Tour Of The Caribbean - San Juan of Today
( Originally Published 1925 )
SAN JUAN of Puerto Rico is a Spanish city of dashing colours, very pleasant to see as it breaks into view when entering the harbour. The houses are packed together within the great black wall, there being but little green to relieve the pile of many-windowed, many-towered stucco and stone. The narrow streets are paved and clean, and, although a little oppressive, are refreshed at every turn by glimpses of the sea. The houses, mostly flat-roofed, are lavish in balconies and sun-shutters, in barred windows, and in lazy courtyards full of shadows. Carts drawn by blase-looking oxen creak and groan by the side of electric tramcars, while mules, covered with the dust of far-off roads, are constantly plodding through the city gates. There are, in the town, certain much-painted churches, some of great age, a central plaza, public buildings too dazzling to look upon when the sun is bright, infinite taverns to meet the infinite leisure of the Spaniard, and many curious by-lanes reminiscent of Madrid.
The folk in the street are, as to their complexions, for the most part white, yellow or cinnamon brown. Among them are hand-some men and beautiful women, with a still greater number who are mean and undersized, and not free from suspicions of degeneracy. There are divers old Spanish families in the island, some of whom may have " come over " with Ponce de Leon. They have preserved, through long centuries and to their own detriment, the hauteur and the exclusiveness of a conquering people. In spite of 1898, San Juan is still Spanish to the core.
The negro is not much in evidence except with the ox-waggon or the mules, or squatting by baskets of fruit exposed along the wayside. Everywhere are to be seen proofs of the excellence of the American administration, with signs of the times, which show that no mean part of the trade of the city is falling into American hands.
At the east end of the town, and by the edge of the sea, is the mighty fort of San Cristobal, built in 1771. It covers an immense area, being indeed in itself a small walled city. That side which looks seaward shows a relentless wall at whose foot break, with sounds of thunder, the rollers from the Atlantic. Here and there a stone sentry box juts out from the curtain—a human feature among this mountainous heap of masonry.
About the fortress is a great fosse with a heavy scarp on either side. Beyond the fosse are confusing outworks—a tenaille or two in the enceinte ditch, with possibly a caponiere across the same. All the awe-inspiring and amazing features of a huge stronghold are here displayed—bastions, domed magazines, mysterious alleys, precipices of stone, ravines of masonry, paved platforms, repellent doorways.
When Fort Cristobal was built at the end of the eighteenth century it was a wonder for men to see. Here at last was the place impregnable. Here was the challenge, the gauntlet thrown down by the Spaniard to the sea rover whatever his breed. There is about the citadel even now all the arrogance of the strong man armed, the hush of a place that deals with death, the cruelty of cunning walls that bristle with means to kill. Fort Cristobal with its boastful parade of the resources of war might be a temple to the God of Battle, a palace of Bellona.
Possibly the most haunting features of the great fort are the dungeons. Tales of the Middle Ages would lead one to expect that the prison doors would be approached by way of a dark and winding stair, or by vaulted passages muffled with mould. In this particular stronghold, however, there is a certain mockery about the entry to the torture chambers.
In a little square, between two high walls, is a plat of grass. On one side the square is open to the sea, being indeed bounded by a parapet where an idler might lean over and watch the waves. Among the grass of this monastic lawn are many sensitive plants, as well as a purple flower very like a violet. At the foot of one of the walls which shut in this quiet close is a black gap, low and narrow, like the opening into a den. It is so low that one has to stoop to enter it.
It leads into a downward-sloping passage which makes its way under the mass of the fortifications. The tunnel stretches far into the depths, until the comforting gleam of light at the entrance fades to a small disc of haze and then vanishes entirely, leaving the gloom trackless. By the time the dungeons are reached the air is already suffocating, while there is a sense of being crushed under an avalanche of rock.
The passage leads to some six cells, mere cramped recesses lined with stone. Each shows a niche in the wall subtly contrived to take a human body if bent up in the sitting position. There is a groove cut in the roof to take the nape of the neck, the chin would be pressed almost to the knees, while an iron bar bolted across the chest would keep the victim still, as well as hold up the limp body when death had made it helpless.
No light of day can ever reach these catacombs. No sound can penetrate so far. Such air as finds its way thus deep into the earth is spent and tainted. Here is it possible to realise the circumstances of being buried alive, to apprehend the crushing to death by inches, the struggle to lift a mountain of stone, the agony of being throttled, the eternal dark, the sense of being abandoned. Here the trapped wretch would be pinned, gasping like a drowning man, crumpled up like a hunchback, until he shrivelled to a thing of leather, and in the end to a mere knot of contorted bones.
Upon these dungeons have been expended infinite labour, complacent skill, cool precision, and diabolical ingenuity. They will remain for ever as a monument of what is possible to be conceived in the bitter depths of human cruelty and hate. To retraverse the back-breaking passage from the charnel-house to the open air is to awaken from a fearsome dream. It was a memorable relief to see once more the sun on the plat of grass, to stand erect and breathe, and to hear at the foot of the rocks the reassuring sound of the sea.