“The explorer sets out to make a definite journey,” Farabee wrote in A Pioneer, “and bends all his energies to that one definite task. The ethnologist on the contrary only sets out, the journey develops and its direction is determined by the presence or absence of friendly or unfriendly tribes.” So it happened when he and Church arrived northeast of Boa Vista, in Dadanawa (which Farabee writes as Dada Nawa).

“When we went to Guiana,” Farabee continued, “we had no idea of making a long trip into the forest country, but at Dada Nawa, the home of Mr. H.P.C. Melville, magistrate and protector of Indians, we met Mr. John Ogilvie, a native of Scotland, who had spent several years prospecting for gold and rubber and was well acquainted with the whole region. From him we learned of tribes in the forests who had never seen white men. He himself has been the first to visit some of their villages. We persuaded him to take some of his Wapisiana Indians, whose language he spoke perfectly, and to go with us to see some of the interior tribes. Mr. Melville took a great interest also in our expedition and gave us every assistance possible.”

Ogilvie was fluent in Wapisiana, as was Melville, and deeply knowledgeable about both Arawak-speaking and Carib-speaking peoples in British Guiana and Brazil. He had been in British Guiana for 14 years at the time Farabee met him. Melville, also a Scotsman, had arrived 25 years earlier, bought a herd of cattle from a Dutchman, settled at Dadanawa, and married a local Atorois chief’s two daughters.

(I’m indebted to environmental anthropologist Thomas B. Henfry’s 2002 dissertation “Ethnoecology, Resource Use, Conservation, and Development in a Wapishana Community in the South Rupununi, Guyana,” for details on Farabee, Melville, and Ogilvie, and especially on Melville’s history. This exceedingly easy-to-read and well-written work—available at http://lucy.kent.ac.uk/csacpub/Henfrey_thesis/—offers a current picture of the same people and the same part of the world that Farabee explored between 1913 and 1916.)

Farabee asked Ogilvie to select four indigenous men to act as local guides. These men were considered the most skilled in many areas—hunting, social customs, and languages of the area’s tribes, as well as being generally uplifting people to be around. This latter point was especially comforting when it was raining, no game was around, the fruit- and nut-bearing trees were elsewhere, and one or all of them was running a fever. Or when the thin-skinned bark canoes they traveled in started to leak—which was often—and they had to build new ones.

On November 19, 1913, the core group of seven men—Farabee, Ogilvie, Church, two Wapisiana, one Ataroi, and one Taruma (whose names go unrecorded in Farabee’s accounts)—departed in an expedition party 62 people strong. The additional 55 people included more than a dozen native men contracted to carry packs, supplies, and trunks on the first leg of the journey, along with their wives, children, dogs, and chickens. Everyone carried something, except “[o]ne great-grand-father, too feeble to carry a pack, [who] added a little dignity to the lively party,” Farabee wrote.

Farabee soon learned that the world around him was alive with history and meaning, as when he records how the group stopped to offer grass at a natural shrine or uttered a prayer in passing a fallen tree. They were passing through the Wapisiana’s sacred landscapes, considered their traditional home, and onward into territories covered with ancient petroglyphs, tributaries, savannahs, mountains, and forest. They entered and were invited to stay in villages occupied by Wapisiana, Taruma, Waiwai, Parikutu, Chikena, and Diau. They followed old indigenous trails to villages as well as rivers and tributaries, mapping them as they went. When necessary, they made new trails.

The group shrank and expanded as the commissioned carriers reached designated locales, or as river waters rose and fell, making water transport easy or difficult. It was a constant adjustment, and Farabee was not traveling light—part of his mission was to build one of the biggest South American collections in North America for the Penn Museum, ultimately amounting to more than 4,000 pieces of archaeology and ethnology shipped back to Philadelphia.

(For a variety of reasons, including Farabee’s failing health in the 1920s, ultimately leading to his premature death in 1925, as well as the sheer size and variety of what he sent back, large parts of the collection remain unexamined today, some 90 years later, according to William Wierzbowski, assistant keeper of the Penn Museum’s American Section.)

Shortly after Christmas 1913, the party, of necessity, became very small. Farabee wanted to travel eastward to even more remote tribes, but no trails or canoes existed between these places and the party would have to rely entirely on what they could gather, hunt, or fish. It was down to the six who would four months later wander into Georgetown.

Church turned back toward Dadanawa with the larger party and with Farabee’s filled journals, collection crates, and photographs. Until then, everyone had remained healthy. After this point, though, fevers set in, both for Church’s group and for Farabee’s.

Farabee and his companions had to make their own trails, anticipate treacherous waterfalls by discerning the ominous sounds of rushing water, tend to a poisonous snake bite and perennial high fevers, and pull through days without food. (They also had to deal with the aftereffects when food was finally found: Ogilvie shot an alligator and everyone ate so fast and so much that they could not, as Farabee joked, “keep their alligator down.”) But this was also a time when they met with some of the most enchanting peoples in their travels. For instance, of a Parikutu village along the Apiniwau waterway, Farabee writes, in A Pioneer, “[We] spent two weeks with them so pleasantly that when we were ready to go, Ogilvie said, ‘what a pity we must leave such splendid people’.”

They headed on, north along the Honawau River where they sought out a Diau village and then continued toward the border with British Guiana and Brazil and the Corentyne River, where they hoped to make their way out of the jungle. Conditions grew even harder. Food was scarce, quinine was running low, on any given day someone had a fever, and navigation was tough. To add to their troubles, they had left the area where the trees from which they harvested bark for their bark-canoes grew, so that when the canoes grew thin and brittle, they could not make new ones.

“For twenty-six days we worked our way down this difficult and dangerous river without seeing a single human being on the way,” Farabee wrote in A Pioneer. At one point even the upbeat, indefatigable Ogilvie lost spirit: “[I]t was at night after a hard day working over the rocks with a raging fever and without food. My first time had come a few days earlier under similar circumstances. But in both cases the depression disappeared along with the fever and daylight found us looking for a passage and grub—or grubs.”

When they finally made it out of the bush, they then had to deal with civilization’s jungle—taken into police custody while they awaited permission to cross into British Guiana. “Apparently we had no satisfactory explanation for being in the country,” wrote Farabee, who at that point was suffering from fever. “The discussion continued until every prominent man in the city had been sent for and had had his say about the matter and until every one of the collected mob had had his look. One is not likely to enjoy such attentions with a body temperature of 104°.”

After three hours, the judge, impressed by the “amount of our letter of credit” allowed the party to cross to the British side of the river. Once in Georgetown, the six men wasted little time in purchasing new clothes and getting cleaned up. Ogilvie and Farabee also introduced their four native guides to the city and its oddities, such as suits, trains, cars, and motor boats—about which Farabee remarks admiringly on their self-possession: “Through it all they showed no sign of fear, surprise nor delight, neither did they seem awkward in their first suits. This does not mean that they were stupid, unimpressed and uninterested. It is only an example of their complete self-control … They observed everything but without demonstration.”

Ogilvie, the two Wapisiana, the Taruma, and the Ataroi soon returned into the hinterland to go back to their homes, via a more navigable route. Reflecting on their experiences, Farabee wrote that Ogilvie, “with his fourteen years’ experience in river and forest exploration, was of inestimable value to the expedition. He is the best man I ever saw for such work.” And while he didn’t see fit to include their names in his narrative, Farabee clearly had great respect for the guides as well. “Every one of the Indians we selected proved himself worthy of the confidence we placed in him,” he wrote. “I was constantly surprised at the number and variety of things they knew.”

Farabee himself went on to Barbados via Trinidad, where he stayed for 28 days recovering from fever and malnutrition. (He had lost 48 of his maybe 180 pounds while in the jungle.) In Barbados he met Theodore Roosevelt, who was recuperating from much the same sort of experiences as Farabee. Since leaving office in 1909, the former president had embarked on a series of expedition-like explorations. In 1913, the same time as Farabee, Roosevelt explored the Brazilian Amazon, resulting in his book Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), where he mentioned Farabee. The Penn Museum received a letter from Roosevelt, dated October 30, 1915, that spoke of his great admiration for Farabee’s work.

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The Ethnologist Sets Out by Beebe Bahrami
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