Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 6


Reception at Sonsonate.—Description of the town, and manners of the inhabitants.

Whilst at Acapulco, I had fallen into company with the Acting Consul's next door neighbour, a respectable merchant, whose name was Don Jose Domingo Indart: he gave me letters of introduction to the family of Doña Vicente Rascon y Cuellar. These letters are not mere matters of ceremony or politeness, as they are often considered in Europe, but are more like a draft on the person to whom they are addressed, not exactly for so much cash, but for its equivalent, namely for board and lodging and every reasonable entertainment. The lady to whom my introduction was given was absent with her family at the capital of Guatemala, it being then in fact, the Guatemalian, as we here call it the London, season. Her daughter, Doña Gertrudis Oyarzin, however, remained: she was awaiting the return of her husband, a young man of old Spanish origin, and who was now absent at San Blas, on his mercantile business: I had also a particular introduction to him, and was, of course, asked to partake of the hospitality of his house, which is one of the best in Sonsonate; but, as the invitation of this transatlantic Penelope was not, as it ought not to have been, under the circumstances, very pressing, I preferred taking up my abode in the house of one of the English gentlemen who were settled here.

Wednesday, 11th May. The venerable commandant of the town, Don L. de Padillo, this morning, paid me a visit: he informed me he had been apprised by the government of my expected arrival, and that it was his wish to shew me every possible attention. The next day, Don Manuel Romero also called on the part of the deputies of the State of Sonsonate, one of whom was Don Manuel Rodriquez, late ambassador to the United States, and the other the Padre Peña, curate of the town. In the course of the day, I visited the Padre Geronimo Zelaya, an Augustin friar: he was residing at the monastery, which was a small establishment of the kind, containing not more than half a dozen brethren. He had devoted his mind particularly to statistical subjects; and had just written a sketch of the political state of San Salvador, the manuscript of which, for it had not been published, he had the generosity to give me. I found in it much valuable information in making up my report for His Majesty's Government. I also became acquainted with the Comptroller of the Customs, Don Dionisio Mensia, and with the Gefe Politico, Don Felipe de Vega. From the former of these two I learnt that the collection of the duties, owing to the disorganization that had arisen from the revolution, was attended with the greatest difficulties; that smuggling and bribery were carried on to a serious extent, and that the authorities had no power sufficient to prevent it. At the same time, he added that he had no doubt that, as soon as the government was settled, the receipts of the customs would be more than doubled.

The town of Sonsonate is large and straggling; but it contains many good houses, all built in the usual Spanish fashion. They are only one story high, forming three or four sides of a square, with a court-yard in the centre. The most respectable families think it no degradation to be engaged in trade: as there is no bank and no interest for money, this is the only way in which they can employ their capitals. Most of the richer classes of inhabitants derive their incomes from the cattle bred upon their estates and their crops of indigo, cochineal, and tobacco, which they barter with the European merchants for dry goods; retailing the latter for the consumption of the natives.

The chief kind of manufacture peculiar to this town is that of fancy shell-work, of which they make large quantities, imitating with shells of the most diminutive size, which they stick together in a sort of mosaic, the most beautiful flowers. By this article, and some little fancy birds and beasts, wrought, with equal ingenuity, in silk and velvet, they carry on an export trade to Cartagena, Peru, and other parts of the Western coast, to the amount of £10,000 sterling per annum. There is one large church, which, of course, occupies, as in all Spanish towns, one side of the grand Plaza or square. It is a large antique building, and has no architectural beauty to recommend it: the internal ornaments are uncouth and mean; but it is sufficiently spacious and commodious for the population, which consists almost entirely of Indians.

There are no families, altogether Spanish, residing here: some few remain who have intermarried, or are connected, with the Creolians. Of the latter there are also very few: they form, in this province, not one fiftieth part, perhaps, of the population. It is, therefore, very unusual to see any but dark coloured inhabitants. Some of the finest of them, in personal appearance, are a mixture of Africans and Indians; though many of the latter, especially the young people, are interesting and handsome. The state of nudity in which they are accustomed to appear in public seems outrageous and highly indelicate to a European beholder. Neither the men nor the women have any other clothing than a short apron round their middle. The mode of tying this apron distinguishes the married from the unmarried female.

Having passed a very restless night, from the intensity of the heat, greater, I think, than any I had experienced in these countries, I had risen early to refresh myself with a walk in the morning air. In proceeding through the town, I met groups of Indians, men, women, and girls, bearing on their shoulders fruits and vegetables for the market. They were all heavily burthened, but being disincumbered, as I before mentioned, from all unnecessary, or as we should rather think, necessary, clothing, they glided along with a sort of quick ambling pace at the rate of from four to five miles an hour. Each member of the different families carried a burthen in proportion to its sex and age: little children of five or six years old, obliged to be on the run to keep up with their parents, were thus training to the duties which they were bound to fulfil, without change or intermission, during the whole course of their lives, even to the age, should they be fortunate enough to reach it, of their hoary grandsires who were tottering by their side. I found that they all, without exception, on reaching the Plaza, after having deposited their burthens, went to pay their devotions in the church. Many of them took their bundles in with them, and I was pleased to see the simple but humble offering which some of them would make by sprinkling the floor of the church, for there was no pavement, with leaves and flowers, or as the Poet would call it, "the early incense of the spring." They prayed without books, for their devotion was the language of the heart, and their rustic offering seemed like the humble tribute of the children of nature to nature's God.—In the evening, I took a ride with the English gentlemen to witness an Indian fête, at a hamlet called the Barrio del Angel, about half a league from the town.

The Indians of whom I have above spoken, are not properly residents in the town or in the suburbs, but country or provincial people. The class of inhabitants which met my observation this evening, appeared to be somewhat more civilized; many of them wore shoes and stockings, the men trowsers, and the women petticoats to their ankles. The latter were deeply flounced at the bottom with a bordering different from the petticoat itself, which was a bright scarlet or some other gorgeous colour. There was, however, a neatness and cleanliness about their dress and general appearance superior to what I had observed in the same classes in Mexico.

The fair was carried on at a rising ground, at the extremity of a wood of bananas and other tropical plants. It was surrounded by the cocoa-nut tree, which spread its fan-shaped branches, as it were, to protect and shelter this pleasing sequestered spot. In one part of it was a blacksmith's forge, and in another a most indifferent sugar-mill: they seemed to testify that the arts and conveniencies of life, though not unknown, were known only upon a moderate and humble scale. The lanes, which led in different directions to this spot, were narrow and now so overgrown by the rank vegetation, that two persons could not ride abreast along them; and the little children, as you could perceive them in their white mantas, flitting amongst the bushes, put you in mind of rabbits, in the moonlight, sporting amidst the furze.

The next day, at dinner, I remarked two large silver salvers, filled with various kinds of sweetmeats, disposed in fantastic shapes. It was a present, they said, from a lady to me. I had no difficulty in resolving from whom this mark of polite attention came: it was the present of the amiable Doña Gertrudis, who, at times, sent me also other dainties to satisfy for, what, I have no doubt, she felt a breach of hospitality on her part,—her not having prevailed upon me to take up my abode in her house.

I must now introduce my readers to Don Simon B—o, a dependiente or managing man of the establishment of the family to which I was consigned at Guatemala. He was about five feet six in height, dark complexion, black eyes and hair, with hollow cheeks and of slender stature. His employment was to make sales of the indigo and other articles produced on the family estate, also to purchase wearing apparel and other European goods at the capital; disposing of them either wholesale at the warehouse at Sonsonate, or retailing them, in his journeys which he occasionally made through the provinces, on account of the firm. He was a Guatemalian traveller, in that sense of the appellation best understood in the commercial world. His journey to the metropolis was fixed for the 16th; and I was anxious to set out as soon as possible. As he was the very character I wished to fall in with, being, as he was, so well fitted to acquaint me with the practical detail of the manner and habits of the trade of these countries, I endeavoured to induce him to depart with me on an earlier day: he was a kind, good natured, man, but had a dash of pomp about him, which shewed a just estimation of the importance of his own functions, and gave me a lesson as to the respect and consideration due to them, which I endeavoured not to forget. I cannot pretend to describe characters with the inimitable pencil of Washington Irving; I would, therefore, merely say that he was his "Master Simon," entered into business. The strictness of his arrangements would not allow of their being put aside: and as the business upon which I was travelling was of very different importance, I, of course, accommodated myself to the plans of my proposed companion.

I used to go to bathe, about two miles from the town, in a small river called the Tequisquilco, the water of which is beautifully transparent and cool. It was formed, a few years since, by the irruption of Isalco, the volcano of Sonsonate, which is about fifteen leagues off. It is eighty years since its first irruption took place: the same, however, has been carried on, at intervals, and frequent light shocks of earthquakes are, consequently, experienced in the neighbourhood. It is most dangerous when not burning; so that the flames I saw issuing from it were at once awful and satisfactory.

The inhabitants of Sonsonate, particularly the Creoles, are dreadfully afflicted with the goître, or as they here call them, buches. At the base of the mountain in question is a sulphureous lake, where, they say, these invalids are in the habit of going, at certain seasons of the year, to drink the waters, which are considered a specific cure: if they are so, there appear to be very few of these unfortunate people who have availed themselves of this easy method of getting rid of this disgusting malady.

The Intendancy of San Salvador, being now united to the Alcaldia Mayor of Sonsonate, forms one of the five states of the federal constitution, under the title of San Salvador. The Alcaldia of Sonsonate contains twenty-one settlements, with 45,000 souls distributed through eleven parishes, being twenty leagues from east to west, and twelve from north to south. Notwithstanding that the ecclesiastical establishment is larger and richer in this country, in proportion to its size and population, than in Mexico, the cures are very badly provided. There are many villages in which mass is not said more than once a year.

The population of the five states of the federation, amounting to 2,000,000, is greater than the world supposed; but the census taken by the Spaniards was always incorrect and under the mark, as the tribute or capitation tax, exacted from the Indians, caused them to suppress their number and amount. This tribute was at the rate of three dollars a year on every male from the age of eighteen to fifty. The last census was taken since its abolition, but the number was still considered short of the actual population, who might have been induced to suppress their returns under the apprehension of the renewal of that tax, or of the substitution of another in its stead.

The Englishmen who were residing at Sonsonate were Mr. Banchard, (who had married a young lady of the country, a niece of the Padre Zelaya, superior of the Augustine monastery,) Mr. Freere, Mr. Parker, and Mr. Aylwin. They had most of them been in Peru, Chile, and other parts of the continent, and were here engaged both in the coasting trade of the country, and in shipping to England cochineal, hides, indigo and other articles peculiar to the place.

I willingly accepted of their polite attentions, and took my meals with them in a large house occupied by the young married couple. The bride was a small, shy, little girl about fifteen years of age, but plump and healthy, with a pair of bright black eyes which made up, by the force and variety of their expression, for the silence and reserve of her general manner. The high tables, of which I have before spoken, render eating exceedingly awkward, even to a tall person, but with regard to one so short as was our amiable little hostess, it seemed to be a matter of the utmost convenience; for, laying her chin down on the edge of the plate, with her elbows poised on the table on each side of it, her hands moved alternately from the plate to her mouth, with the slightest possible exertion, like two reversed oars, rowing steadily, out of time. As, during this operation, her eyes fulfilled the office of her tongue, and no time was lost in conversation, she was enabled to work double tides, and always left us, as soon as she had done, to finish the rest of the business by ourselves.

Opposite the door-way, in the centre of the large hall in which we dined, and in front of the place which I occupied at the table, was suspended one of those hammocks of which I have often spoken; it was hung under an awning which surrounded the internal part of the building, and encircling the court-yard. Into this she flung herself with a sort of patient indifference, which had something, however, of an air of listlessness, and, striking one of the pillars of the colonnade with her foot, and the wall on the other side with her hand, she dashed off, all at once, into a full swing. One of her maids immediately came up to her with a paper cigar which she was smoking to keep alight, and, watching her opportunity, popped it into the hand which was mechanically held out, and which transferred it, in a twinkling, into the mouth of the mistress. The operation was so neatly performed that the oscillation of the swing was not in the slightest degree deranged. A subsidiary kick or thump kept it going for a quarter of an hour, when it gradually stopt; the cigar was smoked,—the lady was asleep,—and our dinner was almost finished.