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100 Years Ago: February 1922


This is edition 85 in my series of reviews of National Geographic Magazines on the 100th anniversary of their publication.



The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Foremost Intellectual Achievement of Ancient America” and was written by Sylvanus Griswold Morley, of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, and author of the article “The Excavations at Quirigua, Guatemala” in the National Geographic.  The article has the fuller, descriptive internal subtitle “The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions on the Monuments in the Ruined Cities of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras Are Yielding the Secrets of the Maya Civilization”.  Of the “27 Illustrations” documented on the cover, fifteen are black-and-white photographs, of which two are full-page in size and four fill a page and share a caption.  The remaining twelve illustrations are sketch drawings, some of which are in very fine detail.

During the first millennium before Christ, while our forebears of Europe were in the depths of barbarism, there developed somewhere in Middle America, probably on the Gulf Coast of southern Mexico, a great aboriginal civilization called the Maya, which was destined to become the most brilliant expression of the ancient American mind.  Around the start of the Christian era, the Maya found their way into northern Guatemala and the States of Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico.  For the next 600 years, they flourished amazingly.  It was here that the author references the supplement map of “The Countries of the Caribbean” found in this issue.  More about the map later.  During those centuries, the Maya, the “Greeks of the New World”, were slowly fighting upward from savagery through barbarism to the threshold of civilization.  Their priests and astronomers were gathering from the stars their secrets and its accurate measure, the revolution of the sun, moon, and planets; their mathematicians and chronologists were devising a calendar and chronology which was without peer at that time; their builders were developing an architecture, both unique and beautiful; and their leaders had mastered the problems of social and governmental organization.  The zenith of their civilization, as with all civilizations, was the development of hieroglyphic writing, comparable to those of Egypt, Babylonia, and China.  This writing was first developed upon wood, fiber-paper, or skin, but shortly before the beginning of the Christian era it was transferred to stone, inscribed upon monuments and altars.  Buried in the vast forests of northern Central America, especially in Guatemala, those splendid memorials of a forgotten people were slowly coming to light.  Year after year archeologists were penetrating deeper and deeper into those virgin fastnesses, discovering new ruined cities.  From the hieroglyphic inscriptions, they were gradually reconstructing the outlines of ancient Maya history.

The only other business which brought man to those tropical forests was the American industry of chewing gum.  The principal ingredient of chewing gum was “chicle”, which was obtained from a tree in those forests.  The peculiar importance of the Maya writing lied in the fact that it represented a stage in the science of expressing thoughts by graphic symbols not exemplified by the writings of any other people, ancient or modern.  It stood at the momentous point where graphic symbols representing sounds were just beginning to replace symbols representing ideas.  The earliest method of expressing thoughts graphically was called ideographic writing because its symbols expressed ideas instead of sounds, as with our own alphabet.  It could express concrete objects, but could not convey actions easily.  By representing the sounds of language, man developed a better method of expressing his thoughts.  This was the introduction of the phonetic element into writing.  The Maya graphic system stood representing a stage in the development found nowhere else in the world.  That change in the character of writing symbols, from signs representing ideas to signs representing sounds, was fundamental, and its far-reaching effects could not be overstated.  It soon made possible an enormous expansion in subjects which could be expressed by writing.  Any graphic system, therefore, which stood at that crucial point in the evolution of writing was worthy of closer study.  The author chose to describe the simpler writing of the Aztec before going into the hieroglyphic writing of the Maya.  The Aztec were the dominate Indian tribe of the Valley of Mexico.  They attained a high degree of civilization long before they were conquered, and practically annihilated by the Spanish under Cortez in 1521.

The Maya writing was much older than that of the Aztec, and the Aztec doubtlessly borrowed the idea of writing from the Maya.  Though simpler than the Maya writing, the Aztec one was better known, with probably 90% of its symbols being deciphered.  Their hieroglyphs were divided into three groups – signs representing the calendar, signs representing names of persons and places, and signs representing events or natural objects.  These were grouped and painted in books made of fiber paper or deer skin.  They recorded the major events in Aztec history, not in long narratives but as brief synopses of events.  The Aztec calendar consisted of a year of 18 months of 20 days each, and a closing period of five days, into which it was believed all the bad luck of the year was crowded.  The only Aztec time period higher than the year was the xihuitlmopia, a cycle of 52 years.  The closing night of that cycle was feared for it was thought that the world would be destroyed at the end of one of those cycles.  Aztec names of persons and places, the second group of signs, were built up on the basis of rebus-writing using things of different meaning but having the same sound.  The third group of signs represented events and natural objects, such as death, war, conquest, accession of rulers, natural phenomena, gold, jade, etc.  Thus, a mummy-like human figure represented death, a shield with javelins crossed behind it stood for war, and a burning temple meant conquest.  The signs of that last group were the most limited in number, but they were the most important since they gave point and life to the characters of the other groups.  The author gave several examples of Aztec writings giving details of their interpretations – historical events, the dedication of the great temple of Huitzilipochtli, and Natural phenomena, earthquakes, comets, etc.  It was by means of such simple symbols that the Aztec were able to record and date the principal events of their history.  They noted important religious ceremonials and extraordinary natural phenomena.

In short, the Aztec hieroglyph writing gave only a skeleton of history, the barest outline of principal events; but no detailed descriptions or extended narratives.  The Maya writing presented greater problems in decipherment.  The characters were much more numerous, twice as many as in the Aztec writing, and they were much more complex.  While there were many chroniclers of the Aztec graphic system, there was only one authority, Bishop Diego de Landa, had written anything detailed about the Maya writing.  Also, there were nearly two score Aztec manuscripts which had come down to us, but only three Maya ones had been found.  Those factors had made decipherment more difficult than that of Aztec text.  Maya writing was composed of about 400 different characters or elements, of which 90% to 95% were ideographic rather than phonetic.  Those 400 elements were combined into about half as many common compound characters, about half of which had been deciphered.  So far as the Maya inscriptions had been deciphered, they dealt exclusively with the counting of time in one phase or another.  They were extraordinarily accurate in their measurements.  Their lunar calendar involved a very difficult fractional number, and was exactly coordinated with their solar calendar.  They predicted lunar eclipses and the movement of planets, especially Venus.  In addition, there was a wealth of other chronological data of as yet unknown significance.  Whether it referred to historical events or astronomical phenomena had not yet been determined.  It was evident that the element of time was of primary importance to the ancient Maya.  Time’s record, as variously manifested by the sun, moon, and planets, filled a large part of their inscriptions.

Next, the author examined some features of Maya arithmetic, and showed how those chronological and astronomical facts were expressed.  The Maya used two different ways to write their numbers, similar to our Roman and Arabic numerals.  Their “Roman” notation used dots and bars to count from 1 to 19, with dots valued as ones and bars valued five.  Just as in our Arabic notation, where each digit to the left was ten times the value of the one on its right, groups of dots and bars positioned over top of each other increase in value as they go toward the top.  In the case of Maya notation, the values in the bottom group were worth one each, the second group’s values were worth twenty each, the third group’s values were 360 each, while the fourth and last group, the one on top, had the values in the group worth 7,200 each.  With this system, the Maya could count as high as 64,000,000.  The Maya had symbols for months, principal gods, colors, cardinal directions, and astronomical objects.  They marked their time in 5-year periods call the “hotun”, 5 tuns or 5 years and carved a record of the events during that time on a monument.  The Carnegie Expedition found a monument erected for each 5-year period from 378 to 536 A. D., save only for the 5-year period ending in 487 A. D.  The writer predicted that it would be discovered, and it was shortly afterwards.   The Maya year started July 26, and, on the hotun, was a great national holiday.  The practice of erecting monuments every five years continued to the Spanish Conquest, in 1541.  The Maya inscriptions were principally astronomical and chronological.  While most of the deciphered hieroglyphs relate to history, apparently most of the undeciphered ones related to astronomical events.  So accurate were their observations, that they eclipsed all ancient civilizations, even Rome.  The author believed that The Maya chronological yardstick would make it possible to date other ancient American civilizations, such as the Inca in Peru [See: “Explorations in Peru”, April 1912, National Geographic.].



The second article this month is entitled “The Jungles of Panama” and was written by David Fairchild, Department of Agriculture, and author of the articles “Forming New Fashions in Foods”, “A Hunter of Plants”, “New Plant Immigrants”, etc.  The article contains fourteen black-and-white photographs, of which three are full-page in size.

The author decided to have his son, Graham, experience life in the jungles of Panama during his formative years.  He had, when he was young, experienced the tropical jungles of Java, and it left a lasting impression.  He had, in fact, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, so he was familiar with the region.  The fact that there was no malaria in the Canal Zone made the decision easy.  It was summer, the rainy season, in Panama, when they left Norfolk.  Eight days later, they landed at a tropical waterfront.  They hardly had time to change their clothes before they were on a cool morning ride to Gamboa, past yam patches and cassava fields, with their background of palms and tangle forests.  Then came an 8-mile launch ride up the Chagres to Juan Mina.  The green hillsides were covered with a mixture of forest trees loaded with hanging vines.  The author’s son, who was apparently quite young, exclaimed “Me for the tropics!” and quickly disappeared up a jungle trail.  Two hours later, with the boy still out of sight, Mr. Fairchild panicked a bit thinking his son might wander off the path and get lost in the jungle.  Soon they were reunited.  Every tree seemed different from the next.  Looking up, they saw the feathery leaves and flowers of the tall, gray-trunked trees, the drooping leaflets of the tall slender palms, and creepers of every imaginable form.  Looking down, there were seedlings everywhere – palms, ferns, and selaginellas.  A quick survey of leaves shows some riddled with insect-made holes, others were spotted with fungus, and still others were covered with lichens and parasitic algae.  There were enough parasites to wipe out the forest in a few years were things not so nicely balanced, parasites living upon parasites, insects hunting insects. The jungles of the Chagres were among the most remarkable in the world.  Rainfall was three times that of Rio de Janeiro, twice that of Guatemala City, half again as much as Colombia, and even greater than Paramaribo.

In the cool of the early morning, not a whisper of wind was stirring.  Bands of sunlight crossed the trail.  They stood and listened and looked. They both saw movement in the leaves and a miniature face peering back at them.  The author did not identify the species other than being a mammal, probably a monkey.  He felt a kinship with it, as opposed to the insects of the jungle.  Unlike Asian jungles, the Chagres was crisscrossed by the beaten trails of the attas, the leaf-cutting, mushroom growing ants.  The author wanted to have two experiences in the Chagres: to see a real boa constrictor, and to see the mushroom gardens of the attas.  The boa constrictor was fast becoming a rare animal on the Charges, and he did not see one, but he was able to dig out an atta mushroom garden.  The little laboratory for naturalists, at Juan Mina, where they spent six days, stood in a citrus grove.  It overlooked, from a slight elevation, the famous Chagres River, famous for its deadly black-water fevers.  The trail of California gold-seekers, from back in the day, passed through the jungle behind the laboratory.  By 1922, the fever-bearing mosquito had been vanquished.  The author felt safe, unlike during his earlier visit to the isthmus.  The jungle had been cleared for the citrus grove, and the jungle relentlessly tried to reclaim the land.  Weeding was required continuously, for there was no winter.  When the author was shown a view from the deck of a launch, a forest with great trees covered with creeping lianas, he was told that it had grown from cleared land in only eight years.  Besides the weeds, fungus and insect pests haunted the clearing.  It was the way of life of the natives.  Slash and burn to clear a spot; rush in and grow what they can before the jungle pushes them out; and move on to the next spot, allowing the jungle to grow back to full height.

Paddling up a strange river with Indians in a canoe was thrilling; every turn in the stream opened up new vistas.  Nowhere had the author ever seen anything approaching the luxuriance of the banks of vegetation between which they noiselessly glided; and he had seen the jungles of Java and Sumatra, the South Seas Islands, around Rio, and even in the Moluccas.  They spotted a culebra, a tree-snake, and, a few yards further, a large iguana, which the author shot with a .22.  The native savored its meat.  The river they were on was Chilibre, and they pushed on to where the Chilibrillo entered it and branched off into a smaller stream.  It was so narrow that, in places, fallen tree trunks almost blocked it.  They had to stoop to avoid hanging vegetation, and had to keep a sharp lookout for snakes.  They left the stream and followed the Indians to a typical native house in a clearing in the jungle.  They walked around the little farmyard in the jungle.  There, in a hammock lounged the woman of the house, while the man worked in the little patch of upland rice, cutting the heads of half-ripe grain one by one with a small knife.  The palm-thatched roof covered a closed-in room and an open one.  A fireplace, a mortar and pestle for grinding rice, a table of peeled poles, and a little storehouse were all the furnishings.  An approaching thunderstorm hurried them back to the canoe, and noiselessly they slipped downstream.  Graham winged a Jacana, which dropped into the tall grass on the bank.  They landed to retrieve it when something blue startle Mr. Fairchild.  He had never seen a live morpho butterfly.  Like a flash of blue sunlight, it disappeared into the forest.  It was one of the most vivid experiences of the whole trip.

The author jumps ahead to their visit to the island of Taboga.  Taboga was a great surprise to him.  It had a drier climate than Panama.  Delicious pineapples grew there.  Graham had been shown specimens of gigantic bird-catching spiders that would jump out t anyone who disturbed their lairs beneath the rocks.  But nobody prepared them for the beauty of that charming little island in the Pacific.  The charm of it lied in its blending of Mediterranean architecture and tropical vegetation.  There clustered in a little valley surrounding a beach, was a century-old tile-roofed town with every line in it harmonious.  The moon was rising out of the sea when they landed, and their first glimpse was of the little plaza in the town.  There were youths and maidens, the social promenade, the sea, and the heavy perfume of the tuberose in the borders.  Everywhere there were palms, giant mangos, and sapodillas.  The author shifted the narrative again, this time to the “conquest” of the tropics by the U. S.  It was hard to comprehend the gigantic scale of, not only the canal itself, but the sanitation of the Canal Zone.  That effort would have to be duplicated elsewhere if the gigantic resources of the tropics were to be developed.  Early on, the problem of the tropics was greatly underestimated.  The parasites were legion; they attacked every form of plant and animal, and most of them could only be seen through the tube of a microscope.  It will take years of research and hundreds of researchers to solve that problem.  That work could easily be done in the Canal Zone, if equipped with the laboratories, insectaries, plant nurseries, trial gardens and other biological research equipment.  The author ends his article by lobbying for such an “Experimental Station” in the Canal Zone.




The third article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Haunts of the Caribbean Corsairs” and was written by Nell Ray Clarke.  It has the internal subtitle “The West Indies a Geographic Background for the Most Adventurous Episodes in the History of the Western Hemisphere”.  The article contains twenty-seven black-and-white photographs, of which seven are full-page in size including one that serves as a frontispiece for the article.

Since the dawn of American history, the Caribbean has been the scene of a romantic and cataclysmic life.  Beneath the tropic skies and scudding clouds, earthquakes had tumbled parts of those islands into the waters; volcanoes had spouted fire upon panic-stricken natives; great navigators had braved its hidden shoals and treacherous reefs; and buccaneers once were wont to spring upon the gold-laden Spanish galleons.  Across the routes, where once the wealth of the Inca was borne to Spain, went the American men and materials for one of the most stupendous engineering undertakings in the history of man – the Panama Canal.  After six years of ruthless war at sea, some sailors had developed a “pirate complex” and the Caribbean again had become a den of thieves.  Columbus called the shores of the Caribbean an earthly paradise.  In the sixteenth century, privateers and pirates had turned that body of water into a veritable Spanish cockpit.  Shortly after the discovery of America, Spain, at the height of her power, declared the whole region under her domain.  Any trespassers were regarded as pirates.  Spain was not permitted to establish her sway unchallenged as both England and France were puissant rivals.  The English seamen were followed by French corsairs, Dutch zee-rovers, smugglers, slave-traders, and privateers to infest the West Indies.  That motley crew was followed by the buccaneers in the seventeenth century and by ordinary pirates in the eighteenth.  As a consequence, there was scarcely an island among the hundreds in the Caribbean that had not its story of those early adventurers.  There was no stretch of coast that had not a story of buried treasure.

The buccaneer was a picturesque fellow.  His motto usually was, “A short life and a merry one.”  He seldom recognized allegiance to any country or crown.  He clothed himself in gorgeous finery.  He was to be found wandering the streets of the semi-medieval Spanish towns of the New World, elbowing his way among soldiers, traders, Negroes, Indians, fair ladies, and assassins.  There was practically no colony in the Caribbean which had any scruples against allowing the buccaneers to build, fit out, or repair their vessels in its harbors.  Tortuga, off the northern coast of Haiti, and Jamaica were veritable pirate strongholds, while Martinique, Curacao, St. Kitts, and Barbados befriended them and encouraged their trade.  France, England, and the Netherlands found it good policy to look the other way.  The Council of Jamaica, in 1666, enumerated in it minutes twelve good reasons for granting commissions to privateers.  St. Christopher, now St. Kitts, was the nursery for all the English and French colonies in the West Indies.  It was one of the leeward islands, half way between Puerto Rico and Dominica.  Discovered by Columbus on his second voyage, he named it after the Saint for which he was named.  In 1922, every inch of fertile land on St. Kitts was cultivated but the island was poverty-stricken due to overpopulation.  Off the southeast tip of St. Kitts lied Nevis, where Alexander Hamilton was born, and Horatio Nelson was married.  To the northwest of Nevis lied the Dutch-owned St. Eustatius and quaint little Saba.  The waters in the vicinity of the Virgin Islands, from the time of Sir Francis Drake, were frequented by sea-rovers of every class and description.  The Virgins lied less than fifty miles east of Puerto Rico.  The three main islands were St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.  There were 100 or more lesser units in the group.

Life was turbulent in St. Thomas in the days when Edward Teach drove lean pinnaces, filled with cutthroats, into the pretty harbor of Charlotte Amalie, now St. Thomas.  One of the chief points of interest in the town of Charlotte Amalie was the castle of that redoubtable king of his kind, known in the sphere of his influence as Blackbeard.  On the opposite hill there was another fortress, which was called Bluebeard’s, but the history of that pirate was lost.  Between St. Thomas and St. John, hedges about by a chain of small islands that guarded it from heavy seas and high winds, lied an excellent harbor.  For centuries it was dubbed “The Sound”; but in 1921, the U. S. Geographic Board declared it Pillsbury Sound, in honor of Rear Admiral John E. Pillsbury, late President of the National Geographic Society.  Not all the Virgin Islands were name for Saints.  There was Tortola, the Isle of the Turtle Dove; Gorda, the “Fat Virgin”; and Anegada, the Drowned Island.  No place can claim a fuller measure of pirate lore than Tortuga, a small island located opposite Port de Paix, off the northern coast of Haiti.  It was heavily wooded, rugged, and sparsely inhabited.  It was alleged that there was more buried treasure there than anywhere else in the West Indies.  For thirty years after the buccaneers were driven from St. Kitts it was such a stronghold for the “brethren of the sea” that even the mighty King of Spain, with all his ships and men, could not break it up.  The Spanish named the island Tortuga because it resembled a sea-tortoise, an important article of food for those early rovers of the sea, and plentiful on the island.  The reason Tortuga was chosen as a resort laid in the fact that its harbor was easily defended.  Here freebooters had a home.  In later days of piracy, it became the home of the French corsairs, the English repairing to Jamaica.  While Tortuga had many French pirates of note, the best known was Peter the Great who captured the ship of the vice-admiral of the Spanish fleet.  He sailed his new ship to France and retired comfortably.

In the latter half of the seventeenth century Jamaica was the stronghold of English buccaneers.  Morgan, the greatest of the pirates, planned most of his expeditions in Port Royal, which had the reputation of being the richest and wickedest spot on earth.  Its life was colorful, and its nights tinged with drunkenness and depravity.  As if by Providence, an earthquake, on June 7, 1692, shook Jamaica to its foundation and tumble that den of iniquity, with scores of pirates, into the sea.  In 1922, when the water was calm, the coral-encrusted ruins of the old town could still be seen beneath the water.  Across the harbor from Port Royal lied Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, one of the most important ports in the West Indies.  Its foundations were laid by Port Royal survivors.  Only 2% of Kingston’s 50,000 people were white, but all showed courage, energy, and determination during the hurricanes and earthquakes which had, time to time, destroyed its very foundations.  Hardly had its charred ruins cooled after the earthquake and fire of 1907 before the survivors were busy rebuilding.  Havana, which rose to importance as a convenient port of call for ships passing through the Florida Straits bound for Mexico, was frequently attacked and looted.  Santiago, Baracoa, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad were all the scenes of desperate combats.  Just 23 years after its discovery, pirates began to harass Puerto Rico, where, at San Juan, Ponce de Leon built his Casa Blanca.  His bones are buried in the old cathedral in the city.  Though American rule had placed its stamp upon Puerto Rico, the pretty city of San Juan was still Spanish in appearance.  There were some 340 miles of railway and 1,100 miles of excellent roadway in Puerto Rico, which had about three times the area of Rhode Island.

The destination of most of the ships that sailed from Spain to America was Cartagena, a town on the northern coast of Colombia.  Its massive stone walls survived to speak of their strength in the early days.  The wealth of the western coast of South America was gathered first at Panama, hauled by mule across the Isthmus to Porto Bello, and then shipped to Cartagena.  From there, it was taken out, through the Caribbean Sea, across to the Azores and home.  Despite the fact that Porto Bello had one of the best harbors, it played an inconspicuous role in 1922 due to disease.  Old Panama, founded in 1518, was the metropolis of the Isthmus then just as New Panama was in 1922.  Though the site of Spain’s great power in America was, in 1922, an utter ruin, the tower of the old Cathedral of San Geronimo could be seen from the walls of the new city.  Built on a rectangular point of land, protected on three sides by rocky bluffs and on the land side by a morass.  It was able to hold its own against all enemies until it was destroyed in 1671, by Henry Morgan.  Panama City was founded a few miles further west.  In the story of Old Panama’s downfall, the villain was played by the wily Sir Henry Morgan, whose cruelties and inhumanities were usually whitewashed because of the glamour of his achievements.  That lad of Wales, born of good parentage, was kidnapped in Bristol and shipped to Barbados to be sold as a bondsman.  When he served his time, he sailed to Jamaica, where he joined the buccaneers.  The old pirate admiral, Mansvelt, chose Morgan as his vice-admiral.  When Mansvelt died, Morgan was left at the head of his profession.  He was a popular leader.

In 1670, after a series of successes, Morgan was able to collect some 2,000 fighting men and 37 vessels at Tortuga.  He and his vice-admirals and captains met to decide which of three ports – Cartagena, Panama, or Vera Cruz – they should attack.  Being the riches target, Panama was agreed upon almost unanimously.  They set sail for Santa Catalina (Old Providence), off the coast of Costa Rica, the convict station for outlaws from Panama, in order to secure a guide for the journey.  After taking that island, Morgan sent a force to take the castle at Chagres, which would leave the way to Panama clear.  With luck, the pirates took the castle.  After a long march across the Isthmus, they reached Panama, which had been warned by the fall of Chagres and was ready for them.  After twelve continuous hours of fighting the proud Spanish capital fell to the pirates.  After seizing all its wealth, the pirates burned it to the ground.  Morgan appropriated most of the booty for himself, and, fearing for his safety because of the dissatisfaction among his men, he slipped away in the night to Jamaica, where he was welcomed with open arms.  He was called back to England, knighted, and made Governor of Jamaica.  He proved the theory that “it takes a thief to catch a thief” by, for the most part, ending piracy in the West Indies.



The fourth item listed on the cover this month is entitled “On the Shores of the Caribbean” and has no byline.  It is a set of “Sixteen full-page Engravings” embedded in the middle of the third article, and not counted among the photographs from that article.  The images in these engravings were called photogravures in earlier National Geographic issues.  A photogravure uses a photoengraved copper plate to mass-reproduce a photograph.  The plate is etched to various depths and the resulting ink amount transferred determines the brightness:  shallow for light and deep for dark.



The fourth actual article in this month’s issue is entitled “Volcano-Girded Salvador” and was written by Harriet Chalmers Adams, author of “Kaleidoscopic La Paz”, “Cuzco, America’s Ancient Mecca”, “In French Lorraine”, “Rio de Janeiro, in the Land of Lure”, etc. in the National Geographic Magazine.  The article has the internal subtitle, “A Prosperous Central American State with the Densest Rural Population in the Western Hemisphere”.  It contains ten black-and-white photographs, of which seven are full-page in size including one that serves as a frontispiece for the article.

El Salvador, as the people call their volcano-girded, forest-fringed country, lied on the west coast of Central America, a week’s sail by coastwise steamer, north of Panama.  The only country between Canada and Colombia without an Atlantic as well as a Pacific seaboard, Salvador was, until recently [in 1922] the smallest of the American republics, now, with Honduras and Guatemala, it formed the new republic of Central America.  Salvador had the densest rural population on the mainland of the Americas, with 1,400,000 people occupying an area no larger than New Jersey.  While coasting Central America, the author saw a line of majestic peaks against a rose-tinged sky.  In the foreground rose the volcano Izalco.  Seafaring men called Izalco “The Lighthouse of Salvador”.  To the Salvadorians, that active volcano was known as “The Safety Valve”.  Its daily eruptions protected them from major earthquakes and lava flows.  Then came the day it stopped erupting, followed by terrible earthquakes destroying the capital, while another, heretofore dormant, volcano erupted destroyed towns and estates.  Ash covered that season’s coffee crop.  On Mr. Adams’s first visit to Salvador, he disembarked at Acajutla.  His party boarded a train for the interior and, an hour later, left the railroad for the saddle.  They accompanied their Salvadorian host to his estate, or fincas.  It lied among the hills 2,000 feet above sea-level.   The house of the estate was set in a forest of giant balsam-trees.  Their trunks were tapped for their scented balm.  To avoid the perilous passage around Cape Horn, cargo was unloaded at Panama and hauled across the Isthmus for shipment to Spain.  Peru was the best-known New World land, so Central American balsam became known as Peruvian balsam.  The balsam-tree was a cousin to the acacia.  It grew rather isolated from its neighbors, even from its own kind.  Native to the west coast of Central America, it was exploited only in Salvador, where it grew in a limited area of only 750 square miles.  The author observed the balsam tappers work and the crude balsam processed.

It was in the coffee-tree, rather than the balsam, laid the wealth of Salvador.  A few seasons ago [in 1922] Salvador’s coffee output totaled seventy-five million pounds.  The coffee-tree was brought to Salvador in 1840 by a Brazilian school teacher from his own country.  The house the author was entertained was built with a wide shaded veranda on three sides.  The aristocracy was European, mostly Spanish, the masses were Indian stock; there was little African blood in Salvador.  The marimba, a musical instrument in use among the natives before the arrival of the Spanish, was still popular.  It resembled an enormous xylophone but sounded more like a harp.  Their host had them hike up a ridge to see “Old Man Izalco smoke his evening cigar”.  Their host told them many interesting tales, and the scenery was charming throughout Salvador.  Lowland forests alternated with highland plateaus, pasturelands with rugged valleys.  Bordering the highway were rows of giant cacti and flowering hedges.  Most of the people lived in the healthful uplands, the volcanic region.  San Miguel, one of the highest of those volcanos had an altitude of 7,000 feet.  Nearly the entire country was suitable for cultivation, the soil being exceedingly fertile.  One of the oldest products, long the chief export, was indigo, the blue dye from the jiquilite plant.  By 1922, sugar ranked as an important export.  In the days of the forty-niners, most of the rum they drank was from Salvador.  Rice, like sugar, was brought from the Old World, but cacao, corn, and tobacco were indigenous.  Turkeys were kept in the tobacco fields to devour the worms and insects on the leaves.  Corn and beans were the main diet of the poorer classes.  Nispero, the fruit of the tree Achras sapota supplied the sap, chicle, the basis for chewing gum.

A picturesque touch on the highways of Salvador was the archaic ox-cart.  The Salvadorian ox-cart changed with the locality.  Those with solid wheels hailed from beyond the Lempa River.  Bamboo sides on the cart meant the owner was from the lowland regions; cane sides, the sugar district; and hide sides, the cattle country.  On one of their saddled journeys, they rode up to a train station, boarded with their mounts, rode for an hour, got off, and continued their journey on horseback.  Most trains in Salvador had an animal-car.  One journey took them to cattle country.  Cattle were abundant and thrived.  Beef was moderate in price.  As in all tropical countries, meat must be cooked and eaten the same day the animal was killed.  Gold and silver ranked high among Salvador’s products.  Around the turn of the century, American engineers, with British capital, introduced up-to-date methods in gold mining.  After the World War, the author again visited Salvador.  San Salvador, the capital, with 75,000 inhabitants, was connected with Acajutla by an English railway.  It lied 65 miles inland and a little over 2,000 above sea-level.  The railroad crossed the area devastated by the 1917 lava flow from the volcano, San Salvador.  The country lost around $15,000,000.  It took six months to rebuild the destroyed section of track.  On both sides of the track were fantastically shaped lava hills.  Here and there a great tree, which withstood the flow, stood isolated among the ruin.  The capital, in the shadow of its smoking namesake, was quickly rebuilt.  Although founded in 1525, it had quite the modern air.  While most buildings were one-story structures, there were a number of municipal buildings of reinforced concrete and several fine parks.  Because of tragic lessons of the past, the cathedral was constructed of wood and painted to resemble stone.

The planters spent part of the year in their town houses.  To the author’s surprise, the Salvadorian women of the educated class lived much as we did.  In the capital’s two leading social clubs, wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters enjoyed full privileges with the men.  Lake Ilopango, ten miles by motor highway from the capital, was a scenic gem.  Hotels and bath-houses dotted the shore and launches skimmed merrily over the water.  While the elite bought in Europe and the U. S., the masses contented themselves with native manufactures, wearing homemade clothes, hats, and shoes.  Many had primitive dwellings, dirt floor and thatched roof.  The main market overflowed into the surrounding streets.  Besides native merchants, Chinese, Turks, and Armenians were in evidence.  City property paid a tax, but rural properties paid nothing to the state and very little to municipal authorities.  Many small farmers were tradesmen as well.  They came into town with their ox-carts laden with produce, then sell it and buy what they needed.  The Salvadorians were the first to attempt, many years before, the establishment of a Central American federation.  That union embraced Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala, and sought to include Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  While San Salvador was central to the new republic, Tegucigalpa, in Honduras, was chosen to be the capital, as a more central location for an expanded Central American union.  Mr. Adams left San Salvador and motored across country to the port of La Libertad, which, like Acajutla was an open roadstead.  East of La Libertad was the landlocked port of La Union, in the Gulf of Fonseca – a gulf shared by Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.  An American railway was being built between La Union and San Salvador.  It was in the Gulf of Fonseca that the author became familiar with the tortoise-shell industry.  The shell of commerce was obtained from one species out of the nearly two-hundred varieties. This was the hawksbill which abounded in the Central American waters.  [See: “Certain Citizens of the Warm Sea”, January 1922, National Geographic.]  From the mottled, transparent shell, native workmen fashioned combs, brooches, trays, and innumerable small articles.



The fifth article this month is entitled “Costa Rica, the Land of Banana” and was written by Paul B. Popenoe.  The article contains seventeen black-and-white photographs, of which seven are full-page in size.

The geography of Costa Rica was the same as the rest of Central America, masses of mountains with many fertile valleys, occasionally spreading out into rich table-lands; few navigable rivers or good harbors; and a low, rich coastal plain, hot and unhealthy.  Its northern and southern borders, long in dispute with Nicaragua and Panama respectively, had recently [in 1922] been settled.  The Aguacate range was the largest in the mountain system, but many of the peaks were, more or less, isolated, rising as high as 11,000 feet, and were often active volcanos.  Blanco, in the south, was considered the tallest, but Irazu was better known.  San Jose, the capital city, with 50,000 inhabitants, including its suburbs, was set near the center of the republic, in a broad valley surrounded by picturesque mountains.  It was the nucleus of the coffee district, close to the Aguacate Mountains’ mineral wealth, and was favorably situated for shipping to all points of the interior.  Most of the developed land was east and west of it, the territory north and south being much less utilized.  Although the coast was lacking of any good ports, English capital converted Port Limon, on the Atlantic side, into a satisfactory port. The Pacific port of entry, Puntarenas, was lacking in wharfage facilities, but was well protected by its situation in the broad gulf of Nicoya, one of three great indentations which made the republic conspicuous on any map.  Below the Gulf of Nicoya was the Golfo Dulce, a large inlet into an undeveloped region.  Opposite Golfo Dulce, on the Atlantic coast, was the Bay of Boca del Toro and the famous Chiriqui Lagoon, which figured so largely in Columbus’ account of his voyage along the coast.  There, the Indians continued their primitive life, with nominal government authority.  There were no lakes of any size within the republic.  Navigable rivers were nonexistent, save for some tidal streams along the coast that played an important part of the transportation of bananas.

The Pacific coastal plain was narrow and covered in jungle.  The chief industry was hunting monkeys for their skins.  The Atlantic coastal plain was wider and richer, chiefly given over to the banana industry.  Costa Rica was not overpopulated.  With an area about half that of Pennsylvania, it had an estimated (December 1918) population of 459,423, with only a few thousand being aborigines.  Many Indians were not counted and mixed-bloods were not counted as aborigines.  There were some 18,000 colored from the West Indies on the banana farms in the Limon province.  Mixture of blood was naturally the basis of the whole population, but the Spanish element preponderated to a greater extent than in any other Central American republic.  Excellent Spanish was universally spoken.  The original inhabitants were farmers, with little lust for conquest.  They were fairly civilized, making pottery and crude gold ornaments.  In 1922, agriculture was the chief industry and resource of the republic.  Banana held first place, with 95,400 acres under cultivation; coffee followed, with an annual yield reaching 24,000,000 pounds.  Maize, sugar-cane, rice, and potatoes were other important crops.  Costa Rica’s banana industry was created by an American fruit company, which had the monopoly.  Plantations extended year by year, mostly to the north of Port Limon.  Light railways brought the crop to tidewater, where it was loaded on barges and shipped to Port Limon for transshipment in the company’s own steamers.  The republic sent to the U. S. more bananas than any other country – from 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 bunches a year – and they were of high quality.  Since it was a foreign enterprise, it was not of such interest to the people as was coffee.  A failure of the banana crop affected the company; a failure of the coffee crop affected every bank in Costa Rica, and could topple the government.

Coffee country was beautiful when the snow of the blossoms hung like a mantle over the land.  Occupying valleys at an elevation of 3,000 to 5,000 feet, the plantations were mostly small, peasant proprietorships.  Each had a one-room house with an assortment of men, women, children, monkeys, parrots, and dogs.  There were larger finca, that of 50 acres, supporting 50,000 trees.  The author walked through one such orchard, with ripe, red berries, and was told that those trees were five years old.  They were kept two years in the nursery and took three more years to bear fruit.  They would bear fruit for five or six years and then be cut down.  They planted new trees every year in place of the old ones.  Bananas were planted among the trees for shade, which the coffee-tree required constantly, especially when young.  The coffee was being picked at the time of Mr. Popenoe’s visit.  The work was mostly done by women.  The work was slow and tedious, as berries were scattered and had to be picked one at a time by hand and dropped in a basket.  The women could gather 200 pounds in a day.  The yield of one pound per tree, or 1,000 pounds per acre, was considered good, but it was often exceeded.  The author observed the beans being processed, washed, and dried.  They often planted corn or vegetables between the coffee rows.  Maize was grown by primitive method, and for local consumption only.  Sugar-cane was largely used for fodder, but produced a coarse sugar for home use.  Vegetables and fruit were produced to a limited extent.  The republic’s forests were rich in mahogany, rosewood, and cedar, and there was some trade in valuable timber.  Enough cacao was grown for home use, and rubber was gathered from wild trees.  Mining had been carried out for century.  In 1815, the Bishop of Nicaragua pointed out the rich deposits of gold in the Aguacate Mountains.  Those produced $7,000,000 in 20 years, under difficult conditions.  The work was abandoned, but there was still plenty of lower-grade ore.  Costa Rica could become a great gold-producing state.

Development of the nation’s resources and public utilities was steady and rapid the past 20 years.  A railway line had been pushed from sea to sea, by way of San Jose in spite of great difficulties.  The capital had electric lights, a good electric railway, modern sewerage, and telephones.  Sanitary conditions in the country had been rapidly improving.  Yellow fever had practically disappeared.  San Jose, and most of the other major cities were at such altitude that the climate was temperate, 60 to 70 degrees, and healthful.  Next to San Jose, Cartago was the most interesting city, having been the seat of government under Spanish rule.  When the republicans established independence in 1821, a faction in Cartago attempted to hold the province for Spain.  The victors settled the question by moving the capital to San Jose, a small mountain town at the time.  Cartago had always been subject to earthquakes because of its position at the foot of an active volcano.  It was completely destroyed in 1841, and then rebuilt. Alajuela and Heredia were the two largest towns on the old national cart road from San Jose to the Pacific.  Its traffic had been superseded by the railroad.  Heredia, with its historic churches, was one of the oldest and most picturesque places in the republic.  Alajuela was the site of a fort, with much history.  The only other towns of importance were Liberia, the isolated capital of the province of Guanacaste, and the two ports of entry, which were already mentioned.  Puntarenas was decaying, as its Atlantic rival gained the trade.  The latter contained a large English-speaking population, both white and black, due to its banana industry.  For beauty, Costa Rica was as fine as any in the Western Hemisphere.  On a clear day, one could see both oceans from the Aguacate Mountains.  The savannas, or meadows, on the Pacific slopes were a perpetual joy, looking more like parks than like wild land, with their long grass and graceful palms.  At every turn in the road, they came across a thatched hut.  Further from civilization, they saw troops of monkeys, and in the lowlands, flocks of macaws.

The peasants, who made up so large a proportion of the population, were an interesting class.  Their lives were primitive, and the had little in the way of material possessions.  They were not considered industrious, for Nature provided a living too easily.  Small black beans (frijoles) were he staple crop.  Together with tortillas (corn cakes), a little rice, and what fruit could easily be gathered, it made up the exclusive diet of a large part of that agricultural population, save for an occasional bit of game, usually a small monkey.  While the corn was home-grown, the rice came from a Chinese trader in a neighboring village.  According to the author, Chinese immigration was more of a problem in Central America than it ever was in California.  The Orientals didn’t stoop to manual labor, but had taken possession of a large part of the retail trade.  Most town had one or more of their shops.  The Chinese merchant also furnished the natives their clothes: a skirt and low-cut waist for the women; shirt and trousers for the men.  Shirts were discarded when laboring, and children went without clothes for the first decade of their lives.  On Sundays, the whole family went to the nearest village, for church in the mornings, and to visit and shop in the afternoons.  Bullfighting was rare in the republic; the only ring was in the capital, and seldom used.  Cockfighting flourished, but not to the extent as in the more northern republics.  Lotteries were popular.  There was a world-class opera house in the capital, but it was only used once or twice a year.  The common people got pleasure even from a funeral, which always included music.  The great religious festivals were, of course, marked by great enthusiasm.  The people were essentially law-abiding and the standard of morality was, in most respects, high.  The best way to see native life, was to travel by horseback.  Heavy luggage was sent ahead by ox-cart.  The traveler rarely failed to find a hotel for the night.  They were clean and the food was nourishing.  The railway was invaluable for exporting freight, but the Pacific division had never been up to standard for passenger accommodations.

For many years after General Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua, in 1856, there was a strong feeling of hostility towards the U. S. on the part of Costa Ricans.   After two generations, that feeling had virtually disappeared.  Costa Ricans were, on the whole, distinctly friendly to our country.  There were many opportunities for American capital, but the main allure was tourism.  American tourists came to get better acquainted with our neighbors.  Many of them were naturalists or nature-lovers.  The Pacific route was leisurely, stopping in every port from San Francisco to Puntarenas, taking around three weeks.  The more frequent routes were from New York to Port Limon (12 to 14 days), and New Orleans to Port Limon (5 to 7 days).  From the port, travelers went directly to the cool healthy country about the capital, where there were good hotels, and a colony of Englishmen and Americans.  Those who wished to spend winter, could rent a house at a nominal fee.  Most residences were one-story, adobe and brick built, with a tile or iron roof.  Each had a surrounding courtyard or patio, with a fountain, flowers and shrubbery.  Roses bloomed the year around, and there was never a month that the lemon tree failed to yield its fruit.  One bought all meat, vegetables, fruit, and kitchen supplies in the market, which was one of the most interesting sights in every city.  Saturday was the principal trading day.  Living was cheap and good, except for meat, which was dear and tough.  With the increase of travel and trade, Costa Rica and the U. S. were coming to know each other better, and mutual respect was being increased by the acquaintance.



The last article in this month’s issue is entitled “Our Map of the Countries of the Caribbean” and has no byline.  This two-page editorial has no photographs and is an introduction to the “SPECIAL MAP SUPPLEMENT – The Countries of the Caribbean (Size 44 x 25 inches)”.  Additional copies of the map could be obtained from the Society’s headquarters in Washington, D. C. ($1.00 paper, $1.50 linen).  Maps of the New Europe, Asia, South America, and the Islands of the Pacific were also for sale at the same price.

Map courtesy of Philip Riviere

Looking southward from our Gulf States, the geographer surveyed a group of ten republics of vast potential, clustered in and around two great warm seas.  In addition to those independent republics, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea were dotted with innumerable islands belonging to the U. S., Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands.  Those semi-enclosed seas had been aptly termed “The American Mediterranean”.  No other region of the Western Hemisphere embraced so many geographical names of historic significance.  From the first landing in the New World by Columbus at Watling Island, there were historic sites everywhere – the first colony (Santo Domingo); the first settlement in the U. S. (St. Augustine, Florida); and so on.  The ruins in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras continued to yield their fascinating secrets.  Across the Isthmus of Panama, American genius for organization, sanitation, and mechanics achieved the greatest of engineering feats – the Panama Canal.  The waters of Havana Harbor held the martyred USS Maine.  In Caracas reposed the ashes of the Great Liberator, Simon Bolivar.  Throughout the Greater and Lesser Antilles were countless harbors and lairs of the buccaneers of the Spanish Main.  In material wealth, no other part of the world could rival the cotton plantations of the Gulf States, the oil fields of Texas and Tampico, the sugar and tobacco lands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the banana plantations of Costa Rica, the sisal fields of the Yucatan, the coffee groves of Salvador, the platinum and emerald mines of Colombia, or the asphalt lakes of Trinidad.  Only a few years prior, the region was shut off to most Americans by the dreaded barrier of disease.  He who went there took his life in his hands.  In 1922, thanks to American medical science, those lands were purged of such scourges as yellow fever.  But even science bowed to the meteorological forces of the Caribbean, the breeding ground of hurricanes.  As if to make amends, the region was the birthplace of the warm-sea river, the Gulf Stream.

Politically, some of the nations were in a state of flux.  That was especially true of the newly formed Republic of Central America, composed of Guatemala, Honduras, and Salvador and, prospectively, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. A recent revolution in Guatemala had given the union a setback, but the editor was hopeful.  The constitution of the republic was signed on by the three member states in September, 1921, and became effective the first of the following month.  The government was set to be established on February 1, 1922.  Few parts of the world had been less accurately been surveyed than parts of Central and South America.  Therefore, it was necessary to investigate and verify many sources of information.  The Society had the cordial cooperation of the U. S. Government, especially the Hydrographic Office of the Navy, and the Graphics Section of the General Staff, War Department.  In addition, several legations of Central American countries gave valuable assistance.  The resultant map, it was confidently believed, afforded the most concise and accurate information obtained on this part of the world.  This map was a continuation of the Society’s map program started in 1921 with maps of Europe, Asia, South America, and the Islands of the Pacific.  Later in 1922, the Society planned to publish a map of Africa and a map of the World, work on each had been progressing for the past two years.



Tom Wilson

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