Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 21


The Post-office.—State of Couriers.—Amusements.—Police.—Opinion on the lamentable fate of Mr. O'Reilley.

The next day, the 27th June, I called on Don Antonio Batrez, the postmaster-general. He was living in one of the best buildings in the town: it constituted the office as well as his residence, and the apartments were handsome and well furnished: the floors were inlaid with marble, and covered, here and there, with a piece of mat or carpet: a large wardrobe or press, very bulky and glossy, and some cushioned benches, placed round the walls, in a sofa-like form, were the chief articles which the rooms contained.

There was no department of government business better managed, considering the state of affairs, than the system of the couriers. The mail was conveyed pretty regularly not only to all parts of the republic, but even to Mexico. The courier averages from ten to twenty leagues a day, according to the seasons, which may be divided into two periods; the winter, or dry season, which commences about the end of November, and continues to the end of May; and the rainy season, which occupies nearly the other six months of the year: during the latter period, although the roads are almost impassable, the couriers still contrive to make their way, supplying themselves with fresh horses at the different stages; so that the post from the extremest points may be calculated on within three or four days of being due.

The greatest distance that the post travels from the capital to any place within the republic is to Cartage, the capital of Costa-Rica, namely, 397 leagues, or 992 miles: the distance to Mexico is 371 leagues, and to the nearest port in the South Sea 31 leagues: the distances to these and all the other principal places will be found in the following pages[1]. The amount of leagues, divided by ten, will give a fair average of the number of days employed in travelling from the capital to the points alluded to: thus, the ordinary journey thence to Cartago, as performed by the courier, takes about thirty-nine days, and that to Mexico thirty-seven days: gentlemen travellers had better divide the distance by five, as they would most probably require double the number of days for performing the journey. It may be as well to mention that the distance from the capital to San Juan de Nicaragua, near to which it is proposed to open the canal into the South Sea, is 245 leagues, or 612 miles. The communication between the government and the federal states is made through the ordinary courier: I understood that these arrangements had been completely organized, and were in full force previous to my departure; but, how far they may have been affected by the civil disturbances, which have unfortunately prevailed since that period, I cannot determine.

When tranquillity is again established, the above means of correspondence will be sufficient for carrying on the general routine of national or individual concerns, as far as regards mere communication; but there will be numerous difficulties to overcome, and many improvements to be adopted, before a commercial connexion upon a large and general scale can be established between the distant points of the republic. At present, the intercourse between the respective states possesses none of the facilities for a flourishing trade or even that interchange of commodities which their reciprocal wants would lead them to adopt. It is true that with regard to some European articles of dry goods, such as cutlery and broad cloth, the spirit of venture has induced the traders of the capital to send into the provinces, at stated seasons, assortments of such articles as may have remained on hand; and which are bought up greedily by the provincial shopkeepers.

Tuesday 28th.—This being a holy day, we again attended the theatre; not any thing occurred during the performance worth mentioning: the play exhibited many political allusions, breathing exalted notions of liberty and independence: the rain of course descended as usual, with periodical exactness; but not with that intensity which it did on the former evening of entertainment. There is about half a mile out of the town, a plaza de toros, or theatre for bull-fights: it was now closed, as the sports always take place in the afternoon, and this being the wet season, they were here suspended, in the same manner as in Mexico, until the dry weather should set in: the boxes are covered with a slight wooden roof, sufficient to afford a shade from the sun, but very penetrable by the wet, and the lower circles being completely exposed both to one and the other, the amusement is very properly adjourned until a more convenient season: accordingly, there was no bull-fight during my residence in the capital. This and the theatre are the only two public amusements which the place affords; but the deficiency is made up by the pic-nic or gipsying parties which I have before described: besides these, were occasionally little tertullas, or evening assemblies, enlivened with dancing and music, but rarely with any expensive collation: the enjoyment of life seemed to consist rather in its indolence than exertion, in its ease than in its pomp; not but what there were to be found, even amongst this primitive people, some of those affectations to preeminence, those exacerbations of jealousy and those flutterings of vanity which force themselves into society, throughout every situation of life;—tarnishing the brightest blossoms of existence. But nature feels no distinctions: the blight will affect the regal lily no less than the humble cowslip;—as passion gnaws the bosom, alike, of the peasant or the princess.

The only wine that was worth drinking in the town was some champaign which was sold by some French merchants, who had established themselves here with an assorted cargo of goods, consisting of this beverage, china vases, very splendid, together with tea sets, writing desks, ladies' dressing cases, and other countless articles of nicknackery; not to mention pickles, fish sauces, patent mustard, and other gastronomic delicacies. My servant had been out to purchase, amongst some of the latter articles, two dozen of champaign; the price was eighteen dollars or seventy-two shillings a dozen, which he had paid, having hired a man in the Grand Plaza to bring the whole home; but, unfortunately, he lost sight of him in the crowd, which was considerable, as it was market day; and, after many ineffectual endeavours to discover the porter, we were obliged to submit to the loss of the champaign.

He had, foolishly, employed one of the leperos, or established beggars of the place; and I mention this circumstance, because it was the only piece of dishonesty which I had witnessed or even heard of during my whole stay, and throughout my travels, in Guatemala.

These leperos consist of the most abandoned of human beings: they are far from numerous, and being so well known as they are seen standing, even in midday, at the corners of the streets, with their large slouched hats and a tattered blanket which serves them for all the purposes of dress and couch, it is only wonderful that the government has not taken the precaution of removing them, or providing for their maintenance by hard labour or some other equally efficacious, expurgatory, system. This reminds me that, on the first night of my arrival, when I went out to pay a visit with Don Simon, he cautioned me against these miscreants, providing himself with his maschete, or cut and thrust sword, and advising me to take my pistols with me. I naturally fell into his suggestions, and generally continued to practise them; it having been our uniform custom, at Mexico, never to be out, unarmed, after dark.

I found, in the course of my travels, that it was always prudent to manifest a firm intention of self-preservation: this should, however, be done with an air of indifference, as if the shooting an aggressor was a matter-of-course business: the facility and precision with which it might be effected it is prudent frequently to show by shooting at a mark in the presence of your native servants, loiterers, and other hangers-on, in the different places where you happen to take up your abode: to this practice may be ascribed the happy result that I was never, in my own defence, once obliged to pull a trigger; although I had nothing else, in very many awkward situations, to rely upon for my protection, had I been attacked.

I know not whether poor Mr. O'Reilley[2], who, it is well known, was murdered in his bed by his own servant, had been in the habit of sleeping with arms: one thing I apprehend is, that he did not take the necessary precaution of fastening his door: a slight bolt or the appearance of the least probability of resistance might, possibly, have saved his life; for the gradation betwixt temptation to crime and its commission is, unfortunately, too well known, so small, that, with persons of abandoned habits, they are seldom unconnected.

I am far from wishing to moralize on the execrable act to which I have alluded: my motive is to guard others from the possibility of exposing themselves to so dreadful a catastrophe: another suggestion which I would wish to offer is, that the act itself ought not, in fairness, to be argued as a proof of the general outrageous state of society amongst the people where it was perpetrated: less temptations, whether arising from avarice or revenge, have led to equally deplorable consequences, in the most civilized portions of the world. But, whether this horrible event arose from private or political causes, its fatal effects to the unfortunate individual and his agonized relatives render it alike incapable of mitigation or distinction: it makes no difference to the parties whether a man be gathered up to his ancestors by the assassin's dagger, the pestilence of climate, a musket-ball or twenty-four pounder; — but to die in the public service, in whatever mode death may be encountered, claims something more than the solitary tribute of domestic regret.

Of those who have been employed in the business of "the Recognition of the New Republics of South America," how many have fallen victims to the duties which they had to fulfil! The journals that have been written by disinterested parties will show the labours and fatigues which they had to encounter, in the mere process of locomotion, to say nothing of the dangers of climate and the obnoxiousness to party revenge[3].—I should be sorry to seem jocose on so serious a subject; but have often considered that the business required by ambassadors to these states has formed a new æra in diplomacy: they are obliged to evince, equally, physical and mental exertion;—to combine the activity of the courier with the sedateness of the statesman;—they should possess expansiveness of mind with solidity of occiput, a pliancy of character with obduracy of epidermis, and a delicacy of sensibility with a stomach for the black vomit.

  1. See Historical and Statistical Sketch, under the head of "Communication within itself and with the Exterior."
  2. His Majesty's late Consul.
  3. Out of the number of persons officially deputed by Government to visit these countries, eleven, at least, have either fallen victims to the climate or been carried off by violent deaths.