Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars/21
About six years ago, I was appointed United States Minister to Colombia, and enjoyed exceptional advantages of observing this interesting people and their wonderful country. My visits to the Isthmus impressed me with the great destruction of life and property which attended the construction of the De Lesseps canal, and caused me to believe that a work of such magnitude could not soon be accomplished under the management then in charge of it.
An exception to the general inefficiency of the engineering work upon the Isthmus was found in the Grand Canal, excavated by the American Dredge Company. For more than twenty miles that company had made a canal, one hundred yards wide at the brim, and thirty feet deep, with the slopes of the banks securely sodded with wire grass; so that, should the scheme of an Isthmus canal ever again be agitated, the American half of the work will be found ready for service. I believe that our interests will be better served by the Nicaraguan than the Isthmian route, which lies out of the track of our commerce with the Pacific Coast, as well as of our trade with China. We have, as yet, very little trade with the eastern states of South America, but when our commercial relations shall have assumed their proper proportions, the Nicaraguan route will serve our needs as well as that of the Isthmus.
The hospitals upon the hills overlooking Panama relieve the general evidence of unthrift and incapacity. All that can comfort the sick, or cheer and enliven them, has been assembled. Every chamber looks out upon the enchanting scenery. The lovely grounds are beautified by flowers, fruits, and shade trees, and cooled by the breezes of the great Pacific, which breaks upon the shore below. Panama and its lovely bay lie before us, and the verdant islands which gem in it, all lying with a common range of the city and of each other, seem tempting prizes for any maritime power.
During the past forty years, England and the United States have endeavored to purchase one or all of them from Colombia. Mr. Marcy offered $6000,000 for one of them, but the constitution of Colombia forbade the alienation of any of its territory, nor would the sensitiveness of that proud people assent to it. The constitution adopted about six years ago excluded the prohibition of sale of Colombian territory, and contained a clause permissive of the alienation of it. But the susceptibilities of the people were so great that no administration would venture even to mortgage or lease one of those little islands, which are strategic points essential to any power seeking control of the Isthmus. The Congress soon repealed the permissive clause of the constitution, and re-enacted the clause prohibiting the alienation of Colombian territory, and if ever the United States entertained the idea of establishing a coaling-station or of erecting fortifications there, the opportunity has passed, we fear. Let us hope that when the treaty of 1846 between New Granada, now Columbia, shall be revived, proper provision will be made for the occupation by the United States of such points on or near the Isthmus as are essential to its defence, which the United States has pledged herself in that treaty to maintain.
We made the run from Colon, once Aspinwall, to the mouth of the Magdalena River, on a fine British steamer, in about twenty four hours. She was commanded by Captain Woodworth, a typical English sailor, master of his profession, intelligent, kindly, and humorous. He is widely known in those waters, and is trusted and liked by all who knew him. Among his crew was the original of Dick Deadeye, whom no man has seen the opera of "Pinafore" has ever failed to recognize.
A railway some twenty five miles long took us up to Barranquilla, a busy town of about twenty thousand people. It is the principal port of Colombia. I went from Barranquilla in another British steamer to Cartagena, to pay my respects to President Nunez, who, after his stormy political life in Bogota, retired to this his favorite city. I found him enjoying his dolce far niente in his beautiful villa, charmingly situated on the beach of the Caribbean Sea beyond the walls of the city. In stature and general appearance Nunez reminded me of General Mahone. Unlike Mahone, he is a poet, and no soldier. He asserts that a strong government is essential to the peace and consequent prosperity of Colombia; that the people are not educated or intelligent enough to govern themselves; and that therefore he will govern them, and meantime educate them, until they shall be capable, as we of the United States are, of having a free government. His army is well equipped and held in strict discipline, and so distributed as to quickly crush any attempt at revolution. When one remembers that for a long time civil wars recurring every three or four years have stopped the progress and wasted the resources of this rich country, one cannot withhold approval of Nunez's policy, so far as it can preserve peace throughout the country.
About a year after I saw him, he came up to Bogota, relieved Vice-President Payan, to whom he had entrusted the duties of the office, temporarily, of the presidency, exiled thirty six of the important leaders of the opposition, and issued a decree restraining the liberty of the press. He then retired tot his retreat in Cartagena, leaving Payan again in charge of the government. Nunez had not long been gone before Payan recalled the exiles, and repealed the laws restraining the freedom of the press. Thereupon Nunez hastened from Cartagena, and re-enacted legislation requiring a censorship of the press. He did not revoke the pardon of the exiles, but he sent Payan into exile himself, and the latter went away into a distant province, where he lived in elegant retirement for a year or so, when he was permitted to go to his own home in Cauca.
The city of Cartagena is one of the most interesting in this hemisphere. It was the especial favorite of old Spain in the day of her pride and power. Its great wealth attracted the cupidity of the daring buccaneers who for so many years roamed these seas in Elizabeth's day, and for a long time after. Hawkins, Morgan, Drake, and others were the leaders of the pirates of that day. Hawkins was the pioneer of negro slavery, which so pleased his royal mistress that she knighted him and gave him a negro's head for a crest, and until the colony of Virginia was emancipated from English thrall, great numbers of negroes were seized in Africa, and sold in Virginia, and this in disregard of the protests of her people. Cartagena was the object of the chief desire of the freebooters of that day, and was often attacked by them. It was also an especial point of interest to the king of Spain, who spent $60,000,000 upon its fortifications, which stand today a monument of the wealth and engineering skill of the old Spaniards.
In 1741, during the war between England and Spain, a large expeditionary force was fitted out against Cartagena, and entrusted to the command of Admiral Vernon. A year or two before, Vernon with a fleet of six English ships, had made an unexpected descent upon Porto Bello, capturing it and bearing away great spoils. Lawrence Washington, eldest brother of our great George Washinton, was a lieutenant under Vernon, for whom he had so warm an admiration that he named his home in Virginia Mt Vernon, after him. This estate after his death became the property of his brother George.
The expedition of Vernon against Cartagena was prepared with great ostentation and parade. One hundred ships and fourteen thousand men sailed and debarked before the place. Vernon's long and conspicuous preparations gave due notice of the object of his attack, and he found the Spaniards had not been idle or unprepared. In those days, no troops were so good as they, nor were any officers so proud and skillful; for they were in constant wars and rarely met defeat. The fighting was fierce and long. The defenders displayed heroic valor, and Vernon's laurels, won at Porto Bello, withered beneath the walls of Cartagena. Disease and Spanish valor destroyed his army, and after more than forty days' constant fighting, he re-embarked his shattered forces, and sailed away, leaving many trophies in the hands of his enemies. The most curious of these were the medals, which Vernon, in his vain glory, had prepared in England, to be presented to those of his officers who should distinguish themselves in the capture of Cartagena. Those medals are now preserved in the libraries of Bogota.
The Bay of Cartagena is one of the most beautiful in the world. In its expanse it is like the Bay of Mobile, but has greater depth, extending up to the very walls of the city. The entrance by the Boca Chica is narrow and easily defended by the strong forts erected by the Spaniards, which have more than once turned back the tide of war. On one of the islands in the bay is the Lazaretto, where hundreds of lepers are quarantined. No Father Damien has ever yet found his way to them. They live and die in their dreadful isolation, in full view of the shipping of the great city and the people of the busy world they can never enter more. A canal ninety miles long, called the Dique, connects Cartagena with the Magdalena River at Calamar. Steamboats run up this canal into the river and thence up to Honda, at the base of the Andes.
The Magdalena is a miniature of the Mississippi. Its densely timbered banks are only varied by the many wood-yards, occasional hamlets, and small plantations of bananas, corn, sugar, cocoa, etc. On the sandbars we saw many alligators. We counted one hundred and ten on one bar, and our only amusement during our seven days' run was shooting them. The sport would be wanton, but that the creatures are very prolific and dangerous to human life. The only vulnerable spot is the eye or the point where the jaw joins the throat. A ball, even from our Winchesters, could not penetrate any other part of their armored bodies. When struck elsewhere, or when startled by the passage of the bullet, the alligator flounders with great to-do into the river, but when fatally hit his tail quivers, and he lies still until some native takes his skin and fat. We never got closer to them than two hundred yards, and rarely within four hundred.
About twenty five steamers do the freighting of the Magdalena. They are like the small stern-wheel boats that used to ply the Ohio River. They draw two and a half feet, and as the navigation is very dangerous, they tie up every night. The trip from Barranquilla to Honda is usually made in from seven to eight days when the river is high. The trip down is made in from three to five days. The boats are reasonably comfortable. Mosquito nets are sometimes necessary, and one's own mattress, for the staterooms have only cots, which are bare and very hard. The price of passage up to Honda is $35. Going back, it is less.
At Honda we took mules for Bogota, for which we paid about $5 each; this includes the arriero or muleteer. These men were entirely trustworthy. At dawn they catch the mules, which have been grazing all night, and saddle and pack them with great dexterity, and move off, on foot, as soon as they are ready, without waiting for the traveller, who comes on at his leisure and does not see his baggage till he has reached the appointed place of halt for the night. No apprehension need ever be felt as to the safety of one's luggage. The usual duration of the trip from Honda to Bogota is three days. A railway from near the crest of the mountain runs into Bogota, about twenty miles distant, and takes one into the city in an hour and a half. All along the route up the mountains, one is enchanted with the great scenery. They are verdant from base to summit, and covered with small farms of bananas, corn, barley, etc., all cultivated by the hoe, -- for no plough can work on their steep sides, -- and along the whole road, which was paved by the Spaniards, one is never out of sight and sound of the pack trains passing up and down.
The cries of the muleteers are not unmusical, and cheer their animals, while they lend life to the road. They also keep all wild animals away, and serpents, too. I never saw in all of my hunts and travels one of those dangerous and tremendous snakes of which such terrible accounts are told. I know that in some regions they are to be found; for many gentlemen told me so, and I have seen enormous skins of constrictors and venomous serpents, as well as of rattlesnakes, which last are not so large as we have in Texas or Florida.
There are towns, and hamlets, and homesteads all along that route, where meat and drink for man and beast are plentiful and cheap. Hundreds of packs, "cargoes," pass daily along the road, a "cargo" weighing 250 pounds; and when I was there the government derived a great revenue from this freight, about $5 per cargo. The mules are not the only pack animals; oxen are often employed, and men and women bear large burdens up these mountains. There were many sugar plantations along the way, and the sound of the grinding was pleasant to hear. They use horse power to work their mills. On the Rio Negro, where there are many sugar mills, they have a water-power which could run all the factories in Manchester; and though a short ditch would do the work better, for generations these gentlemen have used mules.
As we ascended to 4000 or 6000 feet, we came upon the coffee plantations. I visited one of over 200,000 trees, which was in fine condition. It was well equipped with every appliance of the business, and was in good bearing. The raising of coffee is the most lucrative business, and as it is always conducted in a healthy region, well up the mountain, is very tempting to foreign capital. The trees do not bear until they are four years old, and during that time the expenses are heavy, and there is no return. After that, for ten years or more, the crops recur. Every winter yields one pound of coffee to each tree, and every summer about half as much. The trees are planted some four feet apart, or 1000 to the acre. The cost of clearing and planting a coffee plantation is estimated at $100 per acre. Nothing can be more charming than a fine coffee plantation. They are always on the mountain slopes, in the midst of a beautiful scenery and delightful climate. The trees grow ten feet high, and their dark, evergreen foliage mantles the entire surface of the plantation. The proprietors are the grand senors of the country. On one plantation of 200,000 trees in full bearing, the residence of the proprietor was a vast, two story building, elaborately and thoroughly constructed by his own laborers, of timber and stone from his own estate. Wide corridors ran all around every story. A handsome chapel was in the lower story. The establishment was completely furnished, yet the manager told me that the proprietor resided in Bogota, and spent about three days annually in his lovely home. The grounds were beautified by fruits and flowers of the temperate and tropic zones, and a crystal stream ran through the place and supplied a large swimming-bath.
Mr. Wheeler, the very able charge d' affaires of Great Britain to Columbia, has passed many years in traveling over that country, and is probably better informed about its resources and conditions than any other foreign resident of it. His reports to his government on the agricultural conditions of the country, and upon its trade and resources, are full of reliable information on these subjects. They present a strong array of the natural advantages of Colombia, and a correspondingly strong arraignment of the people who possess but do not develop them. He says the following is a list of the chief agricultural products of Colombia: Cocoanut palm, cocoa, date palm, cotton, indigo, rice, yucca, sugarcane, anise, plantains and bananas, tobacco, olives, maize, aloes, caoutchouc, coffee, arrocucha, apples, eucalyptus, wheat, cinchona, cochineal, potatoes, and barley. All of these can be raised at little cost. Colombia is the home of the potato. They are raised there in fine quality and in great abundance. Wheat and corn yield two crops a year, yet the largest export from the United States to Colombia is of wheat flour.
Mr. Wheeler states that the total exports from Colombia amounted, in 1887, to over $14,000,000. Of these, the United States received a little over $3,000,000. The imports the same year were $8,719,297. England's share of this was $3,611,775, the United States getting only $9739 worth of goods. The Tobacco of Columbia is easily grown and of excellent quality. There is a cigar factory in Ambulema, which employs 500 hands, and makes excellent cigars at $1 per hundred. They are preferred by some to those of Cuba.
The country abounds in fine cattle and good, active horses. On the plains of Bogota are the largest cattle I have ever seen. Mr. Edward Sayers, a gentleman of English, sent me a fine cut of beef from a cow that netted 800 pounds of fat and 1200 pounds of lean. In butchering beef, all the flesh is cut from the bone, so that the viscera, hide, head, and bones made the gross weight of this animal over 3000 pounds. He had on his estate a number of cattle of equal size fattened on blue grass, the seed of which he procured from Kentucky. The native grasses are excellent.
On a neighboring estate, owned by Mr. Alexander Urdanata, I saw twenty five Durham cows milked every morning. One of them gave six gallons besides what was left for the calf. But little enterprise has been shown in improving the breed of cattle or of any other stock, and Mr. Wheeler's report shows that from 1849 to 1878 the total number of bulls imported was only thirty, and of cows only twenty; and more of these were Durhams than of any other breed.
Mr. Vaughan has on his place of Santuario the only imported thoroughbred horse I know of. The native horses are rarely over fifteen hands high, and but few are that height. They all pace from their birth, and are active, enduring, and gentle. The method of breaking young horses is very cruel, but is effectual. They are tamed forever after. There are a few imported coach horses in Bogota, but they are very clumsy, heavy-footed beasts.