Selvas or Silvas are great tracts of low flat land, covered with dense vegetation and forest trees, which occur along the course of the river Amazon in South America.
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South America is a vast peninsula of a roughly triangular form, with its apex pointing southward. Its greatest length is 7680 km; its greatest breadth 5170 km. South America is united to North America by the Isthmus of Panama. The coast- lines of South America, particularly the west, are comparatively little broken or interrupted by indentations, and in this respect resemble those of Africa. Towards the southern extremity is a group of islands, forming the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. They are penetrated in every direction by bays and narrow inlets, ending often in glaciers.
The mountainous and elevated tracts of the continent are chiefly limited to the borders of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; the intervening space being occupied by a great series of plains, reaching from one extremity of the continent to the other, at an elevation generally less than 300 meters above the level of the sea. There are four chief mountain systems, the most remarkable of which is the Andes, that stretch along the whole of the west coast from south to north for a distance of 7200 km. They are of inconsiderable width comparatively, but attain great elevations, ranking in this respect next to the Himalayan Mountains; the highest known peak, Aconcagua, in Chile, being 6970 meters high. The second system is that of Parima, also called the Highlands of Guiana, in the north-east; culminating point, Maravaca, about 10,500 feet high. The third system is near the north coast, and is known under the general name of the Coast Chain of Venezuela; culminating point, the Silla de Caracas, with an elevation of 8600 feet. The fourth is that of Brazil in the south-east; culminating point, Itatiaia, 10,010 feet high.
There are altogether upwards of thirty active volcanoes in South America. They all belong to the Andes, and consist of three separate and distinct , series: the series of Chile, of Peru and Bolivia, and of Quito. The loftiest is Gualateiri in Peru, which reaches a height of 21,960 feet. The immense plains are one of the remarkable features of South America, sometimes stretching for hundreds of kilometres without exhibiting the slightest perceptible inequality. They are variously designated, being known as pampas in the south, as selvas in the Amazon region, and as Ilanos in the north. All the South American rivers of any magnitude carry their waters to the Atlantic.
The principal rivers are the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Plata, the first being the greatest as regards volume of water among the rivers of the world. One of the most singular features in the hydrography of South America is the water connection existing between the Orinoco and the Amazon through the natural channel of the river Cassiquari. The lakes of any considerable size are few; the largest, Lake Titicaca, in the Andes. There are considerable diversities of climate in the different parts of the continent, but only in comparatively few are the extremes of heat and cold very great, and on the whole South America is neither very hot nor unhealthy, though so much of it is within the tropics. Over a great part of it the rains are adequate, and in many parts abundant; but on the west coast there are small regions where rain seldom or never tells.
The most distinguishing feature of the vegetation of South America is its prodigious forests, which cover about two- thirds of the whole continent, and yield valuable timber, ornamental woods and dyewoods, cinchona, India-rubber, vegetable ivory, etc. In the tropical regions vegetation is on the grandest scale, grandeur also being combined with great beauty. Fruits abound, including oranges, limes, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, pomegranates, and many others. Southward of the line coffee, sugar cane, maize, and cacao are notable products. The chief vegetable products exported are coffee, rubber, cotton, wheat, cacao, maize, and sugar. Among plants especially belonging to South America are cacao, cinchonlt, coca, and Paraguay tea.
The first European discoverer of the continent of South America was Christopher Columbus, who reached the mouth of the Orinoco in his third voyage in 1498. The adventurer who followed next was Alonzo de Ojeda, a Spaniard, who examined the coast of Venezuela. Ojeda was accompanied by Amerigo Vespucci, a native of Florence, who, on his return to Spain, published an account of his voyage, and whose name gradually came to be given to the continent.
Brazil was discovered in 1500 by Vincent Yanez Pinzon, who explored the mouths of the Amazon. Later in the year Alvarez Cabral reached the coast of Brazil farther south than the point touched by Pinzon, and took possession of the country in the name of the King of Portugal. In 1513 Vasco Nuilez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Darien, and discovered the Pacific Ocean.
In 1531 Pizarro embarked at Panama with a small force, and made himself master of Peru. Almagro, a companion of Pizarro, pushed southwards into Chili, and in 1537 the country between Darien and Peru was traversed by Vadillo, and Quito was soon after taken possession of by the Spaniards. In 1540 Gonzales, the brother of Pizarro, crossed the Andes and came upon the Amazon, which Orellana, one of his officers, descended to the ocean. In the meantime Juan de Solis had discovered the La Plata in 1515, and Fernando Magellan sailed along the south-east coast and through the strait that bears his name into the Pacific in 1520.
In 1526 Sebastian Cabot ascended the Parana and Paraguay, and established two or three forts, and in 1536 the city of Buenos Ayres was built. The discoveries of the Spanish and Portuguese gave the possession of almost the whole of South America to these nations - Portugal holding Brazil, wliile Spain held the remainder. The colonial system of Spain was a highly vicious and oppressive one, and the colonies seized the first opportunity to cast off their allegiance to the mother country, early in the 19th century, when Spain was in difficulties from Napoleon's conquests. The Spaniards attempted to bring them back to their allegiance by force, and a series of struggles took place between the colonial and Spanish troops which lasted until 1824, when the independence of the colonies was finally secured.
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