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We reached Totagalpa about eleven o'clock, and remained there some time engaging labourers. We stayed at the house of a man who made the common palm-leaf hats, worn throughout the central provinces by both men and women. The palm-leaves are first boiled, then bleached in the sun, split into small strips, and platted together like straw. It was Sunday, and most of the people were in town, sitting at the doors of their huts, or under their verandahs. Nearly all the inhabitants of Totagalpa are pure Indians, and are simple and inoffensive people. They sat listening to three men, one with a whistle, the others with drums, each striving to make as much noise as possible, without any attempt at harmony or tune, whilst an enthusiast in discord kept clanging away at the bells of the church.
They had no padre of their own, but one occasionally came over from Somoti, four leagues distant, to celebrate services, or visit the sick. The next day was the great feast of Totagalpa, and they were preparing for it. As we sat under a verandah opposite the church, a procession of the town authorities issued from it, bearing a table and all the silver and brass ornaments. The principal officials each carried his stick of office, but none, excepting the Alcalde, could boast a pair of shoes. Their looks of importance and gravity showed, however, that they considered themselves the chief actors in an important ceremony. The procession slowly traversed half the round of the plaza, whilst the bells clanged, the whistle squeaked, and the drummers thumped their loudest. Stopping at a house at the corner of the plaza, the officials seated themselves on a bench outside.
Then was brought out to them in bowls, nearly as large as wash-hand basins, the old Indian drink, “ chicha,” made from fermented corn and sugar. Each man had one of the great bowls and a napkin; the latter they spread over their knees, and rested the bowl on it, taking long sips every now and then with evident signs of satisfaction. Little have these people changed from the times of the Conquest. Pascual de Andagoya, writing of the people of Nicaragua when they were first subjugated by Hernandez de Cordova, in 1520, says, “The whole happiness of the people consists in drinking the wine they make from maize, which is like beer, and on this they get as drunk as if it was the wine of Spain ; and all the festivals they hold are for the purpose of drinking *
The cross, candlesticks, and other ornaments were arranged on a table, and were each carefully and solemnly washed with hot water. This they do every year the day before their feast, and it makes the occasion for the procession and chicha-drinking. Most of the men of the township were gathered around, and in all, the straight coarse black hair and Indian features were unmistakable. The chicha-drinking was too long a business for our patience, and we went over to the church, where we found a number of the Indian women with great baskets full of most beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers, making garlands and bouquets to decorate the holy images and church. The beautiful flowers were twined in wreaths, or stuck on prepared stands and shapes, and their fragrance filled the church. The love
* Hakluyt Society. “Narrative of Pascual de Andagoya.” Trans. by C. R. Markham, p. 34.
of flowers is another beautiful trait of the old Indians that their descendants have not lost. The ancient Mexicans decorated their altars and temples with flowers, and in their festivals crowned themselves with garlands.
I mentioned the glistening white tower of the church in the account of our journey out. I now learnt that it was only finished the year before our visit, and had cost these poor people over 700 dollars in money, besides gifts of stone, wood, and labour amounting to more than as much again. At other Mestizo towns, where the churches were like dilapidated barns, we heard much of the religious fervour of the Indians of Totagalpa. At one time, when building the tower, both their funds and the lime were exhausted. In this strait the Alcalde called the people of the town together, and told them that the tower, on the building of which they had already spent so much, could not be finished without lime. Then and there they determined themselves to carry the limestone from the quarries, near Ocotal, ten miles distant. Next morning, before daylight, the whole village set out, and at night a long line of men, women, and children came staggering back into Totagalpa, every one with a block of limestone; and so zealous were they to bring as large stones as they could carry, that some of them had great sores worn between their shoulders where they carried their loads, slung, Indian fashion, from their foreheads. Here survives the same old Indian spirit, only turned in another direction, that impelled their forefathers, with great labour and patience, to bring from a distance and pile up great cairns of stones over the graves of their chieftains.
DEVOTION TO THE PRIESTS.
This care of their church is quite spontaneous on their part, as they have no padre; indeed, from my experience of the priests in other towns, I think it likely that if they had one, he would intercept most of the offerings expended on the church and images. There are exceptions, but generally the padres of Central America are rapacious and immoral. They are much now as they were in Thomas Gage's time, more than two hundred years ago, and the poor Indians are just as humble and respectful to them. In his quaint book, "A New Survey of the West Indies,” he says: “ Above all, to their priest they are very respectful; and when they come to speak to him put on their best clothes and study their words and compliments to please him. They yielded to the popish religion, especially to the worshipping of saints' images, because they look upon them as much like their forefathers' idols. Out of the smallest of their means they will be sure to buy some of these saints, and bring them to the church that they may stand and be worshipped by them and others. The churches are full of them, and they are placed upon stands, gilded and painted, to be carried in procession on their proper day. And hence comes no small profit to the priests; for on such saints' days the owner of the saint makes à great feast in the town, and presents the priest sometimes two or three, sometimes four or five crowns for his mass and sermon, besides a turkey and three or four fowls, with as much cacao as will make him chocolate for all the octave or eight days following. The priest, therefore, is very watchful over these saints' days, and sends warning beforehand to the Indians of the day of their saint. If they contribute not bounti
fully, then the priest will chide and threaten that he will not preach.”*
When we left Totagalpa, they were still drinking “chicha ;” and I shall not forget the solemn satisfied look of the shoeless corporation, as they sipped their drink in sight of their townspeople, now and then singling out some friend, to whom they signed to come and quaff at the big bowl. The warm drink had loosened the tongue of the solemn alcalde. He came, and with many compliments, wished us a good journey. He, good man, had reached the summit of his ambition-he was the chief of his native town; he wore shoes; and what more could he hope for or desire ?
The central Government interferes but little with the local officials; and the small towns in the interior are almost self-governed. Neither do they pay any direct taxes, the only contributions to the national exchequer being fees for killing cattle, selling land or houses, and making agreements, and a Government monopoly in the sale of tobacco and spirits. So the country folks lead an easy life, excepting in times of revolution, when they are pressed into the army. The Indian townships are better managed than those of the Spaniards and Mestizos ; the plazas are kept freer from weeds, and the roads in good order. Probably nowhere but in tropical America can it be said that the introduction of European civilisation has caused a retrogression; and that those communities are the happiest and the best-governed who retain most of their old customs and habits. Yet there it is so. The civilisation that Cortez overthrew was more suitable for the Indians than that which has
* Loc. cit., pp. 332-334.