The story of Christmas Falls: Salt Beef, Pride & Death

Merry Christmas to you an your loved ones from the Benab! Did you know that we have a waterfall in Guyana named Christmas Falls? Most people probably (and rightly) assume that Christmas Falls was named after something December 25th related, but who named it and why?

The most recent reference to Christmas Falls in public memory is the 2008 shootout story of “Fine man” and the more recent Lindo Creek Commission of Inquiry, but the location had secured its place in Guyanese history much earlier than that.

Robert Schomburgk, the German explorer, has contributed a practically endless collection of information about virtually unknown parts of Guyana. Schomburgk is once again the person to thank in the case of Christmas Falls. He first mentioned the “Christmas Cataract” (see note) in his Expedition Report* along the Corentyne & Berbice Rivers in 1836. He and his team came across the cataract as Christmas Day was nearing and opted to camp there**. 

Schomburgk and his team tried to convey to the significance of the day to the Amerindians that accompanied them on the expedition. While the Amerindians may not have fully understood, in true Christmas fashion, they were able to come together and break bread (in this case, it was salted beef along with some sugar and rum). They also agreed that since the cataract did not have a discernible name, it would be fitting to name it Christmas Cataract. Schomburgk later notes that the name was changed to what it is known as today - Christmas Falls. 

Other historians indicate that Schomburgk was not the one to actually discover the falls. It is even suggested that in his journal / official report of the expedition, he omitted the initials that were carved into a rock near to the cataract, dating as far back as 1803, which meant that the cataract was a popular location and had been visited by previous explorers. As such, he may have felt that this would have diminished his experience and subsequent naming of the cataract.

Schomburgk's trip was groundbreaking in many ways but also had its share of tragedy. Mr. Reiss, one of the volunteers on the expedition was swept away by the falls when they attempted their return. What makes this tragedy even more poignant is that a few months prior, while sharing a bottle of wine, Mr. Reiss waxed poetic that he “was sure he would die young”. While he was ridiculed at the time, this particular musing clearly haunts Schomburgk. 

Reiss was buried in Schomburgk's hammock at a point between two trees across from the site where he drowned. A circle of stones was placed in the vicinity of mora & palm trees, and a memorial plaque was fixed to a tree. The grave became a landmark, but as little as 35 years later, a popular explorer was unable to find it.

Robert Schomburgk certainly has ties with this time of year in Guyana. During his travels* in British Guiana, the Christmas seasons of 1835, 1836 and 1837 hold a place in his memory. In 1835, he spent his Christmas in search of the Curare plant, racked with fever. He rang in Christmas with Plantain soup and & Cassava bread in the Rupununi, and in 1837 he speaks of his not-so-appetizing meal of a Carara bird and dry cassava bread. 

Schomburgk’s one clear success from this expedition was that he discovered the Victoria Regia Lily on New Year’s Day (3 guesses as to what our next post will be about!). Named after Queen Victoria, any Guyanese will know that this later became the national flower of Guyana.

The colour picture of Christmas Falls was painted by Charles Bentley in his series: “12 views in the interior of Guyana.”, and the images below are taken from Masters of all they Surveyed.  If you’re interested in reading the Schomburgk book, the National Library of Guyana has a copy.

Sources:

Masters of all they Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and an British El Dorado - D. Graham Burnett

The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk: 1835–1844: Explorations on Behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, 1835–1839 v. 1 (Hakluyt Society Third) ‐ by Riviére, Peter (ed.))

Christmas Cataract

Notes:

A cataract waterfall is normally described as one with great amount of water rushing over a precipice and is notable in terms of size and power. Popular cataracts are Igazu Falls (between Brazil & Argentina) and Victoria Falls (in Zambia & Zimbabwe). These cataracts are not necessarily high, but can be very wide and carry huge volumes of water.   

*The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk: 1835–1844: Explorations on Behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, 1835–1839 v. 1 (Hakluyt Society Third) ‐ by Riviére, Peter (ed.))

**His coordinates to identify the area: 4°41'45" N, 57°53'45" W

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