Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 14

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Description of the Country about the Lake of Nicaragua.—Convent of San Francisco.—Don José de Valle.—The Mint.—Mines.

I collected four charts respecting the lake of Nicaragua and the river San Juan. Two of these were, I discovered, very incorrect, but one of them gave the best plan of the port of San Juan, whilst the other afforded the most correct notion of the settlements and territory on the western side of the lake: a third, which was copied by permission of the government from an original in the congress, was, in a general point of view, that which can best be depended on[1]. I obtained also a table of the levels taken between the western side of the lake and the South Sea, which sets at rest the question as to the respective heights of the bodies of water which it is wished to communicate[2]. It shews that the lake is forty-four yards, Spanish, and a fraction, above the level of the South Sea.

That the San Juan is navigable from the port to the interior of the lake for craft drawing three or four feet water, at all times of the year, there can be no reason to doubt. It also appears clear that it can be ascended in two or three days more than is occupied in descending it. For thirty to thirty-five leagues up, it is navigable for vessels, drawing from ten to twelve feet water. It is near the fort of San Juan that the difficulties arise, on account of the cataracts, and here it is that the skill of the Dutch engineer may be exercised in making collateral cuts or canals to provide the depth of water, at all seasons, that may be required for the regular navigation: in the lake itself, there is depth of water for vessels of any class. In the map will be seen the exact spot where it was intended to open the communication with the South Sea. This is not by the lake of Leon, but on the south-western side of the lake of Nicaragua, where the country is level and admirably adapted for the purpose. The reader will not have forgotten my travelling companion Don Simon: he was a native of this part, and as my stay in the country did not allow me to visit it, I was happy in being able to collect from him much information concerning it.

The city of Realejo, when the chart was taken, contained about 500 houses: it does not now contain, at the most, more than 120, and is no city. It is said that, at the back of that town, the Spaniards used to build vessels of 400 tons: however this might have been the case, once, it is certain that they cannot now build vessels there, to any advantage, of more than 70 or 80 tons, as there is not depth of water to bring them down to the Xaguey or great port where the large vessels lie: but about three miles farther down, is a place called the Vaca Borracha, where vessels drawing twelve feet water can lie, making fast to the trees on both sides. The tide rises twelve feet up at the town; and docks could be made there for good sized vessels; but the difficulty would be to get them down to the Xaguey: I procured a plan and description of the port.

The city of Leon contains at least 38,000 inhabitants, and is next in rank to Santiago de Guatemala. Its only exports, at the present day, are Nicaragua wood of two classes, mahogany, fine spars for masts, excellent of their kind, allspice, sarsaparilla, brought from Costa Rica, balsam of copaivi in abundance, gums of 500 different classes, wild wax, exported, at 500 per cent. profit, to Lima, tortoise shells, very good, hides, very light, averaging from fourteen to eighteen pounds, and indigo in small quantities, though of the finest quality; also portable bedsteads of Granadilla or Ronron, a wood almost as hard as iron, similar to teak but admitting of as brilliant a polish as the finest rose-wood.

Granada now only contains about 1000 houses, one half of what it did a century ago: it is indifferently fortified. The exports are jugged beef, hides and tallow, to the Havannah; also some pearls, tortoise-shells and Nicaragua wood, to Jamaica: it raises cocoa sufficient for its own consumption, but does not export any, being only of third rate quality, and selling for from twenty-three to twenty-seven dollars the bale or tercio of 130 pounds Spanish. Of the different classes of cocoa, that of San Antonio is the best, Soconusco the second, and Granada the third. From 2000 to 2,500 quintals of Guayaquil cocoa are consumed in the five states of Guatemala, though the plant was taken from the latter country. The cocoa of Soconusco, about a century and a half ago, was carried from thence to Vera Cruz on Indians' backs, exclusively for the king, who used to make presents of it to foreign courts. In the islands of the lake of Nicaragua, partly inhabited by Indians, there are at present, some few cattle and cocoa estates; and, with respect to the territory between the lake and the sea, although it is very fertile and has been called by some writers a Paradise, yet I had the testimony of Don Simon, who was a native of it, to assure me that it is the hottest in all the country, being equally so with Realejo and Sonsonate, the port at which I landed. I would mention, here, if I have not done so before, that I felt as hot at the latter place, especially in the night, as in any place I ever visited; but, at the same time, I think it very endurable.

Saturday, 4th. Visited the Convent of San Francisco: the church is one of the handsomest buildings in the town: the monks do not exceed fifty, but they are rich and outvie the other ecclesiastical establishments in the grandeur of their processions and the internal decorations of their temple. I was much struck by some of the pictures, especially one of Lazarus on the point of rising from the grave: whether it was from the disposition of the light or the excellence of the execution I could not decide, but I could hardly persuade myself that it was not a real human being I was contemplating: I frequently, afterwards, visited the church purposely to look at this picture: the impression of its excellence increased with my future observations; in the midday glare and in the sombre shades of the evening it still preserved its character of reality; and I do not remember, in all the churches which I have since visited in the Netherlands, having ever seen anything more awful and impressive. What is most extraordinary, it is said to be the production of a native artist.

Sunday, 5th. Called again on Valle. I found him seated on a sofa extending the whole length of the end of a saloon, and conversing with three or four visitors; two of whom were Englishmen; one, Mr. John Hines, who had come out to propose a loan on the part of Messrs. Simmonds, and two Frenchmen. After they had left, he showed me into a small library, so completely filled with books, in large masses, not only around the walls but on the floor, that it was with difficulty we could pick a way through the apartment. He sat himself down to a small writing table, which was also profusely stored with manuscripts and printed papers, from which he selected for me, with a zeal of earnestness and gratification heightened by the enthusiasm of his natural disposition, some documents which he had been preparing or collecting for my use. Amongst these, was a detailed statement of the branches of the revenue, preceding and subsequent to the revolution;—the bases of the constitution;—a plan for a factory of tobacco in Gualan—and another for the settling with foreigners the territory bordering upon the port and river of San Juan in Nicaragua. He had all the mania of authorship about him: proofs and revises and lumps of manuscript, folios and quartos and octavos, opened or interlarded with scraps of memoranda, were scattered, in profusion, over the table: it was as though he were inordinate in his requisitions at the feast of intellect. He gave me paper after paper and document after document, till I began to feel my appetite satiated at the very sight of them: they were more than I could have duly digested even had I delayed my stay in the country twice as long as I intended: I, however, took home with me as many of them as I could conveniently carry, and the rest he had the kindness to send home for me. Our being mutually engaged in researches after that sort of information to which my inquiries were particularly directed, constituted, I presume, the preliminary to that friendship which so eagerly commenced, and has since existed between this Andean Cicero and so humble a person as myself. I believe I much contributed to his feelings on this point, by presenting him with a copy of my American Dictionary, which I fortunately had with me: he expressed much satisfaction at receiving it, and no less surprise; for, although he had heard of the work, he was not aware, he said, that I was the author of it.

The next day, I visited the Mint, and was shewn the whole establishment by the director, Don Benito Muñozo. It is a moderately sized building, and there were two presses employed in coining the new money of the republic: the greater part of the small silver currency, at this time, consisted of money called masququina, or pieces of ragged silver of all shapes and dimensions, varying between half the size of a sixpence and half-a-crown: it was almost impossible to know their relative values: the public, however, had no difficulty in doing so, by the assistance of some coarse and, in most cases, almost obliterated marks upon them. These pieces of tokens, for they had neither the shape nor appearance of coin, had been issued, from time immemorial, at the two provincial mints of Nicaragua and Honduras, and, in spite of the sweatings and loppings which they had evidently undergone, continued to pass, for their nominal value, with such good faith on the part of the people, that I had frequently pieces given back into my hands, as being only of the value of half reals, whilst others, of half the size, were selected as being known to represent whole ones. It is not to be wondered at, that the new coinage was eagerly sought after. Doña Vicente, my kind hostess, was particularly anxious to take a quantity down with her to Sonsonate; and I procured her some for that purpose, in exchange for golden ounces.

The Mint, as at present established, is quite sufficient for the little work which it has to perform. There had been some talk of erecting a steam-engine instead of the clumsy apparatus which, like that in Mexico, is put into action by the power of mules; but, as there is a good supply of water within two hundred yards of the place, I pointed out the cheapness and facility of employing that element in lieu of the present system and of that proposed; and, before I left the capital, I had the pleasure to find that the plan suggested had undergone some discussion in the proper quarters and was looked upon as feasible and advantageous.

Of the territorial resources of Guatemala, those arising from its mineral productions are admitted to be considerable; but the advantages derivable from them, have been, in a great degree, only prospective. In the province of Chiquimula, some mines have hitherto been worked to great advantage, especially those of Alotopeque and San Pantalone: the latter is inundated. Those of Santa Rosalia, Montenita, and San Antonio Abad are in the same vein, and have formerly yielded a great quantity of metal: they might again be put into activity, as nothing more is said to be wanting than to clear away the earth that has fallen in and blocked up the galleries. In the report made to the government by the assay-master of the Mint, it is proved that every quintal of ore extracted from these mines yields seventeen marks, six ounces and three-eighths of an ounce of silver[3].

There are other mines in the province of Comayagua; to facilitate the working of which the National Assembly passed a decree, on the 20th of February 1824, for delivering the gunpowder to the miners at prime cost. In Costa Rica, they are working mines of gold and silver; and some of copper have been discovered. The parties engaged in them are Mr. Trevithick and a Biscayan. The Supreme Government, as soon as the object of these persons was known, directed a letter, on the 30th of March 1824, to the Gefe of Costa Rica, to afford them every facility. In the interim, a company had been forming in England, and was established on the 1st of February 1825, with a capital of 6,750,000 dollars, under Don Antonio José de Irisarri, agreeably to a sanction transmitted to him from his government in the month of June preceding. A former proposition had been made for establishing a company, in November 1824, by Mr. Hines, of the house of Messrs. Symmonds and Co. of London, with a capital of £250,000. Another company was forming, whilst I was in the capital, under Mr. Viré: his partners afterwards came to London; one of them Don Francisco Lavagnino and the other Don Prospero de Herrera, a cousin of Don José de Valle. The views of this company were chiefly directed towards working the mines in the province of Honduras; but the state of our public credit would not admit the plan to take effect:—from the respectability of the parties and that assistance which Valle would have afforded his relative, there is little doubt it would have turned out highly advantageous.

The particulars of Herrera's mines, which I consider as some of the best in that country, and the expense of working them, were deposited with me by wish I could be brought to think that a specification of them would be useful to the public.—The conviction seems not yet to have passed by, that the precious metals must have undergone an intestine, physical, disorganization, out of sympathy, as it were, to the moral revolution with which the political features of these noble and interesting countries have, recently, been agitated[4].—Owing to the duties on coinage in Mexico, Peru, and Chile, considerable quantities of the precious metals are in the habit of being sent from those countries to be coined at the Mint of Guatemala. The value of metals so transferred, appears, by an official return, to have amounted to 2,326 marks 5½ ounces of quicksilver, and 2,120 marks of silver in bullion. There is a mint in Tegucigalpa, in the province of Honduras, which coins about 1,400 dollars a week of the masququina or cut money; and, on account of the head mint not being on a proper footing, private coining and base money are very common, particularly in Nicaragua.

The greater portion of the metals extracted from the mines of Honduras is exported in bullion and smuggled through Belize and the Mosquito shore to Jamaica. It is probable that not more than one-third of the metals produced throughout the country find their way to the head mint. The amount of monies coined in Mexico, before the revolution, was, in one year, as high as twenty-five millions, and since that event, it has fallen to ten millions of dollars. In Santiago de Guatemala, the coinage which, in 1817, was 428,661 dollars, and, in 1818, 554,564, was reduced in 1820, to 351,127 dollars. The total value of the coinage in the head mint from 1820 to 1825 was a million and a half,—about 300,000 dollars per annum[5].

  1. The Map in the title-page has been formed upon these data.
  2. See this Table in the Appendix.
  3. A quintal is 100lbs. net: a mark is eight ounces.
  4. One of Herrera's mines at Tabanco in St. Salvador has been since profitably worked by Messrs. Bennett of Belize.—The crude ores are about to be sent to England for want of a smelting apparatus.
  5. See Table of Coinage in the Appendix.