Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

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civilization as an island in the Pacific Ocean.
The plain upon which Comyagua stands stretches
for many miles, and the nature of the stones and
pebbles on its surface would seem to show that


it was once the bottom of a great lake. Now its
round pebbles and sandy soil make it a valley
of burning heat, into which the sun beats with-
out the intervening shadows of trees or moun-
tains to save the traveller from the fierceness of
its rays.

We rode over thirty miles of it, and found that
part of the plain which we traversed after our
night's rest at the capital the most trying ten
miles of our trip. We rode out into it in the
rear of a long funeral procession, in which the
men and boys walked bareheaded and barefooted
in the burning sand. They were marching to a
burial-ground out in the plain, and they were
carrying the coffin on their shoulders, and bear-
ing before it a life-sized figure of the Virgin and
many flaring candles that burned yellow in the
glaring sunlight.

From Comyagua the trail led for many miles
through heavy sand, in which nothing seemed to
grow but gigantic cacti of a sickly light green
that twisted themselves in jointed angles fifteen
to twenty feet in the air above us, and century-
plants with flowers of a vivid yellow, and tall,
leafless bushes bristling with thorns. The moun-
tains lay on cither side, and formed the valley
through which we rode, two dark-green barriers
against a blazing sky, but for miles before and
behind us there was nothing to rest the eye from
the glare of the sand. The atmosphere was


without a particle of moisture, and the trail
quivered and swam in the heat ; if you placed
your hand on the leather pommel of your saddle
it burned the flesh like a plate of hot brass, and
ten minutes after we had dipped our helmets in
water they were baked as dry as when they had
first come from the shop. The rays of the sun
seemed to beat up at you from below as well
as from above, and we gasped and panted as we
rode, dodging and ducking our heads as though
the sun was something alive and active that
struck at us as we passed by. If you dared to
look up at the sky its brilliancy blinded you as
though some one had flashed a mirror in your

We lunched at a village of ten huts planted
defiantly in the open plain, and as little protect-
ed from the sun as a row of bricks in a brick-
yard, but by lying between two of them we found
a draught of hot air and shade, and so rested for
an hour. Our trail after that led over a mile or
two of red hematite ore, which suggested a ride
in a rolling-mill with the roof taken away, and
with the sun beating into the four walls, and the
air filled with iron-dust. Two hours later we
came to a cafton of white chalk, in which the
government had cut stepping-places for the hoofs
of the mules. The white glare in this valley was
absolutely blinding, and the atmosphere was that
of a lime-kiln. We showed several colors after


this ride, with layers of sand and clay, and parti-
cles of red ore and powdering of white chalk over
all ; but by five o'clock we reached the moun-
tains once more, and found a cool stream dash-
ing into little water-falls and shaded by great
trees, where the air was scented by the odor of
pine-needles and the damp, spongy breath of
moss and fern.

We were now within two days of Tegucigal-
pa, and the sense of nearness to civilization and
the knowledge that the greater part of our jour-
ney was at an end made us forget the discom-
forts and hardships which we had endured with-
out the consolation of excitement that comes
with danger, or the comforting thought that we
were accomplishing anything in the meantime.
We had been complaining of this during the
day to Jeffs, and saying that had we gone to the
coast of East Africa we could not have been
more uncomfortable nor run greater risks from
fever, but that there we would have met with
big game, and we would have visited the most
picturesque instead of the least interesting of all

These complaints inspired Jeffs to play a trick
upon us, which was meant in a kindly spirit, and
by which he intended to furnish us with a mo-
ment's excitement, and to make us believe that
we had been in touch with danger. There are
occasional brigands in Central America, and their


favorite hunting-ground in Honduras is within a
few miles of Tegucigalpa, along the trail from
the eastern coast over which we were then pass-
ing. We had been warned of these men, and it
occurred to Jeffs that as we complained of lack of
excitement in our trip, it would be a thoughtful
kindness to turn brigand and hold us up upon
our march. So he left us still bathing at the
water-fall, and telling us that he would push on
to engage quarters for the night, rode some dis-
tance ahead and secreted himself behind a huge
rock on one side of a narrow caflon. He first
placed his coat on a bush beside him, and his
hat on another bush, so as to make it appear
that there were several men with him. His idea
was that when he challenged us we would see
the dim figures in the moonlight and remember
the brigands, and that we were in their stalking-
ground, and get out of their clutches as quickly
as possible, well satisfied that we had at last met
with a real adventure.

We reached his ambuscade about seven. Som-
erset was riding in advance, reciting " The Wal-
rus and the Carpenter," while we were correcting
him when he went wrong, and gazing unconcern-
edly and happily at the cool moonlight as it
came through the trees, when we were suddenly
startled by a yell and an order to halt, in Span-
ish, and a rapid fusillade of pistol-shots. We
could distinguish nothing but what was appar-


ently the figures of three men crouching on the
hill-side and the flashes of their revolvers, so we
all fell off our mules and began banging away at
them with our rifles, while the mules scampered
off down the mountain. This was not as Jeffs
had planned it. and he had to rearrange matters
very rapidly. Bullets were cutting away twigs
all over the hill-side and splashing on the rock
behind which he was now lying, and though he
might have known we could not hit him, he was
afraid of a stray bullet. So he yelled at us in
English, and called us by name, until we finally
discovered we had been grossly deceived and im-
posed upon, and that our adventure was a very
unsatisfactory practical joke for all concerned. It
took us a long time to round up the mules, and
we reached our sleeping- place in grim silence,
and with our desire for danger still unsatisfied.

The last leagues that separated us the next
morning from Tegucigalpa seemed, of course,
the longest in the entire journey. And so great
was our desire to reach the capital before night-
fall that we left the broader trail and scrambled
down the side of the last mountain, dragging our
mules after us, and slipping and sliding in dust and
rolling stones to the tops of our boots. The city
did not look inviting as we viewed it from above.
It lay in a bare, dreary plain, surrounded by five
hills that rose straight into the air, and that
seemed to have been placed there for the special

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purpose of revolutionists, in order that they
might the more exactly drop shot into the town
at their feet. The hills were bare of verdure,
and the landscape about the capital made each

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of us think of the country about Jerusalem. As
none of us had ever seen Jerusalem, we foregath-
ered and argued why this should be so, and de-
cided that it was on account of the round rocks
lying apart from one another, and low, bushy
trees, and the red soil, and the flat roofs of the

The telegraph wire which extends across Hon-
duras, swinging from trees and piercing long


stretches of palm and jungle, had warned the
foreign residents of the coming of Jeffs, and
some of them rode out to make us welcome.
Their greeting, and the sight of paved streets,
and the passing of a band of music and a guard
of soldiers in shoes and real uniform, seemed to
promise much entertainment and possible com-
fort. But the hotel was a rude shock. We had
sent word that we were coming, and we had
looked forward eagerly to our first night in a
level bed under clean linen; but when we arrived
we were offered the choice of a room just vacat-
ed by a very ill man, who had left all of his med-
icines behind him, so that the place was unpleas-
antly suggestive of a hospital, or a very small
room, in which there were three cots, and a lay-
er of dirt over all so thick that I wrote my name
with the finger of my riding-glove on the centre-
table. The son of the proprietor saw this, and,
being a kindly person and well disposed, dipped
his arm in water and proceeded to rub it over
the top of the table, using his sleeve as a wash-
rag. So after that we gave up expecting any-
thing pleasant, and were in consequence delight-
fully surprised when we came upon anything
that savored of civilization.

Tegucigalpa has an annex which lies on the
opposite side of the river, and which is to the
capital what Brooklyn is to New York. The
river is not very wide nor very deep, and its


course is impeded by broad, flat rocks. The
washer -women of the two towns stand beside
these all day knee-deep in the eddies and beat
the stones with their twisted clubs of linen, so
that their echo sounds above the roar of the
river like the banging of shutters in the wind or
the reports of pistols. This is the only sugges-
tion of energy that the town furnishes. The oth-
er inhabitants seem surfeited with leisure and ir-
ritable with boredom. There are long, dark, cool
shops- of general merchandise, and a great cathe-
dral and a pretty plaza, where the band plays at
night and people circle in two rings, one going
to the right and one going to the left, and there
is the government palace and a big penitentiary,
a university and a cemetery. But there is no
color nor ornamentation nor light nor life nor
bustle nor laughter. You do not hear people
talking and calling to one another across the
narrow streets of the place by day or serenading
by night. Every one seems to go to bed at nine
o'clock, and after that hour the city is as silent
as its great graveyard, except when the boy po-
licemen mark the hour with their whistles or the
street dogs meet to fight.

The most interesting thing about the capital
is the fact to which I have already alluded, that
everything in it and pertaining to it that was
not dug from the ground or fashioned from
trees was carried to it on the backs of mules.

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The letter-boxes on the street corners had once
been United States letter-boxes, and had later
swung across the backs of donkeys. The gas-
lamps and the iron railings of the parks, the few
statues and busts in the public places, reached


Tegucigalpa by the same means, and the great
equestrian statue of Morazan the Liberator, in
the plaza, was cast in Italy, and had been
brought to Tegucigalpa in pieces before it was
put together like a puzzle and placed in its pres-
ent position to mark a glorious and victorious


immortality. These things were not interesting
in themselves, but it was interesting that they
were there at all.

On the second day after our arrival the vice-
president, Luis Bonilla, who bears the same last
name but is no near relation to President Bonil-
la, took the oath of office, and we saw the cere-
mony with the barefooted public in the recep-
tion - room of the palace. The hall was hung
with lace curtains and papered with imitation
marble, and the walls were decorated with cray-
on portraits of Honduranian presidents. Bogran
was not among them, nor was Morazan. The
former was missing because it was due to him
that young Bonilla had been counted out when
he first ran for the presidency three years ago,
when he was thirty-three years old, and the por-
trait of the Liberator was being reframed, be-
cause Bonilla's followers six months before had
unintentionally shot holes through it when they
were besieging the capital. The ceremony of
swearing in the vice-president did not last long,
and what impressed us most about it was the
youth of the members of the cabinet and of the
Supreme Court who delivered the oath of office.
They belonged distinctly to the politician class
as one sees it at home, and were young men of
eloquent speech and elegant manners, in frock-
coats and white ties. We came to know most of
the president's followers later, and found them


hospitable to a degree, although they seemed
hardly old enough or serious enough to hold
place in the government of a republic, even so
small a one as Honduras. What was most ad-
mirable about each of them was that he had
fought and bled to obtain the office he held.
That is hardly a better reason for giving out
clerkships and cabinet portfolios than the rea-
sons which obtain with us for distributing the
spoils of office, but you cannot help feeling more
respect for the man who has marched by the side
of his leader through swamps and through jungle,
who has starved on rice, who has slept in the
bushes, and fought with a musket in his hand in
open places, than for the fat and sleek gentlemen
who keep open bar at the headquarters of their
party organization, who organize marching clubs,
and who by promises or by cash secure a certain
amount of influence and a certain number of votes.
They risk nothing but their money, and if their
man fails to get in, their money is all they lose ;
but the Central American politician has to show
the faith that is in him by going out on the
mountain-side and hacking his way to office with
a naked machete in his hand, and if his leader
fails, he loses his life, with his back to a church
wall, and looking into the eyes of a firing squad,
or he digs his own grave by the side of the road,
and stands at one end of it, covered with clay
and sweat, and with the fear of death upon him,


and takes his last look at the hot sun and the
palms and the blue mountains, with the buzzards
wheeling about him, and then shuts his eyes, and
is toppled over into the grave, with a half-dozen
bullets in his chest and stomach. That is what
I should like to see happen to about half of our
professional politicians at home. Then the other
half might understand that holding a public of-
fice is a very serious business, and is not merely
meant to furnish them with a livelihood and with
places for their wives' relations.

I saw several churches and cathedrals in Hon-
duras with a row of bullet-holes in the front wall,
about as high from the ground as a man's chest,
and an open grave by the road-side, which had
been dug by the man who was to have occupied it.
The sight gave us a vivid impression of the un-
certainties of government in Central America.
The man who dug this particular grave had been
captured, with two companions, while they were
hastening to rejoin their friends of the govern-
ment party. His companions in misery were
faint-hearted creatures, and thought it mattered
but little, so long as they had to die, in what
fashion they were buried. So they scooped out
a few feet of earth with the tools their captors
gave them, and stood up in the hollows they had
made, and were shot back into them, dead ; but
the third man declared that he was not going to
let his body lie so near the surface of the earth


that the mules could kick his bones and the
next heavy freshet wash them away. He ac-
cordingly dug leisurely and carefully to the depth
of six feet, smoothing the sides and sharpening
the corners, and while he was thus engaged at


the bottom of the hole he heard yells and shots
above him, and when he poked his head up over
the edge of the grave he saw his own troops run-
ning down the mountain-side, and his enemies
disappearing before them. He is still alive, and


frequently rides by the hole in the road-side on
his way to the capital. The story illustrates the
advisability of doing what every one has to do
in this world, even up to the very last minute,
in a thorough and painstaking manner.

There do not seem to be very many men killed
in these revolutions, but the ruin they bring to
the country while they last, and which continues
after they are over, while the " outs " are getting
up another revolution, is so serious that any sort
of continued prosperity or progress is impossible.
Native merchants will not order goods that may
never reach them, and neither do the gringos
care to make contracts with men who in six
months may not only be out of office, but out of
the country as well. Sometimes a revolution
takes place, and half of the people of the coun-
try will not know of it until it has been put
down or has succeeded ; and again the revolu-
tion may spread to every boundary, and all the
men at work on the high-roads and in the mines
or on the plantations must stop work and turn
to soldiering, and pack-mules are seized, the mail-
carriers stopped, plantations are devastated, and
forced loans are imposed upon those who live in
cities, so that every one suffers more or less
through every change of executive. During the
last revolution Tegucigalpa was besieged for six
months, and was not captured until most of the
public buildings had been torn open by cannon


from the hills around the town, and the dwell-
ing-houses still show where bullets marked the
mud and plaster of the walls or buried them-
selves in the wood-work. The dining-room of
our hotel was ventilated by such openings, and
we used to amuse ourselves by tracing the course
of the bullets from the hole they had made at
one side of the room to their resting-place in the
other. The native Honduranian is not energetic,
and, except in the palace, there has been but
little effort made by the victors to cover up the
traces of their bombardment. Every one we met
had a different experience to relate, and pointed
out where he was sitting when a particular hole
appeared in the plaster before him, or at which
street corner a shell fell and burst at his feet.

It follows, of course, that a government which
is created by force of arms, and which holds it-
self in place by the same power of authority, can-
not be a very just or a very liberal one, even if
its members are honest, and the choice of a ma-
jority of the people, and properly in office in
spite of the fact that they fought to get there,
and not on account of it. Honilla was undoubt-
edly at one time elected President of Honduras,
although he did not gain the presidential chair
until after he had thrown his country into war
and had invaded it at the head of troops from
the rival republic of Nicaragua.

The Central-American cannot understand that


when a bad man is elected to office legally it is
better in the long-run that he should serve out
his full term than that a better man should drive
him out and defy the constitution. If he could
be brought to comprehend that when the consti-
tution says the president must serve four years
that means four years, and not merely until some
one is strong enough to overthrow him, it might
make him more careful as to whom he elected
to office in the first place. But the value of
stability in government is something they can-
not be made to understand. It is not in their
power to see it, and the desire for change and
revolution is born in the blood. They speak of
a man as a " good revolutionist " just as we
would speak of some one being a good pianist,
or a good shot, or a good executive officer. It
is a recognized calling, and the children grow up
into fighters ; and even those who have lived
abroad, and who should have learned better,
begin to plot and scheme as soon as they return
to their old environment.

In each company of soldiers in Honduras
there are two or three little boys in uniform
who act as couriers and messengers, and who
are able, on account of their slight figure, to
penetrate where a man would be seen and shot.
One of the officers in the revolution of 1894
told me he had sent six of these boys, one after
another, with despatches across an open plain


which was being raked by the rifles of the ene-
my. And as each boy was killed as he crawled
through the sage-brush the other boys begged of
their colonel to let them be the next to go,
jumping up and down around him and snapping
their fingers like school -boys who want to at-
tract the attention of their teacher.

In the same revolution a young man of great
promise and many acquirements, who had just
returned from the States with two degrees from
Columbia College, and who should have lived to
turn his education to account in his own coun-
try, was killed with a rifle in his hand the third
day after his arrival from New York. In that
city he would probably have submitted cheerful-
ly to any imposition of the law, and would have
taken it quite as a matter of course had he been
arrested for playing golf on Sunday, or for riding
a bicycle at night without a lamp ; but as soon
as this graduate of Columbia smelled the pow-
der floating on his native air he loaded a rifle,
and sat out all day on the porch of his house
taking chance shots at the revolutionists on the
hill-side, until a chance shot ended him and his
brilliant career forever. The pity of it is that so
much good energy should be wasted in obtain-
ing such poor results, for nothing better ever
seems to follow these revolutions. There is
only a new form of dictatorship, which varies
only in the extent of its revenge and in the pun-


ishments it metes out to its late opponents, but
which must be, if it hopes to remain in power, a
dictatorship and an autocracy.

The republics of Central America are repub-
lics in name only, and the movements of a


stranger within the boundaries of Honduras are
as closely watched as though he were a news-
paper correspondent in Siberia. I often had to
sign the names of our party twice in one day for
the benefit of police and customs officers, and


we never entered a hotel or boarded a steamer
or disembarked from one that we were not care-
fully checked and receipted for exactly as though
we were boxes of merchandise or registered let-
ters. Even the natives cannot walk the street
after nightfall without being challenged by sen-
tries, and the collection of letters we received
from alcaldes and comandantes and governors
and presidents certifying to our being reputable
citizens is large enough to paper the side of a
wall. The only time in Central America when
our privacy was absolutely unmolested, and
when we felt as free to walk abroad as though
we were on the streets of New York, was when
we were under the protection of the hated mo-
narchical institution of Great Britain at Belize,
but never when we were in any of these disor-
ganized military camps called free republics.

The Central -American citizen is no more fit
for a republican form of government than he is
for an arctic expedition, and what he needs is to
have a protectorate established over him, either
by the United States or by another power; it
does not matter which, so long as it leaves the
Nicaragua Canal in our hands. In the capital
of Costa Rica there is a statue of the Republic
in the form of a young woman standing with her
foot on the neck of General Walker, the Ameri-
can filibuster. We had planned to go to the
capital for the express purpose of tearing that


statue down some night, or blowing it up ; so it
is perhaps just as well for us that we could not
get there ; but it would have been a very good
thing for Costa Rica if Walker, or any other
man of force, had put his foot on the neck of
every republic in Central America and turned it
to some account.

Away from the coasts, where there is fever,
Central Arrierica is a wonderful country, rich
and beautiful, and burdened with plenty, but its
people make it a nuisance and an affront to

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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 6 of 11)