Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/19

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part IV, Chapter I: A Party of Pleasure, -Visit to a Grazing Farm, -Views, -Taking of Cattle by the Lazo, -Medical Men, -Value of Labour.




A Party of Pleasure,—Visit to a Grazing Farm,—Views,—Taking of Cattle by the Lazo,—Medical Men,—Value of Labour.

Wednesday was the day fixed for our departure. On the previous evening twelve extra horses had arrived from a farm about six leagues distant, where we proposed to spend two or three weeks; and before daylight the note of preparation sounded in our ears. At length, we started, and a more motley group can scarcely be imagined. Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury could not have displayed a more whimsical variety either of dress or character. First led the way, a friar of the order of La Merced, dressed in the long white flannel gown and little straw hat of his order. Then trotted forward a secular priest, with black gown and clerical saddle cloth. A Spanish gentleman, dressed in the Mexican fashion, and three others in cotton printed jackets, with high saddles, pistols, and swords, and large shaggy skins, hanging down before their knees, followed; immediately preceding a Spanish lady, seated on a saddle similar to an old English pillion, and an English lady and gentleman, in the costume of their own country; three female servants, with black beaver hats, under which streamed before the wind, their long hair, carefully plaited with pink ribands, succeeded; and Indians with cargo brought up the rear of this heterogeneous company. Let those enjoy the pleasure of being whirled along in a close carriage, at the rate of fourteen miles an hour, who with Dr. Johnson, consider it the height of enjoyment; but give me the romantic interest, which belongs to an American party, traversing mountainous districts on pacing mules.

Nor did the characters ofvthe individuals differvless widely than their dresses. The friar, whovhad a small case hung round his neck by a black riband, declared it contained holy oil, the tears of San Ambrosio, and other precious reliques, while the lady, who appeared somewhat skeptical, as positively asserted that he would never take the trouble of carrying any thing but brandy: denials were useless, and with a loud laugh, in which his clerical brother heartily joined, he acknowledged the pious deception, nor seemed ashamed of his impudent imposture.

Leaving on the right the small village of Pinula, we began to ascend the ridge of mountains called Canales, composed entirely of granite, and lined on each side by wild fruit-trees, bending under the weight of their produce. From their summit the road becomes elevated, and commands a fine view of the adjacent country. Wild flowers planted on different hillocks along the road, at the foot of small crosses, wind around the wood, and serve as simple and pious memorials of those who on these spots have met with an untimely death. A few miles further, brought us in sight of the gate leading to lands belonging to the estate, and in a short time we had arrived at the house. At this time it was inhabited only by the mayor-domo, and was in a decayed condition; it had been composed of three wings, with elevated corridors, but two of these were now in a ruinous state; in the third, which consisted of five tolerable apartments, we took up our abode. The front corridor was hung round with the long wooden bee-hives of the country, and its situation afforded a very agreeable prospect of the surrounding hills.

The following morning we took a slight view of the estate, which extended about twenty miles in circumference, consisting of excellent land, in the highest state of fertility, well wooded and watered, and comprising different elevations. The house was surrounded at some distance by a steep ravine isolating it on three sides from the neighbouring country, along the bed of which flowed a small river of excellent water, supplied all the year round by three springs, rising within one hundred yards of each other: the fields near were open, and partook of the character of park scenery, and in every direction furnished the most agreeable walks.

Towards the close of the day we had reached the summit of a high hill, which commanded a fine view of the volcanoes, and the scenery near Amatitan. The sun was just setting with extraordinary beauty. The lake lay stretched like a mirror before us. The mountains belted by a girdle of thick clouds, exhibited their tops shrouded in mist, which partially obscuring the waters, hung like a gauze veil over their surface, and upon the woods which covered the hills. In a short time the sun which had been concealed while higher in the firmament, broke forth behind his mantle of clouds, tinging them with a thousand different colors; the lake glistened as if composed of molten gold,—the mountains seemed on fire, while the fainter streaks illuminated the distance, as the king of day slowly sank behind the hills in indescribable splendour.

Over these beautiful lands roam about 800 head of cattle, and 200 horses, generally inferior in quality; among them were some fine beasts, but the majority were small and bony. This property, including the house and stock, had been lately purchased for a sum equal to about £6000 sterling.

During our stay the live stock was collected in pairs on different parts of the farm, to be marked, the milder ones were driven in flocks, and the more obstinate taken by the lazo. The latter sight is interesting to a stranger. On the day fixed for the taking of the wild cattle the requisite number of horses are saddled, and one end of the lazo, which consists of a long cord made of twisted slips of hide, is firmly bound round the tail of each horse, small branches having first been wound about it to prevent laceration. The rider then gathers the rest of the cord loosely in his hand, taking care that the extremity which is formed into a noose is free, and the cord unravelled. Thus prepared he approaches the bull, who aware of his object generally starts off at full speed, and is as closely pursued; the animal accustomed to the race, runs and winds with surprising swiftness and celerity, but unable to compete with the horse is soon overtaken by his pursuer, who contrives with the greatest dexterity to throw the loose end of the Lazo over his horns, and the instant he finds it has taken a firm hold wheels round his horse, who with the other end fastened to his tail opposes his force to that of the bull. The animal finding himself a prisoner, generally submits to be dragged at full speed after the man, who turns towards the pen; but if he be very powerful or restive, the rider instantly gallops round a circle, by which the loose cord is quickly wound about the legs of the animal, and he is suddenly thrown to the ground. This employment often proves a dangerous one. Sometimes the bull turns and attacks his pursuer, when the greatest agility is requisite to avoid the contact; at other times the rider is thrown by the violence of the shock which ensues when the animal succeeds in bringing the horse upon his haunches; to say nothing of the numerous falls to which both are subject, by galloping over unlevel and often rocky ground. Notwithstanding these dangers, this species of chase is the favourite amusement both of horse and man; the former is enlivened by the shouts of the spectators, and the latter is urged forward, by a kind of rural ambition. A spectator scarcely knows which to admire most,—the dexterity of the one, or the docility of the other.

To collect the required number was the work of three days, during which the poor creatures were imprisoned without any thing to eat or drink, and almost suffocated by the clouds of dust they raised in their attempts to get out. On the third day, the cord was again thrown round the horns of each one, and immediately twisted about their legs, by which means one after another they were forcibly thrown to the ground, and marked with a hot iron. The mode of effecting this was as clumsy and brutal as can be imagined. The same plan was afterwards pursued with the horses, although one died upon the spot, from the violence with which he was thrown to the ground. It was vain to endeavour to persuade them, that milder means would effect their object as well. Ignorant people are generally obstinate. The value of cattle is not great, and with humanity they have nothing to do. A fine cow may be purchased for a sum equal to about £4 sterling, a sheep is worth froom 6s. to 7s. The value of a horse, depends chiefly upon his having what is termed the passo, an easy pace something between a swift walk, and a gentle trot. They may be bought from £2 to £20; but mules are much dearer, a very ordinary one will fetch from £6 to £8.

The other branches of rural economy are greatly neglected; some butter and cheese is obtained, but in small quantities. Honey is more regarded; the bee hives similar to those described in a former chapter were numerous, and contained two species of bees, one manso or tame, which do not sting, and the other possessing that property in the same degree, as in Europe. The former are the favourites, yet notwithstanding their general character for mildness, we were told that at times they fight with such fury, as to make it requisite to throw over the hive a cloth dipped in some sweet, which attracts their attention, and draws them from the conflict. The bees that sting, yield a species of honey thinner than the others, which will not keep so well.

During our stay in this house, one of the family was suddenly taken ill; and a messenger was immediately despatched to Guatimala for the medical man, who arrived two days afterwards, to see his patient nearly recovered. This dilatory mode of procedure is universal. In country cases, the physician generally comes when the patient is either convalescent or buried. The individual who made his appearance on this occasion, was considered the first of his profession; after the usual excuses for delay, he proceeded to unpack his little box of drugs, which contained purges, tonics and vomits of every description; and taking his patient's pulse, discoursed most learnedly, and at considerable length upon the nature and cause of the disease, which he alternately attributed to nerves, vapours and irritations. For this sapient essay, and sixpence worth of drugs, he received 2oz. of gold. He passed the evening with us, and introduced Gall and Spurzheim's theory, of which he was a zealous disciple;—new organs were discovered in new places, and localities given to the old ones, widely different from those Dr. Gall has chosen for them. But with his employers he passed for a most erudite physician, and that was sufficient. Quackery is not confined to age or country. Were a modest and intelligent foreigner to settle here, he would meet with little encouragement; prejudices would be strong against him, and if he did not talk of nerves and vapours, he would get no practice.

Other kinds of labour are not so well paid. The poor barber who travelled the same thirty miles every week to shave the beard of our worthy host, only received a dollar; and the Indian who traversed the same ground with his daily load of provisions, thought himself happy in gaining a sum equal to ninepence sterling. So widely do professions differ, even when the talents of the individuals may be pretty nearly on a par.

The Indians, who may be considered as serfs of the soil, generally perform these commissions with fidelity. The only risk lies in their encountering spirituous liquors on the way; a temptation often too powerful to be resisted. This estate contained about two hundred of these poor creatures, who at different times had obtained from the proprietor, permission to build their thatched huts upon the ground, and to cultivate the portion he allots to them. For this permission, they agree to pay him annually a certain portion of maize, to render occasional gratuitous services, and to supply eggs or fowls to the farm when wanted. If they keep a cow, a dollar annually must be paid for its maintenance. This body is governed by an alcalde, and five or six inferior officers elected from among themselves, who has power to imprison, and reports to the alcalde of the nearest town. By the constitution, all the Indians are declared citizens, with equal rights and privileges; but with regard to them, this decree is of no effect. Their condition remains nearly if not altogether, the same as before the revolution. When the proprietor visits his estate, he sends for the alcalde and his officers, who almost kiss his feet, by the humility of their obeisance. He then states the number of fowls, eggs, &c. he wishes to have that day, and the number of men he requires to assist him, and the alcalde's only business is to find them. Probably from ten to twenty, will be constantly employed on the farm, and these receive three dollars monthly, equal to about three shillings sterling a week. Under such circumstances it is evident, that the comfort of the Indian. depends not so much upon any justice he can obtain when oppressed, as upon the mildness and humanity of his master. If a robbery be committed, and the author remains undiscovered, the proprietor of the hacienda orders all whom he has reason to suspect of being concerned in it, to leave the estate, and if the order be not complied with instantly, sets fire to the huts and maize of the suspected, who are then driven out by force. This is the general kind of punishment, and there is no appeal.

To each of these haciendas is appended a small chapel or Oratorio de la Misa, where a priest occasionally performs the Romish service; a bell is rung the previous night, and by an early hour on the following morning, a good congregation is generally collected.

The submission of the Indian population to their spiritual instructers, knows no bounds. Every one who passed the priest, when walking with us in the fields bent for his blessing, and received his hand upon their heads, with the deepest humility; the relatives of one poor woman whom he visited when sick, actually placed flowers and branches along the path he had to tread to reach her hut, which ceremony he told us, was in imitation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. From whom but from their pastors, can they have received such impious lessons? This man was coarse, vulgar, and stupidly ignorant, and delighted in receiving homage, the poor creatures equally ignorant delighted to pay it.

The number of Indians constantly kept on different estates in this kind of servitude, has a strong tendency to lower the price of labour, and often impedes the introduction of machines, which in the end would be highly beneficial to the country. At the first glance the fixing of a saw mill, upon this estate appeared to us a speculation, which certainly would pay. At a very short distance from the house was a fine ravine, at the extremity of which rose a spring, which in conjunction with others formed a powerful stream, having a considerable descent. The sides were lined with wood, both pine and cedar. The climate was good,—the distance from the capital was short. The requisite machinery might be obtained from the United States, at a very trifling expense. We named it to the owner. He immediately said it could not be made to pay. If wood were wanted for the capital, two Indians were sent to cut a tree, a pair of oxen drew it to its destination, and the whole expense was a few rials. We found on our return to the capital, the force of this argument. Cedar deals twelve feet long, could be purchased for two shillings or two and sixpence. Fir deals for one shilling, or one and threepence, and beams five inches square for a sum equal to about one shilling sterling. besides this the consumption was small, and the distance from the coast too great to think of exportation. This circumstance in itself is trifling, but it shows how easily foreigners may deceive themselves, by entering upon speculations, and especially by introducing machinery without sufficiently considering the nature, and peculiar circumstances of the country in which they propose to make the establishment.