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he considered it as fifty per cent less valuable. Hence the Cape de
Verd salt is constantly imported, and is mixed with that from these
salinas. The purity of the Patagonian salt, or absence from it of
those other saline bodies found in all sea-water, is the only
assignable cause for this inferiority: a conclusion which no one, I
think, would have suspected, but which is supported by the fact
lately ascertained, that those salts answer best for preserving
cheese which contain most of the deliquescent chlorides. (4/3.
Report of the Agricultural Chemistry Association in the
"Agricultural Gazette" 1845 page 93.)

The border of the lake is formed of mud: and in this numerous large
crystals of gypsum, some of which are three inches long, lie
embedded; whilst on the surface others of sulphate of soda lie
scattered about. The Gauchos call the former the "Padre del sal,"
and the latter the "Madre;" they state that these progenitive salts
always occur on the borders of the salinas, when the water begins
to evaporate. The mud is black, and has a fetid odour. I could not
at first imagine the cause of this, but I afterwards perceived that
the froth which the wind drifted on shore was coloured green, as if
by confervae; I attempted to carry home some of this green matter,
but from an accident failed. Parts of the lake seen from a short
distance appeared of a reddish colour, and this perhaps was owing
to some infusorial animalcula. The mud in many places was thrown up
by numbers of some kind of worm, or annelidous animal. How
surprising it is that any creatures should be able to exist in
brine, and that they should be crawling among crystals of sulphate
of soda and lime! And what becomes of these worms when, during the
long summer, the surface is hardened into a solid layer of salt?

Flamingoes in considerable numbers inhabit this lake, and breed
here, throughout Patagonia, in Northern Chile, and at the Galapagos
Islands, I met with these birds wherever there were lakes of brine.
I saw them here wading about in search of food - probably for the
worms which burrow in the mud; and these latter probably feed on
infusoria or confervae. Thus we have a little living world within
itself, adapted to these inland lakes of brine. A minute
crustaceous animal (Cancer salinus) is said to live in countless
numbers in the brine-pans at Lymington: but only in those in which
the fluid has attained, from evaporation, considerable
strength - namely, about a quarter of a pound of salt to a pint of
water. (4/4. "Linnaean Transactions" volume 11 page 205. It is
remarkable how all the circumstances connected with the salt-lakes
in Siberia and Patagonia are similar. Siberia, like Patagonia,
appears to have been recently elevated above the waters of the sea.
In both countries the salt-lakes occupy shallow depressions in the
plains; in both the mud on the borders is black and fetid; beneath
the crust of common salt, sulphate of soda or of magnesia occurs,
imperfectly crystallised; and in both, the muddy sand is mixed with
lentils of gypsum. The Siberian salt-lakes are inhabited by small
crustaceous animals; and flamingoes ("Edinburgh New Philosical
Journal" January 1830) likewise frequent them. As these
circumstances, apparently so trifling, occur in two distant
continents, we may feel sure that they are the necessary results of
common causes. - See "Pallas's Travels" 1793 to 1794 pages 129 to
134.) Well may we affirm that every part of the world is habitable!
Whether lakes of brine, or those subterranean ones hidden beneath
volcanic mountains - warm mineral springs - the wide expanse and
depths of the ocean - the upper regions of the atmosphere, and even
the surface of perpetual snow - all support organic beings.

To the northward of the Rio Negro, between it and the inhabited
country near Buenos Ayres, the Spaniards have only one small
settlement, recently established at Bahia Blanca. The distance in a
straight line to Buenos Ayres is very nearly five hundred British
miles. The wandering tribes of horse Indians, which have always
occupied the greater part of this country, having of late much
harassed the outlying estancias, the government at Buenos Ayres
equipped some time since an army under the command of General Rosas
for the purpose of exterminating them. The troops were now encamped
on the banks of the Colorado; a river lying about eighty miles
northward of the Rio Negro. When General Rosas left Buenos Ayres he
struck in a direct line across the unexplored plains: and as the
country was thus pretty well cleared of Indians, he left behind
him, at wide intervals, a small party of soldiers with a troop of
horses (a posta), so as to be enabled to keep up a communication
with the capital. As the "Beagle" intended to call at Bahia Blanca,
I determined to proceed there by land; and ultimately I extended my
plan to travel the whole way by the postas to Buenos Ayres.

AUGUST 11, 1833.

Mr. Harris, an Englishman residing at Patagones, a guide, and five
Gauchos who were proceeding to the army on business, were my
companions on the journey. The Colorado, as I have already said, is
nearly eighty miles distant: and as we travelled slowly, we were
two days and a half on the road. The whole line of country deserves
scarcely a better name than that of a desert. Water is found only
in two small wells; it is called fresh; but even at this time of
the year, during the rainy season, it was quite brackish. In the
summer this must be a distressing passage; for now it was
sufficiently desolate.

The valley of the Rio Negro, broad as it is, has merely been
excavated out of the sandstone plain; for immediately above the
bank on which the town stands, a level country commences, which is
interrupted only by a few trifling valleys and depressions.
Everywhere the landscape wears the same sterile aspect; a dry
gravelly soil supports tufts of brown withered grass, and low
scattered bushes, armed with thorns.

Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of a famous
tree, which the Indians reverence as the altar of Walleechu. It is
situated on a high part of the plain; and hence is a landmark
visible at a great distance. As soon as a tribe of Indians come in
sight of it, they offer their adorations by loud shouts. The tree
itself is low, much branched, and thorny: just above the root it
has a diameter of about three feet. It stands by itself without any
neighbour, and was indeed the first tree we saw; afterwards we met
with a few others of the same kind, but they were far from common.
Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place numberless
threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread,
meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not
having anything better, only pull a thread out of their ponchos,
and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour
spirits and mate into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke
upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to
Walleechu. To complete the scene, the tree was surrounded by the
bleached bones of horses which had been slaughtered as sacrifices.
All Indians of every age and sex make their offerings; they then
think that their horses will not tire, and that they themselves
shall be prosperous. The Gaucho who told me this, said that in the
time of peace he had witnessed this scene, and that he and others
used to wait till the Indians had passed by, for the sake of
stealing from Walleechu the offerings.

The Gauchos think that the Indians consider the tree as the god
itself; but it seems far more probable that they regard it as the
altar. The only cause which I can imagine for this choice, is its
being a landmark in a dangerous passage. The Sierra de la Ventana
is visible at an immense distance; and a Gaucho told me that he was
once riding with an Indian a few miles to the north of the Rio
Colorado, when the Indian commenced making the same loud noise,
which is usual at the first sight of the distant tree, putting his
hand to his head, and then pointing in the direction of the Sierra.
Upon being asked the reason of this, the Indian said in broken
Spanish, "First see the Sierra."

About two leagues beyond this curious tree we halted for the night:
at this instant an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed
Gauchos, who set off in full chase, and in a few minutes dragged
her in with their lazos, and slaughtered her. We here had the four
necessaries of life "en el campo," - pasture for the horses, water
(only a muddy puddle), meat and firewood. The Gauchos were in high
spirits at finding all these luxuries; and we soon set to work at
the poor cow. This was the first night which I passed under the
open sky, with the gear of the recado for my bed. There is high
enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life - to be able at any
moment to pull up your horse, and say, "Here we will pass the
night." The deathlike stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping
watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds round the fire,
have left in my mind a strongly-marked picture of this first night,
which will never be forgotten.

The next day the country continued similar to that above described.
It is inhabited by few birds or animals of any kind. Occasionally a
deer, or a Guanaco (wild Llama) may be seen; but the Agouti (Cavia
Patagonica) is the commonest quadruped. This animal here represents
our hares. It differs, however, from that genus in many essential
respects; for instance, it has only three toes behind. It is also
nearly twice the size, weighing from twenty to twenty-five pounds.
The Agouti is a true friend of the desert; it is a common feature
of the landscape to see two or three hopping quickly one after the
other in a straight line across these wild plains. They are found
as far north as the Sierra Tapalguen (latitude 37 degrees 30'),
where the plain rather suddenly becomes greener and more humid; and
their southern limit is between Port Desire and St. Julian, where
there is no change in the nature of the country.

It is a singular fact, that although the Agouti is not now found as
far south as Port St. Julian, yet that Captain Wood, in his voyage
in 1670, talks of them as being numerous there. What cause can have
altered, in a wide, uninhabited, and rarely-visited country, the
range of an animal like this? It appears also, from the number shot
by Captain Wood in one day at Port Desire, that they must have been
considerably more abundant there formerly than at present. Where
the Bizcacha lives and makes its burrows, the Agouti uses them; but
where, as at Bahia Blanca, the Bizcacha is not found, the Agouti
burrows for itself. The same thing occurs with the little owl of
the Pampas (Athene cunicularia), which has so often been described
as standing like a sentinel at the mouth of the burrows; for in
Banda Oriental, owing to the absence of the Bizcacha, it is obliged
to hollow out its own habitation.

The next morning, as we approached the Rio Colorado, the appearance
of the country changed; we soon came on a plain covered with turf,
which, from its flowers, tall clover, and little owls, resembled
the Pampas. We passed also a muddy swamp of considerable extent,
which in summer dries, and becomes incrusted with various salts;
and hence is called a salitral. It was covered by low succulent
plants, of the same kind with those growing on the sea-shore. The
Colorado, at the pass where we crossed it, is only about sixty
yards wide; generally it must be nearly double that width. Its
course is very tortuous, being marked by willow-trees and beds of
reeds: in a direct line the distance to the mouth of the river is
said to be nine leagues, but by water twenty-five. We were delayed
crossing in the canoe by some immense troops of mares, which were
swimming the river in order to follow a division of troops into the
interior. A more ludicrous spectacle I never beheld than the
hundreds and hundreds of heads, all directed one way, with pointed
ears and distended snorting nostrils, appearing just above the
water like a great shoal of some amphibious animal. Mare's flesh is
the only food which the soldiers have when on an expedition. This
gives them a great facility of movement; for the distance to which
horses can be driven over these plains is quite surprising: I have
been assured that an unloaded horse can travel a hundred miles a
day for many days successively.

The encampment of General Rosas was close to the river. It
consisted of a square formed by waggons, artillery, straw huts,
etc. The soldiers were nearly all cavalry; and I should think such
a villainous, banditti-like army was never before collected
together. The greater number of men were of a mixed breed, between
Negro, Indian, and Spaniard. I know not the reason, but men of such
origin seldom have a good expression of countenance. I called on
the Secretary to show my passport. He began to cross-question me in
the most dignified and mysterious manner. By good luck I had a
letter of recommendation from the government of Buenos Ayres to the
commandant of Patagones. (4/5. I am bound to express, in the
strongest terms, my obligation to the government of Buenos Ayres
for the obliging manner in which passports to all parts of the
country were given me, as naturalist of the "Beagle.") This was
taken to General Rosas, who sent me a very obliging message; and
the Secretary returned all smiles and graciousness. We took up our
residence in the rancho, or hovel, of a curious old Spaniard, who
had served with Napoleon in the expedition against Russia.

We stayed two days at the Colorado; I had little to do, for the
surrounding country was a swamp, which in summer (December), when
the snow melts on the Cordillera, is overflowed by the river. My
chief amusement was watching the Indian families as they came to
buy little articles at the rancho where we stayed. It was supposed
that General Rosas had about six hundred Indian allies. The men
were a tall, fine race, yet it was afterwards easy to see in the
Fuegian savage the same countenance rendered hideous by cold, want
of food, and less civilisation.

Some authors, in defining the primary races of mankind, have
separated these Indians into two classes; but this is certainly
incorrect. Among the young women or chinas, some deserve to be
called even beautiful. Their hair was coarse, but bright and black;
and they wore it in two plaits hanging down to the waist. They had
a high colour, and eyes that glistened with brilliancy; their legs,
feet, and arms were small and elegantly formed; their ankles, and
sometimes their waists, were ornamented by broad bracelets of blue
beads. Nothing could be more interesting than some of the family
groups. A mother with one or two daughters would often come to our
rancho, mounted on the same horse. They ride like men, but with
their knees tucked up much higher. This habit, perhaps, arises from
their being accustomed, when travelling, to ride the loaded horses.
The duty of the women is to load and unload the horses; to make the
tents for the night; in short to be, like the wives of all savages,
useful slaves. The men fight, hunt, take care of the horses, and
make the riding gear. One of their chief indoor occupations is to
knock two stones together till they become round, in order to make
the bolas. With this important weapon the Indian catches his game,
and also his horse, which roams free over the plain. In fighting,
his first attempt is to throw down the horse of his adversary with
the bolas, and when entangled by the fall to kill him with the
chuzo. If the balls only catch the neck or body of an animal, they
are often carried away and lost. As the making the stones round is
the labour of two days, the manufacture of the balls is a very
common employment. Several of the men and women had their faces
painted red, but I never saw the horizontal bands which are so
common among the Fuegians. Their chief pride consists in having
everything made of silver; I have seen a cacique with his spurs,
stirrups, handle of his knife, and bridle made of this metal: the
head-stall and reins being of wire, were not thicker than whipcord;
and to see a fiery steed wheeling about under the command of so
light a chain, gave to the horsemanship a remarkable character of


General Rosas intimated a wish to see me; a circumstance which I
was afterwards very glad of. He is a man of an extraordinary
character, and has a most predominant influence in the country,
which it seems probable he will use to its prosperity and
advancement. (4/6. This prophecy has turned out entirely and
miserably wrong. 1845.) He is said to be the owner of seventy-four
square leagues of land, and to have about three hundred thousand
head of cattle. His estates are admirably managed, and are far more
productive of corn than those of others. He first gained his
celebrity by his laws for his own estancias, and by disciplining
several hundred men, so as to resist with success the attacks of
the Indians. There are many stories current about the rigid manner
in which his laws were enforced. One of these was, that no man, on
penalty of being put into the stocks, should carry his knife on a
Sunday: this being the principal day for gambling and drinking,
many quarrels arose, which from the general manner of fighting with
the knife often proved fatal.

One Sunday the Governor came in great form to pay the estancia a
visit, and General Rosas, in his hurry, walked out to receive him
with his knife, as usual, stuck in his belt. The steward touched
his arm, and reminded him of the law; upon which turning to the
Governor, he said he was extremely sorry, but that he must go into
the stocks, and that till let out, he possessed no power even in
his own house. After a little time the steward was persuaded to
open the stocks, and to let him out, but no sooner was this done,
than he turned to the steward and said, "You now have broken the
laws, so you must take my place in the stocks." Such actions as
these delighted the Gauchos, who all possess high notions of their
own equality and dignity.

General Rosas is also a perfect horseman - an accomplishment of no
small consequence in a country where an assembled army elected its
general by the following trial: A troop of unbroken horses being
driven into a corral, were let out through a gateway, above which
was a cross-bar: it was agreed whoever should drop from the bar on
one of these wild animals, as it rushed out, and should be able,
without saddle or bridle, not only to ride it, but also to bring it
back to the door of the corral, should be their general. The person
who succeeded was accordingly elected; and doubtless made a fit
general for such an army. This extraordinary feat has also been
performed by Rosas.

By these means, and by conforming to the dress and habits of the
Gauchos, he has obtained an unbounded popularity in the country,
and in consequence a despotic power. I was assured by an English
merchant, that a man who had murdered another, when arrested and
questioned concerning his motive, answered, "He spoke
disrespectfully of General Rosas, so I killed him." At the end of a
week the murderer was at liberty. This doubtless was the act of the
general's party, and not of the general himself.

In conversation he is enthusiastic, sensible, and very grave. His
gravity is carried to a high pitch: I heard one of his mad buffoons
(for he keeps two, like the barons of old) relate the following
anecdote. "I wanted very much to hear a certain piece of music, so
I went to the general two or three times to ask him; he said to me,
'Go about your business, for I am engaged.' I went a second time;
he said, 'If you come again I will punish you.' A third time I
asked, and he laughed. I rushed out of the tent, but it was too
late - he ordered two soldiers to catch and stake me. I begged by
all the saints in heaven he would let me off; but it would not
do, - when the general laughs he spares neither mad man nor sound."
The poor flighty gentleman looked quite dolorous, at the very
recollection of the staking. This is a very severe punishment; four
posts are driven into the ground, and the man is extended by his
arms and legs horizontally, and there left to stretch for several
hours. The idea is evidently taken from the usual method of drying
hides. My interview passed away without a smile, and I obtained a
passport and order for the government post-horses, and this he gave
me in the most obliging and ready manner.

In the morning we started for Bahia Blanca, which we reached in two
days. Leaving the regular encampment, we passed by the toldos of
the Indians. These are round like ovens, and covered with hides; by
the mouth of each, a tapering chuzo was stuck in the ground. The
toldos were divided into separate groups, which belonged to the
different caciques' tribes, and the groups were again divided into
smaller ones, according to the relationship of the owners. For
several miles we travelled along the valley of the Colorado. The
alluvial plains on the side appeared fertile, and it is supposed
that they are well adapted to the growth of corn.

Turning northward from the river, we soon entered on a country,
differing from the plains south of the river. The land still
continued dry and sterile: but it supported many different kinds of
plants, and the grass, though brown and withered, was more
abundant, as the thorny bushes were less so. These latter in a
short space entirely disappeared, and the plains were left without
a thicket to cover their nakedness. This change in the vegetation
marks the commencement of the grand calcareo-argillaceous deposit,
which forms the wide extent of the Pampas, and covers the granitic
rocks of Banda Oriental. From the Strait of Magellan to the
Colorado, a distance of about eight hundred miles, the face of the
country is everywhere composed of shingle: the pebbles are chiefly
of porphyry, and probably owe their origin to the rocks of the
Cordillera. North of the Colorado this bed thins out, and the
pebbles become exceedingly small, and here the characteristic
vegetation of Patagonia ceases.

Having ridden about twenty-five miles, we came to a broad belt of
sand-dunes, which stretches, as far as the eye can reach, to the
east and west. The sand-hillocks resting on the clay, allow small
pools of water to collect, and thus afford in this dry country an
invaluable supply of fresh water. The great advantage arising from
depressions and elevations of the soil, is not often brought home
to the mind. The two miserable springs in the long passage between
the Rio Negro and Colorado were caused by trifling inequalities in
the plain, without them not a drop of water would have been found.
The belt of sand-dunes is about eight miles wide; at some former
period, it probably formed the margin of a grand estuary, where the
Colorado now flows. In this district, where absolute proofs of the
recent elevation of the land occur, such speculations can hardly be
neglected by any one, although merely considering the physical
geography of the country. Having crossed the sandy tract, we
arrived in the evening at one of the post-houses; and, as the fresh
horses were grazing at a distance we determined to pass the night

The house was situated at the base of a ridge between one and two
hundred feet high - a most remarkable feature in this country. This
posta was commanded by a negro lieutenant, born in Africa: to his
credit be it said, there was not a ranche between the Colorado and
Buenos Ayres in nearly such neat order as his. He had a little room
for strangers, and a small corral for the horses, all made of
sticks and reeds; he had also dug a ditch round his house as a
defence in case of being attacked. This would, however, have been
of little avail, if the Indians had come; but his chief comfort
seemed to rest in the thought of selling his life dearly. A short
time before, a body of Indians had travelled past in the night; if
they had been aware of the posta, our black friend and his four
soldiers would assuredly have been slaughtered. I did not anywhere
meet a more civil and obliging man than this negro; it was
therefore the more painful to see that he would not sit down and
eat with us.

In the morning we sent for the horses very early, and started for
another exhilarating gallop. We passed the Cabeza del Buey, an old
name given to the head of a large marsh, which extends from Bahia
Blanca. Here we changed horses, and passed through some leagues of

Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 8 of 51)