I remained at Cruces until the rainy months came to an end, and the river grew too shallow to be navigable by the boats higher up than Gorgona; and then we all made preparations for a flitting to that place. But before starting, it appeared to be the custom for the store and hotel keepers to exchange parting visits, and to many of these parties I, in virtue of my recent services to the community, received invitations. The most important social meeting took place on the anniversary of the declaration of American independence, at my brother’s hotel, where a score of zealous Americans dined most heartily—as they never fail to do; [Pg 47]and, as it was an especial occasion, drank champagne liberally at twelve shillings a bottle. And, after the usual patriotic toasts had been duly honoured, they proposed “the ladies,” with an especial reference to myself, in a speech which I thought worth noting down at the time. The spokesman was a thin, sallow-looking American, with a pompous and yet rapid delivery, and a habit of turning over his words with his quid before delivering them, and clearing his mouth after each sentence, perhaps to make room for the next. I shall beg the reader to consider that the blanks express the time expended on this operation. He dashed into his work at once, rolling up and getting rid of his sentences as he went on:—
“Well, gentlemen, I expect you’ll all support me in a drinking of this toast that I du——. Aunty Seacole, gentlemen; I give you, Aunty Seacole——. We can’t du less for her, after what she’s done for us——, when the cholera was among us, gentlemen——, not many months ago——. So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made——, from Jamaica, gentlemen——, from the Isle of Springs——Well, gentlemen, I expect there are only tu things we’re vexed for——; and the first is, that she ain’t one of us——, a citizen of the great United States——; and the other thing is, gentlemen——, that Providence made her a yaller woman. I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white——, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black——; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would——, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be——. Gentlemen, I give you Aunty Seacole!”
[Pg 48]And so the orator sat down amidst much applause. It may be supposed that I did not need much persuasion to return thanks, burning, as I was, to tell them my mind on the subject of my colour. Indeed, if my brother had not checked me, I should have given them my thoughts somewhat too freely. As it was, I said:—
“Gentlemen,—I return you my best thanks for your kindness in drinking my health. As for what I have done in Cruces, Providence evidently made me to be useful, and I can’t help it. But, I must say, that I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s, I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners.”
I do not think that they altogether admired my speech, but I was a somewhat privileged person, and they laughed at it good-naturedly enough. Perhaps (for I was not in the best humour myself) I should have been better pleased if they had been angry.
Rightly, I ought to have gone down to Gorgona a few weeks before Cruces was deserted, and secured an hotel; but I did not give up all hope of persuading my brother to leave the Isthmus until the very last moment, and then, of course, a suitable house was not to be hired in Gorgona for [Pg 49]love or money. Seeing his fixed determination to stay, I consented to remain with him, for he was young and often ill, and set hard to work to settle myself somewhere. With the aid of an old Jamaica friend, who had settled at Gorgona, I at last found a miserable little hut for sale, and bought it for a hundred dollars. It consisted of one room only, and was, in its then condition, utterly unfit for my purpose; but I determined to set to work and build on to it—by no means the hazardous speculation in Gorgona, where bricks and mortar are unknown, that it is in England. The alcalde’s permission to make use of the adjacent ground was obtained for a moderate consideration, and plenty of material was procurable from the opposite bank of the river. An American, whom I had cured of the cholera at Cruces, lent me his boat, and I hired two or three natives to cut down and shape the posts and bamboo poles. Directly these were raised, Mac and my little maid set to work and filled up the spaces between them with split bamboo canes and reeds, and before long my new hotel was ready to be roofed. The building process was simple enough, and I soon found myself in possession of a capital dining-room some thirty feet in length, which was gaily hung with coloured calico, concealing all defects of construction, and lighted with large oil lamps; a store-room, bar, and a small private apartment for ladies. Altogether, although I had to pay my labourers four shillings a day, the whole building did not cost me more than my brother paid for three months’ rent of his hotel. I gave the travelling world to understand that I intended to devote my establishment principally to the entertainment of ladies, and the care of those who might fall ill on the [Pg 50]route, and I found the scheme answered admirably. And yet, although the speculation paid well, I soon grew as weary of my life in Gorgona as I had been at Cruces; and when I found my brother proof against all persuasion to quit the Isthmus, I began to entertain serious thoughts of leaving him.
Nor was it altogether my old roving inclination which led me to desire a change, although I dare say it had something to do with it. My present life was not agreeable for a woman with the least delicacy or refinement; and of female society I had none. Indeed, the females who crossed my path were about as unpleasant specimens of the fair sex as one could well wish to avoid. With very few exceptions, those who were not bad were very disagreeable, and as the majority came from the Southern States of America, and showed an instinctive repugnance against any one whose countenance claimed for her kindred with their slaves, my position was far from a pleasant one. Not that it ever gave me any annoyance; they were glad of my stores and comforts, I made money out of their wants; nor do I think our bond of connection was ever closer; only this, if any of them came to me sick and suffering (I say this out of simple justice to myself), I forgot everything, except that she was my sister, and that it was my duty to help her.
I may have before said that the citizens of the New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and the other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; [Pg 51]and as they were generally superior men—evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight—they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason—perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration—always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits—be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil—and dreaded their schemes for annexation. To such an extent was this amusingly carried, that when the American Railway Company took possession of Navy Bay, and christened it Aspinwall, after the name of their Chairman, the native authorities refused to recognise their right to name any portion of the Republic, and pertinaciously returned all letters directed to Aspinwall, with “no such place known” marked upon them in the very spot for which they were intended. And, in addition to this, the legal authorities refused to compel any defendant to appear who was described as of Aspinwall, and put every plaintiff out of court who described himself as residing in that unrecognised place.
Under these circumstances, my readers can easily understand that when any Americans crossed the Isthmus, [Pg 52]accompanied by their slaves, the Cruces and Gorgona people were restlessly anxious to whisper into their ears offers of freedom and hints how easy escape would be. Nor were the authorities at all inclined to aid in the recapture of a runaway slave. So that, as it was necessary for the losers to go on with the crowd, the fugitive invariably escaped. It is one of the maxims of the New Granada constitution—as it is, I believe, of the English—that on a slave touching its soil his chains fall from him. Rather than irritate so dangerous a neighbour as America, this rule was rarely supported; but I remember the following instance of its successful application.
A young American woman, whose character can be best described by the word “vicious,” fell ill at Gorgona, and was left behind by her companions under the charge of a young negro, her slave, whom she treated most inhumanly, as was evinced by the poor girl’s frequent screams when under the lash. One night her cries were so distressing, that Gorgona could stand it no longer, but broke into the house and found the chattel bound hand and foot, naked, and being severely lashed. Despite the threats and astonishment of the mistress, they were both carried off on the following morning, before the alcalde, himself a man of colour, and of a very humane disposition. When the particulars of the case were laid before him, he became strongly excited, and called upon the woman to offer an explanation of her cruelty. She treated it with the coolest unconcern—“The girl was her property, worth so many dollars, and a child at New Orleans; had misbehaved herself, and been properly corrected. The alcalde must be drunk or a fool, or both together, to interfere between an American and her [Pg 53]property.” Her coolness vanished, however, when the alcalde turned round to the girl and told her that she was free to leave her mistress when she liked; and when she heard the irrepressible cheering of the crowded court-hut at the alcalde’s humanity and boldness, and saw the slave’s face flush with delight at the judge’s words, she became terribly enraged; made use of the most fearful threats, and would have wreaked summary vengeance on her late chattel had not the clumsy soldiery interfered. Then, with demoniac refinement of cruelty, she bethought herself of the girl’s baby at New Orleans still in her power, and threatened most horrible torture to the child if its mother dared to accept the alcalde’s offer.
The poor girl trembled and covered her face with her hands, as though to shut out some fearful sight, and, I think, had we not persuaded her to the contrary, that she would have sacrificed her newly won freedom for the child’s sake. But we knew very well that when the heat of passion had subsided, the threatener would be too ’cute to injure her own property; and at once set afloat a subscription for the purchase of the child. The issue of the tale I do not know, as the woman was very properly removed into the interior of the country.
Life at Gorgona resembled life at Cruces so nearly that it does not need a separate description. Down with the store and hotel keepers came the muleteers and mules, porters and hangers-on, idlers and thieves, gamblers and dancing women; and soon the monte-tables were fitted up, and plying their deadly trade; and the dancers charmed the susceptible travellers as successfully in the dirty streets of Gorgona as they had previously done in the unwholesome [Pg 54]precincts of Cruces. And Dr. Casey was very nearly getting himself into serious trouble, from too great a readiness to use his revolver. Still, he had a better excuse for bloodshed this time than might have been found for his previous breaches of the sixth commandment. Among the desperadoes who frequented his gambling-hut, during their short stay in Gorgona, was conceived the desperate plan of putting out the lights, and upsetting Casey’s table—trusting in the confusion to carry off the piles of money upon it. The first part of their programme was successfully carried out; but the second was frustrated by the Doctor promptly firing his revolver into the dark, and hitting an unoffending boy in the hip. And at this crisis the Gorgona police entered, carried off all the parties they could lay hands upon (including the Doctor) to prison, and brought the wounded boy to me.
On the following morning came a most urgent request that I would visit the imprisoned Doctor. I found him desperately angry, but somewhat nervous too, for the alcalde was known to be no friend to the Americans, owed Casey more than one grudge, and had shown recently a disposition to enforce the laws.
“I say, Mrs. Seacole, how’s that —— boy?”
“Oh, Dr. Casey, how could you shoot the poor lad, and now call him bad names, as though he’d injured you? He is very ill indeed—may die; so I advise you to think seriously of your position.”
“But, Madame Seacole,” (this in a very altered tone), “you’ll surely help me? you’ll surely tell the alcalde that the wound’s a slight one? He’s a friend of yours, and will let me out of this hole. Come, Madame Seacole, [Pg 55]you’ll never leave me to be murdered by these bloodthirsty savages?”
“What can I do or say, Dr. Casey? I must speak the truth, and the ball is still in the poor lad’s hip,” I answered, for I enjoyed the fellow’s fear too much to help him. However, he sent some of his friends to the boy’s father, and bribed him to take the lad from my care, and send him to Navy Bay, to a surgeon there. Of course, he never returned to prosecute Dr. Casey; and he was left with the alcalde only to deal with, who, although he hated the man, could not resist his money, and so set him free.
Gorgona lying lower than Cruces, its inhabitants more frequently enjoyed the excitement of a flood. After heavy rains, the river would rise so rapidly that in a few hours the chief part of the place would be under water. On such occasions the scene was unusually exciting. As the water crept up the street, the frightened householders kept removing their goods and furniture to higher ground; while here and there, where the waters had surrounded them unawares, boats were sent to their rescue. The houses, not made to resist much wind or water, often gave way, and were carried down the Chagres. Meanwhile, the thieves were the busiest—the honest folks, forgetting the true old adage, “God helps those who help themselves,” confining their exertions to bringing down their favourite saints to the water’s edge, and invoking their interposition.
Fortunately my hotel was at the upper end of the town, where the floods had been rarely known to extend; and although there was a sufficient chance of the water reaching me to compel me to have all my stores, etc., ready packed for removal, I escaped. Some distressing losses [Pg 56]occurred. A Frenchman, a near neighbour, whose house was surrounded by the waters before he could remove his goods, grew so frantic at the loss, that he obstinately refused to quit his falling house; and some force had to be used before they could save his life.
Scarcely had the ravages of the last flood been repaired when fire marked Gorgona for its prey. The conflagration began at a store by the river-side; but it spread rapidly, and before long all Gorgona was in danger. The town happened to be very full that night, two crowds having met there, and there was great confusion; but at last the lazy soldier-police, aided by the Americans, succeeded in pulling down some old crazy huts, and checking the fire’s progress. The travellers were in sore plight, many of them being reduced to sleep upon their luggage, piled in the drenched streets. My hotel had some interesting inmates, for a poor young creature, borne in from one of the burning houses, became a mother during the night; and a stout little lassie opened its eyes upon this waesome world during the excitement and danger of a Gorgona conflagration.
Shortly after this, tired to death of life in Panama, I handed over my hotel to my brother, and returned to Kingston. On the way thither I experienced another instance of American politeness, which I cannot help recording; first reminding my readers of what I have previously said of the character of the Californian travellers. Anxious to get home quickly, I took my passage in the first steamer that left Navy Bay—an American one; and late in the evening said farewell to the friends I had been staying with, and went on board. A very kind friend, an American merchant, [Pg 57]doing a large business at Navy Bay, had tried hard to persuade me to delay my journey until the English company’s steamer called; without, however, giving any good reasons for his wish. So, with Mac and my little maid, I passed through the crowd of female passengers on deck, and sought the privacy of the saloon. Before I had been long there, two ladies came to me, and in their cool, straightforward manner, questioned me.
“Where air you going?”
“And how air you going?”
“Don’t be impertinent, yaller woman. By what conveyance air you going?”
“By this steamer, of course. I’ve paid for my passage.”
They went away with this information; and in a short time eight or nine others came and surrounded me, asking the same questions. My answers—and I was very particular—raised quite a storm of uncomplimentary remarks.
“Guess a nigger woman don’t go along with us in this saloon,” said one. “I never travelled with a nigger yet, and I expect I shan’t begin now,” said another; while some children had taken my little servant Mary in hand, and were practising on her the politenesses which their parents were favouring me with—only, as is the wont of children, they were crueller. I cannot help it if I shock my readers; but the truth is, that one positively spat in poor little Mary’s frightened yellow face.
At last an old American lady came to where I sat, and gave me some staid advice. “Well, now, I tell you for your good, you’d better quit this, and not drive my people [Pg 58]to extremities. If you do, you’ll be sorry for it, I expect.” Thus harassed, I appealed to the stewardess—a tall sour-looking woman, flat and thin as a dressed-up broomstick. She asked me sundry questions as to how and when I had taken my passage; until, tired beyond all endurance, I said, “My good woman, put me anywhere—under a boat—in your store-room, so that I can get to Kingston somehow.” But the stewardess was not to be moved.
“There’s nowhere but the saloon, and you can’t expect to stay with the white people, that’s clear. Flesh and blood can stand a good deal of aggravation; but not that. If the Britishers is so took up with coloured people, that’s their business; but it won’t do here.”
This last remark was in answer to an Englishman, whose advice to me was not to leave my seat for any of them. He made matters worse; until at last I lost my temper, and calling Mac, bade him get my things together, and went up to the captain—a good honest man. He and some of the black crew and the black cook, who showed his teeth most viciously, were much annoyed. Muttering about its being a custom of the country, the captain gave me an order upon the agent for the money I had paid; and so, at twelve o’clock at night, I was landed again upon the wharf of Navy Bay.
My American friends were vastly annoyed, but not much surprised; and two days later, the English steamer, the “Eagle,” in charge of my old friend, Captain B——, touched at Navy Bay, and carried me to Kingston.