The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 20.

Indian population of the country lying between the great lakes of Nicaragua and the Pacific. Discovery and conquest of Nicaragua by the Spaniards. Cruelties of the Spaniards. The Indians of Western Central America all belonged to one stock. Decadence of Mexican civilisation before the arrival of the Spaniards. The designation “Nahuatls” proposed to include all the Mexican, Western Central American, and Peruvian races that had descended from the same ancient stock. The Nahuatls distinct from the Caribs on one side and the Red Indians on the other. Discussion of the question of the peopling of America.

I RODE for some distance around the Lake of Masaya, and reached an Indian village named Nandasme, about two leagues from the city. As usual the streets were laid out at right angles, and the houses of the Indians embowered in trees, many of which are grown entirely for the beautiful odoriferous flowers they produce. There are several other Indian villages around the lake, from each of which paths have been cut through the forest down to the water, along which the women are constantly ascending and descending to fill their vessels for the supply of their houses.

All the fertile country lying between the great lakes and the Pacific was densely populated at the time of the conquest, and it was not far from Masaya that the great chief, Diriangan, lived, who tried, but tried in vain, to stem the onward course of the Spaniards. Gil Gonzales de Avila was in command of the first expedition sent to explore the country of Nicaragua. He sailed from Panama with one hundred followers and four horses, the latter, auxiliaries whose aid was never dispensed with in these expeditions on account of the superstitious terror with which the unaccustomed sight of a man and a horse, apparently joined together, inspired the Indians. He landed somewhere on the Gulf of Nicoya, near which he entered the country of a powerful chief, after whom the gulf was named. Nicoya entertained the Spaniards courteously, supplied them with food, and embraced the Christian religion, being baptised himself along with all his people, six thousand in number.

Pushing on to the northward for fifty leagues, Gonzales entered the territories of a great chief named Nicaragua, whose country comprised the present province of Rivas. Nicaragua had been informed of “the sharpness of the Spanish swords” and received Gonzales with hospitality, presenting him with much gold, equal to “25,000 pieces of eight,” and garments and plumes of feathers. He asked the Spaniards many shrewd questions: about the flood, and about the sun, moon, and stars; their motion, quality, and distance; what was the cause of night and day and the blowing of the winds? how the Spaniards got all their information about heaven; who brought it to them, and if the messenger came down on a rainbow? We are told that “Gonzales answered to the best of his ability, commending the rest to God.” Probably his interrogator knew more of the visible heavenly bodies than he did, for Nicaragua was of the Aztec race, a people who knew the true theory of eclipses, and possessed an astronomical calendar of great accuracy.

Pedrarias, who was then in command at Panama, stimulated by the accounts of the rich country that Gonzales had discovered, sent Hernando de Cordova in 1522 to subdue and settle the country of Nicaragua. Pascual de Andagoya tells the story of the rich land, “populous and fertile, yielding supplies of maize, and many fowls of the country, and certain small dogs which they also eat, and many deer and fish. This is a land of abundance of good fruits and of honey and wax, wherewith all the neighbouring countries are supplied. The bees are numerous, some of them yellow, and these do not sting.” The poor Indians, too, could not sting, they were powerless with their coats of feathers and swords of stone against the arms of the Spaniards, who treated them like a hive of stingless bees, turning them out and eating up their riches. “They had a great quantity of cotton cloths, and they held their markets in the open squares, where they traded. They had a manufactory where they made cordage of a sort of nequen, which is like carded flax; the cord was beautiful and stronger than that of Spain, and their cotton canvas was excellent. The Indians were very civilised in their way of life, like those of Mexico, for they were a people who had come from that country, and they had nearly the same language.”

They had even in one direction reached a pitch of civilisation that some of our philanthropists are only now hoping for. Women’s rights were acknowledged, and, if anything, they appear to have had too much of them. Pascual says: “They had many beautiful women. The husbands were so much under subjection that if they made their wives angry they were turned out of doors, and the wives even raised their hands against them.”1 Much have the Indians changed since then under the dominion of the Spaniard, and now all the toil and labour fall to the lot of the weaker sex. One custom still remaining amongst the Masaya Indians may be a relic of the old days of woman’s superiority. When they marry, the goods that the wife had before her marriage still belong to her, and if she had a mule or horse, and her husband had none, he cannot use hers without her permission.

1 This and the other quotation are from the “Narrative of Pascual de Andagoya” translated by C.R. Markham for the Hakluyt Society.

The poor Indians were ground down to the dust by the Spaniards with pitiless barbarities. All their possessions were seized, and they themselves exported to Panama and Peru, and sold as slaves to work at the mines. Even in Pascual’s time the country had been greatly depopulated by these means. The people were harmless and patient, but there was a noble independence about them that could not be eradicated, and the Spaniards found it was cheaper to bring the negro from Africa, with his light and careless nature, than to try to enslave a people who did not resist, but who sought a refuge from their persecutors in the grave rather than continue in slavery. I shall not harrow the feelings of my readers with the mass of treachery, avarice, blasphemy, and horrible cruelties with which the conquerors rewarded the noble people who entertained them so courteously. To me the conquest of Mexico, Central America, and Peru appears one of the darkest pages in modern history. One virtue indeed shone out — undaunted courage; and the human mind is so constituted that this single redeeming point irresistibly enlists our sympathies. But for this, Pizarro would be execrated as a monster of cruelty, and even the fame of Cortez, immeasurably superior as he was to the rest of the conquerors, would be tarnished with innumerable deeds of violence, cruelty, and treachery.

As has been already mentioned, the Pacific provinces of Nicaragua were inhabited by a people closely related to the Mexicans, and their language was nearly the same. According to Squier, who has more than any other traveller studied the different races, the Indians living at the island of Omotepec at the present time are of pure Mexican or Aztec stock. So many of the names of towns in the central provinces are also of Aztec origin, that they must have had a considerable footing there also. They called the older inhabitants, whom they had probably dispossessed and driven back to the interior, “Chontalli,” “barbarians,” and hence the name of the province of Chontales, where these tribes still existed in considerable numbers at the time of the conquest.

All these races, differing as they did in language and in the degree of civilisation at which they had arrived, were closely affiliated.1 The American archaeologist, Mr. John D. Baldwin, is of opinion that they were the descendants of indigenes. That at some very remote period, before they had attained a high degree of civilisation, they separated into two branches, one of which occupied Peru, the other Central America and Mexico. Both branches advanced greatly in civilisation, and both afterwards deteriorated by being conquered by ruder but more warlike people belonging to the same stock. From Mexico the ancient people spread northward and southward. The northern emigrants peopled the banks of the Mississippi, and were the mound-builders. The southern emigrants peopled Central America. Then came an immigration from the far north-west, of nomadic tribes from north-eastern Asia, who drove out the mound-builders. The latter retreated back to Mexico, that their fathers had left ages before, and were the ancient Toltecs. Later on, the Aztecs, who were the southern branch of the ancient Mexicans, invaded Mexico from the south, and supplanted the Toltecs. Another branch of the same ancient stock were the Mayas of Yucatan.2

1 According to Prescott the Aztecs and cognate races believed their ancestors came from the north-west, and were preceded by the real civilisers — the Toltecs.

2 “Ancient America” by J.D. Baldwin, A.M.)

Looking then far back we have, according to the old traditions, a few people who had escaped a great cataclysm, when fire and water both fought against mankind; remnants perhaps of many tribes, who, when the lowlands were overwhelmed, escaped to the mountains, speaking a variety of languages, and bringing with them some remembrances of the civilisation of their ancient homes. They increased and multiplied in their new abodes. Some in Mexico, some in Yucatan, and others in Peru arrived at a great pitch of civilisation. Ages passed away, they had developed into several distinct peoples, all showing traces of their common descent, but having branched off in different directions in their lines of progress; all underlaid by a few great principles: in their religion, by the worship of the heavenly bodies; in their government, by complete and absolute obedience to their kings and leaders; in their mode of life all agriculturists and dwellers in regular towns and villages. They spread northward and occupied the valley of the Mississippi, and in summer time sent off large bodies of workmen to extract the copper of Lake Superior. Then came the nomadic tribes from the north-west, the Red Indians of the present day, and drove out the mound-builders, who were turned back on their ancient home, of which they had lost all recollection, and where they appeared as immigrants and invaders. In the subjugation of the ancient Choluans by the Toltecs, and afterwards the Toltecs by the Aztecs, we see what has often occurred in the world’s history — a highly civilised race conquered by a ruder people, who had advanced farther in the arts of war, and so overcame the people who had advanced farther in the arts of peace. Therefore the Choluans were replaced by the more warlike Toltecs, the Toltecs by the ruder Aztecs, and those who look at the miserable towns and villages of the present inhabitants alongside of the ruins of the grand edifices, the roads and aqueducts of ancient Mexico and Peru, may say, the Aztecs by the less civilised Spaniards.

The term Brown Indians has been proposed to distinguish the races of Mexico, Central and South America, from the Red Indians of the north; but it is a too general term, as it includes not only the highly-civilised Aztecs, Mayas, and Peruvians, but the much ruder Caribs of the eastern coasts of South America and the Antilles, who were widely removed from them in race and language. Squier has proposed the term Nahuatls for the people of Mexico and Central America, and if it might be strained to include the Peruvians also, and all the peoples descended from that ancient civilised race that had spread northward and southward, it would supply a want that I have greatly felt in studying these peoples. The Nahuatls — I use the term in this extended sense — are one of three great Indian races that occupy the greater part of North and South America. They had the Red Indians to the north of them, the savage Caribs to the south-east. From both these races they were profoundly different, though not in equal degrees. To the Red Indian they have scarcely any affinity, excepting such as had been brought about by the nomads, who came down from the north-west, taking the women of the Nahuatls, whom they conquered, for their wives, and thus bringing about some points of structural resemblance, such as are to be seen in a lesser degree in the citizens of the United States, through whose veins the blood of the half-breeds of the earlier settlements still courses. In Florida, and around the northern side of the Gulf of Mexico, there had probably been a greater fusion of the two races. But in origin the two peoples are distinct; the one came from north-eastern Asia, the other, I believe, from a tropical country joined on to the present continent, that was submerged at the breaking up of the glacial period.

Was that country to the east or the west of the present continent? Was it Atlantis, or was it a submerged country in the Pacific? I am inclined to the latter opinion, and to believe that the inhabitants of ancient Atlantis were the ancestors of the warlike and adventurous Caribs. The Nahuatls, in their peaceful dispositions and agricultural pursuits, are much more nearly allied to the Polynesians, and their present preponderance on the western coast favours the idea that they had a western origin.1

1 I have already at page 46 alluded to the fundamental difference in the food of the Nahuatls and the Caribs.)

The Caribs, who were found in possession of most of the West Indian Islands, and of the eastern coast of South America, were a warlike, fierce, and enterprising race. Even in Columbus’s time they were found making long voyages to ravage the villages of the peace-loving Nahuatls. If there be any truth in the story told to Solon by the priests of Sais, they are a much more likely people to have invaded the countries around the Mediterranean than the Nahuatls. What seems foreign in the customs and beliefs of the latter appears to have come from the west — from China and Japan — whilst there are some few points of affinity between the Caribs and the peoples of Europe and Africa. Thus, Mr. Hyde Clarke states that the greater part of Brazil is covered by the Guarani or Tupi languages, which are allied to the Agaw of the Nile region, the Abkass of Caucasia, etc.

There is one singular custom amongst the Carib races of America, and amongst some ancient peoples in Asia, Europe, and Africa, the existence of which on both sides of the Atlantic cannot, I think, be explained excepting on the theory that there was a remote intercourse or affinity amongst the peoples who practised it. I allude to the singular custom of the “couvade,” in which the father is put to bed on the birth of a child. I take the following account of this curious practice from Mr. Tylor’s philosophical “Early History of Mankind”.

The couvade is developed to the highest degree in South America and the West Indies. The following account is given by Du Tertre of the Carib couvade in the West Indies. When a child is born, the mother goes presently to work, but the father begins to complain, and takes to his hammock, and there he is visited as though he were sick, and undergoes a course of dieting “which would cure of the gout the most replete of Frenchmen.” The imaginary invalid must repose and take careful nursing and nourishing food. In Brazil, on the birth of a child, the father was put to bed and fed with light food, whilst the mother was unattended to, and went about her work. The practice of the couvade was universal, in some form or other, amongst the Carib races, but was unknown amongst the peoples whom I have called the Nahuatls.

On the other side of the Atlantic the couvade has been noticed in West Africa, and “amongst the mountain tribes known as the Miau-tsze, who are supposed to be, like the Sontals and Gonds of India, remnants of a race driven into the mountains by the present dwellers of the plains.” “Another Asiatic people, recorded to have practised the couvade, are the Tibareni of Pontus, at the south of the Black Sea, among whom, when the child was born, the father lay groaning in bed with his head tied up, while the mother tended him with food and prepared his baths.” In Europe the couvade may be traced up from ancient into modern times in the neighbourhood of the Pyrenees. Above 1800 years ago Strabo mentions the story that, among the Iberians of the north of Spain, the women, after the birth of a child, tend their husbands, putting them to bed instead of going themselves; and this account is confirmed by the evidence of the practice amongst the modern Basques. In Biscay, says Michel, “in valleys whose population recalls in its usages the infancy of society, the women rise immediately after childbirth and attend to the duties of the household, while the husband goes to bed, taking the baby with him, and thus receives the neighbours’ compliments.” “It has been found also in Navarre, and on the French side of the Pyrenees. Legrand d’Aussy mentions that in an old French fable the king of Torelose is ‘au lit et en couche’ when Aucassin arrives and takes a stick to him and makes him promise to abolish the custom in his realm. The same author goes on to state that the practice is said still to exist in some cantons of Bearn, where it is called ‘faire la couvade.’ Lastly, Diodorus Siculus notices the same habit of the wife being neglected, and the husband put to bed and treated as the patient among the natives of Corsica about the beginning of the Christian era.”

For a fuller account of the couvade I must refer my readers to Tylor’s “Early History of Mankind”, from which I have so largely quoted; his summing up of this curious custom is profound and philosophical. He says: “The isolated occurrences of a custom among particular races, surrounded by other races that ignore it, may be sometimes to the ethnologist like those outlying patches of strata from which the geologist infers that the formation they belong to once spread over intervening districts, from which it has been removed by denudation; or like the geographical distribution of plants, from which the botanist argues that they have travelled from a distant home. The way in which the couvade appears in the new and old worlds is especially interesting from this point of view. Among the savage tribes of South America it is, as it were, at home, in a mental atmosphere, at least, not so different from that in which it came into being as to make it a mere meaningless, absurd superstition. If the culture of the Caribs and Brazilians, even before they came under our knowledge, had advanced too far to allow the couvade to grow up fresh among them, they at least practised it with some consciousness of its meaning; it had not fallen out of unison with their mental state. Here we find, covering a vast compact area of country, the mental stratum, so to speak, to which the couvade most nearly belongs. But if we look at its appearances across from China to Corsica the state of things is widely different; no theory of its origin can be drawn from the Asiatic and European accounts to compete for a moment with that which flows naturally from the observations of the missionaries, who found it not a mere dead custom, but a live growth of savage psychology. The peoples, too, who have kept it up in Asia and Europe seem to have been, not the great progressive, spreading, conquering, civilising nations of the Aryan, Semitic, and Chinese stocks. It cannot be ascribed even to the Tartars, for the Lapps, Finns, and Hungarians appear to know nothing of it. It would seem rather to have belonged to that ruder population, or series of populations, whose fate it has been to be driven by the great races out of the fruitful lands to take refuge in mountains and deserts. The retainers of the couvade in Asia are the Miau-tsze of China and the savage Tibareni of Pontus. In Europe they are the Basque race of the Pyrenees, whose peculiar manners, appearance, and language, coupled with their geographical position, favour the view that they are the remains of a people driven westward and westward, by the pressure of more powerful tribes, till they came to these last mountains, with nothing but the Atlantic beyond. Of what stock were the original barbarian inhabitants of Corsica we do not know; but their position, and the fact that they, too, had the couvade, would suggest their having been a branch of the same family who escaped their persecutors by putting out to sea and settling in their mountainous island.”1

1 E.B. Tylor “Early History of Mankind” pages 288–297.)

Let us now return to the Nahuatls, and see if they present any affinities to the nations of the old world. Humboldt’s well-known argument, in which he sought to prove the Asiatic origin of the Mexicans, was based upon the remarkable resemblance of their system of reckoning cycles of years to that found in use in different parts of Asia. Both the Asiatic and Mexican systems of cycles are most artificial in their construction, and troublesome in practice, and they are very unlikely to have arisen independently on two continents. Humboldt says: “I inferred the probability of the western nations of the new continent having had communication with the east of Asia long before the arrival of the Spaniards from a comparison of the Mexican and Tibeto–Japanese calendars, from the correct orientation of the steps of the pyramidal elevations towards the different quarters of the heavens, and from the ancient myths and traditions of the four ages or four epochs of destruction of the world, and the dispersion of mankind after a great flood of waters.”1

1 Humboldt “Aspects of Nature” volume 2 174.)

Whilst there are undoubtedly many curious coincidences in the customs of the ancient Mexicans and the peoples of eastern Asia, there are, on the other hand, so many differences that I believe it is safer to infer that they were essentially distinct in origin, and that there had been communication between the two peoples in very early times, but that the foreign influence in Mexico was extremely feeble, and too weak to check the growth of an essentially indigenous civilisation. Possibly sun and serpent worship, baptism, and the use of the cross as a sacred emblem, were the survival of religious beliefs that had obtained in the very cradle of the human race. We cannot, however, believe that mankind had, before the separation and dispersion of the eastern and western nations, attained to any great astronomical knowledge, and it is quite possible that the extraordinary coincidences between the chronological and astronomical systems of the Nahuatls and the eastern Asiatics might have been brought about by some of the latter having been stranded on the American shore.

Humboldt argued that, “as the western coasts of the American continent trend from north-west to south-east, and the eastern coasts of Asia in the opposite direction, the distance between the two continents in 45 degrees of latitude, or in the temperate zone, which is most favourable to mental development, is too considerable to admit of the probability of such an accidental settlement taking place in that latitude. We must then assume the first landing to have been made in the inhospitable climate of from 55 to 65 degrees, and that the civilisation thus introduced, like the general movement of population in America, has proceeded by successive stations from north to south.”1 If we are obliged to assume that the people themselves came from the old world, such an origin might be sought for them as well as any other; but all research since Humboldt’s time has favoured the idea that there are no signs of the Nahuatls being a newer people than the nations of Asia. And if it is not the derivation of the people, but of some coincidences in their observances and knowledge, we may seek for it some simpler solution than the migration of a whole people down through North to Central America. That solution is, I believe, to be found in the fact, not taken into consideration by Humboldt, that the great Japanese current, after traversing the eastern coast of Japan, sends one large branch nearly directly east across the Pacific to the coast of California, and an offshoot from it passes southward along the Mexican coast and as far as the western coast of Central America. In Kotzebue’s narrative of his voyage round the world, he says: “Looking over Adams’ diary, I found the following notice —‘Brig Forester, March 24, 1815, at sea, upon the coast of California, latitude 32 degrees 45 seconds north, longitude 133 degrees 3 minutes west. We saw this morning, at a short distance, a ship, the confused state of whose sails showed that they wanted assistance. We bent our course towards her, and made out the distressed vessel to be Japanese, which had lost both mast and helm. Only three dying Japanese, the captain and two sailors, were found in the vessel. We took these unfortunate people on board our brig, and, after four months’ nursing, they entirely recovered. We learned from these people that they had sailed from the harbour of Osaka, in Japan, bound for another seaport, but were overtaken by a storm, in which they lost the helm and mast. Till that day their ship had been drifting about, a mere butt for the winds and waves, during seventeen months; and of thirty-five men only three remained, all the others having died of hunger.’” Is it not likely that in ancient times such accidents may have occurred again and again, and that information of the astronomical and chronological systems of eastern Asia may thus have been brought to the Nahuatls, who, from the ease with which they embraced the religion of the Spaniards, are shown to have been open to receive foreign ideas?

1 Humboldt “Aspects of Nature” volume 2 176.

The three arguments on which Humboldt principally relied to prove that a communication had existed between the east of Asia and the Mexicans may be explained without adopting his theory that the Nahuatls had travelled round from the old world. The remarkable resemblance of the Mexican and Tibeto–Japanese calendars might result from the accidental stranding of a Japanese or Chinese vessel on their shores, bringing to them some man learned in the astronomy of the old world. The correct orientation of the sides of their pyramidal temples was but the result of their great astronomical knowledge and of the worship of the sun. And the resemblance of their traditions of four epochs of destruction and of the dispersion of mankind after a great flood of waters, arose from the fact that the great catastrophes that befell the human race at the melting of the ice of the glacial period were universal over the world.

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