Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/3

Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part I, Chapter III: Black Population, -Character, -Amusements, -Morals, -State of Religion, -Inhabitants of the Mosquito Shore, -Coronation of their King, -Customs, &c.


Black Population,—Character,—Amusements,—Morals,—State of Religion,—Inhabitants of the Mosquito Shore,—Coronation of their King,—Customs, &c.

That slavery must necessarily have a lowering and degrading influence on the character of the slave is self-evident: but it is requisite to live among such, in order to know and feel the extent of the degradation. The moral effects of this evil, not the growth of a day or a year, but of ages, are so deep, as at first sight, almost to seem indelible. In proportion as the avarice of man has tightened the chain around his victim, has its degrading and depressing influence infused itself into his principles and habits, withered all his energies, and impeded the growth of every thing noble and elevated in his character.

If any thing could lessen our sympathy in the unhappy fate of the negro, it would be to view his debasing character, apart from the causes which have induced it. Indolent and unprincipled, he will never work, excepting when under the eye of a superior. Fawning in the extreme, when in dread of punishment, he is tyrannical and overbearing if clothed for a moment in temporary power. His only wisdom is a species of low cunning. His only virtues belong to the brute creation,—an instinctive love of his offspring, and a species of attachment to the tyrant who rules him.

Nor is the freed African one degree raised in the scale of being. Under fewer restraints, his vices display themselves more disgustingly. Insolent and proud, indolent and a liar, he imitates only the sins of his superiors, and to the catalogue of his former crimes adds drunkenness and theft.

Such is the poor child of Africa, after centuries of subjection to the enlightened sons of Europe. The thought of what he might have been, had the same efforts been used to improve, which have been exercised to degrade, makes one shudder at the awful responsibility of those who have made him what he is.

The favourite amusement of the negroes here, as in other parts of the West Indies, is dancing. It surprises an European to observe the regularity with which these nightly entertainments are conducted; the graceful step of the dancers to the sound of the gumby, the expensive refreshments provided, and the air of display that pervades the whole performance. The same passion manifests itself at their funerals, which are conducted in as showy a style as possible. On these occasions they dress themselves in imitation of Europeans, and gratify their vanity by displaying all the finery they can raise. Their most joyous period is Christmas, when every slave claims a kind of temporary freedom for two or three weeks, and during this time, the settlement is in a state of riot. Dancing about the streets, night and day, is their chief employment till the accustomed period has elapsed; during this season, the militia, consisting of all the white inhabitants, is kept constantly under arms.

Crimes of a serious nature are of rare occurence. The prison, which is large, and has its cells commodious and airy, is very thinly tenanted. In the month of March 1827, it contained only six or seven prisoners, confined for petty thefts, or similar trifling offences, and it is by no means uncommon to see its doors open.

But although crimes which come under the cognizance of the law, are not frequent, the moral state of the population is nevertheless at the lowest ebb. With few exceptions, the institution of marriage is totally disregarded. The coloured population, considered by the whites as a degraded caste, feel themselves shut out of European Society, and consequently lose self respect. The females generally live in a state of concubinage with the whites, under the name of housekeepers, and are singularly faithful to their keepers. The negroes follow the example of their superiors, and prostitution is universal.

The lamentable consequences of such a state of things, must be visible to every one. Society instead of improving, degenerates, and an effectual bar is placed to the advancement of the coloured population. Alas, that the majority of our countrymen who visit these shores, should only come, like a moral pestilence, bringing with them the contagion of their example!

The provision for religious instruction is scanty. A church has been erected at an expense of £30,000 currency, and an incumbent appointed, whose salary is considerable. His talents are respectable; but he is unfortunately one of those polished preachers, who

“Never mention hell lo ears polite.”

The Baptist and Wesleyan missionary societies have each stations here. A large chapel has been erected by the former, but to very little purpose. About 30 or 40 negroes, and three or four white residents, attend the services, which are conducted precisely the same as in England. There is a Sunday school attached to this place, and the names of many children are on the books, but not more than from 10 to 20 attend on an average. This station has already cost the society several thousand pounds. The Wesleyan missionary has but just arrived, and at present has no congregation.

The diiiiculties attendant on imparting religious instruction to the negroes are very great. Their language is a mixture of creole French and broken English, and it is not easy to understand their meaning; while their mental indolence is so excessive, as to lead them freely to assent to every thing, whether understood or not.

The present condition of many of our missionary stations, proves how greatly their committees have erred in taking upon themselves the expense of permanent establishments, without first deputing some well qualified individual to visit the point they had fixed upon, and to make himself well acquainted with the moral character and peculiar circumstances, both of the native population and European residents. This species of information (as needful, under such circumstances, as a knowledge of its consumption is to a merchant who establishes a commercial house) would enable them not only to choose peculiar men for peculiar stations, but in some degree to judge of the prudence of the plans their agent may be pursuing.

Connected with the established church is a free school, conducted on Dr. Bell's system, in which the Scriptures are read, but it is in a wretched state. Not more than 50 attend, and these very irregularly, although 120 are stated as the number of scholars. There is also an auxiliary of the Bartlett's Buildings Society, but excepting in the compilation of an annual report, the labours of its committee are unheard of. No census has been taken of the number of individuals able to read or write, nor is it possible to say what number of copies of the Scriptures are in circulation, but there is every reason to suppose they are few.

Besides the negro and the creole, the Carib, the Indian, and the Mosquito man are frequently met with in Belize.

The Caribs, formerly inhabitants of the most easterly islands, are now found principally about Truxillo and Omoa, whither they were removed by the Spaniards. They are chiefly employed by the mahogany cutters up the rivers, and are little removed from barbarism.

The Indians mostly come from the interior, with letters and messages, which commissions they execute with the greatest fidelity.

The Mosquito men arrive in considerable numbers from the Mosquito Shore, which comprises the eastern part of the provinces of Honduras and Nicaragua. They possess great muscular strength, and a fine symmetry. Their tall and erect forms, little concealed by covering, their vacant countenances and long greasy hair, give them a wild and savage appearance, and strikingly portray the powerful barbarian.

These people now consider themselves under the protection of the British government, and some of their kings have been educated in Jamaica.[1] On the accession of the last king to the throne he expressed a wish to be crowned at Belize, and orders were received by his Britannic majesty's superintendent to gratify his wish, and to defray all attendant expenses.

From a friend I have received some particulars of the ceremony. On the previous evening, cards of invitation were sent to the different merchants, requesting their attendance at the court house early in the morning. At this plane, the king, dressed in a British major's uniform, made his appearance; and his chiefs, similarly clothed, but with sailors' trowsers, were ranged around the room. A more motley group can scarcely be imagined. Here an epaulette decorated a herculean shoulder, tempting its dignified owner to view his less favoured neighbour with triumphant glances. There a wandering button displayed a greasy olive skin, under the uniform of a captain of infantry. On one side, a cautious noble might be seen, carefully braced up to the chin, like a modern dandy, defying the most penetrating eye to prove him shirtless; while the mathematical movements of a fourth, panting under such tight habiliments, expressed the fear and trembling with which he awaited some awful accident.

The order of the procession being arranged, the cavalcade moved towards the church; his Mosquito majesty on horseback, supported, on the right and left, by the two senior British officers in the settlement, and his chiefs following on foot, two by two. On its arrival, his majesty was placed in a chair, near the altar, and the English coronation service was read by the chaplain to the colony, who, on this occasion, performed the part of the archbishop of Canterbury. When he arrived at that part of the service, where it is written, “And all the people said, Let the king live for ever, long live the king, God save the king,” the vessels in the port, according to previous signal, fired salutes, and the chiefs, rising, cried out, Long live king Robert!

His majesty seemed chiefly occupied in admiring his finery, and, after the anointing, expressed his gratification, by repeatedly thrusting his hands through his thick bushy hair, and applying his fingers to his nose! in this expressive manner, indicating his delight at this part of the service. Before, however, the chiefs could swear allegiance to their monarch, it was necessary they should profess Christianity, and, accordingly, (with shame be it recorded,) they were baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” They displayed the most total ignorance of the meaning of the ceremony, and when asked to give their names, took the titles of lord Rodney, lord Nelson, or some other celebrated officer, and seemed grievously disappointed when told they could only be baptized by simple Christian names.

After this solemn mockery had been concluded, the whole assembly adjourned to a large school room, to eat the coronation dinner, where the usual healths were drank, and these poor creatures all intoxicated with rum! a suitable conclusion to a farce as blasphemous and wicked as ever disgraced a Christian country.

The inhabitants of the Mosquito shore, like most other savages, are distinguished for their apathy. Hunger alone compels them to seek food, which is easily provided in the woods or lakes. Careless about the dressing, they devour it voraciously, and then, stretching themselves at full length, sleep till the cravings of nature again arouse them. The paddle, the harpoon, and the canoe comprise all their wealth, and these supply all their necessities.

Enclosed by inaccessible mountains and morasses, and protected by a coast full of rocks and shoals, they are exposed to few dangers from without; a country abounding in game and provisions, spontaneously supplies their daily wants; a climate more salubrious than that of the West India islands, removes the necessity of clothing; while entire freedom from the destructive ravages of hurricanes and earthquakes, enables the slightest hut to afford them sufficient shelter. In such a situation every stimulus to exertion is removed, and, in this state, they may rather be said to vegetate than to live.

Several attempts have been made to introduce Christianity amongst them, by the Dominican monks from Guatimala, but hitherto without effect.

A Mr. Fleming and his wife left England in the year 1825, for this shore, under the direction of the Baptist missionary society, but, unhappily, they both died on their arrival at Belize.

The king has expressed his willingness to receive and protect any individual who would reside as a teacher amongst them.

Of their religious belief little is known, excepting that they acknowledge a good and a bad spirit. The latter, however, is the only object of worship, from dread of his anger; the good spirit they consider too merciful to injure them, and plead this as a sufficient reason for neglecting to adore him.

“At their funerals they are accustomed to inter, with the body of the deceased, his paddle and harpoon, supposing that he will need them to provide sustenance in another world.”[2] These slight sketches comprise all the information I have been able to gain of the inhabitants of the Mosquito shore.

Such a people cannot be uninteresting to the Christian philanthropist. Nations, still darker, and more besotted, have been visited by the messengers of Jesus, and blessed with the tidings of a Saviour's love. May it not then be hoped, that the time is not far distant, when the echoes of these hills shall join in transmitting from land to land, the sacred song, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bring the glad tidings of salvation.”

  1. This tract of country is now claimed by the Colombian government, and, by a decree, issued in July, 1824, all foreigners are forbidden to colonize, without the permission of the republic. By a convention, made between Great Britain and Spain, in 1788, his Britannic majesty agrees to evacuate all this coast, but as the Indians still show the same inveterate dislike to the Spaniards, as formerly, they are permitted to consider themselves under the protection of England.
  2. For this, and one or two other facts, the author is indebted to “Sketches of Honduras.” a series of papers published in the Honduras Gazette.