Posted by: Rob Viens | August 23, 2013

Quien Sabe?

As the week wore on, Darwin became increasing bored waiting for the Beagle. To help get him through the days, he bought a horse:

“Bought a fine powerful young horse for 4£..10S & rode about the neighbouring plains.” (Aug 21)

But the novelty quickly wore off, and on the 22nd her was still, “so tired of doing nothing”. So he decided to take another trip down to the bay and beyond to Punta Alta – this time with a little better planning than last:

“I hired the same guide & started for Punta Alta, which is not so distant & commands a good view of the harbor. — I went this time better provided with bread & meat & horns with water & made up my mind to sleep there so as not to fatigue the horses.” (Aug 22)

But again, Darwin had another scare when the two men encountered a small group of potentially lethal travelers.  Keep in mind, it was growing increasingly apparent to Darwin that he was traveling through a “war zone” as the battle between the Spanish settlers and the indigenous people raged on.  Every day he must have been realizing that his life was in danger every time he left the relative safety of the fort. Though, interestingly, this did not stop him. Darwin tells the story in his diary:

“When not very far from our destination, the Gaucho spied 3 people on horse-back hunting. He immediately dismounted & watched them intently. — He said they dont ride like Christians & nobody can leave the Fort. The three hunters joined company, & dismounted also from their horses, at last one mounted again & rode over the hill out of sight. — The Gaucho said, “We must now get on our horses, load your pistol” & he looked to his sword. — I asked are they Indians. — Quien Sabe? (who knows?), if they are no more than three it does not signify. — It then struck me that the one man had gone over the hill to fetch the rest of his tribe; I suggested this; but all the answer I could extort was, Quien sabe? — His head & eye never for a minute ceased scanning slowly the whole horizon. — I thought his uncommon coolness rather too good a joke; & asked him why he did not return home. I was startled when he answered: “We are returning, only near to a swamp, into which we can gallop the horses as far as they can go & then trust to our own legs. — So that there is no danger”. — I did not feel quite so confident of this & wanted to increase our pace. — He said, no, not until they do. — When any little inequality concealed us, we galloped, but when in sight, continued walking. — At last we reached a valley, & turning to the left galloped quickly to the foot of a hill, he gave me his horse to hold, made the dogs lie down, & crawled on his hands & knees to reconnoitre. — He remained in this position for some time & at last, bursting out in laughter, exclaimed: “Mugeres” (women). He knew them to be the wife & sister in law of the Majors son, hunting for Ostriches eggs. — I have described the mans conduct because he acted under the full impression they were Indians. As soon however as the absurd mistake was found out, he gave me a hundred reasons why they could not have been Indians; but all these were forgotten at the time. — After this we proceeded on to Punta Alta and ate our dinner in peace & quietness. — Punta alta is the place where I found so many bones last year. — I employed the evening in seeking for more & marking the places. — There was a beautiful sunset & everything was deliciously quiet & still. — But the appearances were false; an hour after being in bed, very heavy rain began, but I slept through it & was very little wet.” (Aug 22)

Darwin was getting more comfortable with speaking Spanish time passed.  I find it sort of funny that on this same day in 1833, he wrote “Quien Sabe?” (Who knows?) in his pocket notebook in reference to the interpretation of some of the geologic structures he was observing.  We’ve all adopted a phase that just sounded “cool” or that worked well for us.  One can almost see Darwin growing attached to this phrase (and maybe being a little proud of his Spanish skills)  and then using the phrase whenever he got the chance. Even in a letter from FitzRoy a few weeks later, the captain uses the phrase in his conversation with Darwin, suggesting it was one of those phrases tat friends share with one another.

Return of the Raiders by Ángel Della Valle (1892)

Painting - Return of the Raiders

On the 23rd Darwin returned to Bahia Blanca to find Mr. Harris, and more tales of death and destruction happening all around him.  Keep in mind that the Postas described here are the same ones Darwin would be traveling through on his way to Buenos Aires.  Had he departed a few days earlier, his voyage of discovery might have ended prematurely.  He writes:

“On my return found my fellow traveller Harris arrived from the R. Colorado. A few days previously news had come that the Indians had murdered every soul in one of the Postas. — It was suspected that Bernantio’s tribe, the same which the other day stopped here on the road to join General Rosas were the perpetrators. — Harris informed us, that a few miles from the Colorado he met these Indians, & that at the same instant an officer arrived bearing the following summary message, “that if Bernantio failed to bring the heads of the murderers, it should be his bitterest day for not one of his tribe should be left in the Pampas”. (Aug 23)

From what I can tell, “Bernantio’s tribe” where a group of “Indians” that had joined up with General Rosas.  It was not uncommon to for Rosas to put his “native troops” on the front lines. Yes, they probably knew the country better than anyone and were more likely to find the enemy, however, it also meant that they would not live to be a problem in the future. (RJV)

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