Page images
PDF
EPUB

survey is made across from sea to sea, there can be no doubt that at this point occurs the lowest pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific in Central America. This fact, and the immense natural reservoir, of water near the head of the navigation, point out this route as a practicable one for a ship canal between the two oceans.

Instead of cutting a canal from the head of the delta of the San Juan to the sea, as has been proposed, the Colorado branch might be straightened, and dredged to the required depth. Higher up, the Torre Castillo and Machuca Rapids form natural dams across the river. These might be raised, locks formed round them, and the water deepened by dredging between them. In this way the great expense of cutting a canal, and the fearful mortality that always arises amongst the labourers when excavations are made in the virgin soil of the tropics, especially in marshy lands, would be greatly lessened between the lake and the Atlantic. Another great advantage would be that the deepening of the river would be effected by steam power, so that it would not be required to bring such a multitude of labourers to the isthmus as would be necessary if a canal were cut from the river; the whole track, morever, passes through virgin forests rich in inexhaustible supplies of fuel.

San Carlos is a small town at the foot of the great lake, where it empties its waters into the San Juan river, its only outlet to the ocean. On a hill behind the town, and commanding the entrance to the river, are the ruins of a once strong fort built by the Spaniards, the crumbling walls now green with the delicate fronds of a maidenhair fern (Adiantum). The little town consists of a single rugged street leading up from the lake. The

Ch. III.]

WILD INDIANS.

37

houses are mostly palm-thatched huts, with the bare earth floors seldom or never swept. The people are of mixed origin, Indian, Spanish, and Negro, the Indian element predominating. Two or three better built stores, and the quarters of the military governor, redeem the place from an appearance of utter squalor. Behind the town there are a few small clearings in the forest, where maize is grown. Some orange, banana, and plantain trees exhaust the list of the productions of San Carlos, which is supported by being a calling place for all vessels proceeding up and down the river, and by the Ulleros or rubber-men who start from it for expeditions up the Rio Frio and other rivers. We found there two men who had just been brought down the Rio Frio by their companions, greatly injured by the lianas, up which they had made their ladder to ascend one of the rubber trees, having broken and precipitated them to the ground. I learnt that this was a very unusual accident, the lianas generally being very tough and strong, like

great cables.

Most fabulous stories have been told about the Rio Frio and its inhabitants; stories of great cities, golden ornaments, and light-haired people; it may be useful, therefore, to relate what is known about it.

The Rio Frio comes down from the interior of Costa Rica, and joins the San Juan, near where the latter issues from the lake. The banks of its upper waters are inhabited by a race of Indians who have never been subjected by the Spaniards, and about whom very little is known. They are called Guatuses, and have been said to have red or light-coloured hair and European features, to account for which various ingenious theories have been advanced; but, unfortunately for these speculations, some children, and even adults, have been captured and brought down the river by the Ulleros, and all these have the usual features and coarse black hair of the Indians. One little child that Dr. Seemann and I saw at San Carlos, in 1870, had a few brownish hairs amongst the great mass of black ones; but this character may be found amongst many of the indigenes, and may result from a very slight admixture of foreign blood. I have seen altogether five children from the Rio Frio, and a boy about sixteen years of age, and they had all the common Indian features and hair; though it struck me that they appeared rather more intelligent than the generality of Indians. Besides these, an adult woman was captured by the rubber-men and brought down to Castillo, and I was told by several who had seen her that she did not differ in any way from the usual Indian type.

The Guatuse (pronounced Watúsa) is an animal about the size of a hare, very common in Central America, and good eating. It has reddish-brown fur, and the usual explanation of the Nicaraguans is that the Indians of the Rio Frio were called “Guatuses” because they had red hair. It is very common to find the Indian tribes of America called after different wild animals, and my own opinion is that the origin of the fable about the red hair was a theory to explain why they were called Guatuses; for the natives of Nicaragua, and of parts much nearer home, are fond of giving fanciful explanations of the names of places and things: thus, I have been assured by an intelligent and educated Nicaraguan, that Guatemala was so called by the Spaniards because they found

Ch. III.)

TREATMENT OF INDIANS.

39

ול

arrows.

the guaté (a kind of gnat) was in that country bad, hence “guaté malo," “ bad guaté,”—whereas every student of Mexican history knows that the name was the Spanish attempt to pronounce the old Aztec one of Quauhtemallan, which meant the land of the Eagle. I shall have other occasions, in the course of my narrative, to show how careful a traveller in Central America must be not to accept the explanations of the natives of the names of places and things.

The first people who ascended the Rio Frio were attacked by the Indians, who killed several with their

Exaggerated opinions of their ferocity and courage were in consequence a long time prevalent, and the river remained unknown and unexplored, and probably would have done so to the present day, if it had not beon for the rubber-men. When the trade in indian rubber became fully developed, the trees in the more accessible parts of the forest were soon exhausted, and the collectors were obliged to penetrate farther and farther back into the untrodden wilds of the Atlantic slope. Some more adventurous than others ascended the Rio Frio, and being well provided with firearms, which they mercilessly used, they were able to defy the poor Indians, armed only with spears and bows and arrows, and to drive them back into the woods. The first Ulleros who ascended the river were so successful in finding rubber, that various other parties were organised, and now an ascent of the Rio Frio from San Carlos is of common occurrence. The poor Indians are now in such dread of firearms, that on the first appearance of a boat coming up the river they desert their houses and run into the woods for shelter. The Ulleros rush on shore and seize everything that the poor fugitives may have left behind them; but in some cases they have not been able to carry off their children, and these have been brought down in triumph to San Carlos. Their excuse for carrying off the children is that they may be baptized and made Christians; and I am sorry to say that this shameful treatment of the poor Indians is countenanced and connived at by the authorities. I was told of one commandante at San Carlos who had manned some canoes and proceeded up the river as far as the plantain grounds of the Indians, loaded his boats with the plantains, and brought them down to San Carlos, where the people appear to be too indolent to grow them themselves. All who have ascended the river speak of the great quantities of plantains that the Guatuses grow, and this fruit, and the abundant fish of the river, form their principal food. Their houses are large sheds open at the sides, and thatched with the “suiti” palm. As is often the case amongst the Indians, several families live in one house. The floor is kept well cleaned. I was amused with a lady in San Carlos who, in describing their well-kept houses to Dr. Seemann and myself, pointed to her own unswept and littered earth floor and said, “They keep their houses very, very clean-as clean as this." The lad and the woman who were captured and brought down the Rio Frio both ran away--the one from San Carlos, the other from Castillo; but neither was able to get back to their country, on account of the swamps and rivers in their way, and after wandering about the woods for some time were recaptured. I saw the lad soon after he was taken the second time. He had been a month in the woods,

« EelmineJätka »