Alberto Vojtěch Frič – Part I – The story of a Czech adventurer & ethnologist who brought a South American Indian to Prague

Alberto Vojtěch Frič was a Czech botanist, ethnologist and traveller, who earned fame in Bohemia, Europe, and parts of South America in the early 20th century. His first love from childhood was botany but early after his first travels to South America, his professional focus shifted from plants to the lives of indigenous peoples. During his excursions, he befriended the Chamacoco Indians at Gran Chaco in Paraguay, and on his third visit, learning that the tribe was being decimated by an unknown illness, brought one of them, Cherwuish (the son of a tribal leader) back for treatment to Prague.

Theirs was an unusual friendship, and as Frič soon learned, not a simple one: although he cured the South American soon enough, he was also responsible for him in a brave new world. It was 1908, and the two would spend a year together before the Chamacoco Indian returned home.

But before we get to that story, first a bit about Frič’s earlier life. Yvonna Fričová, the wife of the ethnologist’s grandson, is an expert on his career and his extensive publications and personal diary – parts of which were published as a newspaper series in the 1940s. She herself published several books of his writings in the Czech Republic in the ‘90s and told me more about his early ambitions. His first trip to South America was in 1901.

“Even as a boy Frič was always fascinated with cacti - a time when they weren’t the focus of much study. As he grew into adulthood, his ambition was to collect and classify different kinds – and that was the motivation behind his first trip to Brazil at the age of just 18. He didn’t find many of the plants near the river, but he learned that indigenous tribes lived in the area. Gradually his interest shifted to ethnography. At first, he saw only signs of inhabitation, not the people: just smoke rising over the treetops, an item left out for someone, a bow and arrows left unattended. Such episodes captured his imagination.”

He also had adventures of his own that showed he was made of quite stern stuff: fearless but decisive despite his relative inexperience and youth.

“In the wild, he encountered a jaguar which he killed only with his knife, but he himself almost didn’t survive. He was wounded and was brought back to civilisation by his guides. They saved his life. It wasn’t his only brush with death: on a later journey, while traversing a river, he was attacked by a female crocodile protecting her young, which he also killed with his knife. For that he earned a lot of respect among the Chamacoco, who nicknamed him ‘White Crocodile’.”

Back in Prague, the budding ethnologist was restless and soon longed for the climate, the atmosphere and the slow-moving rivers of South America. His second trip was in 1906, during which he first went to Gran Chaco, and spent long months with the Chamacoco Indians. He developed an understanding for their way of life that was holistic and modern. Yvonna Fričová once again:

“He befriended different tribes and many different individuals and had a lot of empathy for their way of life and their way of thinking, which was often incomprehensible to Europeans. To a large degree this negatively affected his standing in professional circles in Europe. It’s important to remember that this was a time, at the beginning of the century, when many still considered indigenous peoples ‘savages’.”

Alberto Vojtěch Frič, says Yvonna Fričová, worried about the encroachment of civilisation and the impact it would have on local peoples’ traditional way of life; at the same time, he recognised he was in a position to help, and when he learned that a tribe of Chamacoco was being decimated by an unknown illness, he decided to act. It was towards the end of his third trip to South America in 1908. And, that was how the ethnologist met Cherwuish Pioshad. Cherwuish – the son of a chieftain - volunteered to travel with Frič to Asuncion to see a doctor on behalf of his people. The idea was to see if a cure couldn’t be found. They travelled by boat, but upon arrival, found no help and no cure. As the weeks passed, the two became friends. Gradually Frič was faced with a choice and through a curious mix of circumstances did something he had never intended: he decided to take Cherwuish with him to Europe. Yvonna Fričová again:

“Frič had been devastated to learn that his beloved Chamacoco were being decimated by a mysterious illness, and on site he did what he could to help. Cherwuish, himself sick, volunteered to go with him to find a cure for his people, but Frič never intended to take him to Europe. When they reached Asuncion, they discovered there was no one to help. But Frič couldn’t send Cherwuish back up river: the boat captain had refused to take him unless he agreed to remain locked up like an animal, which Frič found unacceptable. So he had no choice but to take him with him. On the ship home, Cherwuish posed as Frič’s manservant. He got in the way a bit, sometimes exasperating the Czech traveller.”

The two stopped first at an important conference in Vienna where the ethnologist had been scheduled to speak, and after that they headed to Prague. It was the beginning of a remarkable year full of events which inspired even a friend of Frič’s – the writer Jaroslav Hašek (who later wrote the great satirical Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk) to write a short-story called The Indian and the Prague Police. Frič’s circle, many of whom were actors, artists and general bon vivants - took Cherwuish under their wing, and that was how he got the nickname Červíček. In Czech, the nickname means ‘little worm’, but it wasn’t in any way meant to convey disrespect. Yvonna Fričová again:

“It’s kind of a play on words: Červíček sounded similar to Cherwuish but was easier to pronounce for the Czechs. The nicknamed was coined by a friend of Frič’s who was a popular actor and comedian at the National Theatre. He called Cherwuish ‘Červíček’ and the name stuck.”

In Part II of Czechs in History next week, we look at how the South American Indian got along with Frič and look at some of his adventures in Prague as well as how he eventually returned home.