1800 | Venezuela

Large Bait

Fishing for eels with Alexander von Humboldt.

In Calabozo, in the middle of the llanos, we found an electric machine with great discs, electrophoruses, batteries, and electrometers—an apparatus as complete as any found in Europe. These objects had not been bought in America but made by a man who had never seen any instruments, who had never been able to consult anybody, and who knew about electricity only from reading.

After the electric apparatus, made by a clever inhabitant of the llanos, nothing interested us more in Calabozo than the gymnoti, living electric apparatuses. I had busied myself daily over many years with the phenomenon of galvanic electricity and had enthusiastically experimented without knowing what I had discovered; I had built real batteries by placing metal discs on top of each other and alternating them with bits of muscle flesh or other humid matter, and so was eager, after arriving at Cumaná, to obtain electric eels.

Under the name of tembladores [shakers] Spaniards confuse all electric fish. There are some in the Caribbean Sea, off the Cumaná coast. The Guaiquerí Indians, the cleverest fishermen in the area, brought us a fish that numbed their hands. This fish swims up the little Manzanares River. It was a new species of ray whose lateral spots are hard to see. The Cumaná torpedo was very lively and energetic in its muscular contractions, yet its electric charges were weak. They became stronger when we galvanized the animal in contact with zinc and gold. Other tembladores, proper electric eels, live in the Colorado and Guarapiche Rivers and several little streams crossing the Chaima Indian missions. But is in the llanos, especially around Calabozo, that the stagnant ponds and tributaries of the Orinoco are filled with electric eels. We wanted first to experiment in the house we lived in at Calabozo, but the fear of the eel’s electric shock is so exaggerated that for three days nobody would fish any out for us, despite our promising the Indians two piastres for each one.

Gleipnir, by Walton Ford, 2012.

Gleipnir, by Walton Ford, 2012. Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil on paper, 69" x 120" x ½". © Walton Ford, courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Impatient of waiting, and having only obtained uncertain results from a living eel brought to us, we went to the Caño de Bera to experiment on the water’s edge. Early in the morning of March 19 we left for the little village of Rastro de Abaxo: from there, Indians led us to a stream, which in the dry season forms a muddy pond surrounded by trees, clusia, amyris, and mimosa with fragrant flowers. Fishing eels with nets is very difficult because of the extreme agility with which they dive into the mud, like snakes. We did not want to use barbasco, made with roots of Piscidia erythrina, Jacquinia armillaris, and other species of Phyllanthus which, chucked into the pond, numbs fish. This would have weakened the eel. The Indians decided to fish with their horses. It was hard to imagine this way of fishing, but soon we saw our guides returning from the savanna with a troop of wild horses and mules. There were about thirty of them, and they forced them into the water.

The extraordinary noise made by the stamping of the horses made the fish jump out of the mud and attack. These livid, yellow eels, like great water snakes, swim on the water’s surface and squeeze under the bellies of the horses and mules. A fight between such different animals is a picturesque scene. With harpoons and long, pointed reeds the Indians tightly circled the pond; some climbed trees whose branches hung over the water’s surface. Screaming and prodding with their reeds they stopped the horses leaving the pond. The eels, dazed by the noise, defended themselves with their electrical charges. For a while it seemed, they might win. Several horses collapsed from the shocks received on their most vital organs and drowned under the water. Others, panting, their manes erect, their eyes anguished, stood up and tried to escape the storm surprising them in the water. They were pushed back by the Indians, but a few managed to escape to the bank, stumbling at each step, falling onto the sand exhausted and numbed from the electric shocks.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.

—William Hazlitt, 1819

In less than two minutes, two horses had drowned. The eel is about five feet long and presses all its length along the belly of the horse, giving it electric shocks. They attack the heart, intestines, and the celiac plexus of the abdominal nerves. It is obvious that the shock felt by the horse is worse than that felt by a man touched on one small part. But the horses were probably not killed, just stunned. They drowned because they could not escape from among the other horses and eels.

We were sure that the fishing would end with the death of all the animals used. But gradually the violence of the unequal combat died down, and the tired eels dispersed. They need a long rest and plenty of food to recuperate the lost galvanic energy. The mules and horses seemed less frightened; their manes did not stand on end, and their eyes seemed less terrified. The eels timidly approached the shore of the marshy pond where we fished them with harpoons tied to long strings. While the string is dry, the Indians do not feel any shocks. In a few minutes we had five huge eels, only slightly wounded. Later, more were caught.

© 1995, Jason Wilson. Used with permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

From Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America. Obtaining permission from the Spanish government to visit its colonies in the Americas, Humboldt and botanist Aimé Bonpland set sail in the summer of 1799. They traversed over six thousand miles during the five-year expedition. Before returning to Europe, Humboldt spent time with Thomas Jefferson at the White House. Not long after arriving in Brazil in 1832, Charles Darwin wrote in his journal, “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another sun illuminates everything I behold.”