The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 1.

Arrival at Greytown. The river San Juan. Silting up of the harbour. Crossing the bar. Lives lost on it. Sharks. Christopher Columbus. Appearance of the town. Trade. Healthiness of the town and its probable cause. Comparison between Greytown, Pernambuco, and Maceio. Wild fruits. Plants. Parrots, toucans, and tanagers. Butterflies and beetles. Mimetic forms. Alligators. Boy drowned at Blewfields by an alligator. Their method of catching wild pigs.

At noon on the 15th February 1868, the R.M.S.S. “Solent,” in which I was a passenger, anchored off Greytown, or San Juan del Norte, the Atlantic port of Nicaragua in Central America. We lay about a mile from the shore, and saw a low flat coast stretching before us. It was the delta of the river San Juan, into which flows the drainage of a great part of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and which is the outlet for the waters of the great lake of Nicaragua. Its watershed extends to within a few miles of the Pacific, for here the isthmus of Central America, as in the great continents to the north and south of it, sends off by far the largest portion of its drainage to the Atlantic. In the rainy season the San Juan is a noble river, and even in the dry months, from March to June, there is sufficient water coming down from the lake to keep open a fine harbour, if it were not that about twenty miles above its mouth it begins to dissipate its force by sending off a large branch called the Colorado river, and lower down parts with more of its waters by side channels. Twenty years ago the main body of water ran past Greytown; there was then a magnificent port, and large ships sailed up to the town, but for several years past the Colorado branch has been taking away more and more of its waters, and the port of Greytown has in consequence silted up. All ships now have to lie off outside, and a shallow and, in heavy weather, dangerous bar has to be crossed.1

1 Greytown is still the headquarters of Nicaraguan trade with Europe and Eastern America though the attempts to improve the harbour by dredging and building jetties have had only partial success. Its great opportunity passed with the final abandonment, in favour of the Panama route, of the scheme for an inter-oceanic canal by way of the lakes, with its eastern terminus a mile to the north of the town at a spot which was named “America.”

All we could see from the steamer was the sandy beach on which the white surf was breaking, a fringe of bushes with a few coco-nut palms holding up their feathery crowns, and in the distance a low background of dark foliage. Before we anchored a gun was fired, and in quick answer to the signal some canoes, paddled by negroes of the Mosquito coast, here called “Caribs,” were seen crossing the bar, and in a few minutes were alongside. Getting into one of the canoes with my boxes, I was rapidly paddled towards the shore. When we reached the bar we were dexterously taken over it — the Caribs waited just outside until a higher wave than usual came rolling in, then paddling with all their might we were carried over on its crest, and found ourselves in the smooth water of the river.

Many lives have been lost on this bar. In 1872 the commander of the United States surveying expedition and six of his men were drowned in trying to cross it in heavy weather. Only a few mangled remnants of their bodies were ever found; for what adds to the horror of an upset at this place, and perhaps has unnerved many a man at a critical moment, is that large sharks swarm about the entrance to the river. We saw the fin of one rising above the surface of the water as it swam lazily about, and the sailors of the mail steamers when lying off the port often amuse themselves by catching them with large hooks baited with pieces of meat. It is probable that it was at one of the mouths of the San Juan that Columbus, in his fourth voyage, lost a boat’s crew who had been sent for wood and fresh water, and when returning were swamped on the bar. Columbus had rounded Cape Gracias a Dios four days before, and had sailed down the coast with a fair wind and tide, so that he might easily have reached the San Juan.

Inside the bar we were in smooth water, for but a small stream is discharged by this channel. On our right was a sandy beach, on our left great beds of grass growing out of the shoal water — weedy banks filled up the once spacious harbour, and cattle waded amongst the long grass, where within the last twenty years a frigate has lain at anchor. Wading and aquatic birds were abundant in the marshes, amongst which white cranes and a chocolate-brown jacana, with lemon-yellow under wing, were the most conspicuous. A large alligator lazily crawled off a mud-spit into the water, where he floated, showing only his eyes and the pointed scales of his back above the surface. The town was now in full view — neat, white-painted houses, with plume-crowned palms rising amongst and over them, and we landed at one of several wooden wharves that jut into the river.

Greytown, though only a small place, is one of the neatest tropical towns that I have visited. The houses, especially in the business portion of the town, are well built of wood, and painted white with brown roofs. Pretty flower gardens surround or front many of them. Others are nearly hidden amongst palms and bread-fruit, orange, mango, and other tropical fruit trees. A lovely creeper (Antigonon leptopus), with festoons of pink and rose-coloured flowers, adorns some of the gardens. It is called la vegessima, “the beautiful,” by the natives, and I found it afterwards growing wild in the provinces of Matagalpa and Segovia, where it was one of the great favourites of the flower-loving Indians. The land at and around Greytown is perfectly level. The square, the open spaces, and many of the streets are covered with short grass that makes a beautiful sward to walk on.

The trade in the town is almost entirely in the hands of foreign residents, amongst whom Mr. Hollenbeck, a citizen of the United States, is one of the most enterprising. A considerable import trade is done with the States and England. Coffee, indigo, hides, cacao, sugar, logwood, and india-rubber are the principal exports. I called on Dr. Green, the British Consul, and found him a most courteous and amiable gentleman, ready to afford protection or advice to his countrymen, and on very friendly terms with the native authorities. He has lived for many years in Nicaragua, and his many charitable kindnesses, and especially the medical assistance that he renders in all cases of emergency, free of charge, have made him very popular at Greytown. His beautiful house and grounds, with a fine avenue of coco-nut trees in full bearing, form one of the most attractive sights in Greytown. I found Mr. Paton, the vice-consul, equally obliging, and I am indebted to him for much information respecting the trade of the port, particularly with regard to the export of india-rubber, the development of which trade he was one of the first to encourage.

Behind the town there is a long lagoon, and for several miles back the land is quite level, and interspersed with lakes and ponds with much marshy ground. Perfectly level, surrounded by swamps, and without any system of drainage, either natural or artificial, excepting such as the sandy soil affords, Greytown might be thought a very unhealthy site for a town. Notwithstanding, however, its apparent disadvantages, and that for nine months of the year it is subject to heavy tropical rains, it is comparatively healthy, and freer from fever than many places that appear at first sight better situated. Much is due to the porous sandy soil, but more I believe to what appears at first sight an element of danger, the perfect flatness of the ground. Where there are hills there must be hollows, and in these the air stagnates; whilst here, where the land is quite level, the trade winds that blow pretty constantly find their way to every part, and carry off the emanations from the soil. As a similar instance I may mention the city of Pernambuco, on the eastern coast of Brazil, containing 80,000 inhabitants. It is perfectly level like Greytown, surrounded and intersected with channels of water, above the level of which it only stands a few feet. The crowded parts of the town are noted for their evil smells and filth, but, though entirely without drainage, it is celebrated for its healthiness; whilst a little lower down the coast, the town of Maceio, situated about sixty feet above the sea, surrounded by undulating ranges and with a good natural drainage, is much more unhealthy, fevers being very prevalent. As at Greytown so at Pernambuco, the trade winds blow with much regularity, and there are neither hills nor hollows to interfere with the movements of the air, so that miasmatic exhalations cannot accumulate.

Surrounding the cleared portions around Greytown is a scrubby bush, amongst which are many guayava trees (Psidium sp.) having a fruit like a small apple filled with seeds, of a sub-acid flavour, from which the celebrated guava jelly is made. The fruit itself often occasions severe fits of indigestion, and many of the natives will not swallow the small seeds, but only the pulpy portion, which is said to be harmless. I saw another fruit growing here, a yellow berry about the size of a cherry, called “Nancito” by the natives. It is often preserved by them with spirit and eaten like olives. Beyond the brushwood, which grows where the original forest has been cut down, there are large trees covered with numerous epiphytes — Tillandsias, orchids, ferns, and a hundred others, that make every big tree an aerial garden. Great arums perch on the forks and send down roots like cords to the ground, whilst lianas run from tree to tree or hang in loops and folds like the disordered tackle of a ship.

Green parrots fly over in screaming flocks, or nestle in loving couples amidst the foliage, toucans hop along the branches, turning their long, highly-coloured beaks from side to side with an old-fashioned look, and beautiful tanagers (Ramphocaelus passerinii) frequent the outskirts of the forest, all velvety black, excepting a large patch of fiery-red above the tail, which renders the bird very conspicuous. It is only the male that is thus coloured, the female being clothed in a sober suit of greenish-brown. I think this bird is polygamous, for several of the brown ones were always seen with one of the red-and-black ones. The bright colours of the male must make it very conspicuous to birds of prey, and, probably in consequence, it is not nearly so bold as the obscurely-coloured females. When a clear space in the brushwood is to be crossed, such as a road, two or three of the females will fly across first, before the male will venture to do so, and he is always more careful to get himself concealed amongst the foliage than his mates.

I walked some distance into the forest along swampy paths cut by charcoal burners, and saw many beautiful and curious insects. Amongst the numerous butterflies, large blue Morphos and narrow, weak-winged Heliconidae, striped and spotted with yellow, red, and black, were the most conspicuous and most characteristic of tropical America. Amongst the beetles I found a curious longicorn (Desmiphora fasciculata), covered with long brown and black hairs, and closely resembling some of the short, thick, hairy caterpillars that are common on the bushes. Other closely allied species hide under fallen branches and logs, but this one clung exposed amongst the leaves, its antennae concealed against its body, and its resemblance to a caterpillar so great, that I was at first deceived by it. It is well known that insectivorous birds will not touch a hairy caterpillar, and this is only one of numberless instances where insects, that have some special protection against their enemies, are closely imitated by others belonging to different genera, and even different orders. Thus, wasps and stinging ants have hosts of imitators amongst moths, beetles, and bugs, and I shall have many curious facts to relate concerning these mimetic resemblances. To those not acquainted with Mr. Bates’s admirable remarks on mimetic forms, I must explain that we have to speak of one species imitating another, as if it were a conscious act, only on account of the poverty of our language. No such idea is entertained, and it would have been well if some new term had been adopted to express what is meant. These deceptive resemblances are supposed, by the advocates of the origin of species by natural selection, to have been brought about by varieties of one species somewhat resembling another having special means of protection, and preserved from their enemies in consequence of that unconscious imitation. The resemblance, which was perhaps at first only remote, is supposed to have been increased in the course of ages by the varieties being protected that more and more closely approached the species imitated, in form, colour, and movements. These resemblances are not only between insects of different genera and orders, but between insects and flowers, leaves, twigs, and bark of trees, and between insects and inanimate nature. They serve often for concealment, as when leaves are imitated by leaf-insects and many butterflies, or for a disguise that enables predatory species to get within reach of their prey, as in those spiders that resemble the petals of flowers amongst which they hide.

Alligators in San Juan River.

That I may not travel over the same ground twice, I may here mention that on a subsequent visit to Greytown I rode a few miles northward along the beach. On my return, I tied up the horse and walked about a mile over the sand-bank that extends down to the mouth of the river. A long, deep branch forms a favourite resort for alligators. At the far end of a sand-spit, near where some low trees grew, I saw several dark objects lying close to the water on the shelving banks. They were alligators basking in the sun. As I approached, most of them crawled into the water. Mr. Hollenbeck had been down a few days before shooting at them with a rifle, to try to get a skull of one of the monsters, and I passed a dead one that he had shot. As I walked up the beach, I saw many that were not less than fifteen feet in length. One lay motionless, and thinking it was another dead one, I was walking up to it, and had got within three yards, when I saw the film over its eye moving; otherwise it was quite still, and its teeth projecting beyond its lips added to its intense ugliness and appearance of death. There was no doubt, however, about the movement of the eye-covers, and I went back a short distance to look for a stick to throw at it; but when I turned again, the creature was just disappearing into the water. It is their habit to lie quite still, and catch animals that come near them. Whether or not it was waiting until I came within the swoop of its mighty tail I know not, but I had the feeling that I had escaped a great danger. It was curious that it should have been so bold only a few days after Mr. Hollenbeck had been down shooting at them. There were not less than twenty altogether, and they swam out into the middle of the inlet and floated about, looking like logs in the water, excepting that one stretched up its head and gave a bellow like a bull. They sometimes kill calves and young horses, and I was told of one that had seized a full-grown horse, but its struggles being observed, some natives ran down and saved it from being pulled into the water and drowned. I heard several stories of people being killed by them, but only one was well authenticated. This was told me by the head of the excellent Moravian Mission at Blewfields, who was a witness of the occurrence. He said that one Sunday, after service at their chapel at Blewfields, several of the youths went to bathe in the river, which was rather muddy at the time; the first to plunge in was a boy of twelve years of age, and he was immediately seized by a large alligator, and carried along under water. My informant and others followed in a canoe, and ultimately recovered the body, but life was extinct. The alligator cannot devour its prey beneath the water, but crawls on land with it after he has drowned it. They are said to catch wild pigs in the forest near the river by half burying themselves in the ground. The pigs come rooting amongst the soil, the alligator never moves until one gets within its reach, when it seizes it and hurries off to the river with it. They are often seen in hot weather on logs or sand-spits lying with their mouths wide open. The natives say they are catching flies, that numbers are attracted by the saliva of the mouth, and that when sufficient are collected, the alligator closes its jaws upon them, but I do not know that any reliance can be placed on the story. Probably it is an invention to account for the animals lying with their mouths open; as in all half-civilised countries I have visited I have found the natives seldom admit they do not know the reason of anything, but will invent an explanation rather than acknowledge their ignorance.

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