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Waterton's Wanderings.
The Wanderings - The First Journey, 1812.
Chapter 2
Chapter 2 Pages

• 1  • 2  • 3  • 4  • 5

Chapter 1Chapter 3

▼ Chapter 2, p.1.

1st and 3rd JourneysMap showing the First and Third Journeys. (1)
(Click image to enlarge).

Continuing the First Journey in Waterton's own words......

The Macoushi Indians. Poison Vendors. Arrows. Quivers. A wild hog shot.

Having now reached the Portuguese inland frontier and collected a sufficient quantity of the wourali poison, nothing remains but to give a brief account of its composition, its effects, its uses and its supposed antidotes.

It has been already remarked that in the extensive wilds of Demerara and Essequibo, far away from any European settlement, there is a tribe of Indians who are known by the name of Macoushi. Though the wourali poison is used by all the South American savages betwixt the Amazons and the Oroonoque, still this tribe makes it stronger than any of the rest. The Indians in the vicinity of the Rio Negro are aware of this, and come to the Macoushi country to purchase it.

Much has been said concerning this fatal and extraordinary poison. Some have affirmed that its effects are almost instantaneous, provided the minutest particle of it mixes with the blood; and others again have maintained that it is not strong enough to kill an animal of the size and strength of a man. The first have erred by lending a too willing ear to the marvellous and believing assertions without sufficient proof. The following short story points out the necessity of a cautious examination.

One day, on asking an Indian if he thought the poison would kill a man, he replied that they always go to battle with it; that he was standing by when an Indian was shot with a poisoned arrow, and that he expired almost immediately. Not wishing to dispute this apparently satisfactory information the subject was dropped.

However, about an hour after, having purposely asked him in what part of the body the said Indian was wounded, he answered without hesitation that the arrow entered betwixt his shoulders and passed quite through his heart. Was it the weapon or the strength of the poison that brought on immediate dissolution in this case? Of course the weapon.

The second have been misled by disappointment caused by neglect in keeping the poisoned arrows, or by not knowing how to use them, or by trying inferior poison. If the arrows are not kept dry the poison loses its strength, and in wet or damp weather it turns mouldy and becomes quite soft. In shooting an arrow in this state, upon examining the place where it has entered, it will be observed that, though the arrow has penetrated deep into the flesh, still by far the greatest part of the poison has shrunk back, and thus, instead of entering with the arrow, it has remained collected at the mouth of the wound. In this case the arrow might as well have not been poisoned. Probably it was to this that a gentleman, some time ago, owed his disappointment when he tried the poison on a horse in the town of Stabroek, the capital of Demerara; the horse never betrayed the least symptom of being affected by it.

Wishful to obtain the best information concerning this poison, and as repeated inquiries, in lieu of dissipating the surrounding shade, did but tend more and more to darken the little light that existed, I determined to penetrate into the country where the poisonous ingredients grow, where this pernicious composition is prepared and where it is constantly used. Success attended the adventure, and the information acquired made amends for one hundred and twenty days passed in the solitudes of Guiana, and afforded a balm to the wounds and bruises which every traveller must expect to receive who wanders through a thorny and obstructed path.

Thou must not, courteous reader, expect a dissertation on the manner in which the wourali poison operates on the system: a treatise has been already written on the subject, and, after all, there is probably still reason to doubt. It is supposed to affect the nervous system, and thus destroy the vital functions; it is also said to be perfectly harmless provided it does not touch the blood. However, this is certain: when a sufficient quantity of it enters the blood, death is the inevitable consequence; but there is no alteration in the colour of the blood, and both the blood and flesh may be eaten with safety.

All that thou wilt find here is a concise, unadorned account of the wourali poison. It may be of service to thee some time or other shouldst thou ever travel through the wilds where it is used. Neither attribute to cruelty, nor to a want of feeling for the sufferings of the inferior animals, the ensuing experiments. The larger animals were destroyed in order to have proof positive of the strength of a poison which hath hitherto been doubted, and the smaller ones were killed with the hope of substantiating that which has commonly been supposed to be an antidote.

▲ Chapter 2, p.1.

▼ Chapter 2, p.2.

It makes a pitying heart ache to see a poor creature in distress and pain; and too often has the compassionate traveller occasion to heave a sigh as he journeys on. However, here, though the kind-hearted will be sorry to read of an unoffending animal doomed to death in order to satisfy a doubt, still it will be a relief to know that the victim was not tortured. The wourali poison destroys life's action so gently that the victim appears to be in no pain whatever; and probably, were the truth known, it feels none, saving the momentary smart at the time the arrow enters.

A day or two before the Macoushi Indian prepares his poison he goes into the forest in quest of the ingredients. A vine grows in these wilds which is called wourali. It is from this that the poison takes its name, and it is the principal ingredient. When he has procured enough of this he digs up a root of a very bitter taste, ties them together, and then looks about for two kinds of bulbous plants which contain a green and glutinous juice. He fills a little quake which he carries on his back with the stalks of these; and lastly ranges up and down till he finds two species of ants. One of them is very large and black, and so venomous that its sting produces a fever: it is most commonly to be met with on the ground. The other is a little red ant which stings like a nettle, and generally has its nest under the leaf of a shrub. After obtaining these he has no more need to range the forest.

A quantity of the strongest Indian pepper is used, but this he has already planted round his hut. The pounded fangs of the labarri snake and those of the counacouchi are likewise added. These he commonly has in store, for when he kills a snake he generally extracts the fangs and keeps them by him.

Having thus found the necessary ingredients, he scrapes the wourali vine and bitter root into thin shavings and puts them into a kind of colander made of leaves. This he holds over an earthen pot, and pours water on the shavings: the liquor which comes through has the appearance of coffee. When a sufficient quantity has been procured the shavings are thrown aside. He then bruises the bulbous stalks and squeezes a proportionate quantity of their juice through his hands into the pot. Lastly the snakes' fangs, ants and pepper are bruised and thrown into it. It is then placed on a slow fire, and as it boils more of the juice of the wourali is added, according as it may be found necessary, and the scum is taken off with a leaf: it remains on the fire till reduced to a thick syrup of a deep brown colour. As soon as it has arrived at this state a few arrows are poisoned with it, to try its strength. If it answer the expectations it is poured out into a calabash, or little pot of Indian manufacture, which is carefully covered with a couple of leaves, and over them a piece of deer's skin tied round with a cord. They keep it in the most dry part of the hut, and from time to time suspend it over the fire to counteract the effects of dampness.

The act of preparing this poison is not considered as a common one: the savage may shape his bow, fasten the barb on the point of his arrow and make his other implements of destruction either lying in his hammock or in the midst of his family; but if he has to prepare the wourali poison, many precautions are supposed to be necessary.

The women and young girls are not allowed to be present, lest the Yabahou, or evil spirit, should do them harm. The shed under which it has been boiled is pronounced polluted, and abandoned ever after. He who makes the poison must eat nothing that morning, and must continue fasting as long as the operation lasts. The pot in which it is boiled must be a new one, and must never have held anything before, otherwise the poison would be deficient in strength: add to this that the operator must take particular care not to expose himself to the vapour which arises from it while on the fire.

Though this and other precautions are taken, such as frequently washing the face and hands, still the Indians think that it affects the health; and the operator either is, or, what is more probable, supposes himself to be, sick for some days after.

Thus it appears that the making the wourali poison is considered as a gloomy and mysterious operation; and it would seem that they imagine it affects others as well as him who boils it, for an Indian agreed one evening to make some for me, but the next morning he declined having anything to do with it, alleging that his wife was with child!

Here it might be asked, are all the ingredients just mentioned necessary in order to produce the wourali poison? Though our opinions and conjectures may militate against the absolute necessity of some of them, still it would be hardly fair to pronounce them added by the hand of superstition till proof positive can be obtained.

We might argue on the subject, and by bringing forward instances of Indian superstition draw our conclusion by inference, and still remain in doubt on this head. You know superstition to be the offspring of ignorance, and of course that it takes up its abode amongst the rudest tribes of uncivilised man. It even too often resides with man in his more enlightened state.

▲ Chapter 2, p.2.

▼ Chapter 2, p.3.

The Augustan age furnishes numerous examples. A bone snatched from the jaws of a fasting bitch, and a feather from the wing of a night-owl--"ossa ab ore rapta jejunae canis, plumamque nocturnae strigis"--were necessary for Canidia's incantations. And in after-times Parson Evans, the Welshman, was treated most ungenteelly by an enraged spirit solely because he had forgotten a fumigation in his witch-work.

If, then, enlightened man lets his better sense give way, and believes, or allows himself to be persuaded, that certain substances and actions, in reality of no avail, possess a virtue which renders them useful in producing the wished-for effect, may not the wild, untaught, unenlightened savage of Guiana add an ingredient which, on account of the harm it does him, he fancies may be useful to the perfection of his poison, though in fact it be of no use at all? If a bone snatched from the jaws of a fasting bitch be thought necessary in incantation; or if witchcraft have recourse to the raiment of the owl because it resorts to the tombs and mausoleums of the dead and wails and hovers about at the time that the rest of animated nature sleeps; certainly the savage may imagine that the ants, whose sting causes a fever, and the teeth of the labarri and counacouchi snakes, which convey death in a very short space of time, are essentially necessary in the composition of his poison; and being once impressed with this idea, he will add them every time he makes the poison and transmit the absolute use of them to his posterity. The question to be answered seems not to be if it is natural for the Indians to mix these ingredients, but if they are essential to make the poison.

So much for the preparing of this vegetable essence: terrible importer of death, into whatever animal it enters. Let us now see how it is used; let us examine the weapons which bear it to its destination, and take a view of the poor victim from the time he receives his wound till death comes to his relief.

When a native of Macoushia goes in quest of feathered game or other birds he seldom carries his bow and arrows. It is the blow-pipe he then uses. This extraordinary tube of death is, perhaps, one of the greatest natural curiosities of Guiana. It is not found in the country of the Macoushi. Those Indians tell you that it grows to the south-west of them, in the wilds which extend betwixt them and the Rio Negro. The reed must grow to an amazing length, as the part the Indians use is from ten to eleven feet long, and no tapering can be perceived in it, one end being as thick as the other. It is of a bright yellow colour, perfectly smooth both inside and out. It grows hollow, nor is there the least appearance of a knot or joint throughout the whole extent. The natives call it ourah. This of itself is too slender to answer the end of a blow-pipe, but there is a species of palma, larger and stronger, and common in Guiana, and this the Indians make use of as a case in which they put the ourah. It is brown, susceptible of a fine polish, and appears as if it had joints five or six inches from each other. It is called samourah, and the pulp inside is easily extracted by steeping it for a few days in water.

Thus the ourah and samourah, one within the other, form the blow-pipe of Guiana. The end which is applied to the mouth is tied round with a small silk-grass cord to prevent its splitting, and the other end, which is apt to strike against the ground, is secured by the seed of the acuero fruit cut horizontally through the middle, with a hole made in the end through which is put the extremity of the blow-pipe. It is fastened on with string on the outside, and the inside is filled up with wild-bees' wax.

The arrow is from nine to ten inches long. It is made out of the leaf of a species of palm-tree called coucourite, hard and brittle, and pointed as sharp as a needle. About an inch of the pointed end is poisoned. The other end is burnt to make it still harder, and wild cotton is put round it for about an inch and a half. It requires considerable practice to put on this cotton well. It must just be large enough to fit the hollow of the tube and taper off to nothing downwards. They tie it on with a thread of the silk- grass to prevent its slipping off the arrow.

The Indians have shown ingenuity in making a quiver to hold the arrows. It will contain from five to six hundred. It is generally from twelve to fourteen inches long, and in shape resembles a dice-box used at backgammon. The inside is prettily done in basket-work with wood not unlike bamboo, and the outside has a coat of wax. The cover is all of one piece formed out of the skin of the tapir. Round the centre there is fastened a loop large enough to admit the arm and shoulder, from which it hangs when used. To the rim is tied a little bunch of silk-grass and half of the jaw-bone of the fish called pirai, with which the Indian scrapes the point of his arrow.

▲Chapter 2, p.3.


▼ Chapter 2, p.4.

Before he puts the arrows into the quiver he links them together by two strings of cotton, one string at each end, and then folds them round a stick which is nearly the length of the quiver. The end of the stick, which is uppermost, is guarded by two little pieces of wood crosswise, with a hoop round their extremities, which appears something like a wheel, and this saves the hand from being wounded when the quiver is reversed in order to let the bunch of arrows drop out.

There is also attached to the quiver a little kind of basket to hold the wild cotton which is put on the blunt end of the arrow. With a quiver of poisoned arrows slung over his shoulder, and with his blow-pipe in his hand, in the same position as a soldier carries his musket, see the Macoushi Indian advancing towards the forest in quest of powises, maroudis, waracabas and other feathered game.

These generally sit high up in the tall and tufted trees, but still are not out of the Indian's reach, for his blow-pipe, at its greatest elevation, will send an arrow three hundred feet. Silent as midnight he steals under them, and so cautiously does he tread the ground that the fallen leaves rustle not beneath his feet. His ears are open to the least sound, while his eye, keen as that of the lynx, is employed in finding out the game in the thickest shade. Often he imitates their cry, and decoys them from tree to tree, till they are within range of his tube. Then taking a poisoned arrow from his quiver, he puts it in the blow-pipe and collects his breath for the fatal puff.

About two feet from the end through which he blows there are fastened two teeth of the acouri, and these serve him for a sight. Silent and swift the arrow flies, and seldom fails to pierce the object at which it is sent. Sometimes the wounded bird remains in the same tree where it was shot, and in three minutes falls down at the Indian's feet. Should he take wing his flight is of short duration, and the Indian, following the direction he has gone, is sure to find him dead.

It is natural to imagine that when a slight wound only is inflicted the game will make its escape. Far otherwise; the wourali poison almost instantaneously mixes with blood or water, so that if you wet your finger and dash it along the poisoned arrow in the quickest manner possible you are sure to carry off some of the poison. Though three minutes generally elapse before the convulsions come on in the wounded bird, still a stupor evidently takes place sooner, and this stupor manifests itself by an apparent unwillingness in the bird to move. This was very visible in a dying fowl.

Having procured a healthy full-grown one, a short piece of a poisoned blow- pipe arrow was broken off and run up into its thigh, as near as possible betwixt the skin and the flesh, in order that it might not be incommoded by the wound. For the first minute it walked about, but walked very slowly, and did not appear the least agitated. During the second minute it stood still, and began to peck the ground; and ere half another had elapsed it frequently opened and shut its mouth. The tail had now dropped and the wings almost touched the ground. By the termination of the third minute it had sat down, scarce able to support its head, which nodded, and then recovered itself, and then nodded again, lower and lower every time, like that of a weary traveller slumbering in an erect position; the eyes alternately open and shut. The fourth minute brought on convulsions, and life and the fifth terminated together.

The flesh of the game is not in the least injured by the poison, nor does it appear to corrupt sooner than that killed by the gun or knife. The body of this fowl was kept for sixteen hours in a climate damp and rainy, and within seven degrees of the equator, at the end of which time it had contracted no bad smell whatever and there were no symptoms of putrefaction, saving that just round the wound the flesh appeared somewhat discoloured.

The Indian, on his return home, carefully suspends his blow-pipe from the top of his spiral roof, seldom placing it in an oblique position, lest it should receive a cast.

Here let the blow-pipe remain suspended while you take a view of the arms which are made to slay the larger beasts of the forest.

When the Indian intends to chase the peccari, or surprise the deer, or rouse the tapir from his marshy retreat, he carries his bow and arrows, which are very different from the weapons already described.

▲ Chapter 2, p.4.

▼ Chapter 2, p.5.

The bow is generally from six to seven feet long and strung with a cord spun out of the silk-grass. The forests of Guiana furnish many species of hard wood, tough and elastic, out of which beautiful and excellent bows are formed.

The arrows are from four to five feet in length, made of a yellow reed without a knot or joint. It is found in great plenty up and down throughout Guiana. A piece of hard wood about nine inches long is inserted into the end of the reed, and fastened with cotton well waxed. A square hole an inch deep is then made in the end of this piece of hard wood, done tight round with cotton to keep it from splitting. Into this square hole is fitted a spike of coucourite-wood, poisoned, and which may be kept there or taken out at pleasure. A joint of bamboo, about as thick as your finger, is fitted on over the poisoned spike to prevent accidents and defend it from the rain, and is taken off when the arrow is about to be used. Lastly, two feathers are fastened the other end of the reed to steady it in its flight. [hog arrow]

Besides his bow and arrows, the Indian carries a little box made of bamboo which holds a dozen or fifteen poisoned spikes six inches long. They are poisoned in the following manner: a small piece of wood is dipped in the poison, and with this they give the spike a first coat. It is then exposed to the sun or fire. After it is dry it receives another coat, and then dried again; after this a third coat, and sometimes a fourth.

They take great care to put the poison on thicker at the middle than at the sides, by which means the spike retains the shape of a two-edged sword. It is rather a tedious operation to make one of these arrows complete, and as the Indian is not famed for industry, except when pressed by hunger, he has hit upon a plan of preserving his arrows which deserves notice.

About a quarter of an inch above the part where the coucourite spike is fixed into the square hole he cuts it half through, and thus, when it has entered the animal, the weight of the arrow causes it to break off there, by which means the arrow falls to the ground uninjured, so that, should this be the only arrow he happens to have with him and should another shot immediately occur, he has only to take another poisoned spike out of his little bamboo box, fit it on its arrow, and send it to its destination.

Thus armed with deadly poison, and hungry as the hyaena, he ranges through the forest in quest of the wild-beasts' track. No hound can act a surer part. Without clothes to fetter him or shoes to bind his feet, he observes the footsteps of the game where an European eye could not discern the smallest vestige. He pursues it through all its turns and windings with astonishing perseverance, and success generally crowns his efforts. The animal, after receiving the poisoned arrow, seldom retreats two hundred paces before it drops.

In passing over-land from the Essequibo to the Demerara we fell in with a herd of wild hogs. Though encumbered with baggage and fatigued with a hard day's walk, an Indian got his bow ready and let fly a poisoned arrow at one of them. It entered the cheek-bone and broke off. The wild hog was found quite dead about one hundred and seventy paces from the place where he had been shot. He afforded us an excellent and wholesome supper. [wild hog]

Thus the savage of Guiana, independent of the common weapons of destruction, has it in his power to prepare a poison by which he can generally ensure to himself a supply of animal food: and the food so destroyed imbibes no deleterious qualities. Nature has been bountiful to him. She has not only ordered poisonous herbs and roots to grow in the unbounded forests through which he strays, but has also furnished an excellent reed for his arrows, and another still more singular for his blow-pipe, and planted trees of an amazing hard, tough and elastic texture out of which he forms his bows. And in order that nothing might be wanting, she has superadded a tree which yields him a fine wax and disseminated up and down a plant not unlike that of the pine-apple which affords him capital bow-strings.

■ Read more about curare, published in Wai-Wai by Nicholas Guppy, 1958. (PDF)


1. Map contained in Wanderings in South America, Charles Waterton, with article by Sydney Smith. Hutchinson & Co., Paternoster Row, London, 1906.


▲Chapter 2, p.5.


Chapter 2 Pages

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