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A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter II. My First River Expedition

WE have no roads in British Honduras! The chief means of communication in the interior, as one proceeds from the coast, are the rivers; and as Belize, with its two well-worked parishes of St. John's, under Canon Davies, who has lately undertaken it, and St. Mary's, under Archdeacon Murray, now in his twenty-second year of service, does not differ from an ordinary town at home as to methods of working and results, I will take my readers with me therefore for a river expedition.

Let us take the Rio Viejo, or Old River. I give its Spanish name because, as the Spanish-speaking country of Guatemala is close at hand, many names are expressed in that language along the rivers, and many of the labourers are of that nationality, though the prevailing language throughout the Diocese, of course, is English.

We will go in a little gasoline launch, with a permanent wooden canopy overhead as a protection from the sun, and a space for ourselves, just sufficient for two people to sit by day, and have a little canvas camp table for food, and to contain their little camp beds by night. We have a crew of four: the captain who steers, an engineer, a cook, and an odd boy.

We don't propose to give the cook anything to do, though the men will need him, for we ourselves take a travelling basket in which there is a kettle for our tea, and a saucepan to boil eggs, and knives and forks and plates, etc. etc. We pack cooked food also -into little enamel receptacles which fit easily inside the basket, and so are quite complete. Just a word or two about the food, for it is always the same: eggs, cold roasted fowls, bread, and Bartley's tinned pears.

And I dare say some of my readers may be thinking, "And they do themselves pretty well, too"; but I can only say that there are fowls and fowls, and that the fowls of British Honduras must be very fair athletes from a very early age, if one is to judge from the strength of their steel-like muscles when they are killed and cooked. Often one has had to press one's hardest with one's knife upon the breast of the creature, only to see the flesh spring back into its place again, like indiarubber, when one has taken the knife away. Still, one can get on very fairly well with pears and eggs and bread, which are all good, and bear with composure another roast fowl, sure to appear as the pidce de resistance upon one's host's table when we arrive at our destination.

How delightful those river expeditions are to recall! We go swiftly up stream, making a refreshing breeze all the time as we meet the air, the banks full of interest and variety on either side, and stopping now and then to see some interesting form of life--for my son is an ardent naturalist--or to deliver something brought up by the crew for friends they know.

It is my own boat for the time being, as I have had to hire or charter it at my own expense, or otherwise some twenty-six or twenty-eight people would have been forced into that space which, when our own little camp beds were put up side by side at night, left no further room!

This hardly seems to be credible, I know, but the proprietors told me that it would be so if I went as a passenger. "We would take you for nothing, Bishop," they said, "as an ordinary passenger, but as Churchmen we advise you not to go, for you have not the least idea what it will be like." I took their advice and hired the boat at considerable expense, and when later on I saw the twenty-eight people, men, women and children, and their dogs and parrots and parcels and bags, which were going up in her on the boat's next trip, I could only feel thankful I had done so.

Later still, on the Nicaraguan coast, I was to learn what it means to be in an open boat upon the sea, with so many crowded together that it is impossible to sit, lie, walk, stand, sleep or eat with anything approaching convenience, and in which there is no provision whatever made for the ordinary decencies and necessities of life.

We go on steadily, up towards the Guatemala frontier, along our winding river, sometimes through miles of mangrove on either hand (the tendrils of which come down into the river, and then, taking root, again grow upwards), butterflies and brilliantly coloured birds fluttering through their branches; and, as the country opens out a little, pretty houses painted in different shades of red and green, white predominating, with negroes now and then coming to the banks to see us pass by.

It is full of interest and variety, this first river journey. Canoes, or doreys, as they are called when of the "dug-out" order, with picturesque occupants, laden with fruit or household stuff, are always meeting us or being overtaken, for the paddle is no match for our little gas engine. At times we come to shallows, where even our very flat-bottomed boat has to be carefully steered lest she gets aground, and sometimes we come to rapids where the engine is not enough, and strong poles have to help us along; but one never gets tired of looking out on either hand.

At last the night comes on, and our beds have to be put together and rugs drawn up and we go to rest. The moon is up--we have had to reckon upon that, or travelling by night would have been impossible--and the last we see before going to sleep is as beautiful as it would be if seen by day, though colour now is gone and all is black or silver-white.

Such is a river journey, and in due time we arrive at our destination, El Cayo--eight miles from the frontier, and a place which will be important some day if the Colony gets its due development. There is a large gathering of folk to meet us. A doctor friend had lent us his house, but it only contained two beds, we found, and we had to send off the willing boys, who had carried up our belongings, to borrow the various things which were needed to complete even a very elementary manage; and speeding off in all directions they soon returned with the chairs, table, and fresh water and other things required. Our food we were to have with a Barbadian, a sidesman of the Church, and his kindly and hospitable wife.

It may be occurring to my reader's mind, "Why didn't they stay with the clergyman, I wonder, oral least go there for their meals?" But here is the rectory, which shall speak for itself. It rather recalls the historic minutes of a certain Colonial Diocese which, when being read, contained the entry, "A grant was made to the bishop for £20 to provide a palace"; but humble as it looks, the Rev. William Hope and his wife have lived there with their eight children for many years, and have brought them up as well, I venture to think, as sons and daughters are brought up in any rectory or vicarage at home. Mrs. Hope especially is a noble woman, a perfect heroine, and I cannot attempt to express the respect and regard I feel for women such as she is, who in lonely parts of the Empire all over the world to-day, are year after year doing their work in the home, church, school and station, with nothing at all to redeem what so many would feel the deadly monotony of it all, except the one ever-sweetening and supporting thought, "It is my duty."

It had long been an understood thing at El Cayo that, when it was known that the bishop had arrived, a Confirmation would follow that night without further notice. In many stations, as soon as one Confirmation is over they begin to have instruction for another, and so in a sense they are always prepared. In the afternoon I went to look at the church and shall never forget it. It was in a perfect "slough of despond"--with mud round about it on every side. Boards were laid down with a certain amount of foresight, but I should imagine it would be difficult to keep upon them at night, and, as a matter of fact, I had to mount a horse just before seven o'clock and go plunging through that thick and clinging mud in a way that reminded me of how mares are made to tread similar mud for brick making in Argentina. It was badly situated, that little church, and it was a meagre little building in itself, used for church, school, social gatherings, everything, though a great deal better, of course, than nothing.

In the afternoon I paid calls upon some of the people, the District Commissioner and others, and then came the Confirmation at seven o'clock. When the plunging steed aforesaid had delivered us in turn at the steps of the church, we robed in a tiny little space at the west end of the church, and then hurried out so that the little black boys could go in and put on their rags which went by the name of surplices. We sat down, to wait, on boxes which had contained kerosene, just outside, and looked at the little handful of children evidently full of curiosity, and the few candidates on the front seats, who made up all the congregation.

At this moment good Mr. Hope came up and said indignantly: "Just think, Bishop, one of my best candidates, a married woman, has sent me word that she can't come, as she has to put the children to bed! "

I don't think I have ever felt more dejected in my life at the prospects of a Service than I did that night when going up the centre of that little shanty church singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers." But you never can tell! All the candidates but two, I found, were there, and the church had filled up--was crowded, indeed--when I began the first address. There was no mistaking the spiritual earnestness that soon made itself felt in that little eager gathering, and I have never felt more moved in pleading for the great neglected Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, than I did that night in the second address to the newly confirmed and those who were present with them.

I noted one old negress particularly, frail and feeble and almost crippled with rheumatism, as she made her way in, coming rather late, and moving with difficulty up to one of the front seats with the candidates, sinking down with evident satisfaction and relief. With what devout interest she followed that service! how eagerly she listened to the message as embodied in the invitation, to be repeated again in the early morning, "Come unto Me, all ye that travail"! That eager face I shall not soon forget, and I was to hear of it again.

At the early Celebration she was there again, and all the confirmed, and many others with them. It was a goodly gathering, and one to rejoice the heart.

"Do you think," I said to my host as I sat at breakfast in his little hut, "that there were many there who had not been before for any length of time?"

"I'm sure of it," he said; "and one man, I know, had not been to Communion for fourteen years." And then he added hesitatingly and shyly, "And that man, Bishop, was myself!"

We at once grasped hands across the table, and I spoke my few words of congratulation and good cheer.

It was most encouraging, and as I finished breakfast I said to myself, "I'll go round now and see what my friend is like who wouldn't come because she was putting her children to bed." Just outside a girl of seventeen came up to me, eager and almost breathless, and looking very ill, and at once began:

"Oh, Bishop, I'm so sorry. I was to be confirmed last night, but I was down with fever and could not get up, but I've come this morning."

"How far, my child?" I said. "Three miles," she answered. Under the hot sun, with the fever on her, she had toiled painfully along the river-side lest she should miss her Confirmation!

"Come with me," I said. "Of course I'll confirm you, and gladly." And then, going on, I reached the little abode of that over-solicitous mother of the night before.

How little one can judge by what one hears!

She began at once: "Oh, Bishop, I'm so glad to see you! I ought to have come last night, but I have an old mother, crippled and feeble, and who hasn't long to live, and who had set her heart on coming to hear you and be at the Confirmation. One of us would have had to stop at home and take care of the children, for they can't be left, and as every neighbour wanted to be there I thought I ought to give way. I hope you'll think I did right, for you don't know what those services have been to my old mother."

I did know, for I had already seen that "old mother's face" in Church, and one entered very thoughtfully upon the confirmation of her daughter.

In the afternoon a young man of twenty-two came to see me, having heard far away in the woods that there was a Confirmation, and who, I could see, had had little or no instruction; but the leading and direct question, "Why do you want to be confirmed?" brought such a straight and earnest answer, that I thought it quite worth while to give up the greater part of the afternoon to his instruction, and at Evensong, he also professed Christ before men "in the presence of God and of that congregation."

These are the incidental experiences of a bishop in a Diocese like mine, where occasional and individual Confirmations are quite as interesting and encouraging as the usual and ordinary Services.

And so the time at the Cayo passes away--business, receptions, committees, services, special calls, and so on. One gets a ride in a marvellous forest high above the river, one's steed taking sudden leaps in noticing dangers such as snakes unnoticed by one's self, but causing imminent peril from branches overhead, and on coming to an open space dashing across at an exhilarating gallop. Then the chief landowner decides that he will give me land in a better position, away from that appalling mud, and bordering upon the future main road, for a new church, and thankfully I help him to measure off the space.

Since then I have got the money required--.£300--and long ago those rags of my first night's Service have been replaced by red cassocks--a black face looks so odd above a black one, and it charms the negro boys to feel that they are attired like the boys of Westminster Abbey--and new white surplices, and all other kinds of additions and improvements have been added to the little church. One has much to be thankful for since that first episcopal visit!

The District Commissioner appeared just after the marking off of the land, and proposed that I should accompany him on an expedition to the Guatemala frontier only eight miles away, but I found it would take eight hours because of the mud, and had to decline.

Instead, I had to pay a sick visit which is worth remembering. "There are two men down with fever, Bishop, and the doctor" (we were occupying his house) "is far away. Will you come and see them?" Off we went to a little hut where the two negroes were lying upon their beds, in opposite corners, very weak and evidently in great pain. One was a fine, strongly-built fellow, and the other less robust, but both of them greeted me with very wistful and rather hopeless looks. I talked to them and cheered them up, and then gave them my usual remedies in such cases, phenacetin to lessen the temperature and relieve the throbbing headache, and then tabloids of quinine to be taken regularly after about three hours to tone and brace up.

When I went in next day the strong fellow was up and smiling. "Before the door had closed almost, Bishop, I was asleep, and when I woke up my headache had gone, and I began to take the quinine, and now the fever is all gone to-day." I turned to the other, and he too said cheerfully, "And I'm better too"; but I saw through the effort and felt it was a serious case, and so, after consulting his mates, decided to take him down the river with us that night. His gratitude was very touching, and having chartered the boat and being able to do what one liked with it, we were able to take him with us, for he would certainly have died if left.

His friends carried him to the boat, and we took every care of him and got him into the hospital at Belize, where he had a long time of it, but eventually recovered; and a year later, when I was again at the Cathedral for a Confirmation, he was one of those upon whom I had to "lay hands." It is a great thing to feel that one has had the privilege of saving a fellow creature's life.

When we left El Cayo it was as picturesque a sight as one could ever wish to see. The moon was at the full, a small band had escorted us down, the people were gathered together, nearly all in white, their usual dress for going to church, standing on a great bluff above the river. Our little boat looked very pretty with its hurricane bumps all brightly burning. Even the sick man on his spring mattress, which we had been able to supply, was full of interest and animation, and all kinds of salutations and "Good-byes" and "God bless yous" were exchanged as we first shot up the river past the bluff in order to turn, and then went swiftly down, this time greatly helped by the stream; and soon El Cayo had faded from our view.

We talked over our stirring experiences (and it was that night I determined that I must write a book like this), and then our little camp beds were unpacked, put together and set up, our rugs drawn over us, and by ten o'clock we were fast asleep.

One sleeps soundly in the tropics in the open air in a river or coasting boat, but we were not destined to do so that night. About half-past one we were roused by a startling crash, and I found myself sitting up, covered with the wood of the broken canopy overhead, wondering what had happened. A great flare went up from the little gas engine, and then went out. From the river came the panting of a man swimming for his life, for it swarmed with alligators.

We had suddenly smashed into a tree which had fallen across the river since we had passed up, and which a slight mist above the water had prevented our captain from seeing. Its branches had swept our sleeping cook in his hammock straight into the river, and it was his effort to regain the boat we had heard. The shock had destroyed the engine and injured our wooden canopy, but mercifully no further harm was done. With a similar experience, a little later, three people lost their lives, so we have ever since felt devoutly thankful for our own escape. The negro mechanics on these boats are most handy men, and it was astonishing how ours was able to repair that hopeless-looking engine and so enable us in a few hours to go on, and reach Belize again only a very little later than our expected time.

This is a fair sample of an episcopal visit to a lonely station, just as one would go up the New River also, though it is narrower than the Old. There, however, the steamer simply rips its way in places through the foliage, strewing its deck with leaves and branches, up to lonely Orange Walk, where the Rev. F. E. Smith and his devoted wife--and a large family--live and do just the same good work with nothing to keep them up but that simple wish to do their duty which one met with at El Cayo.

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