Project Canterbury

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 VI. Earthquakes and Volcanoes

CENTRAL AMERICA is the land of earthquakes and volcanoes! The latter help to make its scenery amongst the most magnificent in the world, but the former make parts of it very terrible places in which to live! I gained my first experience of what an earthquake can do when I first visited Antigua, the ancient capital of Guatemala, early in the year 1909. It would be difficult to recall a more instructive and delightful experience.

We left--my son and I and a friend--the City of Guatemala one evening about four, mounted on mules, with a "boy" in attendance, and rode on steadily for many miles over roads upon which there was hardly one bit of level ground the whole way, and containing vast holes in which our whole company could have camped for the night, and over which our mules had to leap and spring rather than canter.

Just after sunset we passed through the ancient Indian village of Mixco, where the people seemed much astonished at the time chosen for our journey, as we were passing out from the feeble lights of the village into complete darkness; but our friend and guide knew what he was about, and led the way up the side of the mountain which rises above Mixco. None but mules could have made that climb in the dark. Surefooted beasts as they are, they stumbled about amid the stones and the rough, uneven ground, and made false steps, and took wrong turns now and then, but one gave them the rein freely--and wisely--and in due time we were on the top of the range; and then our guide bade us turn and look below. It was for this we had come!

Far, far down in that great void beneath, and at vast distance, twinkled the diamond lights of Guatemala City, which we had left hours before. There it was, a great cluster of lights in the midst of utter and complete darkness, and in the most perfect stillness, and we were breathing in the nippingly cold air as we rested! We could hardly believe it was the Tropics! It was a unique experience.

The descent, on the other side of the range, was an even more trying experience; but we toiled on, turning in at a little tienda about nine to eat our sandwiches in the one room it contained, where children were lying on the mud floor covered with rugs and already fast asleep, and one feeble and guttering candle was our only light. Then we passed strange, weird-looking horsemen, who gave us curt "buena noche" as they went by; and about midnight we were riding through Antigua, under the light of the moon, which had now risen.

There can be nothing like Antigua in the world, and there can be no time so impressive for a first view of it as the moonlight. Sixty very fine churches once graced this ancient capital! Its cathedral even now, in its pathetic ruins, is the largest church in Central America. The abbey of the Recollection must have been magnificent, one can plainly see; and there were other fine buildings in and about this beautiful city. Alvarado's Palace was here, and the Dona Sul lived and died here.

It must have been a glorious place! The ruins remain just as they were left when the earthquake utterly destroyed it about 140 years ago, with the solitary exception of the church of the Merced, which was least injured and most easily repaired. We rode slowly through this extraordinarily interesting city under the light of the midnight moon, and then the ineffaceable impression was made upon me--I had not then seen Jamaica--of what an earthquake can do! One cannot but be thankful that they removed the capital to a safer place; though when the next earthquake comes to Antigua, as it probably will, there will still be great loss of life, for although they have not rebuilt the city as a whole, yet there are now great numbers of people living there.

But earthquakes have come home to me with even more appalling horror and impressiveness since that visit to Antigua.

In March, 1910, after leaving Guatemala, I came down the coast for a visit to the Isthmus of Panama and for a round of Confirmations, etc., in Costa Rica. After these duties were over, I went up for my first visit into the interior, and I remember writing to a friend in England the night before I left: "To-morrow I am going up to Cartago, the old capital of Costa Rica. It has been twice destroyed by earthquake, and they say the third is about due." I little thought how true my words were to be.

No one quite knew when those two last destructions had taken place; some were even doubtful whether there had been earthquakes there at all; and on arrival I found Cartago a most attractive place to live in. It was far the healthiest place in my vast Diocese, with a beautiful climate, cool and fresh. It was nearly 5000 feet above the level of the sea, and, in colouring and form, the surrounding country reminded one of Scotland, for though a great volcano, Irazu, towered up above the little city, rising to a height of about 12,000 feet, I never saw the summit quite clear of mist, and riding over its lower slopes, therefore, was just like riding over Scotch moors and mountain sides.

I had no church there, but one of my clergy, the Rev. W. S. Cooper, who works amongst the banana plantations far down below, made his home there for the sake of his wife and children, and I have had services, confirmation, etc., in the chief room of his little house. There was a very small English-speaking community there, in the midst of about 8000 of a Spanish population, and the whole place was making rapid progress. There was a good railway station, telegraph, telephone, electric light, two quite fair hotels, good doctors, etc. The American tourists who go to see Panama came in great numbers to Cartago on their way back to the States, and Mr. Carnegie had been instrumental in the building of the Peace Palace there at a cost of from £40,000 to £50,000, so that peace conferences might meet there and arbitration courts be held.

A new parish church, like a small cathedral, was already half built, and similar efforts were being made for the improvement of the city. "It will be the capital again, never fear," said the sanguine and venturesome. Cartago seemed to have a future! But, alas! On May 4, at 6.50 p.m., in eighteen seconds, it ceased to be. It was utterly and entirely destroyed by earthquake!

It was late that terrible night when the news reached San Jose, the present capital, about three-quarters of an hour's distance away by rail, that Cartago was probably partially destroyed, as neither telegraphic nor telephonic communication could be established; but, late as as it was, expeditions of succour were at once organized.

The President of the Republic, and doctors and others, set out about midnight in a special train, while two others, one of them representing the local Spanish newspaper, went on horseback by road, hoping for the help of the moon. The horsemen were the more fortunate of the two parties, for about five miles from Cartago the train came to a standstill, as there was a chasm in the track and the rails were gone, the great shock having reached even to that distance!

The President and his accompanying friends and helpers had to finish their journey on foot, and a toilsome experience it would be, as those can well imagine who have stumbled along a railway track in the dark; but they persevered, and eventually arrived at the scene of desolation.

The two horsemen, however, arrived before them, and have since given a terrible and graphic account of their experiences. As they drew near to the place they constantly heard the same cry, "Cartago does not exist! Cartago is utterly destroyed! Cartago has been blotted out!" and as they entered the ill-fated city it was only to hear moans, and cries of pain, and weeping and groans from the injured and bereaved on all sides. A woman with dishevelled hair like some mad creature dashed up to them shrieking, "Tis the judgment of GOD upon us all! The judgment of GOD!"

No one will ever know, I suppose, the actual loss of life, for many bodies will never be recovered from the debris; but it was very terrible, and they buried over eight hundred in the first two days!

Mr. Cooper, the clergyman I have already mentioned as living there, had a remarkable escape. His work is down below amongst the banana plantations, on what is called "the old line," and on sea level, but he himself and his family lived up in Cartago for health's sake. Mercifully his wife and children were staying at one of the stations nearer the coast, but he had come up to the city on Wednesday evening to be ready for the Thursday evening service. "I had been sitting in my study," he writes, "waiting until I thought the mail had been distributed, and I could go to the post office and get my letters due that evening. I left the study, and just as my hand touched the handle of the front door the first shock came." A turn of that handle and he was in the open air and safe.

His house, like so many others in Cartago, was built of adobe, or sun-dried bricks, and those buildings suffered most, as they seemed not so much to fall in as to settle down in one flat heap of separated earth, just as was the case when St. Mark's Campanile fell in the Piazza, at Venice some seven or eight years ago.

It is impossible to describe the scene of desolation presented by a place like Cartago, immediately after such a visitation, so as to convey any true idea of the reality to those who have never seen the results of an earthquake. One simply cannot realize what that dread quarter of a minute brought to pass.

"It baffled description," wrote the Spanish reporters, who usually have a great command alike of expressive substantives and qualifying adjectives when engaged either in descriptive writing or in conversation. And one can well believe it! That scene of horror, from which even the moon seemed to veil its face, we are told, behind the heavy clouds of midnight, can never be adequately described, and it is best not to attempt it.

Perhaps I have said quite enough to make my readers understand what an anxiety it must always be for bishop and clergy to work in such a vast jurisdiction as that, and in every part of which it is necessary to pray in the Litany "From plague, pestilence, famine and earthquake, Good LORD deliver us."

Not one of our English-speaking community, as far as we have been able to learn, was killed, and for this one feels very thankful; but as one thinks of the terribly sudden destruction of so many of those amongst whom one was passing to and fro such a short time ago, and who were so full of work and interest and expectation, one wonders how Cartago could ever have been rebuilt after being twice destroyed, or how so many thousands of people could be content to live there. Even now they are preparing to build it once again!

These awful convulsions of Nature are always regarded by many as Divine visitations, and they undoubtedly bring people living in sin to repentance. The Spanish clergy who survived were busily engaged in marrying those who had been living in concubinage before, passers-by being called upon to act as witnesses and the ceremony performed in the open air. It was just the same, I am told, in Jamaica after the earthquake of 1907, and it is said that three hundred couples were married, within the first two or three days after the calamity, who had been living together without the marriage tie before it took place.

The invariable impression made upon great numbers, when they first experience that sickening feeling of peril and deadly fear which the earthquake brings with it in its first moments, and the ground is quivering beneath their feet, houses falling about their ears, and awful and terrifying sounds are heard in all directions, is that the Judgment Day is come. A great meteor passed over the city as all its buildings came crashing down, and the dread sounds of destruction and shrieks of fear and anguish went up together. It is not to be wondered at that such an event is felt to be no ordinary convulsion of Nature, but a very real and awful Visitation.

The shock was felt nearly one hundred miles away down at the port on the Atlantic side, and, as telegraph and telephone messages soon followed, relief parties were quickly sent up to the sufferers, and wireless messages--aerograms they are now called--were despatched over the Caribbean Sea bringing steamers hurrying to shore, to place their doctors and other helpers, and their stores also at the disposal of those who were directing the operations.

The wounded were carried to San Jose, the new capital, and schools and other buildings, including our own little church there, were freely offered as temporary hospitals. Many were provided with tents. Everything was done which could be done, and subscriptions poured in from Costa Rican capitalists and others, and collections were organized throughout the States.

If a great calamity has been experienced in Central America, a strong feeling of sympathy has filled the hearts of all who have heard it, and all will be done which can be done, and well done too.

The news reached this country just as our King's death was being made known, and the small paragraph in a corner of the newspapers on that sad day attracted no attention. I am sure that if it had been reported under ordinary circumstances, and English readers had realized what a calamity it was, occurring in the very midst of an English bishop's jurisdiction, where needs are great and resources scanty in the extreme, it would have excited just as much interest and sympathy as it has done elsewhere.

It is greatly to be regretted, I think, that Cartago is to be rebuilt, for the slope of a volcano, still active, can be no place for a city. Whatever may be thought of Divine visitations, it seems to me as clear as the day that the God of Nature has shown us as plainly as we can ever be shown that such places are not suitable for human habitation!

The volcanoes of Costa Rica, especially Irazu above Cartago, and Poas just beyond San Jos6, and Turri Alba, a little further down near the coast, are most beautiful and magnificent mountains, and give a very special feature to the scenery, but it is not right or wise to place important cities at their base.

Who can ever forget, having once read it, Sir Frederick Treves' chapter headed "The City that Was" in his Cradle of the Deepl It is a masterpiece of descriptive English, and in its quite simple account of the instantaneous destruction of St. Pierre in Martinique, a few years ago, shows us the criminal folly of those who rebuild cities so destroyed. It can only be that they say to themselves, "It is not likely that another will come in our lifetime," a most cynical and revolting kind of selfishness.

The two most impressive volcanoes I have seen are Fuego and Agua, Fire and Water, over 12,000 feet, in Guatemala. They rise up like huge pyramids just above the Antigua I have already mentioned, and are of singular and extraordinary beauty in early morning and at sunset. Antigua has not been rebuilt as a city, but there are many people living there again, and yet those great volcanoes tower up above them in a most menacing way, ready when the time comes to send out once more their deadly streams, the one of fire and the other of water.

The most fearsome mountain in Guatemala, perhaps, is Santa Marta. It rises up to nearly 13,000 feet, and is seen almost from base to summit as one sails down the Pacific, having had at one time a real peak; but at its last eruption, for it is an active volcano still, it tore away one side of this peak in an awful discharge of earth and water; and the white ragged appearance of the broken cone has a curiously affrighting effect as one looks at it, and pictures to oneself what one's fears would often be if one had to live anywhere in its immediate neighbourhood. Those people may well feel very thankful, whose lot falls to them to live in a land without either volcanoes or earthquakes.

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