Auguste Guinnard.

Three years' slavery among the Patagonians: an account of his captivity online

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lay their hands on in their pillages among the
Hispano-Americans, and their readiness to
throw away, during their return, everything
useless or unknown to them. But what,


nevertheless, seemed to me quite as surpris-
ing as the discovery itself, was the impossi-
bility of ever finding other turnips, for after-
wards I had occasion many times to pass
through these latitudes with the Indians my

It need hardly be said, that the manner
of living of all the nomads of whom I am
about to write, differs by reason of numerous
varieties in the nature of the soil and
climate. Some, residing in the northern and
most temperate portion of the Pampas, are
partly clothed, and are influenced by the
neighbourhood of the Argentine populations,
with whom they are alternately at peace or
war. Others, Patagonians, having under
their eyes nothing but the sea-shore or the
immensity of their barren steppes, live in the
rudest and most primitive nomadic manner.

The tribe, into the hands of which fate
had delivered me, was that of the Poyuches,
who wander indifferently on either side of


the Rio Regro, from Pacheco Island to the
foot of the Cordilleras, a mountainous
country intersected with deep valleys. The
kind of life led by these not very numerous
Indians offers less interest than that of the
Eastern Patagonians, and their only means
of existence is in hunting the guanaco, or
wild llama, nandous, and gamas. Though
their region is not, as has been hitherto
supposed, completely arid, the Poyuches
possess but few cattle, and these, both
horses and oxen, come from exchanges made
with other tribes of Makounes turquets, or
mantles of guanaco leather, which are gene-
rally much appreciated by the natives and by
the Hispano-Americans ; but as this traffic
is carried on only on a very small scale, they
are extremely poor, and can but seldom
enlace in the distant expeditions constantly
undertaken by the Puelches and Pampeans,
from whom they are separated by great
distances. Their intelligence is limited, their



character grave, their physiognomy stamped
with a wild ferocity and incredible hardihood.
They are not very communicative, but good-
tempered and serviceable to one another.
They are very courageous and daring in the
infrequent wars in which they have occasion
to take part, but most barbarous towards
their Christian enemies, whom they torture
and kill without pity.

Their type is nearly the same as that of
the Eastern Patagonians ; but they are gene-
rally thinner, and their feet less well formed,
in consequence of walking a great deal.
They occupy themselves solely with hunting,
which is at once a diversion for them and a
means of subsistence. They dwell under
tents constructed of the skins of horses, or
of sea-calves, caught on the eastern coast
during the winter.

Their habitations, which are very light,
are formed of crooked wooden posts set in
three rows, the middle row higher than the


others, to which it is fastened with leathern
cords, forming a sort of triangle like that of
a roof. Skins, artistically stitched together
with fibres extracted from flesh, cover this
frail framework and solidify it by their
tension, which is effected by pinning their
lower edges to the ground with little pegs
of bone. The interiors of these houses are
divided into two parts exactly alike, both
again subdivided into several small com-
partments, in which each Indian deposits
whatever is most precious to him ; at night
some guanaco skins spread upon the ground
serve as beds for men and women, who sleep
together after taking off their mantles, the
only vestment they wear during the day and
the only covering they use on going to rest.

The superstition of these savages is be-
yond conception. According to them, both
north and south are unfavourable to them :
the north is the point where the living dis-
appear for ever, suddenly carried off by


evil spirits coming from the south. They
greatly fear death, and pretend that the one-
way to prolong their existence is to sleep
with their heads either to the east or west.

Cold as these regions are for the greater
part of the year^ the Indians who inhabit
them bathe every day before dawn, whatever
may be the season, and without distinction
of sex or age. This usage, to which I was
compelled to submit,, powerfully contributes,
I presume, to secure them against all kinds
of maladies ; and I am convinced that it is
owing to these frequent baths I have pre-
served the health I still enjoy. To look at
these Indians, covered with vermin, it would
be difficult to believe in their frequent ablu-
tions ; as an ocular witness, I think I owe
it to the Eastern Patagonians to clear them
of the charge of personal filthiness, under
which they have hitherto lain. It is gene-
rally after their morning bath that such
Indians as possess herds mount on horseback


and ride after thera, for the purpose of
driving them back into the neighbourhood of
the tents. When the weather is bad, how-
ever, they discontinue this occupation, and
remain within their habitations all the time
the bad weather lasts, without even thinking
of eating. I have often, in truth, been much
astonished at the facility with which these
gluttons go without food for an entire day,
stretched upon the flooded floors of their
roukahs, held down by fear ; for bad weather in
these regions is truly fearful. It is a mixture
of rain pouring in torrents, blinding lightning,
and thunder ceaselessly reverberating ; to all
this is added the terrible blast of the pam-
pero, an icy wind coming from the depths of
Patagonia, hissing and roaring in the same
breath, often during consecutive hours,
rending and overthrowing everything, even
tearing up by the roots the smallest plants
it meets with on its passage.

The great superstition which characterizes


the Indians, seems to increase every time
that any phenomenon takes place before
their eyes ; they then imagine that its causes
are connected with their own behaviour,
and according to the nature of this phe-
nomenon they experience joy or fear. A
tempest, for example, paralyzes all their
faculties and inspires them with the greatest
terror. It would seem as if, unknown to
themselves, their consciences were tormented,
and they felt in danger of the Divine wrath,
for they dare not raise their eyes to the
angry clouds. They press one against the
other, their faces hidden in their hands,
without attempting to secure the skin-
covering of their roukas when torn off by
the wind.

But a few months had passed, and all of
the European that remained in me was the
mind and heart, when I was sold to some
Puelches on a visit, who gave to my masters,
as greedy as they were poor, an ox, a



horse, and the portraits of my family. This
bargain appeared so advantageous, that
although it had been impossible for me to
render them any service, they did not the
less fail to extol my known, or unknown,
good qualities to their visitors, who, being
persuaded that they had made an excellent
purchase, smiled with an air of satisfaction
which, under any other circumstances, would
certainly have greatly amused me ; for it
served only to make them appear more ugly.
I felt no regret at leaving the Poyuches,
for short as the time was during which I had
been amongst them, it had sufficed to give
me a poor opinion of them. Their women,
however, are very active, and exhibit a good
deal of ability in making clothing. As to
the men, beyond hunting, in which they
show themselves both skilful and ferocious,
they live in the greatest idleness. They are
incredibly greedy and voracious, and very
dirty in their habits ; yet they display a good



deal of skill in the dressing of their hideous
heads, — anointing their hair with horse-fat,
pulling out the hairs of their eyebrows and
beards, and coating their faces with coloured
earths. Like all Indians, they possess small
leathern bags containing the colours neces-
sary, which they always carry with them.

The Poyuches give the name of Melly-
roumey-co (Four small rivers) to the source
of the Rio Negro, because, at its departure
from the Cordilleras, it receives four afflu-
ents ; but further on, when it reappears,
after passing through Tiger Lake, they call
it, as we do, Black River, from the aspect
given to it by its depth and narrowness.
Its rapid course is tortuous so long as it
runs through an uneven country, but often
regular in the plain, where its precipitous
banks are sometimes fertile. The waters of
this stream offer to the Indians a safe pas-
sage only towards their source ; they cross
it frequently, however, at any spot, with the


help of bundles of rushes, to which they
cling with their hands while swimming with
their feet.

On the banks of the Rio Negro are still
encamped several tribes, and amongst the
number that of the Puelches, one of the
most important, from its numbers as well as
from its continual relations with all the other
tribes — with those of the extreme point of
Magellan, as with the Mamouelches, situated
in the neighbourhood of Mendoza, at the
north-west of the Pampas.

It was into the hands of this tribe, be
it remembered, that I was passed by the
Poyuches. I remained during six consecu-
tive months in the midst of this important
tribe, and was thus easily able to study and
compare it with other tribes of the Eastern
Patagonians, about whom so much has been
said by navigators.

At the commencement of my installation
amongst them, I flattered myself with the


idea of being better treated by them than I
had been by the Poyuches ; but I had been
with them only a very few days when, recog-
nizing the impossibility of my being of any
service to them, on account of my ignorance
of horsemanship, they brutally ill-used me,
and heaped insults on me. In this way it
was that the words Theoa-ouignecae (dog of
a Christian), Ouesah-ouignecae (bad Chris-
tian), were the first of which I learned the
signification. I many times tried to make
myself understood, and demanded what mo-
tive they had for treating me in such a man-
ner ; but their only answer was to use me
more harshly than before. After one of these
experiences, my mortification was such that,
considering my family and country both lost
to me for ever, I could not refrain from
shedding bitter tears. The Indians perceiv-
ing this, their fury knew no bounds ; they
beat me so, that I thought they were going
to kill me, as they threatened to do.


From that time I concealed ray sorrow
under a continual and lying smile, by which
they allowed themselves to be taken in.
Displaying all the good- will and address of
which I was capable, I made rapid progress
in the art of equitation, and in the knowledge
of their language, founding on these acquire-
ments my hopes of escape. With like quick-
ness I learned to use the lasso and the
boleadora (locayo) which play so great a part
in their existence, and which are, in fact,
indispensable to all who venture into the
American desert.

In this tribe I remarked that the men
were extremely tall — not inferior in stature
to the Patagonians. The Puelches are well
made, with well-proportioned limbs ; their
faces wear an expression of pride not at all
in contradiction with their general behaviour.
They are nomads by taste, and not from
necessity, for the nature of their country is
generally one of great fertility. Their chief


passions are hunting and drunkenness. Their
religious ideas, like those of all the other
tribes, are limited to the admission of two
gods — that of good, and that of evil. They
frequently give themselves up to the pillage
of farms, whence they carry off great num-
bers of horses and oxen ; their food consists
of horseflesh, or of the flesh of ostriches and
gamas taken in the chase ; the choicest
morsels they eat are the liver, lungs, and
kidneys, raw, soaked in hot or salted and
curdled blood — for they know the use of salt.
The tents of the Puelches are more regu-
lar and more spacious than those of the
Poyuches ; often, on casting a glance into
their depths, I recognized household objects
or vestments captured at the price of blood
from some unfortunate Hispano-American.
The Indians, whose habit it was to watch
my slightest movements, did not fail to notice
these glances, and always hastened to put
the objects of my notice out of sight, under


the notion that I might think of appropriat-
ing them, crying out as they did so : " Oua~

Icoune-tcliipato emy ouesah-ouignecae" (Get
out, you villanous Christian) ; or, " Ouakoune-

mouleta-emy veecah metene " (Get outside ;
it's quite good enough for you). Appa-
rently they seriously thought so, for, whether
it was hot or cold, I never had any other
bed than the ground, in whatever state it
might be, and no other shelter than the sky.

Apart from their cruelty, these Indians
were both industrious and intelligent. The
harness of their horses, composed of a bridle,
saddle, and stirrups, are curious specimens
of their industry ; these are plaited in such
great perfection, as to make it difficult to
be believed that they are the work of their

Using very bad knives, they cut with
unequalled address and dexterity, from the
skins of young horses, the hair being first
removed, and the skins otherwise specially


prepared, the fine thongs intended for this
kind of manufacture. Their saddles are
constructed of reeds, covered with flexible
leather ; some are of wood, like the backs of
two chairs joined together by triangles at
the ends. Two holes pierced in the front
serve to hang wooden stirrups of triangular
form, the openings of which, at the widest
part, will not admit more than three fingers.
Skins placed between the saddle and the
back of the horse preserve the animal from
injury under the extreme pressure of the
girth. The same skins serve for beds during
a journey. Their lassos are at least thirty
feet long ; they are either cut frem a single
piece of ox-hide or plaited. The Indians
are accustomed to fasten one end to their
saddle-girth, and to carry the length of lasso
coiled in the left hand. The extremity is
furnished with a running knot and noose,
to which they give an opening more or less
wide, according to the kind and size of the


animal they wish to capture. They throw it
with the right hand, after whirling it several
times above their heads, taking care to keep
open the loop with its running knot. From
this it will be seen that these lassos differ
greatly from the usual description given of
them, and that they do not at all resemble
those used by the Russians in the wars ever
memorable for our country. The spurs worn
by these savages are made of pieces of wood,
each armed with a point of metal or bone,
and very long, serving instead of a rowel.
These goads are carried one on either foot.
The Indians, though exercised in their use,
generally draw blood with them from their
horses, which they ride at great speed.

These horses are middle-sized and well
formed, easily broken in, and almost inde-
fatigable. I have often seen these animals,
who give place in no respect to the most
beautiful Andalusian steeds, gallop during a
whole day and night without taking anything


but water. The Indians employ a very
brutal method of breaking them in : once
caught in the lasso, they are thrown down
upon the ground and their feet bound to-
gether ; a bit is then passed into the mouth
and fastened tightly under the lower lip, the
skin being first peeled from the gums and
lips, for the purpose of rendering them more
sensitive to the pressure of this too supple
curb. After this they are saddled and com-
pelled to rise, two men holding them, one by
the muzzle and ears, the other by a thong
with a running knot passed round the two
fore-leo-s ; the breaker- in, armed with a wide
thong of raw hide (tnq^ouet), a sort of
riding-whip, very hard and heavy, termi-
nating in a piece of wood intended to strike
either the flanks or the head of his horse,
then springs lightly on to the animal. At a
o-iven signal the assistants, releasing their
hold at the same moment, give liberty to the
courser, which frequently darts away like a


flash of light, after having let fly a good
number of kicks, and curveted from side to
side. Some of them resist the prodigious
efforts made by their riders to turn them to
the right or left, and roll over with them ;
but, in general, however violent may be their
first resistance, in two or three days they
become sufficiently quiet to be mounted bare-

It is at about two years and a half old
that the Indians break them in such a way as
to test their swiftness : they make them cover
a certain distance at one breathing ; those
that do not easily reach the determined point
are considered useless for service, and piti-
lessly condemned to be eaten.

The Puelches inhabit the latitudes be-
tween the Rio Negro and the Rio Colorado,
which they rarely cross. The eastern side
is composed of fertile plains, on which there
are a number of lakes abounding with fish,

and of which the water is excellent. The



western side is not less fertile ; it is very
mountainous, and watered by a number of
torrents that swell the Colorado. A large
number of salt and loathsome pools are
found there, as in all the sterile latitudes
of Central America.

Having transactions with the Indians of
all the tribes without exception, the Puelches
are the most capable of giving information
concerning the immense territory occupied
by all their nomad companions, from the
Straits of Magellan to Mendoza; for they
very frequently pass through their country.
They are generally very fond of visiting,
which gives an increase of work to the
women, who are bound to supply food to all
comers. Visitors are saluted by the women
and their children. The head of the family
does not perform this civility until they are
seated, and have swallowed a few mouthfuls
of water. After salutations have been ex-
changed, and in the midst of profound silence


on tlie part of the women and children, the
guests describe in turn the object of their
visit in a long discourse, not wanting iu
courtesy, nor even in a certain poetical cha-
racter. Their language is guttural and sing-
song. The master of the house, after having
religiously listened to all his guests, answers
them at equal length, and finishes by ad-
dressing to them his thanks for their kind-
ness in visiting him ; then, without another
word, he leaves them to do honour to the
repast which the women hasten to set before
them. This repast is generally composed of
raw kidneys and lungs cut into small pieces
and placed in little vessels filled with curdled
blood, salted. When the guests have eaten
their fill, conversation commences in a fami-
liar tone, very different from the first, for
there is then no more spouting. It is then
that the children, wishing to show friendly
attention to their father's guests, come and
group themselves closely around them. The


guests, by way of caresses, take from their
young heads some of the numerous insects
that harbour there and eat them, reciprocity
being de rigueur.

The men very rarely speak to the women,
whom they are forbidden by custom even
to look in the face, without they are their
relations, their mother-in-law excepted.

Every visitor receives ample hospitality,
and may remain with his hosts for an un-
limited time, during which he will always be
an object of the greatest attention. "When
the hour of rest approaches, the greatest
silence is kept by all, the guests absent
themselves for a few minutes, during which
time the master of the house hastily prepares
for them a couch formed of all the most
precious skins in his roukah.

After the sun has gone down, the tra-
veller, however near he may be to his desti-
nation, cannot, without infringing the rules
of decorum, present himself before a tent;


for that he must await the rising of the sun.
Only the bearers of orders from the caciques '
are exempted from this etiquette.

The women receive visitors of their own
sex, and treat them with a thousand cajo-
leries, even when they are sworn enemies.
Their conversation is carried on almost in
a whisper, while they employ themselves in
pulling out one another's eyebrows, or paint-
ing each other's faces. Ceremonial does not
forbid the visitors to accompany the mistress
of the house out of doors when her occupa-
tions call her thither ; thus they are often seen
going and coming. This prerogative is not
enjoyed by the men, unless with regard to
the chase : as they are seated on their arrival,
so they must remain till their departure.

The visitors never failed to inquire of
their, host concerning me, which flattered
him extremely. On these occasions he pre-
tended even to feel friendly towards me, and
made me eat with him, and, like a man who


knows his calling, I affected to be the dupe
of his artifice. I thus, by turns, saw Indians
of all the Patagonian tribes. I was a rare
curiosity for them, as I judged by the man-
ner in which they contemplated me, and
by their surprise in finding in laftra-
ouignecae (a little Christian) faculties like
their own.

I afterwards saw the Tcheouelches, the-
most backward and poorest race of nomads,
whose manners are the most primitive.
Their language, as well as their person, has
something ferocious in it; the sounds they
articulate are so excessively guttural as at
first to make me think they spoke a tongue
different from that of the other Patagonians ;
by listening attentively, however, I easily
understood them. The whiteness of my body
appeared to interest them greatly, as well as
the colour of my hair, become very long and
reddened by the action of the sun. They
expressed a desire^ o hear me speak in


French, which became a subject of general

These Indians are somewhat inferior in
stature to the Eastern Patagonians and the
Puelches ; but they are not less remarkable
for the regularity of their forms. They have
very broad and square shoulders, chests very
deep and full, and arms and legs of middle
size ; feet very wide and flat-soled. Their
head is large, the forehead open and pro-
minent ; the cheek-bones are very high, the
face flat, the chin slightly advanced ; the
mouth large, and generally partly opened ;
the eyes are black, very large and horizontal,
having an expression of ferocious wildness.
A nose often hooked, long and thin, with
close-drawn nostrils, gives them something of
the appearance of birds of prey. Their lips
are slightly thick ; their ears large and length-
ened by bulky ornaments of their own manu-
facture, which hang down upon their shoul-
ders. They wear their hair generally rolled


up on the top of the head like the indigenes
of Paraguay. They use bows and arrows, and
handle the sling (ouitrou-courah-ouey) very
well, the lasso, and boleaclora (locayo), a set
of balls to the number of three, fixed to lea-
thern thongs of equal length, and generally
of hard wood, or of a sort of granite very
common in their latitudes. These they use
very skilfully, striking down with them, at a
great distance, the wild llamas which they
hunt on foot.

None of the Tcheouelches possess horses.
The youngest of them rush in pursuit of the
game, and confine themselves to the killing
of it, leaving to the women and old men the
work of skinning and transporting it on their
shoulders while they continue the chase.
They are also accustomed to pull out the hair
from all parts of their bodies ; but, very little
given to ideas of coquetry, they content them-
selves with rudely painting their faces. They
are most agile in the chase, and almost inde-


fatigable. I have seen them run quickly for
several successive hours without being at all

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Online LibraryAuguste GuinnardThree years' slavery among the Patagonians: an account of his captivity → online text (page 3 of 15)