Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 5

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Servants acquitted for want of evidence.—Take new Servant from the Hospital.—Embark in the Tartar.—Arrival at Acajutla.

Ignacio, my valet, who was one of the handsomest Creolian lads I had seen, had a love affair in Mexico. He cried lustily when I told him, on setting off, that I must take him to England: now that he had been with the Juez de Letras and acquitted, he was in high spirits; he asked me to give him a written character to the Commission, and also a mare which I bought at Xalapa on my first arrival in the country: as I had no positive evidence against the poor fellow, I gave him both. In order to replace him, I had applied to the old Spanish merchant, Don Juan M—a, who told me he knew of a man whose honesty he could answer for: he was the barber and bleeder of the hospital to which that worthy old gentleman gave his gratuitous services: I accordingly engaged him. He was a Chinese, about sixty-five years of age, out of forty of which he had been in the habit of attending, as valet, the merchants who were trading between China and Acapulco; thus oscillating, like a pendulum, during the whole of that period, across ninety-six degrees of longitude. He was, in fact, six feet two inches high, and what he had gained in longitude he had lost in latitude, for he was the thinnest man I ever saw, and he usually went by the title with which I christened him, of Don Quixote, though his right name was Henrico. As I was obliged to provide some animal for my other servant, whom I was not anxious to take with me, I told him he might return on my mule, but, not deeming his services worthy of such recompense, I desired him to deliver it to the gentleman who had now succeeded me in my situation at Mexico.

At eleven o'clock on the 4th of May, I embarked on board the Tartar. There was not much difficulty in shipping my luggage; but my little violent and irritable horse, which I had bought of the rough rider of a dragoon regiment at Mexico, had nearly killed one of the crew, who was fettering him for embarkation: it was evident he objected to the marine service, although he, afterwards, evinced great discipline, and bore a tolerably good character with the sailors, by whom he was surrounded.

My two Mexican servants were anxious to go on board, and I allowed them to accompany me: they were astonished and seemed lost in speechless admiration at so large a house, with all its nice accommodations and conveniences, being able to float upon the water; they had never before seen any thing of the kind larger than a Mexican punt, a vessel shaped exactly like, but half as long again as, those which contribute to the piscatory recreation of gentlemen who angle between Battersea and Staines.

We immediately weighed anchor and stood out of the bay. By the 6th, it was calculated we had made half the voyage to the port of Sonsonate, to which we were bound.

At four o'clock in the morning of the 7th, the great volcano of Guatemala was in sight; we were then about eighteen leagues from the shore. The coast is not very accurately laid down in the charts; at least, there was a variation between them and the ship's reckoning of seventy miles, in this short voyage. I procured from Mr. James, a midshipman, a copy of an improved plan which he had formed of the coast from Acapulco to Sonsonate[1]. We had run the distance exactly in five days, having had fair light winds all the way.

About midday on the 9th, we came to anchor off the port, or rather open roadstead, of Acajutla. At eight o'clock the next morning, Lieut. Morgan went ashore with part of my baggage. There happened to be, at the time, a great concourse of people assembled there from the capital, to celebrate the festival of the Holy Cross. I forgot to mention that the frigate, on coming to anchor, fired a salute which was answered by the fort of two guns, to the number fired by the frigate. This had drawn the attention of the whole population, whether natives or visitors. The morning was very fine, and we could perceive, by our glasses, that the beach was thronged with holiday-dressed company, who, with their shawls, bonnets, and parasols, had a very European-like appearance: indeed, a painter might have transferred the group, with propriety, to his representation of the coasts of Ramsgate or Brighton. Captain Brown, whose pleasant and affable manners had rendered the voyage in every way agreeable, sent a boat ashore, with the expectation that the company would avail themselves of the opportunity of coming aboard the frigate, probably the only ship of the kind they had ever seen anchor at their port.

The periodical blustering gales which annoy the seaman at Vera Cruz prevail equally on this side of the continent. There is generally, about midday, a great bore or swell which sets in upon the coast: this had commenced with such violence, just as the boat was leaving the shore, that the ladies, much to their mortification, were obliged to relinquish their design.

As Captain Brown was desirous of making the best of his voyage to the southward, and as I was anxious not to detain him, I proposed to land, notwithstanding the state of the weather, and I was accordingly rowed ashore about twelve o'clock. When within a quarter of a mile of it, I was transferred, together with the luggage which had not been already landed, into another boat: it was that in which Lieut. Morgan had gone off in the morning, and was supposed better adapted for making the shore. As it was, however, we got sadly ducked: the breakers were so large that, with about every third wave, the boat was completely swamped, and had we not been able to swim, our lives might have been in jeopardy. The best and safest way of landing on these coasts, if I might offer an opinion, is to pull the boat stem on, till she runs ashore, high and dry; and, if a kedger must be cast to haul her off, the line should be sufficiently long, or else she will be tied down to the buffetting of the waves. I conclude I am right in this opinion, for it was immediately authenticated by the spontaneous observation of the parties ashore, two or three of whom were English merchants resident in Sonsonate. One of them pointed out to me a boat's crew who landed immediately after us from a merchant vessel lying in the roads, and who, from a knowledge of the tremendous nature of these breakers, which will not admit of a boat lying off afloat, had contrived to reach the shore perfectly dry.

The frigate having now fired another salute, the same was returned by the fort, as regularly as its two guns would enable it to do so. It was fortunate that some of my baggage had been sent ashore in the ing, otherwise I should not have had a change of dry clothes.

Don Miguel Espinosa de los Monteros is administrator of the customs at this port: he is a civil and intelligent man: he took me about the place; and, as the untoward manner of my landing was the subject, at the moment, uppermost in our thoughts, he was naturally led to revert to a matter, which it appeared had long claimed his attention, and which was the formation of a harbour. He pointed out to me the manner in which the object might be effected, and the facilities appeared to me to be so great, that I have little doubt an English engineer would be able to accomplish it for less than £20,000.

Don Miguel's was of course an open house, on occasion of the festivities which were going on at the port; accordingly, his great parlour was filled with groups of company of all descriptions. On the window-seat, smoking cigars, sat his pretty little daughter with three other Sonsonate misses, as brown as berries and as merry as grigs. From their ears hung suspended large flat hoop ear-rings of pure gold: some of them wore a profusion of gold chains round their neck, and some of them strings of pearls, which, in their unwrought state, looked more like teeth than the teeth of the wearer (though not in most instances) looked like pearls. Don Miguel's wife had got possession, ex officio, of one of the hammocks, and the other was vacated for my acceptance, by a Guatemalian dandy. Although of the Mexican genus, he is a variety of the species: he wears the Mexican poncho or cloak, and sometimes the stamped leather leggings, but his dress is altogether plainer: it is seldom ornamented with gold or silver embroidery: his jacket is usually plain cotton, and when he wears woollen, it is more generally an English-cut frock-coat: his hat is also English, except when travelling, when it gives place to a large slouched one of straw or other light material, better calculated to keep off the sun's rays.—Dishes in succession were placed on different parts of the long massy table which occupied the greater part of the hall;—to every one in their turn was brought a dish of frixoles, and as there was no want of attention on the part of the host's servants to the demands of the guests, I naturally concluded that the numerous parties which were thus accommodated would pay for their respective entertainment. Some guitars now struck up before the door; and about a dozen couple began to waltz. I felt a little inclined to join them, but could not screw my courage to the sticking point: I had hardly got the better of my ducking. I found that, with regard to propriety, I should not have been wrong if I had done so, for the party was highly respectable, and consisted of young persons of the best families of the provincial town of Sonsonate. Most of them were about to keep up the festivities for two or three days longer at Acajutla; but as three of the English merchants were about to return that evening, and kindly offered me their advice and assistance on the journey, I set off with them, about five o'clock in the evening.

There is a carriage-road the whole way from the port to the town, principally over a fine green sod, and through avenues intersecting a thick wood, which, in the summer time, is so umbrageous as hardly to leave the route, where the road should be, distinguishable. This wood is infested by a small tiger, which is very fierce, but seldom attacks a man, unless affronted: he does not require the same provocation to assault the herds, especially the calves and young mules. The bulls are so well acquainted with his malicious intentions that, forgetting their mutual animosities, they sometimes congregate for the general protection, in which case the tiger frequently gets the worst of the battle.

The guaco, with its parasitical tendrils, clinging to the gigantic trees which girt the path, assures us of the presence of the most noxious serpents; for, wherever these are found, the natives tell you that the guaco, the unfailing antidote to all their poisons, is also at hand. The root and branches of this plant, which greatly resembles the vine, divested of its foliage, are equally effective; and its power is so instantaneous and astonishing, that, had not the stories of its efficacy been repeated by persons of veracity who have tried its effect on their persons, I could hardly credit them. Some of the snakes here are so venomous that the person bitten generally dies in the course of twenty minutes: if, however, he be provided with the guaco, he bites a bit, and applies the saliva to the part: he also swallows the saliva arising from the mastication, for a few hours, and he need have no further apprehension; he is quite well.

A young man of the name of Rascon, who accompanied me to England, and of whom I shall hereafter speak, told me that he has taken up in the palm of his hand that dreadful little viper called the tamaulpas, the bite of which is instant death, and that the reptile became instantly inert and torpid, because he had in his hand a small piece of this wonderful plant. Another person, whose servant had been bitten by the same kind of snake, was dying of a mortification which had taken place in his arm: a strong decoction of the root in brandy was poured down his throat, and also applied to the part affected: he was cured, and never afterwards felt any effect from the wound. Might not this wonderful remedy be applied to cases of hydrophobia? Not to speak of its beneficial qualities in cases of agues, dysentery, fever, and generally all those maladies which are peculiar to the human constitution in the places where it is found, I can answer for its being of a very harmless nature, for I took it by the advice and after the example of the English gentlemen, almost daily, with a view of preventing sickness, and must conclude it had the effect, never having suffered from indisposition whilst residing at Sonsonate, or other places where the climate is considered to be prejudicial to European constitutions. On leaving the port, I could not prevail on Don Miguel, the administrador, to accept of any payment for the accommodation he had afforded me; but being desirous of shewing him some acknowledgement, I gave him an English broad sword, with which he was exceedingly delighted: he began to dry and clean it from the effects of the salt-water, an operation which, those who know the effect of that element on steel are aware of, he would often have to repeat.

  1. The map, made for this work, has been formed from the best charts, collated with this improvement.