Gendering Latin American Independence
List All Links | List Writing | List Archives | List References | List All People

Home » Database » Search » Writing

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan


Writing Type: Book


An account of his travels in Central America, Chaiaps and Yucatán. His primary purpose is to explore pre-Colombian archeological sites, but he also provided interesting descriptions of the native customs and traditions. He met Rafeal Carrera in Guatemala.

Keywords: Indigenous customs, Mexico, Rafeal Carrera, nuns,

Publisher: A. Hall, Virtue & Co.,

Archive: John Rylands Library

Text: pp.13-15.
The houses [at Puenta Gorda, a Carib Indian settlement] extended along the bank, at some distance apart; and the heat was so oppressive that, before reaching the last, we were to turn back; but our guide urged us to go on and see "one old woman", his grandmother. We followed and saw her. She was very old no one knew her age, but it was considerably over a hundred; and what gave her more interest in our eyes than the circumstance of her being the grandmother of our guide, she came from the island of St. Vincent, the residence of the most indomitable portion of her race; and she had never been baptized. She received us with an idiotic laugh; her figure was shrunken; her face shrivelled (p.14) weazened, and wicked; and she looked as though, in her youth, she had gloried in dancing at a feast of human flesh.

We returned, and found our friend, the padre, dressed in the contents of his pocket handkerchief, quite a respectable looking priest. By his side was our steamboat wash bowl, filled with holy water, and in his hand a prayer book. Augustin stood up, holding the stump of a tallow candle.

The Caribs, like most of the other Indians of Central America, have received the doctrines of Christianity as presented to them by the priests and monks of Spain, and are, in all things, strict observers of the forms prescribed. In this settlement, the visit of a padre was a rare but welcome occurrence. At first, they seemed to have a suspicion that our friend was not orthodox, because he did not speak Spanish; but when they saw him in his gown and surplice, with the burning incense, all distrust vanished.

There was little to be done in the way of marrying, there being a scarcity of men for that purpose, as most of them were away fishing or at work; but a long file of women presented themselves, each with a child in her arms for baptism. They were arranged around the wall in a circle, and the padre began. Of the first he asked a question which I believe is not to be found in the book, and which, in some places, it would be considered impertinent to put to a mother who offered her child for initiation into the Church, viz., whether she was married. She hesitated, smiled, laughed, and answered no. The padre told her that this was very wrong and unbecoming a good Christian woman, and advised her to take advantage of the present opportunity to marry the child's father. She answered that she would like to do so, but that he was away cutting mahogany; and here, as his questions and her answers had to pass through an interpreter, the affair began to be complicated; indeed, so many of the women interposed, all speaking at once, that the padre became aware he had touched upon delicate ground, and so passed on to the next.

In fact, even with the regular business our friend had enough to do. He understood but little Spanish; his book was in Latin; and not being able to translate as readily as the occasion required, he had employed the interval of our absence in copying on a slip of paper, from a Spanish Protestant prayer book, the formal part of the baptismal service. In the confusion this was lost, and the padre was thrown back upon his Latin, to be translated into Spanish as required. After labouring a while, he turned to Augustin, and gave him in the questions to put to the women. Augustin was a good Catholic and listened to him with as much respect as if he had been the pope, but (p.15) did not understand a word he said. I explained to Augustin in French, who explained to one of the men in Spanish, who explained to the women. This, of course, led to confusion; but all were so devout and respectful, that, in spite of these tribulations, the ceremony was solemn. When he came to the Latin parts, our friend rattled it off as fast as if fresh from the Propaganda at Rome, and the Caribs were not much behindhand.

The padre had told us of the passion of the Caribs for a multiplicity of names and one of the women, after giving her child three or four, pointed to me, and told him to add mine. I am not very strict, but I not care to assume wantonly the obligations of a godfather; and, stopping the ceremony, begged the padre to get me released with the best grace he could. He promised to do so : but it was an excessively day; the room was crowded, the doors choked up, and by this time the padre, with his Latin, and English, and, French, and Spanish, was in a profuse perspiration, and somewhat confused. I thought myself clear, till a few moments afterward, a child was passed along for me to take in my arms; but I was relieved on one point : I thought that it was the lady who had become a mother without being a wife, that wished her child to bear my name, but it was another; still, I most ungallantly avoided receiving the baby. On going away, however, the woman intercepted me, and, thrusting forward the child, called me compadre; so that, without knowing it, I became godfather to a Carib child. Fortunately, its mother was an honest woman, and the father stood by at the time. In all probability, I shall never have much to do with its training and I can only hope that, in due season, it will multiply the name and make it respectable among the Caribs.

[They stop at a remote rancho on the banks of the Motagua River. A white family greet them.]
When Mr. Catherwood arrived the tortillas were smoking, and we stopped to breakfast. They gave us the only luxury they had, coffee made of parched corn, which, in compliment to their kindness, we drank. Like me, Mr. C. was struck with the personal beauty of this family group. With the advantages of dress and education, they might be ornaments in cultivated society ; but it is decreed otherwise, and these young girls will go through life making tortillas.

[In Esquipulas]
In the course of the day I had an opportunity of seeing what I afterwards observed throughout all Central America: the life of labour and responsibility passed by the cura in an Indian village, who devotes himself faithfully to the people under his charge. Besides officiating in all the services of the church, visiting the sick, and burying the dead, my worthy host was looked up to by every Indian in the village as a counsellor, friend, and father. The door of the convent was always open, and Indians were constantly resorting to him: a man who had quarrelled with his neighbour; a wife who had been badly treated by her husband; a father whose son had been carried off as a soldier; a young girl deserted by her lover; all who were in trouble or affliction came to him for advice and consolation, and none went away without it. And, besides this, he was principal director of all the public business of the town: the right hand of the alcalde; and had been consulted whether or not I ought to be considered a dangerous person. But the performance of these multifarious duties, and the excitement and danger of the times, were wearing away his frame. Four years before he gave up the Capital, and took upon himself this curacy, and during, that time he had lived a life of labour, anxiety, and peril; cut off from all the delights of social intercourse that make labour welcome, beloved by the Indians, but without any to sympathize with him in his thoughts and feelings. Once the troops of [General] Morazan invaded the town, and for six months he lay concealed in a cave of the mountains, supported by Indians. Lately the difficulties of the country had increased, and the cloud of civil war was darker than ever. He mourned, but, as he said, he had not long to mourn; and the whole tone of his thoughts and conversation was so good and pure, that it seemed like a green spot in a sandy desert. We sat in the embrasure of a large window; within, the room was already dark. He took a pistol from the window sill, and, looking at it, said, with a faint smile, that the cross was his protection; and then he put his thin hand in mine, and told me to feel his pulse. It was slow and feeble, and seemed as if every beat would be the last; but he said it was always so; and, rising suddenly, added that this was the hour of his private devotions, and retired to his room. I felt as if a good spirit had flitted away.

[The village of San Jacinto, Quetzaltepeque]
In the afternoon I took a long walk on the bank of the river, and, returning, met a party of women, dressed in white with red shawls over the tops of their heads. I have seen enough of fancy colours in women to remove some prejudices, but retain an old-fashioned predilection for (p.108) white skins; and here I remarked that the whitest women were the prettiest, though the padre did not agree with me entirely. Under the shed of a deserted house near by was an old Indian with ten or twelve Indian girls, teaching them the catechism. They were dressed in red plaid cotton, drawn round the waist and tied in a knot on the left side, and a white handkerchief over the shoulders. Other parties were out in different planes, organizing for a village fete in honour of some saint; and towards evening, while sitting with the padre, now dressed in his long black gown, a procession advanced, headed by the oldest man in the village, with white hair and beard, and a lame man and two or three associates playing on violins. Before reaching the house they set off five or six rockets, and then all went up and saluted the padre, kissing the back of his band; the women went inside, carrying bundles wrapped in clean white napkins ; and when I went in to take my chocolate I found the table piled up with cakes and confectionary. Afterwards all went to the church for vesper prayers. I could but think, what subsequently impressed itself upon me more and more in every step of my journey in that country, blessed is the village that has a padre.

[The taking of the black veil ceremony at the Convent of La Concepción]
At this time a strain of music was heard at the other end of the church; a way was cleared through the crowd, and a procession advanced, consisting of the principal priests, clothed in their richest robes, and headed by the venerable Provisor, an octogenarian with white hair, and tottering on the verge of the grave, as remarkable for the piety of his life as for his venerable appearance. A layman bore on a rich frame a gold crown and sceptre studded with jewels. The procession advanced to a small door on the right of the grating, and the two black nuns and the probationer appeared in the doorway. Some words passed between her and the Provisor, which I understood to be an examination by him whether her proposed abandonment of the world was voluntary or not. This over, the Provisor removed the wreath of roses and the white veil, and put on her head the crown, and in her hand the sceptre. The music sounded loud notes of triumph, and in a few moments she reappeared at the grating with the crown and sceptre, and a dress sparkling with jewels. The sisters embraced her, and again threw roses upon her. It seemed horrible to heap upon her the pomp and pleasure of the world, at the moment when she was about to bid farewell to them for ever. Again she kneeled before the altar; and when she rose, the jewels and precious stones, the rich ornaments with which she was decorated, were taken from her, and she returned to the Provisor, who took away the crown and sceptre, and put on her head the black veil. Again she appeared before the grating ; at last, the fatal stop was not yet taken ; the black veil was not drawn. Again the nuns pressed round, and this time they almost devoured her with kisses.

I knew nothing of her story. I had not heard that the ceremony was to take place till late in the evening before, and I had made up my mind that she was old and ugly; but she was not, nor was she faded and worn with sorrow, the picture of a broken heart; nor yet (p.130) a young and beautiful enthusiast; she was not more than twenty-three, and had one of those good faces which, without setting men wild by their beauty, bear the impress of a nature well qualified for the performance of all the duties belonging to daughter, wife, and mother, speaking the kindliness and warmth of a woman's heart. It was pale, and she seemed conscious of the important step, and the solemn vows she was taking, and to have no pangs; and yet who can read what is passing in the human breast?

She returned to the Provisor, who drew over her face a black veil; and music rose in bursts of rejoicing, that one who was given to the world to take a share in its burdens had withdrawn herself from it. Immediately commenced the hum of restrained voices; and working my way through the crowd, I joined a party of ladies, one of whom was my fair countrywoman. She was from a small country town in Pennsylvania, and the romance of her feelings toward convents and nuns had not yet worn off. On Carrera's first invasion she had taken refuge in the convent of La Concepcion, and spoke with enthusiasm of the purity and piety of the nuns, describing some as surpassing in all the attributes of women. She knew particularly the one who had just taken the veil, and told me that in a few days she would appear at the grating of the convent to embrace her friends, and bid them farewell, and promised to take me and procure me a share in the distribution.

During this time rockets were fired from the steps, and in the street, immediately in front, was a frame of fireworks thirty feet high, which the whole crowd waited on the steps and in the street to see set off. Everybody spoke of the absurdity of such an exhibition by daylight, but they said it was the custom. The piece was complicated in its structure, and in the centre was a large box. There was a whizzing of wheels, a great smoke, and occasionally a red flash; and as the extremities burned out, for the finale, with a smart, cracking, the box flew open, and when the smoke cleared away, discovered the figure of a little black nun, at which all laughed and went away.

THE next three or four days I passed in receiving and paying visits, and in making myself acquainted with the condition of the country. Among the most interesting visitors was the venerable Provisor, since the banishment of the archbishop the head of the church, who, by a late bull of the Pope, had been appointed bishop; but, owing to the troubled times, had not yet been installed. A friend in Baltimore had procured for me a letter from the Roman Catholic archbishop in that city, to whom I here acknowledge my obligations, recommending me to all his brother ecclesiastics in Central America. The venerable Provisor received this letter as from a brother in the Church, and upon the strength of it, afterwards, when I set out for Palenque, gave me a letter of recommendation to all the curas under his charge. During the day my time passed agreeably enough; but the evenings, in which I was obliged to keep within doors, were long and lonely. My house was so near the plaza that I could hear the sentinels' challenge, and from time to time the report of a musket. These reports, in the stillness of night, were always startling. For some time I did not know the cause; but at length learned that cows and mules straggled about the city, which, heard moving at a distance and not answering the challenge, wore fired upon without ceremony.

There was but one paper in Guatimala, and that a weekly, and a mere chronicler of decrees and political movements. City news passed by word of mouth. Every morning everybody asked his neighbour what was the news. One day it was that an old deaf woman, who could not hear the sentinel's challenge had been shot; another, that Asturias, a rich old citizen had been stabbed ; and another morning the report circulated that thirty-three nuns in the convent of Santa Teresa had been poisoned. This was a subject of excitement for several days, when the nuns all recovered, and it was ascertained that they had suffered from the unsentimental circumstance of eating food that did not agree with them.

On Friday, in company with my fair countrywoman, I visited the (p.135) convent of La Concepcion for the purpose of embracing a nun, or rather the nun, who had taken the black veil. The room adjoining the parlatoria of the convent was crowded, and she was standing in the doorway with the crown on her head and a doll in her hand. It was the last time her friends could see her face; but this puerile exhibition of the doll detracted from the sentiment. It was an occasion that addressed itself particularly to ladies; some wondered that one so young should abandon a world to them beaming with bright and beautiful prospects; others, with whom the dreams of life had passed, looked upon her retirement as the part of wisdom. They embraced her, and retired to make room for others. Before our turn came there was an irruption of those objects of my detestation, the eternal soldiers, who, leaving their muskets at the door, forced their way through the crowd, and presenting themselves, though respectfully, for an embrace, retired. By her side was a black nun, with a veil so thick that not a lineament of her face could be seen, whom my countrywoman had known during her seclusion in the convent, and described as young, of exceeding beauty and loveliness, and around whom she threw a charm which almost awakened a spirit of romance. I would have made some sacrifice for one glimpse of her face. At length our turn came; my fair companion embraced her, and, after many farewell words, recommended me as her countryman. I never had much practice in embracing nuns; in fact, it was the first time I over attempted such a thing ; but it came as natural as if I had been brought up to it. My right arm encircled her neck, her right arm mine; I rested my head upon her shoulder, and she hers upon mine; but a friend's grandmother never received a more respectful embrace. " Stolen joys are always dearest "; there were too many looking on. The grating closed, and the face of the nun will never be seen again.

p.152 Rafael Carrera
At that time, as 'Don Manuel Pavon told me, he [Rafeal Carrera] professed to consider himself a brigadier general, subject to, the orders of the government. He had no regular allowance for the maintenance of himself and troops; he did not like keeping accounts, and called for money when he wanted it; and, with this understanding, in eight months he had not required more than Morazan did in two. He really did not want money for himself, and as a matter of policy he paid the Indians but little. This operated powerfully with the aristocracy, upon whom the whole burden of raising money devolved. It may be a satisfaction to some of my friends to know that this lawless chief is under a dominion to which meeker men are loth to submit ; his wife accompanies him on horseback in all his expeditions, influenced by a feeling which is said to proceed sometimes from excess of affection ; and I have heard that it is no unimportant part of the business of the chief of the state to settle family jars.

When all was over we returned to the posada. A cloth was spread over the long table, and in a few minutes, under the direction of the ladies, covered with the pic nic materials brought from Guatimala. The benches were drawn up to the table, and as many as could find seats sat down. Before supper was over there was an irruption of young men from Guatimala, with glazed hats, ponchas, and swords, and presenting a rather disorderly appearance; but they were mostly juveniles, brothers and cousins of the ladies. With their hats on they seated themselves at the vacated tables, and, as soon as they had finished eating, hurried off the plates, piled the tables away in a corner, one on the top of the other, and the candles on the top of all, the violins struck up, and gentlemen and ladies, lighting cigars and cigarillos, commenced dancing. I am sorry to say that generally the ladies of Central America, not excepting Guatimala, smoke, married ladies, puros, or all tobacco, and unmarried, cigarillos, or tobacco wrapped in paper or straw. Every gentleman carries in his pocket a silver case, with a long string of cotton, steel and flint, taking up nearly as much space as a handkerchief, and one of the offices of gallantry is to strike a light; by doing it well, he may help to kindle a flame in a lady's heart; at all events, to do it bunglingly would be ill bred. I will not express my sentiments on smoking us a custom for the sex. I have recollections of beauteous lips profaned. Nevertheless, even in this I have seen a lady show her prettiness and refinement, barely touching the straw to her lips, as it were kissing it gently and taking it away. When a gentleman asks a lady for a light, she always removes the cigar from her lips. Happily, the dangerous proximity which sometimes occurs between gentlemen in the street is not in vogue.

At length the commandant's servant returned and conducted me to a house with a little shop in front, where I was received by an old lady with a buenos noches that almost surprised me into an idea that I was welcome. I entered through the shop, and passed into a parlour which contained a hammock, an inter-laced bedstead, and a very neat catre with a gauze mosquito netting, and pink bows at the corners. I was agreeably disappointed with my posada, and while conversing with the old lady, was dozing over a cup of chocolate, when 1 heard a lively voice at the door, and a young lady entered, with two or three young men in attendance, who came up to the table in front of me, and throwing back a black mantilla, bade me buenos noches and put out her hand, said that she had heard in church that I was at her house, and was so glad of it; no strangers ever came there; the place was completely dull, &c. &c. I was so surprised that I must have looked very stupid. She was not regularly handsome, but her mouth and eyes were beautiful ; and her manner was so different from the cold, awkward and bashful air of her countrywomen, so much like the frank and fascinating welcome which a young lady at home might extend to a friend after a long absence, that if the table had not been pulled up I could have taken her in my arms and kissed her. I pulled up my shirt collar, and forgot all my troubles and perplexities. Though living in that remote town, like young ladies in large cities, she had a fancy for strangers, which at that time I regarded a delightful trait of character in a woman. Her every day beaux had no chance. At first they were very civil to me, but they became short and crusty, and, very much to my satisfaction, took themselves off. It was so long since I had felt the least interest in a woman, that I gave myself a benefit. The simplest of stories of other countries and other people (p.228) were to her romance, and her eye kindled as she listened ; soon the transition came from facts to feelings, and then that highest earthly pleasure of being lifted above every day thoughts by the enthusiasm of a high minded girl.

We sat up till twelve o'clock The mother, who at first had wearied me, I found exceedingly agreeable ; indeed, I had seldom known a more interesting old lady; for she pressed me to remain two or three more days and rest ; said the place was dull, but that her daughter would try and make it more agreeable; and her daughter said nothing, but looked unutterable things.

All pleasure is fleeting. Twelve o'clock came, an unprecedented hour, for that country. My ordinary prudence in looking out for a sleeping place had not deserted me. Two little boys had taken possession of the leather bed; the old lady had retired ; the beautiful caratet remained, and the young lady withdrew, telling me that this was to be my bed. I do not know why, but 1 felt uneasy. I opened the mosquito-net. In that country beds are not used, and an oxide or mat, often not as clean as they might be, is the substitute. This was a mat, very fine, and clean as if perfectly new. At the head was a lovely pillow with a pink muslin covering, and over it a thin white pillow case with a bewitching ruffle. Whose cheek had rested on that pillow? I pulled off my coat, walked up and down the room, and waked up one of the boys. It was as I supposed. I lay down, but could not sleep, and determined not to continue my journey the next day.

At 3 o’clock the guide knocked at the door. The mules were already saddled, and Nicholas was putting on the luggage. I had often clung to my pillow, but never as I did to that pink one with its ruffled border. I told Nicolas that the guide must go home and wait another day. The guide refused. It was the young man; his father had already gone, and had ordered him to follow. Very soon I heard a light footstep and a soft voice expostulating with the guide. Indignant at his obstinacy, I ordered him away; but very soon I reflected that I could not procure another, and might lose the great object I had in view in making this long journey. I called him back, and attempted to bribe him, but his only answer was, that his father had started at the rising of the moon, and ordered him to follow. At length it was arranged that he should go and overtake his father and bring him back; but perhaps, his father would not come. I was pertinacious until I carried the point, and then I was more indifferent.

After all, why should I wait? Nicolas said we could get our clothes washed in Nicaragua. I walked out of doors, and resolved that it was (p.229) folly to lose the chance of examining a canal route for the belle of Guanacaste. I hurried through my preparations, and bade her, I may say, an affectionate farewell. There is not the least chance that I shall ever see her again. Living in a secluded town, unknown beyond the borders of its unknown state, between the Andes and Pacific Ocean, probably she is already the happy wife of some worthy townsman, and has forgotten the stranger who owes to her some of the happiest moments he passed in Central America.

Before daylight he [Carrera] marched upon the city, and entered the gate of Buena Vista, leaving all his cavalry and part of his infantry at the Plaza de Toros and on the heights of Calvario, under Colonel Cabanes, to watch the movements of Carrera, and with 700 men occupied the Plaza of Guadaloupe, depositing his parque, equipage, a hundred women (more or less of whom always accompany an expedition in that country), and all his train, in the Hospital of San Juan de Dios.

[Good Friday, Quetzaltenango, shortly after Carrera’s soldiers had massacred leading white figures.]
In the afternoon we were again seated with the municipality in the church, to behold the descent from the cross. The spacious building was thronged to suffocation, and the floor was covered by a dense mass of kneeling women, with turbaned headdresses, and crying children on their backs, their imaginations excited by gazing at the bleeding figure on the cross; but among them all I did not see a single interesting face. A priest ascended the pulpit, thin and ghastly pale, who, in a voice that rang through every part of the building, preached emphatically a passion sermon. Few of the Indians understood even the language, and at times the cries of children made his words inaudible; but the thrilling tones of his voice played upon every chord in their hearts; and mothers, regardless of their infants' cries, sat motionless, their countenances fixed in high and stern enthusiasm. It was the (p.356) same church, and we could imagine them to be the same women who, in a frenzy and fury of fanaticism, had dragged the unhappy vicepresident by the hair, and murdered him with their hands. Every moment the excitement grew stronger. The priest tore off his black cap, and leaning over the pulpit stretched forward both his arms, and poured out a frantic apostrophe to the bleeding figure on the cross. A dreadful groan, almost curdling the blood, ran through the church. At this moment, at a signal from the cura, the Indians sprang upon the arbour of pine branches, tore it asunder, and with a noise like the crackling of a great conflagration, struggling and scuffling around the altar, broke into bits the consecrated branches to save as holy relies. Two Indians in broad brimmed hats mounted the ladders on each side of the cross, and with embroidered cloth over their hands, and large silver pincers, drew out the spikes from the hands. The feelings of the women burst forth in tears, sobs, groans, and shrieks of lamentation, so loud and deep, that, coming upon us unexpectedly, our feelings were disturbed, and even with sane men the empire of reason tottered. Such screams of anguish I never heard called out by mortal suffering and as the body, smeared with blood, was held aloft under the pulpit, while the priest leaned down and apostrophized it with frantic fervour, and the mass of women, wild with excitement, heaved to and fro like the surges of a troubled sea, the whole scene was so thrilling, so dreadfully mournful, that, without knowing why, tears started from our eyes. Four years before, at Jerusalem, on Mount Calvary itself, and in presence of the scoffing Mussulman, I had beheld the same representation of the descent from the cross; but the enthusiasm of Greek pilgrims in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was nothing compared with this whirlwind of fanaticism and frenzy. By degrees the excitement died away; the cracking of the pine branches ceased, the whole arbour was broken up and distributed, and very soon commenced preparations for the grand procession.

pp. 478-479
[His intention to buy Palenque.]
The tract containing the ruins consisted of about 6,000 acres of good land, which, according to the usual appraisement, would cost about 300l., and the Prefect said that it would not be valued any higher on account of the ruins. I resolved immediately to buy it. I would fit up the palace and re people the old city of Palenque. But there was one difficulty: by the laws of Mexico no stranger can purchase lands unless married to a hija del pais, or daughter of the country. This, by the way, is a grand stroke of policy, holding up the most powerful attraction of the country to seduce men from their natural allegiance, and radicate them in the soil; and it is taking them where weak and vulnerable; for, when wandering in strange countries, alone and friendless, buffeted and battered, with no one to care for him, there are moments when a lovely woman might root the stranger to any spot on earth. On principle I always resisted such tendencies, but I never before found it to my interest to give way. The ruined city of Palenque was a most desirable piece of property.

The case was embarrassing and complicated. Society in Palenque was small; the oldest young lady was not more than fourteen, and the prettiest woman, who already had contributed most to our happiness (she made our cigars), was already married. The house containing the two tablets belonged to a widow lady and a single sister, good looking, amiable, and both about forty. The house was one of the neatest in the place. I always liked to visit it, and had before thought that, if passing a year at the ruins, it would be delightful to have this house in the village for recreation and occasional visits. With either of these ladies would come possession of the house and the two stone tablets; but the difficulty was that there were two of them, both equally interesting and equally interested. I am particular in mentioning these little circumstances, to show the difficulties that attended every step of our enterprise in that country. There was an alternative, and that was to purchase in the name of some other person; but I did not know any one I could trust. At length, however, I hit upon Mr. (p.479) Russell, the American consul at Laguna, who was married to a Spanish lady, and already had large possessions in the country; and I arranged with the Prefect to make the purchase in his name. Pawling was to accompany me to the Laguna, for the purpose of procuring and carrying back evidence of Mr. Russell's co operation and the necessary funds, and was to act as my agent in completing the purchase. The Prefect was personally anxious to complete it. The buildings, he said, were fast going to decay, and in a few years more would be mounds of ruins. In that country they were not appreciated or understood, and he had the liberal wish that the tablets of hieroglyphics particularly might find their way to other countries, be inspected and studied by scientific men, and their origin and history be ascertained. Besides, he had an idea that immense discoveries were still to be made and treasures found, and he was anxious for a thorough exploration, in which he should himself co operate. The two tablets which I had attempted to purchase were highly prized by the owners, but he thought they could be scoured by purchasing the house, and I authorized him to buy it at a fixed price.

In my many conversations with the Prefect I had broached the subject of making casts from the tablets. Like every other official whom I met, he supposed that I was acting under a commission from my government, which idea was sustained by having in my employ a man of such character and appearance as Pawling, though every time I put my hand in my pocket I had a feeling sense that the case was far otherwise. In the matter of casts he offered every assistance, but there was no plaster of Paris nearer than the Laguna or Campeachy, and perhaps not there. We had made an experiment at the ruins by catching in the river a large quantity of snails and burning the shells, but it did not answer. He referred us to some limestone in the neighbourhood, but this would not do. Pawling knew nothing of casting. The idea had never entered his mind before, but he was willing to undertake this. Mr. Catherwood, who had been shut up in Athens during the Greek Revolution, when it was besieged by the Turks, and in pursuing his artistical studies had perforce made castings with his own hands, gave him written instructions, and it was agreed that when he returned with the credentials from Mr. Russell he should bring back plaster of Paris, and, while the proceedings for completing the purchase were pending, should occupy himself in this new branch of business.

pp.502, 508
[At the house of Don Joaquin Gutierrez, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.]
From his house we went to the plaza to see the procession [of Corpus Domini]. After those we had seen in Guatimala this was inferior, and there were no devils; but the gathering of people under the arbour and in the corridors presented a beautiful spectacle. There was a large collection of Indians, both men and women, the best looking race we had seen, and all were neatly dressed. In the whole crowd there was not a single garment that was not clean that day, and we were told that any Indian too poor to appear in a fitting dress that morning, would be too proud to appear at all. The Indian women were really handsome: all were dressed in white, with a red border around the neck, sleeves, and hem of their garments, and their faces had a mild, contented, and amiable expression; the higher class were seated under the arbours before the doors of the houses and along the corridors, elegantly attired, without hats, and with veils or flowers in their hair, combining an elegance of appearance with simplicity of manners that almost made the scene one of poetic beauty; and they had an air of gaiety and freedom from disquietude, so different from the careworn faces of Guatimala, that they seemed as if what God intended them to be, happy. In fact, at this place it would have been no hardship to comply with the condition of purchasing Palenque; and yet perhaps some of the effect of this strong impression was only the result of comparison.

After the procession Don Joaquin proposed to call either upon the bishop or a lady who had a beautiful daughter. The bishop was the greatest man in Merida, and lived in the greatest style; but, determined to make the best of our day in Merida, we chose the other branch of the alternative. In the evening, however, we called upon him. His palace was adjoining the Cathedral, and before the door was a large cross; the entrance was through a courtyard with two rows of corridors. We ascended to a second flight, and entered an ante room, where we were received by a well dressed official, who notified the bishop of our coming, and shortly afterward conducted us through three stately saloons with high ceilings and lighted with lamps, in one of which was a chair of state covered with red damask, which was carried (p.508) up on the wall behind and ceiling over it. From the last, a door opened into a large room elegantly fitted up as a sleeping apartment, in one corner of which was a silver wash hand basin with a silver pitcher; and in the centre, not a movable, or not very easily moved, sat the bishop, a man several feet round, handsomely dressed, and in a chair made to fit, stuffed, and covered with red morocco, neither pinching him nor permitting him to roll, with a large, firmly secured projecting ear piece on each side, to catch his head during the siesta. It had arms broad enough to support books and papers, and seemed the work of a man of genius. The lines of the bishop's face, however, indicated a man of high tone and character, and his conversation sustained the impression. He was a Centralist, and a great politician; and spoke of letters from generals, sieges, blockades, and battles, in tones which brought up a vivid picture of some priestly warrior or grand master of the Temple. In conclusion, he said that his influence, his house, and his table were at our service, asked us to name a day for dining with him, and said he would invite some friends to meet us. We had many trials in our journey, and it was not the least to decline this invitation; but we had some hope that we might be able to share his hospitality on our return from Uxmal.

From the bishop’s palace we went to the theatre, a large building built expressly for the purpose, with two rows of boxes and a pit. The upper tier of boxes was private. The prima donna was a lady who sat next me at dinner at the hotel; but I had better employment than attending to the performance, in conversation with ladies who would have graced any circle. One of them told me that there was to be a tertulia and a dance at a country house near the town in a few days, and to forego this was a harder trial than the loss of the bishop’s dinner. Altogether the evening at the theatre consummated the satisfaction the only day we passed in Merida, so that it remains impressed on my mind in bright relief to months of dulness.

Gendering Latin American Independence

School of Modern Languages and Cultures
Trent Building, University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0)115 951 5655