Edward Burnett Tylor
Part 1 out of 6
or, Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern
EDWARD B. TYLOR
[Illustration: Frontspiece. See page 93. THE CASCADE OF REGLA. From a
Photograph by J. Ball Esq. of the Hacienda de Regla. March 1856.]
The journey and excursions in Mexico which have originated the
narrative and remarks contained in this volume were made in the months
of March, April, May, and June of 1856, for the most part on horseback.
The author and his fellow-traveller enjoyed many advantageous
opportunities of studying the country, the people, and the antiquities
of Mexico, owing to the friendly assistance and hospitality which they
received there. With this aid they were enabled to accomplish much more
than usually falls to the lot of travellers in so limited a period; and
they had the great advantage too, of being able to substantiate or
correct their own observations by the local knowledge and experience of
their friends and entertainers.
Visiting Mexico during a lull in the civil turmoil of that lamentably
disturbed Republic, they were fortunate in being able to avail
themselves of that peaceable season in making excursions to remarkable
places and ruins, and examining the national collection of antiquities,
and other objects of interest,--an opportunity that cannot have
occurred since owing to the recommencement of civil war in its worst
The following are some of the chief points of interest in these Notes
on Mexico, which are either new or treated more fully than hitherto:
1. The evidence of an immense ancient population,
shewn by the abundance of remains of works of art
(treated of at pages 146-150), is fully stated
2. The notices and drawings of Obsidian knives and
weapons (at page 95, &c., and in the Appendix) are
more ample than any previously given.
3. The treatment of the Mexican Numerals (at page 108)
is partly new.
4. The proofs of the highly probable sophistication of
the document in the Library at Paris, relative to
Mexican eclipses, have not previously been advanced
5. The notices of objects of Mexican art, &c., in the
chapter on Antiquities, and elsewhere (including
the Appendix), are for the most part new to the
6. The remarks on the connection between pure Mexican
art and that of Central America, in the chapter on
Xochicalco, are in great part new.
7. The singular native bridge at Tezcuco (page 153) is
The order in which places and things were visited is shewn in the
annexed Itinerary, or sketch of the journeys and excursions described.
Journey 1. Cuba. Havana. Batabano. Isles of Pines.
Nueva Gerona. Banos de Santa Fe. Back to
Havana. _Pages_ 1-14.
Journey 2. Havana. Sisal. Vera Cruz. _Pages_ 15-18.
Journey 3. Vera Cruz. Cordova. Orizaba. Huamantla.
Otumba. Guadalupe. Mexico. _Pages_ 18-38.
Journey 4. Mexico to Tacubaya and Chapultepec, and
back. _Pages_ 55-58.
Journey 5. Mexico to Santa Anita and back. _Pages_
Journey 6. Mexico. Guadalupe. Pachuca. Real del
Monte. Regla. Atotonilco el Grande.
Soquital and back to Real del Monte. Real
del Monte to Mount Jacal and Cerro de
Navajas (obsidian-pits), and back to Real
del Monte. Pachuca. Guadalupe. Mexico.
Journey 7. Mexico to Tisapan. Ravine of Magdalena.
Pedrigal (lava-field), and back. _Pages_
Journey 8. Mexico to Tezcuco. Pages 129--162.
Tezcuco to Pyramids of Teotihuacan and
back. Pages 136--146. Tezcuco to
Tezcotzinco (the so-called "Montezuma's
Bath," &c.). Aztec Bridge, and back to
Tezcuco. _Pages_ 152-153. Tezcuco to
Bosque del Contador (the grove of
ahuehuetes, where excavations were made.)
_Pages_ 154-156. Tezcuco to Mexico.
Journey 9. Mexico. San Juan de Dios. La Guarda.
Cuernavaca. Temisco. Xochicalco.
Miacatlan. Cocoytla. _Pages_ 172-195.
Cocoytla to village and cave of
Cacahuamilpan and back. _Pages_ 196-205.
Cocoytla to Chalma. Oculan. El Desierto.
Tenancingo. Toluca. Lerma. Las Cruzes.
Mexico. _Pages_ 214-220.
Journey 10. Mexico to Tezcuco. Miraflores. Amecameca.
Popocatepetl. San Nicolas de los Ranchos.
Cholula. Puebla. Amozoque. Nopaluca. San
Antonio de abajo. Orizaba. Amatlan. El
Potrero. Cordova. San Andres.
Chalchicomula. La Junta. Jalapa. Vera
Cruz. West Indies and Home. _Pages_ 260-
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
Cuba. Volantes. A Cuban Railway. Voyage. Passports. Isle of
Pines. Mosquitos. Pirates. Runaway slaves. Baths of Santa Fe.
Alligators. The Cura. Missionary Priest. Florida Colonists.
Blacks in the West Indies. Chinese and African slaves.
Players and Political Adventurers. Voyage. Yucatan.
Slave-trade in Natives. The Ten Tribes. Vera Cruz. Don
Ignacio Comonfort. Mexican Politics. Casualties. The City of
the Dead. Turkey-buzzards. Northers. The "temperate region."
Cordova. The Chipi-chipi. The "cold region." Mirage.
Sand-pillars. The rainy season. Plundered passengers.
Robber-priest. Aztec remains. Aloe-fields. Houses of
mud-bricks. Huts of aloes. Mexican churches. Mexican roads.
Palace-hotel of Yturbide. Site and building of Mexico.
Changes in the Valley of Mexico. Dearth of Trees.
Architecture. Drunkenness. Fights. Rattles. Judas's Bones.
Burning Judas. Churches in Holy Week. Streets. Barricades.
People. Women. The cypress of Chapultepec. Old-fashioned
coaches. The canal of Chalco. Canoe-travelling. "Reasonable
people." Taste for flowers. The "Floating Gardens."
Promenade. Flooded streets. Earthquakes.
Tacubaya. Humming-birds and butterflies. Aztec feather-work.
Bullfight. Lazoing and colearing. English in Mexico. Hedge of
organ-cactus. Pachuca. Cold in the hills. Rapid evaporation.
Mountain-roads. Real del Monte. Guns and pistols. Regla. The
father-confessor in Mexico. Morals of servitude. Cornish
miners. Dram-drinking. Salt-trade. The Indian market. Indian
Conservatism. Sardines. Account-keeping. The great Barranca.
Tropical fruits. Prickly pears. Their use. The
"Water-Throat." Silver-works. Volcano of Jorullo. Cascade of
Regla. "Eyes of Water." Fires. The Hill of Knives. Obsidian
implements. Obsidian mines. The Stone-age. The
loadstone-mountain of Mexico. Unequal Civilization of the
Aztecs. Silver and commerce of Mexico. Effect of
Protection-duties. Silver mines. The Aztec numerals.
A Revolution. Siege and Capitulation of Puebla. Military
Statistics. Highway-robbery. Reform in Mexico. The American
war. Mexican army. Our Lady of Guadalupe. Miracles. The rival
Virgins. Sacred lottery-ticket. Literature in Mexico. The
clergy and their system of Education in Mexico. The Holy
Office. Indian Notions of Christianity.
To Tezcuco. Indian Canoes. Sewer-canal. Water-snakes.
Salt-lakes. A storm on the lake. Glass-works. Casa Grande.
Quarries. Stone Hammers. Use of Bronze in stone-cutting in
Mexico and Egypt. Prickly Pears. Temple-pyramids of
Teotihuacan. Sacrifice of Spaniards. Old Mexico. Market of
Antiquities. Police. Bull-dogs. Accumulation of Alluvium.
Tezcotzinco. Ancient baths and bridge. Salt and salt-pans.
Fried flies'-eggs. Water-pipes. Irrigation. Agriculture in
Mexico. History repeats itself.
Horses and their training. Saddles and bits. The Courier.
Leather clothes. The Serape. The Rag-fair of Mexico, Thieves.
Gourd water-bottles. Ploughing. Travelling by Diligence.
Indian carriers. Mules. Breakfast. Bragadoccio. Robbers.
Escort. Cuernavaca. Tropical Vegetation. Sugar-cane. Temisco.
Sugar-hacienda. Indian labourers. The evensong. The Raya.
Strength of the Indians. Xochicalco. Ruins of the Pyramid.
Sculptures. Common ornaments. The people of Mexico and
Central America. Their civilization. Pear-shaped heads.
Cocoyotla. Indian labourers. Political Condition of the
Indians. Indian Village and huts. Cotton-spinning. The Indian
Alcalde. Great Cave of Cacahuamilpan. Optical phenomenon.
Monk on horseback. Religion of the Indians. Idols. Baptism by
wholesale. Village amusements. Dancing. Chalma. The meson and
the convent. Church-dances. The miller's daughter. Young
friar. The Hill of Drums. Sacred cypress-tree. Oculan. Change
of climate. Grain-districts of Mexico. The Desierto.
Tenancingo. Toluca. Lerma. Robbers.
Museum. Fate of Antiquities. War-God. Sacrificial Stone.
Mexican words naturalized in Europe, &c. Chamber of Horrors.
Aztec Art. Wooden Drums. Aztec Picture-writings. The
"Man-flaying" Mr. Uhde's Collection. Mr. Christy's
Collection. Bones of Giants. Cortes' Armour. Mexican
Calendar-stone. Aztec Astronomy. Mongol Calendar.
Peculiarities of Aztec Civilization. The Prison at Mexico. No
"Criminal class." Prison-discipline. The Garotte. Mexican
law-courts. Statistics. The Compadrazgo. Leperos and Lepers.
Lazoing the bull. Cockfighting. Gambling. Monte. The
A travelling companion. Mexicans who live by their wits.
Jackal-masks, &c. Mexican words used in the United States.
Miraflores. Cotton-factory. Sacred Mount and Cypress-tree.
Rainy Season. Ascent of Popocatepetl. The Crater. View of
Anahuac. Descent from Popocatepetl. Plain of Puebla.
Snow-blindness. Hospitable Shopkeeper. Morality of Smuggling.
Pyramid and Antiquities of Cholula. Hybrid Legends of Mexico.
Genuine Legends. Old-world analogies among the Aztecs.
Puebla. The Pasadizos. Revolutions in Mexico. Festival of
Corpus Christi. Mexican clergy. Their incomes and morals.
Scourging. Religion of the People. Anomalous constitution of
the Republic. The horse-bath. Debt-slaves or peons. Great
fortunes in Mexico. Amozoque. Spurs. Nopalucan. Orizaba.
Robbers. Locusts. Indian village. Inroads of Civilization.
Lawsuits. Native Aristocracy. The vapour-bath. Scanty
population. Its explanation. Unhealthy habits. Epidemics.
Intemperance. Pineapples. Potrero. Negros. Mixed races.
Barrancas. Indian trotting. Flowers. Armadillo. Fire-flies.
Singular Fandango. Epiphytes. The Junta. Indian Life.
Decorative Art. Horses. Jalapa. Anglo-Mexicans. Insect-life.
Monte. Fate of Antonio. Scorpion. White Negress. Cattle.
Artificial lighting. Vera Cruz. Further Journey. St.
Thomas's. Voyage to England. Future destinies of Mexico.
I. The Manufacture of Obsidian Knives.
II. On the Solar Eclipses recorded in the Le Tellier MS.
III. Table of Aztec roots.
V. Ancient Mexican mosaic work (in Mr. Christy's Collection).
VI. Dasent's Essay on the Ethnographical value of Popular Tales and
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS:
Cascade of Regla. _From a photograph by J. Bell, Esq. (To face
Porter and Baker in Mexico.
Indians bringing Country Produce to Market.
Indians in a Rancho, making and baking Tortillas.
Map to illustrate Messrs. Tylor and Christy's journeys and excursions
_(The cuts of smaller objects of antiquity, and articles at present
in use, have been drawn from specimens in the Collection of Henry
Indian Tlachiquero, collecting juice of the Agave for Pulque.
View of Part of the Valley of Mexico.
Water-carrier and Mexican Woman at the Fountain.
Group of Mexican Ecclesiastics.
Stone Spear-heads, and Obsidian Knives and Arrow-heads, from Mexico.
Fluted Prism of Obsidian, and Knife-flakes.
Mexican Arrow-heads of Obsidian.
Aztec Stone-knife, with wooden handle, inlaid with mosaic work.
Aztec Head in Terra-cotta.
The Rebozo and the Serape.
Aztec Bridge near Tezcuco.
Spanish-Mexican Saddle and appendages.
Spanish-Mexican Bit, with ring and chain.
Sculptured Panel, from Xochicalco. _(After Nebel)_.
Small Aztec Head in Terra-cotta.
Goddess of War. _(After Nebel)_.
Three Views of a Sacrificial Collar or Clamp, carved out of hard
Two Views of a Mask, carved out of hard stone.
Ancient Bronze Bells.
Mexican Costumes. _(After Nebel)_.
View of Orizaba.
Indians of the Plateau. _(After Nebel)_.
[Illustration: MAP OF PART OF MEXICO TO ILLUSTRATE A JOURNEY FROM VERA
CRUZ TO MEXICO AND BACK & EXCURSIONS IN THE COUNTRY, By Messrs. E.B.
Tylor and H. Cristy.]
THE ISLE OF PINES.
In the spring of 1856, I met with Mr. Christy accidentally in an
omnibus at Havana. He had been in Cuba for some months, leading an
adventurous life, visiting sugar-plantations, copper-mines, and
coffee-estates, descending into caves, and botanizing in tropical
jungles, cruising for a fortnight in an open boat among the
coral-reefs, hunting turtles and manatis, and visiting all sorts of
people from whom information was to be had, from foreign consuls and
Lazarist missionaries down to retired slave-dealers and assassins.
As for myself, I had been travelling for the best part of a year in the
United States, and had but a short time since left the live-oak forests
and sugar-plantations of Louisiana. We agreed to go to Mexico together;
and the present notes are principally compiled from our
memorandum-books, and from letters written home on our journey.
Before we left Cuba, however, we made one last excursion across the
island, and to the _Isla de Pinos_--the Isle of Pines--off the southern
coast. A volante took us to the railway-station. The volante is the
vehicle which the Cubans specially affect; it is like a Hansom cab, but
the wheels are much taller, six and a half feet high, and the black
driver sits postillion-wise upon the horse. Our man had a laced jacket,
black leather leggings, and a pair of silver spurs fastened upon his
bare feet, which seemed at a little distance to have well polished
boots on, they were so black and shiny.
The railway which took us from Havana to Batabano had some striking
peculiarities. For a part of the way the track passed between two walls
of tropical jungle. The Indian fig trees sent down from every branch
suckers, like smooth strings, which rooted themselves in the ground to
draw up more water. Acacias and mimosas, the seiba and the mahagua,
with other hard-wood trees innumerable, crowded close to one another;
while epiphytes perched on every branch, and creepers bound the whole
forest into a compact mass of vegetation, through which no bird could
fly. We could catch the strings of convolvulus with our walking-sticks,
as the train passed through the jungle. Sometimes we came upon a swamp,
where clusters of bamboos were growing, crowned with tufts of pointed
leaves; or had a glimpse for a moment of a group of royal palms upon
the rising ground.
We passed sugar-plantations with their wide cane-fields, the
sugar-houses with tall chimneys, and the balconied house of the
administrador, keeping a sharp look out over the village of
negro-cabins, arranged in double lines.
In the houses near the stations where we stopped, cigar-making seemed
to be the universal occupation. Men, women, and children were sitting
round tables hard at work. It made us laugh to see the black men
rolling up cigars upon the hollow of their thighs, which nature has
fashioned into a curve exactly suited to this process.
At Batabano the steamer was waiting at the pier, and our passports and
ourselves were carefully examined by the captain, for Cuba is the
paradise of passport offices, and one cannot stir without a visa. For
once everybody was _en regle_, and we had no such scene as my companion
had witnessed a few days before.
If you are a married man resident in Cuba, you cannot get a passport to
go to the next town without your wife's permission in writing. Now it
so happened that a respectable brazier, who lived at Santiago de Cuba,
wanted to go to Trinidad. His wife would not consent; so he either got
her signature by stratagem, or, what is more likely, gave somebody
something to get him a passport under false pretences.
At any rate he was safe on board the steamer, when a middle-aged
female, well dressed, but evidently arrayed in haste, and with a face
crimson with hard running, came panting down to the steamer, and rushed
on board. Seizing upon the captain, she pointed out her husband, who
had taken refuge behind the other passengers at a respectful distance;
she declared that she had never consented to his going away, and
demanded that his body should be instantly delivered up to her. The
husband was appealed to, but preferred staying where he was. The
captain produced the passport, perfectly _en regle_, and the lady made
a rush at the document, which was torn in half in the scuffle. All
other means failing, she made a sudden dash at her husband, probably
intending to carry him off by main force. He ran for his life, and
there was a steeplechase round the deck, among benches, bales, and
coils of rope; while the passengers and the crew cheered first one and
then the other, till they could not speak for laughing. The husband was
all but caught once; but a benevolent passenger kicked a camp-stool in
the lady's way, and he got a fresh start, which he utilized by climbing
up the ladder to the paddle-box. His wife tried to follow him, but the
shouts of laughter which the black men raised at seeing her
performances were too much for her, and she came down again. Here the
captain interposed, and put her ashore, where she stood like black-eyed
Susan till the vessel was far from the wharf, not waving her lily hand,
however, but shaking her clenched fist in the direction of the
To return to our voyage to the Isle of Pines.--All the afternoon the
steamer threaded her way cautiously among the coral-reefs which rose
almost to the surface. Sometimes there seemed scarcely room to pass
between them, and by night navigation would have been impossible. We
were just in the place where Columbus and his companions arrived on
their expedition along the Cuban coast, to find out what countries lay
beyond. They sailed by day, and lay to at night, till their patience
was worn out. Another day or two of sailing would have brought them to
where the coast trends northwards; but they turned back, and Columbus
died in the belief that Cuba was the eastern extremity of the continent
The Spaniards call these reefs "cayos," and we have altered the name to
"keys," such as _Key West_ in Florida, and _Ambergris Key_ off Belize.
It was after sunset, and the phosphorescent animals were making the sea
glitter like molten metal, when we reached the Isle of Pines, and
steamed slowly up the river, among the mangroves that fringe the banks,
to the village of Nueva Gerona, the port of the island. It consisted of
two rows of houses thatched with palm-leaves, and surrounded by wide
verandahs; and between them a street of unmitigated mud.
As we walked through the place in the dusk, we could dimly discern the
inhabitants sitting in their thatched verandahs, in the thinnest of
white dresses, gossipping, smoking, and love-making, tinkling guitars,
and singing seguidillas. It was quite a Spanish American scene out of a
romance. There was no romance about the mosquitos, however. The air was
alive with them. When I was new to Cuba, I used to go to bed in the
European fashion; and as the beds were all six inches too short, my
feet used to find their way out in the night, and the mosquitos came
down and sat upon them. Experience taught us that it was better to lie
down half-dressed, so that only our faces and hands were exposed to
The Isle of Pines used to be the favourite resort of the pirates of the
Spanish main; indeed there were no other inhabitants. The creeks and
rivers being lined with the densest vegetation, a few yards up the
winding course of such a creek, they were lost in the forest, and a
cruiser might pass within a few yards of their lurking-place, and see
no traces of them. Captain Kyd often came here, and stories of his
buried treasures are still told among the inhabitants. Now the island
serves a double purpose; it is a place of resort for the Cubans, who
come to rusticate and bathe, and it serves as a settlement for those
free black inhabitants of Florida who chose to leave that country when
it was given up to the United States. One of these Floridanos
accompanied us as our guide next day to the Banos de Santa Fe.
When we left the village we passed near the mangrove trees, which were
growing not only near the water but in it, and like to spread their
roots among the thick black slime which accumulates so fast in this
country of rapid vegetable growth, and as rapid decomposition. In Cuba,
the mangoe is the abomination of the planters, for they supply the
runaway slaves with food, upon which they have been known to subsist
for months, whilst the mangroves give them shelter. A little further
inland we found the guava, a thick-spreading tree, with smooth green
leaves. From its fruit is made guava-jelly, but as yet it was not ripe
enough to eat.
In the middle of the island we came upon marble-quarries. They are
hardly worked now; but when they were first established, a number of
emancipados were employed there. What emancipados are, it is worth
while to explain. They are Africans taken from captured slavers, and
are set to work under government inspection for a limited number of
years, on a footing something like that of the apprentices in Jamaica,
in the interregnum between slavery and emancipation. In Cuba it is
remarked that the mortality among the emancipados is frightful. They
seldom outlive their years of probation. The explanation of this piece
of statistics is curious. The fact is that every now and then, when an
old man dies, they bury him as one of the emancipados, whose register
is sent in to the Government as dead; while the negro himself goes to
work as a slave in some out-of-the-way plantation where no tales are
We left the marble-quarries, and rode for miles over a wide savannah.
The soil was loose and sandy and full of flakes of mica, and in the
watercourses were fragments of granite, brought down from the hills.
Here flourished palm trees and palmettos, acacias, mimosas, and
cactuses, while the mangoe and the guava tree preferred the damper
patches nearer to the coast. The hills were covered with the pine-trees
from which the island has its name; and on the rising ground at their
base we saw the strange spectacle of palms and fir trees growing side
Where we came upon a stream, the change in the vegetation was
astonishing. It was a sudden transition from an English, plantation of
fir trees into the jungle of the tropics, full of Indian figs, palms,
lancewood, and great mahagua trees, all knotted together by endless
creepers and parasites; while the parrots kept up a continual
chattering and screaming in the tree-tops. The moment we left the
narrow strip of tropical forest that lined the stream we were in the
pine wood. Here the first two or three feet of the trunks of the pine
trees were scorched and blackened by the flames of the tall dry
savannah-grass, which grows close round them, and catches fire several
times every year. Through the pine forest the conflagration spreads
unobstructed, as in an American prairie; but it only runs along the
edge of the dense river-vegetation, which it cannot penetrate.
The Banos de Santa Fe are situated in a cleared space among the fir
trees. The baths themselves are nothing but a cavity in the rock, into
which a stream, at a temperature of about 80 deg., continually flows. A
partition in the middle divides the ladies from the gentlemen, but
allows them to continue their conversation while they sit and splash in
their respective compartments.
The houses are even more quaint than the bathing-establishment. The
whole settlement consists of a square field surrounded by little
houses, each with its roof of palm leaves and indispensable verandah.
Here the Cubans come to stay for months, bathing, smoking cigarettes,
flirting, gossiping, playing cards, and strumming guitars; and they
seemed to be all agreed on one point, that it was a delightful
existence. We left them to their tranquil enjoyments, and rode back to
Next morning we borrowed a gun from the engineer of the steamboat, and
I bought some powder and shot at a shop where they kept two young
alligators under the counter for the children to play with. The creeks
and lagoons of the island are full of them, and the negroes told us
that in a certain lake not far off there lived no less a personage than
"the crocodile king"--"_el rey de los crocodilos_;" but we had no time
to pay his majesty a visit. Two of the Floridan negroes rowed us up the
river. Even at some distance from the mouth, sting-rays and jelly-fish
were floating about. As we rowed upwards, the banks were overhung with
the densest vegetation. There were mahogany trees with their curious
lop-sided leaves, the copal-plant with its green egg-like fruit, from
which copal oozes when it is cut, like opium from a poppy-head, palms
with clusters of oily nuts, palmettos, and guavas. When a palm-tree on
the river-bank would not grow freely for the crowding of other trees,
it would strike out in a slanting direction till it reached the clear
space above the river, and then shoot straight upwards with its crown
We shot a hawk and a woodpecker, and took them home; but, not many
minutes after we had laid them on the tiled floor of our room, we
became aware that we were invaded. The ants were upon us. They were
coming by thousands in a regular line of march up our window-sill and
down again inside, straight towards the birds. When we looked out of
the window, there was a black stripe lying across the court-yard on the
flags, a whole army of them coming. We saw it was impossible to get the
skins of the birds, so threw them out of the window, and the advanced
guard faced about and followed them.
On the sand in front of the village the Castor-oil plant flourished,
the _Palma Christi_; its little nuts were ripe, and tasted so innocent
that, undeterred by the example of the boy in the Swiss Family
Robinson, I ate several, and was handsomely punished for it. In the
evening I recounted my ill-advised experiment to the white-jacketed
loungers in the verandah of the inn, and was assured that I must have
eaten an odd number! The second nut, they told me with much gravity,
counteracts the first, the fourth neutralizes the third, and so on ad
We made two clerical acquaintances in the Isle of Pines. One was the
Cura of New Gerona, and his parentage was the only thing remarkable
about him. He was not merely the son of a priest, but his grandfather
was a priest also.
The other was a middle-aged ecclesiastic, with a pleasant face and an
unfailing supply of good-humoured fun. Everybody seemed to get
acquainted with him directly, and to become quite confidential after
the first half-hour; and a drove of young men followed him about
everywhere. His reverence kept up the ball of conversation continually,
and showed considerable skill in amusing his auditors and drawing them
out in their turn. It is true the jokes which passed seemed to us mild,
but they appeared to suit the public exactly; and indeed, the Padre was
quite capable of providing better ones when there was a market for
We found that though a Spaniard by birth, he had been brought up at the
Lazarist College in Paris, which we know as the training-school of the
French missionaries in China; and we soon made friends with him, as
everyone else did. A day or two afterwards we went to see him in
Havana, and found him hard at his work, which was the superintendence
of several of the charitable institutions of the city--the Foundling
Hospital, the Lunatic Asylum, and others. His life was one of incessant
labour, and indeed people said he was killing himself with over-work,
but he seemed always in the same state of chronic hilarity; and when he
took us to see the hospitals, the children and patients received him
with demonstrations of great delight.
I should not have said so much of our friend the Padre, were it not
that I think there is a moral to be got out of him. I believe he may be
taken as a type, not indeed of Roman Catholic missionaries in general,
but of a certain class among them, who are of considerable importance
in the missionary world, though there are not many of them. Taking the
Padre as a sample of his class, as I think we may--judging from the
accounts of them we meet with in books, it is curious to notice, how
the point in which their system is strongest is just that in which the
Protestant system is weakest, that is, in social training and
deportment. What a number of men go to India with the best intentions,
and set to work at once, flinging their doctrines at the natives before
they have learnt in the least to understand what the said natives'
minds are like, or how they work,--dropping at once upon their pet
prejudices, mortally offending them as a preliminary step towards
arguing with them; and in short, stroking the cat of society backwards
in the most conscientious manner. By the time they have accomplished
this satisfactory result, a man like our Cuban Padre, though he may
have argued but little and preached even less, would have a hundred
natives bound to him by strong personal attachment, and ready to accept
anything from him in the way of teaching.
We paid a regular round of visits to the Floridan settlers, and were
delighted with their pleasant simple ways. It is not much more than
thirty years since they left Florida, and many of the children born
since have learnt to speak English. The patches of cultivated land
round their cottages produce, with but little labour, enough vegetables
for their subsistence, and to sell, procuring clothing and such
luxuries as they care for. They seemed to live happily among
themselves, and to govern their little colony after the manner of the
Whether any social condition can be better for the black inhabitants of
the West Indies, than that of these settlers, I very much doubt. They
are not a hard-working people, it is true; but hard work in the climate
of the tropics is unnatural, and can only be brought about by unnatural
means. That they are not sunk in utter laziness one can see by their
neat cottages and trim gardens. Their state does not correspond with
the idea of prosperity of the political economist, who would have them
work hard to produce sugar, rum, and tobacco, that they might earn
money to spend in crockery and Manchester goods; but it is suited to
the race and to the climate. If we measure prosperity by the enjoyment
of life, their condition is an enviable one.
I think no unprejudiced observer can visit the West Indies without
seeing the absurdity of expecting the free blacks to work like slaves,
as though any inducement but the strongest necessity would ever bring
it about. There are only two causes which can possibly make the blacks
industrious, in our sense of the word,--slavery, or a population so
crowded as to make labour necessary to supply their wants.
In one house in the Floridan colony we found a _menage_ which was
surprising to me, after my experience of the United States. The father
of the family was a white man, a Spaniard, and his wife a black woman.
They received us with the greatest hospitality, and we sat in the porch
for a long time, talking to the family. One or two of the mulatto
daughters were very handsome; and there were some visitors, young white
men from the neighbouring village, who were apparently come to pay
their devoirs to the young ladies. Such marriages are not uncommon in
Cuba; and the climate of the island is not unfavourable for the mixed
negro and European race, while to the pure whites it is deadly. The
Creoles of the country are a poor degenerate race, and die out in the
fourth generation. It is only by intermarriage with Europeans, and
continual supplies of emigrants from Europe, that the white population
is kept up.
On the morning of our departure we climbed a high lull of limestone,
covered in places with patches of a limestone-breccia, cemented with
sandstone, and filling the cavities in the rock. All over the hill we
found doubly refracting Iceland-spar in quantities. Euphorbias, in
Europe mere shrubs, were here smooth-limbed trees, with large flowers.
From the top of the hill, the character of the savannahs was well
displayed. Every water-course could be traced by its narrow line of
deep green forest, contrasting with the scantier vegetation of the rest
of the plain.
As we steamed out of the river, rows of brilliant red flamingos were
standing in the shallow water, fishing, and here and there a pelican
with his ungainly beak. Our Chinese crew were having their meal of rice
when we walked forward, and the national chopsticks were hard at work.
We talked to several of them. They could all speak a little Spanish,
and were very intelligent.
The history of these Chinese emigrants is a curious one. Agents in
China persuade them to come out, and they sign a contract to work for
eight years, receiving from three to five dollars a month, with their
food and clothing. The sum seems a fortune to them; but, when they come
to Cuba, they find to their cost that the value of money must be
estimated by what it will buy. They find that the value of a black
labourer is thirty dollars a month, and they have practically sold
themselves for slaves; for there is no one to prevent the masters who
have bought the contract for their work from treating them in all
respects as slaves. The value of such a contract--that is, of the
Chinaman himself, was from L30 to L40 when we were in the island.
Fortunately for them, they cannot bear the severe plantation-work. Some
die after a few days of such labour and exposure, and many more kill
themselves; and the utter indifference with which they commit suicide,
as soon as life seems not worth having, contributes to moderate the
exactions of their masters. A friend of ours in Cuba had a Chinese
servant who was impertinent one day, and his master turned him out of
the room, dismissing him with a kick. The other servants woke their
master early next morning, with the intelligence that the Chinese had
killed himself in the night, to expiate the insult he had received.
Of African slaves brought into the island, the yearly number is about
15,000. All the details of the trade are matter of general notoriety,
even to the exact sum paid to each official as hush-money. It costs a
hundred dollars for each negro, they say, of which a gold ounce (about
L3 16s.) is the share of the Captain-general. To this must be added the
cost of the slave in Africa, and the expense of the voyage; but when
the slave is once fairly on a plantation he is worth eight hundred
dollars; so it may be understood how profitable the trade still is, if
only one slaver out of three gets through.
The island itself with its creeks and mangrove-trees is most favourable
for their landing, if they can once make the shore; and the Spanish
cruisers will not catch them if they can help it. If a British cruiser
captures them, the negroes are made emancipados in the way I have
Hardly any country in the world is so thoroughly in a false position as
England in her endeavours to keep down the Cuban slave-trade, with the
nominal concurrence of the Spanish government, and the real vigorous
opposition of every Spaniard on the island, from the Captain-General
downwards. Even the most superficial observer who lands for an hour or
two in Havana, while his steamer is taking in coals, can have evidence
of the slave-trade brought before his eyes in the tattooed faces of
native Africans, young and middle-aged, in the streets and markets;
just as he can guess, from the scored backs of the negroes, what sort
of discipline is kept up among them.
We slept on board the steamboat off the pier of Batabano, and the
railway took us back to Havana next morning.
HAVANA TO VERA CRUZ--VERA CRUZ TO MEXICO.
On the 8th of March, we went on board the "Mejico" steamer,
American-built, and retaining her American engineers, but in other
respects converted into a Spanish vessel, and now lying in the harbour
of Havana bound for Vera Cruz, touching at Sisal in Yucatan. At eight
o'clock we weighed anchor, and were piloted through the narrow passage
which leads out of the harbour past the castle of El Morro and the fort
of Cabanas, the view of whose ramparts and batteries caused quite a
flourish of trumpets among our Spanish fellow-passengers, who firmly
believe in their impregnability.
Among our fellow-passengers were a company of fifth-rate comedians,
going to Merida by way of Sisal. There was nothing interesting to us
about them. Theatrical people and green-room slang vary but little over
the whole civilized world. There were two or three Spanish and French
tradesmen going back to Mexico. They talked of nothing but the dangers
of the road, and not without reason as it proved, for they were all
robbed before they got home. Several of the rest were gamblers or
political adventurers, or both, for the same person very often unites
the two professions out here. Spain and the Spanish American Republics
produce great numbers of these people, just as Missouri breeds
border-ruffians and sympathizers. But the ruffian is a good fellow in
comparison with these well-dressed, polite scoundrels, who could have
given Fielding a hint or two he would have been glad of for the
characters of Mr. Jonathan Wild and his friend the Count.
On the morning of the third day of our voyage we reached Sisal, and as
soon as the captain would let us we went ashore, in a canoe that was
like a flat wooden box. This said captain was a Catalan, and a surly
fellow, and did not take the trouble to disguise the utter contempt he
felt for our inquisitive ways, which he seemed quite to take pleasure
in thwarting. It was the only place we were to see in Yucatan, a
country whose name is associated with ideas of tropical fruits, where
you must cut your forest-path with a machete, and of vast ruins of
deserted temples and cities, covered up with a mass of dense
vegetation. But here there was nothing of this kind. Sisal is a
miserable little town, standing on the shore, with a great salt-marsh
behind it. It has a sort of little jetty, which constitutes its claim
to the title of _port_; and two or three small merchant-vessels were
lying there, taking in cargoes of logwood (the staple product of the
district), mahogany, hides, and deerskins. The sight of these latter
surprised us; but we found on enquiry that numbers of deer as well as
horned cattle inhabit the thinly-peopled districts round the shores of
the Mexican Gulf, and flourish in spite of the burning climate, except
when a year of drought comes, which kills them off by thousands.
One possible article of export we examined as closely as opportunity
would allow, namely, the Indian inhabitants. There they are, in
every respect the right article for trade:--brown-skinned, incapable
of defending themselves, strong, healthy, and industrious; and
the creeks and mangrove-swamps of Cuba only three days' sail off.
The plantations and mines that want one hundred thousand men to bring
them into full work, and swallow aborigines, Chinese, and negroes
indifferently--anything that has a dark skin, and can be made to
work--would take these Yucatecos in any quantity, and pay well for
them. And once on a sugar-estate or down a mine, when their sham
registers are regularly made out, and the Governor has had his ounce of
gold apiece for passing them, and his subordinates their respective
rights, who shall get them out again, or even find them?
This idea struck us as we sat looking at the Indians hard at work,
loading and unloading; and finding an intelligent Spaniard, we fell to
talking with him. Indians had been carried off to Cuba, he said, but
very few, none since 1854, when two Englishmen came to the coast with a
schooner on pretence of trading, and succeeded in getting clear off
with a cargo of seventy-two natives on board. But being caught in a
heavy gale of wind, they put in for safety--of all places in the
world--into the British part of Belize. There some one found out what
their cargo consisted of, the vessel was seized, the Indians sent back,
and the two adventurers condemned to hard labour, one for four years,
the other for two and a half. In a place where the fatigue and exposure
of drill and mounting guard is death to a European soldier, this was
most likely a way of inflicting capital punishment, slow, but pretty
When the Spaniards came to these countries, as soon as they had leisure
to ask themselves what could be the origin of the people they found
there, the answer came at once, "the lost tribes of Israel," of course.
And as we looked at these grave taciturn men, with their brown
complexions, bright eyes, and strikingly aquiline noses, it did not
seem strange that this belief should have been generally held,
considering the state of knowledge on such matters in those days. We
English found the ten tribes in the Red men of the north; Jews have
written books in Hebrew for their own people, to make known to them
that the rest of their race had been found in the mountains of Chili,
retaining unmistakable traces of their origin and conversing fluently
in Hebrew; and but lately they turned up, collected together and
converted to Christianity, on the shores of the Caspian. The last two
theories have their supporters at the present day. Crude as most of
these ideas are, one feels a good deal of interest in the first inquiry
that set men thinking seriously about the origin of races, and laid the
foundation of the science of ethnology.
Our return on board was a long affair, for there was a stiff breeze,
almost in our teeth; and our unwieldy craft was obliged to make tack
after tack before we could reach the steamer. Great Portuguese
men-of-war were floating about, waiting for prey; and we passed through
patches of stringy gulf-weed, trailing out into long ropes. The water
was hot, the thermometer standing at 84 deg. when we dipped it over the
On the morning of the 12th, when we went on deck, there was a grand
sight displayed before us. No shore visible, but a heavy bank of clouds
on the horizon; and, high above them, towering up into the sky, the
snowy summit of Orizaba, a hundred and fifty miles off.
Before noon, we are entering the harbour of Vera Cruz. The little
island and fort of San Juan de Ulua just opposite the wharfs, the
island of Sacrificios a little farther to the left. A level line of
city-wall along the water's edge; and, visible above it, the flat roofs
of the houses, and the towers and cupolas of many churches. All grey
stone, only relieved by the colored Spanish tiles on the church-roofs,
and a flag or two in the harbour. Not a scrap of vegetation to be seen,
and the rays of a tropical sun pouring down upon us.
Established in the Casa de Diligencias, we deliberated as to our
journey to Mexico. The diligences to the capital, having been stopped
for some months on account of the disturbed state of the country, had
just begun to run again, avoiding Puebla, which was being besieged. We
were anxious to be off at once; but Mr. Christy sagaciously remarking
that the robbers would know of the arrival of the steamer, and would
probably take the first diligence that came afterwards, we booked our
places for the day after.
We were very kindly received by the English merchants to whom my
companion had letters, and we set ourselves to learn what was the real
state of things in Mexico.
On an average, the Presidency of the Republic of Mexico had changed
hands once every eight months for the last ten years; and Don Ignacio
Comonfort had stepped into the office in the previous December, on the
nomination of his predecessor the mulatto general Alvarez, who had
retired to the southern provinces with his army.
President Comonfort, with empty coffers, and scarcely any real
political power, had felt it necessary to make some great effort to get
popularity for himself and his government. He had therefore adopted the
policy of attacking the _fueros_, the extraordinary privileges of the
two classes of priests and soldiers, which had become part of the
constitution under the first viceroys, and which not even the war of
independence, and the adoption of republican forms, ever did away with.
Neither class is amenable to the civil tribunals for debt or for any
offences. The clergy have immense revenues, and much spiritual
influence among the lower classes; and as soon as they discovered the
disposition of the new President, they took one Don Antonio Haro y
Tamirez, set him up as a counter-President, and installed him at
Puebla, the second city of the Republic, where priests swarm, and
priestly influence is unbounded. At the same time, they tried a
pronunciamiento in the capital; but the President got the better of
them after a slight struggle, and marched all his regular soldiers on
Puebla. At the moment of our arrival in the country, the siege of this
city was going on quite briskly, ten thousand men being engaged,
commanded by forty-three general officers.
Whenever anything disagreeable is happening in the country, Vera Cruz
is sure to get its full share. A month before our arrival, one Salcedo,
who was a prisoner in the castle of San Juan de Ulua, talked matters
over with the garrison, and persuaded them to make a pronunciamento in
favour of the insurgents. They then summoned the town to join their
cause, which it declined doing for the present; and the castle opened
fire upon it, knocking about some of the principal buildings, and doing
a good deal of damage. A 30-pound shot went through the wall of our
hotel, taking off the leg of an unfortunate waiter who was cleaning
knives, and falling into the patio, or inner court. A daub of fresh
plaster just outside our bedroom door indicated the spot; and the
British Consul's office had a similar decoration. The Governor of the
city could offer no active resistance, but he cut off the supplies from
the island, and in three or four days Salcedo--finding himself out of
ammunition, and short of water--surrendered in a neat speech, and the
We have but a short time to stay in Vera Cruz, so had better make our
observations quickly; for when we come back again there will be a sun
nearly in the zenith, and yellow fever--at the present moment hardly
showing itself--will have come for the summer; under those
circumstances, the unseasoned foreigner had better lie on his back in a
cool room, with a cigar in his mouth, and read novels, than go about
hunting for useful information.
There are streets of good Spanish houses in Vera Cruz, built of white
coral-rock from the reefs near the shore, but they are mildewed and
dismal-looking. Outside the walls is the Alameda; and close by is a
line of houses, uninhabited, mouldy, and in ruins. We asked who built
them. "Los Espanoles," they said.
Even now, when the "nortes" are blowing, and the city is comparatively
healthy, Vera Cruz is a melancholy place, with a plague-stricken look
about it; but it is from June to October that its name, "the city of
the dead"--la ciudad de los muertos--is really deserved. In that season
comes an accumulation of evils. The sun is at its height; there is no
north wind to clear the air; and the heavy tropical rains--more than
three times as much in quantity as falls in England in the whole
year--come down in a short rainy season of four months. The water
filters through the sand-hills, and forms great stagnant lagoons; a
rank tropical vegetation springs up, and the air is soon filled with
pestilential vapours. Add to this that the water is unwholesome; the
city too is placed in a sand-bath which keeps up a regular temperature,
by accumulating heat by day and giving it out into the air by night, so
that night gives no relief from the stifling closeness of the day. No
wonder that Mr. Bullock, the Mexican traveller, as he sat in his room
here in the hot season, heard the church-bells tolling for the dead
from morning to night without intermission; for weeks and weeks, one
can hardly even look into the street without seeing a funeral.
We turned back through the city, and walked along watching the
Zopilotes--great turkey-buzzards--with their bald heads and foul
dingy-black plumage. They were sitting in compact rows on parapets of
houses and churches, and seemed specially to affect the cross of the
cathedral, where they perched, two on each arm, and some on the top.
When some offal was thrown into the streets, they came down leisurely
upon it, one after another; their appearance and deportment reminding
us of the undertaker's men in England coming down from the hearse at
the public-house door, when the funeral is over. In all tropical
America these birds are the general scavengers, and there is a heavy
fine for killing them.
Scarcely any one is about in the streets this afternoon, except a gang
or two of convicts dragging their heavy chains along, sweeping and
mending the streets. This is a punishment much approved of by the
Mexican authorities, as combining terror to evil-doers with advantage
to the community. That it puts all criminals on a level, from murderers
down to vagrants, does not seem to be considered as a matter of much
At the city-gate stands a sentry--the strangest thing I ever saw in the
guise of a soldier--a brown Indian of the coast, dressed in some rags
that were a uniform once, shoeless, filthy in the extreme, and armed
with an amazing old flint-lock. He is bad enough to look at, in all
conscience, and really worse than he looks, for--no doubt--he has been
pressed into the service against his will, and hates white men and
their ways with all his heart. Of course he will run away when he gets
a chance; and, though he will be no great loss to the service, he will
add his mite to the feeling of hatred that has been growing up for
these so many years among the brown Indians against the whites and the
half-cast Mexicans. But more of this hereafter.
One step outside the gate, and we are among the sand-hills that stretch
for miles and miles round Vera Cruz. They are mere shifting
sand-mounds; and, though some of them are fifty feet high, the fierce
north wind moves them about bodily. The Texans know these winds well,
and call them "northers." They come from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of
Mexico, right down the Continent of North America, over a level plain
with hardly a hill to obstruct their course, the Rocky Mountains and
the Alleghanies forming a sort of trough for them. When the "norte"
blows fiercely you can hardly keep your feet in the streets of Vera
Cruz, and vessels drag their anchors or break from their moorings in
the ill-protected harbour, and are blown out to sea--lucky if they
escape the ugly coral-reefs and sand-banks that fringe the coast. There
are a few bushes growing outside the walls, and there we found the
Nopal bush, the great prickly pear--the same that has established
itself all round the shores of the Mediterranean--growing in crevices
of rocks, and cracks in lava-beds, and barren places where nothing else
will live. But what made us notice these Nopals was, that they were
covered with what looked like little white cocoons, out of which, when
they were pressed, came a drop of deep crimson fluid. This is the
cochineal insect, but only the wild variety; the fine kind, which is
used for dye, and conies from the province of Oajaca, miles off, is
covered only with a mealy powder. There the Indians cultivate great
plantations of Nopals, and spread the insects over them with immense
care, even removing them, and carrying them up into the mountains in
baskets when the rainy season begins in the plains, and bringing them
back when it is over.
On Friday, the 14th of March, at three o'clock in the morning, we took
our places in a strong American-built diligence, holding nine inside,
and began our journey by being dragged along the railroad--which was
commenced with great energy some time ago, and got fifteen miles on its
way to the capital, at which point it has stopped ever since. When day
broke we had left the railroad, and were jolting along through a
parched sandy plain, thinly covered with acacias, nopals, and other
kinds of cactus, bignonias, and the great tree-euphorbia, with which we
had been so familiar in Cuba, with its smooth limbs and huge white
flowers. At last we reached the first hill, and began gently to ascend.
The change was wonderful. Once out of the plain, we are in the midst of
a tropical forest. The trees are crowded close together, and the
convolvulus binds their branches into an impassable jungle, while ferns
and creepers weave themselves into a dense mass below; and here and
there a glimpse up some deep ravine shows great tree-ferns, thirty feet
high, standing close to the brink of a mountain-stream, and flourishing
in the damp shade.
Indian Ranchos become more frequent as we ascend; and the
inhabitants--squatting on the ground, or leaning against the
door-posts--just condescend to glance at us as we pass, and then return
to their meditations, and their cigarettes, if they happen to have any.
These ranches are the merest huts of canes, thatched with palm-leaves;
and close by each a little patch of ground is enclosed by a fence of
prickly cactus, within which are growing plantains, with their large
smooth leaves and heavy ropes of fruit, the great staple of the "tierra
Our road winds along valleys and through pass after pass; and now and
then a long zig-zag brings us out of a valley, up to a higher level.
The air grows cooler, we are rapidly changing our climate, and
afternoon finds us in the region of the sugar-cane and the
coffee-plant. We pass immense green cane-fields, protected from the
visits of passing muleteers and peasants by a thick hedge of thorny
coffee-bushes. The cane is but young yet; but the coffee-plant, with
its brilliant white flowers, like little stars, is a beautiful feature
in the landscape.
At sunset we are rattling through the streets of the little town of
Cordova. There is such a thoroughly Spanish air about the place, that
it might be a suburb of the real Cordova, were it not for the crowds of
brown Indians in their scanty cotton dresses and great flat-brimmed
hats, and the Mexican costumes of the whiter folks. Low whitewashed
houses, with large windows to the street, protected by the heavy
iron-gratings, like cages, that are so familiar to travellers in
Southern Europe. Inside the grating are the ladies of the family,
outside stand their male acquaintance, and energetic gossiping is going
on. The smoky little lamp inside gives us a full view of the interior.
Four whitewashed walls; a table; a few stiff-backed chairs; a virgin or
saint resplendent in paint and tinsel; and, perhaps, two or three
coloured engravings, red, blue, and yellow.
A few hours in the dark, and we reach Orizaba. We have changed our
climate for the last time to-day, and have reached that district where
tobacco flourishes at an altitude of 4,000 feet above the sea. But of
this we see nothing, for we are off again long before daylight; and by
the time that external objects can be made out we find ourselves in a
new region. A valley floored with rich alluvial soil from the hills
that rise steeply on both sides, their tops shrouded in clouds. Signs
of wonderful fertility in the fields of maize and barley along the
roadside. The air warm, but full of mist, which has already penetrated
our clothes and made them feel damp and sticky. "Splendid country,
this, Senores," said an old Mexican, when he had twisted himself round
on his seat to get a good stare at us. "It seems so," said I, "judging
by the look of the fields, but it is very unpleasantly damp just now."
"Just now," said the old gentleman, echoing my words, "it is always
damp here. You see that drizzling mist; that is the chipi-chipi. Never
heard of the chipi-chipi! Why it is the riches and blessing of the
country. Sometimes we never see the sun here for weeks at a time, and
it rains a little every day nearly; but look at the fields, we get
three crops a year from them where you have but one on the fields just
above. And it is healthy, too; look at those fellows at work there.
When we get up to the Llanos you will see the difference."
The valley grew narrower as we drove on; and at last, when it seemed to
end in a great ravine, we began to climb the steep hill by a zig-zag
road. Soon the air grows clearer again, the sunshine appears and gets
brighter and brighter, we have left the mist behind, and are among
ranges of grand steep hills, covered with the peculiar vegetation of
the plateau,--Cactus, Opuntia, and the Agave Americana. In the trough
of the valley lies a regular opaque layer of white clouds, hiding the
fields and cottages from our view. We have already passed the zone of
perpetual moisture, whose incessant clouds and showers are caused by
the stratum of hot air--charged with water evaporated from the
gulf--striking upon the mountains, and there depositing part of the
aqueous vapour it contains.
You may see the same thing happening in almost every mountainous
district; but seldom on so grand a scale as here, or with so little
disturbance from other agents. Yesterday was passed in the "tierra
caliente," the hot country; our journey of to-day and to-morrow is
through the "tierra templada" and the "tierra fria," the temperate and
the cold country. Here a change of a few hundred feet in altitude above
the sea, brings with it a change of climate as great as many degrees of
latitude will cause, and in one day's travel it is possible to descend
from the region of eternal snow to the utmost heat of the tropics. Our
ascent is more gradual; but, though we are three days on the road, we
have sometimes scarcely time to notice the different zones of
vegetation we pass through, before we change again.
To make the account of the journey from the coast to Mexico somewhat
clearer, a few words must be said about the formation of the country,
as shown in a profile-map or section. The interior of Mexico consists
of a mass of volcanic rocks, thrust up to a great height above the
sea-level. The plateau of Mexico is 8,000 feet high, and that of Puebla
9,000 feet. This central mass consists principally of a greyish
trachytic porphyry, in some places rich in veins of silver-ore. The
tops of the hills are often crowned with basaltic columns, and a soft
porous amygdaloid abounds on the outskirts of the Mexican valley.
Besides this, traces of more recent volcanic action abound, in the
shape of numerous extinct craters in the high plateaus, and immense
"pedrigals" or fields of lava not yet old enough for their surface to
have been disintegrated into soil. Though sedimentary rocks occur in
Mexico, they are not the predominant feature of the country. Ridges of
limestone hills lie on the slopes of the great volcanic mass toward the
coast; and at a still lower level, just in the rise from the flat
coast-region, there are strata of sandstone. On our road from Vera Cruz
we came upon sandstone immediately after leaving the sandy plains; and
a few miles further on we reached the limestone, very much as it is
represented in Burkart's profile of the country from Tampico upwards
towards San Luis Potosi. The mountain-plateaus, such as the plains of
Mexico and Puebla, are hollows filled up and floored with horizontal
strata of tertiary deposits, which again are covered by the constantly
accumulating layers of alluvium.
Our heavy pull up the mountain-side has brought us into a new scene.
Every one knows how the snow lies in the valleys of the Alps, forming a
plain which slopes gradually downward towards the outlet Imagine such a
valley ten miles across, with just such a sloping plain, not of snow
but of earth. There has been no rain for months, and the surface of the
ground is parched and cracked all over. There is hardly a tree to be
seen except clumps of wood on the mountain-sides miles off,--no
vegetation but tufts of coarse grass, among which herds of
disconsolate-looking cattle are roaming; the vaqueros, (herdsmen) are
cantering about after them on their lean horses, with their lazos
hanging in coils on their left arms, and now and then calling to order
some refractory beast who tries to get away from the herd, by sending
the loop over his horns or letting it fall before him as he runs, and
hitching it up with a jerk round his hind legs as he steps within it.
But the poor creatures are too thirsty and dispirited just now to give
any sport, and the first touch of the cord is enough to bring them back
to their allegiance.
From the decomposed porphyry of the mountains carbonate of soda comes
down in solution to the valleys. Much of this is converted into natron
by the organic matter in the soil, and forms a white crust on the
earth. More of the carbonate of soda, mixed in various proportions with
common salt, drains continually out in the streams, or filters into the
ground and crystallizes there. This is why there is not a field to be
seen, and the land is fit for nothing but pasture. But when the rains
come on in a few months, say our friends in the diligence, this dismal
waste will be a luxuriant prairie, and the cattle will be here by
thousands, for most of them are dispersed now in the lower regions of
the tierra templada where grass and water are to be had.
My companion and I climb upon the top of the diligence to spy out the
land. The grand volcano of Orizaba had been hidden from us ever since
that morning when we saw it from far out at sea, but now it rises on
our left, its upper half covered with snow of dazzling whiteness,--a
regular cone, for from this side the crater cannot be seen. It looks as
though one could walk half a mile or so across the valley and then go
straight up to the summit, but it is full thirty miles off. The air is
heated as by a furnace, and as we jolt along the road the clouds of
dust are suffocating. We go full gallop along such road as there is,
banging into holes, and across the trenches left by last year's
watercourses, until we begin to think that it must end in a general
smash. We came to understand Mexican roads and Mexican drivers better,
even before we got to the capital.
Before us and behind lay wide lakes, stretching from side to side of
the valley; but the lake behind followed us as steadily as the one
before us receded. It was only the mirage that tantalizes travellers in
these scorched valleys, all the long eight months of the rainless
season. It seemed beautiful at first, then monotonous; and long before
the day was out we hated it with a most cordial and unaffected hatred.
Soon a new appearance attracted our attention. First, clouds of dust,
which gradually took a well-defined shape, and formed themselves into
immense pillars, rapidly spinning round upon themselves, and travelling
slowly about the plain. At one place, where several smaller valleys
opened upon us, these sand-pillars, some small, some large, were
promenading about by dozens, looking much like the genie when the
fisherman had just let him out of the bottle, and saw him with
astonishment beginning to shape himself into a giant of monstrous size.
Indeed I doubt not that the story-teller was thinking of such
sand-pillars when he wrote that wonderful description. You may see them
in the East by thousands. As they moved along, they sucked up small
stones, dust, and leaves; and our driver declared that they had been
known to take the roofs off houses, and carry flocks of sheep into the
air; "but these that you see now," said he, "are no great matter." We
estimated the size of the largest at about four hundred feet in height,
and thirty in diameter; and this very pillar, walking by chance against
a house, most decidedly got the worst of it, and had its lower limbs
knocked all to pieces.
When the sun grows hot, the bare earth heats the air that lies upon it
so much that an upward current rises from the whole face of the valley;
and to supply its place the little valleys and ravines that open into
it pour in each its stream of cooler air; and wherever two of these
streams, flowing in different directions, strike one another, a little
whirlwind ensues, and makes itself manifest as a sand-pillar. The
coachman's "molino de viento," as he called it, may very well have
happened, but it must have been a whirlwind on a large scale, caused by
the meeting of great atmospheric currents, not by the little apparatus
we saw at work.
There seems to be hardly a village in the plain; and the only buildings
we see for miles are the herdsmen's houses of stone, flat-roofed, dark
inside, and uninviting in their appearance, and the great cattle-pens,
the corrals, which seem absurdly too large for the herds that we have
yet seen; but in two or three months there will be rain, the ground
will be covered with rank grass, the corrals will be crowded with
cattle every evening; the mirage will depart when real water comes,
dust and sand-pillars will be no longer to be seen, and all the nine
horses and mules of the diligence-team, floundering, splashing, and
kicking, will hardly keep the heavy coach from settling down
inextricably in the mire. And so on until October, and then the season
of water, "la estacion de las aguas," will cease, and things will be
again as they are now.
In the usual course of travel to the capital, the second night would
have been passed at Puebla. This is the second city of the Republic,
and numbers some 70,000 inhabitants. As it was then in revolt, and
besieged by the President and his army, we made a detour to the north
when about 20 miles from it, in order to sleep for a few hours at
Huamantla, a place with a most evil reputation for thieves and vermin;
and about ten at night we drove into the court-yard of a dismal-looking
inn. Three or four dirty fellows stood round as we alighted, wrapped in
their serapes--great woollen blankets, the universal wear of the
Mexicans of the plateaus. One end of the serape was thrown across from
shoulder to shoulder, and hid the lower part of their faces; and the
broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero was slouched over their eyes; we
particularly disliked the look of them as they stood watching us and
our baggage going into the inn. A few minutes after, we returned to the
court-yard to complete our observation of them, but they were all gone.
A party of Spaniards and Mexicans were at the other table in the sala
when we marched in, and as soon as we had taken off the edge of our
fierce hunger, we began to compare notes with them. "Had a pleasant
journey from Mexico?" They all answered at once, delighted to find an
audience to whom to tell their sorrows, as men always are under such
circumstances. It appeared that they had reached Huamantla an hour or
two before us, and to their surprise and delight no robbers had
appeared. But between the outskirts of the town and the inn, the cords
behind the diligence were cut, and every particle of luggage had
disappeared. At the inn-gate they got out and discovered their loss.
They set upon the Administrador of the diligence-company, who
sympathized deeply with them, but had no more substantial comfort to
offer. They declared the driver must have been an accomplice, and the
driver was sent for, for them to wreak their fury upon. He appeared
with his mouth full of beans, and told them, as soon as he could speak,
that they ought to be very thankful they had come off so easily, and,
looking at them with an expression of infinite disgust, returned to his
supper; they followed his example, and seemed to have at last found
consolation in hot dishes and Catalan wine. It was wonderful to hear of
the fine things that were in the lost portmanteaus,--the rings, the
gold watches, the rouleaux of dollars, the "papers of the utmost
I am afraid the Spanish American has not always a very strict regard
These gentlemen had indeed got off easily, as the driver said; for the
last diligence from Vera Cruz, with our steamboat acquaintances in it,
had been stopped just outside this very town of Huamantla as they left
it before daylight in the morning. The robbers were but three, but they
had plundered the unfortunate travellers as effectually as thirty could
have done. Now, all this was very pretty to hear as a tale, but not
satisfactory to travellers who were going by the same road the next
morning; and in the disagreeable barrack-room where our beds stood in
long lines, we, the nine passengers of the "up" diligence, held a
council, standing, like Mr. Macaulay's senators, and there decided on a
most Christian line of conduct--that when the three bore down upon us,
and the muzzle of the inevitable escopeta was poked in at our window,
we would descend meekly, and at the command of "boca abajo," ("mouth
downwards,") we would humiliate ourselves with our noses in the dirt,
and be robbed quietly. Having thus decided beforehand, according to the
etiquette of the road, whether we were to fight or submit, and being
tired with a long day's journey, we all turned in, and were fast asleep
in a moment.
It seemed that almost directly afterwards the dirtiest man possible
came round, and shook us till we were conscious; and we washed in the
customary saucers, by the light of a real, flaring, smoking, Spanish
lamp with a beak, exactly what the Romans used in Pompeii, except that
this is of brass, not bronze.
With our eyes still half-shut we crawled into the kitchen for our
morning chocolate, and demanded our bill. Such a bill! One of us, a
stout Spaniard, sent for the landlord and abused him in a set speech.
The "patron" divested his countenance of every trace of expression,
scratched his head through his greasy nightcap, and stood listening
patiently. The stout man grew fiercer and fiercer, and wound up with a
climax. "If we meet with the robbers," said he, rolling himself up in
his great cloak, "we must tell them that we have passed through your
worship's hands, and there is none left for them." The landlord bowed
gravely, saw us into the diligence, and hoped we should have a
fortunate journey, and meet with no novelty on the road. A "novelty" in
Spanish countries means a misfortune.
We met with no "novelty," though, when we looked out of the window in
the early dawn and spied three men with muskets, following us at a
short distance, we thought our time had come, and watches and valuables
were plunged into boots and under seats, and through slits into the
padding of the diligence; but the three men came no nearer, and we
supposed them to be an escort of soldiers. When it was light the
difficulty was to recover the valuables--no easy matter, so securely
had they been hidden.
We heard afterwards of a little peculiarity which distinguished the
robbers of Huamantla. It seems that no less a personage than the parish
priest was accustomed to lead his parishioners into action, like the
Cornish parson in old times when a ship went ashore on the coast. What
has become of his reverence since, I do not know. He is very likely
still in his parish, carrying on his double profession, unless somebody
has shot him. I wonder whether it is sacrilege to shoot a priest who is
also a highwayman, as it used to be to kill a bishop on the field of
We are at last on the high lands of Mexico, the districts which at
least three different races have chosen to settle in, neglecting the
fertile country below. A sharp turn in the road brings its fairly out
into the plain; and then on our left are the two snowy mountains that
lie at the edge of the valley of Mexico, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl,
famous in all Mexican books. Like Orizaba of yesterday, they seem to
rise from the plain close to us; and from the valley between them there
pours down upon us such a flood of icy wind, that, though windows are
pulled up and great-coats buttoned round our throats, we shiver
piteously, and our teeth fairly chatter till we get out of the river of
cold air; and then comes hot sunshine and dust again.
Anxious to make sure that we have really got into the land of Aztec
civilization, Mr. Christy gets down from the diligence, and hunting
about for a few minutes by the road-side, returns in triumph with a
broken arrowhead of obsidian. A deep channel cut by a water-course
gives us our first idea of the depth of the soil; for these plateaus
were once nothing but deep hollows among the mountains, which rain and
melted snow, bringing down fragments of porphyry and basalt--partly in
their original state and partly decomposed--have filled up and formed
into plains. Signs of volcanic action are abundant. To say nothing of
the two great mountains we have just left behind, there is a hill of
red volcanic tufa just beyond us; and still further on, though this is
anticipating, our road passes over the lava-field at the foot of the
little volcano of Santa Barbara.
There is a population here at any rate, village after village; and
between them are great plantations of maize and aloes; for this is the
district where the best pulque in Mexico is made, the "llanos de Apam."
It is the _Agave Americana_, the same aloe that is so common in
southern Europe, where indeed it flowers, and that grows in our gardens
and used to have the reputation of flowering once in a hundred years. I
do not exaggerate when I say that we saw hundreds of thousands of them
that day, planted in long regular lines. Among them were walking the
Indian "tlachiqueros," each with his pigskin on his back, and his long
calabash in his hand, milking such plants as were in season.
[Illustration: INDIAN TLACHIQUERO, COLLECTING JUICE OF THE AGAVE FOR
The fine buildings of the haciendas, and more especially the churches,
contrast strongly with the generality of houses, all of one story,
built of adobes (mud-bricks dried in the sun), with flat roofs of sand
and lime resting on wooden rafters, and the naked ground for a floor,
all dark, dirty, and comfortless. There are even many huts built
entirely of the universal aloe. The stems of wild aloes which have been
allowed to flower are stuck into the ground, side by side, and pieces
of leaves tied on outside them with aloe-fibre. These cut leaves are
set like tiles to form a roof, and pegged down with the thorns which
grow at their extremities. Picturesque and cheap, though hardly
comfortable, for we are in the "tierra fria" now, and the mornings and
evenings in winter are often bitterly cold.
But the churches! Is it possible that they can belong to these wretched
filthy little cottages. As black Sam, our driver, a runaway Texan
slave, suggested, it looked as though the villagers might pull down
their houses and locate themselves and their families in their
churches. We thought of Mr. Ruskin, who has somewhere expressed an
earnest desire that all the money and energy that England has wasted in
making railroads, had been spent in building churches; and we wished he
had been here to see his principles carried out.
I have travelled on rough roads in my time, but on such a road as this
never. My companion refused for a time to award the premium of badness
to our thoroughfare; but, just while we were discussing the question
and recounting our experience of bone-smashing highways, we reached a
pass where the road consisted of a series of steps, nearly a foot in
depth, down which steps we went at a swinging trot, holding on for our
lives, in terror lest the next jerk should fairly wrench our arms out
of their sockets, while we could plainly hear the inside passengers
howling for mercy, as they were shot up against the roof which knocked
them back into their seats. Aching all over, we reached level ground
again, and Mr. Christy withdrew his claims, and agreed that no road
anywhere else could possibly be so bad as a Mexican road; a decision
which later experiences only served to confirm.
Our start, every time we changed horses, was a sight to see. Nine
half-broken horses and mules, in a furious state of excitement, were
harnessed to our unwieldy machine; the helpers let go, and off they
went, kicking, plunging, rearing, biting, and screaming, into ruts and
watercourses that were like the trenches they make for gas-pipes in
London streets, with our wheels on one side on a stone wall, and in a
pit on the other, and Black Sam leaning back with his feet on the
board, waiting with perfect tranquillity until the animals had got rid
of their superfluous energy and he could hold them in. We were always
just going to have some frightful accident, and always just missed it.
The last stage before we reached Otumba, a small dusky urchin ran
across the road just before us. How Black Sam contrived to pull up I
cannot tell, though, indeed, his arms were about the size of an
ordinary man's thighs; but he did, and they got the child out from the
horses' feet quite unhurt.
It was at the inn where we stopped to breakfast that we made our first
acquaintance with the great Mexican institutions--tortillas and pulque.
The pulque was being brewed on a large scale in an adjoining building.
The vats were made of cow-skins (with the hair inside), supported by a
frame of sticks; and in them was pulque in every stage, beginning with
the sweet aguamiel--honeywater--the fresh juice of the aloe, and then
the same in different degrees of fermentation till we come to the
_madre pulque_, the mother pulque, a little of which is used like
yeast, to start the fermentation, and which has a combined odour of
gas-works and drains. Pulque, as you drink it, looks like milk and
water, and has a mild smell and taste of rotten eggs. Tortillas are
like oat-cakes, but made of Indian corn meal, not crisp, but soft and
leathery. We thought both dreadfully nasty for a day or two; then we
could just endure them; then we came to like them; and before we left
the country we wondered how we should do without them.
CITY OF MEXICO.
[Illustration: VIEW OF PART OF THE VALLEY OF MEXICO.]
Some thirty years ago, Don Agustin Yturbide, the first and last Emperor
of Mexico, found that he wanted a palace wherein to house his
newly-fledged dignity; and began to build one accordingly, in the high
street of Mexico, close to the great convent of San Francisco. It could
not have been nearly finished when its founder was shot: and it became
the _Hotel d'Yturbide_. We are now settled in it, in very comfortable
quarters. There is a restaurant down below, where the son of the late
Yturbide dines daily, and everybody points him out to us, and moralises
Mr. Christy's drawer-roll of letters of introduction has produced an
immediate crop of pleasant acquaintances, whose hospitality is
boundless. We are not idle, far from it; and a long day's work is
generally followed by a social dinner, and an evening spent in noting
down the results of our investigations.
Prescott's _Conquest of Mexico_ has been more read in England than most
historical works; and the Mexico of Montezuma has a well-defined idea
attached to it. The amphitheatre of dark hills surrounding the level
plain, the two snowy mountain-peaks, the five lakes covering nearly
half the valley, the city rising out of the midst of the waters, miles
from the shore, with which it was connected by its four causeways, the
straight streets of low flat-roofed houses, the numbers of canals
crowded with canoes of Indians going to and from the market, the
floating gardens moved from place to place, on which vegetables and
flowers were cultivated, the great pyramid up which the Spanish army
saw their captured companions led in solemn procession, and sacrificed
on the top--all these are details in the mental picture.
Much of this has changed since the Spaniards first saw it. Cortes tried
all ordinary means to overcome the desperate obstinacy with which the
Aztecs defended their capital. The Spaniards conquered wherever they
went; but, as they moved forward, the Mexicans closed in again behind,
and from every house-top showers of darts, arrows, and stones were
poured down upon them. Cortes resolved upon the utter demolition of the
city. He was grieved to destroy it, he said, for it was the most
beautiful thing in the whole world; but there was no alternative. He
moved slowly towards the great teocalli, his fifty thousand Tlascalan
allies following him, throwing down every house, and filling the canals
with the ruins. When the conquest was finished, but one district of the
city was left standing, and in it were crowded a quarter of the
population, miserable famished wretches, who had surrendered when their
king was taken. All that was left besides was a patch of swampy ground
strewed with fragments of walls, a few pyramids too large for present
destruction, and such great heaps of dead bodies that it was impossible
to get from place to place without walking over them.
Cortes had resolved that a new city should be built, but it was not so
easy to decide where it was to be. The Aztecs, it seemed, had not
originally established themselves on the spot where Mexico was built.
When they came down from the north country, and across the hills into
the valley of Mexico, they were but an insignificant tribe, and as yet
mere savages. They settled down in one place after another, and were
always driven out by the persecutions of the neighbouring tribes. At
last they took possession of a little group of swampy islands in the
lake of Tezcuco; and then at last, safe from their enemies, they
increased and multiplied, and became a great and powerful nation.
The first beginnings of Mexico, a cluster of huts built on wooden
piles, must have borne some likeness to those curious settlements of
early tribes in the shallow part of the lakes of Switzerland and the
British Isles, of which numerous remains are still to be found. As the
nation increased in numbers, Tenochtitlan, as the inhabitants called
their city (they called themselves _Tenochques_), came to be a great
city of houses built on piles, with canals running through the straight
streets, along which the natives poled their flat-bottomed canoes. The
name which the Spaniards gave to the city, the "Venice of the New
World," was appropriate, not only to its situation in the midst of the
water, with canals for thoroughfares, but also to the history of the
causes which led to its being built in such a situation.
The habit of building houses upon piles, which was first forced upon
the people by the position they had chosen, was afterwards followed as
a matter of taste, just as it is in Holland. Even after the Aztecs
became masters of the surrounding country, they built towns round the
lake, partly on the shore, and partly on piles in the water. The
Spanish chroniclers mention Iztapalapan, and many other towns, as built
in this way. Like the Swiss tribes, the early inhabitants of Mexico
depended much upon their fishing, for which their position gave them
If you look at the arms of the Mexican Republic, on a passport or a
silver dollar, you will see a representation of a rock surrounded by
water. On the rock grows a cactus, and on the cactus sits an eagle with
a serpent in his beak. The story is that the wandering tribe preserved
a tradition of an oracle which said that when they should find an
eagle, holding a serpent, and perched on a cactus growing out of a
rock, then they should cease their wanderings. On an island in the lake
of Tezcuco, they found eagle, serpent, cactus, and rock, as described,
and they settled there in due course. What fragment of truth is hidden
in this myth it is hard to say. Tenochtitlan means "The Stone-cactus
place;" and the Aztec picture-writings express its name by a hieroglyph
of a prickly pear growing on a rock. Putting this history out of the
question, the Aztecs had excellent reasons for choosing this peculiar
site for their city; but these reasons were not equally valid in the
case of the new invaders. For them the surrounding salt-water was not
needed as a protection, and was merely a nuisance. Every year, when the
lake rose, the place was flooded, with enormous damage to the property
of the inhabitants; and sometimes an inundation of greater depth than
usual threatened as complete a destruction as Cortes and the Tlascalans
had made. At the best of times, the site was a salt-swamp, an ugly
place to build upon. And, lastly, all the fresh water must be brought
from the hills by aqueducts, which an enemy would cut off without
difficulty, as the Spaniards themselves had done during the siege. Now
Cortes was certainly not ignorant of all this, and he knew of many
places on the rising ground close by, where he could found his new city
under more favourable circumstances. He deliberated four or five months
on the matter, and at last decided in favour of the old site, giving as
his reason that "the city of Tenochtitlan had become celebrated, its
position was wonderful, and in all times it had been considered as the
capital and mistress of all these provinces."
The invaders were old hands at slave-driving, and so hard did they
drive the conquered Mexicans, that in four years there had arisen a
fine Spanish city, with massive stone houses of several storeys, having
the indispensable inner courts, flat roofs, and grated windows,--every
man's house literally his castle, when once the great iron
entrance-gates were closed. The Indians had, of course, been converted
en masse, and churches were being built in all directions. The great
pyramid where Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, was worshipped, had been
razed to the ground, and its great sculptured blocks of basalt were
sunk in the earth as a foundation for a cathedral. The old lines of the
streets, running toward the four points of the compass, were kept to;
and to this it is that the present Mexico is indebted for much of its
beauty. Most of the smaller canals were filled up, and the
thoroughfares widened for carriages, things of course unknown to the
Mexicans, who had no beasts of burden. In the suburbs the natives
settled themselves after their own fashion, baking adobes, large mud
bricks, in the sun, and building with them one-storey houses with flat
roofs, much as they do at the present day. And thus a new Mexico,
nearly the same as that we are now exploring, came to be planted in the
midst of the waters. Three centimes have elapsed since; the city has
grown larger, churches, convents, and public buildings have increased,
but the architectural character of the place has scarcely altered. It
is the situation that has changed. The lake of Tezcuco is four miles
off, though the causeways which once connected the city with the dry
land still exist, and have even been enlarged. They look like
railway-embankments crossing the low ground, and serve as dykes when
there is a flood, a casualty which still often happens.
This change is interesting to the student of physical geography; and
Humboldt's account of the causes which have brought it about is full
and explicit. When Mexico had been built a few years, the frightful
inundations which threatened its very existence at length awoke the
Spaniards to a sense of the mistake that had been made in placing
themselves but a few feet above the lowest level of the valley, in such
a way that, from whatever point the flood might come, they were sure to
get the benefit of it. The Spanish authorities at home, with their
usual sagacity, sent over peremptory orders that the city should be
abandoned, and a new capital built at Tacubaya--a proposal something
like intimating to the inhabitants of Naples that their position, at
the foot of Mount Vesuvius, was most dangerous, and that they must
leave it and settle somewhere else. In those days the valley was a
complete basin, with no outlet--at least not one worth mentioning; and
the heavy tropical rains and the melted snow from the mountains, poured
vast quantities of water into it. Had the valley been at the level of
the sea, it would simply have become a great lake, surrounded by hills;
but at three thousand feet higher, the atmosphere is rarefied, and
evaporation goes on with such rapidity as to keep the accumulation of
water in check. So the affair had adjusted itself in this wise, that
the land and the five lakes should divide the valley about equally
between them. It became necessary to alter this state of things, and a
passage was cut at a place where the hills were but little above the
level of the highest lake. The history of this passage, the famous
"Desague de Huehuetoca," is instructive enough, but it has been written
so threadbare that I cannot touch it. Suffice it to say, that by this
means a constant outlet was made for the lake of Zumpango, the highest
of the five, and for the Rio de Guatitlan, a stream which formerly ran
So much for one cause of the change in the present appearance of the
city. Then the Spaniards were great cutters down of forests. They
rather liked to make their new country bear a resemblance to the arid
plains of Castile, where, when you arrive in Madrid, people ask you
whether you noticed _the tree_ on the road; and moreover, as they
wanted wood, they cut it, without troubling themselves to plant for the
benefit of future generations. Now, when the trees were cut down, the
small plants which grew in their shade died too, and left the bare
earth to serve as a kind of natural evaporating apparatus. And, between
these two causes, it has come to pass that the extent of the lakes has
been so much reduced, and that Mexico stands on the dry land--if,
indeed, that may be called dry land, where you cannot dig a foot
without coming to water.
During the Tertiary period the whole valley of Mexico was one great
lake. Whether the proportion of water to land had adjusted itself
before the country was inhabited, or whether during historical times
the lakes were still gradually diminishing by the excess of evaporation
over the quantity of water supplied by rain and snow, is an open
question. At any rate the two causes I have mentioned will account for
the changes which have taken place since the conquest.
Taking it as a whole, Mexico is a grand city, and, as Cortes truly
said, its situation is marvellous. But as for the buildings, I should
be sorry to inflict upon any one who may read these sketches, a
detailed description of any one of them. It is a thousand pities that,
just at the time when the Italians and Spaniards were most zealous in
church-building, so very questionable an architectural taste should
have been prevalent.
The churches and convents in Mexico belong to that kind of renaissance
style that began to flourish in southern Europe in the sixteenth
century, and has held its ground there ever since. High facades abound,
with pilasters crowned by elaborate Corinthian capitals, forming a
curious contrast with the mean little buildings crouched behind the
tall front. In the doors of the churches outside, and the chapels
within, one is constantly coming upon that peculiar construction which
consists of what would be an arch, resting on two pillars, were not the
keystone wanting. Columns with shafts elaborately sculptured, and
twisted marble pillars of the bed-post pattern, are to be seen by
hundreds, very expensive in material and workmanship, but unfortunately
very ugly; while the numbers of puffy cherubs, inside and out, remind
the Englishman of the monuments of St. Paul's.
As to the interior decoration of the churches, the richer ones are
crowded with incongruous ornaments to a wonderful degree. Gold, silver,
costly marbles, jewels, stucco, paint, tinsel, and frippery are all
mixed up together in the wildest manner. We found the inside of the
churches to be generally the worst part of them. The Cathedral, for
instance, is really a very grand building when seen from a little
distance, with its two high towers and its cupola behind. I was greatly
edified by finding it described in the last book of Mexican travels I
have read, as built in the purest Doric style.
The Mineria, or School of Mines, is a fine building, something after
the manner of Somerset House on a small scale. As for the famous Plaza
Mayor, the great square, it is a very great square indeed, large enough
to review an army in, and large enough to damage by its size the effect
of the cathedral, and to dwarf the other buildings that surround it
into mere insignificance. However, one thing is certain, that we have
not come all this way to see Spanish architecture and great squares,
but must look for something more characteristic.
I have said we arrived in Mexico on the eve of Palm Sunday, and next
morning we proceeded to consult with one of our newly-made
acquaintances as to our prospects for the ensuing Holy Week. This
gentleman, a man who took a practical view of things, mentioned a
circumstance which led him to expect that the affair would go off with
eclat. The Mexicans, both the nearly white Mestizos and the Indians of
pure race, delight in pulque. The brown people are grave and silent in
their sober state, but pulque stirs up their sluggish blood, and they
get into a condition of positive enjoyment. But very soon after this
comes a state of furious intoxication, and a general scuffle is a
common termination to a drinking-bout. Fortunately, the Indians are not
a bloodthirsty people; and, though every man carries a knife or
machete, or--if he can get nothing better--a bit of hoop-iron tempered,
sharpened, and fixed into a handle, yet nothing more serious than cuffs
and scratches generally ensues. Even if severe wounds are given, the
Indian has many chances in his favor, for his organization is somewhat
different from that of white men, and he recovers easily from wounds
that would kill any European outright.
The lower orders of the half-breed population are also given to
pulque-drinking, but with far more serious consequences. Unlike the
pure Indians, they are a hot-blooded and excitable race, and
drunkenness with them is utter madness while it lasts. Knives are drawn
at the very beginning of a squabble, and scarcely an evening passes
without one or two bodies of men killed in these drunken melees being
carried to the Police Cuartel in the great square. On Sundays and
holidays the number increases; but on this Palm Sunday there were
fourteen, not killed in one great battle, but brought in by ones and
twos, from different parts of the city. It was this little piece of
statistics that induced our friend to conclude that the citizens of
Mexico had made up their minds to enjoy themselves thoroughly, and that
Holy Week would be a grand affair. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of
the Semana Santa have only this to distinguish them from ordinary days,
that the churches are crowded with men and women waiting their turn at
the confessional; and that in the afternoons the old promenade of Las
Vigas, down in the Indian quarter by the canal of Chalco, is patronized
by fashionable Mexico, which, except on some four or five special days,
frequents the new Alameda. The sight of these confessionals, so
constantly filled, prompts one to ask--why just before Easter? Just
after would be more appropriate; for as we find the Glasgow people much
worse on Sundays than on week-days, so the Mexican population, not very
virtuous at the best of times, are specially and particularly wicked
when the great Church-festivals come round. The name of Shrove Tuesday
survives in our Calendar, to remind us of the time when we also used to
go to be shriven before Easter.
On Thursday at noon mass is over, the bells cease to ring, the organs
in the churches are silent, and all carriages disappear from the
streets, except the dusty Diligence which, like French law, "est
athee," and cares nothing for fasts or festivals. Now we come to
understand the wonderful wooden machine like a water-wheel, which was
put up yesterday on one tower of the Cathedral. We had asked people in
the great square, just below, what it was, but could get no answer
except that it was _la Matraca_, the rattle, for to-morrow. And now we
found that, the church bells being incapacitated, this rattle does duty
instead, striking the hours, and occasionally going off into furious
fits of clattering, without apparent reason, for ten minutes at a time,
till the two men who worked it, who were either convicts or soldiers in
fatigue-dress, were tired out. It was not this one rattle only that was
disturbing the public peace that day and the next. Everybody was
walking about with a rattle, and working it like mad, and all over the
city there was a noise like the sound of the back-scratchers at
Greenwich Fair, or of an American forest when the woodpeckers are busy.
These little rattles stand for Judas's bones, and all good Catholics
express in this odd way their desire to break them. They do the same
thing in Italy, but it is not so prominent a part of the celebration as
in Mexico, where old and young, rich and poor, all do their part in it.
As soon as we found out what it all meant, we bought matracas for
ourselves, and joined the rest of the world in their noisy occupation.
The breaking of his bones is but a preliminary measure. In the square a
fair is being held, in the booths of which the great articles of trade
now are Judas's bones, of many patterns, at all prices, and Judas
himself in pasteboard, who is to be carried about and insulted till
Saturday morning, and then, hanging up by a string, is to burst asunder
by means of a packet of powder and a slow match in his inside, and
finally to perish in a bonfire.
The first sight of these pasteboard Judases convinced us of one thing,
that we had unexpectedly come upon the old custom, of which our
processions and burning of Guy Fawkes in England are merely an
adaptation. After giving up the old custom as a Popish rite, what a
blight idea to revive it in this new shape, and to give the boys
something to carry about, bang, blow up, and make a final bonfire of,
and all in the Protestant interest! There was another thing to be
noticed about the Judases. The makers had evidently tried to vary them
as much as they could; and, by that very means, had shown how
impossible it was to them to strike out anything new. There were two
types; one was the Neapolitan _Polichinello_, whom we have naturalised
as _Punch_; and the other the God _Pan_, with his horns, and hoofs, and
tail, whom the whole Christian world has recognised as the devil, for
these many ages. Well, some took one type and some the other; and a few
tried to combine the two, of course spoiling both. But, beyond this,
their power of invention could not go. They were always trying to
conceal the old idea, and could do no more than to distort it. We could
see through their flimsy pretensions to originality much as a
schoolmaster recognises the extracts from the encyclopaedia in his
As with this Judas trade, so it is with other more important arts and
sciences in this country. The old types descend, almost unchanged, from
generation to generation. Everything that is really Mexican is either
Aztec or Spanish. Among the Spanish types we may separate the Moorish.
Our knowledge of Mexico is not sufficient to enable us to analyse the
Aztec civilization, so we must be content with these three classes. I
will not go further into the question here, for occasions will
continually occur to show how--for three centuries at least--the
inhabitants of Mexico, both white and brown, have taken their ideas at
second-hand, always copying but never developing anything.
All this time my companion and I have been walking about the streets;
in evening-dress, as the etiquette of the place demands, on these three
days, from the "better classes." The Mexican ladies may be
advantageously studied just now in their church-going black silk dress
and mantilla, one of the most graceful costumes in the world. It is not
often that one has the chance of seeing them out of doors, except
hurrying to and from Mass in the morning, or in carriages on the
Alameda; but on these festival days one meets them by hundreds. They do
not contrast favorably with the ladies of Cadiz and Seville. The
mixture of Aztec blood seems to have detracted from the beauty of the
Spanish race; the dryness of the atmosphere spoils their complexions;
and the monstrous quantity of capsicums that are consumed at every meal
cannot possibly leave the Mexican digestion in its proper state.
We dined that day with Don Jose de A., who, though Spanish-American by
birth, was English by education and feeling, and had known my
companion's family well. Our dinner was half English, half Mexican; and
the favourite dishes of the country were there, to aid in our
initiation into Mexican manners and customs. The cooks at the inns,
mindful of our foreign origin, had dealt out the red pepper with a
sparing hand; but to-day the dish of "mole" was the genuine article,
and the first mouthful set as coughing and gasping for breath, while
the tears streamed down our faces, and Don Pepe and Don Pancho gravely
continued their dinner, assuring us that we should get quite to like it
in time. _Pepe_ and _Pancho_, by the way, are short for Jose and
Francisco. Dinner over, it was time to visit the churches, to which
people crowd by thousands, this evening and to-morrow, to see the
monuments, as they are called. Pancho departed, being on duty as escort
to his sisters; and we having, by Pepe's advice, left our watches and
valuables in his room, and put our handkerchiefs in our breast-pockets,
started with him. Mr. Christy, always on the look-out for a new seed or
plant, had taken possession of the seeds of two _mameis_, which are
fleshy fruits--as big as cocoa-nuts--each containing a hard smooth seed
as large as a hen's egg. These not being of great value, he put one in
each tail-pocket of his coat. When we got out, we found the streets
full of people, hurrying from one church to another, anxious to get as
many as possible visited in the evening. We went first to the monastery
of San Francisco, close to our hotel, the largest, and perhaps the
richest convent in the country. Entering through a great gate, we find
ourselves in a large courtyard, full of people, who are visiting--one
after another--the four churches which the establishment contains,
going in at one door and out at the other. At the door of the largest
church, stands a tall monk, soliciting customers for the rosaries of
olive-wood, crosses, and medals from Jerusalem, which are displayed on
a stall close by--shouting in a stentorian voice, every two or three
minutes, "He who gives alms to Holy Church, shall receive plenary
indulgence, and deliver one soul from purgatory." We bought some, but
there did not seem to be many other purchasers. Indeed, we found, when
we had been longer in the country, that a few pence would buy all sorts
of church indulgences, from the permission to eat meat on fast-days up
to plenary absolution in the hour of death; and the trade, once so
flourishing here, is almost used up. The churches were hung with black,
and lighted up; and in each was a "monument," a kind of bower of green
branches decorated with flowers, mirror's, and gold and silver
church-plate, and supposed to stand for the Garden of Gethsemane.
Inside was reclining a wax figure of our Saviour, gaudily dressed in
silk and velvet; and there were also representations of the Last
Supper, with wax-work figures as large as life. To visit and criticise
these "monuments" was the object of the sort of pilgrimage people were
making from church to church, and they seemed thoroughly to enjoy it.
It was not a superfluous precaution that we had taken, in leaving our
valuables in a place of safety, for, on our exit from the first church,
we found that Pepe had lost his handkerchief and a cigar-case, which he
had stowed away in an inner pocket, and Mr. Christy had been relieved
of one of his mamei seeds by some "lepero" who probably took it for a
snuff-box. His feelings must have been like those of the English
pickpocket in Paris, when he robbed the Frenchman of the article he had
pocketed with so much care, and found it was a lump of sugar. And so
relieved of further care for our worldly goods, we went through with
the work of seeing monuments, till we were tired and disgusted with the
whole affair, and at last went home to bed.
Next day, appropriate sermons in the churches, processions in the
afternoon, in which wax figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary were
carried by men got up in fancy dresses as soldiers and centurions, and
so called penitents, walking covered with black shrouds and veils, with
small round holes to look through, or in the yellow dress and
extinguisher cap, both with flames and devils painted on them. These
are exactly the costumes worn in old times, the first by the familiars
of the Inquisition, and the second by the criminals it condemned; and
the sight of them set us thinking of the processions they used to
figure in, when the Holy Office was flourishing at Santo Domingo, a
little way down the street where we are standing.
In the evening the Crucifixion is represented in wax in the churches,
and the visiting goes on as the night before; and the next morning is
the Sabado de Gloria, the Saturday which ends Lent. We go to the
Jesuits' church in the morning to hear the last sermon. Since Thursday
at noon, as the organs have been silenced, harps and violins have taken
their places. The sermon is long and prosy, and we rejoice that it is
the last. Then the service of the day goes on until they come to the
"Gloria in excelsis." The organ peals out again, the black
curtain--which has hidden the high altar--parts in the middle, and
displays a perfect blaze of gold and jewels: all the bells in the city
begin to ring: the carriages, which have been waiting ready harnessed
in court yards, pour out into the streets: the lumbering hackney
coaches go racing to the great square, striving to get the first fare
for luck: the Judases, which have been hanging all the morning out of
windows and across streets, are set light to as the first bell begins
to ring, and fizzing and popping burst all to pieces, and then are
thrown into a heap in the street, where a bonfire is made of them, and
the children join hands and dance round it. So Holy Week ends.
[Illustration: THE PORTER AND THE BAKER IN MEXICO. (From Models made by
The arrangement of the day in Mexico is this. Early in the morning your
servant knocks at your door, and brings in a little cup of coffee or
chocolate and a small roll, which _desayuno_--literally breakfast--you
discuss while dressing. Going down into the courtyard, you find your
horse waiting for you, and off you go for an hour or two's ride, and
back to a dejeuner-a-la-fourchette somewhere between ten and one
o'clock. Then you have seven or eight hours before dinner, so that a
good deal of work may be got into a day so divided. Things are managed
very differently in country places, but this is the fashion in the
capital among the higher class, that is, of course, the class of people
who put on dress-coats in the evening.
When we had been a day or two in Mexico, we took our first ride to
Tacubaya and Chapultepec. Mexican saddles and bridles were a novelty to
us, but when we come to describe our Mexican and his appurtenances it
will be time enough to speak of them.
The barricades in the streets constructed during the last revolution of
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