Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Sunday 18th March 2012 (Letter 19th August 1879)

GCC travels to San Gerónimo, and settles into his new quarters

Today’s letter, covering much the same ground as the previous one I posted, is this time to his mother rather than to his employer, and describes my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s mule-ride from Guatemala City to San Gerónimo, where he was to base himself for almost a year. I visited this place myself on 30th August, 2011, and although the actual former monastery adjoining the church of San Gerónimo, in which GCC slept, no longer stands, the church is still there, as are the sugar-cane processing buildings and some of the original equipment. The complex is now a museum. When I visited, the staff were on strike, but by jumping over a fence with the aid of my enthusiastic guide Eduar, I managed to explore the area and get a feel for this place, which hosted my great grandfather for so long (please see my diary entry for 31st August 2011).

The church next to which GCC lodged for nearly a year

Hacienda de San Gerónimo
Baja Vera Paz

August 19th 1879

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of July 15th yesterday, it having been forwarded to me from Guatemala.

I left Guatemala on the 8th instant, in company with a young Canadian – Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal, who is at present living here. Mr. Morgans could not get through his business in time and is still detained in Guatemala. I was very glad to get away from the hotel, the lazy life there did not suit me and one’s expenses are very heavy there. We started about midday on the 8th and spent the first night at Carrizal, where I tried sleeping in a hammock, but though a hammock is very comfortable indeed for an occasional rest in the daytime, I cannot say I liked it very much for the night; next morning at daylight, we were again on the road, rested a short time at Trapiche Grande, spent the second night there, then on again for a long spell till nearly dusk when we arrived at Llano Grande, starting again at 2 a.m. the next day for San Gerónimo, the mules and ourselves being nearly worn out with this long journey of 70 miles. The road and mule track all the way kept ascending or descending ranges of mountains, crossing rivers (some difficult to ford), some places very bad indeed to pass, the road occasionally up to our animals’ knees. I shall long remember the last stage of the journey: we started by the aid of a little moonlight, but this soon failed and we almost had to feel our way over the most fearful roads I have ever seen; between Llano Grande and San Gerónimo we had to cross the high mountain range of Choacus. We were over three hours passing this place, getting to the top soon after daylight, and to make matters worse, it commenced to pour with rain; as we descended the other side, we had the broad green valley of Salamá at our feet, and on the opposite side more ranges of mountains; at the extreme end of this valley San Gerónimo is situated.

Some of the original sugar-cane processing buildings

Mr. Morgans kindly forwarded my luggage, and one of his servants accompanied us on the road. I am very comfortable here once more with civilised people, the food is also very good and everything is more comfortable. This place is about midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, much hotter than Guatemala but not so hot as Zapote, the thermometer in the house is usually between 70 and 80; we have all our meals in the verandah, which is much more pleasant in a tropical country, all round the view is backed up by mountain ranges on three sides quite close in; only the upper part of house is used for living in, so everything is very dry. This house was formerly a monastery, consequently is very large with many rooms.

There are many negroes in San Gerónimo (the house servants are negroes also) formerly brought from Belize to work in the cane fields, also Indians and half-breeds. The village is far superior to Dueñas, here houses with plaster or mud bricks walls and tiled roofs, in Dueñas only ranchos of sticks and thatch; still it does not bear close inspection, and looks far better at a distance, pigs swarm all over the place. The sun is very powerful in the morning, in the afternoons we almost invariably have heavy storms, with much thunder and lightning. One can only depend on the morning being fine.

Have at last met with a servant, who will, I think, quite suit me, he is recommended to me by Mr. Morgans and is now with me on trial, he has been about with me a good deal near the “finca”.

Living in the house, there is Mr. Hutchison, then the manager of the estate, which belongs to English people, continual lawsuits are however swallowing up all the profits. Mr. Morgans was appointed by the Court of Chancery to come out to superintend the management – a Spaniard, who speaks English, an Italian connected with the estate and myself. We form a party of four in all. Mr. Morgans will probably be here soon, then we shall muster five. The estate is very large, they have a great quantity of sugar cane, coffee plantations etc. and plenty of maize also. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some time, making journeys all round in the neighbourhood, and returning again to San Gerónimo till the rainy season is over; shall endeavour to remain as I have an open invitation to stop as long as I like. San Gerónimo is but a small village (about 3000 feet above the sea) at the foot of the Choacus mountains; our nearest town is Salamá, two leagues distant. They cook everything better here and put less of the everlasting fluids with the food, which agrees with me very well and does not upset one’s stomach; am very well in health here except that I am still troubled a good deal at night with neuralgia. I have received but four letters from you, but from reading your last, I seem to have missed one; have, however, I am sorry to say, received but one newspaper, have not received the books. I cannot understand it, newspapers must be posted for abroad within I think a week of publication, but for books there is no limit of time, perhaps it would be as well to send the newspapers via San Francisco, I believe they are detained for some reason or other at Panama, a perusal of the postal guide as to foreign postage regulations may set things right; there being no postal treaty between England and Guatemala often causes delay or loss of letters etc. I have read good deal about the Prince Imperial’s death in the Illustrated London News, while at Dueñas, also in the Graphic here at San Gerónimo.

A road along which GCC undoubtedly rode on his mule, looking down towards San Geronimo

You seem to be having a queer sort of summer in England. I cannot say I have find it very cold here, quite the reverse but have never seen such a quantity of rain before as in the last 3 months, sometimes after the rain here the rivers are impassable for a time till the water goes down again. Our new tramway cars with awning on top and drawn by three mules must appear very strange to Londoners; out here and in the West Indies you see mules used far more than horses. I should like you to see how some of the negroes dress here, they are fond of wearing a white shirt but they never tuck in the tail, always leave it hanging out so as to show it all, this and a pair of shorts constitute their costume. I find my clothes too heavy for this country. Mr. Hutchison kindly lent me some white things (I could not get any ready made in Guatemala). When the sun is out, it is very hot indeed, but morning and evening there is always a cool breeze and it is very pleasant in the verandahs; at night, too, here in the mountains can always beg a blanket on the bed. I found it much hotter in the night in Jamaica and also on the steamer on the way out than here. I should like to send some ferns at home for father but at present don’t see how I can send them alive, am obliged to keep the collections I send to Mr. Godman (have sent 2 lots) as dry as I possibly can, and living plants could hardly be sent with them. Ferns are much rarer here, the soil is more sandy, and perhaps not so suitable; instead we have many Cacti, Agaves, a sort of wild pineapple and other spiny plants of this nature. Zapote was far more prolific in vegetation.

I must now bring this rambling epistle to a close with very best love to all and hoping you are all enjoying good health.

An amazing spider we found near San Geronimo

A mating pair of grasshoppers near San Geronimo

An "airplane grasshopper", photographed near San Geronimo

A brightly-coloured froghopper, found near San Geronimo

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Friday 16th March 2012 (Letter 8th August 1879)

GCC is “Fíjese-ed” by Mr Morgans, and crosses the Choacus mountains

Note: Fíjese is a word frequently used by usually well-meaning people in Guatemala to stall an arrangement they have made with you, not realising that that you too have a schedule, and that every extra day spent waiting and hoping in a hotel adds to your costs…I experienced it myself on several occasions!

Following the disturbing discovery that Guatemalan criminals had copied my Dutch credit card and had started using it to make transactions, but that luckily the bank had realised it and blocked the card, we now return to the letters sent from Guatemala during my great grandfather G C Champion’s stay from 1879 to 1881. This particular letter, dated August 20th, 1879, covers his three-day mule ride from the capital, over the rugged Choacus (Chuacus) mountains, to San Gerónimo, which was to become his base for almost a year. The letter is written in his usual matter-of-fact style, with hardly any allusion to the hardships the journey involved. However, his diary entries reveal more:

Friday 8th August 1879:

Left Guatemala with Mr Hutchinson and a servant at 1.00 P.M., passing Chinoutla (?) and along valley, ascending mountain range to 4,000 feet, with good view of Guatemala. Slept at Carrizal. On way found fresh Chalcolepidius (an Elaterid beetle) and Gymnopleurus (a Scarabid beetle). V. hot and sunny.

Saturday 9th August 1879:

Left Carrizal at 5.30 A.M.; arr. Trapiche Grande at 9 A.M. Breakfasted and left at 11 A.M. Arr. Llano Grande at 5.30 P.M., where remained the night. Arr. very tired, roads frightful. Passed Buenaventura at about 1.30 P.M., about 1,500 feet. Fine all day; heavy rain late in evening.

Sunday 10th August 1879:

Left Llano Grande, 2,600 feet, at 2.00 A.M., for San Gerónimo, 2,900 feet, where arr. at 11 A.M. v. tired and almost worn out, mule also. Started by moonlight at 3.00 A.M. V. dark and heavy rain; nearly 3 hours crossing the mountain range of the Choacus; saw at least 6 fresh Diurni on the way. Much rain in aft.

The Choacus mountains, through which GCC travelled on his mule

Hacienda de San Gerónimo,
Salamá,
Baja Vera Paz

August 20th, 1879

My dear Sir,

After about a fortnight’s detention in Guatemala, I was obliged to leave without Mr Morgans. Took the opportunity, however, of journeying here in the company of a friend of his, a Mr Hutchinson, who is at present living in the hacienda. I should not have remained so long in Guatemala, only as I had accepted Mr Morgan’s invitation to come here, I was obliged in some sense to study his convenience.

I left on the 8th and arrived at San Gerónimo in the morning of the 11th. The roads were very bad from the recent rains, and we were very long on the way. It was a wearisome task crossing the Choacus mountains. We left Llano Grande at 2 AM by moonlight, and did not reach San Gerónimo till nearly noon.

I received your letter of July 16th yesterday; I hope in your next to hear that you have received my first consignment. Have only just received the bill of lading of the second – I enclose it in case it is required. Have not yet received bill of lading for the first. I believe it was sent on to Antigua and that it is now with Mr Wyld; have written to him for it. I hope there will be no difficulty in getting the boxes on this account. Have not yet received the promised pins and additional card.

Am sorry I cannot at present act upon your suggestions of visiting Pacicia (Patzitzia) or Godines. I don’t think the high ground between Antigua and Guatemala (City) would have produced much – there is very little forest. I worked, however, Las Calderas, which is at a similar elevation, 6,000 to 6,500 feet. Had some idea of Quezaltenango (Quetzaltenango) and Las Nubes before I went to Vera Paz, but the rains were so bad, and no signs of a “canicula”. I thought under the circumstances I had better accept Mr Morgans’ kind invitation for San Gerónimo. Perhaps later in the year I may be able to go to Los Altos.

I think of making this place my head quarters in Vera Paz, and working all round. Am told that Purulá, Panimá, Santa Barbara, Panzós and other places near will pay for working. Have at last secured a servant; I think I shall find him very useful. He tells me that you taught him how to skin birds, collect insects, etc. His name is Guillermo Doubon. Mr Morgans has been employing him to shoot and skin birds, and to collect a few butterflies for him. from what I have seen of his work, he has profited greatly from your tuition, and he can really skin birds very well. I think I shall find him a great acquisition.

Mr Morgans’ aneroid (a better one than mine) registers about 200 feet higher than the one I have. I make San Gerónimo about 2,950 feet. Have already collected a great many insects in this neighbourhood. Butterflies on the whole are comparatively rare here; still I have taken about a dozen additional species, including some nice little Lycaenidae strange to me – only single examples, though of course many common Pieridae, Hesperiidae and Heliconidae; there are many fresh Bombyces, Geometridae here; plenty of Hemiptera, especially at Payaque; not many Coleoptera, still perhaps 50 additional species. Not a few Hymenoptera and Neuroptera; Orthoptera very few indeed.

The rain every afternoon prevents me going very far from San Gerónimo. I want to get onto the hills, to Santa Barbara or Matanza, but am kept back by the rain. Was in hopes of getting many additional species on the pine-clad slopes of the Choacus mountains, but have not yet succeeded in getting much. The place, except in the hollows, is very arid.

Did you get Rodriguez’s letter? I enclose one from Mr Wyld.

I trust I am not departing from my instructions in coming so soon to Vera Paz.

With best respects to Mr Godman and yourself,

I remain, Yours truly,

Geo. C. Champion

P.S. I presume I shall be doing right when the £100 placed to my credit at the bank is exhausted in drawing upon F. Huth & Co. for additional sums of £50 when required. At present of course I have plenty to go o

The type of "road" GCC would have had to travel on

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Monday 12th March 2012 (Letter 6th August 1879)

G C Champion still delayed in Guatemala City

Today’s entry contains the next of my great grandfather’s letters from Guatemala. He is still detained in the capital, and clearly the frustration is building. Mr Morgans, to whom he refers several times, is the manager of the sugar cane/aguardiente liquor factory in San Gerónimo, in the province of Baja Vera Paz.

GRAN HOTEL, GUATEMALA,
August 6th 1879

My dear Mother,

I am still detained in the capital, but hope to get away tomorrow or next day. Shall have to go without Mr Morgans after all – his business is not yet finished, have been expecting to leave almost every day for the past week. I hope to have the company of a young Canadian (a Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal) on the journey to San Gerónimo, Mr Morgans will follow in a few days. It is very expensive living here in the hotel especially when you have an animal to feed also, and the idle life does not suit me at all, so shall be only too glad to get away. Have been driven nearly crazy with neuralgia, for the last two or three weeks, and unable to sleep at night, but am a little better now, went yesterday to see a dentist, and he told me that I ought to have three wisdom teeth extracted but I don’t care to have this done unless absolutely necessary.

Have made many acquaintances in Guatemala, so generally have someone to talk to. Mr Morgans, though he only came out two months before me, seems to know everybody in the place. I went with him and others to the theatre on Monday evening, to see “La fille de Madame Angot”; it was very good indeed. The performers were all Mexicans and some of them sang very well, the theatre was crowded.

We are still having a great deal of rain, every day more or less, and the roads are in consequence in very bad order; in fact, the road to the port of San José is said to be almost impassable and the diligences have stopped running; what they will be like in another month I don’t know, for there is a lot more rain to come yet. This season is said to be the wettest for many years past.

Last Sunday there were processions in the streets, men carrying images, candles, etc, and, with a lot of priests and others, they held short services in the streets, finishing up by letting off a lot of fireworks, rockets, crackers, squibs, etc and in broad daylight! They would then go to another street and repeat the process, many of the houses were draped with red cloth for the occasion. The people are very bigoted indeed, though the President has put down many of these processions. Every day we see soldiers marching about the town, the place is full of them, and I think they make all the display they can to prevent revolution. There are several watchmakers here (Swiss, and Germans). I see a good deal of the managers of the principal shop here, kept by a Swiss named Widmer (who is now away in Europe), he tells me trade is very bad; we must not grumble much about high rents, they pay 50 dollars a month or £120 a year for the shop only, the upper part of the house is part of the Gran Hotel, they have a good stock, but all inside on the counter and at the back, nothing whatever in the window, very little English work, mostly French, Swiss or American, they charge an enormous price for everything, as do all the other shops here. The import duties are very high, then everything has to be brought up by road (90 miles) from the port; this of course makes a good deal of difference in the costs; luckily I am not obliged just yet to buy much in the way of clothing, and though have had to purchase a few things, many necessaries supplied by Mr Godman I cannot use because they are so heavy, and every pound extra in weight is of great consideration when travelling in this country.

Mr Morgans came out by way of Belize, he tells me that the country is much finer on the Atlantic side, than on the Pacific, where I have been all along so I hope to get on better bye and bye. San Gerónimo is about midway between.

The European mail came in on Sunday evening. I went to see if there were any letters for me, but there were none, have only received one newspaper as yet, I believe you have sent more.

There is a great deal of talk about the Panama canal project in Guatemala, many think it will end in failure.

I get on better now with the food in the hotel, but am obliged to avoid their green peas, beans, cabbage, and all of which they serve up mixed with evil smelling, oily liquids, which do not agree with me. There are plenty of different sorts of fruit about now, such as pineapple, mangos, oranges, limes, bananas, apples, cactus fruits and very many other sorts, some of which are very good but no better than our English strawberries, cherries, pears, and I often walk into the market when I have nothing else better to do; it is well worth visiting.

It astonishes me how people can afford to drink, gamble and enjoy themselves as they do, they must make plenty of money somehow or other; all those who can afford it keep horses, and very many go out riding on horseback in the evening; very few carriages or vehicles of any sort are to be seen in the streets, almost everything from a piano downwards is carried either by mules, or Indians.

There is a sort of park in the town, it is very gay just now with dahlias and other flowers, there are a lot of palms also. The band plays occasionally in the evening.

Must now close this, cannot think of anything more to tell you, with best love to all and hoping you are all well.

Believe me dear Mother,
Yours affectionately,
George C. Champion.