Adventures in Bolivia, Preface

To Riders in High (and Lower) Altitudes

This book, that exudes sincerity, just as a pine tree drops its rosin, serves a double purpose. It reveals a curious personality that might have stepped straight from the pages of Purchas or of Hakluyt, and at the same time, all unknown to the writer, helps to dispel some of the mist of ignorance and prejudice that for so long has hung over the lives and actions of the Spanish Conquerors.

Judged by an alien Tribunal, brought before the bar of an opinion adverse to them by religion, race and interest, they have been vilified before the world with scarce a word raised in their defence. To-day their exploits are judged upon their merits. The ancient jealousy, that gave Gondomar the right to brand even the great Sir Walter Raleigh with the stigma of “Pirata,” has long died down. We know that our own withers are not quite unerring. Thus, by degrees and in the hard school of experience, we are learning not to condemn men who acted by the standards of their age by our own code. Take both codes away, and drop me an impartial judge down from the moon, he might not find much real difference between the Spaniards of the age of Charles V and ourselves, the sons of progress and of light. Still, there are fellows of the baser sort, your piffling traveller with his bad jokes, contempt of anything not forged upon his Peckham anvil, or registered so many degrees north, east or west from the meridian of Balham, with clichés from old books as if the course of time changed nothing, and no fresh matter ever came to light, to tell us all the Spanish conquerors were cruel rogues and thieves. He lets us know that in their thirst for gold and zeal for their damned Papism, they exterminated all the Indians, leaving not one alive. He is read, commented on and reviewed by men as ignorant and prejudiced as he himself, and so the ball rolls on, ever increasing like a mass of snow set trundling down a slope. To read or listen to such antiquated bombast one would think that kindly well-disposed and Christian men meticulous in all their dealings with the Indians, such as were Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, had never lived and striven to do good. Of the great Las Casas and the innumerable Jesuits and Franciscans, who gave their lives so freely for the conversion of the Indians, it is unnecessary to speak.

This little book comes as an antidote to all this poison gas.

Written in the language that men speak round the camp fire, with rifles ready to the hand, with ears attuned to catch the slightest rustle in the grass and eyes always a-watch upon the horses where they feed close at hand, hobbled or picketed, it lets fresh air in on the question. The writer tells us, bluntly and in the way a sailor writes his log book, quite without comment, but with circumstance, that he slept in an Ancient Inca Temple on some pass or other of an altitude of 17,000 feet and with a temperature of 8° below. He lifts unwittingly the corner of a page that Protestant historians have always kept dog’s-eared. He jots down at haphazard that he bought a llama, some frozen potatoes, or the carcass of a sheep, from the owner of the hut, who was an Indian. Then further on he comes upon a band of Indians driving llamas; stops in another Indian hut, and by degrees it dawns upon us that his whole journey from the time he left La Paz was amongst Indians. One million Indians, as he tells us, are settled in the republic on the same lands that their forefathers owned, under their Inca princes when the Pizarro brothers burst on their Arcady. Besides this million, that apparently has fluctuated little since the conquest, still in the forests of the Tipuani and the Beni, that Beni of whose wonders I had heard so much from my friend, Colonel Don Pedro Suarez, there still roam, free, naked and unashamed, for shame was brought into the world under a dispensation they had no share in, three hundred thousand of these autochthones.

How the author came to set out on the strange, romantic quest, to reach a lone community of Indians, on the Tipuani, living far from the world, in curious huts much as I have seen in remote capillas in Paraguay, and well depicted by the author in a not ineffective, neo-Japanese style of art, is most curious. Established as he was with a large racing stable, somewhere in Chile, an occupation as one would suppose as little likely as any in the world to furnish an explorer, for diplomats and race-horse trainers are perhaps the men above all others wrapped in conservatism and bound in prejudice.

Still, somewhere in his being he must have had the true Elizabethan spirit that makes a man sell his own land to visit that of other people, for without preface he informs us that in July 1913 [sic—1903] he was engaged by the Challana and Tongo Rubber Company to go and find out if the Indians on the Challana river would tap rubber for them. The proposition seemed a tough one, as he might have said himself. The Indians, knowing that to allow white people to settle in their territory must be the ruin of their race, had set strict guards upon the passes of the river.

Twice or three times they had defeated expeditions sent against them, and were now all well armed, having supplied themselves through the good offices of a Bolivian officer, one Captain Villarde, who had originally been sent against them from La Paz. Captain Villarde, and one Sanchez, had thrown their lot in with the Indians and lived half in the capacity of traders, half as military advisers, in Paroma, the mysterious Indian capital, a town that no one single white man had ever seen except themselves.

Like a good trainer, the first thing was to see about his weight. As he weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds (avoirdupois) one might be pardoned in supposing that as De Quincey said about the Poet Coleridge, he was a little stout for active virtue. Nothing more false. Had he weighed twice as much, it would have been the same.

Three weeks of hot baths reduced his weight by thirty pounds, and he was ready for the road. Every one having advised him against going to Paroma, telling him as they told Columbus, and have told everybody since the beginning of the world who wanted to go anywhere, that the journey was impossible, he thought of what he ought to have hit upon at once, seeing he was a race-horse trainer. Near to Sorata, a little town close to Lake Titicaca, there dwelt “un matrimonio” as they would call it in Bolivia, of the name of Gunther. Next door there lived a lady, one Señora Villavicencia, sister to the Villardes, who had become, either by adoption or by grace, a personage amongst the Indians. The writer, most likely as the old Scottish story goes, either by sophistry or knowledge of the gospel, got the soft side of her. How many times he must have slipped the “Tapujo” over the eyes of a wild mule, an operation that, experto crede, has its difficulties, and yet gives one experience with other animals. This lady, having marked, heard and inwardly digested all that the writer had to say, was pleased to send a letter, by an Indian runner, to her brother at Paroma, thus opening an Eden, making this book possible, and incidentally removing from her sex the slur that Eve cast on it when she was instrumental in setting up the board in that fair garden by the Tigris, with “To let” inscribed upon it. Riding a stout mule, and with his old chestnut hurdle racer to serve as bell mare, and well supplied with rum and whisky, sterilized milk, two or three horn lanterns, Liebig’s extract, a nail extractor, and other trifles useful on the road, though as a liberal minded man he does not dogmatize upon a traveller’s needs, for in a qualifying clause he says, “anything else you think you need,” the writer set out towards his Eden in the wilderness.

Much did he see and much set down, as when he stayed with the headman of Tiquiripaga, himself an Aymara. This worthy, called Manuel, was wedlocked to two wives, one of them not bad-looking, who took good care of the writer during his sojourn in the place.

Little by little, passing along the edge of precipices; swung over torrents on a rope, and witnessing the wondrous change of fauna, flora, sky and temperature, that riders from the high Andes see slip beside them in a day’s ride toward the Tropics, the writer gradually advanced towards the unknown.

He saw (he tells us so) the Alpine flora slowly give way to palms and tree-ferns, begonias, white and purple creepers, orchids and parasites spring from the distorted trunks of Ceibas and of Bongos, and butterflies, light and dark blue, purple and yellow, flying about in flocks. Parrots darted high above his head, chattering and shrieking, and flights of green and red macaws glided like hawks about the clearings of the woods. All this he saw and must have smelt the dank and spicy odour rising from the masses of decaying vegetation, seen the snakes hanging from the trees, and heard the monkeys howling, sights, sounds and odours that always make me feel as if I was returning home during such kind of rides. At last he reached the Tipuani and camped upon its banks, being well received by one Noboa, an ex-slave, and startled, though he should not have been so, by the apparition of a tall sun-burned man, stricken with fever, who introduced himself by the name of Mackenzie, and formed of course a unit of the all conquering legions that Scotland sends out to subdue the world. Long did he wait in Tipuani for news from the mysterious Indian capital, for, though he was only a few days’ journey from it, the frontiers were so strictly guarded that a wayfaring man, even although endowed with average intelligence, could just as easily expect to enter heaven without a passport. So in Tipuani he waited, shooting occasionally a man-eating jaguar, bathing, drinking new rum, and no doubt mightily refreshed by the conversation of Mackenzie, the young Spaniard, Perez, who had left the military school in Madrid on a “paseo” to the Tipuani and had been fever stayed for years, and the companionship of other waifs and strays, whose talk is always interesting, as it runs wholly on themselves and things that they have seen, and in such places as Tipuani these kind of men are sure to congregate. When the long wished for order to proceed arrived at last, in three days’ march he reached Paroma, a village set, like some cities of the Scriptures, high upon a hill. A river ran through it and huts were scattered here and there, midst clumps of palm trees. The view extended over miles. Right in the middle stood the Court House, a “long high shed of poles and palm leaves,” and not far off the church, neat, swept and garnished, although there was no priest, nor had been for a long while. Captain Villarde received the writer well, though with anxiety, for it appeared the Indians thought he was a spy.

Early next morning the tryst was set within the Court House, and on raised seats sat Captain Villarde, the two Fernandez, Portugol, and “old man Jones,” who had lived forty years amongst the Indians, and forgotten English. Three hundred Indians thronged the Court House, and the situation was so critical that Villarde advised the author to get up and speak to them. He did so for two stricken hours in the most choice Castilian that he had at his command. The result was magical, for, curious to say, the speech convinced his hearers, a thing that possibly has never happened in a Christian parliament.

All was plain sailing and, his business finished in Paroma, nothing remained for him but to get upon his mule and strike the homeward trail.

Well, well, he had a glorious journey, and one that in the days when joints grow stiff and mules impossible to mount will still console him for all he underwent.

I, having read the book, am glad of his success; but hope when he is asked about Paroma that he will have forgotten both its longitude and latitude, and treat it as a dream. Long may it flourish, just as an unknown orchid flourishes in Colombian everglades, or a fine undiscovered jewel in a mine, quite uncontaminated by the thing that we call progress, and pride ourselves upon, as justly as a man might pride himself upon an ulcer in his leg, a fine harelip, or any other malformation.

I hope the chief will not forget, when the false dawn streaks all the sky with red, to rise up from sleep, and taking down a calabash fill it with chicha, then, winding his poncho round his neck, will make his way through the wet grass, leaving a trail, with his short inturned feet as of a plantigrade, in the white dew. Then in the middle of the square, whilst the God of his forefathers is born again into the world, that he will pour the chicha on the grass, praying, as the Incas prayed in that great temple that they raised in Cuzco, to the sun.

Let him pray on; for prayer is to the soul what most divine tobacco is to the senses, deadening and comforting. For after all it is but giving up oneself unto oneself, and waiting dumbly for something that may come from nothing, or again may never come; but as he prays the sun will rise for all that, just as it rose in Atahualpa’s time, and will continue rising.

R. B. Cunninghame Graham


One thought on “To Riders in High (and Lower) Altitudes

  1. Robert Cunninghame Graham was, as his Wikipedia page shows, quite a figure: “a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first-ever socialist member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder, and the first president, of the Scottish Labour Party; a founder of the National Party of Scotland in 1928; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934”. He moved to Argentina “to make his fortune cattle ranching”, and “also travelled in Morocco disguised as a Turkish sheikh, prospected for gold in Spain, befriended Buffalo Bill in Texas, and taught fencing in Mexico City”.

    As well as writing this preface for the first volume of Prodgers’ memoirs, Cunninghame Graham reviewed the second in The Spectator in 1924.

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