English teacher who planted seeds of curiosity about mysteries of the Amazon
Brazil Letter: an English redhead stirs a teenage boy’s imagination in the 1960s
English soccer fan Jimmy Barwick outside the Teatro Amazonas opera house in Manaus, Brazil, birthplace of Milton Hatoum. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA
In my youth, two British travellers were chosen for discussion by my history teacher. Behind the choice lay a moral presupposition. The first traveller was naturalist, biologist and geographer Alfred Russel Wallace, who conducted research in the Amazon between 1848 and 1852.
Wallace and Charles Darwin were friends, and both developed the theory of evolution of the species at the same time, though Wallace never achieved anything like the fame Darwin did. Our Amazonian secondary schoolteacher wanted to repair the injustice done to Wallace by the history of science and always spoke of him with the utmost admiration. The second traveller, our schoolmaster would say, was one of the biggest thieves of the 19th century.
Stolen seeds Indeed, the failed botanist Henry Wickham was a famous imposter, the kind who would not look out of place in Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy. In 1873, Wickham smuggled 70,000
seeds of Hevea brasiliensis to the United Kingdom; the stolen seeds of the rubber tree were placed in greenhouses at a botanical garden in London to create seedlings that, months later, were used to stock the first Brazilian rubber plantations in Malaysia.
In under 40 years this patriotic act by a subject of Queen Victoria effectively annihilated the Amazonian economy.
All manner of Britons travelled through the Amazon, but one that stuck in my mind above all others was an English woman who was not an illustrious scientist, much less a scurrilous smuggler. She was just my English teacher but she had quite an impact on her 13-year-old pupil. I refer to an unforgettable redhead: Jane C Hern.
At 4.40pm on Wednesdays and Fridays I walked down a street lined with acacia and mango trees, stopped outside a yellow mansion and beheld that her watering the delicate flowers of her English garden, which would rebel beneath the torrential rains to reclaim its Amazonian exuberance.
Jane would turn off the water, roll up the hose and come to meet me with a broad and radiant smile, not just the perfunctory crease.
Looking back, I suspect her close and constant contact with the Amazonian people had changed Jane’s smile and expressions. As it probably made other changes too, in more intimate spheres. But, in 1965, reflections on any such moral shift never crossed my mind.
Invited into the sitting room, I had my moments of pre-lesson glory. I could observe her, head to toe, and imagine her out in the mansion’s pool, unaccompanied by her husband, who I saw only once, from a distance.
He was the manager of some British bank that had existed since the time of the pirate H Wickham, and even the unfairly forgotten AR Wallace. When Jane had her back to me I would, pretending to be looking for some title on the bookstand, count the freckles on her smooth, rosy skin, a near-miracle in that equatorial climate.
Or maybe it wasn’t: maybe it was just the clouded vision of a lad enchanted by that tawny beauty.
As the clock ticked, Mrs Hern, indifferent to British punctuality, continued to display her bare shoulders and naked back. She was the happy victim of another time, one slow and ambling, so Amazonian. At some juncture, well after five, Jane would sit at the table, lay her hand on my arm and ask, in English, whether I had read the chapter from the novel.
The book in question was Treasure Island, which I would read at home after every class, and reread during. The novel fascinated me; but it wasn’t Flint’s hidden treasure that occupied my mind. Rather it was one of another order: Jane, body and soul; more body than soul, to be honest, as my being on those warm afternoons was more carnivorous than platonic.
Even so, I took great pleasure in reading the novel by Stevenson, this architect of fantastic plots who found in Samoa his own private paradise, far from London and his native Scotland. Today, rereading Treasure Island, I recall my afternoons with this 43-year-old woman who Manaus gradually transformed into an English cabocla (a person of mixed European and mixed indigenous Brazilian race).
I don’t know in which hemisphere she lives now, or if she lives at all. One way or another, Jane Constable Hern is alive and well in my memory, that vast and bankless river.
Milton Hatoum was born in 1952 in Manaus, Brazil. He is the author of the novels Tale of a Certain Orient, The Brothers, Ashes of the Amazon (Bloomsbury/UK) and Orphans of Eldorado (Canongate). miltonhatoum.com.br