Visits Alcantarà

Learning that there was a vessel in the harbour at Rio, about to sail for Liverpool, and being now anxious to return to England, I put my collections into order, and left the Organ mountains on the morning of the 25th of April, reached Piedade the same evening, and arrived in the city early next morning. Besides botanical specimens for the herbarium, I collected, during my residence on the mountains, a large number of the most beautiful plants in a living state to take home with me. They filled six large Wardian cases, but scarcely half of them reached England alive, owing to the boxes not having been properly constructed; many of those which survived are now widely dispersed, and are very ornamental plants.[23]


Early in the morning of the 6th of May, I went on board the barque “Gipsy,” which shortly after got under weigh. She was not, however, bound for England direct, having to call at Maranham, in the north of Brazil, to take in a cargo of cotton. I was thus unexpectedly afforded an opportunity of seeing another of the large Brazilian sea-ports, and of making a few collections in a part of the empire which possesses a different vegetation from any I had hitherto visited. We had a fine run to Maranham, which place we reached in fifteen days. The night before we made land, we had a strong breeze off shore, which brought with it a vast number of moths and butterflies of all sizes, and of those that came on board I was enabled to make a collection of about a dozen species. The land here, as at Pernambuco, is very flat; the great sea-ports of Brazil diminish in importance from south to north, the most important being Rio, the next Bahia, the third Pernambuco, and the fourth Maranham.

The town of S. Luiz de Maranham is situated on a slightly elevated part of the north-west end of an island of the same name, which is about seven leagues long by five broad, and is separated from the mainland by a channel of no great breadth. The river, in the mouth of which it is situated, is formed by the union of several smaller ones which take their origin in the south-western portions of the province. The population of the town is said to amount to about 26,000; the houses are substantially built of a reddish-coloured sandstone, are mostly of two stories, and more regular in their appearance than those of the other large Brazilian cities. The streets are generally well paved, and cleaner than any I have seen in the country, no doubt owing to many of them having a slight inclination, which allows them to benefit by the heavy falls of rain that had already set in when we arrived. It contains eighty-five churches; the palace of the president forms part of a large square, the remainder of which consists of a large[420] building formerly the college of the Jesuits, the prison, and the town-hall. A very considerable trade is carried on here both of import and export: most of the European goods which arrive, are sent up to the interior of the province, and also into that of Piauhy; the principal exports are cotton and hides.

On my arrival at Maranham, I was very kindly received by the English residents there, who had heard of me when I was at Oeiras, and was invited to take up my quarters in the house of the English physician, Dr. Arbuckle. As the ship remained about three weeks, I had ample time to make a few excursions in the neighbourhood, but was prevented from seeing as much of the country as I wished, on account of the rains.

The island on which the town stands is very flat, in some places marshy, and covered with a vegetation of shrubs and small trees. In the marshes grow some fine palms belonging to the genera Attalea and Euterpe. There are but very few cocoa-nut trees; and indeed the general appearance of the country indicates a less humid climate, and consequently a less vigorous vegetation than exists towards the southern tropic. On the island there is but little cultivation; much of the soil is of a sandy nature on the surface, and below that of a gravelly character, highly impregnated with iron; and the same also is the case on the continent opposite the town. The rock which forms the basis of the island is a dark red sandstone, similar to that which I found in the provinces of Ceará and Piauhy in connection with the chalk formation of those parts of the country. In many places it is of a conglomerate nature, the rounded stones being of the same character as the softer matrix in which they are imbedded. On the opposite continent, near the town of Alcantarà, I found the same rock rising only a little above the level of the sea, but overlaid by another rocky deposit, more than fifty feet thick in some places, consisting of alternate strata of yellowish and greenish coloured sandstone, irregularly deposited, soft, and in some places of a marly nature. These rocks I have no hesitation in considering as equivalent to those which underlie the white chalk near the Villa do Crato and Barra do Jardim, in the interior of the province of[421] Ceará, and they no doubt formed part of the great chalk deposit, which seems at one time to have covered the eastern shoulder of the South American continent, but which in many places has since disappeared.

Besides making excursions in all directions in the island, I also crossed over to Alcantarà, where I remained three days. I had a letter of introduction to the principal merchant in the place, Senhor Peichoto, a native of Portugal, and with him I lived during my stay there. I crossed the bay, which is about four leagues broad, in one of the regular trading vessels, which are about forty tons burden; these carry over from Alcantarà cotton and fire-wood, the former is cultivated at some distance in the interior, whence it is brought in on the backs of horses; the fire-wood is obtained from the stems and branches of the mangrove (Rhizophora Mangle), which grows in great abundance along the muddy shores: it burns in the green state better perhaps than any other kind of tree. Along these muddy shores great flocks of the beautiful Red Flamingo (Phænicopterus Chilensis, Molina) are almost always to be seen. At night they roost among the mangroves, and are much sought after by the inhabitants, who consider their flesh excellent food. The town of Alcantarà, like that of Maranham, is situated on a rising ground, and seems to have been once in a more flourishing state than at present; the houses and churches are mostly large, but are in a very dilapidated state, while the streets are overgrown with weeds. The more wealthy people who reside here, are the proprietors of cotton plantations, while the poorer gain a livelihood by fishing and making hammocks, for which latter article there is a great demand through the northern provinces. Some of these are so finely worked that they sell for as much as six or eight pounds each; they are made of fine cotton cord, and are either altogether of a white colour, or white and blue, the latter colour being obtained from the wild Indigo, which grows abundantly all over the country. There are Salinas, or salt-pits, a few miles to the north of the town, which formerly belonged to the Jesuits, and were profitably worked by them, but they are now very much neglected.[422] Along the shore, and scattered here and there among the bushes on the low hills, I saw a few plants of the wax palm (Corypha cerifera, Mart.), which is so common about Aracaty, in the province of Ceará.

In the course of my rambles in this neighbourhood, I met with many plants that were new to my collections; the flora of Maranham has greater affinity with that of Guiana, than with any other part of Brazil I have visited, as might indeed be expected from its northerly position; it is also well known that such plants as grow only near the sea, have a far more extensive geographical range than those which grow inland. I was particularly struck with this fact in travelling into the interior from Pernambuco and Aracaty. At both of these places are seen many plants common to the shores of the West Indies, Guiana, and nearly the whole of the intertropical coast of Brazil, while in the same parallels of latitude, from a little way inland to the most western point I reached, the vegetation had a distinct character from that of any other place. The same observations apply to extensive plains, the vegetation of which is so frequently and annoyingly monotonous to the botanist, while on elevated tracts a much greater diversity occurs.

It was the knowledge of this fact that induced me, during the whole of my travels, to keep as much as possible along mountain chains and elevated table-lands. No satisfactory reason has yet been suggested to account for the greater number of species which exist in a given space on a mountain than on a plain; temperature, light, and moisture, no doubt play the most important part, but there must be other causes yet unknown.

At Maranham I met two of my Oeiras acquaintances: one of them, though a major in the army, was also a merchant, who had come down to purchase European goods; the other, a son of the old Baron of Paranahiba, whose object was to enter into holy orders, previous to his being appointed Vicar of Oeiras. From them I learned that the insurrection had at last been put down, and that the province was subsiding into a more settled state. The authorities were apprehending all those they could lay their[423] hands on, who had been engaged in the affair, and sending them to the province of Rio Grande do Sul, to fight against the rebels there,—a rare piece of policy! I saw several parties of them brought down, and a very ill-looking set of fellows they were.

The ship at length having taken in all her cargo, I embarked, and finally bade adieu to the shores of Brazil, on the morning of the eighth of June. While we were in about the fifty-sixth degree of west longitude, and between the twenty-second and twenty-eighth degrees of north latitude, we passed through those enormous fields of sea-weed, (Sargassum bacciferum, Agardh), which have been described by almost every voyager in those seas. It existed generally in long narrow strips or bands, lying across the wind, sometimes not more than the ships’ length apart, at other times at a considerable distance from each other. Much diversity of opinion exists as to the origin of this floating mass; Humboldt believes it be detached from rocks, at a considerable depth in the latitudes where it floats; while others suppose it to come from the shores of the northern seas, having been detached from the rocks by the violence of the winds. Some again imagine that it comes from the rocky shores of the gulfs of Mexico and Florida; while many agree with me in believing that it has never had any other than its present place of abode; no one has ever seen it attached to rocks, nor have roots ever been discovered belonging to it. During the five or six days that we sailed through this gulf-weed, I hooked on board more than a thousand pieces, and every one of them presented the same appearance. The lower end of the stem had always a whitish, decayed appearance, just like a piece of tangle which has been some time cast on shore, while the extremities of the branches were universally of a very fresh and healthy appearance. Such being the case, we can scarcely help believing that these remarkable plants have existed since the time of their first creation to the present period, as we now find them, floating always in this revolving gulf stream, and undergoing a perpetual mutation from the decay at one extremity, and growth at the other. There is nothing unreasonable in this[424] opinion, as sea-weeds are not like land plants, which derive nourishment from the spot to which they are attached. I found among the weed a great variety of Zoophytes and other minute marine animals; a crab, measuring from an inch to an inch and a half across, was frequent, and I observed the nest of one, formed by the small branches woven together by a strong kind of thread, not unlike that of which spiders make their webs; it contained a number of young ones.

In those latitudes, it was also curious to watch the flight of the flying-fishes (Exocetus volitans), whole shoals of which rose quite close to the ship; and I have perfectly satisfied myself, not only on this occasion, but during the several times I have crossed the ocean, that they make use of their pectoral fins as wings, during the time they remain above water. This fact I was particularly desirous to ascertain, as Cuvier and all other authors I have consulted on the subject, except Humboldt, deny that this is the case.[24] The distance to which they fly is sometimes very short, at others I have watched them skimming along till the eye almost lost sight of them; I should say that they frequently extend their flight to three hundred yards. The height to which they rise above the surface of the sea, does not usually exceed three or four feet, but that they rise higher is well known, from the fact that they not unfrequently fly on board ships, which are from ten to fifteen feet out of the water. When the sea is calm, they shoot along on the same plane, like an arrow, and the impulse they acquire on leaving the water appears to be that alone which impels them onward. The first time I discovered that they certainly use their fins as wings was one day when a rather high swell was running; a good many fish were rising, but not in great numbers at a time. Solitary individuals could be followed by the eye to a great distance, but during their progress they did not keep on the same plane, nor did the course of their flight form the segment of a[425] circle, but they could most distinctly be seen rising and falling over the heavy swell, keeping always at about the same height above the water, just as a bird would do; the albatross, for example, when skimming along in search of food. The only time I ever saw distinctly the fins moved in the manner of wings, was in the South Atlantic Ocean. One beautifully clear day, when we were running quietly along under the influence of a light breeze, several large dolphins were playing about, one of which we saw give chase to a flying-fish; the latter rose, but its flight was followed by the dolphin. It fell close to the ship, and in attempting to rise again, the impulse was not sufficient to throw it completely out of the water; it flew along with its tail nearly out of the sea, for about a yard, when it fell a prey to its pursuer; several of the other passengers were watching it also, and by all of us the large fins were seen to be worked with great rapidity. I agree with Humboldt,[25] that these fishes do not always rise out of the water to escape from their enemies, as they often spring up close to ships, when there are no signs of large fishes being near. Why should the flying-fish, having the power to do so, not enjoy a flight in the air, quite as much as a duck does a dive under the water, or land animals the luxury of bathing?

Another remarkable oceanic phenomenon is the brilliant phosphorescence of the water, which frequently occurs in low latitudes; and, presuming they will not be misplaced, I shall make a few observations on the subject. On my passage from England, and while we were about 2° of south latitude and 26° of west longitude, I was called up by the captain, about half-past ten o’clock at night, to witness a remarkable appearance the sea had assumed. Upon reaching the deck, one of the most magnificent scenes imaginable presented itself; all round the ship, and to as great a distance as the eye could reach, the swell, which was running pretty high, was emitting from its surface, at short intervals, long broad sheets of phosphorescent light, which continued bright only for a second or two, and then disappeared. The continued glare of these long streams of light, their sudden appearance and disappearance,[426] as if detached portions of sheet lightning were flashing from wave to wave, gave a wild and terrific aspect to the surface of the ocean; the reflection from it was so great, that the sails of the ship were illumined by the glare. On looking over the ship’s stern, her wake for about fifty yards was one continued stream of pale yellow light, upon which, ever and anon, were floating away, and becoming extinct, curious masses of a circular shape, varying from half a foot to two feet in breadth, of a livid hue, similar to that which burning sulphur emits. These masses retained their livid flame-like appearance till they reached about six or eight yards from the ship, when they gradually became extinct; their beautiful colour contrasting singularly with the pale yellow stream on which they floated. This curious state of the sea only lasted about a quarter of an hour, the water then assuming its usual aspect, the foam at the ship’s bow only presenting the sparkling appearance which it usually exhibits within the tropics. This occurred on the 7th of July; the weather had been cloudy all day, with the thermometer 79° at noon; the night was dark, and it was blowing a fresh breeze from E.S.E., the ship going at the rate of six knots an hour.

It is well known that the circular masses of light which I have described, are produced from aggregated masses of very small marine animals, to which the name of Pyrosoma is given; I did not, however, capture any, as my towing net was at this time out of order, but during my voyage to Ceylon I was more fortunate; on the 25th of November, 1843, in about 3° and 4° N. lat., and 23° W. long., with cloudy weather, and the thermometer 81° at noon, shortly after it became dark, we got into a field of these animals, and though the brilliancy of their light was not so great as on the former occasion, they were more numerous, the ship sailing through them for several hours. They were seen in broad shoals at great but irregular distances from each other. The towing net on being thrown overboard soon procured me a large supply of the extraordinary animals of which these shoals were composed; they gave out a bright pale yellowish green light, which they retained for some time after they were brought on[427] board. Each mass was shaped not unlike the finger of a glove, being hollow, and closed at one end; they varied a little in size, but were generally about four inches in length. The little animals of which these masses are made up, are placed horizontally, and lie closely packed over each other, their heads being towards the outer surface. When kept in a glass in salt water for some time, they soon separated from each other, and being very transparent, were then scarcely to be distinguished from the water; they taste exactly like fresh oysters. During this voyage, I obtained four distinct species, two of which were taken off the Cape of Good Hope; one of these finger-like masses, taken near the Equator, measured about two feet in length. I have often observed close to the ship these bodies at a considerable depth, giving out a faint light; and I am persuaded that the brilliant flashes which were emitted from the sides of the swell, on the first occasion, were caused by the number of the Pyrosomæ then existing in the sea. The scintillations which issued from the foam, dashed up by the ship, were caused by a phosphorescent microscopic species of shrimp (Noctiluca oceanica? Spix), which I collected in great numbers, in a net made from an old flag.

Our voyage home was a quick and a very pleasant one. We were only thirty-two days altogether at sea from Maranham, we had no rough weather, and the only calm day we experienced occurred between our losing the N.E. trades, and falling in with westerly winds. The nearer I approached home, the more my desire increased to be again among my friends; and this I believe, under similar circumstances, almost universally occurs. When we are at a great distance from, and know that we have no immediate chance of returning to, those who are dear to us, we suppress as much as possible the indulgence in hopes which cannot be realized; but when we feel that every hour is bringing us nearer home, we throw off all restraint on our imagination, and only regret that our progress cannot be accelerated. On the evening of the eighth of July the welcome cry of “land” was heard, and on the following afternoon we made the mouth of the Mersey, but for want of sufficient water, we had to stand off and on till[428] next morning, during which interval we experienced a smart gale of wind from the N.N.W., which kept us all awake. Early next day, the 10th of July, 1841, I stood once more on British ground, after an absence of upwards of five years.

Having now brought my narrative to a conclusion, it only remains to notice that the object I had in view when I left England, was accomplished to the satisfaction of all concerned in it, and the anticipations I had indulged of the pleasures to be derived from such an expedition, have not been disappointed. If almost every day brought its little annoyances, they were more than compensated by the delight which new scenes and objects for study constantly produced. Difficulties only appear insurmountable when they are not looked boldly in the face; and it is fortunate for us that the bright side of the picture of the past presents itself more frequently than the dark. I have much to congratulate myself upon; for although often exposed both by night and by day, my health, save only on one occasion, continued good; and with very few exceptions, I received the greatest kindness from all my fellow men with whom I came in contact. I have also been more fortunate than many natural history travellers, for the numerous collections shipped to England, from time to time, all arrived safely; the letters, too, which I despatched, reached their destination, with only one exception; and not one of those from home was lost, although often long in coming to my hands. It was not without many regrets that I left Brazil, for the life I led was free and independent; the climate agreed better with my health than that of England; and the country is beautiful, and richer than any other in the world in those objects, to the study of which I have devoted my life.

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