Posted by: Rob Viens | October 6, 2013

Of Tyrants and Conquistadors

Darwin’s health continued to deteriorate and he ended up being confined to bed for a couple of days while he recovered.  On October 4th he wrote:

“Unwell in bed. — St Fe is nice, straggling town, with many gardens. — it is kept clean & in good order. — The governor of the province, Lopez, is a tyrant; which perhaps is the best form of government for the inhabitants. — He was a common soldier at the great revolution & has now been 17 years in power. — His chief occupation is killing Indians, a short time since he slaughtered 48 of them. — The children are sold for between 3 & 4 pound sterling.” (Oct 3/4)

The “tyrannical” governor Darwin refers to above was Estanislao López. López was  born in Santa Fe in 1786, and spent his entire life there  – dying in Santa Fe in 1838 (just 5 years after Darwin’s visit). He spent the last 20 yrs of his life (1818-1838) as the governor of Santa Fe Province. Darwin’s description of López’s treatment of the indigenous people is not surprising, given that he started fighting the natives at the age of 15, and (among other things) went on to be a friend and supporter of Juan Manual de Rosas (at least for a time) a man who made it his mission to exterminate the local people. López spent much of his life fighting – playing one role or another in several regional conflicts and wars of independence.

Estanislao López, by Carlos E. Pellegrini

Estanislao López

Even though Estanislao López fought to keep Santa Fe, the city itself had a history that started about 250 years earlier (in 1573) when it was founded by the Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay. Garay traveled to Peru with his uncle when he was just 15 years old (the same age López started fighting), and ended up spending the remainder of his life in South America (which was another 40 years). He is credited with founding a number of towns in the region – the largest of which was Buenos Aires. (OK – to be fair he actually “founded” the second version of the city. The site was first colonized by the Spanish in 1536, but it was abandoned 1542 because of attacks from the indigenous people.  Garay refounded it in 1580.)

In contrast to López (and many others), Garay actually tried to support (in his own way) the indigenous people – helping to establish towns and support local governments.

Juan de Garay

Juan de Garay

Once he stared to feel a little better, Darwin decided to cross the river to the town of Paraná (located on the other side or the Paraná River). However, still not feeling particularly well, he decided it was time to start looking for a “ride home”:

“Crossed the Parana to St Fe Bajada, or as it is now called Parana, the capital of Entre Rios. — The passage took up four hours; winding about the different branches. — which are all deep & rapid; we crossed the main arm & arrived at the Port. — The town is more than a mile from the river; it was placed there formerly so as not to be exposed so much to the attacks of the Paraguay Indians. — I had a letter of introduction to an old Catalonian, who treated me with the most uncommon hospitality. — My original intention had been to cross the province of Entre Rios & return by the Banda Oriental to B. Ayres. Not being quite well and thinking that the Beagle would sail long before she eventually did, I gave up this plan, & determined to return immediately to B. Ayres. I was unable to hire a boat so took a passage in a Balandra.” (Oct 5)

Crossing the river between the two towns remained difficult for another 140 years.  However, ever since 1969, travelers can cross between Santa Fe and Paraná via the Raúl Uranga – Carlos Sylvestre Begnis Subfluvial Tunnel.  Below is a historical image of the tunnel during construction in the 1960s (from the tunnel website):

tunnel tubes

I wonder want Darwin would have through of traveling under the river? (RJV)


  1. Very interesting piece of history. It’s a shame how the indigenous people were treated. And it’s astonishing, that Garay treated them better in the 16th century than López in the 19th.

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