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 XI. Costa Rica

COSTA RICA is the most "modern" of all the Central American republics. It lacks the charm and romance of Guatemala, it has none of its special colour or bold magnificence of mountain and lake scenery, but it is a most beautiful country all the same, and has just those glorious views, as one reaches higher ground, which one sees stretching away far down below from the lower summits which command the upper valley of the Rhone.

But, as I have said, it is delightfully modern, and in a very welcome sense. There are no spies bending malign looks upon one on entering the train for the capital, scowling and evil-looking as they draw near and ask you to write your name in full in their little book, as in Guatemala. The people at the stations as we pass along are cheerful and smiling.

There are no revolutions to be feared here, we learn, on reaching San José, about an hour's journey from Cartago, the former capital, the destruction of which by an earthquake I have mentioned in another chapter. The presidents are duly elected, and honestly and fairly; and the present one was chosen because he is a public-spirited man, wishing to serve his country, without a taint of the sordid and self-seeking about him.

The Church is not in any way persecuted nor education neglected, and all would be just as one would like it to be if there were only a little more care taken about finance. Public expenditure is lavish and profuse, and even somewhat reckless, while outside debt remains unpaid; but one can't help thinking that in time this will be put right, as so many other things have been in "Happy little Costa Rica."

Our work lies down at the port on the Atlantic side--Port Limon--and along the lines, "Old" and "New," which run through the banana plantations in the lowlands, and up at the capital, San José, to which we go by mountain railway through superb scenery. We have a fairly large English-speaking community there, of our own countrymen, Germans, Americans and Canadians, all sharing the one Church with Jamaican negroes, white on the one side, black on the other, neither having the least superiority in the place assigned to them.

In another chapter I have described the effects of the tropical rain which descends in this country, and sometimes makes all travelling utterly impossible. I see that an American writer has spoken of eleven days' rain without a break, but a man told me that he had known it rain for seventeen days and in such drenching torrents that he had never once been able to leave his house.

My first day's journey to San Jose was characteristic. We came to a place where the bridge had been swept away and a steel cable rigged up, on which a small waggon, called a cradle, was fastened and switched across. It was a great brawling flood below with jagged rocks standing up in it here and there, and not at all cheerful to look down upon, as one reflected that only a short time before six Jamaican negroes were being hitched over when the cable broke and they were precipitated into the flood below, to have their brains dashed out against these sharp points and rough edges, and carried down to the sea. None of the bodies were ever found, I was told, and my informant didn't seem to care. We got over safely, however, and as we returned there was a temporary bridge completed, over which we could pass more comfortably and safely.

The clergyman in charge of that particular neighbourhood was the Rev. Walter S. Cooper, a man, like all the rest of my clergy, animated by real self-sacrifice and single-minded sense of duty. He was not strong in physique, but plucky, dogged and really strong in spirit. He had a very difficult district to work, and little to encourage him but the feeling that he knew that he was doing his best. They will long remember his courage in the floods of 1909, which swept away land over an area of more than forty miles, washing away the railway lines, destroying bridges and heaping up great landslides.

He was one of the first to make the difficult journey across this scene of devastation to get to his people. A large banana proprietor was going down the same day, and saw him persistently making his way, notwithstanding every difficulty and obstacle, and knew that he was going to his people at the earliest opportunity, not for profit, but for work and duty. And I have no doubt that when he told me afterwards that he would back me up in my work, as he knew what my clergy had to do and endure, he was thinking of what he had learnt that day of Mr. Cooper's determination, courage and self-denial.

Few bishops can have had clergy so entirely of one mind as to the spirit in which our work has to be done as mine have been, men I shall respect as long as I live for their patient unselfish work, "trivial round, common task," monotonous and trying as I know it to have been year after year.

Although Costa Rica is so modern, as I have said, it is in that country I have suffered the greatest hardships and privations. One has not to expect too much in the way of amenities, if travelling at all off the beaten track. A traveller tells us how his host said one morning when he was wondering whether there was a bath-room: "If any gentleman has the foreign custom of washing himself every day, he will find a gourd on a stool outside."

And I myself have slept in a small room where I was one of six, and no attempt at all was made to give us even a "gourd outside," but we had to wait till we got to the next place. And the food which preceded and followed that night of close quarters I am not likely to forget just yet!

It is not right to complain of food, and especially when there can be nothing better, and though I have had very rough experiences in that way, one does not complain; but still one remembers the experience. It is Mark Twain, I think I read in Mr. Palmer's book, who said, "I can eat boiled crow, but I don't hanker after it." And so I feel that I could go through all my Costa Rica experiences again, and I shall ever be thankful I have had them, though I can't say that I "hanker" after a repetition of them!

For nine weeks I took charge of the little church of the Good Shepherd at San Jose and lived in its Rectory. It has had a curious history. Built some forty years ago by a number of English merchants and their friends, chiefly nonconformists, it was vested by means of a trust deed in the British consul for the time being, but carefully secured from ever being made over to any particular sect or Church. It has passed through various vicissitudes and had its ups and downs, doing well or ill as they have managed to get good men, or the reverse, to be their ministers, but it is very instructive to know that committee and congregation alike, although of different nationalities and religious beliefs, have arrived at the conclusion that our English prayer book services best express and satisfy the religious needs of their community as a whole.

This they have arrived at for themselves, without surrendering at all their own principles and convictions, but just thinking out what was the best form of services to have, if they were to have something in which all could join. They had been without any clergyman of any kind when I went to them, though Mr. Cooper had gone about once a month, which was as much as he could spare from his own work down below, but when I left them they arranged to let me have the use of the church for a couple of years, though they could not make it over to the Diocese according to their trust deed, and then if they found the plan a good one they could renew the arrangement from time to time. This seemed to me the best course to take, and I have sent them a clergyman who has done good work in another part of the diocese to be their rector, and I think the plan will work very well.

It was a very happy nine weeks of pastoral work there, for I was rector rather than bishop, and especially that part of it which brought me into touch with the Jamaicans, for whom I had to baptize, confirm, and marry, etc., and into whose lives I was brought in very close relationship, feeling more than ever how wonderful they are, considering the small advantages they have had when one compares them with other races.

It was here I made acquaintance with a Spanish American prison, going there from time to time to have services for the English-speaking prisoners. There were only a few of them, and all were negroes; but they were in evil case, with no friends to visit them and bring little comforts and alleviations as the Spanish prisoners had.

I found they suffered terribly at night from cold, as they are 4000 feet above the level of the sea, and they had only the poor rags in which they stood, with nothing to cover them when in bed. They were desperate fellows, and some of them were murderers; one of them, the gentlest and most subdued of the lot, and far the most interesting, had killed quite a number of men while at large after an escape a little time before, though he stoutly protested that he had not been guilty of the original crime for which he had been brought in.

It seemed like a dream to be sitting talking quietly there, the men gathered round and listening attentively, with nothing at all to suggest that we were in a prison either in their dress or appearance, and yet know that they were criminals of a very dangerous kind. They sang their hymns and joined in the prayers and listened to what was said, as if it had been a Confirmation class, and at any rate one's visits must have been humanizing and helpful to men most of whom will never come out of those walls again. Our people, too, at the church were very good, and gave me clothing, rugs, boots, etc., which, with a little money to each, made their Christmas not without some little part of the "Tidings of great joy to all people."

An Englishman came in to our first service, arn with a very hunted and terrified look upon his face told me what he had suffered in the short time he had been there on what he assured me was an utterly false charge. He was there because he could not pay his fine, and, as the Governor told me I might safely do it, and he seemed a deserving man, I paid his fine, and subsequently helped him out of the country.

It is rather terrible to think of a fellow countrymen getting into a Spanish-American prison, and not being able to communicate with any one outside, and languishing there, short of food and covering, week after week.

At Panama I saw the prisoners out in a yard, sunk far down below the ground, upon which a curious public stand for a moment or two as they pass to look down, and now and then, when kindly disposed, throw a coin or two. I was told there that no food at all was provided for the prisoners except what was supplied them from outside, or bought with money given in this way, and I saw at the back of the importuning crowd of prisoners a white man, English or American I should say, who was looking wistfully towards us, but who would raise no hand to beg, and in the end turned proudly away into the darkness of his prison. It was impossible to get any help to him alone at the back of that gesticulating and supplicating crowd, but when I have thought of him since I have hoped he was there for some trifling offence, soon to be released; but the recollections of these prisons and of what I have seen in them, now and then, gives me a shiver as I think of how reckless and thoughtless some of our countrymen are abroad, and how easily they may get into a place out of which they will not always find it easy to be released.

My final departure from Costa Rica was as characteristic as that first day of the Cradle and our aerial flight over the Reventazon, but it is given in full in Chapter VII, which also takes us on to similar experiences of floods in the republic of Panama at Bocas del Toro.

This port of the new republic is of rapid growth. A few years ago it was a swamp with a few fishermen's huts at the entrance to a great lagoon, and now it is a fine town, with trees and flowers and municipal buildings, in the midst of houses and stores practically the work of the United Fruit Company. When I first went there I learnt how a town can be made, even in the most unsuitable place, if near the sea, by pumping in sand and shells from the ocean. Twice a day the great pumps were at work putting the whole place under the sea-water which brought in the sand, etc., and which was left behind when the tide went down, forming a firm white surface. We went about the place on planks raised up on barrels and boxes and other supports, and often on a dark night, with only one hurricane lamp to light a whole party, one felt one's foothold was alarmingly insecure.

But it is astonishing to see how rapidly the work of making terra firma can be done. One would have thought that the sand and shells, brought in with sea-water by pumping appliances, would have been so small as to make hardly any appreciable difference to a swampy surface, but the second time I went there I was utterly amazed to see what a difference less than a year had made. In that time an avenue had been made with a white hard surface of pure white sand, bordered by young shoots, soon to grow up into fine trees, and the brilliant red hibiscus was already growing everywhere.

We have a large church in Bocas under the Rev. B. A. Samuel, whom I found on my first arrival almost at the end of his strength, after working there with his faithful wife for over seven years, without any change except when laid up with fever. The next time I went, at the end of the same year, I was so alarmed at his appearance, and at his wife's looks, so sadly altered for the worse, that I arranged for them to start off as soon as possible to his native St. Vincent, in the Windward Islands, although I had no clergyman to put in his place.

"The work will go to pieces," he said, "if I leave it for six or eight months." But I had to reply--

"I can't have you and your wife die under my very eyes. The work will suffer greatly in your absence, of course, as there is no other clergyman to replace you, but it won't go to pieces, and you will be able soon to draw things together when you come back refreshed and strong once more."

They were soon off after that, and it was very touching to read his first letters when he was beginning to feel all the joys of furlough, after those long years of work in a fever-promoting and trying climate. No bishop could fail to appreciate the work of his clergy done in such a spirit, or to feel that it is his duty to offer, when opportunity offers, his tribute of respect and sympathy to such men. It is for that reason I mention this little incident.

Terrible storms of rain sweep over Bocas del Toro at times, and few people have so impressed me with their simple heroism as those who have come to me for Confirmation at its different stations; and it was while in this Republic of Panama that I had testimony to the value of the work being done by our diocese, which I shall long treasure up as amongst my most encouraging experiences.

Project Canterbury