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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 IV.

The religion of the Indians-Animism--Legends--The Creation--The Fall--The destruction of the world by (1) fire, and (2) by flood--Evil spirits--Vendetta or Kenaima--The Piaiman.

No nation in the world has ever been found without some religion--a belief in a higher power, as well as a belief in a future world. A recent writer, who has lived among the Indians for about eight years, believes that the religion of the Indians of British Guiana is animism pure and simple, i.e., "a belief in the existence of spirits as distinct, not necessarily as separate, from bodies." But we are here chiefly concerned with that which Mr. Brett learned of the religion of the Indians from their own mouths.

That the natives of Guiana had an idea of God as the Creator and Preserver of the world the following legend will show; and here we may remark that "The Legends and Myths of Guiana" are very interesting reading.

We are of opinion that had these "Legends" appeared in a prosaic garb, they would have been more acceptable to the student and scholar. Mr. Brett, on the other hand, thought that they would have lost a great deal of grace and power if they had been written in prose. We shall give them as they are. The first legend Mr. Brett learnt from the Arawak Indians, and is entitled:--


There is a mighty One above, and like Him there is none
He sits on high, above the sky, where none can see His throne.
He was there ere He made the world, with stars, and moon, and sun
And evermore He will be there, when each its course has run.

Our tongue gives Him no proper name, but titles more than one!
We call Him "Dweller in the Height," since there He sits alone,
The "Great Our Father," though to Him for comfort none have gone,
And of " Our Maker" oft we speak, but never call upon.

That Mighty Maker all things formed; 'tis He that made them move:
And food for all things He bestows, which seems a proof of love.

But calm He sits above the sky,
To Him for succour none can fly,
He is so high above!

The history of the Creation is thus told--


(Legend of the Geiba Tree.)
Here, beneath this sacred tree,
Old men told how moon and sun,
Earth and sky, and wide-spread sea,
Lay before the Mighty One.
High He stood where rivers run,
Pausing ere his work was done

Waves, soft murmur'ring, beat the strand,
Gentle breezes sighed above;
Still no life was in the land,
No sweet birds sang songs of love.
O'er the plain and through the grove,
Nothing then was seen to move.

Then his seat, "Komaka," there,
Wondrous tree!--He caused to grow
'Midst the clouds its branches were,
Earth and sea lay far below.
Sacred trees we this day know;
None such vast dimensions show.

From the bright green throne, His hand
Scattered twigs and bark around,
Some in air, and some on land;
Some the sparkling waters found.
Soon He saw with life abound,
Water, air, and solid ground!

Those which fell upon the stream
Found a pleasant shelter there;
Shining fishes dart and gleam
Where those woody fragments were
Others sported through the air,
Bright with wings and feathers fair.

Moving, too, on solid ground,
Or the river's marshy strand,
Beasts and reptiles then were found,
Spreading thence to fill the land.
Men and women upright stand,
Raised by their great Maker's hand.

Wild fruits were first human food;
Water man's sole drink, they say.
No bold hunters roamed the wood;
None would then take life away;
Beasts and birds would sport and play
With young children day by day.

On this earth our sire then came
(Young and brave "Wadili" he),
Saw their maidens, felt love's flame,
Took them, fair, his wives to be;
Taught the native arts you see:
Hunting, fishing, husbandry.

The legend that follows gives an account of the first man.


First, my Acawoi narrator
Told how beasts and birds were made;
How the Mighty, their Creator,
Gave them laws to be obeyed.
Made them of one speech to be,
Bade them live in unity.

That there might be no oppression,
Man was made, and placed o'er all.
The first man, of wise discretion,
"Makonaima's son" we call.
Just, as well as kind, was he
All obeyed him lovingly.

Ere the sun's bright rays were burning,
All dispersed in forests near
With the cool of day returning,
Glad his loving call to bear.
Each one of his food would bring,
Homage paid to man--their king.

No great trouble or disaster
Could oppress them or annoy;
For the man, their gentle master,
In their good placed all his joy.
Surely, we no more shall see
In this world such unity.

Then, 'tis said, great Makonaima,
Made for them a wondrous tree,
Capp'd with clouds, like high Roraima
Bearing fruits abundantly--
Every kind--the meed to be
Of their love and loyalty!

In all ancient religions we find a legend of the Flood; but the peculiarity of this legend is that it represents the earth as first destroyed by fire. One family, however, was saved by the wisdom of a chief.

"Here," said he, "a pit preparing,
Wives and children hide,
Timber strong, the sand-reef bearing,
We must first provide.
Piles will keep that shelter o'er us
Comrades, work!--the vault before us
Must be deep and wide.

"Felling next the trees, and burning,
All around make clear;
Shrubs and grass to ashes turning,
Leave we nothing here--
Nothing on which flames can fasten.
Clear and burn! O brothers; hasten,
Ere the flames appear!"

Clouds of smoke, the sun concealing,
Come, still rolling nigher!
Then fierce flames, their might revealing,
Wrap the woods in fire.
Onward comes the blazing torrent;
That burnt "clearing" stays its current
There--the flames expire.

After the fire presumably the earth was repeopled by this family. Soon after a rumour was heard that the Great Spirit was about once more to destroy the world in consequence of the wickedness in it, this time the destroying element was water. One man, Marerewana by name, was commanded to make a large boat to save himself and family.

As in the Bible story, we are told that
Some among his nearest neighbours
Said he was to blame;
Others, mocking at his labours,
Strove to give him shame.
Still they found him at it working,
Morn and eve, no labour shirking,
Ere "great waters" came.

"Make it large, Marerewana
Strong and fair to view
Over forest and savannah
Float--the deluge through!"
Thus they mocked their anxious neighbour,
Mocked him at his heavy labour,--
Laughed at his canoe!

Arched roof he thatched above it,
Palm leaves strong and warm
Firm, that no fierce wind might move it,
Ready for the storm.
"Here," said he, "my loved ones, hiding,
Through the tempest safe abiding,
May be kept from harm."

Still he feared, and said with sorrow,
"When this flood shall come,
We may drift (perhaps to-morrow),
Through the salt-sea foam!"
Said a voice, "That great tree near thee,
Moor to that--thy craft shall bear thee
Safely near thy home!"

They made use of bush ropes to fasten the vessel, and thus they were saved.

The Indians also possess an idea of a future state. There is for them the happy hunting-fields of sky-land--for this they hope--but whether there is a place for wicked men is not stated. Do they believe in the Devil? This question may be answered thus. They believe that in this world there are places inhabited by malignant spirits, that these spirits take a delight in causing trouble, mischief, and death, and that they are not merely the spirits of human beings. For they consider inanimate objects as also possessing what we must call, for the want of a better term, bodies and spirits. Thus certain rocks and trees are avoided; and we are told by Mr. Brett that when on one occasion a fearful epidemic attacked the Indians in his missions, they fled far away from the settlements into the interior, but in so doing they cut large trees to serve as obstructions to the course of the evil spirit that had brought the sickness!

The religious notions held by the Guiana Indians appear such as to justify the belief that a missionary would have but little difficulty in building up Christianity on their primitive system.

We now proceed to explain the vendetta of the Indians. It goes by the name of Kanaima. Of this fearful rite--for we cannot call it by the ghostly name of murder, the Kanaima being part of the religion of the Indians--Mr. Brett says:

"A person dies, and it is supposed that an enemy has secured the agency of an evil spirit to compass his death. Some sorcerer, employed by the friends of the deceased for that purpose, pretends by his incantations to discover the guilty individual or family, or at any rate to indicate the quarter where they dwell. A near relative of the deceased is then charged with the work of vengeance. He becomes a 'Kanaima,' or is supposed to be possessed by the destroying spirit so called, and has to live apart, according to strict rule, and submit to many privations, until the deed of blood is accomplished. If the supposed offender cannot be slain, some innocent member of his family---man, woman, or little child--must suffer instead. If the victim cannot be approached with safety to the assassin, he may be shot from behind, and buried by the Kanaima near the spot where he falls. But such vengeance, though allowed, is considered imperfect, the manes of the deceased being supposed to demand more cruelty in the sacrifice. So the victim, where it can be done, is approached softly from behind while off his guard, and struck down by a violent blow across the neck. While he lies insensible (according to some accounts) his throat is grasped, and the fangs of a poisonous serpent are thrust through his tongue. Others say that a poisonous serpent-powder (prepared in the far interior from the strongest kind of a plant called Urupa, and which the Kanaima carries in the wing-bone of a powis, concealed in his hair) is forced into the mouth. Horrible agony and inability to speak, followed in due course by death, are the inevitable result.

"The work of the Kanaima is not yet ended. If the sufferer be found by his friends and carried home, the per petrator of the deed is obliged to hover near, to discover the place of burial, as he cannot be released from the power of the evil spirit which possesses him until he has performed certain acts to the victim's body. What those acts are it is difficult to learn. Some of the Indians say that the corpse must be disinterred for the purpose, but the statement given by the Rev. Mr. Bernau in his excellent account derived from the Essequibo Indians, seems to me more probable. He says that the murderer goes to the grave on the third night and presses a pointed stick through the body, that he may taste the victim's blood.

"If this, which is an offering to the Kanaima spirit within him, be accomplished, he becomes like other men, and can return to his family; but if not, he wanders on till madness or some other dire consequence, by the agency of the disappointed spirit, is believed to come upon him.

"The family of his victim are, of course, desirous that the corpse should not be desecrated, and that the murderer should suffer. To ensure the former, they endeavour to bury the body in some place where the Kanaima may not find it. This is difficult, for where one Indian goes another can track him. So to make certain of revenge, if the grave be molested, some one will open the body, take out the liver, and put a red-hot axe-head into its place. If, after that be done, the Kanaima disturb the corpse, the intense heat which was in the axe-head when placed there will pass into his body, consume his vitals, and cause him to perish miserably. Such is their belief.

"An Acawoio told me also of another plan that is some times followed. A small quantity of the ourali (or worali) poison placed on the dead body will equally ensure the death of the murderer. Should he return to desecrate the remains, the venom of the ourali will pass into and destroy him.

"In consequence of these practices and the terror they inspire, the Indians of the interior seldom consider them selves in perfect safety. Those near the coast will, if unfortunately entangled in a quarrel, apply to some influential person, whose agency is generally successful. When a murder of the above kind is committed near the coast, the Kanaima and victim are generally both from the interior.

"In cases of secret enmity poison is sometimes resorted to. The Indians are acquainted with various preparations, both vegetable and animal, which may be used secretly to remove a obnoxious person, or to avenge a real or sup posed injury.

"Venomous serpents, as may be supposed, are used in the composition of some of these poisons. A preparation, for instance, from a certain part of the inside of the deadly bush-master snake, mixed with a little of the juice of the bitter cassava (which is itself poisonous), and given in a draught of paiwari, is said to cause death quickly, and if smoked with tobacco to be more slow, but equally fatal, causing the throat to swell for days till death ensues."

We have already stated that the cause why Mr. Brett met with almost insuperable difficulties was the Piaiman. This word signifies sorcerer. The Piaimen "are each furnished with a large gourd or calabash, which has been emptied of its spongy contents, and has a round stick run through the middle of it by means of two holes. The ends of this stick project--one forms the handle of the instrument, and the other has a long string, to which beautiful feathers are attached, wound round it in spiral circles. Within the calabash are a few small white stones, which rattle when it is shaken or turned round. The calabash itself is usually painted red. It is regarded with great awe by the heathen Indians, who fear to touch it, or even to approach the place where it is kept.

"When attacked by sickness, the Indians cause themselves to be conveyed to some friendly sorcerer, to whom a present of more or less value must be made. Death is sometimes occasioned by those removals, cold being taken from wet or the damp of the river. If the patient cannot be removed, the sorcerer is sent for to visit him. The females are all sent away from the place, and the men must keep at a respectful distance, as he does not like his proceedings to be closely inspected. He then commences his exorcisms, turning and shaking his marakka or rattle, and chanting an address to the yauhahu or evil spirit. This is continued for hours, until about midnight the spirit is supposed to be present, and a conversation to take place, which is unintelligible to the Indians who may overhear it. These ceremonies are kept up for successive nights.

"If the patient be strong enough to endure the disease, the excitement, the noise, and the fumes of tobacco in which he is at times enveloped, and the sorcerer observe signs of recovery, he will pretend to extract the cause of the com plaint by sucking the part affected. After many ceremonies he will produce from his mouth some strange substance, such as a thorn or gravel-stone, a fish-bone, or bird's claw, a snake's tooth, or a piece of wire, which some malicious yauhahu is supposed to have inserted in the affected part. As soon as the patient fancies himself rid of this cause of his illness, his recovery is generally rapid, and the fame of the sorcerer greatly increased. Should death, however, ensue, the blame is laid upon the evil spirit, whose power and malignity have prevailed over the counteracting charms. Some rival sorcerer will at times come in for a share of the blame, whom the sufferer has unhappily made his enemy, and who is supposed to have employed the yauhahu in destroying him. The sorcerers being supposed to have the power of causing, as well as of curing disease, are much dreaded by the common people, who never wilfully offend them. So deeply rooted in the Indians' bosom is this belief concerning the origin of diseases, that they have little idea of sickness arising from other causes. Death may arise from a wound or a contusion, or be brought on by want of food, but in other cases it is the work of the yauhahu.

"I once came upon a Warau practising his art upon a woman afflicted with a severe internal complaint. He was, when I first saw him, blowing violently into his hands and rubbing them upon the affected part. He very candidly acknowledged his imposture when I taxed him with it, put up his implements, and went away. The fate of the poor woman, as it was related to me some time afterwards, was very sad. Though a Venezuelan half-breed, and of the Church of Rome, she was wedded to the Indian superstitions, and after trying the most noted sorcerers without relief, she inflicted on herself a mortal wound with a razor in the vain attempt to cut out the imaginary cause of her internal pain!

"Some have imagined that those men have faith in the power of their own incantations from their performing them over their own children, and even causing them to be acted over themselves when sick. This practice is indeed difficult to account for. The juggling part of their business is such a gross imposture as could only succeed with a very ignorant and credulous people; but it is perhaps in their case, as in some others, difficult to tell the precise point where credulity ends and imposture begins. It is certain that they are excited during their incantations in a most extraordinary way, and positively affirm that they hold intercourse with spirits; nor will they allow themselves to be laughed out of the assertion, however ridiculous it may appear to us.

"The Waraus, in many points the most degraded of the tribes, are the most renowned as sorcerers. The huts which they set apart for the performance of their superstitious rites are regarded with great veneration.

"A missionary once visited a Warau settlement, entered one of those huts, not being aware of the offence he was committing, and found it perfectly empty, with the exception of the gourd, or 'mataro,' as it is called by that tribe. There was in the centre of the hut a small raised place about eighteen inches high, on which the fire had been made for burning tobacco. The sorcerer being asked to give up the gourd, peremptorily refused, saying that if he did so his 'two children would die the same night.'

"Those men are generally called upon to confer Indian names on the children of their tribe. Each of those names has its meaning. A few may be mentioned as showing the taste of he Arawaks in this particular. Some are derived from personal appearance, the hair especially being noticed; as 'Ka-barra-li,' having hair; 'Ma-barra-si-li,' head without hair; 'Ka-korri-'si-li,' curly hair &c. One boy whom I knew was called by a name signifying soft head. Some derive their names from birds and other animals, as Koiali,' the red and blue macaw. Others are named after the tobacco, their favourite plant, as 'Yuri,' tobacco; 'Yuri-banna,' tobacco-leaf; 'Yuri-tokoro,' tobacco flower, the latter name being often given to a handsome child of either sex. Others again are named from some quality or title, as 'Ifihi,' the great; 'Adaiahu,' the governor, &c. A present is given to the sorcerer who names the child."

The Piaimen were the greatest obstacles to the spread of Christianity. Imagine an Indian forbidden by his Piaiman (for the Piaimen were numerous, each large settlement possessing at least one) daring to visit the missionary! The Indians dread their Piaimen as children do thunder. Then again the Piaimen and his people respect their religion as we do ours. It is easy for us to see the faults of the religions of uncivilised men, but they themselves see them not. They are satisfied with that which gave satisfaction to their forefathers. Would we go readily to listen to a man who would decry our religion? But the Piaimen had also other powerful reasons. If the missionary were to succeed, their gain would be gone and their class would be doomed. If we bear in mind this, we shall easily understand why the dauntless missionary was eschewed till he had almost given up all hope of making any impression upon the Indian tribes of Guiana.

"Though careless to the last degree, and averse to continuous employment, the Indians are much sought after as labourers. When they can be induced to begin, they will do more work than others, and are satisfied with less wages if rum be given liberally.

"They inhabit the swampy district so often mentioned, and being near the sea, are excellent fishermen, and subsist much upon the productions of the waters. They cultivate cassava and other vegetables, but do not pay sufficient attention to agriculture, and in times of scarcity betake themselves to the îta palms, which abound in the swamps. This tree is of the greatest service to them. They are fond of its fruit, and at certain seasons make of its pith a substitute for bread, while its trunk is sometimes split and used in flooring their dwellings, and its leaf supplies the fibrous material of which, among other useful things, they make strong and serviceable hammocks, which form an important article in their little traffic.

"They are also noted for making canoes, with which they supply the whole colony; the Arawâks sometimes under taking long voyages to their remote settlements, and bringing the canoes, to be again sold to the settlers, or disposed of among themselves.

"The canoe, or 'woibaka,' as it is called by the Waraus, is most excellently adapted to the wants of the Indians, though shaped and hollowed with rude implements, and without any assistance from the rules of art. Some of those used by the Spaniards are said to have been known to carry one hundred men and a three-pounder; but the largest I have seen could not have carried more than fifty persons.

"Were the Waraus more careful of their gains, and more prompt to avail themselves of advantages, no tribe in Guiana could be in more respectable circumstances; but they have not yet learned to make the slightest provision beyond what absolute necessity requires. If successful in hunting, a scene of excessive gluttony follows, until the game is consumed, and returning hunger forces them to exertion. If unsuccessful, they are capable of enduring great privation. they can also paddle a canoe with greater vigour and for a longer time than the other Indians.

"Such are the Waraus; strong and hardy in person, but slovenly and dirty; merry and cheerful in disposition, but careless and improvident.

"They were utterly ignorant, and consequently very superstitious, their sorcerers being considered to possess greater power over the evil spirits than those of any other tribe."

"After repeated efforts during two years among the Waraus of Manawarin, finding no change in their disposition, I resolved to try another field of labour, and began to visit a small river in the vicinity, called Haimara-Cabura. Little satisfaction attended the first visit, as the people at the settlement where we took up our quarters were at no pains to conceal their indifference or dislike. A fine young fellow had a kind of javelin, the shaft of which was made of a strong reed, in one end of which was inserted a piece of hard wood, forming the point. He continued to hurl this at a mark on the soft stem of a plantain-tree, which was pierced through; the pointed wood remaining firmly fixed in the tree while the elastic staff flew back towards the man who had cast it. He told me that it was used in striking the morocote and other large fish: fruit or seeds which they are fond of being scattered on the still water, while the Indian watches their rising and kills them with an arrow or this kind of dart.

"These people paid little or no attention to our evening worship, did not wish to be taught, and seemed thoroughly ill-tempered. After we had retired to rest, a child happening to cry, one of the women arose from her hammock, and taking a large piece of firewood, struck it violently several times as it lay, and then suddenly caught it up, ran to the bush, and hurled it from her. It fell on the ground, apparently much hurt. I had not witnessed such brutality among the other tribes, but concluded that they were all out of temper because I had brought no rum to give them, for which they were very importunate. The next morning they demanded money for the shelter they had afforded myself and party, a thing I had never heard of among the Indians of Guiana.

"They were thoroughly wedded to their superstitions, and practised them without reserve. On one occasion we passed an old man fishing in a canoe on the Manawarin. The clouds threatened rain, and when he perceived it, he began to use extraordinary gesticulations, flourishing his arms and shouted his incantations to drive it away. It soon cleared up, and the old sorcerer rejoiced at his success, as he deemed it.

"In the course of another voyage, we passed a Warau similarly engaged in fishing, and apparently so intent upon his pursuit that he could neither observe us passing nor answer our salutation. When we had got a little distance from him, he inquired of the Arawak who was steering our canoe whether I had many of the 'hebo,' or evil spirits, attending me. The answer, 'They are entirely wanting,' was accompanied by a loud laugh from my crew. It appeared that the Waraus, in their ignorance, regarded a missionary as a powerful enchanter, and attributed the change in the other tribes to the effect of magic.

"These discouragements continued up to the close of 1844. But at that time, and while their case appeared to me as utterly hopeless, some of these people commenced attending the station on the Lower Pomeroon. An account of this was speedily sent to me by Mr. Campbell, who had succeeded Mr. Smithett as teacher there, and it seemed expedient to visit them without delay. Accordingly, I set out on the i of December for Haimara-Cabura. The weather was tempestuous, the rainy season having set in with violence, and we took this route to avoid the necessity of crossing the sea, as there is a passage called the Itabbo lead ing to the Manawarin through the forests, which is only navi gable when the whole country is inundated. On the morning of the i8th we set out from the settlement in the Koraia, across the savannah, then covered with water. The reeds and grass appearing above the surface caused it to resemble at a little distance a pleasant lawn; while the islets and the mainland were finely wooded, and an ita-tree here and there stood in solitary beauty in the midst of the savannah, A double rainbow appeared as we started, whose bright colours contrasted vividly with the dark clouds as it spanned our intended course. We proceeded through the Itabbo, meeting with much difficulty, owing to the fallen trees which obstructed the channel. I had formerly travelled that way with Mr. Smithett, but the impediments had much increased in number since that time."

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