With a fair wind stood out of the river & by the evening were in clear water; never I trust again to enter the muddy water of the Plata. The Adventure kept ahead of us, which rejoiced us all, as there were strong fears about her sailing, it is a great amusement having a companion to gaze at. The following changes have taken place amongst the officers. Mr Wickham commands the Adventure; he has with him Mrs Johnstone & Forsyth & Mr Usborne as under-surveyor. Mr Kent from the Pylades has joined us as surgeon. Mr Martens is on board the Beagle filling the place which Mr Earle is obliged to vacate from ill health.
Running up the River Negro (on the 7th December), Lieut. Wickham found the 'freshes' strongly against him. The banks of the river afforded a pleasing contrast, by their verdure, to the arid desert around Anegada Bay. Most part of these banks was cultivated, and great quantities of fine corn was seen growing. Here and there were country houses (quintas) surrounded by gardens, in which apple, fig, walnut, cherry, quince, and peach trees, vines, and vegetables of most kinds were abundantly plentiful.
Although the banks of the river are so fit for cultivation, it is only in consequence of floods, which take place twice a-year—once during the rainy season of the interior, and once at the time when the snow melts on the Cordillera. These floods swell the river several feet above its banks, bringing a deposit of mud and decayed vegetable matter, which enriches the soil and keeps it moist even during the long droughts of that climate.
The plough used there is wooden, and generally worked by oxen, but it does not cut deeply. Manure is never used, the soil being so fattened by alluvial deposits.
The town of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, is about six leagues up the river, on its northern bank, upon a slightly-rising ground about forty feet above the water. It is irregularly built: the houses are small, one only having two stories; and glass windows are seldom seen: each house has a large oven. A square enclosure of some extent, formed by walls of unbaked bricks (adobes), is called the fort, and within it are the church, the governor's house, lodgings for the officers, and public stores. This fort commands the neighbourhood, as well as the houses (or cottages) surrounding it; and of the hundred buildings which compose the town of Carmen, exclusive of about thirty huts on the south bank of the river, the fort is the oldest. It was built about 1763. Some houses, forty years old, are as fresh in outward appearance, as if built only a few years ago. In a population of 1,400, there are about 500 negroes. Altogether there may be in the town about two thousand inhabitants, but many of the poorer families and negroes live in caves, which were dug out of cliffs on the river's bank by the first Spanish settlers. It is said that they served the Spaniards as a secure refuge from the Indians, who could only approach them by one path, easily secured. These caves, dug out of earthy clay, are not despicable dwellings, while there is a fire in them to expel damp.
About a league from the entrance of the river are the ruins of a large house, which was the "Estancia del Rey." In former days 100,000 head of cattle were attached to that establishment, now there is not even a calf.
Some of the first settlers were living at Carmen in 1833, staunch royalists, every one looking back with regret to former times. One of them belonged to the crew of the Spanish launch that first entered the river. He said, that the Indians were then living in detached tribes along both banks of the river, and were very friendly to the Spaniards. This same old man afterwards made one of the exploring party, under Villarino, in 1786, when the natives were not only inoffensive, but gave them assistance. How different from the present day! when if a Christian is seen by the natives, he is immediately hunted, and his safety depends upon the fleetness of his horse. It has sometimes happened, that persons riding along near this river, have been surprized by a marauding party of Indians, and obliged, as their only resource, to leap off the banks (barrancas), whether high or low, and swim across to the other side. The Indians have never followed; hence this, though requiring resolution, is a sure mode of escape.
Prior to the conclusion of the war between Brazil and Buenos Ayres (1828), the settlers at Carmen lived tranquilly—undisturbed by Indian aggression (retaliation?) but since that time, they have been kept in continual alarm. Prisoners are often brought to Carmen to be ransomed, whom the Indians have taken from other places. They are generally women or children; and as the Indians often find out who their prisoners are, the ransoms asked are proportionably exorbitant. Men are usually put to death, if they do not die of their wounds. There is a tribe of friendly Indians living near Carmen, at the outskirts of the town, who do much hard work for the inhabitants for very trifling remuneration; but they are shamefully abused, cheated in every way by shopkeepers and liquor-venders, and harshly treated by other persons, who seem to consider them inferior beings—unworthy of any kind or humàne consideration. Should one of these poor creatures fall by the knife of a passionate white man, no notice is taken of it by the authorities; the murderer boasts of his deed, and the poor relations suffer patiently the loss and the insult, which they dare not avenge. Having quitted the free tribes, seduced by promises never fulfilled, they would not be received among them again; and their own numbers, originally small, are reduced daily by disease and abominable drugs, which the publicans sell them in what is said to be spirituous liquor (agua ardiente). Mr. Wickham saw a poor Indian woman, between forty and fifty years of age, almost killed by a blow on the head from an ox's skull (with the horns), given by a wretch, who had drawn his knife upon her husband for preventing his kissing a pretty girl, their daughter, who was walking with her. This scoundrel was seen by Mr. Wickham, a few days afterwards, betting at the race-course with the principal people of the place.
Thanks to the influence of Harris and Roberts, and their connections (both being married to daughters of Spanish settlers), our officers and men were exceedingly well treated. Every door was open to them; and the fruit in every garden was freely, as well as sincerely offered. Letters had been forwarded to the commandant or governor, from Buenos Ayres, desiring that we might have every facility and freedom in our operations; but the disposition towards us was such, that those letters were not required.
From the remains of former buildings, and accounts of the old men, Lieutenant Wickham thought that the Spanish settlers must have been far more industrious and ingenious than their creole descendants, who are idle, indolent, and ignorant. The height of their ambition is to make a show at the Sunday races, where they deceive, drink, wrangle, gamble, and quarrel. These Sabbath occupations are always attended by the female part of the population, who take that opportunity of displaying their finery; and though seated upon handkerchiefs on the sandy ground, without any defence from sun, wind, dust, or rain, every damsel displays silk stockings and a gaudy dress upon these occasions. The men do not go near them, notwithstanding their attire: they can beat a poor woman almost to death, upon occasion; but they cannot defer a bet, or risk losing a dollar, for the sake of female society.
The climate is so healthy, that illness of any kind is scarcely known; and the inhabitants, in general, live to a good old age. There is a stirring trade carried on in small vessels, between Buenos Ayres and this place. Salt, of excellent quality, hides, peltry, seal or sea-elephant oil, and skins, are the principal exports, in return for which are received manufactures, sugar, spirits, tobacco, &c.
The Indians, who live at the outskirts of the town in 'toldos,' which are neither wind nor water-tight, load vessels with salt; but the price of their labour is usually spent in some kind of spirituous liquor, which is made and drugged expressly for them—the publicans often saying, "that it is a sin to give an Indian good spirits." When drunk, the howling of these poor wretches is quite frightful. Some of them are almost skeletons—the result, probably, of drinking.
Some leagues up the river coal is obtained, I was informed, but I did not see a specimen myself. Probably Mr. Darwin had an opportunity of examining its quality.