The following is an account written by Cecil A. Clemens. Undated, but probably written in the late 1920's or early 1930's
[Map of Panama]
TRIP TO SAN BLAS
We arose about 5 o'clock on Monday morning. It was still dark and raining. It did not take us long to get ready. A boy, Alec Arrak, was to accompany us and his father was to take us to the boat in his car, and as their house was only about one block from ours we went over there and were soon on our way to the dock. The dock was dark and we had to walk the full length of it in order to reach the boat. The boat only had a few dim lights and with the rain it made a rather gloomy start. We got away from the dock just about day break. The rain soon stopped and we had a nice clear day but when we got outside the breakwater there was enough of a sea to cause the boat to pitch and roll. It was not long until Rowland, Alec and Alice were all sick and in their bunks.
The boat belonged to the Panaman Government. It was a kind of Presidential yacht, navy, etc. That is, it is the only boat owned by the Panama Government and is under the personal orders of the president. That was one of the reasons for the many delays and false starts that we experienced as the Captain always had to consult the president about his trips and the president was always having new plans. The boat, I should judge, was about 120-150 feet long. It was slightly larger, I believe, than good size tug boat. We had the protection of a small gun mounted on the bow. There were two cabins with three bunks each, and the captain's cabin. We had one cabin, while the other was occupied by the mate and later others. The captain could talk only a few words of English but he was a pleasant and sociable fellow. The mate was a light colored good looking negro (probably considerable white blood) by the name of Dennis "whose father was Mike". The Quartermasters and deck crew were all Indians from Nargana. Practically all of them could talk English. The engine room crew seemed to be mainly Panaman. The cook was a big fat Panaman and seemed to be the life of the party on the after deck. He had two or three helpers besides the cabin or mess boy. We had a number of Indians aboard as passengers as this boat carries them back and forth from San Blas to Colon without charge. Also a chief and his party was aboard. He was returning from a pow-wow with the President. It seems that conditions are still somewhat unsettled in the San Blas country due to the uprising about four years ago.
After we left the break water we sailed along close to the coast. We had at one time visited Porto Bello (sic) and I watched for it but failed to see it. There were, however, a number of native villages scattered along the shore. Along about noon or a little before we arrived at Nombre de Dios. It had quite a good harbor and appeared to be at the mouth of a river. The hills here were quite a distance back from the coast and right around the harbor the country appeared quite flat. The outstanding feature of the town was a large church. The houses appeared to be mainly shacks and huts. We only stopped here a few minutes to leave mail and did not go ashore. Near Porto Bello the hills had come down to the shore but from a short distance beyond there the hills receded and there was a broad strip of low land all along the shore as far as San Blas. The coast was free from islands. Many villages were scattered along the sea coast. They were Panama villages and not Indian.
Early in the afternoon we came upon a group of scattered islands, and we soon arrived at El Porvinir (sic). El Porvinir is the Panaman Government Island and this is where the San Blas country began. This island was located near a headland of the mainland and inside of a large bay. Many coral reef could be seen sticking up from the ocean and navigation was difficult. Off along the mainland and scattered throughout the bay were a number of islands. During our trip we saw hundreds of these islands. They are all formed with coral reefs as their base and are covered with sand and generally have a number of cocoanut trees and some other tropical vegetation. They vary in size from small islands having one or two trees to those having hundreds of trees. Some are entirely deserted, some have one or two huts while others have whole villages and are completely covered by huts.
After a short stay at El Porvinir we sailed for Carti which could be seen across the bay. It was quite a good sized island and completely covered by huts. Very close to it was another good sized island also covered by huts. The flags on Carti were those of Panama while on the other island we saw a number of red and yellow flags with a swastika sign on each. We inquired about them but could not find out what they represented until later. Some three or four years ago an American by the name of Marsh explored this part of the country looking for white Indians. He evidently stirred up trouble until the Indians rebelled and he wrote a declaration of independence for them and also designed this flag for them. He was finally removed by a U.S. navy ship and returned to the States. Now wherever we see these flags displayed the Indians are still opposed to Panama but not in an active way. Where the flag of Panama is displayed the Indians are friendly to Panama. The Chief that was aboard was more or less friendly to Panama. We landed at Carti and we sailed to Mandinga. Our boat did not approach the island closely and the Indians from the island came out in cayucas (I do not know whether this is the proper spelling) which are really dugouts made by hollowing out a large log, and surrounded our boat. Some of the cayucas are equipped with a single triangular sail. There is a single upright mast to which the sail is attached. One of the Indians stands on the side of the cayuca and holds the sail by means of a rope and the cayuca goes skipping across the water at a great rate. It is hard to understand how the Indian on the side manages to stick on.
We arrived at Mandiga about five o'clock. Mandinga is an abandoned banana plantation. The blight got in and ruined it. There was still signs of a railroad, commissary and a few huts that were still occupied by negroes. A number of the buildings had been torn down and so they loaded considerable lumber aboard our boat. This was done by Indians. The upper bodies and heads of San Blas Indians are large but they have spindling legs. Most of them had overall-like trousers with out the bib, however. They have innumerable fine pleats in front. They wore little round straw hats with a turned up brim and a small crown and it perched on top of their heads and one wondered why it stayed on. They all had a sort of bag to carry their valuables in. It appeared to be something like a woman's hand bag with a long string handle and they wore it slung over one shoulder with the bag part just a little below the armpit. We got off the boat and strolled down the railroad track to the occupied huts but the sand-flies were too bad for comfort so we soon returned. Breakfast and dinner had been served in the captain's cabin for us but I had been the only one who could eat. Supper was served on deck on a table which they set up there and they certainly did give us good meals and a great variety all the time we were aboard. Shortly after supper we pull a short way from the dock and then we were not bothered by sandflies and there we spent the night. They put up cots on the deck and the boys slept there. It was real cool and comfortable.
Tuesday morning we docked again and loaded the rest of the lumber, then went back to Carti and gathered up our Indians and set sail for Nargana. It is quite customary for the Indians especially from Nargana to go to Colon and Panama to work there for a few years and then go back to San Blas. One Indian aboard had been working in Colon and had married a Panaman woman. This automatically bars him from the islands except at Nargana. For a number of years and English missionary, Annie Coop, had a mission at Nargana and had succeeded in doing a great deal towards educating the Indians on the two islands at Nargana. The Panamans, however, became jealous of her work and also objected to her because she taught English instead of Spanish and so they took over her mission and it is not operated by a priest, nun and a few Panaman teachers. However, the Indians there allow the Panamans to live on the island and this is not allowed by any of the other Indians. Consequently, these Indians at Nargana are disliked by the others and there is a police force maintained there for their protection. All but the officers are Indians, however. The Chief at Nargana is named Charlie Robinson and he and his family were educated in the States. The boy that I started to tell about, said that his father had been a chieftain on one of the other islands but that at the time of the uprising he favored the Panamans and so had to flee to Nargana where he now lived and he was going to visit him. I forgot to state also that before we left Mandinga that a motor launch came alongside with the Intendente (Governor of San Blas), the doctor and another whom I never did find out about and they accompanied through out our trip.
Nargana is located on two islands about 100-150 yards apart. They are connected by means of a walk or a bridge made by driving poles into the bottom of the bay, attaching a cross piece and laying planks across them. They have a dock here, made from small logs or poles and that is where we tied up for the night. We arrived about the middle of the afternoon. A good share of the population was on the dock to see the boat arrive. Here we saw our first so-called white Indians. They appeared to be merely albinos. Their hair was very white and their skin white and sunburned to a red, they had a good may sores, and squinted their eyes and acted as if mentally deficient. They looked nowhere nearly as health as the Indians. The Indians will not intermarry with them and just tolerate their presence it seems.
The San Blas Indians are short and they laugh and talk and appear to be much pleasanter than our North American Indians. There was much talking and laughing on deck. As soon as things quieted down a little, we landed and walked around the islands. The houses were all constructed from bamboo with thatched roofs. They first made a frame work of bamboo and then the sides were made by attaching bamboo as a series of uprights. The houses were arranged in orderly streets and the streets and floors of the houses were hard packed sand. Everything appeared neat and orderly. They used hammocks for sleeping purposes. They had little pens and houses constructed from bamboo in which they would have a pig or a few chickens. Every one of them that could talk a few words of English wished to speak to us. We had gone just a little ways when three women and their children stopped and they could say a few words in English and they would ask about Rowland and then talk about their children. They also carefully examined Alice's clothes. A little further and we met one of the Indian policemen and he could talk English as well. Here also was a concrete block house that was nearly finished and was where the priests lived. We went around the island and finally bought bows and arrows for the boys. Near the head of the bridge was a wooden building which was one of the schools also near here was the clubhouse of the island. Then we crossed the bridge to the other island. Here at the head of the bridge was the clubhouse for this island. We also walked around this one and saw them grinding up corn with a mortar and pestle and at another place a man was building a house and just had the bamboo frame work up. On this island was a frame building for the police station and also the largest building on the island, viz., the frame school house that had originally belonged to Anne Coup. They now used it as a school and also church. They were having church services in it when we passed. The Indian boys on the boat told us that in the evening they were going to have a dance at the clubhouse and invited us to come and see it. So in the evening we did. They had it lit up with kerosene lamps and they had a phonograph to furnish the music. The girls all had nice shoes and stockings and silk dresses. The boys were mainly from off the boat and were well dressed in store clothes. I forgot to mention that during the afternoon, the Indian that had been working in Colon about whom I told you, secured a cayuca and the boys went swimming between the islands and had a wonderful time.
We left Nargana early in the morning and sailed further South. All along the coast from El Porvenir as far as went were hundreds of small islands and coral reefs. Our boat kept in behind the outer fringe and consequently the water was always calm. We sailed along on this quiet stretch of deep blue water dotted with green islets while off to our right was a low lying coast covered with a dens tropical growth and a little further inland rose high tree-covered hills. Beautiful vistas were unending and it was a continual delight to merely sit and watch the changing scenes. We passed many Indian villages at which we did not stop. All the villages are located on islands, none on the mainland. They pick out islands that are located near the mouths of rivers. They live on the islands because they are free from mosquitoes, sand flies, snakes and dangerous animals. They have to bring all their water to the island from the mainland and they use calabashes for this purpose. They have their farms on the mainland where they raise cocoanuts, sugar cane, chocolate, plantain, etc. Consequently, every morning one sees a fleet of cayucas leave the islands and in the evening they return.
As we approached Ticantiqui we noticed that the boat had slowed down and that there was considerable excitement. The mate and two or three Indians were on the bow of the boat and they were taking soundings, etc. It seems that the boat had never been in here before and so they were proceeding with great caution as it was a bad place. The Indians were supposed to be pilots. In spite of all precautions we almost got on a sand bar but managed to back off. We churned up lots of sand. Coral reefs and sand bars could be seen on all sides but we managed to get through. We stopped at Ticantiqui only long enough to let some passengers off. A little beyond Ticantiqui in the distance further off the coast we could see the wreck of a Navy boat which had been there about three years.
The next stop was Aligandi. Here one of the chiefs and his party got off. There were many large cayucas to meet him. Here we saw a large fish trap. It was located near the island apparently in quite a shallow part of the ocean. It was made by driving in poles, which looked like bamboo from a distance, in the ocean bed to form a fenced enclosure. There was a sort of platform around parts of it and it had a gate. The Indians frightened the fish into the enclosure, closed the gate, and when they wanted fish they speared or shot them with bows and arrows.
The next stop was Portogandi where we spent the night. Here we anchored off shore. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and shortly went ashore. First, however, we watched our passengers disembark. It was here that the big chief got off. He was a great fat old fellow. He had some store shoes but he did not wear them but carried them in his hand. There was lots of talking, laughing, etc. before they all got landed. Also these chiefs are very modern as they have their secretaries, interpreters, etc. with them. It was quite different when we landed here as we were immediately surrounded by a mob of men, women and children. A man attached himself to us and he could talk English and had worked in Colon for some time. He acted as our guide. One of the first things that we saw was a sugar cane press and we thought it quite interesting. It was made by cutting off a cocoanut tree about eight feet from the ground. A hole was pierced through this tree. Some distance away from this, a crotch was planted. Two trunks of trees, the lower one short and the upper one long was passed through the hole in the first tree and rested in the crotch. Near the end of the longer horizontal tree trunk an upright tree or pole was planted. A piece of sugar can was placed between the two horizontal tree trunks at a point near their end and beyond the crotch. Two women positioned themselves, one at each end of the sugar cane. A man mounted the longer horizontal tree trunk and grasped the upright pole and then started to jump up and down. The women twisted the can and worked it through between the two poles. The juice was caught in a wash tub placed below the cane.
The houses here were much larger than at Nargana but not nearly so well constructed, nor so clean. The houses were not arranged in neat rows as at Nargana and the spaces between them were not as well kept. We could hardly move about as we were continually surrounded by a mob of Indians, laughing and talking and very good natured, however. Alice felt something on her legs and looked down and the children were feeling her stocking. The houses here were also constructed of bamboo with thatched roofs but they were very large and high, here the ends were not entirely closed but had there ends more like a high fence with the triangle in the peak of the roof left open. The inside was one big room where the hammocks were slung, the cooking done, etc. Here we made our purchases of baskets, calabashes, and a native dress. They had a new club or meeting house or I guess it might be called a council house. It was not entirely finished yet. It had two stories. We were invited to ascend the stairs to the second floor and enter. This floor was divided into two parts. The part that we first entered was not furnished but they told us to go into the other one and there we walked into the council of the big chief and his head men. They were gathered about a big table and the chairs, table, davenport, etc. were all States furniture. They invited us to come in and join them but we declined with thanks. Shortly we returned to the boat. The boat at this stop was continually surrounded with cayucas and the Indians were swarming all over the boat even climbing the smoke stack and looking inside. This was only the second or third trip that our boat had ever made to Portogandi. Here the Spanish were not liked and no one was allowed to stay on the island over night. They have no stores but two or three trading boats call frequently and they have regular stores aboard. They sell their goods for cocoanuts, eggs, chickens, pigs, etc. As soon as the Indians found that we were Americans they were very friendly and if they could talk English wished to converse and if they could not talk English they wanted to shake hands. I had a number of long talks with Indians, some that lived on the islands and some of the crew. One quartermaster from Nargana talked very good English. I was surprised to find that he could not talk Spanish. He stated that a number of the Indians even at Nargana could talk English and not Spanish. He had been a sailor and had been all over Europe and to New York and other ports in the States. The man who acted as our guide at Portigandi had worked in Colon but he said he liked it better at Portagandi as he had no boss and could work when he liked and take a day off when he felt like it.
The next morning, early, we sailed for Sasardi and this was just a short run. Rowland and Alex went ashore here but we stayed aboard. We spend the entire day here as the Panamans wanted to show honor to the chief and influence him to be loyal to Panama. Here the crew and officers made many purchases of eggs and chickens. They stated that previously when they had come down here the natives would sell them nothing. Friday morning we started our return trip early. We took the chief and his party with us. On the return trip we went out side the island and reefs and so made much faster time. A little after noon we were at Nargana. We stayed there a short time and then sailed for Porvinir which we reached late in the afternoon. Here we stayed the night. The doctor who had accompanied us could speak a few words of English and he said that his wife could talk English well and he invited us ashore to meet his wife.
We landed at Porvinir and met the doctor's wife. Her father was an American who had worked on the dam at Gatun in construction days and her mother was Spanish. She talked good English and had a fine visit with them. They told us many things about the Indians. On Porvinir is the (Governor's) Intendente's headquarters and home, a police post, post offices, electric light plant, pharmacy, a small commissary, and a few huts mainly occupied by families of police. The Doctor acted as post master, pharmacist and doctor. He was a right busy man. The Indians come there from all along the coast for prescriptions. They told us that the Indians lived almost entirely on fish, some plantain or bananas, cocoanuts, and cane juice mixed with chocolate. But fish was their main diet even for babies. They eat not eggs, chickens or pigs but merely raise them for sale. They all swim from infancy. As soon as they can sit up they are put into a cayuca full of water up to their necks. When a baby is sick and begins to cry they take it out and dip it into the ocean until it quits crying. They said it was surprising how few died from this treatment. They kill all deaf and dumb children. Some say they allowed one to grow to fairly good size and the doctor and his wife said that the Indians killed her the week before. They threw her into the ocean and every time she came up for air they hit her on the head.
Saturday morning we started for Colon. The day was fine and we had a good and rapid trip. We sighted Nombre de Dios and Porto Bello but did not stop at either place. We arrived at Colon about 2 p.m. and Mrs. Arrack met us with a car and were soon home again.
[Map of Panama]