I stayed in Jamaica eight months out of the year 1853, still remembered in the island for its suffering and gloom. I returned just in time to find my services, with many others, needful; for the yellow fever never made a more determined effort to exterminate the English in Jamaica than it did in that dreadful year. So violent was the epidemic, that some of my people fell victims to its fury, a thing rarely heard of before. My house was full of sufferers—officers, their wives and children. Very often they were borne in from the ships in the harbour—sometimes in a dying state, sometimes—after long and distressing struggles with the grim foe—to recover. Habituated as I had become with death in its most harrowing forms, I found these scenes more difficult to bear than any I had previously borne a part in; and for this reason perhaps, that I had not only to cheer the death-bed of the sufferer, but, far more trying task, to soothe the passionate grief of wife or husband left behind. It was a terrible thing to see young people in the youth and bloom of life suddenly [Pg 60]stricken down, not in battle with an enemy that threatened their country, but in vain contest with a climate that refused to adopt them. Indeed, the mother country pays a dear price for the possession of her colonies.
I think all who are familiar with the West Indies will acknowledge that Nature has been favourable to strangers in a few respects, and that one of these has been in instilling into the hearts of the Creoles an affection for English people and an anxiety for their welfare, which shows itself warmest when they are sick and suffering. I can safely appeal on this point to any one who is acquainted with life in Jamaica. Another benefit has been conferred upon them by inclining the Creoles to practise the healing art, and inducing them to seek out the simple remedies which are available for the terrible diseases by which foreigners are attacked, and which are found growing under the same circumstances which produce the ills they minister to. So true is it that beside the nettle ever grows the cure for its sting.
I do not willingly care to dwell upon scenes of suffering and death, but it is with such scenes that my life’s experience has made me most familiar, and it is impossible to avoid their description now and then; and here I would fain record, in humble spirit, my conclusions, drawn from the bearing of those whom I have now and then accompanied a little distance on their way into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, on the awful and important question of religious feeling. Death is always terrible—no one need be ashamed to fear it. How we bear it depends much upon our constitutions. I have seen some brave men, who have smiled at the cruellest amputation, die trembling like [Pg 61]children; while others, whose lives have been spent in avoidance of the least danger or trouble, have drawn their last painful breath like heroes, striking at their foe to the last, robbing him of his victory, and making their defeat a triumph. But I cannot trace all the peace and resignation which I have witnessed on many death-beds to temperament alone, although I believe it has much more to do with them than many teachers will allow. I have stood by receiving the last blessings of Christians; and closing the eyes of those who had nothing to trust to but the mercy of a God who will be far more merciful to us than we are to one another; and I say decidedly that the Christian’s death is the glorious one, as is his life. You can never find a good man who is not a worker; he is no laggard in the race of life. Three, two, or one score years of life have been to him a season of labour in his appointed sphere; and as the work of the hands earns for us sweet rest by night, so does the heart’s labour of a lifetime make the repose of heaven acceptable. This is my experience; and I remember one death, of a man whom I grew to love in a few short weeks, the thought of which stirs my heart now, and has sustained me in seasons of great danger; for before that time, if I had never feared death, I had not learnt to meet him with a brave, smiling face, and this he taught me.
I must not tell you his name, for his friends live yet, and have been kind to me in many ways. One of them we shall meet on Crimean soil. He was a young surgeon, and as busy, light-hearted, and joyous as a good man should be; and when he fell ill they brought him to my house, where I nursed him, and grew fond of him—almost as fond as the poor lady his mother in England far away. [Pg 62]For some time we thought him safe, but at last the most terrible symptoms of the cruel disease showed themselves, and he knew that he must die. His thoughts were never for himself, but for those he had to leave behind; all his pity was for them. It was trying to see his poor hands tremblingly penning the last few words of leave-taking—trying to see how piteously the poor worn heart longed to see once more the old familiar faces of the loved ones in unconscious happiness at home; and yet I had to support him while this sad task was effected, and to give him all the help I could. I think he had some fondness for me, or, perhaps, his kind heart feigned a feeling that he saw would give me joy; for I used to call him “My son—my dear child,” and to weep over him in a very weak and silly manner perhaps.
He sent for an old friend, Captain S——; and when he came, I had to listen to the dictation of his simple will—his dog to one friend, his ring to another, his books to a third, his love and kind wishes to all; and that over, my poor son prepared himself to die—a child in all save a man’s calm courage. He beckoned me to raise him in the bed, and, as I passed my arms around him, he saw the tears I could not repress, rolling down my brown cheeks, and thanked me with a few words. “Let me lay my head upon your breast;” and so he rested, now and then speaking lowly to himself, “It’s only that I miss my mother; but Heaven’s will be done.” He repeated this many times, until the Heaven he obeyed sent him in its mercy forgetfulness, and his thoughts no longer wandered to his earthly home. I heard glad words feebly uttered as I bent over him—words about [Pg 63]“Heaven—rest—rest”—a holy Name many times repeated; and then with a smile and a stronger voice, “Home! home!” And so in a little while my arms no longer held him.
I have a little gold brooch with his hair in it now. I wonder what inducement could be strong enough to cause me to part with that memorial, sent me by his mother some months later, with the following letter:—
“My dear Madam,—Will you do me the favour to accept the enclosed trifle, in remembrance of that dear son whose last moments were soothed by your kindness, and as a mark of the gratitude of, my dear Madam,
“Your ever sincere and obliged,
After this, I was sent for by the medical authorities to provide nurses for the sick at Up-Park Camp, about a mile from Kingston; and leaving some nurses and my sister at home, I went there and did my best; but it was little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic.
About eight months after my return to Jamaica, it became necessary that some one should go to the Isthmus of Panama to wind up the affairs of my late hotel; and having another fit of restlessness, I prepared to return there myself. I found Navy Bay but little altered. It was evening when I arrived there; and my friend Mr. H——, who came to meet me on the wharf, carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask [Pg 64]what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom it’s nobody’s business to bury.”
I went to Gorgona, wound up the affairs of the hotel, and, before returning to Navy Bay, took the occasion of accompanying my brother to the town of Panama. We did not go with the crowd, but rode alone on mules, taking with us three native guides on foot; and although the distance was not much over twenty miles, and we started at daybreak, we did not reach Panama until nightfall. But far from being surprised at this, my chief wonder was that we ever succeeded in getting over the journey. Through sand and mud, over hill and plain—through thick forests, deep gulleys, and over rapid streams, ran the track; the road sometimes being made of logs of wood laid transversely, with faggots stuffed between; while here and there we had to work our way through a tangled network of brushwood, and over broken rocks that seemed to have been piled together as stones for some giant’s sling. We found Panama an old-fashioned, irregular town, with queer stone houses, almost all of which had been turned by the traders into stores.
On my return to Navy Bay—or Colon, as the New Granadans would have it called—I again opened a store, and stayed there for three months or so. I did not find that society had improved much in my absence; indeed, it appeared to have grown more lawless. Endless quarrels, often resulting in bloodshed, took place between the strangers and the natives, and disturbed the peace of the town. Once the Spanish were incensed to such an extent, that they planned a general rising against the foreigners; [Pg 65]and but for the opportune arrival of an English war-steamer, the consequences might have been terrible. The Americans were well armed and ready; but the native population far outnumbered them.
Altogether, I was not sorry when an opportunity offered itself to do something at one of the stations of the New Granada Gold-mining Company, Escribanos, about seventy miles from Navy Bay. I made the journey there in a little vessel, all communication by land from Navy Bay being impossible, on account of the thick, dense forests, that would have resisted the attempts of an army to cut its way through them. As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way village-life of New Granada.
Escribanos is in the province of Veraguas, in the State of New Granada—information uninteresting enough, I have little doubt, to all but a very few of my readers. It lies near the mouth of a rivulet bearing that name, which, leaving the river Belen, runs away to the sea on its own account, about a mile from the mouth of that river. It is a great neighbourhood for gold-mines; and about that time companies and private individuals were trying hard to turn them to good account. Near it is the Fort Bowen mine, and several others; some yielding silver, others gold ore, in small quantities. Others lie in the vicinity of the Palmilla—another river, which discharges itself into the sea about ten miles from Escribanos; and there were more eastward of it, near a similar river, the Coquelet. Legends were rife at that time, and they may be revived at no distant date, of the treasures to be found at Cucuyo, Zapetero, [Pg 66]Pananomé, and many other Indian villages on their banks, which in times gone by had yielded up golden treasures to the Old World. But at this time the yield of gold did not repay the labour and capital necessary to extract it from the quartz; and it can only prove successful if more economical methods can be discovered than those now used for that purpose.
Carlos Alexander, the alcalde of Escribanos, had made a good thing out of the gold mania. The mine had belonged to him; had been sold at a fine price, and, passing through several hands, had at last come into possession of the Company who were now working it; its former owner settling down as ruler over the little community of two hundred souls that had collected at Escribanos. He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whity-brown complexion and a pleasant name—Juliana.
Of this mine Mr. Day—by whose invitation, when I saw him at Navy Bay, I went there—was at that time superintendent. He was a distant connection of my late husband, and treated me with great kindness. Strangely enough, we met again in a far different part of the world, and became more closely connected. But I am anticipating.
The major part of the population of Escribanos, including even the women and children, worked at the mine. The labour was hard and disagreeable. I often used to watch them at their work; and would sometimes wander about by myself, thinking it possible that I might tumble [Pg 67]across some gold in my rambles. And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well. I think it was very wrong; but I kept the secret of the place from the alcalde and every one else, and filled some bottles with the precious dust, to carry down to Navy Bay. I did not go for some time; but when I did, one of my first visits was to a gold-buyer; and you can imagine my feelings when he coolly laughed, and told me it was some material (I forget its name) very like gold, but—valueless. The worst part of it was that, in my annoyance and shame, I threw all I had away, and among it some which I had reason to believe subsequently was genuine.
The landing at Escribanos was very difficult, and when the surf ran high, impossible; and I was once witness to a harrowing scene there. A little boat, manned by three sailors, grounded on a rock not far from shore, at a terrible season, when to reach it from the land was, after many attempts, found impossible. The hapless crew lingered on for two days, suffering cruelly from hunger and thirst, their cries ringing in our ears above the storm’s pitiless fury. On the third day, two of them took to the sea, and were drowned; the third was not strong enough to leave the boat, and died in it.
I did not stay long at Escribanos, on my first visit, as the alcalde’s guest; but, having made arrangements for a longer sojourn, I went back to Navy Bay, where I laid in a good stock of the stores I should have most use for, and returned to Escribanos in safety. I remained there some months, pleased with the novelty of [Pg 68]the life, and busy with schemes for seeking for—or, as the gold-diggers call it, prospecting for—other mines.
The foreigners were just as troublesome in this little out-of-the-way place as they were, and are, in every other part of Central America; and quarrels were as frequent in our little community as at Cruces or Navy Bay. Indeed, Alexander had hard work to maintain peace in his small kingdom; and although ably seconded by Mr. Day, more than once American disregard of his sway was almost too strong for him. Very often the few foreigners would quarrel among themselves; and once when they came to blows, and an Irishman was stabbed by an American named Campfield, the alcalde roused himself to punish the culprit. The native population were glad enough to have an American in their power; and when I heard Alexander give his men instructions to shoot the culprit if he resisted, I started off to his hut, and reached it in time to prevent bloodshed. He was taken and kept in confinement; and soft-hearted Juliana and I had enough to do to prevent his being made a stern example of. But we got him off for a fine of five hundred dollars.
Again the little community of Escribanos was very near getting up a revolution against its constituted government—a very common amusement in Central America. Twelve sailors, deserters from an American ship, found their way there, and before long plotted to dethrone Alexander, and take possession of the mine. Mr. Day gained information of their plan. The whole population of Escribanos were roused and warned; and arming a score of the boldest natives, he surrounded the house in which they were, and captured the conspirators, who were too much taken by [Pg 69]surprise to offer resistance, and sent them down to Navy Bay, there to be handed over to the Government whose service they had left.
Of course, my medical skill did not rust for want of practice at Escribanos. The place was not healthy, and strangers to the climate suffered severely. A surgeon himself, sent there by the West Granada Gold-mining Company, was glad to throw his physic to the dogs, and be cured in my way by mine; while I was fortunately able to nurse Mr. Day through a sharp attack of illness.
In consequence of the difficulty of communication with Navy Bay, our fare was of the simplest at Escribanos. It consisted mainly of salt meat, rice, and roasted Indian corn. The native fare was not tempting, and some of their delicacies were absolutely disgusting. With what pleasure, for instance, could one foreign to their tastes and habits dine off a roasted monkey, whose grilled head bore a strong resemblance to a negro baby’s? And yet the Indians used to bring them to us for sale, strung on a stick. They were worse still stewed in soup, when it was positively frightful to dip your ladle in unsuspectingly, and bring up what closely resembled a brown baby’s limb. I got on better with the parrots, and could agree with the “senorita, buono buono” with which the natives recommended them; and yet their flesh, what little there was of it, was very coarse and hard. Nor did I always refuse to concede praise to a squirrel, if well cooked. But although the flesh of the iguana—another favourite dish—was white and tender as any chicken, I never could stomach it. These iguanas are immense green lizards, or rather moderate-sized crocodiles, sometimes three feet in length, but weighing [Pg 70]generally about seven or eight pounds. The Indians used to bring them down in boats, alive, on their backs, with their legs tied behind them; so that they had the most comical look of distress it is possible to imagine. The Spanish Indians have a proverb referring to an iguana so bound, the purport of which has slipped from my memory, but which shows the habit to be an old one. Their eggs are highly prized, and their captors have a cruel habit of extracting these delicacies from them while alive, and roughly sewing up the wound, which I never could muster sufficient courage to witness.
The rivers near Escribanos were well stocked with crocodiles, the sea had its fair share of sharks, while on land you too often met with snakes and other venomous reptiles. The sting of some of them was very dangerous. One man, who was bitten when I was there, swelled to an enormous size, and bled even at the roots of his hair. The remedy of the natives appeared to be copious bleeding.
Before I left Escribanos I made a journey, in company with a gentleman named Little, my maid, and the alcalde’s daughter, into the interior of the country, for a short distance, following the course of the Palmilla river. This was for the purpose of prospecting a mine on that river, said to be obtainable at an easy price. Its course was a very winding one; and we often had to leave the canoe and walk through the shallow waters, that every now and then interfered with our progress. As we progressed, Little carefully sounded the channel of the river, with the view of ascertaining to what extent it was navigable.
The tropical scenery was very grand; but I am afraid I only marked what was most curious in it—at least, that [Pg 71]is foremost in my memory now. I know I wondered much what motive Nature could have had in twisting the roots and branches of the trees into such strange fantastic contortions. I watched with unfailing interest the birds and animals we disturbed in our progress, from the huge peccary or wild boar, that went tearing through the brushwood, to the tiniest bright-hued bird that dashed like a flash of many-coloured fire before our eyes. And very much surprised was I when the Indians stopped before a large tree, and on their making an incision in the bark with a matcheto (hatchet), there exuded a thick creamy liquid, which they wished me to taste, saying that this was the famous milk-tree. I needed some persuasion at first; but when I had tasted some upon a biscuit, I was so charmed with its flavour that I should soon have taken more than was good for me had not Mr. Little interfered with some judicious advice. We reached the mine, and brought back specimens of the quartz, some of which I have now.
Soon after this I left Escribanos, and stopping but a short time at Navy Bay, came on direct to England. I had claims on a Mining Company which are still unsatisfied; I had to look after my share in the Palmilla Mine speculation; and, above all, I had long been troubled with a secret desire to embark in a very novel speculation, about which I have as yet said nothing to the reader. But before I finally leave the republic of New Granada, I may be allowed to write a few words on the present aspect of affairs on the Isthmus of Panama.
Recent news from America bring the intelligence that the Government of the United States has at length succeeded in finding a reasonable excuse for exercising a [Pg 72]protectorate over, or in other words annexing, the Isthmus of Panama. To any one at all acquainted with American policy in Central America, this intelligence can give no surprise; our only wonder being that some such excuse was not made years ago. At this crisis, then, a few remarks from the humblest observer of life in the republic of New Granada must possess some interest for the curious, if not value.
I found something to admire in the people of New Granada, but not much; and I found very much more to condemn most unequivocally. Whatever was of any worth in their institutions, such as their comparative freedom, religious toleration, etc., was owing mainly to the negroes who had sought the protection of the republic. I found the Spanish Indians treacherous, passionate, and indolent, with no higher aim or object but simply to enjoy the present after their own torpid, useless fashion. Like most fallen nations, they are very conservative in their habits and principles; while the blacks are enterprising, and in their opinions incline not unnaturally to democracy. But for their old antipathy, there is no doubt that the negroes would lean towards America; but they gladly encourage the prejudice of the New Granadans, and foster it in every way. Hence the ceaseless quarrels which have disturbed Chagres and Panama, until it has become necessary for an American force to garrison those towns. For humanity and civilization’s sake, there can be little doubt as to the expediency of this step; but I should not be at all surprised to hear that the republic was preparing to make some show of resistance against its powerful brother; for, as the reader will have perceived, the New Granadans’ [Pg 73]experiences of American manners have not been favourable; and they do not know, as we do, how little real sympathy the Government of the United States has with the extreme class of its citizens who have made themselves so conspicuous in the great high-road to California.