Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/13

Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part II, Chapter VI: Climate, -Temperature, -Rainy Season, -Thunder Storms, -Earthquakes, -Debility, -Diseases, -Smallpox.


Climate,—Temperature,—Rainy Season,—Thunder Storms,—Earthquakes,—Debility,—Diseases,—Smallpox.

In describing cities, ruins, or romantic scenery, every one is in danger of stating rather the species than the degree of his enjoyment; the latter is almost always exaggerated. And even when this is not the case, so much depends upon the state of the body and mind of the individual at the time he experienced his sensations, that it becomes almost impossible for another following the same route to bear witness to his fidelity, by having enjoyed the same degree of delight, or received precisely similar impressions. But in giving the climate of any country, or part of a country, no such risk is incurred, since of all other things this has least to do with the imagination. It may, therefore, be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that Guatimala literally enjoys a perpetual spring.

Situated at an elevation of about 5000 feet above the level of the ocean, in what are called by the natives, “Tierras Templadas,” or the temperate regions, this beautiful portion of the new world never feels the intensity of a summer's sun, or knows the stormy blasts of a wintry cold. The thermometer, during the whole year, scarcely varies. The average heat, in the middle of the day, may be considered as from 68 to 70 degrees, Fahrenheit, in the shade.

To this equality of temperature, there are, it is true, a few striking exceptions. During the period of the north winds, a current of cold air sometimes passes over the city in an evening, and produces within a few hours a difference of twenty degrees. Such changes, however, are both rare and transient.

Although the elevation of Guatimala approaches so near to that at which the clouds float over lands contiguous to the sea, this delicious spot is scarcely ever enveloped in those thick fogs which generally descend upon cities similarly situated. The environs, although now neglected, might be made to produce every variety of fruits and vegetables, all of which are capable of being brought to perfect maturity on the neighbouring hills and mountains, which are carpeted, during the whole year, with the most beautiful flowers, expanded in full perfection.

The seasons, instead of dividing to themselves four distinct portions of the year, here mingle, and know only the period of the rains, and of the dry weather. The latter begins towards the close of the month of October, and lasts until the end of May, during which time only a few showers occasionally refresh the thirsty ground. But in the beginning of June, the rolling thunders and the forked lightning, begin to echo over the mountains and illuminate the hills, notifying the near approach of the semi-annual rains. The clouds, at first seen only as scattered specks on the horizon, now begin to congregate in the zenith, and copious showers swell the channels, and pour in torrents along the streets.

These seasons however are not so gloomy to the inhabitants, as the term would lead us to suppose. From six in the morning, till three or four in the afternoon, an unclouded sky generally invites the stranger to breathe its pure and genial air, and it is seldom before the latter hour that the firmament becomes obscured and the rains fall. With the exception of some little humidity in the atmosphere, no other inconvenience is experienced than the obligation to spend the evenings at home, an imprisonment only compulsory upon the ladies.

By the middle of October the north winds begin to blow, sweeping along with them the newly formed clouds, accompanied in their retreat as in their entry by electrical explosions, and sometimes by slight shocks of earthquake. In the months of November and December, these winds blow with considerable force; and some days in the latter month are comparatively cold. Small portions of snow fall on the tops of the highest mountains, and sufficient ice is congealed to supply the city for a few months.

Earthquakes though not unfrequent, do not seem to possess now that destructive force in this region, which we are told they exercised in former times. The principal ones that have affected the city, are thus described by Juarros. He informs us, that the first of importance on record, took place on the morning of the 11th September 1541. “It had rained incessantly and with great violence on the three preceding days, particularly on the night of the 10th, when the water descended more like the torrent of a cataract than rain; the fury of the wind, the incessant appalling lightning, and dreadful thunder, were indescribable. The general terror was increased by irruptions from the volcano to such a degree, that in this combination of horrors, the inhabitants imagined the final destruction of the world was at hand. At 2 o'clock on the morning of the 11th, the vibrations of the earth were so violent, that the people were unable to stand. The shocks were accompanied by a terrible subterraneous noise, which spread universal dismay. Shortly afterwards an immense torrent of water rushed down from the summit of the mountain, forcing away with it enormous fragments of rocks and large trees, which descending upon the town overwhelmed and destroyed almost all the houses, and buried a great number of the inhabitants under the ruins. When day dawned on the 11th, those who had escaped unhurt from the scourge, rendered all the assistance in their power to their less fortunate neighbours, who were maimed or wounded. They collected the bodies of the dead, and in the evening buried them. To commemorate this calamity, a fast was annually held on the day for twenty years afterwards.

On the 23d of December 1586, another very violent shock overthrew the old city; reducing the greater part of it to a heap of ruins, and burying under them many of the inhabitants. The earth shook with such violence that the tops of high ridges were torn off, and deep chasms formed in various parts of the level ground.

The third commenced on the 18th of February 1651, about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, when a most extraordinary subterranean noise was heard, and immediately followed by three violent shocks, at short intervals from each other, which threw down many buildings, and damaged others. The tiles from the roofs of the houses, were dispersed in all directions, like light straws by a gust of wind. The bells of the churches were rung by the vibrations, masses of rock were detached from the mountains, wild beasts were so terrified that losing their natural instinct, they quitted their retreats, and sought shelter from the habitations of men.

A fourth occurred on the night of August 27th 1717, when the neighbouring volcano began to emit flames, which continued with slight shocks of earthquake, until the 28th, when they increased with great violence. The inhabitants became much alarmed, images of saints were carried in procession, public prayers were put up day by day, but they still continued; at last on the night of September 29th, the fate of Guatimala appeared to be decided, and inevitable destruction seemed to be at hand. Great was the ruin among the public edifices, many of the houses were thrown down, and all that remained were dreadfully injured. But the greatest devastation was seen in the churches. The inhabitants fled to the adjacent villages, and did not return till the shocks had ceased for some time, when they began to rebuild and repair their dwellings.

After several other shocks at different times, which effected various degrees of injury, such as the one of 1751, the one of 1757, called the earthquake of St. Francis, and that of 1765, which spread devastation over the province of Chiquimula, came the one of 1773, which is thus described. “The year 1773 was the most melancholy epoch in the annals of this metropolis; it was then destroyed, and, as the capital, rose no more from its ruins. In the month of May some few slight shocks were perceived, and on the 11th of June a very violent one took place. Its duration was considerable, many houses and churches were much injured; during the whole of the night the shocks were repeated at short intervals, and for some days afterwards with less frequency. About 4 o'clock, in the afternoon of July 29th, a tremendous vibration was felt, and shortly afterwards began the dreadful convulsion, that decided the fate of this unfortunate city. It is difficult even for those who were witnesses of this dreadful catastrophe, to describe its character or the variety of its undulation; so entirely did terror, and the apprehension of immediate annihilation, absorb all powers of reflection. For several days these shocks continued, and sometimes in such quick succession that many took place in the short space of fifteen minutes. On the 17th of September there was another, which threw down most of the buildings that had been damaged on the 9th of July; and on the 13th of December one still more violent terminated the work of destruction.” Since then, nothing approaching in violence to any of those which have been described, has been experienced, and the new city has hitherto remained uninjured.

During our stay at Guatimala, one of the most powerful which has happened for many years, occurred. About one o'clock in the morning we were awoke from sleep by a loud rumbling noise in the bowels of the earth, not unlike the rattling of heavy carriages furiously driven along the pavement. This lasted for about three minutes, and was succeeded by a violent heaving of the ground, causing a sensation somewhat like the rolling of a ship at sea. This motion was not probably of more than two or three minutes continuance, and at its conclusion was followed by a shaking similar to that produced by the motion of a steam-engine. At the first alarm most of the inhabitants sprang from their beds, and the more devout commenced recitations to the virgin. Candles were lighted and placed before the images of the saints, and sleep was banished from most eyes. The whole could not continue more than from six to seven minutes, although the fears of many led them to suppose it of much longer duration. Its effects proved disastrous in the southern provinces, from whence it proceeded, overthrowing or injuring both churches and houses in its course; but with the exception of the fall of one building about a mile from the city, it did not do any damage in the immediate neighbourhood.

This temperate climate is as salubrious as it is agreeable. No epidemic at any period of the year, sweeps off its inhabitants; and with the exception of those “common ills which flesh is heir to,” it is free from every pestilential scourge. The few cases of fever which at times make their appearance, are brought by individuals who have contracted them on the coast. Diarrhœa sometimes attacks Europeans on their first arrival, but this seldom acts so powerfully as to produce dangerous consequences. It is generally attributed to some peculiar properties in the water.

Judging by the physical and moral character of the different nations of the world, it would seem that variable climates, subject to a fervent but ephemeral heat, and succeeded in other parts of the year, by a rigorous yet transient cold, are best suited to draw forth the energies of the mind of man, and to give force and vigour to his body. This hypothesis receives additional confirmation from the character, not only of the aboriginal inhabitants, but also of the descendants of the European settlers. The unvarying equability of temperature enjoyed in this favoured land, seems to induce a debility alike injurious both to the body and mind. The weakness of the Indian population, although certainly exaggerated by Dr. Robertson, is yet considerable, and accompanied by a pusillanimity of character unusual among savages. The distinguishing characteristic of the creoles, as a whole, may be said to be mildness and inertness, while all the operations of government are marked by a want of energy truly surprising. The females marry early, and are old at forty; and the men at fifty-five exhibit a degree of bodily and mental weakness equal to what we expect at seventy in European countries.

According to the native historian before alluded to, the old city must have been subject to pestilential distempers. The account he gives of one which he says swept away, in three months, one tenth of the inhabitants, is curious, but so vague in its details as to make one almost doubt its authenticity. It happened in the year 1686. He says: “Some of the inhabitants died suddenly, others expired under the most acute pains of the head, heart, and bowels. No remedy was discovered that could check its destructive progress, although many of the deceased were opened to endeavour by that means to come at the cause of the disorder. So great was the number of the infected, that there was not a sufficient number of priests to administer the religious rites—the bells were no longer tolled for the dead individually, and the corpses were buried “en masse” in a common grave. This disease appears to have disappeared independently of human means, and the credit of its removal is given to a miraculous interposition of the Virgin. She had been publicly solicited to interpose for them during three days, and her image during that time had been carried in procession. On the last day, about two in the afternoon, the face of the sacred effigy was discovered to be in a state of profuse perspiration for a long time. This prodigy was immediately certified by two notaries who were present, and from that day the pestilence ceased, and the sick recovered.

The ravages of small-pox have at various times spread desolation through the city, and though considerably checked by vaccination, it still occasionally devastates. This distemper is said to have been introduced into Mexico in 1520, by a negro slave of Narvaez, one of the conquerors, when it carried off one half of its inhabitants, and among others the Sovereign.

It first appeared in Guatimala in 1733, when it swept away in one month 1500 persons. From that time until 1780, it does not seem to have shown itself; but at this last period it again raged with destructive malignity. We are told “that the infected might not die without the administration of the Sacrament, the viaticum was, carried from all the parish churches, and also from those of the regular religious orders. The dead were not permitted to be interred in the churches, both on account of numbers, and because the decomposition of bodies in a state of such virulent contagion, might cause injury to survivors: three cemeteries without the city were therefore consecrated for their sepulture.” Inoculation was now, for the first time, practised in Guatimala, with the most complete success; for although so many perished of the contagion, scarcely one of those who were inoculated died. At various intervals, however, it still made its appearance, and vaccination was early introduced.

In the year 1815, a pamphlet was published, by order of the Spanish government, explaining in familiar language, the symptoms of the disease; giving rules for diet, recommending suitable medicines, and strictly forbidding inoculation. It appeals very forcibly to the various orders of the clergy, urging them in their respective flocks, to use every effort for its alleviation, and especially to promote, by every means in their power, general vaccination. A fine bust of Jenner adorns one of the principal fountains, and serves to keep in remembrance the valuable discovery of which he was the author. Since the revolution, the propriety of providing a supply of virgin matter has been brought before Congress, and like every thing else, been discussed, agreed to, and neglected. Before I left Guatimala, I delivered to each of their medical men portions of matter, from the National Vaccine Institution of England, hermetically sealed, and accompanied them with exact directions as to the best mode of preserving a constant supply; but such is their ignorance and carelessness, that it is highly probable the greater part of it will be wasted.