Thursday 28th June 2012 (Letter 17th April 1881)

GCC travels by steamer down the Pacific coast of Central America, and begins his two years in Panama

Having completed his two years of insect collecting in Guatemala, my great grandfather makes the long but relatively comfortable journey down to Panama City, passing frustratingly close to his final destination in the westernmost state of Panama, Chiriquí, but the ship does not call there. He is disappointed to find that his friend and future brother-in-law James Walker’s Royal Navy ship, H M S Kingfisher, is not in port, only her sister ship H M S Pelican.

RAILROAD HOTEL, PANAMA,
UNITED STATES OF COLOMBIA
April 17th 1881

My dear Mother,

I left Guatemala city on Sunday morning April 3rd, by the diligence for Escuintla, on the way to the port of San José and on the 7th left by Pacific Mail steamer “Costa Rica” for Panama, arriving yesterday. We had a very pleasant and smooth passage (except for the heat) and as we called at many ports on the way down; I had opportunities of landing in Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I probably leave Panama by the steamer of the 20th for David, Chiriquí, about two days’ journey in the direction of Guatemala, we passed nearby coming from San José, but the large steamers do not call there. Panama is quite a large town, full of people from all parts of the world, any quantity of negroes and Chinese, have never seen such a mixture before, but Oh, so filthy and dirty, I don’t wonder at it being so sickly a place, shall be very glad to get away, no drainage and swarming with pigs and dogs. Lots of French engineers etc. here, the people have ‘Canal’ on the brain.

Am stopping at a small place on the beach, pleasant enough at high water, but at low tide the mud smells very bad; this hotel is a miserable hole, but very handy to the landing place, there is only one decent hotel (The Grand Hotel) in Panama, and they, owing to the Canal business, have put up their prices so much that I cannot stand it, so have to put up with this place.

Bay of Panama from Grand Hotel 1875 by Muybridge

Walker’s ship is not here unfortunately, only the ‘Pelican’ and an American man-of-war, the ‘Alaska’. From the time I left Guatemala until today – about a fortnight ago – my expenses have been nearly £40, all along this coast, everything is very dear and my Guatemala money is at 20% discount.

HMS Pelican

I send the photo, I don’t know what you will think of it, the hands have come out about twice their proper size, but there was no time to sit again. I bought a 125lb sack of coffee in Guatemala before I left, and left instructions for it to be sent on to London to you, you will probably receive notice by post when it arrives and have to send for it, there will be charges of 7/- or 8/- probably (this cannot be paid in Guatemala). I hope it will keep you going for some time, people in these countries grind and toast a little fresh, and do not use chicory. Address me, care of C. W. Bennet Esq, Acting British Consul, Panama, for the present. I write again from Chiriquí on arrival. Letters arrived in Guatemala City for me the day I left San José, goodness knows when I shall get them. There is an enormous box here waiting me from Mr. Salvin, I suppose it contains a waterproof coat etc, apparently enough supplies to last a century. I shall not open it in Panama, but wait till I reach David. At present, I am not greatly smitten with what I have seen of the United States of Colombia, I hope to find Chiriquí a little better. The people will almost take the coat off your back, but I now have had a little experience of these Spanish American gentry, so am on my guard; there are the same parasites about the wharf and railway station as when I passed through two years ago, I know them now.

The Grand Central Hotel, Panama, by Muybridge, 1875

I got the first decent meal for two years on board of the ‘Costa Rica’, no black beans or tortillas there, spent Good Friday on board, at most of the ports we took in lots of coffee, hides, shells, India rubber, balsam of copaiba and at most of these ports as soon as we arrived, the Indians and negroes came off in small boats with fruit, live parrots (selling them at about 12/- each), all the time these people made a terrific noise, squarrelling themselves and nearly pushing one another into the water, I was much amused watching these different people, also at their ???, all these Indians are very fond of laughing and joking, least thing sets them off. The only thing is when they are drunk, they are only too ready with their knives. We had very few (passengers?) so I had a cabin to myself. Nearly everybody takes me for a German (the Germans even sometimes begin to talk to me in German), or a Swede, very few for an Englishman; many of the English-speaking people you meet in these places, I must say are anything but a credit to their country, and strange tales circulate about their reasons for leaving home. I would like you to see some of the black people of Panama, they mostly dress in muslin and wear straw hats, dress and hat ornamented all over with gay coloured pieces, artificial flowers etc, the hair done up in two great chignon bunches, one on each side of the head, so that at the rear, as if they had three heads; the hair they also ornament with artificial flowers and to finish up, green or red boots, together all colours of the rainbow. Today, Sunday, there were many disporting themselves on the small esplanade, they think a great deal of themselves, I can tell you. A good many watchmakers in Panama, they are nearly all Jews, Sunday just the same as in Guatemala, market and shops open and busier if anything than during the week. Numbers of public houses wide open always, ice is put into nearly every in the share of drink, and the people seem to do nothing but drink all the time, but scarcely any beer; all spirits, but mixed with all sorts of things, quite different to what we have at home. Many of these mixtures are very nice in these hot places where water is quite insipid without ice. In my next letter, I hope to reply with my new field of exploration, where I believe everything is quite different to what I have been accustomed to in Guatemala. I miss the Indians, who are very useful in many ways, I am sure. One thing I know, I shall have a great deal of wet weather here.

Panama from Mount Ancon 1875, by Muybridge

Modern & old Panama from Cerro Ancon today

The country is I believe very thinly peopled and the only town on the coast.

With best love to all, and hoping soon to hear from you.

I remain,

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Thursday 20th June 2012 (Letter 29th March 1881)

GCC’s final letter from Guatemala

HOTEL DEL GLOBO, GUATEMALA
March 29th, 1881

My dear mother,

Just a few hasty lines with a letter I am posting to Mr. Salvin – am very busy packing up for the journey, it is almost as bad as leaving England; once more I go amongst strangers. I leave by the coast steamer of April 4th for Panama. All being well, I ought to arrive in about a week, the coast steamers call at the ports of Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica going down, and take much longer than the Mail steamers.

I left Torola on the 16th and arrived in Guatemala the same day, it took me eleven hours to make the 15 leagues journey. I received your letter of February 4th a few days after I wrote, was very glad of the papers. Mr Godman has probably returned from India by this time. Am carrying money from Guatemala for expenses in Chiriquí, but am rather afraid to take much – it is so heavy, all in silver dollars, no gold, my servant goes with me. The 7th collection has reached Mr.Salvin (it was brought by ‘The Nile’) and he seems very pleased with it. I send off the 8th and last from Guatemala when I reach Panama. Have sold my mule (am sorry to part with her, we were such old friends) but have yet to find a customer for my horse; the mule cost me 100 dollars and had to sell it for 62 dollars.

RMS Nile

Have had some photo’s taken here, will send you one from Panama. I believe I have altered so much that you will scarcely know me when I come back. I got a letter from Walker a few days ago, from Chile, he appears to be very well, he spent his Xmas in the Straits of Magellan. Oh, so dusty and dry now! I came up from the coast in the night to avoid the heat and dust. I take letters of introduction to Panama from the English minister, and also from the Consul; the latter has been a very good friend to me in Guatemala; have some slight misgivings about Chiriquí, but so I had of Guatemala, must wait and see; some people praise it up, some run it down; however it cannot be so bad as Panama, that I am sure, Cartago and San José are very near, that is one consolation, I can easily shift.

Mr. Morgans has brought out his wife and two children, they are now in Guatemala city.

Hoping you are all well,

Believe me, etc.

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Thursday 14th June 2012 (Letter 13th March 1881)

GCC’s time in Guatemala draws to a close after 2 hard years of collecting

TOROLA, GUATEMALA
March 13th 1881

My dear Mother,

My time in Guatemala is now nearly expired, two days from now shall have finished the two years. Shall probably return to the Capital on 15th or 16th to get ready for the journey to Panama, en route for Chiriquí, in all probability leave by the steamer of April 4th, or, if detained a little longer, by that of the 17th, it depends principally on the letter I receive from Mr. Salvin.

You may get yet one more Guatemalan letter from me, but it is uncertain, if not, I write from Panama. I received a few days ago a bundle of five newspapers from you, but no letter as yet, what a difference, in Guatemala altogether as hot as it is cold at home.

I have been in very hot places in the coast region since I left the Volcano Agua, thermometer in the shade yesterday 92. I left Mirandilla on February 14th for Torola, a large cattle estate belonging to the Belgian Consul, this gentleman also made me very welcome. From this place I have made several long excursions – one of ten days to a place called Paso Antonio, 8 leagues distant.

I accompanied a Scot and a Belgian, who went on a fishing expedition. This place would suit father or Mr. Gee (except for the heat and mosquitoes). They could catch more fish than they could bring away; my companions employed Indians to net in the lagoons adjacent to the Rio Michotoya and they brought in on an average 300 pounds daily, one day 500 lbs of fine large fish, these were then salted and smoked to send to the capital. Very rough quarters in Paso Antonio, and not much to eat beyond fish, shrimps, iguanas and sometimes a pigeon or a parrot. Also made another trip of five days to a mountain called La Gavia, near the town of Cuajimquilapa.

The time has passed very quickly during the past month, the days seem to fly, I shall have a great deal to do in my last fortnight in Guatemala, rather regret leaving for a place where I shall be a total stranger without introduction to anyone, but hope to make my way somehow.
I cannot of course take my animals with me, I shall have to sell them and buy others afterwards, shall be sorry to part with them as we are old friends, but there is no help for it, probably I take my servant with me, expensive as the journey will be. In Chiriquí, I shall not have to travel so much, the country is very small. Mr and Mrs Salvin are so well known in this country that I have had little difficulty in obtaining introductions to any place I wanted to go, but in Chiriquí it will be very different.

As I sit in the verandah in the evening (after a six o’clock dinner) after the day’s work is over, listening to the eternal humming of the insects in the coco, orange and mango trees, my thoughts fly back to England and to you all at home, it seems like a dream instead of reality. I will never forget the tropical moonlight nights; in these hot places everyone goes out into the fresh air in the evening, the heat in the rooms being too great, and sit outside till bedtime and of course rise very early in the morning (the coolest time) and the best time to work; at midday one has to rest a little for the heat. We often feel slight earthquakes in Torola, especially during the night, but not strong enough to turn one out. The Volcanoes now are very hazy, at this season everything seems enveloped in smoke or dust upon the mountains and very hazy in the afternoons. About a month ago, there was a slight frost in Antigua, causing a good deal of alarm for the coffee plantations; of course we had nothing of it on the coast.

This is Sunday morning and as usual they are busy paying the men. Torola is a large cattle estate with great plantations of grass to feed the cattle (oxen, horses, mules etc), no coffee or sugarcane here. Paso Antonio also belongs to the same owner who has been 32 years in this country, this gentlemen knows London very well, but does not speak English, he is a native of Antwerp.

A good deal of timber (mahogany, cedar etc) is cut in the forest on the estate, just now in the dry season they are busy bringing in the logs with carts drawn by oxen to the saw mill belonging to the estate. You only see horses or mules in the diligences or in the capital, always oxen, with the driver walking in front of the animals, and continually poking the poor animals with pointed sticks or else knocking them over the horns. Coconuts are very nice when fresh picked, the milk is very refreshing, some will contain two tumblerfulls, you drink this and throw the nut to the dogs who are always waiting together with vultures. The vultures either in the streets of Guatemala or in the forest, you see them in scores settling on the housetops or the trees or anywhere, some flying round and round in circles, then settling, no one interferes with them so they are very tame, but they are such great fellows, about the size of a turkey, if in the street they will just run or fly a few yards, and then settle again to look at you, there is no shaking them off.

A great many coconut, orange and mango trees in Torola, just in front of the house, one can have as much fruit as one likes. They have a few flowers here, such as balsam, fuschias and geraniums just the same as at home, they appear to be flowering all the year round.

With best love to all
I remain etc.

Sunset on the Guatemalan Pacific shore

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