ON THE FRONTIER OF BRITISH
GUIANA AND BRAZIL
CAPT. H. CARINGTON SMITH, R. E.
FROM THE SMITHSONIAN REPORT FOR 1939, PAGES 325-340
(WITH 4 PLATES)
GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
WASHINGTON : 1940
Lj L o
ON THE FRONTIER OF BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL1
By Capt. H. CAmNGaoN SMTH, R. E.
[With 4 plates]
British Guiana, between Venezuelan Guiana and Surinam, or Dutch
Guiana, on the Atlantic seaboard, has an area of about 90,000 square
miles, divided into the coastal alluvial plain, the central sand and clay
belt, and the mountain plateau. The coastal plain, from 10 to 40 miles
wide, contains practically all the towns, villages, population, and cul-
tivated land. It is flat and low, scarcely rising to 50 feet above sea
level, while along the coast much of it is actually below high-tide level,
necessitating sea defenses and intertidal drainage. The sand and clay,
or center, belt is covered with dense tropical forest, and has an average
elevation of about 200 feet above sea level. It is uninhabited except
for a few lumber camps and bauxite, gold, and diamond workings.
The mountain region rises to the watershed of the Amazon, culmi-
nating in the southwest in the Roraima massif 8,600 feet high and in
the south in the Akarai highlands, which contain mountains touching
3,000 feet, though for the most part the land averages only 1,000 feet
above sea level. This belt is also covered with dense tropical forest,
except for some savannas or grasslands to the southwest, which
make fair cattle country and are sparsely inhabited. While every
available cleared acre of the coastal plain is under cultivation, this
amounts to only a three-hundredth of the colony, the rest, except for
the small savanna lands, being impenetrable forest. Owing to this
unbroken extent of forest, the rivers form the only means of communi-
cation in the interior, or did so until the advent of the amphibian
airplane, the use of which is very limited owing to the scarcity of
stretches of river on which it is possible to alight.
Until 1835 very little was known of the interior. In that year Sir
Robert Schomburgk, on a commission for the Royal Geographical
Society, made extensive river surveys. Among other journeys he
ascended the Essequibo to its source, crossed the watershed and trav-
eled down one of the tributaries of the Amazon and up another, re-
crossing the watershed near the source of the Courantyne, by which
he returned to the Atlantic coast.
RBeprinted by permislaon from The Geographical Journal, vol. 92, No. 1, July 1938.
326 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
In subsequent years the savanna lands in the southwest were pene-
trated by settlers, more from the Brazilian side than from the British,
and the Essequibo and Rupununi Rivers became fairly well known.
Balata bleeders ascended the Courantyne as far as Wonatobo Falls,
and a few hardy pioneers, including Barrington Brown, explored the
upper Courantyne and its tributary, the New River; but for the most
part very little was known of the southeast corner of the colony.
In 1901 a treaty was concluded between Brazil and Great Britain
whereby these countries agreed to survey and demarcate their common
boundaries, defined as follows from geographical information then
extant: From Mount Roraima eastward along the watershed to the
source of the Ireng River; down the Ireng to its junction with the
Takatu River; up the Takatu to its source at Mount Wamariaktawa
and thence eastward along the watershed between the tributaries of
the Amazon and the several rivers draining British Guiana to the
source of the Courantyne. The Venezuelan and Dutch boundaries
were also defined. His Majesty the King of Italy was to act as referee.
However, it was not until 1930 that field work began. In the fol-
lowing year a commission, set up by the colony itself, met Brazilian
and Venezuelan commissions at Roraima, the western trijunction
point. This point was fixed and the survey of the Brazilian bound-
ary was commenced.
On the west side of the colony the mountain plateau drops abruptly
to the sand and clay belt in a rock escarpment 1,000 feet high. The
rivers draining the plateau and the foothills of the Roraima range
plunge over this shelf in falls rarely equaled for height or beauty, the
best known being the Kaiteur Falls on the Potaro; there are many
others, some higher, but none of such perfect proportions of volume
To reach the Kaiteur Falls from Georgetown used to mean a 7-day
journey by steamer and motorboat. This is now reduced to 3 days
by overland transport between Bartica and Garraway Stream, a small
settlement on the Potaro; but the most convenient and impressive
route is by air. The flight takes 212 hours, and the plane alights on
the river above the falls. The take-off for the return flight is an
experience itself, for the plane taxis down the river and takes of
over the brink of the falls. At one moment the machine is flying 100
feet off the water, the next it is 900 feet up over the mist-filled gorge.
It continues down the gorge shut in on either side by steep green
cliffs streaked with the white streamers of cascading forest streams.
The line of communication of the first commission leading to Ro-
raima went up the Potaro, and these falls presented an obstacle of the
first magnitude. All stores, instruments, rations, and the materials
for building boats to navigate the upper river had to be carried over
FIloUm 1.-Sketch-map of British. Guiana to illustrate the work of the British Guiana and
Brazil Boundary Commission.
328 ANwTUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
the portage and up the 1,000-foot escarpment by manpower. It is to
be hoped that the work of the first commission will some day be
chronicled. The fact that the boundary which they surveyed lay
largely along rivers made their survey technique and the difficulties
which they encountered rather different from those of the second
commission. In 2/2 years' work they reached the headwaters of
the Essequibo and were exploring the Courantyne and New Rivers
with a view to opening them up when a major tragedy occurred.
Most of the officers and some of the men developed beriberi, a disease
usually due to certain diet deficiencies. The cause of this disaster
is a mystery, for the diets of both officers and men were apparently
well balanced. One theory which has obtained considerable weight
attributes the outbreak to local deposits of pitchblende which im-
pregnated the water. It is of interest to note that the worst and
majority of cases occurred in the officer ranks, in spite of their higher
standard of living as compared with that of the men. In the face of
such a catastrophe there was no alternative but retreat, which was
carried out at the beginning of 1934, but not before several lives had
In the following year the Colonial Office took over the administra-
tion of the commission, and in July 1935 three officers and four non-
commissioned officers of the Royal Engineers arrived in Georgetown
and commenced preparations for the following season. While a
small advance party under a native boat captain ascended the Cour-
antyne to recommission the boats and engines and recover the stores
left at the portages by the former commission, frantic preparations
went forward in Georegtown. One of the first problems was the re-
cruitment of labor. The colony has a population of 300,000 composed
of very heterogeneous elements. Originally inhabited by Indians of
whom only between 6,000 and 7,000 survive today, it received a large
influx of African Negroes in the slave trade days, and today they
account for 40 percent of the total population.
In 1850 East Indian apprentices emigrated to the sugar estates on
indenture, and their numbers now equal or slightly surpass those of
the Negroes. The remainder of the population consists of about 10
percent mixed and non-European, including a large number of
Chinese, and about 6 percent of Europeans, three-quarters of whom
The laborers of the commission were recruited principally from
aboriginal Indians and Negroes, in about equal proportions. The
Indian is a likeable fellow. Dignified, reserved, and quiet, he is a
good bushman and a keen naturalist, though his small stature limits
the load he can carry, and he becomes discouraged and morose
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL-SMITH
quickly. He is usually a good axman, a fair hunter and boatman,
and is very handy at constructing huts and camp furniture from
local materials. The majority are intelligent, and have a very keen
perception and a sense of humor. A few of them who had come into
contact with mission schools could read and write a little, and only
one or two could not understand pidgin English, the lingua franca
of the colony. No Indian willingly accepts the responsibility of
leadership or authority over his fellows; they prefer to work as a
soviet, none giving orders but each doing his particular job in mutual
but silent agreement.
The Negro has an entirely different character. His strength enables
him to carry the heavy load, but he is of childish mentality, quick
of temper, excitable, and delights in nothing better than making
a great noise about nothing. Some were good axmen and watermen,
but the majority were not at all at home in the bush and grumbled
continually. There were, however, notable exceptions. A few drawn
from the independent farmer class were splendid all-around men and
better than any Indian. Blacks and Indians worked together more
or less in harmony, but usually lived in separate tents by choice.
Such different characters are not belied by physical appearances.
The black's negroid countenance and curly hair are in striking con-
trast to the straight hair and Mongolian features of the Indian. The
Indian has rather finely shaped feet and ankles, but the black stands
splayed and firm on large, shapeless pads of gristle.
At a preliminary conference the Brazilian, Dutch, and British
sections arranged to rendezvous at the eastern trijunction of the
Brazil-Guiana boundary as soon as possible after the close of the
wet season in August. The Dutch started upriver in a fleet of canoes
propelled by paddlers in July. The British followed in August by
A camp was established at the head of deep-water navigation at
Hepsiba, 50 miles from the coast. It soon became apparent that the
most difficult and expensive part of the commission was going to be
the transportation on the line of communication-the movement of
personnel and stores from the coast to the boundary.
From a geologic viewpoint the rivers of British Guiana are not
rivers at all, but simply large streams flowing through the bush in
shallow rock and sand channels. There are no river valleys proper,
the banks of these channels being only a few feet high and the to-
pography along either side indistinguishable from that of anywhere
else. The country is intersected by a series of parallel out-cropping
rock reefs running east and west, over which the rivers flow in swift
330 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
An annual rainfall of 100 to 140 inches concentrated largely be-
tween the middle of May and August causes great variations in the
volume of run-off. Seasonal variations of as much as 30 feet were
measured quite far inland, and rises of 4 feet in a day were not un-
common. During the rainy season the rivers became rushing tor-
rents carrying all before them and flooding the bush on either bank.
At the end of the dry season, on the other hand, navigation is difficult
and slow owing to lack of water. The keels and bottom planking of
the boats soon wear out or become stove-in by frequent groundings,
and propellers are often damaged.
Stores and personnel were brought to Hepsiba by a schooner which
once a month beat down the coast against the trade winds and sailed
up the river. Here the cargo was transhipped to bateaux driven by
10-horsepower outboard motors and manned by a crew of paddlers
for emergency. Constructed of greenheart with moral frames, the
bateau is remarkable for its stability, handiness, and toughness. Not
having a deck, it is very resilient and can absorb an enormous fore-
and-aft twist. It is steered by a large paddle lashed to the stern
and another manipulated by the bowman. This double leverage act-
ing on the hull of small keel depth and long overhanging prow pro-
duces a very quick turn, necessary when descending swift and
In ascending the river, the bateau is laboriously hauled over the
rapids by warps. This requires a crew of anything up to 20, depend-
ing on the state of the river. First the cargo is off-loaded and
portaged to the top of the fall, then the bow and stern line and the
warp are run out, and the boat is hauled up inch by inch against the
rushing water. At the top it is reloaded, always a lengthy process,
and the journey proceeds to the next rapid, probably less than an
hour's steaming distant. At low water a day may be taken to nego-
tiate one rapid less than 2 miles long, the crew camping exhausted
at the top at nightfall. Thus transportation is not only precarious,
but exasperatingly slow.
Descending the river the labored slowness of the upward journey
is replaced by a swift journey of thrills and exhilaration. The
rapids are run with engines full ahead to give steerage way, and
paddlers keep blades poised ready for the command of the captain.
The bowman streams with perspiration as he struggles with his large
paddle, first one side, then the other, at the same time trying to main-
tain his balance on his precarious foothold. Submerged rocks are
indicated by the whirl of water below them. The captain must pick
his line and think and act quickly, much as the rider following
hounds does, or the skier making a difficult descent; but unlike these
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL-SMITH
sportsmen he cannot stop. To act too late means being stove-in and
sunk in the swift water. Rapid-running as a sport, especially in a
canoe, is almost unequaled. The Courantyne contains two falls or
large rapids so swift and high that their passage is impossible, one
at Wonatobo and the other at King Frederick William. Here it was
necessary to establish intermediate camps and to portage baggage
overland by gangs of men.
When the river becomes too small for the bateaux, dugout canoes
or corials continue the communication. The construction of these
craft is a skilled job only understood by some Indians. First a suit-
able tree is found and felled. The log is cut to length, flattened on
top, and tapered at the ends by a broad ax. Then it is hollowed out
by adz, leaving a shell about 11 inches thick. A fire is then kindled
below the whole length and later in the hollow. When everything
is hot and steaming, pointed sticks are sprung athwartships into the
hollow, forcing the gunwales apart and at the same time drawing
the ends up. Thwarts are then added to retain the shape, and some-
times plank gunwales to increase the freeboard. The finished article
is a strong, serviceable craft, surprisingly stable and easily handled.
These canoes, carrying 500 to 1,000 pounds of cargo, penetrated the
creeks toward the source till they would no longer float and had to
be dragged by men wading.
Where the river narrows to a creek so that the forest roof closes
overhead, the real difficulties of river transport begin. The channel
is completely blocked every 50 yards by a fallen tree. Trees grow.
ing along the bank invariably fall inward owing to the scour of the
stream. In the course of time the sapwood rots away, leaving the
heartwood or tacuba, which apparently lasts forever when submerged
from the attentions of parasites. These trees must be cut with ax
and saw to allow a passage, and as much of the cut is done under
water it takes a long time. A day's hard work may produce less
than a mile of progress, nor is the job then by any means finished.
A week later the water level has changed by several feet. Logs which
spanned the creek well above water and allowed the canoes to pass
beneath are now awash and have to be cut; or a series of formidable
obstacles, formerly deep below water, are revealed and block the way.
And so it goes on, ax and saw being as indispensable to the canoemen
as their paddles.
Above canoe navigation everything was carried by manpower.
The British Guiana Negro, unlike his African cousin, cannot "head-
carry," but slings his load from the shoulders in a wickerwork frame
called warishye or panevu. His working load is thus only about
70 pounds, although some stout fellows habitually managed more;
70 pounds for 5 miles was a standard day's work for carriers.
U~__ I Y______ _I~
~____ _~__ I
332 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
It is not surprising then that the line of communication was a
source of constant anxiety and a tremendous item in the expenditure
of the commission. Every man on the boundary had to be main-
tained by five or more men on line of communication. On occasions
when there was a shortage of labor from sickness or other causes,
and when boatbuilders worked overtime to repair damaged bottoms,
it is no exaggeration to say that the commission would have had to
stop for want of rations if air transport had not been used.
The commission was fortunate in obtaining the services of Arthur
Williams, a free-lance American pilot operating a small flying boat
on tourist flights and the transport of diamonds and gold out of the
interior. Both plane and pilot were ideally suited to this dangerous
and arduous task, and Mr. Williams never stinted his efforts to "run
his freight." An airport was established at Wonatobo, the first
major portage, and the journey from there to Aramatau Camp was
reduced from the 3 weeks taken by boats, even under the most suit-
able conditions, to 2 hours and 20 minutes. The plane carried only
1,000 pounds in addition to pilot and flight mechanic. Two trips a
day were made in favorable weather, the start being at dawn and
the final return often during the last 10 minutes of daylight. The
day's work was then over for everyone except Williams and his
mechanic, Harry Wendt. After dinner they would often work
till midnight tuning the engine and servicing the hull.
No praise is too high for these two intrepid airmen. Landing at
Aramatau Camp in the confined upper river was thrilling, but the
take-off went to the extreme of being unpleasant. The river here is so
narrow that to turn the plane on the water required the mechanic on the
wing tip; before he had a chance to scramble to the cabin the machine
was taxiing on the step, and as he settled into the seat it took off.
The 80-foot bush fencing a bend in the river was charged with com-
plete unconcern, and just when the unfortunate passenger had
abandoned all hope and got as far as regretting past economies,
the plane rose to it like a good hunter, and flattened out above. The
proximity of stalling speed was betrayed by the cloud of dust which
floated up from the floor of the cabin.
The open river was always a source of new and ever-changing
interest. British Guiana is a fisherman's paradise if his ambition is
to land large fish rather than consider delicacy in technique. The
tackle consists of stout cord approximating clothesline, a piano-wire
trace to resist the teeth of some fish, and a hook reminiscent of a small
grapnel. Fish vary in size from the small voracious perai weighing
2 pounds to mudfish as large as 150 pounds. The former, although
one of the smallest fish in the colony, is perhaps the fiercest. Short,
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL--SMITH
narrow, but deep, with a powerful, well-shaped tail, he is armed with
two single rows of interlocking teeth reputed to be so sharp and
powerful that the removal of a man's big toe is done at one snap.
Perai are best caught with a metal spinner, which after some use
becomes scratched and dented by teeth marks. They were a source
of continual apprehension to the boats' crews when hauling up rapids,
and should a shot bird fall in the water it soon disappeared unless
retrieved at once. Perai are quite edible, but not a delicacy, and
Another very fierce and even more fearless fish is the hymara,
which inhabits the forest creeks. They average 10 to 12 pounds,
are covered with scales as large and almost as tough as penny pieces,
and have teeth like the perai, but not so long or close fitting and
set in much broader jaws. The body ends abruptly in a rudimentary
tail, spoiling otherwise graceful lines. Hymara will go for almost
anything, and have been known to attack a crosscut saw. To clean
the carcass of a bird over the side of a canoe is to risk losing it and
to endanger the hands. Their flesh is firm and tasty, but full of
Y-shaped bones. Lukanani are most prized for the pot; but cartabac,
looking very like the perai, the graceful koraimai, and, on the lower
rivers, the basher are all delicious.
The larger fish are the skeet and lau-lau, skin fish with enormous
mouths, armored heads, and grinders in place of teeth. The skeet
makes a loud honking noise when caught. The lau-lau is so strong
that one hooked at Wonatobo drowned his captor by pulling him into
the swift water of a rapid; the unfortunate man had wound the line
around his wrist and was never seen again. Two unpleasant fish
which must be given a wide berth are the sting ray and the electric
eel, or numbfish of the Indian. The spiny tail of the former gives a
nasty wound into which poison is injected. The latter gives a power-
ful electric shock until landed, when he is quite harmless.
Fishing methods include shooting by bow and arrow, a fascinat-
ing thing to watch but extremely difficult to do with success, owing
to the effect of refraction when aiming and the patience reqiured
to stand motionless balanced on a precarious foothold. Chop-
ping fish with a cutlass also requires patience. The victims are
lured into shallow water by some noisome ground bait and des-
patched by a well-aimed stroke of a cutlass after an exciting stalk.
The night line is as effective but less spectacular. A fair-sized
living sapling close to the bank is stripped, bent down, and hooked
on a notched stake driven in the shallow water. The line is attached
to its top end and the bait thrown wide. The vicious strike springs
the trap and the wretched fish describes an arc at high speed to
land far in the bush.
334 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
The mammals and reptiles of the river are equally interesting.
The waterhass, rather like a large guinea pig, reputed to be the
largest living rodent, is occasionally seen swimming. The otter or
Indian water dog, noisy and inquisitive, is a fine swimmer with a
beautiful pelt. The lucky traveler may surprise a tapir or a puma
crossing, or even a small adouri swimming bravely between long
rests on a moca-moca leaf or tacuba, in constant fear of being
attacked by perai or hymara from below or the cayman on the
The water kamoodie or American python sleeps between meals,
his distended body coiled in a nest surrounded by the bones of
former repasts. One we shot was over 18 feet long. They are
easily killed by a well-aimed bullet in the head, but there is always
danger of mistaking the tail for the head when the snake is coiled
in sleep. The cayman, in spite of his ferocious appearance, is a
great coward; those encountered did not exceed 8 feet from snout
to tail, although bigger ones are said to exist on the coast.
The iguana is a truly extraordinary beast, who usually advertises
his presence by dropping unexpectedly from a high tree over the
river with a mighty splash. His only defensive weapon is his tail,
which also propels him when swimming. The iguana lays a clutch
of some 24 shell-less eggs, the size of marbles. Both flesh and eggs
are excellent to eat when properly curried.
Bathed in brilliant sunshine and bounded by perpendicular green
walls of the creeper-hung forest, the river gives a first impression
of tranquility. Watch it for some time and one is conscious of the
constant movement of teeming life-the pitiless war which is waged
day and night for survival. Here a sudden darting furrow betrays
the attack of a perai on the smaller fish in the shallows; there a
large white heron, until now motionless, pounces on his fishy prey;
or a family of otters on the far bank chase some unwelcome intruder,
following it downstream with loud doglike barks.
At some seasons of the year a continuous procession of small
white and yellow butterflies passes across the river. They emerge
from the forests on one side and drifting northwesterly disappear
in the forest on the far side. They fill the air for 20 feet above
the water as far as the eye can see up and down stream, giving the
effect of a mild snowstorm. Where they go and from whence they
come is a mystery, but they are always headed northwest.
The forest itself is not at peace. Aloft the trees sag under their
weight of creeper, trees and parasites struggling to present their
leaves to the sunshine. Where the last floodwater has washed away
the bank, the cross section shows a solid snarl of roots, twisted,
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL-SMITH 335
knotted, and contorted in the fight for moisture and air. The pali-
sade of moca-moca stalks vibrates slowly in the inshore current. On
the broad leaf of one, 50 ants scurry in hysterical confusion; they
have gained the leaf by swimming from their nest, which, dislodged
from above by a falling branch, now floats downstream. In twos
and threes they leave the leaf and strike out for the bank, their ranks
being steadily depleted by the attacks of little fish from beneath.
During the first month or two in the forest one is conscious of
oppression and uneasiness. In contrast with the brightness of the
open river the forest floor is wrapped in gloom relieved here and there
by the bright dots of sunlight which filter through the roof above.
The thickly packed trees average 100 feet in height, their upper
branches merging into an almost solid roof. Here and there indi-
vidual giants rise to 300 feet, their trunks 45 feet in circumference
at ground level; a silk cotton tree of these dimensions was actually
measured. The ground between the trunks is covered by slender
saplings and cluttered with the debris of fallen and decaying vegeta-
tion. Visibility is about 20 yards, beyond which stealthy movement
is difficult to detect. Here and there a pimpler palm rises, its bole
well protected by long slender poisonous needles arranged in clusters
of seven at regular intervals; or the friendly tauri, its giant fronds
spreading in graceful curves. Everywhere there is creeper twining
everything in its path in a relentless grip. It swarms up the tree
trunks and spreads outward through the roof above or hangs in
festoons, tying each tree firmly to its neighbors so that the whole
roof is one tangled mass.
The forest consists of many different kinds of trees in haphazard
arrangement, but areas where one or two kinds are in preponderance
are sometimes met. Thus Wonatobo is surrounded by mora forest
almost to the exclusion of all else; and at the source of the Oronoque
the pimpler palm is everywhere. The mora is a magnificent tree
standing firmly on a base of solid buttresses which radiate like veins
from the trunk 10 feet above ground level, spreading outward and
decreasing in height, twisting in freakish folds until they disappear
below ground level 10 feet from the bole. Mora is much prized for
boat building and is reputed to be superior to English oak. An-
other truly magnificent tree is the cedar, the reddish-colored wood
of which gives off a delightful odor. The yariola tree makes ex-
cellent ax handles and paddles. The trunk is not solid, but consists
of many smaller trunks joined to each other at intervals, the whole
sweeping aloft like a beautiful fluted cathedral column. The boles of
some trees are rough, others smooth and slippery, while some are
studded by enormous conical spikes for several feet above ground
336 AwNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
level; some do not touch the ground at all but stand supported on a
multipod of roots.
Creepers vary in size from the thickness of a man's thigh to that
of a shoelace. Some are coarse ribbons 4 inches wide and half an
inch thick, their centers indescribably tuckered to look like a fairy
staircase; others are large and soft like the warps of a ship. One
freak 6 inches in diameter tied itself in a perfect thumb knot 20 feet
above ground, then continued upward, to curl around its host, the
tree. One kind of creeper contains water, and if a length is cut and
inverted over the mouth, it gushes out, giving a satisfying drink. In
its struggle to reach the upper air and sunshine, the creeper often kills
its host, the tree. The gaunt trunk remains standing connected to its
fellows by a hundred ropes till a sudden squall of wind will bring it
and many of the supporting neighbors crashing down in tangled
Amongst this riot of vegetation surprisingly little food edible by
man is found. A wild red plum and a green bean appear in isolated
places. The plum has a tart sickly taste, and the pod of the bean is
very sweet. Neither can be recommended. The Brazil nut is unfor-
tunately rare, but each tree yields an immense number of nuts.
Monkeys pick the ripe pods, the size of small melons, and hammer
them against the trunk till they break, when there is a wild scramble
for the falling contents. A few of the palms have edible cabbages,
rather like celery and quite pleasant to eat. Only one wild cocoa tree
was found. The soil is said to be poor, but if a clearing is made, pine-
apples, bananas, tomatoes, and the starchy vegetables peculiar to the
colony can be readily grown. There are very few flowers on the forest
floor, but many of tree and creeper can be seen from the air in the
The results accomplished in the first season's work were disappoint-
ing; base camp was established at King Frederick William Falls and
the trijunction party started upriver from there at the end of October.
The Dutch and Brazilian sections were met at the source of the Kutari
at the end of the year. The source of the Courantyne was decided
upon and an astronomical fix obtained. A large concrete pillar was
constructed there and suitably engraved. The Dutch then departed to
the east along their boundary, while the British began to work west-
ward. In the meantime the second British party explored the Arama-
tau, marked its source, and started to trace the boundary eastward.
Some idea of traveling speeds can be obtained from the progress of this
party: Aramatau Camp was left on January 16, but the boundary was
not reached until April 14. The Oronoque was also explored and sur-
veyed to within 10 miles of its source in preparation for the following
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL-SMITH
season. Field work stopped in May, when survey parties returned to
Georgetown for 10 weeks, leaving fresh boats' crews to provision all
camps during the high water. Base camp was moved to Oronoque.
During the recess the British and Dutch sections placed pillars at
the mouth of the Courantyne to mark the direction of the boundary
through territorial waters. In August 1936 the survey parties again
took the field, but with a very different outlook. All ration depots were
well stocked; Indian and Negro labor was more plentiful and better
understood by the officers; and much of the upper river was cleared
for canoe communication. The international watershed was located
at the source of the Oronoque by the beginning of September, and an
astronomical pillar erected. The boundary was traced eastward, and
rapid progress made through a country of small lumpy hills 200 to
300 feet high, separated from one another by creeks and swamps.
Bush survey has a rough-and-ready technique of its own. A visi-
bility of 20 yards, often less, is not conducive to rapid topography,
and forcing a passage through the tangled undergrowth is so slow
and fatiguing that the extent of the day's excursion is very limited.
Nevertheless, it is surprising what good results can be obtained with
care and a simple routine. The boundary was to be marked by
buried stone on the international watershed at not less than 5-mile
intervals, the position of such marks to be indicated by a small con-
crete pillar. Every fifth mark or 25 to 30 miles of boundary was to
be fixed in position by astronomical observations and the whole con-
nected by an instrumental traverse to the order of 1/250. In addi-
tion it was the practice of the British section to map the topography
for 1 to 11/ miles on either side of the watershed, but during the last
season this was discontinued.
The biggest problem was to find the boundary. Running water
was plentiful, but to establish whether it was British or Brazilian
without tracing its course for some miles was impossible. The creek
heads of each country were twisted and contorted into a maze of
steep little hills, saddles, and swamps, and every hill was, of course,
a watershed. A creek would often wind its way in a general south-
erly direction for a mile or more, only to turn and prove itself to
be British. One well-remembered creek actually split in two, the
main branch flowing north to the Atlantic 400 miles away, while a
smaller branch bubbled under some stones and commenced its 2,000-
mile journey to Para at the Amazon's mouth. In desperation the
boundary was placed up the center of its bed.
Boundary location was done by Indians, and it was a very arduous
task, as it entailed cutting through virgin bush from morning to
night, finding creek heads and tracing the water till it declared its
338 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAI INSTITUTION, 1939
nationality by joining a larger creek which was already known, or by
maintaining one direction for so long as to preclude the possibility of
its turning back. A small party of four Indians equipped with com-
passes, and fondly referred to as the Advance Guard Cavalry, kept
ahead of the boundary cut doing this work. They never stuck it for
long and usually became badly infected by bush yaws and sores. It
was their job to mark saddles on the international watershed, and
connect their marks by a sirrahee or line just cut sufficiently to allow
The Indian has one great failing. He has no idea of direction or,
if he has, is quite incapable of explaining his wanderings or of mak-
ing the simplest of diagrams to illustrate them. Time and again
they would report that they had discovered a big creek ahead. When
asked where they invariably answered, "Right away back," and
usually pointed straight above their heads. Comparisons of size
were conveyed entirely by inflexion of the voice: Thus a "big" hill
was not uncommon; but a "BIG" hill meant something quite
The boundary locaters' sirrahee was traversed by rope and sound
for planimetry, and by aneroid barometer for height. Next came
boundary cutters, who cleared the line sufficiently for the carriers
and instrumental traverse. A day's work for a line clearer was 250
meters, and it was not easy. The boundary traverse was made with
a 3-inch vernier theodolite set up on magnetic north at every second
station. Distances were obtained by stadia, and heights were carried
forward by vertical angles.
In the meantime the two topographical parties worked on either
flank, running a chain of rope and sound, and aneroid traverses with
their apexes on the boundary and bases parallel thereto. The tech-
nique of rope and sound is simple but effective. The rope is one-third
of 100 meters, minus what it is expected to stretch, plus an allowance
for not being laid in one straight line. The party is preceded by
two cutters with a compass, who cut a sirrahee on an ordered bearing.
Two men lay the rope down the requisite number of times, then the
front man commences to sing. A compass bearing is taken on this
sound from the last station and booked, together with the aneroid
reading. The station is numbered and the party moves on. The
traverse is plotted as the party moves along, streams and hill features
being rapidly sketched by intelligent guessing. The Indian took
well to such work, although he found the compass difficult to master.
The instrumental traverse was computed on magnetic north as
the work progressed, and finally adjusted between the astronomical
positions. The topographical traverses were plotted on scale 1/50,000,
BRITISH GUIANA AND BRAZIL-SMITH
fitted to one another, and finally to the adjusted boundary. The
results were very encouraging. The finished boundary cut was used
as a line of communication for the carriers. As this increased in
length, another creek farther to the east would be explored and
opened up from its lower end, and a depot of rations placed as near
the boundary as possible. When this was found by the locaters,
the old line of communication was broken and the new one used.
The astronomical station- offered a welcome rest from energetic
traversing. Moreover the big clearing necessary for a glimpse of
the sky permitted kit, bedding, instruments, and books to be dried
in the sun. Observations were made by a 3/2-inch Tavistock theodo-
lite for exmeridian longitudes and circummeridian latitudes. The
criterion was a probable error of about 0."2 of time and 0."5 of
arc respectively from means of 18 to 24 pairs of stars. Observations
for azimuth were also taken.
Over 85 miles of boundary were surveyed and marked eastward
from the source of the Oronoque during the season 1936-37. In the
meantime the Brazilians progressed westward from Aramatau source.
At the beginning of the following season the cuts were joined and
the British struck westward from Oronoque source toward the head-
waters of the Essequibo. Next season ought to see the field work
completed, and the surrender of this fascinating but rather trying
part of the world once more to nature.
The temperature on the forest floor has surprisingly small diurnal
or annual variations. Midday temperatures are 880 to 900 F., mid-
night 820 to 840 F., with a 20 variation between midsummer and
midwinter values. The humidity is very high, occasionally reaching
saturation point, when small gray clouds of vapor form and drift
between the trunks. This high humidity is one of the most un-
pleasant factors of bush life. To perspire gives no relief; clothes,
bedding, and food are perpetually damp, and books fall to pieces
after a few months. Unprotected metal corrodes overnight, and
leather and glass grow whiskers of mold at an alarming rate.
Photography is beset with difficulties, and disappointments must
be expected. The shutter mechanism and diaphragm of a camera
corrode rapidly in the damp atmosphere, and finally cease to function.
All glass is attacked by a black fungus which spreads and engraves
its surface in blotches and spidery lines. On fine days intense sun-
light filtering through the forest roof produces a brilliant dapple
of dazzling contrast to the gloom of the forest floor. For this reason
the best results are obtained by long exposures in slightly overcast
weather. These are made possible by the absence of breeze on the
~L~L yyLU~-~-- _r-----
340 ANNUAL REPORT SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 1939
Photographic films and plates keep as long as they are stored in
an airtight canister and their seals are unbroken. Once they are
opened they deteriorate rapidly, and if not developed soon after ex-
posure the emulsion, celluloid, and paper backing become a limp,
sticky mass. Except near the boundary where the springs are clear
and cold, it is difficult to obtain water clean enough and at a tempera-
ture below 750 to 800 F. for development. At this temperature the
process is difficult to control, and even an acid hardening bath will
not eliminate reticulation and filling. It is also almost impossible
to wash negatives adequately and quite impossible to dry them.
Finally, when packed away under double seals they form an excellent
medium for the growth of fungus.
Smithsonian Report. 1939.-Smith
1. KAITEUR FALLS.
2. KING FREDERICK WILLIAM FALLS.
Smithsonian Report. 1939.-Smith
1. BATEAU ASCENDING THE FALLS.
2. THE AIRPLANE AT WONATOBO.
Smithsonian Report. 1939.-Smith PLATE 3
1. BOUNDARY PILLAR.
2. BOUNDARY MARK.
Smithsonian Report. 1939.-Smith
1, A BOUNDARY CUT.
2. A FOREST CREEK,