Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

. (page 7 of 11)
Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 7 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

other nations, and its parcel of independent lit-
tle states, with the pomp of power and none of
its dignity, are and will continue to be a con-
stant danger to the peace which should exist be-
tween two great powers.

There is no more interesting question of the
present day than that of what is to be done with
the world's land which is lying unimproved ;
whether it shall go to the great power that is
willing to turn it to account, or remain with its
original owner, who fails to understand its value.
The Central-Americans are like a gang of semi-
barbarians in a beautifully furnished house, of
which they can understand neither its possibili-
ties of comfort nor its use. They are the dogs
in the manger among nations. Nature has given
to their country great pasture -lands, wonderful
forests of rare woods and fruits, treasures of silver
and gold and iron, and soil rich enough to sup-


ply the world with coffee, and it only waits for
an honest effort to make it the natural highway
of traffic from every portion of the globe. The
lakes of Nicaragua are ready to furnish a pas-
sageway which should save two months of sail-
ing around the Horn, and only forty-eight miles of
swamp-land at Panama separate the two greatest
bodies of water on the earth's surface. Nature
has done so much that there is little left for man
to do, but it will have to be some other man than
a native-born Central-American who is to do it.

We had our private audience with President
Bonilla in time, and found him a most courteous
and interesting young man. He is only thirty-
six years of age, which probably makes him the
youngest president in the world, and he carries
on his watch-chain a bullet which was cut out of
his arm during the last revolution. He showed
us over the palace, and pointed out where he
had shot holes in it, and entertained us most
hospitably. The other members of the cabinet
were equally kind, making us many presents, and
offering Griscom a consul -generalship abroad,
and consulates to Somerset and myself, but we
said we would be ambassadors or nothing ; so
they offered to make us generals in the next
revolution, and we accepted that responsible
position with alacrity, knowing that not even the
regiments to which we were accredited could
force us again into Honduras.


Before we departed the president paid us a
very doubtful compliment in asking us to ride
with him. We supposed it was well meant, but
we still have secret misgivings that it was a plot
to rid himself of us and of the vice-president at
the same time. When his secretary came to
tell us that Dr. Bonilla would be glad to have us
ride with him at five that afternoon, I recalled
the fact that all the horses I had seen in Hon-
duras were but little larger than an ordinary
donkey, and quite as depressed and spiritless.
So I accepted with alacrity. The other two
men, being cross-country riders, and entitled to
wear the gold buttons of various hunt clubs on
their waistcoats, accepted as a matter of course.
But when we reached the palace we saw seven
or eight horses in the patio, none under sixteen
hands high, and each engaged in dragging two
or three grooms about the yard, and swinging
them clear of the brick tiles as easily as a sailor
swings a lead. The president explained to us
that these were a choice lot of six stallions which
he had just imported from Chili, and that three
of them had never worn a saddle before that

He gave one of these to Griscom and another
one to the vice-president, for reasons best known
to himself, and the third to Somerset. Gris-
com's animal had an idea that it was better to
go backward like a crab than to advance, so he


backed in circles around the courtyard, while
Somerset's horse seemed best to enjoy rearing
himself on his hind-legs, with the idea of rubbing
Somerset off against the wall ; and the vice-
president's horse did everything that a horse can
do, and a great many things that I should not
have supposed a horse could do, had I not seen
it. I put my beast's nose into a corner of the
wall where he could not witness the circus per-
formance going on behind him, and I watched
the president's brute turning round and round
and round until it made me dizzy. We stran-
gers confessed later that we were all thinking of
exactly the same thing, which was that, no mat-
ter how many of our bones were shattered, we
must not let these natives think they could ride
any better than any chance American or Eng-
lishman, and it was only a matter of national
pride that kept us in our saddles. The vice-
president's horse finally threw him into the door-
way and rolled on him, and it required five of
his officers to pull the horse away and set him
on his feet again. The vice- president had not
left his saddle for an instant, and if he han-
dles his men in the field as he handled that
horse, it is not surprising that he wins many

Not wishing to have us all killed, and seeing
that it was useless to attempt to kill the vice-
president in that way, Dr, Bonilla sent word to


the band to omit their customary salute, and so
we passed out in grateful silence between breath-
less rows of soldiers and musicians and several
hundreds of people who had never seen a life-
sized horse before. We rode at a slow pace, on
account of the vice-president's bruises, while the
president pointed out the different points from
which he had attacked the capital. He was not
accompanied by any guard on this ride, and in-
formed us that he was the first president who
had dared go abroad without one. He seemed
to trust rather to the good-will of the pueblo, to
whom he plays, and to whom he bowed much
more frequently than to the people of the richer
class. It was amusing to see the more prominent
men of the place raise their hats to the president,
and the young girls in the suburbs nodding casu-
ally and without embarrassment to the man. Be-
fore he set out on his ride he stuck a gold-plated
revolver in his hip-pocket, which was to take the
place of the guard of honor of former presidents,
and to protect him in case of an attempt at as-
sassination. It suggested that there are other
heads besides those that wear a crown which rest

It was a nervous ride, and Griscom's horse
added to the excitement by trying to back him
over a precipice, and he was only saved from
going down one thousand yards to the roofs of
the city below by several of the others dragging


at the horse's bridle. When, after an hour, we
found ourselves once more within sight of the
palace, we covertly smiled at one another, and
are now content never to associate with presi-
dents again unless we walk.

We left Tegucigalpa a few days later with a
generous escort, including all the consuls, and
Jose 1 Guiteris, the assistant secretary of state, and
nearly all of the foreign residents. We made
such a formidable showing as we raced through
the streets that it suggested an uprising, and we
cried, " Viva Guiteris !" to make the people think
there was a new revolution in his favor. We
shouted with the most loyal enthusiasm, but it
only served to make Guiteris extremely unhappy,
and he occupied himself in considering how he
could best explain to Bonilla that the demonstra-
tion was merely an expression of our idea of
humor. Twelve miles out we all stopped and
backed the mules up side by side, and every-
body shook hands with everybody else, and there
were many promises to write, and to forward all
manner of things, and assurances of eternal re-
membrance and friendship, and then the Guite-
ris revolutionists galloped back, firing parting
salutes with their revolvers, and we fell into line
again with a nod of satisfaction at being once
more on the road.*

* Guiteris died a few months after our visit


We never expected any conveniences or com-
forts on the road, and so we were never disap-
pointed, and were much happier and more content-
ed in consequence than at the capital, where the
name promised so much and the place furnished
so little. We found that it was not the luxuries
of life that we sighed after, but the mere con-
veniences those things to which we had become
so much accustomed that we never supposed there
were places where they did not exist. A chair
with a back, for example, was one of the things
we most wanted. We had never imagined, until
we went to Honduras, that chairs grew without
backs ; but after we had ridden ten hours, and
were so tired that each man found himself easing
his spinal column by leaning forward with his
hands on the pommel of his saddle, we wanted
something more than a three-legged stool when
we alighted for the night.

Our ride to the Pacific coast was a repetition of
the ride to the capital, except that, as there was
a full moon, we slept in the middle of the day
and rode later in the night. During this nocturnal
journey we met many pilgrims going to the
festivals. They were all mounted on mules, and
seemed a very merry and jovial company. Some-
times there were as many as fifty in one party,
and we came across them picnicking in the shade
by day, or jogging along in the moonlight in a
cloud of white dust, or a cloud of white foam as


they forded the broad river and their donkeys
splashed and slipped in the rapids. The nights
were very beautiful and cool, and the silence un-
der the clear blue sky and white stars was like
the silence of the plains. The moon turned
the trail a pale white, and made the trees on
either side of it alive with shadows that seemed
to play hide-and-seek with us, and the stumps
and rocks moved and gesticulated with life,
until we drew up even with them, when they
were transformed once more into wood and

It was on the third day out from the capital,
while we were picking our way down the side of
a mountain, that Jeffs pointed to what looked
like a lake of silver lying between two great hills,
and we knew that we had crossed the continent,
and so raised our hats and saluted the Pacific
Ocean. A day later, after a long, rapid ride over
a level plain where the trail was so broad that we
could ride four abreast, we came to San Lorenzo,
a little cluster of huts at the edge of the ocean.
The settlement was still awake, for a mule train
of silver had just arrived from the San Rosario
mines, and the ruddy glare of pine knots was
flashing through the chinks in the bamboo walls
of the huts, and making yellow splashes of color
in the soft white light of the moon. We swung
ourselves out of the saddles for the last time, and
gave the little mules a farewell pat and many



thanks, to which they made no response whatso-

Five hours later we left the continent for the
island of Amapala, the chief seaport of the Pa-
cific side of Honduras, and our ride was at an end.
We left San Lorenzo at two in the morning, but
we did not reach Amapala, although it was but
fifteen miles out to sea, until four the next after-
noon. We were passengers in a long, open boat,
and slept stretched on our blankets at the bot-
tom, while four natives pulled at long sweeps.
There were eight cross-seats, and a man sat on
every other one. A log of wood in which steps
had been cut was bound to each empty seat, and
it was up this that the rower walked, as though
he meant to stand up on the seat to which it was
tied, but he would always change his mind and
sink back again, bracing his left leg on the seat
and his right leg on the log, and dragging the
oar through the water with the weight of his body
as he sank backwards. I lay on the ribs of the
boat below them and watched them through the
night, rising and falling with a slight toss of the
head as they sank back, and with their brown
naked bodies outlined against the sky-line. They
were so silent and their movements so regular
that they seemed like statues cut in bronze. By
ten the next morning they became so far animat-
ed as to say that they were tired and hungry,
and would we allow them to rest on a little isl-


and that lay half a mile off our bow ? We were
very glad to rest ourselves, and to get out of the
sun and the glare of the sea, and to stretch our
cramped limbs: so we beached the boat in a little
bay, and frightened off thousands of gulls, which
rose screaming in the air, and which were appar-
ently the only inhabitants.

The galley-slaves took sticks of driftwood and
scattered over the rocks, turning back the sea-
weed with their hands, and hacking at the base
of the rocks with their improvised hammers. We
found that they were foraging for oysters ; and as
we had nothing but a tin of sardines and two bis-
cuits among five of us, and had had nothing to eat
for twenty-four hours, we followed their example,
and chipped the oysters off with the butts of our
revolvers, and found them cool and coppery, like
English oysters, and most refreshing. It was
such a lonely little island that we could quite im-
agine we were cast away upon it, and began to
play we were Robinson Crusoe, and took off our
boots and went in wading, paddling around in the
water after mussels and crabs until we were chased
to shore by a huge shark. Then eveiy one went
to sleep in the sand until late in the afternoon,
when a breeze sprang up, and a boatman carried
us out on his shoulders, and we dashed off gayly
under full sail to the isle of Amapala, where we
bade good-bye to Colonel Jeffs and to the Repub-
lic of Honduras.


We had crossed the continent at a point
where it was but little broader than the distance
from Boston to New York, a trip of five hours
by train, but which had taken us twenty- two


|VERY now and again each of us,
either through his own choice or by
force of circumstance, drops out of
step with the rest of the world, and
retires from it into the isolation of a sick-room,
or to the loneliness of the deck of an ocean
steamer, and for some short time the world some-
how manages to roll on without him.

He is like a man who falls out of line in a reg-
iment to fasten his shoelace or to fill his can-
teen, and who hears over his shoulder the hurry-
ing tramp of his comrades, who are leaving him
farther and farther behind, so that he has to run
briskly before he can catch up with them and
take his proper place once more in the proces-

I shall always consider the ten days we spent
at Corinto, on the Pacific side of Nicaragua,
while we waited for the steamer to take us south
to Panama, as so many days of non-existence,


as so much time given to the mere exercise of
living, when we were no more of this world than
are the prisoners in the salt-mines of Siberia, or
the keepers of light-houses scattered over sunny
seas, or the men who tend toll-gates on empty
country lanes. And so when I read in the news-
papers last fall that three British ships of war
were anchored in the harbor of Corinto, with
their guns loaded to the muzzles with ultima-
tums and no one knows what else besides, and
that they meant to levy on the customs dues of
that sunny little village, it was as much of a shock
to me as it would be to the inhabitants of Sleepy
Hollow were they told that that particular spot
was wanted as a site for a World's Fair.

For no ships of any sort, certainly no ships of
war, ever came to Corinto while we occupied the
only balcony of its only hotel. Indeed, that was
why we were there, and had they come we would
have gone with them, no matter to what port
they were bound, even to the uttermost parts of
the earth.

We had come to Corinto from the little island
of Amapala, which lies seventy-five miles farther
up the coast, and which guards the only port
of entry to Honduras on the Pacific seaboard.
It is supposed to belong to the Republic of Hon-
duras, but it is in reality the property of Rossner
Brothers, who sell everything from German ma-
chetes to German music-boxes, and who could,




if they wanted it, purchase the entire Republic
of Honduras in the morning, and make a pres-
ent of it to the Kaiser in the course of the after-
noon. You have only to change the name of
Rossner Brothers to the San Rosario Mining
Company, to the Pacific Mail, to Errman Broth-
ers, to the Panama Railroad Company, and you
will identify the actual rulers of one or of sev-
eral of the republics of Central America.

It is very well for President Zelaya, or Barrios,
or Vasquez, or whatever his name may happen
to be this month, to write to the New York


Herald and tell the people of the United States
what the revolution in his country means. It
does no harm ; no one in the United States
reads the letter, except the foreign editor who
translates it, and no one in his own country ever
sees it, but it makes him happy in thinking he is
persuading some one that he governs in his own
way. As a matter of fact he does not. His
country, no matter what her name may be, is
ruled by a firm of coffee-merchants in New York
city, or by a German railroad company, or by a
line of coasting steamers, or by a great trading-
house, with headquarters in Berlin or London or
Bordeaux. If the president wants money he bor-
rows it from the trading-house ; if he wants arms,
or his soldiers need blankets, the trading-house
supplies them. No one remembers now who was
President of Peru when Henry Meiggs was alive,
and to-day William L. Grace is a better name on
letters of introduction to Chili and Peru than that
of a secretary of state.

When we were in Nicaragua, one little English
banking-house was fighting the minister of
finance and the minister of foreign affairs and
the president and the entire government, and
while the notes issued by the bank were accepted
at their face value, those of the government were
taken only in the presence of a policeman or a sol-
dier, who was there to see that you did take them.
You find this condition of affairs all through


Central America, and you are not long in a re-
public before you learn which merchant or which
bank or which railroad company controls it, and
you soon grow to look upon a mule loaded with
boxes bearing the trade-mark of a certain busi-
ness-house with more respect than upon a sol-
dier who wears the linen ribbon of the govern-
ment. For you know that at a word the soldier
will tear the ribbon from his straw sombrero and
replace it with another upon which is printed
" Viva Dr. Somebody Else," while the trade-
mark of the business - house will continue as
long as English and German merchandise is car-
ried across the sea in ships. And it will also
continue as long as Great Britain and Germany
and the United States are represented by con-
suls and consular agents who are at the same
time the partners of the leading business firms
in the seaport over which their consular juris-
diction extends. For few Central-American re-
publics are going to take away a consul's exe-
quatur as long as they owe him in his unofficial
capacity for a large loan of money ; and the
merchant, on the other hand, knows that he is
not going to suffer from the imposition of a
forced loan, nor see his mules seized, as long as
the tin sign with the American eagle screaming
upon it is tacked above the brass business plate
of his warehouse.

There was a merchant in Tegucigalpa named


Santos Soto he is there still, I believe and
about a year ago President Vasquez told him he
needed a loan of ten thousand dollars to assist
him in his struggle against Bonilla ; and as Soto
was making sixty thousand dollars a year in the
country, he suggested that he had better lend it
promptly. Soto refused, and was locked in the
cartel, where it was explained to him that for
every day he delayed in giving the money the
amount demanded of him would be increased
one thousand dollars. As he still refused, he
was chained to an iron ball and led out to sweep
the streets in front of his shop, which extends
on both sides of the principal thoroughfare of
the capital. He is an old man, and the sight of
the chief merchant in Tegucigalpa sweeping up
the dust in front of his own block of stores had
a most salutary effect upon the other merchants,
who promptly loaned the sums demanded of
them, taking rebates on customs dues in ex-
change with one exception. This merchant
owned a jewelry store, and was at the same
time the English consular agent. He did not
sweep the streets, nor did he contribute to the
forced loan. He values in consequence his tin
sign, which is not worth much as a work of art,
at about ten thousand dollars.

There is much that might be written of con-
sular agents in Central America that would dif-
fer widely from the reports written by them-


selves and published by the State Department.
The most interesting thing about them, to my
mind, is the fact that none of them ever seem to
represent a country which they have ever seen,
and that they are always citizens of another
country to which they are anxious to return. I
find that after Americans, Germans make the best
American consular agents, and Englishmen the
best German consular agents, while French con-
sular agents would be more useful to their coun-
trymen if they could speak French as well as
they do Spanish. Sometimes, as in the case of
the consular agent at Corinto, you find a native
of Italy representing both Great Britain and the
United States. A whole comic opera could be
written on the difficulties of a Nicaraguan act-
ing as an English and American consul, with
three British men-of-war in the harbor levying
on the customs dues of his native land, and an
American squadron hastening from Panama to
see that their English cousins did not gather in
a few islands by mistake.

If he called on the British admiral, and re-
ceived his seven -gun salute, would it constitute
a breach of international etiquette if he were
rowed over to the American admiral and received
seven guns from him ; and as a native of Nicara-
gua could he see the customs dues, which com-
prise the government's chief source of revenue,
going into the pockets of one country which he


so proudly serves without complaining to the
other country which he serves with equal satis-
faction ? Every now and then you come across
a real American consul who was born in Ameri-
ca, and who serves the United States with abil-
ity, dignity, and self-respect, so that you are glad
you are both Americans. Of this class we found
General Allen Thomas at La Guayra, who was
later promoted and made United States minister
at Caracas, Mr. Alger at Puerto Cortez, Mr. Little
at Tegucigalpa, and Colonel Bird at Caracas.

We found that the firm of Rossner Brothers
had in their employ the American and English
consular agents, and these gentlemen endeared
themselves to us by assisting at our escape from
their island in an open boat. They did not tell
us, however, that Fonseca Bay was one of the
most treacherous stretches of water on the ad-
miralty charts ; but that was, probably, because
they were merchants and not sailors.

Amapala was the hottest place I ever visit-
ed. It did not grow warm as the day wore on,
but began briskly at sunrise by nailing the mer-
cury at fever- heat, and continued boiling and
broiling until ten at night. By one the next
morning the roof over your head and the bed-
linen beneath you had sufficiently cooled for you
to sleep, and from that on until five there was a
fair imitation of night.

There was but one cool spot in Amapala ; it


was a point of land that the inhabitants had
rather tactlessly selected as a dumping- ground
for the refuse of the town, and which was only
visited by pigs and buzzards. This point of land
ran out into the bay, and there had once been
an attempt made to turn it into a public park, of
which nothing now remains but a statue to Mo-
razan, the Liberator of Honduras. The statue
stood on a pedestal of four broad steps, sur-
rounded by an iron railing, the gates of which
had fallen from their hinges, and lay scattered
over the piles of dust and debris under which
the park is buried. At each corner of the railing

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11

Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 7 of 11)