Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Humboldt: Story of Guajibo mother's sacrifice

In 1800 the German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt - one of the first foreign scientists allowed to travel in Spanish America - arrived in what is now Amazonas State. The entries in his diary cover everything from plant life to local politics, but he was also a keen observer of the indigenous people he met on his travels. One entry describes his feelings on learning of a Guajibo woman's vain attempts to stay with her children after they were captured and taken to a Catholic mission. It is a chilling account of the cruelty inflicted upon the indigenous tribes of Venezuela by so-called "civilized" people. The Guajibo still live along both sides of the border with Colombia, but now prefer to be called Jivi or Hiwi.

April 30th. We continued upstream on the Atabapo for 5 miles, then instead of following this river to its source, where it is called the Atacavi, we entered the Temi River.

Before we reached its confluence, a granitic eminence on the western bank, near the mouth of the Guasacavi, fixed our attention: it is called Piedra de la Guahiba (Rock of the Guahiba woman), or the Piedra de la Madre (Mother's Rock.) We inquired the cause of so singular a denomination.

Father Zea could not satisfy our curiosity; but some weeks after, another missionary, one of the predecessors of that ecclesiastic, whom we found settled at San Fernando as president of the missions, related to us an event which excited in our minds the most painful feelings.

If, in these solitary scenes, man scarcely leaves behind him any trace of his existence, it is doubly humiliating for a European to see perpetuated by so imperishable a monument of nature as a rock, the remembrance of the moral degradation of our species, and the contrast between the virtue of a savage, and the barbarism of civilized man!

In 1797 the missionary of San Fernando had led his Indians to the banks of the Rio Guaviare, on one of those hostile incursions which are prohibited alike by religion and the Spanish laws. They found in an Indian hut a Guahiba woman with her three children (two of whom were still infants), occupied in preparing the flour of cassava.

Resistance was impossible; the father was gone to fish, and the mother tried in vain to flee with her children. Scarcely had she reached the savannah when she was seized by the Indians of the mission, who hunt human beings, like the Whites and the Negroes in Africa.

The mother and her children were bound, and dragged to the bank of the river. The monk, seated in his boat, waited the issue of an expedition of which he shared not the danger. Had the mother made too violent a resistance the Indians would have killed her, for everything is permitted for the sake of the conquest of souls (la conquista espirituel), and it is particularly desirable to capture children, who may be treated in the Mission as poitos, or slaves of the Christians.

The prisoners were carried to San Fernando, in the hope that the mother would be unable to find her way back to her home by land. Separated from her other children who had accompanied their father on the day in which she had been carried off, the unhappy woman showed signs of the deepest despair.

She attempted to take back to her home the children who had been seized by the missionary; and she fled with them repeatedly from the village of San Fernando. But the Indians never failed to recapture her; and the missionary, after having caused her to be mercilessly beaten, took the cruel resolution of separating the mother from the two children who had been carried off with her.

She was conveyed alone to the missions of the Rio Negro, going up the Atabapo. Slightly bound, she was seated at the bow of the boat, ignorant of the fate that awaited her; but she judged by the direction of the sun, that she was removing farther and farther from her hut and her native country.

She succeeded in breaking her bonds, threw herself into the water, and swam to the left bank of the Atabapo. The current carried her to a shelf of rock, which bears her name to this day. She landed and took shelter in the woods, but the president of the missions ordered the Indians to row to the shore, and follow the traces of the Guahiba.

In the evening she was brought back. Stretched upon the rock (la Piedra de la Madre) a cruel punishment was inflicted on her with those straps of manatee leather, which serve for whips in that country, and with which the alcaldes are always furnished.
This unhappy woman, her hands tied behind her back with strong stalks of mavacure, was then dragged to the mission of Javita.

She was there thrown into one of the caravanserais, called las Casas del Rey. It was the rainy season, and the night was profoundly dark.

Forests till then believed to be impenetrable separated the mission of Javita from that of San Fernando, which was twenty-five leagues distant in a straight line. No other route is known than that by the rivers; no man ever attempted to go by land from one village to another. But such difficulties could not deter a mother, separated from her children.

The Guahiba was carelessly guarded in the caravanserai. Her arms being wounded, the Indians of Javita had loosened her bonds, unknown to the missionary and the alcaldes. Having succeeded by the help of her teeth in breaking them entirely, she disappeared during the night; and at the fourth sunrise was seen at the mission of San Fernando, hovering around the hut where her children were confined.

"What that woman performed," added the missionary, who gave us this sad narrative, "the most robust Indian would not have ventured to undertake!" She traversed the woods at a season when the sky is constantly covered with clouds, and the sun during whole days appears but for a few minutes. Did the course of the waters direct her way? The inundations of the rivers forced her to go far from the banks of the main stream, through the midst of woods where the movement of the water is almost imperceptible.

How often must she have been stopped by the thorny lianas, that form a network around the trunks they entwine! How often must she have swum across the rivulets that run into the Atabapo!

This unfortunate woman was asked how she had sustained herself during four days. She said that, exhausted with fatigue, she could find no other nourishment than those great black ants called vachacos, which climb the trees in long bands, to suspend on them their resinous nests.

We pressed the missionary to tell us whether the Guahiba had peacefully enjoyed the happiness of remaining with her children; and if any repentance had followed this excess of cruelty. He would not satisfy our curiosity; but at our return from the Rio Negro we learned that the Indian mother was again separated from her children, and sent to one of the missions of the Upper Orinoco.

There she died, refusing all kind of nourishment, as savages frequently do in great calamities.

Such is the remembrance annexed to this fatal rock, the Piedra de la Madre.

In this relation of my travels I feel no desire to dwell on pictures of individual suffering- evils which are frequent wherever there are masters and slaves, civilized Europeans living with people in a state of barbarism, and priests exercising the plenitude of arbitrary power over men ignorant and without defence.

In describing the countries through which I passed, I generally confine myself to pointing out what is imperfect, or fatal to humanity, in their civil
or religious institutions.

If I have dwelt longer on the Rock of the Guahiba, it was to record an affecting instance of maternal tenderness in a race of people so long calumniated; and because I thought some benefit might accrue from publishing a fact, which I had from the monks of San Francisco, and which proves how much the system of the missions calls for the care of the legislator.

To see Humboldt's book "Personal Narrative: Of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent" click here:

To see Daniel Kehlmann's "factitious" account of Humboldt's travels "Measuring the World" click here:

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