Posted by: Rob Viens | November 17, 2013

Gunpowder and Lightnin’

November 16th found Darwin feeling too ill to travel. It was not the first time that he was not feeling well while on the trail. In fact, it was becoming a common occurrence.  I assume some of it had to do with adjusting to the local microbes. Which would make sense since it always seems to hit a few days into many of his longer overland trips. In any case, on the 16th Darwin wrote:

“Not being quite well, stayed the whole day at this house. In the evening the Post-man or letter carrier arrived; he was a day after his time, owing to the R. Rozario being flooded; it could not however be of much consequence, for although he passes through some of the principal towns in B. Oriental, his luggage consisted of two letters.” (Nov 16)

This respite did give Darwin some time to reflect on the flat plains of the Pampas – coming to the conclusion that even “flatness” is relative. Earlier he had written of the boring flat plains of Uruguay and Argentina.  In the early days, after arriving at Montevideo, he rarely had anything good to say about the landscape. For example, in the summer of 1832 he ascended the Mount in Montevideo and wrote:

“This little hill is about 450 feet high & being by far the most elevated land in the country gives the name Monte Video.— The view from the summit is one of the most uninteresting I ever beheld.— Not a tree or a house or trace of cultivation give cheerfulness to the scene.— An undulating green plain & large herds of cattle has not even the charm of novelty.” (July 28, 1832, see more at Ascending the “Mount”)

But, having seem more of the country over the past year (and been more removed from his experiences in the tropics), Darwin revised his assessment of the landscape today, writing:

“The view from the house was pleasing, an undulating green surface with distant glimpses of the Plata. — I find I look at this province with very different eyes from what I did upon first arrival. — I recollect I then thought it singularly level; but now after galloping over the Pampas, my only surprise is what could have induced me ever to have called it level; the country is a series of undulations; in themselves perhaps not absolutely great, but as compared to the plains of St Fe, real mountains. — From these inequalities there is an abundance of small rivulets, & the turf is green & luxuriant.” (Nov 16)

Clearly the landscape had started to grow on him.

Fortunately, whatever it was that made Darwin sick seemed to pass quickly and by the next day he left Cufré and was back on the road – this time on his way to the largest town located near the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata.

The approximate path Darwin traversed on November 17th (modified from Google Maps):

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

Of the trip itself he writes:

“We crossed the Rozario which was deep & rapid, & passing the village of Colla, arrived at mid-day at Colonia del Sacramiento. — The distance is twenty leagues, through a fine grass country, but which is very poorly stocked with cattle or inhabitants. I was invited to sleep at Colonia & to accompany on the following day a gentleman to his Estancia, where there were some rocks of recent limestone.” (Nov 17)

More on limestone in a couple of days when Darwin pays a visit to a lime kiln. For now, a few words on Colonia del Sacramento and a story about the unfortunate results of mixing gunpowder and lightning. I can almost picture Darwin telling this tale to his friends back home – an act almost worthy of a modern-day Darwin Award if we knew who was responsible. Back in 1833, unaware of any insensitive awards given in his name, Darwin described the town and the situation as such:

“The town is built on a stony promontory something in the same manner as M. Video: it is strongly fortified, but both fortifications & town suffered much from the Brazilian war. — It is very ancient, & from the irregularity of the streets & the surrounding groves of old Orange trees & peaches had a pretty appearance. — The church is a curious ruin; it was used as a powder magazine & was struck by lightning in one of the ten thousand storms of the Rio Plata. — Two thirds of the building was blown away to the very foundation, & the rest stands a shattered & curious monument of the united powers of lightning and gunpowder. In the evening I wandered about the half demolished walls of the town. — It was the chief seat of the Brazilian war; a war most injurious to this country, not so much in its immediate effects, as in being the origin of a multitude of Generals, & all other grades of officers.” (Nov 17)

Colonia del Sacramento from the air – a view Darwin could never see (posted to Google Maps by Claudio Acuña)

Colonia del Sacramento from the air

Darwin also took the opportunity to elaborate on the politics of the region:

“More generals are numbered but not paid in the united provinces of La Plata than in Great Britain. — These gentlemen have learned to like power & do not object to a little skirmishing. Hence arises a constant temptation to fresh revolutions, which in proportion as they are easily effected, so are they easily overturned. — But I noticed here & in other places a very general interest in the ensuing election for the President; & this appears a good sign for the stability of this little country. — The inhabitants do not require much education in their representatives; I heard some men discussing the merits of those for Colonia; “that although they were not men of business, they could all sign their names”. With this every reasonable man was satisfied.” (Nov 17)

Some things never change… (RJV)

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