Darwin and the Voyage: 08 ~ The Gauchos

We are only a tiny ways through the voyage. Need to hurry up! So, let’s skip ahead a bit and hit the Gauchos.

Well, you don’t really want to hit at Gaucho … they hit back rather hard….

The Gauchos are the cowboys of the so-called Southern Cone and Pampas. The Gauchos are a Latin American version the horse mounted pastoralists that emerge wherever four things are found together: Grasslands, horses, people and cattle. Like all horse-mounted pastoralists, they have been known to have certain cultural tendencies or traits. These include being incredibly good horse riders. It includes a disdain for any sort of locomotion that does not involve a horse. The Gauchos are held in high esteem as a symbol of trustworthiness and strength, this symbol commonly exploited in regional politics in Argentina and Brazil, or by sports teams (in a mascot-like fashion), even in North America.

The Gauchos are beings with four hooved-legs and two heads because a Gaucho is nothing without his horse. Most wars in the region required Gaucho calvary.

Darwin spent a fair amount of time among the Gauchos, and both Darwin and Fitzroy wrote quite a bit about them.

Darwin mentions the Gauchos as part of the calvary in play during junta’s more or less ongoing conflict in Monte Video, in his July and August entries in one of his notebooks. In Baia Blanca, traveling (and getting lost) in a small boat, he gives us a flavor in this entry of September 7th, 1832, of the Gaucho as an exotic entity from the perspective of an English gentleman:

In the evening we arrived at the creek … — There were several of the wild Gaucho cavalry waiting to see us land; they formed by far the most savage picturesque group I ever beheld. — I should have fancied myself in the middle of Turkey by their dresses. — Round their waists they had bright coloured shawls forming a petticoat, beneath which were fringed drawers. Their boots were very singular, they are made from the … hide of the hock joint of horses hind legs, so that it is a tube with a bend in it; this they put on fresh, & thus drying on their legs is never again removed. — The spurs are enormous, the rowels being from one to two inches long. — They all wore the Poncho, which is large shawl with a hole in the middle for the head. — Thus equipped with sabres & short muskets they were mounted on powerful horses. — The men themselves were far more remarkable than their dresses; the greater number were half Spaniard & Indian — some of each pure blood & some black. — The Indians, whilst gnawing bones of beef, looked, as they are, half recalled wild beasts. — No painter ever imagined so wild a set of expressions. …

On October 8th, Darwin notes in the same journal:

The Captain had bought from the Gaucho soldiers a large Puma or South American lion, & this morning it was killed for its skin. — These animals are common in the Pampas, I have frequently seen their … footsteps in my walks: it is said they will not attack a man; though they evidently are quite strong enough. — The Gauchos secured this one; by first throwing the balls & entangling its front legs, they then lassoed or noosed him, when by riding round a bush & throwing other lasso’s, he was soon lashed firm and secure.

The “Balls” he refers to is the boleadoras … a triplet of stone, wood, or metal spheres wrapped in leather and fastened to each other by ropes or thongs, swung over the head and thrown as a very effective hunting tool. You bind up and whack (with the three rocks) whatever you are going after.

In August 1833, Darwin arranged a trip inland with Gaucho guides in the vicinity of Rio Negro. His track across land to Buenos Ayres was considered dangerous unless the travel party was well guarded. He traveled with Gauchos and local Indians, and made many observations not only of the landscape but also of local custom.

Shortly after passing the first spring we came in sight of the famous tree, which the Indians reverence as a God itself, or as the altar of Walleechu. — It is situated on a high part of the plain & hence is a landmark visible at a great distance. — As soon as a tribe of Indians come in sight they offer their adorations by loud shouts. — The tree itself is low & much branched & thorny, just above the root its apparent diameter is 3 feet. It stands by itself without any neighbour, & was indeed the first tree we met with; afterwards there were others of the same sort, but not common.

Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place were countless threads by which various offerings had been suspended. Cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth &c &c. — poor people only pulled a thread out of their ponchos. — The Indians both pour spirit & mattee into a hole & likewise 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 slaughtered as sacrifices. All Indians of every age & sex make their offerings, they then think that their horses will not tire & that they shall be prosperous. — In the time of peace the Gauchos who told me this had been witnesses of the scene; they used to wait till the Indians passed on & then steal from Walleechu their offerings. The Gauchos think that the Indians consider the tree itself as a God; but it seems far more probable that it is an altar.

Apparently the Gaucho shared the almost universal belief among cattle pastoralists that “All cattle are mine…”

About two leagues beyond this very curious tree & 11 from the town we halted for the night: at this instant an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed Gauchos. Off we set in chase & in a few minutes she was dragged in by the Lazo & slaughtered.

And despite what might be thought of as “civilized disdain” for these people, Darwin also showed an empathy for the Gaucho way of life…

— We here had the four necessaries for …life “en el campo”,-pasture for the horses, — water (only a muddy puddle) — meat — & fire wood. The Gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries, & 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 a 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 death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy group of Gauchos making their beds around the fire, has left in my mind a strongly marked picture of this first night, which will not soon be forgotten.

The above references are all from one of Darwin’s notebooks. In his more formal writing for publication, we find more eloquent descriptions.

…their appearance is very striking; they are generally tall and handsome, but with a proud and dissolute expression of countenance. They frequently wear their moustaches, and long black hair curling down their backs. With their brightly-coloured garments, great spurs clanking about their heels, and knives stuck as daggers (and often so used) at their waists, they look a very different race of men from what might be expected from their name of Gauchos, or simple countrymen. Their politeness is excessive : they never drink their spirits without expecting you to taste it; but whilst making their exceedingly graceful bow, they seem quite as ready, if occasion offered, to cut our throat.

The Gaucho, when he is going to use the lazo, keeps a small coil in his bridle hand, and in the other holds the running noose, which is made very large, generally having a diameter of about eight feet. This he whirls round his head, and by the dexterous movement of his wrist keeps the noose open; then, throwing it, he causes it to fall on any particular spot he chooses. … The bolas, or balls, are of two kinds: the simplest, which is chiefly used for catching ostriches, consists of two round stones, covered with leather, and united by a thin plaited thong, about eight feet long. The other kind differs only, in having three balls united by the thongs to a common centre. The Gaucho holds the smallest of the three in his hand, and whirls the other two round and round his head; then, taking aim, sends them like chain shot revolving through the air. The balls no sooner strike any object, than, winding round it, they cross each other, and become firmly hitched. The size and weight of the balls varies, according to the purpose for which they are made: when of stone, although not so large as a big apple, yet they are sent with such force as sometimes to break the leg even of a horse. I have seen the balls made of wood, and as large as a turnip, for the sake of catching these animals without injuring them. The balls are sometimes made of iron, and these can be hurled to the greatest distance. The main difficulty in using either lazo or bolas, is to ride so well, as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily round the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush; and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and like magic caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practised animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.

See: Gauchos and the Vanishing Frontier

The other posts in this series can be found by clicking this link.


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, which is also an alternative history of the Skeptics Movement.