Posted by: Rob Viens | May 8, 2013

Settling Down in Maldonado

At the end of April, Darwin arrived in Maldonado and quickly found a place to call home for the coming months – no doubt happy to be on solid ground.  Over the next several days he described his experience settling in to the city – still struggling with the language but (as always) quickly making new friends:

“By noon we arrived at the anchorage of Maldonado & found there, our schooner, all safe & snug.” (April 28)

“I took up my residence on shore, & procured lodgings at a well know[n] old lady, by name Donna Francisca. — The day was spent in vain efforts to make any sort of comfortable arrangements. — The rooms are very high & large; they have but very small windows & are almost destitute of furniture. — They are all on the ground floor & open into each other. — The very existence of what an Englishman calls comfort never passed through the builders mind. ” (April 29)

“I rode a few miles round the town; the country is exceedingly similar to that of M: Video, but rather more hilly. — We here have the same fine grass plain, with its beautiful flowers & birds, the same hedges of Cactus & the same entire absence of all trees. After pacing for some weeks the planck decks, one ought to be grateful for the pleasure of treading on the green elastic turf, although the surrounding view in both cases is equally uninteresting.” (April 30)

“The day has been miserably spent in attempts to transact business by the aid of vilely bad Spanish. — The Beagle sails tomorrow for M. Video & will return in about a fortnight. ” (May 1)

“The torrents of rain almost entirely prevent me doing anything. It is impossible to go any distance into the country; as all the rivers are unusually full, & a bridge is an invention scarcely known in these parts.”(May 2/3)

Maldonado is located in Uruguay at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, about 100 km west of Montevideo. (Image from Google Maps)

The town was established by about 100 settlers in 1755 – only about 75 years before Darwin set foot there in 1833.  (I always like to think of the equivalent today.  That would be like be visiting a city that was first settled in 1940. Does such a place exist? I imagine so, but it was not like Darwin’s time when virtually every place he visited was relatively “new” from a European perspective.) Today (according to the 2011 census) Maldonado has over 62,000 residents – which makes it still small compared to over 1.3 million in the capital city of Montevideo. In addition, it seems to be overshadowed by the smaller beach resort community of Punta del Este, located on the peninsula just south of the city.

Maldonado (from UYPhotographers blog)


Darwin describes his first impressions of the town in early May, 1833:

“The city of Maldonado is in reality only a small village; as is universally the case in [a] Spanish town, all the streets run in parallel lines cutting each other at right angles. — & in the centre is the Plaza with its Church. — I never saw so quiet, so deserted a looking place; it has scarcely any trade, & none by water untill these few last years; it appears only to be a collection of land-owners & a few of the necessary tradesmen, such as blacksmiths & joiners, who do all the business for a circuit of 50 miles round. Nearly the only produce of the country is cattle & horses. — These are both in wonderful numbers. — Every person, even it is said to the beggars, rides; it is thought quite out of the question to walk ever so short a distance. — As a proof, how very common horses are, the price of a saddle will buy three good ones. — It is a most beautiful exhibition to see the boys riding on bare-backed colts & chasing each other over hill & dale, & twisting about in a manner which no one till he has seen it would believe a horse capable of. — Their method of riding is certainly the most perfect & graceful, for showing the full power of a horse in all its actions.” (May 2/3)

Throughout May, Darwin would explore the countryside around the town – collecting samples and geologizing.  More on these adventures in the coming days. (RJV)

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