Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/Natural Features of Venezuela



THE first part of the American mainland seen by Columbus was Venezuela. On his third voyage, in 1498, he bore farther to the south than before, and had become convinced that he should not meet with any land on that course when his lookout descried three hilltops in the southwest. The island from which these peaks arose Columbus appropriately named Trinidad (the Trinity). Sailing on, he entered the chief mouth of the Orinoco and then skirted the island-fringed coast on his way to Haiti. The country is said to owe its name to Ojedo, who, on entering Lake Maracaibo the following year, noticed one of the Indian villages of pile dwellings on its shore. "Why, here," he said, "is a little Venice" (Venezuela), and this name became the designation of the whole region round about.

The great curve of the Orinoco divides the area of Venezuela into two unequal parts, the larger of which, lying to the north and west of the river, contains the more populous districts. Seven of the eight States of the republic lie wholly in this part, while most of the region south of the river and along its upper course is divided into Territories. The surface of the country is much diversified. In the extreme northwest, around the gulf and lake of Maracaibo, it is level and well watered. East of this tract a branch of the Andes crosses the country diagonally. Five of its peaks extend above the snow line, the highest. Concha, rising to fifteen thousand four hundred feet above the sea—between the height of Mount Whitney, in California, and that of Mont Blanc. From this peak descends a small glacier which
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Lake Dwellings of Santa Rosa, near Maracaibo.

supplies the neighboring city of Merida with ice. Low chains also stretch along the coast as far as the delta of the Orinoco. These mountains for the most part run in parallel ranges, between which lie elevated valleys. In these valleys are most of the cultivated lands of the country. Here also are the chief cities, although many of the seaports are of considerable size. Carácas, the capital, is nine miles back from the coast, at an elevation of three thousand feet, but the railroad which runs to it from La Guaira is obliged to take a tortuous way of twenty-three miles, passing through many cuts and tunnels. There are no stations along the route, and the country is not cultivated except near the termini. In many places the track winds around a mountain on the verge of a sheer descent of hundreds of feet. Carácas lies in one of the mountain valleys, which slopes toward the south and is traversed by the Guaire River. Its temperature is equable; the mean of its coldest month, January, being 68° F., and of its hottest month, May, being 93°. Rain falls abundantly in April, May, and June, though not so constantly as in other tropical regions. The rest of the year is rather dry.

Between the mountains and the Orinoco stretch the broad llanos or grassy and partly tree-covered plains which form the basin of the great river on the northwestern side. The extensive, thinly populated territory south and east of the Orinoco is made up of alternating hills and valleys, and is heavily wooded. This region has some mountains of moderate elevation, among which is Roraima, of much interest to explorers, standing on (or near) the boundary of British Guiana. Its tablelike upper portion, a mass of pink sandstone rising sheer sixteen hundred feet, was first ascended in 1884 by Im Thurn and Perkins after many unsuccessful attempts had been made. "Obviously Roraima was formerly," says Reclus, "part of an elevated table land, which has been gradually isolated by a process of cleavage and erosive action. It survives to present times as a superb witness to former geological conditions. Streams have their rise on the upper platform, over the edge of which they fall in cascades, draping the pink escarpments as with lace veils of their silvery spray. 'O Roraima, red mountain, wrapped in clouds, fruitful mother of streams!' sing the Arecuna Indians encamped in the surrounding valleys."

Venezuela has no volcanoes, but traces of ancient eruptions are to be found among the highlands. Certain flames often seen hovering over the ground were formerly thought to be connected with subterranean fires, but this idea has been dispelled by advancing knowledge. "This curious phenomenon," says Reclus in his description of it, "has been noticed on the slopes of Duida, on Mount Cuchivano, in the province of Cumaná, and in the marshy valley of the Catatumbo and of other streams flowing to Lake Maracaibo, where it is known as the 'lighthouse' or 'lantern' because it indicates to mariners the position of the land. Flames

PSM V48 D555 Scene on the railway from la guaira to caracas.jpg

Scene on the Railway from La Guaira to Caracas.
(From Around and About South America, by Frank Vincent.)

are also frequently seen flitting about amid the grasses of the llanos without burning them. These are 'the fire of the tyrant Aguirre' say the natives, who, after more than three hundred years, are still haunted by the legends associated with this sixteenth -century corsair. The vapors rising from certain asphalt lakes similar to that of Trinidad are also said at times to be subject to spontaneous combustion." It might have been well if there had been a few active volcanoes in the country during recent times. Venezuela has suffered some terrible earthquakes, and on the theory that these disturbances are due to pent-up underground forces, the existence of natural vents would have prevented them. In 1550 an earthquake occurred, accompanied by a tidal wave, which swept away the settlement of Cumaná, and the same place suffered severely in 1700, after which the ground continued to tremble for fifteen months. One of the most destructive shocks, by which Carácas was laid in ruins with a loss of twelve thousand lives, occurred in 1812, during the war for independence. "The indirect consequences of this disaster," says Reclus, "were even more deplorable than the catastrophe itself. It certainly prolonged the ruinous war probably for years, and greatly intensified its horrors. The event having taken place on Holy Thursday, the anniversary of the declaration of independence, the priests, nearly all of whom belonged to the Spanish party, declared that the hand of God had wrought the ruin in order to crush the revolution." Thousands of superstitious revolutionists, including Miranda, the general in chief, laid down their arms, and the Spaniards secured fortified places and other advantages that were recovered only at great cost.

In a country so much upheaved a variety of minerals will naturally be found accessible. There are rich deposits of gold in the region east of the Orinoco bordering on British Guiana, which accounts for the ownership of part of that territory having been in dispute for half a century. The famous mine El Callao has yielded over three million dollars a year. Its upper levels have been pretty well worked out, so that its present output is secured by deep mining operations. As an export, gold ranks next after coffee and cacao. Considerable copper ore is exported, mainly the product of the Aroa mines in the Maritime Alps, near the northern coast. Lead and tin are also found. If Venezuela owned all the islands that lie off its coast it would have an important source of mineral wealth in the famous asphalt lake. La Brea, on Trinidad. But Trinidad and Tobago had been taken from Spain by Great Britain, while Curaçoa, Buen Aire, and Oruba had been appropriated by the Dutch, before Venezuela secured its independence. The mainland, however, is by no means devoid of bituminous deposits—asphalt, petroleum, jet, and bituminous coal being obtained in various localities. Other useful minerals found are sulphur, kaolin, and phosphate rock. Margarita, the largest of the islands belonging to Venezuela, is the seat of a pearl industry that was once important but has seriously declined. Its fisheries are flourishing, but these, together with the scant agricultural resources of the island, do not suffice to support the native population, which increases rapidly. Consequently, large numbers of the men emigrate to the mainland. The climate of the island is salubrious and attracts consumptive patients from great distances. An excellent quality of salt is produced on all these islands and along the coast of the mainland. From a lichen growing on the rocks of Orchilla is extracted the violet dye of that name.

While in the United States the Indians are an almost unregarded remnant, the aborigines of Venezuela form a large element of the less than two and a half million population. The pure whites, mainly of Spanish origin, but including immigrants from the chief trading countries, are less than two per cent of the whole. The pure aborigines are estimated at about one seventh, and there are some negroes, as African slavery existed here up to 1854. Parts of these races have intermingled in various ways, producing mestizoes, mulattoes, zambos, and mixtures of other degrees. Four fifths of the full-blooded Indians are classed as civilized, and are engaged in agriculture, or as laborers in the other occupations carried on by the whites.

The climate of different parts of Venezuela varies greatly with elevation, aspect, and soil. The highlands are in the main temperate and salubrious, while the low parts of the coast, the lands about Lake Maracaibo, the delta of the Orinoco, and parts of the plains are among the hottest regions in South America. During the rainy season, from April to October, many of these low lands are flooded, giving rise to swamp fevers and dysentery. The country does not suffer so much from yellow fever as might be expected.

The downpour of the rainy season is drained away by over a thousand rivers, many of which become dry or dwindle to chains of lagoons in the dry months. The Orinoco is the great artery of the country and is destined to become of vast importance as a channel of traffic when the region through which it flows is more thickly settled. Steamers enter it from the sea by seven of its fifty mouths, and run to Bolivar, three hundred and sixty miles up the river. Smaller steamboats can ascend as far as the Atures rapids, nearly a thousand miles. Its chief branch, the Apure, gives access to a region far west of the main stream, and, as some four hundred of its other affluents are said to be navigable, it will be seen that a vast extent of country is reached by the Orinoco system. In this respect, which is the true measure of a river's importance, the Orinoco ranks fifth on the American continent, or fourth, if we disregard the artificial helps with which the St. Lawrence has been provided. Just below the great bend of the river, two hundred and fifty miles above Bolivar, is the smaller town of Caicara, which is also an important trading station. Here manufactured goods are exchanged for the products of the forests and plains. Mr. Frank Vincent thus picturesquely describes the voyage up the great river:

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The Orinoco at Caicara.

"On leaving Port-of-Spain we headed at once toward the southwest and the Serpent's Mouth, out of which we safely passed and entered that branch, or rather that one of the many great mouths of the Orinoco styled the Macareo River, which was at first about half a mile in width, its shores densely covered with aquatic plants and forests. Running nearly parallel to this river is another called the Casquina. Both are navigable for steamers drawing less than ten feet; those requiring deeper water than this must use the southern and main branch of the Orinoco. This one is naturally always preferred by ships. The water of the river is a thick yellow, and the current is as swift as four or five miles an hour. As we went on all day, the Macareo narrowed to about one hundred feet, but was very deep. The banks appeared quite uninhabited until we reached the Orinoco proper. First we passed two very small Indian villages. The houses consisted merely of grass roofs and wooden pillars, being quite open on all sides, and disclosing numbers of hammocks each containing a nearly nude Indian. Near by were fields of mandioc and bananas. On the beach small pirogues were drawn up. At one place some of the boys paddled out to us, and in wanton sport threw on board many sticks of sugar cane. These Indians had stout, strong bodies and broad and good-natured physiognomies, with their hair 'banged' across the forehead and left long at the sides.

"In its vast size, and large and numerous islands, the Orinoco is not unlike the Amazon, but the banks differ from the Amazon's chiefly in their greater profusion of lianas, the forests being not only decked but half covered with them. After the Indian villages, we passed, upon the Macareo, long lines of widely separated mud huts, belonging to negroes and low-class Creoles. All these people wore clothes, had a variety of cooking utensils, and better dwellings than the pure Indians. Near where the Macareo enters the main branch of the Orinoco is a small town called Barrancas—simply two short streets of dilapidated mud huts. We stopped only ten minutes to send our boat ashore with the mail, and to bring on board two or three passengers. Some very large islands invite the view hereabout, and the distant ranges of the Imataca Mountains, ridge behind ridge, look blue and picturesque. The current of the Orinoco does not carry down the great number of grassy islands and tree trunks that one sees always on the Amazon. . . . A fine spectacle at night were the many great prairie fires, the whole sky being aglow with them. A certain fire would suddenly appear, tearing along at a terrific rate, with a blinding glare and long trail of smoke, recalling a night express train a thousand times magnified. The Venezuelans are accustomed to burn their savannas once a year. We had already left the regions of the pristine wilderness, and were now among the great savannas, or natural meadows of the central plains of Venezuela. The delta is the only thickly wooded part of the Orinoco, the upper portion of the river being bounded by the llanos, or great grassy and almost treeless plains."

Near the head waters of the Orinoco is its junction with the Cassiquiare, by which it has a navigable connection with a branch of the Amazon. The stream forming this curious bond between two great river systems lies in a valley which is prolonged southward

PSM V48 D560 Vegetable products of venezuela.jpg

Vegetable Products of Venezuela.
(From Round and About South America, by Frank Vincent.)

by that of another river. About one third of the water that it sends down to the Amazon is obtained from the Orinoco.

The chief wealth of Venezuela consists in products of the soil, natural and cultivated. There are many coffee and cacao plantations in the mountain valleys near the coast, and coffee to the value of fourteen million dollars is exported yearly, which is double the value of all other exports. Among the other cultivated articles are manioc, sugar, cocoanuts, maize (Indian corn), tobacco, wheat, cotton, indigo, sweet potatoes, and melons. Canoes which ascend the upper Orinoco and its branches to the forested region of the southeast bring down rubber, vanilla and tonka beans, fruits, gums, and drugs. The forests are also rich in cabinet and dye woods, useful fibers, from which cordage and hammocks are made, and a variety of other products. The deadly arrow poison called urari by the natives is made in the district south of the Orinoco.

The central plains of the republic form a vast grazing range which supports millions of horned cattle, horses, and asses. These herds are subject to great vicissitudes; they were reduced to a small fraction of their normal size by the war for independence, and again by the civil wars ending in 1863, while vast numbers of horses and asses were destroyed by a murrain which broke out in 1843. Their numbers have, however, been restored, and the stock has been improved recently. Sheep and goats are bred in the mountainous district of the northwest, whence goatskins (known as Curaçoa kid) are largely exported.

The animal life of the forest is varied and abundant. The howling ape makes his presence known morning and evening to -all within earshot, and fifteen other simians are met with. The representatives of the cat tribe include the jaguar, puma, and ocelot. There are also harmless bears living on fish and honey, the ant-eater, the cavy, the cuchi-cuchi, the tapir, various species of deer, and the slothful sloth, which, as Reclus says, "after devouring the foliage of a cecropia, utters long, plaintive cries at having to climb another." Myriads of birds of brilliant plumage vie with the tropical flowers to enliven the somberness of the forest. The waterfowl are no less numerous; it is said that a regiment, encamped near the confluence of the Apure River with the Orinoco, lived for a week on wild duck without appreciably reducing their numbers. One of the curiosities of Venezuelan bird life is the guacharo, a night-flying fruit-eater which inhabits caves in certain of the coast districts. Its fat yields a much-prized table oil.

Both the salt and fresh waters of the country abound in fish. Sixty-pound turtles are abundant in the large rivers, but will not long continue so unless the taking of their eggs is limited. Three species of alligators are found in the rivers and lakes, while the manatee and porpoise enter the Orinoco from the ocean. The electric eel also inhabits Venezuelan waters. Certain streams of the Apure district are carefully avoided by bathers, less through fear of the alligators than of these eels and other electric creatures, and of the ferocious fishes called caribs, after the once-dreaded tribe of cannibals. The last so abound that some creeks are said to contain "more caribs than water."

Noxious creatures are not wanting on land. Many snakes glide through the herbage, especially on the plains, among them being the anaconda, the boa constrictor, and the striped rattlesnake. The swampy islands of the Orinoco delta swarm with mosquitoes, and at the Maipures rapids, where "the wind never blows," the air sometimes seems to be full of them. Locusts are often a great plague to the peasants.

Venezuela is a country of great resources, with some obstacles in the way of utilizing them. Not all of its known useful minerals have been mentioned here, and a thorough geological survey, which the country has never had, would doubtless largely extend the list. Nor are its forest products by any means completely known. The future prosperity of the land requires self-control and energy on the part of its citizens, with regulations to induce the foreigners who go there to become Venezuelans instead of withdrawing a portion of its wealth to be enjoyed after returning whence they came.