Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 15


A Guatemalian family.—State of the Slave Trade.—Fête at Jocotenango.—Political notions of the people.

Thursday, the 9th June.—This being the octave of Corpus Christi, great feastings and revels were renewed throughout the city: I accompanied my friends to dine with a highly respectable family of the name of Gutierrez: the dinner was altogether Spanish both as to the number and quality of the dishes. The young ladies of this family were very musical; they sung and accompanied each other both with the piano and the guitar in a style equal to any I had witnessed in these countries; besides which the piano was a tolerably good one. The Padre Ramon Solis, the confessor of the family, a deputy of the congress and much appreciated for his talents, was also of the party, and contributed greatly to the entertainment, as he sung remarkably well, and was complete master of the guitar, accompanying himself sometimes upon that instrument and, at others, upon the piano or base-viol. The two sons were grown up, about twenty years of age, and were quiet, gentlemanly, young men, well informed and still anxious after improvement.

As we walked, after dinner, up and down the inner corridor, they put to me many pertinent questions respecting English customs, and seemed to long for the day when opportunity might be given them to visit Europe. Whatever might be their fortune or expectations in their own country, and these were not bad, as they were amongst the more opulent of the inhabitants, they were not, apparently, following a course of life exactly adapted to their views or wishes. At the end of their house, which was handsome and commodious, there was, as usual, a shop attached, which, it seems, it was their business to attend by turns. This, indeed, is not thought any degradation, because, as I have before said, this is the only way in which moneyed people can employ their capital, except it be in farming. The next day, I called on the vice president, Don Mariano Beltranena, and was introduced by him to his brother, who, four years ago, was governor of Nicaragua. He was living in a large house, in the centre of the town: two of the rooms were filled with the archives of the old government: there was great research making for a certain treaty, which was at length found: it was that dated Versailles, 3d of September 1786, entered into between Great Britain and Spain relative to the settlement of Honduras and the liberty of cutting logwood.

The question concerning this treaty arose out of a subject of much difficulty which, now, agitated the congress: it was as follows:—some slaves belonging to the merchants of Belize, had run away and taken shelter in the territory of Guatemala; conceiving they were protected by a decree of the congress of 17th April 1824, in which, after liberating all the slaves within their own territory, and abolishing future servitude, they set forth that "the schedules and orders of the Spanish government are hereby ratified as far as relates to the emancipation of the slaves who may pass over to our states from foreign nations."—Other documents were now searched for; amongst the rest, that of the treaty with Spain of 1795; but the most important was "Urrutia's letter" of 1818; and this, although these archives seemed to be kept precisely in that degree of order in which they usually are elsewhere, was, unfortunately, the very document that could not be found. The slaves in question had taken advantage of the above decree, in the latter end of 1824, and beginning of 1825.

In order to reclaim them, General Codd sent to Guatemala a gentleman of the name of Westby, with despatches for the government, in which the necessity of returning them was pointed out. The supreme executive power, then consisting of Valle, Cerda, and O'Horan, were in favour of giving up the deserters, and, referring the matter to the congress, recommended their restoration. The measure, being opposed, was passed over to a committee, which, in its report to the congress, supported the opinion of the executive; and the congress, having agreed to deliver them up, the party who were of the contrary opinion, required that, as the decision had the effect of altering an article of the constitution, it should be passed to the senate to obtain their sanction, as it would not otherwise be operative. After being referred accordingly first to the executive, and then reconsidered in the congress, the question was lost, by wanting only four votes of the two thirds prescribed in such a case.

It must be confessed that the business was decided with great party spirit, and contrary to the wishes of the executive; and, in justice to the authorities, it is necessary to state that, the causes, which led to so unsatisfactory a termination of the affair, originated in some incidental points of gratuitous and pernicious interference on the part of an English gentleman resident there, and who, when the matter was referred to the assembly, advised one or more of the members, in set and plausible terms, not to accede to the restoration sought for by the intendant of Belize. Mr. Hines, the gentleman alluded to, had not any improper intention; but every Englishman, whatever might be his rank or situation in life, felt himself warranted and called upon to dabble in politics; not knowing the mischief they might do; and he could not resist the temptation;—but, when he saw the turn the business had taken, he expressed himself much surprised and very sorry for the difficulties he had unwittingly occasioned. On his return to England, the poor man, who, I perceived, on my leaving Guatemala, was very unhappy, died at Belize.

Saturday, 11th June. One of the Messrs. Ayzenenas being about to depart for England, I addressed a letter to General Codd, informing him that I should be at Jzabal on the 20th July, and requesting him to send me his schooner to convey me thence to Belize, in order that I might be in time to return in one of the passage ships of the season, with convoy;—a precaution I understood to be most necessary, owing to the horrible piracies which were daily being committed throughout the Gulf of Florida and the neighbouring islands.

Sunday, 12th. Spent the greater part of this day at Jocotenango, a village about a mile out of the town: the fête was indifferently attended: after church, there was a grand display of fireworks, the effect of which was completely lost by the dazzling brilliance of the sun: they however appeared to be valuable, if we might judge by the complicated frame-machinery, the explosions, and the smoke. There were stone benches in the Plaza, which was shaded not only by its great tree in the middle, but by bower-hedges on two sides of it; under these, too, there were seats for the accommodation of the company, who were either availing themselves of them or strolling through the verdant lanes with which the place was surrounded. Having come to the end of one of these in conversation with an English gentleman who had been in Peru, Chile, Guayaquil, and other parts of these republics, I was much amused at the information he was giving me.

We had now come to the verge of a wide undulating tract, covered with grass, and, here and there, studded with thickets of fine trees. My companion had been giving me details of the nature and returns of the indigo and cochineal trade: his observations were full of information, mingled with slipslop, and very disjointed and irrelevant: he did not, himself, seem aware of the value of his materials, but kept talking on, and heaping one remark upon another, like pieces of silk and fustian on a draper's counter: his tongue was as profuse as his memory was retentive. At last he came to a pause.—This is a man of considerable observation, thought I, and perhaps I could make him useful in my researches after the information I am obtaining; so looking at him with as much respect as I could assume, I said, "You have been a great traveller, sir, I see" "Yes, sir, I have, indeed", was his reply. "You took notes on your journeys, I presume." "Notes, sir, notes," as he regarded me with a look of mingled pity and perplexity, "no, sir," said he,—"I took nothing but dollars and doubloons."

It was now time to turn back. In passing through one of the lanes, I heard the sound of guitars, and tried to open a wicket, at which an old sow was standing, with her nose thrust through the bars: I could not displace her from her position without behaving towards her more severely than I wished, so great appeared to be her confidence in, and attachment to, human society: I proceeded across a farm-yard to the spot from whence the harmony issued. The room was full of visitors, all dressed in their best holiday attire: some of the women wore short red petticoats, with deep plain white flounces round the bottom, gathered up in very thick plaits over their hips, with a white border; thence upwards, they had only a chemise to cover them, but, as this was starched into stiff folds, it supplied, in some measure, the place of a jacket: the hair in front was worn in the Madona form, and the hinder part, being of great length, was divided into tightly plaited cords which were twisted round the head in various devices. A pink satin shoe, extremely long and wide at the quarters, without stockings, completed the costume. Most of the Guatemalian damsels, that is, all the lower classes, dress in this style, excepting that they more frequently go without shoes, and at other times wear the finest silk stockings with shoes of the most delicate texture.

The men have seldom any clothing on down to the waist except the shirt: a loose pair of roughly tanned, brown chamoise breeches, open at the knees, makes up the extent of their toilette: they nevertheless wear their hair parted like the women, or suffer it to hang down in short curls like those which seem to be prescriptively appropriate to the temples of an English tar; and it is always long behind, being confined in plaits terminating in one or two tails, according to the dignity of the wearer, or the more, perhaps, intelligible distinction between a barrister's wig and that of a sergeant-at-law.

With all these whimsicalities, (I am speaking of the native inhabitants,) I think them a gentle and harmless set of creatures. Out of the whole population of Guatemala, there is not perhaps, a proportion of three tenths of them entitled to be considered as possessing any political opinion, or that notion of temporal authority which causes men to feel an interest in the government of the country in which they live. The other seven tenths may, however, be presumed to be favourable to the independent system, inasmuch as they have already experienced from it substantial benefit in the remission of taxation and the abolition of slavery. It is true, that the humble portion of society to which I particularly allude, is so widely separated, both by local situation and intellectual feeling, from the seat of government and the moral spring of political transactions, as to be scarcely sensible even of the existence of the former, and seldom alive to any impulse which it might be attempted to impart to them through the remote vibration of the latter. Yet, although they know but little of the nature of presidents, councils, and congresses, they all know their respective parish curate; and as he is the most important authority with which they are practically acquainted, it is natural that they should be much guided by his example and advice. Most of these curates are of indigenous or Creolian extraction: all the best clerical appointments were formerly reserved for the old Spaniards: — by the new system, the latter party is excluded to the benefit of the former, and this is a reason why the clergy, as a body, may be considered favourable to the new constitution; and, hence it follows that the people, being much influenced by them, would, if called upon by the supreme power, cheerfully devote themselves to the defence and preservation of the national independence. Amidst the middle and higher orders of society, scarcely any remains of a Spanish party even nominally exist, and the old Iturbide party is immerged in that of the Independents.

I shall, elsewhere, give a sketch of the revolution of this republic, and also of the differences which have continued to disturb its tranquillity: I cannot, however, help observing, en passant, that the latter are by no means of that serious nature which the British public are generally disposed to consider them. I could discover a liberality of sentiment prevalent amongst all classes, and also a very friendly disposition towards foreigners, especially the English, whom they seemed to consider as so many animated portions of constitutional liberty:—it was, also, gratifying to me to witness the high veneration entertained, and so often expressed by the Guatemalian authorities, for his Britannic Majesty and his Majesty's Government.