Posted by: Rob Viens | November 15, 2013

“A Naked Man on a Naked Horse”

On November 14th, Darwin put on his riding gear and headed out for another two-week excursion – this time into the interior of Uruguay to see the Rio Negro. The trip started innocently enough with a 50 km (~30 mi) trip north of Montevideo to the small town of Canelones:

“Started in the afternoon & slept in the house of my Vaqueano in Canelones.” (Nov 14)

Map of Darwin’s latest excursion, showing the town’s passed on the first two days of the trip.  Note that Santa Lucia and San José also represent river crossings of the Rio Santa Lucia and Rio San José respectively. (Image modified from Google Maps.)

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

By the second day Darwin started to cover some serious ground – nearly 100 km (~60 mi) – as he traveled northwest through the river towns of Santa Lucia and San José.  What seemed to entertain Darwin the most on this leg of the trip was the strange sight of naked laborers (“peons”) riding the horses across the rivers.  I can only imagine that as the peons swam the horses across, the “gentlemen” travelers (e.g., Darwin) were rafted across in a boat.  Darwin may not have been as amused if he was the one who was riding wet horses across the river in the buff (a truly strange sight, for sure).  Here is his description of the crossing:

“In the morning we rose early in the hopes of being able to ride a good distance; it was a vain attempt, for all the rivers were flooded; we passed R. Canelones, St Lucia, San Josè in boats, & thus lost much time: at night we slept at the Post house of Cufrè. — In the course of the day, I was amused by seeing the dexterity with which some Peons crossed over the rivers. — As soon as the horse is out of its depth, the man slips backwards & seizing the tail is towed across; on the other side, he pulls himself on again. — A naked man on a naked horse is a very fine spectacle; I had no idea how well the two animals suited each other: as the Peons were galloping about they reminded me of the Elgin marbles.” (Nov 15)

It is not unusual for Darwin to refer to the “pop culture” of his own time, and the Elgin Marbles where no exception.  These were marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce (hence the name Elgin Marbles). Bruce had recently (from about 1801-1812) extracted the sculptures from Greece and had brought them to England.  He claimed that he had been granted “official permission” to remove the statues and carvings, but his actions are still viewed by many today as a form of theft. (It does not help that Bruce obtained “permission” from the Ottoman officials while serving as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.) This, of course, was the age when “archeology” was somewhat akin to tomb raiding and many artifacts from the around the world where gathered up and brought back to England and other European countries for display in private and public collections.  As we have already seen , the same was true of indigenous people, such as Jemmy Button.

Many of the images the Elgin Marbles include men and horses (sometimes both together in the form of centaurs) – naked of course… (images from Wikipedia Commons)

Elgin Marbles

In any case, the marbles were obtained and put on display by the British Museum in 1816.  Which makes it highly likely that young Charlie Darwin had visited the sculptures in the years before the Beagle voyage.

Darwin ended the day in the very small town of Cufré, which even today has a population under 400 people. (RJV)


  1. Ouch!

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