Posted by: Rob Viens | November 23, 2013

The Most Beautiful Ladies in the Whole Round World

Later in the day on the 20th of November, Darwin set off northward for the town of Mercedes – located on the Rio Negro. He describes the beginning of the trip briefly, though the most entertaining part of his entry on this day is the conversation he had with some locals about topics ranging from the shape of the Earth to the shape of the local ladies.  He is what he had to say:

“In the evening started on the road to Mercèdes or Capella Neuva on the R. Negro. — We passed through much Acacia wood, like that near Coronda & which invariably grows in the low bottoms near streams & rivers. — At night we asked permission to sleep at an Estancia at which we happened to arrive. It was a very large estate, being ten leagues square, & the owner at Buenos Ayres is one of the greatest landowners in the country. — His nephew has charge of it & with him there was a Captain of the army, who the other day ran away from Buenos Ayres. — Considering their station their conversation was rather amusing. They expressed, as was usual, unbounded astonishment at the globe being round, & could scarcely credit that a hole would if deep enough come out on the other side. They had however heard of a country where there were six months light & six of darkness, & they said the inhabitants were very tall & thin. They were curious about the price & condition of horses & cattle; upon finding out we did not in England catch our animals with the Lazo, they added “Ah then, you use nothing but the bolas”: The idea of an enclosed country was quite novel to them. — The Captain at last said, he had one question to ask me, & he should be very much obliged if I would answer him with all truth. — I trembled to think how deeply scientific it would be. — “it was whether the ladies of Buenos Ayres were not the handsomest in the world”. I replied, “Charmingly so”:— He added, I have one other question — “Do ladies in any other part of the world wear such large combs”. I solemnly assured him they did not. — They were absolutely delighted. — The Captain exclaimed, “Look there, a man, who has seen half the world, says it is the case; we always thought so, but now we know it”. My excellent judgment in beauty procured me a most hospitable reception; the Captain forced me to take his bed, & he would sleep on his Recado.” (Nov 20)

Anything I could add here would only diminish Darwin’s story 🙂 – so moving on…

The city of Mercedes was founded in 1788 as Capilla Nueva de las Mercedes (hence Darwin also calls it Capella Neuva in some of his entries). Today the riverside city is a hub of commerce with a little over 40,000 residents. In Darwin’s time it was a much smaller village that was  less than 50 years old.

Areal view of the city of Mercedes (from the Informe Uruguay)

areal view of Mercedes

The large building in the center of the city is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mercy, shown below in an image from Encyclopedia Britannica Online. It was built after Darwin’s visit in 1867.

Mercedes cathedral

Mercedes was still a day or so away, so for the next day Darwin traveled across the undulating plains of Uruguay towards his destination.

“Started at sunrise, & rode slowly during the whole day. — The geological nature of the country is here different from the rest of the province, & closely resembles that of the Pampas. — From this cause we here have immense beds of the thistle, as well as the cardoon: — the whole country indeed may be called one great bed. The two sorts grow separate, each plant in company with its own kind. — The cardoon is as high as a horses back, but the Pampas thistle often higher than the crown of the head of the rider. — To leave the road for a yard is out of the question, & the road itself is partly, & in some cases entirely, closed; pasture of course there is none; if cattle or horses once enter the bed they are for the time, completely lost. — For this reason, it is very hazardous to attempt to drive cattle at this season of the year, for when jaded enough to face the prickles, they rush amongst the thistles & are seen no more. — From the same cause there are but few Estancias, & these near damp vallies where the thistle will not grow. — As night came on before we could arrive at the house of an Englishman for whom I had a letter of introduction we slept at a Rancho. ” (Nov 21)

Cardoon is another name for the artichoke thistle, which interestingly was on Darwin’s mind exactly one year ago (see The Tale of Bufo and Lacera Part II: Natural Defenses from Nov 23, 1832). It is the naturally occurring form of the thistle that we eat as an “artichoke” – both considered the same species (Cynara cardunculus). As noted earlier, it is actually an invasive species – having originated in the Mediterranean region.

Cardoon growing in Portugal (from Wikipedia Commons):


Having traveled upriver for the past two days, on November 22nd Darwin was essentially at (or at least near) Mercedes:

“Arrived at the Estancia of the Berquelo, near Mercedes, & found the owner not at home. — he returned in the evening & I spent the day in geologising the neighbouring country.” (Nov 22)

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

Alas, if he found any particularly enlightening geology, be didn’t share it with us…(RJV)

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