The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 45 of 164

November 17th.—We crossed the Rozario, which was deep and rapid, and passing the village of Colla, arrived at mid-day at Colonia del Sacramiento. The distance is twenty leagues, through a country covered with fine grass, but poorly stocked with cattle or inhabitants. I was invited to sleep at Colonia, and to accompany on the following day a gentleman to his estancia, where there were some limestone rocks. The town is built on a stony promontory something in the same manner as at Monte Video. It is strongly fortified, but both fortifications and town suffered much in the Brazilian war. It is very ancient; and the irregularity of the streets, and the surrounding groves of old orange and peach trees, gave it a pretty appearance. The church is a curious ruin; it was used as a powder-magazine, and was struck by lightning in one of the ten thousand thunderstorms of the Rio Plata. Two-thirds of the building were blown away to the very foundation; and the rest stands a shattered and curious monument of the united powers of lightning and gunpowder. In the evening I wandered about the half-demolished walls of the town. It was the chief seat of the Brazilian war—a war most injurious to this country, not so much in its immediate effects, as in being the origin of a multitude of generals and all other grades of officers. More generals are numbered (but not paid) in the United Provinces of La Plata than in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. These gentlemen have learned to like power, and do not object to a little skirmishing. Hence there are many always on the watch to create disturbance and to overturn a government which as yet has never rested on any stable foundation. I noticed, however, both here and in other places, a very general interest in the ensuing election for the President; and this appears a good sign for the prosperity of this little country. The inhabitants do not require much education in their representatives; I heard some men discussing the merits of those for Colonia; and it was said that, “although they were not men of business, they could all sign their names:” with this they seemed to think every reasonable man ought to be satisfied.

18th.—Rode with my host to his estancia, at the Arroyo de San Juan. In the evening we took a ride round the estate: it contained two square leagues and a half, and was situated in what is called a rincon; that is, one side was fronted by the Plata, and the two others guarded by impassable brooks. There was an excellent port for little vessels, and an abundance of small wood, which is valuable as supplying fuel to Buenos Ayres. I was curious to know the value of so complete an estancia. Of cattle there were 3000, and it would well support three or four times that number; of mares 800, together with 150 broken-in horses, and 600 sheep. There was plenty of water and limestone, a rough house, excellent corrals, and a peach orchard. For all this he had been offered £2000, and he only wanted £500 additional, and probably would sell it for less. The chief trouble with an estancia is driving the cattle twice a week to a central spot, in order to make them tame, and to count them. This latter operation would be thought difficult, where there are ten or fifteen thousand head together. It is managed on the principle that the cattle invariably divide themselves into little troops of from forty to one hundred. Each troop is recognised by a few peculiarly marked animals, and its number is known: so that, one being lost out of ten thousand, it is perceived by its absence from one of the tropillas. During a stormy night the cattle all mingle together; but the next morning the tropillas separate as before; so that each animal must know its fellow out of ten thousand others.

81. Mr. Waterhouse has drawn up a detailed description of this head, which I hope he will publish in some Journal.
82. A nearly similar abnormal, but I do not know whether hereditary, structure has been observed in the carp, and likewise in the crocodile of the Ganges: Histoire des Anomalies, par M. Isid. Geoffroy St. Hilaire, tome i, p. 244.

On two occasions I met with in this province some oxen of a very curious breed, called nãta or niata. They appear externally to hold nearly the same relation to other cattle, which bull or pug dogs do to other dogs. Their forehead is very short and broad, with the nasal end turned up, and the upper lip much drawn back; their lower jaws project beyond the upper, and have a corresponding upward curve; hence their teeth are always exposed. Their nostrils are seated high up and are very open; their eyes project outwards. When walking they carry their heads low, on a short neck; and their hinder legs are rather longer compared with the front legs than is usual. Their bare teeth, their short heads, and upturned nostrils give them the most ludicrous self-confident air of defiance imaginable. Since my return, I have procured a skeleton head, through the kindness of my friend Captain Sulivan, R.N., which is now deposited in the College of Surgeons.81 Don F. Muniz, of Luxan, has kindly collected for me all the information which he could respecting this breed. From his account it seems that about eighty or ninety years ago, they were rare and kept as curiosities at Buenos Ayres. The breed is universally believed to have originated amongst the Indians southward of the Plata; and that it was with them the commonest kind. Even to this day, those reared in the provinces near the Plata show their less civilised origin, in being fiercer than common cattle, and in the cow easily deserting her first calf, if visited too often or molested. It is a singular fact that an almost similar structure to the abnormal82 one of the niata breed, characterises, as I am informed by Dr. Falconer, that great extinct ruminant of India, the Sivatherium. The breed is very true; and a niata bull and cow invariably produce niata calves.

A niata bull with a common cow, or the reverse cross, produces offspring having an intermediate character, but with the niata characters strongly displayed: according to Señor Muniz, there is the clearest evidence, contrary to the common belief of agriculturists in analogous cases, that the niata cow when crossed with a common bull transmits her peculiarities more strongly than the niata bull when crossed with a common cow. When the pasture is tolerably long, the niata cattle feed with the tongue and palate as well as common cattle; but during the great droughts, when so many animals perish, the niata breed is under a great disadvantage, and would be exterminated if not attended to; for the common cattle, like horses, are able just to keep alive, by browsing with their lips on twigs of trees and reeds; this the niatas cannot so well do, as their lips do not join, and hence they are found to perish before the common cattle. This strikes me as a good illustration of how little we are able to judge from the ordinary habits of life, on what circumstances, occurring only at long intervals, the rarity or extinction of a species may be determined.

November 19th.—Passing the valley of Las Vacas, we slept at a house of a North American, who worked a lime-kiln on the Arroyo de las Vivoras. In the morning we rode to a projecting headland on the banks of the river, called Punta Gorda. On the way we tried to find a jaguar. There were plenty of fresh tracks, and we visited the trees on which they are said to sharpen their claws; but we did not succeed in disturbing one. From this point the Rio Uruguay presented to our view a noble volume of water. From the clearness and rapidity of the stream, its appearance was far superior to that of its neighbour the Parana. On the opposite coast, several branches from the latter river entered the Uruguay. As the sun was shining, the two colours of the waters could be seen quite distinct.

In the evening we proceeded on our road towards Mercedes on the Rio Negro. At night we asked permission to sleep at an estancia at which we happened to arrive. It was a very large estate, being ten leagues square, and the owner is one of the greatest landowners in the country. His nephew had charge of it, and with him there was a captain in the army, who the other day ran away from Buenos Ayres. Considering their station, their conversation was rather amusing. They expressed, as was usual, unbounded astonishment at the globe being round, and could scarcely credit that a hole would, if deep enough, come out on the other side. They had, however, heard of a country where there were six months of light and six of darkness, and where the inhabitants were very tall and thin! They were curious about the price and condition of horses and cattle in England. Upon finding out we did not catch our animals with the lazo, they cried out, “Ah, then, you use nothing but the bolas:” the idea of an enclosed country was quite new to them. The captain at last said, he had one question to ask me, which he should be very much obliged if I would answer with all truth. I trembled to think how deeply scientific it would be: it was, “Whether the ladies of Buenos Ayres were not the handsomest in the world.” I replied, like a renegade, “Charmingly so.” He added, “I have one other question: Do ladies in any other part of the world wear such large combs?” I solemnly assured him that they did not. They were absolutely delighted. The captain exclaimed, “Look there! a man who has seen half the world says it is the case; we always thought so, but now we know it.” My excellent judgment in combs and beauty procured me a most hospitable reception; the captain forced me to take his bed, and he would sleep on his recado.

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