Mexico, California and Arizona/Chapter 2

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THE sea of the subsiding "norther" was still running heavily toward Vera Cruz, as if it would overwhelm it. It was a little Venice that we saw when we came to it. A half-mile or so of buildings, compact and solid, with blackened old rococo domes and steeples; yellow for the most part, scarlet, pink, green, and blue, in patches; a stone landing-quay, and a long, light iron pier projecting from it. At the end of the pier from a crane hung an iron hook, and to this the imagination instantly hooked on. It was the termination of the English railway to the capital. By that road, with all possible expedition, we should be borne up out of the miasmatic lands of the coast—the over-luxuriant Tierra Caliente—to the wonders of the interior.

To the left a reddish castellated fort. No suburbs—not a sign of them—only long, dreary stretches of sand. Very far down on the sand, with the sea breaking white over her, was the English steamer Chrysolite, dragged from her moorings by the gale and wrecked. We came in at evening, and joined ourselves to a little cluster of steamers and sailing-vessels made fast to buoys under the lee of a coral reef, on which stands the disreputable old castle of San Juan d'Ulloa. It is whitewashed in part, and partly as blackened by time and powder as the reef itself.

Click on image to enlarge.


A revolving lantern moved round on its summit. It was told to the confiding that the Government kept prisoners there to turn it; and they were instructed to look for their dark, flitting forms and hear their lugubrious cries. We heard all night, at any rate, the creaking of the pumps of an American bark along-side, which had come disabled into port, with a freight of logs from Alvarado, and could

barely keep afloat.

It so happened that it was the anniversary of the arrival of Cortez, in the year 1519. He had arrived on the evening of Thursday of Holy Week, and so had I. It was on the morning of Good Friday that I went ashore. We were taken off in small boats, and our ship unloaded by lighters, for there is not one of these Mexican harbors where a ship can lie up to a wharf in safety.

More than the usual embarrassments await the ordinary traveller on the quay at Vera Cruz, by so much as he is apt to know less of Spanish than of French—in which most of the dearly-bought early foreign experience is acquired—and nobody will tell him the truth. Let it be fixed in mind that but one train a day starts for the capital, and this at eleven at night. The designing bystanders make you take your baggage to a hotel, pretending that no other course is possible. Take it, instead, to the depot at once and get rid of it, and then see the town.

For the town is by all means to be seen. One had not expected much of a place the reputed home of pestilence, and I shall not advise a lengthened stay; but, from the point of view of the picturesque, it has some pleasant surprises.

Founded by the Count de Monterey in the early part of the seventeenth century—for it is not quite the site of the original Vera Cruz of Cortez, which was above—it has now attained a population of about seventeen thou- sand. The principal shops had a large, well-furnished aspect, especially those in groceries and heavy hardware. The Custom-house square was piled to repletion with bales of cotton, railroad iron, and miscellaneous goods awaiting transit.

I walked, the very first thing, into a large, cool public library, which had once been a convent. It was not much of a public library, the books being few, and to a certain extent bound in vellum, as if they too had belonged to the convent; but it was public, and what one did not expect.

The churches were of a well-proportioned, solid, grandiose, rococo architecture, and had charming bells. The principal one, in a little shaded plaza, had its dome encrusted with colored china tiles, which shone in the sun—a feature waiting in plenty farther on. They were draped in black, and crowded with worshippers to-day, and abounded in strange figures of bleeding Christs, with other evidences of a florid form of devotion.

Grass grew in joints of the pavement in the minor streets, as I had seen it, for instance, in some such place as Mantua. Long water-spouts project from the tops of the flat-roofed white and yellow houses, and upon these sit the solemn zopilotes. All the world knows that the street-cleaning of Vera Cruz is conducted by the ravens, or buzzards; but all the world does not know with what a dignity these large zopilotes, of a glossy blackness, often pose themselves immovably on the eaves against the deep blue sky. They might be carved there for ornament. Many a street-cleaning department is at least less sculpturesque, and perhaps less efficient.

The principal thoroughfare, called of the Independence, leads to a short, concrete-covered promenade, bordered with benches and a double row of cocoanut-palms, and this to the open country. It is an early discovery that the Mexican is patriotic. He is fond of naming his streets and squares after his military achievements, and particularly the Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May). We shall hear plenty more of it, this Cinco de Mayo. It was won at Puebla over the French, in 1862. He attaches also to cities the names of his heroes. Thus Vera Cruz itself is Vera Cruz of Llave, a general and governor; Oaxaca, Oaxaca of Juarez, the sagacious President; and Puebla, Puebla of Zaragoza, its commandant on the 5th of May above-named.

There were notices of a bull-fight posted on the dead walls. Nearly all typical notes are struck at once plaza, Renaissance churches, patriotism, bull-fight, and tropical vegetation. I took a tram-car of a peculiar, wide, open pattern (made, however, in New York) out to the open fields, and saw a dancing-place, a ball-ground, and the dark, heavily walled-in cemetery.

The road to this latter should not be grass-grown, if half the tales of dread told abroad be true. And yet there are apologists even for the yellow-fever, or rather those who say that its ravages are greatly magnified.

I fell in with the Yankee captain of the disabled bark which had lain by us during the night. He was sitting on a low stone post at a street corner, and was half disconsolate, half desperate, by turns. He could find no dry-dock in which to lie up for repairs; and he could get no steam-pump, by the aid of which he might have kept on his way. He was condemned to see his venture sold for a song, for want of means to save it.

If little, as I say, was expected from the land at this place, a good deal, on the other hand, was expected from the water, at an ancient port, the New York of Mexico, receiving nine-tenths of the commerce of a nation of ten
million people. But not a year passes without a number of disasters, which has led the underwriters to make their risks to Vera Cruz about five times higher than to most other ports. The aggregate of these losses for a brief time would pay the cost of works needed to make the inhospitable roadstead a harbor.

A few rudimentary preparations are absolutely necessary before Mexico can enter upon the expected period of prosperity, and the creation of harbors in some degree commensurate with the new transportation facilities is one of them. A breakwater plan will, no doubt, have to be adopted like that so much in use on our great lakes and the Channel ports of Europe. It was of interest to hear, during my stay in the country, that this need had impressed itself upon the authorities at Vera Cruz and Tampico, and that they had taken the step of counselling on what was best to be done with the American engineer, Captain Eads, who was engaged in his unique scheme of a ship railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.


I had the pleasure of spending the evening, pending the departure of the train, in a large, cool, roomy house, with the American consul. He had been, a resident for twelve years, and had brought up a family of daughters here. It did not seem, at first sight, an attractive place in which to bring up a family; but they saw a good deal of company from the ships in port, took an occasional run to the capital, or a vacation at Jalapa or Cordova, above the danger-line, and seemed well content.

The consul was himself a physician, and had much to say on the subject of the yellow-fever. He insisted that it was epidemic, but not contagious. The local authorities put afflicted patients in their hospitals along-side others suffering from ordinary sickness, and these latter do not take it.

"Great damage," he said, "is done to the commercial interests of both countries by the annoying restrictions of quarantine arising from this cause. There is no more need of quarantine against yellow-fever than against common fever and ague, since it cannot be transmitted."

He quoted eminent medical authority at New Orleans as sharing his views. From which it would seem that the subject is worth careful looking into from official sources, in order that, if there be a mere popular delusion, it may be dispelled. As I write the Mexican Government has just granted authority to the steamer line which carries the mail into New Orleans to reduce the number of its trips to one each month during the quarantine, increase its freight and passenger rates fifty per cent., and, if the traffic does not pay even under the increase, to abandon it entirely.

The consul, in conclusion, had known but one countryman of ours to die of it during his stay, and only a few to be attacked. I may say, however, that the consul succeeding this one—who has since gone away—arrived fresh from Minnesota, and died at his post within a week.

Another interesting subject of talk with the consul was the tariff laws and the usages of the port of entry, naturally of leading importance here. The tariff system, based on an original law of 1872, has been greatly tampered with since, and is in a confused state; so that, with the best intentions, importers are apt to be visited with double duties, fines, detentions of goods, and lawsuits. There are some three hundred and seventy-eight articles in the specified list. New articles are charged for after the manner of those which they resemble. Thus, when
the article of celluloid was first introduced there was doubt whether it ought to be taxed twenty-nine cents a kilogram as bone, or $2.20 a kilogram as ivory, and the decision was finally in favor of the latter.

The merchant must use the names employed in the country. Thus, our "muslin" should be merely "shirting" or "calico;" while what is understood here by muslin is really lawn, taxed twice as much. The least variation in a label or form of package is visited with penalties. Storage in the warehouses, too, is estimated, not by the space occupied, but by the package, which is a hardship. A case is told of where ordinary argenté hooks-and-eyes, which should pay nineteen cents a kilogram, were charged for as "plated silver," which pays $1.15, and then a double duty imposed for "false declaration," making the total $2.30 a kilogram. As a rule, a "venture" is not a success. The laws, framed with excessive severity against contrabandists, whom they often fail to reach, afflict well-meaning persons. They make the consignee of goods subject to all the penalties; and many of these latter are afraid to touch, without the most ample guarantees, consignments of goods which they have not specifically ordered. The Germans succeed best in this traffic, through their painstaking attention to the local requirements.

"I will tell you a story," said the consul, "of an unlucky fellow who came here from England with a small venture of fancy goods, part free of duty. The whole cost him originally $1200; and he had consulted the Mexican consul at Liverpool, and thought he knew what he was about. When he got through the Custom-house his total charges and fines had amounted to $2850. He sold his stock for $2000, and borrowed money to pay the difference and get out of the country."