Posted by: Rob Viens | May 19, 2013

“Endless Green Hills” of Minas

On the 10th of May, Darwin gave us a description of the landscape on the road to Minas:

“During this days ride, there was not much interest, excepting from the novelty of this manner of travelling.— The country is much the same; more uneven & hilly; a sort of miniature alpine district; the whole surface, however with the exception of the bare rock is covered with a short green turf. — And this indeed is the picture of all which I saw: — it sounds very delightful riding over so much turf; but positively I at last became so tired of the endless green hills that I thought with pleasure of iron-shod horses & dusty roads. — It is very rare to meet a single individual, and we did not till close to Las Minas.” (May 10)

As is often the case, Darwin tended to get board when traveling though a countryside that was monotonous (he never seemed to be that fond of the Rio de la Plata region in general).  I think he got a little spoiled as a result of his first visit to the New World involving the endless variety of the Brazilian rainforest – something that he would never see matched in the cooler climates.

Some farmland for sale today near Minas (from fusedworld.com)

farmland near Minas

Darwin also describes the town on Minas itself:

“The town of Las Minas is considerably smaller than Maldonado, & of the usual symetrical figure. — it is seated in the plain of the Rio St. Francisco, & is surrounded on all sides by the low rocky mountains. — It has rather a pretty appearance, with its church in the middle. — the outskirting houses all arise out of the plain, like isolated beings, without the usual (to our eyes) accompaniment of a garden or court. — This is the case with all the houses in the country, & gives to them an unsociable appearance.” (May 10)

Today Minas is a city of about 38,000 people.  I’m not sure the population in Darwin’s time, but given that the town was founded in 1783 and that it had about 10,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century, it is likely that it was a couple thousand people at best. Considering that it had just been decreed a town in 1830, it may only have been several hundred people. The name of the town means “mines” in Spanish. At least in modern times, that mining seems to be focused on marble, feldspar and various metals, though it does not seem to be a large enough industry to get a lot of press.

As for the church in Darwin’s diary, it is unclear which one he is talking about – several older Roman Catholic churches are listed in the city today. The center of the town is Libertad Plaza, which honors one of the local hero who helped gain Uruguay’s independence from Brazil – Juan Antonio Lavalleja. (Read a little more on Lavalleja in the Legacy of the “Thirty Three Orientals”.) Keep in mind Lavalleja’s revolutionizing had taken place less than ten years before Darwin’s visit.

Plaza Libertad (from wikimapia.org)

Plaza Libertad

While staying at an inn (pulperia) for the night in Minas, Darwin visited the local watering hole.  Here he encountered a colorful group of Gauchos with whom he shared drinks and cigars (another great non-traditional image of Darwin to relish):

“This night we stopped at a Pulperia or drinking shop, which also sells a few other things. — The evening was very tiresome as we were obliged to remain the whole time amongst a set of drinking stranger before the counter & with scarcely a place to sit down. — This was however the only night, in which we did not sleep at private houses. — During the evening a great number of young Gauchos came in to drink spirits & smoke cigars. — They are a singularly striking looking set of men. — generally tall, very handsome, but with a most proud, dissolute expression. — They wear their moustachios & long black hair curling down their necks. — With their bright coloured robes; great spurs clanking on their heels & a knife, stuck (& often used) as a dagger at their waist, they look a very different race of men from our working countrymen. — Their politeness is excessive, they never drink their spirits, without expecting you to taste it; but as they make their exceedingly good bow, they seem quite ready, if occasion offered, to cut your throat at the same time. ” (May 10)

Yup – picture Darwin in a cowboy saloon forced to drink whiskey to be polite.  Not your traditional image of the man who changed the world of biology… (RJV)

PS – For more on gauchos see Darwin & the Gauchos: First Contact.

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Responses

  1. This led me to the delightful mental picture of Darwin in a modern cowboy bar – having grown up in Montana, this is an atmosphere I can easily picture. Good thing there were no widescreen televisions playing sports or country music television in Darwin’s day – would have been even more disconcerting.

  2. What a funny picture, it is relieving to see great scientists as normal guys, isn’t it?


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