The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 9.

Journey to Juigalpa. Description of Libertad. The priest and the bell. Migratory butterflies and moths. Indian graves. Ancient names. Dry river-beds. Monkeys and wasps. Reach Juigalpa. Ride in neighbourhood. Abundance of small birds. A poor cripple. The “Toledo.” Trogons. Waterfall. Sepulchral mounds. Broken statues. The sign of the cross. Contrast between the ancient and the present inhabitants. Night life.

TOWARDS the end of June, in 1872, I had to go to Juigalpa, one of the principal towns of the province of Chontales, on business connected with a lawsuit brought against the mining company by a litigious native. I started early in the morning, taking with me my native boy, Rito, who carried on his mule behind him my blankets and a change of clothes. I carried in my hand a light fowling-piece. The roads through the forest were excessively muddy, and it took us four hours to get over the seven miles to Pital; the poor mules struggling all the way through mud nearly three feet deep. Shortly after leaving Pital, we passed the river Mico; and two miles further on, across some grassy hills, reached the small town of Libertad. It is the principal mining centre of Chontales. There are a great number of gold mines in its vicinity, several of which are worked by intelligent Frenchmen. The gold and silver mines of Libertad are richer than those of Santo Domingo, and many of the owners of them have extracted great quantities of the precious metals.

The town is situated near to the edge of the forest, being separated by the Rio Mico, across which it is proposed to build a wooden bridge, as during floods the river is impassable. Whether the bridge will ever be built or not I cannot tell. Several times rates have been levied, and money collected to build it, but the funds have always melted away in the hands of the officials. There is an alcalde and a judge at Libertad. Every one worth two hundred dollars is liable to be elected to the latter office. Only unimportant cases are tried by him, and his decisions depend generally on the private influence that is brought to bear upon him. He is often a tool in the hands of some unprincipled lawyer. The church at Libertad is a great barn-like edifice, with tiled roof. At one side is a detached small bell-tower, in which hang two bells, one sound and whole, the other cracked and patched. The latter was a present from one of the mining companies, and had excited a great scandal. The mining company had a fine large bell, with which they called together their workmen. The priest of Libertad, thinking it might be much better employed in the service of the church, made an application for it. The superintendent of the mine could not part with it, but having an old broken bell, he had it patched up, and sent it out with a letter, explaining that he could not let them have the other, but that if this one was of any use, they were welcome to it. The priest heard that the bell was on the road, and thinking it was the one he had coveted, got up a procession to go and meet it, to take it to its place with befitting ceremony. But when he saw the old battered and broken article that had been sent, his satisfaction was changed to rage, instead of blessing he cursed it, threw it to the ground, and even kicked and spat upon it. His rage for a time knew no bounds, as he thought that he had been mocked by the heretical foreigners, and his indignation was at first shared by some of the principal inhabitants of the town, but when the explanatory letter had been interpreted to them, their feelings changed, and the poor bell was put up to do what duty it could. There are some good stores in Libertad, the best being branches of Granada houses that buy the produce of the country — hides, india-rubber, and gold — for export, and import European manufactured goods.

Captain Velasquez joined me at Libertad, and, after getting breakfast, we started. The road passes over grassy hills, on which cattle and mules were feeding. The edge of the forest is not far distant to the right, and all the way along it there have been clearings made and maize planted. As we rode along, great numbers of a brown, tailed butterfly (Timetes chiron) were flying over to the south-east. They occurred, as it were, in columns. The air would be comparatively clear of them for a few hundred yards, then we would pass through a band perhaps fifty yards in width, where hundreds were always in sight, and all travelling one way. I took the direction several times with a pocket compass, and it was always south-east. Amongst them were a few yellow butterflies, but these were not so numerous as in former years. In some seasons these migratory swarms of butterflies continue passing over to the south-east for three to five weeks, and must consist of millions upon millions of individuals, comprising many different species and genera. The beautiful tailed green and gilded day-flying moth (Urania leilus) also joins in this annual movement. When in Brazil, I observed similar flights of butterflies at Pernambuco and Maranham, all travelling south-east. Mr. R. Spruce describes a migration which he witnessed on the Amazon, in November 1849, of the common white and yellow butterflies. They were all passing to the south-south-east.1 Darwin mentions that several times when off the shores of Northern Patagonia, and at other times when some miles off the mouth of the Plata, the ship was surrounded by butterflies; so numerous were they on one occasion, that it was not possible to see a space free from them, and the seamen cried out that it was “snowing butterflies.”2 These butterflies must also come from the westward. I know of no satisfactory explanation of these immense migrations. They occurred every year whilst I was in Chontales, and always in the same direction. I thought that some of the earlier flights in April might be caused by the vegetation of the Pacific side of the continent being still parched up, whilst on the Atlantic slope the forests were green and moist. But in June there had been abundant rains on the Pacific side, and vegetation was everywhere growing luxuriantly. Neither would their direction from the north-west bring them from the Pacific, but from the interior of Honduras and Guatemala. The difficulty is that there are no return swarms. If they travelled in one direction at one season of the year, and in an opposite at another, we might suppose that the vegetation on which the caterpillars feed was at one time more abundant in the north-west, at another in the south-east; but during the five years I was in Central America, I was always on the look-out for them, and never saw any return swarms of butterflies. Their migration every year in one definite direction is quite unintelligible to me.

1 “Journal of the Linnean Society” volume 9.

2 “Naturalist’s Voyage” page 158.

We gradually ascended the range that separates the watershed of the Lake of Nicaragua from that of the Blewfields river, passing over grassy savannahs. About two leagues from Libertad there are many old Indian graves, covered with mounds of earth and stones. A well-educated Englishman, Mr. Fairbairn, has taken up his abode at this place, and is growing maize and rearing cattle. There are many evidences of a large Indian population having lived at this spot, and their pottery and fragments of their stones for bruising maize have been found in some graves that have been opened. Mr. Fairbairn got me several of these curiosities, amongst them are imitations of the heads of armadillos, and other animals. Some of these had formed the feet of urns, others were rattles, containing small balls of baked clay. The old Indians used these rattles in their solemn religious dances, and the custom is probably not yet quite obsolete, for as late as 1823 Mr. W. Bullock saw, in Mexico, Indian women dancing in a masque representing the court of Montezuma, and holding rattles in their right hands, to the noise of which they accompanied their motions. Several stone axes have been found, which are called “thunderbolts” by the natives, who have no idea that they are artificial, although it is less than four hundred years ago since their forefathers used them. Like most of the sites of the ancient Indian towns, the place is a very picturesque one. At a short distance to the west rise the precipitous rocks of the Amerrique range, with great perpendicular cliffs, and huge isolated rocks and pinnacles. The name of this range gives us a clue to the race of the ancient inhabitants. In the highlands of Honduras, as has been noted by Squiers, the termination of tique or rique is of frequent occurrence in the names of places, as Chaparriistique, Lepaterique, Llotique, Ajuterique, and others. The race that inhabited this region were the Lenca Indians, often mentioned in the accounts given by the missionaries of their early expeditions into Honduras. I think that the Lenca Indians were the ancient inhabitants of Chontales, that they were the “Chontals” of the Nahuatls or Aztecs of the Pacific side of the country, and that they were partly conquered, and their territories encroached upon by the latter before the arrival of the Spaniards, as some of the Aztec names of places in Nicaragua do not appear to be such as could be given originally by the first inhabitants; thus Juigalpa, pronounced Hueygalpa, is southern Aztec for “Big Town.” No town could be called the big town at first by those who saw it grow up gradually from small beginnings, but it is a likely enough name to be given by a conquering invader. Again Ometepec is nearly pure Aztec for Two Peaks, but the island itself only contains one, and the name was probably given by an invader who saw the two peaks of Ometepec and Madera from the shore of the lake, and thought they belonged to one island. The Lenca Indians nowhere appear to have built stone buildings, like the Quiches, and Lacandones of Guatemala, and the Mayas of Yucatan, who were probably much more nearly affiliated to the Nahuatls of Mexico than the Lencas.

We reached the top of the dividing range, and now left the main road, taking a path to the left, that is very rocky and narrow. We began rapidly to descend, and found an entire change of climate on this side of the range. It had been raining for weeks at Libertad, and everywhere the ground was wet and swampy, but two miles on the other side of the range the ground was quite dry, and so it continued to Juigalpa. Dry gravelly hills, covered with low scrubby bushes and trees, succeeded the damp grassy slopes we had been for hours travelling over. Prickly acacias, nancitos, guayavas, jicaras, were the principal trees, with here and there the one whose thick coriaceous leaves are used by the natives instead of sandpaper. The beds of the rivers were dry, or at the most contained only stagnant pools of water, until we reached the Juigalpa river, which rises far to the eastward; the north-east trade wind in crossing the great forest that clothes the Atlantic slope of the continent, gives up most of its moisture; and this range, rising about three thousand feet above the sea, intercepts nearly all that remains, so that only occasional showers reach Juigalpa.

On one of the low gravelly hills that we passed, not far from the path, we saw a troop of the white-faced monkey (Cebus albifrons) on the ground, amongst low scattered trees. Their attitudes, some standing up on their hind legs to get a better look at us, others with their backs arched like cats, were amusing. Though quite ready to run away, they stood all quite still, watching us, and looked as if they had been grouped for a photograph. A few steps towards them sent them scampering off, barking as they went.

Soon after this, I got severely stung by a number of small wasps, whose nest I had disturbed in passing under some bushes. About thirty were upon me, but I got off with about half-a-dozen stings, as I managed to kill the rest as they made their way through the hair of my head and beard, for these wasps, having generally to do with animals covered with hair, do not fly at the open face, but at the hair of the head, and push down through it to the skin before they sting. On this and on another occasion on which I was attacked by them, I had not a single sting on the exposed portions of my face, although my hands were stung in killing them in my hair. It is curious to note that the large black wasp that makes its nest under the verandahs of houses and eaves of huts, and has had to deal with man as his principal foe, flies directly at the face when molested.

Without further adventure we reached Juigalpa at dusk, and took up our quarters not far from the plaza, in a house where one large room was set apart for the accommodation of travellers. We found we should have to stay for a couple of days before our business was concluded; and whilst waiting for some law papers to be made out, I determined to try to see some of the Indian antiquities in the neighbourhood. We had hard leather stretchers to sleep on, the use of mattresses being almost unknown.

Next morning I was up at daylight, and, after getting a cup of coffee and milk, started off on horseback on the lower road towards Acoyapo. This led over undulating savannahs, with grass and jicara trees, and small clumps of low trees and shrubs on stony hillocks. Wild pigeons were very numerous, and their cooings were incessant. On the rocky spots grew spiny cactuses, with flattened pear-shaped joints and scarlet fruit. I reached the Juigalpa river about two miles below the town. Near the crossing it ran between shelving rocky banks, with here and there still reaches and pebbly shores. Shady trees overhung the clear water; and behind were myrtle-leaved shrubs and grassy openings. The morning was yet young, and the banks were vocal with the noises of birds, that chattered, whistled, chirruped, croaked, cooed, warbled, or made discordant cries. I doubt if any other part of the earth’s surface could show a greater variety of the feathered tribe. A large brown bittern stood motionless amongst the stones of a rapid portion of the stream, crouching down with his neck and head drawn back close to his body, so that he looked like a brown rock himself. Kingfishers flitted up and down, or dashed into the water with a splashing thud. At a sedgy spot were some jacanas stalking about. When disturbed, these birds rise chattering their displeasure, and showing the lemon yellow of the underside of their wings, which contrasts with the deep chocolate brown of the rest of their plumage. Parrots flew past in screaming flocks, or alighted on the trees and nestled together in loving couples, changing their screaming to tender chirrupings. Numerous brown and yellow fly-catchers sat on small dead branches, and darted off every now and then after passing insects. A couple of beautiful mot-mots (Eumomota superciliaris) made short flights after the larger insects, or sat on the low branches by the river-bank, jerking their curious tails from side to side. Swallows skimmed past in their circling flights, whilst in the bushes were warbling orange-and-black Sisitotis and many another bird of beautiful feather. One class of birds, and that the most characteristic of tropical America, was decidedly scarce. I did not see a single humming-bird by the river-side. On the savannahs they are much less frequent than in the forest region. Insects were not so numerous as they had been in preceding years. Over sandy spots two speckled species of tiger-beetles ran and flew with great swiftness. I saw one rise from the ground and take an insect on the wing that was flying slowly over. On one myrtle-like bush, with small white flowers, there were dozens of a small Longicorn new to me, which, when flying, looked like black wasps.

It was very pleasant to sit in the cool shade, and listen to, and watch, the birds. There was here no fear of dangerous animals, the only annoyance being stinging ants or biting sand-flies, neither of which were at this place very numerous. Snakes also were scarce. I saw but one, a harmless green one, that glided away with wavy folds amongst the brushwood. The natives say that alligators are plentiful in the river, but that they are harmless. I saw one small one, about five feet long, floating with his eyes, nostrils, and the serratures of his back only above water. Every one bathes in the river without fear, which would not be the case if there had been any one seized by them during the last fifty years; for no traditions are more persistent than tales of the attacks of wild beasts. Anxious parents pass on from generation to generation the stories they themselves were told when children.

As I sat upon the rocks in the cool shade, enjoying the scene, there came hobbling along, with painful steps, on the other side of the river, a poor cripple, afflicted with that horrible disease, elephantiasis. He crossed the river with great difficulty, as his feet were swollen to six times their natural size, with great horny callosities. One of his hands was also disabled; and altogether he was a most pitiable object. Such a sight seemed a blot upon the fair face of nature; but it is our sympathy for our kind that makes us think so. If the trees were sympathetic beings, not a poor crippled specimen of humanity would have their pity, but the gnarled and half-rotten giants of the forest, threatening to topple down with every breeze; whilst to our eyes the dying tree, covered with moss and ferns, and, maybe, clasped by climbing vines, is a picturesque and pleasing sight. So, the fishes would pity their comrades caught by the kingfisher, the birds those in the claws of the hawk — every creature considering the fate that overtook its fellows, and which might befall itself — the great blot in nature’s plan.

The poor cripple told me he was going into Juigalpa. He had, doubtless, heard that a stranger had arrived in the town; for every time I had been there he had turned up. His best friends are the foreigners, who look with greater pity on his misfortune than his neighbours, who have grown accustomed to it.

The blind, the lame, and the sick are the only beggars I ever saw in Nicaragua. The necessaries of life are easily procured. Very little clothing is required. Any one may plant maize or bananas; and there is plenty of work for all who are willing or obliged to labour; so the healthy and strong amongst the poorer classes lead an easy and pleasant life, but the sick and incapacitated amongst them are really badly off. There is a great indifference amongst the natives to the wants of their comrades struck down by sickness or accident, and hospitals and asylums are unknown.

I was told that the cripple, lame as he was, often took long journeys, and had even gone as far as Granada. He had been a soldier in one of the revolutions, when John Chamorro was President, and ascribed the commencement of the disease to getting a chill by bathing when he was heated.

After he had hobbled off, I bathed in the cool river, and then rambled about on the other side, where I found some large mango trees full of delicious ripe fruit. It was getting on towards noon: the sun was high and hot, and the birds had mostly retired into the deepest shades for their mid-day sleep. I could have lingered all day, but it was time for me to return, as I had arranged with Velasquez to accompany him in search of some Indian graves he had heard of about three miles away.

As I left the river, I heard the whistle of the beautiful “toledo,” so called because its note resembles these syllables, clearly and slowly whistled, with the emphasis on the last two. Following the sound, it led me to a deep, thickly-timbered gully, at the bottom of which was the bed of a brook, consisting now only of detached pools, over one of which, on the limb of a tree, sat a large dark-coloured hawk, with white-banded tail, watching for fresh-water and land crabs, on which it feeds. I had a long chase after the toledo. As soon as I got within sight of it, sometimes before, it would dart away through the brushwood, generally across the brook, and in a few minutes I would hear its deep-toned whistle again as if in mockery of my pursuit. I had to climb and reclimb the steep banks of the gully: but at last, creeping cautiously, and just getting my head above the bank, I got a shot. There were two of them sitting close together. I brought both down, and they proved to be in fine plumage. The toledo (Chirosciphia lineata) is about the size of a linnet, of a general velvety black colour. The crown of the head is covered with a flat scarlet crest, and the back with what looks like a shawl of sky-blue. From the tail spring two long ribbon-like feathers. Its curious note is often heard on the savannahs, in the thick timber that skirts the small brooks; but it is not often seen, as it is a shy bird and frequents the deepest shades.

There were several of the yellow-breasted trogon (T. melanocephalus) sitting amongst the branches, and now and then darting off after insects. This species often breaks into the nest of the termites, and feeds on the soft-bodied workers. Another trogon about here, with red breast (T. elegans), has a peculiarly harsh, croaking voice, very different from the other species, and more resembling the cry of a mot-mot.

As I rode back over the savannahs to Juigalpa, the nearly vertical rays of the sun were reflected from the dry, hot, sandy soil. Not a sound was now heard from the numerous birds. The shrill cicada still piped its never-ending treble. No wind was stirring, and the air over the parched soil quivered with heat.

I was glad to get back to my “hotel,” and have breakfast, with chocolate served up in jicaras. After an hour’s rest, I started with Velasquez in search of the Indian antiquities. We rode up the right side of the river, high up above the stream, as the banks are rocky and precipitous; then down a shelving road to a lower level, and across undulating savannahs thinly timbered. After about three miles, we came out on a small flat plain, probably alluvial, about twenty acres in extent, mostly covered with grass, with a few scattered jicara trees. On the further end of this plain was a mud-walled, thatched hut, called “El Salto,” from a fall of the river close by. A man was lounging about, and a woman bruising maize for tortillas. The man told us that the “worked stones,” as he called them, were on the side of the plain we had crossed. Before going to look at them, we went down to the river to see the waterfall. Just opposite the house the Juigalpa river, which comes flowing down over a flat bed of trachyte, leaps down a deep narrow chasm that it has cut in the hard rock. This chasm is about fifty feet deep, and only twenty wide. The river was low, and poured all its water in at the end of the deep notch; but when flooded, it must rush in over the sides also, and make a magnificent turmoil of waters. Even when I saw it, the water, as it rushed along at the bottom of the narrow chasm, boiling and surging amongst great masses of fallen rock with a steady roar, looked as if it would carry all before it. Deep pot-holes, some of them ten feet deep, were worn into the trachyte rock, and sections of several were shown in the sides of the chasm, which could only have been formed when the falls were many yards lower down. The trachyte is very hard and tough. The sections of the pot-holes are as fresh as if they had been made but yesterday.

In reply to my assertion that the falls had produced, and were now working back the chasm, our guide, the lounging man from the house, said the rocks had always been as they were: he had lived there ten years, and there had been no change in them. Perhaps, if the buried Indians could rise from their graves where they were laid to rest more than three hundred years ago, they, too, would testify that there had been no change, that the rocks and the leaping river were as they had been and would be for ever. The untrained mind cannot grasp the idea of the effect of slowly-acting influences extending over vast periods of time.


We asked the guide if there were any cairns near, and he said there was one on the top of a neighbouring hill. Up this we climbed. It was the rounded spur of a range behind, jutting out into the small plain before mentioned, and might be partly artificial. On the summit, which commanded a fine view of the country around, with the white cliffs and dark woods of the Amerrique range in front, was an Indian cairn, elliptical in shape, about thirty feet long and twenty broad. Several small trees had sprung up amongst the stones. Near the centre two holes had been dug down about four feet deep. Our guide told us that he and his brother had made them, to hide themselves in from the soldiers during the last revolutionary outbreak. Not a very likely story, that they should have chosen the top of a bare hill for a hiding-place, when all around in the valleys there were thickets of brushwood. He said they had found nothing in the holes. We, however, soon found fragments of two broken cinerary urns, one of fine clay, painted with red and black, the other much coarser and stronger, without ornament. The custom of the Chontales Indians appears to have been to burn their dead, and place the ashes in a thin painted urn, inclosed within a stronger one. This was buried, along with the stone for grinding maize, and a cairn of stones built over the grave, in the centre of which was sometimes set up the statue of the deceased.

It was evident that the tomb had been ransacked in search of treasure; but our guide was very reticent about it. He admitted, however, on further questioning, that he had found a broken “metlate,” or maize-grinder, in the grave. Velasquez got down into the deepest hole, and unearthed some more fragments of pottery, but nothing more.

We then descended the steep face of the hill again, and crossed the plain to where the “worked stones” were lying. We found them to be broken fragments of statues, one larger, better worked, and in much fairer preservation than the others. They had all been much battered and broken. The greater size and solidity of this one had made it more difficult to deface. It was in two parts, the head being severed from the body. The total length of the two fragments was about five feet. The face had been much shattered. The nose was gone and the mouth defaced, but enough was left to show that the latter had been protruding. The eyes were in good preservation, prominent, and with the eyeballs projecting. Around the head was an ornamented circlet, like a crown. The arms were laid over the breast, and were continued upwards over the shoulder, and partly down the back, as if it had been intended to indicate the shoulder-blades. The legs were doubled up, and continued round to the back, in the same way as the arms.

The back of the figure was elaborately carved, the most noticeable features being a wide ornamented belt around the waist, and two well-carved crosses, one on each shoulder.

The other stones lying about were broken portions of other smaller figures and of pedestals. All were made out of very hard, tough trachyte; and the labour required to make the principal one out of such difficult material without tools of iron must have been immense.

The fragments were all lying out on the bare plain. I thought they must have been brought from some burial-place of the ancient Indians. Our guide, on being asked, said he had seen other cairns of stones besides these on the hill-top, but could not recollect where. He was very uneasy when questioned; and at last said he had business to attend to, and left us abruptly. In his absence we examined all around for traces of graves. Between the plain and the river was a thicket of low trees and undergrowth. Peering into this, we saw some heaps of stones; and, pushing in amongst the bushes, found it was full of old Indian graves, marked by heaps of stones, in the centres of some of which still stood the pedestals on which the statues had been placed. Most of the heaps were about twenty feet in diameter, and composed of stones of the average size of a man’s head; but one, from the centre of which grew an immense cotton-wood tree, was made of about a dozen very large stones, some about five feet long, three broad, and one thick. Here we got a clue to the behaviour of our guide. When he told us that he knew not where there were any more cairns, he was standing within thirty feet of one hidden by the thicket, which bore evident marks of having been recently disturbed. It was the cairn of big stones. One of these had been overturned, and some fresh-cut poles, that had been used as levers, were lying alongside, with the green bark broken and bruised. A hole had been dug underneath it, and filled up with stones again. Our lounging friend had been doing a little exploring on his own account. Many of the natives believe that treasure is buried under these heaps of stones; and the interest that foreigners take in them they ascribe to their wish to obtain these treasures. Our guide, wishing to get these himself, had taken us to the single grave on the top of the hill, which he had already ransacked, and professed ignorance of the others. I only hope that he did not compound with his conscience for the lies he had told us by coming back after we left, and trying to break off the nose of another idol, as the natives call the images. They think they show their zeal for Christianity by defacing them. This is why scarcely any of the noses of the images are left. They form the most salient points for attack. And that the images have not been utterly destroyed by the ill-usage they have had for three hundred years is due to the hard, tough rock of which they are made. It is probable that the statues at El Salto were brought out from the cairns into the plain, and publicly thrown down, defaced, and broken, when the Spaniards first took possession of the Juigalpa district, and forced Christianity upon the Indians; for the conquerors everywhere overthrew and mutilated the “idols” of the Indians, set up the cross and their own images, and forced the people to be baptised. The change was not a great one. Already the cross was an emblem amongst them and baptism a rite; and the images they were called upon to adore did not differ so greatly from those they had worshipped before. They easily conformed to the new faith. D’Avila is said to have overthrown the idols at Rivas, and to have baptised nine thousand Indians. Then the Spaniards, having Christianised the Indians, made slaves of them, and ground them to the dust with merciless cruelties and overwork, which quickly depopulated whole towns and districts.

The presence of the cross in Central America greatly astonished the Spanish discoverers. In Yucatan and throughout the Aztec Empire it was the emblem of the “god of rain.” There has been much speculation by various authors respecting its origin, as a religious emblem, in Mexico and Central America. It has even been supposed that some of the early Icelandic Christians of the ninth century may have reached the coast of Mexico, and introduced some knowledge of the Christian religion. But the cross was a religious emblem of the greatest antiquity, both in Syria and Egypt, and baptism was a pre-Christian rite. This and other observances, such as auricular confession and monastic institutions, were so mixed up with the worship of a great number of gods, at the head of which was the worship of the sun, and were associated with such horrid human sacrifices and pagan ceremonials, that it is more likely that they acquired the cross, with other pagan traditions handed down to them from a remote antiquity, from the common stock from whence both the inhabitants of the Eastern and Western hemispheres were descended. There is good evidence for supposing that young children were offered up in sacrifice to Thaloc, the god of rain, the very god whose emblem was the cross — a contrast too great to the “Suffer little children to come unto me” of the loving Saviour, not to make the mind revolt against the idea that the cross of the god of rain was derived from the cross of the Christian.

I see no reason for supposing that the images of El Salto were idols, as supposed by the early Spaniards, and still by the degenerate half-breeds. They are more likely portrait-statues of famous chieftains who led the tribe to many a victory. When they died, a loving people, with wailings and lamentations, celebrated their obsequies. The funeral pyre was built, the body burnt, and the ashes carefully gathered together, and placed in the finely-wrought urn and painted cinerary, and this in one larger and coarser. These were buried with the stone maize-grinder, and sometimes weapons and earthen dishes and food. Over the grave a pile of stones was raised, and skilful artificers were set to work on the hardest and toughest stone they could find to make a statue of the chief whose memory they reverenced. It must have taken months, if not years, to have fashioned the statue I have figured out of the trachyte without tools of iron, and it strikes one with wonder to think of the patience and perseverance with which the details were worked out. No eye-servers were these Indians; before and behind they bestowed equal pains and labour on their work, undeterred by the hardness of the materials or the rudeness of their tools.

When we turn from these works and remains of a great and united tribe to the miserable huts of the present natives, we feel how great a curse the Spanish invasion has in some respects been to Central America. The half-breed, wrapped up in himself, lives from year to year in his thatched hut, looking after a few cows, and making cheese from their milk. He perhaps plants a small patch of maize once a year, and grows a few plantains, content to live on the plainest fare, and in the rudest style, so that he may indulge in indolence and sloth. So he vegetates and drops into his grave, and in a year or two no mark or sign tells where he was laid. The graves of the old Indians are still to be found, but no mounds mark the spots where the inhabitants of the valley since the conquest have been laid to rest. They have passed away, as they lived, without a record or memorial.

The builders of these cairns and the fashioners of these statues were a different and a better race. They stood by each other, and reverenced and obeyed their chiefs. They tilled the ground and lived on the fruits of it. From the accounts of all the historians of the Spanish conquest, the Pacific side of Nicaragua was so densely populated when the Spaniards first arrived that the greater part of it must have been cultivated like a garden; and it is probable that the population was ten times greater than it is now. Another point that strikes the observer is, that not only the descendants of the Spaniards and the Mestizos are sunk far below the level of the old Indians, but that the nearly pure Indians, of whom there are many large communities, have so degenerated that it is hard to believe that they are the very same people that, four hundred years ago, had advanced so far in their peculiar civilisation. They are not so sunk in sloth as the half-breeds. They still till the ground, grow maize, cacao, and many fruits; they still make the earthenware dishes of the country, though far inferior to those of their ancestors; but they have lost their tribal instincts, they do not support each other; they acknowledge no chiefs; each one is absorbed in his own affairs, and they are only a little less slothful than the half-breeds. Will these Indians ever again attain to that pitch of civilisation at which they had arrived before the conquest? — I fear not. The whip that kept them to the mark in the old days was the continual warfare between the different tribes, and this has ceased for ever. War is not always a curse. “There is some soul of goodness in things evil.” Before the Spanish conquest no small isolated communities could exist. Those in which the tribal instinct was strongest, who stood shoulder to shoulder with their fellows, reverenced and obeyed their chiefs, and excelled in feats of strength and agility, would annihilate or subjugate the weaker and less warlike races. It was this constant struggle between the different tribes that weeded out the weak and indolent, and preserved the strong and enterprising; just as amongst many of the lower animals the stronger kill off the weaker, and the result is the improvement of the race, or at any rate the maintenance of the point of excellence at which it had arrived in former times.

Since the Spanish conquest there has been no such process of selection in operation amongst the Indians. The most indolent can obtain enough food, whilst the climate makes clothing almost a superfluity. The idle and improvident live their natural terms of years, and increase their kind even faster than the provident and industrious. The tribal feeling is destroyed; the selfish and sensual instincts are developed, and year by year the Indian degenerates.

Mr. Bates, at the end of his admirable work on the natural history of the Amazon, speculates on the future of the human race, and thinks that under the equator alone will it attain the highest form of perfection. I have had similar thoughts when riding over hundreds of miles of fertile savannahs in Central America, where an everlasting summer and fertile land yield a harvest of fruits and grain all the year round where it is not even necessary “to tickle the ground with a hoe to make it laugh with a harvest.” But thinking over the cause of the degeneracy of the Spaniards and Indians, I am led to believe that in climes where man has to battle with nature for his food, not to receive it from her hands as a gift; where he is a worker, and not an idler; where hard winters kill off the weak and brace up the strong; there only is that selection at work that keeps the human race advancing, and prevents it retrograding, now that Mars has been dethroned and Vulcan set on high.

In destroying the ancient monarchies of Mexico and Central America, the Spaniards inflicted an irreparable injury on the Indian race; for whether or not a republic is the highest ideal form of government (and doubtless it would be if man were perfect), it is not adapted for savage or half-civilised communities, and I cordially agree with the truth enunciated by Darwin when, writing of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, he says, “Perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilisation. As we see those animals whose instinct compels them to live in society, and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so is it with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or a consequence, the most civilised always have the most artificial governments. For instance, the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders, who, although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense.”1

1 “Naturalist’s Voyage” page 229.

Dusk was coming on before we left the small plain, with its broken statues, and the steep hill overlooking it, on which probably religious rites had been celebrated and human sacrifices offered up. This people have entirely passed away, and the sparse inhabitants of the once thickly-populated province have not even a tradition about them. In Europe and North America more is known about them, and more interest taken in gleaning what little vestiges of their history can be recovered from the dim past, than among their own degenerate descendants.

Half way to Juigalpa was an Indian hut and a small clearing made for growing maize. The fallen trunks of trees were a likely place for beetles, and as I had brought a lantern with me, I stayed to examine them whilst Velasquez rode on to get some food ready. At night many species of beetles, especially longicorns, are to be found running over the trunks, that lie closely hidden in the day-time. The night-world is very different from that of the day. Things that blink and hide from the light are all awake and astir when the sun goes down. Great spiders and scorpions prowl about, or take up advantageous positions where they expect their prey to pass. Cockroaches of all sizes, from that of one’s finger to that of one’s finger-nail, stand with long quivering antennae, pictures of alert outlook, watching for their numerous foes, or scurry away as fast as their long legs can carry them; but if they come within reach of the great spider they are pounced upon in an instant, and with one convulsive kick give up the hopeless struggle. Centipedes, wood-lice, and all kinds of creeping things come out of cracks and crevices; even the pools are alive with water-beetles that have been hiding in the ooze all day, excepting when they come up with a dash to the surface for a bubble of fresh air. Owls and night-jars make strange unearthly cries. The timid deer comes out of its close covert to feed in the grassy clearings. Jaguars, ocelots, and opossums slink about in the gloom. The skunk goes leisurely along, holding up his white tail as a danger-flag for none to come within range of his nauseous artillery. Bats and large moths flitter around, whilst all the day-world is at rest and asleep. The night speeds on; the stars that rose in the east are sinking behind the western hills; a faint tinge of dawn lights the eastern sky; loud and shrill rings out the awakening shout of chanticleer; the grey dawn comes on apace; a hundred birds salute the cheerful morn, and the night-world hurries to its gloomy dens and hiding-places, like the sprites and fairy elves of our nursery days.

It was very dark when I started to return, excepting that flashes of lightning now and then illumined the path, but I left my mule to herself, and she carried me safely into Juigalpa, where I found dinner awaiting me. It took me until midnight to skin the birds I had shot during the day; and as I had been up since six in the morning, I was quite ready for, and took kindly to, my hard leathern couch.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32