An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – And so, farewell to Venezuela

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

Tom Jenkins with shrunken, mummified head. Head shrunken down by head hunters of interior of Venezuela 1937.

When I was a boy and you went to the movies there were trailers for upcoming films, short subjects and cartoons that preceded the feature film and getting there in time to see all of them was part of getting your money’s worth – even if it was much less than a dollar for admission in those days. A common short feature was a travelogue for some far away place with a strange-sounding name and the narrator often signed off with, And so, farewell to…, before the raucous cacophony of a cartoon that promised more violence than any feature film dared. I can not begin to tell you how many such adventures I shared with Bill Leach when I was a boy and in tribute to those happy days I will close out this true life adventure of his using those words as the preamble.

Bill served several years in Venezuela but the diary that I found among his papers covered mainly 1937 – although the accompanying photographs cover 1938 as well. In 1937 he was a graduate engineer with a work history and more than a few other adventures behind him but he was still foot loose and fancy free not yet having met Laureene with whom he would spend the next fifty plus years. It may have been her influence that kept the manuscript closed up in a drawer for the best part of sixty years and even though I knew bits and pieces of the story I left it there for another fifteen until the confluence of the blogosphere and the desire to tell a story to my children and grandchildren caused me to transcribe it and scan the pictures in and publish for friends and family.

Most of what I have published dealt with his association with Standard Oil in the early days of developing the eastern Venezuelan oil fields. There are tales of the oil patch in the jungle and of the camradie of the cabin and the canteen as well as adventures on the high seas and in the low dives of Caracas and Ciudad Bolivar. What is absent in the narrative but was ever-present in the stories he used to share with me are the tales of the native peoples – the indigenous Indians – who still constitute such a large part of the Venezuelan population. The stories I heard were not of head hunters and poison arrows – although they hung someplace over the horizon in an impenetrable jungle – but rather of kind and generous people living off the land and the river who had no particular need of oil wells but were grateful to have outboard motors for their currials, would gladly use a Ford truck to haul a heavy load and loved the freedom from the night that a generator could provide.

This final entry in this series is largely a photo essay containing pictures taken by Bill that relate part of his story and part of theirs.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Native house in village of Mata Negra near Temblador.

Rio Tenoro - one of the many highways for the native peoples

Rio Tenoro – one of the many highways for the native peoples

Looking toward Caroni Falls - Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot - in a currial on the Caroni River

Looking toward Caroni Falls – Chris Mireau, Don Bancroft, Buck Ackerman, native pilot – in a currial on the Caroni River

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Native house on the banks of Orinoco River near San Felice

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street in Caripito Village looking from Caripito Camp.

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Street scene in Caripito Village near Rio Caripe

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Calabash Fruit, Cumarebo, State of Falcon, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Method of pressing poisonous juice out of Cassava Pulp. Caripito, Venezuela 1937

Making Cassava Bread

Making Cassava Bread

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Scene in Mata Verada Village.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp - on road to water pump station.

Native huts in village west of Caripito Camp – on road to water pump station.

Village street in Caripito

Village street in Caripito

Native hut.

Native hut.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Native huts in Mata Negra.

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

Thatched huts in Caripito Village [note intrusion of sheet metal in lower left]

The end!

The end!

An Outpost of Progress – The Narrative – A trip to Santiago de León de Caracas

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PROLOGUE: I take possession of this land in the name of God and the King, were the words of Don Diego de Losada in founding the city of Caracas on July 25, 1567. In 1577 Caracas became the capital of the Spanish Empire’s Venezuela Province under Governor Juan de Pimentel (1576–1583). During the 17th century, the coast of Venezuela was frequently raided by Dutch, English, French and freebooter pirates so with the coastal mountains as a barrier, Caracas was relatively immune to such attacks – one of the reasons it became the principal city of the region. The other being the cultivation of cocoa under the Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas which stimulated the development of the city and cemented its position as the capital of the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

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An attempt at revolution was put down in 1797. But on 5 July 1811, a Declaration of Independence was signed in Caracas. As the birthplace of “El Libertador“, Simón Bolívar, it was the focus of the independence from Spain movement.  Even though an earthquake destroyed Caracas in 1812 – which was portrayed by authorities as a divine punishment for the rebellion against the Spanish Crown – the war continued until 1821, when Bolívar gained a decisive victory at the Battle of Carabobo.

simon bolivar

Between one-quarter and one-third of Venezuela’s population was lost during  two decades of warfare – including perhaps one-half of the European population – which by 1830 was estimated at about 800,000. Much of Venezuela’s 19th century history was characterized by political turmoil and dictatorial rule which culminated in the Federal War (1859–1863), a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died, in a country with a population of not much more than a million people. In the latter half of the century Antonio Guzmán Blanco, another caudillo, served a total of thirteen years between 1870 and 1887, with three other presidents interspersed.

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The discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo during World War I would  prompt an economic boom that by 1935 would have Venezuela’s per capita gross domestic product Latin America’s highest. In power from 1908 Juan Vicente Gómez benefited handsomely from this, as corruption thrived, but at the same time, the new source of income helped him centralize the Venezuelan state and develop its authority and he remained the most powerful man in Venezuela until his death in 1935. The gomecista dictatorship system largely continued under Eleazar López Contreras and through the Second World War as the combination of big oil and the American government insisted on the maintenance of stability. It was during this period of relative stability that Bill Leach was in Venezuela and visited Caracas.

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Well, here it is the 10th of December and I am going by auto to Coro, a matter of about 50 kilometers from Cumarebo, where I’ll Take the Pan American Plane for La Guira. Took the plane, one of the newest and largest Douglas in the service from Barranquilla, Colombia to LaGuira, and after flying gracefully over the mountains, coastline and sea, finally landed at La Guiara which is the airport for Caracas.  One cannot land in or near Caracas since it is securely nestled in the Andes Mountains.  It is difficult to land at La Guira at times for during certain seasons winds create a downdraft that is considered dangerous for landing, for the mountains dip steeply into the sea here.

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Hired a native taxi to drive me to Caracas and I must admit that the trip was an exceptionally beautiful scenery drive, for one climbs 2600 meters, or 1616 feet from sea level at La Guira to Caracas which is about 40 kilometers or about 30 miles away – but it should be borne in mind that in a straight line it is no more than 10 miles away at the most even at that it may be less. Anyways the trip was a great one and I enjoyed every bit of the way.

street scene
The city of Caracas that I have seen is typical of the Spanish city that I have seen in pictures. The gardens, parks, more important buildings, and the more interesting sights are kept well and seem to be spotlessly clean.  I was especially impressed by the district around the Swiss Club for that district certainly was beautiful.  The grounds around the country club were a wonderful sight to see also.

miraflores palace

The streets around the business districts were not kept as clean as could be expected from the shine boys keep throwing their empty shoe polish cans out into the streets. There is forever a blowing of the automobile horns by all the chauffeurs and it seems that the one making the loudest noise has the right of way at the intersections.  It seemed to me that these intersections were as noisy as a boiler factory.

train

The city itself is fast approaching the average American city when it comes to keeping in step with Americans in regards to ownership in the new styled cars; the most noticeable types being the Oldsmobile, La Salle, and the Buick.  The people have a flair for going in for odd sounding horns, for at times I thought I was in fog or out at sea with all the fog horns blowing around me.

plaza bolivar

Plaza Bolivar is located in the heart of the town and a steady parade of all types and classes of people amble along at ease with the world and with no evidence of a care in the world.  I used to spend a few of the evenings idling in the plaza just to see the curious crowds go by.  It is different to watch a Venezuelan crowd in comparison to the average American crowd.
There are two modern hotels in the city.  I tried to engage a room at the popular Domke but the place was full so I had to migrate to the Majestic which is the only first class hotel.  It certainly is a classy hotel for the city.  It is the stopping place for the incoming elite – why shouldn’t it be when they charge B’s 25 for a day! The meals are served by waiters in swallow-tails and that tends to make the place distinguished in every respect. I can vouch for the service being infallible.

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On Friday the 10th I promenaded around the town and took in the general sights of interest, and also did a little shopping for myself,  made a number of long trips to try to get some souvenirs but was unfortunate. Seems funny to me that a city of the size of Caracas would not have a place where one could buy souvenirs.  In the evening I went to the Teatro Principal and saw “Stella Dallas” and was much impressed with the picture.

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On Saturday the 11th I did get a little more shopping and finally went over to the Pan American offices to get straightened up in regard to my passage and reservation for Caripito on the coming Monday morning. Did not do a darn thing on Sunday outside of going to church; I just idled leisurely around the hotel the whole day long.  At night I went to the Plaza Bolivar and listened to the Sunday concert; there certainly was a large crowd to listen to the music.

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Monday morning and here I am departing for La Guira and in the general direction of Cachipo.  Took the 1:15 p.m. P.A. amphibian and headed for what is classified as home.  Has to go quite a bit south of Carpito on the return trip for the heavy mountainous clouds did not permit much horizontal visibility.  Finally arrived at the airport and while there I met O’Connor with whom I had worked in Temblador; he was heading for San Francisco for his long vacation.  Finally took the company car to Caripito and was fortunate to be able to receive my old room.

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Nothing eventful has passed during the Christmas and the New Year’s holidays.  The usual field parties arrived in camp and the members were ready to do their holiday absorbing.  I for one was one of the few remaining sober ones.

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An Outpost of Progress – The Heart of Darkness

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Patio of La Rotunda – Caracas, Venezuela.   Jail Chief Pacheco earned a unique reputation in murdering political prisoners. While Pacheco’s underlings tortured prospective corpses, Pacheco drowned out the victims cries with sentimental strains of the harp. He was christened NERO. He is now serving a 25 year sentence in jail.

One of the essential elements of travel is that you often find yourself in a place that does not share the political system that you live with at home on a daily basis. For many Americans that means they may be visiting a county that has little or no use for political dissension and absolutely no scruples about how they suppress it. The myth of Simon Bolívar is that he played a key role in Latin America‘s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire and was the Washington of South America. The reality is that he was closer to Napoleon having finally proclaimed himself dictator on the 27th of August 1828 just as the little corporal had himself crowned emperor. Much of Venezuela‘s 19th century history was characterized by political turmoil and dictatorial rule. In 1899 Cipriano Castro, assisted by his friend Juan Vicente Gómez, seized power in Caracas, marching an army from his base in the Andean state of Táchira. Castro defaulted on Venezuela’s considerable foreign debts, and declined to pay compensation to foreigners caught up in Venezuela’s civil wars but when Castro left for medical treatment in Germany and was promptly overthrown by Gómez.

The Rotunda viewed from above - the same yard served for exercise and execution.

The Rotunda viewed from above – the same yard served for exercise and execution.

The discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo during World War I prompted an economic boom that would make Venezuela’s per capita gross domestic product Latin America’s highest.  Gómez benefited handsomely from this, as corruption thrived, but at the same time, the new source of income helped him centralize the Venezuelan state and develop its authority. He remained the most powerful man in Venezuela until his death in 1935. The gomecista dictatorship system largely continued under Eleazar López Contreras until 1941 with only the periodic nods to democratic reform that have passed like breezes through the savannah from time to time. Prehaps Bolivar’s words, All who served the Revolution have plowed the sea, are prophetic and only in the rarest and happiest of circumstances can people truly enjoy the fruits of a republican government. Although Standard Oil practised politics only at the highest level during his service there and the workers were shielded from most of the political instability Bill still witnessed the aftermath of horror. Bolivar, being sterile, left no heirs but that has not stopped the sterility of ideas that have filled the political vacuum from Bolivar to Chavez – and beyond.

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Hole in Wall. President Gomez used to put his political prisoners in such a cell where the prisoner was cramped for room. Light came from a small hole about the size of a brick. Prisoners were poorly taken care of and usually went crazy or died of starvation. The prison is now demolished. [pictures taken in 1937]