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"The Apostle of the Indians of Guiana"
A Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Rev. W.H. Brett, B.D.
For Forty Years a Missionary in British Guiana

By the Rev. F.P.L. Josa
Rector of Holy Trinity, Essequibo

London: Wells, Gardner, Darton and Co., 1887.

Chapter III.

Bishop Coleridge--Archdeacon Austin--Arrival of Brett--Sent to Pomeroon--Description of Pomeroon--The Rev. C. Carter--The first home-Jeannette--Waraus--Simicici--The first light--Success.

BISHOP COLERIDGE was appointed Bishop of Barbadoes and the Windward Islands in 1824, arid on the 11th of May 1836 the colonies of Demerara and Essequibo, as well as Berbice, were annexed to and became parts of his already huge See. In 1836 the Bishop made Essequibo a rural deanery, and appointed William Piercy Austin its first Rural Dean. Mr. Austin was simply made Rural Dean to connect him with the diocese, for he had declined all parochial pre ferment, having ample means at his disposal; but being willing to help his Rector, the Rev. J. H. Duke. In 1837 he was appointed Ecclesiastical Commissary for Guiana, and the year following he became Archdeacon. When Mr. Brett arrived, he was welcomed by the young Arch deacon, who, after a short residence in Georgetown, sent the youthful missionary to Pomeroon.

Mr. Brett wrote copiously, and we are therefore enabled to give an account of the reception that he received from the Indians in his own words.

"The Pomeroon, or Bowruma (as it is called by the Indians), is of small size when compared with some other rivers in the colony. Its source is on the Sierra Imataca, which is a ridge stretching from the Essequibo to the Orinoco, and gives rise to many large streams.

"The Dutch formed their earliest settlement, which they called Nieuw Zealand, near the Pomeroon, as early as 1580; and in the course of the following century erected towns on the banks, and on those of the Moruca. These were destroyed by the French. The only remains of their settlements are the bricks which are found in some places embedded in the earth.

"The Indians again resumed possession of their lands, and, with the exception of a very few settlers, are the sole occupants at the present day. In that district they are more numerous than in any other.

"About forty-three miles from the sea the Pomeroon receives the waters of its largest tributary, the Arapaiaco. On the banks of the latter, just above the confluence, there was a small strip of cleared land, formerly inhabited by a gang of negroes employed in cutting wood. These negroes, finding life by the rivers rather dull, had taken the earliest opportunity, after their emancipation, of quitting them for the society of their gayer brethren on the coast. But there was still remaining, in the beginning of 5840, three decaying huts, which had been occupied by them.

"There was also a wooden building, which had been used as a place of worship on those rare occasions when they were visited by a clergyman or itinerant catechist. It was, when I first saw it, in a wretched state; the thatched roof being full of large holes, and several of the window-shutters having fallen off There was free access to wind and rain. Not having been used for a long time, it was almost in accessible from the long grass and weeds which grew all around in rank luxuriance. The frame of the building was, however, sound, though the boarded sides and floor were much decayed. This was to serve as a mission-chapel.

"One of the three huts before mentioned was occupied by an old white sailmaker, who was sick with ague and fever, and soon after left the place. The next was the dwelling of a kind old negro woman, named Jeannette, who had several black children residing with her. The third, being decayed and abandoned, was at my service. It was a singular and not very inviting residence; the front was boarded and covered with shingles (or wooden tiles); the two ends were of shingles nailed upon laths, and the back was composed of the split trunks of the manicole palms, covered on the outside with the leaves of the trooly. The roof was also thatched, but the thatch was full of holes. It was divided by partitions of rough boards into three apartments, two of which had boarded floors resting on the earth, and very much decayed; and the third had apparently been used for some light kind of blacksmith's work, a block of very tough wood, which had been the anvil, standing firmly fixed in the earthen floor. The situation of the building being low, the water appeared between the chinks of the old floor when the river was swollen by the spring tides, and a number of small frogs were accustomed to come out in wet weather and spring upon the walls, one part of which, being very damp and green, seemed to possess particular attractions for them. The roof was open, and flakes of mingled soot and cobwebs, which had been long collecting there, were continually falling, as the insects which abounded disturbed and shook them down. There was also a large nest of destructive wood-ants, which were devouring the building. These forthwith contrived to get into my clothes-chest, and seriously damage its contents. A dose of arsenic was put into their nest, and in a day or two all were dead or gone. The next task was to whitewash the filthy walls, which abounded with vermin.

"Spiders of all sorts and sizes, numerous fine specimens of the great South American cockroach, and oftentimes the white scorpion or huge bush-centipede, would make their appearance from holes and corners. Pallid-looking unclean lizards, as the wood-slaves, some with monstrous bulbous tails, others which had lost theirs by the fortune of reptile war, would crawl along the beams and sooty rafters; and sometimes falling flat down, lie staring in apparent astonishment, clinging tightly with broad adhesive toes to whatever they chanced to alight on. More graceful and welcome visitors were the olive-green lizards, with mottled coats, that shone like burnished copper. These were useful allies, devouring the insects. One little fellow became in time very tame and friendly, and would allow me to touch him.

"In this wild place it would have been impossible for me to have resided but for the old woman's aid. She immediately saluted me as master, and placed her household at my disposal. A strange-looking black boy, with a defect in one eye, and a small scrap of blue rag as a garment, was, she said, to be my 'butler.' I got that youth to sling his hammock with me in my new abode, not thinking it qui safe to sleep there alone. The first night we were disturbed by some creature getting in at a hole in the roof; which my companion said was a tiger-cat. I was more apprehensive of snakes, which abounded there; but we had no opportunity of ascertaining the nature of our unwelcome visitor, as it was perfectly dark; and, being alarmed at the noise we made, it quickly scrambled out again, and returned no more.

"Having no furniture, it became necessary to borrow some for present use. This was difficult. However, a table with three legs was procured, and the place of a fourth supplied by a stick from a neighbouring tree. It was, after all, so rickety that it could only stand against the wall. A small chair was also obtained, the seat of which was lower in front than behind, so that a person sitting in it had a tendency to slip off. It was quite a curiosity in its way, and why it was made so it was difficult to conceive. A small bench or form supplied a more convenient seat. In other respects we managed somewhat better, being supplied from a wood-cutting establishment, where there was a small store or shop, from whence rice, plantains, salt fish, and pork might be procured, almost the only food obtainable for several months. This, with the damp situation, was very injurious to health, though other inconveniences were trifling; and it was impossible to refrain from smiling at the grotesque appearance of the dwelling and its contents.

"The river being in front, and a swampy forest behind us, we were obliged to go by water whenever we wished to leave the place, and a canoe was kindly lent me for two or three months, till an opportunity presented itself of purchasing one.

"A school was soon after commenced with two or three black and coloured children living in the neighbourhood, whom it was difficult at first to manage, their parents being accustomed to use the lash unsparingly, and other severe punishments, hardening to the children and painful to witness. One girl had her hand blistered for a trifling theft. Her mother had roasted a lime (a small kind of lemon), and forced her to grasp it in her hands, which she held tightly compressed within her own, till the palms were severely burnt. On another occasion I found on the opposite bank of the river three women chastising a girl. They had stripped her, and two held her extended by the hands and feet while the third flogged her with a long switch. In remitting, at my entreaty, further punishment they always said, 'Ah, sir, you do not yet know! If young creoles are not well flogged, they never do good.'"

Little by little some Waraus employed in cutting the leaves of the trooly palm began to converse with the missionary, who at that time knew hardly any Indian words, though he was assisted by Jeannette's boy.

One Sunday a coloured wood-cutter brought five Waraus of his gang to attend Divine service. To give them a more decent appearance, he had dressed them all in red woollen shirts. To these they had added, from the suggestions of their native taste, very tall sharp-pointed caps, a natural production, the spathe of the trooly palm. Their appearance, as they entered the humble place of worship in Indian file, with those extraordinary caps and long scarlet shirts, was strangely comical. They seemed at first painfully conscious of unusual finery, and nervously apprehensive of the supernatural consequences of attending Christian worship. But those feelings were lost in mirth when one of them, in trying to kneel, involuntarily squatted on his heels (as an Indian at first invariably does), lost his balance, and nearly overturned his companions. Loud exclamations of delight and a burst of Warau merriment followed. Their behaviour after this was so irreverent that it was a relief when they went out. Such incidents, though painfully annoying, must be expected at first among barbarous and heathen people.

As every attempt of Mr. Brett to win over the Waraus proved ineffectual, he turned his attention to the Arawaks, in whose country he lived. He found it very difficult at first to persuade them to come to his place; he used there fore to keep watch for any passing "Corial," or boat, and literally chase them, till they began to avoid the place entirely, which was very disheartening to him. He could not purchase fresh meat, and he had to depend for his food on fishing. The hooks used for the purpose were as a rule made out of common pins. To the fact of his being deprived of fresh meat and other comforts at this time we attribute the ill-health of the remainder of his days.

But why, it may be asked, did the Indians shun Mr. Brett? The answer we give in his own words.

"The chief cause of their unwillingness arose from the fact, which I afterwards discovered, that their "semicici" or sorcerers, foreseeing in the reception of Christianity the loss of their gains and influence, had forbidden the people to hold any intercourse with me. Sickness and death were denounced against any who should do so."

But the courage and indomitable faith of the missionary were not to be baulked. He had gone to preach the Gospel--what he wanted was a hearing. The Gospel of our dear Lord would accomplish the rest. The Indians saw a European, simple in his habits, apart from all con genial society, living in their midst, and almost as one of themselves, ready to impart some knowledge of the God of the pale faces; at last it pleased God to move the heart of one man to come forward. Mr. Brett thus relates the incident

"One day, about noon, I was surprised by a visit from an Arawak, who was accompanied by his son, a boy of about five years of age, and was still more surprised when, after a friendly salutation on his part, he asked me if I would instruct his child. I had never seen the man before, and had become so accustomed to indifference and rejection, that I could hardly believe him serious in his request. He was, however, perfectly in earnest, and said that he had just returned to his 'place' after a long absence, and had now come to see me as soon as he heard of my arrival among his people. He was not well acquainted with English, but we managed to understand each other's meaning, helping out the words by signs and gestures; and an hour or two passed away more pleasantly than any I had experienced for a long time. He had been to the mouth of the Essequibo, and had seen what was doing there.

"He seemed to have his eyes opened to the state of the Indians, as living 'without God in the world,' and expressed disgust at the superstition of his countrymen in serving devils. Some time afterwards I found out that he had been himself a sorcerer, but, forsaking the practice, had broken his magical gourd, and cast away the fragments, when placing himself under instruction.

"He had been a great traveller for one of his tribe, having been a long way up the Essequibo, and he was also well acquainted with the lower part of the Orinoco. Though not then a recognised chief; he was the principal man at his settlement, and possessed of extensive family influence among his people. He was small in stature, but had keen eyes, and his black hair was slightly curled; from this he had derived his Indian name, which he told me was 'Sacibarra' (good or beautiful hair). [In Arawak the termination ci is pronounced as che in "cheer."]

"I found that he fully believed in the existence and good ness of God, and desired to serve Him, but he listened with surprise and wonder to the account I gave him of the life and work of the Redeemer. He was, however, firmly convinced of the impossibility of knowing the way to 'Ifilici Wa'cinaci,' the 'Great Our Father,' without revelation from God Himself; and promised to come every Saturday, and stay till Monday morning, that he might see his child, and himself receive instruction.

"I would willingly have kept the boy with me, but he said he was not prepared as yet to leave him, and seemed hurt at the distrust implied. He said that his words were true, and I had, a day or two after, proof that they were so, by his bringing not only the boy, but his eldest daughter, a girl eight years of age, whom he placed with me, assuring me that all his children should be brought as soon as they were old enough.

"After some further conversation he returned to his canoe, went home, and induced his wife to come with him on the following Sunday; and the next week a company, consisting of the four sisters of his wife, with the husbands of three of them, two other persons, and the children of all, filled my little hut. Two of the party left their children with me.

"Saci-barra, or Cornelius (by which name he was baptized in the course of the next year), was regular in supplying his children with food, as were also the others. They frequently brought me presents of game after a successful hunt, in token of gratitude.

"Such was the commencement of the work in the Pomeroon. A single Indian, whom I had never seen, was induced, by his secret convictions, to come forward in defiance of the sorcerers of his tribe, and break, by his example, the spell which seemed to have been cast over his countrymen."

Cornelius became the missionary's right hand. He induced several of his kindred and tribe to come to Mr. Brett, and in a very short time there was an average of thirty Arawak children at the school. The children, of course, attracted the parents to the spot, and the place, which had been so dreary and dull, became very cheerful. A chapel was, with some help from English Churchmen, erected, and every Sunday very fair congregations assembled. Mr. Brett induced the people to come to the mission on Saturdays and return to their homes on Mondays. It may be said that time with the Indians is no object. True, but yet we Christians, who give so little of our time to God, might well learn a lesson from those Indians. It is also to be noted that Brett had no means to feed the Indians; they themselves brought their own provisions, and those who had children at the school invariably brought a good supply of victuals to serve them for a week. If during the week there had been a prosperous hunt, Mr. Brett was not forgotten.

The question naturally suggests itself as to what was the religion of the Indians. The following chapter will explain it.

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