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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 VIII.

Discomforts--Perils by Sea and by Land--"Ground Itch"--Bridges"--Snakes--Narrow Escapes--"Gaily Nippers"--Chigoes--Interruption of Divine Service.

TRAVELLING in the "Bush" or in the forests, as well as on the rivers and creeks of the colony, is not free from danger. The chief mode of transit is by water, in "wood skins" or "buck shells "--the bark of trees or trunks hollowed out, and usually called "corials." Travelling cramped up in these corials, as the writer knows from experience, is any thing but pleasant, and during a wet season especially is full of discomfort. About this mode of travelling Mr. Brett says:--

"We had, of course, discomfort enough from the burning sun, and from the heavy rains of the wet season. Such rain as falls on those tropical rivers!--furious, unrelenting, and so thick and heavy that every object not close to you is hidden from sight by it. To sit upon a bench was simply to sit in water. I found that the only way in those deluges was to place myself on a small box, arrange my cloak, and let it hang loosely all around, so as to carry the water down at once, holding at the same time an umbrella close over my head. In that style you look something like a huge mushroom, but manage to escape a good deal of wet. In the most violent rains, however, all such defences are inadequate to save you from a soaking.

"My lads adopted a very different method. They had no umbrellas, and could not have used their paddles if they had. So they would take off their shirts, put them carefully up in their pegalls (or covered waterproof baskets), and let the rain beat on their naked bodies. They said it was not half so bad as to sit in a wet garment. They generally pulled with all their might to keep themselves warm during the fury of the rain, and when it cleared away put on their dry garments and made themselves comfortable.

"Sometimes, in those rainstorms, we would meet other Indians in their little corials scudding along, and caring little for weather if wind arid tide were with them. A few leaves of the troolie palm, held by the mothers over them selves and children, were their umbrellas; and one or two long ones would be held up to catch the wind and serve as a sail.

"Such is open canoe travelling in Guiana during the wet season, when you have torrents of rain for days together, with frequent thunder and lightning.

"In the dry season the heat is, of course, severe while the sun is high, but heavy dew and often thick mists prevail from evening until morning. As the sun gets low the breeze dies away, and you see the vapour settling on the water and spreading everywhere. Frequently in embarking (to save tide) about three in the morning we would see the mist gliding over the river in large masses, conveying as we passed through them the idea of the smoke of a cannon and musketry in some fierce engagement. This is pretty enough in the moonlight, but very chilly and prejudicial to health, especially if you, having had much previous fatigue, become drowsy and fall asleep in the damp and noxious vapour."

But when one is bound to cross an arm of the sea some five miles wide--as Mr. Brett had to do every time he journeyed from the Pomeroon to the Moruca--the task is neither an easy nor a safe one. On one occasion, when Mr. Brett was at sea in his corial or "shell," he says:--" We were met by a heavy squall, ending in downright torrents of rain, which certainly beat the sea quite smooth, but at the same time hid the shore from view and threatened to swamp us. At length we got upon the mud flat, where we could not sink, and baled the craft clear of water. The rain passed off, but so thick was the air, that for some time the only visible object was a cormorant, sitting near us on a stick, which some Warau fisherman had planted there to attach his hooks to. The bird looked as woe-begone as ourselves, though he was probably quite comfortable in his waterproof plumage, digesting his fishy breakfast."

On another occasion Mr. Brett writes:--

"In the Waramuri boat Mr. Nowers and myself were caught by a sudden and violent storm on the sea. He with a bucket and an Indian with a large calabash were hard at work, baling incessantly to keep us from sinking, as the surf washed over our bows ; six men were pulling for their lives to keep us off shore and head to wind, while I had to cut away the tent, which was drifting us back by receiving the fury of the gale. For an hour and a half we were in this jeopardy, and were very thankful when the storm ceased, which it did suddenly, as it had begun."

Soon after this the missionary was provided with properly built tent-boats, which afford a degree of comfort, although even with such craft travelling was often attended with danger.

"The heavy rollers on one occasion," says Mr. Brett, "dashed our canoe against some old piles of timber, which broke in her side like an egg-shell, causing her to fill with water as we jumped ashore. At another time our tent was shattered by a blow from a heavy sea and carried away.

"It was a ticklish matter to cross on the round, slippery trunk, but we could not help being amused at the Caribs who led us. In their anxiety for our safety they begged us most seriously to 'hold on with our feet,' forgetting, in the darkness, that our toes were enveloped in boots, while they wore none."

The danger from snakes is frequently great, and from this Mr. Brett had often narrow escapes. Thus, when he was at "Hackney," of which we shall presently speak, a labaria lurked in a box containing school-books and papers, which he was about to take out with his hand, when his Indian boy arrested it. The snake was invisible to him until the box was overturned, when it went into a pew and was killed there with sticks by his Indians. "I record this with humble thanks to the Divine goodness and mercy," Mr. Brett adds. Whenever the missionary was compelled to take shelter in uninhabited benabs the Indians usually made a diligent search for such lodgers as snakes, scorpions, vampires, &c., in order to destroy them. On one occasion, whilst Mr. Brett was accompanied by the Bishop, they were overtaken by fierce lightning and heavy thunder, and they entered a hut. "A fire was lighted, and the rising smoke soon brought out a snake, with bright green back and white belly. I wished to save its life, as it was perfectly harmless, save to vermin. But there is enmity between the Indians and all species of snakes, so that all are killed. This un fortunate, though harmless and elegant, specimen was driven by long sticks from rafter to rafter, until he fell across a beam, and thence on to the earthen floor, where he was in a few seconds destroyed by as many fatal blows as there were Indians to strike at him." But these were not all the inconveniences which the missionary had to submit to. One of the greatest pests in these regions is the mosquito; especially annoying is a species of this insect called "gaily flippers," probably a sailor's expression for "jolly nippers." Their sting and their noise are both irritating. Sometimes in certain localities Mr. Brett was compelled to get into his hammock--properly enveloped in its curtain--by 4 P.M., and woe be unto him if the netting had but a single hole! New-corners suffer terribly from this. The Bishop and his Archdeacon (Jones), as Mr. Brett records, visited the missions alternately every year, and on one occasion they were together. The Archdeacon, "about eight o'clock one morning, called my attention to his boots. He had been trying to write, with little success, and the 'gaily flippers' brushed down from face and hands had settled on his feet so thickly that each boot looked as if it were covered with patches of grey fur. That appearance arose from the wings of the insects, which are of a grey colour. The extremities of the hind legs are also of a silvery white, and are held up in the air, as if to throw all the weight of the tiny body on the proboscis. With that weapon, so sharp and slender, they will try even to bore through leather if they scent human blood beneath, and perseveringly continue, though all their efforts be in vain.

"The marabuntas also are a source of great annoyance. Their sting is fearfully severe--worse than a hornet's. Then there is the chigo.

"Now, the chigo (chegoe, or, as it is commonly called, 'jigger') resembles a small flea--so very small, indeed, that you can hardly see it on your skin. Bare feet it is sure to attack, and it will also get into your shoe and through your stocking. In half an hour it has buried itself beneath your skin. Perhaps, if you are very busy, you do not notice it for al day or two, when you begin to feel a slight pain and itching. The intruder must be got out; and if the globule of a nest which it has formed be not larger than a pin's head, you may do it easily with the point of a pen-knife. If it be bigger, approaching the size of a pea, you must get some person with good eyes and delicate touch (a young Indian girl is the best operator) to remove the skin with the point of a needle, and try to extract the nest entire with the chigo in it. Should it burst, which when large it is likely to do, you will have much pain and trouble, as the insect burrows as fast as an effort is made to impede or rake it out. The bleeding of the lacerated flesh rather embarrasses it, and sometimes it is washed out by the blood; but whether that be the case or not, out it must come, for if it remain and breed you will soon find there a spreading mass of chigoes, and be like that un fortunate monk who in the interest of science endeavoured to carry one alive in his foot during a voyage to Europe, and lost his life thereby."

In the works of Mr. Brett we read of many other such annoyances. But what must have been both a source of levity and irritation was the disturbance of Divine Service by reptiles. At times the whole congregation was thrown into a panic by the sudden appearance of a snake. The Indians hate them so deeply that everything that is available is at once used as a weapon, and the intruder destroyed.

On one occasion Mr. Brett writes:--

"While officiating at the Lord's Table I saw what seemed to be a large black scorpion come crawling round the plated chalice. A little Carib girl having recently died in convulsions three hours after being stung by one of these, I kept my eye on it with some anxiety." On another occasion:--"In the year 1871 a large bank of 'drift mud' floated in, and located itself across the channel leading into the Moruca. Not knowing this, we got aground on it one evening just about dusk. The water took itself off so rapidly that my Indian hands (eight fine young men of various tribes) stripped off their clothes and struggled through the mud to push the boat over; but all was in vain--mud seemed to rise above water all around us, and by eight o'clock there was no sea within a mile or two in either direction. The young men were, of course, covered with wet mud from head to foot, and there was not even a puddle to wash in. Some got into the boat and commenced scraping each other with knives and a cutlass, to get off the worst of it; and then they huddled on their garments, for a cold wind, the precursor of a squall, was blowing in from the sea. By degrees all were in the boat and dressed, save one. That one insisted on remaining outside, buried up to his shoulders in the mud, and holding on with one hand, to keep himself from going down altogether. He declared that it was 'too cold to get out.' At last, when I served out rations to the rest, and told him that he should have none while he remained there in the wet mud, like an 'orehu,' or water- mama (the Indian mermaid), he clambered on board, and was duly scraped like his comrades.

"A heavy shower then fell, and drove them all, with the strong odour of the drift-mud still on them, into the tent, where we were crowded on each other. Then it cleared up and the stars came out brilliantly. Midnight came and passed, and as we watched Orion rise in beauty above the ocean, followed by Sirius, Canopus, and others, a slight murmur was heard, and the dark bank on which we lay seemed to sink gently into the sea. It was the next tide, which had quietly worked in all around us, and was soon lapping against our sides and carrying us, nothing loth, on our way."

Such were some of the experiences of the missionary in his journeys on the water. We will now give some of his experiences while journeying in the forests. He says:--

"A person of ordinary intelligence can hardly, I think, stand alone in those forests without a feeling of religious veneration--you are so entirely away from the bustling world, and feel so small amidst the innumerable stately objects around you. And the efforts which they all seem making to raise their heads into the light and glory of the sun and sky above them seem to invite you to lift your soul heavenward, and adore the Great Father in that many-pillared cathedral which His hand bath reared.

"The rapid step with which, in forest marches, you have to keep up with your Indian guide is not, I admit, very favourable to thoughts and feelings like these. But when a halt is made, and you pause to observe the scene around, they will come over you.

"In early journeys with my Indian boys I have frequently found myself wandering on alone, some object of interest, as a bird or the track of a wild animal crossing the path, having caused them to linger behind. On such occasions it was necessary to wait for them wherever the Indian paths intersected or branched off for had I trusted to myself in such a matter I should have been pretty sure to take the wrong one. In about half an hour the ringing thump thump of their feet would be heard, hurrying along to overtake their teacher before he could fall into mischief.

"One day, while thus going on ahead, I came to a spot where a large tree had fallen across the path. I was get ting over it, when, from a cleft in the damp, rotting wood, the head of a venomous labaria darted forth close to my hand. No harm was done, but I remained close by to warn my lads of the danger, and when they came up they inspected the spot with Indian minuteness."

The missionary had frequently to take off his socks and shoes and sling them around his neck when crossing swamps and marshy places. These excursions, which were frequent, gave considerable trouble to his tender feet, and sometimes he suffered intensely from "ground itch," i.e., blains and blisters which form on or around the toes, and sometimes break.

"They arise chiefly from walking on hot sandy soil, after wading through swamps, at a time when your blood is affected by the rising temperature of the hot season of the year. You ought then to rest; but if obliged to move on, you should put on your shoes, first cutting slits or gaps in the upper leathers to ease the pressure. The attack does not last long, unless you manage badly and get an ulcer."

The above is suggestive of a formidable array of dangers and perils, and of insect annoyances. But to Mr. Brett nothing very serious ever happened in consequence. The mission stations have now been so much enlarged and so long occupied that reptiles and wild beasts seldom or ever approach them. The writer, for instance, has never seen such a thing as a snake during four visits paid by him to all the missions in the Pomeroon; and the only inconveniences that he sustained were from mosquitoes, chigoes, and ground itch. No young missionary need, therefore, be frightened by such things as have been related here.

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