A.C. Gunter: Baron Montez of Panama and Paris

A.C. Gunter’s Baron Montez: 1. The Returning Californians

Welcome to the first instalment of Achibald Clavering Gunter’s 1893 novel Baron Montez of Panama and Paris. The story is integrated with historical events which provide a background for the introduction of the main character, Fernando Gomez Montez. The first chapters take place on a particular day, the fifteenth day of April, 1856, a date that has a significant part to play both in history and future plot.


Panama was always of vital interest to the United States. President Andrew Jackson as early as 1836 had commissioned a study of proposed routes for a railroad across the Isthmus to protect the interests of Americans travelling to and from the Eastern and Western states by ocean, and the developing Oregon County in the Pacific Northwest. Two years before gold was discovered in California in 1848, which made safe transit across the Isthmus even more crucial, William H. Aspinall, who ran the Pacific mail steamships conceived of a railroad. He and his partners formed a New York company and raised a million dollars to conduct engineering and route studies. The Panama Railroad was completed on January 27, 1855, at a cost of eight million and an estimated five to ten thousand lives to malaria, yellow fever and cholera.

The ‘science’ of blood and race

There is a great dollop of blood ahead and smatterings throughout these first chapters, with racial connotations. Not to alarm our readers, it is best to put this in context with the time of A.C. Gunter’s writing, 1893. Ten years before, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, defined Eugenics as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial quality of future generations’ (Memories… p. 321). As Darwin’s evolutionary ‘survival of the fittest’ made universal sense and was applied widely beyond its scientific origins, so Galton’s determination took on a life of its own in the US. Pseudo-eugenics prospered. Galton proposed that, where possible, breeding should be encouraged from good stock, and discouraged in bad. He saw the English upper classes as good stock with good qualities.

Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911). Platinum print by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant). Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s all very well to establish a scientific principle, but left in the hands of the unscientific to ascribe subjective values on who or what is desirable, is another thing, particularly if based simply on race. It becomes a basis and validation for prejudice. None-the-less a movement began to grow to embrace the principles for the betterment of society through inherited blood. As Nancy Ordover puts it:

U.S. eugenicists tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples, supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws, and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and “immoral.”

Ordover, American Eugenics (2003) xii

Today, the narrator’s stereotypical presumptions would be considered racist, but these were, not to judge or justify, the emerging values of the society within which he lived. With financial support from the likes of John D. Rockefeller, and the Carnegie Institution, and aided by influential scientists like Charles B. Davenport and Alexander Graham Bell, the formation of organizations such as The Eugenics Record Office and the American Breeders Association, ensured the movement continued to grow and expand its demands until the commencement of the First World War (Ordover).

Style and technique of the storyteller

Contemporary writing has been greatly influenced by the visual mediums of television and film. ‘Show don’t tell’ is the admonition given new writers. This is a distinct departure from previous writing styles where the narrator plays a more visible, involved role of story-teller. However, even in Gunter’s period narrators were generally unobtrusive entities largely prepared to let their characters’ actions and words speak for qualities and nature.

The narrator of Baron Montez, has a prominent all-seeing, all-knowing presence, to the extent of almost becoming a character of the story himself—as a US basketball coach is considered part of the team or an off-stage voice one of the cast. But this is purposeful. A.C. Gunter is a successful New York playwright, and this dramatic influence is evident in this work, in staging, character design and the transparency of his dialogue which truly provides an insight into character.

In this first chapter, A.C. Gunter has several revelations to impart which have a bearing on the larger plot: the new Panama Railroad and its effect on the native population, and transiting Americans such as Alice and George Ripley; and while alternatively mollifying the reader with exquisite descriptions of the paradise that is Toboga Island, the sand, jewel waters and flowers, the vehement narrator carries out a relentless character assassination of Fernando Gomez Montez, who no doubt is up to no good. He is the quintessential bad boy, a charming rogue without soul, capable of anything, and his irresistible potential for evil-doing draws the reader on.












“Fernando, light of my heart! Returned from the Pearl Islands!” cries the beautiful Indian girl rushing to his arms and covering Mr. Fernando’s olive face with the kisses of youth and love. Anita is but fifteen, and the heart grows fast under the sun of the Equator.

Fernando himself is scarce twenty, but he does not seem so ardent. He replies carelessly, “Yes, last night, by the Columbus,” pointing to that little unseaworthy steamer as she lies languidly upon the blue waters of the Bay of Panama, about three miles from the town, and seven from the lovely Island of Toboga, from which these two are gazing at it.

“Last night, and you did not come to me? you—away five days!” answers the girl, tears coming into her eyes that flash through mists of passion like topaz stones.

“Last night I had business in Panama—great business.”

Then the young man says anxiously, “Is the Americano well?”

Photo of indigenous Panamanian woman by Ayaita (detail, adjusted) CC BY-SA 3.0 Source: Wikimedia Commons


“And here?”

“Still here.”

“He has not gone yet! Blessings on God! And his wife—the beautiful Senora Alicia, the lady with the white skin? She has recovered from her touch of the fever Panama?”

“She is better. They go to the mainland this after noon.”


“To-morrow morning they take passage on the railway, to Aspinwall, and then go on the big vessel with the smoke to the great America beyond the sea.”

“A-ah. she is well enough to travel?”

“Yes, she is yellow no more; her cheeks are red as the blossoms of the manzanilla.”

Por Dios! She must be lovely as a mermaid of Las Islas de las Perles!” murmurs Fernando half to himself, but still not sufficiently low to miss the sharp ear of an Indian; for at his words the dark eyes of Anita flash ominously, her full, round bosom pants under its white semitransparent cotton drapery, and she mutters savagely to herself.

“What are you saying under your breath, Anita?” cries the young man.

“Nothing! I—I was only whispering a prayer to the Virgin for the young American lady’s recovery, in the language of my tribe,” answers the girl hesitatingly.

Diablo! No more of the language of your tribe! I don’t understand the language of your tribe!” sneers Señor Fernando, giving the girl a little slap on her shapely brown shoulder and a nasty glance out of his bright eyes. To this she does not reply, as she passes round the corner of the bamboo cottage, apparently overcome by some emotion she would sooner the gentleman who has been speaking to her would not discern in her face.

“By all the saints of the cathedral, I believe the fool is jealous of my passion for the beautiful Americana! Anita jealous! Did she but know there is an Anita at Cruces, another at the Island del Rey, and half a dozen more scattered between Aspinwall and Panama, little Anita of Toboga would have fine cause for jealousy,” chuckles the young gentleman, smoothing his elaborate and spotlessly white shirt front, and settling the bright red sash around his hips, in the conceited way peculiar to South American dandies.

A moment after, he thinks: “What matters one Indian girl, more or less? Besides, today I have other things—they are going away today. How lucky I returned from the Pearl Islands in time! But now, Por Dios!—everything is arranged for the departure tonight of the American, his treasure, and his—beautiful—wife.” He lisps this through his white teeth, as he looks lazily out over the Bay of Panama, and dreams a daydream which seems to be a pleasant one.

It is shortly interrupted by a hearty American voice saying: “Back at last, Señor Montez. I hope you have brought the pearls. I was afraid we would not be able to wait for you. A gleaming necklace would be a very pretty present for my little girl in the United States.”

With these words, a brown-faced, hardy and stalwart American, George Merritt Ripley, steps upon the bamboo portico and gives the man he addresses a hearty grasp of the hand. Ripley’s manners are those of one who has been educated as a gentleman, but has to a limited extent thrown off the veneer of society among the rough and ready companions of Alta California.

This is apparent as he continues. “Light a cigar, my Spanish friend, and enjoy the view with me, this beautiful morning;” and, taking a camp chair, places his feet lazily upon the bamboo railing of the veranda, making a fine picture of a returning Californian of the fifties in his light woollen turn-away shirt, Panama hat, black trousers, high boots and belted revolver.

“Gracias!” The Spaniard accepts the offered weed and then suggests: “Your wife, I understand, is now sufficiently recovered, to continue her journey to the United States.”

“Yes, thank God!” answers the American. Then his lip trembles a little, as he says: “Though our first day in Panama, I was afraid my Alice would leave me forever;” and sighs: “That would have been the saddest parting on earth. My wife going to the embraces of our daughter she has not seen for four years—since we left her to journey to California.”

“Why did you not take her with you to the land of gold?”

“What! take a child of twelve across the Isthmus in 1852? With its boat travel on the Chagres—its night at Gargona, amid the clicking of dice and the curses of the gamblers—its morning of miasma, going up the river to Cruces, and its mule ride through tropical forests infested by thieves and banditti? That would have been too great a risk; but now, with the railroad, our return is different and safe.”

At the American’s mention of gamblers at Gargona, and bandits on the Cruces road in 1852, a slight smile has rippled the olive features of the young man to whom he is talking.

As the returning Californian speaks of the railroad, the smile on the Spaniard’s features changes to a scowl, but a moment after he assents laughingly: “Yes, it is different.” Then a gleam of diabolical hope comes into his face, as he says: “I am glad the Señora is well enough to travel.”

“Yes, we leave here this afternoon. That reminds me I must thank you for your kindness of the week. Had it not been for you, Alice would have remained in Panama, and perhaps have succumbed to the fever; but here on this beautiful island, the sea breezes and the perfume of the tamarind groves have been better for her than all the quinine in the universe, and all the doctors on earth. So I shall take her back to the East to meet our child, and a reunited family will settle down to a life of civilization, blessing God for the gold placers of the Sierras, for I have been very fortunate in California. My wife will be dressed very shortly, Señor Montez. Would you mind suggesting to the kind Anita that sea breezes bring appetite for breakfast?”

With this the gentleman returns into the little cottage of bamboo walls and palm-thatched roof, and Fernando Gomez Montez, looking after him, murmurs: “He has been very fortunate!” and thinks covetously of a strong ironbound chest the returning Californian carries with him, whose weight indicates that it contains the gold of the Sierras.

Then his agile though sensuous mind wanders to the beauty that he knows the slight bamboo walls keep from his prying, inquisitive, hungering eyes—the beauty of the American lady—the white lady whose loveliness he has longed for since he has seen it—more than for the biggest pearl ever fished up from the blue waters of the Gulf of Panama.

So he chuckles, looking over his own personal charms which he thinks are great, for he has very nice regular white teeth and sparkling dark eyes; his skin is a very mild chocolate color, and his slight, wiry, petite figure is clothed in immaculate white linen save where his bright red sash circles his dapper waist and falls down his right leg almost to his highly polished patent leather Wellington boots.

Then hearing a woman’s soft voice within the bamboo walls, he mutters: “The Californian is bigger than I; but she will forget him for me—the prettiest boy in Panama!” and, gazing over the bay, sees in the distance, on the shore, the ramparts of the town, the white walls of its houses, and the glittering domes of its cathedrals.

Back of it are the savannas, green as emeralds, that glisten in the rising sun; beyond, the Cordilleras droop to the lowest gap of that great ridge that divides the Atlantic and Pacific—so low here that twenty-five years after, they will draw all the gold from the stockings of the saving peasants of Brittany and Normandy, in the vain attempt to make the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic meet.

Behind the South American town rise two green hills—the nearest, called Ancon; the other, farther back, an advance peak of the Sierras, is the Cerro de Filibusteres—thus ominously named because Morgan, the buccaneer, first gazed upon the old Panama that he and his two thousand miscreants (gathered from all quarters of the earth) three days afterwards destroyed with lust and pillage and rapine and fire and blood.

Looking on this, Montez murmurs: “How peaceful! how beautiful!” Even his soul is struck by the lovely view before him, though he has seen it a hundred times, for to devils’ eyes, heaven is sometimes lovely: and this looks like heaven—though it is not.

The sea breezes bring to him the scent of the tamarind, lime and orange groves. Around him is a mass of green—feathery green—of palms and bamboos, brightened here and there by red and yellow blossoms, that are strung, as if on florist’s wreaths, from tree to tree, and often dangle and droop into the limpid waters that lave the shore of fair Toboga Island.

In front of him, and round to right and left, are waves clear as blue diamonds, in which the fish are seen as in some gigantic aquarium: the white shark, mixing with shoals of baracuta, and now and then a shiver of pearly water thrown into the air by flights of flying fish, that glisten in the sun.

A little to his right, concealing a portion of the modern town of Panama, are three or four islands—green to the water’s edge. Were he nearer to them, they would also be brightened by the colors of innumerable tropical flowers, and made joyous by the songs of tropic birds. Beyond these, on the mainland to the south, lie the ruins of the old town of Panama—the one that Morgan made no more. Farther towards the Equator, the mountain range, growing higher, disappears in the blue sky.

To the southeast, but beyond his eye, lie the beautiful Islas de las Perles. Around him it is all green and golden yellow and brilliant red—the foliage, fruits, and flowers of the tropics; about him blue; at his feet the waters of the Gulf; above him the ether of a fairy atmosphere. Its dreamy effect appeals to his sensuous soul. He gazes entranced.

Panama, showing Archipiélago de las Perlas and Isla del Rey. (By Zakuragi; released by copyright holder)

But as he looks his restless eyes catch, just on the right of the new town of Panama, a little smoke that goes peacefully into the air above it, and mingles with it. It comes from one of the locomotives of the Panama Railway, completed but eighteen months before, and a gleaming smile, as bright and sunny as the day he looks on, comes into the eyes of Fernando Gomez Montez, as he thinks: “Our mulateros and the Chagres boatmen hate this railroad that has taken from them the just dues they filched from the stupid Gringos who travel across our land. This iron track robs our honest banditti of their chances of spoil and plunder on the Cruces mule trail. To-night this helps me! To-night I have both the American’s treasure and his wife!”

Then he giggles and chuckles to himself, emotions running over his mobile countenance, as fantastic, bizarre, and changing as the many drops of the blood of the various human races who in two centuries have passed across this highway of the world; and Montez of Panama has a drop of nearly all the races of the earth within his despicable carcass, and each drop—the basest.

He has the drop that gives the cunning of the Spaniard; the drop that holds the bourgeois greed of the Frenchman; the drop that makes the watchful stealth of the Indian; the drop that contains the savage cruelty of the Zulu warrior; the drop that gives the finesse of the Italian; the drop that comes from the Corsican and makes undying hate; and, above all, one drop left by one of Morgan’s buccaneers, that makes him more dangerous than all the other drops of wickedness in his blood, for it gives to him the determination and the bulldog pluck of the Anglo-Saxon.

Brute and bully as this buccaneer had been, he left his drop of blood to flow in the veins of this fantastic creature of all nations, to make him dangerous; because it gave him that unflinching determination that has carried the Anglo-Saxon race to all quarters of the world, and made it dominant in every one of them.

But Montez awakes with a start. A merry voice is in his ear, a white, aristocratic hand is held toward him in friendly greeting. These belong to Alice Ripley, who with joy, hope, and happiness on her fair American face, is saying: “Señor Montez, our kind friend, you have been to the Pearl Islands for us—another favor for which to thank you!”

“You are now quite well?” he stammers, a little confused, though his eyes are bold enough to linger over the beautiful woman, as she stands before him, a white muslin dress floating about her graceful form, and some ribbons in her golden hair, giving color to a fair Saxon face, that is lighted up by radiant, happy violet eyes.

“Yes—quite well!” she laughs. “So well, appetite has returned to me. I am impatient for breakfast, which kind Anita says is ready in the tamarind grove.”

“You are—quite changed—you are more beautiful—”

“No,” she laughs, “more happy. I am well once more—my husband is by my side. In ten days I shall kiss my daughter. Am I not a fortunate woman? But breakfast. En avant, George, and forward Montez!” and Alice Ripley flits over the veranda towards the breakfast bower, made girlish by joy, and stands beside the green palms and red flowers, a picture that makes Señor Montez’s eyes grow tender, and he would pity this lovely American lady he hopes this night to cut off from husband and friends, and home and child—but in all the polyhæma drops that run in his vile veins, there is no drop of pity.

But there are in his body, drops of blood that carry unbounded passion and intense desire, and gazing on this fair woman’s blue eyes, and white skin, and graceful mobile figure, his eyes grow misty, as he mutters: “A rare flower for Fernando Gomez Montez of Panama to pluck—Ah! This is a lucky day for the naughty boy of the Isthmus!”

Notes and References

  • Francis Galton (quotation): The version above is taken from Galton’s book Memories of My Life (1908), where he refers to the quoted definition appearing in the ‘minutes of the University of London’, presumably based on his work. (See Field, p.23 for clarification.)
  • Por Dios: Spanish, ‘For God’s sake'.
  • quinine: anti-malaria treatment. Made from bark of a tree from Peru. It gives Tonic Water its bitter taste.
  • rapine: origin 1375–1425; late Middle English – robbery, pillage.
  • mulateros: Spanish, mule driver, mule boy.
  • Gringos: Spanish foreigners, pejorative: Yanks, Yankees, North Americans, light hair/complexion.
  • banditti: Spanish, el bandido; bandit (plural, el bandolero).
  • Cerro de Filibusteres: Cerro, hill. The literal meaning of ‘filibustero‘/’filibuster’ is ‘obstruction’; hence in the text, ‘thus ominously named…’.
  • lave: before 900; Middle English, laven < Old French, laver < Latin, lavāre, to wash. Partly representing Old English, lafian, to pour water on, wash, itself perhaps < Latin, lavāre (same Latin root as ‘lavatory’).
  • polyhæma: ‘many’ + ‘blood’; in the context, perhaps referring derogatively to his ‘mixed blood’?

Field, James A. ‘The Progress of Eugenics’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1911, 26.1, 1-67. Jump to file (OUP) at JSTOR.

Galton, Francis.Memories of My Life (London: Methuen, 1908). Jump to quotation at Internet Archive.

——. Hereditary Genius: An Enquiry into its Laws and Consequences (London:Macmillan, 1802). Jump to file at Internet Archive.

——. Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. (London: Macmillan, 1883). Jump to file at Internet Archive.

Otis, Fessendon Not. Isthmus of Panama: History of the Panama Railroad; and of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (NY: Harpers Brothers, 1867). Available free: Google Books. Internet Archive.

Ordover, Nancy. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

This edition © 2021 Furin Chime, Brian Armour

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