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Source: Gutenberg.org: James Holmans / A Voyage Round the World, Volume I

James Holman - A Voyage Round the World, Volume I (1827)



Teneriffe—Town of Santa Cruz—Female Costume—Incident at a Ball—Bad Roads—Climate—Productions—Population of the Canary Islands—Imports and Exports—Various Qualities of the Wines—Fishery—Leave Santa Cruz—Crossing the Tropic of Cancer—Shaving and Ducking—General Remarks—Make St. Jago—Anchor at Porto Praya—Sickly Season—Death of the Consul and his Wife—Consul's Sister—Governor's Garden and Watering-place—Population of the Island—Produce—The Orchilla Weed, its growth, uses, and varieties—Cause of Fever—Departure for Sierra Leone


Wednesday, 22nd. [August 1827]—A moderate trade wind, and all sail set. At daylight saw the island of Sall, bearing E.S.E. 15 miles. At half-past 5 in the afternoon saw the island of St. Jago,[7] when I went to the fore top-mast head, for exercise and amusement, while others went to see the land. At 11 brought the ship to the wind, and stood off the land at a convenient distance for going into Porto Praya on the following day.

At daylight, made all sail, and stood towards the anchorage, with a light breeze and very fine weather. At noon anchored off Porto Praya, in 12 fathoms water and sandy bottom. Extreme points of the bay from W. ¾ S. to E. ¾ S. Garrison flagstaff N.N.W. ½ W.

Our Consul-General for the Cape de Verds (Mr. Clark) waited on Captain Owen, from whom we learnt, that His Majesty's ship, North Star, sailed from this port five days before, and that a very heavy gale of wind arose from the S.W. on that night. We were also informed, that this is the most sickly part of the year, in consequence of its being the rainy season, which commences at the beginning of August, and continues to the end of October; during which time the winds are frequently from the southward and westward, making it hazardous to anchor at this port in those months. The whole of this time is generally very sickly, so much so that the principal authorities are glad to leave the island, and repair to Fuego, which is the highest, and also considered to be the most healthy of all the Cape de Verd group. The Chief Justice and his family left Porto Praya, for Fuego, in a Portuguese sloop of war, on the day we entered it, the Governor having previously left for the same destination.

There were many of the inhabitants suffering from fever, while we were at St. Jago, and two of the Consul's family were among the number, and I lament to relate, that not long after our departure, both the Consul and his wife fell victims to this too commonly fatal fever of St. Jago, leaving his sister, an amiable and accomplished young lady, dangerously ill of the same disease. The case of this lady was one of the most melancholy interest. She was entirely unprotected by the presence of any country people of her own, except a gentleman, who, happening to call there on his way from England to Sierra Leone, was induced to remain on the island, at the request of Mrs. Clark, for the purpose of acting as Vice-Consul, during the severe illness of her husband. This gentleman, after performing the painful duty of reading the burial service over the Consul-General and his lady, was himself attacked by the same fever, and after struggling for a length of time against it, was, at last, sent off to the island of Mayo, just in time to save his life, leaving the Consul's sister behind, reduced to the last extremity of the disease, with scarcely any symptoms of life remaining, and attended only by her Portuguese friends, and any occasional English visitors who landed incidentally from their ships for refreshments, on their way to other parts of the world. At last, however, she happily recovered, but after a very severe struggle, and a protracted illness, and then she could not return direct to England, but was obliged to go to the Brazils, in a French schooner, before she could procure a passage home. I shall give, hereafter, some further details of this young lady's history, leading to the attachment which afterwards sprung up between her and her medical attendant, who fell in love with her during a second attack of illness, and there is no doubt that her fortitude and good sense had a great share in the admiration with which she inspired him.

Friday, August 24th.—Soon after breakfast I accompanied Captain Owen, the Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Davy, and some of the officers of the ship, to pass the day at the Consul's. We took a walk before dinner, to visit the few places that were worthy of any notice; we first went to the fort. This fort was forty-seven paces long and seven broad, where the only objects of interest were the graves of two Captains in the Navy. One of them contained the remains of an old shipmate of mine, Capt. J. Eveleigh, who was mortally wounded when commanding the Astrea, in company with the Creole, during an engagement with two French frigates, the Etoile and Sultane, on the 23rd of January, 1814, off the Cape de Verds. I sailed in the same ship with this officer when I first went to sea. He was then junior lieutenant of the Royal George, bearing the flag of Lord Bridport. I met him some years afterwards, when he was lieutenant of the Isis, bearing the flag of Admiral Holloway, on the Newfoundland station, in which ship I was a passenger from England to Newfoundland, on my way to join the Cleopatra, as lieutenant, on the Halifax station. The other grave was that of Capt. Bartholomew, of the Lieven frigate, who died while he was occupied in the survey of these islands. The late Consul-General had been purser of that ship, and, poor fellow, both his grave and that of his wife were made near his former captain's.

From thence we went to visit the Governor's garden, which lies in a low swampy situation, much below the town, and not far from the sea, where the boats are obliged to land to procure water, subject to the inconvenience of the surf, which sometimes renders it very difficult to get the casks off. The water at this island does not deserve the bad character given of it by some persons. It is, in fact, very good, and it must, therefore, have been from negligence in procuring it, either by disturbing it too much, or by using bad bungs, which allowed the salt water to get in while floating off, that it acquired its unfavourable reputation. It is supplied by several springs, issuing from the side of the hill at the back of the town, which unite into one stream, and as it approaches the sea, expands and forms into a basin, the nearest part of which is forty yards from the beach. As this is rarely dry, ships may be easily watered, by landing their casks through the surf; and, when filled, floating them off to the ship. However, when it is dry, or nearly so, as was the case when we were there, you are obliged to roll the casks a considerable distance from the beach to a well in the Governor's garden, from which they must be filled. This mode is both tedious and laborious, while the sailors are almost sure to get drunk on a bad spirit called aqua dent, which is sold to them secretly by the blacks, who are ever on the watch to elude the vigilance of the officers employed in that service.

During the time of the former Governor, (the present one not having been long in command,) this garden received great attention, and was kept in excellent order; but the present Governor does not take any interest in it himself, and, consequently, it is very much neglected; indeed, there appears to be such a general apathy in all the people at Porto Pray a, that it seems more like a place allowed to go to decay, than a colony under an European Government, visited so constantly by vessels from all parts of the globe.

The population of Villa de Praya is about 4,000, and that of the whole island about 28,000, which are principally blacks. A large proportion of the male population of St. Jago, are enrolled in the militia, and armed with boarding pikes; 300 of whom are compelled, in rotation, to attend every Sunday, at their own expense, for the purpose of exercising at Villa de Praya. The regular troops do not amount to more than 400 for the whole of the islands.

This place owes its support entirely to the ships that call here for provisions; and the quantity of stock, fruit, vegetables, and water, that is purchased annually at the island is immense. A considerable sum of money is also spent by passengers, who go on shore for their amusement.

The landing at St. Jago is, at all times, indifferent, and in the rainy season frequently very bad, both on the rocks, and on the beach, for there are two distinct places of debarkation. Yet, with a little attention, and a small amount of labour, a more secure landing-place could very easily be made, by cutting a few steps in two or three favourable situations, that would readily admit of the improvement; whereas now you are obliged to watch the swell, and step out on pointed rocks, or an irregular surface, at the risk of falling back into the boat or the water; or bruising yourself severely on the rocks. Captain Owen and myself once fell, when he was kindly assisting me out of the boat. The best time for landing on the rocks is at half-tide. I was informed that materials have been collected for constructing a pier, a project, for which nature has provided an excellent site; but, from the poverty of the government, or some other cause, it has been postponed. This is the more extraordinary, as the Portuguese government has hitherto been in the habit of transporting to St. Jago convicted felons, by whom public works could have been cheaply accomplished. Angola, however, has latterly been adopted as the principal convict settlement of the Portuguese.

Hides, goat skins, and salt, are exported from these islands, but the chief and most valuable produce is the orchilla weed. It is a government monopoly, and is at present farmed out to a man named Martiney.

As the orchilla weed is a production, the practical application of which in various ways is diffused over a large surface of utility, and as its peculiar properties are not very generally known, a minute description of its nature and uses, which I have procured at some cost of time and research, may not prove uninteresting.

The orchilla is a delicate fibrous plant, springing up in situations that are apparently the most unfavourable to the sustenance of vegetable life. When gathered it has a soft delicious odour, which it retains for a great length of time. Mr. Glas, in his history of the Canary Islands, gives so clear and accurate an account of its growth, that I will avail myself of his description, as being not only the best I have met with, but as containing all the necessary particulars. "The orchilla weed," he observes, "grows out of the pores of the stones or rocks, to about the length of three inches: I have seen some eight or ten inches, but that is not common. It is of a round form and of the thickness of common sewing twine. Its colour is grey, inclining to white: here and there on the stalk we find white spots or scabs. Many stalks proceed from one root, at some distance from which they divide into branches. There is no earth or mould to be perceived on the rock or stone where it grows. Those who do not know this weed, or are not accustomed to gather it, would hardly be able to find it, for it is of such a colour, and grows in such a direction, that it appears at first sight to be the shade of the rock on which it grows."

Mr. Glas adds, that the best sort is of the darkest colour, and nearly round; and that the more white spots or scabs it exhibits the better. It is found in considerable quantities in the Canary Islands, the Cape de Verds, the Azores, and the Madeiras, and such are the nice varieties and properties incidental to the different soils, (if they may be so called,) or climates, that although the above clusters of islands are at no great distance from each other, the difference in the produce makes a very considerable difference in the value of the article. It is also found on the coast of Barbary, and the Levant, and on that part of the coast of Africa, which lies adjacent to the Canary-Islands; but, owing to the want of seasonable rains, the produce of the latter is not rapid or abundant, although the quality is excellent. It has been suggested, that the orchilla was probably the Gertulian purple of the ancients; a conjecture which is strengthened by the fact, that the coast of Africa, where the orchilla abounds, was formerly called Gertulia. That the vivid dye which resides in this weed was known to the ancients, does not admit of any doubt.

The plant belongs to the class Cryptogamia, and order Algae, of the Linnean system, and to the class Algae, and order Lichenes, of the natural system. Professor Burnett, in his Outline of Botany, informs us, that "Roccella, a corruption of the Portuguese Rocha, is a name given to several species of lichen, in allusion to the situation in which they are found; delighting to grow on otherwise barren seaward rocks, that thus produce a profitable harvest. Tournefort considers that one species at least (R. tinctoria) was known to the ancients, and that it was the especial lichen (Greek: leichaen) of Dioscorides, which was collected on the rocky islands of the Archipelago, from one of which it received the name of the 'purple of Amorgus.'"

Of all the known varieties of orchilla, that which is grown in the Canary Islands stands the highest in estimation, and brings the greatest price. In the collection of the weed, which is always performed by the natives, the risk is imminent: they are obliged to be suspended by ropes over the cliffs, many of which are of stupendous height, and loss of life frequently occurs in these perilous efforts to contribute to the luxury of man. Such is the esteem in which the orchilla of the Canaries is held, that it has recently reached the enormous value of 400l. per ton. That from the Cape de Verds is next in quality, but of much greater importance, in reference to the quantity produced. Madeira and the Azores produce the next qualities. The same plant, though of a very inferior character, is found in great abundance in Sardinia, in some parts of Italy, and also on the south coast of England, Portland Island, Guernsey, &c. but of so poor a kind that it would not reward the expense of collection.

The original mode of preparing orchilla, that which was practised by the ancients, is said to have been lost, and many chemical experiments exhausted in vain for its recovery. In 1300, however, it was rediscovered by a Florentine merchant, and from that period preserved as a profound secret, by the Florentines and the Dutch. It appears that the Florentines were not satisfied with keeping the preparation of orchilla a mystery from the rest of the world, but that they endeavoured to lead all inquiry into a false channel, by calling it tincture of turnsole, desiring it to be believed, that it was an extract from the heliotropium or turnsole: the Dutch also disguised it in the form of a paste, which they called lacmus or litmus. The process is now, however, generally known, and simply consists of cleaning, drying, and powdering the plant, which, when mixed with half its weight of pearl ash, is moistened with human urine, and then allowed to ferment: the fermentation, we are informed by Professor Burnett, "is kept up for some time by successive additions of urine, until the colour of the materials changes to a purplish-red, and subsequently to a violet or blue. The colour is extremely fugitive, and affords a very delicate chemical test for the presence of an acid. The vapour of sulphuric acid has been thus detected as pervading to some extent the atmosphere of London."

I understand—and for some valuable particulars I here beg to tender my acknowledgments to Mr. John Aylwin, merchant of London—that the great object obtained from this vegetable dye, is the production of a red colour, without the aid of a mineral acid. But the utility of the orchilla is not confined to the purposes of manufacture. It has been successfully employed as a medicine in allaying the cough attendant on phthisis, and in hysterical coughs. It is also variously used in many productions, where its splendid hue can be rendered available, and imparts a beautiful bloom to cloths and silks.

The introduction of the weed into England came originally through the Portuguese. The Cape de Verd Islands having long been a possession of the crown of Portugal, orchilla became a royal monopoly, and was transmitted in considerable quantities to Lisbon, where it was sold by public auction; from Lisbon it gradually found its way to England, France, Germany, &c. The recent political contest in Portugal, caused a total suspension of the shipment of orchilla at the islands. About six months ago, there were two cargoes at Bona Vista waiting for orders, one of them (a vessel of about 66 tons) put to sea, and arrived safe at Lisbon only a few weeks before Admiral Napier's naval victory. When the news of the result of that battle reached the island, the holders of the remaining cargo proposed to hand it over for a consideration to certain parties in the interest of Donna Maria, and it was accordingly consigned to a Portuguese house in London. The vessel in which it was sent was called the Saint Anne, of 60 tons, and sailed under British colours: the cargo consisted of 564 bags,[8] each containing 2 cwt., and the whole sold for 15,000£. I mention this circumstance as an occurrence worth being recorded; the arrival of a vessel to England direct from the islands being a great novelty, accounted for, in this instance, by the political events which threw the trade out of its regular channels.

The principal manufactories of orchilla in England are London and Liverpool, but there are many others in different parts of the country. The chief manufacturers are Messrs. Henry Holmes and Sons of Liverpool, and Mr. Samuel Preston Child of London. The manufactured orchilla is frequently shipped to Germany, Holland, &c. in its fluid state, with a small proportion of weed in each cask for the satisfaction of the purchasers. The inferior qualities of the weed, and also a variety of mosses that have the same properties as the orchilla, only in a minor degree, are dried and ground to a fine powder, which is denominated cudbear, and is applicable to the same purposes as the weed itself.[9]

It is a curious illustration of the importance that is attached to the weed generally, and to the weed of the Canaries in particular, that, within the last twenty years, the latter production was considered in London as a remittance equivalent to specie, and was invariably quoted in the usual channels of commercial intelligence with the price of gold and silver, thus:—

Doubloons per ounce
Dollars ditto
Orchilla Weed per ton

A bark called the Cape Packet, bound on a whaling voyage in the Pacific, arrived and sailed again to-day. Our consort the Diadem transport arrived this afternoon, and sailed the following evening, being Saturday 25th.

Sunday, August 26th.—The Consul General, with his wife and sister, came on board to attend divine service, and pass the remainder of the day.

Monday, 27th.—Very fine weather. At 7 in the morning, I accompanied the Rev. Mr. Davy to pass the day with the Consul's family. A bark from England, bound to the Cape of Good Hope, anchored in the roads to-day. A brig, loaded with timber, bound from Sierra Leone to England, was cast away on this island some time since, and the wreck was purchased by our Consul. He accordingly made an agreement with some people for the purpose of having it broken up, with the understanding that he was to retain the copper bolts, and they were to have the wood for their labour. I fear that this did not prove a good speculation on the side of the Consul, as he found it necessary to be nearly always on the spot, from a very reasonable suspicion that the workmen would steal some of his bolts. It is not unlikely, that so great an exposure to the sun as this occasioned him, had no small share in predisposing him for the fever that afterwards attacked him.

The cause of so much fever at St. Jago, may be traced to the peculiar situation of the town, which stands on an elevation between low swampy grounds, the exhalations from which pass over it as they arise.

There are a great number of horses, horned cattle, goats, pigs, &c. bred here. There was formerly an extensive traffic in slaves carried on between these islands and the coast of Africa, which I was informed is not yet wholly abolished. The best anchorage among the Capede Verds is at St. Vincent's. What should prevent the Portuguese giving it up to us, so that we might form an establishment for any ships to call there, instead of going to St. Jago, where they so often make fever an accompaniment with their refreshments? His Majesty's ship Tweed, visited this place on her way to the Cape of Good Hope station, and a great proportion of the young officers who slept on shore, died within a fortnight afterwards.

The bay abounds with fine fish, yet there are not many taken, therefore the town is badly supplied, owing entirely to the indolence of the inhabitants.

At 5 in the afternoon we made sail out of Porto Praya, leaving it without regret, except what we felt in parting from the Consul and his family. There was also a Consul for the United States, but he was not on friendly terms with Mr. Clark. Their differences, however, were very soon settled by the great pacificator, death, for they were not long after interred near each other in the fort. Visiting the Portuguese was quite out of the question, as very few of them had the power of entertaining strangers, excepting one old woman known by the name of English Mary, and she was well paid for her civilities. She could give you a sort of dinner with bad wine, bad spirits, and fruit. You could also get your things badly washed here, that is, wetted and well beaten for money. The Portuguese troops vary from black to white, with all the intermediate shades, in ragged party-coloured clothing: but a truce with the Colonial Portuguese:—I am now bound to an English colony, where I fear I shall not find every thing as it ought to be, and that is Sierra Leone, which bears from Porto Praya about S.E. by E. ½ E. 720 miles.

P.S. The port charges at St. Jago are not heavy, as they do not exceed sixteen dollars for a vessel of any size or nation.

[7] The islands of Mayo, Bonavista (or St. Filippe), and St. Jago, were the first of the Cape de Verds discovered, in May 1461, by Antonio de Nolle, a Genoese in the service of Portugal; and St. Jago, was the first settled. The remaining seven were also discovered the same year, by Portuguese subjects, namely, St. Antonio, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, St. Nicholas, Sall, Fuego, and Bravos.

[8] The bags in which the weed of the Cape de Verds is packed, are marked with the initials of the island of which it is the produce, and indicative of its quality which is at all times uniform.

[9] A regular trade with Sweden for moss has been long established. A variety of mosses, different in their growth, but all producing the colour found in orchilla, are to be met with on the hills and rocky places, at a distance from the sea, in every country where the weed itself is indigenous.