Diary

Iain Sinclair

Out of the shuddering car and into the dance. The holy medallion is still swinging like a hanged Disneyland midget in a gale. The eyes of the skull knob on the gearstick pulse dangerously. The migraine radio thumps to assert a fading connection with the world we have left behind. But the headlong momentum of the broken road, endured in a foetal crouch for so many miles, is swiftly absorbed when our modestly recompensed Asháninka hosts climb from their benches to greet and process the latest off-highway time travellers eager not only to witness but to participate in the old ways of the high jungle and brown river. Joyless but determined as penitents, credit-card visitors grasp the proffered tribal hands, sway and stamp to the beat of a small drum, as they try to evaluate the authenticity of the chanting voices and the provocations of a monkey-man trickster in a black bodysuit and red parrot feathers. His white-painted skull face is the gearstick knob brought to life. He waves a thick phallic wand and twangs his bond-market braces, the cocky lord of a museum universe.

We have arrived at the Upper Perené reservation (or theme park) of Pampa Michi, once a coffee estate: the collateral damage of a monumental but sanctioned land grab by the Peruvian Corporation of London in the 1890s. Who Michi was nobody is certain: a forgotten manager, an outsider, one of the chori or colonos called Michael? The other surviving settlements in the Perené Colony, Pampa Silva and Pampa Whaley, are also named after dead functionaries. In the version we hear from some of those who laboured on the plantation, all three bosses were killed by indigenous people. But not, as we surmised, in uprisings, late invocations of the spirit of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the charismatic mestizo leader of the 1740s push to expel the Spaniards, or in random acts of justified revenge for the loss of land. Instead, the bosses were speared in inter-estate squabbles. Rival plantation caciques manipulated barely repressed tribal feeling to pursue their own private vendettas.

An Asháninka group portrait from In the Amazon Jungles, a self-serving account published in 1932 by Fernando Stahl, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary, presents a prodigiously sullen group cradling chin-high bows and the occasional antiquated rifle. ‘A band of murderers,’ Stahl glosses. Photographs from the anthropological archives of the Smithsonian Institution show armed and volatile war bands. Armed, naturally enough, through barter with the ruthless invaders. Women and children squat at the feet of stern warriors with pudding-basin haircuts. These were taken before Stahl arrived to strike his duplicitous deal with the overlords of the Peruvian Corporation. He would be allowed to establish missions and schools, nucleated settlements, colonies within the colony, on the understanding that he would ‘tame’ intractable natives by persuading them to give up masato binges and polygamy and submit to a (totally alien) Protestant work ethic. They would become company dependants. Or, as they saw it, slaves. Stahl was fortunate that his advocacy of a cult based on the imminence of the Second Coming sat so neatly with the mythology of the Upper Perené. There were legends of a messianic White Indian, a redeemer of wrongs, a bearer of gifts who would emerge in a daze of light from the setting sun. The Asháninka called their persistently awaited saviours amachénga or amacénka. These were ever present but invisible, they were the Hidden Ones. In War of Shadows: The Struggle for Utopia in the Peruvian Amazon by Michael F. Brown and Eduardo Fernández, it is claimed that a ‘white chuncho’, a reincarnation of Juan Santos Atahualpa, appeared in 1888. He was carrying ‘a carbine of the latest model and bandoliers of cartridges like necklaces’. This was Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a brutal and precipitate rubber baron, and the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s very different, white-suited Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo. Stahl was a later emanation, imposing his own myths on those of the tribal people, successfully colonising the riverside settlements we were visiting, Pampa Michi and Bajo Marankiari, and building plain roadside chapels with generous parking for tourist buses.

Tourism was a necessary theology, and all along the river-road breakaway sects held their own dances and had their own tin-roofed churches and stalls of trinkets. This was a highly competitive market economy, without the traditional raids and kidnappings. I remembered Herzog’s creed, as reported by Bruce Chatwin: ‘Walking is a virtue, tourism is deadly sin.’ This stern Bavarian dogma, repeated over many mesmeric interviews, lectures and presentations, became a little threadbare, itself a form of cultural tourism. A brand statement. Almost a slogan for selling fetishised rucksacks, hiking boots and Moleskine notebooks. Herzog said that he expected his books to long outlive his films. But there are many nice contradictions in play: the anathematiser of mass tourism is himself in perpetual flight between wilderness locations. Shooting Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin for the BBC, Herzog must have recognised the tourist invasion of Patagonia that slipstreamed the enduring success of Chatwin’s first book. In a promotional photograph for that project, Herzog stands beside Chatwin’s leather rucksack, the gift of a dying man. In May 2018, a group of 48 filmmakers were invited to join Herzog at a workshop where they would ‘submerge into the density and mystery of the Peruvian Amazonian jungle’. They would travel ‘exclusively in motorboat’. Jungle tourism caters for all tastes, as I was well aware. ‘The jungle represents fever dreams,’ Herzog glosses. Among the stories culled from his Patagonian walks and travels, Chatwin tells us that ‘the worst Indian hunters were apparently not the Spanish, or the Italians or the Slavs (who account for most of the population of Patagonia) but the Scotch – fortified, according to Lucas Bridges, with a sense of moral rectitude that they were sparing them the indignities of civilisation.’

This observation brings me to the prompt for my own back-country tourism. I was in pursuit of my Scottish great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair, from Turriff in Aberdeenshire. In a chapbook, The Story of His Life and Times as Told by Himself, published in Colombo in 1900, Sinclair briskly sketches a career that had some parallels with John Clare (an elective Scot when the humour took him). Born in 1832, there was a mean village upbringing; a book-hungry lad leaving school at 12 years of age and commencing his education, ‘such as it was and is’. Sinclair describes a farming family of ‘discounted’ Jacobite stock, a father getting work when he could as a thatcher and a barely literate mother. With his first earnings as a garden labourer, the boy walked to Aberdeen and bought six volumes of James Hervey’s Reflections on a Flower Garden – just as Clare had tramped from Helpston to Stamford, before the bookshop opened, to secure a coveted copy of James Thomson’s The Seasons. And like Clare, Sinclair paused on his return journey to investigate his purchase. ‘As I walked from Aberdeen I could not help sitting down occasionally by the wayside to dip into it.’ My great-grandfather soon discovered Oliver Goldsmith and Thomas De Quincey. ‘The beauty of the prose poems and neatness of the humour was such as I had never before met with.’ The practical mysteries of propagation and grafting now cohabited with another less focused compulsion, the urge to write. The village boy rose at 4 a.m. to cultivate his own small patch among a ‘wilderness of moorland farms’. His special pride was a plot of potatoes. He bathed in a burn and caught trout. The pattern of his life, the intimacy with the ground, the eye on the weather, the threats from landlords and remote investors, was a northern version of the subsistence regime of the Asháninka. After reading Alexander von Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants, Sinclair conceived an ambition to follow in the author’s footsteps over the Andes.

This short, buff-covered autobiography, like much of Sinclair’s work, is taken from articles published in newspapers. His story is typical of the high days of empire: talent spotted and exploited by a local aristocrat. After offering sound advice on shipping ‘certain varieties of Rhododendrons to Ceylon’, my great-grandfather was sent after them; a four-month voyage out of Tilbury in a sailing ship. Years followed as a coffee planter and estate manager, until he was responsible for a twelfth of the island’s production. ‘My remuneration was now over £2000 per annum, equal to that of the Lord Bishop!’ Sinclair cashed out at the age of forty and retired to Scotland, to enjoy family life with his wife and six children, while he read, wrote and laid out his garden – until the Hemileia fungus did for the coffee crop and the global coffee market crashed. But the wilder fringes of empire still offered prospects: Sinclair tried gold prospecting in Tasmania and lost much of what money he still had. So when in 1890 Sir Arthur Dent of the Peruvian Corporation of London invited him to accept a commission to explore 500,000 square miles of the interior, from Chicla, the terminus of the still in-progress trans-Andean railway, to the high jungle of the Upper Perené, as far as the impenetrable rapids, my great-grandfather came to Leadenhall Street to sign the contract. He would receive £100 a month and shares in the company. His friends gathered round, unconvinced that they would ever see him again. Sinclair, who was 59, was reckoned to be an elderly man for the rigours of a journey by mule, balsa raft and primitive jungle track. I was struck by the coincidence of Arthur taking his Upper Amazon employment in the City of London at just the moment Joseph Conrad was in Brussels reluctantly accepting command of a fever-inducing riverboat from the managing director of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.

Lucho, our invaluable Huancayo-based guide, a man dedicated to getting more sights and events ticked off than there are hours in the day, had warned us about the masato ceremony: it was necessary to wet the beak and rinse, but not to gulp or swallow. Traditional masato is a fermentation of yucca roots, chewed many times by the community of women and spat into the trough of a canoe. Now, it seems, they produce masato-lite by an industrial process without the intervention of native saliva. We swilled and Lucho polished off what was left in the gourd. ‘Come on, vamos, let’s go’ was his repeated mantra. I was travelling with my daughter, Farne, and the filmmaker Grant Gee. Farne had copies of Arthur Sinclair’s original contract with the Peruvian Corporation and the document by which the government in Lima, having defaulted on the repayments of loans taken out for the construction of the railway, and still recovering from the disaster of the war with Chile, handed over the immense area that Sinclair’s companion and fellow planter Alexander Ross described as equal to ‘England, France, Spain and Portugal, put together’. The documentation for the notorious deal, held in the capital, has been lost. But we were determined to tease out whatever we could of this history, through meetings, interviews and visits to relevant sites. And of Sinclair’s part in it.

Lucho acknowledged the value of the quest, in the expectation that it might bring future cultural tourists. He was alert to every possible angle for doing business. ‘Come on, vamos, let’s go.’ Every day a new waterfall to climb, an alpaca herd to glimpse on the bleak horizon, a cave to inspect, an animal market with slaughter tables and sacks of wriggling piglets to admire, a weavers’ shed with ponchos to buy. Another bag of coca leaves. Another lunch of glazed guinea pig in peanut-butter sauce. Lucho slashed cacti to reveal the secrets of cochineal production. He harried cooks, cleaners and cab drivers. ‘They’re lazy, they need to understand what is required by visitors.’ With his short, sturdy build and his long silver hair, his taupe gilet with knives and pills and relics in every pocket, he reminded me of Carlos Castaneda’s Yaqui Indian mentor. And of the illustrations of this stern and teasing magician on the cover of some of the paperbacks that promoted the cult publications romancing Castaneda’s hallucinogenic initiation. Lucho was the Don Juan of adventure tourism, the playful and proscriptive brujo of the Inca trail and the cloud jungle. And we, clumsy supplicants, were there to be instructed and moved on. Explanations are an indulgence, as Don Juan told Castaneda. Do it. There was a difficulty for Lucho, I felt, in accepting that Farne was responsible for all the planning and booking, the budget and payments. And she was determined, however hard she had to push, to get the interviews she wanted. The women at Bajo Marankiari, where we stayed in huts by the river, relished my daughter’s status among the travelling men, even if they were puzzled by her failure to clear brimming plates of yucca, plantain and prehistoric fish. On her birthday they produced an elaborately composed alternative, a dish of sliced fruits, before all of them, grandmothers to young children, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Asháninka.

The woman who led me around the dance on our arrival now held out her hand. Each member of our party was guided, still road-dazed and masato-dizzy, to a stall of native crafts: bracelets, necklaces, bright green miniature parrots. Farne opted for a bracelet made from coffee beans. I chose a parrot whistle. Later we were told that these goods were mass-produced elsewhere and delivered to all the settlements. Now Lucho’s companion, Beliza, travelling with her mother and young daughter, Camila, rescued the mission. Farne was determined to interview the headman (or business manager) of Pampa Michi. Fredi Miguel Ucayali had delivered a diatribe on the iniquities of the Peruvian Corporation for a regular visitor to the community with whom Farne had been in touch, the anthropologist Elena Mihas. Miguel, in casual dress, T-shirt and jeans, was initially dismissive of our request. He said that he was unwell and didn’t want to talk. But Beliza, an Asháninka from further downriver, was persistent and persuasive. She brokered the deal. Fees were discussed: so much for the twenty-minute version, and serious money for the open-ended soliloquy. We paid and Miguel disappeared for some time, to return, painted, wearing a cushma, with necklaces and red feather, attended by the monkey-man trickster in the one-piece, skintight black outfit.

Miguel’s sermon, a rhythmic threnody without pause, visibly moved Beliza. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she listened, seeming to hear these things, the legends of origin, for the first time. The performance was unforgiving, remembered and recovered. Phrase by breathless phrase, emphasis by emphasis, this was the tone poem of challenge recorded by Mihas for her book, Upper Perené Arawak Narratives of History, Landscape and Ritual:

Then hardly few days had passed, when those who would throw us out arrived, called by the whites ‘English’, from the Peruvian Corporation. They arrived and surprised us in the middle of the night. They finished us, they made us flee. That’s why we reside here, in this village that was built here. Because there were many of them, they completely threw us out. That’s why we all fled, all those who had fear of them. That’s why I live here in this native community of Pampa Michi.

The people who had sustained their existence from the land could either retreat deeper into the jungle or escape, as many did, on rafts downriver, into unknown territory. Many of those who remained were coerced into working on the Perené Colony. They were beaten and maltreated by the ‘corporals’ who acted as overseers. Cattle were turned loose to destroy the small areas where they were permitted to plant their own crops.

I knew little or nothing of these facts when I first read my great-grandfather’s account of the Peruvian expedition. In Tropical Lands: Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon, the West Indian Islands and Ceylon was published in 1895, by which time the Perené Colony was becoming established on the slopes Sinclair and Ross had surveyed so enthusiastically. The original, musty, leather-spined edition with pull-out map, line drawings and photographs that verged on the surreal (mummies, deformities, grave goods and mules) was a valued family relic, along with the Moche pottery that stood on top of a glass-fronted bookcase and was said to revolve of its own volition every night. As a child, I accepted these pieces as rare and exotic. They were the content of burial mounds pillaged to service the first wave of European and North American visitors: the explorers, journal-keepers and missionaries. When I visited the Museo Larco in Lima I appreciated the extent of this trade and the humble status of Arthur’s trophies. The cabinets of the reserve collection were stuffed, row on stacked row, with multiples and minor variants of our supposed treasures.

I read the lively report Arthur crafted like one of those Victorian school-prize books that sat beside In Tropical Lands on the favoured shelf: John S.C. Abbott’s The Terror of the Indians (or the Life of David Crockett), or Adventures in Field, Flood & Forest (Stories of Danger & Daring). These inspirational tales, intended for youths who might strike out for the colonies and malarial swamps, were ‘founded on the real experiences of those who figure in them’. And Arthur pitched his own account like one of those novels. With his beard and undeceived eye, and his incident-packed plunge into the mysteries of the Amazonian interior, my great-grandfather invoked the spirit of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger and The Lost World. Sinclair and Ross took the railway, still being built, out of Lima. The Peruvian Corporation had substantial interests in railways, mining and guano. After a brief interlude, adjusting to altitude, he and his companions mounted mules to complete the crossing of the Andes. The new railway was a miracle of engineering. ‘I can lay a track anywhere a mule can walk,’ its American promoter, Henry Meiggs, said. His Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski, made good on the boast. Sinclair and Ross travelled, Sinclair noted, along ‘a wretched road, made worse by the debris from the railway, which, for the first 15 miles, we saw being constructed far above us, the navvies hung over the cliff by ropes, looking like venturesome apes.’ Investors required a connection to La Oroya, a filthy smelting hub where grazing areas were already being turned into a dust desert and the mountains into scarred albino monuments.

Two strands dominate Sinclair’s narrative: his fastidious cataloguing of plant life, with raptures over newly encountered flowers, and then the cold eye, the satire and exaggeration for comic effect – Catholic priests ‘like great black beetles, creeping stealthily along in twos and threes’. From the moment my work started to be published, I was drawn to Arthur Sinclair as a lost forefather, someone who had taken the same road. I also recognised the genetic inheritance in my neurotic impulse to digress while trying to impose some kind of discipline along the ill-defined border between romance and documentation. I was stalking a pre-composed Sinclair pilgrimage: drunken Franciscan missionaries as guides, a makeshift shelter in the ruins of the supposed tomb of Juan Santos Atahualpa, an encounter with ‘King Chokery’, an Asháninka chief, a voyage on balsa rafts to the rapids, the desertion of priests and native guides. And a long night, weapons cocked, waiting to be attacked by the warriors who surround them. Then one final drama as my exhausted relative returned across the Andes:

By and by the heart’s action seemed to fail, and I suddenly collapsed, slipped off the saddle and lay down on my back, my mule gasping for breath beside me. When I gradually came to myself, I could see the bones of many a good mule and llama, cleanly picked, while high in the air floated the ever alert condor, said to be the largest and most powerful of all birds.

I couldn’t snap the thread. I indulged the superstition that Arthur was still out there, a phantom literary projection, a character left out of Conrad and invented by Aberdonian obituarists.

Early in life he displayed marked literary tastes, and had a passion for botanical study … He was employed by the Peruvian Corporation of London to select land in the upper valley of the Amazon suitable for coffee planting … Mr Sinclair was an admirable specimen of the shrewd, sagacious Scot, who, with few educational advantages, had carved out for himself an honourable and successful career … He was a Liberal in politics.

My irrational belief was that Arthur’s testament was incomplete and if, like an Asháninka, I travelled to the right location, rock or river or waterfall, I would make contact with my ancestor. But these fancies were swept aside by the research undertaken by my daughter in the archives of the Peruvian Corporation and through her transactions with Elena Mihas. The implications of the Sinclair/Ross expedition became clear. Beyond their stoic acceptance of the rigours of mountain and jungle, the maps and measurements and botanical classifications, the books and lectures and photographs, their task was to do the pitch for an economic colonisation with devastating consequences.

‘Poor Chuncho!’ Sinclair concluded:

The time seems to be approaching when, in vulgar parlance, you must take a back seat; but it must be acknowledged you have had a long lease of those magnificent lands, and done very little with them … The world, indeed, has been made neither better nor richer by your existence, and now the space you occupy – or rather wander in – to so little purpose, is required, and the wealth of vegetation too long allowed to run to waste, must be turned to some useful account.

Hard words for Farne to read. Hard sentiments for me to process and fail to exorcise. An outcome that was impossible to forgive without taking the story right back to Sinclair’s harsh beginnings in the aftermath of the Highland Clearances. There was a third man on the expedition, P.D.G. Clark of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, Ceylon. Farne found his original handwritten report to the Peruvian Corporation. The version co-authored by Sinclair and Ross has vanished. Clark is a shadowy figure, a civil servant in the employ of Kew Gardens. One second-hand book I scavenged along the way was The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson, which uncovers a covert history of eco-piracy, overseen by Kew in conjunction with the India Office. These state-sanctioned imperialists, using ecological pieties as a cover, sponsored epic thefts of rubber plants from Amazonia, to be propagated in the glasshouses at Kew and shipped to Ceylon and Malaya. Any economically useful crop that did not already belong to the empire was fair game.

We tracked Arthur’s itinerary as faithfully as we could, visiting the ruins of the convent at San Luis de Shuaro, where he made contact with the celebrated bounty-hunting and dynamite-fishing priest Padre Sala. The bounty in question being ‘kidnapped’ indigenous children: a price per head was allocated by mother church for innocent converts. We walked through the steaming jungle of the Salt Mountain as far as a guide would take us without rubber boots and machetes. We made it, after many difficulties, to the Rio Perené, in a dugout canoe rather than a balsa raft. And we paddled a short way, at the golden hour, towards the rapids and the mythical whirlpool of dead ancestors. But the climax would come at the still functioning coffee plantation at Pampa Whaley. When the land was finally repossessed, it did not go to the indigenous workers but to managers, engineers and energetic incomers. The plantation is now run successfully as a co-operative. I recognised buildings from the archival captures of the Smithsonian Institution. And, in my turn, I photographed the ruined pillars left when the plantation was attacked by the Marxist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso. We were given the full tour, following the whole process from coffee bushes high on the hills, down chutes to waiting trucks, through bathing, grading, roasting, bagging and testing. But the ultimate discovery came when we were shown a disused office heaped with thousands and thousands of coffee sacks spilling documentation – bills, letters, ledgers, rodent-nibbled maps and charts. This monstrous, unwieldy stack was the true history of the Peruvian Corporation of London. But it would require a team of cold-case pathologists to recover the truth, before soldier ants carry it all away.