Saturday, November 13, 2010

Stephens and Catherwood (1)

"Being intrusted by the President with a Special Confidential Mission to Central America, on Wednesday the third of October, 1839, I embarked on board the British brig Mary Ann, Hampton, master, for the Bay of Honduras."

This week I not only discovered that I could add John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52) as a Facebook friend, but also that his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan has been serialised as an online journal, starting with his arrival in 'Balize' in the autumn of 1839.

Anyone with the most minimal interest in this region ought to at least take a peak at the four volumes comprising Stephens's account of his two expeditions to Central America, each time accompanied by the British architect and artist Frederick Catherwood. I discovered these two wonderfully urbane gents at univesity and have periodically returned to the Incidents for a spot of vicarious adventure.

The original expedition might have kick-started the modern profession of Mayanism, but its original fact-finding intent was not explicitly archaeological, for the secret and confidential nature of the mission had more to do with finding out on behalf of the US Government who exactly might be in charge of its equivalent down here. As Stephens explains...

"Three great parties at that time distracted Central America: that of Morazan, the former president of the Republic, in San Salvador, of Ferrera, in Honduras, and of Carrera in Guatemala..then regarded as the head of a troop of banditti, a robber and an assassin; his followers were called the Cachurecos (meaning false coin)."

Stephens and Catherwood would soon be trying what the Canonigo Castillo in Guatemala "called the 'national dish', fregoles, or black beans fried, which fortunately for our subsequent travels, we 'cottoned' to at once." Don't we all?

Another familiar impression was the one Stephens formed on the state of Guatemala's most important highways. I've quoted this before, but it can bear a reprise:

"This is the great high road to the city of Guatemala, which has always been a place of distinction in Spanish America. Almost all the travel and merchandise from Europe passes over it; and our guide said that the reason it was so bad was because it was traversed by so many mules. In some countries this would be a reason for making it better; but it was pleasant to find that the people to whom I was accredited were relieved from one of the sources of contention at home, and did not trouble themselves with the complicated questions attendant upon internal improvements."

Welcome to Guateliving, as someone used to say!

Anyway, tomorrow we'll yank the pair back to the harbour of Belize City, where their adventure began, and where Stephens had to come to terms with the first great marvel of the isthmus, that tiny metropolis's fairly advanced state of racial integration.

1 comment:

norm said...

I did a good bit of the old Royal Road last time down. Much of it was still very rough, an average of 10 miles an hour was not uncommon but the country was outstanding. Well worth the effort.