The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 16.

Concordia. Jinotega. Indian habits retained by the people. Indian names of towns. Security of travellers in Nicaragua. Native flour-mill. Uncomfortable lodgings. Tierrabona. Dust whirlwind. Initial form of a cyclone. The origin of cyclones.

SOME of the ranges were very craggy, and one was so steep and rocky that we had to dismount and lead our mules, and even then one of them fell several times. These craggy ranges were covered with the evergreen oaks, and we saw but few pine trees. Now and then we passed over the tracks of the leaf-cutting ants, who were hurrying along as usual, laden with pieces of foliage about the size of a sixpence. There were but few birds, and insects also were scarce, the bleak wet weather doubtless being unsuitable for them.

We now began to descend on the Matagalpa side of the elevated ranges we had been travelling over, and crossed many small valleys and streams, the latter everywhere cutting through boulder clay, with very few exposures of the bed-rock. In the lower lands were many patches cultivated with maize and beans, but the country was very sparsely inhabited. At noon, we reached a small town called Concordia, where the houses were larger and better built than those in the small towns of Segovia. The church, on the other hand, was an ugly barn-like building, apparently much neglected. The rocks were trachytes, and the soil seemed fertile, but there was very little of it cultivated. Many of the men we met wore long swords instead of the usual machetes. There is a school for learning fencing at Concordia, and the people of the district are celebrated for being expert swordsmen. They have often fencing matches. The best man is called the champion, and he is bound to try conclusions with every one that challenges him.

After leaving Concordia we had only one more range to cross, then began to descend towards the plains below Jinotega, and about dusk reached that town and were kindly received by our former entertainers. Doubtless much European blood runs in the veins of the inhabitants of Jinotega, but in their whole manner of living they follow the Indian ways, and it is the same throughout Nicaragua, excepting amongst the higher classes in the large towns. All their cooking vessels are Indian. Just as in the Indian huts, every pot or pan is of coarse pottery, and each dish is cooked on a separate little fire. The drinks in common use are Indian, and have Indian names; tiste, pinul, pinullo, and chicha, all made from maize, sugar, and chocolate. As before observed, whatever was new to the Spaniards when they invaded the country retained its Indian name. It is so with every stage of growth of the maize plant, chilote, elote, and maizorca. The stone for grinding the maize is exactly the same as those found in the old Indian graves, and it is still called the metlate. All the towns we passed through in Segovia retained their Indian names, though their present inhabitants know nothing of their meaning. The old names of many of the towns are probably remnants of a language earlier than that of the inhabitants at the time of the conquest, and their study might throw some light on the distribution of the ancient peoples. Unfortunately the names of places are very incorrectly given in the best maps of Central America, every traveller having spelt them phonetically according to the orthography of his own language. Throughout this book I have spelt proper names in accordance with the pronunciation of the Spanish letters.

Many of the names of towns in Nicaragua and Honduras end in “galpa,” as Muyogalpa, Juigalpa, Totagalpa, and Matagalpa. Places apparently of less consequence in Segovia often end in the termination “lee” strongly accented, as Jamaily, Esterly, Daraily, etc., and in “guina,” pronounced “weena,” as in Palacaguina and Yalaguina. In Chontales many end in “apa,” or “apo,” as Cuapo, Comoapa, Comelapa, Acoyapo, and others.

The Spaniards, whenever they gave a name to a town, either named it after some city in Spain or after their Saints. There are dozens of Santa Rosas, San Juans, and San Tomases. Even some of the towns, which have well-known Indian names, are called officially after some Spanish saint, but the common people stick to the old names, and they are not to be thrust aside.

We had a long talk with our courteous host of the estanco at Jinotega. He had a small library of books, nearly all being missals and prayer-books. He had a little knowledge of geography and was wishful to learn about Europe, and at the same time most desirous that we should not think that he, one of the chief men of the town, did not know all about it. That England was a small island he admitted was new to him, as he thought it was part of the United States or at least joined to them. He asked if it was true that Rome was one of the four quarters of the globe. We explained that it was only a large city, to which he replied gravely that he knew it was so, but wished to have our opinion to confirm his own.

No newspapers come to Jinotega, excepting occasionally a government gazette, and only a few of the grown-up people are able to read. News travel quickly from one town to another, but every incident is greatly exaggerated; and many extravagant stories are set afloat with no other foundation than the inventive faculties of some idle brain. To appreciate what an immense aid a newspaper press is to the dissemination of truth one must travel in some such country as Nicaragua where newspapers do not circulate. It is impossible to get trustworthy intelligence about any event that has happened a hundred miles away, and stories of murders and robberies that were never committed are widely circulated amongst the credulous people. As far as my experience goes highway robbery is unknown in Nicaragua. Foreigners entrusted with money have stated they have been robbed, but there has always been suspicions that they themselves embezzled the money that they said they lost. Personally I never carried arms for defence in the country, and was never molested nor even insulted, though I often travelled alone. The only dangerous characters in the country are the lower class of foreigners, and these are not numerous. Petty thefts are common enough, and at the mines we found that none of the labouring class were to be trusted; but robberies of a daring character or accompanied by violence were never committed by the natives to my knowledge.

In their drinking bouts they often quarrel among themselves, and slash about with their long heavy knives, inflicting ugly gashes and often maiming each other for life. One-armed men are not uncommon; and I knew of two cases where an arm was chopped off in these encounters. Nearly every pay-week our medical officer was sent for to sew up the wounds that had been received. Fortunately even at these times they do not interfere with foreigners, their quarrels being amongst themselves, and either faction fights or about their women, or gambling losses. Many of the worst cases of cutting with knives were by the Honduraneans employed at the mines, who generally got off through the mountains to their own country. One who was taken managed to escape by inducing the soldiers who had him in charge to take him up to the mines to bring out his tools. He went in at the level whilst they guarded the entrance. Hour after hour passed without his returning, and at last they learnt that he had got through some old workings to another opening into the mine and had started for Honduras. Once in the bush pursuit is hopeless, as the undergrowth is so dense that it is impossible to follow by sight.

We left Jinotega at seven in the morning, passed over the pine-clad ranges again, and at one o’clock came in sight of the town of Matagalpa. At the river a mill was at work grinding wheat. I went into the shed that covered it and found it to be simple and ingenious. Below the floor was a small horizontal water-wheel driven by the stream striking against the inclined floats. The shaft of the wheel passed up through the floor and the lower stone, and was fixed to the upper one, which turned round with it without any gearing. The flour made is dark and full of impurities, as no care is taken to keep it clean.

We found the mules and horses we had left at Matagalpa in good condition, and after getting some dinner started again, taking the road towards Teustepe instead of that by which we had come, as we were told we should avoid the swamps by so doing, for more to the westward they had had no rain. We rode down the valley below the town and found it very dry and barren, the only industry worth naming being a small indigo plantation. Indigo seems to have been more cultivated formerly than now. In many parts I saw the deserted vats in which the plants were steeped to extract the dye. We ascended a high range to the left of the valley, on the top of which were a few pine trees. These we were told were the last we should see on the road to Chontales. On the other side of the range the descent was very steep, and the road was carried down the precipitous and rocky slope in a series of zigzags, so that we saw the mules a few score yards in advance directly under our feet.

From the hill we had seen a house in the valley, and as night was setting in we sought for it, but the whole district was so covered with low scrubby trees with many paths running in various directions that it was long before we found it. When at last we discovered it, the prospect before us of a night’s lodging was so discouraging that had it not then been getting quite dark, and being told that we should have to travel several miles before coming to another house, we should have sought for other shelter. The small hut was as usual filled with men, women, and children. Two of the women were lying ill, and one seemed to be dying. There was no room for us in the hut if we had been willing to enter it. We slung our hammocks under a small open-sided shed near by and passed a miserable night. A strong cold wind was blowing, and the swinging of the hammocks caused by it kept a number of dogs continually barking and snapping at our hammocks and boots. We rose cold and cramped at daylight, and without waiting to make ready any coffee, saddled our beasts and rode away.

A little maize was grown about this place, and the people told us that sugar thrived, but the plantations of it were small and ill-kept, and everything had a look of poverty and decadence. They said that twenty years ago there was no bush growing around their house. The country was then open grassed savannahs, and there was less fever. Now the bush grows up to their very doors, and they will not take the trouble to cut it down even to save themselves from the attacks of fever. Here as everywhere throughout the central provinces, deep ingrained indolence paralyses all industry or enterprise, and with the means of plenty and comfort on every side, the people live in squalid poverty.

For four leagues we rode over high ranges with very fine valleys separating them, containing many thatched houses and fields of maize, sugar, and beans. Where not now cultivated the sides of the ranges were covered with weedy-looking shrubs and low trees, proving that all the land had at one time been cropped, and this was further shown by the old lines of pinuela fences and ditches that were seen here and there amongst the brushwood. As we got further south the alluvial flats in the valleys increased in size and fertility, and the cultivated fields were enclosed with permanent fences. On some of the ranges we crossed, the rocks were amygdaloidal, containing nests of a white zeolite, the fractured planes of which glittered like gems on the pathway.

Eight leagues from Matagalpa we reached the small town of Tierrabona, where, as the name implies, the land is very good. Every house had an enclosure around it, planted with maize and beans: and though it was evident that the land was cropped year after year, it still seemed to bear well. We stopped at a small brook just outside the town, and ate some provisions we had brought from Matagalpa. Some speckled tiger-beetles ran about the dusty road, and on wet muddy places near the stream groups of butterflies collected to suck the moisture. Amongst them were some fine swallow-tails (Papilio), quivering their wings as they drank, and lovely blue hair-streaks (Theclae). The latter, when they alight, rub their wings together, moving their curious tail-like appendages up and down. Great dragon-flies hawked after flies; while on the surface of still pools “whirligigs” (Gyrinidae) wheeled about in mazy gyrations, just as they are seen to do at home.

Savannahs, sparingly timbered, were next crossed; then we reached one of those level plains, with black soil and blocks of porous trachyte lying on the surface, which are swamps in the rainy season, and have for vegetation sedgy grasses and scattered jicara trees, cactuses and thorny acacias. Up to the time we passed, there had been no rain in these parts, and the plain was dry and bare, with great cracks in the black soil. The grass had not sprung up, not a breath of air was stirring, and the heated air quivered over the parched ground, forming in the distance an imperfect mirage.

Directly overhead the noonday sun hung hot in the hazy sky. As we moodily toiled over the plain, my attention was arrested by a dust whirlwind that suddenly sprang up about fifty yards to our left. The few dry leaves on the ground began to whirl round and round, and to ascend. In a minute a spiral column was formed, reaching, perhaps, to the height of fifty feet, consisting of dust and dry dead leaves, all whirling round with the greatest rapidity. The column was only a few yards in diameter. It moved slowly along, nearly parallel with our course, but only lasting a few minutes. Before I could point it out to Velasquez, who had ridden on ahead, it had dissolved away. I had been very familiar with these air eddies in Australia, and had hoped to carry on some investigations concerning them, begun there, in Central America; but, though common on the plains of Mexico and of South America, this was the only one I witnessed in Central America.

The interest with which I regarded these miniature storms was due to the assistance that their study was likely to give in the discussion of the cause of all circular movements of the atmosphere, including the dreaded typhoon and cyclone. The chief meteorologists who have discussed this difficult question have approached it from the side of the larger hurricanes. There is a complete gradation from the little dust eddies up through larger whirlwinds and tornadoes to the awful typhoons and cyclones of China and the West Indies; and it has long been my opinion that if meteorologists devoted their attention to the smaller eddies that can be looked at from the outside, and their commencement, continuance, and completion watched and chronicled, they could not fail to obtain a large amount of information to guide them in the study of cyclonic movements of the atmosphere.

Unless the smaller whirlwinds are quite distinct from the larger ones in their origin, the theories advanced by meteorologists to account for the latter are certainly untenable. According to the celebrated M. Dove, cyclones owe their origin to the intrusion of the upper counter trade-wind into the lower trade-wind current.1 More lately, Professor T.B. Maury has stated that “the origin of cyclones is found in the tendency of the south-east trade-winds to invade the territory of the north-east trades by sweeping over the equator into our hemisphere, the lateral conflict of the currents giving an initial impulse to bodies of air by which they begin to rotate.” Cyclones having thus originated, Professor Maury considers that they are continued and intensified by the vapour condensed in their vortex forming a vacuum.2

1 “Law of Storms” page 246.)

2 “Quarterly Journal of Science” 1872 page 418.)

Humboldt had long ago ascribed whirlwinds to the meeting of opposing currents of air.1 There is this dynamical objection to the theory. The movements of the air in whirlwinds are much more rapid than in any known straight current, such as the trade winds; and it is impossible that two opposing currents should generate between them one of much greater force and rapidity than either. If force A joins with force B, surely force C, the product, must have the power of both A and B. But even if this fundamental objection to the theory could be set aside, the small whirlwinds could not thus arise, as they are most frequent when the air is nearly or quite motionless.

1 “Aspects of Nature” volume 1 page 17.

Then, again, when we turn to Professor Maury’s theory that the cyclones, having been initiated by the conflict of contrary currents, are continued and intensified by the condensation of vapour in their vortex forming a vacuum, we find it negatived by the fact that in the smaller whirlwinds the air is dry, and there is consequently no condensation of vapour; yet, in comparison with their size, they are of as great violence as the fiercest typhoon. Tylor describes the numerous dust whirlwinds he saw on the plains of Mexico,1 Clarke those on the steppes of Russia, and Bruce those on the deserts of Africa, and nowhere is there mention made of any condensation of vapour. I have seen scores of whirlwinds in Australia, many rising to a height of over one hundred feet; yet there was never any perceptible condensation of vapour, though some of them were of sufficient force to tear off limbs of trees, and carry up the tents of gold-diggers into the air. Franklin describes a whirlwind of greater violence than any of these. It commenced in Maryland by taking up the dust over a road in the form of an inverted sugar-loaf, and soon increased greatly in size and violence. Franklin followed it on horseback, and saw it enter a wood, where it twisted and turned round large trees: leaves and boughs were carried up so high that they appeared to the eye like flies. Again there was no condensation of vapour.

1 “Anahuac” by E.B. Tylor page 21.

We thus see that whirlwinds of great violence occur when the air is dry, and there can be no condensation. When, however, they are formed at sea, and occasionally on land, the air next the surface is saturated with moisture; and this moisture is condensed when it is carried to a great height, forming clouds, or falling in showers of rain and hail. This condensation of vapour is an effect, and not a cause, and takes place, not in the centre, but at the top or at the sides of the ascending column. This is well shown in an account, by an eye-witness, of a whirlwind that did great damage near the shore of Lough Neagh, in Ireland, in August 1872.1 It was about thirty yards in diameter. It destroyed several haystacks, and carried the hay up into the air out of sight. It partially unroofed houses, and tore off the branches of trees. The railway station at Randalstown was much injured; great numbers of slates, and two and a half hundredweight of lead were torn from the roof. When passing over a portion of the lake, it presented the appearance of a waterspout. On land everything that it lapped up was whirled round and round, and carried upwards in the centre, whilst dense clouds surrounded the outside and came down near to the earth.

1 “Nature” volume 6 page 541.

As above mentioned, I had in Australia many opportunities of studying the dust whirlwinds; and as I looked upon them as the initial form of a cyclone, I paid much attention to them. On a small plain, near to Maryborough, in the province of Victoria, they were of frequent occurrence in the hot season. This plain was about two miles across, and was nearly surrounded by trees. In calm, sultry weather, during the heat of the day, there were often two at once in action in different parts of it. They were only a few yards in diameter, but reached to a height of over one hundred feet, and were often, in their higher part, bent out of their perpendicular by upper aerial currents. The dust and leaves they carried up rendered their upward spiral movement very conspicuous. No one who studied these whirlwinds could for a moment believe that they were caused by conflicting currents of air. They occurred most frequently when there was least wind; and this particular plain seemed to be peculiarly suitable for their formation, because it was nearly surrounded by trees, and currents of air were prevented. They lasted several minutes, slowly moving across the plain, like great pillars of smoke.1

1 A friend of mine tells me that he saw a similar whirlwind rise at noon one still summer day, and traverse the dusty road on the Chesil Bank between Portland and Weymouth. It travelled fully half a mile, about as fast as he could walk; and the point where it met the ground was not thicker than his walking stick. By and by it swept out to sea, where the dust gradually fell.

When attentively watched from a short distance, it was seen that as soon as one was formed, the air immediately next the heated soil, which was before motionless, or quivering as over a furnace, was moving in all directions towards the apex of the dust-column. As these currents approached the whirlwind, they quickened and carried with them loose dust and leaves into the spiral whirl. The movement was similar to that which occurs when a small opening is made at the bottom of a wide shallow vessel of water: all the liquid moves towards it, and assumes a spiral movement as it is drawn off.

The conclusion I arrived at, and which has since been confirmed by further study of the question, was, that the particles of air next the surface did not always rise immediately they were heated, but that they often remained and formed a stratum of rarefied air next the surface, which was in a state of unstable equilibrium. This continued until the heated stratum was able, at some point where the ground favoured a comparatively greater accumulation of heat, to break through the overlying strata of air, and force its way upwards. An opening once made, the whole of the heated air moved towards it and was drained off, the heavier layers sinking down and pressing it out. Sir George Airey has suggested to me that the reason of the particles of air not rising as they are heated, when there is no wind blowing, may be due to their viscosity: and this suggestion is correct. That air does not always rise when heated, appears from the hot winds of Australia, which blow from the heated interior towards the cooler south, instead of rising directly upwards. Sultry, close weather, that sometimes lasts for several days, would also be impossible on the assumption that air rises as soon as it is heated.

This explanation supplies us with the force that is necessary to drive the air with the great velocity with which it moves in whirlstorms. The upper, colder, and heavier air is pressing upon the heated stratum, and the greater the area over which the latter extends, the greater will be the weight pressing upon it, and the greater the violence of the whirlwind when an opening is formed for the ascent of the heated air. There is a gradual passage, from the small dust eddies, through larger whirlstorms such as that at Lough Neagh, to tornadoes and the largest cyclone; every step of the gradation might be verified by numerous examples; and if this book were a treatise on meteorology, it might be admissible to give them; but to do this would take up too much of my space, and I shall only now make some observations on the largest form of whirlstorm — the dreaded cyclone.

Just as over the little plain at Maryborough, protected by the surrounding forest from the action of the wind, the heated air accumulates over the surface until carried off in eddies, so, though on a vastly larger scale, in that great bight formed by the coasts of North and South America, having for its apex the Gulf of Mexico, there is an immense area in the northern tropics, nearly surrounded by land, forming a vast oceanic plain, shut off from the regular action of the trade-winds by the great islands of Cuba and Hayti, where the elements of the hurricane accumulate, and at last break forth. In this and such like areas, the lower atmosphere is gradually heated from week to week, and, as in Australia the quivering of the air over the hot ground foreshadows the whirlwind, and in Africa the mirage threatens the simoom, so in the West Indies a continuance of close, sultry weather, an oppressive calm, precedes the hurricane. When at last the huge vortex is formed, the heated atmosphere rushes towards it from all sides, and is drained upwards in a spiral column, just as in the dust-eddy, on a gigantic scale. Unlike the air of the dust-eddy, that of the hurricane coming from the warm surface of the ocean is nearly saturated with vapour, and this, as it is carried up and brought into contact with the colder air on the outside of the ascending column, is condensed and falls in torrents of rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning.

I advanced this theory to account for the origin of whirlwinds in a paper read before the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in 1857. It was afterwards communicated by the Astronomer–Royal to the “London Philosophical Magazine”, where it appeared in January 1859. A suggestion that I at the same time offered, that the opposite rotation of cyclones in the two hemispheres was due to the same causes as the westerly deflection of the trade-winds from a direct meridional course, has been generally adopted by physicists, and I am not without hopes that the main theory may also yet be accepted; but whether or not, I am confident that a study of the smaller eddies of air is the proper way to approach the difficult question of the origin of cyclones.

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