The Aztec Lilliputians.

Original title page

On Monday July 4th 1853 the Aztec Lilliputians were presented to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria. She and Prince Albert are reported to have “viewed them with acknowledged gratification”, as did their Serene Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Prussia, Prince Holenlohe Langenbourg, the Duke and Duchess of Saxe Coburgh and various other members of the Royal Party present at this extraordinary event. “Indeed,” the preface to this curious little booklet goes on, “the excitement they occasioned at the Palace was far greater than that which their Guardians had expected, and the perfect satisfaction which Her Majesty and their Royal Highnesses were pleased to intimate will ever be one of the most gratifying reminiscences to those who have brought the Aztecs to England.”

So, who did bring the Aztec Lilliputians to England, and how did they discover them in the first place? The story is real Boy’s Own Paper stuff, a Ripping Yarn of the first order. It goes as follows.

The traveller John L. Stephens, in his Incidents of Travel in Central America, published in 1842, passed on a legend that he had heard from a priest in Santa Cruz del Quiche, to the effect that on the other side of the Cordilleras from Vera Paz, beyond the Sierra Madre, was a lost city. Unlike other lost cities in this part of the world, however, this one was still inhabited by Indians who continued to live the lifestyle which their brother Indians had lived before the Spanish Conquest had so brutally changed everything. The inhabitants of the city, knowing of the slaughter that had gone on elsewhere, lived in perpetual fear of discovery. Consequently any white man who chanced to venture near was murdered, and none such had ever lived to tell the tale to the outside world,

Stephens’ book, the story goes, inspired two intrepid explorers to attempt the journey. One was Mr Huertis of Baltimore, an American born of Spanish parents from Cuba. A wealthy man, he had travelled widely in Egypt, Persia and Syria. The other was Mr Hammond, who was a Civil Engineer from Canada. The two set out from New Orleans and arrived in Belize in the autumn of 1848. Here they equipped themselves with horses and mules, and gathered a party of ten experienced Indian guides.

It was at Copan, on the way to Santa Cruz del Quiche, that they met up with Señor Pedro Velazquez of San Salvador, a trader in indigo by profession. Much intrigued by their expedition he decided to join it, and it is from the journal which he kept that the present booklet is compiled.

By a piece of singular good fortune, Señor Velasquez knew the priest who had first passed the legend on to John L. Stephens, so when the expedition reached Santa Cruz del Quiche (which they did despite being attacked by some rather nasty Indian bandits), they all went to see the priest, who was by then “helplessly, if not hopelessly, dropsical.” The priest repeated his story that some forty years earlier he had climbed to the topmost ridge of the Sierra and had seen the lost city for himself. He also provided them with a guide for the next stage of their journey, and on the 10th of April 1849 they set out for Totonicapan, and thence via Quetzaltenengo, through Aguas Calientes and San Sebastian, to Gueguetenango (that’s Guatemala to you and me.)

Here they met a friend of the old priest’s, who surprised them by expressing scepticism at their mission. He confessed that he had always thought the lost city to be a figment of the padre’s imagination. Nevertheless he agreed to find them some guides to see them across the mountains. Much to our explorers’ collective relief, these guides confirmed that there was a lost city there after all.

On May 5th they began the ascent of the mountain. On the 13th of that month, Señor Velasquez’s journal reads: “On the brink of the abyss – the heaviest crags we can hurl down return no sound from the bottom.” On the 19th: “Elevation 9000 feet. Completely in the clouds and all the country below invisible. Señor Hammond already bleeding at the nose, and had no cigar to stop it.” By the afternoon of the 20th, however, they finally saw the lost city below them in the distance. The journal reads:

“It is unquestionably a richly monumental city, of vast dimensions, within lofty parapeted walls, three or four miles square, inclined inwards in the Egyptian style; and its interior domes and turrets have an emphatically oriental aspect.”

As they descended from the mountains towards the lost city they came upon a native village whose inhabitants were friendly, and who told them that the lost city was called Iximaya. They also told them that the Iximayans were not so friendly and that “about thirty moons” before, a white traveller had actually been sacrificed and eaten by the priests of Iximaya!

The intrepid explorers stayed in this village long enough for Señor Velasquez, the linguist of the expedition, to pick up a smattering of the Iximayan language, and by the beginning of July they began the final leg of the journey to Iximaya itself.

They were soon spotted by a band of Iximayan horsemen, with bloodhounds, and took refuge in a huge cavern (it was filled with ancient statues that glowed in the crimson of the setting sun, by the way) from which a stream gushed forth. Here they felt they could rest secure awhile, and water the horses.

The following morning the Iximayans decided to get dashed unsporting, and sent the bloodhounds in. But these were all killed by the explorers without any of the party being seriously injured. Next, the Indians themselves launched an attack, but of course, as in all the best Boy’s Own stories, the natives hadn’t seen firearms before, so they were seen off with a couple of well-aimed volleys. (“Their dispersion was so outrageously wild and complete, that no two of them could be seen together as they radiated over the plain.”) Unfortunately, though put to flight, one of their spears had pierced Mr Hammond through the right breast, and he was seriously wounded. Also, one of their guides had been killed, but being an Indian, no-one really minded.

Eventually the Iximyans returned and were reassured by Mr Huertis, through Señor Velasquez, that they were really quite friendly, and meant no harm. Accordingly they were escorted into Iximaya with all due pomp and ceremony:

“As the cavalcade advanced to the centre of the city, the population assembled to behold the unprecedented spectacle; but the utmost order prevailed, and the silence was profound. The fact of these strangers wielding deadly weapons had already excited their dread.”

They were led into a large and lofty hall to meet the King, who was dressed in  scarlet and gold, and about old enough to qualify for a bus pass. Eventually he and the elders of the tribe decided that our heroes weren’t such a bad lot after all, and granted them the freedom of the city. It is at this point in the story, and not before time, that the Aztec Lilliputians come in:

“The place of residence assigned to our travellers, was the vacant wing of a spacious and sumptuous structure, at the western extremity of the city, which had been appropriated, from time immemorial, to the surviving remnant of an ancient and singular order of priesthood called Kaanas, which, it was distinctly asserted in their annals and traditions, had accompanied the first migration of this people from the Assyrian plains. Their peculiar and strongly distinctive lineaments, it is now perfectly well ascertained, are to be traced in many of the sculptured monuments of the central American ruins, and were found still more abundantly on those of Iximaya. Forbidden, by inviolably sacred laws, from intermarrying with any persons but those of their own caste, they had dwindled down, in the course of many centuries, to a few insignificant individuals, diminutive in stature. They were, nevertheless, held in high veneration and affection by the whole Iximayan community, probably as living specimens of an antique race nearly extinct.”

The Kaanas were guarded by a higher order of priests called Mayaboons, and it was with one of these, Vaalpeor by name, that Señor Velasquez struck up a particular friendship. Vaalpeor was as curious to know about where Señor Velasquez was from as Señor Velasquez was to know about the history and customs of Iximaya.

When the time for escape from the city approached (for of course they could hardly be allowed to leave, lest they reveal the secret location of Iximaya) Vaalpeor decided to go with them. But there was one problem. Vaalpeor was the guardian of two Kaana children, and his priestly vows meant that he could only abandon them at the cost of his life. Consequently, they would have to go too.

Mr Hammond, meanwhile, had died, partly as a result of the wounds received some months earlier, and partly on account of a fever. Mr Huertis, too, having confided to an Indian about the coming escape, “had been sacrificed in due form upon the high altar of the Sun.” Fortunately, he hadn’t mentioned that Señor Velasquez intended to escape too, still less that Vaalpeor and the two Kaanas were all set to go with him, so that they were safe enough for the time being. But clearly they had to escape soon, as suspicion was rife, and further delay could only make escape more difficult. But how to get out?

“To pass the gates was impossible; but the wall might be descended in the night by ropes, and to swim the moat was easy. This was effected by Velasquez and fifteen of his party the same night; the rest either did not make the attempt or failed, and the faithful Antonio was among them. The fugitives had scarcely reached the secluded retreat of Vaalpeor and mounted their mules, before the low yelp of the bloodhounds was heard upon their trail, and soon burst into full cry. But the dogs were somewhat confused by the scent of so many footsteps on the spot at which the party mounted, and did not follow the mules until the horsemen led the way. This afforded time for the fugitives, racing their swift mules at full speed, to reach the opening of the valley, when Velasquez wheeled and halted, for the pursuers were close at hand. A conflict ensued, in which many of the horsemen were slain, and the young kaana received an accidental wound of which he retains the scar. It must suffice to say, that the party eventually secured their retreat without loss of life; and by break of day they were on a mountainous ridge many leagues from Iximaya. In about fourteen days, they reached Ocosingo, after great suffering. Here Velasquez reluctantly parted with most of his faithful Indians, and here also died Vaalpeor, from the unaccustomed toil and deprivations of the journey. Velasquez, with the two Aztec children, did not reach San Salvador until the middle of February, when they became objects of the highest interest to the most intellectual classes of that city. As the greatest ethnological curiosities in living form that ever appeared among civilised man, he was advised to send them to Europe for exhibition.”

This, of course, is exactly what he did do, much to the delight, one imagines, of his bank manager.

Such is the story of Señor Velasquez. Personally I find it a bit suspicious that everyone apart from the Aztec Lilliputians themselves and their ‘agent’ Señor Velasquez, had died en route, so that there was no independent witness left to corroborate this extraordinary tale of adventure. So did it really happen? Or did Señor Velasquez merely make up a colourful background story to what was essentially a ‘freak-show’, not unlike the ‘smallest man (or woman) in the world’ exhibited in many a travelling circus? But does it really matter whether the story is true or not? Our author writes:

“In brief, these Aztec Children present the most extraordinary phenomenon in the human race ever witnessed by the modern world: let their origin be what it may – let their history and their country’s history be ever so vague and traditionary – doubt the truth of Velasquez’s narrative or believe it wholly – these children present in themselves the eighth wonder of the world. They are, without exception, the most remarkable and intensely interesting objects that were ever presented to the European public.”

How small were these Lilliputian figures? Fortunately we know, for they were measured up by Professor Owen in London on 30th June 1853. The boy, Maximo, who was seventeen years old, was 34½ inches tall and weighed 23 pounds. The girl, Bartola, who was eleven years old, was 30¾ inches tall and weighed 21½ pounds. Tiny children or remnants of a miniature race – the choice is yours.

The escape from Iximaya

The Escape from Iximaya.