Posted by: Rob Viens | December 17, 2013

The Art of the Beagle – Conrad Martens Part II

Darwin was rather quiet for most of December – presumably getting his sea legs back after four months away from the Beagle.  Plus he was probably seasick as heck. So let me share a little more today on the new artist-in-residence on the expedition – Conrad Martens.

Martens was born in 1801 in London – one of three sons of the one-time Australian Consul. Clearly his parents valued art, as he and his brothers were all sent to study painting with the famous watercolor artist Copley Fielding.  Fielding (and later the Marten brothers) specialized in landscapes.

One of the falls on the Apsley – one of Martens later landscape paintings.

Conrad Martins landscape painting - Apsley

In May of 1833 Martens traveled to South America with the HMS Hyacinth (an 18 gun sloop) – on what was supposed to be a three-year voyage to the East Indies. His excitement paralleled Darwin’s when he arrive in Rio de Janeiro and noted:

“What a place for an artist! I do most fervently hope that I may once more visit it, and have more time to revel in such delicious scenes.” (Conrad Marten’s Journal  – see link below)

He soon encountered Robert Hammond (having departed the Beagle in May of 1833), who informed him of the expedition’s need of a new artist. So Martens enthusiastically  left the Hyacinth in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1833, and traveled via the brig Indus (a merchant ship out of Halifax) to Montevideo –  in search of Robert FitzRoy. It was his goal to try to join the Beagle crew. The rest, as they say, is history.

Darwin wrote of the new addition (and the lose of his friend Augustus Earle) to his sister in November:

“Poor Earl has never been well since leaving England & now his health is so entirely broken up that he leaves us – & Mr Marten, a pupil of C. Fielding, & excellent landscape drawer, has joined us. He is a pleasant person, & like all birds of that class, full up to the mouth with enthusiasm.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 13 November 1833).

Want to read all the details of Marten’s journey from England to Montevideo and all the way to  Sydney?  Well, like many of his contemporaries he kept a journal of his travels which was later published.  You can find a copy, transcribed by Michael Organ,  titled Conrad Martens : journal of a voyage from England to Australia aboard HMS Beagle and HMS Hyacinth 1833-35. Check it out!

Portrait Cove, Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, 1834 – one of Conrad Martens paintings from the Beagle Voyage.

Conrad Martins landscape painting – Portrait Cove

Late in 1834 Marten’s left the Beagle and headed west across the Pacific – first to Tahiti and eventually to Australia.  He settled in Sydney and spent the rest of his (long) life in New South Wales.  After Martens left the ship, FitzRoy never replaced him with a new artist (as far as I can tell).  To be fair,  it may have been hard to come by one along the west coast of South America in 1834 – at least a classical European artist. And I think FitzRoy was also struggling with space and money issues by that point in the voyage, too.

Marten’s went on to become a well-respected artist in Australia, living the rest of his life in the vicinity of Sydney (which he loved), and exhibiting his work all over the world. He died, after a long and successful career, in 1878.

View of Sydney Harbour showing Sydney Cove (Conrad Martens)

Conrad Martins landscape painting - Sydney

The funeral of Rear Admiral Phillip Parker King, 1856 (Conrad Martens) – If you recall, King was the commander of the first Beagle voyage.

Conrad Martins landscape painting – Phillip Parker King

Photo of Conrad Martens in the 1870’s

Conrad Martens

If you want to see a preview of the many sketches created by Martens on the voyage, check out the excellent online compilation titled Conrad Marten’s Sketchbook.  This “book” was compiled from the collection of the Cambridge University Library. It was these sketches that Martens used after the voyage to create a series of watercolor paintings, including one of his most well know images – The HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego:

Conrad Martins landscape painting – Beagle

Both Augustus Earle and Conrad Martens’ paintings and drawings provide us with a unique view of Darwin’s voyage.  Along with maps and charts, and Darwin’s poor diagrams (he really was not an artist), these are the only visuals from the 5 year trip. These days, you couldn’t take a trip like this and not come back with about 100,000 digital photos.  But in Darwin’s day, if you didn’t have an artist then you didn’t have pictures.  I’ll say it again – FitzRoy was the one to recognize the importance of this and made artists were represented on the trip. Kudos to his foresight!  (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | December 12, 2013

The Art of the Beagle – Conrad Martens Part I

On December 7th Darwin’s day started with a somewhat emotional (for Darwin) departure from Uruguay:

“With a fair wind stood out of the river & by the evening were in clear water; never I trust again to enter the muddy water of the Plata.” (Dec 7)

I find this to be somewhat poetic – the thought of leaving one world behind and setting sail for another – the transition metaphorically captured in the movement from fresh water to salt water. This was a major milestone for Darwin – the Rio de la Plata was his home base for the better part of a year and a half.  From now on, his letters would have to be addressed to Valparaiso in Chile – in an entirely different ocean basin.

Maybe I am sentimental about the quote because this is a milestone for me to – it is my 400th post on the Beagle Project – almost two years sailing and riding with Darwin.  And it will be spring before we are even halfway through the journey!

Montevideo from the anchorage of H.M.S. Beagle. December  4, 1833 (Conrad Martens’ first drawing from the Beagle voyage)

Montevideo from the anchorage of H.M.S. Beagle

Back in 1833, Darwin goes on to describe changes to the crew:

“The Adventure kept ahead of us, which rejoiced us all, as there were strong fears about her sailing. — it is a great amusement having a companion to gaze at. — The following changes have taken place amongst the officers. — Mr Wickham commands the Adventure; he has with him Mr Johnstone & Forsyth & Mr Usborne as under-surveyor. — Mr Kent from the Pylades has joined us as surgeon. — Mr Martens is on board the Beagle filling the place which Mr Earle is obliged to vacate from ill health.” (Dec 7)

Conrad Martens in about 1840 (by Maurice Felton):

Conrad Martens

If you recall, Captain FitzRoy had brought a resident artist along on the trip (largely at his own expense) – Augustus Earle. (For more on the Beagle’s first artist see The Art of the Beagle: Augustus Earle Part I and Part II).  Unfortunately Earle suffered from what appeared to be debilitating arthritis and had been laid up and unable to do much of anything for most of the journey.  Sometime earlier this year he left the Beagle and returned to England.

However, much to his credit, FitzRoy valued the idea of having an artist on board, and through some unknown connections, he was able to convince another countrymen (who happened to be in Montevideo) to join the Beagle crew (for what would end up being the next 15 months). And thus, in 1833, Conrad Martens joined the hearty crew of adventurers.

Martens came on board sometime back in September – while Darwin was traveling overland across northern Argentina. He first shows up in a letter from FitzRoy to Darwin (during Darwin’s long time away from the ship). The tone is familiar –  much like FitzRoy’s earlier letter to his friend (see “My Dear Philos”):

“If Mr. P. has written as he intended you have heard of Mr. Martens —Earle’s Successor,—a stone pounding artist —who exclaims in his sleep“think of me standing upon a pinnacle of the Andes—or sketching a Fuegian Glacier!!!” By my faith in Bumpology, I am sure you will like him, and like him much —he is—or I am wofully mistaken—a “rara avis in navibus,— Carlo que Simillima Darwin”.— Don’t be jealous now for I only put in the last bit to make the line scan— you know very well your degree is “rarissima” and that your line runs thus— Est avis in navibus Carlos rarissima Darwin.— but you will think I am cracked so seriatim he is a gentlemanlike, well informed man.— his landscapes are really good (compared with London men) though perhaps in figures he cannot equal Earle— He is very industrious— and gentlemanlike in his habits,—(not a small recommendation).” (Correspondence from Robert FitzRoy, 4 October 1833)

Recall that FitzRoy was a strong believer in phrenology – something that almost got Darwin eliminated from the voyage (see Warm Butter and the Shape of Darwin’s Head). It is funny here that he refers to it as “Bumpology”. His Latin translates as something like “Carlo (Conrad?) is a rare bird about ships, much like Darwin” or “he is a very rare bird in the fleet, like Charles Darwin”. (Excuse my Latin and feel free to correct me in the comments.) I believe this is both an attempt to speak to Darwin as an academic equal, and to compliment him.  FitzRoy clearly was missing his friend.

This same letter is full of several other memorable quotes that show that, although he had to stay aloof as Captain, FitzRoy just liked to be silly sometimes.  Here are a few more lines from the October 4th letter:

“But firstly of the first—my good Philos why have you told me nothing of your hairbreadth scapes & moving accidents How many times did you flee from the Indians? How many precipices did you fall over? How many bogs did you fall into?— How often were you carried away by the floods? and how many times were you kilt?— that you were not kilt dead I have visible evidence in your handwriting,—as well as in a columnar paragraph in Mr. Love’s unamiable paper.”

” `Well, but the conjunctions—the conjunctions” I hear you saying—“you have got to the end of a sheet of paper without telling me one thing that I wanted to know’ ”

“I never will write another letter after tea—that green beverage makes one tipsy—besides it is such a luxury feeling that your epistle is not to go across the wide atlantick—and has only to cross the muddy Plata. It is so awful writing to a person thousands of miles off—when your conscience reproaches you with having been extremely negligent and tells you that six or eight or (oh—how awful) twelve months’ “History” is due to your expectant and irate correspondent.

Still you get no answer — “what is the Beagle going to do—will you tell me, or not?”—

Philos—be not irate—have patience and I will tell thee all.” (Correspondence from Robert FitzRoy, 4 October 1833)

These notes always paint a picture of the human (almost nutty) side of FitzRoy that is so rarely captured in his biographies.  It is always a pleasure to read that.

Apparently I was sidetracked today by milestones and captain’s logs.  I’ll have to continue with the rest of Marten’s story in the next post… (RJV)

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)

Posted by: Rob Viens | November 29, 2013

Wild Horses and Trustworthy Peons

Over the next few days, Darwin concluded his trip to the interior – wrapping back southward and taking a more direct route (rather than following the river) back to San Jose and Montevideo. Along the way he described some of his encounters.  I’ll keep my entry brief today and just share some of the observations he made.

Journey into the interior of Uruguay – Nov 14-28 (modified from Google Maps):

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

Always looking for bones, Darwin had the chance to do a little fossil hunting:

“We heard of some giants bones, which as usual turned out to be those of the Megatherium. — With much trouble extracted a few broken fragments.” (Nov 25)

When that did not work out, he did what any good paleontologist would do – he found a local farmer who had uncovered a complete skull and bought it from him:

“Began my return in a direct line to M. Video; went by an Estancia where there was a part, very perfect, of the head of a Megatherium. I purchased it for a few shillings.” (Nov 26)

If you recall – Megatherium is a giant round sloth (read more on megatherium at Lumbering Giants and Swimming Sloths).  However, Darwin later updates his assessment of the skull (and shares a little more about its origin) in Voyage of the Beagle:

“Having heard of some giant’s bones at a neighbouring farm-house on the Sarandis, a small stream entering the Rio Negro, I rode there accompanied by my host, and purchased for the value of eighteen pence the head of the Toxodon. When found it was quite perfect; but the boys knocked out some of the teeth with stones, and then set up the head as a mark to throw at.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

For more on toxodons see Toxodon Dentistry posted last month. Below are images from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle showing a side view of the toxodon skull, and some fragments of teeth and lower jaw:

toxodon skull from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

toxodon jaw from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

Also, I should be fair and note that paleontology has changed a bit since Darwin’s day.  While finding new prehistoric species never grows old, it is just as important to modern-day fossil hunters to see the context in which the fossil was found. Know the rock type and where it is found in the sequence of things, helps us determine things such as the age of fossils and the environment in which they lived (or at least died).

Darwin also had the opportunity to watch how the locals “tamed” a wild horse.

“In the evening a domidor or horse-breaker came to the house & I saw the operation of mounting a perfectly wild horse. — They were too fat to fight much: and there was little to see in the operation; the horse is thrown down & the bridle is tied to the under jaw: — tying the hind legs together he is allowed to rise & is then saddled. — During these operations the horse throws himself down so repeatedly & is so beaten, that when his legs are loosed and the man mounts him, he is so terrified as hardly to be able to breathe, & is trickling down with sweat. — Generally however a horse fights for a few minutes desperately, then starts away at a gallop, which is continued till the animal is quite exhausted. — This is a very severe but short way of breaking in a colt.” (Nov 25)

Recall that these “wild horses” were still just domesticated horses whose recent ancestors had escaped.  Indigenous horses went extinct in South America long before the Spanish arrived (see Barbarians and Horses).

Darwin also learned the importance of having a good servant/guide on the road, and we see another point in the trip where, had things had gone just a little differently, there would not have been an Origin of Species:

“We had long gallop through a more rocky & hilly country than the coast road, to the R. Perdido, where we slept. — One of the Post-houses was kept by a man, apparently of pure Indian blood; he was half intoxicated. — My peon declares that he in my presence said I was a Gallego; an expression synonimous with saying he is worth murdering. — His companions laughed oddly: — & I believe what my Peon said was true; when I remonstrated with him on the absurdity, he only said, “you do not [know] the people of this country”. — The motive must have been to sound my Peon, who perhaps luckily for me was a trust worthy man. — Your entire safety in this country depends upon your companion. — At night there were torrents of rain; as the Rancho made but little pretensions to keep out water or wind, we were soon wet through.” (Nov 26)

The last two days of the trip were apparently uneventful – such that Darwin’s entries are short:

“In the morning had a long gallop: arrived at San losè, from which point the road is the same by which I started. San Josè, Canelones, St Lucia are all rather nice little rectangular towns, & all just alike. — Slept one post beyond San Josè, (Nov 27) & in the middle of the next day we arrived at Monte Video. The distance, paid by the Post, being about 70 leagues from Mercedes to the Capital.” (Nov 28)

Darwin’s time on the Rio de la Plata was drawing to a close.  In about a week he would depart for points south, and after a winter of survey work, would leave the Atlantic Ocean for new adventures in the Pacific. (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | November 26, 2013

The View from the Hill of Carnations

On the 23rd of November, Darwin arrived in Mercedes and saw the Rio Negro for the first time. (Just for clarification, back in August he was on the Rio Negro in Argentina.  This Rio Negro flows from just across the border in Brazil and through the middle of Uruguay.  Same name, different river.)  Darwin described his first impressions in his diary:

“Rode to the Capella Nueva; a straggling village: & saw the R. Negro; it is a fine river blue water & running stream; it is nearly as large as its namesake to the South.” (Nov 23)

Map showing the river systems that flow into the Rio de la Plata (from Wikipedia Commons). Note the Rio Negro cutting across Uruguay.

Central South America drainage system

The Rio Negro drains around 69,700 sq km (about 26,900 sq mi) (including a large part of Uruguay). But this is just a small slice of the total drainage area of the Rio Uruguay (365,000 sq km / 140,000 sq mi). Today, dams on both rivers generate a significant amount of hydropower.

Incidentally, the country is named after the river, which in turn takes its name from a local name for the river – Urugua’ý. In the Guaraní language of central South America this translates as “river of the painted birds”.

On the 24th of November, Darwin took a day trip up the river to what he calls the Sierra del Pedro Flaco and got a splendid view of the Rio Negro:

“Went with my host to the Sierra del Pedro Flaco about 20 miles up the R. Negro: the greater part of the ride was through long grass up to the horses belly. — There are few Estancias & leagues of camp without a head of cattle. The country left to nature as it now is would easily produce 5 or 6 times the number of cattle. — Yet the annual exportation of hides from M. Video is 300 thousand; & the home consumption is something considerable. The view of the R. Negro from the Sierra is decidedly the most picturesque one I have seen in this country. The river is rapid & tortuous; it is about twice as large as the Severn (when banks full) at Shrewsbury; the cliffs are precipitous and rocky; & there is a belt of wood following the course of the river; beyond which an horizon of grass plain fills up the view. — The Peons horse was quite tired; so we rode to a Rancho; the master was not at home, but as a matter of course [we] entered the house, made a fire to cook some beef, & were quite at home in a strangers house. — We rode on but did not reach home till early in the night.” (Nov 24)

Darwin is referring to the Arroyo Perico Flaco – which flows into the Rio Negro at the point marked on the Google Map below (though this location is actually more like 35 km from Mercedes). This version of the map shows terrain, but not enough detail to see the small hill that Darwin climbed.

The hill young Charlie climbed is the 60-m high mound called the Hill of Carnations (El Cerro de los Claveles) for the flowers that used to grow all over it. Even to this day, the site is still known for its great view of the river (and there is a large stone marker with Darwin’s name at the top)

Darwin’s view – Arroyo Perico Flaco from the Hill of Carnations (from

Arroyo Perico Flaco

In addition, if you go back to the map above and zoom in about 5 km south of the little arrow you will see the little town labeled Villa Darwin (population about 500) – likely named for Darwin’s visit 180 years ago today. (Between these two points flows the Perico Flaco.) I love to see Darwin’s journey literally etched into modern maps through names such as this one.  Just one of the many legacies that he left behind. (RJV)

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)

Posted by: Rob Viens | November 20, 2013

Hamburger and Lime

On Monday the 18th, Darwin continued his leisurely trip by touring a local estate (Estancia) and learning a little bit about the daily routine of cattle ranching.  He described the experience as such:

“Rode with my host to his Estancia at the Arroyo de St Juan. — In the evening we took a circuit round the estate; it contained two square leagues & a half and was situated in what is called a rincon; that is one side is fronted by the Plata, & the two others are guarded by impassable brooks. There is an excellent port for little vessels, & an abundance of small wood, which is valuable as supplying fuel to Buenos Ayres. — I was curious to know the value of so complete an Estancia; — at present there are 3000 cattle & it would well support three or four times the number. — there are 800 mares, 150 broken horses, 600 sheep; plenty of water & limestone; a rough house, excellent corrals, & a peach orchard. — For all this he has been offered 2000£ only wants 500£ additional, and probably would sell it for less. The chief trouble with an Estancia is driving all the cattle twice a week to a central spot, in order to make them tame & to count them. This latter would be thought a difficult operation, when there are ten or fifteen thousand head together; it is managed on the principle that the cattle invariably divide themselves into little troops from forty to an hundred. — Each troop is recognised by a few peculiarly marked animals, & its number is known: thus one being lost out of ten thousand is perceived by its absence from one of the tropillas. During a stormy night the cattle all mingle together; but the next morning all the tropillas separate as before.” (Nov 18)

Route of Darwin’s trip into the interior of Uruguay (modified from Google Maps)

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

Notice the little yellow box above.  That is the site of the picture below.  Low and behold – there is Estancia Rio San Juan – likely to be the location Darwin was talking about today!

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

After a day of herding bovine herding on the ranch, Darwin rode through the “town of the cows” on his way up the river, writing:

“Passed the town of las Vacas; it is a straggling village, built on an arm of the Uruguay, & has a good deal of trade up the river. — Slept at a North Americans, who works a lime kiln on the Arroyo de las Vivoras.” (Nov 19)

OK – try finding a town named after cows in a part of the world where cows are around every corner.  I may have found Estancia Rio San Juan  But “Las Vacas” could be anywhere! (If anyone from the areas knows where Darwin might be talking about, please feel free to comment.)

On November 20th Darwin’s sights moved up the food chain from cows to jaguars.  And being the top predator that he was, we decided to go on a jaguar hunt.  Not to worry – no large cats were harmed in the writing of this diary entry, but Darwin did describe the experience:

“In the morning went out riding to Punta Gorda; on the road tried to find a Jaguar; saw very fresh tracks & the trees against which they are said to sharpen their claws: the bark was cut up & grooved by scratches a yard long: — we did not succeed in disturbing one. — The low, thick woods on the coast of the Uruguay afford an excellent harbour for such animals.” (Nov 20)

A lack of cats didn’t bother Darwin, because the natural world always held some new wonder for him.  In this case, it was the beauty of the Rio Uruguay that caught his eye:

“At Punta Gorda, the R Uruguay presented a noble body of water; its appearance is superior to that of the Parana from the clearness of the water & rapidity of the stream: on the opposite coast there are several branches, which enter from the Parana, when the sun shines, the two colours of the water may be seen quite distinct. — The house & lime-kiln were for this country unusually old, being built 108 years since. — I was told a curious circumstance respecting the Lime-kiln. — At the instant of the revolution it was full of fresh burnt lime; from the state of [the] country it was left 18 years untouched: on the surface young trees were growing, whilst in the middle the lime was quick. — When they dug down to the place where the half-burnt wood is left, in a few minutes it kindled & burst out into flames. — This caused uncommon superstitious fears amongst the workmen; but the owner tells me this is always the case in a lime-kiln opened after a few months interval.” (Nov 20)

Let me wrap up with a few words on “lime”. Lime, or more appropriately quicklime, is calcium oxide (CaO). (The term lime is more correctly used for various types of calcium oxides and carbonates.) Although quicklime has had other historical uses, its main use in recent centuries has been in the production of cement. Hence, it was a major ingredient in industrialization and urbanization, and the building of castles (see the figure below).

An old lime kiln burning in front of Dumbarton Castle, Scotland in 1800 (from Wikipedia Commons). It was not unusual to find these kilns on the water, which made transport of the fuel and finished product much easier.

Lime kiln at Dumbarton Castle

Quicklime is produced by extracting the mineral calcite from a type of sedimentary rock known as limestone (get it –a stone made of lime), and heating it to about 900-1000°C in a kiln, aka a lime kiln. Essentially, when heated limestone (calcium carbonate (CaCO3)) breaks down into quicklime (CaO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) gas.  The fires Darwin talks about above, would have been what provided the heat for turning the limestone into quicklime.

Finally, I can’t resist a word about limestone.

Last week I wrote about detrital sedimentary rocks – rocks made of fragments of other rocks.  The other major group of sedimentary rocks are those that form when dissolved elements recombine to form new chemical structures.  These are called “chemical sedimentary rocks”, and by far, the most common of these is limestone. Limestone can form in several different ways, but ultimately it is the result of the combination of dissolved calcium ions (Ca+2) and dissolved carbonate ions (CO3-2).  This combination can happen inorganically (resulting in the precipitation of calcite crystals from the water which accumulate to form the limestone) or it can be facilitated by living things that combine the ions internally and create shells and skeletons.  The hard parts of clams and corals form in this way, and when these organisms dies, their shells can accumulate at the bottom of the sea and create a different type of limestone.

A fossil-rich limestone from Germany (from Wikipedia Commons)


So where does the creation of limestone happen?  Well, to make a long story short, the conditions that tend to lead to the precipitation of calcite out of sea water occur where the water is warm and under low pressure. (The opposite conditions tend to cause “lime” to re-dissolve back into the water.) Based on these conditions and the fact that the bulk of the world’s limestones form in the oceans, it can be concluded that limestone is most likely to represent regions that were once shallow tropical oceans.  (There are some other places in which limestone can form. Most notably – cave limestones that form stalactites and stalagmites.)

In any case, my point here is that the presence of lime kilns in western Uruguay tells a geologist that this area contains limestone, which in turn means it was once under a shallow tropical ocean.  A far cry from the more temperate climate of the region today. (RJV)

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)

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)

Posted by: Rob Viens | November 12, 2013

Sandstone Cliffs of Disappointment

On the 6th and 7th of November, Darwin took a short ride down the coast to spend the night in what is now the resort town of Kiyú (what he called Barrancas de St Gregorio). Sadly, he was not impressed with the geology he saw:

“Had a long gallop to the East end of the Barrancas de St Gregorio: was disappointed in the Geology, but had a pleasant gallop along the coast of the Plata. — It was necessary to cross the St Lucia near its mouth; we passed in a boat, the horses were obliged to swim at least 600 yards; I was surprised to see with what ease they performed it. — We did not return till so late, that I slept at a Rancho, & returned home early in the morning.” (Nov 6/7)

Kiyú (which is said to come from an indigenous word for “cricket”) is a resort that is located on a beautiful stretch of Uruguayan coastline – well known for its sunsets over the Rio de la Plata. Of course, I doubt there was much more than a cattle ranch there when Darwin visited, but he was not really a “resort” kinda guy anyway.

Las barrancas de San Gregorio (posted by Tongas via Google Earth)

cliffs at Kiyu

Kiyú is also known for its sandy cliffs, which (as it turns out) are difficult to find out much about (or at least hard to translate from Spanish).  However, I was able to find out that the rocks exposed here are part of three formations – the Camacho Formation, San Jose (AKA Raigon) Formation, and the Libertad Formation and range in age from roughly about 10 to 1 million years old (the late Miocene, through the Pleistocene). Interestingly, research in that area in the last few decades has uncovered some ground sloth fossils – including a new species.  But clearly, Darwin did find any fossils here worth noting in his journals.

In earlier posts I’ve written a lot about igneous and metamorphic rocks –  since it was mainly these rock types that Darwin encountered along the coast of South America.  (Recall that much of what he was trekking over was the South American Craton, which is made up of these “crystalline rocks” (see Geologizing on the South American Craton).) However, any time he was digging up fossils, Darwin was likely looking at sediment (such mud, sand, or gravel), or the “soft” rocks that form when these sediments are compressed and “glued” together (lithified) into sedimentary rocks. (As a general rule, the processes that create igneous and metamorphic rocks tend to destroy fossils. Furthermore, as you will see shortly, fossils are also more likely to be found in the sedimentary rocks that represent “quieter” environments – such as those made of mud (clay and silt) or sand.)

Let me take a step back before I lose some readers. Sedimentary rocks (rocks made from sediments) come in a couple different varieties.  The kind we are talking about here are made of rock fragments and are collectively called detrital sedimentary rocks (because they are made of “detritus”).  For the most part these rocks are classified by their grain size – and are pretty easy to remember.  See the breakdown below and note that the rock name (e.g., sandstone) generally parallels the sediment grain size (e.g., sand-sized grains).

Detrital Sedimentary Rock Identification (Note this chart goes into more detail than discussed, but you can basically break these rocks down into three simple categories – conglomerate, sandstone, and mudstone.)

Sedimentary Detrital Rock ID

Sedimentary Detrital Rock ID

One of the cool things about rocks is that once you learn how recognize and identify them, you can start to “read them” (i.e., interpret what they tell you about the past).  And, luckily for us, sedimentary rocks are one of the easier rocks to interpret.  For example, if I asked you to find me a bucket of sand (in a natural environment) where would you go to collect it? You might visit a beach, a river bed or desert. Likewise, you might collect gravel in a mountain stream, or mud at the bottom of a lake or in a quiet lagoon.  These are what we call “sedimentary environments” and this distribution of different sized sediment is basically a result of the “energy of the environment” (i.e., movement of the water).  For example, in a mountain stream the fast-moving (high energy) water washes everything away and leaves the gravel behind.  The slow, quiet water of a lake (a low energy environment) does not have the energy to carry larger grains, so only the mud makes it out to settle in the deeper water.

To be fair, that is not the whole picture. Geologists also look at other characteristics of the sedimentary grains to “read” even more about the history of the rock.  For example, we may look at how well sorted the grains are (i.e., are they all one size or a mixture different sizes). Water tends to be sort sediment out (as in the examples above).  On the other hand, when a glacier melts or a landslide stops moving, all the grains (no mater their size) are dropped together creating a poorly sorted mixture of rock fragments.  In addition, if you look carefully at the grains, you can describe whether they have smooth (rounded) or angular (jagged) edges.  All other thing being equal, this roundness will tell you relatively how far the grains traveled between their source and their ultimate resting place.  If a rock contains fossils, too – then wow – you can really get a more complete picture of their sedimentary environment – including information about the climate, ecosystem, etc. in which the rock formed (e.g., tropical plants=tropics; mussel shells = intertidal zone, and so forth).

Darwin knew something about reading he rocks, and often tried to interpret the sedimentary environment of his samples.  Unfortunately, he did not say much about Kiyú, but from what I can tell from a limited amount of online research, the rocks in the cliffs here are primarily mudstones, siltstones and sandstones.  The story they tell (which comes from the fossils in them as much as anything), is that during this period of time sea level rose and covered the land creating an offshore environment that accumulated finer grained sediment and numerous marine fossils. This is a great environment for fossil preservation.  Alternatively, some of the later layers of rock may have been a little coarser grained and formed in as river deposits after the sea level dropped again. (The uppermost layers may be wind-blown deposits of fine silt and clay called loess.)

Too bad Darwin did not have a chance to further explore the cliffs of Kiyú – he just might have encountered some interesting geology after all!

Cliffs of Kiyú (from Puerto Cangrejo on Blogspot)

cliffs at Kiyu

Upon his return from Kiyú, Darwin prepared for his next major outing – a trip into the interior of Uruguay. Much like his experience in Brazil (see Bureaucrats Know No Boundaries) he was frustrated by the bureaucracy involved in obtaining the correct papers.  Though he should know from his experiences in Argentina, that the right papers could make all the difference.  In his only real entry in a week, Darwin wrote:

“I prepared for a ride to see the R. Uruguay & its tributary the R. Negro. — These days were lost by true Spanish delay in giving me my passport, letters &c &c.” (Nov 8-13)

Not to worry Charles – you’ll soon be on the trail again! (RJV)

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