Natural History Handiworks
Aftermath Waterton Links Links - General Book Shelf
Overtown Miscellany - Charles Waterton
 site search by freefind  
Waterton's Wanderings.
The Wanderings - The Third Journey, 1820.
Chapter 3
Chapter 3 Pages

• 1  • 2  • 3  • 4  • 5

⮞⯈ Chapter 1 ⮞⯈ Chapter 2 ⮞⯈ Chapter 4

THIRD JOURNEY in Waterton's own words ...continued ...

▼ Chapter 3, p. 1.

Let us now return to natural history. There was a person making shingles with twenty or thirty negroes not far from Mibiri Hill. I had offered a reward to any of them who would find a good-sized snake in the forest and come and let me know where it was. Often had these negroes looked for a large snake, and as often been disappointed.

One Sunday morning I met one of them in the forest, and asked him which way he was going: he said he was going towards Waratilla Creek to hunt an armadillo; and he had his little dog with him. On coming back, about noon, the dog began to bark at the root of a large tree which had been upset by the whirlwind and was lying there in a gradual state of decay. The negro said he thought his dog was barking at an acouri which had probably taken refuge under the tree, and he went up with an intention to kill it; he there saw a snake, and hastened back to inform me of it.

The sun had just passed the meridian in a cloudless sky; there was scarcely a bird to be seen, for the winged inhabitants of the forest, as though overcome by heat, had retired to the thickest shade: all would have been like midnight silence were it not for the shrill voice of the pi-pi-yo, every now and then resounded from a distant tree. I was sitting with a little Horace in my hand, on what had once been the steps which formerly led up to the now mouldering and dismantled building. The negro and his little dog came down the hill in haste, and I was soon informed that a snake had been discovered; but it was a young one, called the bush-master, a rare and poisonous snake.

I instantly rose up, and laying hold of the eight-foot lance which was close by me, "Well, then, Daddy," said I, "we'll go and have a look at the snake." I was barefoot, with an old hat, and check shirt, and trousers on, and a pair of braces to keep them up. The negro had his cutlass, and as we ascended the hill another negro, armed with a cutlass, joined us, judging from our pace that there was something to do. The little dog came along with us, and when we had got about half a mile in the forest the negro stopped and pointed to the fallen tree: all was still and silent. I told the negroes not to stir from the place where they were, and keep the little dog in, and that I would go in and reconnoitre.

I advanced up to the place slow and cautious. The snake was well concealed, but at last I made him out; it was a coulacanara, not poisonous, but large enough to have crushed any of us to death. On measuring him afterwards he was something more than fourteen feet long. This species of snake is very rare, and much thicker in proportion to his length than any other snake in the forest. A coulacanara of fourteen feet in length is as thick as a common boa of twenty-four. After skinning this snake I could easily get my head into his mouth, as the singular formation of the jaws admits of wonderful extension.

A Dutch friend of mine, by name Brouwer, killed a boa twenty-two feet long with a pair of stag's horns in his mouth. He had swallowed the stag, but could not get the horns down; so he had to wait in patience with that uncomfortable mouthful till his stomach digested the body, and then the horns would drop out. In this plight the Dutchman found him as he was going in his canoe up the river, and sent a ball through his head.

On ascertaining the size of the serpent which the negro had just found, I retired slowly the way I came, and promised four dollars to the negro who had shown it to me, and one to the other who had joined us. Aware that the day was on the decline, and that the approach of night would be detrimental to the dissection, a thought struck me that I could take him alive. I imagined if I could strike him with the lance behind the head, and pin him to the ground, I might succeed in capturing him. When I told this to the negroes they begged and entreated me to let them go for a gun and bring more force, as they were sure the snake would kill some of us.

I had been at the siege of Troy for nine years, and it would not do now to carry back to Greece "nil decimo nisi dedecus anno." I mean I had been in search of a large serpent for years, and now having come up with one it did not become me to turn soft. So, taking a cutlass from one of the negroes, and then ranging both the sable slaves behind me, I told them to follow me, and that I would cut them down if they offered to fly. I smiled as I said this, but they shook their heads in silence and seemed to have but a bad heart of it.

When we got up to the place the serpent had not stirred, but I could see nothing of his head, and I judged by the folds of his body that it must be at the farthest side of his den. A species of woodbine had formed a complete mantle over the branches of the fallen tree, almost impervious to the rain or the rays of the sun. Probably he had resorted to this sequestered place for a length of time, as it bore marks of an ancient settlement.

I now took my knife, determining to cut away the woodbine and break the twigs in the gentlest manner possible, till I could get a view of his head. One negro stood guard close behind me with the lance; and near him the other with a cutlass. The cutlass which I had taken from the first negro was on the ground close by me in case of need.

After working in dead silence for a quarter of an hour, with one knee all the time on the ground, I had cleared away enough to see his head. It appeared coming out betwixt the first and second coil of his body, and was flat on the ground. This was the very position I wished it to be in.

▲ Chapter 3, p. 1.

▼ Chapter 3, p. 2.

I rose in silence and retreated very slowly, making a sign to the negroes to do the same. The dog was sitting at a distance in mute observance. I could now read in the face of the negroes that they considered this as a very unpleasant affair; and they made another attempt to persuade me to let them go for a gun. I smiled in a good-natured manner, and made a feint to cut them down with the weapon I had in my hand. This was all the answer I made to their request, and they looked very uneasy.

It must be observed we were now about twenty yards from the snake's den. I now ranged the negroes behind me, and told him who stood next to me to lay hold of the lance the moment I struck the snake, and that the other must attend my movements. It now only remained to take their cutlasses from them, for I was sure if I did not disarm them they would be tempted to strike the snake in time of danger, and thus for ever spoil his skin. On taking their cutlasses from them, if I might judge from their physiognomy, they seemed to consider it as a most intolerable act of tyranny in me. Probably nothing kept them from bolting but the consolation that I was to be betwixt them and the snake. Indeed, my own heart, in spite of all I could do, beat quicker than usual; and I felt those sensations which one has on board a merchant-vessel in war-time, when the captain orders all hands on deck to prepare for action, while a strange vessel is coming down upon us under suspicious colours.

We went slowly on in silence without moving our arms or heads, in order to prevent all alarm as much as possible, lest the snake should glide off or attack us in self-defence. I carried the lance perpendicularly before me, with the point about a foot from the ground. The snake had not moved; and on getting up to him I struck him with the lance on the near-side, just behind the neck, and pinned him to the ground. That moment the negro next to me seized the lance and held it firm in its place, while I dashed head foremost into the den to grapple with the snake and to get hold of his tail before he could do any mischief.

On pinning him to the ground with the lance he gave a tremendous loud hiss, and the little dog ran away, howling as he went. We had a sharp fray in the den, the rotten sticks flying on all sides, and each party struggling for superiority. I called out to the second negro to throw himself upon me, as I found I was not heavy enough. He did so, and the additional weight was of great service. I had now got firm hold of his tail; and after a violent struggle or two he gave in, finding himself overpowered. This was the moment to secure him. So while the first negro continued to hold the lance firm to the ground, and the other was helping me, I contrived to unloose my braces and with them tied up the snake's mouth.

The snake, now finding himself in an unpleasant situation, tried to better himself, and set resolutely to work, but we overpowered him. We contrived to make him twist himself round the shaft of the lance, and then prepared to convey him out of the forest. I stood at his head and held it firm under my arm, one negro supported the belly and the other the tail. In this order we began to move slowly towards home, and reached it after resting ten times: for the snake was too heavy for us to support him without stopping to recruit our strength. As we proceeded onwards with him he fought hard for freedom, but it was all in vain. The day was now too far spent to think of dissecting him. Had I killed him, a partial putrefaction would have taken place before morning. I had brought with me up into the forest a strong bag large enough to contain any animal that I should want to dissect. I considered this the best mode of keeping live wild animals when I was pressed for daylight; for the bag yielding in every direction to their efforts, they would have nothing solid or fixed to work on, and thus would be prevented from making a hole through it. I say fixed, for after the mouth of the bag was closed the bag itself was not fastened or tied to anything, but moved about wherever the animal inside caused it to roll. After securing afresh the mouth of the coulacanara, so that he could not open it, he was forced into this bag and left to his fate till morning.

I cannot say he allowed me to have a quiet night. My hammock was in the loft just above him, and the floor betwixt us half gone to decay, so that in parts of it no boards intervened betwixt his lodging-room and mine. He was very restless and fretful; and had Medusa been my wife, there could not have been more continued and disagreeable hissing in the bed-chamber that night. At daybreak I sent to borrow ten of the negroes who were cutting wood at a distance; I could have done with half that number, but judged it most prudent to have a good force, in case he should try to escape from the house when we opened the bag. However, nothing serious occurred.

We untied the mouth of the bag, kept him down by main force, and then I cut his throat. He bled like an ox. By six o'clock the same evening he was completely dissected. On examining his teeth I observed that they were all bent like tenter-hooks, pointing down his throat, and not so large or strong as I expected to have found them; but they are exactly suited to what they are intended by Nature to perform. The snake does not masticate his food, and thus the only service his teeth have to perform is to seize his prey and hold it till he swallows it whole.

In general, the skins of snakes are sent to museums without the head: for when the Indians and negroes kill a snake they seldom fail to cut off the head, and then they run no risk from its teeth. When the skin is stuffed in the museum a wooden head is substituted, armed with teeth which are large enough to suit a tiger's jaw; and this tends to mislead the spectator and give him erroneous ideas.

During this fray with the serpent the old negro, Daddy Quashi, was in Georgetown procuring provisions, and just returned in time to help to take the skin off. He had spent best part of his life in the forest with his old master, Mr. Edmonstone, and amused me much in recounting their many adventures amongst the wild beasts. The Daddy had a particular horror of snakes, and frankly declared he could never have faced the one in question.

▲ Chapter 3, p. 2.

▼ Chapter 3, p. 3.

The week following his courage was put to the test, and he made good his words. It was a curious conflict, and took place near the spot where I had captured the large snake. In the morning I had been following a new species of paroquet, and, the day being rainy, I had taken an umbrella to keep the gun dry, and had left it under a tree; in the afternoon I took Daddy Quashi with me to look for it. Whilst he was searching about, curiosity took me towards the place of the late scene of action. There was a path where timber had formerly been dragged along. Here I observed a young coulacanara, ten feet long, slowly moving onwards. I saw he was not thick enough to break my arm, in case he got twisted round it. There was not a moment to be lost. I laid hold of his tail with the left hand, one knee being on the ground; with the right I took off my hat, and held it as you would hold a shield for defence.

The snake instantly turned and came on at me, with his head about a yard from the ground, as if to ask me what business I had to take liberties with his tail. I let him come, hissing and open-mouthed, within two feet of my face, and then with all the force I was master of I drove my fist, shielded by my hat, full in his jaws. He was stunned and confounded by the blow, and ere he could recover himself I had seized his throat with both hands in such a position that he could not bite me. I then allowed him to coil himself round my body, and marched off with him as my lawful prize. He pressed me hard, but not alarmingly so.

In the meantime Daddy Quashi, having found the umbrella and having heard the noise which the fray occasioned, was coming cautiously up. As soon as he saw me and in what company I was, he turned about and ran off home, I after him, and shouting to increase his fear. On scolding him for his cowardice, the old rogue begged that I would forgive him, for that the sight of the snake had positively turned him sick at stomach.

When I had done with the carcass of the large snake it was conveyed into the forest, as I expected that it would attract the king of the vultures as soon as time should have rendered it sufficiently savoury. In a few days it sent forth that odour which a carcass should send forth, and about twenty of the common vultures came and perched on the neighbouring trees. The king of the vultures came, too; and I observed that none of the common ones seemed inclined to begin breakfast till his majesty had finished. When he had consumed as much snake as Nature informed him would do him good, he retired to the top of a high mora-tree, and then all the common vultures fell to and made a hearty meal.

The head and neck of the king of the vultures are bare of feathers; but the beautiful appearance they exhibit fades in death. The throat and the back of the neck are of a fine lemon colour; both sides of the neck, from the ears downwards, of a rich scarlet; behind the corrugated part there is a white spot. The crown of the head is scarlet; betwixt the lower mandible and the eye and close by the ear there is a part which has a fine silvery- blue appearance; the corrugated part is of a dirty light brown; behind it and just above the white spot a portion of the skin is blue, and the rest scarlet; the skin which juts out behind the neck, and appears like an oblong caruncle, is blue in part and part orange.

The bill is orange and black, the caruncles on his forehead orange, and the cere orange; the orbits scarlet, and the irides white. Below the bare part of the neck there is a cinereous ruff. The bag of the stomach, which is only seen when distended with food, is of a most delicate white, intersected with blue veins, which appear on it just like the blue veins on the arm of a fair-complexioned person. The tail and long wing-feathers are black, the belly white, and the rest of the body a fine satin colour.

I cannot be persuaded that the vultures ever feed upon live animals, not even upon lizards, rats, mice or frogs. I have watched them for hours together, but never could see them touch any living animals, though innumerable lizards, frogs and small birds swarmed all around them. I have killed lizards and frogs, and put them in a proper place for observation; as soon as they began to stink the aura vulture invariably came and took them off. I have frequently observed that the day after the planter had burnt the trash in a cane-field the aura vulture was sure to be there, feeding on the snakes, lizards and frogs which had suffered in the conflagration. I often saw a large bird (very much like the common gregarious vulture, at a distance) catch and devour lizards; after shooting one it turned out to be not a vulture but a hawk, with a tail squarer and shorter than hawks have in general. The vultures, like the goat-sucker and woodpecker, seem to be in disgrace with man. They are generally termed a voracious, stinking, cruel and ignoble tribe. Under these impressions the fowler discharges his gun at them, and probably thinks he has done well in ridding the earth of such vermin.

▲Chapter 3, p. 3.

▼ Chapter 3, p. 4.

Some Governments impose a fine on him who kills a vulture. This is a salutary law, and it were to be wished that other Governments would follow so good an example. I would fain here say a word or two in favour of this valuable scavenger.

Kind Providence has conferred a blessing on hot countries in giving them the vulture; He has ordered it to consume that which, if left to dissolve in putrefaction, would infect the air and produce a pestilence. When full of food the vulture certainly appears an indolent bird; he will stand for hours together on the branch of a tree, or on the top of a house, with his wings drooping, and, after rain, with them spread and elevated to catch the rays of the sun. It has been remarked by naturalists that the flight of this bird is laborious. I have paid attention to the vulture in Andalusia and to those in Guiana, Brazil, and the West Indies, and conclude that they are birds of long, even and lofty flight. Indeed, whoever has observed the aura vulture will be satisfied that his flight is wonderfully majestic and of long continuance.

This bird is above five feet from wing to wing extended. You will see it soaring aloft in the aerial expanse on pinions which never flutter, and which at the same time carry him through the fields of ether with a rapidity equal to that of the golden eagle. In Paramaribo the laws protect the vulture, and the Spaniards of Angustura never think of molesting him. In 1808 I saw the vultures in that city as tame as domestic fowls; a person who had never seen a vulture would have taken them for turkeys. They were very useful to the Spaniards. Had it not been for them, the refuse of the slaughter-houses in Angustura would have caused an intolerable nuisance.

The common black, short, square-tailed vulture is gregarious, but the aura vulture is not so; for though you may see fifteen or twenty of them feeding on the dead vermin in a cane-field, after the trash has been set fire to, still, if you have paid attention to their arrival, you will have observed that they came singly and retired singly; and thus their being altogether in the same field was merely accidental and caused by each one smelling the effluvia as he was soaring through the sky to look out for food. I have watched twenty come into a cane-field; they arrived one by one, and from different parts of the heavens. Hence we may conclude that, though the other species of vulture are gregarious, the aura vulture is not.

If you dissect a vulture that has just been feeding on carrion, you must expect that your olfactory nerves will be somewhat offended with the rank effluvia from his craw; just as they would be were you to dissect a citizen after the Lord Mayor's dinner. If, on the contrary, the vulture be empty at the time you commence the operation, there will be no offensive smell, but a strong scent of musk.

I had long wished to examine the native haunts of the cayman, but as the River Demerara did not afford a specimen of the large kind, I was obliged to go to the River Essequibo to look for one.

I got the canoe ready, and went down in it to Georgetown, where, having put in the necessary articles for the expedition, not forgetting a couple of large shark-hooks with chains attached to them, and a coil of strong new rope, I hoisted a little sail which I had got made on purpose, and at six o'clock in the morning shaped our course for the River Essequibo. I had put a pair of shoes on to prevent the tar at the bottom of the canoe from sticking to my feet. The sun was flaming hot, and from eleven o'clock till two beat perpendicularly upon the top of my feet, betwixt the shoes and the trousers. Not feeling it disagreeable, or being in the least aware of painful consequences, as I had been barefoot for months, I neglected to put on a pair of short stockings which I had with me. I did not reflect that sitting still in one place, with your feet exposed to the sun, was very different from being exposed to the sun while in motion.

We went ashore in the Essequibo about three o'clock in the afternoon, to choose a place for the night's residence, to collect firewood, and to set the fish-hooks. It was then that I first began to find my legs very painful: they soon became much inflamed and red and blistered; and it required considerable caution not to burst the blisters, otherwise sores would have ensued. I immediately got into the hammock, and there passed a painful and sleepless night, and for two days after I was disabled from walking.

About midnight, as I was lying awake and in great pain, I heard the Indian say, "Massa, massa, you no hear tiger?" I listened attentively, and heard the softly sounding tread of his feet as he approached us. The moon had gone down, but every now and then we could get a glance of him by the light of our fire. He was the jaguar, for I could see the spots on his body. Had I wished to have fired at him I was not able to take a sure aim, for I was in such pain that I could not turn myself in my hammock. The Indian would have fired, but I would not allow him to do so, as I wanted to see a little more of our new visitor, for it is not every day or night that the traveller is favoured with an undisturbed sight of the jaguar in his own forests.

▲ Chapter 3, p. 4.

▼ Chapter 3, p. 5.

Whenever the fire got low the jaguar came a little nearer, and when the Indian renewed it he retired abruptly. Sometimes he would come within twenty yards, and then we had a view of him sitting on his hind-legs like a dog; sometimes he moved slowly to and fro, and at other times we could hear him mend his pace, as if impatient. At last the Indian, not relishing the idea of having such company in the neighbourhood, could contain himself no longer, and set up a most tremendous yell. The jaguar bounded off like a racehorse, and returned no more. It appeared by the print of his feet the next morning that he was a full-grown jaguar.

In two days after this we got to the first falls in the Essequibo. There was a superb barrier of rocks quite across the river. In the rainy season these rocks are for the most part under water, but it being now dry weather we had a fine view of them, while the water from the river above them rushed through the different openings in majestic grandeur. Here, on a little hill jutting out into the river, stands the house of Mrs. Peterson, the last house of people of colour up this river. I hired a negro from her and a coloured man who pretended that they knew the haunts of the cayman and understood everything about taking him. We were a day in passing these falls and rapids, celebrated for the pacou, the richest and most delicious fish in Guiana. The coloured man was now in his element: he stood in the head of the canoe, and with his bow and arrow shot the pacou as they were swimming in the stream. The arrow had scarcely left the bow before he had plunged headlong into the river and seized the fish as it was struggling with it. He dived and swam like an otter, and rarely missed the fish he aimed at.

Did my pen, gentle reader, possess descriptive powers, I would here give thee an idea of the enchanting scenery of the Essequibo; but that not being the case, thou must be contented with a moderate and well-intended attempt.

Nothing could be more lovely than the appearance of the forest on each side of this noble river. Hills rose on hills in fine gradation, all covered with trees of gigantic height and size. Here their leaves were of a lively purple, and there of the deepest green. Sometimes the caracara extended its scarlet blossoms from branch to branch, and gave the tree the appearance as though it had been hung with garlands.

This delightful scenery of the Essequibo made the soul overflow with joy, and caused you to rove in fancy through fairyland; till, on turning an angle of the river, you were recalled to more sober reflections on seeing the once grand and towering mora now dead and ragged in its topmost branches, while its aged trunk, undermined by the rushing torrent, hung as though in sorrow over the river, which ere long would receive it and sweep it away for ever.

During the day the trade-wind blew a gentle and refreshing breeze, which died away as the night set in, and then the river was as smooth as glass.

The moon was within three days of being full, so that we did not regret the loss of the sun, which set in all its splendour. Scarce had he sunk behind the western hills when the goat-suckers sent forth their soft and plaintive cries; some often repeating, "Who are you--who, who, who are you?" and others "Willy, willy, willy come go."

The Indian and Daddy Quashi often shook their head at this, and said they were bringing talk from Yabahou, who is the Evil Spirit of the Essequibo. It was delightful to sit on the branch of a fallen tree near the water's edge and listen to these harmless birds as they repeated their evening song; and watch the owls and vampires as they every now and then passed up and down the river.

The next day, about noon, as we were proceeding onwards, we heard the campanero tolling in the depth of the forest. Though I should not then have stopped to dissect even a rare bird, having a greater object in view, still I could not resist the opportunity offered of acquiring the campanero. The place where he was tolling was low and swampy, and my legs not having quite recovered from the effects of the sun, I sent the Indian to shoot the campanero. He got up to the tree, which he described as very high, with a naked top, and situated in a swamp. He fired at the bird, but either missed it or did not wound it sufficiently to bring it down. This was the only opportunity I had of getting a campanero during this expedition. We had never heard one toll before this morning, and never heard one after.

▲Chapter 3, p.5.


Chapter 3 Pages

• 1  • 2  • 3  • 4  • 5

⮞⯈ Chapter 1 ⮞⯈ Chapter 2 ⮞⯈ Chapter 4

 Visit the Bookshelf.

OVERTOWN MISCELLANY (overtown.org.uk)  
© John S. Sargent, 1997 - 2021.  All rights reserved.  
• About this site  • Contact  
Squire Charles Waterton