A Journey to the 'Land of Many Waters'
I’ve written before about my doctoral research into the polymath, botanist and explorer Everard im Thurn (1852-1932). In the autumn of 2010 I finally had the chance to visit some of the indigenous communities in Guyana, where im Thurn worked just over a century ago. My aim was to see the objects I have been studying at Kew and other institutions, such as hammocks, baskets and fans, being used in their Amerindian human and landscape context.
Guyana means ‘Land of Many Waters’ in a native Amerindian language and the reason for this name became clear to me as I travelled the numerous rivers, creeks and streams that flow throughout its length and breadth. My travels into the interior made good use of these rivers, combining travel by boat with bus, car, small plane, and foot. I started my travels with Makusi communities around Iwokama, in the rainforest (see map).
Left: villages visited during my journey. Sara and the Iwokrama rainforest: view from the summit of Turtle Mountain (300 meters).
I spent four days in the rainforest getting to know the plant species, such as the magnificant mora tree (Mora excelsa Benth.), of which im Thurn sent “two magnificant squared trunks” to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. Then I went to the savanna villages of Surama and Annai, where much of the material culture seen by im Thurn is still part of daily life.
Family producing cassava flour in Annai. Grated cassava is packed into the long basketry tube (matapi) as part of a detoxification process.
Left: Viola Allicock manufacturing a cotton hammock. Photo taken at Surama Village. Right: Bottles containing balatá, the rubber-like latex of Manilkara bidentata (A. DC.) A. Chev. Photo taken at Annai.
After another journey by boat, I reached the Arawak community of Kabakaburi near the coast.
Left: On the way to Kabakaburi, via the Pomeroon river. Right: Veronica demonstrating a quake at Kabakaburi.
At Kabakaburi Veronica showed me how to use a ‘quake’ (basket) to carry cassava. Much of the material culture at Kabakaburi was similar to that which I saw in the savannah, except that here pottery was more common.
In Georgetown I went to the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology where it is possible to see not only historical Amerindian objects but also more recent ones. At the National Museum I gave a talk about the life and work of im Thurn, and also about my findings during this trip.
During my trip I was surprised to see that, after more than one century, the objects im Thurn collected and described were still being made and used in Amerindian life. There is strong interest in the preservation of traditional knowledge and material culture among the Guyanese. Being in the interior of Guyana and seeing similar objects to the ones collected by im Thurn, more than one hundred years ago, I could realise these objects actually “have a life” outside the museum walls.
This trip was possible due to funding from the AHRC, and to help in Guyana from the Walter Roth Museum and many people I met throughout my travels.
- Sara -