Some ten years Dickens's junior, columnist Henry Morley (1822-94) began his twenty-year association with Household Words when the editor solicited him to write a series of articles on sanitation in 1850. The following year, delighted with Morley's work, Dickens recruited him for the regular staff of the weekly journal, to which he contributed some 300 articles up to 1865, when he took up the post of Professor of English at the University of London. In a lively yet highly lucid manner he wrote on a wide range of issues, including education, geography and travel, foreign affairs, natural science, and literature. He was both the best educated and most productive of the Household Words staff. See Henry S. Solly, The Life of Henry Morley (London: 1898).
The following excerpt from "Our Phantom Ship. Central America" (pp. 516-522, 22 February 1851) describes the British colony of Belize and the Mayan ruins in the jungles of Honduras, a possible source for the Charles Dickens-Wilkie Collins 1857 Christmas story "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners."
Now that Central America is very generally looked to as a Land of Hope, the imagination glows over the picture of what it is destined to become. Though most of us like to know as much as travellers will tell us, about the country of the Incas, very few of us care to experience what it now actually is. Fleas, fevers, and frijoles, to say nothing of convulsions, political and natural, earthquakes and revolutions, go far to quench the spirit of the traveller. Only the other day war was declared with the small state of Honduras by the small states of Guatemala and San Salvador. Valiant ragamuffins by the dozen will form armies, dodge each other, march and countermarch. There will be universal crisis, as our neighbours call it. Never mind. We travel in our Phantom Ship, and we will wander through the land as phantoms.
Already we have traversed the Atlantic in our Phantom Ship, and have been drenched by a good sheet of rain within the tropics by the time we reach Belize. As Britons, we will first visit Belize British settlement. [516/517] Belize is on the coast of free Indians, in the Bay of Honduras. South of it lie the five independent and quarrelsome states forming the Republic of Central America. Guatemala and Honduras side by side; Guatemala with a coast-line on the Pacific, and a bit of coast on the Atlantic; Honduras with Atlantic coast along the bay named after it. Under these lies first; San Salvador, with the Pacific forming its sea-margin. Then Nicaragua, with a long coast on the Pacific, and containing lakes, but with a little piece of coast on the Atlantic. The great part of the Atlantic coast line from Honduras southward is in the possession of the Mosquito Indians. Costa Rica in the narrowest part of the of the Central American Isthmus, occupies the breadth from sea to sea, but has by a great deal its longest coast line on the Pacific side. Then comes the remainder of the Isthmus, including the line of railway between Chagres and Panama, but Central America does not extend so far. We will begin our travels at Belize and ramble southward, until we take ship again in Costa Rica at Punta Arenas on the Pacific side, for reasons hereinafter to be mentioned.
Here we are, then, near the British settlement, as we before said, after having felt how water can dash down between the tropics; raining, not cats and dogs, but tigers and rhinoceroses. Belize appears to rise out of the sea as we approach; a range of white houses running for a mile along the shore--government house at one end, barracks at the other; a picturesque bridge, somewhere the middle, crosses a river which divides the settlement. At the mouth of the river, on an island, is a little fort. There is a church spire, and, behind all, a background made by groves of cocoa-nuts. Vessels at anchor in the harbour, rafts of mahogany, canoes paddled to and fro, and there is the government dory made out of the trunk of a mahogany tree. Belize lives upon mahogany. The mahogany cutters are free blacks, who form the staple population of the town. There is a Court of Justice in Belize. Seven Judges sitting on heavy mahogany chairs, seven ordinary men of business, sit to hear cases. There are plenty to be tried; there is a jury to try them, but there's not a lawyer in the settlement. The merits of each case are fairly brought out, by mutual explanations and shrewd questioning. The decisions are founded upon homely common sense, and the strict purpose of protecting honest men. The suitors have a right of appeal from this court to England, but they make no use of it. How many appeals would there be in the courts if every suitor knew, that go into what court he might, he would find the law to be the synonym of justice?
We walk among the bustle of Belize, then step into our Phantom Ship, and sailing slowly up the Belize River, one turn shuts the Bridge from sight--and we are in the [517 left colum/517 right column] deepest solitude. The dense forest, motionless, and silent; the swift river by which, but a few miles farther up, the aboriginal Indians are dwelling; the sky obstructed by thick boughs; these are the scene in which no living thing appears to be astir, except a quiet pelican. The solitudes beyond are almost unexplored; we did not come out to explore them, so we let the current float us back into the bustle of Belize, and through Belize, till we can hoist our ghostly white sail and put out to sea again.
Our voyage is a short one. In the extreme corner of Honduras Bay we find the Dolce Mountains clothed up to their very summits with the brightest foliage, are parted by an ample stream; we pass between them, we are enclosed on all sides by a forest wall. The course of the broad stream is hidden by its windings; trees, piled upon trees environ us, the rocks are hidden by luxuriance of shrubs that burst forth out of every crevice. The air is odorous of fruits and flowers. The plumage of the cocoa-nut, the huge stems of the cotton trees, are bound together by a network of parasites, whose crimson blossoms cover them, whose runners hang in festoons from the boughs and dip into the placid water. There are orange trees and lemons, pineapple, banana, plantain; but there is no song of birds. We float for nine miles, buried within a scene of solemn beauty, catching now and then a gleam of sunset on our faces, and then the mountains part on either hand; for we have reached the broad lake, Golfo Dolce, into which the River Dolce first flows from the heights of Guatemala. The lake, studded with islands, is now glorious before the setting sun. We steer for the little port of Isabel — a port; of Guatemala, on the Gulf--behind which mountain rises above mountain — there we land. The removal of a mud bar from the mouth of the harbour would make this one of the best ports in the world. The small population here at present is composed of Indians, negroes, people of mixed blood, and a few Spaniards. Not far from Isabel there is another port, St. Thomas, with a sheltered harbour. We wait for morning and pass on, leaving our ship to find its way without a pilot or crew, round Cape Horn and wait for us on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. We are now in Guatemala, the most northern state, and on the high road to its capital. This road takes high ground at the very outset, for it begins by running up the Mico Mountains.
Starting from Isabel, and passing a suburb, we cross a marshy plain, and then in a few minutes drive into primeval forest. In central America, roads mean lanes cut by axe into the otherwise impenetrable wood, just wide enough to give room for the mules to meet and pass each other. The stems of the trees are not dug out, the path is not made level by an artificial process, but it is trodden into by the mules, washed into by the rains, and bristles with a chevaux-de-frise of mighty [517/518] stumps. The high road from Isabel to Guatemala upon which we are now is an example. We, travelling phantoms, take no harm, we may amuse ourselves with watching more substantial way-farers. Here is a party floundering on mules that sink in mud at every step, up to their shoulders. The wood grows thicker, and so does the mud; the shade is deeper so are the holes. We come to a stream rattling over stones, the whole party plunges in and clatters up its bed. The mules are perpetually falling. The trees meet overhead; it is like a cathedral aisle, only instead of organ music there is the cursing and swearing of the muleteers. Out again into the road, that is to say, into the mud-holes, and among the roots of trees. The colossal roots of the mahogany trees get sadly in the way. It is almost dark under the dense branches, but we can all contrive to see the mud-holes into which our friends are tumbling. We are working our way up the Mico mountain at the conclusion of the rainy season. At length we reach a little clearing on the top, the only ground on which the sun can shine, and this is dry. We rest here for a little while, and then follow to watch the general tumble of our party down the other side. They are down at length; in ten hours they have got through those twelve miles of road, and they are in a grove of palm trees on the plain. Plastered from head to foot with a thick layer of mud, the party we have watched attain a kindred shelter, a small rancho, built of mud. Here they eat frijoles, that is to say, black beans fried in hog's lard, which are the roast beef of Central America. Now we may note that those who do not like hog's lard must not travel in this part of the world. Lard is to the natives here what palm oil is to negroes. It enters into every dish, and if you ask for bread and are able to get it, it will be brought to you as a matter of course, smeared with lard, unless you are extremely vigilant. Good wheat I bread can be got, but it is about three times dearer than it is in England. Maize is the grain in common use; they grind it between stones into a pulp, the women pat it into cakes, and bake them on a "griddle." These cakes Tortillias, and the daily manufacture of them forms a good part of the women's household work. Rounds of beef, and shoulders of mutton are not to be met with in this country. An ox is cut up into long strips, in villages, and dried without any reference to steaks or sirloins; so that the beef is then brought by the yard, and eaten, fried in hog's lard naturally. The upper classes live much upon vegetables, fruit and sweet-meat. Chocolate is in common use, and coffee in the neighbourhood of the plantations. Tea has scarcely penetrated into this part of the world. So now you know what you can get to eat if you should chance to visit Central America, not as a phantom but in hungry flesh.
We travel on — along the summit of a [bottom of left-hand column, page 518] mountain range — on either side of us delicious valleys, whereon winter never trod; here and there a scenery reminding us of English parks. The next hour is enlivened by a heavy rain. It ceases, and we see beneath us the Motagua, the finest river in Central America, which forms in the lower part of its course the boundary between the states of Guatemala and Honduras. We descend by a steep, romantic path, and. stand upon the margin of the torrent, where huge mountains compass us about. A naked Indian sits on the other bank before few huts roofed with palm leaves. He pushes across for us in his canoe.
We turn aside from the high road to Guatemala — not very far aside — to trace the Copan River. Copan is but a little village--of Honduras, for we have just crossed the borders that state. It lies in a district famous for its good tobacco. In Central America the whole population smokes, men, women and children; standing, sitting, and reclining. The wife goes to bed, on the ox-hide, with a cigar in her mouth, and the husband with his cigar will lie with his head at her feet sometimes, for mutual convenience. Copan is their best tobacco district.
What Titanic wall is that whose image is reflected in the river? By the shrubs and creepers we can climb up to the summit. It looks like a portion of some massive ruin. We have climbed, and we stand spell bound. Step below step, broken by trees, loaded with shrubs, and lost at last in the luxuriance of forest, we see the traces of a theatre of masonry. But from a pillar of broken stone below, the fixed stare of an enormous sculptured head encounters us. We descend wondering, and stand before an altar richly carved. We seek for more, and find at our first plunge into the forest a colossal figure frowning down upon us; it is a statue twelve feet high, loaded with hieroglyphic and with grotesque ornament, The grand face seems to be portrait — but of whom? We explore farther, and find more and more of these stone giants, elbowed from their places by the growth of trees, some of them buried to the chest in vegetation, staring through the underwood with their blind eyes. Monkeys in troops pass to and fro among them. Who are these gods or heroes buried in the dark recesses of the wood? Who raised their monuments? What Temple, what great city, has existed here? No man can tell. These figures frowned before their altars when the Spaniards came. They speak, as the monuments of Egypt, about that time when man exulted most in wrestling against matter, when glory lay in strength of hand and magnitude of handiwork. These are the ruins of Copan, and tell of a past whose history is totally effaced. Along a row of death's heads, carved in stone by other monuments, we pass back to the outer wall. From the suggestion of what has been, we return to the examination of what is. We get back into the high road for [518/519] Guatemala, and bid good-bye to Honduras, in which state we shall not travel.
Last modified 12 December 2005