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NATURALIST IN NICARAGUA.
Arrival at Greytown—The River San Juan—Silting up of the Harbour—Crossing the Bar—Lives lost on it — Sharks — Christopher Columbus—Appearance of the Town—Trade— Esealthiness of the Town and its probable cause—Comparison. between Greytown, Pernambuco, and Maceio—Wild Fruits— I’lants — Parrots, Toucans, and Tanagers—Butterflies and Beetles—Mimetic Forms— Alligators—Boy drowned at Blewfields by an Alligator—Their method of catching wild Pigs.
AT noon on the 15th February, 1868, the R.M.S.S. Solent, in which I was a passenger, anchored off Greytown, or San Juan del Norte, the Atlantic port of Nicaragua in Central America. We lay about a mile from the shore, and saw a low flat coast stretching before us. It was the delta of the river San Juan, into which flows the drainage of a great part of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and which is the outlet for the waters of the great lake of Nicaragua. Its water-shed extends to within a few miles of the Pacific, for here the isthmus of Central America, as in the great continents to the north and south of it, sends off by far the largest portion of its drainage to the Atlantic. In the rainy season the San Juan is a noble river, and even in the dry months, from March to June, there is sufficient water coming down from the lake to keep open a fine harbour, if it were not that about twenty miles above its mouth it begins to dissipate its force by sending off a large branch called the Colorado river, and lower down parts with more of its waters by side channels. Twenty years ago the main body of water ran past Greytown; there was then a magnificant port, and large ships sailed up to the town, but for several years past the Colorado branch has been taking away more and more of the waters, and the port of Greytown has in consequence silted up. All ships now have to lie off outside, and a shallow and, in heavy weather, dangerous bar has to be crossed. All we could see from the steamer was the sandy beach on which the white surf was breaking, and behind a fringe of bushes with a few coco-nut palms holding up their feathery crowns, and in the distance a low background of dark foliage. Before we anchored a gun was fired, and in quick answer to the signal some canoes, paddled by negroes of the Mosquito coast, here called “Caribs,” were seen crossing the bar, and in a few minutes they were alongside. Getting into one of the canoes with my boxes, I was rapidly paddled towards the shore. When we reached the bar we were dexterously taken over it—the Caribs waited just outside until a higher wave than 'usual came rolling in, then paddling with all their might we were carried over on its crest, and found ourselves in the smooth water of the river. Many lives have been lost on this bar. In 1872 the commander of the United States surveying expedition and six of his men were drowned in trying to cross it in
Ch. I.] ARRIVAL AT GREYTOWN. 3
heavy weather. Only a few mangled remnants of their bodies were ever found; for what adds to the horror of an upset at this place, and perhaps has unnerved many a man at a critical moment, is that large sharks swarm about the entrance to the river. We saw the fin of one, rising above the surface of the water as it swam lazily about; and the sailors of the mail steamers when lying off the port often amuse themselves by catching them with large hooks baited with pieces of meat. It is probable that it was at one of the mouths of the San Juan that Columbus, in his fourth voyage, lost a boat's crew who had been sent for wood and fresh water, and when returning were swamped on the bar. Columbus had rounded Cape Gracias a Dios four days before, and had sailed down the coast with a fair wind and tide, so that he might easily have reached the San Juan. Inside the bar we were in smooth water, for but a Small stream is discharged by this channel. On our right was a Sandy beach, on our left great beds of grass growing out of the shoal water—weedy banks filling up the once spacious harbour, and cattle wading amongst the long grass, where within the last twenty years a frigate has lain at anchor. Wading and aquatic birds are abundant in these marshes, amongst which white cranes and a chocolate brown jacana, with lemon yellow underwing, are the most conspicuous. A large alligator lazily crawled off a mud spit into the water, where he floated, showing only his eyes and the pointed scales of his back above the surface. The town was now in full view—neat, white painted houses, with plume-crowned palms rising amongst and over them; and we landed at
one of several wooden wharves that jut into the river.
Greytown, though only a small place, is one of the neatest tropical towns that I have visited. The houses, especially in the business portion of the town, are wellbuilt of wood, and painted white with brown roofs. Pretty flower gardens surround or front many of them. Others are nearly hidden amongst palms and bread-fruit, orange, mango, and other tropical fruit trees. A lovely creeper (Antigonon leptopus), with festoons of pink and rose-coloured flowers, adorns some of the gardens. It is called la vegessima, “the beautiful,” by the natives, and I found it afterwards growing wild in the provinces of Matagalpa and Segovia, where it was one of the great favourites of the flower-loving Indians. The land at Greytown and around it is perfectly level. The square, the open spaces, and many of the streets are covered with short grass that makes a beautiful sward to walk on.
The trade in the town is almost entirely in the hands of foreign residents, amongst whom Mr. Hollenbeck, a citizen of the United States, is one of the most enterprising. A considerable import trade is done with the States and England, and coffee, indigo, hides, cacao, sugar, logwood, and India-rubber are the principal exports. I called on Dr. Green, the British Consul, and found him a most courteous and amiable gentleman, ever ready to afford protection or advice to his countrymen, and on very friendly terms with the native authorities. He has lived for many years in Nicaragua, and his many charitable kindnesses, and especially the medical assistance that he renders in all cases of emergency, free of charge, have made him very popular at Greytown. His beautiful house and grounds, with a fine avenue of coconut trees in full bearing, form one of the most attractive
Ch. I.] CLIMATE OF GREYTOWN. 5
sights in Greytown. I found Mr. Paton, the vice-consul, equally obliging, and I am indebted to him for much information respecting the trade of the port, particularly with regard to the export of India-rubber, the development of which trade he was one of the first to encourage.
Behind the town there is a long lagoon, and for several miles back the land is quite level, and interspersed with lakes and ponds with much marshy ground. Perfectly level, surrounded by swamps, and without any system of drainage, either natural or artificial, excepting such as the Sandy soil affords, Greytown might be thought a very unhealthy site for a town. Notwithstanding, however, its apparent disadvantages, and that for nine months of the year it is subject to heavy tropical rains, it is comparatively healthy, and freer from fever than many places that appear at first sight better situated. Much is due to the porous sandy soil, but more I believe to what appears at first sight an element of danger, the perfect flatness of the ground. Where there are hills there must be hollows, and in these the air stagnates; whilst here, where the land is quite level, the trade winds that blow pretty constantly find their way to every part, and carry off the emanations from the soil. As a similar instance I may mention the city of Pernambuco, on the eastern coast of Brazil, containing 80,000 inhabitants. It is perfectly level like Greytown, surrounded and intersected with channels of water, above the level of which it only stands a few feet. The crowded parts of the town are noted for their evilsmells and filth, but, though entirely without drainage it is noted for its healthiness; whilst a little lower down the coast the town of Maceio, situated about sixty feet above the sea, Surrounded by undulating