increase the quantity of bread prepared from it.

In lieu of eight days, as we had been told, it occupied us eighteen to reach the first Pianaghotto settlement, and after many deprivations and continued labour to descend a river studded with dangerous falls, we met then with the cruel disappointment to see the inhabitants fly at our arrival, leaving their whole village with all that they possessed at our mercy, not even allowing themselves time to carry their hammocks with them.

It became evident that the Maopityans had deceived us; the two messengers which I had sent had never proceeded on their journey, and they painted the journey so short in order to make me satisfied with a less quantity of provisions, as [sic] I otherwise should have done had I known that it was such a distance, and for which provisions, after all, I had to pay exorbitant prices.

Six Maopityan Indians had accompanied the expedition; I found, however, soon occasion to mistrust them, and I kept a watchful eye over their proceedings. Their bad character showed itself most glaringly the first night after our arrival at the Pianaghotto village, and obliged me to avail myself of the strongest measures at my command to prevent their pilfering the village, and to leave us to the mercy of savages who, already mistrusting us, naturally would have laid the outrage to our charge.

While approaching the village, two canoes with Pianaghotto Indians carne from the opposite direction, and scarcely had they observed our boats when, taking us for Brazilians, they turned their canoes and fled towards the shore. I urged the Maopityans, who were in my boat, and who spoke their language, to inform them of their mistake, but, nothing could induce them to comply with my request, and although I hastened after the canoes, we came too late, and found the village, as already stated, deserted.

There were several axes, cutlasses, knives, etc., all of Dutch manufacture, lying about in the houses, and attracted immediately the attention of the Maopityans of our party. I gave strict orders that nothing should be touched. However, during night, an Wapisiana of our party, who understood somewhat their language, informed me that, he had overheard them planning to take all the valuable articles away, and to leave us during midnight.

My resolutions were soon formed. The six Maopityans were put in one of the huts, and taking sentry before it with some of our Indians whom I could trust, I threatened to use our firearms if they attempted to escape. Mr. Goodall shared the watch with me. With daylight I found that the information of their bad intentions had been but too true; before nightfall they had already removed all the axes and cutlasses and every other valuable article they could lie their hands upon. Satisfying myself to keep the three chief men as hostages, I ordered the others to return every article they had stolen, and that besides I should keep the others as close prisoners until they had persuaded the Pianaghotto Indians that we had come as their friends, and brought them presents of knives, axes, beads, etc. Before many hours elapsed, I saw everything restored, and parties were sent out in search of the fugitive Indians.

Our situation was by no means enviable. We had been mistaken for Brazilians, and our apprehensions were increased by the information we had previously received that of a party of Brazilians who came up the River Dara every person, with the exception of an Indian boy, was murdered. Our scouts had traced the footsteps of many Indians departing in different directions, no doubt to give a general alarm, and the marks of footsteps which were shown to me close to our camp proved that we had been reconnoitred. Our party being so small, we had little chance of escaping if it came to the extreme. Anxiety of mind and the nightly watches wore no doubt the cause of the indisposition which Mr. Goodall and myself were subjected to about this time; the first suffered more than myself.

After more than two weeks had elapsed in vain attempts to fall in with Indians who did not immediately fly at their appearance, our scouts succeeded to reassure a Zuramata family, and matters took now a better appearance. The reason of our coming was explained to them, and it spread soon among the other Indians, and we ultimately entered a village of the Drio tribe, who received us friendly, and promised to return for our baggage, which for want of assistance we had been obliged to leave behind us.

The village was situated near the River Cutari, here a mere brook, but of importance, as it forms the western branch of the River Corentyne. It was my intention to embark here, and we had again to prepare the necessary bark canoes, as our journey had led us for thirty miles over land and hills. The 6th of September approached before these frail crafts were finished, with which we intended to navigate a river perfectly unknown at its upper course. By that time nearly all the baggage had come up, with the exception of our tents, several objects of natural history, and, by some fatality, our stock of salt. I did not wish, however, to delay the Expedition a single day for the sake of these comforts, and we descended the Cutari, which was so much impeded by trees fallen across it, and which we had to cut through to make a passage for our canoes, that our progress on the 11th of September, or the first six days, amounted only to 15 miles. The river became wider after receiving the Amatau from the left bank, from whence its confluence with the Curuni, or Curuwuini, is only a few miles distant. The two combined rivers (Cutari and Curuwuini) are now about 300 yards wide, and take from their junction a north-north-west course.

We had been informed that after a journey of ten days we should find an Indian settlement; but the information was so vague that I did not trust to it implicitly, and I purchased as much provisions as the Indians could spare and our small boats carry.

We had previously passed some rapids of not much danger, but from the 17th of September to the 28th of the same month, when we reached the foot of the great cataracts already visited by me in 1836, such a toil and danger awaited us that, I cannot feel thankful enough we passed these falls without accidents. We had sometimes in the course of a day to unload repeatedly, and to carry baggage and canoes over land to avoid falls which proved from 50 to 60 feet high. Mr. Goodall and myself paddled with the Indians from daybreak until three and four o'clock in the afternoon to expedite our progress, nor did we allow ourselves a single day's rest from the time we embarked; and what rendered matters worse, the information of finding inhabitants proved false, and I had to restrict our party from the 19th of September to a daily allowance of six ounces of farin to each man. Two to three days passed sometimes without our succeeding in procuring either fish or game as an addition to so small an allowance, while the unceasing labour rendered our want more feeling. Several of the Indians suffered from fever, and our little company was so divided that we could scarcely spare the physical force of a single individual: it required, therefore, all persuasion to encourage the others, and to show them in perspective the plenty they would enjoy when we once entered safely the Lower Corentyne. Our last farin was shared out in the morning of the 1st October, amounting to about two ounces to each individual; but happily that evening, after having travelled 26 days without meeting a human being, we entered the Carib settlements, and our physical wants were provided for.

I continued my journey early next morning towards the Post to make arrangements to proceed without delay to the coast. Mr. Goodall followed the day after some rest to our worn-out crew, and we ultimately reached Berbice on the 9th of October.

These are the causes which unavoidably prolonged the conclusion of the survey, and I venture to hope that your Excellency will kindly consider them sufficient to exonerate me from any neglect or want of exertion to comply with the instructions which emanated from your Excellency.

I have besides to mention that the most western headwaters of the Corentyne are situated from forty to fifty miles farther to the eastward than I supposed; which circumstance alone would have prolonged the journey from fourteen days to three weeks.

It remains now to add a cursory sketch of the direction of the boundary line as it will appear hereafter in the maps. Commencing, therefore, at the sources of the Essequibo, which I visited in 1837, the line extends north-north-eastward towards the heads of the small Rivers Caneruau and Wapau (both tributaries of the Essequibo) until it meets on a chain of hills, of which the Maopityans call the highest Zibinya Atzacko, the sources of the River Onoro or Onororo, like the former a tributary of the Essequibo. Traversing a hill, about one hundred feet higher than the sources of the Onoro, I met those of the River Caphiwuin or Apiniau, forming the headwaters of the great River Caphu, no doubt the Trombetas of the Brazilian maps which joins the Amazon. The line continues from thence along the ridge of hills which divides the Amazon from the Essequibo and Corentyne, passing the sources of the River Camu to the northward until it meets the River Amatau, and ultimately the River Cutari, which as already related, forms the western branch of the Corentyne.

I have refrained from stating the numerous positions which have been astronomically determined, as only after the calculation of the elements, which my other labours while "en route" did not permit me, I can rely upon their correctness.

A question will arise whether the River Cutari as the western branch, or the Curuwuini as the eastern, is to be considered as the divisional line between British and Dutch Guiana. These two rivers, of equal size at their confluence, and their waters of equal colour, form from their junction the River Corentyne, vieing in the length of its course, and the mass of its water, next to the Essequibo, with any river between the Amazon and the Orinoco.

The selection of the Curuwuini, which name even resembles closer the Corentyne than the Cutari, adds a few thousand square miles more to British Guiana, and brings its most, eastern boundary near the headwaters of the Marowuini and the abodes of the Maroon Negros of Surinam. The Rivers Surinam, Copanaam, ancl Saramacca have their sources to the northward of these two chief rivers, the same as the Berbice and the Demerara, have theirs to the north of the Corentyne and Essequibo.

Another question will arise with regard to the right of possession to the thousands of islands and islets with which the Corentyn is studded, some several miles in length, others only a few acres in extent.

The actual survey of the boundaries is now finished, and within the period I mentioned, when it was first planned. It gives me uncommon satisfaction that I can state no human life has been lost in its execution. Those engaged in the survey have had to brave dangers of various kinds; thousands of miles, never before trodden by the foot of civilised man - nay, many not even by the savage Indian - have been traversed, now on foot, now in small canoes, but a kind Providence has everywhere protected us, and no sad remembrance of any individual being carried away by sickness or accident accompanies the retrospect in after years.

It does not become me to judge how far science has profited by this survey whenever the more important duties, which in consequence of being without an assistant, rested very heavy upon me, permitted it, inquiries into the natural history and physical geography of the regions l surveyed have been carried on. Many of the elements thus collected remain in their rude state, but if God grant me life, I hope to prove to the world that I fully appreciated the honour when Her Majesty's Government entrusted me with the execution of this survey, and that I spared no exertions to render myself worthy of it.

Mr. Goodall, the artist attached to the Expedition, promises himself the honour of submitting to your Excellency the sketches which he has executed during this Expedition, and which will prove of uncommon interest, as they contain many portraits of Indians who have not been hitherto visited by Europeans, and others of tribes who are near their extinction.

The canoemen and Indians of the Macusi tribe who formed our crew have behaved, under the most trying circumstances, with great propriety and faithfulness. The latter return after they are paid off to the River Rupununi, from whence they accompanied me in the month of May.

I now await your Excellency's orders with regard to the execution of the chronometric line along the coast, and further commands whether I am directed by the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies to execute the maps of the surveys in Demerara, or whether it has pleased His Lordship to order me to England for that purpose.

I have, etc