Posted by: Rob Viens | August 7, 2013

City in the Sand

On the 7th, Darwin described his impressions of the city he called “Patagones”. I’m not sure if he had stayed there for a few days (since his first ride up the river on the 5th), or if made the trip each day (I suspect the former).  In any case, he couldn’t help but to compare the river to home, writing:

“The town is built on the cliff which faces the river; many of the houses are actually excavated in the Sandstone. The river is here about four times as wide as the Severn at Shrewsbury & the stream rapid. — the many islands, with their willow trees & the headlands one seen behind the other, forming the Northern boundary of the flat valley, form by the help of the rising sun a view almost picturesque. — The number of inhabitants is not great, there are many Indians & Spaniards of pure blood & a far less mixture of the two races than is common in these countries.” (Aug 6/7)

Patagones – notices the house built into the sandstone hillside (from Voyage of the Beagle)


As noted yesterday, the town that Darwin visited is now a pair of cities. To the south of the river is the city of Viedma – the provincial capital of the Rio Negro region. Its complimentary city, on the north bank, is called Carmen de Patagones – Darwin’s city in sandstone.

Carmen de Patagones has an interesting history.  Along with Viedma, it is reported to be the oldest (European) settlement in Patagonia – founded in 1779 by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Viedma.  In 1779 a fort was built on the south side of the river (Viedma), but floods later that year led to the main fort being moved to higher ground on the north side (Carmen de Patagones).

Francisco de Viedma

Francisco de Viedma

The twin cities played a military role throughout their early history.  As noted, there had always been a fort there. But in 1810 the fort became a prison for Spanish royalists who did not support independence. In the 1820’s, when the Cisplatine War raged between Brazil and the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (see Legacy of the “Thirty Three Orientals”), Carmen de Patagones became a naval base.

In recent years, Viedma and Carmen de Patagones almost became the capital of the entire country of Argentina. In 1986, the president Raúl Alfonsín, gained some support to move the capital to a more central location.  The plan was abandoned after Alfonsín left office in 1989.

Carmen de Patagones from Viedma (from Wikipedia Commons)


Carmen de Patagones (forground) and Viedma (from Wikipedia Commons)


Back in 1833, Darwin went on to describe the “Indians” of the region and their encampments near the city (toldos are a type of hut). Alas, I cannot find a reference to the tribe he names – either it is spelled oddly or the name is not easily found today. Again the European bias of indigenous people comes through rather clearly – especially through the use of words such as “ferocity”, “immorality” and “improving”:

“The tribe of the Cacique Leucanee constantly have their Toldos outside the town. — Government supports them by giving them all the old horses to eat. — they also work in making Horse-rugs, boots of the horses legs &c. What their character may have gained by lessening their ferocity, is lost by their entire immorality. Some of the younger men are however improving; they are willing to labour, & the other day a party agreed to go on a sealing voyage & behaved very well. — They were now enjoying the fruits of their Labour, by being dressed in very gay, clean clothes & being very idle. — The taste they show in their dress is admirable; if you could turn one of these young Indians into a statue of bronze, the drapery would be perfectly graceful.” (Aug 6/7)


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