Posted by: Rob Viens | September 7, 2012

Bahia Blanca I: Darwin & the “Savage Picturesque Group”

On September 7th, when the Beagle arrived in Nueva Buenos Aires, the town was a “rag-tag” outpost of a few hundred men (orders of magnitude less than the 300,000 that live there today).  Both Darwin and FitzRoy wrote extensively about their first encounter with the locals.  For the weekend, I thought I’d share both of their descriptions of the day – Darwin’s today and FitzRoy’s tomorrow.  There are a lot of similarities, but it is interesting to get their individual perspectives on the encounter.

First they had to find the city amid the channels of the bay:

“In the morning the Captain, Rowlett the pilot & myself started with a pleasant breeze for the Settlement: it is distant about twenty miles.— Instead of keeping the middle channel, we steered near to the Northern shore: from this cause & from the number of similar islands, the pilot soon lost his reckoning.— We took by chance the first creek we could find: but following this for some miles, it gradually became so narrow that the oars touched on each side & we were obliged to stop.— These Islands rather deserve the name of banks; they consist of mud which is so soft that it is impossible to walk even the shortest distance; in many the tops are covered by rushes; & at high water the summits of these are only visible.— From our boat nothing within the horizon was to be seen but these flat beds of mud; from custom an horizontal expanse of water has nothing strange in it; but this had a most unnatural appearance, partaking in the character of land & water without the advantages of either.— The day was not very clear & there was much refraction, or as the sailors expressed it, “things loomed high”, the only thing within our view which was not level was the horizon; rushes looked like bushes supported in the air by nothing, & water like mud banks & mud-banks like water.— With difficulty the boat was turned in the little creek; & having waited for the tide to rise, we sailed straight over the mud banks in the middle of the rushes. By heeling the boat over, so that the edge was on a level with the water, it did not draw more than a foot of water.— Even with this we had much trouble in getting her along, as we stuck several times on the bottom.” (Sept 7)

This reminds me a lot of some work I did at the mouth of the Stikine River in Alaska.  We were in a much smaller boat (a kayak), but the mouth of the river was filled with low sandy islands covered in grasses and wildflowers (I distinctly recall the wild irises).

Boats in the Port at Bahia by Archibald Stevenson Forrest, 1912 (I believe this is Bahia Blanco, but it is possible that it is Bahia, Brazil. Sources list it differently and Forrest traveled to both locations, so I can’t guarantee it is Argentina :).)

Painting of Bahia Blanca by A.S. Forrest

By evening they made landfall and with the help of Mr. Harris met the locals, who could not have contrasted more with the uniformed officers and formal naturalist from the northern hemisphere.  Darwin continues:

“In the evening we arrived at the creek which is about four miles distant from the Settlement.— Here was a small schooner lying & a mud-hut on the bank.— There were several of the wild Gaucho cavalry waiting to see us land; they formed by far the most savage picturesque group I ever beheld.— I should have fancied myself in the middle of Turkey by their dresses.— Round their waists they had bright coloured shawls forming a petticoat, beneath which were fringed drawers. Their boots were very singular, they are made from the hide of the hock joint of horses hind legs, so that it is a tube with a bend in it; this they put on fresh, & thus drying on their legs is never again removed.— The spurs are enormous, the rowels being from one to two inches long.— They all wore the Poncho, which is large shawl with a hole in the middle for the head.— Thus equipped with sabres & short muskets they were mounted on powerful horses.— The men themselves were far more remarkable than their dresses; the greater number were half Spaniard & Indian.— some of each pure blood & some black.— The Indians, whilst gnawing bones of beef, looked, as they are, half recalled wild beasts.— No painter ever imagined so wild a set of expressions.— As the evening was closing in, it was determined not to return to the vessel by the night.— so we all mounted behind the Gauchos & started at a hand gallop for the Fort.” (Sept 7)


I love the picture Darwin paints here, carefully describing the outfits and the men gnawing on bones…

The party was then escorted 4 miles to the settlement of Nueva Buenos Aires, where they then met the local authorities.  The welcome was not very friendly:


“Our reception here was not very cordial. The Commandante was inclined to be civil; but the Major, although second in rank, appears to be the most efficient. He is an old Spaniard, with the old feelings of jealousy.— He could not contain his surprise & anxiety at a Man of War having arrived for the first time in the harbor. He asked endless questions about our force &c., & when the Captain, praising the bay, assured him he could bring up even a line of battle ship, the old gentleman was appalled & in his minds eye saw the British Marines taking his fort.— These ridiculous suspicions made it very disagreeable to us.— so that the Captain determined to start early in the morning back to the Beagle.

The Settlement is seated on a dead level turf plain, it contains about 400 inhabitants; of which the greater number are soldiers: The place is fortified, & good occasion they have for it: The place has been attacked several times by large bodies of Indians.— The War is carried on in the most barbarous manner. The Indians torture all their prisoners & the Spaniards shoot theirs.— Exactly a week ago the Spaniards; hearing that the main body of their armies were gone to Northward, made an excursion & seized a great herd of horses & some prisoners. Amongst these was the head chief, the old Toriano who has governed a great district for many years.— When a prisoner, two lesser chiefs or Caciques came one after the other in hopes of arranging a treaty of liberation: It was all the same to the Spaniards, these three & 8 more were lead out & shot.— On the other hand, the Commandante’s son was taken some time since; & being bound, the children (a refinement in cruelty I never heard of) prepared to kill him with nails & small knives.— A Cacique then said that the next day more people would be present, & there would be more sport, so the execution was deferred, & in the night he escaped.

A Spanish friend of Mr Harris received us hospitably.— His house consisted in one large room, but it was cleaner & more comfortable than those in Brazil.— At night I was much exhausted, as it was 12 hours since I had eaten anything.” (Sept 7)

The reason why the Beagle representatives were treated so poorly turned out to be because of Darwin.  But you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out why – it is all part of FitzRoy’s version of the story. (RJV)

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