Life in Cartagena

Visit the fruit & vegetable market at Cartagena

Wednesday 30th Sept.r – at dawn of day I arose for the purpose of visiting the market, which always begins by day light. Passing by an account of the city, I may mention that the market for country produce is held outside of the city gates, on a narrow stripe of land connecting the suburbs with the Town. Close to this are anchor[ed] large unwieldy market boats, laden with the various producting of the country, which at the present season are very few, consisting chiefly of Indian corn, coco nuts, eggs, & plantains. It is no less true than surprising, that, altho’ the soil is so favourable, the inveterate laziness or prejudices of the natives have never permitted them to cultivate many articles of luxury and convenience with which nature would lavishly furnish them at a very small expense of labour and time. No fruit, could/was to be obtained except a few limes and water melons – no oranges, grapes, or pine apples – nor any substitute for them.

Destitute, however, as the market was of articles which we would wish to purchase, still there was a bustle and a liveliness, which made amends for our disappointment in other respects. Old gentlemen were seen taking their morning walk, and slowly inspecting the various items, but evidently without the slightest intention of buying. We noticed, likewise, also several ladies of ‘a certain age,’ who advanced with mincing steps among the baskets &.c of the different sellers having their heads uncovered and their feet encased in a pair of neat light coloured shoes. While looking at them we occasionally were oblivious of the purpose which had brought us where we were, until we were reminded of it by the shrill invitation of an Indian girl, to lay out some money in purchasing from her. In dealing at markets, people I believe are the same all over the world. When a stranger is perceived his question as to the price of any article is generally answered by a demand many times beyond what they would make to an acquaintance or a Townsman. We at least were not exceptions to this demand – our dress, our broken and inexpert Spanish soon betrayed us to be Newcomers and just six times as much as they would ask of friends, was seriously demanded of us, and in most instances paid, without grumbling, for such is the cheapness of the produce here, that while the natives are all laughing in their sleeves at having sextuply over charged us, we ourselves are perfectly self-content because we have made a good bargain.

Flesh Market at Carthagena

From the fruit and vegetable market we next proceeded to the flesh market, which is in the Town – but at no great distance from the former. The first sight of it was quite sufficient to so put to flight any lurking desires which I might have had for a nice piece of roast beef to which we had been a stranger – since a few days after our departure from England. Many pieces looked as black [anaal ?] and far advanced in a state of putrescence – the newly killed meat was flabby and discoloured and such a filth and want of cleanliness prevailed that I became sick of the scene which I left with all speed. I need hardly say that during our stay in the Harbour we had never set before us any of this precious dogs meat, but were better satisfied with the excellent fowls of the country, which indeed for flavour and plumpness surpassed any I had ever seen.

Appearance of the country opposite our anchorage

Shortly after quitting the markets, I went on board to breakfast, to the great comfort of my limbs and stomach which perhaps had felt not a little the fervent heat reflected from the narrow streets – I did not venture to go on shore to the town during the day, but in the cool of the evening the Master and I went to that part of the country, off which we were more immediately lying. At a little distance it appeared to be a delightful spot covered all over with trees, in the interval of which several negro huts reared their modest heads. An actual visit to it, however, took away much of its apparent attraction – but still enough was left to make us much pleased with it. The soil is very sandy, and unpleasant for walking. The trees are very numerous and afford a pleasing shade – and here and there you see the habitations of the country people.

Negro Huts near Carthagena

Into one of these, which was kept by a Creole, we entered, and from him we learned that these are built of canes first of all, then well plastered with clay, which the heat of the sun renders perfectly hard. The roof is thatched with a kind of long grass, and is impenetrable to the heaviest showers of rain. In each of the huts there is generally a door facing the sea to admit the cooling influence of the sea breeze, and another in the direction of the land wind. Thus, notwithstanding the mean appearance and homely construction of the negroe huts, they are I have no doubt, better adapted for the climate & comfort of the people than if they had [been] raised of stone and mortar. To my own feelings they seemed cooler and more agreeable than any of the houses in the Town. The furnishments of them are in the extreme simplicity – a small stool – a rude bench & still ruder apology for a table are sufficient to satisfy the wishes of the humble habitants.

The houses or hut into which we went was set forth in a far superior way to the rest as well as another one at a short distance from it. These however were houses of entertainment and most frequented by the crew of the Packets & other vessels – consequently they possessed the luxury of good chairs good tables & many other et ceteras necessary to the comfort of wayfarers. Here we procured some vino seco (dry wines) an abominable kind of stuff – and also vino tinto (ie coloured wine) which being sweet was more pleasant than the other altho’ it was far from being good.

Fire-flies in Columbia – Sound made by Lizards

We had expected the pleasure of a walk in the cool of the evening, but were disappointed as in this country, as well as in the West Indies, you have very little, or I should rather say no twilight – but as soon as the Sun has set darkness comes most rapidly on. However, we enjoyed the cool of the evening breeze, while the mild splendour of the moon added to the charm. Our eyes and ears also were saluted with sights and sounds of an unusual kind. At first my attention was attracted to what I supposed to be sparks of fire traversing the air, in every direction – and from their occasional contiguity to the dry combustible thatching of the houses, I was apprehensive lest some injury should arise. I was almost on the point of mentioning the circumstance to the landlord, when from observation I was led to believe these apparent sparks of fire to be nothing or less than fire-flies, whose phosphorescent bodies emit a bright light, the effect of which in a dark night is singularly beautiful. Upon saying I found I was right – and afterwards derived much pleasing amusement in watching the wayward flight of the little creatures – sometimes alighting on the ground and looking like a small lump of burnished gold – sometimes perching on the branches of the trees from whence they glistened with the radiance of stars.

Our ears too were no less attracted that our eyes – for a very loud chirping sound filled the air, rising above every other. This proceeded from the long and lean lizards, which every where abounded here. I cannot describe the effect of this sound – in the midst of habitations and living creatures, in my opinion the song, if you may so call it, communicates the idea of cheerfulness – but amidst the solemn silence of the night and when heard amidst the dreary stillness of a large burial ground in the neighbourhood, a feeling of indefinable horror would be created in the mind.

In chattering, drinking, seeing the flies and listening to the music of the lizards, time flew on, and we returned on board at a late hour. As I’ve paid several visits to this part of the shore I think it will be best to mention what we farther observed, in this point, that it may not interfere with the City.

Burial Ground near Cartagena

In one of our rambles M.r Geach and I stumbled by chance upon an extensive burying-ground. It was completely surrounded with a solid wall of stone, ornamented at regular intervals with small pilasters. The interior was full of horrible tomb-stones, which were erected to the memory and for the soul of the deceased, and to the honour of the virgin Mary. The whole ground was overgrown with much weeds, intermixed with some aromatics & a few flowers. In the centre was a tomb of much larger dimensions, than the rest, which we were told had been raised to the Commandante. It was of a square form – and on each of the four sides was an aperture for the reception of the body, which when deposited there was immediately walled up. When we were there – and the others had either been opened by force or time had done the work of dilapidation. In one of them we found the sculls of two adults, and in the other that of a child, which were placed in such a situation, as to be visible to all. In another part of the ground, I saw a grave partly open, and perceived the rude coffin had not been lowered to the bottom of the grave, but that it rested on several planks placed crossways. As we were about to leave these relics of mortality we discovered an Indian woman engaged in lighting up a lamp which hung suspended over the large entrance to the burial ground. Whether this act was done by this individual only, from a regard for the memory of some friend, and whether she was employed by the public in general to light the lamp, we from our imperfect knowledge of Spanish could not ascertain – nor what the reason at all for the observance of such a custom.

Negro dance in Columbia

As life is a mingled yarn of joy and sorrow, happiness and misery – and as a journalist is allowed to change from grave to gay, from lively to severe, you will not be surprised if I take you along with me to a very different scene and what widely different emotions were excited in our minds. We were at a negroe dance or ball – I must be more methodical. We had been enjoying ourselves on shore as usual and were preparing to return on board when the sound of the heat stirring drums saluted our ears. Guided by this, after a long walk we came in front of a large hut, at which the ball was kept. Before the door and under the open canopy of heaven were arranged in various attitudes a pretty large party of coloured girls, with one or two negroesmen. Some were sitting quiet spectators of the proceedings – others were standing clapping their hands, in time with the music, while one or two girls were performing a very slow dance to the sound of a drum, and a large tin pan. All of them were dressed for the occasion and most of them in white, and one wore a very neat chaplet of flowers. Our arrival did not seem to disturb them in the least – the mirth and fun grew fast & furious while ever and anon the services of the different drummers were put into requisition. To the beaux and belles of our country villages, who have no idea of dancing beyond kicking up their heels and moving rapidly to the merry sound of the lively fiddle, the dance of the Negroes would appear to be no dancing at all. With an air of voluptuous languor the blacks moved their bodies and were never incited to go ___ thro’ their part at more than a snails pace. This is either the character of their national dance or the exclusive languor induced by the heat of the weather forbids those active movements which are the delight of the English. I must however confess that the Negroes & coloured people in general dance with a great deal more grace than is to be found among the lower ranks at home – and they are so fond of the amusement that they have been known to continue it right into the night for a whole month together. Wherever the drum sounds the note of preparation, thither all the lads and lassies congregate to enjoy their favourite pastime. The character of the dance is essentially [indelicate] and unfit [for the modest society of our fair country women].

I have mentioned that the sound of the drum attracted our attention, and not of the fiddle. A common tin pan, in conjunction with the drum are the only artificial instruments from which the music is elicited. The latter is an object of curiosity. In construction it is extremely simple, and rude. The form somewhat resembles that of an egg, and at one of the ends is covered with skin while the other is perfectly open, and when the instrument is used, is placed against the ground. In the middle part is a very rude apparatus for rendering the skin tense. They have no drum sticks but, in room of them they bend the fingers at the third joint and thump with all their might upon the skin of the drum. I don’t think much science is or can be displayed – a succession of rub-a-dubs, with a few straggling variations seems to constitute the whole of their notions as to music & harmony. The efforts of the drum to enliven the dance were amply seconded by the voices of the women, many of which evidently contained the elements of good singing – one of them in particular possessed a voice of wonderful sweetness and power. I cannot pretend to put down exactly in letters the sounds they uttered – it resembled this lee, la, la, los, lu, lee, ill, la, le, lee, in various keys, sometimes high, sometimes low. The harmonious combination of the different voices had an effect indescribably pleasing – and the unusual mode of regulating the movements of the dance seemed to answer the desired purpose most effectively. The tripping on the light fantastic toes was kept up with unabated delight until midnight, when all, forming themselves into a procession, departed to their respective homes, to the sound of singing shouting and blowing on shells.

Read on … Description of Cartagena