Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/11

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part II, Chapter IV: Amusements, -Theatre, -Bull Fights, -Literature, -Newspapers, -Booksellers, -Fine Arts, &c. &c.


Amusements,—Theatre,—Bull Fights,—Literature,—Newspapers,—Booksellers,—Fine Arts, &c. &c.

The stranger's first impression, that Guatimala is exceedingly dull and lifeless, will not, in all probability, be materially changed on a more intimate acquaintance; especially if he be one of that numerous class to whose very existence public amusements seem necessary, since there is not, perhaps, a city in the world where diversions of every species are more neglected.

The theatre,[1] established about a year ago, is not much better in appearance than a country barn. In the heavy showers which frequently fall during the rainy season the water trickles through the roof, both into the pit and boxes; and more than once, umbrellas have been as usefully employed within, as without the house, The scenery is wretchedly painted, and the Performers, with the exception of two European comedians, are said to be inferior to the lowest village strollers. The numbers who attended at the beginning of the year, were not sufficient to pay the expenses, and the company having struggled some time against the losses connected with empty benches, gave public notice, in the month of July, 1827, that owing to the thin attendance of the citizens, the performances would cease, and there is now little prospect of their being renewed.

This species of amusement, was originally established in the hope that it might become popular, and supersede, in great measure, the barbarous diversions of the bull-ring; but, although the pieces chosen were sufficiently licentious, and the dances somewhat indecent, with the additional temptation of the performances being held on Sundays and saints' days, it was not sufficient to wean the worthy citizens from their favourite “Toros,” and the exhibitions of the latter are still well attended. These, however, only take place in the dry season, and are neither conducted in so cruel a manner as in Spain, or the other parts of America, nor is the same degree of skill and courage displayed by the combatants. In the eye of the connoiseur, they are deemed far inferior to similar exhibitions in Mexico; but they still possess sufficient attractions to draw crowds of every rank, and of each sex, to witness the barbarous spectacle, and to be brutalized by its heart-hardening tendencies.

A few large card parties, a solitary ball, and one or two billiard tables, will complete the catalogue, with the exception of that infamous nest of vice and cruelty—the cock-pit—which has, however, fallen into disrepute, and is only attended by the most depraved part of the people. The most successful speculations in this department have been those of travelling troops of equestrians and jugglers; but as they do not form any permanent source of amusement, they can hardly be considered as belonging to the city.

To name the word literature, in connexion with this part of Spanish America, seems almost ridiculous; yet, a slight sketch of the labours of the printing presses of Guatimala may not be altogether uninteresting. At what period this art was first introduced it is impossible to say; but it must have been exercised in the old city for above a century; since a treatise on practical arithmetic, by Father Padilla, a secular priest, was printed there in the year 1732. Whether any other work, equally useful, has issued from the walls of the printing-office since that period, is a problem it perhaps would be difficult to solve.

Its chief occupation is to reprint papers from Rome, to publish the letters and charges of the archbishop, with now and then a declamatory sermon; and to supply the good Catholics with little volumes of prayers and devotional exercises for peculiar times and seasons. Since the revolution, however, three others have been established, which find employment in publishing the newspapers. A number of these publications have at various times, seen the light; but with the greater part, it has been but to be born and die. At present they are three in number, and published weekly: one called the Gazette of the Government; another, the Gazette of the State; and the third, The Indicador. All these support the measures of the present administration; are equally dull and uninteresting, and have a very limited sale. No news makes its appearance in any of them until it has been generally known in the city for a month, excepting official government papers, which are exceedingly long and tedious; and with these their columns are mostly filled. As the presses obtain little other employment, they of course are not very profitable to their owners.

The last book published, was a volume of poetical fables, by a Dr. Goyena, who styles himself a son of Central America. These possess considerable merit, and display a degree of talent, which under proper cultivation, would have raised their author to eminence. The sale of them, however, has been scarcely sufficient to cover his expenses, and the book has not raised its literary parent from that poverty to which literature, especially of a poetical kind, almost invariably subjects its votaries. A system of stenography has also been prepared by one of the priests; but finding it impossible to obtain a sufficient number of subscribers to defray expenses, he has wisely abstained from printing.

Engraving is executed neatly, but the artists obtain no employ. The supply of books is by no means deficient, and rather exceeds the demand than otherwise. Spanish editions of heavy books, such as Universal Histories, &c. may be found in the stores of the old merchants, and lighter works, chiefly translations from the French, and many of them very exceptionable, are to be met with in two or three different shops, opened by agents of French booksellers. Mr. Ackerman, of London, has certainly rendered a much greater service to the country, in the class of books and prints which he has endeavoured to introduce. His elementary catechisms are exceedingly valuable, and his drawings and fancy articles will probably tend to foster, if not to create a taste for the fine arts. In these, many of the natives excel; a lhct, which may be proved by reference to the various sculptures and copies of paintings which have been executed by their different artists. Indeed, in the present day, they can boast a miniature painter altogether self-taught, who, for exactness of resemblance, if not for delicacy of finish, my be placed in competition with almost any European.

As musical instrument makers, they are by no means contemptible. Two or three of the organs used in the churches, and particularly a very fine one in the cathedral, were manufactured in the city, and both in tone and outward ornament, they are equal to the majority built in Europe. Every species of fancy work they produce with great delicacy. The makers of artificial flowers surpass in the exactnass of their imitations of nature our English manufacturers; and the workers in wax, a tribe little known amongst us, succeed admirably in the production of models and specimens.

  1. The author would not have noticed an amusement, the moral tendency of which he considers ruinous, had it not been to illustrate the character of a people who can bear with no purer substitute for a barbarous exhibition than a licentious theatre. He does not know that the failure of the experiment can be regretted. Whether any thing would have been gained by the change may well be doubted. When will they learn that an early education in the principles of the Bible can alone effect any important change in the habits and manners of a nation?