Interview with Arthur O. Friel

[To keep folks happy while i come up with the promised articles, here’s the contents of an interesting interview with Arthur O. Friel shortly after his trip up the Orinoco. Some interesting photographs in there.]

Arthur O. Friel tells of Ferocious tribes in South American Jungles

By Charles Samuels

THOSE big, strong he-men who, following the example of Alexander the Great, have been bemoaning the lack of new worlds to conquer, have been wasting their tears and frittering away their time, according to Arthur O. Friel novelist and soldier of fortune.

On this very planet, Mr. Friel asserts, there is a large unexplored territory, the inhabitants of which are wild, ferocious and rambunctious enough to try the mettle of the most intrepid adventurers now chafing at the bonds of their civilized state. This uncharted, unexplored district lies in the southern portion of Venezuela, South America.

It was into the very heart of this tropical wilderness that Mr. Friel ventured some months ago in the hope of finding one of the far-famed lost tribes of white Indians, However, the avalanche, of rain that accompanies the wet season forced him to wend his way down the Ventuari and Orinoco Rivers to Cuidad Bolivar, his hopping-off place. Though he failed in his search, Mr. Friel is firm in his belief that there is such a white tribe of Indians.

Rapids make travelling hazardous on the Orinoco river

“There is no question in my mind about it,” he told the interviewer, “The fact that stories of the discovery of white tribes have persistently come out of such widely distant (in accessibility, if not in mileage) lands as Venezuela, Brazil and Panama convinces me that this white people settled in South America in some all but forgotten era.”

“The section of Venezuela which I attempted to reach has not known the tread of (he white explorer’s feet for one hundred and fifty years. We can thank the Spaniards for the present hostility of the Indians.”

“Of course you remember how Pizzarro and the others repaid the Latin-American Indians for their open-armed welcome. For hundreds of years the legends of the Indians had taught that some day gods with skins of white would come in boats large as houses. When the Spaniards, eager for conquest and greedy for gold, implanted the Flag of Spain on the soil the natives mistook them for the Lords of the Universe and treated them as such.”

Where trees are so crowded roots grow above the ground

“The white men reciprocated by plundering, robbing, oppressing and ravishing. For several hundred years their rule was quite successful. However, one night, a century and a half ago, the Indians rose in their wrath and murdered every white man, woman and child who had settled in Northern Brazil and Southern Venezuela.”

“Since that time they have resented every attempt at exploration or settlement made by Caucasians. They are ferociously warlike and it is likely that the hatred engendered by the Spaniards will never entirely disappear.”

“Doesn’t the government of Venezuela succeed in collecting taxes?”

Mr. Friel shook his head. “This portion of the country is Venezuelan only theoretically. The only way to live in that wilderness, to wrest a living from the jungle is by hunting and fishing. The mountains keep out the trade winds that might otherwise aid navigation up the Orinoco. We had to paddle every inch of the way ourselves. The tremendous amount of rain that falls in the wet season followed by the arid, dry periods render futile attempts at cultivation.”

“Did the natives oppose your expedition?” was the next question.

“No—perhaps because I traveled the sensible way.” Mr. Friel answered. “You see, I never go with other white men. Few fellows, even those who seem real regular people can stand the gaff. In the tropics—something is at you all the time—the insects, the terrific heat, the fever—something is bound to get you. The danger, the uncertainty reacts on your nerves. It takes every bit of energy you possess to keep your temper in check. An argument—a little squabble with another man would spoil the whole trip—might prove fatal.”

“On this trip I hired several boatmen at Cuidad Bolivar—after a few hundred miles they went back and I found other natives. It is always best to be accompanied by men who know the country. Usually I sent one ahead to inform the neighboring tribes of my approach. It would be suicide to venture into an uncivilized country without having a man go ahead to tell the natives that you are a peaceful man, a regular fellow and intend to do them no harm.”

“Aren’t the natives treacherous?”
“No, indeed they aren’t. If they do hate the white men and refuse to have anything to do with us, it is the white man’s own fault.”

“Why, I’ve had men on my boats who were reputed to be rascals, murderers, yet I never had the slightest trouble with them. The Maquiriteres Indians are supposed to be cannibals, but I question whether they are. However, they do eat raw meat of animals and birds.”

“Most people think of the South American Indians as being like Fords—all alike. They are not at all. Their personalities differ just as ours do. However, they are dying out. Despite their resentment against the white people, gradually they are being assimilated. There is growing the half-breed class.”

A community house in a jungle clearing

“This brings to my mind the fact that in Latin America there is no middle class at all. They are either very rich or very poor. Some one put it very correctly in saying that South America has no filling to its pie—it’s all crust and undercrust. The full blooded Indian is generally treated worse than the half-breed. Incidentally many travelers are misled into believing that there are nearby white Indians. The real Indians, who are as black as coal, consider any one of slightly lighter hue as white. But with all this misunderstanding, I am sure that there are really tribes of white Indians in Venezuela.”

The River of Seven Stars is Mr. Friel’s first venture in travel writing. For several years, however, he has been knocking about the odd corners of the world for material for his stirring adventure yarns. Three such novels have been published. They are “The Pathless Trail”, “The King of No Man’s Land” and “Tiger River.”

We asked Mr. Friel how the poetical title of his latest volume occurred to him.

“I was standing in the fore of the boat going up the Orinoco River at sunset one evening,” be told us; “the sun was just setting behind the great hills which the Indians have named the “Mountains of Mystery”. The flag of Venezuela was blowing in the breeze. In it there are seven stars representing the Seven States. That’s all there was to it—I had found the name for my book.”

“How do you like travel writing compared to fiction?”

Mr. Friel was not enthusiastic. “Too hard. I find fiction easier. You have to keep a diary, take notes and all that sort of thing. Fiction you can chuck in any additional details you feel like. Anyway it takes too long. Why it took me four months working day and night to finish The River of Seven Stars.

The interviewer thinking of Gustave Flaubert’s labor of seven years which resulted in the magnificent “Madame Bovary” nearly fell off his chair.

“The returns are slower,” Mr. Friel added, “A novel has an immediate run and then it’s through. It takes years to get a commensurate amount out of a travel book.”

Mr. Friel is small of stature and Scandinavian in appearance with a long oval face, northern blue eyes and exceptionally tall forehead. His voice is startlingly deep. As we started up the stairs to his apartment we heard his thunderous voice and anticipated meeting a giant.
He hates traveling while he’s doing it and longs for his Flatbush home, but he says after a few weeks back in civilized surroundings the old yearning for the jungle returns.

Arthur O. Friel tells of ferocious tribes in South American Jungles“, Brooklyn NY Daily Eagle, date unknown, 1925

1 comment

  1. Sadly, there aren't many true adventurers left today. My good friend, Ted Baglin, now 83, has slowed down. At one time he traveled to the areas he read about in Adventure and Argosy. How many of us would do that?

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