We had not been many days in the city of Mexico, when we made the discovery, that notwithstanding the excellent letters of introduction with which we had been furnished in Europe and the United States—as far as the natives of the country were concerned, we should have to be the contrivers of our own amusements.
It is true, our calls were returned and our cards acknowledged. We exchanged compliments; bartered bows, polite speeches, and grateful acknowledgments, for the boiling-hot, rapturous expressions of ecstasy of our Mexican acquaintances, at the unlooked-for happiness of seeing us in this world. We smiled in delight, in the very extremity of gratitude, at the devotion with which the palaces, the horses, the very lives of our noble male friends, were seemingly placed at our command without any reserve.
It appeared as if every other duty or pleasure was to be relinquished for the felicity of cultivating our friendship. We received a thousand compliments, which the gayest of our European admirers never had the wit to conceive, or the effrontery to utter. On one or two occasions, we had the ecstasy of presenting a comely black-eyed dama or signorita with a balmy cigarita; and of receiving it again from her delicate hand, after it had been consecrated by a preliminary whiff.
And how then?— why, after the first interview some of the most impassioned of our acquaintances were never again heard of. Others evidently kept out of our way. Two or three who had travelled in Europe were again met with in society, at the houses of the European residents, where of course they behaved with the proper reserve, staid decorum, and cool nonchalance of civilized and well-bred men: and the greatest attention which we met with during our stay, from any individual—with the exception of one single family connected by marriage with Europeans—was an occasional impromptu invitation to come and sit for an hour in an evening, "quite in a family way." This was laughable; and the more so, as we found that it was the general experience among foreigners of all grades.
There were those among the diplomatic corps, whose object it has been from the commencement of their residence in this city, to cultivate a friendly and social spirit with the families of natives of so-called education, attached to whatever party they might be; but a series of the most ludicrous vexations and disappointments showed them the total impossibility—the chimerical nature of the scheme; and we found the society at their houses literally reduced to the superior class of Europeans, and half a dozen Mexicans, whose visits to Europe had rendered them a little more susceptible of the advantages of a different state of society, from that afforded by their own country.
The European merchants were equally unfortunate, and found in the constant display of jealousy, and in the low intrigues of their rivals among the natives, no opening for a more liberal state of feeling and conversation. Consequently, they kept aloof from each other.
Then came the lower orders of foreign speculators. All found themselves the subject of jealous hatred in Mexico. "How does monsieur like Mexico?" said a garrulous French barber to me, the very morning of my arrival. "Fine streets, fine houses, fine churches, fine clothes!—but the people—they are all, all, all, from the president to the leper, what we in France call canaille, monsieur." "Ma foi, qu'ils sont betes ces Mexicans," said the Belgian host of a meson at Tacubaya: "all, from the highest to the lowest, are as ignorant as that bottle!"—and he pointed to an empty one. "You ask a question, Quien sabe! is all you get for answer. You show them something they never saw before, 'Santa Maria, que bonito!' is their only exclamation.
But the most eloquent was a little German saddler, who wound up a long High-Dutch tirade against the miserable inhabitants of the country, their mode of living, their ignorance, dishonesty, and the hard lot which compelled him to cast his life away among such wretches, by saying, "There is not von man here so honest as my tog Spitz—Carampa!"
But in our case, besides this known feeling of jealousy of the Mexicans towards the foreigner, something was to be laid to the charge of the season of Lent, during which it seemed that there were neither bullfights nor tertullia.
In addition, the veteran Galli, the faded Pelligrini, in short, the whole corps d'opera Italienne was out of humour. And they might well be. They had been invited to charm the eyes and ears of the Mexicans for the season, under certain conditions. The government had bound itself to ensure them a certain amount of remuneration; that is, whatever sum their professional receipts might fall short of it, it had pledged itself to make good. Now, as it happened, the people were in poor spirits, and had neither time nor ears for them. Their receipts fell far short of their hopes, and in utter distress they applied to the liberal government. Government responded to their application in rather a cavalier manner; for instead of hard dollars, it sent a file of passports regularly made out, from the prima donna to the scene shifter and candle snuffer, and the advice to take their departure forthwith. This was poor satisfaction; but singers are proverbially unfortunate in Mexico. There was, for example, Garcia, who, travelling, was set upon by banditti and pillaged, even to his snuffbox, diamond ring, and pantaloons: after which, the robbers insisted that he should sing for them. He did so—and was hissed most obstreperously by his lawless auditory! It is said that he had borne the pillaging with becoming temper, but the hissing he never forgot or forgave.
Thus situated, we made the best of our position, and determined to enjoy ourselves in our own way: riding out every morning, frequently dining and spending the afternoon at the house of one or other of our European acquaintances, and passing the evening at the paséo, or on the elevated azotea of one of the fine palaces, which, now half warehouse and half dwelling house, are, many of them, in the occupation of foreigners. The scale of the interior arrangement of these princely structures corresponds with the stately exterior. They contain suites of elevated apartments, now despoiled of their rich furniture, and melancholy from their vast extent and want of inhabitants; but evincing in their fresh gay gilding, carved work, panelling, and painted ceilings, both the past glories of which they have been the scene, and the extreme purity of the atmosphere which circulates within their lofty walls. The view's from the more elevated, over the flat roofs and the numerous domes of the city, and the complete panorama of mountains, were of a beauty which is indescribable.
There are certain thoroughfares and places of resort, in Mexico, which seem to pour one incessant stream of human beings, from sunrise to sunset. Such are the main streets leading to the causeways; the vicinity of Parian and Plaza Mayor, where the bulk of the business of the capital is concentrated; the various markets; and the quarters where the canals from the lakes terminate.
Numberless light canoes laden with fruits, flowers, vegetables, maize, and straw, meat, wild ducks, and game of various description, approach the centre of the city by the latter channels; frequently accompanied by the Indian speculators, and their families young and old. Thence the cargoes are transported on the back, through the press of rival mules, trooping in from the calzadas; and are deposited in the spacious market place near the university.
The spectacle afforded by this crowded area was a never-failing source of interest—whether our observation was directed to the habits of the Indian, the varied picturesque costumes, the nature of the commodities exposed for sale, or the peculiarities of individual character.
The Mexican and Ottomie Indian possesses very distinct features from his North American brethren. He has a shorter face and thicker lips, and the cheek bone is much more protuberant.
During the early hours, good humour evidently pervaded the press; and the public spirit seemed to harmonize with the freshness of the flowers—of which, as in the days of Cortez, there is here always an inexhaustible profusion; with the bright colours of the fresh-culled fruits and vegetables; and the orderly arrangement of the various piles of calico, hides, earthenware, baskets, ropes, and matting. The toil of their journey, and that of subsequent arrangement being over, the Indian and his family might be seen seated at their morning meal of tortillas and Chile, in peace; and in satisfied expectation of the approach of a customer.
I never failed to remark, however, an exception to this tranquillity, in the person and demeanour of an old, grotesque alguazil, who appeared to have the duty of maintaining order—or rather, of stirring up disorder, in that part of the market which lay opposite to the university. He usually lost his temper at sunrise; and, as far as I could discover, never found it till after sunset—swearing most grievously the livelong day; thumping the cruppers of the mules, and the heads and shoulders of the Indians; overturning hampers, kicking over the baskets, knocking down the piles of merchandise, and putting everything in confusion, in dogged determination to see all go according to rule and square. He seemed perfectly careless of consequences: and he met the objurgation and vociferous upbraidings of the dark-eyed and dark-haired female whose arrangements he had invaded, with the same recklessness with which he braved the sullen scowl of hatred from her swarthy mate.
The heat of noon brought comparative silence. Multitudes had departed; and those who maintained their stand were dozing: but a little later, the old alguazil, with uplifted staff and voice, might be seen at his unwelcome labours: goading bipeds and quadrupeds; twitching the hair of the one, and the tails of the other; and dispensing execrations upon both. Unfortunately, I must allow, that at this hour, there was some reason for his interference; as the numberless pulquerias in the vicinity of the market, to which many of the males had retired in the morning, while their wives carried on the business, now poured forth their inebriated occupants; and many a family group which had entered the city in harmony, was seen retiring to their canoe amid violence and lamentations.
The shops in Mexico do not make any great figure; they are in general open, and of small dimensions. Certain quarters are devoted to distinct lines of business. Thus the jewellers have their street; the sellers of mangas theirs; and so forth. Coachmaking is among the most important mechanical trades of the capital; and, perhaps, the most lucrative after that of the gold and silver smiths; but no trade can be very bad, if we consider the price asked for almost every article. Saddlery, confectionary, millinery, and tailoring flourish. The vender of medicines seems to have a stirring business. The Parian, which I have before named, forms a depository of a great proportion of the home-manufactured goods; and the hire of the stalls brings in a large revenue to government. This alone can be pleaded in defence of its maintenance, to the destruction of the beauty of the Plaza Mayor. It is also the principal resort of the evangelistas, writers of letters, memorials, and billets-doux, for the unlearned of the city. Many foreign artisans have of late years settled in Mexico, but are always regarded with jealous dislike by the natives.
The works in wax are celebrated; and there is an artist, Hidalgo by name, whose models of national character and costumes are of rare beauty and fidelity. There is evidently much native talent of an imitative kind; but the disadvantages under which the country labours, are sufficient to crush and extinguish it.
Owing to the causes before alluded to, I am totally unable to give you the smallest insight into the manner in which the best classes of the natives employ themselves during the early part of the day. Soon after sunrise, the churches held their proportions of worshippers of all ranks. The hour of prayer over and gone, while we suppose that the males repaired to their ordinary occupations, private or official, the higher class of females disappeared altogether. Among the crowds in the great thoroughfares, at the market, under the great arcades, or on the promenades—it was a rare occurrence to descry the mantilla of a lady of condition.
Now and then, it is true, a solitary maiden, followed by her watchful duenna, might cross your path, saluting your nostrils by a gentle whiff from the lighted cigarita, which, like the glance of her black eye, was but half shrouded by the ample mantilla; but this was not a usual apparition.
It was evident that they neither went out shopping, nor visiting, nor gallivanting, but staid within doors—which, on the charitable supposition that they were properly employed, was well enough; but hereof deponent saith not.
It was far otherwise in the evening. Then all, young and old, came out of their hiding places, and the Alameda and paseos before sunset, and the portales after dark, swarmed with the damas and signoritas of the city.
The number of carriages which repair to the evening promenade is very great; and there is certainly considerable taste and luxury displayed among them.
They are in general capacious vehicles, with bodies well and substantially built, if not exactly after the pressent European taste; gayly decorated and painted in the old sumptuous style in vogue two centuries ago; but the huge scaffolding on which they are pendant defies description. This, from one extremity to another, cannot frequently be less than fourteen or sixteen feet—I like to keep within bounds. I should esteem it impossible to overturn one of them by any lawful means. They are drawn by two or four steeds, or mules, heavily caparisoned; and, when once in motion, may be seen soberly trotting round the Alameda, or over the paseo, for a brief space; when they draw up in solemn stateliness side by side, in one of the open spaces, to allow the occupants a full opportunity to see and to be seen. The gentlemen on horseback, meanwhile, course up and down, with much the same objects in view; halting and chatting with their acquaintances, or rapidly exchanging, in passing, that friendly little gesture with the fingers, which passes current among familiars in this country. I will not deny that you see some fine horses, and some striking costumes; and further, some handsome faces; and that there is a kind of excitement produced by the bustle of these evening promenades, particularly when they take place on the Paseo de las Vigas: but whether it was that I love not crowds, and am given to seek more quiet pleasures, and to prefer scenes of less glare and dust; or was apt to be too strongly reminded by them of the vanity of the world; or, lastly, that I was conscious that Pinto was one of the shabbiest steeds in the city to look at, in spite of the daily care of Don Floresco, and that my cutting a dash was out of the question—I soon grew tired of attending the promenade, and used to gird on my weapon and slink off in another direction. Several times a week, about sunset, the band of the artillery regiment quartered in the city, played for half an hour in the vicinity of their barracks; and many of the loungers, both mounted and on foot, were accustomed to repair thither: and, to do them justice, I have heard far worse military bands in Europe. It was whispered that the music was by far the best feature of the regiment, and I think with every probability of truth. Like all other portions of the Mexican army which came in our way, the officers were gaudily dressed in very bad taste, and the men looked more like footpads than soldiers.
And now the scene of the fashionable promenade changes to the portales, where some hundreds of dames and gallants form into two dense lines, from which, when once entangled, you can hardly extricate yourself; and continue defiling up and down with monotonous regularity and at a funeral pace, for half an hour or more; while the dirty steps at the doorways of the shops opening under the arcades, upon which the beggars and lepers have been reclining during the day, are now, to your astonishment, crowded by luxuriously dressed females, chatting and smoking with their beaux. This is perfect Mexican—just as an acquaintance described to me his morning visit to a noble lady to whom the preceding evening he had been presented at the opera, where she shone in lace and diamonds—when he found her in the most complete dishabille; all her French finery thrown aside; without stockings, and eating tortillas and Chile, out of the common earthenware plate of the country. I must do the Mexican gallants the credit to say that some time ago a proposal was started to provide chairs. The offer, however, was indignantly refused by the belles; and there they squat to this very day, according to the custom of their mothers and grandmothers.
At this hour the mantilla was almost universally laid aside. The females of this country cannot be said to be distinguished for personal beauty. They are short in person, and seldom the possessors of elegant form or features. The eyes are commonly fine, and the majesty of their gait, which is remarkable, is characteristic of the admixture of Spanish and Indian blood. In their style of dress, they have now adopted the French fashion; always preserving the mantilla, however, as before mentioned, in the earlier part of the day.
I regret to see national costumes on the wane, here and elsewhere; most following the vile fashions of France and England: and this fancy extends itself in many cases to the trappings of the horses, as well as to those of the rider; and not a few of the young Mexicans now use the English saddle, instead of the high Mameluke saddle and furniture of their fathers.
It is evident that the lamentable effects of the political state of the country, and the constant struggle between parties for mastery, are felt throughout the whole structure of society. There is no frankness and no forgiveness between those who are for the moment in power, and those who have in any way shown favour to another modification of the constitution, or abetted other rulers. The instant that the struggle is at an end by the defeat of one party the other takes advantage of its victory to crush its humble adversary by confiscation, exile, and domestic oppression.
Unhappy Mexico! No sooner has a government seemed to be fairly seated, and felt itself called to exercise authority, and to enforce the laws, than some discontented partisan runs off to a distance from the capital, gets a band of malecontents together, sets up a "grito" or bark, to give warning that something is brewing; follows it up in due time by a pronunciamiento against the existing rulers; proposes a modification of the constitution; and, collecting an army, makes a dash at the metropolis. Perhaps, as was the fate of Canalizza's party, while we were in the country, he gets beaten on his way, and running abroad to escape the vengeance of his conqueror, leaves his adherents to make their peace as well as they may: perhaps, like the hero of the day, Santa Anna, he succeeds, and gets possession of the presidential chair, to be kicked out in his turn, without a shadow of doubt, sooner or later. It would fill a volume, and be a perfect jest book, to give a history of all the changes experienced by this country since the expulsion of the Spaniards; and the real intentions, ends, and characters of those by whom they have been brought about.
The most serious evil is, that in this state of affairs nothing can be accounted stable. The sound principles of government, perchance professed by a party most frequently perish with those who upheld them. You have read the wise intentions published to the world by this or that ephemeral president and his government, with regard to general tolerance, and the introduction of those principles of popular education and of internal policy, which can alone render the Mexicans capable of self-government. You have heard of the excellence of the police: the energy with which order was restored upon the public roads: of summary justice being inflicted upon those who transgressed the law. I should lay it down as a rule, that you never need believe more than a quarter of that which you might be led to infer from the inflated style and mendacious language of whatever is published here: but yet there may have been some foundation for what was asserted at such a date — at the same time that I would assure you, that the greatest probability exists of there not being a single word of truth in the statement, when applied to the real position of affairs, six months after. How was it when we were in Mexico? Santa Anna, a man of but little genius or talent, but cleverer than those about him in the low arts of intrigue, and into whose well-laid traps more than one old associate had fallen, was at the head of the reform government as president. The preceding year, General Duran had attempted to get up a revolution in favour of the so called “privileged classes." This year Canalizza had run off to the eastward in the manner I have described; and, under what patriotic cry I forget, had issued a pronunciamiento, proposing to set up a counter government, according to the custom of the country. If I mistake not. General Bravo was down in the southwest, with the same intentions. The vice president, Gomez Ferias, was at couteau tiré with the president; and the latter had, under the veil of leave of absence from the capital, for the restoration of his health, gone off in a very bad humour, to pout at his estate near Jalapa; where the general belief was, that he was brewing some mischief of his own, in favour of the army and the church, both of which were decidedly under a cloud in the actual state of things. The latter especially began to tremble for its wealth, which the necessitous federacion considered in the light of a lawful prize.
The surmise was right, as the event showed; for not long after, the wily president himself was pleased to set up his "bark," and abjuring the reform party, on whose shoulders he had climbed to power, made a run for the capital, beat his old friends, and throwing himself into the arms of the "privileged classes," was again elected president.
Since that time another "grito" has been given by the Zacatecanos, who revolted again, under favour of that pet cry of the giddy multitude in the age in which we live—reform! and getting together six thousand civicos or militia, and thirty-two pieces of artillery, defended their city. Santa Anna's star again prevailed; and he beat them also. Durango then gave him a little more trouble; and now Texas, with its unruly colonists, has called him to the north. He may chance to hear some other dog "barking" in the capital before he gets back. Is not this laughable? But to return to the time of our visit.
The more enlightened party, consisting of those who were averse to the ignorant bigotry of their fellow-citizens, and desirous of introducing the more enlightened policy of the United States or Europe, were quite in disgrace; their chiefs exiled, and themselves under the surveillance of the party in power. Their schemes had perished with them: education was discouraged; jealousy and hatred of foreigners carried to a ridiculous pitch, and the administration of justice most infamously abused.
The popular party, having the upper hand, was, as elsewhere, tender of the lives of its near relatives and associates in prison. Seven hundred and thirty criminals crowded the Acordari, the principal jail of Mexico. There had not been an execution for three years. The promptitude with which eight out of ten miscreants, who had robbed the house of a European merchant in the city, were seized and executed some years before, owing to the firmness of one or two magistrates, and the authority of the English consul general, had neither been forgotten nor forgiven by the people and present government.
The transportation of criminals to the presidios of Sonora and California, was known to be a perfect farce; as, however they might set out, they were never known to arrive there—unless they chose. Assassinations were frequent in the city; and to meet a bleeding body carried dangling from a litter, was no unusual event. A murder took place in the very house where we lodged. Thousands of drunken and gambling leperos lay about the churches and piazzas of the city.
Safety to person or property on the public roads—that was most doubtful. Many were robbed within a stone-cast of the gates; and the diligence from Vera Cruz was, for a number of weeks successively, pillaged, as a matter of course, in the Piñal between Pueblo and Mexico, or near Perote.
After the defeat of Canalizza, the villages were hardly safe, such was the number of lawless ruffians dispersed about the country to the eastward: and all this was winked at by the government. What a blessing a Bonaparte would be for Mexico!
In matters of religion, nothing could be more bigoted and intolerant than the reform government of the country. The Roman Catholic religion in its blindest and most revolting form, was the only one tolerated by law; and whatever there may be in other Roman Catholic countries, here there would seem to be no medium between the grossest and most debasing superstition and idolatry, and skepticism and infidelity. The few Protestant residents are not permitted to have a place of worship; and were it not stipulated by the treaty with Great Britain, they would not be allowed a place of sepulture for their dead. It was now the Holy Week. For several days previous to Palm Sunday, many preparations had been made for the coming solemnities.
The surface of the canals of Chalco and Izstacalco, which enter the city from the Paseo de las Vigas, was daily crowded with canoes, laden with the most beautiful flowers, the produce of the chinampas, or floating gardens of the Indians, on the border of the lakes. The great market was filled with palm branches, and all the altars and shrines of the city were perfumed with the sweet fragrance of the bouquets with which they were tastefully adorned.
The fruit stalls under the arcades, and in the different plazas, and the innumerable pulquerias, were decorated in the same manner. The love of flowers is as marked among the Indians at this day, as at the time of the conquest.
On the earlier days of the week, the interest of the scene thickened hour by hour. A large proportion of the population of the valley repaired to the city; and the streets were crowded with all classes, from the poor half naked Indian of the pure Ottomie or the Mexican race, whose sole covering was a dingy wollen or goatskin blanket, and straw hat, jacket, and calico pantaloons reaching to the knee, to the wealthy paysano, or country gentleman, whose costly apparel might be valued at upward of five hundred dollars. About the evening of Wednesday, the scene on the Plaza Mayor, in front of the cathedral, baffles all description. It forms at present one of the finest squares in the world; and were it not for the intrusion of the Parian, the large ungainly pile of building in one angle, it would be perhaps without rival.
The cathedral, a noble and stately structure with two ornamented towers, rises to the east; the splendid palace of the viceroy on the north; the house of Cortez, and a number of equally palatial buildings to the south; and a range of fine edifices, with a basement of lofty arcades, to the west. The removal of the circular balustrade, the amphitheatre, and the equestrian statue of Charles the Fourth, has left the range of the eye over the broad tesselated pavement of the spacious area without obstruction.
At the close of the day in question, a portion of the area in front of the portales or arcades, and before the palace, appeared covered by slight erections of bamboo framework thatched by matting, and shut in by a profusion of green branches and palm leaves. The more spacious were devoted to the sale of refreshments, and liquors of various kinds—lemonade, pinade, a liquor called chea, and pulque; or for that of dulces, for which the city is celebrated. They not unfrequently formed a booth of twelve or fourteen feet in length, with seats and tables for the use of the customers. The smaller served as temporary shops for the retail of trifles of every description—confectionary and fruits, ornaments, or articles of apparel. The whole were most tastefully adorned with bouquets of flowers, and at night illuminated with lamps, tapers, and torches. The trade of the fair—for fair it was—seemed to be chiefly in the hands of Indians, or those in whom the Indian blood predominated.
The crowd thickened, and the bustle in the plaza increased every hour. The incessant sound of the innumerable bells, and the rolling of carriages, were really fatiguing to the ear. But, when the cathedral clock tolled the hour of ten, on Holy Thursday, a change came over the scene. The regular shops were shut, not a bell was to be heard. The carriages of every description disappeared from the streets; not a horse or mule was to be descried; but innumerable crowds of both sexes, and of all classes, rich and poor, were seen intermingling on the same level, and pouring, morning and evening, in one unbroken stream through the thoroughfares, and under the portales. They clustered by hundreds about the doors of the churches; and by thousands—yes, tens of thousands—on the Plaza Mayor.
All the damas of the city, dressed in black, and shrouded in their mantillas, repaired on foot from church to church, according to the fashion which enjoins them to visit as many as possible, within the prescribed time of humiliation.
This state of things lasted for forty-eight hours. In the principal churches, the high altars were despoiled of their rich load of ornaments, or completely veiled by dark-coloured drapery; and the organs were as mute as the bells: while in all others, constant illumination, and the display of gold, silver, and tawdry ornaments, was fatiguingly splendid.
But do not deceive yourself: though there was an absence of many of the ordinary sounds, the city was not silent. The trample of thousands of feet—the march of stately and interminable processions—and the hum and clamour of innumerable voices filled the ear; both in the ordinary tones of conversation, and exerted to their utmost pitch, as they energetically, yet lovingly called the attention of the passing to their commodities. "Aqui hay juiles!" "Here's your sorts! white fish!" bellowed one. "Pato grande, mi alma! pato grande, venga usted!" A great duck! oh my soul, a great duck—come and buy!" responded another.
You may further understand that the interiors of the churches were no more the theatre of silence than the streets without, when I tell you that in addition to the incessant stream of worshippers which poured along their pavement from one door to another the livelong day—in many of them, waltzes, boleros, and polonaises, from harpsichord or organ—were the accompaniment of the hasty devotion of the passing multitudes.
All these sounds you may conceive, for they were after all but ordinary; but it is a moral impossibility for you to imagine the extraordinary hubbub produced by the sound of thousands of rattles, which filled the air from morning to night. They were to be seen in the hands of every individual of the lower classes, and of many of the upper; of every form and material, bone, wood, and even silver; from the size of a child's plaything, to one which would outgrind half a dozen of our watchmen's rattles, and required both hands to wield. Many of the stalls in the Plaza Mayor were devoted to their sale alone; while others dealt in nothing but effigies of Judas Iscariot, varying in size and monstrosity, from a doll of a foot long, to the size of the human figure. Hundreds of them were seen tied together by the neck, and dangling from long poles by twenty and thirty in a cluster, over the heads of the mob.
At the corner of the market, nearest the plaza, where it happened that the principal rattle venders had ensconced themselves, if you shut your eyes, you might imagine yourself after sunset in the depth of a forest in the Floridas, where a few million grasshoppers, cicada, and wood bugs were at their serenade.
And so it continued from sunrise to sunset. I believe myself within bounds when I assert that we saw fifty thousand people collected in the great square morning and evening. Sometimes the mass was so dense that the booths were threatened with an overturn; and you were glad to gain the step of one of the palaces, from which you might look over the sea of heads at your ease, and descry the bunches of Judases hideously besmeared with red and blue paint, bobbing about over the level of the multitude. Then would come a stir at the other end of the square: and, with a long-drawn train of crucifixes, decorated banners and tapers, the clergy of one of the great churches to the westward would defile into the crowded area; clearing their uninterrupted way, as though by magic, to the great entrance of the cathedral, through a press where, a moment before, a dog could hardly have wormed his way. Some of these processions on the afternoon of Good Friday were more gorgeous and splendid in their aspect than any I had seen in Italy itself, and apparently interminable. They were revolting from the hideous and disgusting representations which they comprised, of the sacred scenes of the Passion. During the passage, the whole mass of human beings collected on the Plaza Mayor remained kneeling in silence. To what divinity? My brain swims with the recollection of the press and glare, and the confused and intermingling pictures presented before us during these two days; and I am totally unable to disentangle from the mass any connected event or spectacle worth detailing. The whole city seemed to reel under the influence of phrensy, and we were obliged to reel with it. To see as much as we could, and to give no offence, were, I own, our principal objects. I remember an old woman who happened to be my neighbour during the passage of one of the processions, who perhaps observed that I was not as ready with a genuflection as the bystanders, shaking a Judas, the size of a child of two years old, at me, by the scuff of the neck, and muttering to me with a scowl of hatred, "See! here is a countryman of yours!"
It was a rebuke which I felt I merited—for what did I there?
During this season every church and monastery had its peculiar services from morning to night. In the cathedral I heard several; and the music, accompanied by a small orchestra, was good as to composition, though indifferently performed. Within that noble structure I remarked nothing in the general style of the rites and services of a particularly undignified or revolting character: but to describe the orgies enacted in the generality of the other churches could but be disgusting to you. The scenes of the Passion were played and turned into comedy; while waltzes and contradances were played over the bier, on which the effigy of our Saviour was laid out in state. On the evening of that day, after making the round of eighteen or twenty churches, we returned to our quarters, thoroughly fatigued and out of spirits.
At an early hour on the Saturday, preparations were made to terminate the season of humiliation. What humiliation! On going into the streets we saw the Judases—which I omitted to tell you, were, in fact, fireworks so disguised—hanging by thousands over the centre of the streets, and to the fronts of the houses. In the Plaza Mayor, the booths had entirely disappeared; troops were drawn up before the palace, with the artillery in advance; and it was with the utmost difficulty I could make my way into the cathedral. Every part of its pavement was crowded.
I had hardly made my way to the high altar, when the deep bell of the church tolled half past nine, and the lofty roof and the impending dome resounded with the burst of sounds which instantly pervaded the great city from one end to another! Within—the trumpet and full organ mingled their burst with the clang of the great bells; the dark veil which had shrouded the high altar parted and rolled back, displaying the gorgeous pile of ornament which it had concealed. Without—the artillery thundered in the square—the bells of every church and convent through the city clanged incessantly, and were answered by those in the towns and villages far and wide—the Judases exploded by thousands, and the multitude hailed the conclusion of the Holy Week!
Before an hour was at end, the streets resounded to the roll of the carriages, and the sounds of innumerable hoofs; the calzadas and canals were crowded with Indians returning to their homes; the buyer and the dealer repaired to their traffic; the idler to his vices, and the gambler to the monte table. The robber, exulting under his lightened conscience, betook himself to his stand in the pine forest, to commence a fresh career of rapine; and the assassin to the resumption of his cherished schemes of blood and vengeance. The reopening of the opera was publicly announced, and the citizens joyfully anticipated the recommencement of bullfights.
And this is Christianity! and the worship of the only true God! to introduce which, in place of existing superstitions, the blood of millions of the blind heathen of this vast region was shed by its Spanish conquerors! The plea for all the cruelties exercised against the aborigines was their idolatry, and their inhuman sacrifices; and the most exaggerated statements, suited to excite the horror and extinguish the compassion of the bigoted Catholics of Europe, were found necessary, and were made, to palliate, in some degree, the undeniable enormities perpetrated upon the Indians.
The detestable character of the ignorant idolatry in exercise among the ancient race needs no demonstration; yet, at the present day, with the exception of the single item of human sacrifice as a part of the religious system, it may well be asked, by what has it been supplanted—fewer and more dignified divinities? purer rites? a less degrading superstition? less disgusting ignorance? a better system of morality? Who will dare assert it?
As to the charge of the inhuman rites, and the bloody festivals of the later generations of the Aztecs—the magnitude of which, as asserted by the Roman Catholic historians, is almost incredible—no one offers to palliate them.
You are shown with obsequious eagerness the huge round Stone of Sacrifices; you are told to mark the hollow for the head of the victim, and the groove which carried off his blood; your ears tingle when they are filled with the number of those who are supposed to have been immolated upon its carved surface. You turn and see the huge and detestable figure of the idol goddess Teoyamiqui, before whom, as Spanish historians relate, the hearts of the victims were torn out: yes! but officious cicerone leads you to the court of the Dominican convent, and points to the broad perforated stone, where the hundreds and thousands of poor benighted, ignorant heathen, expired at the stake amid smoke and flame. No one reminds you that about the time when the idolatrous worship of the Aztecs was extirpated in Mexico, the same Inquisition, then in its first flush of power, burned eighteen thousand victims at the stake, in the Old World; and consigned two hundred and eight thousand to infamy and punishment scarcely better than death itself. The simple fact is, that at the present day, dark as we consider it, the Roman Catholicism of Europe is light, when compared to that established in this country, and practised by its inhabitants.
A change of names—a change of form and garb for the idols—new symbols—altered ceremonials—another race of priests—so much and no more has been effected for the Indians.
The change was easily made. The ancient superstition abounded with fasts, feasts, and penances; so did the new. The whole system of the aboriginal religious hierarchy bears a singular resemblance to that which took its place under the domination of Spain. Even the monk found his vocation excite no surprise; the existence of regular orders of celibates of both sexes, whose lives were devoted to the service of certain among their gods, seems indisputable.
With the Indians, Teotl, the unknown God—"he by whom we live," as he was termed—he whom they never represented in idol form—is still the Supreme Being under the name of Dios. They continue to adore the god Quetzalcoatl—the Feathered Serpent, under the name of San Thomas. It is indifferent to them, whether the evil spirit is called Diablo, or Tlacatecolototl. They retain their superstition, their talismans, their charms; and as they were priest led under the old system, so they are kept in adherence to the church of Rome, by the continual bustle of the festivals, and ceremonials, and processions of the church. But as to change of heart and purpose—a knowledge of the true God as "a Spirit, who is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth;" a sense of their degraded and fallen state as men, and an acquaintance with the truths of the true gospel; its application to their individual state, and its influence upon their lives and characters, they are as blind and ignorant as their forefathers.
I should not think I was hazarding much, were I to say that all classes, high and low, participate in this darkness, to a degree which is truly almost incredible; and the proofs are the countenance and support given to the degrading system, with its revolting, childish, and superstitious ceremonies; the low state of public and private morals; and the supine and contented ignorance, which they cherish with a jealousy that would be ludicrous, were it not lamentable.
Among other signs of the weakness of the existing government, the neglect and decay of many of the public institutions are not to be overlooked.
The importance of the mint to the revenues of the country, renders its maintenance an object of state policy; but the university, the museum, the public library, the splendid mineria, or schools of the mines; many of the noble hospitals of Spanish foundation, and the academy of arts, were, at the time of our visit, in a state of general neglect shameful to the government and people. The botanic garden, which occupies an interior court of the palace, is also but indifferently maintained under the care of an old badger of a functionary, who will make you up a packet of the most vulgar and ordinary garden seeds, and charge you fifty dollars for it with the best assurance of conscience in the world.
But to go into the details of these matters would be to write a book instead of a letter.
Though in the last degree of confusion, the museum, which is in the palace, presents a scene of great interest; as, besides a multitude of rare and unique works illustrative of the history of the country, and a great quantity of the most curious antiquities, it contains many of the most remarkable records of the conquest. But all are in the most appalling disorder—a disorder which has, by-the-by, favoured numerous thefts. The same observation applies to the state of the more massive antiquities which have been, from time to time, brought to light; such as the Stone of Sacrifice, the Feathered Serpent, the idol Goddess of War, and many others, all of which have been described at large a hundred times. There they lie, half covered with dust, dirt, and rubbish, in a corner of the court of the university; to whose area the fine bronze equestrian statue of Charles the Fourth has also been exiled, by the levelling, king-hating republicans.
The great Toltec Calendar is seen to more advantage, from its being inserted in a conspicuous position into the wall of the cathedral, which, I have elsewhere mentioned, is built on the site of the principal teocalli of the Mexicans, dedicated to the god Mexitli.
Wonder has often been expressed, why so few remnants of the ancient city are to be found, and how completely the vestiges of its existence have been swept from the large area which it once occupied. The site of a few of the principal buildings is known; and here and there, fragments have been unearthed, and this is all. That the greater proportion of the dwellings should have disappeared, no one need marvel, when it is recollected that they were merely built of layers of unburnt clay; that the numerous canals were filled up with the ruins; and, moreover, that the mode resorted to by Cortez, according to his own account, in gaining possession of the city, was literally to level every house and street as soon as it was won. But still I am satisfied that these causes, however plausible, are not sufficient to account for the fact altogether; but that a most sedulously jealous and concerted system of destruction and inhumation must have been pursued by the conquerors with reference to all relics of the ancient race.
It may be supposed, that a people that proves itself so little disposed to appreciate treasures of this nature, would show but little ardour in their being brought to light and preserved; and whatever is discovered, is discovered by chance. Foreigners have occasionally instituted a search in suitable localities, and have made valuable discoveries; but the existing law, which prohibits the exportation of antiquities under any pretence, has put a stop even to their labours.
Indeed, at all times, the inhabitants of this city, even when most civilized, and numbering many men of education, have been singularly apathetic with regard to the vestiges of the ancient people upon whose seat of empire they had established themselves by the right of conquest. For two entire centuries the same insane and bigoted spirit of wanton destruction, which the Spanish historians show to have influenced the conquerors, and to have caused the annihilation of much that was curious and valuable, seems to have possessed their descendants to a very late epoch, if not to the present day.
There is ample proof of this, in a pamphlet now becoming rare, published by De Gama, a Spanish savant, in 1792, to give a description of the two most remarkable of the Toltec antiquities, the Goddess of War, and the Sacrificial Stone, both of which were discovered accidentally two years previous.
The goddess Teoyamiqui, or Cohuatlicue, as De Gama calls her, is a colossal figure about nine feet high, hewn out of a solid block of basalt. The breadth is about five feet, and it is three feet in thickness. It is sculptured on all sides, and even underneath the feet, having evidently been suspended at a height from the ground, by two projections at the sides. The whole configuration is the most hideous and deformed that the fancy can paint, being a mass of serpents of all sizes, with claws and tusks of ravenous beasts ornamented with human hearts and sculls.
The Stone of Sacrifices is a cylindrical mass of porphyry, of twenty-five feet in circumference, covered both on the surface and sides with sculpture in relief. It is strongly urged that this was not the altar implied by the popular name, but one of the stones termed temalacatl, on which gladiatorial combats between prisoners of rank and the Mexican warriors took place on solemn occasions. I have but little hesitation in asserting that the groove in the upper surface formed no part of the original design.
It has been surmised that this is the "exceedingly great stone" which was discovered by the Mexicans as late as the reign of Montezuma, when it is recorded that it was brought to the capital with great labour and pomp for the sacrifices: on which occasion 12,210 victims were immolated.
It may fairly be credited that many of these antiquities were the work of a people anterior to the Aztecs.
No doubt can be entertained but that their systems for the computation of time were transmitted to them from the Toltecs.
The great Calendar Stone is a vast mass of basaltic porphyry, twenty-four tons weight, covered with the most symmetrical and admirable hieroglyphics.
Two several calendars were in use among the aborigines, namely: the Reckoning of the Sun, used for civil purposes, and the Calendar of the Moon, employed to regulate their religious festivals.
The Reckoning of the Sun was briefly as follows. The civil year consisted of three hundred and sixty four days, divided into eighteen months of twenty days each, with exception of the last, to which the five odd days were added. But evidently knowing that the tropical year exceeded their year by six hours, they, after the termination of each cycle of fifty-two years, added thirteen days before they recommenced the first month of the following cycle, and thus adjusted their time. Each of the eighteen months has a certain name from some natural object characteristic of the particular season which it indicated, or from some particular festival or employment in which they were engaged at such times. The twenty days were also named, and like the months, had their hieroglyphic sign. Every fifth day throughout the month was a market day. In recording the events of their history, the precise cycle of fifty-two years in which a given circumstance occurred, was first indicated, and not the century, as with us, and consequently the cycles were numbered from a certain epoch.
The year of the cycle in which an event happened was not indicated by its number, but by a more complex mode, which I will briefly explain. The cycle of fifty-two years was subdivided into four equal parts of thirteen years each, called tlalpilli; one of four hieroglyphic signs—Tochli, a rabbiy—Acatl, a reed—Tecpatl, a flint—and Calli, a house, were applied to each year in succession, throughout the fifty-two; and thus in every cycle there would be thirteen years designated by each sign. The number of each of the thirteen years composing each of the four tlalpilli was designated by dots; and the Mexican in pointing out the year of any event, would first name the number of the cycle, say two—then the number of the tlalpilli in such a cycle, say four—then the number of the year in such a tlalpilli, say three and then the hieroglyphic sign of the year. So cycle . . .—tlalpilli . . .,—year . . .,—and the sign Acatl, will indicate the forty-second year, in the second cycle of their history. Each succeeding fourth year, coming under the sign of the rabbit, was called a "divine year;" and, at the termination of the cycle of fifty-two years, a solemn astronomical festival was held.
The Reckoning of the Moon was yet more complex, and I will only allude to its main features. Their "religious year" was composed of a series of periods of thirteen days, alternating with the hieroglyphics of the twenty days of the month in the civil year, by which a cycle of two hundred and sixty days is formed.
Seventy-three cycles of two hundred and sixty days amounted exactly to fifty-two years, so that their great religious cycle terminated and began with the civil cycle described above. A larger cycle of 2340 days was further produced by the introduction of a series of hieroglyphics, nine in number, and called the Lords of the Night; eight of which, with the addition of one of the smaller cycles of two hundred and sixty, would amount to the civil cycle of fifty-two years.
From whatever source the ancient people of these countries derived their correct knowledge of the revolutions of the sun and moon, and their peculiar astronomical system, the analogies which have been detected between them and with those of Asia are most conclusive as to the fact of their having had one common origin.
The week of five days, the subdivision of the larger cycles, the nomenclature of the years, the regulation of festivals according to half lunations, the method of intercalation, the proportion between the number of years of the cycle and the intercalary period—all lead one to believe that the Mexican astronomical system, as well as those of the Chaldeans, Persians, and Hindoos, was based upon the principles of antediluvian science, the knowledge of which was common to the descendants of Noah, in the centuries preceding the confusion of tongues and general dispersion of the human race.
But to return for an instant to De Gama. We learn from him that the monstrous goddess was discovered in consequence of an excavation made in the Plaza Mayor, on the 13th of August, 1790, exactly, to a day, two hundred and sixty- nine years after the capture of the city by Cortez. The head lay at the depth of only one vara and a third below the surface, and the foot but one single vara or less. It was the 25th of September before it was finally extricated. On the 17th of December following, the Sacrificial Stone was found, at the depth of but a foot and a half below the pavement. Other relics were discovered subsequently. Some of the largest were instantly buried again, and among the number, those named. Others were destroyed; and no doubt seems to exist, but that at this very hour, at a very small depth in this central part of the city, a vast quantity of these colossal and curious remains of a forgotten people lie hidden from the day.
So little was De Gama's admirable treatise upon these monuments understood or appreciated, that he had but one hundred and seventy-two subscribers for his pamphlet of one hundred and sixteen pages; and it is doubtful whether he found sufficient encouragement to publish a second treatise upon the Calendar and other monuments subsequently found, as he hints his intention of doing, in case that the sale of his first adventure covered the expense of the impression and the plates.
He gives (page 110) a description of a cluster of most curiously sculptured rocks, discovered in the Cerro of Chapultepec, in the year 1775, while labourers were carrying on certain excavations. After a most careful examination, he conceived them to form part of an astronomical contrivance, by which the ancient Mexicans were enabled to determine the meridian, the exact time of sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes, and thus the true time throughout the year. In recording, on his next return to Chapultepec, the utter annihilation of these valuable relics of an extraordinary people, he feelingly exclaims, "How many precious monuments of antiquity have thus perished through ignorance!"
- Who knows?
- It is said that there are five hundred and fifty secular, and sixteen hundred and forty-six regular clergy in the capital; that in twenty-three monasteries there are twelve hundred individuals: and in fifteen convents, about two thousand souls, of which nine hundred are professed nuns. See "Notes on Mexico."
- The first great temple named in the history of the kings, is that in the reign of the sixth monarch, Axayacatl, in 1470, who erected a tower of nine floors in honour of the Creator. The seventh king, Tizoc, collected materials for a very great temple, which his son, the eighth monarch, finished; when, Clavigero states, 8,000,000 of people came to the dedication; and all the prisoners made during four years, in number 72,344, were ranged in two files, a mile and a half long, and were sacrificed. This was probably the great one which formed the main citadel of the Mexicans at the taking of the city.
- Descripcion y cronologica de los piedras con ocasion del nuevo, empedrado que se esta formendo en la plaza principal de Mejico se hallaron en alla. Ano de 1790, &c.—por Don Antonio de Leon y Gama.
- Two different personages, by-the-by. Teoyamiqui was the wife of Huitzipoctli, the god of war; while Cohuatlicue was the goddess of flowers.—Humboldt's Researches, vol, i., p. 266.
- Their numerals were indicated as far as nineteen by round dots; the number twenty had a particular sign, as well as 400 and 8000, and this is all that is known of their system of notation.
- See Humboldt, M'Culloh, &c., &c.
- Quantos preciosos monumentos de la antigüedad per falta de intelligensia, habran parecido an esta manera!