Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/10

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part II, Chapter III: Population, -Its Characteristics, -Public Morals, -Police, -Political Offences, -Prison, -Lawsuits, -Education, -Schools, &c.


Population,—Its Characteristics,—Public Morals,—Police,—Political Offences,—Prison,—Lawsuits,—Education,—Schools, &c.

The population of the city, according to a census taken in the year 1795, consisted of 24,434 persons; but as a considerable increase has taken place since that time, it may be fairly estimated at 35,000, including European Spaniards, white Creoles, Mulattoes and Indians. The offspring of negroes and Indians, of whites and Indians, as well as the descendants of African negroes, are included under the term mulattoes, by which they are generally known; sometimes, however, they are called mestizoes, or ladinos.

Each of these classes possess not only distinct, but widely different characteristics. The Europeans, proud of their Castilian blood, look with the most ineffable contempt upon the natives, whom they consider their inferiors, both in knowledge, industry, and in the exercise of the domestic virtues. The Americans, frankly acknowledging themselves deficient in information, and especially in knowledge of the world, bitterly accuse the Spanish nation as the cause of their misfortunes, and console themselves with the imaginary possession of a “viveza,” or aptitude, which, properly cultivated, would have produced master-spirits, capable of wielding with credit the rod of empire in the new world. The Europeans, chiefly composed of men, who, in their younger days have left the mother country, and by dint of honourable exertion, have arrived at the possession of wealth, are distinguished by habits of economy, caution and prudence in their engagements. The leading Americans, descendants of the Spaniards, who, at an earlier period, acquired extensive fortunes by the monopolies they enjoyed, and the despotism they exercised, have been brought up in those habits of indolence which seem inseparable from the climate, are dilatory and negligent in business, and too frequently dissipate their mental ennui at the gaming-table. Under the influence of these degrading habits, they frequently descend to little meannesses, from which national pride defends the Spanish merchant; are doomed to see obscure Europeans acquiring wealth as rapidly as they are losing it, and find themselves in the possession of power and influence, without that steadiness of character, or those habits of business, which might in some measure, have supplied the deficiency of education and native talent.

But here it should be remarked, that the Americans themselves are divided into two parties, differing as widely both in feeling and sentiment. The liberals, composed of the few individuals who have carefully gathered up some of the scattered rays of knowledge, which, in spite of the vigilance of Spain, have for some years penetrated into the heart of the new continent, are possessed of a higher degree of intellect, and a greater energy, than the moderate party; but unhappily, in casting off the slavish yoke of Rome, and effecting their mental independence, they have imbibed the worst doctrines of the French revolutionary school, and strikingly exhibit in the fury of their hatred, the unhappy principles which prevailed at that melancholy period of European history. The serviles, consisting of the most influential families, who, before the revolution, arrogated to themselves the title of noblesse, and ruled the country with a despotic hand, through the medium of the viceroys, whom they caressed and flattered, now fill the different offices of government, act upon Spanish principles, are hated and despised by all parties, yet maintain their posts through the influence of the church and the resident Spaniards, who support their measures from fear of the excesses of the liberals. These with the Europeans, from a dislike to every change, and a feverish dread of innovation, steadily oppose whatever tends to lessen the influence of the Romish church, or to introduce a liberal system of commercial policy. The liberals on the other hand, abruptly freed from a thraldom which they had borne for ages, and in some of the provinces suddenly advanced to power and place, seize on every new thing with avidity, plunge into schemes of which they understand nothing, and in their zeal to overthrow all existing institutions, forget to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the tares. The latter are as incautious as the former are fearful. The one holds wretched theories, but lessens the evil by mild and moderate practice. The other disgraces better principles, by a miserable exemplification of them. In politics the one is ultra republican, the other, ultra aristocratical. In religion the former inclines to superstition; the latter to scepticism. To foreigners both parties are courteous and obliging, and never suffer local prejudices to interfere with the rites of hospitality.

Into these two classes the white population may be pretty equally divided. Difference of sentiment and of character, both mental and moral, unite in making them determined enemies, and their clashing opinions, feelings, and interests, have, as might naturally have been expected, involved the country in all the horrors of a civil war,

This confusion of elements gives to Guatimala a character of its own, differing considerably from that of the sister republics. Liberated from the yoke of Spain, not less by uncontrollable circumstances, than by the force of moral feeling; it achieved its independence without an effort, and silently exchanged the rule of a despotic monarch, for the factious struggles of opposing parties. Each has appealed to arms, excited the passions, and called out the energies of a dangerous ally in the coloured population. Happy will it be for the disputants on either side, if these dissensions shall have subsided, before this third party, powerful enough to extirpate both, wash out their differences in mingled blood!

Nor are such apprehensions altogether without foundation. The Mulatto, or mixed race, form in point of fact, the physical force of the nation. To a considerable degree of cunning, they unite an energy to which the simple Indian is altogether a stranger, are less subject to the restraints of a superstitious creed, and more abandoned to the grosser vices of drunkenness and revenge. That such a population, armed and disciplined, inflated with new ideas of liberty and citizenship, and at the same time shut out, both by colour and character, from the counsels and society of the whites, must be dangerous to the state, it does not require great penetration to foresee. Perhaps the greatest security from such a contingency may be found in the hatred borne to them by the fourth class of inhabitants, the aboriginal Indians. Still these are negative, rather than positive friends. Their indolence and perhaps their interest, would lead them, in such a crisis, rather to conceal themselves in the woods and mountains, than to act as partizans.

Such is the existing state both of the city and republic of Guatimala. Composed of these combustible materials, its physical and political situation may be regarded as similar. Containing within its bosom an active internal fire under the influence of which it trembles and is convulsed; it is in hourly danger of eruptions more calculated to desolate than to enlighten, to destroy than to improve.

This gloomy prospect for the lovers of true freedom, becomes still darker to the eye of the philanthropist and the Christian, when viewed in connexion with the state of public morals. If a republic be strong in proportion to the mass of virtue concentrated in its population, and if it be in vain to look for political integrity, in the absence of private honour, then is the situation of Guatimala truly lamentable. With a lazzaroni in rags and filth, a coloured population drunken and revengeful, her females licentious and her males shameless, she ranks as a true child of that accursed city which still remains as a living monument of the fulfilment of prophecy and the forbearance of God, “the hold of every foul spirit, the cage of every unclean and hateful bird.”

To this sweeping censure there are certainly many exceptions, but they are not sufficiently numerous to render such a description as a whole, unjust. The pure and simple sweets of domestic life, with its thousand tendernesses, and its gentle affections, are here exchanged for the feverish joys of a dissipated hour; and the peaceful home of love is converted into a theatre of mutual accusations and recriminations.

Among the lower orders this loose and vicious life leads to excesses, which, unrestrained by a vigilant police, produce the most melancholy consequences. The men generally carry a large knife stuck in the belt against the back, and the women a similar one, fastened in the garter of the stocking. These on every trifling occasion, they draw, and the result is often fatal. Not a day passes in which some one or other does not stain his hands in the blood of his fellow creature. On feast days and on Sundays, the average number killed is from four to five. From the number admitted into the hospital of St. Juan de Dios, it appears that in the year 1827, near 1500 were stabbed in drunken quarrels, of whom from 3 to 400 died. Of these, probably fifty or sixty were assassinated secretly, without having any opportunity of defence.

The police, if such a thing can be said to exist, takes no notice of these events, and it would seem fabulous to relate, were it not confirmed by the most respectable testimony, that there is at liberty in Guatimala, at the present moment, more than one, of whom it is known that they have murdered several individuals. The respectable inhabitants defend themselves by carrying swords or pocket pistols in the evening, and are rarely molested; while the lower orders revenge the death of their relatives by taking away the life of the murderer the first convenient opportunity.

A circumstance of this kind occurred while I was residing in Guatimala, very near to the house in which I lived. About four o'clock in the afternoon a poor man was observed lying dead in the street, who had evidently been murdered. For some time no notice was taken of him; at length he was carried by some passers-by to the hospital, and it was immediately known that he had been killed by a shoemaker who resided near, and whose brother had fallen some months ago, by the hand of the deceased. This man had now absented himself; but no means were used for his apprehension. A few shoulders were shrugged, a few “que lástimas” (what a pity) uttered, and there the matter ended. The shoemaker returned in a few days, resumed his occupations, and remains still undisturbed, unless some other has in turn, passed him to his final account.

The only otfences noticed are political ones, and in these cases the soldiers act as civil officers. Of their suitability one melancholy instance fell immediately under my own observation. A lieutenant of infantry, and eight soldiers, were despatched to take a man prisoner who had committed some offence against the state. They entered the room in which he was sitting alone, about nine o'clock in the evening. He immediately blew out the candle and fired a pistol at their officer, whom he wounded. The eight soldiers report that their muskets missed fire: it is only known that in the confusion the prisoner escaped, and has not since been heard of. A suspicion having arisen a few days afterwards, that he was concealed in Guatimala, a second detachment was sent to capture him. The party mistook a discharged postman who was in the house, for their prisoner: the poor fellow resisted with a sword, and was immediately killed. Not content with passing five or six bullets through him, they pierced him with their bayonets, in order to assure themselves of his death, and for this feat the leader of the detachment, was raised from a lieutenant to the rank of captain. After this, no further search was made for the real delinquent, and in two or three days the whole affair was forgotten.

Such was the exact state of the police of Guatimala in the year 1827, and the picture is certainly not overdrawn. The Patriot Cavalry, composed of the principal young men in the different shops and warehouses, was formed for the defence of the city, and is called out in case of tumult; but from their total want of discipline, and frequent refusals to obey the orders of their officers, they are but a poor protection either against internal or external enemies. In the month of August, a plan was formed for surprising the nightly guard, setting the prisoners free, and then murdering the chief officers of the government. This was discovered on the eve of its execution, and the Patriot Cavalry were called out at eleven o'clock at night. The corps consists of 150 men, and in this emergency only sixteen appeared.

The murder of the British consul, although arising from motives which but too powerfully influence the lower orders, cannot be considered as an event connected with passing circumstances. The primary motive was certainly revenge for what the wretch chose to term the insults offered to him by his master, in the way of reproof. The secondary one, which probably determined him as to the time, was the hope of plunder. The sensation caused by the atrocious deed, will not easily be forgotten by those who, with the author, were only a few hours before dining with the deceased, and being waited upon by his murderer. It is not necessary to recall the circumstances which accompanied the horrid deed. Too often is the imagination injured, and the mind sickened, by similar recitals of human depravity.

The prison is spacious, and will contain from 3 to 400 criminals. In the summer of 1827, above that number were, for some time, in confinement. The prisoners sleep on dirty pallets, and many of the cells are in a filthy state; but as the rooms are tolerably well ventilated, they are on the whole healthy, and jail fever is unknown. The severest tortures have been here inflicted upon innocent persons, in order to induce confession; but I have been assured the practice was discontinued long before the revolution.

The processes in the criminal courts against offenders, are so long, and involved in such a multitude of forms and writings, as to render it impossible to do justice either to the prisoner or the public. Bad as was the state of things in this respect before the revolution, they are now worse. While the prisons are crowded with criminals, the courts of justice are inactive, and in fact, a nullity. Imprisonment is the grand panacea for every evil, and when the prisoners increase too rapidly, so that the detention of so great a number is difficult and dangerous, thirty or forty, at the despotic command of the government, are marched off to the Castle of Omoa, where the climate soon puts an end to their miseries. Their bones mingle with those of thousands of their predecessors, and a new generation succeeds them, to occupy their places for a few months, and then, in turn, to make way for their successors.

Lawyers are an innumerable body, a certain proof that the laws are complex and confounded. In fact, a Guatimalian lawsuit is precisely the same thing as a chancery suit in England. Like a modern mouse-trap, the entrance is wide and tempting; half way in, it is impossible to withdraw,—the rest is an affair of your executors.

This wretched state of the criminal and civil courts of judicature, with the total absence of an organized police, although one of the causes of the frequency of crime, is by no means the most influential. The more immediate source of a great part of the wretchedness and consequent degradation of the lower classes, is to be found in their prevailing habits of intoxication, and in the multitude of spirit-shops which, on every hand, offer temptations too powerful to be resisted by a people untrained to any habits of self-government. The liquor commonly taken, is prepared from what are termed panelas; these are small loaves of unrefined sugar, drawn from the cane, and by some called raspings; they are excessively sweet and cloying to the taste. Dissolved in water, and mingled with the juice of different fruits, the fluid is left to ferment until it becomes very strong and acquires its intoxicating effects. When in this state, it is considered fit for sale; and as it can be prepared at so cheap a rate as to come within the reach of the poorest Indian, immense quantities are disposed of, under the name of chicha, and these wretched creatures may be seen rolling about the streets and suburbs, in a state sometimes approaching to madness, and sometimes to insensibility, under its overpowering influence. In this way they spend the little money they acquire by their labour, and never rise higher in the scale of civilization than the low grade in which their progenitors have lived and died.

A more permanent and universal source both of crime and laxity of morals will however be found in the want of that early education which checks the growth of the corrupt principles of the human heart, and fosters whatever is valuable to society, or honourable to man. Parents so dissipated themselves cannot be supposed to take much interest in the formation of the character of their offspring, who are as might be expected, generally left exposed to all the baneful influence of such example.

Nor is the evil at all counteracted by that intellectual cultivation which in some cases partly supplies the deficiency. There are two public or endowed schools for boys; the former belonging to the church, was established in the year 1548, and the latter under the direction of the municipality, about a century later. Each is endowed with an annual salary for the master of about 500 dollars. These situations are at present held by two ignorant old men who conduct the schools on the old Spanish system. A great portion of the time is occupied in recitations and in learning what they term the Christian doctrine. Under such direction the children after years of attendance are scarcely able to read or write decently. The united number on the books is about 400, but they attend very irregularly.

In each of the convents girls are taught to read as well as to sew, with the greatest neatness. The boys of the higher, and middle classes can generally read and write, but among girls the latter is a rare accomplishment. In both cases, it is unaccompanied by that moral and religious instruction, which alone can make it valuable.

The most strenuous exertions have been made to introduce the Lancasterian system by the committee of that valuable institution, the British and Foreign School Society of London, but hitherto unsuccessfully. Congress has publicly expressed its determination to establish it, commissioners have been appointed and reports made, but from some cause or other no active steps have been taken to forward the object. The distracted state of the country, the want of finances, the secret hostility of the clergy, and the indolence of the government have all operated againt its establishment. But it cannot be delayed many years. A republican form of government is more than any other a government of opinion, and it will soon be found vain to boast of a freedom whose root is rottenness. Knowledge, universally diffused, is the vital sap of the tree of liberty, and without this strengthening impulse in every branch, its beautiful foliage will fade and wither. The page of history proves to us that monarchies may exist in the midst of moral and intellectual darkness, but republicanism is a plant of light, and will perish if the sources of its life and vigour be long withdrawn. If therefore Guatimala maintains her independence, she will early apply a remedy to the universal ignorance which prevails among her sons, and from this source alone can any considerable improvement in public morals rationally be expected.