Wallace Letters Online

Share this:

Record number: WCP351

Sent by:
Richard Spruce
Sent to:
Alfred Russel Wallace
2 July 1853

Sent by Richard Spruce, San Carlos del Rio Negro, Venezuela to Alfred Russel Wallace [none given] on 2 July 1853.

Record created:
01 June 2002 by Lucas, Paula J.
Verified by:
21/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline (All except summary checked);


Re. Wallace's shipwreck and lost specimens; threatened uprising by local Indians; plant collecting at San Jeronymo (San Jeronimo); canoes on the Vuapes; steamers on the Amazon; Darwin and other English travellers; Chagas in prison; expected arrival of Antonio Diaz; publication of Spruce letters by Hooker; local women; plans for an expedition to the source of the Orinoco.

Record contains:

  • letter (1)

View item:

LETTER (WCP351.351)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/3/26
Copyright owner:
Copyright of the Richard Spruce Literary Estate.
Record scrutiny:
21/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline;

Item notes

Physical description

Transcription information




San Carlos del Rio Negro.

2. July, 1853.

My dear friend,

Your two letters, the last being of Jan[uary]. 11 of the present year, reached me nearly together a very short time ago. That pattern of forgetfulness Henrique wish [?] me a good while since that he was sending me a lot of letters and amongst them one from you, from which I should put ably learn the terrible "catastrophe" which had happened to you; and after all contrived to leave [?] out the letters from his parcel, so that I had to write to the Barra to remind him of the omission. At this date I was still in S. Jeronymo, and all through the voyage to S. Carlos was I schismando about what c[oul]d have happened [to] you -- in S. Joaquim & Maribitanas, too, Lima and Felisberto laid their wise heads to mine, but we could not satisfy ourselves as to whether you had been shipwrecked, or got married, or burst yourself with eating plum pudding. When the news at length came, I had to write long letters to your friends here giving them an account of your disaster, and every one who knew you expresses his sympathy in the most glowing terms the Portuguese language affords. By the bye Lima is hurt that you you do not write to him -- I enclose a note just received from him which will shew the kindly feelings he still entertains towards you, and how he remains "bastante pinalizado" [very penalized] (which I dont quite understand though it evidently indicates a dreadful state of mind) because of your "infeliz sorte" [unfortunate luck]. With all his faults, Lima is about the best fellow on the Rio Negro.

I will not waste words in pressing the sympathy which I myself feel for you, in your sufferings and irreparable losses. The reading of your letter affected me much, for I fancied myself in your place, and I am pretty sure I could not have equaled your calmness & resignation. It seemed to me a conclusive proof of the elasticity off your temperament when you could so enjoy an English dinner on your landing. As to your cravings now for roast pirarucú and pacovas they seem to me signs of a most depraved appetite. I wish to the Lord you had a cartload of them, so that I might have every day fresh bread and butter and potatoes. It is true pacovas w[oul]d often be accepted enough at San Carlos, where like all other eatables they are precious scarce. Of all the hungry places I have been in this is the hungriest, and since I arrived (on April 11.) nearly all my time [1 word illeg.] has been taken up in procuring the necessaries of life. However I keep up my heart, for summer is at hand, and then for the Casiquiarê, plenty of fresh fish and mosquitos.

I have written these few days looked death in the face almost as closely as you did on the ocean. The Indians rose up at the feast of S[t]. John and threatened to murder all the whites, or at least all the estrangeiros, who are only myself and two Portuguese, Gomez and Eirado, whom you perhaps know. Some days before, the Comisario & his Supplente took themselves off, as it now appears to be out of the way should any novidade occur; nay we have reason to believe that the Indians wwere secretly incited by them. I have not time to enter into any detailed account. We found it necessary to keep constant watch with arms by our sides for two days and nights, in the house of Eirado, where also were collected his family & that of Gomez. We mustered among us 7 fire-arms, 2 [1 word illeg.], and cutlasses quant[?] suff[icient]., and we had all so placed as to be used at a moments warning. On the 23rd, there was plenty of drinking, dancing of carizo and firing of salvos, but as far as we were concerned, they confined themselves to insults and menaces, threatening to treat the Portuguese as their countrymen had been treated by the Cabanos of Pará (capar e cortar las lingrias [castrate and cut their tongues]). There were rumours that an attack w[oul]d be made on us by night, and when it became dark we closed the doors and set ourselves to await our assailants should they dare an attack. But though bodies of drunken men from time to time paraded the streets, the night passed over without their molesting us. In the [[2]] afternoon of the following day, thought there still remained a great quantity of burreche, every one left off drinking. After sunset not a person was to be seen in the streets and all was still as death. My companions who had lived in S. Carlos several years had never seen the night of St. Johns- day passed except in bebedeira [binge] and barulha [noise?], and were filled with apprehension that it was the prelude to an attack, and that the Indians were merely keeping themselves sober for the purpose of making it with more effect. We have reasons to conclude that such was really their intention, one of the principal [1 word illeg.] being that in the morning the drinking &c. were resumed and kept up for several days afterwards. When night closed in we remarked that 2 men were walking up and down the street in front of the house -- these were a sort of patrol and were changed at short intervals throughout the night. The Indians however never screwed up their courage so far as to venture to attack us -- they knew of our warlike preparations and as it would seem calculated that a good many of the foremost in the assault w[oul]d necessarily forfeit their lives. Of their ultimate success against us there can be little doubt for they were 150 against 3.

San Carlos is the worst of all these pueblos for drink -- that is for the abuse of it. Not a log can be landed from a raft or mounted forsawing, or a canoe launched, without burreche, these and other operations having their stated price in gallons of that liquor. As you are aware the Indians in the Canton del Rio Negro may be said to be almost self-governed, and the system seems at first sight to work well in many respects; but the Indians know their power and are likely enough to assert it (by putting down the blancos) one of these days.

I have not much to tell you about the Uapís [?], [1 word illeg.] that up to the time of my leaving S. Jermyno I had constant work. I did not ascend higher than the Jaguaraté -- Cachoeira, and a day up the Paapurís, which there enters the Uapís. I found (as I had anticipated) that it w[oul]d be impracticable getting a large stock of paper &c. far up the river except in two canoes, and the lack of a person in whom I c[oul]d trust & who knew how to manage the Indians, prevented my making the attempt. San Jermyno however was an excellent station, as far as plants were concerned, and I would gladly have staid the year round, for the sake of getting many things in fruit, but it could not be down. You know that in these Indian villages locks to doors are rarely seen -- Agostinhos house, to be sure, could be locked up, but another door opened into the same quarto, and this door was merely of straw which of course c[oul]d be easily broken through. Had it not been for the whites I do not see how I c[oul]d have staid there at all, for I coulf not have left my house through the day, and especially for a night. Besides myself there were three broncos in the place, Agostinho, Chagas and Amansió, all three building large canoes. We generally all supped together, and passed the evening very agreeably "á vir e á nos divertirmos". You who go of nights to Geographical Societies? Meetings and other long-faced reunions, will perhaps despise our mode of passing the time, and yet I dare say you w[oul]d have liked now & then to listen to tales of frades and moças and of men who c[oul]d turn themselves into bútas & cobras grandes. We all left S. Jermyno together. After our departure the cunha-mucús w[oul]d throw off their sayas and exhibit [1 word illeg.] the Tamatiá without dread of the caruias lancivious eyes.

You know Chagas -- a "Homem muito serviçal", and a great scoundrel, with a face exactly like the back of a Surinam toad. He rendered me great assistance in my passeios &c., and also took a special delight in cheating me in our little negocios. He sent another expedition up to Paapurís to steal curumims and cunhã-tãs, your friend Bernardo being at the head of it. Even I was in some sort an accomplice, having lent a gun to Tuchaua Joás thought without knowing for what purpose it was intended. For this and for other of his good deeds, our friend Chagas is now in prison at the Barra, but I know not yet what is likely to be made of him.

You are aware by this time that there is a line of steamer on the Amazon. How much they w[oul]d have helped us had they been established sooner. [1 word illeg] comes up from Pará now in 10 days. [[3]] The company obliges themselves to send 4 steamers a year as far as Nauta, but I have yet heard of the first of them reaching the Barra and I fear one voyage will be all it will make.

I scarcely though the Editor of the Atheneum w[oul]d think my letter worth publishing. When I thought over it afterwards it seemed to me that I had in some respects run into the contrary extreme to that which I was declaiming against. It is difficult to write without bias in such cases, and I felt indignant that Englishmen could not praise up the scenery of the tropics without running down that of England. In this feeling I believe you quite participate. You are quite right in your explanation of Mr. Darwins prejudices -- "impressions du voyage" are rarely correct, and certainly in most cases different from those left by a long residence in a country [1 word illeg.], in whatever zone it may be placed.

So Mr. Plant has found it easier to plant himself down than to skim over the surface of the land like a swallow. A person who, like Mr. Plant, has travelled little except on the map, writes to recommend me to "cross over" to the Magdelena -- very easy no doubt on paper, but let him come here and make the experiment, with all my arranjos, and he will find out the difference.

Your roving propensities seem still so strong that I am doubtful of this letter finding you in England -- very likely you may be on the Panama railroad, when it reaches England.

I will try to execute your commission about the skins; no one here however is in the habit of procuring them. We are daily expecting Antonio Diaz on his way to the Barra, and I will ask him about them.

As you suppose, I am still pursuing the solitary caños (we talk not here of igarapés) through this weary wilderness. The moças of S. Carlos are the most safadas of any I have met with. For a good while I was literally besieged by them, as you may understand when I say that I have a large stock of muslins, prints and gay handkerchiefs. I was actually seized on one day by two guarichas who sought (like Potiphars wife) to put me into the hammock by force. My chastity was sorely assailed, and you no doubt tremble at the narrowness of my escape (if indeed I escaped at all, which I leave entirely to your judgment to decide). I was almost at my wits end, as you may suppose. So one days says I to myself "Acabemos com esta musica". Opposite my house resided a buxom widow -- a mamaluca -- "fair, fat & forty" -- and without children. I invited her to cozinhar and lavar minha roupa -- she consented & was forthwith installed in her office. I invited her also to sleep with me -- and do not judge me harshly -- it was not a matter of taste -- but you know that in this world such things are necessary as self-denial & "obras de misericordia", and that without the latter, especially, it is scarcely possible to get along with the fair sex here. Will you credit that in reply she thanked me but said she could sleep in her own house -- that she was old and therefore not "propria para dormir com blanco", and further that she would arrange for me any muchacha que me fazia gusto, not doubting (she said) that there was not one in S. Carlos who w[oul]d not be proud to submit to my embraces! Did you think that such a model of continency existed in the Rio Negro? -- This is above a month back. We get on now very cosily -- my caseira has the merit of being cleanly & careful and apparently honest. She has two younger sisters who live a good deal at my expense, but this expense is really very trifling and I wish there was 3 times as much to be bought in the way of entablas; besides I have always my beijú fresco and other "delicacies" which a bachelor can with difficulty obtain, and the muchachas make themselves useful in various ways. -- I know not whether you remarked that in the Canton del Rio Negro there is no make Indian in the houses of the whites, and a man cannot get on at all without, like one, he has a convent -- or a seraglio, like Antonio Diaz. -- I tell you all this frankly, knowing that you wont go and print it. I have been annoyed at finding that among my letters published in the Hookers Journal are some which were never intended for the press. The Editor must have been ill at the time, or he w[oul]d surely have quashed their publication, or at least have drawn his pen through all that realted to matters purely private & personal.

[[4]] I am preparing a large shallow galiota for a voyage up the Casiquiare, and with the intention of entering the Rio Cunucunuma, which [1 word illeg.] the western [1 word illeg.] slopes of the Duida of Esmeralda and of its continuation northward (marked Maraguaca on the map). This river is a [1 word illeg.] of Uaupés to the Orinoco; it is peopled by friendly Indians with whom there is now considerable trade.

We have lately had here Gregorio Diaz, the Comisario Geral [General?], from San Fernando, and I have arranged with him an expedition to the sources of the Orinoco for next year. But I say no more of this at present as it is great presumption in this country saying what one will do 6 months hence.

Many thanks for all the news you send me -- it was eagerly read. In whatever part of the world your lot may be cast -- whether "where the sun shines for ever unchangeably bright,"* or where, as in gloomy England, he never shews[?] his face distinctly at all -- I trust you will continue to write me long letters when you can -- and short ones when you can write no others; and I will promise to do the same.

I shall anxiously await some intelligence of your movements, and so farewell till we meet -- perhaps in Moyobamba.

Your faithful friend | Rich[ar]d Spruce.

* "Where the sun shines for ever changeably bright, "Not only by day but also by night," is half the year at the North, and the other half at the South Pole. For accounts of the brilliancy of the vegetation in those regions consult -- those who have been there to see.

Antonio Diaz has just come in, & I have asked him about the hummingbirds. He says the only place where "se consiga bastante" is in Javita. I will ask him to get some from thence, but it cannot be before towards the end of the year.

Please note that work on this transcript is not yet complete. Users are advised to study electronic image(s) of this document, if available.