Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 60: Stranded in Venezuela, Velazquez sends a message to her friends in New Orleans, warning them not to follow her south.
I remained in the city of Bolivar for several months, making occasional excursions into the country in the neighborhood and going up the River Orinoco as far as San Fernando. My object was to find out all I could about the natural resources and climate of Venezuela for the purpose of advising my friends in New Orleans, and through the kind assistance of my Venezuelan acquaintances … I was, ere long, in possession of ample information to enable me to form an opinion as to the desirability of people from the United States seeking new homes in this part of the world.
The expedition, of which I was a member, was followed not a great while after by another one of equally shabby character under the charge of a Dr. Price. This was made up of poor families who had scarcely anything with them, which would have enabled them to start farming or business of any kind in a strange land. These people were sent on shore by Price, who immediately slipped away and left them to their fate, not caring what became of them.
It was an outrage which cannot be denounced in too-strong terms to take these poor people out to Venezuela without capital and without any means of support and no punishment I can think of would have been too severe for the men who did the deed.
As for the emigrants, they were indignant at the treatment they had received, and having nobody else at hand to vent their grievances upon, fell to blaming the United States consul and the Venezuelan authorities. They would not acknowledge the consul, and some of them abused him in the grossest manner. This made him powerless to act for them. I interested myself as much as I could in behalf of such as were disposed to be tractable, and succeeded, through the consul’s influence, in procuring passage back to the United States for several of the unfortunates. The rest scattered over the country, some of them died, some found precarious employment of one kind or another, and some tried to make their way home again.
After the arrival of Price’s expedition, I considered it my duty to communicate with my friends in New Orleans without more delay for the purpose of warning them and all others who were disposed to emigrate not to think of doing anything of the kind. I accordingly wrote a letter advising those who thought of emigrating to Venezuela, to let it alone and denouncing Johnston and Price for holding out inducements to poor and ignorant people which they had no assurance whatever would be realized. I said that it would be useless for any persons from the States to come to Venezuela without plenty of capital to carry on any such operations as they might engage in, and that if they did come they would have to submit to the laws of the country and take their chances with its citizens.
One great objection to any emigration schemes, however, was the instability of the government, and the fact that Venezuela had no national credit. The governor of Bolivar said that Venezuela would be glad to have industrious people come to it from the United States or any other country, and that facilities would be afforded for them to take up lands at low rates, but he had no supplies to give half-starved men and women who might be landed within his jurisdiction and was anxious that no one should come under any misapprehensions as to what reception they would be likely to have on their arrival.
I stated the facts within my knowledge plainly and reviewed the situation in such terms that there could be no misunderstanding of my meaning, and before sending my letter had it countersigned by the governor, his brother, the consul, and a number of Americans who were in the city.
This duty having been performed, I felt free to enjoy myself, and having by this time quite a large circle of acquaintances, I found very little difficulty in the way of having a good time.
Two young gentlemen, Senor Sayal and Senor Rodriguez, both became very attentive to me and very jealous of each other and very jealous also of Maj. G., a gentleman whom I esteemed very highly. I was afraid at one time that Sayal and Rodriguez would have a serious difficulty and perhaps kill each other — the last named, especially, was very violent and declared that any man who stood in his way should die. As for myself, the party chiefly interested, I cared nothing for either of them except in the way of friendship and had no intentions of marrying again. My matrimonial experiences hitherto had been so unfortunate that I came to the conclusion I had better live single and travel about to see the world, relying upon myself for protection.
While residing in Bolivar I conformed to all the customs of the place and endeavored to see all that was worth seeing. A number of families welcomed me most cordially to their homes, and in company with my friends of both sexes I went on several pleasant excursions. It was quite a popular custom to go up the river on a Sunday morning to Marichal or San Rafael to bathe. At these places there were regular bathing grounds, resorted to by the people of Bolivar, and the washer-women also went there to do their work. The method of washing clothes was peculiar — they would be thrown over smooth stones and beaten with sticks while drenched with water. This process, it is scarcely necessary to say, is terribly destructive to the clothing.
The city of Bolivar is a very beautiful place. It is built on the brow of a hill, overlooking the River Orinoco on one side and a lagoon on the other. Behind the city are the Marichal Mountains, in which gold is to be found but scarcely in paying quantities.
The people of Bolivar are hospitable and agreeable in their manners, and those with whom I became acquainted did all they could to make my time pass pleasantly. I attended several fandangos with Senor Sayal and Senor Rodriguez, as as well as other entertainments.
After having resided in Bolivar for several months, I concluded to visit other portions of the country and accordingly made a trip around by sea to La Guyra, and from thence to Caracas. To my great surprise Rodriguez came after me by the next steamer and began to be more attentive than ever. He introduced me to his relatives who resided in the neighborhood of Caracas and appeared to be resolved to make sure of me, now that he had his rivals at a distance. I, however, gave him very little encouragement, although, had I felt anxious to marry again, I perhaps would have done well to have been more gracious to him. He was one of twelve sons, and his parents were very wealthy, owning immense estates and large herds of cattle, which must have yielded them a great income.
With this visit to Caracas concluded my Venezuelan experiences, for, notwithstanding the assiduous attentions of Senor Rodriguez, I could not be persuaded to remain and made my preparations to return to the United States. Taking passage on a schooner bound for Demerara, in British Guiana, I said adieu to my Venezuelan friends, having made up my mind that my own country was the best to live in after all, and that in it thereafter I would seek my fortune. My Venezuelan trip, however, was, notwithstanding the ungracious auspices under which it was commenced, a source of gratification to me. It made me acquainted with a portion of the world that was well worth looking at, and it was the means of bringing me in friendly relations with a number of excellent people, for whom I shall always have a warm regard, and to whom I shall always feel indebted for many unsolicited kindnesses.
The personal gratifications which the trip afforded me amply repaid me for all the expense and trouble I was put to in making it, but, beyond this, I have the satisfaction of knowing that … I was the means of preventing a great number of persons in the Southern states from being swindled by speculators who, taking advantage of the [weakened] condition of the South after the war, and the discontent of a large portion of the people, were endeavoring, without proper means or facilities for carrying out their proposed objects, to organize colonization parties to go to various places in South America.
My experiences in Venezuela convinced me that it was no place for poor Americans to go to. For people who had capital and the skill and energy to use it properly, it held out many inducements but no more and no greater than were held out by the Western portions of our own country.
Portions of Venezuela are very beautiful, and the scenery along the banks of the Orinoco, especially, is lovely in the extreme. The country is, much of it, fertile, and its mineral wealth is very great, but it is undeveloped, and those who attempt its development will be tolerably certain to have a hard time of it and to expend a great deal of money before they get much return, either for their cash or labor. Apart from everything else, the climate is very trying, especially to strangers, and this of itself is a good and sufficient reason why residents of the United States would do well to tempt fortune elsewhere.
Along the banks of the Orinoco and its tributaries the vegetation is most luxuriant, and all kinds of tropical fruits abound in the greatest profusion. The forests contain mahogany … and the chinchona tree, from which quinine is made. In the interior are to be found the Caoutchouc or India-rubber tree, and half a dozen varieties of the cottontree. Some of the latter are, I think, especially worthy of the attention of those who are interested in cotton-growing, and with proper cultivation they might be made to yield far more valuable results than they do. Tobacco grows wild, and is cultivated to some extent, but the natives, although they are inveterate consumers of the weed, do not understand how to cure it properly.
The diet of the Venezuelans is largely made up of fruits, of which they have a great variety, such as the banana, of which there are half a dozen different kinds, coconuts, figs, mangoes, manzanas de oro, or golden apples, marma apples, guavas, oranges, grapes, and pomegranates. The melons are very plentiful, and, although small, are sweet and well flavored.
Sugar is made to some extent from the cane, which bears a strong resemblance to the maple sugar of the United States. Yams and sweet potatoes are very abundant, and there is a hardy species of cabbage which grows on the edges of marshes and which sometimes attains a height of eighteen or twenty feet. The calabashes grow to an enormous size and are used for carrying water. The onions are numerous but small.
The flowers grow in great profusion and are very beautiful. The mariposa attains to the height of the oleander and has gorgeous white and scarlet blossoms. The zueco is a bright little plant and is very fragrant. The people of Venezuela are exceedingly fond of flowers and always have a great number of them about their dwellings.
The birds of Venezuela, for the most part, are of very rich plumage. There are several varieties of parrots, of which the macaw and the green and gray parrots are the talkers. The paroquets are very diminutive, and are beautiful little birds. … The ayax is a bird that is heard last in the evening and first in the morning; it has a very peculiar cry, and the natives are exceedingly superstitious about it, thinking that should they kill it some misfortune is certain to happen to them.
The lizards and other reptiles are too numerous for description. In the huts of the poorer classes, lizards, scorpions, roaches, and other livestock live on the most intimate terms with the human inhabitants and do not appear to interfere very materially with their comfort.
The forests and jungles are filled with panthers, jaguars, and South American tigers. The last named are very ferocious, and the natives stand in great fear of them.
The people of Venezuela are very superstitious and are exceedingly particular about their religious observances. In their manners they are courteous and unaffected, and some of their household ways are very primitive. Their meat is cured in strips, and their corn is ground between two stones, the under one of which is hollowed out to some extent. This kind of work is chiefly done by the women. The men make hammocks out of grass, bark, and cotton, and employ themselves in the cultivation of the ground and in the care of livestock and the pursuit of game. In the summertime the hammocks are swung out in the open air between two trees or in rude huts with no sides to them. The milk of the ass is preferred to that of the cow or goat. Most of the cooking is done in earthenware jars or pipkins. Earthenware jars of a peculiar make are also used for keeping water for drinking purposes in.
The principal exports of Venezuela are cattle, hides, tallow, and coffee from the La Guayra and Jaracaybo districts. The United States consul at Bolivar, while I was there, was interested to some extent in gold mining. The quartz was brought from the Caratol Mountains, nearly two hundred miles distant, on the backs of donkeys and was purchased by the consul from the natives with merchandise. Having obtained the quartz, he crushed it and extracted the metal, which was forwarded to the mint in Philadelphia. The mineral wealth of Venezuela is very great — gold, silver, copper, and tin abounding in large quantities. The mines, however, are, for the most part, far distant from the commercial centers and are very inefficiently worked. It would pay capitalists to go into the mining business in Venezuela if they could get some railroads built or even if they could get some good common roads made.
The country away from the seaboard or the watercourses is thinly settled, and there is not likely to be any great increase in the population until the facilities for easy traveling are much greater than they are or were at the time of my visit. The roads to the mines are mere paths, not larger than cattle trails.
The natives in the interior suffer many hardships and privations, and anyone going to Venezuela without ample capital must expect to do the same. One great source of annoyance to the country people is the jigger, a species of worm which buries itself in the feet, generally under the skin near the toe-nails. It is very painful under any circumstances, and it not infrequently causes the loss of the toes.
As in nearly all of the South American states, the government of Venezuela is very unsettled, and the schemes of ambitious politicians, who are ready at any moment to resort to arms for the accomplishment of their ends, render both life and property to some extent insecure. To be sure, the revolutions which occur there from time to time do not, as a rule, cause any great amount of bloodshed, notwithstanding the commotions they make, but they have the effect of leaving a sense of insecurity on the public mind and of preventing improvement which otherwise might be made. The white people are, for the most part, well educated and intelligent, but they do not appear to understand the art of self-government, while the negroes, Indians, and half-breeds seem to be incapable of doing anything to advance their own condition or to promote the interests of the country. With such a heterogeneous population as resides within its borders, and with the educated whites so greatly in the minority as they are, there is not much prospect of Venezuela speedily attaining the position her agricultural and mineral resources would seem to entitle her to.