Posted by: Rob Viens | May 17, 2013

Uruguay on Two Dollars a Day

On May 9th Darwin set off on a two-week adventure to explore the people, places, and natural history of the region north of Maldonado.  He doesn’t always give specific locations, but most of his adventures appear to have taken place in the area around the town of Minas, located about 30 miles (~50 km) inland from the coast.

Map showing the region north of Maldonado, including the town of Minas(from Google maps):

As in any good adventure (and much like a similar expedition he took in Brazil), Darwin starts by describing his companions:

“The weather being fine I persuaded my two guides & companions to start on our ride. — Don Francisco Gonzales, & Morante, a sort of servant of his, were both well armed, & having plenty of friends & relations in the country were just the people for my purpose. We drove before us a troop of fresh horses; a very luxurious way of travelling as there is then no danger of having a tired or lame one. — I agreed to pay 2 dollars a day (about 8s..6d) & all expenses on the road. — Such is the hospitality in this country, that the latter for 12 days only cost me about 16 dollars. — As the rivers were very full we only went a short distance; a little beyond the head of the Laguna del Potrero. I was inclined to think my guides took too much precaution with their pistols & sabres; but the first bit of news we heard on the road was, that the day before a traveller to M: Video had been found, with his throat cut, lying dead on the road. —it happened close to a cross, a record of a former murder.” (May 9)

I love that the criteria he used to pick his guides were that (1) they happened to be going in the direction he wanted to go, (2) they had a lot of friends that he could meet, visit and stay with on the road, and (3) they were well armed with guns and swords. And heck, it only cost $2 a day plus expenses. Not bad – using an inflation calculator, that is still just a little under $50 a day in today’s dollars. Of course, Robert Darwin footed the bill anyway …

Alas no record of Don Francisco or Morante that I can find.  But if anyone from the area knows a connection to a historical figure or local family, please let me know. I was thrilled in March when a descendant of one of Darwin’s traveling companions wrote in with a comment to the site.  What a cool personal touch (see the comments in Strangers on a Trail).

Darwin goes on to describe the journey – in particular, how he astonished the locals with trinkets and tricks.  Picture Darwin – the traveling showman.  Read on…

“We dined at a Pulperia, where there were present many Gauchos (this name only means “countrymen” & those who dress in this manner & lead their life). — I here found out I possessed two or three things which created unbounded astonishment. — Principally a small pocket compass. — in every house, I entered I was asked to show its powers, & by its aid told the direction of various places. — This excited the liveliest admiration, that I a perfect stranger should know the road (for direction & road is synonimous in this open country) to places where I had never been. — At one house, a young woman, who was ill sent to entreat me to come to her room & show her the compass. If their surprise was great, mine was much greater to find such ignorance; & this amongst people, who possess their thousands of cattle & “estancia’s” of great extent. — It can only be accounted for by the circumstance that this retired part of the country has seldom been visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the North; where Spain was & many more such questions. — Most of the inhabitants have an indistinct idea, that England, London, N. America are all the same place; the better informed well know that England & N: America are separate countries close together; but that England is a large town in London” (May 9)

My favorite of his tricks was producing fire from his mouth using a state-of-the-art match called a promethean (patented in 1828):

“I had in my pocket some promethians, which I ignited by biting them between my teeth; to see this the whole family was collected; and I was once offered a dollar for a single one.” (May 9)

OK – aside from image of Darwin lighting matches between his teeth for money, the other thing you should know is that the promethean match had a bulb of sulfuric acid at the tip, that when broken started a chemical reaction and ignited the match.  That’s right – Darwin was cracking open capsules of sulfuric acid in his mouth! (Not to be confused with Doctor Who’s everlasting promethean matches – made from wood that grew as fast as it burned. That is another story, another time …) Anywho…

Darwin also mentions how his work as a naturalist drew some suspicion and helped “pay the bills”, and how his inability to speak the local language led people to think of him as a bit of a simpleton:

“It is the universal custom to ask for a nights lodging at the first convenient house. — The general astonishment at the compass and other things was to a certain degree advantageous, as with that & the long stories my guides told of my breaking stones, knowing venemous from harmless snakes, collecting insects &c I paid them for their hospitality. — Being able to talk very little Spanish, I was looked at with much pity, wonder & a great deal of kindness. — Some few however, I think, gave me the credit of having a good deal of the Dousterswivel about me.” (May 9)

Dousterswivel was another one of Darwin’s many references to literature of the day. In this case, it was a character from Sir Walter Scott’s book The Antiquary written in 1816. It is the story of an amateur archeologist/historian who “collects” artifacts and seeks the love of a young woman.  Herman Douterswival is a character who is described as a “charlatan professor”. Scott refers to him in the book as, “A tall, beetle-browed, awkward-built man, who entered upon scientific subjects, as it appeared to my ignorance at least, with more assurance than knowledge”. (Not that long ago, Darwin also compared himself to another questionable historical character – Baron Munchausen (see Tall Tales and Land Planarians).)

Sir Arthur and Dousterswivel Searching for the Treasure, by the Dalziel Brothers:

Dousterswivel from The Antiquary

By the end of he day the travelers where close to Minas:

“We slept at a friend of Gonzales; & in the morning proceeded on to the town of Las Minas.” (May 9)

The journey continues tomorrow… (RJV)


  1. […] Gotta love the request for more Prometheans – it is still amusing to picture Darwin frittering them away, lighting them on his teeth (see Uruguay on Two Dollars a Day) […]

  2. Chemistry and Uruguay in one blog post? Ha! I will have to share this with Jacqui Drak…

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