Haitian Child

Haitian Child

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review - The Naturalist in Nicaragua.

Belt, Thomas. 
The Naturalist in Nicaragua, 
University of Chicago Press, 1874.
Book Review and Selected Notes.

Thomas Belt was a 19th century mining engineer whose professional career included work in Australia, North Wales, Nova Scotia, and finally Chontales, Nicaragua. He was born in Newcastle, England in 1832. Belt was a naturalist by nature and wherever he worked he made precise and often ground breaking discoveries of the local flora and fauna. Charles Darwin hailed his book as “the best of all natural history journals which have ever been published.” High praise indeed. My reading supports Darwin’s opinion. Belt had a historically precocious scientific sense of animal behaviour.

Belt’s Nicaragua journey started with his arrival by boat at San Juan del Norte, the Atlantic outlet of the river that drains Lake Nicaragua. He travelled inland by river and at one point, “calculated that the highest elevation between the two oceans is only about 133 feet.” “There can be no doubt that at this point occurs the lowest pass between the Atlantic and Pacific in Central America.” This route was the main alternative to the Panama Canal.

Coffee, indigo, hides, cacao, sugar, logwood and india-rubber were the principle exports of the time. Today coffee, cacao, sugar, and hardwood continue as export commodities. Maize was sown in May and December, which is still the situation. Belt planted orange, lime, and citron trees, and lived in Nicaragua long enough to see the trees bear fruit. He described mango, avocado, pineapples, fig, grenadillas, bananas, pumpkins, plantains, papaws, and chioties. Notwithstanding the abundance of fruit he noted that the local diets were “beef, or a fowl, brown beans, rice, and tortillas,” and he commented about local markets, “Not a green vegetable, not a fruit, can you buy.” Balanced nutrition continues to elude poor Nicaraguan families.

Insects were a special interest to Belt, and how birds or other animals related to the insects was a common topic. For instance he describes the Toucan bill as
“beautifully adapted for picking up the ants before they reach the nest,” and for “picking insects out of crevices and corners.”

Ancient artifacts captured his attention. Nicaragua was part of the Aztec and Mayan empires. He noted the cross in some artifacts and commented that the
“cross in Central America greatly astonished the Spanish discoverers. In Yucatan and throughout the Aztec Empire it was the emblem of the “god of rain.”

About family, children, and marriage, he wrote,
“Nicaragua men and women often change their mates. In such cases the children remain with the mother, and take their surname from her. Baptism is considered an indispensable rite, but the marriage ceremony is often dispensed with; and I did not notice that those who lived together without it suffered in the estimation of their neighbours.” My blog "Poverty, Child Labor and Child Prostitution" (January 6, 2012) reports that this cultural practice continues.

Politics does not seem to have changed much. “The states of Central America are republics in name only; in reality, they are tyrannical oligarchies. They have excellent constitutions and laws on paper, but both their statesmen and their judges are corrupt; with some honorable exceptions, I must admit, but not enough to stem the current of abuse. Of real liberty there is none. The party in power is able to control the elections, and to put their partisans into all the municipal and other offices.” Many current observers would agree that this 138 year-old statement is an accurate description of the November 2011 election in Nicaragua. 
Greater Yellowlegs.
As the shore water receded after late afternoon waves, small minnows flopped and sparkled in the surf. A Snowy egret, Spotted sandpiper, and this Greater Yellowlegs competed for the tiny fish.      

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