Richard Harding Davis.

Three gringos in Venezuela and Central America online

. (page 9 of 11)
Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 9 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


waters, throwing out its poison like a serpent,
noiselessly and suddenly,' meeting the last ar-
rival at the very moment of his setting foot
upon the wharf, arrogant in health and hope and
ambition, and leaving him with clinched teeth
and raving with madness before the sun sets.
It is like the old Minotaur and his yearly tribute
of Greek maidens, with the difference that now
it is the lives of men that are sacrificed, and
men who are chosen from every nation of the
world, speaking every language, believing in
every religion ; and to-day the end of each is
marked by a wooden plank in the Catholic
Cemetery, in the Hebrew Cemetery, in the
French Cemetery, in the English Cemetery, in
the American Cemetery, for there arc acres and



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 197

acres of cemeteries and thousands and thou-
sands of wooden head-stones, to which the evil
spirit of the isthmus points mockingly, and says,
" These are your failures."

The fields of Waterloo and Gettysburg saw a
sacrifice of life but little greater than these fifty
miles of swamp land between North and South
America have seen, and certainly they saw no
such inglorious defeats, without a banner flying
or a comrade cheering, or the roar of musketry
and cannon to inspire the soldiers who fell in
the unequal battle. Those who died striving to
save the Holy Land from the unspeakable Turk
were comforted by the promise of a glorious
immortality, and it must have been gratifying
in itself to have been described as a Crusader,
and to have worn the red cross upon one's
shoulder. And, in any event, a man who would
not fight for his religion or his country without
promises or pensions is hardly worthy of con-
sideration. But these young soldiers of the
transit and sailors of the dredging-scow had no
promises or sentiment to inspire them; they
were not fighting for the boundaries of their
country, but redeeming a bit.^f No Man's Land;
not doing battle for their God, but merely
digging a canal. And it must strike every one
that those of them who fell doing their duty in
the sickly yellow mist of Panama and along the
gloomy stretches of the Chagres River deserve a



198 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

better monument to their memories than the
wooden slabs in the cemeteries.

It is strange that not only nature, but man
also, should have selected the same little spot on
the earth's surface in which to show to .the
world exactly how disagreeable and unpleasant
they can make themselves when they choose.
It seems almost as though the isthmus were un-
holy ground, and that there was a curse upon it.
Some one should invent a legend to explain this,
and tell ho\v one of the priests who came over
with Columbus put the ban of the Church upon
the land for some affront by its people to the
voyagers, and so placed it under a curse for-
ever. For those whom the fever did not kill the
canal company robbed, and the ruin that came
to the peasants of France was as irredeemable
as the ravages of the fever, and the scandal that
spattered almost every public man in Paris ex-
posed rottenness and corruption as far advanced
as that in the green-coated pools along the Rio
Grande.

Ruins are always interesting, but the ruins of
Panama fill one 'only with melancholy and dis-
gust, and the relics of this gigantic swindle can
only inspire you with a contempt for yourself
and your fellow -men, and you blush at the
evidences of barefaced rascality about you.
And even the honest efforts of those who are
now in charge, and who are trying to save what



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 2OI

remains, and once more to build up confidence
in the canal, reminded me of the town council-
lors of Johnstown who met in a freight depot to
decide what was to be done with the town and
those of its inhabitants that had not been swept
out of existence.

There are forty-eight miles of railroad across
the isthmus, stretching from the town of Pana-
ma on the Pacific side to that of Colon or
Aspinwall, as it was formerly called on the
Caribbean Sea. The canal starts a little north
of the town of Panama, in the mouth of the
Rio Grande, and runs along on one side or
the other of the railroad to the port of Colon.
The Chagres River starts about the middle of
the isthmus, and follows the route of the canal
in an easterly direction, until it empties itself
into the Caribbean Sea a little north of Colon.

The town of Panama, as you approach it from
the bay, reminds you of an Italian seaport, ow-
ing to the balconies which overhang the water
and the colored house-fronts and projecting red
roofs. As seen from the inside, the town is like
any other Spanish-American city of the second
class. There are fiacres that rattle and roll
through the clean but narrow streets behind un-
dersized ponies that always move at a gallop ;
there are cool, dark shops open to the streets, and
hundreds of negroes and Chinese coolies, and a
handsome plaza, and some very large municipal



202 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

buildings of five stories, which appeared to us,
after our experience with a dead level of one-
story huts, to tower as high as the Auditorium.
Panama, as a town, and considered by itself, and
not in connection with the canal, reminded me of
a Western county-seat after the boom had left it.
There appeared to be nothing going forward and
nothing to do. The men sat at the cafs during
the day and talked of the past, and went to a
club at night. We saw nothing of the women,
but they seem to have a greater degree of free-
dom than their sisters in other parts of Spanish
America, owing, no doubt, to the cosmopolitan
nature of the inhabitants of Panama.

But the city, and the people in it, interest you
chiefly because of the canal ; and even the ruins
of the Spanish occupation, and the tales of buc-
caneers and of bloody battles and buried treas-
ure, cannot touch you so nearly as do the great,
pretentious building of the company and the
stories of De Lesseps' visit, and the ceremonies
and feastings and celebrations which inaugurated
the greatest failure of modern times.

The new director of the canal company put a
tug at our disposal, and sent us orders that per-
mitted us to see as much of the canal as has been
completed from the Pacific side. But before pre-
senting our orders we drove out from the city
one afternoon and began a personally conducted
inspection of the machine-shops.



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 205

We had read of the pathetic spectacle present-
ed by thousands of dollars' worth of locomotive
engines and machinery lying rotting and rusting
in the swamps, and as it had interested us when
we had read of it, we were naturally even more anx-
ious to see it with our own eyes. We, however,
did not see any machinery rusting, nor any loco-
motives lying half buried in the mud. All the
locomotives that we saw were raised from the
ground on ties and protected with-a wooden shed,
and had been painted and oiled and cared for as
they would have been in the Baldwin Locomo-
tive Works. We found the same state of things
in the great machine-works, and though none of
us knew a turning-lathe from a sewing-machine,
we could at least understand that certain wheels
should make other wheels move if everything
was in working order, and so we made the wheels
go round, and punched holes in sheets of iron
with steel rods, and pierced plates, and scraped
iron bars, and climbed to shelves twenty and
thirty feet from the floor, only to find that each
bit and screw in each numbered pigeon-hole was
as sharp and covered as thick with oil as though
it had been in use that morning.

This was not as interesting as it would have
been had we seen what the other writers who
have visited the isthmus saw. And it would have
given me a better chance for descriptive writing
had I found the ruins of gigantic dredging-ma-



206 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

chines buried in the morasses, and millions of
dollars' worth of delicate machinery blistering
and rusting under the palm-trees ; but, as a rule,
it is better to describe things just as you saw
them, and not as it is the fashion to see them,
even though your way be not so picturesque.

As a matter of fact, the care the company was
taking of its machinery and its fleet of dredging-
scows and locomotives struck me as being much
more pathetic than the sight of the same instru-
ments would have been had we found them aban-
doned to the elements and the mud. For it was
like a general pipe-claying his cross-belt and pol-
ishing his buttons after his army had been routed
and killed, and he had lost everything, including
honor.

There was a little village of whitewashed huts
on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, where




HUTS OK WORKMEN EMPLOYED ON THE CANAL



\
ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 207

the men lived who take care of the fleet and the
machine-shop, and it was as carefully kept and as
clean as a graveyard. Before the crash came the
quarters of the men used to ring with their yells
at night, and the music of guitars and banjos
came from the open doors of cafs and drinking-
booths, and a pistol-shot meant no more than a
momentary punctuation of the night's pleasure.
Those were great days, and there were thousands
of men where there are now a score, and a line of
light and deviltry ran from the canal's mouth for
miles back to the city, where it blazed into a
great fire of dissolute pleasure and excitement.
In those days men were making fortunes in a
night, and by ways as dark as night by furnish-
ing machinery that could not even be put togeth-
er, by supplying blocks of granite that cost more
in freight than bars of silver, by kidnapping work-
men for the swamps, and by the simple methods
of false accounts and credits. And while some
were growing rich, others were living with the
fear of sudden death before their eyes, and drink-
ing the native rum that they might forget it, and
throwing their wages away on the roulette-tables,
and eating and drinking and making merry in the
fear that they might die on the morrow.

Mr. Wells, an American engineer, was in
charge of the company's flotilla, and waited for
us at the wharf.

" I saw you investigating our engines," he



208 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

said. "That's all right. Only tell the truth
about what you see, and we won't mind."

We stood on the bow of the tug and sped up
the length of the canal between great dredging-
machines that towered as high above us as the
bridge of an ocean liner, and that weighed ap-
parently as much as a battle-ship. The decks
of some of them were split with the heat, and
there were shutters missing from the cabin win-
dows, but the monster machinery was intact,
and the wood-work was freshly painted and
scrubbed. They reminded me of a line of old
ships of war at rest in some navy-yard. They
represent in money value, even as they are to-
day, five million francs. Beyond them on either
side stretched low green bushes, through which
the Rio Grande bent and twisted, and beyond
the bushes were high hills and the Pacific Ocean,
into which the sun set, leaving us cold and de-
pressed.

Except for the bubbling of the water under
our bow there was not a sound to disturb the
silence that hung above the narrow canal and
the green bushes that rose from a bed of water.
I thought of the entrance of the Suez Canal, as
I had seen it at Port Said and at Ismailia,
with great P. & O. steamers passing down
its length, and troop-ships showing hundreds of
white helmets above the sides, and tramp steamers
and sailing-vessels flying every flag, and com-




f



THE TOP OF A DREDGE



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 211

pared it and its scenes of life and movement
with this dreary waste before us, with the idle
dredges rearing their iron girders to the sky,
the engineers' sign-posts half smothered in the
water and the mud, and with a naked fisherman
paddling noiselessly down the canal with his
eyes fixed on the water, his hollowed log canoe
the only floating vessel in what should have
been the highway of the world.

There were about eight hundred men in all
working along the whole length of the canal
while we were there, instead of the twelve thou-
sand that once made the place hum with ac-
tivity. But the work the twelve thousand ac-
complished remains, and the stranger is surprised
to find that there is so much of it and that it is
so well done. It looks to his ignorant eyes as
though only a little more energy and a greater
amount of honesty would be necessary to open
the canal to traffic ; but experts will tell him
that^one hundred million dollars will have to be
expended and seven or eight years of honest
work done before that -ditch can be dug and
France hold a Kiel celebration of her own.

But before that happens every citizen of the
United States should help to open the Nicaragua
Canal to the world under the protection and
the virtual ownership of his own country.

Our stay in Panama was shortened somewhat
on account of our having taken too great an in-



212 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

terest in the freedom of a young lawyer and
diplomat, who was arrested while we were there,
charged with being one of the leaders of the
revolution.

He was an acquaintance of Lloyd Griscom's,
who took an interest in the young rebel because
they had both been in the diplomatic service
abroad. One afternoon, while Griscom and the
lawyer were sitting together in the office of the
latter, five soldiers entered the place and ordered
the suspected revolutionist to accompany them
to the cartel. As he happened to know some-
thing of the law, he protested that they must
first show him a warrant, and while two of them
went out for the warrant and the others kept
watch in the outer office Griscom mapped out a
plan of escape. The lawyer's office hung over
the Bay of Panama, and Griscom's idea was that
he should, under the protection of the darkness,
slip down a rope from the window to a small
boat below and be rowed out to the Barracouta,
of the Pacific Mail Company's line, which was
listed to sail that same evening up the coast.
The friends of the rebel were sent for, and with
their assistance Griscom made every preparation
for the young rebel's escape, and then came to
the hotel and informed Somerset and myself of
what he had done, and asked us to aid in what
was to follow. We knew nothing of the rights
or the wrongs of the revolutionists, but we con-




STREET SCENE IN PANAMA



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 215

sidered that a man who was going down a rope
into a small boat while three soldiers sat waiting
for him in an outer room was performing a
sporting act that called for our active sympathy.
So we followed Griscom to his friend's office,
and, having passed the soldiers, were ushered
into his presence and introduced to him and his
friends. He was a little man, but was not at all
alarmed, nor did he pose or exhibit any brag-
gadocio, as a man of weaker calibre might have
done under the circumstances. When we offered
to hold the rope for him, or to block up the
doors so that the soldiers might not see what
was going forward, he thanked us with such
grateful politeness that he made me feel rather
ashamed of myself ; for my interest in the matter
up to that point had not been a very serious or
a high one. Indeed, I did not even know the
gentleman's name. But as we did not know the
names of the government people against whom
he was plotting either, we felt that we could not
be accused of partiality.

The prisoner did not want his wife to know
what had happened, and so sent her word that
important legal business would detain him at
the office, and that his dinner was to be brought
to him there. The rope by which he was to
escape was smuggled past the soldiers under the
napkin which covered this dinner. It was then
seven o'clock and nearly dark, and as our rebel



2l6 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

friend feared our presence might excite suspicion,
he asked us to go away, and requested us to re-
turn in half an hour. It would then be quite
dark, and the attempt to escape could be made
with greater safety.

But the alcalde during our absence spoiled
what might have been an excellent story by
rushing in and carrying the diplomat off to jail.
When we returned we found the office locked
and guarded, and as we walked away, in doubt
as to whether he had escaped or had been ar-
rested, we found that the soldiers were following
us. As this continued throughout the evening
we went across the isthmus the next morning
to Colon, the same soldiers accompanying us on
our way.

The ship of war Atlanta was at Colon, and as
we had met her officers at Puerto Cortez, in Hon-
duras, we went on board and asked them to see
that we were not shot against church walls or
hung. They were exceedingly amused, and
promised us ample protection, and though we
did not need it on that occasion, I was impressed
with the comforting sense that comes to a trav-
eller from the States when he knows that one
of our White Squadron is rolling at anchor in
the harbor. And later, when Griscom caught
the Chagrcs fever, we had every reason to be
grateful for the presence in the harbor of the
Atlanta, as her officers, led by Dr. Bartolette and



ON THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA 219

his assistant surgeon, Mr. Moore, helped him
through his sickness, visiting him daily with the
greatest kindness and good-will.

Colon did not impress us very favorably. It
is a large town of wooden houses, with a floating
population of Jamaica negroes and a few Chinese.
The houses built for the engineers of the canal
stretch out along a point at either side of a
double row of magnificent palms, which termi-
nate at the residence intended for De Lesseps.
It is now falling into decay. In front of it,
facing the sea, is a statue of Columbus protect-
ing the Republic of Colombia, represented by
an Indian girl, whp is crouching under his out-
stretched arm. This monument was presented
to the United States of Colombia by the Em-
press Eugeuie, and the statue is, in its fallen
state, with its pedestal shattered by the many
storms and time, significant of the fallen fort-
unes of that great lady herself. If Columbus
could have protected Colombia from the French
as he is in the French statue protecting her
from all the world, she would now be the rich-
est and most important of Central-American re-
publics.

Colon seems to be owned entirely by the Pan-
ama Railroad Company, a monopoly that con-
ducts its affairs with even more disregard for
the public than do other monopolies in better-
known localities. The company makes use of



220 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

the seaport as a freight-yard, and its locomo-
tives run the length of the town throughout the
entire day, blowing continually on their whistles
and ringing their bells, so that there is little
peace for the just or the unjust. We were ex-
ceedingly relieved when the doctors agreed that
Griscom was ready to put to sea again, and we
were able to turn from the scene of the great
scandal and its fever fields to the mountains of
Venezuela, and of Caracas in particular.



THE PARIS OF SOUTH AMERICA




1HOVED off by itself in a corner of
Central Park on the top of a wooded
hill, where only the people who live
in the high apartment - houses at
Eighty-first Street can see it, is an equestrian
statue. It is odd, bizarre, and inartistic, and sug-
gests in size and pose that equestrian statue to
General Jackson which mounts guard before the
White House in Washington. It shows a choc-
olate-cream soldier mastering with one hand a
rearing rocking-horse, and with the other point-
ing his sword towards an imaginary enemy.

Sometimes a "sparrow" policeman saunters
up the hill and looks at the statue with unen-
lightened eyes, and sometimes a nurse -maid
seeks its secluded site, and sits on the pedestal
below it while the children of this free republic
play unconcernedly in its shadow. On the base
of this big statue is carved the name of Simon
Bolivar, the Liberator of Venezuela.



222 THREE GFiNGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

Down on the northeastern coast of South
America, in Caracas, the capital of the United
States of Venezuela, there is a pretty little plaza,
called the Plaza Washington. It is not at all
an important plaza; it is not floored for hun-
dreds of yards with rare mosaics like the Plaza
de Bolivar, nor lit by swinging electric lights,
and the president's band never plays there. But
it has a fresh prettiness and restfulness all its
own, and the narrow gravel paths are clean and
trim, and the grass grows rich and high, and the
branches of the trees touch and interlace and
form a green roof over all, except in the very
centre, where there stands open to the blue sky
a statue of Washington, calm, dignified, benefi-
cent, and paternal. It is Washington the states-
man, not the soldier. The sun of the tropics
beats down upon his shoulders ; the palms rus-
tle and whisper pleasantly above his head. From
the barred windows of the yellow and blue and
pink houses that line the little plaza dark-eyed,
dark-skinned women look out sleepily, but un-
derstandingly, at the grave face of the North
American Bolivar; and even the policeman, with
his red blanket and Winchester carbine, compre-
hends when the gringos stop and take off their
hats and make a low bow to the father of their
country in his pleasant place of exile.

Other governments than those of the United
States of America and the United States of




STATUE OF SIMON BOLIVAR, CARACAS



THE PARIS OF SOUTH AMERICA 225

Venezuela have put up statues to their great
men in foreign capitals, but the careers of Wash-
ington and Bolivar bear so striking a resem-
blance, and the histories of the two countries
of which they are the respective fathers are so
much alike, that they might be written in parallel
columns. And so it seems especially appro-
priate that these monuments to these patriots
should stand in each of the two continents on
either side of the dividing states of Central
America.

It will offend no true Venezuelan to-day if it
be said of his country that the most interesting
man in it is a dead one, for he will allow no one
to go further than himself in his admiration for
Bolivar ; and he has done so much to keep his
memory fresh by circulating portraits of him on
every coin and stamp of the country, by placing
his statue at every corner, and by hanging his
picture in every house, that he cannot blame
the visitor if his strongest impression of Vene-
zuela is of the young man who began at thirty-
three to liberate five republics, and who con-
quered a territory more than one-third as great
as the whole of Europe.

In 1811 Venezuela declared her independence
of the mother-country of Spain, and her great
men put this declaration in writing and signed
it, and the room in which it was signed is still
kept sacred, as is the room where our declara-
15



226 THREE GRINGOS IN CENTRAL AMERICA

tion was signed in Independence Hall. But the
two men who were to make these declarations
worth something more than the parchment upon
which they were written were not among the
signers. Their work was still to come, and it
was much the same kind of work, and carried
on in much the same spirit of indomitable ener-
gy under the most cruel difficulties, and with a
few undrilled troops against an army of veter-
ans. It was marked by brilliant and sudden
marches and glorious victories ; and where Wash-
ington suffered in the snows of Valley Forge,
or pushed his way through the floating ice of
the Delaware, young Bolivar marched under
fierce tropical suns, and cut his path through
jungle and swamp-lands, and over the almost
impenetrable fastnesses of the Andes.

Their difficulties were the same and their aim
was the same, but the characters of the two men
were absolutely and entirely different, for Boli-
var was reckless, impatient of advice, and even
foolhardy. What Washington was we know.

The South-American came of a distinguished
Spanish family, and had been educated as a
courtier and as a soldier in the mother-country,
though his heart remained always with his own
people, and he was among the first to take up
arms to set them free. Unless you have seen
the country through which he led his men, and
have measured the mountains he climbed with




STATUE OF WASHINGTON DECORATED WITH FLORAL WREATHS
BY THE VENEZUELANS



THE PARIS OF SOUTH AMERICA 229

his few followers, it is quite impossible to un-
derstand the immensity of the task he accom-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11

Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThree gringos in Venezuela and Central America → online text (page 9 of 11)