Category Archives: GCC’s letters

Tuesday 3rd July 2012 (Letter 25th April 1881)

GCC retraces his own sea route on the Pacific Mail steamer “Costa Rica”, and arrives in the western Panamanian town of David

Today’s short letter describes my great grandfather entomologist George Charles Champion’s journey by sea from the capital, Panama City, to David, in the far west of the country, and which he had passed by offshore only a few days before, the steamer not being scheduled to make a stop there. He mentions the extreme difficulty of travel between the capital and David, the only alternative to the virtually impracticable land route being the irregular shipping along the coast.

I too visited this area recently; please see my diary entries for December 2011 and early January 2012.

Sunrise on the shore in Chiriqui

April 25th 1881

My dear Mother,

A few lines with a letter to Mr. Salvin, to tell you that I arrived here all safe on the 22nd. We left Panama on the afternoon of the 20th and in two days arrived at the port of David, 3 miles from the town; very smooth and pleasant passage, the first day over the very same route just passed over in the ‘Costa Rica’.

There had not been any communication with Panama for about a month so when we arrived there were quite a number of people waiting to meet friends, the captain of the steamer as we passed up the narrow river-like entrance to the port firing a small cannon to let the people know in the town 3 (?) miles away that we were coming. We were about 6 passengers, about half of them, myself included, travelled up to the town in a small cart escorted by 20 or 30 people on horseback.

David is quite a large town and the capital of the department of Chiriquí, but a more dead and alive place I certainly have never seen; it is on a large plain, very low houses, only a few with an upper floor, and except in the main part, the roads are covered with grass, the houses extending right out on to the plain, where there are vast numbers of cattle, the animals grazing in the streets themselves. The heat is fearful, you are obliged to use an umbrella for the sun at midday, no shade scarcely, only a few coconut and mango trees. Cattle is the principal business; every man, woman and child in the place seems to have a horse, except for the richer class, all are barefoot. Horses are cheap, so I shall buy two, and in a few days at most, start off to the coffee plantations on the mountain slope where it is much cooler.

We are 300 miles from Panama, but we might as well be 3000, communication is so uncertain, depending entirely upon departure of a cattle steamer, or sailing vessel for Panama, shall be worse off than in Guatemala in sending and receiving letters.

The people, food, dress and everything are utterly different to Guatemala, only the language is the same; instead of black beans, it is rice in Chiriquí.

Address: David, Chiriquí, Panama, care of British Consul; have arranged with him to forward and receive my letters; there is an English post office in Panama, the Colombians not troubling themselves much about postal matters.

Living in hopes of hearing from you again one of these days and hoping you are all well and flourishing.

With best love,
I remain,

Sunset on the Pacific coast in Chiriqui


Thursday 28th June 2012 (Letter 17th April 1881)

GCC travels by steamer down the Pacific coast of Central America, and begins his two years in Panama

Having completed his two years of insect collecting in Guatemala, my great grandfather makes the long but relatively comfortable journey down to Panama City, passing frustratingly close to his final destination in the westernmost state of Panama, Chiriquí, but the ship does not call there. He is disappointed to find that his friend and future brother-in-law James Walker’s Royal Navy ship, H M S Kingfisher, is not in port, only her sister ship H M S Pelican.

April 17th 1881

My dear Mother,

I left Guatemala city on Sunday morning April 3rd, by the diligence for Escuintla, on the way to the port of San José and on the 7th left by Pacific Mail steamer “Costa Rica” for Panama, arriving yesterday. We had a very pleasant and smooth passage (except for the heat) and as we called at many ports on the way down; I had opportunities of landing in Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I probably leave Panama by the steamer of the 20th for David, Chiriquí, about two days’ journey in the direction of Guatemala, we passed nearby coming from San José, but the large steamers do not call there. Panama is quite a large town, full of people from all parts of the world, any quantity of negroes and Chinese, have never seen such a mixture before, but Oh, so filthy and dirty, I don’t wonder at it being so sickly a place, shall be very glad to get away, no drainage and swarming with pigs and dogs. Lots of French engineers etc. here, the people have ‘Canal’ on the brain.

Am stopping at a small place on the beach, pleasant enough at high water, but at low tide the mud smells very bad; this hotel is a miserable hole, but very handy to the landing place, there is only one decent hotel (The Grand Hotel) in Panama, and they, owing to the Canal business, have put up their prices so much that I cannot stand it, so have to put up with this place.

Bay of Panama from Grand Hotel 1875 by Muybridge

Walker’s ship is not here unfortunately, only the ‘Pelican’ and an American man-of-war, the ‘Alaska’. From the time I left Guatemala until today – about a fortnight ago – my expenses have been nearly £40, all along this coast, everything is very dear and my Guatemala money is at 20% discount.

HMS Pelican

I send the photo, I don’t know what you will think of it, the hands have come out about twice their proper size, but there was no time to sit again. I bought a 125lb sack of coffee in Guatemala before I left, and left instructions for it to be sent on to London to you, you will probably receive notice by post when it arrives and have to send for it, there will be charges of 7/- or 8/- probably (this cannot be paid in Guatemala). I hope it will keep you going for some time, people in these countries grind and toast a little fresh, and do not use chicory. Address me, care of C. W. Bennet Esq, Acting British Consul, Panama, for the present. I write again from Chiriquí on arrival. Letters arrived in Guatemala City for me the day I left San José, goodness knows when I shall get them. There is an enormous box here waiting me from Mr. Salvin, I suppose it contains a waterproof coat etc, apparently enough supplies to last a century. I shall not open it in Panama, but wait till I reach David. At present, I am not greatly smitten with what I have seen of the United States of Colombia, I hope to find Chiriquí a little better. The people will almost take the coat off your back, but I now have had a little experience of these Spanish American gentry, so am on my guard; there are the same parasites about the wharf and railway station as when I passed through two years ago, I know them now.

The Grand Central Hotel, Panama, by Muybridge, 1875

I got the first decent meal for two years on board of the ‘Costa Rica’, no black beans or tortillas there, spent Good Friday on board, at most of the ports we took in lots of coffee, hides, shells, India rubber, balsam of copaiba and at most of these ports as soon as we arrived, the Indians and negroes came off in small boats with fruit, live parrots (selling them at about 12/- each), all the time these people made a terrific noise, squarrelling themselves and nearly pushing one another into the water, I was much amused watching these different people, also at their ???, all these Indians are very fond of laughing and joking, least thing sets them off. The only thing is when they are drunk, they are only too ready with their knives. We had very few (passengers?) so I had a cabin to myself. Nearly everybody takes me for a German (the Germans even sometimes begin to talk to me in German), or a Swede, very few for an Englishman; many of the English-speaking people you meet in these places, I must say are anything but a credit to their country, and strange tales circulate about their reasons for leaving home. I would like you to see some of the black people of Panama, they mostly dress in muslin and wear straw hats, dress and hat ornamented all over with gay coloured pieces, artificial flowers etc, the hair done up in two great chignon bunches, one on each side of the head, so that at the rear, as if they had three heads; the hair they also ornament with artificial flowers and to finish up, green or red boots, together all colours of the rainbow. Today, Sunday, there were many disporting themselves on the small esplanade, they think a great deal of themselves, I can tell you. A good many watchmakers in Panama, they are nearly all Jews, Sunday just the same as in Guatemala, market and shops open and busier if anything than during the week. Numbers of public houses wide open always, ice is put into nearly every in the share of drink, and the people seem to do nothing but drink all the time, but scarcely any beer; all spirits, but mixed with all sorts of things, quite different to what we have at home. Many of these mixtures are very nice in these hot places where water is quite insipid without ice. In my next letter, I hope to reply with my new field of exploration, where I believe everything is quite different to what I have been accustomed to in Guatemala. I miss the Indians, who are very useful in many ways, I am sure. One thing I know, I shall have a great deal of wet weather here.

Panama from Mount Ancon 1875, by Muybridge

Modern & old Panama from Cerro Ancon today

The country is I believe very thinly peopled and the only town on the coast.

With best love to all, and hoping soon to hear from you.

I remain,


Thursday 20th June 2012 (Letter 29th March 1881)

GCC’s final letter from Guatemala

March 29th, 1881

My dear mother,

Just a few hasty lines with a letter I am posting to Mr. Salvin – am very busy packing up for the journey, it is almost as bad as leaving England; once more I go amongst strangers. I leave by the coast steamer of April 4th for Panama. All being well, I ought to arrive in about a week, the coast steamers call at the ports of Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica going down, and take much longer than the Mail steamers.

I left Torola on the 16th and arrived in Guatemala the same day, it took me eleven hours to make the 15 leagues journey. I received your letter of February 4th a few days after I wrote, was very glad of the papers. Mr Godman has probably returned from India by this time. Am carrying money from Guatemala for expenses in Chiriquí, but am rather afraid to take much – it is so heavy, all in silver dollars, no gold, my servant goes with me. The 7th collection has reached Mr.Salvin (it was brought by ‘The Nile’) and he seems very pleased with it. I send off the 8th and last from Guatemala when I reach Panama. Have sold my mule (am sorry to part with her, we were such old friends) but have yet to find a customer for my horse; the mule cost me 100 dollars and had to sell it for 62 dollars.

RMS Nile

Have had some photo’s taken here, will send you one from Panama. I believe I have altered so much that you will scarcely know me when I come back. I got a letter from Walker a few days ago, from Chile, he appears to be very well, he spent his Xmas in the Straits of Magellan. Oh, so dusty and dry now! I came up from the coast in the night to avoid the heat and dust. I take letters of introduction to Panama from the English minister, and also from the Consul; the latter has been a very good friend to me in Guatemala; have some slight misgivings about Chiriquí, but so I had of Guatemala, must wait and see; some people praise it up, some run it down; however it cannot be so bad as Panama, that I am sure, Cartago and San José are very near, that is one consolation, I can easily shift.

Mr. Morgans has brought out his wife and two children, they are now in Guatemala city.

Hoping you are all well,

Believe me, etc.