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 IX. Beautiful Guatemala

GUATEMALA is, without an exception, one of the most beautiful, adventurous and romantic countries I have ever visited. I have been there time after time, and I have liked it and admired its beauties more and more, and especially its modern capital, Guatemala City. This is what a modern American writer says about it.

"No city that I have ever seen has a finer situation, with its climate of eternal spring, five thousand feet above the sea, surrounded by Alban hills, under silver clouds that are ever rolling and tumbling, and which has no more population than it had a hundred years ago, when Chicago was a swamp. It is a country of the gods, fit home for the aboriginal civilization of a continent. Had it had anything like a fair chance, the Germans that take well-to-do Americans on winter cruises would pass by the islands of the Caribbean. Our tourists would be seeing the beauties of Lake Atitlan, taking horseback rides on fine roads, lounging on the verandahs of hotels in the delicious sunshine, or ascending the heights to catch a glimpse of the Pacific, as a misty floor merging into the sky."

It is really a country "where every prospect pleases and only man is vile," for Guatemala is abominably governed and terribly oppressed. Like Nicaragua, it has had a Dictator President for nearly a dozen years, who, having got himself into power by more or less constitutional means, violates the constitution in keeping himself there.

Oppression and misrule meet one everywhere. I am told that before one can engage a humble peon for about threepence a day one has to pay twice that amount to the local official, and so on through all ranks up to the highest of all, where the richest merchant in the country will be probably asked to oblige the Government with a loan, and if he declines, be put into prison on some paltry pretext until he is more amenable.

The richest man in Guatemala has been in prison in this way seven times, and one of those in authority boldly said that if they wanted all his money the only plan would be to kill him. This would probably be done and without any scruple, were he not a man whose death would be heard of outside Guatemala.

It would be a compliment, as I once said to ex-President Roosevelt, to call the Government of such a place Mediaeval.

"Yes," he said at once; "such methods as you describe are Mediaeval Byzantine."

I am sorely puzzled to account for the apathy with which the United States regard the terrible conditions which obtain in some of these Republics, and at their very doors, when, I am convinced, Washington has nothing to do but instruct her ministers to be peremptory in tendering advice that it is not well for presidents to violate the constitutions of their country and set the rules of modern civilization at defiance, and that revolutions will not be viewed with favour. Moral force is all that a strong power need use in those countries, and as moral force got rid of Zelaya from Nicaragua last year, so, if employed by the United States Minister, acting by the definite instructions of his Government, I am sure the same results would follow in other places.

This country alone of the six republics still possesses its Indian inhabitants, and of the same type, appearance and dress as those found by the Spanish conquerors under Alvarado. Probably it was Las Casas, the Apostle of the Indies, who saved the Guatemala Indians as he saved so many others from wholesale massacre, but at any rate they are there still, the labouring people of the country, and literally "hewers of wood and drawers of water" and carriers of heavy burdens.

They are always at work, carrying or doing something, always in a hurry, running along at a little dog trot, and always sad and sorrowful. Again and again when I have met some hunted-looking creature groaning under a great load at the foot of a hill, as I have been coming down, and have said compassionately, "Pobre cito, muy cansado?" he has replied wearily, "Si, si, Senor, muy cansado," (Poor fellow, are you not very tired? Yes, yes, sir, very tired). I have felt that that was the cry of an oppressed race going up every day to the Great Eternal, and I think it must be with the old result, "Shall I not visit for these things? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? "

Down on the banana plantations in the lowlands my Jamaican negroes are heavily worked, but they are properly paid and righteously treated by their employers, and always smiling, and always seeming to say "We're so happy!" But up above and all through that misgoverned country there is always that "Muy cansado, muy cansado."

Guatemala represents such terrible and such needless oppression, for if Cabrera, the president, would only let his country develop on right lines, and let justice and righteous dealing guide his own counsels, he would have far greater wealth than he has now, and every good man's praise. At present he is execrated, and dare not leave the house he lives in lest he should be shot; and though he has millions, no doubt, he can have no enjoyment from them but the thought of their possession.

We have work going on for the labourers on the banana plantations I have described, and which extend from the port, Barrios, for nearly sixty miles along the line which leads to the capital far away amongst the mountains above. There is a British community, and a number of English-speaking Germans and Americans, who form quite a fair congregation at our little church in the city itself, under a rector whom I instituted last year.

This was his first experience when he went out into the plaza soon after his arrival. He had stopped to look on at the movements of some of the president's Indian soldiers, when one of them stepped up and struck him in the chest with the butt-end of his rifle, another threw a stone at him, and another spat in his face! Since then he has lived all this down and been very kindly received by the president himself, who promised him help towards obtaining land for a church. There can be no question that the president is able enough and competent and strong, or he would never have been able to keep his position so long, and at one time it seemed almost as if he were a man with ideals, for he launched out into great educational schemes.

Perhaps, however, the attempts upon his life have embittered him, and possibly he may not know all that is done in his name, but he has a splendid opportunity, if he would only take it, of being the saviour and not the oppressor of his country. Even now, as one writes, it may not be too late for him to play the man and really govern his people in truth and equity.

In connection with the educational schemes, which once were his, he built a wonderfully beautiful classic structure somewhat like a Doric temple, and called it "The Temple of Minerva," and in connection with it established a "Feast of Minerva" to be held every 2oth of October, and in which school children and their teachers take part. It stands in a great open place, and is of very chaste and severe simplicity, looking wonderfully impressive, and not at all out of harmony with its surroundings, but singularly in keeping with the attractive capital and its rich colouring, surrounded by hills, and with the great volcanoes of Agua and Fuego towering up like pyramids in the distance.

Near this beautiful structure of pure white, which carries one off to thoughts of ancient Greece, is a very modern arrangement of a most interesting and instructive character. It is known as "The map." Everyone kept saying, on one's first arrival in the city, "Have you seen the map?" but I was little prepared for what we were to see when we found it.

Within a circular wall, coming up sufficiently high for one to lean one's hands upon it, and covering a good large space of ground, is built up an ingenious reproduction of the whole country of Guatemala, showing its mountains, rivers, lakes, coast, cities, villages and railway. There is water in lake, river and sea, and the great volcanoes stand some five feet high, proportion and colours being carefully reproduced and giving one a most convincing sense of understanding what Guatemala is like, and seeing its extraordinary beauty and magnificence of scenery vividly and faithfully reproduced.

A large platform of open ironwork, reached by two staircases, rises by the side of it, from which one can look down into its inaccessible valleys and the craters of its terrible volcanoes. I don't think "the like of it is to be found in any country," and yet nothing could be devised more interesting and instructive for every country to possess. It is in the open air, and men, women and children can easily earn from it what their beautiful country is like.

Coffee and bananas are the great articles of export, and though a banana plantation with its tender shades of green is a very beautiful sight, a coffee finca with the flowers in full bloom is even more attractive, especially as it is usually found with its beauty enhanced by mountain scenery, while the banana is cultivated in the low rich ground near the sea, where the more frequent and heavy rains are favourable to its cultivation.

I shall not soon forget my first evening amongst the Guatemala bananas. I was due at a small station called Viginia for a Confirmation, and arrived late and in the dark. Word had been sent on that I should hold the Confirmation, however late my arrival, if they would only wait. As soon as we could, therefore, we hurried off from the little station, where we had been put down, to the place where the candidates and their friends were patiently waiting, singing hymns, to fill up their time. We had only the dim light of a hurricane-lamp to guide us through the trees, and, in the first little gully we had to cross, a deadly snake suddenly started up and caused no small sensation in our party. It was safely dispatched, however, and we congratulated ourselves on our escape. Any of us might have stepped upon it, and received its venomous bite.

A few minutes later and we were in the little shelter where we had to robe, and I had just put on my cassock when, close to my feet, there came up another through the matting, also of the deadly kind; but that also was safely killed before it could get out of the place. Two snakes of that kind, within a quarter of an hour, are decidedly an experience.

What a Confirmation it was that night, in a little place formed by posts driven into the ground and palm branches and corrugated zinc above! They were an earnest lot of people, their black faces glowing with eager interest, in the dim candle light, as I gave my addresses, and pleaded also for the service next morning. In but a short time, comparatively, we were gathered together again in the same place at 4.45 a.m. for Holy Communion, so as to have the Celebration before the day's work began, and the greater number present were men, some of whom, I learnt from the manager afterwards, were the best and most reliable men he had in his division.

The religious men ought always to be admittedly the best men, and it was delightful to me to be told that day that it was so on that great banana plantation, and that those who were there in the early morning, before the dawn, "to wait upon the LORD and renew their strength," were known all through the working day which followed as men of industry and high character determined to "quit themselves like men and be strong."

Care must be taken on the reader's part to distinguish, in these chapters on the Central American part of my work, between the people of the country and the Jamaican negroes imported into it by the United Fruit Company for their work. It is with the latter alone, as our own fellow-subjects and fellow Churchmen, that I and my clergy have anything directly and officially to do.

The people of the Spanish republics are usually the descendants of the old Spanish conquerors and colonists and the aborigines they found there--a mixed race; and it is the same all though South America with the exception of Brazil, where the original race is now mixed with Portuguese instead of Spanish.

In Guatemala alone, as far as my experience goes, the pure-blooded Indians still remain the great majority of the population, and are, as in all the other countries, Roman Catholics, with their own Bishops and clergy. It is not for us, of course, to interfere with the work of another Church, and especially in another country, which has never known any other form of Christianity, but one can't help feeling a deep interest in people whose religion seems only nominal, and sometimes worse even than that. The Indians of Guatemala, I am convinced, cling still to their ancient superstitions, and have their little idols still, amongst the images of their Christian saints. The last day or two in every year are even now kept in honour of "The old God."

It is saddening to hear of the low state of Christianity professed and practised in these countries.

A very well known American Roman Catholic priest there told me that the Church was fast losing its hold upon the people. "We are the slaves of the people," he said with great energy; "they neither obey our teaching nor support our work. Here, for instance, they do not give me as much in a week's collections as will pay for the lights and incense on the Sunday, and they do just as they like, whatever I can say." And he was in charge of one of the largest and most interesting churches in the country.

"Why do you stay here?" I asked.

"Out of respect for the Bishop," he at once replied, "and because I have my own resources to live upon, and can work without their support. What would become of this great country parish and its stations if I left them?"

No clergy are ever allowed to appear in any public place in Guatemala in their robes, and usually do not even wear the dress of the clergy if travelling. When I was leaving the country the last time, a taking young man with Homburg hat, blue tie, light gloves, smart clothes and cane, came up with extended hand to meet me, and seeing uncertainty as to his identity in my expression as I took it, he exclaimed reproachfully--"What, have you forgotten poor Fr.------already?" It was the genial, kindly and friendly Priest who had been so extremely communicative, only a short time before! He bitterly criticized the Government policy, which had made it illegal for the Church to give any education, and spoke of the prospects of religion in Guatemala and other Latin countries in most despairing tones. One thing which has both pained and surprised me in Central America is the fatal course which the Roman Catholic clergy are pursuing in practically discouraging the marriage tie. They charge such high fees that the ordinary working people can't afford to pay them, and so do without the ceremony.

A gentleman I knew in one of these countries had a very steady young gardener, and was very much scandalized at finding that he had taken a young woman to keep house with him, and had not married her; but on questioning him he learnt the reason. It would have taken two or three months' wages to pay the fees, and he felt he could not afford it!

In another country I was told that when a wedding party passes, if they are working people, the cry on all sides is, "How can they possibly afford it? How well off they must be!" The percentage of illegitimate births in these countries is said to fluctuate between 50 and 70 per cent. It is difficult to understand how any Christian, whatever his Church may be, can fail to see that our whole social system is without a true foundation when not based upon the stability of Christian marriage and the sanctity of a Christian home.

I was thankful to find, at the first Synod I held in British Honduras, a resolution brought forward, and carried, to abolish fees at marriages.

A great number of the laity in Central America are profoundly dissatisfied with the low state of morality and deplorable superstition which characterize so many of their countrymen--clerical and lay alike--and it is very difficult to know how to advise them, for good and thoughtful men may help their own Church far more by staying in it than getting out of it, and Rome's splendid organization, and power of inspiring devoted service in her members, make it always possible to imagine the time coming when some great reforming spiritual influence, springing up within her fold and keeping there, refusing to be cast out, shall sweep throughout her whole length and breadth, with such results as the world has not only not yet seen, but not even imagined.

If one feels grieved to the heart, in countries like Guatemala, by what one sees in the form of that which, if it is not censorious to say so, impresses one as a dead religion, it is because one feels it might all be so entirely different.

Guatemala waits! It has everything that a country needs--climate, resources, scenery, a hardworking and industrious people--everything! But it waits for what it has never yet had as far as we can ever know, for--a fair opportunity!

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