Posted by: Rob Viens | September 8, 2012

Bahia Blanca II: FitzRoy & the “Assemblage of Grotesque Figures”

Today, I’d like to share FitzRoy’s version of the Beagle‘s arrival at Nueva Buenos Aires. Like Darwin, FitzRoy starts by describing the passage up the muddy channels of the bay. As his description is quite long, I’ll pick up with the party’s adventures after they landed. When FitzRoy first arrives, he meets the same party of men that Darwin described as a “savage picturesque group” – he describes them a little differently, yet equally vividly:

“Waiting to meet us was an assemblage of grotesque figures, which I shall not easily forget—a painter would have been charmed with them. A dark visaged Quixotic character, partly in uniform, mounted on a large lean horse, and attended by several wild looking, but gaily dressed gauchos, was nearest to us. Behind him, a little on one side, were a few irregular soldiers, variously armed, and no two dressed alike, but well mounted, and desperate-looking fellows; while on the other side, a group of almost naked Indian prisoners sat devouring the remains of a half roasted horse; and as they scowled at us savagely, still holding the large bones they had been gnawing, with their rough hair and scanty substitutes for clothing blown about by the wind, I thought I had never beheld a more singular group.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

I love this description, especially in contrast to Darwin’s version.  And notice that what Darwin described as a leg of beef has turned into a “half roasted horse”. Soon the party would journey on horseback to the “fort”, but first they had to meet the suspicious “commandant” in charge of the outpost.

Travelers by a River-Side from the Argentina chapter of A.S. Forrest’s book A Tour Through South America (1913) – view the book online through the Open Library

Sketch by A.S. Forrest

FitzRoy picks up with his description of the men:

“The tall man in uniform was the Commandant of the settlement, or fortress, called Argentina: he and his soldiers had arrived to welcome us, supposing that we were bringing supplies from Buenos Ayres for the needy colony. The Indian prisoners had been brought to work, and assist in carrying the supplies which were expected. Finding that we were neither Buenos Ayreans, nor traders from any other place, it was supposed that we must be spies sent to reconnoitre the place previous to a hostile attack. Neither the explanations nor assertions of Mr. Harris had any weight, for as he was our countryman, they naturally concluded he was in league with us; yet, as the commandant had some idea that we might, by possibility, be what we maintained we were, he disregarded the whispers and suggestions of his people, and offered to carry us to the settlement for a night’s lodging.

Leaving the boat’s crew to bivouac, as usual, I accepted a horse offered to me, and took the purser up behind; Mr. Darwin and Harris being also mounted behind two gaucho soldiers, away we went across a flat plain to the settlement. Mr. Darwin was carried off before the rest of the party, to be cross-questioned by an old major, who seemed to be considered the wisest man of the detachment, and he, poor old soul, thought we were very suspicious characters, especially Mr. Darwin, whose objects seemed most mysterious.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

Ah, there it is – FitzRoy implying that  it was Darwin that made the Argentinians uncomfortable.  Keep in mind that, unlike Darwin’s account, FitzRoy’s Narrative was written after returning to England.  So he had the advantage of hindsight. He writes:

“We afterwards heard, that the old major’s suspicions had been very much increased by Harris’s explanation of Mr. Darwin’s occupation. ‘Un naturalista’ was a term unheard of by any person in the settlement, and being unluckily explained by Harris as meaning ‘a man that knows every thing,’ any further attempt to quiet anxiety was useless.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

No doubt these men, who where charged with defending the coast, were a little skeptical of the motives of a British naval captain and the “man who knows everything” (i.e., a spy?) scouting out their fort. Ironically, that is more or less what FitzRoy went on to do (at least in his Narrative) – describing the settlement and its resources in great detail.  As it is probably one of the first written accounts of Bahia Blanca, I’ll include it all here for those that are interested in hearing what he had to say:

“As this small settlement has seldom been visited by strangers, I will describe its primitive state. In the midst of a level country, watered by several brooks, and much of it thickly covered with a kind of trefoil, stands a mud-walled erection, dignified with the sounding appellation of ‘La fortaleza protectora Argentina.’ It is a polygon, 282 yards in diameter, having about twenty-four sides, and surrounded by a narrow ditch. In some places the walls are almost twenty feet high, but in others I was reminded of the brothers’ quarrel at the building of ancient Rome, for there is a mere ditch, over which a man could jump. It is, however, said by the gauchos, that a ditch six feet wide will stop a mounted Indian, and that their houses require no further defence from attacks of the aborigines. How, or why it is that such excellent horsemen do not teach their horses to leap, I cannot understand.

Within, and outside the fort, were huts (ranchos) and a few small houses:—more were not required for the inhabitants, who, including the garrison, only amounted to four hundred souls. Some half-dozen brass guns were in a serviceable condition; and two or three other pieces occupied old carriages, but did not seem to be trustworthy.

The fort was commenced in April 1828, by a French engineer, named Parchappe. The first commandant was Estomba: his successor, Morel, was killed, with ninety followers, by a party of Indians under Chenil, in 1829. Valle and Rojas succeeded, and the latter was followed by Rodriguez. Placed in the first instance as an advanced post, at which to watch and check the Indians, rather than as a colony likely to increase rapidly, Argentina has scarcely made any progress since its establishment, though it is the beginning of what may hereafter be a considerable place. Situated favourably for communicating with Concepcion—by way of the pass through the Cordillera, near Tucapel—it is also the only port, between 25° S. and Cape Horn, capable of receiving in security any number of the largest ships.

There is pasture for cattle near the streams which descend from the ‘Sierra Ventana:’ large salinas (spaces covered with salt) lie within an easy distance of the settlement: of brushwood for fuel there is plenty, though there are no large trees: and report says that there are valuable minerals, including coal and iron, in the Ventana mountain.

The most serious objection to the locality, as an agricultural, or even as a mere grazing district, is the want of rain. Two or three years sometimes pass without more than a slight shower; and during summer the heat is great. In winter, there are sharp frosts, sometimes snow; but neither ice nor snow ever lasts through the day.

Good fresh water may be generally obtained, independent of the few running streams, by digging wells between four and ten feet deep: and in this way we found no difficulty in obtaining an ample supply.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

The next day (September 8th), the “Commandant” tried to detain the Beagle representatives (probably worried that they were going back to report to a larger fleet).  But FitzRoy would have nothing to do with these delay tactics, so the captain, Darwin, Rowlett and Harris soon returned to their boat with an “escort” from the fort. (RJV)


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