Go on shore at Vera Cruz – Meet Mon.s Sgiarte
Monday 19th – wet morning but fine day. Went ashore to see the Town and fell in with our old friend Mons.r L’Abbe Sgiarte, who showed himself exceedingly attentive and accompanied me wherever I wished to go. I was curious to know how his affairs were coming on and in answer to my inquiries he related the following particulars. That very shortly after his arrival, several evil designing persons stirred up an inquiry concerning him, which led to his being ordered to quit the country as an old Spaniard. The Abbe immediately waited upon the French Consul and shewed him his documents of naturalization. Upon this the Consul took his part and insisted that he should be allowed to remain in the Republic as a subject of France. No further proceedings took place – Sgiarte was engaged as assistant of the celebration of the mass in the principal Church – and this he continued to do for 15 days. At the end of that time a letter was received from the Mexican Minister, requiring him to transmit all his papers to the Bishop, who would determine upon them. When I saw him he had already sent his papers and was in the daily expectation of an answer. In the meantime he was interdicted from celebrating mass until the final decision of his case should be made known to him. He seemed to be very doubtful of success but said that if he were permitted to reside here he could make a good sum by teaching supposing that he should be prevented from officiating as a priest.
During nearly the whole day we paraded the streets – popped into very pleasant churches, convents, shops &.c and finished by going to his Sanctum sanctorum in a Convent of the Franciscan Order – there we rested ourselves after intervals broiling in the rays of a midday sun – and partook of some refreshments. After this the old Padre accompanied me on board to see our Captain, and remained till 5 P.M. when he went ashore. Having understood that there was to be an exhibition of fireworks at some religious fete, the Master – Mate and myself went on shore. Under the guidance of our old French passenger, who was intimately acquainted with the Town, we soon reached the Church, where the Fete was to take place. We found there a large assembly of people in the streets, chiefly of the common order, and the interior of the Church where certain religious ceremonies were a-performing, crowded to the door with females alone, who were all on their knees. The Church was splendidly lighted up, shewing every object to advantage. While we were there they were chanting some psalms, the first part being given out by a priest with a loud & finely tuned voice, who was then answered by the united voices of all the females – and thus an effect was produced both solemn & pleasing.
Fete at Vera Cruz
As if utterly regardless of the sacred service performed in the Church, the canaille outside were enjoying themselves to the full noise and fun the orders of the night. Large barrels set on fire cast a light around, almost equal to noon day, while numerable squibs were thrown about. The whole was concluded by a figure in the shape of a male bull, which was composed of fireworks. Underneath it was a man, who ran up & down with it on his head, and endeavoured to make the actions of an enraged animal. I must confess that the exhibition, altogether was a very poor one to my sight – but was highly applauded by the people. This is the first time, I believe, that I have been witness of the combination of devotional exercise with amusement, which even now forms so marked a feature of the Catholic religion, and I felt persuaded that all the beneficial impressions produced on the mind by the solemnity of religion are liable to be subverted & effused by so immediate transition, if I may so express myself, from heavenly thoughts, to the vanities of earth.
Description of Vera Cruz
I shall now proceed to fulfil the promise which I made when last at Vera Cruz, of giving you some account of that city – but I must necessarily be brief and imperfect since instead of having 5 or 6 days to remain there, our stay was limited to 24 hours.
Long before you come in sight of Vera Cruz there are three remarkable objects, which attract your attention, and which serve as landmarks to vessels bound for that port. To the Southward and Eastward you perceive a mountain of moderate elevation which is Volcanic, and emits a strong effluvia of sulphur. This is called the Volcano of Tuxtla and is still in active operation at intervals. Again to the Westward of Vera Cruz two immense high mountains are visible viz. the Pico Orizaba, and the Coffre de Pirote. The former of these is 17,371 feet, and the latter is 13,514 feet above the level of the sea. Heights exceeding that of the far famed Peak of Teneriffe. Both these mountains are volcanic, but they have not been in a state of inflammation for a considerable period. The appearance of Orizaba is beautiful, its shape being that of a nearly perfect cone. Its summit or cap, looks black, and a little below is the region of eternal snows. In clear weather it is seen at a[n] immense distance, and when you are in the Harbour of Vera Cruz, you would imagine yourself to be close at hand to it – altho’ in reality it lies 80 miles inland, when the clouds of whitest hue form themselves into a crown around the centre, leaving the superior portion prominently elevated in the air. The Coffre de Pirote, tho’ very high, by comparison seems as nothing – it does not taper to an extremity, but it broad all the way, and its distance inland is about 53 miles.
Such are the grand objects which you descry when approaching Vera Cruz, and the contemplation of their magnitude & grandeur but ill prepares to entertain a high opinion of Vera Cruz. From them the translation is too great to a low sandy beach, with old looking houses and is the nature of the country around Vera Cruz. The access to Vera Cruz is very difficult and dangerous from the numerous reefs and shoals, which surround it, particularly to the Eastward, and when entering the Harbour, vessels pass to the Westward of the Town, where the entrance is safe & open from the sea.
The City is of a semicircular form, with a sandy beach on either side. It is surrounded by a wall of moderate height, and defended at each extremity by strong forts. But the chief defence of Vera Cruz is the very strong castle of San Juan de Uloa- which lies to the East end of the town, and commands it and the whole harbour. It is built on a small island, and it is said is mounted with 300 pieces of cannon – and if these were properly manned and served, it would be impossible to capture it. During the late war between Spain and Mexico, the Mexicans were unable to dispossess the old Spaniards, who were in the occupation of the castle, by force, and they only succeeded after a considerable time by the sure operation of starving them out. I doubt not but that the greatest part of the difficulty lay in the inefficiency & insignificance of the means which the Mexicans employed – and I dare say, that had the castle been battered by British cannon, it would have yielded in a much shorter period. At present, tho’ they have reason to expect an invasion on the part of Spain, it has only 100 artillerymen & a few regulars – because their army is in such a wretched condition, that they cannot do more. Upon the castle is an excellent revolving light, and behind it is the best place you can anchor in, since it is only there you can be safe from the North wind which at certain seasons blows with tremendous force and destroy[s] every vessel in the Harbour which is not sheltered from it.
Vera Cruz is a city of no very great extent, and has fallen off from its former importance, when the capital of the Province of La Vera Cruz, and a great mart of merchandise from all parts of the world. Its very aspect tells expresses the character of age – the houses are crumbled, and covered with the livery of time. Compared with its size, you are struck with the numerous domes, spires, and square towers, which project beyond the general mass of the buildings – and these expressively shew you what ample provision has here been made for the public services of religion in Churches and the accommodation of recluses in convents & nunneries. All these too are time-worn – not one of them is visible which you could pronounce had been laid under a century. Your opinion as to the antiquity of the place is confirmed, when you land at an old shattered pier, and have a close view. The encircling walls and the ancient portals, under which you must pass to enter the city, smack of age – being black and mouldy. Over the gateway you perceive numerous perforations, which were made by the Spaniards from the castle of San Juan de Uloa, when they made this their firing mark. Soon as [you] pass the gate you find yourself in the City, and if traverse it all over, you will discover, that the principal streets are broad all paved, with an excellent footpath. The bye streets or lanes are very good indeed and on the whole Vera Cruz presents the best appearance of comfort in the streets of any town I have yet seen. In many of them, however, the grass is growing ungrubbed and all around, & inside of the walls the rank weeds flourish luxuriantly & unchecked indicating with many crumbling houses the progress of age and decay. The houses are of stone and in general are excellent. I was told that there was only one parish Church, and that all the other domes & spires indicated the situation of convents and nunneries. This church I visited along with the Old Padre. It was of large size and handsome within, containing besides our saviour, the shrines of many saints. I was rather disappointed in my preconceived ideas of magnificence – you would call it superb, but I who had seen much finer hardly cast a glance on the immense candle sticks & vessels of solver, which were displayed in abundance. This Church is especially dedicated to our Saviour, who is represented larger than life, as a black Indian, with long lank hair, suspended on the cross – and close to the cross is another representation of him as lying in the tomb. I think I mentioned in my Brazil Journal, that I had met with a negro Christ – but I had never seen the same reason assigned for the strange transformation, as I [found] here, contained in the following inscription Haud factus taliter omni nationi. i.e. not represented in the same manner by all nations. In this Church our old friend the Padre Sgiarte officiated for 15 days, and such is the rarity of properly qualified priests, that his service[s] were a valuable acquisition. It was the great policy of the Spaniards to keep up their influence by filling the vacancies in the Church with the natives of Old Spain. The natural consequences of such a plan was, that when the Mexicans came to the revolution of expelling all belonging to the Mother Country, the convents & churches were suddenly deprived of their religious members – and too short a period has elapsed to enable them to supply the deficiencies. As an instance of this, I may tell you that I found L’Abbe Sgiarte domiciled in the very large convent of S.t Francisco, which might contain upwards of 50 or 60 brethren – and yet besides himself there was only one superior and one solitary monk. There was similar fallings off among the other orders – and I was told that there was no anxiety expressed to have their complement completed.
I shall only add to this very imperfect description of Vera Cruz, that from its sandy beach and neighbouring marshes it is extremely unhealthy and frequently visited by that most dreadful of all diseases the vomito prieto or black vomit. But what will not the desire of gain lead men to encounter – one generation is cut off after another – and still the vacancies are filled by a constant succession of new settlers, who heedless of the fate of their predecessors pursue their own speculations as cheerfully as if they possessed an antidote against the general malady.