Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Tuesday 4th December 2012 (Letter 18th April 1883)

GCC’s last letter from Central America, as his four-year stint of insect-collecting draws to a close

This last Central American letter written by my great-grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion, reveals something of the hardships he went through, and his frustration at becoming ill on the remote Pearl Islands. These islands (other than the Isla Contadora, which played host to the deposed Shah of Iran in 1979/1980, and is now an upmarket resort) are still difficult to reach, although the Isla del Rey, the island on which GCC stayed, is sure to be discovered by the real estate market soon. He was lucky to find accommodation with kind and friendly people, “though they were black”. It is hard for us today to go along with this kind of statement, but times and attitudes were different 130 years ago.

GCC also describes his journey across the isthmus to the Caribbean port of Colón, which even today is an unhealthy, crime-ridden dive – it is lucky for my family that he did not catch Yellow Fever, which among other causes ended up in more than 22,000 deaths among the construction workers, and in the ultimate abandonment of the French attempt to build a canal. Had he contracted the disease, we would not exist!

The abandoned French canal

Following the posting of this letter, George remained on the island until 27th April, but as his diary shows, he did not feel well enough to achieve much insect collecting – and as he says, there were not many insects in the heat of the dry season to be found anyway.

GCC’s return from San Miguel, on the Isla del Rey, to Panama City, effected in a small canoe open to the blazing sun, took two and a half days. After one night in the capital, he boarded Royal Navy ship HMS Sappho for the short crossing to the Isla Taboga, where he remained for 17 days, collecting when he could, but still feeling distinctly unwell.

HMS Sappho, on which GCC hitched a ride to the Isla Taboga

Following this, he spent four days in the capital, tying up loose ends, and finally left Central America on board the SS Moselle, (a steamship that later sank near Colón in 1892 – see the Wreck Report in the Links section on the right of the screen), having paid $180 for his passage to England, calling at Jamaica, Haiti and Barbados en route. He finally sighted England again on 11th June, and reached London two days later. He makes no mention in his diary of a reunion with his parents, whom he had not seen for more than four years.

The letters themselves are written in such a factual way that it is hard to find the emotions of G C Champion in them (he himself lamented his lack of ability to write with flair), but they do reveal the extraordinary bravery of the man, enduring as he did great hardship, discomfort, sometimes danger, and the legacy his journey left in the knowledge of the insect fauna of Guatemala and Panama is unparalleled.

Chlosyne gaudealis, photographed at the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal

SAN MIGUEL, PEARL ISLANDS, PANAMA

April 18th, 1883

My dear Mother,

Don’t be surprised if you see me once more in London, about the 26th or 27th of next month. It is just possible I may leave Colón by the steamer of the 5th of May; if I do come, will telegraph on arrival at Plymouth. I will however probably go on to Southampton, where I suppose we should arrive about two days later owing to the steamer calling at Cherbourg.

This place has not agreed with me at all; have been sick with fever and nearly all the time. I came over on the 2nd; we were 24 hours from Panama, becalmed nearly all day under a broiling sun, and no shade on these wretched little boats. Fortunately I again fell in with kind people, though they were black; I was confined to my bed for four days but am all right again now.

Shall leave this place as soon as I can, probably for the Island of Taboga and perhaps spend a week or two there, anywhere rather than Panama (City).

Isla Taboga, seen from near Panama City

The trip to Old Providence I shall probably abandon; these small islands appear to be useless for my work, have found nothing here.

If San Miguel were not about as hot as the lower regions, it would not be a bad place; the people are nearly all black and live by planting coconuts, yams, otos, rice, maize, yucas, etc; we see the range of mountains of the mainland very plain about 30 miles distant. Nearly all the houses are of bamboo, thatched with palm leaves, very few of wood or cement. It is a most ruinous looking place and the people live chiefly on salt beef and rice, cooked in coconut grease; though there are plenty of fish on the coast they don’t seem to catch many.

Father might drop a few lines to Mr. Godman, in case I do not write again to him. I went over to Colón on the 27th returning the following day; I scarcely knew the place again it has altered so much in 4 years, the place is swarming with negroes, Frenchmen, organ grinders (!), cheap Jacks, etc; at night it is a perfect Babel. Where the people sleep goodness only knows, but oh, the heat and the smell of the place; it is built on a swamp, I don’t wonder at people getting sick, especially the newcomers, and water is so scarce that you can scarcely get enough to wash your hands in. All along the line of the Canal the Frenchmen are building houses, clearing the bush, levelling, etc, but they do not appear to have excavated a yard yet anywhere except to level the ground.

Hoping all being well, soon to be with you all again and with best love to all.

I remain,
Your wandering, but affectionate son
George C Champion

Pierella luna, photographed on Barro Colorado island, in the middle of the Panama Canal

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Monday 19th November 2012 (Letter 25th March 1883)

GCC’s penultimate letter from Central America – he makes it to Panama City together with a cargo of pigs

The Grand Central Hotel, Panama, by Muybridge, 1875

GRAND HOTEL, PANAMA

March 25th, 1883

My dear Mother,

I arrived here safely last night per sailing vessel “Catalina”. We left David on the 12th and had a very tedious passage, but much smoother than I expected, very little wind, but on the contrary calms. We brought hides, rice, salt beef, coconuts, maize etc, also about 40 pigs, and of course, had a rough time of it, though the food was not bad, but as for accommodation, there was none. I have just received your letter of March 1st and was very sorry to hear that you were again troubled with the old enemy (unidentified illness).

Tomorrow I think of running over to Colón, but shall return again in the evening or following day, it is only 45 miles by the railroad, yet the fare is £5 and the same to return, but through friends here, I can get a pass. In the course of a few days, I hope to get off again from Panama, en route for the Pearl Islands – to San Miguel, from whence I will write if possible. I hear that there is a steamer leaving tomorrow for New York, so write a few lines at once as I have just missed the English steamer. If I go to the Island of Old Providence, my return is likely to be delayed a little; if not, I ought to be in England by the end of May or early in June.

Am staying at the Grand Hotel this time, though they are very full and have not a single room empty.

Panama is full of Frenchmen, Jews, and loafers; a dollar goes about as far as sixpence at home and the people seem to do nothing but drink and gamble from morning till night. I don’t like the noise and bustle of Panama; much prefer Chiriquí where you can go about as you please.

Hoping to be with you soon, even if only for a short time, and with best love to all,

Believe me, dear Mother,
Your affectionate son.

The Plaza, Panama City, by Muybridge, 1875

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Friday 9th November 2012 (Letter 6th March 1883)

GCC’s time in Chiriquí draws slowly to a close, and he attends a wild fiesta with locals in the remote mountains

In this letter, my great grandfather George Charles Champion displays his frustration at not being able to get on his way eastwards towards Panama City. In those days the overland route was almost impassable so almost all traffic went by sea, but as there were no steamships on these coastal runs, sail had to be relied upon.

The area above Tolé, Peña Blanca, etc, where he attended the wild festival with the locals, is still remote and difficult to access. In fact, it is astonishing how empty the landscape of eastern Chiriquí and Veraguas provinces is to this day. George’s matter-of-fact writing style conceals the astonishing bravery of the man, travelling alone or with his Guatemalan negro servant Leopoldo, by mule, through this wilderness.

Forested coastal swamps in eastern Chiriquí


DAVID

March 6th 1883

My dear Mother,

I am still detained here, waiting for a sailing vessel to take me to Panamá (City), but hope to get off in a few days; there is a small vessel here now, called the “Catalina”, but goodness knows when she will be ready to start. At this season, the winds are so strong, and hurricanes frequent, that I should not wonder at all if we take ten days or a fortnight to get to Panamá, then I shall have the same trouble over again to reach the Pearl Islands owing to the contrary winds; the weather is splendid (if one can stand the heat) but the dust is awful, doors and shutters banging (windows you don’t find in these countries) every moment, tiles blowing off, and the coconuts bend with the wind but they do not break) but almost a cloudless sky since Christmas, and scarcely a drop of rain. I would rather remain a few months longer than return in the winter, especially as London has few if any attractions for me (except to see you all again) at the present time. I doubt if I will ever be able to get used to the noise and bustle again, having lived so long in the wilds, of course you know that I never liked London, and during my four years absence in the tropics, my dislike has increased tenfold.

This letter I shall send by land; if I had my own way I would not start for any journey by sea for another month yet, but as I have been so much delayed from one cause and another, and as I ought to have been in Panamá by the end of December, I must start at the first opportunity. You can have no idea how uncertain and slow everything is in this country, there is not the slightest certainty about anything, the people never hurry themselves, it is always “tomorrow” and when tomorrow comes, it is the day after.

During my last journey to Tolé, Peña Blanca etc, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the annual gathering of the Indians of the district, held at a very solitary, out-of-the-way place in the mountains. There were about 300 Indians, men, women, and children present, many from places very far distant; they came with their faces hideously painted, red and black, the men wearing straw hats full of feathers, and most of them carrying a stuffed puma or other animal on their backs, women bare-headed, painted like the men, and with a long dress like a coloured bedgown from the shoulders to the heels; this dress they wear quite loose, not tied at the waist, and they cut their hair short all round alike and comb it down over their eyes, but Oh! so dirty, you constantly see them (fleas/lice?) collecting on one another’s heads, I think you would be astonished if you could see them. Some of the men carry a bow and arrows and nearly all have at least two or three wives. Their idea of amusement at these gatherings is to make as much noise as they can with bells, flutes, horns etc and to dance, and while dancing they throw short poles at one another’s heels, constantly falling down of course. They bothered me a good deal as I was the only foreigner present, asking me all sorts of questions in bad Spanish. The “Gobernador” or Chief would persist in embracing me occasionally, but they did not molest me, a little too friendly, that was all. For two or three days, they kept up the feast, sleeping on the bare ground (there was no village or houses).

The country people in Chiriquí, men and women alike, even if rich, go barefoot, though they think nothing of giving a sovereign for a straw hat, in which they are very extravagant. They are very fond indeed of dancing, and very often, especially on a moonlight night, in the dry season, they get up a “ball” or dance which they keep up the whole night; only one couple dance at a time, face to face, without touching one another, and when tired, another couple takes their place. The coffee business seems to be an utter failure (the price having gone down so much in London, New York, and Chiriquí), and nearly all my old friends on the slope of the Volcano are leaving to try their fortune elsewhere. The proprietor of Eureka failed and has gone back to Costa Rica, the same thing will happen, I expect, in Guatemala, the planters will be ruined.

Here in David I always stay with a Frenchman; it seems almost like a home. I have stayed so many times in the house. Here I can leave all my heavy things while travelling; the family are always very kind to me; only wish there were such places to stay in Panama. There if you don’t go to the Grand Hotel and spend about £1 a day you have to live like a pig. I promised you a long letter and now have kept my word, my next will be short ones, will write on arrival at Panama. How I am going to get through my works in 2 months, I hardly know, the stay in Jamaica will probably have to be given up, and there is the trip from Colón to the Islands of Old Providence; anyway I ought to spend April in the Pearl Islands, and I ought to arrive in England about the end of May or beginning of June. Write care of the British Consul, Panama.

The sailing vessel “Catalina” is to leave on the 12th, all being well ought to arrive at Panama about the 22nd. She is now loading with hides, rice, coconuts and coffee, she will also carry I expect about 50 pigs, and perhaps 8 or 10 passengers, where the latter will stow themselves, goodness only knows, one thing, it is the dry season.

I remain
Dear mother
Your affectionate son
George C. Champion

Wild mountains in Veraguas such as those through which GCC rode on his mule

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