Posted by: Rob Viens | August 17, 2013

“The Most Prominent Character in South America”

On August 15th, Darwin crossed paths with another prominent historical figure – a man who happened to play a major role in the early history of the country of Argentina – Juan Manuel de Rosas. (In a way, I can imagine it would have been like running into George Washington while traveling through the United States in the late 1700’s.) It appeared that Rosas was intrigued by this English naturalist traveling across the interior (perhaps he had heard stories of him from the previous year). So Rosas, invited Darwin to stop by (his command tent?) for visit. Darwin describes the encounter with the “gaucho-esque” general as such:

“General Rosas sent a message, that he should be glad to see me, before I started, by this means I lost a day, but subsequently his acquaintance was of the greatest utility. General Rosas is a man of an extraordinary character; he has at present a most predominant influence in this country & probably may end by being its ruler. — He is said to be owner of 74 square leagues of country & has about three hundred thousand cattle. — His Estancias are admirably managed, & are far more productive of corn than any others in the country. He first gained his celebrity by his laws for his own Estancia & by disciplining several hundred workmen or Peons, so as to resist all the attacks of the Indians. — He is moreover a perfect Gaucho: — his feats of horsemanship are very notorious; he will fall from a doorway upon an unbroken colt as it rushes out of the Corral, & will defy the worst efforts of the animal. He wears the Gaucho dress & is said to have called upon Lord Ponsonby in it; saying at the same time he thought the costume of the country, the proper & therefore most respectful dress. — By these means he has obtained an unbounded popularity in the Camp, and in consequence despotic powers. — A man a short time since murdered another; being arrested [&] questioned, he answered, “the man spoke disrespectfully of General Rosas & I killed him”; in one weeks time the murderer was at liberty. — In conversation he is enthusiastic, sensible & very grave. — His gravity is carried to a high pitch. I heard one of his mad buffoons (for he keeps two like the Barons of old) relate the following anecdote. I wanted very much to hear a piece of music, so I went to the General two or three times to ask him, he said to me, “go about your business for I am engaged”. — “I went again”; “he said, If you come again I will punish you”. — A fifth time I asked him & he laughed. — I rushed out of the tent, but it was too late; he ordered two soldiers to catch & stake me. I begged by all the Saints in Heaven he would let me off; but it would not do. — When the General laughs he never spares mad manor sound man.” — The poor flighty gentleman looked quite dolorous at the very recollection of the Staking. — This is a very severe punishment; four posts are driven into the ground, & the man is extended by his arms & legs horizontally, & there left to stretch for several hours. — the idea is evidently taken from the usual method of drying hides.” (Aug 15)

Juan Manual de Rosas in 1835 – around the time Darwin met him (by Fernando García del Molino)

Juan Manual de Rosas

Juan Manual de Rosas was born in 1793 in Buenos Aires, when the region was still under Spanish rule as part of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Buenos Aires was the capital of this Viceroyalty, which included much of northern Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. For much of Rosas life, the region around the Rio de la Plata suffered from unrest. When he was about 13 years old, the British tried to take the region from the Spanish – even occupying Buenos Aires for 46 days in 1806 before being ousted. (Rosas actually served in this military action as a young boy.) This is credited as being one of the things that helped the locally born Spanish residents organize, and in 1810 it all came to a head when the Spanish Viceroy was overthrown by “locals” during the May Revolution.  This in turn started the Argentine War of Independence, which culminate with the signing (on July 19, 1816) of a declaration of independence.  Rosas was 23 years old.

Rosas’ family had wealth and land, but in 1813, the young man set out to make his own fortune. Over the next 7 or so years, he acquired land and became a prominent cattle rancher. Since it was common for ranches to have to defend themselves, Rosas also maintained his own army of gauchos (whom he seemed to want to emulate – at least in dress). He led this small army in the defense of Buenos Aires in 1820, and it earned him further fame and land. By 1830 he had 300,000 head of cattle on 420,000 acres of land.

Always looking out for his interests, Rosas was often involved in the skirmishes that occurred as the government sought to find its footings. This led him to him being appointed to the role of commandant general of the rural militias in 1827 and eventually (in 1829) to be elected as the governor of the Buenos Aires Provence (effectively Argentina). He served in this office till late 1832, after which he was sent off on his Desert Campaign to subdue the native people.  That is where Darwin crossed paths with him in 1833.

Darwin’s meeting with Rosas went well, and he summed it up is his diary as such:

“My interview passed away without a smile & I obtained what I wanted, a passport and order for the government post horses, & this he gave me in the most obliging and ready manner. — When General Rosas, some months since, left B Ayres with his army, he struck in a direct line across the unknown country, & in his march left at wide intervals a posta of 5 men with a small troop of horses, so as to be able to send expresses to the Capital. — By these I travelled to Bahia Blanca & ultimately to Buenos Ayres. — I was altogether pleased with my interview with the terrible General. He is worth seeing, as being decidedly the most prominent character in S. America.” (Aug 15)

Encarnación Ezcurra, Rosas wife, in 1835 (by Fernando García del Molino)

 Encarnacion Ezcurra

While all of this was going on in the desert, a group of Rosas supporters (led by his wife Encarnación Ezcurra) were stirring things up in the capital. To make a long story short, they took back the government and insisted on re-electing Rosas to office. In early 1835, Juan Manual de Rosas began is second term as governor – agreeing to take the position only if he was granted dictatorial powers (which he was). He served in that role until 1852, at which point he only left office because he had to (i.e., he was overthrown).  He quickly migrated (i.e., fled) to England and spent the remaining 25 years of his life in Southampton – returning to his roots as a farmer. Ironically, had he wanted to, Darwin could have visited Rosas in his later years without ever leaving England.

Back in 1833 though Darwin was still back in Argentina and on the 16th he was back in the saddle and headin’ north… (RJV)


  1. […] Always good at observing his “environment”, Darwin was spot on.  Rosas went on to serve as dictator for almost 20 years (see “The Most Prominent Character in South America”). […]

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