Page images
PDF
EPUB

rapids of Castillo, which are difficult to ascend, and as there is no road round them excepting through the town of Castillo, advantage has been taken of the situation to fix the custom-house there, where are collected the duties on all articles going up to the interior. The first view of Castillo when coming up the river is a fine one. The fort-crowned hill and the little town clinging to its foot form the centre of the picture. The clear, sparkling, dancing rapids on one side contrast with the still, dark forest on the other, whilst the whole is relieved by the bright green grassy hills in the background. This view is the only pleasant recollection I have carried away of the place. The single street is narrow, dirty, and rugged, and when the shades of evening begin to creep up, swarms of mosquitoes issue forth to buzz and bite.

I here made the acquaintance of Colonel M‘Crae, who was largely concerned in the india-rubber trade. He afterwards distinguished himself during the revolutionary outbreak of 1869. He collected the rubber men and came to the assistance of the government, helping greatly to put down the insurrection. Originally a British subject, but now a naturalised Nicaraguan, he has filled with great credit for some time the post of deputy-governor of Greytown, and I always heard him spoken of with great esteem both by Nicaraguans and foreigners. He showed to me pieces of cordage, pottery, and stone implements brought down by the rubber men from the wild Indians of the Rio Frio. Castillo is one of the centres of the rubber trade. Parties of men are here fitted out with canoes and provisions, and proceed up the rivers, far into the uninhabited forests of the Atlantic slope. They remain for several months away, and are ex

[blocks in formation]

pected to bring the rubber they obtain to the merchants who have fitted them out, but very many prove faithless, and carry off their produce to other towns, where they have no difficulty in finding purchasers. Notwithstanding these losses, the merchants engaged in the rubber trade have done well; its steadily increasing value during the last few years having made the business a highly remunerative one. According to the information supplied to me at Greytown by Mr. Paton, the exports of rubber from that port had increased from 401,475 lbs., valued at 112,413 dollars, in 1867, to 754,886 lbs., valued at 226,465 dollars, in 1871. India-rubber was well known to the ancient inhabitants of Central America. Before the Spanish conquest the Mexicans played with balls made from it, and it still bears its Aztec name of Ulli, from which the Spaniards call the collectors of it Ulleros. It is obtained from quite a different tree, and prepared in a different manner, from the rubber of the Amazons. The latter is taken from the Siphonia elastica, a Euphorbiaceous tree; but in Central America the tree that yields it is a species of wild fig (Castilloa elastica). It is easily known by its large leaves, and I saw several whilst ascending the river. When the collectors find an untapped one in the forest, they first make a ladder out of the lianas or “vejuccos” that hang from every tree; this they do by tying short pieces of wood across them with small lianas, many of which are as tough as cord. They then proceed to score the bark, with cuts which extend nearly round the tree like the letter V, the point being downwards. A cut like this is made about every three feet all the way up the trunk. The milk will all run out of a tree in about an hour after it is cut, and is collected into a large tin bottle made flat on one side and furnished with straps to fix on to a man's back. A decoction is made from a liana (Calonyction speciosum), and this on being added to the milk, in the proportion of one pint to a gallon, coagulates it to rubber, which is made into round flat cakes. A large tree, five feet in diameter, will yield when first cut about twenty gallons of milk, each gallon of which makes two and a half pounds of rubber. I was told that the tree recovers from the wounds and may be cut again after the lapse of a few months; but several that I saw were killed through the large Harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus) laying its eggs in the cuts, and the grubs that are hatched boring great holes all through the trunk. When these grubs are at work you can hear their rasping by standing at the bottom of the tree, and the wood-dust thrown out of their burrows accumulates in heaps on the ground below. The Government attempts no supervision of the forests : any one may cut the trees, and great destruction is going on amongst them through the young ones being tapped as well as the full-grown ones. The tree grows very quickly, and plantations of it might easily be made, which would in the course of ten or twelve years become highly remunerative.

We left Castillo at daylight the next morning, and continued our journey up the river. Its banks presented but little change. We saw many tall graceful palms and tree ferns, but most of the trees were dicotyledons. Amongst these the mahogany (Swietonia mahogani) and the cedar (Cedrela odorata) are now rare near the river, but a few such trees were pointed out to me. High up in one tree, underneath which we passed, were

Ch. III.]

REACH THE LAKE.

seated some of the black Congo monkeys (Mycetes palliatus) which at times, especially before rain and at nightfall, make a fearful howling, though not so loud as the Brazilian species. Screaming macaws, in their gorgeous livery of blue, yellow, and scarlet, occasionally flew overhead, and tanagers and toucans were not uncommon.

Twelve miles above Castillo we reached the mouth of the Savallo, and stayed at a house there to breakfast, the owner, a German, giving us roast wari, fowls, and eggs. He told me that there was a hot spring up the Savallo, but I had not time to go and see it. Above Savallo the San Juan is deep and sluggish, the banks low and swampy. The large palm, so common in the delta of the river, here reappeared with its great coarse leaves twenty feet in length, springing from near the ground.

Our boatmen continued to paddle all day, and as night approached redoubled their exertions, singing to the stroke of their paddles. I was astonished at their endurance. They kept on until eleven o'clock at night, when we reached San Carlos, having accomplished about thirty-five miles during the day against the current. San Carlos is at the head of the river, where it issues from the great lake of Nicaragua, about one hundred and twenty miles from Greytown. The mean level of the waters of the lake, according to the survey of Colonel 0. W. Childs, in 1851, is 1071 feet, so that the river falls on an average a little less than one foot per mile. The height of the lowest pass between the lake and the Pacific is said to be twenty-six feet above the lake, therefore at that point the highest elevation between the two oceans is only about 133 feet; but even allowing that an error of a few feet may be discovered when a thorough

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 the 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 could be effected by steam power, so that it would not be necessary to bring such a multitude of labourers to the isthmus as would be required if a canal were cut from the river; the whole track, moreover, 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

* Since the publication of the first edition of this work the commissioners, appointed by the Government of the United States to examine into the practicability of making a canal across the isthmus, have reported in favour of the Nicaraguan route. The total cost is estimated at £12,250,000 sterling.

« EelmineJätka »