The Land of the Cacique

By James Stanley Gilbert

 

Near the cliffs of Portobelo,

Where the fortress still is standing,

Near the moss-clad old cathedral

That the Dons built long ago;

Eight degrees from the equator,

From the southward counting northward,

Lies the land of the Cacique,

Lies the region of San Blas.

There the skies are soft and tender,

And the clouds form wondrous pictures

Round the crimson sun disrobing

For his sleep beneath the sea;

And the monarch of the forest,

The majestic palm-tree, waveth

Shining, multi-sceptred branches

O'er a kingdom all its own.

There the almond-tree doth flourish,

There the gorgeous mango groweth

Close beside the lustrous caucho,

And the tagua strews the ground.

There, upon the sylvan hillsides

And within the lovely valleys,

Nestles many an Indian village

Of the slender bamboo built.

 

'Tis a lyric of these people,

Of their customs quaint and curious,

Of the rites to them peculiar,

That the bard would strive to sing:

Sing in humble words and simple

To a harp uncouth and awkward,

As befits the modest minstrel

Of a lowly race of men.

Lowly? Yea, but lowly only

As retired from observation—

As without the pale of notice

Of the nations of the world.

For within his own dominion

The Cacique and his subjects

Are as dignified and haughty

As the proudest of mankind.

In their veins no mixed blood courseth,

In their land no stranger dwelleth,

For this simple child of nature

Guards his country with his life.

Guards his race from all admixture,

Guards his ancient superstitions,

His religion and his customs awkward,

As befits the modest minstrel

Of a lowly race of men.

Lowly? Yea, but lowly only

As retired from observationÑ

As without the pale of notice

Of the nations of the world.

For within his own dominion

The Cacique and his subjects

Are as dignified and haughty

As the proudest of mankind.

In their veins no mixed blood courseth,

In their land no stranger dwelleth,

For this simple child of nature

Guards his country with his life.

Guards his race from all admixture,

Guards his ancient superstitions,

His religion and his customs,

Zealously and jealously.

For a solemn oath doth bind him—

Sworn above his father's body—

To kill wife and son and daughter

Should an enemy approach

To obtain his fair possessions,

Or to other laws subdue him

Ere he marches to the battle

That can end but with his life.

 

Every hamlet has its  chieftain,

Subject still to the Cacique—

The Cacique of Sasardi—

Who is ruler over all.

Every village has its Mila,

Arzoguete and Tulete

(Priest and teacher and physician,

Councillor and wisest men).

Primitive is their religion:

Little know they of the Godhead

That the Israelites discovered

And the Gentiles have improved.

No need here for costly churches:

Each rude hut is sanctuary,

From whence, dying, to the bosom

Of Eternal Rest they go.

And to show the Mighty Spirit

How on earth they toiled and labored,

The canoe and the machete

And the arrows near them lie.

Each home hath its cemetery,

Built within a palm enclosure,

Where the dead swing in their hammocks,

Hid forever from the view.

Seldom dream the San Blas Indians,

Seldom lose their mental balance,

For an ancient superstition

Holds all such condemned to death.

'Tis a sign that evil spirits

Seek to cast their lot among them,

From their old beliefs to win them

Unto those they know not of.

 

Let us leave these sad statistics—

Let us visit the Fiestas:

Three days since unto an Ohme

A Punagua child was born;

And with shouts of great rejoicing

And libations of the Chicha,

They will pierce the tiny nostril

For the hoop of yellow gold.

Haste we quickly to another—

To a festival more joyful:

For in turn the shy Punagua

Hath an Ohme now become.

Oh, the drinking! Oh, the dancing!

As they cut the maiden's tresses;

In her father's house immure her

Till her husband shall be found.

Now bring forth the long Cachimba,

Bring the Ina, bring the Guarra,

Bring the men and bring the women:

The Nutschuqua claims his bride!

Long the parents pondered o'er it,

That among the young men waiting

They might choose the one most fitting

For their daughter and themselves.

Whom could choose they but Machua?

Who, like him, to snare the tortoise?

Who, like him, to drive the Ulo

Through the breakers of the coast?

On the voyage to Portobelo,

Though with cocoanuts deep laden,

His canoe is always leading,

Always first to reach the port.

 

Six days will he bravely labor,

Six days' toil to build the Ulo

That the law from him demandeth

Ere he once may see his bride.

Sweet Punagua, none may see her;

For until the boat is builded

In the pit the maid is hidden

From the sight of every one.

From her father's house they brought her

In the early morning darkness;

Now about her all the village,

In a circle gathered round,

Sit and smoke the wedding Guarra,

Sit and drink the wedding Chicha,

Stories tell of other weddings,

And traditions old recite.

Six days will they all be merry,

Six days till, his labor finished,

With rejoicing comes Machua— 

Comes and claims his promised wife.

To her father's house he bears her,

There to serve their daughter's parents

Till to him is born a daughter,

And his freedom thus is gained.

Then upon the sylvan hillside,

Or within the lovely valley,

Or upon the beach of coral

They will build their palm-thatched home;

And in turn will rear their children

In the ancient superstitions,

And to all the tribe be useful

In the common industries.

 

Let them live in their seclusion,

Let them keep their fair possessions,

Let them rule themselves unaided,

O ye nations of the earth!

Let them practice their religion,

And observe their rights and customs

O ye pushing missionaries

Of accepted creed and sect!

Trouble not this gentle people— 

Leave them to their peace and quiet—

Nor disturb this tropic Eden

Of the red men of San Blas!