Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (Belcher)/Volume 1/Chapter 6

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Official news of the accession of Queen Victoria — Arrival of Venus — Scurvy — Starling despatched to Panama for letters — Quit San Blas — Arrive at Acapulco — Entering by Boca Chica — Interview with the Governor — Erect observatory — Examine the port — Capacity — Best berth — Watering place — Present state of trade — Merchants deserting the city in consequence of custom-house regulations — Earthquakes from 1732 to present date — Fort San Carlos not affected by them — Period of rainy season — Distance from Mexico — Imports, exports, and general trade — Population and diseases — Military force — Execution of two murderers — Unsafe at night — Quit Acapulco — Touch at Guatulco, and fix position of Morro Ayuca — Cross Gulf of Tehuantepec — Views of volcanic peaks — Call at Sonsonati and Libertad — Volcano of Isalco active — Anchor at Realejo.


By the kindness of my excellent friend, Mr. Barron, a large packet of newspapers, affording us the official intelligence of the accession of our Maiden Queen, Victoria, was immediately on our arrival despatched to us, with dates to September.

On the 21st of December the Venus arrived from Mazatlan, when we had the satisfaction of renewing our acquaintance with our French friends. I found from Captain du Petit Thouars, that he had been successful in his examination of the coast of California, and had surveyed the Bay of Magdalena, rounded Cape San Lucas, and proceeded to Mazatlan in the vain hope of obtaining supplies. Here he was equally unsuccessful, excepting in flour, of which he obtained forty barrels at a very exorbitant price. Many of his crew being ill with scurvy, which I believe first made its appearance at Kamtschatka, he determined on proceeding immediately to Acapulco, and landing them until recovered, and thence proceeding on to Callao or Valparaiso for provisions, of which he stood much in need. Wine in particular he had not been able to obtain, nor had we at this time spirits for our crew. The duties here on imports are so exorbitant, that they amount almost to an entire prohibition. At California sixty dollars were demanded for fifteen imperial gallons of indifferent rum, and no doubt at San Blas or Acapulco not under twenty would have been asked.

On the 28th of December I despatched the Starling to Panama, to obtain any letters, officers, or despatches which might arrive for us, and to rejoin us at our rendezvous, Realejo. We remained until the 5th of January for the last mail, but nothing arriving for the Sulphur, we bore away for Acapulco. Unfortunately we were drifted outside the land and sea breeze limits, and did not reach it until the evening of the 12th of January.

We made the high paps of Coyuca to the westward of Acapulco, but I cannot persuade myself that they are good landmarks for making the port. In the offing they may be useful if not obscured.

Acapulco may be approached from the southward or westward, by keeping the western cone open of the land, which will lead up to the Boca Chica entrance, or until Acapulco port is so close under the lee, that no further marks are necessary. There is not any hidden danger in the entrance to Acapulco. Keep a moderate distance from either shore, five fathoms will be found alongside all the rocks, and twenty-five to thirty in mid-channel. Round Point Grifo sharp, rather than stand over to San Lorenzo, as the wind, generally westerly, heads on that shore. If working, tack when the rocks on the south point of Town Bay show in the gap.

The two best berths are off the rocks alluded to; that outside is preferable, but in either case let the outer rock bear W.S.W. or W.N.W., so that a hawser fast to the rock may keep your broadside to land or sea breezes, and prevent a foul anchor.

The breeze barely carried us to the Boca Chica by sunset, which made me determine on taking that channel in preference to the chances of calm or other delay by rounding the island. Fortunately we succeeded in rounding Point Grifo by dark, and beat up to our anchorage before eight, passing under the stern of our old friend Venus, who kindly sent immediate offers of any aid we might require.

On calling upon Captain Thouars, I found he had also been tantalized by calms, had seen the Starling off the port, and had only been four days before us.

On the following morning I waited on the Governor, who in the most civil manner offered me every facility in erecting the observatory, or in any other matter where his services could be available. He appears to be a complete military character, preserves strict discipline, and is much esteemed.

The Venus, after some trifling difficulties with the authorities, landed her invalids, and established an hospital in a house hired for that purpose. Her astronomical and other observations were conducted at the south extremity of the town beach, on a spot inaccessible to land or sea breeze.

During our stay we re-surveyed the port, and corrected several errors which were said to exist, particularly one of three and a half fathoms in the fairway; upon which, however, eight and a half were found by the lead. It must therefore be an error in figure.

The harbour of Acapulco has long been reckoned, for its size, one of the most complete in the world. It affords sheltered land-locked anchorage of sixteen fathoms and under, in a surface of one mile square; which, allowing for moorings, would, at half a cable range, or one cable asunder, accommodate one hundred sail of vessels, even of the line. The bottom is sandy at its surface, but clayey beneath, and holds well.

It would naturally be inferred that, surrounded on its north and east sides by mountains ranging from two thousand, to two thousand seven hundred feet, and by others of three to five hundred feet on the west, the breeze would scarcely be felt, and the heat be intolerable. This is confined to the town limits; at our observatory, and at the port, San Carlos, we enjoyed a constant breeze.

In all harbours there may be objectionable berths, but in that of Acapulco, if care be taken to keep in the line of what I have designated the "west gap" or neck of the peninsula, open of the south point of the town bay, both land and sea breezes will be felt in their full strength, and free from causes which would heat them before entering the port; the neck being but a few feet above the sea-level.

Water of good quality was found at several points between the fort and Obispo rock; but the two best streams are between the fort and San Lorenzo.

The market, owing to the decay of the respectable portion of its inhabitants, is but indifferently supplied, but fowls, fruit, and vegetables, are readily obtained. The very great mistake committed in 1827, by the expulsion of the old Spaniards, has ruined every port on this side of Mexico, and the vexatious system of carrying into effect the Custom House regulations will utterly ruin its commerce, if this has not been already achieved.

Only two European residents remain, (Germans,) and a few months will in all probability induce them to select some other port under the same laws, but more justly and favourably administered. During our visit, a French brig from Lima actually entered the port, and, much to the chagrin of the officials, who were contemplating their " pickings," without a moment's delay tacked and put to sea,—her consignees having ordered her to San Blas, where proceedings are less vexatious. She Mas consigned to merchants in Mexico, and as the instructions came from Mexico, in anticipation of her arrival, they must be aware in that city of the state of affairs here. The circumstance appeared to afford matter of great amusement to the merchants, and I suspect that the presence of the Venus saved a little vexatious conduct, had a boat from the authorities reached her.

Acapulco from its earliest days has been famed as the resort of the galleons from Manilla,—the last, I believe, having entered in 1793—4. This, of course, caused many wealthy Spaniards to settle as agents for houses in Mexico, and until the edict in 1827, requiring all old Spaniards to quit the territory, which was carried into effect in a truly bandit style by Montesdeosca, it continued to flourish.

That edict, like a blight, annihilated the germs of high breeding; the Spaniards fled, half castes stepped in to represent society, and decay has followed with rapid strides, until the place is now merely a wreck of its former opulence. Nature, indeed, has not stood idly by, but has added her full share of miseries, as a further inducement to desert this almost doomed city.

As far back as the year 1732 earthquakes of uncommon force have continued to afflict this city. It is recorded that on the 25th of February of that year a very heavy earthquake destroyed nearly the whole town: the sea rose to a great height, covering the Plaza (or about ten feet perpendicular;) the successive risings, after receding, recurring slowly at the periods of the several shocks.

On the 17th of August, 1754, another earthquake occurred, ruining the greater part of the town. On this occasion the rising of the sea was attended with more violence; the Plaza was again covered.

On the 21st of April, 1776, an earthquake occurred which destroyed many houses.

On the 14th of Marcli, 1787, the whole town was ruined. The sea retired, leaving the rocks of the Punta Manzanilla (in the town bay) dry. The Phillippine, Nao, was anchored at the time in the port, and was left in four fathoms before the tide returned,—showing a fall of thirty-six feet.

No earthquake of consequence is recorded afterwards until that of the 2nd of May, 1820. This earthquake lasted several days, and entirely destroyed the place. The steeple of San Francisco fell on this occasion, and the church was rent; the sea retired still further than in 1787, and returned in two hours, rising up to the church door; the rise and fall taking place gently. At the ultimate recession the sand was found to have accumulated so as to nearly cover the pier, (five or six feet,) by which upwards of twenty varas of land was gained at the beach.

On the lOth of March, 1833, aljout ten o'clock at night, a heavy earthquake was experienced. The sea retired forty feet, and gently resumed its former level. This was felt at Mexico at precisely the same hour, lasting there about one minute and a half, the motion there being undulatory, but at Acapulco trepidatory.

On March 13th, 1834, another shock is recorded; the sea receded fifty varas, and several buildings were destroyed.

On the 6th of January, 1835, at six in the morning, a very severe earthquake was felt, lasting upwards of two minutes; motion trepidatory, the shocks recurring every thirty hours for upwards of a month. This, like that of 1833, was felt in Mexico.

On the 9th of August, 1837, a heavy shock was felt, trepidatory, recurring at thirty hours for nearly three weeks. It was felt slightly at Mexico.

On the 18th of October, 1837, at four p. m. a heavy earthquake occurred, which lasted until the 22nd. During this interval of four days the earth trembled continuously; one hundred separate shocks were counted between four p. m. 18th, and ten p. m. 22nd. During this interval five very severe shocks occurred, four p.m. 18th, ten p. m. 19th, midnight 19th, four p. m. 20th, four p. m. 21st. That at midnight on the 21st was terrific; had it lasted a few seconds longer, rocks would undoubtedly have been rent asunder. Following this earthquake, for six weeks continuously, periodical heavy shocks were experienced, at ten a. m., ten and twelve p. m., and at dawn. At Mexico the shocks were severely felt at the same instants, on the 18th and 19th.

In conclusion, daily "temblors" have occurred since the earthquake of 1820. But the season when the heaviest shocks occur is between March and June.

The above is extracted from notes made by a commissary resident for many years, and constantly holding office under the government of all parties.

Under the dread of such visitations and with daily warnings that "all is not at rest," who can be surprised at the desertion of Acapulco? The whole town at this moment bears glaring proof of a recent concussion. Not a whole house remains. The churches are demolished; one chapel (La Solidad) alone remains, where mass is performed; but even this is rent, and is tottering.

By reason of such liabilities, houses are never built above the ground floor. Those of the lower orders are most sensibly constructed, of cane thatched. Those of the better class, including the authorities, are of adobes, formed of mud and straw, generally from three to four feet in thickness, in the walls. The latter are generally tiled, to afford ventilation, and avoid insects, which are numerous and troublesome.

Pride alone must induce them to construct these mud habitations, for with less expense a frame of cane covered with tiles would be infinitely preferable.

It is rather a remarkable fact that, throughout the whole of these shocks, the rock-built castle of San Diego (or San Carlos) has experienced but slight damage.

I caused very minute inquiry to be made, in order to ascertain to some degree of certainty whether any of the solid granite rocks had altered their height above the level. The only satisfactory reply that I could obtain was, That from time immemorial the rock we made fast to maintained its present position, and no change of outer soundings had been observed. High water flows to a hole in that rock, and up to a crown well marked.

The rainy season is also another great drawback, and is felt here severely. It commences about the middle or end of July, and continues until the end of October. Owing to the immediate vicinity of a very lofty chain overlooking the town, (one of 2,790 feet) the fall is heavy, and almost incessant. It has been asserted that in 1837 the rain gauge frequently indicated twenty-eight inches in twenty-four hours. During this period the inhabitants are compelled to use every precaution to keep their houses dry, particularly under foot: a neglect of this is supposed to produce fever. The heat during this period is excessively oppressive, especially in May, when the temperature seldom falls below 98. Water then becomes scarce, and towards the end of the dry season the ponds run dry, and wells are their only resource.

Formerly Acapulco was considered as the main outlet from Mexico on this side; but San Blas is now preferred. The distance from hence is one hundred and four Spanish leagues, and the journey up is generally performed in eight days. The exports consist chiefly of rice, sugar, dyewoods, and cotton, and of these but a trifling quantity.

The following remarks of a mercantile friend will best illustrate the present state of trade:

"The environs of Acapulco are not badly populated, but the wants of these people, the climate being tropical, are but few, and, like the neighbouring Indians, their principal dress consists of the manta, although they use a little more finery, the men wearing Chinese sashes, (fasas or bandas,) and preferring linen to cotton for their shirts.

The women dress in linen shifts, using navy blues, and calicoes for their petticoats. Stockings are not in use, and for their head gear they entirely make use of the riboza or Mexican shawl, made in the interior. Their hats, shoes, and other trifling articles of wearing apparel are all made in the interior; so that articles for sale on the spot, that can be imported into Acapulco, are reduced to very few.

"The importation of manta is prohibited, being supplied from the interior. Creas, Russian duck, prints, a trifle of fine linen, such as Bretagnes, Estopillas, &c., a few China goods, as sashes, twine, silk, &c., but principally platillas of middling and ordinary quality, and navy blues. The consumption would not exceed two hundred dollars annually."

Thus far then the commerce of the interior appears to meet their necessities, and the wants of the population are not likely to attract cargoes to this port.

My friend concludes,—

"It is only an increase of population and consequent increase of agricultural industry, that in time may raise the port of Acapulco to any consequence for maritime speculation."

The population of Acapulco in 1836 was computed as follows:

Town. Men 857
Women 1216
Total 2073
Deaths. Men 35 Births. Boys 45
Women 40 Girls 70
Total 75 Total 115

Excess above deaths 40—about 1 per cent.

The diseases of the country are intermittent fever, ague, yellow fever, jaundice, and dropsy; measles and hooping-cough were prevalent during our visit.

The fort will not bear much scrutiny. Although constructed by the best engineers of the day, San Carlos, the third fortification of Western Spain (viz. Callao 1st, Ulloa 2nd, and Carlos 3rd) is commanded by every easily accessible height in its neighbourhood. It is capable of mounting sixty guns; twenty-five of various calibre are mounted; ten good brass thirty-two pounders show their muzzles very conspicuously, and these we may reckon their main force. Five hundred is stated as the garrison, and this includes militia, (when armed;) one hundred and fifty can be mustered. They are not well clothed; and of course under such officers as frequent revolutions breed, like mushrooms, little can be expected beyond the most gorgeous and ill adapted uniform that can be imagined, stuffed by more pride than the buttons can well sustain.

The officers here, as in some other free countries, can give you a yard of tape, ramrod, or sword.

An example of their determination to rigidly execute the laws, occurred the day of our departure. Two peasants, murderers and robbers, were condemned by a court-martial to be shot. They were led out with great ceremony, escorted by an officer's guard, and a priest in full canonicals purposely delaying the march, and halting at intervals in order to inculcate religious precepts. They at length reached the fatal spot, a jutting headland fronting the ship. Here two seats had been prepared, with crosses at shoulder height, when seated. To these seats they were conducted, clad entirely in white, and their arms securely lashed to the crosses. The priest having repeated their sentence, from the warrant, they were desired to kiss it in testimony of its justice, and proof of their repentance, which they did most humbly. Having received the sacrament, they were despatched by signal, ten men presenting their pieces within three feet of each victim. One was twenty-two and the other eighteen years of age, and the sum for which they deliberately committed murder, four shillings, or less!

As our purser one night had been forcibly persuaded to empty his pockets of his spare cash, and other acts of doubtful character occurred, we are unable to applaud the conduct of the lower orders. Indeed, we were informed that the native inhabitants of Puebla Nueva, a few leagues distant from the town, were frequently in the habit of setting the authorities at defiance, and committing excesses with impunity.

The inhabitants seldom move from home, or in the town at night, unarmed. The peasantry are disarmed before entering the town, and receive their passes and receipts for arms, which are returned on repassing the boundary. This reminds me of the steamers conveying labourers from Dublin in 1836, where their shilalehs were taken from them until they landed on the pier at Liverpool.

After passing our time very agreeably, we took leave of our friends in the Venus, and on the 19th of January proceeded for Realejo, intending to touch at the Sacrificios and port of Guatulco, and determine their positions.

On the 24th of January, being off the position assigned for Sacrificios, the coast was examined closely, for any indentation which might justify our anchoring. At noon we were to the east of Guatulco, but no symptoms of a port. I therefore despatched a cutter with Lieutenant Collinson, to examine for Sacrificios, and rejoin me at anchor on the coast. After running twenty-four miles without meeting with any indentation to justify the title of port, I rounded to, and anchored off the west point of a bay, which probably may be the Morro Ayuca of Bauza, but it differs much in position.

Landing at the time of anchoring was impracticable, but I succeeded on the following day in obtaining complete observations on a rock off the point, by which this remarkable angle of the coast is well secured; the sea giving me notice to quit, at the instant I had completed, by nearly washing away our instruments.

At sunset. Lieutenant Collinson returned, having succeeded in finding Guatulco, and secured its position. It was, however, too small for the ship.

My detention at this point afforded me very satisfactory data respecting the partial set and direction of the currents. During the first twenty-four hours the current set strong, one and a half to two knots to the eastward. On the day following, having again anchored in a calm, it was found to set westerly, but not with so much velocity. Our dead reckoning varied considerably in every direction, but an easterly set prevailed.

From Morro Ayuca I shaped a direct course across the Gulf of Tehuantepec, expecting to experience some of the gusts which are assigned to that region. In this we were entirely disappointed, although a fresh breeze favoured us for a short period. On approaching the eastern shore, near the Amilpas range, I was surprised, when at a considerable distance from the land, to strike soundings in sixty-eight fathoms, which continued to decrease very regularly until ten that night, when we changed our course offshore in eleven and a half fathoms, without perceiving land, or hearing the "surf sound," which generally can be detected at night at seven, or even ten miles.

Light baffling airs prevented our making much progress, but the tedium was in some measure dissipated by splendid views of these volcanic ranges. At one view no less than twelve conspicuous volcanic cones were visible. As far as the sea horizon was available, we endeavoured to fix their positions, by anchoring daily before noon. Our draughtsmen attempted to delineate them, but no effort of the pencil could convey an adequate idea of such magnificence. Far as the eye could reach to the N.E., numerous cones of extinct volcanos were readily traced, as friends of yesterday; whilst to the westward we could barely trace through the tropical haze those with which to-morrow would bring us more intimately in connexion. Our observations were continued throughout the day three hourly. Although apparently overlooking us, the nearest cone was at least sixty miles distant.

Our progress was but tardy until the morning of the 2nd Feb. when we reached in and sighted the colours at Sonsonate, off which we observed two American schooners at anchor. Amongst the minor volcanos immediately about Sonsonate, that of Isalco appeared in activity, and has lately given them cause for anxiety.

On the morning of the 3rd February we stood in for Libertad, and despatched a boat for letters, on the receipt of which we bore away for Realejo. On the following morning saw the Volcano de Viejo, and by noon had taken up our old berth within the island of Cardon.