Into the wild

A reading list

Walter Ralegh’s Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana (1596) is one of the classics of Elizabethan travel writing, a boldfaced and frequently incredible account of a voyage to one of the fringes of the known world, from an age that specialised in such tales. It is perhaps more responsible than any other English book for enshrining the mythical city of El Dorado in the world’s imagination, and it is arguably the progenitor of a deliciously eccentric literary sub-genre: travel books about Guyana.

Never mind that Ralegh never set foot on territory that falls within the boundaries of today’s Co-operative Republic. (His journey took him into the mazy Orinoco delta and then as far up that river as the mouth of its tributary, the Caroní. His accounts of sights and wonders deeper inland — mountains of crystal, etc. — were either lifted from other travellers’ tales or simply invented.) His Discovery — part swashbuckling adventure story, part real estate prospectus — established once and for all the notion of some fabulous and elusive goal at the heart of the Guyanese interior, perilous to achieve, which would cover the adventurer with glory, should he survive. For Ralegh himself, of course, that fabulous goal was gold (which he did not find; the lumps of ore he took back to England were duds). For later traveller-writers, the object of the quest has varied, but the quest always has an object, even if it is simply to retrace the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor.

Something of the sort certainly drove the Prussian-born naturalist Robert Schomburgk, who made a series of brave expeditions into the interior of British Guiana between 1835 and 1844. From his youth, Schomburgk had a love of botany coupled with a yearning to see the world beyond Freiburg, his hometown. At twenty-five he began his travels, and soon found himself living in the Danish (later US) Virgin Islands, where he honed his cartographical skills in drawing up a nautical chart adopted by the British Admiralty. He used this minor success to make a bold pitch to the Royal Geographical Society, who finally agreed to fund his first visit to British Guiana, whose interior at the time was all but unmapped.

Schomburgk had a particular ambition for this journey. Like many naturalists of his day, he was an ardent admirer of Alexander von Humboldt — a Prussian, like Schomburgk — the first scientist to travel extensively in South America, and the author of the vast Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799–1804. Humboldt’s expedition had taken him from the Venezuelan coast up the Orinoco as far as the settlement of Esmeralda. Schomburgk had the idea to “complete” Humboldt’s survey of the region by ascending the Essequibo and trekking west to Esmeralda — his symbolic El Dorado. It was a journey of seventeen months, but the great day dawned on 22 February, 1839. Schomburgk wrote:

I confess it with pride, that when my own physical powers threatened to succomb [sic], when surrounded by dangers and difficulties of no slight nature, the name of that great Traveller . . . served me as encouragement and I went forward with renewed vigour. The emaciated form of my companions . . . told me more than volumes, what difficulties we had surmounted; our number of those who had started with me . . . was three less.

But fevers, hungers, cataracts, and relentless heat did not deter Schomburgk from proposing a second expedition, this time to survey the supposed boundaries of British Guiana on behalf of the colonial government. It was a rather more elaborate undertaking, with a larger crew; Schomburgk’s younger brother Richard, himself a keen botanist, signed up too. The boundary survey took more than four years, and its cartographical results have bedeviled relations between Guyana and Venezuela ever since.

But Schomburgk’s expeditions also produced reams of scientific data — observations on topography, geology, weather — and collected thousands of botanical and zoological specimens, dispatched to museums across Europe. He may have intended to turn his early written accounts — journals, letters, official reports — into a polished narrative like Humboldt’s, but in the end Schomburgk was distracted by consular postings in Santo Domingo and Bangkok. Those primary documents, however, were recently collected in two handsome volumes by the Hakluyt Society: The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk, 1835–1844, both edited by the anthropologist Peter Rivière. They convey not just the thrills and dangers of his expeditions, but the tedium and the many mundane setbacks familiar to all travellers. Richard Schomburgk, on the other hand, did manage to write a more conventional travel book. His lively Reisen in Britisch-Guiana in den Jahren 1840–44Travels in British Guiana — was translated into English by Walter Roth and published in Georgetown in 1922–23. Sadly, it is long out of print (and ripe for revival?).

Robert Schomburgk was a hot-tempered man, it seems, with an odd habit or two (he liked to dress up for special occasions, even in the deep bush), but indisputably quite sane. The same cannot be said for Charles Waterton, the English naturalist whose Wanderings in South America, first published in 1825, is one of the strangest travel books ever written. Waterton, whose family owned sugar estates in British Guiana, lived there off and on from 1804 to 1824. His Wanderings describe his four journeys up the Demerara and Essequibo, by boat and on foot (he was a firm advocate of hiking barefoot), ostensibly in search of wourali, the legendary Macushi arrow-poison. There are numerous vivid descriptions of the wildlife he encountered, but Waterton was never content to be a passive observer. In one of his more famous passages he recounts his (successful) attempt to ride on the back of an enraged alligator; he thought it was great fun to use himself as bait to capture a giant boa constrictor; but he was disappointed in his attempts to be “sucked by the Vampire” (bat, that is).

Many a night have I slept with my foot out of the hammock to tempt this winged surgeon, expecting that he would be there; but it was all in vain; the Vampire never sucked me, and I could never account for his not doing so . . .

The best — which is to say, most fun — twentieth-century Guyana travel books have tended to follow in the Waterton mode. Take, for instance, Evelyn Waugh’s little-remembered Ninety-two Days: A Journey in Guiana and Brazil (1934). Wishing to escape a sticky personal situation in London, and having always been intrigued by the vague blob of British Guiana on the world map, Waugh set off on a journey that took him across the Atlantic, into the Guyanese interior (on a route apparently devised for maximum discomfort), and across the border into Brazil, where he got stranded in the soporific town of Boa Vista. He complains happily about the food (unappetising, monotonous), the water (dirty), the people (stupid), and the generally insalubrious climate. It is hard to imagine anyone having more fun on a less pleasant expedition. The comic highlight must be his meeting with Mr Christie, a devout Christian settler in the north Rupununi savannahs, who claims he was warned of Waugh’s visit in a vision.

“I always know the character of any visitors by the visions I have of them. Sometimes I see a pig or a jackal; often a ravaging tiger.”

I could not resist asking, “And how did you see me?”

“As a sweetly toned harmonium,” said Mr Christie politely.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2008