Charles Darwin.

The Voyage of the Beagle online

. (page 11 of 51)
Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 11 of 51)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

distinctly heard at the distance of six feet. As often as the
animal was irritated or surprised, its tail was shaken; and the
vibrations were extremely rapid. Even as long as the body retained
its irritability, a tendency to this habitual movement was evident.
This Trigonocephalus has, therefore, in some respects the structure
of a viper, with the habits of a rattlesnake: the noise, however,
being produced by a simpler device. The expression of this snake's
face was hideous and fierce; the pupil consisted of a vertical slit
in a mottled and coppery iris; the jaws were broad at the base, and
the nose terminated in a triangular projection. I do not think I
ever saw anything more ugly, excepting, perhaps, some of the
vampire bats. I imagine this repulsive aspect originates from the
features being placed in positions, with respect to each other,
somewhat proportional to those of the human face; and thus we
obtain a scale of hideousness.

Amongst the Batrachian reptiles, I found only one little toad
(Phryniscus nigricans), which was most singular from its colour. If
we imagine, first, that it had been steeped in the blackest ink,
and then, when dry, allowed to crawl over a board, freshly painted
with the brightest vermilion, so as to colour the soles of its feet
and parts of its stomach, a good idea of its appearance will be
gained. If it had been an unnamed species, surely it ought to have
been called Diabolicus, for it is a fit toad to preach in the ear
of Eve. Instead of being nocturnal in its habits, as other toads
are, and living in damp obscure recesses, it crawls during the heat
of the day about the dry sand-hillocks and arid plains, where not a
single drop of water can be found. It must necessarily depend on
the dew for its moisture; and this probably is absorbed by the
skin, for it is known that these reptiles possess great powers of
cutaneous absorption. At Maldonado, I found one in a situation
nearly as dry as at Bahia Blanca, and thinking to give it a great
treat, carried it to a pool of water; not only was the little
animal unable to swim, but I think without help it would soon have
been drowned.

Of lizards there were many kinds, but only one (Proctotretus
multimaculatus) remarkable from its habits. It lives on the bare
sand near the sea-coast, and from its mottled colour, the brownish
scales being speckled with white, yellowish red, and dirty blue,
can hardly be distinguished from the surrounding surface. When
frightened, it attempts to avoid discovery by feigning death, with
outstretched legs, depressed body, and closed eyes: if further
molested, it buries itself with great quickness in the loose sand.
This lizard, from its flattened body and short legs, cannot run

I will here add a few remarks on the hybernation of animals in this
part of South America. When we first arrived at Bahia Blanca,
September 7th, 1832, we thought nature had granted scarcely a
living creature to this sandy and dry country. By digging, however,
in the ground, several insects, large spiders, and lizards were
found in a half-torpid state. On the 15th, a few animals began to
appear, and by the 18th (three days from the equinox), everything
announced the commencement of spring. The plains were ornamented by
the flowers of a pink wood-sorrel, wild peas, oenotherae, and
geraniums; and the birds began to lay their eggs. Numerous
Lamellicorn and Heteromerous insects, the latter remarkable for
their deeply sculptured bodies, were slowly crawling about; while
the lizard tribe, the constant inhabitants of a sandy soil, darted
about in every direction. During the first eleven days, whilst
nature was dormant, the mean temperature taken from observations
made every two hours on board the "Beagle," was 51 degrees; and in
the middle of the day the thermometer seldom ranged above 55
degrees. On the eleven succeeding days, in which all living things
became so animated, the mean was 58 degrees, and the range in the
middle of the day between sixty and seventy. Here then an increase
of seven degrees in mean temperature, but a greater one of extreme
heat, was sufficient to awake the functions of life. At Monte
Video, from which we had just before sailed, in the twenty-three
days included between the 26th of July and the 19th of August, the
mean temperature from 276 observations was 58.4 degrees; the mean
hottest day being 65.5 degrees, and the coldest 46 degrees. The
lowest point to which the thermometer fell was 41.5 degrees, and
occasionally in the middle of the day it rose to 69 or 70 degrees.
Yet with this high temperature, almost every beetle, several genera
of spiders, snails, and land-shells, toads and lizards, were all
lying torpid beneath stones. But we have seen that at Bahia Blanca,
which is four degrees southward, and therefore with a climate only
a very little colder, this same temperature, with a rather less
extreme heat, was sufficient to awake all orders of animated
beings. This shows how nicely the stimulus required to arouse
hybernating animals is governed by the usual climate of the
district, and not by the absolute heat. It is well known that
within the tropics the hybernation, or more properly aestivation,
of animals is determined not by the temperature, but by the times
of drought. Near Rio de Janeiro, I was at first surprised to
observe that, a few days after some little depressions had been
filled with water, they were peopled by numerous full-grown shells
and beetles, which must have been lying dormant. Humboldt has
related the strange accident of a hovel having been erected over a
spot where a young crocodile lay buried in the hardened mud. He
adds, "The Indians often find enormous boas, which they call Uji,
or water serpents, in the same lethargic state. To reanimate them,
they must be irritated or wetted with water."

I will only mention one other animal, a zoophyte (I believe
Virgularia Patagonica), a kind of sea-pen. It consists of a thin,
straight, fleshy stem, with alternate rows of polypi on each side,
and surrounding an elastic stony axis, varying in length from eight
inches to two feet. The stem at one extremity is truncate, but at
the other is terminated by a vermiform fleshy appendage. The stony
axis which gives strength to the stem may be traced at this
extremity into a mere vessel filled with granular matter. At low
water hundreds of these zoophytes might be seen, projecting like
stubble, with the truncate end upwards, a few inches above the
surface of the muddy sand. When touched or pulled they suddenly
drew themselves in with force, so as nearly or quite to disappear.
By this action, the highly elastic axis must be bent at the lower
extremity, where it is naturally slightly curved; and I imagine it
is by this elasticity alone that the zoophyte is enabled to rise
again through the mud. Each polypus, though closely united to its
brethren, has a distinct mouth, body, and tentacula. Of these
polypi, in a large specimen, there must be many thousands; yet we
see that they act by one movement: they have also one central axis
connected with a system of obscure circulation, and the ova are
produced in an organ distinct from the separate individuals. (5/18.
The cavities leading from the fleshy compartments of the extremity
were filled with a yellow pulpy matter, which, examined under a
microscope, presented an extraordinary appearance. The mass
consisted of rounded, semi-transparent, irregular grains,
aggregated together into particles of various sizes. All such
particles, and the separate grains, possessed the power of rapid
movement; generally revolving around different axes, but sometimes
progressive. The movement was visible with a very weak power, but
even with the highest its cause could not be perceived. It was very
different from the circulation of the fluid in the elastic bag,
containing the thin extremity of the axis. On other occasions, when
dissecting small marine animals beneath the microscope, I have seen
particles of pulpy matter, some of large size, as soon as they were
disengaged, commence revolving. I have imagined, I know not with
how much truth, that this granulo-pulpy matter was in process of
being converted into ova. Certainly in this zoophyte such appeared
to be the case.) Well may one be allowed to ask, What is an
individual? It is always interesting to discover the foundation of
the strange tales of the old voyagers; and I have no doubt but that
the habits of this Virgularia explain one such case. Captain
Lancaster, in his voyage in 1601, narrates that on the sea-sands of
the Island of Sombrero, in the East Indies, he "found a small twig
growing up like a young tree, and on offering to pluck it up it
shrinks down to the ground, and sinks, unless held very hard. On
being plucked up, a great worm is found to be its root, and as the
tree groweth in greatness, so doth the worm diminish, and as soon
as the worm is entirely turned into a tree it rooteth in the earth,
and so becomes great. This transformation is one of the strangest
wonders that I saw in all my travels: for if this tree is plucked
up, while young, and the leaves and bark stripped off, it becomes a
hard stone when dry, much like white coral: thus is this worm twice
transformed into different natures. Of these we gathered and
brought home many." (5/19. Kerr's "Collection of Voyages" volume 8
page 119.)

Nam simul expletus dapibus, vinoque sepultus
Cervicem inflexam posuit, jacuitque per antrum
Immensus, saniem eructans, ac frusta cruenta
Per somnum commixta mero.
During my stay at Bahia Blanca, while waiting for the "Beagle," the
place was in a constant state of excitement, from rumours of wars
and victories, between the troops of Rosas and the wild Indians.
One day an account came that a small party forming one of the
postas on the line to Buenos Ayres had been found all murdered. The
next day three hundred men arrived from the Colorado, under the
command of Commandant Miranda. A large portion of these men were
Indians (mansos, or tame), belonging to the tribe of the Cacique
Bernantio. They passed the night here; and it was impossible to
conceive anything more wild and savage than the scene of their
bivouac. Some drank till they were intoxicated; others swallowed
the steaming blood of the cattle slaughtered for their suppers, and
then, being sick from drunkenness, they cast it up again, and were
besmeared with filth and gore.

In the morning they started for the scene of the murder, with
orders to follow the rastro, or track, even if it led them to
Chile. We subsequently heard that the wild Indians had escaped into
the great Pampas, and from some cause the track had been missed.
One glance at the rastro tells these people a whole history.
Supposing they examine the track of a thousand horses, they will
soon guess the number of mounted ones by seeing how many have
cantered; by the depth of the other impressions, whether any horses
were loaded with cargoes; by the irregularity of the footsteps, how
far tired; by the manner in which the food has been cooked, whether
the pursued travelled in haste; by the general appearance, how long
it has been since they passed. They consider a rastro of ten days
or a fortnight quite recent enough to be hunted out. We also heard
that Miranda struck from the west end of the Sierra Ventana, in a
direct line to the island of Cholechel, situated seventy leagues up
the Rio Negro. This is a distance of between two and three hundred
miles, through a country completely unknown. What other troops in
the world are so independent? With the sun for their guide, mare's
flesh for food, their saddle-cloths for beds, - as long as there is
a little water, these men would penetrate to the end of the world.

A few days afterwards I saw another troop of these banditti-like
soldiers start on an expedition against a tribe of Indians at the
small Salinas, who had been betrayed by a prisoner cacique. The
Spaniard who brought the orders for this expedition was a very
intelligent man. He gave me an account of the last engagement at
which he was present. Some Indians, who had been taken prisoners,
gave information of a tribe living north of the Colorado. Two
hundred soldiers were sent; and they first discovered the Indians
by a cloud of dust from their horses' feet as they chanced to be
travelling. The country was mountainous and wild, and it must have
been far in the interior, for the Cordillera were in sight. The
Indians, men, women, and children, were about one hundred and ten
in number, and they were nearly all taken or killed, for the
soldiers sabre every man. The Indians are now so terrified that
they offer no resistance in a body, but each flies, neglecting even
his wife and children; but when overtaken, like wild animals, they
fight against any number to the last moment. One dying Indian
seized with his teeth the thumb of his adversary, and allowed his
own eye to be forced out sooner than relinquish his hold. Another,
who was wounded, feigned death, keeping a knife ready to strike one
more fatal blow. My informer said, when he was pursuing an Indian,
the man cried out for mercy, at the same time that he was covertly
loosing the bolas from his waist, meaning to whirl it round his
head and so strike his pursuer. "I however struck him with my sabre
to the ground, and then got off my horse, and cut his throat with
my knife." This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is
the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty
years old are massacred in cold blood? When I exclaimed that this
appeared rather inhuman, he answered, "Why, what can be done? they
breed so!"

Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war,
because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age
that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilised
country? The children of the Indians are saved, to be sold or given
away as servants, or rather slaves for as long a time as the owners
can make them believe themselves slaves; but I believe in their
treatment there is little to complain of.

In the battle four men ran away together. They were pursued, one
was killed, and the other three were taken alive. They turned out
to be messengers or ambassadors from a large body of Indians,
united in the common cause of defence, near the Cordillera. The
tribe to which they had been sent was on the point of holding a
grand council, the feast of mare's flesh was ready, and the dance
prepared: in the morning the ambassadors were to have returned to
the Cordillera. They were remarkably fine men, very fair, above six
feet high, and all under thirty years of age. The three survivors
of course possessed very valuable information and to extort this
they were placed in a line. The two first being questioned,
answered, "No s," (I do not know), and were one after the other
shot. The third also said "No s,;" adding, "Fire, I am a man, and
can die!" Not one syllable would they breathe to injure the united
cause of their country! The conduct of the above-mentioned cacique
was very different; he saved his life by betraying the intended
plan of warfare, and the point of union in the Andes. It was
believed that there were already six or seven hundred Indians
together, and that in summer their numbers would be doubled.
Ambassadors were to have been sent to the Indians at the small
Salinas, near Bahia Blanca, whom I have mentioned that this same
cacique had betrayed. The communication, therefore, between the
Indians, extends from the Cordillera to the coast of the Atlantic.

General Rosas's plan is to kill all stragglers, and having driven
the remainder to a common point, to attack them in a body, in the
summer, with the assistance of the Chilenos. This operation is to
be repeated for three successive years. I imagine the summer is
chosen as the time for the main attack, because the plains are then
without water, and the Indians can only travel in particular
directions. The escape of the Indians to the south of the Rio
Negro, where in such a vast unknown country they would be safe, is
prevented by a treaty with the Tehuelches to this effect; - that
Rosas pays them so much to slaughter every Indian who passes to the
south of the river, but if they fail in so doing, they themselves
are to be exterminated. The war is waged chiefly against the
Indians near the Cordillera; for many of the tribes on this eastern
side are fighting with Rosas. The general, however, like Lord
Chesterfield, thinking that his friends may in a future day become
his enemies, always places them in the front ranks, so that their
numbers may be thinned. Since leaving South America we have heard
that this war of extermination completely failed.

Among the captive girls taken in the same engagement, there were
two very pretty Spanish ones, who had been carried away by the
Indians when young, and could now only speak the Indian tongue.
From their account they must have come from Salta, a distance in a
straight line of nearly one thousand miles. This gives one a grand
idea of the immense territory over which the Indians roam: yet,
great as it is, I think there will not, in another half-century, be
a wild Indian northward of the Rio Negro. The warfare is too bloody
to last; the Christians killing every Indian, and the Indians doing
the same by the Christians. It is melancholy to trace how the
Indians have given way before the Spanish invaders. Schirdel says
that in 1535, when Buenos Ayres was founded, there were villages
containing two and three thousand inhabitants. (5/20. Purchas's
"Collection of Voyages." I believe the date was really 1537.) Even
in Falconer's time (1750) the Indians made inroads as far as Luxan,
Areco, and Arrecife, but now they are driven beyond the Salado. Not
only have whole tribes been exterminated, but the remaining Indians
have become more barbarous: instead of living in large villages,
and being employed in the arts of fishing, as well as of the chase,
they now wander about the open plains, without home or fixed

I heard also some account of an engagement which took place, a few
weeks previously to the one mentioned, at Cholechel. This is a very
important station on account of being a pass for horses; and it
was, in consequence, for some time the head-quarters of a division
of the army. When the troops first arrived there they found a tribe
of Indians, of whom they killed twenty or thirty. The cacique
escaped in a manner which astonished every one. The chief Indians
always have one or two picked horses, which they keep ready for any
urgent occasion. On one of these, an old white horse, the cacique
sprung, taking with him his little son. The horse had neither
saddle nor bridle. To avoid the shots, the Indian rode in the
peculiar method of his nation; namely, with an arm round the
horse's neck, and one leg only on its back. Thus hanging on one
side, he was seen patting the horse's head, and talking to him. The
pursuers urged every effort in the chase; the Commandant three
times changed his horse, but all in vain. The old Indian father and
his son escaped, and were free. What a fine picture one can form in
one's mind, - the naked, bronze-like figure of the old man with his
little boy, riding like a Mazeppa on the white horse, thus leaving
far behind him the host of his pursuers!

I saw one day a soldier striking fire with a piece of flint, which
I immediately recognised as having been a part of the head of an
arrow. He told me it was found near the island of Cholechel, and
that they are frequently picked up there. It was between two and
three inches long, and therefore twice as large as those now used
in Tierra del Fuego: it was made of opaque cream-coloured flint,
but the point and barbs had been intentionally broken off. It is
well known that no Pampas Indians now use bows and arrows. I
believe a small tribe in Banda Oriental must be excepted; but they
are widely separated from the Pampas Indians, and border close on
those tribes that inhabit the forest, and live on foot. It appears,
therefore, that these arrow-heads are antiquarian relics of the
Indians, before the great change in habits consequent on the
introduction of the horse into South America. (5/21. Azara has even
doubted whether the Pampas Indians ever used bows. [Several similar
agate arrow-heads have since been dug up at Chupat, and two were
given to me, on the occasion of my visit there, by the
Governor. - R.T. Pritchett, 1880.])

(PLATE 23. RHEA DARWINII (Avestruz Petise).)



Set out for Buenos Ayres.
Rio Sauce.
Sierra Ventana.
Third Posta.
Driving Horses.
Partridges and Foxes.
Features of the Country.
Long-legged Plover.
Natural Enclosures in the Sierra Tapalguen.
Flesh of Puma.
Meat Diet.
Guardia del Monte.
Effects of Cattle on the Vegetation.
Buenos Ayres.
Corral where Cattle are slaughtered.


SEPTEMBER 8, 1833.

I hired a Gaucho to accompany me on my ride to Buenos Ayres, though
with some difficulty, as the father of one man was afraid to let
him go, and another who seemed willing, was described to me as so
fearful that I was afraid to take him, for I was told that even if
he saw an ostrich at a distance, he would mistake it for an Indian,
and would fly like the wind away. The distance to Buenos Ayres is
about four hundred miles, and nearly the whole way through an
uninhabited country. We started early in the morning; ascending a
few hundred feet from the basin of green turf on which Bahia Blanca
stands, we entered on a wide desolate plain. It consists of a
crumbling argillaceo-calcareous rock, which, from the dry nature of
the climate, supports only scattered tufts of withered grass,
without a single bush or tree to break the monotonous uniformity.
The weather was fine, but the atmosphere remarkably hazy; I thought
the appearance foreboded a gale, but the Gauchos said it was owing
to the plain, at some great distance in the interior, being on
fire. After a long gallop, having changed horses twice, we reached
the Rio Sauce: it is a deep, rapid, little stream, not above
twenty-five feet wide. The second posta on the road to Buenos Ayres
stands on its banks, a little above there is a ford for horses,
where the water does not reach to the horses' belly; but from that
point, in its course to the sea, it is quite impassable, and hence
makes a most useful barrier against the Indians.

Insignificant as this stream is, the Jesuit Falconer, whose
information is generally so very correct, figures it as a
considerable river, rising at the foot of the Cordillera. With
respect to its source, I do not doubt that this is the case; for
the Gauchos assured me, that in the middle of the dry summer this
stream, at the same time with the Colorado, has periodical floods,
which can only originate in the snow melting on the Andes. It is
extremely improbable that a stream so small as the Sauce then was
should traverse the entire width of the continent; and indeed, if
it were the residue of a large river, its waters, as in other
ascertained cases, would be saline. During the winter we must look
to the springs round the Sierra Ventana as the source of its pure
and limpid stream. I suspect the plains of Patagonia, like those of
Australia, are traversed by many watercourses, which only perform
their proper parts at certain periods. Probably this is the case
with the water which flows into the head of Port Desire, and
likewise with the Rio Chupat, on the banks of which masses of
highly cellular scoriae were found by the officers employed in the

As it was early in the afternoon when we arrived, we took fresh
horses and a soldier for a guide, and started for the Sierra de la
Ventana. This mountain is visible from the anchorage at Bahia
Blanca; and Captain Fitz Roy calculates its height to be 3340
feet - an altitude very remarkable on this eastern side of the
continent. I am not aware that any foreigner, previous to my visit,
had ascended this mountain; and indeed very few of the soldiers at
Bahia Blanca knew anything about it. Hence we heard of beds of
coal, of gold and silver, of caves, and of forests, all of which
inflamed my curiosity, only to disappoint it. The distance from the
posta was about six leagues, over a level plain of the same
character as before. The ride was, however, interesting, as the
mountain began to show its true form. When we reached the foot of
the main ridge, we had much difficulty in finding any water, and we

Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 11 of 51)