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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 X. The Perils of Nicaragua

I HAVE often had occasion to say that if ever I find myself in a position of special difficulty and discomfort while travelling, at home or abroad, having to put up with poor food and lodging and real hardships in one's personal surroundings, I shall only have to say to myself "Nicaragua" and the whole outlook will seem to change! "We touched bottom," in more senses than one, in Nicaragua!

There was a time when Great Britain counted for something in Nicaragua, and exercised some little influence in its affairs, especially in the neighbourhood now known as the Mosquito Coast, on the Atlantic side, which we helped to settle in the Forties of the last century; but we withdrew, and Nicaragua took possession of the whole country in 1860, and the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which soon followed, secured our noninterference in the years to come.

The two Atlantic ports bear witness to this in still being called by their English names of "Greytown" and "Bluefields," though the former is also as well known by its Spanish title of "San Juan del Norte." It was at this place that the Nicaraguan Canal would, if it had ever been made, have entered the Atlantic.

Nicaragua is a terrible country to live in, or even to visit, although it must always attract attention from the outside world by the beauty of its scenery and the magnificence of its resources. We went there from Costa Rica early in 1909, setting out at night in a wretched little gasoline launch owned by Government and called the Santa Rosa.

For a wonder beds were provided, stuck up in a curious way just above the engine, and though we were tired enough to lie down and rest upon them, as there was no other place upon which we could even sit for a few minutes, we had bitter cause to regret our incautiousness, for it took us some time to get over the unkind treatment we experienced from the other tiny occupants of those brief resting-places for the night.

About 7.00 a.m. we were crossing the well-known and dreaded Colorado bar, and doing it very well, to our great relief, though the masts of a little craft which had lately failed in getting over, standing up forlornly above the waters as we passed, were not a cheerful sight. At the mouth of the Colorado we were put out, and taken up by a curious high paddle-wheeled kind of floating platform, which they called "a river steamer." We had never seen anything at all like it before, but it was built up in two storeys, and really was quite comfortable, giving us grand views of the wide and beautiful river. The banks were a marvel of luxuriant foliage, the great trees soaring up above them, with tendrils and climbing plants hanging from their branches.

"Isn't it a glorious sight?" I exclaimed, unable to restrain myself, to one or two men standing near, one of them the American Consul for the coast.

"Well," he said slowly, judicially casting his eyes from one side to the other, "I don't know so much about that, Bishop, for it appears to me that there ain't a dollar on either bank! "

He meant the trees could not be cut down and sold for lumber!

We travelled up that broad river, stopping once at a sandbank so that the crew could land and try to dig up alligators' eggs, as a quantity of those fearsome reptiles plunged from it into the water at our approach, until we reached La junta, or The junction, the place where the river Del Norte joined the Colorado. There we disembarked the large canoe which the clergyman at Greytown had sent to the south of the Colorado for me, and were paddled down by the men he had sent with it, and then hospitably received by himself and comfortably lodged for a few days.

Greytown is said to be the second wettest place in the world, the other being a village in the Himalayas, where they have, I believe, about 128 inches in the year. Yet it does not seem to be a damp place, for though I have felt the whole house quiver to its very foundations under the weight of the water descending furiously upon it, the white sand of the place seems to swallow all up and leave no trace.

Our clergyman there, the Rev. D. H. Miller, is a Jamaican negro, of pure blood, and has been there four years without a change. It is a difficult and dangerous place to reach, and I am sure that no coloured man should ever be left in such a place, and under such circumstances, and for such a length of time. No coloured clergy can, as yet, I am convinced, minister fully to their own countrymen in lonely places without the companionship and help and sympathy of white clergy within reach, without deteriorating, unless they are unusually strong and earnest men. It is one of the misfortunes of the Central American part of our work that a good bit of it has to be done by coloured clergy in lonely stations.

Greytown is a fast declining place. Everything is full of suggestions of what has been, of hopes and plans unfulfilled, of work begun, never to be finished and completed. Engines, dredgers, cranes, etc., broken and rusted, tell their dismal story, as similar appliances used to do at Panama when the French scheme was abandoned. All is different there now, and perhaps--who can say?--the Nicaraguan Canal may be taken up again in years to come, but it does not seem to be a very likely thing to expect. The Revolution of last year broke out at Grey-town and impoverished the place still further, so that everything seems to be against it.

After a few days there for Confirmation, other services, and meetings of Committee, talks with Mr. Miller, calls on the people, etc., we left on a Saturday in a little gasoline launch once more, having to go over the Greytown bar, and the Colorado bar also, to get a little cargo, and then cross the latter again, and so up the coast to Bluefields. It was a day of perils. We crossed the ever-shifting Greytown bar in safety, and immediately had a breakdown of our little engine. That kind of thing is always happening, and unfortunate engineers are always having to execute repairs while tossing about helplessly on an open and often stormy sea. What would have been our lot if the breakdown had come a few minutes earlier, while we were actually crossing the bar, is much more easily imagined than described.

We continued our way, and crossed the Colorado bar, also in safety, but in a tremendous swirl of sea, one man, at my elbow, remarking, as we did so:

"It's one vast grave, Bishop, taking its toll of victims every year!"

And then we took on cargo at the mouth of the river, and some four or five survivors of a schooner recently swamped in a squall. They were a bad lot we heard afterwards, and had shamefully left the women and children aboard with them to drown, refusing to lend them any assistance. We did not know this, however, and felt in a glow of charitable kindly feeling as we took them aboard. With them and our cargo we faced the terrible bar once more, for the third time, and for us it had certainly nearly been the last. It proved that we were drawing five feet, and the soundings, as we went over, showed the depth of water rushing across to be only four feet. Any reader will know what that meant.

I have often wondered how we escaped death that day. The place was swarming with sharks, and a great sea running. I can only think that the high wind behind us, and the violence of the waves, dashed our boat from side to side, and so kept the keel continually twisted out of the way at critical times; but I shall never forget the sickening thuds with which we did crash down upon that bar again and again, the wind just sweeping us on and preventing us from sticking fast; nor shall I ever forget either the deep thankfulness with which I realized that we were over and out at sea.

The shipwrecked crowd we had taken on board, such a short time before, gazed with eyes almost starting out of their heads at the waves from which they seemed to be destined to have only such a brief respite. Conscience, I should imagine, must have been speaking somewhat insistently in those few moments of suspense.

We were in Bluefields next day, a Sunday, and as usual I had my three full services. The morning congregation had already assembled when we arrived, unshaven, unkempt, unwashed and travel-stained, but they waited patiently, singing hymns until we were ready, and then gave us a most hearty service, and the most eager attention to what was said to them in the sermon.

The church was filled with children in the afternoon, and again with a huge congregation in the evening. All were West Indian negroes with the exception of a few Indians and one or two white people, for the work is the same there under the Rev. H. N. Vaz as in the other parts of Central America, though the United Fruit Company has no plantations, cocoanuts being the great industry.

On the Wednesday we had our Confirmation, the great event here, as in other places, of an Episcopal visit. There were a good number of candidates and a perfectly overwhelming congregation, almost as many people being gathered together outside as there were inside. Three of the Moravian clergy responded to my invitation, attended, took part in the Processional Hymn, and sat within the rails. They had never seen the Anglican service before, and were deeply impressed with what they felt to be its truly primitive and spiritual character.

It was a touching sight to see the great body of people gathered outside, as we passed the large open door of our church on the way to the vestry when all was over, and I longed to go out and conduct another service for them, or at least give them the Benediction; but this would have been contrary to Nicaraguan law, and I might have found myself in prison, that night, or very unceremoniously bundled out of the country: for uncivil and vexatious legal hindrances had been interposed to prevent my coming in at all on the previous Sunday morning, and I did not want a repetition!

The next day I took a memorable expedition. Corn Island is situated some sixty miles from the mainland, and, though such a short distance away, is very difficult of approach. It sometimes takes weeks to go and return. The Caribbean Sea there is swept by awful cyclones, and sailing boats alone are available. But I was most fortunate. The Moravians had just built a good steam sloop, and were wondering how they could get authority to use it from the corrupt local official. When they heard of my need, they offered me its use, if I would bear the expense of the journey, and get the Governor's permission. I therefore waited upon His Excellency, a sensual-looking insolent ruffian with a huge diamond on his finger; and after playing me some time, lolling about on a couch, he said he thought I might rely upon his permit if I made my arrangements and called next day.

All this I did, and though I called and was refused a sight of him, and was disrespectfully kept waiting and ignored, to bring me to that due humility so becoming to a foreigner in Nicaraguan eyes, in the end I got my permit, and went down to my sloop. And there was the explanation of the permission being granted at all without a heavy bribe--a policeman in disgrace waiting to be taken over into banishment, another having to be brought back in his place! I had to take him, of course, and could not refuse.

On another occasion, on coming to the boat I had chartered, for my own use and return after a Visitation, I found two smugglers and a couple of officers in possession, and though I did not relish the prospect of the journey, the officers looking even more forbidding than their prisoners, there was no redress, and I had to take them with me.

However, the journey to Corn Island had no untoward feature, although we saw our prisoner get into a safe corner, as he thought, and then carefully moisten the dispatches which told of his misdeeds, read them attentively, smile, and stick them up again. He afterwards presented them to the Governor of the island, while I was looking on, with a most guileless expression, as who should say, "I wonder what these are about!"

It was a beautiful passage over a calm sea, though the sun shone down with terrific power, and the sloop had no cabin, nor a seat. We had to "stick it out," lying on the hatches or sitting on pieces of wood put across the corners of the stern. It was rather alarming also to see the engineer pouring his gasoline into the receptacle for his fuel, and, when he had too much, throwing the remainder upon the wooden flooring, which was smoking with heat. One spark, and there would have been a terrible conflagration, in which we should have ceased to be.

On arrival we were met by a large party to carry bags and bring us horses, and soon were winding amongst the cocoanut palms under the moonlight for a long ride round to the other side of the island, unapproachable for a sloop or boat of any kind in the night. We were utterly worn out when we arrived, and our clergyman, the Rev. William Trott, came out to meet us. He was living in great discomfort, for his people, I found, were unable or unwilling to pay a proper contribution towards his maintenance.

"For long," he said, "I have not had more than five shillings a week to live on, and no one has come in to cook, clean, or wash for me."

He was a negro of very gentlemanlike address and of very good style, and it grieved me to see the miserable condition in which he was living. There was nothing one could call furniture in his house, and I and my son had to sleep on two broken-down canvas "cots" and wash in a bucket standing upon a couple of boxes.

Nor did the Corn Islanders treat their bishop any better than their priest. We heard a tremendous talking in the kitchen, where a number of them were gathered together, and fondly imagined we and Mr. Trott were to have a banquet for once, for we were tired and hungry and it was late, and it was long since our breakfast of coffee and omelette; but when, with great parade, a table ready laid wag borne in triumphantly from the kitchen, it contained three poached eggs, some rough cake, a little rice, and some dirty water, for four hungry men, as Mr. Vaz was with us. No entreaties could bring any addition to this fare, except some green cocoanuts knocked down from the trees to give us a substitute for the dirty water. I felt the more indignant when next morning, on learning that Mr. Vaz was likely to be a purchaser, fowls and eggs were brought in abundance and sold quite cheaply.

That night I really thought, on getting into my precarious "cot," that an earthquake had come, as it gave such a horrible sway to and fro. Sleep was a difficulty, and almost impossible.

Next day we had Holy Communion and Confirmation, a meeting of the Committee, and then I assembled the congregation to see if I could learn why they were starving their clergyman. I could get no answer to my questions.

"You could have shared your produce with him, could you not?"

"Couldn't you women have washed for him, cleaned up his rooms, cooked for him, even if you are poor?"

"Why didn't you help him, as he has no wife?" etc. etc.

To all my questions I could get no answer, and so had to say:

"Then I must take him away to the mainland as soon as I can, for I won't have him starved to death."

They burst into tears, and when I had left promised to do better; but things went on just the same, and I have since removed him to Guatemala. I have mentioned this because it is so different from what I have found elsewhere, and shows how important it is for a Missionary bishop to acquaint himself personally with every nook and corner of his work, however difficult it may be to get there.

I left Corn Island with no regrets. They will be for a time under a catechist with occasional visits from Mr. Vaz for Celebrations; and perhaps in the near future it may be well to try again whether they will help adequately towards the support of a resident priest.

We were back again in Bluefields in about thirty-two hours, establishing a record, for such a thing as a visit to Corn Island and a return the next day had never been known on that coast before.

On the following Sunday I attended a Moravian Confirmation officially, wearing my robes, delivering an address, and giving the Benediction, all in the spirit suggested at the last Pan-Anglican Conference in 1908. The service was long, but very instructive and interesting. It was conducted by Dr. Reichel, the superintendent of the Mission, which has been carried on upon the Mosquito Coast for the last sixty years, and has done a really splendid work. The candidates were all adults, and had had a long preparation, and were evidently very much in earnest. There was no laying-on of hands, but the officiating minister held his hands over them all, collectively, as he prayed, at one part of the service. The confirming part appeared to consist of reciting a text, carefully selected, I believe, for each one, over every candidate in turn, and then giving the hand to help them up from the kneeling position to their seats.

That Sunday night there was a fire! We were roused at 2 a.m. by the loud ringing of our own church bell, and, hastily dressing, hurried with everyone else to the place, where a great store was utterly given over to the fiercest flames. It was an awful sight, and had there been the very least wind that night all Bluefields would have gone, and our church and rectory, and all the fine and expensive buildings of the Moravian Mission would have been lost. The fire was in the midst of other buildings, and everything in the town was timber. It was a merciful deliverance!

Our departure from Nicaragua, like our entrance into it, was characteristic of its miseries and perils. I had chartered a boat to take us down to Costa Rica, and with the Moravian missionary, Dr. Reichel and his daughter, Mr. Darling, a traveller, and my son, we were just enough to fill it; but the trading company, which had charged us the full cost of the boat, put men, women and children into it for Greytown until we were twenty-eight in number!

We had no redress, for we could not refuse to go, as we had no other way of escape; but it was a terrible experience. There were no provisions for the ordinary decencies of life on that open boat, no room to eat, walk, stand, sit, or lie. In the night, when I was twisted in amongst others, the little coloured captain came and touched me and said:

"Bishop, come down to my bed below, it hurts me to see you like this." But I had to say:

"No, captain, thank you, it's the fortune of war, and I won't rob you of your bed."

If I had been disposed to do so I should have hardly dared to face it, for I know that night his little berth must have been a furnace!

We lay still under the stars, and wondered what we should do if it rained, or there was a storm. Next day they were all put off at Grey-town, and then we could move about and have some food, though even then there was only just room for the five of us.

Nicaragua was at this time groaning under the tyranny of one of the most rascally of presidents, Zelaya by name, who was openly saying:

"I ridicule Germany, I laugh at the United States, and I spit upon England!"

But the revolution which began at Greytown soon after we left, and extended itself to Blue-fields, ended by sending him flying from the country, and I only wish that Germany, the United States, and England would repay him for his insults by bringing him to book for the abominable misrule, cruelty and extortion which he has so long and successfully practised, and which has made beautiful and productive Nicaragua the terrible place to live and travel in which we found it.

Just as this book is going to press I learn that Bluefields has had another fire, and this time been destroyed!

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