Posted by: Rob Viens | August 9, 2012

Reds, Whites and the Slaughter of Salsupuedes Creek

Today, August 9th, the winds were gone, but the Beagle was engaged in helping to “clean up the mess”. Darwin describes the aftermath:

“A merchant ship has drifted some way from her anchorage.— The Captain in middle of day went to her & found that at first she had only veered out 30 fathoms of cable.— (whilst we were riding with 70). A length of cable is a great security, as it takes away any sudden stress & by its friction does not strain so much on the anchor.— It is quite curious how negligent all merchant vessels are.—yesterday very few struck Top-gallant masts.— Some years ago 14 vessels at Buenos Ayres went on shore & were lost, out of which only three had taken any & none sufficient precautions. ” (Aug 9)

Again, it is clear that FitzRoy’s preparations really made a difference in weathering the storm – a fact that was not true for many other vessels.

The pamperos may have been over for now, but there was no stopping the “winds of war”.  Darwin updated the situation in town:

“The Captain managed to go to the town to day, & brought back news that the disturbances increase in violence.— There has been some skirmishing with the black-troops, & a fresh party seems to have risen for the head of government. In the paltry state of Monte Video, there are actually about 5 contending parties for supremacy.— It makes one ask oneself whether Despotism is not better than such uncontrolled anarchy.— The weather yet continues wet & boisterous: it is a consolation, although a poor one, that the two distinct causes which prevent us from going ashore should come together.” (Aug 9)

In the end, the thing that still frustrates Darwin the most is that he can’t go for a stroll – ah, how a little despotism would help pave the way for an eager naturalist…

Let me try to add some context to the conflict that the Beagle happened upon in 1832. Much like other countries throughout the Americas, the history of Uruguay follows a plot with similar chapters – (1) indiginous peoples, (2)colonialism, (3)independence, (4)civil war, and (5)stability (to some degree or another). Darwin’s visit occurred in the decade or so between (3) and (4), when an unstable, very young independent government was trying to find its way.

Prior to the 1500’s Uruguay was inhabited by indigenous peoples – specific the Charrúa. The Charrúa did not take too kindly to European “visitors”. One of the first was the Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís who was killed by the long-time residents during his exploration of the Río de la Plata in 1515. Over the next few centuries the tables were turned and  the Charrúa were killed by European settlers – culminating in the massacre of almost all of the remaining members of the culture at Salsupuedes Creek (translated as “Get out if you can” creek).  They were ambushed at the creek after the government set up a meeting with them.  Sadly, this butchering of an entire culture occurred in 1831 – just 1 year before Darwin arrived.

A Charrúa warrior by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848):


The Charrúa kept settlers away for a little while, but the Spanish set up the first “permanent settlement” in Uruguay in 1624. From that point on the country saw a lot of competition for control between the Spanish, Portuguese and, to some degree, the British. Montevideo itself was established in 1726 as a military stronghold to protect Spanish interests. Colonial disputes continued until the 1800’s (a mere 20 years before the Beagle’s visit)

Uruguay declared independence in 1825 and adopted its first constitution in 1830 – a mere 2 years before Darwin’s first visit. The first (real*) president, Fructuoso Rivera, was serving in the office when Darwin passed through in 1832. (*There was an interim president before Rivera – his name was Luis Eduardo Pérez.  He served for less than 2 weeks.)

As a bit of an aside: The “Slaughter at Salsupuedes” has been attributed to the Rivera family. However, given limited resources, I have found the act to be attributed to Fructuoso Rivera by some resources and to his nephew/brother(?) Bernabé, in others.  Since Fructuoso was president at the time, I am left wondering if this is an attempt to downplay his role in the massacre.  But I have to believe that as president  there is almost no way that he was not involved in some capacity.

Fructuoso Rivera by Baldassare Verazzi (1864):

Fructuoso Rivera

In the early 1830’s Rivera founded the Colorado “political party” (which still exists today) – named for the red armbands worn by the faction.  The other major political party at the time, the Blancos, wore white armbands.  In the young independent nation these two parties became the core of a conflict that would escalate over the next 7 years and become civil war – the “Guerra Grande” of Uruguay.

For now I’ll leave the story here, but note that this is the political turmoil that Darwin “walked in on” in 1832 and that set the stage for the conflict that he writes about nearly every day during his stay in Uruguay.  It is the root cause of why he could not “wander” around the countryside, geologizing or botanizing. In any case, it surely exposed Darwin to something that was unlike anything he had ever experienced growing up as an affluent young man in England.  One can only wonder what role these experienced played in shaping the man he would become. (RJV)


  1. […] career (he helped oust Brazil from Uruguay), he appears to have been a poor politician (see Reds, Whites and the Slaughter of Salsupuedes Creek). In any case, I like Darwin’s description of the theatre where the party took place .  It […]

  2. […] In 1833, Rosas was tasked with helping to expand the boundary of what would become Argentina southward – making room for cattle ranchers and farmers. For many years, the European settlements of the region were mostly on or near the Rio de la Plata. When the region gained independence from Spain in 1816, it was time to start divvying up the lands.  The expansion southward into Patagonia was partly the result of wanting to lay claim to the land before Chile did, and it was partly to defend the ranchers and farmers who had already started to take over these lands from native peoples. It also didn’t help that a long drought (from 1828-32) made it harder to raise cattle and crops on the existing farms. (Keep in mind a similar eradication of the local cultures occurred in Uruguay a couple years earlier (see Reds, Whites and the Slaughter of Salsupuedes Creek).) […]

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