Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter VII

Life in Patagonia

From the dribbling warfare described in the last chapter, with clouds of winged things for principal enemy, let us go back once more to that sterner conflict with hostile men, in which the isolated little colony has so often been involved during its century of existence. One episode from its eventful history I wish to relate, for in this instance the Patagonians had, for once, to oppose a foreign and civilised foe. The story is so strange, even in the romantic annals of South America, as to seem almost incredible. The main facts are, however, to be found in historical documents. The details given here were taken from the lips of persons living on the spot, and who had been familiar with the story from childhood.

Very early in this century the Brazilians became convinced that in the Argentine nation they had a determined foe to their aggressive and plundering policy, and for many years they waged war against Buenos Ayres, putting forth all their feeble energies in operations by land and sea to crush their troublesome neighbour, until 1828, when they finally abandoned the contest. During this war the Imperialists conceived the idea of capturing the Patagonian settlement of El Carmen, which they knew to be quite unprotected. Three ships of war, with a large number of soldiers, were sent out to effect this insignificant conquest, and in due time reached the Rio Negro. One of the ships came to grief on the bar, which is very difficult; and there it eventually became a total wreck. The other two succeeded in getting safely into the river. The troops, to the number of five hundred men, were disembarked and sent on to capture the town, which is twenty miles distant from the sea. The ships at the same time proceeded up the river, though it was scarcely thought that their cooperation would be required to take so weak a place as the Carmen. Happily for the colonists, the Imperial armada found the navigation difficult, and one of the ships ran on to a sandbank about half-way to the town; the other proceeded alone, only to arrive when it was all over with the land force. This force, finding it impossible to continue its march near the river, owing to the steep hills intersected by valleys and ravines and covered with a dense forest of thorns, was compelled to take a circuitous route leading it several miles away from the water. Tidings of the approaching army soon reached the Carmen, and all able-bodied men within call were quickly mustered in the fort. They numbered only seventy, but the Patagonians were determined to defend themselves. Women and children were brought into the fort; guns were loaded and placed in position; then the commander had a happy inspiration, and all the strong women were made to display themselves on the walls in male attire. Dummy soldiers, hastily improvised from blocks of wood, bolsters, and other materials, were also placed at intervals; so that when the Brazilians arrived in sight they were surprised to see four or five hundred men, as they thought, on the ramparts before them. From the high ground behind the town where they had halted they commanded a view of the river for several miles, but the expected ships were not yet in sight. The day had been oppressively hot, without a cloud, and that march of about thirty miles over the waterless desert had exhausted the men. Probably they had been suffering from sea-sickness during the voyage; at any rate, they were now mad with thirst, worn out, and not in a fit state to attack a position seemingly so strongly defended. They determined to retire, and wait for a day or two, and then attack the place in concert with the ships. To the joy and amazement of the Patagonians, their formidable enemy left without firing a shot. Another happy inspiration came to the aid of the commander, and as soon as the Brazilians had disappeared behind the rising ground, his seventy men were hastily dispatched to collect and bring in all the horses pasturing in the valley. When the invaders had been about three or four hours on their spiritless return march, the thunder of innumerable hoofs was heard behind them, and looking back, they beheld a great army, as they imagined in their terror, charging down upon them. These were their seventy foes spread in an immense half-moon, in the hollow of which over a thousand horses were being driven along at frantic speed. The Brazilians received their equine enemy with a discharge of musketry; but though many horses were slain or wounded, the frantic yells of the drivers behind still urged them on, and in a few moments, blind with panic, they were trampling down the invaders. In the meantime the Patagonians were firing into the confused mass of horses and men; and by a singular chance — a miracle it was held to be at the time — the officer commanding the Imperial troops was shot dead by a stray bullet; then the men threw down their arms and surrendered at discretion — five hundred disciplined soldiers of the Empire to seventy poor Patagonians, mostly farmers, tradesmen, and artisans. The honour of the Empire was very little to those famishing wretches crying out with frothing mouths for water instead of quarter. Leaving their muskets scattered about the plain, they were marched by their captors down to the river, which was about four miles off, and reached it at a point just where the bank slopes down between the Parrots’ Cliff on one side, and the house I resided in on the other. Like a herd of cattle maddened with thirst, they rushed into the water, trampling each other down in their haste, so that many were smothered, while others, pushed too far out by the surging mass behind, were swept from their feet by the swift current and drowned. When they had drunk their fill, they were driven like cattle to the Carmen and shut up within the fort. In the evening the ship arrived before the town, and, going a little too near the shore on the opposite side, ran aground. The men in her were quickly apprised of the disaster which had overtaken the land force; meanwhile the resolute Patagonians, concealed amongst the trees on the shore, began to pepper the deck with musket-balls; the Brazilians, in terror for their lives, leaped into the water and swam to land; and when darkness fell the colonists had crowned their brave day’s work by the capture of the Imperial war-vessel ‘Itaparica’. No doubt it was soon pulled to pieces, good building material being rather expensive on the Rio Negro; a portion of the wreck, however, still lies in the river, and often, when the tide was low, and those old brown timbers came up above the surface, like the gaunt fossil ribs of some gigantic Pliocene monster, I have got out of my boat and stood upon them experiencing a feeling of great satisfaction. Thus the awful war-cloud burst, and the little colony, by pluck and cunning and readiness to strike at the proper moment, saved itself from the disgrace of being conquered by the infamous Empire of the tropics.

During my residence at the house alongside the Parrots’ Cliff, one of our neighbours I was very much interested in was a man named Sosa. He was famed for an almost preternatural keenness of sight, had great experience of the wild life of the frontier, and was always employed as a scout in times of Indian warfare. He was also a celebrated horse-thief. His horse-stealing propensities were ineradicable, and had to be winked at on account of his usefulness; so that he was left in a great measure to his own devices. He was, in fact, a fox hired to act as watch-dog to the colony in times of danger; and though the victims of his numberless thefts had always been anxious to wreak personal vengeance on him, his vulpine sagacity had so far enabled him to escape them all. My interest in him arose from the fact that he was the son of a man whose name figures in Argentine history. Sosa’s father was an illiterate gaucho — a man of the plains — possessing faculties so keen that to ordinary beings his feats of vision and hearing, and his sense of direction on the monotonous pampas, seemed almost miraculous. As he also possessed other qualities suitable to a leader of men in a semi-savage region, he rose in time to the command of the south-western frontier, where his numerous victories over the Indians gave him so great a prestige that the jealousy of the Dictator Rosas — the Nero of South America, as he was called by his enemies — was roused, and at his instigation Sosa was removed by means of a cup of poison. The son, though in all other respects a degenerate being, inherited his father’s wonderful senses. One instance of his keen-sightedness which I heard struck me as very curious. In 1861 Sosa had found it prudent to disappear for a season from the colony, and in the company of five or six more gauchos — also offenders against the law, who had flown to the refuge of the desert — he amused himself by hunting ostriches along the Rio Colorado. On the 12th of March the hunters were camping beside a grove of willows in the valley, and about nine o’clock that evening, while seated round the fire roasting their ostrich meat, Sosa suddenly sprang to his feet and held his open hand high above his head for some moments. “There is not a breath of wind blowing,” he exclaimed, “yet the leaves of the trees are trembling. What can this portend?” The others stared at the trees, but could see no motion, and began to laugh and jeer at him. Presently he sat down again, remarking that the trembling had ceased; but during the rest of the evening he seemed very much disturbed in his mind. He remarked repeatedly that such a thing had never happened in his experience before, for, he said, he could feel a breath of wind before the leaves felt it, and there had been no wind; he feared that it was a warning of some disaster about to overtake their party. The disaster was not for them. On that evening, when Sosa sprang up terrified and pointed to the leaves which to the others appeared motionless, occurred the earthquake which destroyed the distant city of Mendoza, crushing twelve thousand people to death in its fall. That the subterranean wave extended east to the Plata, and southwards into Patagonia, was afterwards known, for in the cities of Rosario and Buenos Ayres clocks stopped, and a slight shock was also experienced in the Carmen on the Rio Negro.

My host, whose Christian name was Ventura, being a Patagonian by birth, and not far off fifty years old, must, I imagined, have seen a thousand things worth relating, and I frequently importuned him to tell some of his early experiences in the settlement. But somehow he invariably drifted into amorous and gambling reminiscences, interesting in their way, some of them, but they were not the kind of recollections I wished to hear. The empire of his affections had been divided between Cupid and cards; and apparently everything he had seen or experienced in fifty eventful years, unless it had some relation to one of these two divinities, was clean forgotten — cast away from him like the ends of the innumerable cigarettes he had been smoking all his life. Once, however, a really interesting adventure of his boyhood was recalled accidentally to his mind. He came home one evening from the Carmen, where he had been spending the day, and during supper told me the following story.

When he was about sixteen years old he was sent one day with four others — three lads like himself, and a middle-aged man named Marcos in charge of them — with a herd of horses required for military service at a place twenty-five leagues up the river. For, at that period, every person was at the beck and call of the commander of the colony. Half-way to their destination there was a corral, or cattle-enclosure, standing two or three hundred yards from the river, but miles away from any habitation. They drove their animals into the corral, and, after unsaddling and turning loose the beasts they had ridden, were about to catch fresh horses, when a troop of Indians was spied charging down upon them. “Follow me, boys!” shouted Marcos, for there was no time to lose, and away they rushed to the river, throwing off their clothes as they ran. In a few moments they were in the water swimming for life, the shouts of the savages ringing in their ears. The river at this point was about eight hundred feet broad, with a strong current, and two of the lads dared not venture across, but escaped, diving and swimming along under the shadow of the bank like a couple of water-rats or wounded ducks, and finally concealed themselves in a reed bed at some distance. The others, led by Marcos, being good swimmers like most of the Patagonians, struck boldly out for the opposite shore. But when they approached it and were beginning to congratulate themselves on their escape, they were suddenly confronted with another party of mounted Indians, standing a few yards back from the margin and quietly waiting their arrival. They turned and swam away to the middle of the stream once more: here one of them, a youth named Damian, began to exclaim that he was getting tired, and would sink unless Marcos would save him. Marcos told him to save himself if he could; then Damian, bitterly reproaching him for his selfishness, declared that he would swim back to the side they had started from and give himself up to the Indians. Naturally they made no objection, being unable to help him; and so Damian left them, and when the Indians saw him approaching they got off their horses and came down to the margin, their lances in their hands. Of course Damian knew right well that savages seldom burden themselves with a male captive when they happen to be out on the war-path; but he was a clever boy, and though death by steel was more painful than death by drowning, there was still a faint chance that his captors might have compassion on him. He began, in fact, to appeal to their mercy from the moment he abandoned his companion. “Indians! friends! brothers!” he shouted aloud from the water. “Do not kill me: in heart I am an Indian like one of yourselves, and no Christian. My skin is white, I know; but I hate my own race, to escape from them has always been my one desire. To live with the Indians I love, in the desert, that is the only wish of my heart. Spare me, brothers, take me with you, and I will serve you all my life. Let me live with you, hunt with you, fight with you — especially against the hated Christians.”

In the middle of the river Marcos lifted up his face and laughed hoarsely to hear this eloquent address; though they expected to see poor Damian thrust through with spears the very next moment, he could not help laughing. They watched him arrive, still loudly crying out for mercy, astonishing them very much with his oratorical powers, for Damian had not hitherto made any display of this kind of talent. The Indians took him by the hands and drew him out of the water, then, surrounding him, walked him away to the corral, and from that moment Damian disappeared from the valley; for on a search being made afterwards, not even his bones, picked clean by vultures and foxes, could be found.

After seeing the last of their comrade, and keeping themselves afloat with the least possible exertion, Marcos and Ventura were carried down the stream by the swift current till they gained a small island in the middle of the river. With the drift-wood found on it they constructed a raft, binding the sticks together with long grass and rushes, and on it they floated down-stream to the inhabited portion of the valley, and so eventually made their escape.

The reason why my host told me this story instead of one of his usual love intrigues or gambling adventures was because that very day he had seen Damian once more, just returned to the settlement where he had so long been forgotten by everyone. Thirty years of exposure to the sun and wind of the desert had made him so brown, while in manner and speech he had grown so like an Indian, that the poor amateur savage found it hard at first to establish his identity. His relations had, however, been poor, and had long passed away, leaving nothing for him to inherit, so that there was no reason to discredit his strange story. He related that when the Indians drew him from the water and carried him back to the corral they disagreed among themselves as to what they should do to him. Luckily one of them understood Spanish, and translated to the others the substance of Damian’s speech delivered from the water. When they questioned their captive he invented many other ingenious lies, saying that he was a poor orphan boy, and that the cruel treatment his master subjected him to had made him resolve to escape to the Indians. The only feeling he had towards his own race, he assured them, was one of undying animosity; and he was ready to vow that if they would only let him join their tribe he would always be ready for a raid on the Christian settlement. To see the entire white race swept away with fire and steel was, in fact, the cherished hope of his heart. Their savage breasts were touched with his piteous tale of sufferings; his revengeful feelings were believed to be genuine, and they took him to their own home, where he was permitted to share in the simple delights of the aborigines. They belonged to a tribe very powerful at that time, inhabiting a district called Las Manzanas — that is, the Apple Country — situated at the sources of the Rio Negro in the vicinity of the Andes.

There is a tradition that shortly after the conquest of South America a few courageous Jesuit priests crossed over from Chili to the eastern slopes of the Andes to preach Christianity to the tribes there, and that they took with them implements of husbandry, grain, and seeds of European fruits. The missionaries soon met their death, and all that remained of their labours among the heathen were a few apple-trees they had planted. These trees found a soil and climate so favourable, that they soon began to propagate spontaneously, becoming exceedingly abundant. Certain it is that now, after two or three centuries of neglect by man, these wild apple-trees still yield excellent fruit, which the Indians eat, and from which they also make a fermented liquor they call ‘chi-chi’.

To this far-off fertile region Damian was taken to lead the kind of life he professed to love. Here were hill, forest, and clear swift river, great undulating plains, the pleasant pasture-lands of the huanaco, ostrich, and wild horse; and beyond all in the west the stupendous mountain range of the Cordilleras — a realm of enchantment and ever-changing beauty. Very soon, however, when the novelty of the new life had worn off, together with the exultation he had experienced at his escape from cruel death, his heart began to be eaten up with secret grief, and he pined for his own people again. Escape was impossible: to have revealed his true feelings would have exposed him to instant cruel death. To take kindly to the savage way of life, outwardly at least, was now his only course. With cheerful countenance he went forth on long hunting expeditions in the depth of winter, exposed all day to bitter cold and furious storms of wind and sleet, cursed and beaten for his awkwardness by his fellow-huntsmen; at night stretching his aching limbs on the wet stony ground, with the rug they permitted him to wear for only covering. When the hunters were unlucky it was customary to slaughter a horse for food. The wretched animal would be first drawn up by its hind legs and suspended from the branches of a great tree, so that all the blood might be caught, for this is the chief delicacy of the Patagonian savage. An artery would be exposed in the neck and the spouting blood caught in large earthen vessels; then, when the savages gathered round to the feast, poor Damian would be with them to drink his share of the abhorred liquid, hot from the heart of the still living brute. In autumn, when the apples were fermented in pits dug in the earth and lined with horse hides to prevent the juice from escaping, he would take part, as became a true savage, in the grand annual drinking bouts. The women would first go round carefully gathering up all knives, spears, bolas, or other weapons dangerous in the hands of drunken men, to carry them away into the forest, where they would conceal themselves with the children. Then for days the warriors would give themselves up to the joys of intoxication; and at such times unhappy Damian would come in for a large share of ridicule, blows, and execrations; the Indians being full of boisterous fun or else truculent in their cups, and loving above all things to have a ‘Koko-huinche’, or “white fool,” for a butt.

At length, when he came to man’s estate, was fluent in their language, and outwardly in all things like a savage, a wife was bestowed on him, and she bore him several children. Those he had first known as grown up or old men gradually died off, were killed, or drifted away; children who had always known Damian as one of the tribe grew to manhood, and it was forgotten that he had ever been a Christian and a captive. Yet still, with his helpmate by his side, weaving rugs and raiment for him or ministering to his wants — for the Indian wife is always industrious and the patient, willing, affectionate slave of her lord — and with all his young barbarians at play on the grass before his hut, he would sit in the waning sunlight oppressed with sorrow, dreaming the old dreams he could not banish from his heart. And at last, when his wife began to grow wrinkled and dark-skinned, as a middle-aged Indian mother invariably does, and when his children were becoming men, the gnawing discontent at his breast made him resolve to leave the tribe and the life he secretly hated. He joined a hunting-party going towards the Atlantic coast, and after travelling for some days with them his opportunity came, when he secretly left them and made his way alone to the Carmen.

“And there he is,” concluded Ventura, when he had told the story, with undisguised contempt for Damian in his tone, “an Indian and nothing less! Does he imagine he can ever be like one of us after living that life for thirty years? If Marcos were alive, how he would laugh to see Damian back again, sitting cross-legged on the floor, solemn as a cacique, brown as old leather, and calling himself a white man! Yet here he says he will remain, and here amongst Christians he will die. Fool, why did he not escape twenty years ago, or, having remained so long in the desert, why has he now come back where he is not wanted!”

Ventura was very unsympathetic, and appeared to have no kindly feelings left for his old companion-inarms, but I was touched with the story I had heard. There was something pathetic in the life of that poor returned wanderer, an alien now to his own fellow-townsmen, homeless amidst the pleasant vineyards, poplar groves, and old stone houses where he had first seen the light; listening to the bells from the church tower as he had listened to them in childhood, and perhaps for the first time realising in a dull vague kind of way that it might never more be with him as it had been in the vanished past. Possibly also, the memory of his savage spouse who had loved him many years would add some bitterness to his strange isolated life. For, far away in their old home, she would still wait for him, vainly hoping, fearing much, dim-eyed with sorrow and long watching, yet never seeing his form returning to her out of the mysterious haze of the desert!

Poor Damian, and poor wife!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38