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Maturin M. Ballou
Equatorial America Descriptive of a Visit to St. Thomas, Martinique, Barbadoes, and the Principal Capitals of South America


"I am a part of all that I have seen," says Tennyson, a sentiment which every one of large experience will heartily indorse. With the extraordinary facilities for travel available in modern times, it is a serious mistake in those who possess the means, not to become familiar with the various sections of the globe. Vivid descriptions and excellent photographs give us a certain knowledge of the great monuments of the world, both natural and artificial, but the traveler always finds the reality a new revelation, whether it be the marvels of a Yellowstone Park, a vast oriental temple, Alaskan glaciers, or the Pyramids of Ghiza. The latter, for instance, do not differ from the statistics which we have so often seen recorded, their great, dominating outlines are the same as pictorially delineated, but when we actually stand before them, they are touched by the wand of enchantment, and spring into visible life. Heretofore they have been shadows, henceforth they are tangible and real. The best descriptions fail to inspire us, experience alone can do that. What words can adequately depict the confused grandeur of the Falls of Schaffhausen; the magnificence of the Himalayan range, – roof-tree of the world; the thrilling beauty of the Yosemite Valley; the architectural loveliness of the Taj Mahal, of India; the starry splendor of equatorial nights; the maritime charms of the Bay of Naples; or the marvel of the Midnight Sun at the North Cape? It is personal observation alone which truly satisfies, educating the eye and enriching the understanding. If we can succeed in imparting, a portion of our enjoyment to others, we enhance our own pleasure, and therefore these notes of travel are given to the public.

M. M. B.


Commencement of a Long Journey. – The Gulf Stream. – Hayti. – Sighting St. Thomas. – Ship Rock. – Expert Divers. – Fidgety Old Lady. – An Important Island. – The Old Slaver. – Aborigines. – St. Thomas Cigars. – Population. – Tri-Mountain. – Negro Paradise. – Hurricanes. – Variety of Fish. – Coaling Ship. – The Firefly Dane. – A Weird Scene. – An Antique Anchor.

In starting upon foreign travel, one drops into the familiar routine on shipboard much after the same fashion wherever bound, whether crossing the Atlantic eastward, or steaming to the south through the waters of the Caribbean Sea; whether in a Peninsular and Oriental ship in the Indian Ocean, or on a White Star liner in the Pacific bound for Japan. The steward brings a cup of hot coffee and a slice of dry toast to one's cabin soon after the sun rises, as a sort of eye-opener; and having swallowed that excellent stimulant, one feels better fortified for the struggle to dress on the uneven floor of a rolling and pitching ship. Then comes the brief promenade on deck before breakfast, a liberal inhalation of fresh air insuring a good appetite. There is no hurry at this meal. There is so little to do at sea, and so much time to do it in, that passengers are apt to linger at table as a pastime, and even multiply their meals in number. As a rule, we make up our mind to follow some instructive course of reading while at sea, but, alas! we never fulfill the good resolution. An entire change of habits and associations for the time being is not favorable to such a purpose. The tonic of the sea braces one up to an unwonted degree, evinced by great activity of body and mind. Favored by the unavoidable companionship of individuals in the circumscribed space of a ship, acquaintances are formed which often ripen into lasting friendship. Inexperienced voyagers are apt to become effusive and over-confiding, abrupt intimacies and unreasonable dislikes are of frequent occurrence, and before the day of separation, the student of human nature has seen many phases exhibited for his analysis.

Our vessel, the Vigilancia, is a large, commodious, and well-appointed ship, embracing all the modern appliances for comfort and safety at sea. She is lighted by electricity, having a donkey engine which sets in motion a dynamo machine, converting mechanical energy into electric energy. Perhaps the reader, though familiar with the effect of this mode of lighting, has never paused to analyze the very simple manner in which it is produced. The current is led from the dynamos to the various points where light is desired by means of insulated wires. The lamps consist of a fine thread of carbon inclosed in a glass bulb from which air has been entirely excluded. This offers such resistance to the current passing through it that the energy is expended in raising the carbon to a white heat, thus forming the light. The permanence of the carbon is insured by the absence of oxygen. If the glass bulb is broken and atmospheric air comes in contact with the carbon, it is at once destroyed by combustion, and all light from this source ceases. These lamps are so arranged that each one can be turned off or on at will without affecting others. The absence of offensive smell or smoke, the steadiness of the light, unaffected by the motion of the ship, and its superior brilliancy, all join to make this mode of lighting a vessel a positive luxury.

Some pleasant hours were passed on board the Vigilancia, between New York and the West Indies, in the study of the Gulf Stream, through which we were sailing, – that river in the ocean with its banks and bottom of cold water, while its current is always warm. Who can explain the mystery of its motive power? What keeps its tepid water, in a course of thousands of miles, from mingling with the rest of the sea? Whence does it really come? The accepted theories are familiar enough, but we place little reliance upon them, the statements of scientists are so easily formulated, but often so difficult to prove. As Professor Maury tells us, there is in the world no other flow of water so majestic as this; it has a course more rapid than either the Mississippi or the Amazon, and a volume more than a thousand times greater. The color of this remarkable stream, whose fountain is supposed to be the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, is so deep a blue off our southern shore that the line of demarcation from its surroundings is quite obvious, the Gulf water having apparently a decided reluctance to mingling with the rest of the ocean, a peculiarity which has been long and vainly discussed without a satisfactory solution having been reached. The same phenomenon has been observed in the Pacific, where the Japanese current comes up from the equator, along the shore of that country, crossing Behring's Sea to the continent of North America, and, turning southward along the coast of California, finally disappears. Throughout all this ocean passage, like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, it retains its individuality, and is quite separate from the rest of the ocean. The fact that the water is saltier than that of the Atlantic is by some supposed to account for the indigo blue of the Gulf Stream.

The temperature of this water is carefully taken on board all well regulated ships, and is recorded in the log. On this voyage it was found to vary from 75° to 80° Fahrenheit.

Our ship had touched at Newport News, Va., after leaving New York, to take the U. S. mail on board; thence the course was south-southeast, giving the American continent a wide berth, and heading for the Danish island of St. Thomas, which lies in the latitude of Hayti, but a long way to the eastward of that uninteresting island. We say uninteresting with due consideration, though its history is vivid enough to satisfy the most sensational taste. It has produced its share of native heroes, as well as native traitors, while the frequent upheavals of its mingled races have been no less erratic than destructive. The ignorance and confusion which reign among the masses on the island are deplorable. Minister Douglass utterly failed to make anything out of Hayti. The lower classes of the people living inland come next to the inhabitants of Terra del Fuego in the scale of humanity, and are much inferior to the Maoris of New Zealand, or the savage tribes of Australia. It is satisfactorily proven that cannibalism still exists among them in its most repulsive form, so revolting, indeed, that we hesitate to detail the experience of a creditable eye-witness relating to this matter, as personally described to us.

Upon looking at the map it would seem, to one unaccustomed to the ocean, that a ship could not lay her course direct, in these island dotted waters, without running down one or more of them; but the distances which are so circumscribed upon the chart are extended for many a league at sea, and a good navigator may sail his ship from New York to Barbadoes, if he so desires, without sighting the land. Not a sailing vessel or steamship was seen, on the brief voyage from the American continent to the West Indies, these latitudes being far less frequented by passenger and freighting ships than the transatlantic route further north.

It is quite natural that the heart should throb with increased animation, the spirits become more elate, and the eyes more than usually appreciative, when the land of one's destination heaves in sight after long days and nights passed at sea. This is especially the case if the change from home scenes is so radical in all particulars as when coming from our bleak Northern States in the early days of spring, before the trees have donned their leaves, to the soft temperature and exuberant verdure of the low latitudes. Commencing the voyage herein described, the author left the Brooklyn shore of New York harbor about the first of May, during a sharp snow-squall, though, as Governor's Island was passed on the one hand, and the Statue of Liberty on the other, the sun burst forth from its cloudy environment, as if to smile a cheerful farewell. Thus we passed out upon the broad Atlantic, bound southward, soon feeling its half suppressed force in the regular sway and roll of the vessel. She was heavily laden, and measured considerably over four thousand tons, drawing twenty-two feet of water, yet she was like an eggshell upon the heaving breast of the ocean. As these mammoth ships lie in port beside the wharf, it seems as though their size and enormous weight would place them beyond the influence of the wind and waves: but the power of the latter is so great as to be beyond computation, and makes a mere toy of the largest hull that floats. No one can realize the great strength of the waves who has not watched the sea in all of its varying moods.

"Land O!" shouts the lookout on the forecastle.

A wave of the hand signifies that the occupant of the bridge has already made out the mote far away upon the glassy surface of the sea, which now rapidly grows into definite form.

When the mountain which rises near the centre of St. Thomas was fairly in view from the deck of the Vigilancia, it seemed as if beckoning us to its hospitable shore. The light breeze which fanned the sea came from off the land flavored with an odor of tropical vegetation, a suggestion of fragrant blossoms, and a promise of luscious fruits. On our starboard bow there soon came into view the well known Ship Rock, which appears, when seen from a short distance, almost precisely like a full-rigged ship under canvas. If the sky is clouded and the atmosphere hazy, the delusion is remarkable.

This story is told of a French corvette which was cruising in these latitudes at the time when the buccaneers were creating such havoc with legitimate commerce in the West Indies. It seems that the coast was partially hidden by a fog, when the corvette made out the rock through the haze, and, supposing it to be what it so much resembles, a ship under sail, fired a gun to leeward for her to heave to. Of course there was no response to the shot, so the Frenchman brought his ship closer, at the same time clearing for action. Being satisfied that he had to do with a powerful adversary, he resolved to obtain the advantage by promptly crippling the enemy, and so discharged the whole of his starboard broadside into the supposed ship, looming through the mist. The fog quietly dispersed as the corvette went about and prepared to deliver her port guns in a similar manner. As the deceptive rock stood in precisely the same place when the guns came once more to bear upon it, the true character of the object was discovered. It is doubtful whether the Frenchman's surprise or mortification predominated.

An hour of steady progress served to raise the veil of distance, and to reveal the spacious bay of Charlotte Amalie, with its strong background of abrupt hills and dense greenery of tropical foliage. How wonderfully blue was the water round about the island, – an emerald set in a sea of molten sapphire! It seemed as if the sky had been melted and poured all over the ebbing tide. About the Bahamas, especially off the shore at Nassau, the water is green, – a delicate bright green; here it exhibits only the true azure blue, – Mediterranean blue. It is seen at its best and in marvelous glow during the brief moments of twilight, when a glance of golden sunset tinges its mottled surface with iris hues, like the opaline flashes from a humming-bird's throat.


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Equatorial America

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