Thursday 27th September 2012 (Letter 19th September 1882)

GCC meets a Boa Constrictor, and feels uncertain about his future movements


September 19th, 1882

My dear Mother,

I wrote last I think about a month ago from David; since then I have been at Vivala, the Rio Chiriquí Viejo and other places near the sea, returning here about a fortnight ago. The rivers are now so deep with the heavy afternoon rains that it is difficult to travel; have had no chance of sending to David for some time so have heard nothing from you or Salvin. The last letter from him spoke about my returning some time at the end of the year, but I think only from necessity it is likely you will see me before the spring. I care very little to return in mid winter.

Possibly I shall go to Panama (City) some time in November for the Pearl Islands, where I may remain about a month or six weeks. After this work is finished it is very uncertain as yet what I shall do in the event of remaining to the spring, whether I shall remain in these Islands, return to Chiriquí, or pass a short time in the West Indies, it will all depend on circumstances; my engagement with Mr. Godman will probably terminate when I have finished this work in the Pearl Islands; the remaining time will in all probability be at my own expense.

The broken down tub of a cattle steamer doing duty between Panama and Chiriquí we hear is laid up for repairs, not likely to run again for some months, so when I go to Panama, I expect it will have to be in a small sailing vessel, these often take a fortnight for the journey. I of course find it a little dull at times during the rainy season, should probably have left long ago if there had not been these few foreign settlers in Bugabita. I get precious tired of the everlasting rice and salt beef, bananas so abundant and cheap in the dry season are not to be got now, chickens and eggs the same, vegetables we seldom if ever see, the ants swarm so in these hot places that it is almost impossible to plant anything of this kind. I fared very much better in Guatemala. A Frenchman has recently succeeded in growing potatoes at a place high up in the mountains; he sent them however nearly all to Panama. I bought a few in David at 5d a pound. Have not tasted a fruit pie or pudding for more than eighteen months. All the ports of this State are free; for this reason wines, beer etc are pretty cheap in David, but I cannot bring these things so far, so have to put up with salt beef and rice.

I think people in England would be rather astonished to see the way they pick rice, imagine picking with the fingers, without knife of any kind, and the time spent in picking, but these people are never in a hurry, so if it takes a week or two to pick a small field, they are quite satisfied. A rice field looks very like oats, it does not grow so high perhaps. Last week while returning through the forest, came across an enormous Boa Constrictor, curled up and asleep on the ground; this is the first I have seen in these countries, though the people say they are not rare, sometimes coming into the houses to steal chickens etc., they are quite harmless, still at the same time, I cannot say that I care to go very near them, fancy a creature as thick round as the fleshy part of one’s arm and more than ten feet long.

I do not go out so much in the rainy season; about every other day; the mornings are almost invariably fine, but often in the afternoons we have a deluge, the rivers rise several feet in a few hours, the water going down again next day. I don’t suppose we have six wet mornings in a year, the rains always come in the afternoon, the hotter and finer the morning, the heavier the rain.

Require very little clothing as you can imagine. The people get up very soon at daylight, about 5.30/6 AM. I go off as early as possible, as by 9 or 10 AM the sun is very hot indeed. Have only once felt the effects from the sun, and that was a year ago. (Of course I keep in the shade as much as possible).

I hope at the very latest to be home before my next birthday (have already spent 4 in Central America). Should, however, anything very urgent arise, I should return in the winter. You of course should address me care of the British Consul, Panama.

With kind returns to all old friends, and best love to all.

I remain….


Thursday 13th September 2012 (Letter 18th August 1882)

GCC sends an update from Panama

This latest letter from my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion, contains little of great interest, but brings his mother up to date on his activities during the previous two months. By this stage in his four-year expedition, he was writing less and less, perhaps because his activities seemed too mundane and similar to those mentioned already in previous letters. It is still interesting to note the effects on availability and prices of goods, even in the distant and remote state of Chiriquí, of the presence of huge numbers of workers engaged on construction of the Panama Canal. This French attempt, under Ferdinand De Lesseps, was doomed to failure, with an estimated 22,000 workers dying of tropical diseases, but in 1882 the digging had only just begun, and the demand for food products even as far away as Chiriquí was already being felt.

The emptiness of the landscape in Chiriquí in 1882 is also mentioned. Even today, there are vast areas of virtually uninhabited land, although now large numbers of housing developments are springing up, particularly attracting Canadians fleeing their icy winters.

A river similar to that mentioned by GCC


August 18th, 1882

My dear Mother,

A few lines to say that I am quite well and going on as usual; I have no special news; am busy packing up a 5th case for Mr.Godman to send off by next steamer. I was glad to hear of the safe arrival of my 4th box. Since I came to Chiriquí, have heard very seldom from Mr. Godman or Salvin. I have sent my boy purposely to David, involving a 50-mile ride on horseback to get letters – for nothing; perhaps, however, their letters have got lost on the way.

When I first arrived in Central America, I little thought I would have to live as I have had to do, but I have got used to it long ago; I remember very well my first impressions at Zapote; now I think nothing of it. Though we are now having a great deal of rain, the rivers have not risen very much, one can still travel easily enough; our worst river for this is Rio Piedra, but the water is still low. I forded it a few days ago; these rivers which carry off all the drainage from the mountain range to the sea are full of immense blocks of stone, and as they run downhill, have a very strong current. It is now cooler with the wet weather, the thermometer normally about 85 in the shade now falling as low as 70 in the night; in the dry season especially in February, it is much hotter; it is a great bother in the rainy season to dry one’s things, you need to put everything out in the sun in the morning, the rain seldom begins till the afternoon.

Owing to the Canal business in Panama, many articles of food are getting very scarce; of course you get all these things fast enough by paying more in David. Bananas, so abundant and cheap a few months ago, can hardly be got now; great difficulty sometimes to get sugar.

In some respects I prefer Chiriquí to Guatemala; you can get nearly everything you want in David and expenses are very much lighter, the only thing in this country is you cannot travel so much, the country is very thinly inhabited, scarcely any roads and only about half a dozen villages or towns, though everywhere there are plains and good pasture for cattle, there are people living. Shall wait a few days for the steamer, then leave perhaps to visit Vivala, or other places far distant.

I remain etc.

French attempts at construction of the Panama Canal


Saturday 25th August 2012 (Letter 21st July 1882)

4,000 cattle are required for the Panama Canal construction workers to eat (although in the end, 22,000 were to die of disease and malnutrition), and GCC berates the German settlers for their meanness.

Oxeoschistus euriphyle, photographed in the cloudforest above Boquete


July 21st, 1882

My dear Mother,

I think I wrote last from the Potrerillos, from which place I went to Nance Bonito, remaining a few days and then returning to Bugabita. I have now but just returned from the mountains, from the Potrero del Volcán, about 25 miles distant. Have been up at this place some time, and only came down now for want of provisions and from the bad weather; staying as before with a party of native hunters, and living principally on wild boar, deer, monkey and turkey meat.

Of course, I had no opportunity of writing while away on this trip. I have sent twice to David for letters but did not get any, though I believe there must be some there by this time. I shall have to go myself I expect to hunt them up. We are now well into the winter or rainy season though as a rule in the hot low country, the mornings are very fine, and sunny, the rain not coming till the afternoon. But up in the mountains we saw very little indeed of the sun, it was very dull nearly all the time.

The natives go up to the mountains occasionally to hunt, they are all very good shots and collect sarsparilla, india rubber, honey etc; they prefer doing this to working; they will only work from necessity.

I went to David about a month ago and there found some newspapers of mine of January, six months on the way, and an old letter of Walker’s. The date of my return to England is very uncertain, as there is some talk of a visit to the Pearl Islands.

I have very little to write about this time, as have visited no new places and have no news. Owing to the Panamá Canal, everything is getting much dearer; 4000 cattle are required from Chiriquí; these will be sent off from time to time to Panamá, a great deal of rice (this is a greater necessity of life than bread in England) is also sent now to Panamá, crude sugar also; bananas are difficult to obtain. In David you get all these things easily enough even if dearer, but not here; in the country it is a different thing. The first maize crop is now coming in and of this they make cakes etc, though they don’t know how to make tortillas, as in Guatemala. Also they make a sort of pudding, from it; the rice crop will also soon begin, that is, if it is not destroyed by insects. The natives are in great trouble just now on this account.

They have prayer meetings nearly every night often continued through the whole night. These people are all very religious, though very superstitious, believing in all sorts of nonsense. Am now accustomed to eat almost anything the natives eat in Chiriquí, except the ‘chichas’; these are messes like porridge, made from rice, maize, palm fruits etc, but I do not take to them. The principal dish is what they call “arroz seco”; this is rice boiled and steamed and flavoured with salt and lard, it really is not bad. Meat will only keep fresh one day, it has to be salted and dried in the sun, otherwise it goes bad directly. A joint you rarely see, it is always cut into long strips a yard or more in length. Of fruit we get very little, beyond pineapple, oranges and mangos, up in the mountains last week we had plenty of blackberries, of these the natives are very fond.

Sometimes they have a native ball or ‘pindin’ in Bugabita. I think I told you about these balls when I was in David last Christmas. Here in the campo, it is a little different. Only one or two couples dance at a time. They dance face to face not touching one another, on a plank; when tired another couple takes their place and so it goes on all night to the music of two or three fiddles, and a hollow tube with peas inside which is constantly shaken and makes an awful noise, sometimes the people singing a sort of chant also. They don’t stop for a moment the whole night. The worst of it is that towards morning most of them get drunk and take to fighting one another with large machetes (knives) they all carry, often cutting one another very badly. At all these balls, there are at least twice as many women as men. On a cool moonlight night, I sometimes go to watch for an hour or so. Nearly all the people, men and women, dress in white and straw hats, and of course are barefoot.

These balls, and the prayer meetings or valorios, to sing and pray for rain for good crops, are the only changes the natives have and at the valorios they also keep it up all night singing Spanish hymns to the music of a violin or two, but at these, they do not get drunk or fight. The natives seldom if ever molest the foreigners, they will steal little things sometimes but not often. Some of the houses have no doors and the people go in and out constantly, leaving no one to mind the place. The people are however bad in many ways, they call all the foreigners ‘rich’ and will cheat in every way they can. You make all sorts of arrangements with them and they never think of keeping their word; of gratitude they have none, you help them sometimes in various ways when they are pushed, but if you want the least thing from them afterwards, they will not give it. In all these countries, the people are mean to a degree, even I must say many of the foreigners, especially the Germans. I have never seen such meanness at home. I know not when I shall have a chance of sending off this letter but write now while I have the opportunity.

I am yours etc.

Catasticta teutila, photographed along the Sendero de los Quetzales, above Boquete