The Legend of La Brea.

This myth about the famous Pitch Lake of Trinidad was told almost word for
word to a M. Joseph by an aged half-caste Indian, who went by the name of Señor
Trinidada. The manners and customs which the ballad describes, and the cruel
and dangerous destruction of the beautiful birds of Trinidad, are facts which may
be easily verified by any one who will take the trouble to visit the West Indies.
Down beside the loathly Pitch Lake,1
In the stately Morichal,12
Sat an ancient Spanish Indian,3
Peering through the columns tall.4
Watching vainly for the flashing5
Of the jewelled colibris ;26
Listening vainly for their humming7
Round the honey-blossomed trees.8
Few,” he sighed, “ they come, and fewer,9
To the cocorite3 bowers ;10
Murdered, madly, through the forests11
Which of yore were theirs—and ours.”12
By there came a negro hunter,13
Lithe and lusty, sleek and strong,14
Rolling round his sparkling eyeballs,15
As he loped and lounged along.16
Rusty firelock on his shoulder ;17
Rusty cutlass on his thigh ;18
Never jollier British subject19
Rollicked underneath the sky.20
British law to give him safety,21
British fleets to guard his shore,22
And a square of British freehold—23
He had all we have, and more.24
1 A magnificent wood of the Mauritia Fanpalm, on the south shore of the Pitch Lake.
2 Humming-birds.
3 Maximiliana palms.
Fattening through the endless summer,25
Like his own provision ground,26
He had reached the summum bonum27
Which our latest wits have found.28
So he thought ; and in his hammock29
Gnawed his junk of sugar-cane,30
Toasted plantains at the fire-stick,31
Gnawed, and dozed, and gnawed again.32
Had a wife in his ajoupa133
Or, at least, what did instead ;34
Children, too, who died so early,35
He’d no need to earn their bread.36
Never stole, save what he needed,37
From the Crown woods round about ;38
Never lied, except when summoned—39
Let the warden find him out.40
Never drank, except at market ;41
Never beat his sturdy mate ;42
She could hit as hard as he could,43
And had just as hard a pate.44
Had no care for priest nor parson,45
Hope of heaven nor fear of hell ;46
And in all his views of nature47
Held with Comte and Peter Bell.48
Healthy, happy, silly, kindly,49
Neither care nor toil had he,50
Save to work an hour at sunrise,51
And then hunt the colibri.52
Not a bad man ; not a good man :53
Scarce a man at all, one fears,54
If the Man be that within us55
Which is born of fire and tears.56
Round the palm-stems, round the creepers,57
Flashed a feathered jewel past,58
Ruby-crested, topaz-throated,59
Plucked the cocorite bast,60
1 Hut of timber and palm leaves.
2 From the Eriodendron, or giant silk-cotton.
Plucked the fallen ceiba-cotton,61
Whirred away to build his nest,62
Hung at last, with happy humming,63
Round some flower he fancied best.64
Up then went the rusty muzzle,65
Dat de tenth I shot to-day :”66
But out sprang the Indian shouting,67
Balked the negro of his prey.68
Eh, you Señor Trinidada !69
What dis new ondacent plan ?70
Spoil a genl’man’s chance ob shooting ?71
I as good as any man.72
Dese not your woods ; dese de Queen’s woods :73
You seem not know whar you ar,74
Gibbin’ yuself dese buckra airs here,75
You black Indian Papist ! Dar !”76
Stately, courteous, stood the Indian ;77
Pointed through the palm-tree shade :78
Does the gentleman of colour79
Know how yon Pitch Lake was made ?”80
Grinned the negro, grinned and trembled—81
Through his nerves a shudder ran82
Saw a snake-like eye that held him ;83
Saw—he’d met an Obeah man.84
Saw a fêtish—such a bottle—85
Buried at his cottage door ;86
Toad and spider, dirty water,87
Rusty nails, and nine charms more.88
Saw in vision such a cock’s head89
In the path—and it was white !90
Saw Brinvilliers1 in his pottage :91
Faltered, cold and damp with fright.92
Fearful is the chance of poison :93
Fearful, too, the great unknown :94
Magic brings some positivists95
Humbly on their marrow-bone.96
Like the wedding-guest enchanted,97
There he stood, a trembling cur ;98
While the Indian told his story,99
Like the Ancient Mariner.100
1 Spigelia anthelmia, a too well-known poison-plant.
Told how— “ Once that loathly Pitch Lake101
Was a garden bright and fair ;102
How the Chaymas off the mainland103
Built their palm ajoupas there.104
How they throve, and how they fattened,105
Hale and happy, safe and strong ;106
Passed the livelong days in feasting ;107
Passed the nights in dance and song.108
Till they cruel grew, and wanton :109
Till they killed the colibris.110
Then outspake the great Good Spirit,111
Who can see through all the trees.112
Said— ‘ And what have I not sent you,113
Wanton Chaymas, many a year ?114
Lapp,1 agouti,2 cachicame,3115
Quenc4 and guazu-pita deer.116
ʽFish I sent you, sent you turtle,117
Chip-chip,5 conch, flamingo red,118
Woodland paui,6 horned screamer,7119
And blue ramier8 overhead.120
ʽPlums from balata9 and mombin,10121
Tania,11 manioc,12 water-vine ;13122
Let you fell my slim manacques,14123
Tap my sweet morichè wine.15124
Sent rich plantains,16 food of angels ;125
Rich ananas,17 food of kings ;126
Grudged you none of all my treasures :127
Save these lovely useless things.’128
But the Chaymas’ ears were deafened ;129
Blind their eyes, and could not see130
How a blissful Indian’s spirit131
Lived in every colibri.132
Lived, forgetting toil and sorrow,133
Ever fair and ever new ;134
Whirring round the dear old woodland,135
Feeding on the honey-dew.136
1 Cœlogenys Paca.
2 Wild cavy.
3 Armadillo.
4 Peccary hog.

5 Trigonia.
6 Penelope.
7 Palamedca.
8 Dove.

9 Mimusops.
10 Spondias.
11 An esculent Arum.

12 Jatropha manihot, “ Cassava.”
13 Vitis Caribæa.

14 Euterpe, “ mountain cabbage” palm.
15 Mauritia palm.

16 Musa.
17 Pine-apple.
Till one evening roared the earthquake :137
Monkeys howled, and parrots screamed :138
And the Guaraons at morning139
Gathered here, as men who dreamed.140
Sunk were gardens, sunk ajoupas ;141
Hut and hammock, man and hound :142
And above the Chayma village143
Boiled with pitch the cursed ground.144
Full, and too full ; safe, and too safe ;145
Negro man, take care, take care.146
He that wantons with God’s bounties147
Of God’s wrath had best beware.148
For the saucy, reckless, heartless,149
Evil days are sure in store.150
You may see the Negro sinking151
As the Chayma sank of yore.”152
Loudly laughed that stalwart hunter—153
Eh, what superstitious talk !154
Nyam1 am nyam, an’ maney maney ;155
Birds am birds, like park am park ;156
An’ dere’s twenty thousand birdskins157
Ardered jes’ now fram New Yark.”158
1 Food.