Young Folks' Library: Wonders of Earth, Sea and Sky
The Pitch Lake In The West Indies
(From At Last.)
The Pitch Lake, like most other things, owes its appearance on the surface to no
convulsion or vagary at all, but to a most slow, orderly, and respectable process of nature,
by which buried vegetable matter, which would have become peat, and finally brown
coal, in a temperate climate, becomes, under the hot tropic soil, asphalt and oil,
continually oozing up beneath the pressure of the strata above it . . . .
As we neared the shore, we perceived that the beach was black with pitch; and the breeze
being off the land, the asphalt smell (not unpleasant) came off to welcome us. We rowed
in, and saw in front of a little row of wooden houses a tall mulatto, in blue policeman's
dress, gesticulating and shouting to us. He was [pg 98] the ward policeman, and I found him (as
I did all the colored police) able and courteous, shrewd and trusty. These police are
excellent specimens of what can be made of the negro, or half-negro, if he be but first
drilled, and then given a responsibility which calls out his self-respect. He was warning
our crew not to run aground on one or other of the pitch reefs, which here take the place
of rocks. A large one, a hundred yards off on the left, has been almost all dug away, and
carried to New York or to Paris to make asphalt-pavement.
The boat was run ashore, under his directions, on a spit of sand between the pitch; and
when she ceased bumping up and down in the muddy surf, we scrambled out into a world
exactly the hue of its inhabitants of every shade, from jet black to copper-brown. The
pebbles on the shore were pitch. A tide-pool close by was enclosed in pitch; a four-eyes
was swimming about in it, staring up at us; and when we hunted him, tried to escape, not
by diving, but by jumping on shore on the pitch, and scrambling off between our legs.
While the policeman, after profoundest courtesies, was gone to get a mule-cart to take us
up to the lake, and planks [pg 99] to bridge its water channels, we took a look round at this
oddest of corners of the earth.
In front of us was the unit of civilization,—the police-station, wooden, on wooden stilts
(as all well-built houses are here), to insure a draught of air beneath them. We were, of
course, asked to come in and sit down, but preferred looking about, under our umbrellas;
for the heat was intense. The soil is half pitch, half brown earth, among which the pitch
sweals in and out as tallow sweals from a candle. It is always in slow motion under the
heat of the tropic sun; and no wonder if some of the cottages have sunk right and left in
such a treacherous foundation. A stone or brick house could not stand here; but wood and
palm-thatch are both light and tough enough to be safe, let the ground give way as it will.
The soil, however, is very rich. The pitch certainly does not injure vegetation, though
plants will not grow actually in it. The first plants which caught our eyes were pine-
apples, for which La Brea is famous. The heat of the soil, as well as the air, brings them
to special perfection. They grow about anywhere, unprotected by hedge or fence; for the
negroes here seem honest enough, at least toward each other; and at the corner of the
house was a bush worth looking at, for we had heard of it for many a year. It bore prickly,
heart-shaped pods an inch long, filled with seeds coated with a red waxy pulp.
This was a famous plant—Bixa orellana Roucou; and that pulp was the well-known
annotto dye of commerce. In England and Holland it is used merely, I believe, to color