Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/April 1886/An Economic Study of Mexico I
By DAVID A. WELLS.
IT is proposed to here ask attention to the results of a recent investigation and study of Mexico, with the intent of exhibiting its economic relations to the United States, and of helping to determine the desirability of the ratification on the part of the latter of a Mexico-American commercial treaty. The basis for this investigation and for such opinions as may be expressed has been: First, a somewhat extended exploration of Mexico, undertaken during the early months of the past year (1885), primarily with a view to health and recreation; and, secondly, a subsequent careful study (prompted by interest in what had been personally seen or heard) of the physical situation and history of the country, and its present political, industrial, and social condition. The journey, it may be further premised, was mainly made upon a special train, over the whole length of the Mexican Central Railroad, over most of the Vera Cruz and City of Mexico and over a part of the Mexican National Railroads; the aggregate distance traversed within the territory of the republic being in excess of three thousand miles, the train running upon its own time, with its own equipment for eating and sleeping, and stopping long enough at every point of interest—city, town, hacienda, mine, or desert—to admit of its full and satisfactory exploration. It is safe, therefore, to say that such an opportunity for leisurely visiting and studying so much of Mexico had rarely, if ever, before been granted.
Although geographically near, and having been in commercial relations with the rest of the world for over three hundred and fifty years, there is probably less known to-day about Mexico than of almost any other country claiming to be civilized; certainly not as much as concerning Egypt, Palestine, or the leading states of British India; and not any more than concerning the outlying provinces of Turkey, the states of Northern Africa, or the seaport districts of China and Japan. It is doubtful, furthermore, if as large a proportion as one in a thousand of the fairly educated men of the United States or of Europe could at once, and without reference to an encyclopædia, locate and name the twenty-seven States or political divisions into which the Republic of Mexico is divided, or so many of its towns and cities as have a population in excess of fifteen or twenty thousand. The explanation of this is that, prior to the construction and opening of the Mexican "Central" and Mexican "National" Railroads, or virtually prior to the year 1883, the exploration of Mexico—owing to the almost total absence of roads and of comfortable hospicia for man and beast, the utter insecurity for life and property, the intervention of vast sterile and waterless tracts, and the inhospitality and almost savagery of no small proportion of its people—was so difficult and dangerous that exploration has rarely been attempted; and those who have attempted it have greatly imperiled their lives, to say nothing of their health and property. Mexico, furthermore, is not fully known even to the Mexicans themselves. Thus, a large part of the country on the Pacific coast has scarcely been penetrated outside of the roads or "trails" which lead from the seaports to the interior. There are hundreds of square miles in Southern Mexico, especially in the States of Michoacan and Guerrero, and also in Sonora, that have never been explored; and whole tribes of Indians that have never been brought in contact with the white man, and repel all attempts at visitation or government supervision. During the three hundred years, also, when Mexico was under Spanish dominion, almost access to the country was denied to foreigners; the most noted exception being the case of Humboldt, who, through the personal favor and friendship of Don Marino Urquijo, first Spanish Secretary of State under Charles IV, received privileges never before granted to any traveler; and thus it is that, although more than three quarters of a century have elapsed since Humboldt made his journey and explorations, he is still quoted as the best and, in many particulars, as the only, reliable authority in respect to Mexico.
In 1850, Bayard Taylor, returning from California, visited Mexico, landing at Mazatlan, and crossing the country by way of the city of Mexico to Vera Cruz. His journey lasted from the 5th of January to the 19th of February—a period of about six weeks—and the distance traversed by him in a straight line could not have been much in excess of seven hundred miles—a rather small foundation in the way of exploration for the construction of a standard work of travel; yet, whoever reads his narrative and enters into sympathy with the author (as who in reading Bayard Taylor does not?) is heartily glad that it is no longer—for Mungo Park in attempting to explore the Niger, or Bruce in seeking for the sources of the Nile, or Livingstone on the Zambesi, never encountered greater perils or chronicled more disagreeable experiences of travel. It was not enough to have "journeyed," as he expresses it, "for leagues in the burning sun, over scorched hills, without water or refreshing verdure, suffering greatly from thirst, until I found a little muddy water at the bottom of a hole"; to have lived on frijoles and tortillas (the latter so compounded with red pepper that, it is said, neither vultures nor wolves will ever touch a dead Mexican), and to have found an adequate supply of even these at times very difficult to obtain; to sleep without shelter or upon the dirt floors of adobe huts, or upon scaffolds of poles, and to have even such scant luxuries impaired by the invasions of hogs, menace of ferocious dogs, and by other enemies "without and within," in the shape of swarms of fleas, mosquitoes, and other vermin; but, in addition to all this, he was robbed, and left bound and helpless in a lonely valley, if not with the expectation, at least with a feeling of complete indifference, on the part of his ruffianly assailant*, as to whether he perished by hunger and cold, or effected a chance deliverance. And if any one were to travel to-day over the same route that Bayard Taylor followed, and under the same circumstances of personal exposure, he would undoubtedly be subject to a like experience. In August, 1878, Hon. John W. Foster, then United States minister to Mexico, writing from the city of Mexico to the Manufacturers' Association of the Northwest, at Chicago, made the following statement concerning the social condition of the country at that time: "Not a single passenger-train leaves this city (Mexico) or Vera Cruz, the (then) termini of the only completed railroad in the country, without being escorted by a company of soldiers to protect it from assault and robbery. The manufacturers of this city, who own factories in the valley within sight of it, in sending out money to pay the weekly wages of their operatives, always accompany it with an armed guard; and it has repeatedly occurred, during the past twelve months (1878), that the street railway-cars from this city to the suburban villages have been seized by bands of robbers and the money of the manufacturers stolen. Every mining company which sends its metal to this city to be coined or shipped abroad always accompanies it by a strong guard of picked men; and the planters and others who send money or valuables out of the city do likewise. The principal highways over which the diligence lines pass are constantly patroled by the armed rural guard or the Federal troops; and yet highway robbery is BO common that it is rarely even noticed in the newspapers. One of the commercial indications of the insecurity of communication between this capital and the other cities of the republic is found in the rate of interior exchange," which at that time, according to the minister, varied from ten per cent in the case of Chihuahua, distant a thousand miles, to two and two and a half per cent for places like Toluca, not farther removed than a hundred miles. Matters are, however, in a much better state at present, and for reasons that will be mentioned hereafter; but the following item of Mexican news, telegraphed from Saltillo (Northern Mexico), under date of February 15, 1885, pretty clearly indicates the scope and desirability for future improvement, and also the present limitation on the authority of the existing national Government: "The commission of officers sent from Zacatecas by the Government to treat for a surrender with the noted bandit leader, Eraclie Bernal, has returned, having been unsuccessful in its mission. The chief demanded the following conditions: Pardon for himself and band, a bonus of thirty thousand dollars for himself, to be allowed to retain an armed escort of twenty-five men, or to be appointed to a position in the army commanding a district in Sinaloa."
How such a statement as the foregoing carries the reader back to the days of the "Robbers of the Rhine," or the "free lances" of the middle ages! With a better government and increased railroad facilities, the amount of travel in Mexico has of late years greatly increased. Before the opening of the Mexican Central, in 1883, the majority of travelers entered the country at the port of Vera Cruz, and journeyed by railroad (opened in 1873) to the capital (two hundred and sixty-three miles), and returned without stopping en route in either case; or else made excursions of no great distance from points on our southern frontier into the northern tier of Mexican States—Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas—such journeys being usually made on horseback, with preparations for camping out, and also for fighting if it became necessary. Since the opening of the Mexican Central, however, this route offers the greatest facilities for those who desire to reach the city of Mexico, the traveler journeying by a fast train, day and night, the whole route (twelve hundred and twenty-five miles) from El Paso, in the very best of Pullman cars, over a good road, with every accommodation save that of food, which, in spite of the efforts of the company, is and will continue to be bad, simply because the country furnishes few resources—milk selling at some points as high as twenty-five cents a quart and scarce at that, while butter as a product of the country is almost unknown. But, enter Mexico by whatever route, the ordinary traveler has little opportunity to see anything of the country apart from the city of Mexico, save what is afforded by the view from the car-windows, and yet it is from just such experiences that most of the recent books and letters about Mexico have been written.
There is a wonderful depth of truth in a remark attributed to Emerson, that "the eye sees only what it brings to itself the power to see"; and the majority of those who in recent years have visited Mexico would seem to have brought to their eyes the power of seeing little else than the picturesque side of things. And of such material there is no lack. In the first place, the country throughout is far more foreign to an American than any country of Europe, except that part of Europe in close proximity to its Asiatic border. Transport a person of tolerably good geographical information, without giving him any intimation as to where he was going, to almost any part of the great plateau of Mexico—outside of the larger cities—and he would at once conclude that he was either at Timbuctoo or some part of the "Holy Land." The majority of the houses are of adobe (mud), destitute of all coloration, unless dust-gray is a color, and one story in height-In Palestine, however, and also (according to report) in Timbuctoo, the roofs are "domed"; in Mexico they are flat. The soil is dry, the herbage, when there is any, coarse and somber, and the whole country singularly lacking in trees and verdure. In the fields of the better portions of the country, men may be seen plowing with a crooked stick, and raising water from wells or ditches into irrigating trenches, by exactly the same methods that are in use to-day as they were five thousand years ago or more upon the banks of the Nile. In the villages, women with nut-brown skins, black hair, and large black eyes, walk round in multitudinous folds of cotton fabrics, often colored, the face partially concealed, and gracefully bearing water-jars upon their shoulders—the old familiar Bible picture of our childhood over again, of Rebecca returning from the fountain.
Place a range of irregular, sharp, saw-tooth hills or mountains, upon whose sides neither grass nor shrub has apparently ever grown, in the distance; a cloudless sky and a blazing sun overhead; and in the foreground a few olive-trees, long lines of repellent cacti defining whatever of demarkation may be needed for fields or roadway, and a few donkeys, the type of all that is humble and forlorn—and the picture of village life upon the "plateau" of Mexico is complete.
Would any one recall the "Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt," it is not necessary to visit the galleries of Europe and study the works of the old masters, for here on the dusty plains of Mexico all the scenes and incidents of it are daily repeated: Mary upon a donkey, her head gracefully hooded with a blue rebozo, and carrying a young child enveloped on her bosom in her mantle; while Joseph, the husband, bearded and, with naked arms and legs, and sandals on his feet, walks ploddingly by her side, with one hand on the bridle, and, if the other does not grasp a staff, it is because of the scarcity of wood out of which to make one, or because the dull beast stands in constant need of the stimulus of a thong of twisted leather.
Madame Calderon de la Barca, the Scotch wife of one of the first Spanish ministers sent to Mexico after the achievement of her independence, and who wrote a very popular book on her travels in Mexico, published in 184.'}, also notes and thus graphically describes this predominance of the "picturesque" in Mexico:
"One circumstance," she says, "must be observed by all who travel in Mexican territory. There is not one human being or passing object to be seen that is not in itself a picture, or which would not form a good subject for the pencil. The Indian women, with their plaited hair, and little children slung on their backs, their large straw hats, and petticoats of two colors; the long string of arrieros with their loaded mules, and swarthy, wild-looking faces; the chance horseman who passes with his serape of many colors, his high, ornamental saddle, Mexican hat, silver stirrups, and leather boots—all is picturesque. Salvator Rosa and Hogarth might have traveled here to advantage hand-in-hand; Salvator for the sublime, and Hogarth taking him up where the sublime became ridiculous."
Where Indian blood greatly predominates in the women, the head, neck, shoulders, and legs, to the knee, are generally bare, and their garments little else than a loose-fitting white cotton tunic, and a petticoat of the same material, often of two colors.
At Aguas Calientes, within a hundred yards of the station of the Mexican Central Railroad, men, women, and children, entirely naked, may be seen bathing, in large numbers, at all hours of the day, in a ditch conveying a few feet of tepid water, which flows, with a gentle current, from certain contiguous and remarkably warm springs.
Shoes in Mexico are a foreign innovation, and properly form no part of the national costume. The great majority of the people do not wear shoes at all, and probably never will; but in their place use sandals, composed of a sole of leather, raw-hide, or platted fibers of the maguey-plant, fastened to the foot with strings of the same material, as the only protection for the foot needed in their warm, dry climate. And these sandals are so easily made and repaired, that every Mexican peasant, no matter what may be his other occupation, is always his own shoemaker. As a general rule, also, the infantry regiments of Mexico wear sandals in preference to shoes. Very curiously, the pegged shoes of the United States and other countries are not made and can not be sold in Mexico, as, owing to the extreme dryness of the atmosphere, the wood shrinks to such a degree that the pegs speedily become loose and fall out.
In the country, the so-called peons, or agricultural laborers, who comprise nearly all the population, are, as a matter of fact, permanently attached to the soil of the great estates, through conditions respecting the obligation of debts that practically amount to slavery; and it is claimed that the keeping of the peons constantly in debt—a matter not difficult to accomplish by reason of their ignorance and improvidence—and so making permanent residence and the performance of labor obligatory on them—is indispensable for the regular prosecution of agriculture; inasmuch as the peon, if free, can never be depended upon, if he gets a few dollars or shillings in his pocket, and there is a place for him to gamble within from fifty to one hundred miles' distance. It is to be noted, however, that, wherever Mexico comes in contact with the outside world, the peon system tends to decay; and in the northern Slates of Mexico, where American ideas are finding their way among the people, and the construction of railways has increased the opportunities for employment, and raised wages, it is already practically abandoned. On each estate, or hacienda, there are buildings, or collections of buildings, typical of the country, borrowed originally, so far as the idea was concerned, in part undoubtedly from Old Spain, and in part prompted by the necessities for defense from attack under which the country has been occupied and settled, which are also called haciendas, the term being apparently used indifferently to designate both a large landed estate, as well as the buildings, which, like the old feudal castles, represent the ownership and the center of operations on the estate. They are usually huge rectangular structures—walls or buildings—of stone or adobe, intended often to serve the purpose, if needs be, of actual fortresses, and completely inclosing an inner square, or court-yard, the entrance to which is through one or more massive gates, which, when closed at night, are rarely opened until morning. Within the court, upon one side, built up against an exterior wall, is usually a series of adobe structures—low, windowless, single apartments—where the peons and their families, with their dogs and pigs, live; while upon the other sides are larger structures for the use or residence of the owner and his family, or the superintendent of the estate; with generally also a chapel and accommodations for the priest, places for the storage of produce, and the keeping of animals; and one or more apartments entirely destitute of furniture or of any means of lighting or ventilation, save through the entrance or doorway from the court-yard, which are devoted to the reception of such travelers as may demand and receive hospitality to the extent of shelter from the night, or protection from outside marauders. Such places hardly deserve the name of inns, but either these poor accommodations or camping out is the traveler's only alternative. They put one in mind of the caravansaries of the East, or better of the inns or posadas of Spain, which Don Quixote and his attendant Sancho Panza frequented, with the court-yard then, as now, all ready for tossing Sancho in a blanket in presence of the whole population. In some cases the hacienda is an irregular pile of adobe buildings without symmetry, order, or convenience; and in others, where the estate is large and the laborers numerous (as is often the case), only the most important buildings are inclosed within the wall—the peons, whose poverty is generally a sufficient safeguard against robbery, living outside and constituting a scattered village community. The owners of the large Mexican estates rarely live upon them, but make their homes in the city of Mexico or in Europe, and intrust the management of their property to a superintendent, who, like the owner, considers himself a gentleman, and whose chief business is to keep the peons in debt, or, what is substantially the same thing, in slavery. Whatever work is done is performed by the peons—in whose veins Indian blood predominates—in their own way and in their own time. They have but few tools, and, except possibly some contrivances for raising water, nothing worthy the name of machinery. Without being bred to any mechanical profession, the peons make and repair nearly every implement or tool that is used upon the estate, and this too without the use of a forge or of iron, not even of bolts and nails. The explanation of such an apparently marvelous result is to be found in a single word, or rather material, raw-hide, with which the peon feels himself qualified to meet almost any constructive emergency, from the framing of a house to the making of a loom, the mending of a gun, or the repair of a broken leg; and yet even under these circumstances the great Mexican estates, owing to their exemption from taxation, and the cheapness of labor, are said to be profitable, and, in cases where a fair supply of water is obtainable, to even return large incomes to their absentee owners.
In no truly Mexican house of high or low degree, from the adobe hut of the peasant to the stone palace erected by the Emperor Iturbide, are there any arrangements for warming or, in the American sense, for cooking; and in the entire city of Mexico, with an estimated population of from 225,000 to 500,000, chimneys, fireplaces, and stoves are so rare that it is commonly said that there are none. This latter statement is, however, not strictly correct; yet it approximates so closely to the truth that, but for provision for warm baths, there is probably no exception to it in any of the larger hotels of the city where foreigners most do congregate. Apart from the capital and some of the larger cities, Mexico is noticeably deficient in hotels or inns for the accommodation of travelers, and in a majority of the smaller towns there are no such places. And why should there be? The natives rarely go anywhere, and consequently do not expect anybody to come to them.
Large, costly, and often elegant stone edifices—public and private—are not wanting in the principal towns and cities of Mexico; but all, save those of very recent construction, have the characteristic Saracenic or Moorish architecture of Southern Spain—namely, a rectangular structure with rooms opening on to interior piazzas, and a more or less spacious court-yard, which is often fancifully paved and ornamented with fountains and shrubbery; while the exterior, with its gate-furnished archways and narrow and iron-grated windows, suggests the idea of a desire for jealous seclusion on the part of the inmates, or fear of possible outside attack and disturbance. Wooden buildings are almost unknown in Mexico, and in all interiors wood is rarely used where stone, tiles, and iron are possible applications. Consequently, and, in view of the scarcity of water, most fortunately, there are few fires in Mexico; no fire departments, and but little opportunity for insurance companies or the business of insurance agents. As a general rule, the buildings of Mexico, exclusive of the huts, in which the masses of the people live, are not over one story in height, flat-roofed, and have neither cellars nor garrets; and in buildings of more than one story the upper floor is always preferred as a dwelling, and thus in the cities commands the highest rents. There do not, moreover, seem to be any aristocratic streets or quarters in the cities of Mexico; but rich and poor distribute themselves indiscriminately, and not unfrequently live under the same roof.
The popular opinion concerning Mexico is that it is a country of marvelous and unbounded natural resources. Every geography invites attention to the admirable location of its territory, between and in close proximity to the two great oceans; to the great variety, abundance, and richness of its tropical products—sugar, coffee, tobacco, dye and ornamental woods, vanilla, indigo, cacao, cochineal, fruits, fibers, and the like; and to the number of its mines, which for more than two centuries have furnished the world with its chief supply of silver, and are still productive. The result is, that with a majority of well-informed people, and more especially with those who have read about Mexico in those charming romances of Prescott, and who, in flying visits to its capital, have found so much to interest them in the way of the picturesque, and have brought to their eyes little capacity for seeing anything else, the tendency has been to confound the possible with the actual, and to encourage the idea that Mexico is a rich prize, unappreciated by its present possessors, and only waiting for the enterprising and audacious Yankees to possess and make much of, by simply coming down and appropriating.
Now, with these current beliefs and impressions the writer has little sympathy; but, on the contrary, his study and observations lead him to the conclusion that the Mexico of to-day, through conjoined natural and artificial (or human) influences, is one of the very poorest and most wretched of all countries; and, while undoubtedly capable of very great improvement over her present condition, is not speedily or even ultimately likely, under any circumstances, to develop into a great (in the sense of highly civilized), rich, and powerful nation. And in warrant and vindication of opinions so antagonistic to popular sentiment, it is proposed to ask attention to a brief review of the condition of Mexico; first, from its geographical or natural stand-point, and secondly, from the stand-point of its historical, social, and political experience.
Considered geographically, Mexico is, in the main, an immense table-land or plateau, which seems to be a flattening out of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and which, commencing within the territory of the United States as far north certainly as Central Colorado, and perhaps beyond, extends as far south as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; a north and south length, measuring from the southern frontier-line of the United States, of about two thousand miles. Entering the country by the Mexican Central Railway at El Paso, where the plateau has already an elevation of 3,717 feet, the traveler progressively and rapidly ascends, though so gradually that, except for a détour, made obligatory in the construction of the road to climb up into the city of Zacatecas, he is hardly conscious of it until, at a point known as Marquez, 1,148 miles from the starting-point and 76 miles from the city of Mexico, the railroad-track attains an elevation of 8,134 feet, or 1,849 feet higher than the summit of Mount Washington. From this point the line descends 834 feet into the valley of the city of Mexico, the bottom of which is about 7,300 feet above the sea-level. In fact, as Humboldt as far back as 1803 pointed out, so regular is the great plateau on the line followed by the Central road, and so gentle are its surface slopes where depressions occur, that the journey from the city of Mexico to Santa Fé, in New Mexico, might be performed in a four-wheeled vehicle.
Starting next from the city of Mexico, and going east toward the Atlantic, or west toward the Pacific, for a distance in either direction of about one hundred and sixty miles, and we come to the edge or terminus of this great plateau; so well defined and so abrupt that in places it seems as if a single vigorous jump would land the experimenter, or all that was left of him, at from two to three thousand feet lower level. Up the side of this almost precipice—tunneling through or winding round a succession of mountain promontories—the Vera Cruz and City of Mexico Railroad has been constructed; "rising" or "falling"—according to the direction traveled—over four thousand feet, in passing over a circuitous track of about twenty-five miles; and of which elevation or depression about twenty-five hundred perpendicular feet are comprised within the first thirteen miles, measured from the point where the descent from the edge of the plateau begins. To overcome this tremendous grade in ascending, a sort of double locomotive—comprising two sets of driving machinery, with the boilers in the center, and known as the "Farlie" engine—is employed; and even with this most powerful tractor it is necessary, with an ordinary train, to stop every eight or ten miles, in order to keep up a sufficient head of steam to overcome the resistance. In descending, on the other hand, only sufficient steam is necessary to work the brakes and counteract the tendency to a too rapid movement. As an achievement in engineering the road has probably no parallel, except it may be in some of the more recent and limited constructions among the passes of Colorado; and, as might be expected, the cost of transportation over the entire distance of 263 miles, from Vera Cruz to the city of Mexico, is very heavy, although at an enormous reduction on the cost of all methods previously employed. When the road was first opened, the charges for first-class freight per ton were $76; second class, $65; and by passenger-trains, $97.77. Since the opening of, and under the influence of the competition of, the Mexican Central, these rates have been reduced to an average of about $40 to $15 per ton, and still the business is understood to be not especially remunerative. Begun in 1857, this road was not completed, owing mainly to the disturbed state of the country, until 1873. It was built under English supervision, and with English capital, at a cost, including equipment, of $39,000,000, and is solid and excellent throughout. During the year 1876 the road was destroyed at different points by the revolutionists, and all traffic for a considerable time suspended.
At the station "Esperanza," one hundred and fifty miles from the city of Mexico, on the farther side of a great sandy plain, and on the very verge of the plateau, and where the descent may be said to abruptly begin, the stations, engine-houses, and shops, built of dressed stone, are as massive and elegant as any of the best suburban stations on any of the British railways. And as illustrating how rigidly the English engineers adhered to home rules and precedents, the constructions at this station include a very elegant and expensive arched bridge of dressed stone, with easy and extended approaches, to guard against danger in crossing the tracks; although, apart from the persons in the employ of the company, the resident population is very inconsiderable.
Starting from this point in the early morning of the 27th of March, to make the descent to the comparatively level and low land intervening between the base of the plateau and the ocean, the ground at the station was white with hoar-frost, while behind it, apparently but a mile or two distant, and of not more than fifteen hundred to two thousand feet in elevation, rose the glistening, snow-covered cone of Orizaba. Within the cars, and even with closed windows, overcoats and shawls were essential. Within an hour, however, overcoats and shawls were discarded as uncomfortable. Within another hour the inclination was to get rid of every superfluous garment, while before noon the thermometers in the cars ranged from 90° to 95° Fahr., and the traveler found himself in the heart of the tropics, amid palms, orange-trees, coffee-plantations, fields of sugar-cane and bananas, almost naked Indians, and their picturesque though miserable huts of cane or stakes, plastered with mud and roofed with plantain-leaves or cornstalks. In the descent, Orizaba (17,373 feet), which at the starting-point, and seen from an elevation of about 8,000 feet, is not impressive in respect to height, although beautiful, gradually rises, and finally, when seen from the level of the low or coast lands, becomes a most magnificent spectacle, far superior to Popocatepetl, which is higher, or any other Mexican mountain, but, in the opinion of the writer, inferior in sublimity to Tacoma in Washington Territory, the entire elevation of which last (14,300 feet) can, in some places, be taken in at a single glance from the sea-level and a water-foreground. The comparatively narrow and gently sloping strip of land which the traveler thus reaches on the Atlantic side in journeying from Mexico to Vera Cruz extends from the base of the great plateau to the ocean, and, with its counterpart on the Pacific side, constitutes in the main the so-called "Tierras Calientes" (hot lands), or the tropical part of Mexico. The average width of these coast-lands on the Atlantic is about sixty miles, while on the Pacific it varies from forty to seventy miles.
Considered as a whole, the geographical configuration and position of Mexico have been compared to an immense cornucopia, with its mouth turned toward the United States and its concave side on the Atlantic; having an extreme length of about 2,000 miles, and a varying width of from 1,000 to 130 miles. Its territorial area is 701,791 square miles, or a little larger than that part of the United States, east of the Mississippi River, exclusive of the States of Wisconsin and Mississippi; and this cornucopia in turn, as has been before intimated, consists of an immense table-land, nine tenths of which have an average elevation of from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Such an elevation in the latitude of 42° (Boston or New York) would have given the country an almost Arctic character; but under the Tropic of Cancer, or in latitudes 18° to 25° north, the climate at these high elevations is almost that of perpetual spring. At these high elevations of the Mexican plateau furthermore, the atmosphere is so lacking in moisture, that meat, bread, or cheese, never molds or putrefies, but only spoils by drying up. Perspiration, even when walking briskly in the middle of the day, does not gather or remain upon the forehead or other exposed portions of the body; and it is only through this peculiarity of the atmosphere that the city of Mexico, with its large population, and its soil reeking with filth through lack of any good and sufficient drainage, has not long ago been desolated with pestilence. As it is, the death-rate of the city is reported to be larger than at almost any of the great centers of the world's population from which sanitary science has been enabled to obtain data.
The surface of this great Mexican plateau, or table-land, although embracing extensive areas of comparatively level surface, which are often deserts, is nevertheless largely broken up by ranges of mountains, or detached peaks—some of which, like Popocatepetl, Orizaba, and Toluca, rise to great elevations—a circumstance which it is important to remember, and will be again referred to, in considering the possible future material development of the country.
Again, if we except certain navigable channels which make up for short distances from the sea into the low, narrow strips of coast-lands, there is not a navigable river in all Mexico; or, indeed, any stream, south of the Rio Grande, that in the United States, east of the Mississippi, would be regarded as of any special importance. In respect, therefore, to this element of commercial prosperity, Mexico has been characterized as less favored than any considerable country except Arabia; the name of which last, as is well known, stands almost as a synonym for aridity.
No one accurately knows the actual population of Mexico, as no accurate census has ever been taken; and there is no immediate prospect that any will be: certainly not so long as a majority of the people have a fear of giving any information in respect to their numbers, as is represented, and a not inconsiderable part of the country, as has already been pointed out, has never yet been brought under the rule of civil authority. The estimate is, however, from ten to twelve million; and of this number, fully nine tenths are believed to be located upon the high or table lands, and only one tenth on the lowlands of the east and west coasts.
So much, then, for Mexico, considered geographically or in respect to its natural conditions. Let us next, as a means of better comprehending its present condition, briefly consider its historical, social, and political experiences.
The authentic history of Mexico practically commences with its conquest and occupation by the Spaniards under Cortes in 1521. The general idea is, that the people whom the Spaniards found in Mexico had attained to a degree of civilization that raised them far above the level of the average Indians of North America, more especially in all that pertained to government, architecture, agriculture, manufactures, and the useful arts, and the production and accumulation of property. For all this there is certainly but very little foundation, and the fascinating narrations of Prescott, which have done so much to make what is popularly considered "Mexican history," as well as the Spanish chronicles from which Prescott drew his so-called historic data, are, in the opinion of the writer, and with the exception of the military record of the Spaniards, little other than the merest romance, not much more worthy, in fact, of respect and credence than the equally fascinating stories of "Sinbad the Sailor." And, in defense and warrant for such an unusual and perhaps unpopular conclusion, attention is asked to the following circumstances and reasons:
In the Museum of the city of Mexico, there is probably the best collection of the remains of the so-called Aztec people that ever has, or probably ever will be gathered. Here, ranged upon shelves and properly classified, the visitor will see a large number and variety of their tools, weapons, and implements. Setting aside their fictile or pottery products, they are all of stone—the same arrow-heads, the same stone hatchets, pestles, and the like, which are still picked up on the fields and along the water-courses of New England, the South, and the West; and of which there are so many public and private collections in the United States—no better than, and in some respects inferior in artistic merit and finish to, many like articles excavated from the Western mounds, or known to have been the work of our historic Indians; or to the arrow-heads and lance-tips which are still fabricated by the Shoshones and Flatheads on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. In all this large Aztec collection there is not a single metal tool or fabrication, and in only a very few instances have any such articles of unquestionable antique origin ever been found in Mexico. And of the pottery and stone-work in the shape of idols, small and big, masks, and vases, and of which there are many specimens in the museum and throughout the country, it is sufficient to say that it is all of the rudest kind, and derives its chief attraction and interest from its hideousness and almost entire lack of anything which indicates either artistic taste or skill on the part of its fabricators. Take any fair collection of what purports to be the products of Aztec skill and workmanship, and place the same side by side with a similar collection made in any of the most civilized of the islands of the Pacific—the Feejees, the Marquesas, or the Sandwich Islands, or from the tribes that live on Vancouver's Sound, and the superiority of the latter would be at once most evident and unquestionable. In all fairness, therefore, all controversy with the writer's position, if there is any, ought to be considered as settled; for there is no more infallible test and criterion of the civilization and social condition of either a man or a nation than the tools which he or it works with; and stone hatchets and stone arrow-heads are the accompaniments of the stone age and all that pertains thereto, and their use is not compatible with any high degree of civilization or social refinement. But this is not all. It is now generally conceded that the Aztec tribes, that have become famed in history, did not number as many as two hundred and fifty thousand, and that the area of territory to which their rule was mainly confined did not much exceed in area the State of Rhode Island. The first sight of a horse threw them into a panic, and they had no cattle, sheep, swine, dogs, or other domestic animals—save the turkey—of any account. They had no written language, unless the term can be properly applied to rude drawings of a kind similar to those with which the North American Indian ornaments his skin or scratches upon the rocks. It is very doubtful if they had anything which could be regarded as money, and in the absence of beasts of burden, of any system of roads and of wheeled vehicles, or, indeed, of any methods of transportation other than through the muscular power and backs of men, they could have had but little internal trade or commerce. Prescott assigns to the Aztec city of Mexico a population of three hundred thousand, and sixty thousand houses, and abundant fountains and reservoirs of water; but a very brief reflection would seem to make it evident that no such population could have been regularly supported, mainly with bulky agricultural food transported on the backs of men, or in light canoes through canals from the neighboring small salt lakes; or supplied with water sufficient for fountains, drinking, and domestic purposes, through an earthen pipe "of the size of a man's body," brought some miles "from Chapultepec;" the water adjacent to the city being then, as now, salt and unfit for use. What their manufactures could have been, with stone tools and the most primitive machinery, it is not difficult to conjecture. Probably not materially different from what the traveler may yet see at the present day in the case of the Indian woman, who seated by the wayside, with a bundle of wool under her arm and a spindle consisting of a stem of wood, one end resting in a cup formed from the shell of a gourd, dexterously and rapidly draws out and spins a coarse, but not uneven thread. What their architecture was may be inferred from the circumstance that Cortes, with his little band of less than five hundred Spaniards, leveled to the ground throe quarters of the city of Tenochtitlan in the seventeen days of his siege; while of the old city of Mexico, with its reported palaces and temples, there is absolutely nothing left which is indicative of having formed a part of any grand or permanent structure.
That there was, antecedent to the Aztecs, in this country of Mexico and Central America, a superior race to which the name of Toltecs or Mayas has been applied, who built the elaborate stone structures of Yucatan and of other portions of Central America, and who, it would seem, must have been acquainted with the use of metals, can not be doubted. At a town called Tula, about fifty miles from Mexico, on the line of the Mexican Central, where the Toltecs are reported to have first settled, the traveler will see on the plaza, the lower half—i. e., from the feet to the waist—of two colossal and rude, sitting figures; also, several perfect cylindrical sections of columns, which were very curiously arranged to fit into and support each other by means of a tenon and mortise, all of stone. The material of which these objects of unquestionably great antiquity are composed, and which all archaeologists who have seen them agree are not Mexican or Aztec in their origin, is a very peculiar black basalt, so hard that a steel tool hardly makes an impression upon it. When the same traveler arrives in the city of Mexico, and is shown the three greatest archaeological treasures of American origin—namely, the great idol, "Huitzilopotchli," the "Sacrificial Stone," and the so called "Calendar" stone, now built into one of the outer walls of the cathedral—he might remark that the material of which they are all constructed is the same hard, black stone which constitutes the relics at Tula, and that neither in the large collections of the Museum of Mexico, nor anywhere else, arc there any articles, of assumed Aztec origin, composed of like material. Hence an apparently legitimate inference that the latter have a common origin with the constructions at Tula, and are relics of the Toltecs or older nations, and not of the Aztecs.
Again, while much speculation has been had in respect to the origin and use of the mounds of our Western and Southwestern States, it seems to have been overlooked that almost the exact counterparts of these mounds exist to-day in the earth-pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, and the two pyramids of Teotihuacan, about fifty miles east of the city of Mexico; and that those structures were in use for religious rites and purposes—i. e., "mound-worship"—at the time of the invasion of the country by the Spaniards under Cortes. It seems difficult, therefore, to avoid also this further inference, that there is an intimate connection as to origin and use between all these North American mound-structures, and that they are all the work of substantially one and the same people, who found their last development and, perhaps, origin in Mexico or Central America. In calling attention to these circumstances, and in venturing opinions concerning them, the writer makes no pretension to archaeological knowledge, but he simply offers what seem to him the simple, common-sense conclusions which every observer must come to, who does not bring to his eye a capacity for seeing what has been limited by some preconceived theories.