The Beagle spent the next few days cruising through the Straits of Magellan on its way back to survey the eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego. The journey consisted of many stories – of massacres, sealers, and “Indians”. First a story that had been coming out of the Falklands about chaos and murder:
“The next day we were almost becalmed. — It is a most extraordinary contrast with the last season. — A sealing Schooner in the course of the day sent a boat on board; which brought lamentable news from the Falkland Islands. — the Gauchos had risen & murdered poor Brisbane & Dixon & the head Gaucho Simon, & it is feared several others. — Some English sailors managed to escape & are now in the West Island. — Since this the Challenger has been there & left the Governor with six (!) marines. — A Governor with no subjects except some desperate gauchos who are living in the middle of the island. — Of course they have taken all the half wild cattle & horses: in my opinion the Falkland islands are ruined. — this second desperate murder will give the place so bad a name that no Spanish Gauchos will come there, & without them to catch the wild cattle, the island is worth nothing.” (Feb 11)
From the time English captain John Strong laid foot on the uninhabited islands in 1690 there has been controversy in the Falklands. For most of the next century the islands were inhabited by the French, English and Spanish – often with long periods of time passing with no inhabitants. In the early 1800’s Buenos Aires tried to claim the islands and in 1826 sponsored a local businessman, Luis Vernet, who settled on the islands with a group of gauchos that he brought with him from the mainland. In an effort to control seal hunting in the area, Vernet got into some scraps with American sealers and ultimately the US Navy. He left the islands in 1831, but his settlement remained, run by the Englishman Matthew Brisbane. In January 1833, right before Darwin’s last visit, the British reestablished their rule of the islands.
Luis Vernet and Antonio Rivero
Later that year, on the 26th of August 1833, Antonio “El Gaucho” Rivero (one of Vernet’s gauchos, who had been unsatisfied with unpaid promissory notes for the work he had done) led an “uprising” that included “two gauchos, Juan Brasido and José María Luna, and five Charrúa Indians, Manuel González, Luciano Flores, Felipe Salazar, Pascual Latorre and Manuel Godoy” (Wikipedia). The leaders of Port Louis were killed and 18 survivors (including women and children) escaped to a nearby island, where they were rescued later that year. Word soon got back to England.
Having none of this, the British returned to the islands in January 1834 (while Darwin was just across the water in Patagonia) and laid down the law. The rebels were captured, but due to technicalities in British Law they were not tried and eventually returned to Rio de Janeiro.
Historians are not fully in agreement on why Rivero did what he did (however, I am not sure if there is more consensus on one side or the other). After the uprising, some in Argentina viewed Rivero as a hero – a rebel against British rule in what was perceived as Buenos Aires territory. Some still view him as a martyr today and his image and the name “El Gaucho” come up often in references to “taking back” the Falklands. Nationalism might have been part of Rivero’s motivation in killing the island leaders, but others view him as a common criminal – motivated by revenge or greed. In any case, the conflict between Britain and Argentina regarding the islands has never truly gone away.
It was into this unrest that the Beagle would soon be heading… (RJV)