My Life Story (Ch 7)

MEXICO

I spent the winter of 1910/11 in Mexico and British Honduras. My object in going to Mexico was to look into a rubber plantation in the extreme south of that country in the State of Chiapas. I was Chairman of The Board of Directors of the Chiapas Land Company which had paid a great deal of money for the plantation and we had a large staff of European and Mexican assistants busily surveying the country. The results of my enquiries and investigations was not satisfactory, because there arose a revolution against the Government in Mexico before I left, which upset all my plans.

Mexican Revolutionaries

Mexican Revolutionaries

There are always revolutions going on in South America, but this was a particularly bad one. To get to Mexico, I went first of all to New York, from there to New Orleans and then had a long dusty and weary journey over the frontier at Laredo and on south to Mexico City.

It was a tiresome experience, boxed up in an American sleeping car for four to five days, with a violent head cold all the way, but it gave me an opportunity to see a great deal of new country and new towns, including San Antonio. What struck me most on this part of my journey was the magnificence of the hotels and the extraordinary brilliance of the street lighting. San Antonio had coloured electric lights in festoons across the principal streets, so that I thought the town must be illuminated for a fete. On making enquiries though, I found that this lighting was considered normal. It was very beautiful, but probably very expensive. Hotels there have, instead of the ordinary lounge, a wide and decorative corridor right through from Street to street, which becomes a sort of promenade for the citizens. There is much movement and a great show of dress in those areas.

However, when I reached Mexico City, after traversing the dreariest and empty country I have ever seen, I found no such magnificence about hotels there. But I did learn that the dreary wilderness had come to an end. From Mexico City south the country was enchanting and truly beautiful. The city itself is rather astonishing. It is at too high an elevation (7000 feet) to be comfortable initially, but I soon found the feel of mountain air very welcoming. Opposite my hotel was the new Opera House, a magnificent building which looked big enough to accommodate all Mexico. Mexicans are intensely musical however and I doubt whether there would be much room to spare on a full night.

My business with the lawyers in the city lagged along. They never do anything quickly in Mexico, so I amused myself by excursions round to many beautiful places, by playing golf with the British Consul and by visiting the President, Porfirio Diaz. Although this great man was half Indian, he was certainly one of the most remarkable administrators of his time. For 34 years he ruled Mexico and made his country great.

I had some trouble to reach him, for he lived in a most unapproachable position at the top of a small rocky eminence, .to which there was no access except a tunnel at ground level , which led to a lift shaft right up the middle of the rock. The entrance to the tunnel was, of course, under guard. At the same time, when I emerged from the lift, I found other buildings there, besides the Palace. There was a military institution for cadets. I believe that old Diaz thought himself better taken care of by cadets than by regulars. He was a fine old man, anxious to be on good terms with the English and consequently most affable to me, promising all the assistance I wanted and talking confidentially about the revolution, which just showed its beginning in Northern Mexico. He spoke English much better than I could speak Spanish, so that there was no mistake about what he said. He held out his hand and declared that he would take the field himself and crush out the revolution as he closed his fingers. He did not take the field however, he was over 80 years old and hadn’t the strength. So, the revolution rapidly found its way to Mexico City and poor old Porfirio Diaz had to disappear before the mob found him. He died in exile and one adventurer after another arose and called himself President, till he was killed in his turn. Meanwhile chaos and anarchy reigned in the city and the country. At that time, Americans were detested by Mexicans, who thought America had designs on Mexico and, as the mob was not always able to discriminate between an American and a Britisher, one had to be careful.

Down in the country, bandit gangs were rampant. They murdered the manager of our Soconasco plantation and hanged some of the workmen. As the revolution spread and gradually started the whole country on the path of robbery and arson, the plantation became unworkable and the State of Chiapas, practically owned by the Land Company of which I was Chairman, was confiscated by the Federal Government and the Company came to an end.

The revolution lasted some 10 years but while there was still some law in the land, I saw something of it. Mexicans are generally hospitable and friendly, but there are extremists and the law does not seem able to circumvent them. I saw a quarrel in the street, between a pedestrian and a man on horseback. The man on foot eventually produced a knife, but the rider unslung his lasso (which all horsemen carry) lassoed the other round his neck and dragged him in front of a moving tramcar. He left his victim dead under the wheels and galloped away.

I visited the Light and Power Station of Metaxa, twenty or so miles out of the city, where by a splendid feat of engineering they have tamed the waterfalls for power production and the great tunnels for conveying it. So steep and curly is the mountain railway that runs down to the station from the plateau, that in places the train appears to double on to its own tail. The method of getting from the top of the falls to the bottom is by being shot through a long tunnel, just big enough to take a man lying flat on a sort of toboggan. it is shoved off at the top and kept straight by rails, in total darkness and one must lie very still. I made the descent and wasn’t sorry when I shot out of the darkness into the sunlight again.

I managed to visit many interesting places, some of which were historic scenes of the Spanish conquest. Others were much earlier records of a great people, builders of magnificent temples and palaces, before the Spaniards came and took possession of the country. It is difficult to imagine how such a powerful people could so completely disappear. What did become of the Maya?

BRITISH HONDURAS

From Mexico I visited the neighbouring Republic of Guatemala and then on to British Honduras, where Eric Swayne was Governor. But in the southeast of Mexico, the forests were dense and almost impassable. This would have been the shortest route to British Honduras and there was much in it to delight an explorer. Here the most famous ruins of those Mayan cities exist, doubtless many more than anyone has yet found. The area contains a strange assortment of animal and insect life, including beetles that carry a light in their tails like a lantern, so that it is possible to read by them. Mexican ladies pay a lot for these beetles, which they keep alive as ornaments attached to a little chain on their dresses. They are considered to be very smart.

But exploring a route through these dense forests was impossible in the time at my disposal, so I took a roundabout route to Tuhantapec and Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast. From there I took one of the Pacific mail boats to the nearest port in Guatemala and then by rail to Guatemala City. I wouldn’t have missed that trip for anything! The rail was closely bordered by rank vegetation with an amazing display of flowers, chiefly convolvulus. We seemed to run through an endless flower garden and jets of water were sprayed from the engine onto both sides, to prevent the vegetation catching fire.

Guatemala is not like Mexico! it is pure Spanish and there is little of Spain in Mexico. I was put up by the British Minister, Sir L. Carden and from his pretty house, with the woods behind it I got some magnificent views and a few sketches. Alas, that house and all in it, together with most of the city of Guatemala has been smashed up by an earthquake since I was there.

From Guatemala I ran down the lovely valley that leads north to Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast and was put up by the hospitable banana planters, in a queer wooden construction which was set up on top of piles to keep the rats out. Later a banana fruit ship took me to Belize, where I spent a merry Xmas with their Excellences, Sir Eric and Lady Swayne. Belize is an important town devoted to the mahogany trade and is said to be founded on mahogany chips and empty bottles! There are quite a good few European residents, merchants mostly and the winter climate is delightful. British cruisers put in occasionally and then the place breaks out into much festivity. Lady Swayne (your Aunt Yda) leads the way in entertaining the sailors but found difficulties in obtaining the resources for proper Government House entertainment.

Beyond the garden at the back of the house is forest country and that forest extends westwards right into Mexico. Sir Eric Swayne had a passable road cut out leading up to the jungle-clad hills. Otherwise the only attraction about Honduras is the wonderful blue sea and the little palm covered islets dotted about it. A day’s yachting off the Honduras coast, among the islands, is a dream, though usually a hot one.

I left Belize after the Xmas holiday and sailed to New Orleans in a fruit boat. We left in broiling hot weather, ran into a blizzard going up the Mississippi river and found New Orleans in the grip of a hard frost. After a while I tried returning to Mexico, but the revolution was in full swing and business impossible. Eventually I made my way to Vera Cruz and in a German liner I made my way home.

JAMAICA

I had never seen the West Indies, but in the spring of 1913 an opportunity came. The Swaynes were coming home from British Honduras and meant to take in Jamaica on their way. It had been arranged that Marjorie Moore, whose mother was a sister-in-law of Yda’s should go out to meet them there. I undertook to chaperone the young lady and deliver her up to her aunt and I meant to see as much as I could of the West Indies.

Along the way we spent a day in Trinidad, then on to Panama and our exploration of the Panama Canal (not yet finished) was very interesting. The blaze of glorious coloured raiment worn by the young ladies (mostly coloured themselves) in the evening promenade at Colon was quite dazzling. Colon is a new ramshackle town that has sprung up at the northern end of the Canal and it is of course, like Suez, alive with people of very varied nationality, mixed with the Americans engaged on the Canal works.

To see Jamaica properly, we started from Kingston and when the Swaynes joined us from Honduras, we worked our way up into the hills and all about the island and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Jamaican scenery is very lovely, divided between wide areas of cultivation (sugar and bananas) and a flower filled jungle. The northern shores of this island are full of picturesque bays and rocky scenery and the view over the plains, as one climbs up the narrow roads to Moneague, is very fine indeed; but on the whole I was disappointed with Jamaica. I think it was the pestiferous ticks that were at the bottom of this disappointment. In the spring, these beastly little insects live in the grass by myriads. There is no escaping them. They sometimes kill cattle. Being smaller than a pinhead, it is not easy to see them, but the irritation they set up and the fever that results is out of all proportion to their size. Insects trouble me very little as a rule, but the fever-propagating mosquito and the Jamaican tick are exceptions. I shall never forget them.

From a place called Brown Town, I spent an afternoon exploring, with Mr Hall the Rector, an unfrequented corner of the island where were huge middens (rubbish dumps) left by a departed race of West Indians who must, at one time, have had all Jamaica to themselves. The Arawaks it was, who occupied this island before 1500 A.D. and they lived chiefly on snails – very large snails – whose empty shells they had dumped on these middens after scooping out the snail. I have some of them as specimens in my cabinet, as well as a stone spearhead. The Arawaks must not be mistaken for the Caribs (who gave their name to the Caribbean Sea) who were a fierce fighting race well known to our buccaneers and pirates of two to three centuries ago. The only dark races in Jamaica now are the Negroes and there are too many of them. The original people have all disappeared, leaving only empty shells behind.

This trip to the West Indies was my last. No more voyaging over the wide ocean, or exploring the waste places of the earth for me. It only remains to record what I did during the Great War. For three years, 1916/18, I was President of the Royal Geographical Society. It was at this time that I received the honour of being made an Honourary Doctor of Science at the University of Cambridge. I had been presented with the Gold Medal of the Society many years before, having made a big scoop of Asiatic geography during the Afghan War and I had served on the Council for many years, so that just when they wanted a mapmaker as head of the Society, I came into it. Being too old for active service, the best thing I could do for my country was to superintend the production of the maps that were urgently required for the new political boundaries in Europe. These maps were adopted by the representatives of all the many nationalities concerned, as the most trustworthy that they could find and the Society was most usefully employed in making them.

But there was also the ordinary business of the Society to look after. There were the regular meetings at which I had to preside and the great pleasure of meeting all the big geographers of their day, who brought their work to us and sometimes gave lectures on the results of their explorations. Amongst them was General Smuts, the South African General who did so much fighting in South West and East Africa, which finally ended in our capture of all the German colonies in Africa. He gave a lecture on the German position in Africa, explaining clearly what the Germans expected to accomplish by spreading right across that continent.

It was a remarkable occasion. All the big men in politics who understood geography were there and the crowd was so great that our ordinary lecture hall was too small. We had to have the meeting at the Westminster Hall, but we had our usual Geographical Club dinner at the Imperial Restaurant in Regent Street. After the usual toasts had been drunk, I had to see General Smuts safely to Westminster and then to preside over the meeting.

These were the days of the German aeroplane raids over London and one never knew when they would happen. As we started for Westminster, the General said I hope they won’t disturb us tonight. Almost at that moment, bang, went a maroon, as a warning and in an instant the whole air was full of noise, partly maroons, partly our own Archies firing up at the aeroplanes directly overhead. When we got to the Hall, we were met by the Curator and a Government Inspector, who solemnly warned us that our meeting room, which was already packed, was not safe in an air raid. If a bomb hit it, it would go straight through. I replied that I would take responsibility, but that I would ask the audience if they would prefer to move to a safer place. Of course, I knew what they would say. An audience of explorers and geographers is not exactly a Mothers Meeting and they yelled their disapproval of the suggestion. Fortunately no bombs fell anywhere near.

After that most memorable meeting was over, when I had seen our guests off and stolen quietly along to the Westminster District Station, I found the open space in front of the Houses of Parliament was absolutely deserted. There was not a soul in sight. It was a weird sight by moonlight (there were no lights on anywhere) and I shall never see the like again. London seemed dead.

One other tale of my later experiences may be interesting. It was at the end of the Great War. I am not a sailor and yet I was out in the battleship Resolution, in the North Sea, when the German fleet surrendered. I had been sent to lecture on geography to the officers and crews of the Battleship and Cruiser Squadrons that kept guard on the Firth of Forth. The weather was awful and thick fogs came down, so that it was with great difficulty that I made my way from ship to ship. Yet on that one day late in November 1918, the fog cleared and the Fleet stood out into the North Sea, with just a gleam of wintry sunshine here and there and good visibility all round.

The Fleet sailed in two lines, so far apart that we could hardly see each other, preceded by a host of destroyers that looked like a swarm of flies over the grey sea. It was not known for sure that the Germans would give in without a fight. We knew that communists had taken over some of the ships, many of the officers having been killed and it seemed likely that they would not give in easily. So all of our fleet was cleared for action. But the German fleet did not fight.

They came out in one long line, midway between our lines, their leading battleship being piloted by one of our airships droning slowly overhead. Our two lines came closer together so as to be within easy range, whilst the destroyers hunted them along like a pack of hounds. They made no sign, but steamed silently towards the mouth of the Firth, where they were brought to anchor. Their ships were all filthy dirty and their deck crews looked like a mob of loafers out of work. Their own crews later scuttled them in Scapa Flow. I shall not soon forget that long miserable line of gigantic battleships slowly steaming towards their graves.

Well, that is the end of my story and I will only add this. If any of you travel, not content with just what surrounds you at home, you will understand the great pleasure I have found in exploration. But remember that it is not enough to be just a globe-trotter. You must observe and remember and if, from some wild corner of the world (they are getting fewer by the day) you can bring back some geographical record, you will know that you have contributed something to the world’s knowledge. That is what all true explorers – whether into the realms of science or unknown regions of the existing world – aim at — useful discovery.

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