Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Sunday 4th March 2012 (Letter 24th July 1879)

GREAT GRANDFATHER GEORGE BUYS A “CHARGER”!

I add the next of my great grandfather entomologist George Charles Champion’s letters to his mother, dated July 24th, 1879. I can well imagine him travelling the mountainous road from Antigua to the capital on his newly-purchased mule – what took him six hours now takes less than 45 minutes.

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, Muybridge, 1875

The Cathedral, Guatemala City, 2011

GRAN HOTEL,
GUATEMALA,
CENTRAL AMERICA.
July 24th 1879

My dear Mother,

I am writing direct to Mr.Godman, so have written a short letter to enclose with it; am now once more in the capital and located for a short time at the Gran Hotel, once again I hear the everlasting ringing of the church bells; this time I am not so “dull” as being a stranger in the place and now having many acquaintances to talk to. This place now wears a very different aspect; everything is green and fresh, whereas in March the vegetation was all burnt up with the heat of the sun and want of rain.

I left Dueñas on July 21st for Antigua, spent a day and a night here with Mr. Wyld, and started almost before daylight next morning per mule for Guatemala; was lucky enough to travel back in company with Don Juan Rodriguez, starting about 6 a.m. It took us nearly 6 hours to travel the nine leagues of road, between Antigua and Guatemala, the views from the high mountains we had to cross were magnificent early in the morning, later the clouds came lower and obscured the higher ground; we travelled the whole distance without stopping on the road, the mud however delayed us a good deal. Mr. Wyld was very kind to me and did not want me to leave so soon, but I was there long enough, nearly a month, had plenty of English newspapers etc from him to read while at Dueñas.

Have been fortunate to make the acquaintance of an Englishman, Mr. Morgans, who is manager of a large estate in Guatemala. He has kindly invited me to go and stop with him there, which I shall be only too glad to do. This estate, San Geronimo, is very large, and I believe belongs to an English Company, it is two days’ journey from here, shall perhaps start hence in less than a week in company with Mr. Morgans; oddly enough, San Geronimo is one of the places Mr. Salvin directed me to go to. Mr Morgans is a very agreeable man, very fond of natural history, and about my own age, and I was very pleased to meet him through the introduction of the English Consul.

Have at last bought a charger! A mule, Mr. Wyld thought a mule better for long journeys and also that it would sell better when I left the country; had to pay a very high price for a good animal, but I think it is worth the money, it is very tame and does not give us the least trouble. It was not the least fatigued when we arrived yesterday, though it had not rested at all, or eaten on the road; mules are very sure footed, they rarely slip even if the road is very bad. On my return to Guatemala, had to pay 34/- for the letters received during my absence and forwarded on to me to Antigua, for one letter containing about 1/- worth of card, had to pay no less than 4 dollars (16), 8/- had been previously paid for the stamps, so it made the card rather expensive. Other things are equally dear. I am told you cannot get a decent pair of boots under at least 30/- and so on.

The shop-keepers seem to make a very good thing of it indeed. They are mostly French or Swiss, not many Germans. Nearly all are Europeans, but few Americans, and still fewer Guatemalans.
Very few live on the premises, but have houses elsewhere in the town, for which they have to pay very high rents, perhaps higher than in London.

Must bring this to a close, have very many things to attend to just now, so with best love to all,
Believe me etc.

City of Guatemala from Cerro del Carmen, Muybridge, 1875

The same view in 2012, from Cerrito del Carmen

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Saturday 3rd March 2012 (Letter 7th July 1879)

A gloomy letter from GCC in Dueñas

Today I add the next letter of my great grandfather’s to his mother – a rather gloomy one this time, as he was suffering badly from the cold and the damp. I can well sympathise with him – I too experienced this type of incessant humidity, when everything, even one’s clothes and documents, is wringing wet, and shoes are liable to go mouldy. Keeping his insect specimens dry was a constant worry as well.

My strong suspicion is that Mr Wyld’s house was the Hacienda Urias, where his employer Osbert Salvin and his wife Caroline had lodged a few years previously. I too visited this historic place, nestled at the foot of the towering Volcan Acatenango, with the smoking Fuego a little beyond, and Agua rising on the other side of the valley.

Interestingly, the inhabitants of Dueñas are still known for their fondness of letting off fireworks – I heard them myself, throughout the day!

Hacienda Urias, where GCC almost certainly stayed

Acatenango and Fuego from the finca where GCC probably stayed

Dueñas,
Guatemala
July 7th, 1879
My dear Mother,

I am still at Dueñas stopping in Mr Wyld’s house; instead of getting the best weather at this time of the year, here we are having the worst, the rainy season is very bad indeed; in this country they have no rain for months, then rain every day for a long time, it has rained here every day since my arrival; some days we get a few hours fine in the morning, but between noon and night there is sure to be more or less rain, sometimes it rains the whole day: we rarely see the tops of the mountains at all for the mists, it is positively cold indoors, there are no fireplaces or any means of warming the place or keeping out the damp; it is lucky for me I am in Dueñas just now. Mr Wyld is here a good deal and if I had not his company, it would be very dull indeed not being able to go out much. I ought to have returned to Guatemala ere this to start on a fresh tour; have been long enough in the vicinity of the Volcanoes Fuego, Agua, and Pacaya but till we get a little fine weather, I do not care to leave the vicinity of Antigua.

November, December and January are the summer months of Guatemala, then I shall appreciate the change of climate, cannot say I do at the present time. Dueñas agrees with me better than Zapote, there I was glad enough for a swing in the hammock to get cool, here I am rather too cool. We get very good bread, also potatoes in Dueñas but the water is bad. The Indians living in this large straggling village are all wretchedly poor, yet on Sundays, Mondays, and fast days, of which there are about 25 in the year, they drink spirits from morning to night, finishing generally by letting off fireworks, of which they appear to be very fond. Very many of the older people especially the women are afflicted with goitre, some very badly; there is very little intermittent fever in this place; at Zapote it was only too prevalent.

I saw the way in which people are punished for petty thefts, an Indian woman was rather fond of stealing such things as a knife or a fowl or portions of clothing; every time she did this, the alcalde, a shoeless brickmaker, ordered her to be chained by the leg to a post in the verandah of Don Joaquim’s house for so many hours every morning and the article stolen put close by for everybody to see; sometimes the woman she stole from would come to the house while she was chained there, then they would abuse one another fearfully for an hour at a time, she invariably had a baby in her arms, sometimes more of the family would come also to keep her company.

I am still managing without a servant or horse of my own, as while I do so, my expenses are very much lighter, but am now in treaty about horse: cannot do without one of my own for the next journey. Here whilst with friends, can always borrow one, but afterwards when with strangers, things will be very different. I dont know how I am pleasing Mr. Godman, I know I myself am very dissatisfied indeed with the result of my work so far in this country. Zapote was perhaps the best place, but far below my expectations, as yet I do not believe I have earned my expenses but I did not choose Guatemala, can only do my best, I have now been nearly one third of a year in this country and there is very little indeed to show for it; perhaps later in the year when I get to Cobán and nearer the Atlantic, things will be more abundant.

Dueñas is noted for the frequency of its earthquakes as the state of many houses testifies rather plainly but there have not been any since I have been in the place. I went yesterday with Mr. Wyld’s headman to a place high up in the mountains called Las Calderas, it took us 2 and a half hours to go about 8 miles on horseback, the road being very bad; this is the only long outing I have yet made from Dueñas. Fortunately it turned out finer than usual and I greatly enjoyed the trip after having been cooped up indoors so much; though so near, the vegetation was very different and amply repaid a visit. A beautiful humming-bird (green with white markings) comes very often to the fuchsias but the slightest noise sends him off. Paroquets are very rare at Dueñas, in Zapote I would sometimes see hundreds in a flock. People are very fond of taming birds here, they have a tame heron. In gardens in Antigua, you see much the same flowers as in London, they grow roses, verbenas, geraniums, chrysanthemums etc., only a few Father would be interested in. I was too hot in Zapote, here it is the other way; it is the damp that makes you cold, when the sun is out, it is hot enough. I drink a great deal of coffee here, perhaps too much, but there is nothing else. If I get damp I change my things as soon as possible and take a little brandy, it is only I believe by doing this and generally taking care of myself that I keep my health in these damp places. I greatly miss the long summer evenings, here it is dark by 7 p.m., often go to bed at 8.30, there is but little inducement to sit up, then get up very early in the morning. Mr Wyld is often here at 7 and seldom leaves till 5.30.

Weather has improved a little, the rain coming more in the night and rather less by day, so have been able to get out, things are also much drier indoors. Was rather in hopes of receiving a letter from you or from Mr. Godman, but nothing came. Mr Wyld however brought me The Illustrated London News of May 31,
so I am pretty well posted in news. M. Blancaneaux wrote me the other day from Cobán; he is also having very bad weather and a bad time of it generally so bad that he will not remain any time but he goes on to Belize directly. The Indians and other people are very friendly and seem pleased if you say Good Day or some thing of that kind in Spanish when you meet them, the only time it is best to avoid them is when they are drunk. The men wear a sort of dark blue flannel jacket with merely two holes for the arms to go through, tied tight round the waist and barely reaching to the knees and a straw hat, the women in blue and white striped skirt and a white sort of open jacket, rarely anything on their heads; all these Indians are very swarthy in complexion but not black like a negro and have coarse black hair, very rarely you see a man with a beard, sometimes a slight moustache. There are not a few halfbreeds, here also some are as pale in face as I am. I was surprised at first to see so many fair people in a tropical country. The heat seems to make people thin instead of dark, people told me I was a little thinner when I returned from Zapote. I don’t wonder at it, but here I am in a place but little hotter than England at this time of the year, I had the hottest and driest weather to start with.

Now, dear Mother I must bring this long letter to a close.
Sometimes when alone here at night and when out on distant rambles, my thoughts go back to you all and I wonder what you are all doing, and I hope I shall hear from you by next mail.

With best love,
Yours affectionately,

Acatenango and Fuego from the Finca Urias

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Monday 27th February 2012 (Letter 8th June 1879)

Today’s post contains the next of my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s letters from Guatemala, this one (like the last) being from the Finca El Zapote, on the southern slopes of the active Volcan de Fuego. A little research regarding the final paragraph:

Address still care of Señor Don Juan Magee (who by the way originally came out here to collect orchids for Veitch and afterwards settled down in this country)

….has led me to the most fascinating of stories. It turns out that Señor Don Juan Magee, who was British Consul in Guatemala for many years, had a very colourful life indeed. An article from The New York Times of 16th January 1900 reads as follows:

JOHN MAGEE IS DEAD

San Francisco, Jan. 15th.

There died in this city to-day John Magee, who is credited with having caused the guns of two British men-of-war to turn on the city of Guatemala twenty-five years ago, compelling the Guatemalan government to pay $50,000 to Mr. Magee, who at that time was acting as the British Consul in that country.

Magee incurred the hatred of Rufino Barrios (then President of Guatemala), who, it is reported, hired some thugs to thrash the Consul. Magee was waylaid and beaten. The British Government, through the Consul, demanded $50,000 and kept the guns of the British warships trained on the city until it was paid. Magee invested the money in paying property and died a millionnaire.

Mr. Magee arrived in this city from Paris, en route to Guatemala, on Jan 6th, and was taken ill with liver complaint. His family is in Paris.

Those were the days of real gunboat diplomacy – I cannot see today’s cash-starved and drastically depleted Royal Navy training its few remaining guns on Guatemala City if British diplomats were threatened!

The other fascinating reference my great grandfather makes is to plant collectors and nursery Veitch.

A page from Exeter City Council’s website gives quite extensive background details about the Veitch family. Please click on appropriate Links for further details:

The House of Veitch had won international acclaim for its plant introductions, floral displays, landscaping schemes and husbandry but perhaps the most important legacy it has left is the wide range of plants introduced via hybridisation. The majority of the plants sent back by the collectors were usually successful in their own right, but often subtle changes had to be made to the plant’s genetic make-up to improve colour, hardiness or foliage for a thriving commercial market. In the case of the orchids, a very lucrative market could be entertained with the production of new colours and it was in this particular field that the Veitch company excelled. With plants, including orchids, being sent to Exeter and Chelsea from all over the world the opportunities to create a perfect plant were endless and the three hybridists employed by James, Robert and Harry Veitch excelled at it.
John Dominy, John Seden and John Heal all worked as nurserymen, but in typical Veitch fashion, they were promptly moved to specialist duties after showing a particular aptitude or a desire to learn…..

The Volcan de Fuego from very near El Zapote

El Zapote,
Guatemala
June 8th, 1879

My dear Mother,

At last a letter from you and by same post, two from Mr. Godman and one from Mr Salvin; was very glad to hear that things are going smoothly at home during my temporary absence. As regards my own movements, have but little to report, am still with Señor Joaquim at Zapote, but don’t suppose I shall be here more than another fortnight, the place does not agree very well with me, it is either diarrhoea or indigestion the whole time, and now the rainy season has set in. It is very humid and damp, more so than it would be in Capetillo or Dueñas.

I almost envy you the weather in England now, the rains are so heavy in this part of the world. No fear I think of the old complaint (probably hay fever, an affliction GCC suffered severely from throughout his life), it is too humid; as for dust, there is none, rather too much mud. I get on well enough with the people now, and can just speak a little Spanish, money is the sole theme of conversation with them, they have not the least idea of living in the country for pleasure, solely for business; if a man is rich enough to retire, he goes to the large towns, never to the country to live.

Don Joaquim lives principally in Antigua, spends a few days at Zapote, then back again to the town, he has no less than 450 men. I have been several times to the coffee estate in San Felipe, which is I think the hottest place I have ever been in, pineapples do very well here, but they are not much to my liking, very large and white flesh. I like the other smaller kind better, of which there are plenty in Guatemala. People call me now Señor Don Jorge (pronounced Horky) Champion; everybody is addressed as Don in this country.

The difficulty of travelling (especially with luggage) is very great in this country, fancy 2 days to go 60 miles. I ought to go to Guatemala for a short time, but cannot. Had I not had friends to help me, I don’t know what I should have done; as it is, I find it a hard task at present. Travelling expenses are also very heavy, though my expenses while with the people of Capetillo and Zapote amount to next to nothing. Postage is also a heavy item, shall have upwards of £1 to pay when I return to Guatemala for the few letters received. I told Marsh and Walker that they could always send a letter for you to enclose with yours, two or three will come in one, if on thin paper. I have not yet brought a horse or mule, they are so dear, £20 – £25, nor engaged a servant, but on my next trip from Guatemala, shall require one, especially if I go to Alotepeque: this is a three-day journey. The roads are awful, you cannot walk a quarter of a mile with the least pleasure.

Should like to get some of the ferns I find here home, but do not see how I can, another thing they would not live except in a stove, there are one or two begonias also here, but they are not very striking. I went the other day to Los Diamantes with Don Joaquim; this place is a little more open, though less elevated, but shall not go there to stop, it will not do. There is a fine view of the coast region (tierra caliente), the sea board, etc. for many miles; the sea is very plainly seen, owing to the elevation, though it is nearly 50 miles distant.

Am doing a little better for Mr. Salvin, but not much, still this is the most likely place hereabouts, so do not like to leave just yet. I wrote only about a week ago so have not much to tell you, a newspaper now and then would be acceptable, and perhaps you might send on one or two of the green magazines, but not the other heavy ones, that have probably come by post. I get these from the post for about 3d.

Sunday is a busy day in these places, they pay wages on Sunday morning, many of the workpeople only earn 8/- or 9/- a week and are married with families, they live almost entirely on rice, maize and frijoles, the Indians are little better than slaves, no notion of doing anything for themselves, many sleep in the open air and have not a home. They are not bad looking. I envy them their teeth. The descendants of the Spaniards are as white as we are, but nearly all are very thin in the face and not so healthy looking as the English. The ranchos are without any chimney, partly open at the side to let out the smoke, of course, without windows or other aperture, besides the door, the bare earth for a floor; the better houses like this have doors or shutters, very rarely windows, and when you wake up in the morning, all is darkness, you don’t know the time. The Guatemaltecos are not fond of light, nor of soap and water. They have no idea of washing more than once a day at the outside, many I believe rarely undress themselves to go to bed. They never set about doing anything in earnest or at any particular time, they are very dilatory indeed in everything they do, even to taking their meals, you never know within an hour or two when they will have dinner; as for the servants, I think they would drive me crazy.

I greatly miss tea and beer, water is not always good, so there is nothing to drink but coffee, which I have four times a day. Occasionally we get bread but not often, we have maize instead. In the elevated regions of Los Altos, Quetzaltenango, where I shall probably go later on, there is plenty of wheat, also potatoes, it will seem more like England then, perhaps.

I miss the flowers in England; at this time of year in this tropical country, there are scarcely any, plenty of green, but nothing to relieve it. It is much cooler now, the rainy season is called winter here, much more cloudy and less sun, we rarely see the tops of the mountains or the volcanoes, always enveloped in clouds. Good Friday, and my birthday, oddly enough, I spent with Mr. Blancaneaux, first with him in the ravines near Guatemala (the sun was fearfully hot I know), then later on the mountains near Capetillo.

Address still care of Señor Don Juan Magee (who by the way originally came out here to collect orchids for Veitch and afterwards settled down in this country).

I am,
Yours affectionately, &c.

The great Ceiba tree by El Zapote

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