Darwin and the General
12 March 2006 Filed in: The Voyage of the Beagle
In August 1833, when Charles Darwin was on an overland journey in Argentina from El Carmen on the Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca, he came to the encampment of General Juan Manuel de Rosas. Rosas was the wealthy leader of an army of thousands of men sent to the pampas to fight the Indians, who had reacted to the influx of foreigners by slaughtering them. Rosas dressed liked a gaucho, rode like a gaucho but was said to be much more ruthless – especially when he laughed. Darwin had been told stories such as how the General had been known to laugh and then order someone staked out in the sun to become carrion for vultures. So it shows a certain sense of humour on Darwin’s own part, that he records of his meeting with Rosas, “My interview passed away without a smile.”
Darwin was actually favourably impressed with Rosas: “He is a man of an extraordinary character, and has a most predominant influence in the country, which it seems probable he will use to its prosperity and advancement.” This was a view Darwin was later to retract – “This prophecy has turned out entirely and miserably wrong” – in light of Rosas’ maniacal rule once he became dictator of Argentina.
But if Darwin found the General likable, he was positively revolted by his men, 300 of whom camped near Darwin at Bahia Blanca on their way to seek retribution for some of the General’s men murdered by the Indians. They drank the steaming blood of cattle they slaughtered, they drank liquor until they were completely drunk, and then they threw up, covering themselves in “filth and gore“. As Darwin said, “it was impossible to conceive anything more wild and savage.” And he never retracted that.