Darwin and the Voyage: 07 ~ South of the Tropics

Eventually, the Beagle headed south to the area of Uruguay and Argentina, still on the Atlantic Coast, where extensive mapping of the coastal waters was required.

The Parana and Uruguay Rivers meet in the Atlantic estuary known as Rio de la Plata. On the north side of this huge body of water is Montevideo, Uruguay, and on the south side, the northern coast of Argentina. There is an interesting story linked with early European exploration of this area. A Spanish ship is the first known European craft to explore La Plata. The ship's captain and a small crew went inland, and never came back. One story has them killed and eaten by the natives, another has it as a mutiny. This was in 1515 or 1516.

Years later, according to this story, Sebastian Cabot came to this area and discovered an unusually large native who appears to have been a cabin boy in that early ill-fated shore party, saved and brought up by the natives. He was brought back to Europe, and later returned to La Plata where he was never seen again. Again.

There are multiple versions of this story, but it is similar to dozens of cases of trans-Atlantic culture contact of one kind or another. One of the more famous of these stories is related in Darwin's Voyage, and we'll get to that later.

As the Beagle passed farther south, the (relatively) cosmopolitan nature of the coastal communities gave way to a much more frontier-like setting, becoming increasingly stranger and increasingly dangerous (at least in perception) to the traveling Europeans. The coastline also became increasingly unknown, and since the Beagle's primary mission was to map this coast line, Darwin spent a lot of time in this area (two years, approximately). This meant that he did not need to chose between biologizing, geologizing, or getting to know the locals. He did all three in abundance.

I staid ten weeks at Maldonado [Near Montevideo], in which time a nearly perfect collection of the animals, birds, and reptiles, was procured. Before making any observations respecting them, I will give an account of a little excursion I made as far as the river Polanco, which is about seventy miles distant, in a northerly direction. I may mention, as a proof how cheap every thing is in this country, that I paid only two dollars a day, or eight shillings, for two men, together with a troop of about a dozen riding-horses. My companions were well armed with pistols and sabres; a precaution which I thought rather unnecessary; but the first piece of news we heard was, that, the day before, a traveller from Monte Video had been found dead on the road, with his throat cut. This happened close to a cross, the record of a former murder.

I am especially fond of the following passage, but it requires some explanation (as does my fondness for it).

Euro-Americans are kind of stupid when it comes to certain things, one being how to assess the "intelligence" or abilities of other people. The way it works with many Euro-Americans is this: You have a way of doing things, and know it is good and right. You also have a body of knowledge and know that it is appropriate and proper. Now, everyone else who does not share your behavior and body of knowledge must, therefore, be lesser in a number of ways. Of lesser intelligence, of lesser education, of lesser ability, etc.

This is of course a very ethnocentric, cultural-centric and ego-centric viewpoint. What many Euro-Americans do not know are the following two things: 1) Not everyone else, in other cultures, views the world this way; and 2) A thoughtful examination of these ways of acting and knowing will reveal that they are not the only or best ways.

Having said this, it is important to realize that when someone from "The West" arrives in some other part of the world, there will often be a conflict in knowledge or ability in many areas where the European is the one who knows the cool things or has the cool stuff. Or the reverse. This conflict is what drives some people to explore other parts of the world, to understand these differences and enjoy them. I spent a fair amount of time living in the Central African rain forest doing just this, trying to understand the ways of life of people who were good at, and knew about, totally different things than myself.

Many of my fondest memories of those experiences center on these conflicts. Like the time that four Efe (Pygmy) men asked me to borrow a blanket. It was night, very cold, and we had no shelter. All I had to give them was a folded up sheet that I had taken from the store room at the research camp 12 kilometers away. This was a sheet I had not folded or put away ... it was just sitting there on the shelf.

It turned out that this was a very thin cotton king-size sheet. If an Efe person (remember, they are very small people) has a piece of cloth of their own, it will be a maximum size of about 1.2 meters by 1 meter in size, but usually this would be cut into three pieces to be shared. This king size sheet was way, way bigger, but it did not look as big when it was still folded up.

So, I handed the folded sheet to one of these guys. He unfolded it once, then again, and at this point it is about the size of one of their own cloths. Then he unfolded it again. And again. And it was now huge. At this point, they are laughing at the absurdity of how large this sheet is. Of course, they totally get the size difference between "us and them" (although we all forgot this difference far more often than we cognized it). They thought of me as absurdly large. Whenever I would encounter some object of theirs that was really really small (like a house or a "chair") I would be struck by the size differences of the people and their artifacts, and the same in reverse happened. One (or maybe two) more unfoldings, and this sheet was large enough to cover two of their houses. They did not stop laughing for a very long time. They are probably still laughing.

Similarly, this: A central part of my research involved mapping everything in, so I had mapping tools. Meanwhile, the Efe already knew where most things were ... they were familiar with the geography of their neighborhood. But of course, I wanted to know the limits and extent of their knowledge. What was their mental map like, and how did it differ from an "objective" map, made with my mapping tools. As a result, I was often asking them where things were, but with the guys I was working with most of the time, I also showed them how my mapping tools (including a compass) worked. After a year and a half or a bit less, I was able to navigate myself around their territories as well as they could, and in some cases, when we were all lost, it was me, and not them, finding the way to a known point, using my trusty compass.

With that in mind, let's see what Darwin wrote...

On the first night we slept at a retired little country-house; and there I soon found out, that I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been. At one house a young woman, who was ill in bed, sent to entreat me to come and show her the compass. If their surprise was great, mine was greater, to find such ignorance among people who possessed their thousands of cattle, and "estancias" of great extent. It can only be accounted for by the circumstance that this retired part of the country is seldom visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the north; where Spain was, and many other such questions. The greater number of the inhabitants had an indistinct idea that England, London, and North America, were different names for the same place; but the better informed well knew that London and North America were separate countries close together, and that England was a large town in London! I carried with me some promethean matches, which I ignited by biting; it was thought so wonderful that a man should strike fire with his teeth, that it was usual to collect the whole family to see it: I was once offered a dollar for a single one. Washing my face in the morning, caused much speculation at the village of Las Minas; a superior tradesman closely cross-questioned me about so singular a practice; and likewise why on board we wore our beards; for he had heard from my guide that we did so. He eyed me with much suspicion; perhaps he had heard of ablutions in the Mahomedan religion, and knowing me to be a heretick, probably he came to the conclusion that all hereticks were Turks. It is the general custom in this country to ask for a night's lodging at the first convenient house. The astonishment at the compass, and my other feats in jugglery, was to a certain degree advantageous, as with that, and the long stories my guides told of my breaking stones, knowing venemous from harmless snakes, collecting insects, &c., I repaid them for their hospitality. I am writing as if I had been among the inhabitants of central Africa: Banda Oriental would not be flattered by the comparison; but such were my feelings at the time.

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

See also:

Verdesio, Gustavo. (2001) Forgotten Conquests: Rereading New World History from the Margins. Temple University Press.


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.

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Love it. Afriqua kicks my ass every single day. How did I get thru life before coming here? Of course they're ALL laughing!

I think every living person knows something I don't. We were out in a fairly remote part of Amazonas state in Venezuela. Collecting fish, accompanied by a tribal Indian. It started to rain, which we ignored, being already wet. Our companion, however, was dry. In less than a minute he had created a rain proof structure for himself out of large leaves, and a seat underneath of woven vines. I was impressed.

Along was an expert on snakes of the region. We went snake hunting with a couple of Indians. They were very good at finding snakes, but did know them very well. My friend instantly recognized each snake (all were non venomous, wonder if the Indians knew the venomous ones and did not point them out.) He would grab the snake, tell the Indians a name for it and show them the key characters. The Indians were interested and impressed.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Feb 2011 #permalink

(all were non venomous, wonder if the Indians knew the venomous ones and did not point them out.)

Right! How would you know! This is why short term ethnography never works. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to fool the natives, and even getting up early will not work unless you do it every day for a few years.