CHAPTER II: Struggles for Life—The Cholera in Jamaica—I leave Kingston for the Isthmus of Panama—Chagres, Navy Bay, and Gatun—Life in Panama—Up the River Chagres to Gorgona and Cruces.

I had one other great grief to master—the loss of my mother, and then I was left alone to battle with the world as best I might. The struggles which it cost me to succeed in life were sometimes very trying; nor have they ended yet. But I have always turned a bold front to fortune, and taken, and shall continue to take, as my brave friends in the army and navy have shown me how, “my hurts before.” Although it was no easy thing for a widow to make ends meet, I never allowed myself to know [Pg 7]what repining or depression was, and so succeeded in gaining not only my daily bread, but many comforts besides from the beginning. Indeed, my experience of the world—it is not finished yet, but I do not think it will give me reason to change my opinion—leads me to the conclusion that it is by no means the hard bad world which some selfish people would have us believe it. It may be as my editor says—

“That gently comes the world to thoseThat are cast in gentle mould;”

hinting at the same time, politely, that the rule may apply to me personally. And perhaps he is right, for although I was always a hearty, strong woman—plain-spoken people might say stout—I think my heart is soft enough.

How slowly and gradually I succeeded in life, need not be told at length. My fortunes underwent the variations which befall all. Sometimes I was rich one day, and poor the next. I never thought too exclusively of money, believing rather that we were born to be happy, and that the surest way to be wretched is to prize it overmuch. Had I done so, I should have mourned over many a promising speculation proving a failure, over many a pan of preserves or guava jelly burnt in the making; and perhaps lost my mind when the great fire of 1843, which devastated Kingston, burnt down my poor home. As it was, I very nearly lost my life, for I would not leave my house until every chance of saving it had gone, and it was wrapped in flames. But, of course, I set to work again in a humbler way, and rebuilt my house by degrees, and restocked it, succeeding better than before; for I had gained a reputation as a skilful nurse and doctress, and my house [Pg 8]was always full of invalid officers and their wives from Newcastle, or the adjacent Up-Park Camp. Sometimes I had a naval or military surgeon under my roof, from whom I never failed to glean instruction, given, when they learned my love for their profession, with a readiness and kindness I am never likely to forget. Many of these kind friends are alive now. I met with some when my adventures had carried me to the battle-fields of the Crimea; and to those whose eyes may rest upon these pages I again offer my acknowledgments for their past kindness, which helped me to be useful to my kind in many lands.

And here I may take the opportunity of explaining that it was from a confidence in my own powers, and not at all from necessity, that I remained an unprotected female. Indeed, I do not mind confessing to my reader, in a friendly confidential way, that one of the hardest struggles of my life in Kingston was to resist the pressing candidates for the late Mr. Seacole’s shoes.

Officers of high rank sometimes took up their abode in my house. Others of inferior rank were familiar with me, long before their bravery, and, alas! too often death, in the Crimea, made them world famous. There were few officers of the 97th to whom Mother Seacole was not well known, before she joined them in front of Sebastopol; and among the best known was good-hearted, loveable, noble H—— V——, whose death shocked me so terribly, and with whose useful heroic life the English public have become so familiar. I can hear the ring of his boyish laughter even now.

In the year 1850, the cholera swept over the island of Jamaica with terrible force. Our idea—perhaps an [Pg 9]unfounded one—was, that a steamer from New Orleans was the means of introducing it into the island. Anyhow, they sent some clothes on shore to be washed, and poor Dolly Johnson, the washerwoman, whom we all knew, sickened and died of the terrible disease. While the cholera raged, I had but too many opportunities of watching its nature, and from a Dr. B——, who was then lodging in my house, received many hints as to its treatment which I afterwards found invaluable.

Early in the same year my brother had left Kingston for the Isthmus of Panama, then the great high-road to and from golden California, where he had established a considerable store and hotel. Ever since he had done so, I had found some difficulty in checking my reviving disposition to roam, and at last persuading myself that I might be of use to him (he was far from strong), I resigned my house into the hands of a cousin, and made arrangements to journey to Chagres. Having come to this conclusion, I allowed no grass to grow beneath my feet, but set to work busily, for I was not going to him empty-handed. My house was full for weeks, of tailors, making up rough coats, trousers, etc., and sempstresses cutting out and making shirts. In addition to these, my kitchen was filled with busy people, manufacturing preserves, guava jelly, and other delicacies, while a considerable sum was invested in the purchase of preserved meats, vegetables, and eggs. It will be as well, perhaps, if I explain, in as few words as possible, the then condition of the Isthmus of Panama.

All my readers must know—a glance at the map will show it to those who do not—that between North America and the envied shores of California stretches a little neck of land, [Pg 10]insignificant-looking enough on the map, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific. By crossing this, the travellers from America avoided a long, weary, and dangerous sea voyage round Cape Horn, or an almost impossible journey by land.

But that journey across the Isthmus, insignificant in distance as it was, was by no means an easy one. It seemed as if nature had determined to throw every conceivable obstacle in the way of those who should seek to join the two great oceans of the world. I have read and heard many accounts of old endeavours to effect this important and gigantic work, and how miserably they failed. It was reserved for the men of our age to accomplish what so many had died in attempting, and iron and steam, twin giants, subdued to man’s will, have put a girdle over rocks and rivers, so that travellers can glide as smoothly, if not as inexpensively, over the once terrible Isthmus of Darien, as they can from London to Brighton. Not yet, however, does civilization, rule at Panama. The weak sway of the New Granada Republic, despised by lawless men, and respected by none, is powerless to control the refuse of every nation which meet together upon its soil. Whenever they feel inclined now they overpower the law easily; but seven years ago, when I visited the Isthmus of Panama, things were much worse, and a licence existed, compared to which the present lawless state of affairs is enviable.

When, after passing Chagres, an old-world, tumble-down town, for about seven miles, the steamer reached Navy Bay, I thought I had never seen a more luckless, dreary spot. Three sides of the place were a mere swamp, and the town itself stood upon a sand-reef, the houses being built upon piles, which some one told me rotted [Pg 11]regularly every three years. The railway, which now connects the bay with Panama, was then building, and ran, as far as we could see, on piles, connected with the town by a wooden jetty. It seemed as capital a nursery for ague and fever as Death could hit upon anywhere, and those on board the steamer who knew it confirmed my opinion. As we arrived a steady down-pour of rain was falling from an inky sky; the white men who met us on the wharf appeared ghostly and wraith-like, and the very negroes seemed pale and wan. The news which met us did not tempt me to lose any time in getting up the country to my brother. According to all accounts, fever and ague, with some minor diseases, especially dropsy, were having it all their own way at Navy Bay, and, although I only stayed one night in the place, my medicine chest was called into requisition. But the sufferers wanted remedies which I could not give them—warmth, nourishment, and fresh air. Beneath leaky tents, damp huts, and even under broken railway waggons, I saw men dying from sheer exhaustion. Indeed, I was very glad when, with the morning, the crowd, as the Yankees called the bands of pilgrims to and from California, made ready to ascend to Panama.

The first stage of our journey was by railway to Gatun, about twelve miles distant. For the greater portion of that distance the lines ran on piles, over as unhealthy and wretched a country as the eye could well grow weary of; but, at last, the country improved, and you caught glimpses of distant hills and English-like scenery. Every mile of that fatal railway cost the world thousands of lives. I was assured that its site was marked thickly by graves, [Pg 12]and that so great was the mortality among the labourers that three times the survivors struck in a body, and their places had to be supplied by fresh victims from America, tempted by unheard-of rates of wages. It is a gigantic undertaking, and shows what the energy and enterprise of man can accomplish. Everything requisite for its construction, even the timber, had to be prepared in, and brought from, America.

The railway then ran no further than Gatun, and here we were to take water and ascend the River Chagres to Gorgona, the next stage on the way to Cruces, where my brother was. The cars landed us at the bottom of a somewhat steep cutting through a reddish clay, and deposited me and my suite, consisting of a black servant, named “Mac,” and a little girl, in safety in the midst of my many packages, not altogether satisfied with my prospects; for the rain was falling heavily and steadily, and the Gatun porters were possessing themselves of my luggage with that same avidity which distinguishes their brethren on the pier of Calais or the quays of Pera. There are two species of individuals whom I have found alike wherever my travels have carried me—the reader can guess their professions—porters and lawyers.

It was as much as I could do to gather my packages together, sit in the midst with a determined look to awe the hungry crowd around me, and send “Mac” up the steep slippery bank to report progress. After a little while he returned to say that the river-side was not far off, where boats could be hired for the upward journey. The word given, the porters threw themselves upon my packages; a pitched battle ensued, out of which issued the strongest [Pg 13]Spanish Indians, with their hardly earned prizes, and we commenced the ascent of the clayey bank. Now, although the surveyors of the Darien highways had considerately cut steps up the steep incline, they had become worse than useless, so I floundered about terribly, more than once losing my footing altogether. And as with that due regard to personal appearance, which I have always deemed a duty as well as a pleasure to study, I had, before leaving Navy Bay, attired myself in a delicate light blue dress, a white bonnet prettily trimmed, and an equally chaste shawl, the reader can sympathise with my distress. However, I gained the summit, and after an arduous descent, of a few minutes duration, reached the river-side; in a most piteous plight, however, for my pretty dress, from its contact with the Gatun clay, looked as red as if, in the pursuit of science, I had passed it through a strong solution of muriatic acid.

By the water-side I found my travelling companions arguing angrily with the shrewd boatmen, and bating down their fares. Upon collecting my luggage, I found, as I had expected, that the porters had not neglected the glorious opportunity of robbing a woman, and that several articles were missing. Complaints, I knew, would not avail me, and stronger measures seemed hazardous and barely advisable in a lawless out-of-the-way spot, where

“The simple plan,That they should take who have the power,And they should keep who can,”

seemed universally practised, and would very likely have been defended by its practitioners upon principle.

It was not so easy to hire a boat as I had been led to [Pg 14]expect. The large crowd had made the boatmen somewhat exorbitant in their demands, and there were several reasons why I should engage one for my own exclusive use, instead of sharing one with some of my travelling companions. In the first place, my luggage was somewhat bulky; and, in the second place, my experience of travel had not failed to teach me that Americans (even from the Northern States) are always uncomfortable in the company of coloured people, and very often show this feeling in stronger ways than by sour looks and rude words. I think, if I have a little prejudice against our cousins across the Atlantic—and I do confess to a little—it is not unreasonable. I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns. And having this bond, and knowing what slavery is; having seen with my eyes and heard with my ears proof positive enough of its horrors—let others affect to doubt them if they will—is it surprising that I should be somewhat impatient of the airs of superiority which many Americans have endeavoured to assume over me? Mind, I am not speaking of all. I have met with some delightful exceptions.

At length I succeeded in hiring a boat for the modest consideration of ten pounds, to carry me and my fortunes to Cruces. My boat was far from uncomfortable. Large and flat-bottomed, with an awning, dirty it must be confessed, beneath which swung a hammock, of which I took immediate possession. By the way, the Central Americans should adopt the hammock as their national badge; but for sheer necessity they would never leave it. The master of [Pg 15]the boat, the padrone, was a fine tall negro, his crew were four common enough specimens of humanity, with a marked disregard of the prejudices of society with respect to clothing. A dirty handkerchief rolled over the head, and a wisp of something, which might have been linen, bound round the loins, formed their attire. Perhaps, however, the thick coating of dirt which covered them kept them warmer than more civilized clothing, besides being indisputably more economical.

The boat was generally propelled by paddles, but when the river was shallow, poles were used to punt us along, as on English rivers; the black padrone, whose superior position was indicated by the use of decent clothing, standing at the helm, gesticulating wildly, and swearing Spanish oaths with a vehemence that would have put Corporal Trim’s comrades in Flanders to the blush. Very much shocked, of course, but finding it perfectly useless to remonstrate with him, I swung myself in my hammock and leisurely watched the river scene.

The river Chagres lolled with considerable force, now between low marshy shores, now narrowing, between steep, thickly wooded banks. It was liable, as are all rivers in hilly districts, to sudden and heavy floods; and although the padrone, on leaving Gatun, had pledged his soul to land me at Cruces that night, I had not been long afloat before I saw that he would forfeit his worthless pledge; for the wind rose to a gale, ruffling the river here and there into a little sea; the rain came down in torrents, while the river rose rapidly, bearing down on its swollen stream trunks of trees, and similar waifs and strays, which it tossed about like a giant in sport, threatening to snag us [Pg 16]with its playthings every moment. And when we came to a sheltered reach, and found that the little fleet of boats which had preceded us had laid to there, I came to the conclusion that, stiff, tired, and hungry, I should have to pass a night upon the river Chagres. All I could get to eat was some guavas, which grew wild upon the banks, and then I watched the padrone curl his long body up among my luggage, and listened to the crew, who had rolled together at the bottom of the boat, snore as peacefully as if they slept between fair linen sheets, in the purest of calico night-gear, and the most unexceptionable of nightcaps, until somehow I fell into a troubled, dreamy sleep.

At daybreak we were enabled to pursue our journey, and in a short time reached Gorgona. I was glad enough to go on shore, as you may imagine. Gorgona was a mere temporary town of bamboo and wood houses, hastily erected to serve as a station for the crowd. In the present rainy season, when the river was navigable up to Cruces, the chief part of the population migrated thither, so that Gorgona was almost deserted, and looked indescribably damp, dirty, and dull. With some difficulty I found a bakery and a butcher’s shop. The meat was not very tempting, for the Gorgona butchers did not trouble themselves about joints, but cut the flesh into strips about three inches wide, and of various lengths. These were hung upon rails, so that you bought your meat by the yard, and were spared any difficulty in the choice of joint. I cannot say that I was favourably impressed with this novel and simple way of avoiding trouble, but I was far too hungry to be particular, and buying a strip for a quarter of a real, carried it off to Mac to cook.

[Pg 17]Late that afternoon, the padrone and his crew landed me, tired, wretched, and out of temper, upon the miserable wharf of Cruces.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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