Travels in Mexico and life among the Mexicans/Chapter 4

 
 

IV.

 

A NEW INDUSTRY AND AN OLD MONUMENT.

 

THE indigenous product of Yucatan is hemp; or, to begin the subject correctly, and with a due regard for botanical nomenclature and local appellation, this so-called "Sisal hemp" is not hemp at all, but henequen, the Agave Sisalensis. It has a true fibre, possessing such excellent qualities that the demand for it is greater than the supply. The chief excellence of the plant is, that it requires little soil to grow upon, and springs up everywhere from crevices in the great coral ledges that constitute the surface of the peninsula.

A great proportion of this territory is covered with dense scrub, composed of stunted trees and bushes matted together with thorny vines; beneath this scrub is the rock that even the vegetable mould of centuries but thinly covers, owing to the annual fires that run over the country. A portion of this scrub is cleared,—that is, the bushes and trees are cut down and left to dry for a season,—and the next year, if the previous one has been dry, fire is put to this clearing and the ground opened by the laborers, who dig holes in the rocky soil and set out the plants. Each clearing is divided into mecates, of about twenty-four metres square, and the plants are set out about eight feet apart each way, giving from eighty to one hundred plants to each mecate. The land is kept clean till the plants are well grown and they arrive at maturity, or at a point for profitable cutting, in from five to seven years, when the larger leaves are four or five feet in length. Each plant yields from twenty to thirty leaves annually, for a period of from twelve to fifteen, eighteen, or twenty years; about a third more in the rainy than in the dry season of the year. It is said to require from six to eight thousand leaves to make a bale weighing four hundred pounds.

When arrived at sufficient size, the leaves are cut, commencing at the bottom, and from the field are carried to the "scraping machine," which consists of a large fly-wheel, with strong, blunt knives, transversely attached to its periphery. Against these knives, carried around on the rapidly revolving wheel, the leaves are pressed, one by one, by means of a curved lever, in such a way that the pulpy portion is scraped off, leaving the fibre. The men (always Indians) feed the machine with astonishing rapidity, thrusting in first one end of the leaf, and then the other, and pressing it between the knives and lever by a motion of the leg. Among the poor people the leaves are scraped by hand; and these poor laborers work mostly at night, from evening until morning, because the heat of day causes the juice to ferment, and irritates the hands, while it also spoils the fibre. Four men are required to attend each machine, including those who bring the bundles of leaves and carry away the refuse pulp.

A good scraper will produce a bale of dried fibre per day, which comes from the machines in long strips, looking like green corn-silk, and is laid in bundles, then carried into the drying yard and hung over light poles placed on a framework about three feet from the ground. It soon dries, in a hot day in three or four hours, when it loses its greenish hue and appears white and glossy; it is then baled by means of hydraulic presses, each bale holding from 350 to 450 pounds. As must be apparent from a consideration of the ease with which this henequen is raised, from the fact that the plants can be obtained wild at little expense, and from another important fact, that little care is necessary for the plant after it once begins to yield, here is a culture that promises great returns for little outlay. Land is cheap, and, when it can be obtained at all, is bought by the square league. The principal cost is in clearing it, and for machinery; after that succeed only the ordinary expenses of carrying on a farm;—a farm where there is no laborious course of preparation each year for the planting of seed, no fatiguing hoeing of crops, no long season of winter to provide for; only the cutting and harvesting of a spontaneous product, by means of laborers who receive such ridiculously small daily pay that it would not be accepted by a farm hand in the North for the work of an hour. Fortunes are made here in henequen, and the fortunate owners of haciendas live a life of luxury; they and their children travel and are educated in Europe, and spend much of their life abroad. Each hacienda is in charge of a mayor-domo, or manager, and the owner rarely lives on his estate, which often covers a territory many leagues in extent.

The amount of hemp, or henequen fibre, shipped from Progreso, the port of Yucatan, in 1880, was, on the authority of the United States Consul, 97,351 bales, weighing 39,501,725 pounds, and valued at $1,750,000! As the raising of the henequen was undertaken in times comparatively recent,—within, say, twenty years,—this amount is a very good showing. This was shipped in fifty-three steamers and thirty-five sailing vessels, and, of the total amount, 85,000 bales were sent to the United States. This industry is rapidly growing, and there is an opportunity here for capitalists, it would seem, to spend large sums. From the henequen fibre are manufactured numberless articles, for the plant has almost as many uses as the palm; but not quite so many as its sister plant of Mexico, the maguey.

In a little suburb of Merida, called Miraflores, is a factory for the manufacture of cordage, coarse cloth, and cables, from the raw fibre, which the proprietors buy from the Indians and the haciendas. Its machinery is very rapid and good, and was made in Boston some fifteen years ago. The machines are tended by Mestiza girls, who are very neat at their work, going about quietly and without even singing or whistling. They are said to be very careful and faithful, and they are very modest; and a pretty picture they present, moving about in their white skirts among the flying spindles and toothed bands, hardly looking up from their labor.

The Indian makes from the agave fibre many most necessary articles,—bags in which to carry packages, saddle-cloths, sandals, ropes, and twine; if he wants any of the last, he goes into the forest for a wild plant, beats out the filament, twists it in a crude but satisfactory way, and is supplied. The greatest of all uses to which this filament can be applied is the manufacture of hammocks. All Yucatan sleeps in a hammock,—that is, every individual Yucateco and Yucateca sleeps in his or her individual hammock. In many towns in the State a bed is unknown. The most respectable, as well as the most

TLM D093 Arch of Akabná.jpg

ARCH OF AKABNÁ.

lowly there, are born, live, and die in a hammock. They pass a great portion of their waking as well as sleeping hours in them. In their manufacture, then, the natives excel, and great numbers are made and shipped to New York. It is only the coarser variety that reaches the States, for the best ones command here higher prices than they could bring in New York, and rarely leave the country. From ten to fifteen dollars is the price for a good woven hemp hammock, and some bring even twenty-five and thirty dollars. They are very durable, and endure years of wear; there is as much difference, too, in hammocks as in beds.

Yucatan has other products than hemp, but that is king. Sugar is made in the eastern portions in a limited way, but, as the best sugar lands are in the south, and all in possession of Indians supposed to be wild, but little is done in this direction. Hardly enough vegetables are raised to supply the people, and cotton only in small quantities. Regarding the culture of cotton, I should like to introduce something that I found in an old letter-book of the consulate, written by a former acting native consul in answer to inquiries from Washington.

"The culture of cotton is very little here, and is cultivated only on the southern part of this city and in a very small quantity, and grows at the extent of twelve feet. No other insect enemies of the cotton plant has been found but its worm, and the worm is exactly as mentioned on the letter, that is, a great worm with white lines and black dots. Cotton worm is always on the cotton leaf, and there is no doubt that this worm kills the plant. He does not touch the accorn of the cotton, as he remains always on the leaf. The worm has always been in the country, as it belongs to the plant. Cotton has been growing here for more than twenty years, and it grows wild, but it is inferior to the plant cultivated. The prevailing direction of winds, during the months of March, April, June, and July, are generally breeze and southeast. Any more information that I may have respecting the cotton worm and the insect enemy of the plant I will inform immediately."

It has been my blessed privilege to inspect several such letter books in various consulates in the south, and the amount of information contained in them is not unfrequently equalled by their rare humor, especially if the product of alien representatives.

One morning early we hired a coche and set out to visit the estate of Don Alvaro Peon, who had invited us to inspect his hemp plantation, and some remarkable ruins situated there. It was moonlight when we started, but as we passed the Calle del Elefante, the "Corner of the Dead Duck," and the "Street of the Monkey," pale Luna was swallowed up in the stronger light of day. Through the grated windows, then being thrown open, we got glimpses of pretty, brown-skinned TLM D095 Grass seller.jpgGRASS-SELLER girls, with black hair and dark eyes, and loose-hung uipils, just leaving their hammocks.

On the borders of the city we encountered many mule teams, with loads of hemp, the mules tired and the drivers sleepy. Some of them had come from Valladolid, one hundred and twenty miles distant. There were also groups of Indians with great heaps of grass on their backs, and huge bundles of ramon, or leaves of trees used for forage, and girls and women bearing heavy loads on their shoulders supported by bands across their foreheads. They, too, were tired, some of them having travelled all night. At a distance, the glowing skins of these half-naked Indians appeared brick-red in the sun. At noon we had reached the little village of Tixpenal, where there are the ruins of a large church surrounded by numerous thatched huts. The destruction of this church was due to one of the governors of Yucatan, who shot at a vulture on the roof and lighted the thatch, the building being destroyed, except its massive walls; these were black with buzzards. With becoming regard for the wants of the people, the governor promised to build another church,—but he never did it. As the sun grows hot, the vultures, which have been busy about the streets and back yards, and roosting on the walls and roofs, are seen sailing in circles high in air, one around the other. Between their thatched huts and their outbuildings, the Indians construct connecting arbors, over which grows a kind of gourd, the vine covering them with a thick matting, wholly impervious to the sun. So these people live in cool shade, walking about in loose cotton garments, with bare feet and legs, and with sandals on,—sandals kept in place by a line between the great toe and the next, and wound about the leg above the ankle.

We reached San Antonio late in the afternoon, and were received in a princely manner by Don Alvaro Peon, the courteous proprietor. This gentleman, a splendid specimen of manhood, cultured and travelled, is the present representative of an ancient and distinguished family, which estimates its possessions by hundreds of square leagues. In going to Uxmal, I had ridden all day, a distance of nearly fifty miles, over territory once owned by his father. This estate of San Antonio was eleven leagues square, and contained twelve hundred acres planted with henequen, and many more in process of subjection. At about seven, in the cool of the next morning, we left the hacienda for the farther one owned by him, Aké, our objective point. We rode in the coach the Empress Carlotta used when in Yucatan. Don Alvaro was her last escort when she left Mexico, and cherishes the memory of her visit as one of the brightest episodes of his life.

Driving through pleasant lanes, we emerged upon the King's Road—el camino real—at the town of Tixkokob. Here are made all the cheap hammocks that are sent to the United States; every hut we passed had one stretched upon a frame, with a woman engaged upon it with deft fingers. Aké, which we were then approaching, was the last place visited by Stephens, in 1842, in his famous exploration, during which he found forty-four ruined cities to describe. As he did not always subordinate present comfort to archaeological requirements, he left it with a casual glance, and a remark upon the vastness of the remains. It remained for a later explorer to describe them accurately, and inquire into their meaning.

After we had despatched a substantial breakfast, in a small building used for the entertainment of visitors, Don Alvaro conducted us to the great mound, the wonder of all who have beheld it. It measures, according to Stephens, 225 by 50 feet, upon the platform, which supports thirty-six shafts, or columns, from fourteen to sixteen feet high. These are approached by an immense range of steps, 137 feet long, each step being four feet five inches wide by one foot five inches high. Pitching my camera in a prickly field of hemp, I took a general view of the entire platform with all its pillars, and then, approaching nearer, a single view of the immense columns, showing their structure.

Now, this great platform and these Titanic columns, what is their meaning? Aké, say the historians, was inhabited by Indians at the time of its discovery. A great battle was fought here, between the Spaniards under Don Francisco Montejo and the Mayas, equally sanguinary with that decisive one on the site of Merida, a little later. The early chroniclers also throw light upon these columns; they were intended, not as supports for the roof of a temple, not as altars for sacred fires, but to serve as a record of the age of the race! They were called katunes (epochs), says Cogolludo, and each stone represents a period of twenty years. Every five years, a small stone was placed on each corner of the uppermost rock, beginning at the eastern side and ending at the southern. When the final capping-stone was added, there was great festivity and rejoicing. By referring to the photographs here reproduced, the reader will note the system of construction, exactly as described by the Spanish writers. But instead of there being eight great stones in every column, as they say, there are in some cases nine, and even ten. This, however, is of little moment; there may have been ten in every column,—probably were,—the topmost one of which may have fallen off. Thus the column would be finished when an even two hundred years had swung its round, and then left to stand forever, as a monument to the people who had erected it and as an epoch in the world's great cycle.

TLM D098 General view of Aké.jpg

GENERAL VIEW OF AKÉ.

Thirty-six columns, each representing 160 or 200 years, as the case may be, carry their antiquity back to a very early date indeed. "There was," says a learned writer, "an undeniable lapse of 5,760 years from the time the first stone was placed on the platform until the place was abandoned; and we know that this very town of Aké was still inhabited at the time of the Spanish conquest." Whether this be so, or, as another erudite antiquarian queries, whether "they may have served as symbolical history, set up as memorials of past antiquity," they are the work of giants,—remains Cyclopean. Immense rocks, that it would take many men to lift, ranged pile on pile, by some deluded yet painstaking people; yet all this work, this mighty labor, has gone for naught!

By climbing to the top of one of the columns, one can look over the extensive plain for twenty miles; the little towns in the distance betokened by trees of darker green and white walls, mounds dotting the landscape in every direction, and the nearer pastures overgrown with prickly shrubs. Close by the house, built out of the ruins of a former one, are two mounds, one with immense flat stones as steps, known as the "House of the Priest." The ground is cleared immediately about the house, and a flower garden blossoms among dismantled walls, while a hemp machine performs its duty close under the shadow of the great katunes. Within the circle of older ruins are the remains of a Spanish battery, built, probably, after the bloody fight of Aké. As this place is used only as a rancho, or cattle farm, no improvements are going on, and it is inhabited only by a few Indians and the mayor-domo.

West of the great platform are other mounds, one of which contains a stone structure called Akabná, or dark house. The mound was evidently terraced, like the others, many a great block remaining in situ. It is now an undistinguishable mass of rocks, the central portion having fallen in, and is covered with cactus, agave, and wild wood. We descended into one of the rooms and started up a vulture, which crawled into one of the many holes and hissed at us, at the same time emitting a fetid odor. This apartment evidently led into another, and the Consul bravely explored the various dark retreats, but without succeeding in finding anything of value. Here was also the peculiar Maya arch, of ruder form than that of Uxmal, more nearly approaching the arch of Palenque,—the inner and overlapping stones not being dressed or bevelled; besides, there was a further departure, in alternate layers of stone and mortar, but with a cap, as in Uxmal, instead of a keystone. In wandering through the pastures, we stumbled into a hole and were nearly precipitated into a yawning chasm, which further investigation showed to lead into a cenote about forty feet deep and ninety broad, with a little water in it. This was about midday, and the air outside was intensely hot, though in this cavern it was very cool and refreshing. We found here eight

TLM D100 The great katunes.jpg

THE GREAT KATUNES.

girls and women, seated on the rocks beside the water, braiding hemp. There was one extremely attractive, with light complexion and an intelligent face. They were not a whit curious, as negroes or white people would have been, but took our advent quietly, without a laugh or questioning glance. Indeed, these Mayas bear evidence by their deportment that they have descended from a polite and cultured race. They came here to this damp cavern to braid their hemp, for use in simple articles of domestic manufacture, as the moist air facilitates the process.

We sat awhile in this strange reception hall, while our man went for some coco nuts, with the sweet water of which we slaked our thirst. A great number of lizards and iguanas were running about the ledges, and I shot several that seemed new to me. One was a hideous reptile of the saurian type, with twelve callosities on his legs, each one of which, our Indian said, meant a year. Another, which I also shot with my pistol, had a pointed tail, and the Maya was much excited when I went to pick it up from the rock where it was still struggling, saying that it would throw its tail at me as it expired, inflicting a poisonous wound. There was, he said, another lizard that would bite your shadow, as you crossed its path, causing you terrible pains in the head thereby. These Indians are full of superstitions, believing in witchcraft, in avenging spirits, and in ghosts, and endowing every kind of creeping thing with some supernatural attribute.

As the sun's rays glanced horizontally along the level fields, the mules were harnessed, and we returned to San Antonio, leaving behind us those grand, suggestive, yet mute memorials of a departed people; the oldest monuments—that is, of Indians who had approached civilization—that this new country can exhibit; the oldest, perhaps, in America.