Tour Of The Caribbean - Puerto Colombia
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE next place touched at after Cartagena is Puerto Colombia A spot less dull is hardly to be conceived. It consists of a long, bulbous-ended pier which has been shot out into the blue like a chameleon's tongue. The pier is embellished with a railway, and at its land extremity is a small, depressed village. These objects deposited in a barren and featureless bay represent Puerto Colombia.
Made fast to the pier, however, was an object of considerable interest. It was a gun-boat belonging to the Republic of Colombia. Certain hasty and thoughtless passengers mistook this battleship at first sight for a tramp steamer. The commander or admiral was an Englishman. He had done his best to bring the vessel up to British conceptions,of trimness, but at the moment the work was one which might have daunted Hercules after his experience of the Augean stables. The presence of the man-of-war was due to the fact that a revolution was pending or in actual progress, and troops were in consequence being hurried to the front. Indeed the last contingent of 150 men were about to embark that very evening.
In a while the 150 soldiers made their appearance. They came up to the pier-head by train in open trucks. Out of the trucks they tumbled, and lined up on the landing stage to await the roll-call. It is worthy to note that these men, although just off to the front, were not only all sober but all very quiet. So far as any enthusiasm was concerned they might have been on their way to gaol. They were a mixture of Mulattoes and white men, and, in the point of physique, were a very presentable body of young fellows. There was nothing military about them, nor did they appear to have been at any time over-troubled by drilling.
They wore the ordinary every-day dress of the streets and the fields. Some had donned cotton jackets, some blouses or "jumpers," a few paraded in cloth coats. One man was conspicuous in what had evidently been a tweed suit, while another looked very smart in an old black dinner jacket. In the matter of trousers also the regiment served to demonstrate how greatly fashion and individual tastes may vary in the matter of clothes. Some wore slippers, others the shoe of the country, and a few the common European boot. Straw hats were evidently more or less en regle, although a number of the men-at-arms wore rakish felt hats or sombreros. They of course all carried firearms. Many of these weapons were of interest by reason of their antiquity, Taken together they would have formed a fairly exhaustive display illustrative of the evolution of the modern rifle from its rude beginnings. Some of the soldiers carried their ammunition in bandoliers, but the larger number used pouches or bags—game bags, fishing bags, school bags.
String was very largely employed in the equipment of these soldiers, and indeed without string the more fragmentary of the men would have fallen to pieces. Their badges of rank, however, were attached to their arms by means of pins, string not being efficient for this purpose. The men who were most anxious to make themselves really dashing carried towels round their necks. Each warrior was encumbered by a bundle in which were a mat, a blanket, and, I assume, a change of raiment. Many, however, had added to the bundle a kettle or a cooking pot, a bottle or two suspended by strings or a guitar. These defenders of their country looked indeed rather like a parcel of lads just off to a boys' holiday camp.
The officer in charge of the company was a remarkable person, of astounding activity and red-hot military zeal. On his head was a large Panama hat, fixed to his coat by means of a heavy string.
He wore black dress trousers. On his feet were brown shoes such as may have graced the sands of Blackpool. The chief item of his costume, however, was a bright blue jacket, adorned with immense frogs fashioned out of black braid. This coat had evidently been obtained either from a circus master or the conductor of a seaside band. It was the kind of tunic usually worn by lion-tamers. The officer had a large bath towel round his neck with which he occasionally mopped his face, as the weather was very hot. From a luggage strap across his shoulder was suspended a lady's hand-bag, or reticule, in brown leather. Had it not been distinctly a lady's bag it would have suggested the pouch in which a bus conductor carries his coppers. This was no doubt a sort of sabretache for carrying dispatches and the like.
It remains to be mentioned that, attached by string to his " suspenders "—which were very conspicuous—this leader of men wore a rapier, or slender sword, with a gilded handle, such as is carried at levees in England. This weapon was no doubt obtained from the same source as the lion-tamer's tunic. Although quite hoarse with previous shouting the officer, thus equipped for active service, gave his orders with explosive vigour. He even addressed the men with no little spirit and emotion, wiping his face with the bath towel between each eloquent period. He was probably on the theme of " death or glory," and was making such references to "hearths and homes" as are applicable to the tropics where there are no fireplaces. It was a relief to the onlookers that he did not draw his levee-dress sword in order to point the way to victory, for as he had a practice of waving his arms like a semaphore he might have done some hurt.
The concluding item of the parade, before the fighting men actually started for the front, was the roll-call. The officer had the names written down in a penny account-book, from which he read with precision, glancing up inquiringly after each name had been jerked forth. None having been found wanting he made a graceful bow, as if he had just sung a song, dropped the account book into the hand-bag, and retired behind a crane to mop his face with a thoroughness which had been denied him while in the public gaze.
It was interesting to think that these soldiers were the successors, and possibly in some cases the descendants, of the very men who had defended the Spanish Main against Drake and Morgan, who had convoyed the mule trains, and who had fought behind the stockades at Nombre de Dios and the walls of Cartagena.