Thursday 13th September 2012 (Letter 18th August 1882)

GCC sends an update from Panama

This latest letter from my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion, contains little of great interest, but brings his mother up to date on his activities during the previous two months. By this stage in his four-year expedition, he was writing less and less, perhaps because his activities seemed too mundane and similar to those mentioned already in previous letters. It is still interesting to note the effects on availability and prices of goods, even in the distant and remote state of Chiriquí, of the presence of huge numbers of workers engaged on construction of the Panama Canal. This French attempt, under Ferdinand De Lesseps, was doomed to failure, with an estimated 22,000 workers dying of tropical diseases, but in 1882 the digging had only just begun, and the demand for food products even as far away as Chiriquí was already being felt.

The emptiness of the landscape in Chiriquí in 1882 is also mentioned. Even today, there are vast areas of virtually uninhabited land, although now large numbers of housing developments are springing up, particularly attracting Canadians fleeing their icy winters.

A river similar to that mentioned by GCC


August 18th, 1882

My dear Mother,

A few lines to say that I am quite well and going on as usual; I have no special news; am busy packing up a 5th case for Mr.Godman to send off by next steamer. I was glad to hear of the safe arrival of my 4th box. Since I came to Chiriquí, have heard very seldom from Mr. Godman or Salvin. I have sent my boy purposely to David, involving a 50-mile ride on horseback to get letters – for nothing; perhaps, however, their letters have got lost on the way.

When I first arrived in Central America, I little thought I would have to live as I have had to do, but I have got used to it long ago; I remember very well my first impressions at Zapote; now I think nothing of it. Though we are now having a great deal of rain, the rivers have not risen very much, one can still travel easily enough; our worst river for this is Rio Piedra, but the water is still low. I forded it a few days ago; these rivers which carry off all the drainage from the mountain range to the sea are full of immense blocks of stone, and as they run downhill, have a very strong current. It is now cooler with the wet weather, the thermometer normally about 85 in the shade now falling as low as 70 in the night; in the dry season especially in February, it is much hotter; it is a great bother in the rainy season to dry one’s things, you need to put everything out in the sun in the morning, the rain seldom begins till the afternoon.

Owing to the Canal business in Panama, many articles of food are getting very scarce; of course you get all these things fast enough by paying more in David. Bananas, so abundant and cheap a few months ago, can hardly be got now; great difficulty sometimes to get sugar.

In some respects I prefer Chiriquí to Guatemala; you can get nearly everything you want in David and expenses are very much lighter, the only thing in this country is you cannot travel so much, the country is very thinly inhabited, scarcely any roads and only about half a dozen villages or towns, though everywhere there are plains and good pasture for cattle, there are people living. Shall wait a few days for the steamer, then leave perhaps to visit Vivala, or other places far distant.

I remain etc.

French attempts at construction of the Panama Canal


Saturday 25th August 2012 (Letter 21st July 1882)

4,000 cattle are required for the Panama Canal construction workers to eat (although in the end, 22,000 were to die of disease and malnutrition), and GCC berates the German settlers for their meanness.

Oxeoschistus euriphyle, photographed in the cloudforest above Boquete


July 21st, 1882

My dear Mother,

I think I wrote last from the Potrerillos, from which place I went to Nance Bonito, remaining a few days and then returning to Bugabita. I have now but just returned from the mountains, from the Potrero del Volcán, about 25 miles distant. Have been up at this place some time, and only came down now for want of provisions and from the bad weather; staying as before with a party of native hunters, and living principally on wild boar, deer, monkey and turkey meat.

Of course, I had no opportunity of writing while away on this trip. I have sent twice to David for letters but did not get any, though I believe there must be some there by this time. I shall have to go myself I expect to hunt them up. We are now well into the winter or rainy season though as a rule in the hot low country, the mornings are very fine, and sunny, the rain not coming till the afternoon. But up in the mountains we saw very little indeed of the sun, it was very dull nearly all the time.

The natives go up to the mountains occasionally to hunt, they are all very good shots and collect sarsparilla, india rubber, honey etc; they prefer doing this to working; they will only work from necessity.

I went to David about a month ago and there found some newspapers of mine of January, six months on the way, and an old letter of Walker’s. The date of my return to England is very uncertain, as there is some talk of a visit to the Pearl Islands.

I have very little to write about this time, as have visited no new places and have no news. Owing to the Panamá Canal, everything is getting much dearer; 4000 cattle are required from Chiriquí; these will be sent off from time to time to Panamá, a great deal of rice (this is a greater necessity of life than bread in England) is also sent now to Panamá, crude sugar also; bananas are difficult to obtain. In David you get all these things easily enough even if dearer, but not here; in the country it is a different thing. The first maize crop is now coming in and of this they make cakes etc, though they don’t know how to make tortillas, as in Guatemala. Also they make a sort of pudding, from it; the rice crop will also soon begin, that is, if it is not destroyed by insects. The natives are in great trouble just now on this account.

They have prayer meetings nearly every night often continued through the whole night. These people are all very religious, though very superstitious, believing in all sorts of nonsense. Am now accustomed to eat almost anything the natives eat in Chiriquí, except the ‘chichas’; these are messes like porridge, made from rice, maize, palm fruits etc, but I do not take to them. The principal dish is what they call “arroz seco”; this is rice boiled and steamed and flavoured with salt and lard, it really is not bad. Meat will only keep fresh one day, it has to be salted and dried in the sun, otherwise it goes bad directly. A joint you rarely see, it is always cut into long strips a yard or more in length. Of fruit we get very little, beyond pineapple, oranges and mangos, up in the mountains last week we had plenty of blackberries, of these the natives are very fond.

Sometimes they have a native ball or ‘pindin’ in Bugabita. I think I told you about these balls when I was in David last Christmas. Here in the campo, it is a little different. Only one or two couples dance at a time. They dance face to face not touching one another, on a plank; when tired another couple takes their place and so it goes on all night to the music of two or three fiddles, and a hollow tube with peas inside which is constantly shaken and makes an awful noise, sometimes the people singing a sort of chant also. They don’t stop for a moment the whole night. The worst of it is that towards morning most of them get drunk and take to fighting one another with large machetes (knives) they all carry, often cutting one another very badly. At all these balls, there are at least twice as many women as men. On a cool moonlight night, I sometimes go to watch for an hour or so. Nearly all the people, men and women, dress in white and straw hats, and of course are barefoot.

These balls, and the prayer meetings or valorios, to sing and pray for rain for good crops, are the only changes the natives have and at the valorios they also keep it up all night singing Spanish hymns to the music of a violin or two, but at these, they do not get drunk or fight. The natives seldom if ever molest the foreigners, they will steal little things sometimes but not often. Some of the houses have no doors and the people go in and out constantly, leaving no one to mind the place. The people are however bad in many ways, they call all the foreigners ‘rich’ and will cheat in every way they can. You make all sorts of arrangements with them and they never think of keeping their word; of gratitude they have none, you help them sometimes in various ways when they are pushed, but if you want the least thing from them afterwards, they will not give it. In all these countries, the people are mean to a degree, even I must say many of the foreigners, especially the Germans. I have never seen such meanness at home. I know not when I shall have a chance of sending off this letter but write now while I have the opportunity.

I am yours etc.

Catasticta teutila, photographed along the Sendero de los Quetzales, above Boquete


Friday 24th August 2012 (Letter 1st May 1882)

GCC finds a huge moth, and loses a horse


1st May 1882

My dear Mother,

Back again in Bugabita once more. At the beginning of April, I was in David for a few days packing up a 4th collection from Chiriquí to send off; soon after I went up again to Potrero Volcano, previously in December last and spent about a fortnight there, returning a few days ago. Coming down from these cold places (4000’) you seem as if entering a furnace; hunger drove us down, the provisions all being exhausted, and we were unsuccessful this time with the wild boar; a monkey (the meat is awfully tough) but hunger is a good sauce, a few turkeys and partridges the only things shot.

Lakes near Volcan

Everything is burned up by the sun, no rain beyond a few showers for 4 months. The horses and cattle suffer very much; one of my sick horses died; the other recently bought cannot yet be mounted, so I had to hire for this journey; have to feed them chiefly upon sugar cane, there is nothing else to be got. But it is already threatening rain now in the afternoons, thundering a good deal, so I suppose the rains will soon begin.

I made rather a good, though small, collection this trip, there is an enormous moth 9.5 -10.5 inches in expanse of wings up in these high places, more like a bat when flying.

A huge Noctuid moth, Letis sp., similar to the one GCC mentions. This one was photographed in Guatemala

Went to David last month, chiefly in hopes of finding letters from you and Mr. Godman but without result, though there were English and Guatemalan letters awaiting me. In David they have been rather gay owing to the President of the State having recently paid a visit to the place. I left, however, two days before he arrived. Tobacco nearly all gathered in now, they are sowing rice, maize etc. There has been a change in the Consulate in Panama, I however send my letters as before; I suppose the new Consul will forward them.

There are enormous uninhabited forests between the Potrero Volcan and the first town in Costa Rica, Terrava; from the foot of the precipitous ascent of the Volcano you see a great deal of this forestland, the line of the view to the west is bounded by a range of mountains, a spur of the Cordilleras, terminating seawards in Point Burico – would have liked to have ascended the Cordillera but it is too steep. From the top the two oceans are to be seen; in going up from Bugabita to the Potrero you travel for 7 or 8 hours through dense forest.

We had a fresh arrival in Chiriquí recently, a Frenchman, who came by land from Panama; he has a great pile of letters of introduction to all sorts of people in Central America, including myself! He says he has come to study the languages, customs, antiquities etc, of the Indians, but to me he is rather a mystery.

One of the Germans settled here sends large collections of insects every year to Germany; indeed he almost makes his living by it. He lives about 2 miles from me, and we see a good deal of one another, he does not speak English so we have to talk Spanish.

In Bugabita, we are quite shut in by second growth, the roads are only narrow paths through the forest, about half a mile of us to the west the forest proper commences and continues for a great distance and far beyond the River Chiriquí Viejo, a clearing in these woods, the natives plant their rice, fencing in a piece here and a piece there, fence usually of a horribly spiny plant like a large pineapple, the cattle are turned loose to feed in these woods, the people catching them generally with the bribe of a little salt, these cattle are so hungry now they even eat the thatch of the houses and break in wherever they can to get at the sugar cane and bananas.

With regards to all old friends, and best love to all,

A rainbow near Volcan