Reminiscences of my 60 years in South America
Trevor Stephenson 1915 - 2015
Arranged by Tony Morrison

The steamship Cuyabá of 1,100 tons was built in England originally for the British-owned Amazon River Steam Navigation Company, later owned by a Brasilian and then nationalised by the Government in 1940. The Cuyabá with its 52 first class cabins and over thirty other steamers made regular journeys between Amazon river ports. Trevor was fortunate in more ways than one to travel on the ship for 1000 miles up-river.

Trevor soon discovered how Amazon life life was a mixture of the rough with the smooth. At one moment cattle are swimming from the shore to be winched aboard..... and then almost in the same breath he tells of a brief shipboard romance. an encounter that was touching and tantalisingly short.

Schoolboy to Apprentice 1931-1936
Maranham 1936-41
Parnahyba 1937 -1943
Homeward Bound 1938
Tropical Troubles 1942
Para 1938/1939 1943 /1945
Amazonian Interlude 1941
Manaus 1941-1942
War time diary 1942
Back to Brazil 1943
Iquitos 1945-1946
Brazil for the second time 1947
On a coffee fazenda 1952 -1953
São Paulo Alpargatas 1953 - 1957
Crossing the Continent 1956
Lima 1957 -1963
Working for myself 1964-1990
Amazonian Interlude 1941
"I didn't see you last night. Where were you sleeping?


2nd August 1941

Only five days ago I was in São Luis when I received a message from Head Office in Belém instructing me to proceed to Manaus. As I caught the Panair do Brasil Baby Clipper flying boat to Belém, I little thought that I was leaving São Luis for good after five glorious years there.

The red disc of the hot tropical sun was just disappearing beneath the horizon. Darkness was falling upon the city of Belém do Pará, gateway to the mighty Amazon. Already the street lights of the city were beginning to light up. They formed dim oases of light in the darkened streets. The English run Pará Electric Light Company complained that the Government controlled tariffs did not permit them to increase the wattage.

The river steamer Cuyabá lay alongside the quay. Built in England originally for the Amazon River Steam Navigation Company, she was now owned by the Brazilian Government run firm SNAPP when both the Amazon River Company and the Port of Pará Authority were nationalized by President Getulio Vargas.

Afro Brasilian stevedores, their naked torsos glistening with sweat, were running between the warehouses and the ship with sacks of coffee, rice and sugar destined for ports of call on route to Manaus a thousand miles upriver.

Passengers were arriving, the men in white linen suits with straw hats, the women in long cotton dresses and floppy hats.

A black porter arrived carrying my heaviest suitcase on his head and the other two, one in each hand. Handing my passage ticket to a steward, I was escorted to my cabin on the starboard side of the promenade deck. I was relieved to see that I had the cabin to myself except for an over large barata (cockroach) which was running round on the floor in joyous abandon.

The Captain was on the bridge. He gave two long blasts on the siren, sailors scrambled to loosen the mooring ropes, others dragged the gangway on board and the propellers began to turn.

Stop Stop!

At that moment a young girl, dressed all in black and carrying a baby in her arms, came hurrying towards the ship crying out "Stop. Stop. I'm a passenger. Wait for me." Immediately a young sailor, ignoring the widening gap between the quay side and the ship, jumped on to the quay. Grabbing the girl in his arms, he leapt back on board. No sooner had he deposited the girl and her baby on the deck when she began screaming "My luggage is still on the quay!" But already one of the stevedores was racing towards a battered suitcase tied up with string. Picking it up, he hurled it with all his might towards the ship where it crashed on the deck with a dull thump.

On the quay, groups of onlookers waved hands, hats and handkerchiefs. Some of the women were crying devastated by the thought of their loved ones leaving them. Out in mid steam, the Captain rang for 'full speed ahead', the Cuyaba surged forward and the voyage began.

I had presumed that dinner would be served immediately upon sailing. To my intense disappointment I discovered that I was wrong. Obviously the steamship company considered that passengers should have eaten before boarding.

At last - on the Amazon

On the boat deck, I leaned against the railings on the port side watching the lights of Belém gradually disappear from sight. The moon had not yet come up. All that I could see was the intense blackness of the forest against the background of the sky. Thoughts welled up inside me. Sad to leave my friends in São Luis, I wondered how Manaus would be. Were there many English people there? Where would I live? Would the work be the same? After a while I decided to retire early to bed ready for the next day.

It was very warm inside the cabin. The porthole was covered with wooden shutters. I decided to remove the shutters and open the porthole. They were very stiff. I gave a tug and the shutters came crashing to the floor. I was unable to put them back and there was no curtain. Thus anyone passing by on the deck outside would be able to see right into my cabin. To dress and undress, I would have to hide myself somehow by squeezing myself under the window so as not to be seen! There was also neither soap nor a towel provided. The wash basin had no plug but at least the bedclothes seemed to be clean.

I decided to sleep in the upper bunk. I lay down, then sat bolt upright. The bolster was a slab of cork whilst the pillow was stuffed tight with kapok. I like a soft pillow. Throwing both on to the bunk below, I screwed up my shirt and used that as a pillow.

Something tickling in my ear

I was awakened about 1.30 am by something tickling my ear. As I stretched out my hand to switch on the light, there was a scurrying sound along the side of the bunk and a plop as something fell to the ground. With the light on, I looked down. The floor was alive with cockroaches (baratas) of every shape and size. The really big ones, some two to two and a half inches long, were flatish and a dark grey in colour. I reckoned that these were grandfathers. Getting gingerly out of bed, I took hold of a shoe. I squashed one which left a nasty musty smell. The others scattered. I could not spend all night trying to kill them all. I decided that if I got back into bed, covered myself up to the neck in the sheet and put a handkerchief over my face, perhaps they might leave me alone. I found it very hot but eventually fell into a troubled sleep, dreaming of falling into a pit of baratas.

Next morning at 7 am a bell was rung for breakfast. This was on the aft part of the promenade deck on long trestle tables. I sat down around the middle. Opposite me sat Mr and Mrs Butler an American missionary and his wife going to Fordlandia a plantation of rubber trees set up by Henry Ford. On either side of them were businessmen returning to Manaus after a business visit to Belem. Either side of me were two travelling salesmen, one from Brahma beer and the other from Antartica beer. At the end of the table sat the young girl in the black dress. She had placed her baby under the table and was holding it in place by her two bare feet.

Breakfast consisted of two dry biscuits, and a cup of black coffee. Seeing my consternation, the Antartica salesman told me that they sold tins of condensed milk at the Bar. Quickly I got up and went to the Bar where I purchased a small tin of condensed milk and a slice of goiabada [guava] jelly. As the barman made a hole in the lid of the condensed milk, he suggested that after breakfast I keep it in my wardrobe to avoid the 'bichos' getting at it. I thanked him for his kind advice. The Bar also sold beer and Guarana [a refreshing drink made from guarana]. Behind the Bar lay a block of ice. It lay on top of an old sack. For 100 Reis the barman would hack a piece off, wipe it clean with the palm of his hand or perhaps wipe his palm clean on the ice, and drop it into a glass.

I decided to explore the ship

After breakfast I decided to explore the ship. Walking around both the Boat deck and the Promenade deck, I found small groups of passengers chatting about politics, women or whatever else two or more people talk about when they are together. Up forward stood the young girl dressed in black, her baby cradled in her arms. She appeared lost in thought but as I passed, I felt sure that she followed me with her eyes.

The lower deck seemed to be chaotic. Up forward there was a pile of logs for the engines for the Cuyabá was a log burning vessel. A young sailor was steadily passing the logs down to a stoker in the engine room. Aft there were a couple of cows, a pen full of very straggly looking hens missing feathers around their necks, which seemed to spend their time leaping into the air to catch midges and other winged insects. There were also a number of pigs tied by one leg to the railings.

The passengers, a motley lot, were seated on top of some of the cargo or squatting on the deck. There were babies in profusion. Black, brown and white as well as in-between hues. There were also lifestock. Dogs, a pet goat, several monkeys tied to their owner's arms, a baby alligator and a couple of brightly coloured parrots.

We were sailing in 'The Narrows' a part of the river where both river banks were visible from the ship. The vegetation was very dense and except for an occasional straw roofed hut there were no signs of civilisation. The river was a dirty brown and littered with sticks, leaves and branches of trees. From time to time, small fishing vessels were passed, bobbing up and down in the wake of the ship.

Lunch was served at noon

Each passenger was given a soup plate, a knife and a spoon. On the table were bowls filled high with rice, black beans and another with chopped up chicken. There was also a large dish containing a whole baked fish. Some smaller bowls held farinha d'agua something that looked and tasted like gravel which stuck in my teeth. [a coarse flour made from mandioca / cassava that has been washed in running water for several days]

Immediately the passengers, spoons in hand, descended upon the bowls ladling on to their soup plates helpings of everything on the table: fish, chicken, rice and beans. I was too slow off the mark and only managed to get a couple of spoonfuls of chicken and one of rice. Dessert consisted of a banana and a slice of goiabada [guava] jelly.

That same afternoon, the ship drew alongside a small river port called Jararacas. There were three or four wooden buildings with straw roofs as well as a few mud huts also with straw roofs. Much wood is shipped from here in exchange for salt and other necessities. In front was a small jetty near which were anchored a number of tugs and lighters. We were only there for 20 minutes to offload some sacks of something and then we sailed across to the opposite bank where there were some more small buildings. Several small naked boys climbed aboard selling wicker baskets. Then three men appeared carrying various items of furniture from one of the houses which they stowed on deck so, if it rains, they will get nice and wet! The owner was moving home!

The forest appeared impenetrable. Only occasionally was there a small clearing with a straw hut on stilts to keep it above flood water. As the ship passed, naked little girls and boys would run to the river bank and wave their hands. Sometimes, the boys would jump into a canoe and paddle as fast as they could to try to keep up with the Cuyabá.

Dinner was at 6 pm and as the ship's lights were not very bright, additional light was provided by some 'Petromax' kerosene lamps. These attracted every known type of insect of the Amazon which spun round and round the lamp until, giddy, they fell into one's hair, or worse, into one's food. I was fairly accustomed to insects with my evening meals but the quantity and variety of the insects even made me think twice about whether to scoop them up or pass over the food. In the end I just closed my eyes and ate what was on the plate… not the insects!

Where were you sleeping?

After dinner I went up to the Boat Deck and after walking several times round and round, I leant against the railings peering into the forest to see if I could see any animals. I became aware that someone was near me. A soft voice out of the darkness said "I didn't see you last night. Where were you sleeping?" I turned my head. It was the girl in the black dress. It seemed a strange question to ask and after a few moments of thought I answered "Why, in my cabin of course." Then she said "Wasn't it very hot there? Didn't the baratas worry you?" I admitted that the cabin was rather warm and the 'baratas' were a bit of a nuisance but one had to put up with such things. Hearing this she went in to peels of laughter and said "You must be an Englishman or were with a woman or perhaps both. On board on the Amazon everyone sleeps in hammocks. If you like I will show you mine".

There was a bit of a silence after that. Then, noticing that she was wearing a wedding ring on her finger, I asked her if she was going to join her husband in Manaus. She hung her head and wiped away a tear. Then after a few minutes of silence she told me her story.

She lived in Manaus with her parents who had a small chácara [farm]on the outskirts of the city. One day she met a handsome young man who was a pilot in the Brazilian Air Force. They got married and, shortly afterwards, her husband was transferred to Belém. They rented a small house and were very happy when, one day, the Air Ministry advised her that his plane had been lost over Marajó Island. Days passed but there was no news of the plane having been found so she returned to her parents in Manaus. Then the baby was born. One day a letter came. The plane and her husband's remains had been located. She was requested to proceed to Belém to collect her husband's belongings. Now she was returning with her baby to be again with her parents.

The Cuyabá consumed lots of wood. Every so many hours, the ship would draw up alongside the bank, a couple of sailors would jump ashore and speedily tie a mooring rope round the base of a strong tree. There would be a pile of cut logs. Each was exactly one metre in length, stacked in piles, one metre high by one metre wide by one metre in length. The river boats would purchase logs for their engines by the cubic metre. The sailors would pick up a quantity of logs from a pile, wrap them in a piece of sacking and putting them on their shoulder, clamber back aboard to deposit the logs in a pile on deck.

Breves, our next stop

was quite a large old town with a two storied Portuguese style building with tiles on the waterfront. In the principal square was a white church with a rather unsafe looking steeple. There were a number of red roofed houses, street lights, a factory of some sort and a decent looking pier. The Cuyabá didn't stay very long and soon we were sailing towards our next port, Antônio Lemos, an important saw mill town. Stacks of sawn lumber were piled on the waterfront. It has one of the largest saw mills on the Amazon…

We had been sailing along several tributaries of the Amazon River. It was really delightful sailing along this muddy brown river with the banks so close on either side. This was no cultivated forest, no place constructed specially for tourists; this was pure virgin forest. The trees, innumerable varieties, were right down to the water's edge. Here and there some caboclo had made a little clearing, built a house of straw raised on stilts above the flood waters. Here he lived killing birds and spearing fish for food. Everything he needed, he would have to make or hunt and kill. Manaus and Pará meant nothing to him. His only sight of civilisation was the passing vessel. One thing there was plenty of, was children. Every time we passed such a place, numbers of naked children, boys and girls with dark skins and jet black hair would jump into canoes and paddle out into the wash of our steamer which would cause the canoes to bob up and down in a most violent manner much to the children's delight.

Just before lunch we took on more wood fuel at a place called Itamaraty after which we sailed out of the tributary and into the Amazon River itself. It seemed as though we were sailing into the ocean for the banks of the river could barely be seen. The ship headed towards the south bank when we could no longer see the other side.

This night there was a terrible tropical storm. The rain came down as though the Heavens had opened. There were great sheets of lightening lighting up the forest. Heavy bolts of thunder shook the earth. I had never encountered anything like it. The next morning the sky was dull. There was no sign of the sun and it was quite chilly.We now sailed so close to the river bank that we could make out every flower or tree. The jungle was very dense with a fierce conglomeration of trees, palms, bushes, shrubs, grasses and ferns. Huge trees, tall and straight were covered with creepers and orchids. The pungent heavily scented smell of the forest even reached the ship. Glorious white egrets flew off as we approached. Other birds looked down upon us from their perches in the tree tops sending warning hoots to other birds of the species of the approach of their enemy…Man. Occasionally alligators were to be seen lazing on the river bank only to slide off into the water as we approached.

Around noon, the right bank of the Amazon had changed completely

In place of the dense forest was a flat grassy plain with a background of tree covered mountains. Cattle could be seen grazing. This was a large fazenda belonging to some rich absentee owner living in luxury in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. There were some Portuguese style houses, a radio station, a telephone system and electric light.

By the afternoon all had changed once more. Again came the forest and I was amused by the antics of a group of monkeys who jumped from tree to tree, chattering loudly and accompanying our progress. Butterflies of multi colours flitted about even landing on parts of the ship only to fly off if anyone approached.

I did not see anything of Maria during the daytime as she was always attending to her baby. But after dinner, we would go on to the Boat deck, lean against the railings and discuss all sorts of things. She was very learned and knew the names of all the trees we passed and what they were useful for. She told me about a number of Indian remedies and several Indian legends. When we passed some monkeys, she said that there were 38 species in Amazonia. We saw the Guatibas monkeys [Ed:.possibly a Woolly Monkey] which are the largest ones and have five fingers on each hand like a human being. They are excellent swimmers and can easily cross the river. They have a peculiar howling cry and are known as the English monkey on account of their red faces and fair hair. They have sandy coloured beards and yellow eyes with a touch of red. Their tails are very short. They inhabit that part of the forest which is flooded most of the year and seldom set foot on the ground. Another type which we saw was the Macaco de Cheiro [Squirrel monkey] which lives on fruit and small insects. Whether a result of that or not, it has a rather offensive smell.

Shortly before arriving at Santarém, Maria informed me that it was one of the oldest towns in Amazonia having been founded by the Jesuits in 1661 who built a mission there to administer to the Tapajós forest tribe.

As night fell, the moon turned a deep red which lasted for some 15 minutes after which it took on its usual colour. Then came clouds of mosquitoes, flying ants, moths and beetles of every description. At midnight we docked at Santarém. Being dark I could not see very much of the place but it was obviously quite a large place.

Small boys, Tapajós forestl people and women came swarming aboard offering all sorts of fruit, straw baskets, painted gourds and sweet smelling powders and liquids. Two old women were offering what they called banho de cheiro which they said lovesick girls would pour over themselves to make themselves more attractive to young men. They also offered Olhos de Boto , the eyes of a large river dolphin which are supposed to keep a boy faithful to his girl. I noticed that several people who came aboard spoke English. Maria told me that after the America Civil War, many Southern families migrated to Santarém. Many of their descendants still live in the town and English is widely spoken and understood.

On 10th August we reached Óbidos, another old town, situated on the opposite bank of the river. There were many Portuguese style buildings and an old fort on top of a hill giving a good command of the river. I was told that there was another, more modern fort, on another hill but it must have been very well hidden for I saw no sign of it.

Cattle were winched aboard

Next day the Cuyabá entered a small tributary, so narrow that one could jump ashore from either side of the ship. We anchored in front of a farm. A sailor jumped ashore and fastened a wire rope around a tree. The owner of the farm boarded the Cuyabá to advise that he had 20 head of cattle for shipment. The ship was only 10 feet from the bank. Cowboys lassoed the animals as required pulling them down to the water's edge. The rope was thrown aboard and the seamen pulled the animals through the water to the side of the ship. There a noose was tied around the animal's horns and it was winched aboard. One high spirited steer jumped up as soon as it's legs reached the deck and jumped overboard and swam for the bank. This bold action encouraged another three animals to follow suit and the cowboys had a fine time trying to round the beasts up once more.

The next port of call was Parintins where a cargo of sugar from Recife was discharged and balls of rubber and some bags of cement loaded aboard. Quite a few passengers got off at Parintins whilst several more came aboard for Manaus. Amongst these was an Indian woman with high cheek bones, large teeth, long straight black hair and slanting eyes. She spent most of the time to Manaus squatting down on the deck. The Captain advised that we would be spending an hour here. I thought it would be a good idea to have a dip in the river so changing into my bathing trunks, I dived in. The current was very strong and I was rapidly swept down stream. By swimming diagonally across the current I managed to reach the bank and climbed out. I now had to walk back some 150 yards to the ship. This wasn't particularly pleasant. Leeches stuck to my legs. I was bitten by nasty stinging insects and torn by thorns. Maria went into peels of laughter when she saw me. However, she took pity on me and covered them with some green leaves. Almost immediately the pain ceased and next morning there was hardly a mark to show that I had been bitten.

The temperature was rising

There was no breeze and everyone was perspiring. That night we called al Itacoatiara. Rubber and timber is loaded here on ocean going steamers for the USA and Europe.

The last evening we went alongside a small settlement called Santa Maria to land a cargo of sugar, tinned butter and dried meat. It was a glorious evening with a full moon. I asked Maria if she would like to come ashore with me to stretch our legs. Together we walked along the only street and on to a grassy clearing. In the background the forest was outlined like an impenetrable wall. Suddenly, Maria turned to me and said

"Now I know why they say that Englishmen are cold. We have been on the ship 12 days and not once have you tried to kiss me. A Brazilian boy would have tried to get me to go to his cabin the very first evening."

She flung her arms around me

With that she flung her arms around me and kissed me passionately on my lips. Then, taking my hand, she slipped it down the front of her dress and placed it upon her breast. We lay down in the shadows of some trees and time lost all meaning. It was the ship's siren which brought us back to reality. Hurriedly we got up and raced hand in hand back to the ship.

Next morning I awoke to see the outline of Manaus in the distance, the dome of the famous opera house shining in the morning sun. Soon we crossed the sharp dividing line separating the muddy waters of the river Solimões, as the Amazon is known in Brazil, from the dark green, almost black waters of the Rio Negro.

The passengers had their baggage piled on deck as we waited for the ship to dock at the landing stage. I asked Maria to give me her address in Manaus. Instead she took a small religious charm off a gold chain about her neck, pressed it into my hand saying "We belong to different worlds which can never meet. Let us keep the happy times we have spent together as a pleasant memory."

As I followed the porter with my baggage across the landing stage, I looked back. Maria, her baby in her arms, was standing at the ship's rail. She waved her hand and blew me a kiss. At the top of the roadway I looked back. She was still standing there, her youthful figure silhouetted against the morning sun. I never saw nor heard of her again.

The text and most of the images are © Copyright
For any commercial use please contact