Sunday 22nd July (Letter 2nd July 1881)

GCC comes down from the mountains, and broils in the heat

This brief letter from my great grandfather George Charles Champion covers a short visit he made to the capital of the Province of Chiriquí, David, in order to send off a consignment of his insect captures to his employers Godman and Salvin in London. He clearly suffers greatly from the heat of the humid tropical lowlands.

Self at the entrance of Caldera, where GCC stayed with the Buergi family

July 2nd, 1881

My dear Mother,

I have just returned from the mountain slope to David, to pack up a collection to send off, spent a whole month with a very hospitable Swiss family, named Buergi, settled there planting coffee etc; here it is hot enough to melt one, 80-95 degrees, but up on the mountain it is much cooler; remain a week or two in David waiting for the steamer, then return to the higher ground. Climate not so bad, still raining however most of the time, but infinitely preferable to Panama (City), pretty well used to the heat now. It is very fortunate I have brought my able attendant (Leopoldo) with me; we are pretty well used to one another by this time, many people here would like to take him away from me.

Have obtained fairly good quarters here and made the acquaintance of nearly all the coffee planters on the mountain slope; on the whole have got on better in my first two months in Chiriquí than in Guatemala, of course owing to knowing a little of the language and ways of the people. Have already made a large collection in Chiriquí, enough to give them (employers Godman and Salvin) plenty of work for several months, the humid climate however is a great drawback; nothing will dry properly.

The town of David is very green, trees everywhere about the houses and most of the streets covered with grass, plenty of coconut, breadfruit and other trees, amongst which you see numerous small parrots and other birds, at night there is a continuous humming noise from the insects, frogs etc.; most of the houses have a verandah in front where the people sit in the evening to get a little cool, the rooms inside are too hot, fortunately there are very few mosquitoes and one can sleep without netting. There is a river near for bathing and good water to drink, things you do not find in dirty Panama. Though we are out of sight of the sea, and a few miles off, we hear the boom of the surf.

This is my 8th letter, so now must close,

I am etc.

A Cerambycid (Longicorn) beetle, Boquete, Panama


Saturday 21st July 2012

Large Chequered Skippers

The Large Chequered Skipper, Heteropterus morpheus, is a butterfly with a disjointed distribution, occurring in marshy areas across Europe. There is one region where it can still be found in the Netherlands, but it has declined drastically even there since around 2005, and nobody really knows why. I saw it in profusion in a wonderful wetland reserve called De Groote Peel in 2001 and 2003, but it has since then virtually disappeared from there, with just a few records of lone individuals. This year I saw two in a nearby wooded area, but the very limited area in which they could be found was attracting large numbers of butterfly enthusiasts, who despite their love of this rare species, were trampling the vegetation in order to obtain better close-ups.


Wednesday 11th July 2012 (Letter 5th June 1881)

GCC compares monkeys to milkmen, and meets a cigar-smoking negress

In this letter, my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion details his move from Nance Bonito to Potrerillas, also on the southern slopes of the Volcan Baru. I too visited Potrerillas in December 2011 (see my diary entry for then), but it was impossible to locate precisely where he stayed, partly as there are now two villages, Potrerillas Arriba (Upper) and Potrerillas Abajo (Lower), and partly because, as GCC himself describes in this letter, “This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof”. Such houses, unlike many of the well-established fincas in which he lodged in Guatemala, would not have stood the test of time and therefore are probably no longer standing today.

The two Potrerillas villages are still relatively small today, but are now surrounded by farms being sold off to housing developers for the construction of residential complexes, mainly for sale to Canadian settlers wishing to escape the northern winters.

Mixed forest and clearings above Potrerillas

June 5th 1881

My dear Mother,

Again we hear a rumour of a steamer coming this week, so write on the chance of being able to send this. I left Nance Bonito on May 27th for this place about 10 miles distant, still on slope of the mountain, but more to the east, and commanding a splendid view of the sea, coast and the mountains, plains and valleys to the north and east. This is also a coffee plantation, belonging to a Swiss family settled here; these people made me very welcome and appear glad to see a visitor. Still raining very much, just a few hours fine early, afternoons invariably wet with a great deal of mist and fog (though not cold as at home), enough to give one the blues at times, especially as we are only at the beginning of the rainy season, five or six months more of it yet. Can only work early in the morning. We are just on the margin of the forest, above us to the top of the mountains, all is dense forest, below great plains with thousands of cattle, above the mountains are quite uninhabited, the coffee plantations the highest settlements; the dozen or so planters are natives of either Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador or French, Swiss, German or English, a great mixture. Plenty of monkeys in the forest, one a pretty fellow with a white face, these animals when you go near them make a great chattering, and throw sticks etc down at you.

The natives when at work on the plantations make a great noise all the time, calling and shrieking out at the top of their voices, whether imitating the monkeys or not, I don’t know, they would make good milkmen; very different from the Indians of Guatemala, they live a lot together in a rancho, and the planters give them their meals, and rum also in the afternoons when working in the rain. There are not so many nice ferns in this country, though plenty of the large tree ferns, a good many small palms, orchids etc. Nearly all the people are barefoot, almost envy them at times when walking through the mud and water; except for the thorns, snakes etc, it is preferable.

I expected to be able to cross the range and work on the Atlantic side, but I find the country is unhabited except on the coast – Bocas del Toro, Fish Creek etc. and no road, except on foot. In a few weeks, shall go down to David and pack up a collection, then go perhaps to Bugaba, San Miguel etc.

No letters yet – though nearer home, seem much farther away than in Guatemala, knew what days the mail left, here mails don’t trouble the people much, they do without them, sending their letters by the first boat that comes – steamer or sailing vessel – for Panama.

The Swiss family here consists of two brothers (with their wives and families) who know England better than I do. This is Sunday evening, while I am writing one of these gentlemen is amusing himself catching moths for me and the others are reading etc. We get up very early, long before 6 a.m., have coffee first thing, breakfast about 11, dinner about 5.30, at 6 p.m. it is dark, to bed at 9. Thermometer at this elevation (3000 feet) generally 75, falling a little during the night, can sleep with two blankets; in David, a sheet is too much. This is a small wooden house with galvanised iron roof but there are few houses like this, nearly all the native habitations are miserable huts of sticks, mud and thatch. Bought two horses, but they have not turned out very good, wish I had my old mule again.

After heavy rain, the rivers smell very much and are often difficult to ford, scarcely any bridges in this country. My watch has kept gaining all the time, the spare one I brought with me I have not liked to sell in case I should injure the other. Travelling in these countries I have to make a selection of the most necessary things, as much as I can carry on the two horses – a change of clothes and boots I brought with me, bought a few cotton shirts, socks, collars, etc also lighter things for the heat, most of those I brought with me, much too heavy for the Tropics. How would you like a black or Indian servant in the house, barefooted, and with a cigar stuck in her mouth from morning till night, even when nursing a child? Such is the custom in these countries, men, women and children smoke from morning till night, tobacco is so cheap, often to be bought for 6d a pound, but they have no machinery to cut it up fine, so people smoke cigars or cigarettes. Fortunately, Mr. Salvin sent me a new waterproof coat, cannot stir out without one, generally carry a gingham also. I am getting very anxious about my letters, it is so long since I heard from you all, from Mr. Salvin the same, nothing of later date than the beginning of February, want to know very much what you are all dong; one thing, you hear from me, even if I do not from you. Expenses are lighter in Chiriquí than in Guatemala, drew money on Mr. Godman just before I left Guatemala, and again in Panama, but as yet have not had to spend much of it, in a country where people live on rice and salt beef, money will not help one much.

Hoping to hear good news when I do receive a letter, also that you have received the coffee (am afraid that you will have to pay more than I thought to get it) all right,

With best love to all,

Believe me,