Posted by: Rob Viens | August 10, 2013

Genocide on the Pampas

On the 9th and 10th of August Darwin made arrangements to travel overland to Bahia Blanca (and ultimately on to Buenos Aires). This would be Darwin’s first really long expedition into the interior of South America. Imagine the opportunity to travel by horseback for a month across what (from an English naturalist’s point of view at least) was an untouched country.  (Oh yeah – and it would get him away from perpetual seasickness for a while, too.)  The prospect must have been exciting for Darwin.

For the journey, he would follow a series of military posts and ultimately cross paths with General Juan Manuel de Rosas – the former (and later) governor of Buenos Aires and the man who was currently tasked with “cleaning up the desert”:

“Some months ago the government of B: Ayres sent out an army, under the command of General Rosas to exterminate the Indians. — They are now encamped on the Rio Colorado, in consequence the country is now very tolerably safe from Indians. — the only danger is meeting with a few stragglers; but a week since a man lost his whole troop of mares but it was on the Southern shore of the river. — As the Beagle intended to touch at Bahia Blanca, I determined to pass over land to that place.” (Aug 9)

General Rosas leading the war against the indigenous people of Patagonia (painting by Calixto Tagliabúe)

General Rosas in 1833 fighting the native people

The 1800’s were not a good time for the indigenous people of Argentina (or for most of the Americas for that mater). The newly independent Spanish settlers invested a lot of effort to clear the land of any “prior inhabitants” who might be in the way of their colonization of the land. Sadly, this was true of my own country – the United States – at this time, as well. By any modern account, it was a century of organized genocide – a coordinated effort to get rid of the native people and make way for the (mostly European) colonizers. And it was made “palatable” to the people taking over by viewing the indigenous people as something less than human.  It was like clearing a field for agriculture or eradicating the local predator species – in the name of “progress”.

In 1833, Rosas was tasked with helping to expand the boundary of what would become Argentina southward – making room for cattle ranchers and farmers. For many years, the European settlements of the region were mostly on or near the Rio de la Plata. When the region gained independence from Spain in 1816, it was time to start divvying up the lands.  The expansion southward into Patagonia was partly the result of wanting to lay claim to the land before Chile did, and it was partly to defend the ranchers and farmers who had already started to take over these lands from native peoples. It also didn’t help that a long drought (from 1828-32) made it harder to raise cattle and crops on the existing farms. (Keep in mind a similar eradication of the local cultures occurred in Uruguay a couple years earlier (see Reds, Whites and the Slaughter of Salsupuedes Creek).)

Rosas was apparently not out to kill all the native people – just take their land.  It is said that those who surrendered to him were treated “well”. However, those that resisted were hunted down and killed. It is into this “scene” that the Beagle arrived in 1833.

The eradication campaign culminated in the 1880’s in what is called the “Conquest of the Desert”, the final nail in the coffin of many local cultures. Then Minister of War (and later President of Argentina) Julio Argentino Roca, led a campaign to systematically remove all indigenous people from Patagonia.  For Roca, who apparently disliked the native people, this meant either killing them or relocating them. By 1884, it was more or less over for the people who had lived in this region for thousands of years.

The following diagram tells all – showing the percent of the population in the Americas is indigenous.  Keep in mind that about 500 years ago this number would have been 100% for this entire map. (Map from Wikipedia Commons)

percent of modern population that is indigenous

Meanwhile, while cultures were being lost forever in the desert, Darwin’s time was spent preparing for his trip:

“I made arrangements with a guide for a troop of horses, & Mr Harris (of the little Schooner) who was going to take a passage to Buenos Ayres in the Beagle, agreed to accompany me.” (Aug 9)

“The weather was bad, so would not start: our party was increased by five more Gauchos who were going on business to the Encampment. — every body seemed glad of companions in this desolate passage.” (Aug 10)

On Sunday, he hit the trail… (RJV)

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