Tuesday 20th March 2012 (Letter 7th September 1879)

GCC is shaken by an earthquake, and is shocked by the extra-filthy habits of pigs in Guatemala!

Here is the next of my great grandfather’s letters to his mother, dated 7th September, 1879. As well as the earthquake he felt, he seemed to suffer particularly severely from neuralgia, not a disease with which I am familiar, but according to Wikipedia: The disorder generally causes short episodes of excruciating pain, usually for less than two minutes and usually on only one side of the face. The pain can be described in a variety of ways such as “stabbing,” “sharp,” “like lightning”, “burning,” and even “itchy”. It certainly does not sound pleasant.

Sept. 7th, 1879

My dear Mother,

I am still here in San Gerónimo; have been very comfortable in this house, a good bed and good food all the time; have already been a month in this place. Am still troubled a great deal with neuralgia, and suppose I shall be until the rainy season is over in October, otherwise have been very well all the time.

I find my servant (Guillermo) Dubón very useful in many ways. I always take him out with me, have been out nearly every day except Sundays, though often driven in early in the afternoon by the rain. We have had a little less rain in the daytime since I last wrote so have managed to get about more. One thing, the soil is sandy so it soon dries up with the heat of the sun; still the climate is very humid and will be for another month.

Shall probably leave early tomorrow for an expedition to some places (Santa Barbara, San José, San Antonio etc) in the mountains, but only for two or three days, returning again to San Gerónimo. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some months, making journeys all round.

I had a letter from Mr. Salvin by last mail, telling me to go to Godines and Patzitzia on the road to Quetzaltenango, but the letter came too late, I was already far away in another direction.

We have had two shocks of earthquake lately, the last during the night of September 1st was rather severe, lasting several minutes. Mr. Morgans is still in Guatemala, but Mr. Hutchison is here, the manager a Spaniard also speaks English, so am never very ‘dull’. Sunday mornings, the work people are drilled in the village by the military authorities; if they fail to attend, they are put in prison. Military service is compulsory; in case of war these people would have to go as soldiers.

Barefooted soldiers, Guatemala, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1875

The village is larger than it appears at first, the houses are a good way apart, the roads are very bad indeed. In going along the street, you meet any number of dogs, pigs, fowls, naked children, also women bringing water in queer shaped earthern vessels balanced on their heads, from the river; they have to fetch every drop they want for their houses. Down by the river, all day long you see the Negro and Indian women washing clothes etc., they stand in the water and scrub away on a piece of rock. Everything is washed in this way but in Guatemala and other places where they have not a river to go to, there are public washing places adjoining the numerous street fountains.

Pulling cloth and doing the laundry, by Muybridge, 1875

Public Laundry, Guatemala, by Muybridge, 1875

Such public laundries still exist - here my guide Luisa Zea poses by one

In the village, the people make no attempt at keeping a garden. A few grow a little maize, or a few bananas, they seldom keep up a fence round their ground, all is dirt and squalor. The workpeople on the estate earn 1/- a day (some only 6d); on this they keep a wife and family. I pay my man 9/- a week and 1/- extra for Sundays, this is considered good wages, and he is very well satisfied. He is quite smart compared with many here, wears boots and so on. The estate is very large; one of the coffee plantations is six miles away. Santa Barbara up in the mountains also belongs to them; they, however, only cultivate a small portion of it. They make their own butter, cheese, etc., also their own bread. They live a great deal in this house upon fowl, we have meat also, but is seldom good (meat is only about 4d a pound). Few people care to eat pork, the pigs being extra filthy in their habits in Guatemala. Looking down onto the village from the hills, the houses appear surrounded by trees, here and there a large palm and a solitary coconut tree just by this house, the large white church stands conspicuous above all, and is a prominent landmark for miles around.

We rarely see a stranger, only two in a month, one a German on his way to Cobán (whose horse had come to grief on the road), the other a Frenchman who has a small estate about ten miles away; of course the German spoke English, it is wonderful how they pick up languages as they do.

This house immediately adjoins the church, so close that we hear the singing, they are always ringing the bells for some thing or other, though they only have services very early on Sunday morning and Saints’ Days, just now they are going round the village with a life size figure of some saint or other, which they will presently bring to the church, and after its arrival, I suppose will let off the usual fireworks, according to custom; it seems strange, fireworks in the daytime.

Such saints are still paraded through towns today - this one was in the capital

In the house, they have two tame animals, a porcupine, and a kinkajou, the latter is very tame, is not unlike a large squirrel, only with a long tail like a monkey. He sleeps all day, but in the evening, is fond of a game. You see a few cats about, but not many. Mr. Morgans brought the kinkajou from Izabal, where they are said to be common. Mr. Morgans, I believe, intends returning to England in December, and if he comes out again, will probably bring his wife and family with him. We get very little fruit in San Gerónimo beyond oranges, lemons, and bananas. Grapes are grown in Salamá, but I have not seen any yet.

In the mountains, there are a few nice plants in flower, a beautiful orchis on the oak trees (flowers pale yellow with dark markings) and many others. There are two species of begonias, a few tree ferns and palms etc. I am obliged to post letters sooner here to catch the mail, post only goes twice a week from Salamá to the capital, still no newspapers or books. The mail arriving in Guatemala on the 4th may have brought something, if so may get them tomorrow when we send to Salamá.

Hoping you are keeping well and with best love to all,
Believe me, etc.

A view near San Geronimo, with the hills in which GCC collected insects, in the background


Sunday 18th March 2012 (Letter 19th August 1879)

GCC travels to San Gerónimo, and settles into his new quarters

Today’s letter, covering much the same ground as the previous one I posted, is this time to his mother rather than to his employer, and describes my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s mule-ride from Guatemala City to San Gerónimo, where he was to base himself for almost a year. I visited this place myself on 30th August, 2011, and although the actual former monastery adjoining the church of San Gerónimo, in which GCC slept, no longer stands, the church is still there, as are the sugar-cane processing buildings and some of the original equipment. The complex is now a museum. When I visited, the staff were on strike, but by jumping over a fence with the aid of my enthusiastic guide Eduar, I managed to explore the area and get a feel for this place, which hosted my great grandfather for so long (please see my diary entry for 31st August 2011).

The church next to which GCC lodged for nearly a year

Hacienda de San Gerónimo
Baja Vera Paz

August 19th 1879

My dear Mother,

I received your letter of July 15th yesterday, it having been forwarded to me from Guatemala.

I left Guatemala on the 8th instant, in company with a young Canadian – Mr. Hutchison, of Montreal, who is at present living here. Mr. Morgans could not get through his business in time and is still detained in Guatemala. I was very glad to get away from the hotel, the lazy life there did not suit me and one’s expenses are very heavy there. We started about midday on the 8th and spent the first night at Carrizal, where I tried sleeping in a hammock, but though a hammock is very comfortable indeed for an occasional rest in the daytime, I cannot say I liked it very much for the night; next morning at daylight, we were again on the road, rested a short time at Trapiche Grande, spent the second night there, then on again for a long spell till nearly dusk when we arrived at Llano Grande, starting again at 2 a.m. the next day for San Gerónimo, the mules and ourselves being nearly worn out with this long journey of 70 miles. The road and mule track all the way kept ascending or descending ranges of mountains, crossing rivers (some difficult to ford), some places very bad indeed to pass, the road occasionally up to our animals’ knees. I shall long remember the last stage of the journey: we started by the aid of a little moonlight, but this soon failed and we almost had to feel our way over the most fearful roads I have ever seen; between Llano Grande and San Gerónimo we had to cross the high mountain range of Choacus. We were over three hours passing this place, getting to the top soon after daylight, and to make matters worse, it commenced to pour with rain; as we descended the other side, we had the broad green valley of Salamá at our feet, and on the opposite side more ranges of mountains; at the extreme end of this valley San Gerónimo is situated.

Some of the original sugar-cane processing buildings

Mr. Morgans kindly forwarded my luggage, and one of his servants accompanied us on the road. I am very comfortable here once more with civilised people, the food is also very good and everything is more comfortable. This place is about midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, much hotter than Guatemala but not so hot as Zapote, the thermometer in the house is usually between 70 and 80; we have all our meals in the verandah, which is much more pleasant in a tropical country, all round the view is backed up by mountain ranges on three sides quite close in; only the upper part of house is used for living in, so everything is very dry. This house was formerly a monastery, consequently is very large with many rooms.

There are many negroes in San Gerónimo (the house servants are negroes also) formerly brought from Belize to work in the cane fields, also Indians and half-breeds. The village is far superior to Dueñas, here houses with plaster or mud bricks walls and tiled roofs, in Dueñas only ranchos of sticks and thatch; still it does not bear close inspection, and looks far better at a distance, pigs swarm all over the place. The sun is very powerful in the morning, in the afternoons we almost invariably have heavy storms, with much thunder and lightning. One can only depend on the morning being fine.

Have at last met with a servant, who will, I think, quite suit me, he is recommended to me by Mr. Morgans and is now with me on trial, he has been about with me a good deal near the “finca”.

Living in the house, there is Mr. Hutchison, then the manager of the estate, which belongs to English people, continual lawsuits are however swallowing up all the profits. Mr. Morgans was appointed by the Court of Chancery to come out to superintend the management – a Spaniard, who speaks English, an Italian connected with the estate and myself. We form a party of four in all. Mr. Morgans will probably be here soon, then we shall muster five. The estate is very large, they have a great quantity of sugar cane, coffee plantations etc. and plenty of maize also. I hope to make this place my headquarters for some time, making journeys all round in the neighbourhood, and returning again to San Gerónimo till the rainy season is over; shall endeavour to remain as I have an open invitation to stop as long as I like. San Gerónimo is but a small village (about 3000 feet above the sea) at the foot of the Choacus mountains; our nearest town is Salamá, two leagues distant. They cook everything better here and put less of the everlasting fluids with the food, which agrees with me very well and does not upset one’s stomach; am very well in health here except that I am still troubled a good deal at night with neuralgia. I have received but four letters from you, but from reading your last, I seem to have missed one; have, however, I am sorry to say, received but one newspaper, have not received the books. I cannot understand it, newspapers must be posted for abroad within I think a week of publication, but for books there is no limit of time, perhaps it would be as well to send the newspapers via San Francisco, I believe they are detained for some reason or other at Panama, a perusal of the postal guide as to foreign postage regulations may set things right; there being no postal treaty between England and Guatemala often causes delay or loss of letters etc. I have read good deal about the Prince Imperial’s death in the Illustrated London News, while at Dueñas, also in the Graphic here at San Gerónimo.

A road along which GCC undoubtedly rode on his mule, looking down towards San Geronimo

You seem to be having a queer sort of summer in England. I cannot say I have find it very cold here, quite the reverse but have never seen such a quantity of rain before as in the last 3 months, sometimes after the rain here the rivers are impassable for a time till the water goes down again. Our new tramway cars with awning on top and drawn by three mules must appear very strange to Londoners; out here and in the West Indies you see mules used far more than horses. I should like you to see how some of the negroes dress here, they are fond of wearing a white shirt but they never tuck in the tail, always leave it hanging out so as to show it all, this and a pair of shorts constitute their costume. I find my clothes too heavy for this country. Mr. Hutchison kindly lent me some white things (I could not get any ready made in Guatemala). When the sun is out, it is very hot indeed, but morning and evening there is always a cool breeze and it is very pleasant in the verandahs; at night, too, here in the mountains can always beg a blanket on the bed. I found it much hotter in the night in Jamaica and also on the steamer on the way out than here. I should like to send some ferns at home for father but at present don’t see how I can send them alive, am obliged to keep the collections I send to Mr. Godman (have sent 2 lots) as dry as I possibly can, and living plants could hardly be sent with them. Ferns are much rarer here, the soil is more sandy, and perhaps not so suitable; instead we have many Cacti, Agaves, a sort of wild pineapple and other spiny plants of this nature. Zapote was far more prolific in vegetation.

I must now bring this rambling epistle to a close with very best love to all and hoping you are all enjoying good health.

An amazing spider we found near San Geronimo

A mating pair of grasshoppers near San Geronimo

An "airplane grasshopper", photographed near San Geronimo

A brightly-coloured froghopper, found near San Geronimo


Friday 16th March 2012 (Letter 8th August 1879)

GCC is “Fíjese-ed” by Mr Morgans, and crosses the Choacus mountains

Note: Fíjese is a word frequently used by usually well-meaning people in Guatemala to stall an arrangement they have made with you, not realising that that you too have a schedule, and that every extra day spent waiting and hoping in a hotel adds to your costs…I experienced it myself on several occasions!

Following the disturbing discovery that Guatemalan criminals had copied my Dutch credit card and had started using it to make transactions, but that luckily the bank had realised it and blocked the card, we now return to the letters sent from Guatemala during my great grandfather G C Champion’s stay from 1879 to 1881. This particular letter, dated August 20th, 1879, covers his three-day mule ride from the capital, over the rugged Choacus (Chuacus) mountains, to San Gerónimo, which was to become his base for almost a year. The letter is written in his usual matter-of-fact style, with hardly any allusion to the hardships the journey involved. However, his diary entries reveal more:

Friday 8th August 1879:

Left Guatemala with Mr Hutchinson and a servant at 1.00 P.M., passing Chinoutla (?) and along valley, ascending mountain range to 4,000 feet, with good view of Guatemala. Slept at Carrizal. On way found fresh Chalcolepidius (an Elaterid beetle) and Gymnopleurus (a Scarabid beetle). V. hot and sunny.

Saturday 9th August 1879:

Left Carrizal at 5.30 A.M.; arr. Trapiche Grande at 9 A.M. Breakfasted and left at 11 A.M. Arr. Llano Grande at 5.30 P.M., where remained the night. Arr. very tired, roads frightful. Passed Buenaventura at about 1.30 P.M., about 1,500 feet. Fine all day; heavy rain late in evening.

Sunday 10th August 1879:

Left Llano Grande, 2,600 feet, at 2.00 A.M., for San Gerónimo, 2,900 feet, where arr. at 11 A.M. v. tired and almost worn out, mule also. Started by moonlight at 3.00 A.M. V. dark and heavy rain; nearly 3 hours crossing the mountain range of the Choacus; saw at least 6 fresh Diurni on the way. Much rain in aft.

The Choacus mountains, through which GCC travelled on his mule

Hacienda de San Gerónimo,
Baja Vera Paz

August 20th, 1879

My dear Sir,

After about a fortnight’s detention in Guatemala, I was obliged to leave without Mr Morgans. Took the opportunity, however, of journeying here in the company of a friend of his, a Mr Hutchinson, who is at present living in the hacienda. I should not have remained so long in Guatemala, only as I had accepted Mr Morgan’s invitation to come here, I was obliged in some sense to study his convenience.

I left on the 8th and arrived at San Gerónimo in the morning of the 11th. The roads were very bad from the recent rains, and we were very long on the way. It was a wearisome task crossing the Choacus mountains. We left Llano Grande at 2 AM by moonlight, and did not reach San Gerónimo till nearly noon.

I received your letter of July 16th yesterday; I hope in your next to hear that you have received my first consignment. Have only just received the bill of lading of the second – I enclose it in case it is required. Have not yet received bill of lading for the first. I believe it was sent on to Antigua and that it is now with Mr Wyld; have written to him for it. I hope there will be no difficulty in getting the boxes on this account. Have not yet received the promised pins and additional card.

Am sorry I cannot at present act upon your suggestions of visiting Pacicia (Patzitzia) or Godines. I don’t think the high ground between Antigua and Guatemala (City) would have produced much – there is very little forest. I worked, however, Las Calderas, which is at a similar elevation, 6,000 to 6,500 feet. Had some idea of Quezaltenango (Quetzaltenango) and Las Nubes before I went to Vera Paz, but the rains were so bad, and no signs of a “canicula”. I thought under the circumstances I had better accept Mr Morgans’ kind invitation for San Gerónimo. Perhaps later in the year I may be able to go to Los Altos.

I think of making this place my head quarters in Vera Paz, and working all round. Am told that Purulá, Panimá, Santa Barbara, Panzós and other places near will pay for working. Have at last secured a servant; I think I shall find him very useful. He tells me that you taught him how to skin birds, collect insects, etc. His name is Guillermo Doubon. Mr Morgans has been employing him to shoot and skin birds, and to collect a few butterflies for him. from what I have seen of his work, he has profited greatly from your tuition, and he can really skin birds very well. I think I shall find him a great acquisition.

Mr Morgans’ aneroid (a better one than mine) registers about 200 feet higher than the one I have. I make San Gerónimo about 2,950 feet. Have already collected a great many insects in this neighbourhood. Butterflies on the whole are comparatively rare here; still I have taken about a dozen additional species, including some nice little Lycaenidae strange to me – only single examples, though of course many common Pieridae, Hesperiidae and Heliconidae; there are many fresh Bombyces, Geometridae here; plenty of Hemiptera, especially at Payaque; not many Coleoptera, still perhaps 50 additional species. Not a few Hymenoptera and Neuroptera; Orthoptera very few indeed.

The rain every afternoon prevents me going very far from San Gerónimo. I want to get onto the hills, to Santa Barbara or Matanza, but am kept back by the rain. Was in hopes of getting many additional species on the pine-clad slopes of the Choacus mountains, but have not yet succeeded in getting much. The place, except in the hollows, is very arid.

Did you get Rodriguez’s letter? I enclose one from Mr Wyld.

I trust I am not departing from my instructions in coming so soon to Vera Paz.

With best respects to Mr Godman and yourself,

I remain, Yours truly,

Geo. C. Champion

P.S. I presume I shall be doing right when the £100 placed to my credit at the bank is exhausted in drawing upon F. Huth & Co. for additional sums of £50 when required. At present of course I have plenty to go o

The type of "road" GCC would have had to travel on