Back to History Page
and Letters of Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk with reference to his
Surveys of the Boundaries of British Guiana.
Pirara, February 24, 1842.
I have the honour to inform your Excellency of the safe arrival of the party under my command at Pirara, which village I found almost deserted, and only nominally occupied by four individuals, of Brazilian descent.
The Guiana Boundary Expedition left George Town on the 23rd December, in the steamer "The Lady Flora Hastings," and arrived the same evening at Post Ampa, at the Essequibo, where I had our baggage unloaded for the purpose of resorting to our canoes. As the number of my crew was far from being complete on leaving George Town I engaged a part of the complement at the Essequibo. This was connected with some difficulties, in consequence of the greater number of the men having been engaged to accompany the detachment of Her Majesty's troops to Pirara. The Christmas holidays being then so near, those whom I procured entered only the service with the condition that they were not to join me at Ampa before the 27th of December, from whence we left the following morning, grateful for the attention which Mr. Baird, the Post-holder, had shown to me during our stay at Ampa.
The Rev. Thomas Youd having joined us at the Grove, we passed the first cataract without any serious accident, except at the rapid Assiricot, where, through the negligence of the canoemen, one of the smaller boats was upset, by which three barrels with provisions were lost.
We arrived on the 6th of January at Waraputa, the new Mission which Mr. Youd had founded after he was driven by the Brazilians from Pirara, and Curua; and I could not but be highly pleased with the change this Indian village had undergone since Mr. Youd's arrival in July 1840.
The houses of the Indians are of a superior description to the generality of Indian dwellings, and the little church with its steeple gives to it an appearance which one would not have expected to meet with in the wilderness. I walked with the missionary through the provision fields, and I confess that nowhere since my travels in the interior had I seen them so extensive as here. I should say that from 250 to 300 acres were cultivated in cassava, besides the plantains and yams, which were raised additionally. The missionary stated to me that the number of inhabitants fluctuated from 100 to 120. A great number who had put their fields in order and secured themselves sustenance for months were absent or visiting their relations and friends.
The Indians who are settled here, and receive instruction in religion and the English language, consist of Macusis, Wapisianas, Caribs, intermixed with some Necanicarus, who have come from the Rio Branco. There are hours appropriated for the instruction of the adults, and others for the instruction of the children. I heard the latter read in the New Testament with ease; and if the new missionary who is expected to be sent by the Church Missionary Society to replace Mr. Youd continues his instructions with the same zeal, the best fruits may be expected from this infant Mission.
I dispatched from here one of the men of the expedition, with five Indians, to Post Ampa, to bring after us some articles which, for want of room in the canoes, we had been obliged to leave there; and after a sojourn of eight days in Waraputa (in consequence of some serious cases of sickness among the crew) we started in the morning of the 13th January on our further ascent of the Essequibo. Unfortunately the weather had been very unfavourable previous to our arrival at Waraputa, and continued so during our stay there. I found the greatest difficulty to procure sufficient observations while at the Mission to rate my chronometers, and to ascertain the latitude of the place from thence continued rains put astronomical observations out of question. Sickness was rapidly increasing among the crew, and by the time that we had passed the Twasinki Mountains nearly half of their number were suffering from fever and dysentery.
Mr. Fryer (who accompanied the expedition in my personal employ) and who possesses medical knowledge, was untired in his attention to the sick; and as from hence I proceeded only in short marches, our progress was naturally slow; but I am happy to say no human life was lost.
We passed Rupu, the last rapid north of the Rupununi, on the 27th January, and entered that river the following day. Three new settlements have risen on the banks of the Rupununi since I last visited these regions. The inhabitants consist mostly of Caribs who have come from Surinam by means of the Corentyne and the path which from thence leads to the Essequibo; but as these settlements have been only lately erected, their number amounts scarcely to more than fifty souls.
The information which I tried to procure with regard to Pirara was of so contradictory a nature that I resolved to push on in my canoe with redoubled haste to Haiowa, directing the other canoes to follow under Mr. Fryer's commands. I ascertained at Haiowa, from good authority, that Fray Jose had left Pirara, and was superintending the building of a residence for himself in the neighbourhood of Fort San Joaquim, from which I concluded that it were [sic] his intentions to leave Pirara. I was further informed that the militia who garrisoned the place had been withdrawn, and that merely some cattle-minders from the Rio Branco were residing there.
I was told that Captain Leal, the Commandant of Fort San Joaquim, had been at Pirara, or was still at the village. They spoke likewise of some official person from the Rio Negro who had been for some time at Pirara, to "look about." I communicated the information which I had procured in a letter to the Officer Commanding the detachment of Her Majesty's troops intended for Pirara, which I left to be delivered to him at his arrival at Haiowa, and continued my journey towards Pirara.
We arrived at the portage on the 9th February, and encamped on the opposite bank. I dispatched next morning Mr. Fryer with your Excellency's letter to the Officer Commanding the Brazilians at Pirara, and as I apprehended that none of the Brazilians at Pirara or Fort San Joaquim were acquainted with the English language, I translated your Excellency's letter to the best of my knowledge, and accompanied it by a short note. I have the honour to inclose herewith a copy of the translation and of my note (1) to the Officer Commanding at Pirara.
At Mr. Fryer's arrival at the village he found it almost deserted. He was, however, informed that three Brazilians and Avaristo, whose name is already known to your Excellency, still occupied the village by order of the Commandant at San Joaquim. These men were absent on some festivities in the neighbourhood. At their return next morning, Mr. Fryer delivered your Excellency's letter and my translation thereof to Avaristo, who assumed authority, with the desire, as no officer was present, to send this despatch sealed, and with every expediency, to Fort San Joaquin, and one of the Brazilians, a soldier, and native of Madeira, left the village on horseback to deliver the despatch to captain Leal.
From all the information Mr. Fryer had been able to gather it was evident that no resistance was intended.
The orders of the Commandant Leal and Fray Jose to Avaristo on leaving Pirara were to send immediate information of my arrival to Fort San Joaquim, and Fray Jose would come over to converse with me. My arrival had been expected for some time past, but no tidings whatever had reached the Brazilians that British troops were on their way to occupy Pirara.
The information which Mr. Fryer had procured in Pirara was communicated in a letter to the Officer Commanding Her Majesty's troops, and I made immediate arrangements to break up my camp, and to ascend in boats the Avaricura, by which I shortened the portage to Pirara 2 miles.
I had the pleasure of welcoming Lieutenant Bingham, commanding the detachment of Her Majesty's 1st West India Regiment, destined for Pirara, on the 12th February. He reached our camp with the advance guard of the detachment in the evening, and encamped in our neighbourhood, where it were his intentions to await the arrival of the grand body of his expedition. I proceeded next morning, accompanied by five men of the boundary expedition, to Pirara.
The change in the appearance of that village when I entered it, after an absence of almost three years, was distressing. The greater number of the houses were fallen down, and those which I found were in the most dilapidated state, and, with the exception of two, the others were uninhabited. In lieu of the groups of Indians, who were seen standing in former times to look with curiosity at the strangers who entered their village, I saw only a few women and children, who fled with apparent fear into their hovels when we made our appearance. All denoted that the village was deserted; the intermediate spaces between house and house were grown up with underbush, and assisted to give such a desolated appearance that it proved painful to me when I compared it with what the village was before it was occupied by the Brazilians.
My conversation with Avaristo confirmed the information I had received previously that the Brazilians were entirely unacquainted with the near approach of Her Majesty's troops, and that it was not the intention of the Brazilian District Government to oppose the object of my expedition.
I found opportunity to dispatch that very day a messenger to the Macusi village Awarra, and from thence to the Canuku Mountains, to apprize the Indians of my arrival, and I had the pleasure to see upwards of thirty strong men arriving that evening from Awarra, and I took opportunity to inform them that it were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government to give protection to such of their brethren as are within the boundary claimed by Her Britannic Majesty, for which purpose Pirara would be occupied by British troops.
I told them likewise of the action of their missionary, the Reverend Mr. Youd, and I hoped the expectation which His Excellency the Governor had of their assistance to realize the hopes Her Majesty's Government held of this distant station in British Guiana, would by no means fall short through their fault.
We have had since a greater influx of Indians; many have been here to ascertain the truth of the good news, and have returned to carry certain information to their fellows in the mountains.
The detachment of Her Majesty's troops under Lieutenant Bingham entered Pirara in the evening of the 14th February, and after having hoisted the British Union flag, he took ad interim possession of the largest house in the village, which had been erected upon Fray Jose's desire during the Brazilian occupation. The Reverend Mr. Youd had arrived in the afternoon.
The arrival of two Brazilians on horseback in the evening of the 15th caused some commotion. I ascertained, however, on conversing with them, that Captain Leal was hunting wild cattle in the vicinity of the Canuku Mountains, and having understood from some Indians, who had come from Waraputa, that I was on my way to Pirara, he sent a letter addressed to your Excellency, with the verbal message to have it forwarded by the first opportunity. Lieutenant Bingham, supposing it an answer to your Excellency's letter addressed to the Officer Commanding the Brazilian troops, opened it, but, on finding it was dated as far back as the 16th January, he refolded it without reading its contents. The two Brazilians returned on the 17th instant with a letter from Mr. Bingham to the Commandant of Fort San Joaquim.
A commotion of another description raised the arrival of five Maiongkong Indians from the River Canucunuma, which falls into the Orinoco a little above the natural canal, the Cassiquiare.
When I was near that river during my former expedition, under the direction of the Geographical Society of London, I engaged two Maiongkong Indians to accompany me as far as Pirara. One of them died unfortunately of consumption while in Pirara; the other returned, and having related what he had seen at Pirara, the Chieftain and four others of the village undertook a journey from the Canucunuma by means of the Cassiquiare, the Rio Negro, and Rio Branco, travelling by water and land over upwards of 1,000 miles; and they reached Pirara a few days after my return and when the British Union waved again over that village.
They brought hammocks, cassava, graters, and other articles for barter, and, in consequence of the greater number of strangers from the coast who were then in the village, these articles found ready purchasers; but axes were their greatest desire, and, partly to obtain the same, partly to satisfy their curiosity, they had undertaken this great journey. Authorized by the Secretary for the Colonies to make presents of such articles to the Indians as they stand in need of, I presented the Chieftain with two axes, and bought two of their hunting dogs, which they had brought for sale, for four axes, and several other articles for the use of the expedition.
This journey proves the intrepid spirit of the Indian when his energy is roused. He undertakes a journey of a thousand miles to procure an article which he stands in need at; and regardless of the fatigues and dangers he has to undergo, he accomplishes it, although the value of that article is only 2s., but to him it is of the greatest importance. Several of the gentlemen who had come up with the troops offered them, in my presence, more than the real value of the hammocks in silver or other articles; they spurned it, and insisted upon parting with their hammocks only for axes. One said his house had been burnt down by accident, and he wanted to rebuild it; another, that he wished to build canoes, and for these purposes an axe was, to them, of greater value than silver. The Guiana Boundary Expedition did not stand in need of hammocks, but good hunting dogs were a great requisition to procure the necessary menus for its sustenance while in the interior.
The Maiongkong Indians who visited Pirara on this occasion were a fine race, strong and healthy, and, in that regard, surpassing our Indians at the coast regions in physical power; they showed, likewise, more intellect. They spoke well Spanish, and, although perfect strangers in Pirara, and seeing a large concourse of soldiers and strangers, they nevertheless knew their rights, and strongly refused to part with their articles of trade if the equivalent did not come up with their expectation.
The Chieftain or Patron had a passport from the Venezuelan authority at San Carlos, dated 6th January, and countersigned at the Brazilian forts they had passed. I conversed with him in Portuguese, which he understood from the similarity it bears to the Spanish, and told him to encourage the intercourse of his tribe with Pirara, and since that village was now to remain in possession of the English I had no doubt that he would always find such articles for disposal as he stood in need of.
It proved a great satisfaction to me to see these Indians in Pirara, and although several years had elapsed since I wandered there they had not forgotten either my person or name.
I fondly hope that, though at present the articles which they bring for barter are comparatively of small value, this intercourse may assist to spread civilization, and to increase the trade in articles of British manufacture. It will further prove that the ideas which I held out in my geographical description of British Guiana with regard to its extensive communication by means of the numerous rivers which intersect it are not chimerical, but founded on facts.
I have not dwelt, in the foregoing report, upon descriptive scenery, etc., as it would have been only a repetition of what already has been published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, or in my own publications respecting the Colony. I am sorry that in consequence of the delay of an answer from the Commandant of San Joaquim, I am not able to add here what my intended movements are for the future. The state of the river does not permit me to haul my boats across the portage before next June, but if I find that the Brazilian Government is favourably inclined towards the expedition I intend to procure boats at the Takutu and to proceed to Roraima without delay.
For the sake of retrenchment I discharge those of the crew whom I can spare, and they have my orders to depart tomorrow. Should anything been [sic] known of the sentiments of the Brazilian Government when Lieutenant Bush departs from Pirara I shall not fail to inform your Excellency of it.
It has been my desire to render any assistance to the detachment of Her Majesty's troops as well when the influence I possess with the Indians, or the little knowledge of the Portuguese language could have been of service to them, and I am happy to say that between the officers and those attached to my expedition the best understanding exists, which is certainly a great comfort where civilized man would be otherwise entirely restricted upon himself.
I have, etc.
(Signed) ROBERT SCHOMBURGK.
1- Not Printed