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Chapter V: Bahia Blanca (Page 2)


I have already mentioned nearly all the mammalia common in this country. Of armadilloes three species occur namely, the Dasypus minutus or pichy, the D. villosus or

peludo, and the apar. The first extends ten degrees further south than any other kind; a fourth species, the Mulita, does not come as far south as Bahia Blanca. The four species have nearly similar habits; the peludo, however, is nocturnal, while the others wander by day over the open plains, feeding on beetles, larvae, roots, and even small snakes. The

apar, commonly called mataco, is remarkable by having only three moveable bands; the rest of its tesselated covering being nearly inflexible. It has the power of rolling itself into a perfect sphere, like one kind of English woodlouse. In this state it is safe from the attack of dogs; for the dog not being able to take the whole in its mouth, tries to bite one side, and the ball slips away. The smooth hard covering of the mataco offers a better defence than the sharp spines of the hedgehog. The pichy prefers a very dry soil; and the sand-dunes near the coast, where for many months it can never taste water, is its favourite resort: it often tries to escape notice, by squatting close to the ground. In the course of a day's ride, near Bahia Blanca, several were generally met with. The instant one was perceived, it was necessary, in order to catch it, almost to tumble off one's horse; for in soft soil the animal burrowed so quickly, that its hinder quarters would almost disappear before one could alight. It seems almost a pity to kill such nice little animals, for as a Gaucho said, while sharpening his knife on the back of one, "Son tan mansos" (they are so quiet).

Of reptiles there are many kinds: one snake (a Trigonocephalus, or Cophias [18]), from the size of the poison channel in its fangs, must be very deadly. Cuvier, in opposition to some other naturalists, makes this a sub-genus of the rattlesnake, and intermediate between it and the viper. In confirmation of this opinion, I observed a fact, which appears to me very curious and instructive, as showing how every character, even though it may be in some degree independent of structure, has a tendency to vary by slow degrees. The extremity of the tail of this snake is terminated by a point, which is very slightly enlarged; and as the animal glides along, it constantly vibrates the last inch; and this part striking against the dry grass and brushwood, produces a rattling noise, which can be 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 quickly.

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, cenotherae, 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 degs.; and in the middle of the day the thermometer seldom ranged above 55 degs. On the eleven succeeding days, in which all living things became so animated, the mean was 58 degs., and the range in the middle of the day 7 between 60 and 70 degs. 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 degs.; the mean hottest day being

65.5 degs., and the coldest 46 degs. The lowest point to which the thermometer fell was 41.5 degs., and occasionally in the middle of the day it rose to 69 or 70 degs. 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. [19] 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 [20] 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."

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.

Nam simul expletus dapibus, vinoque sepultus Cervicem inflexam posuit, jacuitque per antrum Immensus, saniem eructans, ac frusta cruenta Per somnum commixta mero.

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 civilized 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 se" (I do not know), and were one after the other shot. The third also said " No se;" 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 [21] says that in 1535, when Buenos Ayres was founded, there were villages containing two and three thousand inhabitants. 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 occupation.

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 [22] relics of the Indians, before the great change in habits consequent on the introduction of the horse into South America.

[1] Since this was written, M. Alcide d'Orbingy has examined these shells, and pronounces them all to be recent.

[2] M. Aug. Bravard has described, in a Spanish work

('Observaciones Geologicas,' 1857), this district, and he believes that the bones of the extinct mammals were washed out of the underlying Pampean deposit, and subsequently became embedded with the still existing shells; but I am not convinced by his remarks. M. Bravard believes that the whole enormous Pampean deposit is a sub-aerial formation, like sand-dunes: this seems to me to be an untenable doctrine.

[3] Principles of Geology, vol. iv. p. 40.

[4] This theory was first developed in the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle, and subsequently in Professor Owen's Memoir on Mylodon robustus.

[5] I mean this to exclude the total amount which may have been successively produced and consumed during a given period.

[6] Travels in the Interior of South Africa, vol. ii. p. 207

[7] The elephant which was killed at Exeter Change was estimated (being partly weighed) at five tons and a half. The elephant actress, as I was informed, weighed one ton less; so that we may take five as the average of a full-grown elephant. I was told at the Surry Gardens, that a hippopotamus which was sent to England cut up into pieces was estimated at three tons and a half; we will call it three. From these premises we may give three tons and a half to each of the five rhinoceroses; perhaps a ton to the giraffe, and half to the bos caffer as well as to the elan (a large ox weighs from

1200 to 1500 pounds). This will give an average (from the above estimates) of 2.7 of a ton for the ten largest herbivorous animals of Southern Africa. In South America, allowing 1200 pounds for the two tapirs together, 550 for the guanaco and vicuna, 500 for three deer, 300 for the capybara, peccari, and a monkey, we shall have an average of 250 pounds, which I believe is overstating the result. The ratio will therefore be as 6048 to 250, or 24 to 1, for the ten largest animals from the two continents.

[8] If we suppose the case of the discovery of a skeleton of a Greenland whale in a fossil state, not a single cetaceous animal being known to exist, what naturalist would have ventured conjecture on the possibility of a carcass so gigantic being supported on the minute crustacea and mollusca living in the frozen seas of the extreme North?

[9] See Zoological Remarks to Capt. Back's Expedition, by Dr. Richardson. He says, "The subsoil north of latitude 56 degs. is perpetually frozen, the thaw on the coast not penetrating above three feet, and at Bear Lake, in latitude 64 degs., not more than twenty inches. The frozen substratum does not of itself destroy vegetation, for forests flourish on the surface, at a distance from the coast."

[10] See Humboldt, Fragments Asiatiques, p. 386: Barton's Geography of Plants: and Malte Brun. In the latter work it is said that the limit of the growth of trees in Siberia may be drawn under the parallel of 70 degs.

[11] Sturt's Travels, vol. ii. p. 74.

[12] A Gucho assured me that he had once seen a snow-white or Albino variety, and that it was a most beautiful bird.

[13] Burchell's Travels, vol. i. p. 280.

[14] Azara, vol. iv. p. 173.

[15] Lichtenstein, however, asserts (Travels, vol. ii. p. 25) that the hens begin sitting when they have laid ten or twelve eggs; and that they continue laying, I presume, in another nest. This appears to me very improbable. He asserts that four or five hens associate for incubation with one cock, who sits only at night.

[16] When at the Rio Negro, we heard much of the indefatigable labours of this naturalist. M. Aleide d'Orbigny, during the years 1825 to 1833, traversed several large portions of South America, and has made a collection, and is now publishing the results on a scale of magnificence, which at once places himself in the list of American travellers second only to Humboldt.

[17] Account of the Abipones, A.D. 1749, vol. i. (English Translation) p. 314

[18] M. Bibron calls it T. crepitans.

[19] 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.

[20] Kerr's Collection of Voyages, vol. viii. p. 119.

[21] Purchas's Collection of Voyages. I believe the date was really 1537.

[22] Azara has even doubted whether the Pampas Indians ever used bows.

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