Chapter 04 – Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca

Thus we have a little living world within itself adapted to these inland lakes of brine.
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

On April 3, 1833, the Beagle arrives at the mouth of the Rio Negro. Darwin begins by commenting on the geography: sandstone strata, with a layer of pumice (volcanic) pebbles – did these travel all the way (400 miles) from the Andes? The surface is largely gravel, with even brackish water scarce. The small colony, called El Carmen (or Patagones), is small and at risk from attack by Indians, and stories of several such attacks are related to Darwin.

He rides to a salt water lake, and is amazed to find that the lake is inhabited, by, among other things, worms, and wonders at how these could be live, “crawling among crystals of sulphate of soda and lime”. He suspects that the reddish tinge to some parts of the lake is caused by infusoria, and that the green tinge in others is caused by yellow-green algae. He notes that flamingos live and breed near this lake, as they often do around brine lakes.

Brine shrimp (which I should mention is given a tale in Richard Dawkins’ wonderful The Ancestor’s Tale), live, we are told, in great numbers around the brine-pans in Lymington (in England) – but only where the water is extremely salty!

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.

Darwin travels with a party to Bahia Blanca, setting out on August 11, and Darwin enjoys what is apparently his first night camping out under the open sky. There are few animals about, but Darwin is curious about the agouti – a creature similar (in some ways) to a rabbit. It fills the same ecological niche, and yet it has only three hind toes (rabbits have four), and is significantly larger. The agouti seem to have had their range greatly limited sometime in the last 150 years, and was previously far more abundant in some locations, and Darwin wonders what has changed, in this barely inhabited country, to so alter the agouti’s range.

Shortly after arriving at the Rio Colorado, the party arrive at the camp of General Rosas, the former governor and current military commander of Argentina. Darwin thought highly of him at the time, writing “He is a man of extraordinary character, and has a most predominant influence in the country, which it seems he will use to its prosperity and advancement”. An 1845 footnote adds: “This prophecy has turned out entirely and miserably wrong”.

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.

The party travel through a marsh, and Darwin’s horse falls, covering him in mud and without a change of clothes. There is also a threat of Indian attack, and follow the line of a marsh (which offers the easiest escape, as you can still get away on foot even if your horse is tired or taken out).

Bahia Blanca is a very small village, and under some threat of attack, as the land was taken by force by the Argentine government, as opposed to being bought. On arriving, Darwin goes to see if the Beagle has arrived yet; it has not. There is little water available, and Darwin is somewhat distressed at the lack. One one ride out to the harbour, the party worries that there may be Indians hunting them, but this only turns out to be the wife and sister-in-law of the major’s son.

They sleep in Punta Alta, and Darwin spends some time looking for fossils. In the morning, they find the fresh tracks of a puma, and see a number of skunks (which all other animals – and Darwin’s party – make a point of avoiding).

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