Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 13

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State of Parties.—Members of Senate.—Business with the President.—Corpus Christi.—Junction of the Oceans by the Lake of Nicaragua.

Friday, 27th May. Having arrived, the day previous, at the capital, without further accident or inconvenience, I, this morning, called upon Don José de Valle, a person of great consideration on account of his learning and talents. The election to the presidency had lain between him and the actual president, Don Manuel Arze. The election is carried by a majority of popular votes, which must amount to forty-two, collected by electoral colleges, each representing 15,000 souls. As was natural to suppose, in a business of this nature, much interest and some manœuvring had been exerted. Valle was supposed to be the popular favourite, and, in fact, when the election took place, he counted forty-one votes, wanting only one to establish the actual majority required: Arze could count only thirty-four votes: as neither of them had the majority established by the Congress, the election fell upon that body, and the result was that the oligarchical preference was given to Arze, who was elected by seventeen votes against six.

The two candidates were both known to possess the highest degree of patriotic feeling, and they have both suffered extreme hardships and privations in the cause of their country. Valle is, by profession, a civilian, is passionately addicted to literature, and is a great patron of science: Arze is a soldier, having been one of the chief promoters of the Independence, as far back as the year 1811. He was the chief of San Salvador when that province so strenuously resisted the tyranny of Iturbide, and prevented, by force of arms, the violent union which the then emperor desired to effect between the two kingdoms of Mexico and Guatemala. He is of a mild, calculating nature, of a clear, penetrating genius, and is esteemed and respected even by those who differ from him in politics. These two exalted characters were, now, living on a friendly footing: in one point, they were intimately connected; they seemed anxious to outstrip each other in promoting the interests of their country: they were equally assiduous in furnishing me with every information which I was seeking to collect. M. De Soza, the present minister for foreign and interior relations, is also a person of very considerable talent, and I owe him many obligations for the assistance he afforded me.

Valle had thrice refused the vice-presidency, when Don Manuel Beltranena, formerly a member of the constituent assembly, was unanimously elected. The salary assigned to the president is 10,000 dollars per annum, to the vice-president 4,000 dollars, the senators 2,000 each, and the deputies of the Congress 1,200.

The members of the High Court of Justice were Tomas O'Horan, President, and lately one of the triumvirate composing the Supreme Executive Power;—Don Marcial Zebadua, late Minister of State, and now Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Great Britain; Antonio Riveras Cavezas, a deacon; Justo Herrera; and Alexandro Diaz Cabeza de Vaca, a fiscal.—The members of the Senate were Don Mariano Beltranena, President, and Vice-President of the Republic; Isidro Mendez; Juan Estevan Milla; Jose Geronimo Zelaya; Alcayazu, ecclesiastic; Barrundia, politically opposed to the president; Mendez, ecclesiastic; Alvarado, ecclesiastic, and Hernandez.—A list of the Deputies of the Congress will be found in the Appendix. In tracing the future history and destiny of this republic it will be a document which may be referred to with interest and satisfaction. What would some antiquarian bibliomanist not give for a catalogue of the pristine statesmen who "gave Rome's little senate laws"?

1st June. I, this morning, repeated my visit to the President: I explained to him, on this occasion, more fully the object of my visit: I told him that I wished to be able to lay before his Majesty's Government complete statements of the finance, the commerce, and the military resources of Guatemala; and, agreeably to this view, he was so obliging as to promise me that he would require those documents to be made out and furnished me by the proper departments.

The next day, the town was all in a bustle, to celebrate the grand procession of Corpus Christi. All the houses were thrown open; garlands of ribands and flowers were streaming from the windows or suspended across the streets: at four different stations, each of them at the farthest angle from the centre of the town, were erected temporary altars, ornamented with cut glass, looking-glasses, large silver salvers, together with other articles of gold and silver, and in short every species of wealth and finery that the inhabitants possessed. The principal families who live near the particular station, undertake, by turns, the fitting up of these altars; but it is customary for every one to contribute something towards their ornament: during the procession, in particular, these temporary altars are illuminated with a profusion of wax candles: the same are also kept burning on them for a day or two previous, and it is usual to see the young ladies of the family occupied in the office of trimming them, and in fact, taking charge of the whole arrangement.

In all the several ceremonies, both in and out of the church, the civil authoritie were much employed:—church and state were intimately blended. The President was conveyed to and from the cathedral in a state carriage, drawn by four mules; two young lads of family, Zaravia and Aguirre, acting as postillions. In the procession, there were included all the religious orders of the place: of the order of Carmen, there were forty monks, of our Lady of Mercy thirty, Franciscans forty, Dominicans thirty, Recollects fifty, Collegians thirty; in all about 220; these were followed by 400 soldiers and fifty or sixty other persons, who also formed part of the procession.

I was invited into the house of the Marquess of Ayzenena: the large rooms looking into the street were full of company; the windows were all open and the ladies were disposed in groups on the window-seats; and their mothers, many of whom were indisposed by colds, which they were thus increasing, were seated in chairs behind them. As the Host passed, the whole company knelt down, and after a minute's silence and recollection, the buzz of mirth and business again filled the apartment. On one of the pier tables, was a representation in wax-work of the shepherds coming to adore our Saviour: the rooms of all the houses, from the first to the lowest class, are so filled with these images and representations, that I should not have mentioned this circumstance, in particular, had not my attention been arrested by some beads on the neck of one of the shepherds, which looked like pearls, but which I thought, of course, could not be so, from their extraordinary size; I found, however, that I was mistaken. I had hardly supposed it possible that such enormous pearls existed; and, wishing to ascertain their value, I guessed them at ten thousand pounds: the Marquess, I understood, had given more for them: the necklace consisted of twenty-one pearls, the centre one being in the shape of, and as large as, a pigeon's egg, and the others large in proportion, but round and decreasing in size, gradually, towards each end.

In the evening I went to a tertulla at Señor Castro's[1]: his little daughter played and sung prettily; but her piano, which, by the bye, seemed to be greatly prized, was very old and indifferent, although it was marked, "New Patent, by Astor, 79, Cornhill."

3d June. I was introduced to-day by Mr. Bayley, the agent of Messrs. Barclay and Co., to the Padre Dighero, deputy for Antigua or ancient city of Guatemala: he was a canon of Guatemala Vieja, and known to be a man of great scientific research, and, amongst other articles of valuable information, he gave me a sketch of a road which it was proposed to form between the city of Santiago and the South Sea; the distance being about eighty-six miles. I understood from Mr. Bayley that the plan was likely to be carried into effect, by a company about to be formed by the house he represented: he also told me that there was every probability that the same firm would get the privilege of opening a water communication between the two seas at the lake of Nicaragua. Although the carrying into effect of the latter object might, in some degree, annul the utility of the former, yet I was glad to find they were likely to take effect at all, and, chiefly, that they would be carried into execution by British energy and British capital. The unfortunate money crisis, it is well remembered, put a stop to these plans, and has nearly paralysed every other scheme of advantage or emolument in South America: — good or bad, they have all been condemned alike: men lost the faculty of reasoning, so great was their terror; and, in proportion as the tide of public opinion ran strong and buoyant in favour of those speculations, so it, all at once, ebbed down into a state of stagnant imbecility.

In the mean time, I lament to say, that as far as regards the country of which I am writing, its importance, however overlooked by British capitalists, has attracted the serious attention of other European nations. His majesty the King of the Netherlands, with a view of patronising and extending a commercial intercourse with it, has subscribed half a million of guilders for the formation of a Joint Stock Company: the capital consists of a million, so that his Majesty is proprietor of half of the concern:—we need not question that it will enjoy the royal encouragement or that of his ministers. It is to be hoped, however, that the Dutch will not exact the exclusive privilege of the passage; but that it will become open to all nations; although they might reasonably expect to derive some specific advantages on account of transit dues, for having carried the plan into execution.

For the satisfaction of those who may yet feel an interest in this undertaking, although the object can, now, no longer be of any, very particular, consequence to ourselves, I subjoin a few observations, which, after the most diligent inquiries of parties best calculated to give me good information on the subject, I was able to collect. Without adverting to even some general remarks on the feasibility of establishing a water-communication between the Atlantic and the Pacific, by enumerating the points whereby such plan is presumed capable of being effected[2], I shall, here, confine myself to the proceedings which have been adopted by individuals of different countries, and by the Guatemalian government, for carrying into execution the desired object, at the point in question.

It is an important feature in the history of this republic, that she has been the first and, indeed, the only one of them all that has taken any decided steps in the matter. Most writers have considered the river San Juan as one of the most advantageous, as well as most likely, points for establishing the communication alluded to: the Guatemalian government have, naturally, been no less impressed with that opinion; and the following particulars will shew in what manner they have met the propositions which have been made to them, as well as the specific objects which they entertain in carrying the plan into execution.

There were, at this time, two companies formed in England for the general purposes of effecting, by steam-navigation or otherwise, a water-communication between the two oceans; but the only proposals that had been made to the government by British merchants were proffered by the respectable firm which I have above mentioned. The purport of those proposals, bearing date the 18th September, 1824, was to form a navigable communication by means of the lake of Nicaragua and the river San Juan, without any expense to the government, provided the latter would give the projectors every necessary assistance. On the 2d of February, 1825, other propositions were made to the government by some merchants of the United States of North America, and signed by Colonel Charles Bourke and Mr. Mathew Llanos. They observe, that "on the strength of statements, which manifested the practicability of the enterprise, they proceeded to New York, in the month of March, 1824, for the purpose of forming a company for defraying the expenses of such a work; that, having formed the company, which consisted of some of the strongest [that was their expression] houses of the northern federation, they returned to the Central Republic with an armed brig; on board of which they brought engineers to level the grounds and survey the lake of Nicaragua and St. John's river." The letter continues, "We, having dispatched the said brig to her destination, at the end of last December, and being now about to proceed by land in order to examine the local situations of the territory, pray this government, in consideration of the advances already made, and the advantageous nature of the subjoined propositions (than which, we believe, none more favourable can be offered to this republic) to secure to us their realization, by granting the exclusive privileges which we solicit." The terms proposed to give to the government, for the exclusive privilege of navigation, twenty per cent, on the annual product of the toll to be paid by vessels passing through the canal, and after the expiration of the term [the period is not mentioned] the canal to become the exclusive property of the government. The projectors required to have, "1st. An exclusive privilege for the purpose. 2d. An exclusive privilege for navigation by steamboats on the rivers, and on the waters of the three provinces, as far as the lake where the said canal is to be opened. 3rd. Permission to cut wood in the said province. 4th. Exemption from duty on the introduction of goods, on account of the company, until the canal be completed."

Of the above propositions, on the part of Messrs. Barclay and Co., and of the merchants of the United States, no specific notice appears to have been taken; but, on the 16th June, 1825, the Congress passed a decree which obtained the approbation of the Senate on the 11th July, and was confirmed by the Executive on the 12th of that month,—which promises the sanction and assistance of the state to any parties who would undertake the project, and to recognize, as a public debt, the money expended in the execution of it; the passage dues to be applied to paying off the capital sunk in its opening, and to satisfying the interest thereon, deducting, first, the expenses which the repairs of the said canal shall require, the costs of collecting the dues, and of a garrison for its defence; the navigation to be free to all nations, friendly or neutral, without any privilege or exclusion.

On the 1st August, 1825, the Executive extended the time for receiving proposals to six months longer. The consequence has been that the Dutch, as I have before stated, stepped in and possessed themselves of the undertaking. When I left the republic, I felt assured that it would have been carried into execution by the British, and I cannot suppress my mortification that foreigners should have the exclusive honour, to say nothing of the advantage, of so great an enterprise;—for it is one which can be but once effected amidst the noble achievements of eventful time.

  1. The gentleman who so hospitably received the American Consul.
  2. These points are suggested, and their respective feasibilities explained, in my Dictionary of America and West Indies, Vol, III, p. 207.