THE homeward journey commences at Jamaica, being made in the mail steamer which comes down from New York. The ship travels eastwards along the Spanish Main, its earliest port of call being Colon on the Isthmus of Panama. The first view of the famous Spanish Main is not disappointing. The steamer heads for a wide, green bay of many creeks, the low shores of which are edged by cocoa-nut palms. In the background is a far-reaching ridge covered with jungle. The trees upon its summit stand out against the skyline, while to the left are dim mountains of great height, the western end of the Andes. The country seems so luxuriant and so tempting that it can be understood why Columbus the Dreamer, as he sailed along its shores, felt assured that he had come upon the Land of Ophir whence King Solomon drew his wealth of gold.
There is little to suggest the Land of Ophir about the town of Colon as it appears at the present day. The town lies on the margin of a sodden swamp, the mud shore of which has been trodden into the semblance of honest earth by generations of human feet. It is a small place, being composed of one long street from the back of which minor streets come off at intervals. These struggle for varying distances towards the swamp, and then drop off in despair among miscellaneous rubbish. The general plan of the town, therefore, is that of a discarded comb with broken and irregular teeth.
The houses are, for the most part, wooden shanties of the dirtiest, among which drinking bars and cafes are notable. There are incongruous, indefinite shops kept by Chinamen, and store-houses filled with such a medley of untidy goods as would suggest the hoard of an ancient and unmethodical buccaneer. The unkempt roadway is filthy and full of mud holes. Fortunately the railway, runs along the main street and so presents, when trains are not passing, a convenient promenade. The place is hot, sickly and dispirited, a rendezvous of dejected loafers. Any backwood settlement in the Far West may be more rudimentary, but it would at least be alive with vigour, hope and determination. Here there is only a yawning apathy, a state of desponding anaemia.
There is a look of the neglected lazar-house about the spot, and certainly the smell of the same; for it is doubtful if any place is more fetid for its size than is this well-known seaport. Every city has its slums, but Colon is a slum without a city. It has the appearance, moreover, of being a temporary town erected to meet some emergency or calamity. It is a town, too, which seems to have never grown up, but to be still in a most unwholesome pseudo-infancy. In this respect it is like a poor, dwarfed cretin, who, although he may be fifty years of age, is yet a child in stature and in speech, beardless, and apt to spend the day playing marbles.
In remarkable contrast to this comfortless, unhuman haunt of men is the adjacent American settlement of Cristobal, on the Canal Zone, where are charming houses, the most perfect cleanliness and order, as well as the latest developments of sanitary science.
The inhabitants of Colon are mostly negroes, with a few brown or sallow men of very complex pedigree. The national costume consists of frayed trousers, a buttonless shirt and a slouch hat. There is scarcely a woman to be seen in the place. While the squalor of the town is not to be excused, there are some grounds for the melancholia which seems to pervade its streets. The town is low-lying, and the fermenting swamp at the back of it does not make for cheerfulness. Then the wet season at Colon lasts for eight months out of the twelve, the annual rainfall reaching as high as 155 inches. Whether wet or dry it is always hot, not with a keen fiery sun, but with a steamy, enervating, invalid heat which carries little joy with it.
Moreover death comes very often to Colon, so often that the place has been known as “the town of flags at half-mast” The burial ground is on Monkey Hill, where, during the time of epidemics from thirty to forty victims have been disposed of every day. This hill contains very many thousands of graves, the resting-places of Spaniards, French and English, of Negroes, Panama natives, Chinese and the Mulattoes of the Main. Probably there is no such burial ground in any other part of the earth. Those who have realised this have of late years changed the name of the height from Monkey Hill to Mount Hope. Dr. Nelson in his account of Panama’ gives a local doctor’s description of the seasons at Colon. That practitioner recognised the following divisions, viz. ” the wet season from April to December, when the people die of yellow fever in four to five days, and the dry or healthy season from December to April, when they die of pernicious fever in twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”
Such is the Land of Ophir of Christopher Columbus. Such is the end of the Gold Road.