Posted by: Rob Viens | August 4, 2013

“Nearly Useless to Mankind” (Unless You Like Beef)

The Beagle‘s uneventful journey south continued through the rest of July and into August with Darwin’s only entry commenting on the wind:

“Light contrary winds, interrupted by a few breezes: the whole passage a very tedious one; the ship being on a wind nearly all the time.” (July 30 – Aug 2)

Starting on August 3rd, Darwin’s pen was “reanimated”, and the next two months of his diary include regular and lengthy entries.  In fact, in order to keep up with it all, I will probably need to abridge my entries on the Beagle Project. But keep in mind that you can always find the full passages by following the “Diary” link in the sidebar on the right.

The flurry of writing all started with Darwin’s arrival at the Rio Negro on Saturday, August 3rd – about 1000 km south of Buenos Ayres:

“Arrived off the mouth of the Rio Negro, after firing several signal guns, the little Schooner La Lievre came out. In a short time I went on board her & we then returned within the mouth of the river. The Beagle stood out to sea to survey some of [the] outer banks which employment will occupy her a week. — We joined the other Schooner & I spent a very pleasant evening in hearing all their adventures. Every one in them may thank providence that he has returned in safety. To survey an unknown coast in a vessel of 11 tuns, & with one inch plank to live out in open sea the same gale in which we lost our whale-boat, was no ordinary service. — It seems wonderful that they could last one hour in a heavy gale, but it appears the very insignificance of small vessels is their protection, for the sea instead of striking them sends them before it. — I never could understand the success of the small craft of the early navigators.

We then anchored near the Pilot’s house & I went there to sleep.” (Aug 3)

I know I have said this before, but it is always amazing to contemplate that so few of the crew lost their lives.  As Darwin described, these guys lived in a small boat with no nearby medical facilities for the last 7 months.  And when the Beagle arrived, they sailed out, like a couple of suburbanites welcoming guests to their house for a barbecue.

Cliffs south of the Rio Negro (from the 4th International Paleontological Congress website – the IPC meets in Argentina in 2014 and one of the field trips is titled “D’Orbigny and Darwin’s Path in Northern Patagonia: Shells and Whales“)

rio negro cliffs

Darwin goes on to describe the countryside via a walk he took south of the river mouth:

“Crossed the river and took a long walk to examine the South Barranca; the country is a level plain, which on the coast forms a perpendicular cliff about 120 feet high. having walked several miles along the coast, I with difficulty found a pass to ascend to the plain above. — This plain has a very sterile appearance it is covered with thorny bushes & a dry looking grass, & will for ever remain nearly useless to mankind. It is in this geological formation that the Salinas or natural salt-pans occur; excepting immediately after heavy rain no fresh water can be found. The sandstone so abounds with salt, that all springs are inevitably very brackish. — The vegetation from the same cause assumes a peculiar appearance; there are many sorts of bushes but all have formidable thorns which would seem to tell the stranger not to enter these inhospitable plains.” (Aug 4)

Landscape (and Rhea) near the mouth of the Rio Negro about at the same location Darwin accessed the interior (uploaded to Google Earth / photo by viedmensa)

rio negro landscape

This “sterile land” that Darwin describes seems to have turned out OK.  Ariel photos of the area today show the telltale rectangles and circles of agriculture covering the surface of the land. The region today is known not only for cattle ranching, but also for growing onions, maize and alfalfa (granted, a portion of the later two are for feeding to the aforementioned cattle). In addition, as you move up the river valley, you can find some of the most prosperous apple and pear growing regions in the country. In some ways, this sounds similar to the dry farmlands in my own little part of the world (Washington State).

The Google Maps image below shows the river mouth and the coastline for a few miles south of the river. I’m basing this only on the photographs, but my best guess is that Darwin ascended the cliffs about where you can see a “white splotch” along the coast.  Why? Well, (1) it is about the right distance down the coast, (2) if you zoom in you can see a “break” in the cliffs that would have allowed him to get up to the grasslands, and (3) it Is possible that they are mining salt in the quarry at that location (though it could just be sandstone).  I couldn’t tell you for sure, but it is fun to try to follow Darwin’s exact footsteps.

Over the next few days Darwin’s adventures would take him much farther inland, and eventually result in an overland trek all the way back to Uruguay! (RJV)

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