Saturday 31st March 2012 (Letter 21st December 1879)

GCC’s last letter home in 1879 – Christmas without plum pudding and beer!

This is the last letter my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion, sent home from Guatemala to his mother in London in 1879. He himself admits it is a somewhat rambling missive, but it nonetheless contains some interesting details of his life in the wilds of Central America.

HACIENDA DE SAN GERÓNIMO,
SALAMÁ,
GUATEMALA,
December 21st, 1879

My dear Mother,

Still no letters, we are told owing to an accident on the Panama Railway; it is just possible, however, we may get an English mail tomorrow; it is now nearly seven weeks since I received a letter. Mr Morgans and Hutchison have not received theirs also. I hope you are all well; I don’t think I have yet had a reply to my first letter from Vera Paz. I arrived in August and little thought I should make such a long stay. I hope to make San Gerónimo my headquarters for some time to come yet, it is a good place to recruit after living in the miserable native ranchos.

We are now very near Christmas, though it is difficult to believe such is the case with hot weather like we are having here, there is just a chance I may be in Cobán (about 45 miles away) on that day, but probably, I shall be with Mr. Morgans, whether in San Gerónimo or Cobán.

Have heard nothing of the box sent on Oct 1st by Mr. Godman; have just written to the port of San José about it. I sent off a 4th consignment to Mr G. a few days ago, I think I shall provide plenty of work for them all and more I believe than they bargained for amongst the smaller things, in fact I don’t know what they will do with some of these latter when they get them (one of their principal helpers in the British Museum has died since I have been out here, and however that is their business not mine). Sometimes Mr. Godman writes, sometimes Mr. Salvin and occasionally also Mr. Bates, so I hear from them pretty often.

By staying here I am not only more comfortable but saving a very great deal in the way of expenses. Thanks to Mr McNider who first introduced me to Mr. Morgans, my expenses so far with two animals, servant etc have been considerably less than I expected, in fact do not nearly as yet amount to £100, so all things considered, I must consider myself very fortunate in this respect; shall miss Mr. M very much when he leaves.

Sundays I generally spend indoors (unless travelling), though I am seldom idle; this Sunday morning I am writing my letters. Large numbers of women are now employed gathering the coffee, all of which goes to London, this is I believe the most profitable part of the business, the sugar though it sells in this country for nearly double the prices in London, does not pay well, a very great deal is used in making aguardiente, rum for which San Gerónimo is famous. For one to work this country well, it will occupy considerably more than one year. Unless anything calls me back, shall not of course return at the expiration of the first year. I trust business is not going back on account of my absence – if it is by all means write and tell me, for at the end of the first year, that is in March next I am at liberty to return if I wish. While in Guatemala I hope to save enough, to be useful to me in after life. Mr Godman evidently wants me to stay for some time to come.

We hear that the headquarters of the foreign ministers in Central America is to be shifted from Guatemala to San José, the Capital of Costa Rica, also that Mr Graham, the minister in this country is promoted, and that another man is coming out; we still of course shall have a consul – Sir Henry Scholfield; Mr.McNider was only acting in the consul’s absence.

You get to know all these people in Guatemala, Mr. Graham is not very much liked, he is not very sociable and holds himself rather high. The Gran Hotel is a dear place to stop at but it is cheap in the long run, because there you become acquainted with most of the people worth knowing in this country; a great deal of my luggage is still there.

Last Sunday I went on horseback with Mr.Morgans and others up in to the mountains near Santa Barbara; we went prospecting for lead, which is found on the estate, but were unsuccessful, we however spent a very pleasant day; the air is very cool and fresh up in these high places. I don’t know a more beautiful tree than an orange full of ripe fruit and you see them in fruit all the year round, and in tropical countries where there is no winter there are continually a succession of flowers and fruit, in addition to the orange. There is another fruit very similar, only a darker yellow, this is sour like a lemon, we also have lemons (almost wild), and limes. The latter I don’t care much for, just now also we have almonds, bananas, granadillas and, have not yet seen in this country, any currants, raspberries, cherries, or plums. I don’t suppose we shall get any plum pudding this Xmas, though I have once or twice eaten plum pudding at the Gran Hotel, and San Gerónimo. We get a few vegetables here, as vegetable marrows, pumpkins, cabbages, beans and others – natives of the country, sometimes also potatoes, of meat but poor beef, never mutton, live more upon fowls.

It is very dry and dusty now, sometimes we get a little shower but not often; near Salamá it is very arid and except near the rivers scarcely anything green to be seen, all burnt up by the sun, in places like these you see many large queer Cacti growing. It is long since I tasted beer (which by the way in the capital costs about a dollar a bottle), and it is but seldom I have taken any spirits, seldom drink anything but water and coffee.

Must not grumble at my health, always have a good appetite even for black beans, am troubled a little at times with slight climatic complaints, and that is all.

Must now bring this rambling letter to a close, will keep it open till tomorrow evening in case of our getting the mail. Remember me to Greenwich and Peckham people and to Mr Green, trusting you are all well and wishing you all a happy new year.

Believe me dear Mother
Your loving son,
George C. Champion

Dec 22: Your letter and 3 newspapers of Oct 31 arrived today, am glad to hear you are all well, will reply to it in due time.

Dec 25. Mr Morgans having decided to send a man specially to Guatemala to post our letters, has given a few days’ grace. My letters were ready to post, however, on 22nd at usual time.
Have spent Christmas day here with Mr. Morgans, Mr. Hutchison, Don Marcelo, and two visitors, a Frenchman living about 12 miles off and an Englishman (a Mr. Warren, a native of West Malling, Kent, who is repairing the telegraph line near Salamá, of course very quietly and nothing to distinguish it from any other day, not even anything different to eat in the way of pudding. Sunday, weekday, Xmas or any other day are all alike, scarcely remember one from the other. Very hot and dusty and glad of sunblind while at dinner. More fully in next.

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Wednesday 28th March 2012 (Letter 9th December 1879)

GCC makes an epic journey down the Polochic Valley, and laments not being able to write like his future brother-in-law J J Walker

Today’s letter, sent by my great grandfather George Charles Champion on 9th December 1879, details his insect-collecting journey, all on mule-back, from his base in San Gerónimo, through very rough and inhospitable country, down into the Polochic Valley, an area that I did not reach during my recent period in Guatemala, partly due to security issues and partly due to the roads and bridges having been washed out in storms.

The staple foods he describes, frijoles (black beans), tortillas and fried bananas, have not changed at all!

Hacienda de San Gerónimo,
Salamá,
Guatemala

December 9th 1879

My dear Mother,

I returned here again yesterday after an absence of 26 days, having in this time travelled about 200 miles on my mule. I wrote a few lines from Senahú, one of the few small villages in the Republic where you can post a letter, Senahú being on the road from Panzós to Cobán. I remained at Senahú with Mr. Reed and his brother a week, but as it rained the greater part of the time and was very cold into the bargain, I was glad to get away, having been almost a prisoner in the house from the wet weather. I went one day with Mr. Reed to explore a large cave in the mountains by the aid of candles and pine wood for a light. We penetrated into a cave about a quarter of a mile and were three hours altogether inside. The place was well worth seeing, the stalactites hanging down from the roof being very pretty. Many places looked like running water or like soft mud moulded into a variety of ferns; this on being touched proved to be as hard as stone.

Another day I went to an estate called “Trece Aguas” and on Sunday spent a few hours in the afternoon with a Mr. James, who has a fine coffee estate. All these people here are obliged to live in wretchedly damp miserable ranchos. On November 24th, I left San Juan, a coffee estate on the mountain-side, much warmer, and less rain at this place (though only a few miles away) and remained a week with a young German named Callmeier. I liked this place very much, though I had to live in a miserable place all open at the sides, still warm enough; any amount of oranges and bananas here – the latter with every meal. A magnificent view from San Juan of the Polochic Valley, and of the mountain range on the southern side of the river.

I greatly enjoyed the calm hot moonlight nights, they more than made up for the discomforts of living; from the house the ground sloped down very suddenly for about 1000 feet, down here in the valley below very hot indeed.

I left San Juan on December 1st and went down into the hot country to the Tinta (only 300 feet above sea); remained here but two days, my man Juan being unwell, and there being very little to be found just now. Left on the 3rd for a coffee and sugar estate over the head of the Polochic Valley between Tucurú and Tamahú, belonging to a Spaniard who made me welcome. We started from La Tinta soon after daylight and arrived about 4.30 p.m., a journey of about nine leagues. This place, Santa Teresa, very hot in the day but very cold in the night, is also on the mountain slopes like San Juan, but is cooler. I did manage to get a bed here, and fed a little better (though of course no meat, sometimes fowl) as Don Manuel Balle lived with his wife and family on the place. Remained here till December 7th, leaving early for Santa Rosa, 30 miles distant, where I arrived about 3.30 p.m. Very hot today, cloudless sky, but cold starlight night, left early next morning, and arrived at San Gerónimo about noon, once more back to civilization. Very hot and dry here now, rain is over in Baja Vera Paz, yesterday a cloudless sky, and the sun very hot indeed. The sugar cane now is in full flower and looks very pretty; a great many women and others now at work, getting in the coffee. The climate of this part of the world is very variable, some places wet, some dry, some hot, some cold, and yet all within a day or two’s journey of one another.

A coffee harvest in Guatemala, by Muybridge, 1875

I hope to spend Christmas with the Morgans and Mr. Hutchinson here. Am very busy just now getting together a lot of things to send to Mr. Godman. We have not yet received letters from the English mail
arriving in the capital on the 4th, and shall not now until after this is sent; was in hopes of being able to answer your letter in this. You must now be in the midst of wintry weather, so we are getting the best of it. It is dark now about half past five, or about half an hour earlier than in June. It will seem strange Christmas with hot weather. I have now been nearly nine months in Guatemala and I hope am pretty well seasoned to the climate. I was in good health all last trip, better even than my native servant. These mountainous places I am now pretty well used to; how the hot country of the coast region will suit me, when I make a longer stay, remains to be seen. In La Tinta, there is a rancho with a large number of horrible looking images of saints etc inside.

While I was in the village a few days back it was during a fiesta, in the evening all Indians who could play any music came to the rancho and each played his instrument (one had a fiddle, one a harp, another a marimba etc) at the same time but to different tunes, boys also were going round the village playing other music, you never heard such a din. It was however a queer sight by the light of the candles to see the Indians inside this rancho. There is no priest living in La Tinta, so I suppose each carried out his own idea as to the celebration of the festival.

I intended going to Cajabón and Lanquin from Senahú, but the weather was too bad. In nearly all the houses in this country, an Indian woman is employed solely to make tortillas. She grinds the maize on a stone, puts it into thin cakes between her hands, and then bakes it over the fire; this is the principle article of food over the whole country, this and frijoles (black beans). They cook the beans whole, usually mashing them afterwards, they also make a very good soup from them and sometimes cook the shucks to eat separately; one gets to like frijoles in time, if not too greatly. The bananas they cut into slices and fry in grease. I like them very much. This will be one of the few things I shall miss when I return to England.

Mr. Morgans is still extraordinarily kind to me; it was a lucky day for me when I made his acquaintance through Mr. McNider, the British Consul in Guatemala. I believe he returns to England early in the New Year. I am afraid you must find my letters rather dull, but I do the best I can, cannot write as Walker does. I wish I could. I am longing to hear from you all. I hurried back from Santa Teresa, so as not to miss writing by this mail and expected to find the letters of the 4th, but was doomed to be disappointed.

Am getting short of many things and shall have to make a journey to the capital before long I fear – want many little things which I have in my big trunk in the Gran Hotel.

Believe me,
Yours affectionately,

The type of Guatemalans GCC would have met, photographed by Muybridge in 1875

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Tuesday 27th March 2012 (Letter 21st October 1879)

GCC sleeps in very primitive quarters, and eats snails

This latest letter sent by my great grandfather George Charles Champion covers his journeys from San Gerónimo to Purulá and Panimá, and describes his food and living quarters in these very isolated, primitive areas.

The Panima River


BAJA VERA PAZ
October 21, 1879

My dear Mother,

While here in San Gerónimo, I can manage to write once a fortnight; you will be glad, no doubt, to get a letter as often as possible. I received your letter of August 30th on October 15th while at Panimá. I left on October 2nd, as I told you in my last letter I intended doing, returning again October 17th, was away 16 days in all, I intended going on to San Miguel, Turucú, but what with bad weather, my clothes giving out, and my man unwell, was obliged to abandon this part of the trip. I first went to Purulá, 8 leagues distant; stopped here a few days, hoping to get less rain, but was obliged to give it up, then on to Sabo, two days here, then finally to Panimá, where I remained nine days. In Purulá, it is very cold early in the morning; it is a place high up in the mountains and at this time of the year, you live as it were in the clouds. Sabo is warmer, lower down and is a clearing in the forest on the mountain-slopes, splendid views from this place, range after range of mountains, and the atmosphere is so clear in the tropics that you can see places clearly at very great distances; there is not the haze we have in the north in England. As I could get nothing to eat but tortillas and snails (something like periwinkles) and a wretched place to sleep in, I soon had enough of it and went on to Panimá.

This latter place is but 1600 ft above the sea, and is by far the hottest place I have yet stayed at, the port of San José excepted. For the place, I got fairly good quarters and lived pretty well on tortillas, fowls, eggs, frijoles and coffee; of course the sleeping accommodation was rather primitive; the house consisted of but one room, partially open all round the sides, a hole for a door, no windows of course; you lived as though in the open air. It was very hot in this place, I believe the heat was over 80 the whole time day and night; the humidity of these places is very great, you can keep nothing dry long together. I was however very well all the time, stood the climate far better than my man, Dubón. I hope to make other similar trips to Tocoy, Rabinal, Cachil etc making the place my headquarters; later on I go to Cobán and other parts of Alta Vera Paz, the Polochic Valley from Tactic downwards. Mr. Morgans arrived here during my absence. He has been exceedingly kind to me and says I am to make this place my home for as long as I like; he will not accept the least remuneration from me, am afraid I shall not work so well for Salvin while he is here, one gets talking instead of working; a good bed, good food and dry house are not easy things to find in Guatemala. Mr. Salvin has at last received two consignments from me; they arrived safely, only very many of the insects were mouldy. He seems very pleased with them, so far that is satisfactory. He has placed another £100 to my credit at the Bank.

Money goes fast enough in the Capital, but here my expenses are very little, in Panimá for 9 days for two of us with two animals also to feed, my entire expenses (I had consumed five fowls in the time) were 20 reales, 10/-. It is a great nuisance not having all my luggage with me, am constantly wanting various things now in Guatemala, but the roads are so bad you are obliged leave heavy things behind, boots go in no time, have not a decent pair to my feet at present. I think I can however get some in Salamá – you can get nothing in the village here. You have evidently had it very wet in England this summer, but not wetter than in Guatemala; we have had rain nearly every day since the latter part of May.

I would have liked father to have seen the tree ferns at Sabo, the forest was full of them, many fifteen feet high; in Panima there were 3 species of flowering begonias, Lycopodiums, many ferns, several palms etc; also coffee, sugar cane, rice, maize, cacao, bananas, oranges, lemons, limes etc – but no vegetables.
Monkeys and other animals also occur in this valley but I have not seen any so far.

No green books, they have gone astray evidently. I received 3 papers with last letter. Mr Morgans receives lots of Bristol and London papers, so get plenty to read.

I do not get on so well in learning Spanish now I have English companions to talk to. I manage at present somehow or other to make people understand me, of course on my last trip it was all Spanish.
Must close this now, cannot think of anything more to tell you.

With best love to all
Believe me,

An extraordinary ant photographed at Chilasco, not far from Purula

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