Alexander von Humboldt.

The travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt online

. (page 26 of 35)
Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 26 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


3. The intendancy of Guanaxuato, situated on the Guanaxunto
ridge of the cordillera of Anahuac, is the most populous

in New Spain, and contains three cities, Guanaxuato,
Celayo, and Salvatierra, four towns, 87 villages, and 448
farms or haciendas. It is in general highly cultivated,
and possesses the most important mines in that section
of the New World.

4. The intendancy of Valladolid is bounded on the valiadolid.
north by the Rio de Lerma ; on the east and north-east

by that of Mexico ; on the south by the district of
Guanaxuato ; and on the west by the province of Gua-
dalaxara. Being situated on the western declivity of
the cordillera of Anahuac, and intersected by hills and
beautiful valleys, it in general enjoys a mild and tem-
perate climate. The volcano of Jorullo, already de-
scribed, is situated in this intendancy, which has three
cities, three towns, and 263 villages. The southern part
is inhabited by Indians.

5. The province of Guadalaxara is bounded on the Q^y^yj^,
north by the governments of Sonora and Durango, on ments of

Sonora and



Durango.



* " On entering' the gardens of Chapultepec (near Mexico), the
first object ttiat strikes the eye is the magnificent cypress ( Sabirio
Ahuahuete, or Cupressus disticha), called the Cypress of Mon-
tezuma- It had attained its full growth when that monarch was
on the throne (1520), so that it must now be at least 400 years
old, yet it still retains all the vigour of youthful vegetation. The
trunk is 41 feet in circumference, yet the height is so majestic as to
make even this enormous mass appear slender." — IFard's Mexico
in 1827, vol. ii. p. 230. The same author mentions another cj'press,
38 feet in girth, and of equal height to that of Montezuma.



314



ZACATECAS — OAXACA.



Suntiago.



Intendency
of Zdcatecas.



cnAP.xxiv. the east by those of Zacatccas and Guanaxuato, on the
south by the district of Valladolid, and on the west by
the Pacific Ocean. Its greatest breadth is 345 miles,
and its greatest length 407. It is crossed from east to
west by the Rio de Santiago, which is of considerable
size. The eastern portion consists of the elevated plat-
form and western declivity of the Cordilleras of Anahuac.
The maritime parts are covered with forests which
abound in excellent timber. The volcano of Colima,
situated in this district, is the most western of those of
IS'ew Spain. It frequently throws up ashes and smoke ;
but its heiglit is not so great as to carry its summit into
the region of pei-petual snow. The most remarkable
towns are, Guadalaxara, which has a population of
19,500, San Bias, a port at the mouth of the Santiago,
and Compostella.

6. The intendancy of Zacatecas, bounded on the north
by Durango, on the east by San Luis Potosi, on the
Bouth by Guanaxuato, and on the west by Guadalaxara,
is 293 miles in length, and 176 in breadth. The table-
land, which forms its central part, is composed of syenite
and primitive slate. Near Zacatecas are nine small lakes
abounding in muriate and carbonate of soda. This
district is very thinly peopled, although the town has
33,000 inhabitants.

7. The intendancy of Oaxaca is one of the most de-
lightful countries in the New Continent, possessing great
fertility of soil and salubrity of climate. It is bounded
on the north by the intendancy of Vera Cruz ; on the
east by Guatimala ; on the west by the province of
Puebla ; and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The
mountainous parts are composed of granite and gneiss.
Tlie vegetation is every where exceedingly beautiful.
At the village of Santa Maria del Tule, ten miles east of
the capital, tlicre is an enormous trunk of C'upressus
disticha, 118 feet in circumference, though it seems
rather to be formed of three stems grown into one.

The most remarkable object in this district is the
palace of Mitla, the walls of which are decorated with



Oasaca.



Palace of
MiUa.



MERIDA VERA CRUZ.



315



grecques and labyrinths in mosaic, resembling the orna- ciIAP.xxiv
mcnts of Tuscan vases. It consists of three edifices, and —
is moreover distinguished from otlier ancient Mexican
buildings by six porphyritic columns which support the
ceiling of a vast hall. These pillars have neither base
nor capital ; each exhibits a single block of stone, and
the height is about sixteen feet. Oaxaca, the principal
town, contained in the year 1792 twenty-four thousand
inhabitants. Some of the mines ai-e very productive.

8. The intendancy of Merida comprehends the great intendency
peninsula of Yucatan, situated between the Bay of of Merida.
Campeachy and that of Honduras. It is bounded on

the south by Guatimala, on the east b}' the province of
Vera Cruz, and on the west by the English establish-
ments, which extend from the mouth of the Rio Hondo
to the north of the Bay of Hanover. This peninsula is
a vast plain intersected by a chain of hills ; and though
one of the warmest, it is at the same time one of the
healthiest pi-ovinces of equinoctial America. The latter
circumstance is to be attributed to the extreme dryness
of the soil and atmosphere. No European grain is
produced ; but maize, jatropha, and dioscorea, are culti-
vated in abundance. The Hcematoxylon or Campeachy
wood abounds in several districts. Merida, the capital,
has a population of 10,000.

9. The government of Vera Cruz extends along the
Mexican Gulf from the Rio Baraderas to the great
river of Panuco. The western part forms the declivity
of the Cordilleras of Anahuac, whence, amid the regions
of perpetual snow, the inhabitants descend in a day to
the burning plains of the coast. In this district are
displayed in a remarkable manner the gradations of
vegetation, from the level of the sea to those elevated
summits which are visited with perennial frost. In
ascending, the traveller sees the physiognomy of the
country, the aspect of the sky, the form of the plants,
the figures of animals, the manners of the inhabitants
and the kind of cultivation followed by them, assuming



Government
ofVera Cruz



31()



VERA CRCZ.



Elevated
regions.



Forests.



Evergreen
forests.



CirAP.xxiV. a different appearance at every step. Leaving the
lower districts, covered with a beautiful and luxuriant
vegetation, he first enters that in which the oak appears,
where lie lias no longer cause to dread the yellow fever,
80 fatal on the coasts. Forests of liquidarahar, near
Xalapa, announce by their freshness the elevation at
which the strata of clouds, suspended over the ocean,
come in contact with the basaltic summits of the Cor-
dilleras. A little higher the banana ceases to yield
fruit. At the height of San Miguel pines begin to
mingle with the oaks, which continue as far as the
plains of Perote, w^here the cereal vegetation of Europe
is seen. Beyond this, the former alone cover the rocks,
the tops of which enter the region of perpetual frigidity.

At the foot of the cordillera, in the evergreen forests
of Papantla, Nautla, and S. Andre Tuxtla, grows the
vanilla, the fruit of which is used for perfuming choco-
late. The beautiful convolvulus, whose root furnishes
the jalap of the apothecaries, grows near the Indian
villages of Colipa and Misantla. The pimento-myrtle
is produced in the woods which extend towards the
river of Baraderas. On the declivities of Orizaba,
tobacco of excellent quality is cultivated ; and the
sarsaparilla grows in the moist and shady ravines.
Cotton and sugar of excellent quality are produced
along the greater part of the coast.

In this intendancy are two collossal summits, — the
volcano of Orizaba, which after Popocatepetl is the
highest in New Spain, and the Cofre de Perote, which
is nearly 1312 feet more elevated than the Peak of
Teneriffc. In its northern part, near tlic Indian village
of Papantla, is a pyramidal edifice of great antiquity
situated in the midst of a thick forest. It is not con-
structed of brick.':, or clay mixed with stone and faced
with amygdaloid, like those of Cholula and Teotihuacan ;
on the contrary, the materials employed have been
immense blocks of jiorphyry. The base is an exact
square, 82 feet on eacli side, and the perpendicular



Volcano of
Orizaba.



VERACRUZ — SAN LUIS POTOSl. 317

height seems to be about sixty. It is composea of chap. xxi\
several stages, of which some are still distinguishable. A cities of the
great stair of 57 steps conducts to the truncated summit "ittjudancy.

The most remarkable cities are Vera Cruz, Perote,
Cordoba, and Orizaba. The fii-st of these, the centre
of European and West Indian commerce, is beautifully
and regularly built ; but it is situated in an arid plain
destitute of running water, and partly covered with
shifting sand-hills, which contribute to increase the
suffocating heat of the air. In the midst of these
downs are marshy lands covered with rhizophorae and
other plants. No stones for architectural purposes are
to be found near the city, which is entirely constructed
of coral-rock drawn from the Ijottom of the sea. The
water is very bad, and is obtained either by digging in
the sandy soil, or by collecting the rain in cisterns.

Xalapa, the population of which is estimated at 13,000, Xalapa.
occupies a very romantic situation at the foot of the
basaltic mountain of Macultepec, surrounded by forests
of styrax, piper, melastoms, and tree-ferns. The sky
is beautiful and serene in summer, but from December
to February it has a most melancholy aspect, and
■whenever the north wind blows, is overcast to such a
degree that the sun and stars are frequently invisible
for two or three weeks together. Some of the merchants
of Vera Cruz have country-houses at Xalapa, where
they enjoy a cool and agreeable retreat ; while the coast
is almost uninhabitable, on account of the intense heats,
tlie mosquitoes, and the yellow fever.

10. The intendancy of San Luis Potosi embraces the san Luis
whole nortli^astern part of New Spain, and is extremely ^o^si.
diversified in its character. The only portion which is
cold and mountainous is that adjoining the province of
Zacatecas, and in which are the rich mines of Charcas,
Guadalcazar, and Catorce. There is a great extent of
low ground, partly cultivated, but for the most part
barren and uninhabited. Its coast line is more than
794 miles in length ; but hardly any commerce enlivens
it, owing to the deficiency of harbours. The mouths of



318



NORTHEKN DISTRICTS



Durango.



CHAP. XXIV. the rivers, too, are blocked up by bars, necks of land,
and lon;^ islands running jiarallel to the coast.

11. New Biscay or Durango occupies a greater space
of ground than Great Britain and Ireland, though its
population does not exceed 160,000. It is bounded on
the south by Zacattcas and Guadalaxara ; on the south-
east by San Luis ; and on the west by Sonora. On the
northern and eastern sides, for more than GOO miles, it
borders on an uncultivated country inhabited by inde-
pendent Indians. Tliis intendancy comprehends the
northern extremity of the great table-land of Anahuac,
which declines towards the Rio Grande del Norte.

12. The province of Sonora is still more thinly
peopled than Durango. It extends on the shores of the
Gulf of California more than 96C miles.

13. New Mexico, which is very sparingly inhabited,
stretches along the Rio Norte, and has a remarkably
cold climate.

14. Old California equals England in extent of terri-
tory, but has only a population of 9000. The soil of
this peninsula is parched and sandy, and the vegetation
feeble ; but the sky is constantly clear and of a deep
blue ; the light clouds which sometimes appear present-
ing at sunset the most beautiful shades of violet, purple,
and green. A chain of mountains, the highest of which
is about 6000 feet, runs through the centre of the
peninsula and is inhabited by animals resembling the
moufion of Sai-dinia, wliich the Spaniards call wild
sheep. The principal attraction which California has
afford i;d to Europeans since the IGth century is the
great quantity of pearls found in it, and which, although
frequently of an irregular form, are large and of a very
beautiful water. At the present day, however, this
fishery is almost entirely abandoned.

15. New California is a long and narrow country,
identifying itself with the shore of the Pacific Ocean
from tlie isthmus of Old California to Cape Mendocino.
It is extremely picturesque, and enjoys a fertile well-
watered soilj with a temperate climate. Wheat, barley,



Sonora.



New Mexico.



Old Cali-
fornia.



New Cali-
Ibrula.



OLD CALIFORNIA 319

maize, beans, and other useful plants, thrive well, as do chap xxiv
the vine and olive ; but the population is scanty com- (j|„a^
pared to the territory. A cordillera of small elevation deer.
runs along the coast, and the forest and prairies are
fiUed with deer of gigantic size.



320 PLANTS CULTIVATED IN MEXICO.



CHAPTER XXV.

Statistical Account of New Spain continued.

Airriculture of Mexico — Banana, Manioc, and Maize — Cereal
Plants— Nutritive Roots and Vegetables — Agave Americana —
Colonial Commodities — Cattle and Animal Productions.
CHAP. XXV.

Modifications A COUNTRY extending from the sixteenth to the thirty-
of climate, seventh degree of latitude, and presenting a great variety
of surface, necessarily affords numerous modifications of
climate. Such is the admirable distribution of heat on
the globe, that the strata of the atmosphere become
colder as we ascend, while tliose of the sea are warmest
near the surface. Hence, under the tropics, on the
declivities of the cordilleras, and in the depths of the
ocean, the plants and marine animals of the polar
regions find a temperature suited to their development.
It may easily be conceived that, in a mountainous
country like Mexico, having so great a diversity of
elevation, temperature, and soil, the variety of indi-
genous productions must be immense ; and that most of
the plants cultivated in other parts of the globe may
there find situations adapted to their nature.
OVjoctaof There, however, the principal objects of agi'iculture

ftgriculture are not the productions which European luxury draws
from the West India Islands, but tlie grasses, nutritive
^ roots, and the agave. The appearance of the land

proclaims to the traveller that the natives are nourished
by the soil, and that tliey are independent of foreign
commerce. Yet agriculture is by no means so flourish-



MINES FAVOURABLK TO CULTUUE. 321

ing as might be expected from its natural resources, chap.xxv
although considerable improvement has been effected of Effg^'^f
late years. The depressed state of cultivation, it is working
true, has been attributed to the existence of numerous "^'"^*'
rich mines ; but Humboldt, on the contrary, maintains
that the working of these ores has been beneficial ir
causing many places to be improved which would
otherwise have remained steril. When a vein is opened
on the barren ridge of the cordilleras, the new colonists
can only draw the means of subsistence from a great
distance. Want soon excites to industry, and farms stimnius to
begin to be established in the neighbourhood. The high industry.
price of provisions indemnifies the cultivator for the
hard life to which he is exposed, and the ravines and
valleys become gradually covered with food. When
the mineral treasures are exhausted, the workmen no
doubt emigrate, so that the population is diminished ;
but the settlers are retained by their attachment to the
spot in which they have passed their childhood. The
Indians, moreover, prefer living in the solitudes of the
mountains remote from the whites, and this circumstance
tends to increase the number of inhabitants in such
districts.

In describing the vegetable productions of New Spain, vegetable
our author begins with those which form the principal production.
support of the people, then treats of the class which
affords materials for manufacture, and ends with such
as constitute objects of commerce.

The banana (Musa paradisiaca) is to the inhabitants Banana.
of the torrid zone what the cereal grasses, — wheat,
barley, and rye, — are to Western Asia and Europe, and
what the numerous varieties of rice are to the natives ot
India and China. Forster and other naturalists have
maintained, that it did not exist in America previous to
the arrival of the Spaniards, but that it was imported
from the Canary Islands in the beginning of the 16th
century ; and in support of this opinion may be adduced
the silence of Columbus, Alonzo Negro, Pinzon, Ves-
pucci, and Cortes, with respect to it. This circumstance,



322



BANANA.



Extent of
cultivation



Great nntri
meut.



CHAP. XXV. however, only proves the mattention of these travellers
to the productions of the soil ; and it is probable that
the Musa presented several species indigenous to dif-
ferent parts of both continents. The space favourable
to the cultivation of this valuable plant in Mexico is
more than 50,000 square leagues, and has nearly a
million and a half of inhabitants. In the warm and
humid valleys of Vera Cruz, at the foot of the cordillera
of Orizaba, the fruit occasionally exceeds 11*8 inches in
circumference, with a length of seven or eight. A
bunch sometimes contains from IGO to 180, and weighs
from 66 to 88 lb. avoirdupois.

Humboldt doubts whether there is any other plant on
the globe which, in so small a space of ground, can pro-
duce so great a mass of nutriment. Eight or nine
months after the sucker has been inserted in the earth
the banana begins to form its clusters, and the fruit may
be gathered in less than a year. When the stalk is cut,
there is always found among the numerous shoots which
have put forth roots one that bears three months later.
A plantation is perpetuated without any other care than
that of cutting the stems on which the fruit has ripened,
and giving the earth a slight dressing. A spot of 1076
square feet may contain at least from thirty to forty
plants, which, in the space of a year, at a very moderate
calculation, will yield more than 4410 lb. avoirdupois of
nutritive substance. Our author estimates, that the
produce of the banana is to that of wheat, as 133 : 1, and
to that of potatoes as 44 : 1.

In America numerous preparations are made of this
fruit, both before and after its maturity. When fully
ripe it is exposed to the sun, and preserved like our
figs ; the skin becoming black, and exhaling a peculiar
odour like that of smoked ham. This dry banana
{jilatano passado), which is an object of commerce in
the province of Mechoacan, has an agreeable taste, and
is a very wholesome article of food. Meal or flour is
)btained from it, by being cut into slices, dried in the
sun, and pounded.



Ease of
cultivation-



Modes of
preparuiion.



BANANA — MANIOC. 323

It is calculated that the same extent of ground in CHAP.XXV.
Mexico on which the hanana is raised is capable of Economy oj
maintaining fifty individuals, whereas in Europe, under space,
wheat it would not furnisli subsistence for two ; and
nothing strikes a traveller more than the diminutive
appearance of the spots under culture round a hut
which contains a numerous family.

The region where it is cultivated produces also the jatropha.
valuable plant Jatropha, of which the root, as is well
known, affords the flour of manioc, usually converted
into bread, and furnishes what the Spanish colonists call
pan de tierrn caliente. This vegetable is only success-
fully grown within the tropics, and in the mountainous
region of Mexico is never seen above the elevation of
2625 feet. Two kinds are raised, the sweet and the
bitter. The root of the former may be eaten without
danger, while that of the latter is a very active poison.
Both may be made into bread ; but the bitter is pre- Bread.
ferred for this purpose, tlie poisonous juice being
carefully separated from the fecula, called cassava,
before making the dough. Raynal asserted that the
manioc was transported from Africa to America to serve
for the maintenance of the negroes ; but our author
shows that it was cultivated there long before the arrival
of Europeans on that side of the Atlantic. The bread
made of it is very nutritive ; but, being extremely
brittle, it does not answer for distant carriage. The
fecula, however, grated, dried, and smoked, is used on
journeys. The root loses its poisonous qualities on
being boiled, and in this state the decoction is used as a '
sauce, although serious accidents sometimes happen
when it has not been long enough exposed to heat.
The husbandry of it, we may observe, requires more
care than that of the banana. In this respect it resem-
bles the potato ; and the roots are ripe in seven or eight
months after the slips have been planted.

The same region produces maize, the cultivation of jialzci
which is more extensive than that of the banana and
manioc. Advancing towards the central plains, we meet



324



MAIZE — ITS CULTIVATION.



Rye and
Barley.



CHAP. XXV. ■^^•itll fields of this important plant all the way from the
Grain. coast to the valley of T(,)lucca, which is upwards of 918G

feet above the sea. Although a great quantity of other
grain is produced in Mexico, this must be considered as
the principal food of the people, as well as of most of
the domestic animals, and the year in which the maiiie-
harvest fails is one of famine and misery to the
inhabitants. There is no longer a doubt among botan-
ists that this plant is of American origin, and that the
Old Continent received it from the New.

It does not thrive in P^urope where the mean temper-
ature is less than 44° or 46"^ ; and on the cordilleras of
New Spain rye and barley are seen to vegetate vigor-
ously where the cultivation of maize would not l)e
attended with success. On the other hand, the latter
thrives in the lowest plains of the torrid zone, where
wheat, barley, and rye, are not found. Hence we can-
not be surprised to hear that it occupies a much greater
extent in equinoctial America than the grains cf the Old
Continent.

The fecundity of the Mexican variety is astonishing.
Fertile lands usually afford a return of 800 or 400 fold,
and in the neighljourhood of Valladolid a harvest is
considered defective when it yields only 130 or 150.
Even where the soil is most steril the produce varies
from sixty to eighty. The general estimate for the
equinoctial region of Mexico may be considered as a
hundred and fifty.

Of all the gramina cultivated by man, none is so un-
equal as this in its produce, as it varies in the same field
according to the season from forty to 200 or 300 for one.
If the harvests are good, the agriculturist makes his
fortune more rapidly than with any other grain ; but
frightful dearths sometimes occur, when the natives are
obliged to feed on unripe fruit, cactus-berries, and roots.
Diseases ari.sc in consequence ; and these famines are
usually attended with a great mortality among the
children. Fowls, turkeys, and even cattle suffer, so that
the traveller can find neitlier eggs nor poultry. Scar-



FenUity.



Great vari.v
tioiis.



WHEAT. 325

cities of less severity are not uncommon, and are CHAP.XXV

especially felt in the mining districts, where the vast ^

numbers of mules employed in the process of amalgam- scarcity.
ation annually consume an enormous quantity of maize.

Numerous varieties of food are derived from this varieties of
plant. The ear is eaten raw or boiled. The grain when food,
beaten affords a nutritive bread called arepa, and the
meal is employed in making soups or gruels, which are
mixed with sugar, honey, and sometimes even pounded
potatoes. Many kinds of drink are also prepared from
it, some resembling beer, othei's cider. In the valley of
Tolucca the stalks are squeezfed between C3'linders, and
from the fermented juice a spiritous liquor, called pulque
de maids, is procured.

In favourable years Mexico yields a much larger Excess of
quantity than is necessary for its own consumption ; rroductioa.
but as this grain affords less nutritive substance in pro-
portion to its bulk than the corn of Europe, and as the
roads are generally difficult, obstacles are presented to its
transportation, which, however, will diminish when the
country is more improved.

We come now to the cereal plants which have been
conveyed from the Old to the New Continent. A negro plants.
slave of Cortes found among the rice, which served to
maintain the Spanish army, three or four particles of
wheat, which were sown, we may suppose, before the



Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtThe travels and researches of Alexander von Humboldt → online text (page 26 of 35)