Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Monday 13th February 2012 (Letter 21st March 1879)

This is the letter from my great grandfather that details his arrival in Guatemala and his eventful journey up from the coast to the capital. I add a number of photographs to give more of an idea of the areas through which he travelled:

From Gran Hotel, Guatemala, March 21st, 1879.

My dear Mother,

I am here at last, arrived last night about 7 p.m. I wrote a few lines from San José, and entrusted the letter to a Spanish gentleman who was on his way to Europe.

I had to remain at Mr. Magee’s from Saturday night till Wednesday morning before I could get a conveyance here; the dust and heat of San José was very trying, the roads were simply ankle deep in dust so was very glad to get away. On Wednesday morning, I started at 6.30 a m. by diligence en route for this city, there were 6 other passengers, one or two of whom luckily for me spoke English; we arrived at Naranjo about 11 a.m., remained there till 3 p.m. to avoid travelling in the hot midday sun, and at 8 p.m. arrived at Escuintla, about half way to Guatemala; here we had to stop all night at the Hotel del Comercio, and started again at 6.30 next morning, got to Amatitlán at 1 p.m., and after stopping there an hour, finally started on the last stage here, altogether about 21 hours riding.

A view of Amatitlan, Muybridge, 1875

I have never experienced such travelling as this before, an open diligence drawn by 5 horses, or mules, driven over a road full of great holes, with great loose stones lying about in all directions, trunks of trees, dead oxen, and many inches deep in dust, it was fearful, you had to hold on for your life. I might say in Amatitlán, the whole vehicle turned right over, and we were pitched out; from Amatitlán to Guatemala we travelled over miles of hilly road, the first 45 miles was all forest and had it not been for the dust (we were as in a fog) and heat, would have been very fine country, orchards full of orange and other trees covered with ripe fruit, then passed close to the Volcano de Fuego, which was smoking away, and lava running down the sides, and to the Volcano del Agua, and then we came into the most barren and dry country I had ever seen, and this continued nearly all the way to the city. I am told this is only so in the dry season, but I never beheld such a place – of course the view was fine enough at a distance with great mountains all around, still it was uncomfortable to see such a barren place and was very disappointing to me.

I am staying here a few days until I can arrange to get away to Dueñas or elsewhere, my heavy luggage is now on its way from San José. I find great difficulty in making myself understood, very few people indeed speak English. Living is very expensive in this country, and as for the people, they seem to be drinking, smoking, gambling or idling about half their time. People seem friendly and polite but I know not what they say to me.

Guatemala (City) is a very large place, it is not very hot, full of large tumbledown looking buildings all of mud or plaster, whitened over, streets wretchedly paved, and there is a fine large theatre. I went last night, being too tired to do anything else. There is nothing for me to do here, shall get away as soon as possible, have seen several people to whom I have letters of introduction, one or two unfortunately are away just now; it will take me a long time to get used to this country, and am afraid I shall not do much good for Godman or self till I speak Spanish, and get used to the ways of the people. I am all right in money matters, as yet, drew some money from the Bank today, had to pay 16 dollars for journey from the coast.

The houses and hotels here have an open square inside with rooms all round, many have a fountain in the middle of the garden or square. The town is full of soldiers, they are everywhere, it seems strange to see them with naked feet, very few appear to wear boots.

Barefoot Soldiers, by Muybridge, 1875

I miss beer very much, have to drink bad water or vile spirits, coffee is of course very good, oranges very good and cheap. I bought 8 for a quarter of a real (about 1 and a half pence). We have coffee about 6.30, breakfast, meat etc., 9 – 10, dinner 3 – 4 and tea about 7, no supper, really only two meals a day. All heavy loads are drawn by oxen here, never by horses, the people are fully clothed, and not half-naked as in the interior or near the coast. I was surprised to find it such a large town, the more so after travelling over their only road from the coast, whence they receive many of their supplies. Shall be glad to see a little rain and to see the trees look green; you might imagine it was the winter, except for the heat, in this elevated region everything seems burnt up by the sun.

City of Guatemala from the south, by Muybridge, 1875

I went up on to a hill this evening, the view was very fine, the sun gradually disappearing behind the great mountains was a grand sight. I lose myself every time I go out, the streets are so much alike, of course there is no gas here, in the streets they have oil lamps projecting out from houses etc. I expect I shall be too busy to write again for some weeks, I hope to write about every third week, but when I get away into the country, the post will be very uncertain, letters had better be addressed to me care of Señor Juan Magee, Guatemala, Central America, he will manage various little matters for me while I remain in this country.

With best love to all, I remain, dear Mother, …..

The Gran hotel, in which GCC slept, photographed in 2011 - it is now a discotheque!


Wednesday 8th February 2012 (Letter 13th March 1879)

My apologies for the long delay in adding this post. My intention was to publish my great grandfather’s letters to his mother, the first of which I added as the previous entry. I then found that he had not written to his mother again until he was already in Guatemala City, and he did not describe his sea voyage and his crossing the isthmus of Panama from the Atlantic (Caribbean) side to the Pacific in his letter to her. However, luckily I have access to the letters he wrote to his employers, Godman and Salvin, and I publish here a letter he wrote to Mr Godman, in which his fairly eventful travels are described in some detail, including his lost baggage and other travails.

Off Costa Rica

March 13th 1879

Dear Sir,

I arrived at Jamaica on March 8th at 8 AM and soon after received a note from Mr Newton asking me to go and see him at his residence, “Maryland”, 3.5 miles from Kingston. Accordingly, after breakfast on board, I hired a “bus” (as they term an extraordinary-looking vehicle in use here) and at once proceeded to Mr Newton’s house taking the parcel directed to my care with me. Mr Newton made me very welcome and I remained overnight, joining the “Nile” at 10 AM the next morning. Not knowing how long I should remain with Mr Newton I neglected taking a net with me – only took an umbrella and a few bottles, and thus missed an opportunity of collecting a few Diurni, almost the only insects I saw there, though I heard rather too many at night.

SS Nile

I went for a ramble with Mr Newton in the morning and saw a few butterflies but was unable to take any. The heat was very great and the place exceedingly dry so we did not go very far. In the evening Mr Newton drove me to the foot of the hills and we clambered up about 2000 feet; had to return at once as it was getting dark. I found beetles excessively scarce; only obtained three or four species, excessively dull and very British-looking, rather disappointing as a first idea of a tropical fauna. Mr Newton asked me to remain a fortnight with him and go on by the next steamer, but I of course could not do this.

The “Nile” left at 10 AM on the Sunday morning and we reached Colón early in the morning of the 11th. It poured with rain the whole of the morning so I was again unable to do any collecting. I left Colón by the 1 PM train for Panamá, arriving at latter place about 5, just in time to catch the tender leaving for the “Granada” steamer, which already had most of her passengers on board and was only waiting for the English mail. The vessel sailed shortly after I got on board and is due at San José on the 16th, so I ought to reach Guatemala in a little over a month from England. At Panamá did not get more than a dozen yards from the terminus, had a good deal of bother with my luggage, and narrowly escaped being swindled in various ways. As it was they charged me $6.80 (28 shillings and sixpence) for excess baggage by the railway. I enclose particulars of my extra expenses so far, and will of course do so in future.

SS Granada

I saw VERY MANY species of butterflies (some in abundance) in the first twenty miles from Colón, they looked very tempting from the train, just out of reach in the swampy ground we were crossing. Beyond Matach….??? I saw but very few; it seemed altogether as dry on the Pacific side as it was wet on the Atlantic. Have not seen yet a single tropical-looking beetle, if I may except a fine-looking Cetonia I noticed mounted in a gentleman’s scarf pin at Jamaica.

I greatly regret not having been able to have done a little collecting en route, must try to make up for it in Guatemala; am afraid I shall not do very much until settled down and my things unpacked. Then i must endeavour to retrieve my lost characters. Capt. Dow was away from Colón and Panamá. He must be somewhere along the Pacific coast. I may find him at San José but it is rather doubtful – this vessel only calls at La Libertad this side of Guatemala.

March 14th. I am in great trouble today about my heavy luggage. I find it is not in this steamer! Am now told that there were two steamers leaving Panamá the same evening for San José and in the confusion it must have been put on the other steamer, the “Honduras”, a slower vessel and not due at San jose until some days after this. It is a great nuisance and will I fear detain me some days at the port. I was most particular at Panamá to see my luggage taken from the train to the wharf, re-labelled, and put onto the tender with the mails, etc., little dreaming there were two steamers on point of starting and the tender taking passengers and luggage for both. When I got onto the “Granada” it was nearly dark and there was a very great deal of confusion, hence this mishap. Will leave a note about it tomorrow at Libertad. I send this letter on by a passenger to post at San Francisco.

SS Honduras off Champerico, by Muybridge, 1875

With best regards to Mr Salvin and yourself,

I remain, yours truly,

Geo. C Champion

March 15th. Arrived at Libertad at daylight and left again at 11.30 for San José, where we are due tonight at 9 PM.

The country about Libertad looks very dry and parched.

8.45 PM. Just arrived off San José. Mr Magee’s people met me on board.

Extra expenses en route February and March 1879:

Panamá Railway excess baggage 1, 8, 6
Stewards and other fees on “Nile” 1, 0, 0
LSWR train 0, 11, 0
Dunlop & co. 0, 12, 6
Southampton dock charges 0, 1, 0

Total: £3, 13, 0

The pier at Puerto San Jose where GCC arrived in March 1879


Wednesday 25th January 2012 (Letter 4th March 1879)

This is the first letter that my great grandfather George Charles Champion sent back to his mother in London, having recently set out on what was to become a four-year odyssey in search of insects in Central America:

From RMS “Nile”, 4th March, 1879

My dear Mother,
We arrived yesterday morning at Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, at 8 a.m. I landed at 10 a.m. and at once posted a letter, but the European mail had left the previous day, so you will not have received a letter from me.
I wandered about yesterday like one in a dream, was not quite prepared for the first sight of a tropical country. The people (99 out of 100) are negroes, the strange buildings, the gardens where you see enormous cabbage and other palms and Cacti growing right above the housetops, bananas etc; you can fancy yourself in the Palm House at Kew, only everything growing in the open air, and outside the town the fields of Agave, Cactus, Opuntia, Yucca and other queer spiny plants, the flowers in the gardens being magnificent.
In the afternoon, I and two other passengers lunched with Mr. Hutchinson*, and then went for a long drive to see the sugar growing, we then went to his country house, and after stopping there for a short time, returned along the sea coast by way of Hastings. I found the glare on the white roads very trying, though I used a straw hat and umbrella, far more than the actual heat; it was 85 deg. in the shade yesterday on board; it is 82 deg. today, could not remain very long with Mr. Hutchinson as we had to be on board before 5 p.m.
I found the coloured boys an awful nuisance; they follow you wherever you go, and if you go into a house, they wait until you come out. I could not shake them off, it seems queer at first to hear them all speaking English very well, most of them wear but a small amount of clothing though you now and again come across one with a chimney pot hat, boots etc; most of the native houses are wood, very few indeed with glass windows, all doors etc. are of course wide open.
Every inch of ground in Barbados is under cultivation, there are no woods, and it is rather flat and not unlike the Isle of Wight and is about the same size.
We are now passing Guadeloupe, Dominica, Montserrat etc. but do not call till we reach St. Thomas’s, where we are due tomorrow morning; these islands are more or less all mountainous and very different from Barbados.
I miss the company of Mr. Hutchinson today, he was the best on board, his liberality on shore was unbounded.
Every visitor to Barbados appears to go to the Ice Establishment where you sit in rocking chairs in the verandahs and partake of cooling drinks, quite different from anything we have in England; here you can watch the throngs of coloured boys passing without being pestered by them.
You can get all sorts of queer fruit here, but I have been very chary about eating too much of these, tempting though they are, have tried one or two shaddocks (like enormous oranges which are larger and different from those we get in England), bananas, figs, (which are absolutely nasty) nearly all of course are grown in the Island.
I am now wearing my thinnest suit without a waistcoat, and then I am quite hot enough. You might file these letters, they might come in useful for me to refer to hereafter.

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