Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan/Chapter 33

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Early the next morning we prepared for our move to the ruins. We had to make provision for housekeeping on a large scale; our culinary utensils were of rude pottery, and our cups the hard shells of some round vegetables, the whole cost, perhaps, amounting to four shillings. We could not procure a water-jar in the place, but the alcalde lent us one free of charge unless it should be broken, and as it was cracked at the time, he probably considered it sold. By the way, we forced ourselves upon the alcalde's affections by leaving our money with him for safe-keeping. We did this with great publicity, in order that it might be known in the village that there was no "plata" at the ruins, but the alcalde regarded it as a mark of special confidence. Indeed, we could not have shown him a greater. He was a suspicious old miser, kept his own money in a trunk in an inner room, and never left the house without locking the street door and carrying the key with him. He made us pay beforehand for everything we wanted, and would not have trusted us half a dollar on any account.

It was necessary to take with us from the village all that could contribute to our comfort, and we tried hard to get a woman; but no one would trust herself alone with us. This was a great privation; a woman was desirable, not, as the reader may suppose, for embellishment, but to make tortillas. These, to be tolerable, must be eaten the moment they are baked; but we were obliged to make an arrangement with the alcalde to send them out daily with the product of our cow.

Our turn-out was equal to anything we had had on the road. One Indian set off with a cowhide trunk on his back, supported by a bark string as the groundwork of his load, while on each side hung by a bark string a fowl wrapped in plantain leaves, the head and tail only being visible. Another had on the top of his trunk a live turkey, with its legs tied and wings expanded, like a spread eagle. Another had on each side of his load strings of eggs, each egg being wrapped carefully in a husk of corn, and all fastened like onions on a bark string. Cooking utensils and water-jar were mounted on the backs of other Indians, and contained rice, beans, sugar, chocolate, &c.; strings of pork and bunches of plantains were pendent; and Juan carried in his arms our travelling tin coffee-canister filled with lard, which in that country was always in a liquid state.

At half-past seven we left the village. For a short distance the road was open, but very soon we entered a forest, which continued unbroken to the ruins, and probably many miles beyond. The road was a mere Indian footpath, the branches of the trees beaten down and heavy with the rain, hanging so low that we were obliged to stoop constantly, and very soon our hats and coats were perfectly wet.

From the thickness of the foliage the morning sun could not dry up the deluge of the night before. The ground was very muddy, broken by streams swollen by the early rains, with gulleys in which the mules floundered and stuck fast, in some places very difficult to cross. Amid all the wreck of empires, nothing ever spoke so forcibly the world's mutations as this immense forest shrouding what was anciently a great city. Once it had been a great highway, thronged with people who were stimulated by the same passions that give impulse to human action now; and they are all gone, their habitations buried, and no traces of them left.

In two hours we reached the River Micol, and in half an hour more that of Otula, darkened by the shade of the woods, and breaking beautifully over a stony bed. Fording this, very soon we saw masses of stones, and then a round sculptured stone. We spurred up a sharp ascent of fragments, so steep that the mules could barely climb it, to a terrace so covered, like the whole road, with trees, that it was impossible to make out the form. Continuing on this terrace, we stopped at the foot of a second, when our Indians cried out "El Palacio," "the palace," and through openings in the trees we saw the front of a large building, richly ornamented with stuccoed figures on the pilasters, curious and elegant; trees growing close against it, and their branches entering the doors; in style and effect unique, extraordinary and mournfully beautiful. We tied our mules to the trees, ascended a flight of stone steps forced apart and thrown down by trees, and entered the palace, ranged for a few moments along the corridor and into the courtyard, and after the first gaze of eager curiosity was over, went back to the entrance, and, standing in the doorway, fired a feu-de-joie of four rounds each, being the last charge of our firearms. But for this way of giving vent to our satisfaction, we should have made the roof of the old palace ring with a hurrah. It was intended, too, for effect upon the Indians, who had probably never heard such cannonade before, and almost, like their ancestors in the time of Cortez, regarded our weapons as instruments which spit lightning. All who, we knew, would make such a report in the village as would keep any of their respectable friends from paying us a visit at night.

We had reached the end of our long and toilsome journey, and at first glance indemnified us for our toil. For the first time we were at a building erected by the aboriginal inhabitants, standing before it. Europeans knew of the existence of this continent, and we prepared to take up our abode under its roof. We selected the front corridor for our dwelling, turned turkey and fowls loose in the courtyard, which was so overgrown with trees that we could barely see across it; and as there was no pasture for the mules except the leaves of the trees, and we could not turn them loose into the woods, we brought them up the steps through the palace, and turned them into the courtyard also. At one end of the corridor Juan built a kitchen, which operation consisted in laying three stones anglewise, so as to have room for a fire between them. Our luggage was stowed away or hung on pole reaching across the corridor. Pawling mounted a stone about four feet long on stone legs for a table, and with the Indians cut a number of poles, which they fastened together with bark strings, and laid them on stones at the head and foot for beds. We cut down the branches that entered the palace, and some of the trees on the terrace, and from the floor of the palace overlooked the top of an immense forest stretching off to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Indians had superstitious fears about remaining at night among the ruins, and left us alone, the sole tenants of the palace of unknown kings. Little did they who built it think that in a few years their royal line would perish and their race be extinct, their city a ruin, and Mr. Catherwood, Pawling, and I and Juan its sole tenants. Other strangers had been there, wondering like ourselves. Their names were written on the walls, with comments and figures; and even here were marks of those low, grovelling spirits which delight in profaning holy places. Among the names, but not of the latter class, were those of acquaintances: Captain Caddy and Mr. Walker; and one was that of a countryman, Noah O. Platt, New York. He had gone out to Tobasco as supercargo of a vessel, ascended one of the rivers for log-wood, and while his vessel was loading visited the ruins. His account of them had given me a strong desire to visit them long before the opportunity of doing so presented itself.

High up on one side of the corridor was the name of William Beauham, and under it was a stanza written in lead-pencil. By means of a tree with notches cut in it, I climbed up and read the lines. The rhyme was faulty and the spelling bad, but they breathed a deep sense of the moral sublimity pervading these unknown ruins. The author seemed, too, an acquaintance. I had heard his story in the village. He was a young Irishman, sent by a merchant of Tobasco into the interior for purposes of small traffic; had passed sometime at Palenque and in the neighbourhood; and, with his thoughts and feelings turned strongly toward the Indians, after dwelling upon the subject for some time, resolved to penetrate into the country of the Caribs. His friends endeavoured to dissuade him, and the Prefect told him—"You have red hair, a florid complexion, and white skin, and they will either make a god of you, and keep you among them, or else kill and eat you;" but he set off alone and on foot, crossed the river Chacamal, and after an absence of nearly a year returned safe, but naked and emaciated, with his hair and nails long, having been eight days with a single Carib on the banks of a wild river, searching for a crossing place, and living upon roots and herbs. He built a hut on the borders of the Chacamal River, and lived there with a Carib servant, preparing for another and more protracted journey among them, until at length some boatmen, who came to trade with him, found him lying in his hammock dead, with his skull split open. He had escaped the dangers of a journey which no man in that country dared encounter, to die by the hands of an assassin in a moment of fancied security. His arm was hanging outside, and a book lying on the ground; probably he was struck while reading. The murderers, one of whom was his servant, were caught, and were then in prison in Tobasco. Unfortunately, the people of Palenque had taken but little interest in anything except the extraordinary fact of his visit among the Caribs and his return safe. All his papers and collection of curiosities were scattered and destroyed, and with him died all the fruits of his labours; but, were he still living, he would be the man, of all others, to accomplish the discovery of that mysterious city which had so much affected our imaginations.

As the ruins of Palenque are the first which awakened attention to the existence of ancient and unknown cities in America, and as, on that account, they are perhaps more interesting to the public, it may not be amiss to state the circumstances of their first discovery.

The account is, that in the year 1750, a party of Spaniards travelling in the interior of Mexico penetrated to the lands north of the district of Carmen, in the province of Chiapas, when all at once they found, in the midst of a vast solitude, ancient stone buildings, the remains of a city, still embracing from eighteen to twenty-four miles in extent, known to the Indians by the name of Casas de Piedra. From my knowledge of the country I am at a loss to conjecture with a party of Spaniards were travelling in that forest, or how they could have done so. I am inclined to believe rather that the existence of the ruins was discovered by the Indians, who had clearings in different parts of the forest for their corn-fields, or perhaps was known to them from time immemorial, and on their report the inhabitants were induced to visit them.

The existence of such a city was entirely unknown; there is no mention of it in any book, and no tradition that it had ever been. To this day it is not known by what name it was called, and the only appellation given to it is that of Palenque, after the village near which the ruins stand.

The news of the discovery passed from mouth to mouth, was repeated in some cities of the province, and reached the seat of government; but little attention was paid to it, and the members of the government, through ignorance, apathy, or the actual impossibility of occupying themselves with anything except public affairs, took no measures to explore the ruins, and it was not till 1786, thirty years subsequent to the discovery, that the king of Spain ordered an exploration; on the third of May, 1787, Captain Antonio del Rio arrived at the village, under a commission from the government of Guatimala, and on the 5th he proceeded to the site of the ruined city. In his official report he says, on making his first essay, owing to the thickness of the woods, and a fog so dense that it was impossible for the men to distinguish each other at five paces' distance, the principal building was completely concealed from their view.

He returned to the village, and after concerting measures with the deputy of the district, an order was issued to the inhabitants of Tumbala, requiring 200 Indians with axes and billhooks. On the 17th, seventy-nine arrived, furnished with twenty-eight axes, after which twenty more were obtained in the village; and with these he again moved forward, and immediately commenced felling trees, which was followed by a general conflagration.

The report of Captain Del Rio, with the commentary of Doctor Paul Felix Cabrera, of New Guatimala, deducing an Egyptian origin for the people, through either the supineness or the jealousy of the Spanish government, was locked up in the archives of Guatimala until the time of the revolution, when, by the operation of liberal principles, the original manuscripts came into the hands of an English gentleman long resident in that country, and an English translation was published at London in 1822. This was the first notice in Europe of the discovery of these ruins; and, instead of electrifying the public mind, either from want of interest in the subject, distrust, or some other cause, so little notice was taken of it, that, in 1831, the Literary Gazette, a paper of great circulation in London, announced it as a new discovery made by Colonel Galindo, whose unfortunate fate has been before referred to. If a like discovery had been made in Italy, Greece, Egypt, or Asia, within the reach of European travel, it would have created an interest not inferior to the discovery of Herculaneum, or Pompeii, or the ruins of Pæstum.

While the report and drawings of Del Rio slept in the archives of Guatimala, Charles the Fourth of Spain ordered another expedition, at the head of which was placed Captain Dupaix, with a secretary and draughtsman, and a detachment of dragoons. His expeditions were made in 1805, 1806, and 1807, the last of which was to Palenque.

The manuscripts of Dupaix, and the designs of his draughtsman Castenada, were about to be sent to Madrid, which was then occupied by the French army, when the revolution broke out in Mexico; they then became an object of secondary importance, and remained during the wars of independence under the control of Castenada, who deposited them in the Cabinet of Natural History in Mexico. In 1828 M. Baradere disentombed them from the cartons of the museum, where, but for this accident, they might still have remained, and the knowledge of the existence of this city again been lost. The Mexican Congress had passed a law forbidding any stranger not formally authorized to make researches or to remove objects of art from the country; but, in spite of this interdict, M. Baradere obtained authority to make researches in the interior of the republic, with the agreement that after sending to Mexico all that he collected, half should be delivered to him, with permission to transport them to Europe. Afterwards he obtained by exchange the original designs of Castenada; and an authentic copy of the itinerary and descriptions of Captain Dupaix was promised in three months. From divers circumstances, that copy did not reach M. Baradere till long after his return to France, and the work of Dupaix was not published until 1834-5, twenty-eight years after his expedition, when it was brought out in Paris, in four volumes folio, at the price of 800f., with notes and commentaries by M. Alexandre Lenoir, M. Warden, M. Charles Farcy, M. Baradere, and M. De St. Priest.

Lord Kingsborough's ponderous tomes, so far as regards Palenque, are a mere reprint of Dupaix, and the cost of his work is 80l. per copy. Colonel Galindo's communications to the Geographical Society of Paris are published in the work of Dupaix, and since him Mr. Waldeck, with funds provided by an association in Mexico, had passed two years among the rains. His drawings, as he states in a work on another place, were taken away by the Mexican government; but he had retained copies, and before we set out, his work on Palenque was announced in Paris. It, however, has never appeared, and in the meantime Dupaix's is the text-book.

I have two objections to make to this work, not affecting Captain Dupaix, who, as his expedition took place thirty-four years since, is not likely to be affected, if he be even living, but his Paris editors. The first is the very depreciating tone in which mention is made of the work of his predecessor, Del Rio, and, secondly, this paragraph in the introduction:—

"It must be considered that a government only can execute such undertakings. A traveller relying upon his own resources, cannot hope, whatever may be his intrepidity, to penetrate, and, above all, to live in those dangerous solitudes; and, supposing that he succeeds, it is beyond the power of the most learned and skilful man to explore alone the ruins of a vast city, of which he must not only measure and draw the edifices still existing, but also determine the circumference and examine the remains, dig the soil and explore the subterraneous constructions. M. Baradere arrived within fifty league of Palenque, burning with the desire of going there; but what could a single man do with domestics or other auxiliaries, without moral force or intelligence, against a people still half savage, against serpents and other hurtful animals, which, according to Dupaix, infest these ruins, and also against the vegetative force of a nature, fertile and powerful, which in a few years re-covers all the monuments and obstructs all the avenues?"

The effect of this is to crush all individual enterprise, and, moreover, it is untrue. All the accounts, founded upon this, represent a visit to these ruins as attended with immense difficulty and danger, to such an extent that we feared to encounter them; but there is no difficulty whatever in going from Europe or the United States to Palenque. Our greatest hardships, even in our long journey through the interior, were from the revolutionary state of the countries and want of time; and as to a residence there, with time to construct a hut or to fit up an apartment in the palace, and to procure stores from the seaboard, those "dangerous solitudes" might be anything rather than unpleasant.

And to show what individuals can accomplish, I state that Mr. Catherwood's drawings include all the objects represented in the work of Dupaix, and others besides which do not appear in that work at all, and have never before been presented to the public; among which is the drawing No. 40, and the large tablets of hieroglyphics, the most curious and interesting pieces of sculpture at Palenque. I add, with the full knowledge that I shall be contradicted by future travellers if I am wrong, that the whole of Mr. C.'s are more correct in proportions, outline, and filling up than his, and furnish more true material for speculation and study. I would not have said thus much but from a wish to give confidence to the reader who may be disposed to investigate and study these interesting remains. As to most of the places visited by us, he will find no materials whatever except those furnished in these pages. In regard to Palenque, he will find a splendid work, the materials of which were procured under the sanction of a commission from government, and brought out with explanations and commentaries by the learned men of Paris, by the side of which this octavo shrinks into insignificance; but I uphold the drawings against these costly folios, and against every other book that has ever been published on the subject of these ruins. The object has been, not to produce an illustrated work, but to present the drawings in such an inexpensive form as to place them within reach of the great mass of the reading community.

But to return to ourselves in the palace. While we were making our observations, Juan was engaged in a business that his soul loved. As with all the mozos of that country, it was his pride and ambition to servir a mano. He scorned the manly occupation of a muleteer, and aspired to that of a menial servant. He was anxious to be left at the village, and did not like the idea of stopping at the ruins, but was reconciled to it by being allowed to devote himself exclusively to cookery. At four o'clock, with a bright sunshine, we sat down to our first dinner. The tablecloth was two broad leaves, each about two feet long, plucked from a tree on the terrace before the door. Our salt-cellar stood like a pyramid, being a case made of husks of corn put together lengthwise, and holding four or five pounds, in lumps from the size of a pea to that of a hen's egg. Juan was as happy as if he had prepared the dinner exclusively for his own eating; and all went merry as a marriage-bell, when suddenly the sky became overcast, and a sharp thunder-clap heralded the afternoon's storm. From the elevation of the terrace, the floor of the palace commanded a view of the top of the forest, and we could see the trees bent down by the force of the wind; very soon a fierce blast swept through the open doors, which was followed instantaneously by heavy rain. The table was cleared by the wind, and, before we could make our escape, was drenched by the rain. We snatched away our plates, and finished our meal as we could. The rain continued, with heavy thunder and lightning, all the afternoon. In the absolute necessity of taking up our abode among the ruins, we had hardly thought of our exposure to the elements until it was forced upon us. At night we could not light a candle, but the darkness of the palace was lighted up by fireflies of extraordinary size and brilliancy, shooting through the corridors and stationary on the walls, forming a beautiful and striking spectacle. They were of the description with those we saw at Nopa, known by the name of shining beetles, and are mentioned by the early Spaniards, among the wonders of a world where all was new, "as showing the way to those who travel at night" The historian describes them as "somewhat smaller than Sparrows, having two stars close by their Eyes, and two more under their Wings, which gave so great a Light that by it they could spin, weave, write, and paint; and the Spaniards went by night to hunt the Utios or little Rabbits of that country; and a-fishing carrying these animals tied to their great Toes or Thumbs: and they called them Locuyos, being also of use to save them from the Gnats, which are there very troublesome. They took them in the Night with Firebrands, because they made to the Light, and came when called by their Name; and they are so unwieldy that when they fall they cannot rise again; and the Men streaking their Faces and Hands with sort of Moisture that is in those Stars, seemed to be afire as long as it lasted."

It always gave us high pleasure to realize the romantic and seemingly half-fabulous accounts of the chroniclers of the conquest. Very often we found their quaint descriptions so vivid and faithful as to infuse the spirit that breathed through their pages. We caught several of these beetles, not, however, by calling them by their names, but with a hat, as school-boys used to catch fireflies. They are more than half an inch long, and have a sharp movable horn on the head; when laid on the back they cannot turn over except by pressing this horn against a membrane upon the front. Behind the eyes are two round transparent substances, full of luminous matter, about as large as the head of a pin, and underneath is a larger membrane containing the same luminous substance. Four of them together threw a brilliant light for several yards around, and by the light of a single one we read distinctly the finely-printed pages of an American newspaper. It was one of a packet, full of debates in Congress, which I had as yet barely glanced over, and it seemed stranger than any incident of our journey to be reading by the light of beetles, in the ruined palace of Palenque, the sayings and doings of great men at home. These things brought up vivid recollections of home, and among the familiar images present were the good beds into which our friends were about that time turning. Ours were set up in the back corridor, fronting the courtyard. This corridor consisted of open doors and pilasters alternately. The wind and rain were sweeping through, and, unfortunately, our beds were not out of reach of the spray. They had been set up with some labour on four piles of stones each, and we could not then change their position. We had no spare articles to put up as screens; but, happily, two umbrellas, tied up with measuring rods and wrapped in a piece of matting, had survived the wreck of the mountain-roads. These Mr. C. and I secured at the head of our beds. Pawling swung a hammock across the corridor so high that the sweep of the rain only touched the foot; and so passed our first night at Palenque. In the morning, umbrellas, bed-clothes, wearing apparel, and hammocks were wet through, and there was not a dry place to stand on. Already we considered ourselves booked for a rheumatism. We had looked to our residence at Palenque as the end of troubles, and for comfort and pleasure, but all we could do was to change the position of our beds to places which promised a better shelter for the next night.

A good breakfast would have done much to restore our equanimity; but, unhappily, we found that the tortillas which we had brought out the day before, probably made of half-mouldy corn, by the excessive dampness were matted together, sour, and spoiled. We went through our beans, eggs, and chocolate without any substitute for bread, and, as often before in time of trouble, composed ourselves with a cigar. Blessed be the man who invented smoking, the soother and composer of a troubled spirit, allayer of angry passions, a comfort under the loss of breakfast, and to the roamer in desolate places, the solitary wayfarer through life, serving for "wife, children, and friends."

At about ten o'clock the Indians arrived with fresh tortillas and milk. Our guide, too, having finished cutting up and distributing the hog, was with them. He was the same who had been employed by Mr. Waldeck, and also by Mr. Walker and Captain Caddy, and was recommended by the Prefect as the only man acquainted with the ruins. Under his escort we set out for a preliminary survey. Of ourselves, leaving the palace, in any direction, we should not have known which way to direct our steps.

In regard to the extent of these ruins. Even in this practical age the imagination of man delights in wonders. The Indians and the people of Palenque say that they cover a space of sixty miles; in a series of well-written articles in our own country they have been set down as ten times larger than New York; and lately I have seen an article in some of the newspapers, referring to our expedition, which represents this city, discovered by us, as having been three times as large as London! It is not in my nature to discredit any marvellous story. I am slow to disbelieve, and would rather sustain all such inventions; but it has been my unhappy lot to find marvels fade away as I approached them: even the Dead Sea lost its mysterious charm and besides, as a traveller and "writer of a book," I know that if I go wrong, those who come after me will not fail to set me right. Under these considerations, not from any wish of my own, and with many thanks to my friends of the press, I am obliged to say that the Indians and people of Palenque really know nothing of the ruins personally, and the other accounts do not rest upon any sufficient foundations. The whole country for miles around is covered by a dense forest of gigantic trees, with a growth of brush and underwood unknown in the wooded deserts of our own country, and impenetrable in any direction except by cutting a way with a machete. What lies buried in the forest it is impossible to say of my own knowledge; without a guide, we might have gone within 100 feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them.

Captain Del Rio, the first explorer, with men and means at command, states in his report, that in the execution of his commission he cut down and burned all the woods; he does not say how far, but judging from the breaches and excavations made in the interior of the buildings, probably for miles around. Captain Dupaix, acting under a royal commission, and with all the resources such a commission would give, did not discover any more buildings than those mentioned by Del Rio, and we saw only the same; but, having the benefit of them as guides, at least of Del Rio (for at that time we had not seen Dupaix's work), we of course saw things which escaped their observation, just as those who come after us will see what escaped ours. This place, however, was the principal object of our expedition, and it was our wish and intention to make a thorough exploration. Respect for my official character, the special tenour of my passport, and letters from Mexican authorities, gave me every facility. The Prefect assumed that I was sent by my government expressly to explore the ruins; and every person in Palenque except our friend the alcalde, and even he, as much as the perversity of his disposition would permit, was disposed to assist us. But there were accidental difficulties which were insuperable. First, it was the rainy season. This, under any circumstances, would have made it difficult; but as the rains did not commence till three or four o'clock, and the weather was always clear in the morning, it alone would not have been sufficient to prevent our attempting it; but there were other difficulties, which embarrassed us from the beginning, and continued during our whole residence among the ruins. There was not an axe or spade in the place, and, as usual, the only instrument was the machete, which here was like a short and wide-bladed sword; and the difficulty of procuring Indians to work was greater than at any other place we had visited. It was the season of planting corn, and the Indians, under the immediate pressure of famine, were all busy with their milpas. The price of an Indian's labour was ninepence per day; but the alcalde, who had the direction of this branch of the business, would not let me advance to more than one shilling, and the most he would engage to send was from four to six a day. They would not sleep at the ruins, came late, and went away early; sometimes only two or three appeared, and the same men rarely came twice, so that during our stay we had all the Indians of the village in rotation. This increased very much our labour, as it made it necessary to stand over them constantly to direct their work; and just as one set began to understand precisely what we wanted, we were obliged to teach the same to others; and I may remark that their labour, though nominally cheap, was dear in reference to the work done.

But to return: Under the escort of our guide we had a fatiguing but most interesting day. What we saw does not need any exaggeration. It awakened admiration and astonishment. In the afternoon came on the regular storm. We had distributed our beds, however, along the corridors, under cover of the outer wall, and were better protected, but suffered terribly from mosquitoes, the noise and stings of which drove away sleep. In the middle of the night I took up my mat to escape from these murderers of rest. The rain had ceased, and the moon, breaking through the heavy clouds, with a misty face lighted up the ruined corridor. I climbed over a mound of stones at one end, where the wall had fallen, and, stumbling along outside the palace, entered a lateral building near the foot of the tower, groped in the dark along a low damp passage, and spread my mat before a low door-way at the extreme end. Bats were flying and whizzing through the passage, noisy and sinister; but the ugly creatures drove away mosquitoes. The dampness of the passage was cooling and refreshing; and, with some twinging apprehensions of the snakes and reptiles, lizards and scorpions, which infest the ruins, I fell asleep.

F. Catherwood