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

Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part II, Chapter I: Former Sites of the City, -Its present situation and advantages, -Public Buildings, -Streets, -Houses, &c.




Former Sites of the City,—Its present situation and advantages,—Public Buildings,—Streets,—Houses, &c.

Before entering upon a description of the city, as it now exists, it will be advisable to give a short sketch of the different situations which it has occupied, and the circumstances that have produced its frequent removal.

From Juarros[1] we learn, that soon after the conquest of the country by Pedro Alvarado, he and his followers began to look out for a suitable spot on which they might found a capital for the newly conquered kingdom. “Taking their route by the villages on the coast, and overcoming whatever force attempted to dispute their passage, they arrived at the base of the “Volcan de Agua.” This situation, says Remesal, (lib. i. ch. ii.,) pleased the Spaniards so much by its fine climate, the beauty of the meadows, delightfully watered by running streams, and particularly from lying between two lofty mountains, from one of which descended rivulets of water in every direction, and from the summit of the other issued volumes of smoke and fire, altogether rendering the place remarkable for its locality, that here they determined to establish themselves, and on this spot (about ten leagues from the present city) they founded the capital, on the 4th of November, 1527. Mass was said by Juan Godinez, chaplain to the army, and the feasts and military rejoicings lasted for three days.

This continued to be the principal town till the year 1541, when it was entirely ruined by the inundation of a dreadful torrent of water from the mountain, which, sweeping before it immense masses of rock, overwhelmed many of the buildings, and deeply injured the rest. Many of the inhabitants perished in the ruins, and amongst the rest the widow of Alvarado. After this calamity the principal survivors met together, and resolved unanimously to remove the capital about a league further, where it would be better protected from further inundations by the neighouring hills. Here they founded the city called Old Guatimala or La Antigua, on the 22d of October, in the same year, and immediately proceeded to erect convents, hospitals, churches, an university, and other public buildings.

Favoured by innumerable local advantages, the new metropolis rapidly grew in importance, and promised to compete, if not in size, at least in beauty, with the most distinguished cities of the new continent. But notwithstanding all its natural advantages, it was doomed to share a similar fate to its predecessor. Between the date of its foundation and the year 1773, when it was finally abandoned as the capital, it suffered dreadfully from the calamity of earthquakes. Nine different times during this period was it in greater or less measure, overthrown, and as often rebuilt or repaired, until at length, after the shock of the year 1773, which left one part of the city in ruins, and severely injured the rest, “the inhabitants, wearied with rebuilding, resolved for the third time to remove their situation further from the volcanoes, the prolific source of all their miseries,” and after many examinations, at length fixed upon a part of the Valley of Mixco, ten leagues removed from them, where, by virtue of a royal decree, they founded in 1776 the third metropolis. To this situation removed in succession the university, parishes, convents, and churches, as their different buildings were completed. “Many of the artizans and a great part of the people still wished to remain in their old abodes, “but in the month of June, 1779, the governor issued a proclamation, (certainly a tyrannical one,) commanding that every inhabitant should quit the city within a prescribed number of days, and that from the date of the proclamation “no artificer should there exercise his trade, without being liable to very severe penalties.” In compliance with these positive orders, “the city from being the busy haunt of men, was at once transformed into a dreary solitude.” It remained in this state for some time, until at length many of its former occupants covertly resumed their abodes, and it has by degrees, again become peopled, though far inferior both in size, population, and wealth, to New Guatimala.

This city as the present capital of the republic of the United Provinces, merits a more minute description. It is situated in the midst of the plain of La Virgen, which is five leagues in diameter, and forms part of the Valley of Mixco, one of the nine smaller valleys, which constitute what is termed the great Vale of Guatimala or Pasuya. It lies in 14° 37" N. latitude, and 90° 30" W. longitude,[2] and is 90 leagues from the Atlantic, 26 from the Pacific, and 400 from the city of Mexico.

The valley is watered by several streams and lakes, which conduce to its fertility, and the city is surrounded by numerous small villages, which regularly supply its markets with the various fruits and vegetables of the country. In point of situation it is certainly inferior to the old city. The scenery is not so romantic, nor are the lands immediately adjoining so well cultivated, yet still it is rich enough in natural beauties to bear in this respect, comparison with almost any other city in the world.

Owing to the style in which the houses are built, it occupies a very considerable portion of ground, and appears to an European eye, when viewed from a little distance, much more populous and extensive than it really is. It contains about sixty manzanas or squares of houses, formed by the intersection of streets at right angles, which vary in extent from l50 to 350 yards in front, and these are arranged so as to form one large square. On each side of the city, as the suburbs have increased, other houses have been erected without much regard to uniformity. The streets are mostly broad, but wretchedly paved, with a considerable declivity on each side, which forms a gutter in the middle, so that while after a heavy shower of rain, they are almost impassable from the sudden stream of water, at other times the sharp pointed and ill arranged pebbles extort groans from the unhappy sufferer, who, in light shoes, is doomed to undergo the miserable penance of passing over them.

In walking through the city, the first thought that strikes a stranger is, that Guatimala is one of the dullest places he has ever entered. This melancholy appearance is chiefly occasioned by the way in which the houses are built. Consisting of only one story, and occupying a great deal of ground, they present to the street only a series of white washed walls and red tiled roofs, with here and there a window, carefully gnarded by large bars of iron, and a pair of massy folding doors, studded on the outside with heavy nails, thus giving to it, at the best of times, more the appearance of a deserted than an inhabited city.

The plaza or market-place is a square of about 150 yards each way, with a fountain in the middle, and besides the daily market, is occupied by numerous temporary shops or stalls, and surrounded by buildings, offices, and shops. Projecting piazzas form a covered walk on three sides, under which trifling articles are exposed for sale. The public buildings are numerous, and consist of an university, five convents, four nunneries, a cathedral, four parish churches, and fifteen other churches or chapels of minor importance; besides a treasury, mint, and other government offices. Most of these are in a good style of architecture, and some of them judiciously decorated. In comparison with the churches of Puebla and Mexico they may possess few attractions, but remembering the circumstances under which they were built, they do credit both to the zeal and taste of those who superintended their erection.

Most of the images of the saints, termed by Juarros “beautiful statues,” are very common pieces of sculpture, and disfigured by absurd and vulgar dresses, while many of the paintings which he says are “by the best masters” are only very ordinary copies. The utensils of gold and silver are splendid, and among other ornaments, the church of St. Domingo has a statue of the Virgin del Rosario, nearly six feet high, of massy silver.

The history of the university is not very interesting. The first lectures were delivered in the old city, about 1620, and a rector, students, and collegial form of discipline were regularly appointed in 1678. Lectures were delivered according to the old scholastic method until 1778, when the first course of experimental philosophy was begun. Juarros speaks of examinations in surgery, of a royal cabinet of natural history, of schools of mathematics, and a college of physicians. All these things may have existed, but in the present day they are unknown. The examinations have ceased, the cabinet is without specimens, and the college of physicians, and the schools of mathematics alike destitute of students and professors.

The vanity which prompted Juarros to speak of these institutions in the way he has done, seems to be a national vice. Similar instances are occurring every day, especially in the speeches of the public authorities, and in the statements of the weekly papers. A stranger looking through the latter, would receive the impression that a military college, a national bank, and Lancasterian schools were long ago established in the republic, but on inquiry he will find that, although each of these has been proposed in the assembly, reported upon and agreed to, not one of them has ever been commenced.

In connexion with the university, there are twelve professorships, and an academical senate of fifty doctors. It is needless to enumerate the chairs. They are of Latin, philosophy, theology, morals, &c. What the precise mode of imparting instruction may be, matters little. It is sufficient to know that the students generally leave the college with similar acquirements to those Gil Blas possessed when he departed from the university of Salamanca. The chief of the state in his speeches to the assembly, has several times alluded to the necessity of a change in the plan of study, but hitherto it has remained unaltered.

There is besides an academy of drawing, which has now about nine or ten students, and merits notice as being the only memorial of a society which was formed in the year 1795, called the Economical Society of Friends of the Kingdom, for the diffusion and encouragement of Literature and Science. Its labours were suspended by an arbitrary decree of the court of Madrid, in 1799.

The public offices of government are conveniently arranged, but as edifices possess no peculiarities. The three hospitals which are described by Juarros as existing in the old city, are now comprised in one, called St. Juan de Dios, which consists of four cuadros or squares, around which are the different wards for the sick. The rooms are high, and tolerably clean, but not well ventilated. It is calculated to hold 300, but at the time I visited it, had not more than 200 occupants, mostly wounded in drunken quarrels, of whom about a fourth were females. This institution is supported chiefly by a tax upon flour, which produces annually about 16,000 dollars. Before the revolution ten dollars daily were paid to it from the royal treasury, but this has of course, now ceased. It is also occasionally assisted by charitable contributions.

But that which chiefly distinguishes Guatimala from the other cities of the New World is, its numerous and beautiful aqueducts and pilas for the regular distribution of water all over the metropolis. From a fine spring, which rises in the mountains, at about one league and a half S. E. of the city, the stream is conducted by means of pipes into no less than twelve public reservoirs, from which it is again carried into every private house, regularly supplying, sometimes one, and oftentimes two or more pilas or stone baths with excellent water. This aqueduct must have cost an immensity of labour to complete, being brought in some places, over valleys, upon ranges of arches, and in others, carried under ground by means of tunnels.

The public fountains and reservoirs are many of them of very superior workmanship, and ornament the streets in which they are placed. Most of these have rows of troughs connected with them, in which those of the lower classes who have not water in their houses wash their linen. It is amusing to see sometimes thirty or forty women busily employed in this manner, and most industriously rubbing the piece of cloth they wish to clean, against a stone, a plan which is universally pursued, although manifestly to the speedy destruction of the article undergoing the operation. But like many other good housewives, the Guatimalian ladies have their prejudices, and will not be persuaded that hot water is preferable to cold, and would remove the necessity of such rough treatment.

The houses of the respectable citizens are well built, and commodiously arranged. A description of one will give an idea of the rest. Let us enter then at that great folding door, looking like an inn gate, with blank walls on each side. We open it, and immediately find ourselves in a large square court-yard, in the middle of which is an orange-tree in full bloom. All around it is a covered walk or piazza, raised about a foot from the ground, the roof supported by wooden pillars. Under this piazza are seven or eight doors, leading into different apartments, each one having an interior communication with the rest, and all of course on the ground floor, stairs being almost unknown in Guatimala. The first room will probably be a common chamber, the next a sala or drawing-room, furnished with ten or a dozen antique chairs, an old fashioned settee, with a slip of mat before it for a carpet, and two small dressing tables, placed at an immense distance from one another, each holding the image of a saint carefully enclosed in glass. Three or four pictures will adorn the clean white-washed walls, and two lamps, cased in silver, will be hanging from a roof in which all the naked beams are to be seen, with here and there a straggling cobweb. The floor, like that of all the rest of the rooms, will be paved with red tiles, its cleanliness depending upon the civilization of its owner.

From hence we pass into a third apartment, probably the chief bed chamber, serving also for a daily sitting room, in which to receive visiters. It will contain a handsome bed, a large mahogany wardrobe, a few chairs, and a cupboard with glass doors, in which may be seen carefully arranged all the stock of china, from the blue wash-hand basin down to the diminutive coffee cup, till lately a more valuable property than a similar service of silver. By the side of the bed will hang an image of the Saviour on the cross, under a little scarlet canopy, and on a small table in another corner, will be placed St. Joseph or the Virgin. The two next rooms will have little furniture besides a bed, a chair, and an image. We shall shall therefore pass on into the comedor or dining room, which will contain only one large oak table, (a fixture,) and seven or eight common wooden chairs. Next to this will be the cocina; in one corner a large baking oven of an oval shape, and in the middle of the room a mass of solid brickwork, three or four feet high, containing six or seven cavities for small charcoal fires, and conveniences for preparing the thousand different stews which are compounded in a Spanish kitchen. To the right of this will be an inner yard with its pila or cistern of water, and further on the stables, with a second for the use of the cattle. The remaining apartments will be occupied according to the property or family of the owner, and this is a fair description of a respectable house, letting for a rent equal to about £80 a year, English money, in the city of New Guatimala.

  1. Statistical History of the Kingdom of Guatimala, by Don Domingo Juarros. Translated by J. Baily, Lieut. R. N. 8vo. London. 1823.
  2. Juarros states the latitude and longitude to be 14° 40" N. latitude, and 91° 46" W. longitude, but the author has reason to believe, that those he has given on the authority of Mr. Kirkwood, will be found to approximate nearer to the true position.