When the Indians assemble here the stranger may have an opportunity of seeing the aborigines dancing to the sound of their country music and painted in their native style. They will shoot their arrows for him with an unerring aim and send the poisoned dart from the blow-pipe true to its destination: and here he may often view all the different shades from the red savage to the white man; and from the white man to the sootiest son of Africa. Beyond this post there are no more habitations of white men or free people of colour. ( Charles Waterton, 1812 )
Many regard the malevolent animals of the Amazon as both biological miracle and a pestilential horror. …They are likely to regard humans merely as a square meal…
Henry Walter Bates is imminently quotable on his insects, and there is no better account of termites than the one in his great book “The Naturalist on the River Amazons.” The termitaria are a common sight in South America; often a plain will be pock-marked with their castles as far as the eye can see, the smallest and most fragile looking being as hard as stone. This ubiquitous pest is similar to the ant only in some of its habits and physical characteristics, for it belongs to a different family of insects and is not even subject to metamorphosis. But in their social organization the two species are alike.
These ready made soldiers have the courage to match their armory. When Bates broke into one of the termites’ archways, he first saw only workers, scurrying for safety, but then the soldiers came out to protect their retreat and were absolutely fearless, thrusting their grotesque weapons up toward the intruder. When one rank is destroyed, it is replaced by another; and when a soldier bites his jaws will never go, even if his body is torn to pieces. The timidity of the worker and the suicidal fury of the soldier are both essential to the colony’s survival, for the workers’ role is to tend to the larvae, while the soldiers stand guard, and if necessary offer themselves for the general good. It seems amazing that creatures with such specialized characteristics should have evolved simply to be sacrificed when more important fellows are in danger.
Peter Kropotkin found justification in Bates’s and other naturalists study of ants and termites to validate his assertion of anarchist utopia as a logical extension of the natural order of life found in the Amazon insect kingdom:
Facts illustrating mutual aid amidst the termites, the ants, and the bees are so well known to the general reader…However terrible the wars between different species, and whatever the atrocities committed at war-time, mutual aid within the community, self-devotion grown into a habit, and very often self-sacrifice for the common welfare, are the rule. The ants and termites have renounced the “Hobbesian war,” and they are the better for it. Their wonderful nests, their buildings, superior in relative size to those of man; their paved roads and overground vaulted galleries; their spacious halls and granaries; their corn-fields, harvesting and “malting” of grain; their, rational methods of nursing their eggs and larvae, and of building special nests for rearing the aphides whom Linnaeus so picturesquely described as “the cows of the ants”; and, finally, their courage, pluck, and, superior intelligence — all these are the natural outcome of the mutual aid which they practise at every stage of their busy and laborious lives. …Their force is in mutual support and mutual confidence. And if the ant — apart from the still higher developed termites — stands at the very top of the whole class of insects for its intellectual capacities; if its courage is only equalled by the most courageous vertebrates; and if its brain — to
use Darwin’s words — “is one of the most marvellous atoms of matter in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man,” is it not due to the fact that mutual aid has entirely taken the place of mutual struggle in the communities of ants?
There is one pest that on occasion defeated even the hardy conquistadors who discovered the river: the mosquito. Indeed, reading accounts of its numbers and virulence, one wonders why anyone would ever go to this river of misery, let alone live there. The answer is that many places are not infested by irritating insects, or at least not unbearably so. But in the most pestilential parts of the river, where conditions are truly murderous and neither acclimatization nor nets give any noticeable relief, the only solution is to surrender and move elsewhere.
Humboldt and Bonpland found one such area in the watershed shared by the Orinoco and the Rio Negro in the late eighteenth-century. The indians who lived there, although less sensitive to mosquito bites than Europeans, suffered terribly. Some tribes would bury their bodies in the sand by night and cover their faces with a cloth. Others lived in what Humboldt called “ovens” , small windowless chambers cleared of mosquitosa wet brushfire and battened down while the smoke was to thick for the insects to enter.
Poor Bonpland, coughing like a consumptive, was forced to sort his specimens in these unpleasant quarters. It was impossible to work outside:”We could neither speak or uncover the face, without the mouth and nose being filled with insects.” The missionaries on this part of the river spoke of being “condemned to the mosquitos” for their sins; their limbs pitted as if by the most virulent smallpox, they bore a lifetime of suffering with extraordinary courage.
“We suffered terribly from insect pests during the twenty-four hours we remained here. At night it was quite impossible to sleep for mosquitoes; they fell upon us by myriads, and without much piping came straight at our faces as thick as raindrops in a shower. The men crowded into the cabins, and then tried to expel the pests by the smoke from burnt rags, but it was of little avail, although we were half suffocated during the operation. In the daytime, the Motúca, a much larger and more formidable fly than the mosquito, insisted upon levying his tax of blood. We had been tormented by it for many days past, but this place seemed to be its metropolis. The species has been described by Perty, the author of the Entomological portion of Spix, and Martius’ travels, under the name of Hadrus lepidotus. … Its puncture does not produce much pain, but it makes such a large gash in the flesh that the blood trickles forth in little streams.( Henry Walter Bates )
… “The youth who incautiously reels into the lobby of Drury Lane after leaving the table sacred to the god of wine is exposed to more certain ruin, sickness and decay than he who wanders a whole year in the wilds of Demerara. But this will never be believed because the disasters arising from dissipation are so common and frequent in civilised life that man becomes quite habituated to them, and sees daily victims sink into the tomb long before their time without ever once taking alarm at the causes which precipitated them headlong into it.
But the dangers which a traveller exposes himself to in foreign parts are novel, out-of-the-way things to a man at home. The remotest apprehension of meeting a tremendous tiger, of being carried off by a flying dragon, or having his bones picked by a famished cannibal: oh, that makes him shudder. It sounds in his ears like the bursting of a bombshell. Thank Heaven he is
safe by his own fireside. …. ( Charles Waterton, 1812 )
One of the least known, and certainly the most extraordinary, of all the Amazon’s birds is the hoatzin, which can scarcely fly or walk, although it lives in the middle of the continent. its attempts to fly are so feeble that it often fails to reach a tree as close as fifty feet away, but slumps down to rest before taking off again. On the ground it trips dismally over its own feet, but it is at home in trees and water. The young are born with curved claws projecting from the joints of their wings, which allow them to clamber about freely, like lumberjacks with pitons. The hoatzins invariably nest in trees on riverbanks, and where there is any danger, instinct impels the young to hurl themselves into the water. They dive without hesitation or fear, and once in the river, they use their wings to swim long distances underwater at an astonishing speed.
…”My friend Mr. Edmonstone had very kindly let me have one of his old negroes, and he constantly attended me: his name was Daddy Quashi. He had a brave stomach for heterogeneous food; it could digest and relish, too, caymen, monkeys, hawks and grubs. The Daddy made three or four meals on this cayman while it was not absolutely putrid, and salted the rest. I could never get him to face a snake; the horror he betrayed on seeing one was beyond description. I asked him why he was so terribly alarmed. He said
it was by seeing so many dogs from time to time killed by them. ( Charles Waterton ,1812 )…
Lacking other means of self-protection, how has so defenseless a creature survived in the midst of so many predators? Bates wondered if the hoatzin’s continued existence might owe something to one unpleasant characteristic of this ugly, raucous, and fascinating bird. The hoatzin has a foul and penetrating odor, for which it is justly called the stinkbird. Bates speculated that if this smell is as repulsive to animals as it is to human beings, the hoatzin’s natural enemies must be content to seek a less distasteful meal. Human beings, preyed upon by multitudes of ravening Amazona fauna, might well envy the hoatzin’s good luck.
” I entered one of the hovels where several women were employed cooking a meal. Portions of a large fish were roasting over a fire made in the middle of the low chamber, and the entrails were scattered about the floor, on which the women with their children were squatted. These had a timid, distrustful expression of countenance, and their bodies were begrimed with black mud, which is smeared over the skin as a protection against mosquitoes. The children were naked, the women wore petticoats of coarse cloth, ragged round the edges, and stained in blotches with murixí, a dye made from the bark of a tree. One of them wore a necklace of monkey’s teeth. There were scarcely any household utensils; the place was bare with the exception of two dirty grass hammocks hung in the corners. I missed the usual mandioca sheds behind the house, with their surrounding cotton, cacao, coffee, and lemon trees. Two or three young men of the tribe were lounging about the low open doorway. They were stoutly-built fellows, but less well-proportioned than the semi-civilised Indians of the Lower Amazons generally are. Their breadth of chest was remarkable, and their arms were wonderfully thick and muscular. The legs appeared short in proportion to the trunk; the expression of their countenances was unmistakably more sullen and brutal, and the skin of a darker hue than is common in the Brazilian red man.
Before we left the hut, an old couple came in; the husband carrying his paddle, bow, arrows, and harpoon, the woman bent beneath the weight of a large basket filled with palm fruits. The man was of low stature and had a wild appearance from the long coarse hair which hung over his forehead. Both his lips were pierced with holes, as is usual with the older Múras seen on the river. They used formerly to wear tusks of the wild hog in these holes whenever they went out to encounter strangers or their enemies in war. The gloomy savagery, filth, and poverty of the people in this place made me feel quite melancholy, and I was glad to return to the canoe. They offered us no civilities; they did not even pass the ordinary salutes, which all the semi-civilised and many savage Indians proffer on a first meeting. The men persecuted Penna for cashaça, which they seemed to consider the only good thing the white man brings with him. As they had nothing whatever to give in exchange, Penna declined to supply them. They followed us as we descended to the port, becoming very troublesome when about a dozen had collected together. They brought their empty bottles with them and promised fish and turtle, if we would only trust them first with the coveted aguardente, or cau-im, as they called it. Penna was inexorable; he ordered the crew to weigh anchor, and the disappointed savages remained hooting after us with all their might from the top of the bank as we glided away.
The Múras have a bad reputation all over this part of the Amazons, the semi-civilised Indians being quite as severe upon them as the white settlers. Everyone spoke of them as lazy, thievish, untrustworthy, and cruel. They have a greater repugnance than any other class of Indians to settled habits, regular labour, and the service of the whites; their distaste, in fact, to any approximation towards civilised life is invincible. Yet most of these faults are only an exaggeration of the fundamental defects of character in the Brazilian red man. ( Henry Walter Bates )