Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 17

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Description of the Antigua, or Old City of Guatemala.

I had obtained, through the obliging interference of Mr. Bayley, an order to the steward, who inhabited the chateau of the Marquis Ayzenena, to furnish me with accommodation, of which I gladly availed myself; for, as I before said, houses were extremely scarce, and there was no such thing as an inn in the place. It happened that Doña Maria, the daughter of my hostess, had adjourned to this beautiful spot for the purpose of spending a few days on an annual visit to a lady of the name of Doña Joanita de Quiñones, one of the most respectable and, I may add, most numerous families in the place. She was a pleasing little woman of about twenty-six years of age: her husband, much more advanced in life, was a physician, and at this time, in the capital, with his two eldest sons. She had had nine or ten children, all very pretty and engaging, but as varied, in complexion, as a bunch of sweet peas. In passing down the town, I saw two or three of them, as they were squatting on the high window-seats, amusing themselves with their playthings: they poked their little faces through the iron bars of the lattice, and I stopped to regard them: their beauty and innocence had attracted me; but, after gazing at them, an instant, I passed on.

Having taken up my quarters at the Marquess's, I strolled about the town, and made inquiries for the house of Doña Joanita, not having been aware that it was the same as that in which the children had excited my attention. I made several inquiries and, at length, entered the dwelling of one of her relations, who lived nearly opposite to her, and found myself introduced to her three cousins, who were, I afterwards discovered, considered the belles of Antigua. My visit to this place was quite unexpected, but Doña Joanita, with a degree of hospitality which I could not but appreciate, and which, unfortunately, is too often found in the inverse ratio of civilization, invited me to be her guest, during my stay in the city: I accepted her obliging offer, sleeping at the chateau where my bed and baggage were deposited.—I spent the next three days in viewing the remains of this enchanting place: in my excursions, I was generally accompanied by some portion of the family, especially by the pretty children who had, at first, so greatly excited my attention: one of them, a little girl of eight years of age, although two of her sisters were perfect brunettes, like their mother, was as fair as an angel, and I might add almost as beautiful: what was extraordinary, her name was Angeles; she was a quick intelligent child, and I used to amuse her with fabricated stories of giants, whales, dwarfs and magicians,—and such other nonsense as seldom fails to excite the admiration of children of her own, and every other, growth; but I was shocked as she used, for every interjection of surprise, the name of our Redeemer, pronouncing it with a guttural tone, which made the word Heezoos! It is lamentable that this irreverend custom should so prevail amongst the South Americans, for, although, without doubt, the expression is innocently used, as I am sure it was in the present instance, it impresses foreigners with ideas of their levity regarding religious subjects, which they are far from intending to manifest, and with which, therefore, they ought not indiscriminately to be charged.

In one of my excursions about the city, I visited the chief spots which had suffered by the earthquakes. To the south, stand the remains of the immense convent of Christ: the portico and a part of a side wall, still having the appearance of being newly erected from the freshness of the masonry, are all that are left to denote the place where it once stood: all the rest of the inclosure was become one spacious cemetery, for nearly two hundred souls were buried under the ruins, which could now scarcely be recognized amidst the rank herbage with which they were overgrown. The whole of the city, indeed, presents a splendid panorama of romantic dilapidation.

The edifices of public worship had been no less than fifty or sixty in number: vestiges of them may still be faintly traced in some places by the inquiring eye; in others, some dismembered column stands like a tall ghost amidst the mournful groves. I had ridden, with a large party, up the side of the Water Mountain, to the height of about half a mile, whence I gained a more comprehensive view of the scene beneath me. I asked many questions of my companions, but it was with the greatest difficulty that I could obtain the least information required; the reason appeared obvious: they had been born and bred in the city, and, consequently knew not anything about it, like the cockney, who, in boyhood apprenticed, and afterwards settled for life, at the top of Ludgate hill, never beheld the inside of St. Paul's, whereas the Yorkshireman, who only once visited London, and that but for two days, had been to the top of the dome of it, and seen Westminster Abbey and the lions in the Tower, to boot.

Being thus obliged to rely upon my own observations, I was of opinion that the town had covered an extent of ground as large as the present site of Mexico, and about twice as large as that of the new capital of Guatemala. The houses were originally built of two stories, with richly carved friezes over the doors and windows; but the later erections are exactly according to the form prescribed by law, not exceeding eighteen feet in height, with one story only; on the same plan as those of the new city. The fear of earthquakes having passed by, (it is five and twenty years since the last happened,) they are raising dwellings in all directions, without the least attention to internal comfort or decoration. Indeed, accommodations are so scarce, that two or three families are obliged to live in the same house; and, as it is the custom of the inhabitants of the Nueva to come hither to recreate themselves by change of air, apartments, at the migrating season, are rather to be obtained for love than for money. This happened to be the case with regard to the season in question, and the town was redundantly full. Besides those who sought the recovery of their health were others influenced solely by amusement; for in addition to the admitted salubrity of the place, the roads between the two cities, although impassable for carriages, are so tolerable as not to offer absolute impediment to invalids, with respect to the journey. The settlers here employ themselves in the cultivation of cochineal and other agricultural pursuits. Without enumerating the vestiges of all the temples of worship with which the town was adorned, I will mention the few which I had an opportunity of observing.

On the east side, close to the skirt of the Water Mountain, are the ruins of the Escuela, Santa Ana, Calvario, San Christoval, San Juan, Cascon, San Pedro Huetlan, Santa Maria and San Bartolomē. On the west is the superb arch of the choir of St. Domingo, standing in a solitary and almost perfect state, as if newly erected,—the convents, towards the north, of St. Geronimo and St. Sebastian, are those which have suffered the least; but the whole number now used for religious worship does not exceed seven or eight. The climate I found much the same as that of the new city: the average of the thermometer being 75° in the day and 63° at night, and, in the summer, about ten degrees higher. The steward of the Marquess's chateau had a small plot of ground inclosed with mud walls near his cottage; and, seeing him busily employed, early one morning, I joined him, to observe what he was doing. He was planting cochineal: to those who are unacquainted with the process, it may be usefiil to state that this operation is dissimilar from any other mode of cultivation.

The nopal is a plant consisting of little stem, but expanding itself into wide thick leaves, more or less prickly according to its different kind: one or two of these leaves being set as one plant, at the distance of two or three feet square from each other, are inoculated with the cochineal, which, I scarcely need say, is an insect: it is the same as if you would take the blight off an apple or other common tree and rub a small portion of it on another tree free from the contagion, when the consequence would be that the tree so inoculated would become covered with the blight: a small quantity of the insects in question is sufficient for each plant, which, in proportion as it increases its leaves, is sure to be covered with the costly parasyte. When the plant is perfectly saturated, the cochineal is scraped off with great care. The plants are not very valuable for the first year, but, from questions I put to the steward about the produce, it appeared that they might be estimated as yielding after the second year, from a dollar to a dollar and a half profit on each plant. Indigo is described as a substance of a deep blue colour, containing about fifty per cent of pure colouring matter: the analysis of indigo, says Brande, in his Manual of Chemistry, page 49, where he proposes to ascertain the proportion of colouring matter, which varies much in different samples, may be performed by the successive action of water, alcohol, and muriatic acid. One hundred parts of Guatemala indigo thus treated afforded to water twelve parts, to alcohol thirty, to muriatic acid ten, to residue of pure indigo forty-eight. This analysis would seem to prove that the indigo of Guatemala is superior to that of any other country.

Wednesday, 23d June. I called on Don Juan de Barrundia, the gefe politico of the state: it happened to be his saint's day, or, as we should call it in English, his birth-day, it being usual in these countries to take the name of the saint on whose festival any one is born. All the authorities and most respectable inhabitants of the place were paying their court to him: I staid with him about half an hour, during which time the conversation turned principally upon the political organization of the country, and the federative system which was adopted. I had been given to understand, and subsequent events have proved the truth of the assertion, that this person was not so well affected towards the federal system as could be wished for the tranquillity of the republic: as almost all the disturbances which have since occurred in Guatemala have arisen principally from the disposition to impugn the authority of the federal government, it might be as well to give my readers a short sketch of the principles on which that federation is established: the same will, I apprehend, prove, beyond all doubt, that if once these petty feelings of disagreement can be allayed, the power of the government will stand upon a firm and lasting basis.