Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/6

Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part I, Chapter VI: Iguana, -Gualan, -Town, -Morals, -Customs, Intolerance, -Superstition, -Trade, -Education, -Prisons, -Scriptures.


Iguana,—Gualan,—Town,—Morals,—Customs, Intolerance,—Superstition,—Trade,—Education,—Prisons,—Scriptures.

The people of Iguana unlike those of Mico, are very accommodating, and willingly render every attention in their power to travellers; so that with very little trouble, a comfortable lodging is procured for the night; that is to say, so far as the idea of comfort can be connected with eating on the ground, and sleeping in the open air, circumstances to which the mind becomes reconciled in a much shorter time than one could imagine.

From this place to Gualan the distance is but short, consisting of only four leagues, and chiefly lying through plantations, some of them in a state of considerable luxuriance. Nearly the whole of the land along the road between Iguana and Gualan is more or less cultivated, principally by Indians, who bring the produce to market at the latter place. Gualan although a town of inconsiderable size, is the only one of importance between Yzabal and Guatimala, (excepting Zacapa, which did not lie in our route.) The entrance to it is by the principal street, at the end of which is the plaza, or market-place, and a neat church. The houses are all of them low, consisting of one story only, with white plastered walls, and red tiled roofs, and very heavy antique windows, having balustrades before them mostly of wood.

The town is estimated to contain about 2000 inhabitants, but no census has been taken.

In Gualan as in all the other towns of Central America, there is no inn, or house set apart for the reception of travellers; we therefore accompanied our Spanish friends to the house of their agent, at which place the alcalde soon arrived to examine our packages. This he did with considerable care, although accompanied with as much civility as could be expected.

The interior of the houses generally consists of only two rooms, separated from one another by a slight wooden partition. In the one which it was our lot to occupy, the whole of us, including the family of our host, dined, and the greater part of us slept; five small beds being placed around it for that purpose. A large wooden table, (a fixture,) and some common wooden chairs, composed the rest of its furniture; two hammocks swung constantly from one end of the room to the other, and three or four swords with several muskets, ornamented its walls.

Soon after our arrival several of the neighbours entered the house, which seemed always open to every visiter. One threw himself in a hammock, others seated themselves on the table, or on beds, and all began at once to inquire the news, and to discuss politics with the greatest vehemence, smoking and spitting on the floor most profusely.

Nothing can exceed the indolence, licentiousness, and ignorance of these people. Their only idea of freedom is, the absence of all restraint, and consequently, in manners and morals they have levelled themselves with the brute creation.

The mistress of the house, a young woman of about twenty, was a complete specimen of filth and vulgar finery. Terribly afflicted with a güegüecho, or swelling of the glands of the neck, she still had sufficient vanity to suppose herself handsome; and dressed in a dashing printed gown, made very low in the body, with pink shoes, and silk stockings, and two gold chains hanging about her neck, she paraded the room like a sultana of the east. A more pitiable object could scarcely be seen. Her husband, an old man of about sixty, exceeded her if possible, in grossness. In this house it was our misfortune to be obliged to remain nine days. The servants, as is invariably the case, imitate their masters, and are lazy and indolent. It is said they have considerably deteriorated since the revolution.

Immediately after rising in the morning, coffee was prepared, and about nine we breakfasted on stewed meat, eggs, frijollis or black beans, bread, and coffee. Dinner generally consisted of four courses, two dishes to each, and included beef cut up and hashed, fowls, turkeys, and sausages, but all roasted to pieces, soaked in bad butter, and thickly strewed over with onions; frijollis, eggs, and a milk pudding followed, and wine and water to drink. In the afternoon chocolate was prepared, and in the evening, about nine o'clock, a supper similar to the dinner, but with less variety of viands. For these accommodations each individual paid a dollar per day. The whole of these messes were prepared under a shed, in a large dirty yard, which served as a kitchen, and was full of filth of all kinds. The knowledge of this, with the sight of the servants, had no tendency to quicken our appetites. The spoons, cups, and knives and forks were of silver, and two lamps hanging from the roof, cased in silver, but quite neglected, betokened a country that had once been rich in metals.

The morning after our arrival we were presented in form to the alcalde. The old man received us reclined on a mat, and apologized for not rising, as he was unwell. The only furniture in the room was an old bed and two miserable chairs. His wife and daughter made their appearance, with massy gold chains about their necks, and silver crucifixes suspended by them, but there was nothing else in character with this display.

This individual is the only officer of justice: complaints are lodged before him in writing; the offender, if the facts are notorious, is committed to prison, and the papers are referred to the capital. It rarely happens that more is heard of the business, and the incarceration of the poor wretch depends chiefly upon his interest with the alcalde or the priest.

The prison is a miserable barn, with a clay floor, to which the prisoners are chained; they are now very few in number, as crimes are rarely punished.

The temperature of this place is excessively hot. The chain of porphyritic mountains which encircle the town, while they give it a very picturesque and beautiful appearance, materially increase the heat, both by impeding the circulation of the air, and by reflecting the rays of the sun. In the month of June, 1827, the thermometer averaged 100° Fahrenheit in the shade. It is far from being healthy, and in the months of September and October the number of deaths is considerable. Fevers are the chief cause of this mortality. Small pox is rare, as vaccination is generally practised by the medical men, (if such they may be called.) There is not, in fact, a single individual in the place, who has the slightest knowledge of medicine; and if an inhabitant be taken ill, nature has to struggle not only with the disease, but with a bad climate and an ignorant quack; it need not therefore, excite surprise that she often fails.

There do not appear to be any books whatever in the place, excepting a few mass books, and these are little used. The priest, a sottish being, is generally despised, and the church greatly neglected. The inhabitants appear destitute of all religious feeling. A copy of the Scriptures is probably not to be met with in Gualan, nor are they permitted to be sold or distributed without the notes of the church. There is a very considerable degree of intolerance mixed with this neglect of every thing divine. I had with me a number of the “Ocios,” (a periodical published by the Spanish emigrants in London,) which contained a paper in favour of religious toleration. I read a part of it aloud, but was immediately stopped with assurances that it could never be thus in America: they evidently disliked the principle. Yet these are republicans!

The men when dressed “a la Inglesa,” of which they are very fond, are in manners and appearance the exact prototypes of English ploughmen at a country fair. A few of the women have some degree of softness and polish in their manners, but generally speaking, they are disgusting.

No provision is made for the education of the people, and the children grow up in ignorance, and oftentimes uncontrolled. Soon after the revolution a schoolmaster was sent from Guatimala, but as he could not get paid by the government, and the people had no disposition to do it, the doors of his establishment were soon closed.

The inhabitants of Gualan are composed of agents employed in the transmission of goods to and from Guatimala, Omoa, and Yzabal; mariners who convey them by the river Motagua, in their pitpans; and agriculturalists, (the Indian population,) who grow wheat and maize. There are also two potteries, which employ about twenty men in the manufacture of red tiles for the floors and roofs of the houses, and a few household utensils. The market is held daily in the plaza, but it is very irregularly supplied.

Near the town flows a river of excellent water, in which the inhabitants are constantly bathing. At the bottom of one of these hills is a very fine spring, at which the servants fill their pitchers every evening for the succeeding day. It is their general rendezvous about seven in the evening; and to watch them winding up the hill, through the orchards which lead to the fountain, each with her red pitcher on her head, and following one another in a continued line, is quite a primitive scene, and by far the most interesting sight in Gualan.

About a mile from the town are two mines, one of gold, the other of silver, which are said to belong to individuals who have not money to work them. Some attempt must however have been made, as they say they are not of the first quality, and it would be long before they could be made to pay. At length we heard of the arrival of our mules, and joyfully prepared to leave a place which possessed so few attractions.