In the morning, the Captain, Rowlett the pilot & myself started with a pleasant breeze for the Settlement: it is distant about twenty miles. Instead of keeping the middle channel, we steered near to the Northern shore: from this cause, & from the number of similar islands, the pilot soon lost his reckoning. We took by chance the first creek we could find: but following this for some miles, it gradually became so narrow that the oars touched on each side & we were obliged to stop. These Islands rather deserve the name of banks; they consist of mud which is so soft that it is impossible to walk even the shortest distance; in many the tops are covered by rushes; & at high water the summits of these are only visible. From our boat, nothing within the horizon was to be seen but these flat beds of mud; from custom an horizontal expanse of water has nothing strange in it; but this had a most unnatural appearance, partaking in the character of land & water without the advantages of either. The day was not very clear & there was much refraction, or as the sailors expressed it, "things loomed high", the only thing within our view which was not level was the horizon; rushes looked like bushes supported in the air by nothing, & water like mud-banks & mud-banks like water. With difficulty the boat was turned in the little creek; & having waited for the tide to rise, we sailed straight over the mud banks in the middle of the rushes. By heeling the boat over, so that the edge was on a level with the water, it did not draw more than a foot of water. Even with this we had much trouble in getting her along, as we stuck several times on the bottom.
In the evening we arrived at the creek which is about four miles distant from the Settlement. Here was a small Schooner lying & a mud-hut on the bank. 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.
As the evening was closing in, it was determined not to return to the vessel by the night, so we all mounted behind the Gauchos & started at a hand gallop for the Fort. Our reception here was not very cordial. The Commandante was inclined to be civil; but the Major, although second in rank, appears to be the most efficient. He is an old Spaniard, with the old feelings of jealousy. He could not contain his surprise & anxiety at a Man of War having arrived for the first time in the harbour. He asked endless questions about our force &c, & when the Captain, praising the bay, assured him he could bring up even a line of battleship, the old gentleman was appalled & in his minds-eye saw the British Marines taking his fort. These ridiculous suspicions made it very disagreeable to us, so that the Captain determined to start early in the morning back to the Beagle.
The Settlement is seated on a dead level turf plain, it contains about 400 inhabitants; of which the greater number are soldiers. The place is fortified, & good occasion they have for it: The place has been attacked several times by large bodies of Indians. The War is carried on in the most barbarous manner. The Indians torture all their prisoners & the Spaniards shoot theirs. Exactly a week ago the Spaniards, hearing that the main body of their armies were gone to Northward, made an excursion & seized a great herd of horses & some prisoners. Amongst these was the head chief, the old Toriano who has governed a great district for many years. When a prisoner, two lesser chiefs or Caciques came one after the other in hopes of arranging a treaty of liberation: It was all the same to the Spaniards, these three & 8 more were lead out & shot. On the other hand, the Commandante's son was taken some time since; & being bound, the children (a refinement in cruelty I never heard of) prepared to kill him with nails & small knives. A Cacique then said that the next day more people would be present, & there would be more sport, so the execution was deferred, & in the night he escaped.
A Spanish friend of Mr Harris received us hospitably. His house consisted in one large room, but it was cleaner & more comfortable than those in Brazil. At night I was much exhausted, as it was 12 hours since I had eaten anything.
Messrs. Darwin, Rowlett, and Harris set out with me to visit the Buenos Ayrean settlement, called Argentina. Mr. Harris undertook to be our guide, but after two hours' sailing and pulling we found ourselves near the head of a creek, between two soft mud banks, where we could neither row nor turn the boat. We could not land because the mud was too soft to bear our weight, so there we staid till the tide flowed. About two hours after this stoppage there was water enough for us to cross a large bank, and gain the right channel, from which we had deviated, and then, with a flowing tide, we made rapid progress, until the 'Guardia' was announced to us. This was a small but near the water side, but to reach it we had to wind along a tortuous canal, between banks of soft mud: and when we arrived at the landing-place seven hours had been passed among rushy mud banks, surrounded by which we were often prevented from seeing any solid land. The water was every where salt, the tide running strongly, and the boat often aground.
Waiting to meet us was an assemblage of grotesque figures, which I shall not easily forget—a painter would have been charmed with them. A dark visaged Quixotic character, partly in uniform, mounted on a large lean horse, and attended by several wild looking, but gaily dressed gauchos,(*) was nearest to us. Behind him, a little on one side, were a few irregular soldiers, variously armed, and no two dressed alike, but well mounted, and desperate-looking fellows; while on the other side, a group of almost naked Indian prisoners sat devouring the remains of a half roasted horse; and as they scowled at us savagely, still holding the large bones they had been gnawing, with their rough hair and scanty substitutes for clothing blown about by the wind, I thought I had never beheld a more singular group.
The tall man in uniform was the Commandant of the settlement, or fortress, called Argentina: he and his soldiers had arrived to welcome us, supposing that we were bringing supplies from Buenos Ayres for the needy colony. The Indian prisoners had been brought to work, and assist in carrying the supplies which were expected. Finding that we were neither Buenos Ayreans, nor traders from any other place, it was supposed that we must be spies sent to reconnoitre the place previous to a hostile attack. Neither the explanations nor assertions of Mr. Harris had any weight, for as he was our countryman, they naturally concluded he was in league with us; yet, as the commandant had some idea that we might, by possibility, be what we maintained we were, he disregarded the whispers and suggestions of his people, and offered to carry us to the settlement for a night's lodging.
Leaving the boat's crew to bivouac, as usual, I accepted a horse offered to me, and took the purser up behind; Mr. Darwin and Harris being also mounted behind two gaucho soldiers, away we went across a flat plain to the settlement. Mr. Darwin was carried off before the rest of the party, to be cross-questioned by an old major, who seemed to be considered the wisest man of the detachment, and he, poor old soul, thought we were very suspicious characters, especially Mr. Darwin, whose objects seemed most mysterious.
(*) Countrymen, employed in keeping and killing cattle, breeding and training horses, hunting, war, &c.