Thursday 5th April 2012 (Letter 11th January 1880)


Today’s letter, sent by George Charles Champion home to his mother on January 11th, 1880, introduces his servant Leopoldo, who was to accompany him faithfully for the rest of his stay in Guatemala, and was even to accompany him to Panama. He then mentions the prominent German community in Cobán, and even describes a robbery from the sugar warehouse – clearly that type of crime is nothing new in Guatemala!

January 11th, 1880

My dear Mother,

I am once more in the Capital after an absence of nearly six months; I spent a very quiet Xmas as I told you in my last letter, at San Gerónimo – nothing whatever to distinguish it from any other day, not even a pudding! On the 26th, they were rather noisy in the village, what with their religious processions, they carry life size figures of saints about the streets, often accompanied by a lot of boys dressed up as devils, and continually letting off fireworks, beating drums, ringing the church bells, and altogether making a horrible din.

On Sunday the 28th, Mr. Morgans having abandoned the trip, I started off with a young negro as servant for Cobán, 50 miles to the north; by riding hard all day we reached Saltic (about 30 miles) by dark, slept here and left early next morning for Cobán, arriving about 2 p.m. I remained at Cobán till Jan 2nd. I already know one or two people of this place, and soon made many more acquaintances, German, English, and American, so the time soon passed. There are two German naturalists living in Cobán, both of whom had been expecting me for some time. There are many Germans (nearly all of whom speak English) in this town, the principal place in Alta Vera Paz, and nearly, if not all of the Europeans and Americans living here, have coffee estates; wherever you go you find coffee plantations.

GCC's servant Leopoldo

There are several thousand Indians living in Cobán also, the women do up their hair in a most extraordinary fashion, quite different to what I have seen elsewhere. At a distance they look as if they had tied one of those long red bags of sawdust we use for keeping out the draught to their hair, it reaches nearly to the ground like a pigtail and on either side is another long red tail, with a tassel at the end. It must be very uncomfortable, I should think to carry such a load about with them.

I stopped in Cobán at the Hotel Alemán on New Year’s Eve. Most of the Germans met here, and had a supper sitting up to see the old year out and the new one in; I was invited also. It is cool in Cobán but warm in the sun, the climate is very humid, nine or ten rain months in the year, and very suitable for coffee; the town is as it were on the top of the mountains and whichever way you look you see mountains, it is about the same elevation as the top of the highest mountain in Scotland.

I could not remain long enough in Cobán to visit the places I wanted, Cubilguitz, Cajabón, Lanquin, Chiacam, and so I shall have to go there again very soon; about Cobán itself there is nothing but coffee plantations, consequently little to be found in my way. On Jan 2nd I left Cobán and next day got back again to San Gerónimo; on the 6th started with Mr.Morgans for the capital, arriving about 5.30 p.m. on the 7th, travelling 69 miles in the two days; of course, all these journeys are made on mule or horseback.
There are but few cart roads in this country.

It is now in Guatemala very fine, rains all over in this part, hot in the sun, but also a strong cool wind, almost a cloudless sky today, the three volcanoes very plainly to be seen. The Fuego as usual smoking away. I know many people here now, still I don’t want to remain longer than I am obliged; expenses are very heavy indeed, 6d goes for next to nothing, you need be made of money to remain long in the capital. No sooner did I get back again to this place, than my teeth began again, so after standing it two or three days, I went to the dentist (an American whom I knew) and had the three decayed wisdom teeth extracted, and already feel all the better for it. Have not yet received the box sent by Mr. G on Oct 1; it would have remained, I believe six months at the port, had I not returned here to enquire about it. The European mail due a week or more ago had not yet arrived and goodness knows when it will, the Panama railway not being in regular working order yet.

Mr. Morgans has delayed his return a few weeks; he says he hopes to be in London for a few days, when he will call and see you, letting you know previously. I think you will like him very much, he is one of the most agreeable fellows I have ever met with.

Guatemala has improved a little since my last visit, the streets are much better lighted with petroleum gas. There is no gas like we have in England in this country but petroleum gives a very good light.

I probably return to San Gerónimo this week; it is doubtful whether I shall wait for Mr. Morgans. I want to see my luggage on the way that is all – perhaps I may go to Amatitlán (18 miles distant) – if so, shall be here a little longer, from San Gerónimo I go to San Joaquin (45 miles), then to Cobán again.

No sooner does the rain cease in this part of Guatemala, than the vegetation dries up, and everything looks very brown, and arid, but in Alta Vera Paz it is green all the year round. On the way up from San Gerónimo we slept in our hammocks in the open air, in the corridor of a house, here it was very hot, but in Guatemala it is very much cooler.

In Saltic it is very cold in the night, and often foggy early in the morning. Though a hot sun in the day, you get all sorts of climates in Guatemala, every few miles it changes. One night you sleep in a place where it is so cold that you cannot get warm, the next perhaps in a place sweltering hot like La Tinta.

Have made the acquaintance of a young German, a Mr Rockstroh, who has charge of the observatory in Guatemala, he is a good naturalist and knows this country well. I hope some day to make a joint trip with him. I wonder when I shall see a fireplace again, have not seen one since I left home. Another jeweller has started only a few doors from two others; nearly all in this trade in Guatemala and Central and South America also are Swiss and they bring out Swiss or German workmen, they make a show in the window, all the stock is inside. One of these, a Mr. Widmer, has an large stock of jewellery (but all French and watches and clocks – German, American and Swiss); have scarcely seen any English goods here, beyond common Birmingham things, they get an enormous price for everything, as they need to pay expenses, and duty which is I believe about 50 percent on all imported articles.

I think I have now told you all the news, so now close this, with very best love to all. I wish I could send you a little Guatemalan weather. I dare say you would be glad of it just now.

Believe me dear mother
Yours affectionately
George. C. Champion

P.S. I believe I did not fully answer your last letter and I came away from San Gerónimo without it..
Jan 12th: Went yesterday (Sunday) to bull fight in afternoon, theatre in evening, it seems queer going to these places on a Sunday, but it is the fashion in this country.
I forgot to tell you that two nights before Xmas several men broke into the sugar warehouse at San Gerónimo, they made a large hole in the roof and put a little boy through, letting him down, with a rope, but they were disturbed before they had time to take much away; we were running about searching for these men half the night, some were hiding in the gardens, it was broad moonlight but they all escaped, next day however the little boy confessed and the men were captured and put into prison. There were four of them, all but one were working on the estate.

The sugar warehouse in San Gerónimo, through whose roof the robber must have entered

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