Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/4

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Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part I, Chapter IV: Voyage to Yzabal, -Quays, -Settlements, -Coast of Yucatan, -Rio Dulce, -Pirates, -Castillo del Golfo.


Voyage to Yzabal,—Quays,—Settlements,—Coast of Yucatan,—Rio Dulce,—Pirates,—Castillo del Golfo.

After spending two months very agreeably in Belize, we left it on Friday, the 4th of May, on board a schooner bound for the port of Yzabal.

The light winds which generally prevail at this season of the year, prevent a very rapid progress, but the traveller is abundantly repaid by the picturesque appearance of the numerous beautiful little quays, which surround the bay on every side. Some of these have not more than a mile in circumference, and are covered with bushes; on others are to be seen a few huts, and one of them (St. George's) has several good houses, and is the favourite resort of the inhabitants of Belize.

Very near to a cluster of these quays, lies a part of the Spanish main, called, by the English, “False Bite.” On the shore is a settlement of creoles, who chiefly employ themselves in raising stock and vegetables, which are sent to Belize. The land cultivated runs close along the shore, and is backed by the mountains. It is of excellent quality, and well watered. The settlers find it healthy, and complain only of the immense number of flies, especially of the cantharis, or Spanish fly, (the Lytta Vesicatoria of Linnæus,) great numbers of which abound here, and are considerably more annoying than the mosquito.

Leaving this, and passing Northern Standy Creek, a settlement of Caribs, and Mullands river, where there is another small settlement of creoles, we came to an anchor at a point called Manavique, by the Spaniards, or Three Points, by the English. Before us lay stretched a rich line of coast, belonging to the province of Yucatan, low, and thickly wooded to the shore. No vestiges of inhabitants were to be seen, excepting one or two straggling huts, probably belonging to fishermen. The woods abound in game of every kind, and are said to be infested both by tigers and serpents; some of the former are of considerable size. There is, however, little doubt but that this animal, which is called, by all who frequent these shores, the tiger, is in fact the jaguar, bearing a strong resemblance to the ounce, both in size, and in the form of the spots with which his skin is diversified. The beach swarms with the cayman, or alligator, generally small in size, although they are sometimes met with 18 or 20 feet long. These so nearly resemble the crocodile of the Nile, that they may be considered the same species, allowing for the trifling variation which difference of climate will produce. The number of sharks is also considerable.

Sailing from this point, the traveller soon comes in sight of the Rio Dulce. The entrance to this beautiful river, viewed from a distance, is enchanting, and takes a powerful hold upon the imagination. On either side are high mountains covered with the richest verdure and apparently leaning over as if to meet each other; while the peculiar bend which the river takes very near the entrance, throws forward the woods which skirt the side of the hills, and the whole forms an archway of consummate beauty. The effect is exquisite and surpasses description.

Between these mountains the river Hows in a serpentine direction for near twenty miles, and it is impossible for words to do justice to its scenery. As the vesel glides slowly and silently along, or is propelled by oars when the stream is contrary, the eye is regaled with all the varieties of foliage, which adorn the various trees and bushes, hanging over the sides of the mountains, and towering almost to the clouds; the ear receives the mingled notes of an infinite variety of birds, singing in security among crags and precipices where the foot of man has never entered to destroy or to molest; while the discordant cry of the various tribes of monkeys inhabiting the woods, and every instant playfully springing after each other from tree to tree, gives a diversity to the scene at once novel and delightful. In addition to this, the windings of the stream are so abrupt, and the effect so varied, that it is in fact a perpetually changing picture. Nature would appear on this spot to have lavished all her beauties, nor can the most imaginative mind conceive a scene of grester loveliness.

The abundance of her gifts, are however in a considerable degree counterbalanced by the intense heat of a tropical sun, which darts its rays with amazing force between these hills, oftentimes unrelieved by the least breath of air; while the heavy dews that fall during the night, together with the damps of the rainy season, render it a dangerous habitation for man.

About half way up, the river falls into a lake 10 miles in width, and surrounded by high mountains. On its opposite side commences the upper part of the Dulce, which presents a very different aspect to the lower. The land on either side is low and marshy, and the mountains fall into the distance.

After ascending a few miles further we anchored about 8 o’clock on a fine moonlight evening. A sultry stillness reigned on every side, disturbed only by the distant cries of the various animals in the woods—the solitary splash of some passing fish, or the gentle rippling of the stream against the sides of the vessel.

The conversation turned on the atrocities of the pirates, who infest these parts; and among other stories the history of the sacking and scuttling of the very vessel in which we then were, was related. It is a melancholy tale, but as the circumstances are of recent date, and the sufferers known, it is worth remembrance.

She was at that time manned by a captain and four men, and had on board a clerk of the house to which she belonged. They were returning from the Spanish coast to Belize, when they fell in with a schooner of similar size which they immediately recognized as belonging to the bay. This vessel it appears had been taken the day before by the pirates, who now attempted to board them. Deceived by her appearance they were totally unprepared for resistance. The wretches had no sooner placed their feet on her deck, than they proceeded to murder every soul on board, with the exception of one black man who jumped overboard, and although wounded, miraculously escaped by swimming. Having hung the body of the master at the yard arm, they first sacked and then scuttled the vessel, supposing she would sink; but they were too confident and careless, she drifted ashore and told her own tale—a few days after this the party landed, and soon excited suspicion by their lavish prodigality; they were arrested and sent to Jamaica for trial, and sufficient evidence being procured against them, were condemned and executed. So quickly does the hand of God sometimes take vengeance for blood.

As the night came on we stretched ourselves upon the deck to sleep, leaving one to watch, but the excitement of these stories, together with the novelty of the situation, banished it from most of our eyes. About midnight, the lightning which had been for some time playing about the hills, became exceedingly vivid, and as its flashes glanced upon the sleepers, reclined on different parts of the deck, each one with a loaded musket and cutlass by his side, they seemed to exhibit a scene rather of romance than of reality.

At day-break we rose, and the current being still unfavourable, some of the party went into the woods to shoot, and succeeded in killing three small birds not unlike the common partridge. Every report of the musket seemed to awaken all the echoes of the hills, calling and answering one to another as if their reverberations would never cease. One of the sailors had also dived, and brought up three fine young turtles, and these with the birds provided us no contemptible dinner.

Slowly ascending the river, and passing an immense number of beautiful little creeks, diverging to the right and left, many of which contain springs of excellent water, the traveller reaches the mouth of a second lake, where the Spaniards have erected a fort, called by them Castillo del Golfo, or the castle of the gulph. The appearance of its huts from the river is picturesque. The fort however consists only of a ruinous wall defended by about twenty carib soldiers, who live there surrounded by their families.

We landed to show our passports, and were led to the commandant's house, through rows of plantain trees, on the fruit of which he and his troops subsist. It was a miserable hut, with a clay floor not even levelled. A hammock was slung across the room in which an old woman was reclining,—a few coarse prints of the virgin, and a brass crucifix ornamented its mud walls, and two or three common wooden stools constituted the whole of its furniture. But as if to make the contrast more striking, on one of them stood several beautifully cut-glass decanters, cream jugs and tumblers, with three or four clay jars of excellent water. One of these was handed to us with a glass, by a fine young woman, apparently about sixteen and nearly naked. The females here seemed to have lost all sense of modesty and propriety, wore considerably less clothing than the men, and appeared if possible more depraved. They perform all the manual labour, and are treated as a degraded sex: numbers of them were bathing round the vessel and some of them asked permission to come on board.

This settlement is very beautiful, and its inhabitants unconscious of their wretchodness seem to a superficial eye contented and happy.

Our passports being backed by the commandant's secretary, who seemed to have some difficulty in inscribing his name, we crossed the lake on the shore of which stands the little town of Yzabal. Here we anchored for the night, and landed early in the morning.