First sight of the town unpromising—Christmas festivities—Bull-fights—Ramadas: music, song and dance, gambling—Agreeable weather—Chinganas: female disguise—Quebradas—Ranchos and their inhabitants—Mate ceremony—Good manners widespread

His Majesty's ship "Conway", under my command, sailed from England on the 10th of August 1820, and having touched at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, and the River Plate, received orders to proceed to Valparaiso, the principal seaport on the coast of Chile.

On the 19th of December we anchored in the Bay of Valparaiso, the principal port on the coast of Chile, having occupied thirty-eight days in the passage from the River Plate.

After a perilous and protracted voyage seamen are ready to consider any coast delightful, and it was probably from such a cause that the early Spanish adventurers named this place the Vale of Paradise, a designation which its present appearance, at least, by no means justifies. The Bay is of a semicircular form, surrounded by steep hills, rising nearly to the height of two thousand feet, sparingly covered with stunted shrubs, and thinly strewed grass. The town is built along a narrow strip of land, between the cliffs and the sea; but as this space is limited in extent, the buildings have straggled up the sides and bottoms of the numerous ravines which intersect the hills. A suburb called the Almendral, or Almond Grove, larger than the town itself, spreads over a low sandy plain about half a mile broad, at the upper or eastern side of the Bay. In the summer months, from November till March, Valparaiso is a safe and pleasant anchorage; but during winter, especially in June and July, is subject to hard storms, blowing from the north, in which direction it is open.

We were fortunate in having reached Valparaiso at a moment when the Christmas festivities were at their height, and multitudes of people had been attracted from the country to witness the bullfights and other shows. On the evening of Christmas day, which corresponds nearly with our midsummer, everybody seemed to be abroad enjoying the cool air in the moonlight. Groups of merry dancers were to be seen on every hand — and crowds of people listening to singers bawling out their old romances to the sound of a guitar; gay parties sauntered along, laughing and talking at the full stretch of their voices; wild-looking horsemen pranced about in all quarters, mixing amongst the people on foot, drinking and talking with them, but never dismounting. From one extremity of the town to the other, along the base of the cliffs, and all round the beach of the Almendral, was one uninterrupted scene of noise and revelry.

The bull-fights, which took place about four o'clock in the day, resembled anything rather than fights; but they made the people laugh, which was the principal object; and by bringing a crowd together in a merry mood, contributed quite as much to the general happiness as if they had been exhibited in the usual sanguinary manner.

The area in which the bulls were baited, for they were not killed, was a square enclosure, formed by a temporary building about fifty yards across, rudely constructed of posts driven into the ground, wattled with green boughs, and roofed with planks. Over two sides of the square was erected a second story, divided into compartments by flags, and left open at top, and in front; these were crowded with ladies and children, all in their gayest attire, and seated with much formality and decorum to witness the show. The scene in the ground-floor, which was divided into booths called Ramadas, was of a very different description — here was dancing, singing, drinking, and all kinds of noise and bustle. Previous to the commencement of the bull-fight, the area was filled with people, some lounging about smoking their cigars, and admiring the ladies' dresses, and some risking their money at Rouge et Noir, for which there were many tables brought from the booths into the open air. But the chief interest lay within the Ramadas, in each of which was to be found a band of musicians and dancers hired to attract company. Their instruments were invariably a harp, a guitar, and a sort of drum. The harp is held in a different manner from ours; for, instead of standing erect, it is kept in a horizontal position, the top of the instrument resting on the lap of the player, who sits on a low stool. The drum is made of a piece of wood hollowed out, and covered at one end with rawhide. This stands on the ground, and is patted with the fingers, while the wrist rests upon the rim. At times the end of the harp, or the empty guitar box, is used as a substitute, or any thing, indeed, which gives a clear hollow sound. The players in general are also singers, and the voice mingles more or less, at all times, with the instrumental music. They sing mostly in a high shrill tone, disagreeable at first to a stranger, but in the course of a little time it recommends itself to his ear, in a manner which his judgment scarcely allows to be just. Occasionally they sing in a lower tone, when the notes are very sweet and pleasing; but we had reason to suspect, that this was due to the accidental good taste of the singer, rising superior to the general practice of the country.

The bull-fights were very boyish exhibitions, and deserve no particular description. The animals, in fact, were never killed, but merely teased by horsemen, who goaded them with blunt spears, or distracted by men on foot who waved flags in their faces, and, when the bulls were irritated, escaped over the railings into the Ramadas.

The chief interest, to us at least, lay in the people, whose various dresses we were never tired of looking at, while the interpretation of their strange language gave us ample occupation; for although they all professed to speak Spanish, their dialect was strongly marked with a local idiom and pronunciation. But although every thing was new to us, and partook more or less of a characteristic air, it is not easy to describe, chiefly from its want of resemblance to anything we have before witnessed.

I met at the Ramadas, one evening, a family to whose attentions I am much indebted, especially for their assistance in explaining the native customs. We visited together many of the booths, and had an opportunity of seeing more of the dancing than on the first night. One of their favourite figures begins in a manner not unlike our minuet, with slow and apparently unpremeditated movements; the parties approaching and receding from each other, occasionally joining hands, swinging themselves round, and sometimes stooping so as to pass under each other's arms. These figures admit the display of much ease and grace, but inevitably betray any awkwardness of manner. The slow movements last a minute or two, after which the measure suddenly changes from a dull monotonous tune to a quick and varied air, loudly accompanied by the drum and all the voices. At this instant the dancers commence a sort of shuffling step, during which the feet do not slide along the ground, but make, with great rapidity, a number of short stampings. At the moment of this change in time, the dancers dart forward towards each other, waving their handkerchiefs affectedly before them. They do not actually meet, but, when almost touching, pass, and continue to revolve round each other, in circles larger or smaller, according to the space allowed, accompanying these rotary motions by various gesticulations, especially that of waving their handkerchiefs over their partner's head. There was a striking difference between the manner in which these dances were performed by the town's people and by the huasos or countrymen, the latter having always the advantage both in skill and in elegance.

These amusements lasted throughout the night, and, although the people are naturally temperate, it was evident, that towards morning the dances were apt to acquire a more savage character, and the songs to become licentious. But there were very few instances of intoxication or riotous behaviour. No women, except those professionally attached to the band of music, ever dance; but as the men of all classes join occasionally, the floor is seldom long unoccupied, no more than one couple ever standing up at the same time. Each figure lasts about three or four minutes, after which the music stops for a few seconds, and is then resumed, this being always repeated three times. The fondness of the populace for this amusement is so remarkable, that I have often returned to one of the Ramadas after an interval of several hours, and found the same people still looking on at the same dance with undiminished pleasure.

The climate, during these festivities, was generally agreeable; in the day-time the thermometer ranged from 62° to 64°; and at night, from 59° to 62°; between half past ten and three in the day it was sometimes unpleasantly hot. Whenever the morning broke with a perfectly clear sky, and the sun rose unconcealed by haze, and the horizon in the offing was broken into a tremulous line, a very hard southerly wind might be expected to set in about one o'clock, and blowing directly over the high ridge of hills encircling the town, was forced into eddies and whirlwinds, which bore the sand in pyramids along the streets, forced it into the houses, and sometimes even reached the ships, covering everything with dust. About sunset these troublesome winds gradually died away, and left a calm, which lasted during the night. From sunrise till the hour when these gales commenced, there never was a breath of wind, or if the surface of the bay was in the least ruffled, it was only here and there by little transient puffs, which seamen distinguish by the name of cats-paws.

When the morning broke with clouds and haze, a breeze generally followed during the day, sometimes from one quarter, sometimes from another; but on such occasions we were spared the annoyance of the southerly gales.

These varieties take place only in summer. During the winter months, that is, when the sun is to the northward of the Equator, the weather is very unsettled. Hard northerly gales blow for days together, accompanied by heavy rains, and a high swell, which, rolling in from the ocean, renders the anchorage unsafe for shipping, and, by raising a vast surf on the beach, cuts off all communication between the shore and the vessels at anchor. At that season the air is cold and damp, so that the inhabitants are glad to have fires in their houses. Charcoal is used generally, in large polished braziers placed in the middle of the floor, round which the family range themselves, with their feet resting on the edge. In the houses of the English, and other foreign residents, fireplaces have been substituted for the braziers, and coal fires are used. Of this material there is an abundant supply from Conception, a port situated about 200 miles to the southward of Valparaiso. At present it is taken from a thick seam which crops out at the surface, and, as the quality is good, it will probably, at some future period, be turned to great account.

30th Dec.—As there was much to be learnt of the habits of the people at the night assemblies in the Ramadas, I made a practice of going there every evening. It was particularly amusing to watch, unobserved, the groups round the gambling tables in the middle of the area. A single candle, placed on the table, threw a light on the picturesque dresses and countenances of the players, which exhibited, in a striking manner, the variety of expression peculiarly belonging to such scenes. A party of these gamblers detected me upon one occasion, and insisted good humouredly that I should try my fortune. By accident the ball rested several times successively on the same square, which raised the odds on my casts to a considerable amount; and, in the end, I won a handful of silver, principally from the people who had been most active in persuading me to play. Their companions joined me in laughing at them a little; but I thought it better, all things considered, to insist upon returning the money.

A Chilean gentleman of my acquaintance lived close to the bullring, and parties used frequently to be made up at his house to go to the Chinganas, the name given to the scenes described above. After chatting together for some time one evening, the gentlemen of the party went off to the bullring, while the ladies excused themselves for not accompanying us. But within a quarter of an hour afterwards, while we were lounging about in one of the most noisy of the Ramadas, it was intimated to me privately, by a gentleman in the secret, that three of the ladies we had left were actually in our company, but so completely metamorphosed, that, even when pointed out, they were with difficulty recognised. Thus made party to the joke, I found they came as spies upon the proceedings of the master of the house, the husband of one of these Tapadas, as they called themselves. There had been a feud, it seemed, between these ladies and some others of their acquaintance, and the object of this escapo, or frolic, was to watch how the gentleman would deport himself towards their foes. They had, accordingly, the satisfaction, or the mortification, to detect him in treacherous flirtation with the enemy, and then allowing themselves to be discovered, to the confusion of the unsuspecting parties, they immediately disappeared. The next day we learnt that the ladies had returned in about ten minutes, differently disguised, and had amused themselves in watching the motions of such of us as had been formerly admitted to their confidence, and who were still chuckling over the success of the first exploit. I attempted, next evening, to pass a similar jest upon them, and disguised myself with great care, but their practised eyes were not to be deceived, and they saw through it all at the first glance.

The merchants and other principal inhabitants reside in the houses built along the base of the cliffs in Valparaiso, and along the streets of the Almendral. But the poorer people live chiefly in the Quebradas, or ravines. This class of society had been the least affected by the changes in the political state of the country, and retained, as we were informed, the same manners and habits as before; a circumstance which gave them a higher interest to us, and we frequently roved about, in the cool hours of evening, amongst their ranchos, or cottages, and were everywhere received with the utmost frankness, and, as far as the simple means of the inhabitants went, with hospitality. They were chiefly brickmakers, day labourers, and washerwomen, who were always gratified by the interest we took in their affairs, replying readily and cheerfully to our inquiries. Their first anxiety was that we should be seated, in order, to use their phrase, that we might feel ourselves in our own house; their next wish was, that we should taste something, no matter how little; some offered us spirits, or milk and bread; others, who could afford nothing else, presented a cup of water. Yet, however wretched the cottage, or poor the fare, the deficiency was never made more apparent by apologies. With untaught politeness, the best they had was placed before us, graced with a hearty welcome.

These ranchos, as well as the houses in the town, are built of large flat bricks dried in the sun, and thatched with broad palm leaves, the ends of which, by overhanging the walls, afford shade, as well as shelter from the rain. Each cottage is divided into two rooms; one for the beds, the other as a dining-room, a portion of the mud floor of which is always raised seven or eight inches above the level of the other parts, and being covered with mats, serves as a couch for the siesta sleepers after dinner.

In one cottage we found a young woman grinding corn in a very primitive mill, consisting of two stones, one a large grooved block placed on the ground, the other a polished piece about twice the size of her hand. The unground corn appeared to be baked till it would crumble into powder between the finger and thumb, and the coarse flour, when mixed with water, made an agreeable drink called Ulpo.

In some of the Quebradas, we occasionally discovered houses of a better class, generally occupied by elderly ladies of slender incomes, who had relinquished the fashionable and expensive parts of the town, for more remote, though not less comfortable dwellings. Nothing could exceed the neatness and regularity which reigned in these houses, where we were often received by the inmates with a politeness of manners, indicating that they had known better days. These good ladies generally entertained us with the celebrated Paraguay tea, called Mate, a beverage of which the inhabitants are passionately fond. Before infusion the Yerba, as it is called, has a yellow colour, and appears partly ground, and partly chopped; the flavour resembles that of fine tea, to which, indeed, many people prefer it. The mate is made in an oval-shaped metal pot, about twice as large as an egg, placed nearly full of water, on the hot embers of the brazier, which stands at all seasons of the year in the middle of the parlour; when the water begins to boil, a lump of sugar burnt on the outside is added. The pot is next removed to a filigree silver stand, on which it is handed to the guest, who draws the mate into his mouth through a silver pipe seven or eight inches in length, furnished, at the lower extremity, with a bulb pierced with small holes. The natives drink it almost boiling hot, and it costs a stranger many a tear before he can imitate them in this respect. There is one custom in these mate drinkings, to which, though not easily reconcilable to our habits, a stranger must not venture to object. However numerous the company may be, or however often the mate pot be replenished, the tube is never changed; and to decline taking mate, because the tube had been previously used, would be thought the height of rudeness. A gentleman of my acquaintance, becoming very fond of this beverage, bought a tube for himself, and carried it constantly in his pocket;— but this gave so much offence that he was eventually obliged to relinquish it.

The people in general, and particularly the peasantry, and the lower orders in the outskirts of the town, appeared to us much better bred than the correspondent ranks in other countries. In their domestic circles, they were at all times remarkably polite to one another, the children being respectful and attentive, and the parents considerate and indulgent. But this was conspicuous only at home; for, when abroad, the men were very negligent of good manners, and, although actual rudeness was contrary to their nature, they were, in general, careless of the wishes of the women, and never sought opportunities of obliging them, nor seemed to take any pleasure in being useful on trivial occasions. This habitual inattention on the part of the young men rendered the women, in some degree, distrustful of the civility with which strangers, as a matter of course, treated them; and, at first, we often observed a look of embarrassment when we paid them ordinary attention.

The state of education at Valparaiso was very low, and in this respect the men had the advantage. The refinement, however, was all with the other sex; in knowledge of the world, in sound judgment, and in everything relative to manners, they were clearly superior to the men.

For some time after arriving at Valparaiso, our attention had been so much engrossed by the scenes at the bull-fights, that we became well acquainted with the habits and opinions of the lower classes; for as there seemed little probability of such an opportunity occurring again, all of us who took an interest in such inquiries mixed with the natives every evening. This was the more agreeable, as there was nothing coarse or vulgar in their manners; on the contrary, a bold and rather graceful address characterised all their deportment. To us they were uniformly respectful, and always willing to communicate or receive information.