Posted by: Rob Viens | December 7, 2013

People of the Pampas Part II

Darwin spent the first week of December preparing to depart Uruguay for the last time and head back to Tierra del Fuego. He (sort of) did the same thing last year, but there must have still been a little apprehension about preparing for such a long leg of the trip in a remote part of the world. South of the Rio de la Plata the comforts of home really started to disappear.  Then, on 6th of December,  the Beagle departed for points south.  In his diary, Darwin wrote:

“Took a farewell of the shore & went on board.” (Dec 5)

“The Beagle got under weigh at 4 oclock in the morning & ran up the river to take in fresh water. — We are now becalmed within sight of the Mount. — The Adventure is at anchor close to us. May kind fortune for once favor us with fine weather & prosperous breezes.” (Dec 6)

Between returning from his trip to the Rio Negro and departing for points south, however, Darwin had some time to reflect on the time he spent in the region – particularly what he thought about the people.  A lot of this description ended up in Voyage of the Beagle, but it is interested to read what Darwin wrote while still sitting in Montevideo back in 1833. So here are Darwin’s final thoughts on the people who he had been living and traveling with for the last several months:

“During the last six months I have had some opportunity of seeing a little of the character of the inhabitants of these provinces. — The gauchos or country men are very superior to those who reside in the towns. — The gaucho is invariably most obliging, polite & hospitable. I have not met one instance of rudeness or inhospitality. He is modest both respecting himself & country, at the same time being a spirited bold fellow. — On the other hand there is much blood shed, & many robberies committed. — The constant presence of the knife is the chief cause of the former: it is lamentable to hear how many lives are lost in trifling quarrels; in fighting each party tries to mark the face of his adversary by slashing his nose or eye; deep & horrid looking scars often attest that one has been successful. — Robberies are a natural consequence of universal gambling, much drinking & extreme indolence. — At Mercedes I asked two men why they did not work: — one said that the days were too long; the other that he was too poor. The number of horses & profusion of food is the destruction of all industry. — Moreover there are so many feast days; then again nothing can succeed without it is begun when the moon is on the increase; and from these two causes half the month must be lost. — Police & justice are quite inefficient, if a man commits a murder & should be taken, perhaps he may be imprisoned or even shot; but if he is rich & has friends he may rely on it nothing will happen. — It is curious that the most respectable people in the country will invariably assist a murderer to escape. — They seem to think that the individual sins against the government & not against the state. — A traveller has no other protection than his own arms; & the constant habit of carrying them chiefly prevents a more common occurrence of robberies. — The character of the higher & more educated classes who reside in the towns, is stained by many other crimes. — partaking in a lesser degree in the good parts of the Gaucho character; he is a profligate sensualist who laughs at all religion; he is open to the grossest corruption; his want of principle is entire. — An opportunity occurring not to cheat his friend would be an act of weakness; to tell the truth where a lie might be more serviceable, would be the simplicity of a child. The term honor is not understood; neither it, nor any generous feeling, the remains of chivalry, have survived the long passage of the Atlantic. — If I had read these opinions a year ago, I should have accused myself of much illiberality: now I do not. — Every one, who has good opportunities of judging, thinks the same. In the Sala of B. Ayres I do not believe there are six men to whose honesty or principles you could trust. Every public officer is to be bribed; the head of the post office sells forged government francs: — the Governor and prime minister openly plunder the state. — Justice, where gold is in the case, is hardly expected. — I know a man (he had good cause) who went to the chief Justice & said “here are 200 dollars (sixpences) if you will arrest such a person illegally; my lawyer recommended me to take this step”. The Chief Justice smiled acquisition & thanked him; before night the man was in prison. — With this utter want of principle in the leading men; with the country full of ill-paid, turbulent officers; they yet hope that a Democratic form of government will last. In my opinion before many years, they will be trembling under the iron hand of some Dictator. — I wish the country well enough to hope the period is not far distant.” (Nov 28-Dec 4)

Alas Darwin’s vision of the future was not far from true! But it was not all bad…

The gaucho life –depicted in a painted titled Un alto en el campo by Prillidiano Pueyrredón (1861)

Un alto en el campo by Prillidiano Pueyrredon

“On first seeing the common society of the people, two or three things strike one as remarkable: the excellent taste of all the women in dress: the general good manners in all grades of life:— but chiefly the remarkable equality of all ranks. At the Colorado, men who keep the lowest little shops used to dine with General Rosas. — A son of a Major at B. Blanca gains a livelihood by making paper cigars; he wished to come as Vaqueano with me to B. Ayres; but his father was afraid. — Many in the army can neither read or write; yet all meet on perfect terms of equality. — In Entre Rios the Sala contains 6 members. — One of these was a sort of shopman in a store, & evidently by no means degraded by such an employment. — This is all what might be expected in a new country; nevertheless the absence of Gentlemen par excellence strikes one as a novelty. …

I ought not to conclude my few remarks on the Inhabitants of the Provinces of the R. de La Plata, without adding that a most perfect & spirited outline of their manners & customs will be found in “Heads rough notes”. — I do not think that his picture is at all more exaggerated, than every good one must be — that is by taking strong examples & neglecting those of less interest. — I cannot however agree with him “in the ten thousand beauties of the Pampas”. — But I grant that the rapid galloping & the feeding on “beef & water”is exhilarating to the highest pitch.” (Nov 28-Dec 4)

Ah – Darwin really did think fondly of his time riding the plains and eating a lot of beef :).

Francis Bond Head (painted by Nelson Cook, 1837)

Francis Bond Head

“Heads rough notes” above refers to Sir Francis Bond Head – a young man who, after almost 15 years in the British army, tried to set up a mining operation in Argentina. He recorded his adventures on the pampas in a 1826 book titled “Rough Notes Taken during some Rapid Journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes” (read a free online copy here). While Darwin was still finishing his trip in South America, Bond Head had moved on to being appointed the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.  Ironically, he spent much of his short term in office quelling rebellions in Canada. (RJV)

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