Patagonia as it offered itself to my observation more than answered the descriptions of geographers,—bleak, barren, desolate, beyond description or conception,—only to be appreciated by being seen.
Viewed from the Straits of Magellan, it rises in gentle undulations or terraces. Far as the eye can reach, in a westerly direction, it assumes a more broken and hilly appearance, and long ranges of mountains extending from north to south divide the eastern from the western shore. The soil is of a light, sandy character, and bears nothing worthy the name of a tree. Low bushes, or underwood, are tolerably abundant, and in the valleys a coarse wiry grass grows luxuriantly. Streams of water are rare. The natives draw their supplies principally from springs or pools in the valleys, the water of which is generally brackish and disagreeable.
The variety of animal is nearly as limited as that of vegetable productions. The guanaco, a quadruped allied to the lama and with some resemblance to the camelopard, is found in considerable numbers. It is larger than the red deer, fleet on the foot, usually found in large herds, frequenting not only the plains, but found along the course of the Andes. Its flesh is a principal article of food; its skin is dried with the hair on, in such a manner that, when wet, it retains its pliability and softness. This process of preserving skins seems to be peculiar to the Indian tribes, and is not unlike that by which buffalo-robes, bear-skins, buckskins, and other articles of luxury, and even necessity, among us, are prepared by the North American Indians. Guanaco-skins are cut into pieces of all sizes, and sewed into a thousand fanciful patterns, every workman originating a style to suit himself. The hoofs are sometimes turned to account by the natives as soles for shoes, when they indulge in such a luxury, which is not often.
The enemy of the guanaco is the cougar, or “American lion,” smaller than its African namesake, and more resembling the tiger in his character and habits, having a smooth, sleek coat, of a brownish-yellow color,—altogether a very beautiful but ferocious creature. His chase is a favorite, though rare and dangerous, sport of the natives. Patagonia likewise boasts of the skunk, whose flesh is used for food. There are also foxes, and innumerable mice. Of birds, the only noticeable varieties are the condor, in the Andes, and the cassowary, a species of ostrich, smaller than that of Africa, on the plains; its plumage is not abundant, generally of a gray or dun color. Its flesh is tender and sweet, and with the fat much prized by the Indians. Like the African ostrich, it is exceedingly swift, only to be captured on horseback, and often fleet enough to outrun the fastest racer.
The climate is severe; the Rio Negro forms the northern boundary, and nearly the whole country is south of the parallel of 40° south latitude. At the time of my capture, which was in the month of May, the weather corresponded to that of November in the New England States. Its chilliness, however, was greatly increased by the bleak winds of that exposed locality. Along the Straits of Magellan the weather is often exceedingly changeable. Sudden and severe squalls, often amounting almost to a hurricane, vex the navigation of the straits, and sweep over the coast with fearful fury.
The habits of the Patagonians, or at least of the tribe among whom I was cast, are migratory, wandering over the country in quest of game, or as their caprice may prompt them. They subsist altogether on the flesh of animals and birds. The guanaco furnishes most of their food, and all their clothing. A mantle of skins, sewed with the sinews of the ostrich, fitted closely about the neck and extending below the knee, is their only article of dress, except in the coldest weather, when a kind of shoe, made of the hind hoof and a portion of the skin above it, serves to protect their inferior extremities.
In person they are large; on first sight, they appear absolutely gigantic. They are taller than any other race I have seen, although it is impossible to give any accurate description. The only standard of measurement I had was my own height, which is about five feet ten inches. I could stand very easily under the arms of many of them, and all the men were at least a head taller than myself. Their average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet, and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high. They have broad shoulders, full and well-developed chests, frames muscular and finely proportioned, the whole figure and air making an impression like that which the first view of the sons of Anak is recorded to have made on the children of Israel. They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.
They have large heads, high cheek-bones, like the North American Indians, whom they also resemble in their complexion, though it is a shade or two darker. Their foreheads are broad, but low, the hair covering them nearly to the eyes; eyes full, generally black, or of a dark brown, and brilliant, though expressive of but little intelligence. Thick, coarse, and stiff hair protects the head, its abundance making any artificial covering superfluous. It is worn long, generally divided at the neck, so as to hang in two folds over the shoulders and back, but is sometimes bound above the temples by a fillet, over which it flows in ample luxuriance. Like more civilized people, the Patagonians take great pride in the proper disposition and effective display of their hair. Their teeth are really beautiful, sound and white,—about the only enviable feature of their persons. Feet and hands are large, but not disproportionate to their total bulk. They have deep, heavy voices and speak in guttural tones,—the worst guttural I ever heard,—with a muttering, indistinct articulation, much as if their mouths were filled with hot pudding.
Their countenances are generally stupid, but, on closer inspection, there is a gleam of low cunning that flashes through this dull mask, and is increasingly discernible on acquaintance with them; when excited, or engaged in any earnest business that calls their faculties into full exercise, their features light up with unexpected intelligence and animation. In fact, as one becomes familiar with them, he will not fail to detect an habitual expression of “secretiveness” and duplicity, which he will wonder he did not observe sooner. They are almost as imitative as monkeys, and are all great liars; falsehood is universal and inveterate with men, women, and children. The youngest seem to inherit the taint, and vie with the oldest in displaying it. The detection of a falsehood gives them no shame or uneasiness. To these traits should be added a thorough-paced treachery, and, what might seem rather inconsistent with their other qualities, a large share of vanity and an immoderate love of praise.
Our horses’ heads were now turned from the shore, and we rode back about an eighth of a mile to a large clump of bushes, unsaddled our beasts, and waited some time for the rest of our company, who had fallen in the rear. They came at last, our horses were turned adrift, fire was lighted, and, as the day was far spent, supper was in order. Then ensued a repetition—a final one, I trusted—of the grand present to be levied on the Hollanders [as the natives called the white settlers], and of the speech which was to draw them out. The Indians arranged that I was to hoist the English flag,—the colors of the unfortunate brig “Avon,” which they had brought along at my request,—and then to walk the shore to attract the attention of the islanders. On the approach of a boat, I was to be kept back from the beach to prevent escape; for I found that they were not, after all, as well assured of my good faith as might have been desirable. They thought, moreover, that when the white men saw a prisoner with them, they would come ashore to parley and offer presents to effect his release; in that case there might be a chance, if the negotiation proved unsatisfactory, to take bonds of fate in the form of another captive or two. So, at least, there was ground to suspect,—and some cause to fear that the rascals might prove too shrewd for all of us!
After talking till a late hour, the Indians threw themselves upon the ground, stuck their feet into the bushes and were soon fast asleep. I consulted the chief as to the propriety of modifying this arrangement by placing our heads, rather than our feet, under cover, since both could not be accommodated. He declined any innovations, and told me to go to sleep. I stretched myself on the ground, but as to sleep that was out of question. I lay all night thinking over every possible expedient for escape. We had no materials for a boat or raft of any description, and it was impossible to think of any plan that promised success; so that, after tossing in body and mind through the weary hours of night, I could only resolve to wait the course of events, and to take advantage of the first opportunity affording a reasonable hope of deliverance from this horrid captivity. Snow, sleet, and rain fell during the night; and I rose early, thoroughly chilled, every tooth chattering. A fire was kindled and the last morsel of meat that remained to us was cooked and eaten. The weather continued squally till the middle of the afternoon.
After breakfast the chief went with me to the shore, bearing the flag. On the beach I found a strip of thick board, to which I fastened the colors, and then planted it in the sand. The bushes around, which have a kind of oily leaf, and readily ignite, were set on fire. I then walked to the beach,—but no boat came. When it cleared up sufficiently to see, I observed little objects moving about on the island. The day wore away with fruitless attempts to attract their attention. With an aching heart I returned, at dark, to the camping-ground. On this island my hopes had so long centred,—if they were now to be disappointed, how could I endure it? The Indians began to talk of rejoining the tribe the following day; I opposed the motion with all the dissuasives at command, assuring them that at sight of our flag the islanders would surely come over in a boat, and that, if they would only wait a little, they could go over to the island and enjoy themselves to their hearts’ content; representing the absolute necessity that I should procure the rum, etc., we had talked of, and how embarrassing it would be to go back to the tribe empty-handed, after all that had been said, to be ridiculed and reproached. It would never do.
Our conversation was continued till quite late, when we ranged ourselves, hungry and weary, for another night. For hours I was unable to sleep. The uncertainties of my situation oppressed me, and I lay restless, with anxiety inexpressible, inconceivable by those whom Providence has preserved from similar straits. It was a season of deep, suppressed, silent misery, in which the heart found no relief but in the mute supplication to Him who was alone able to deliver. Towards morning, exhausted with the intensity of emotion acting on an enfeebled body, I slept a little, and woke at early dawn, to a fresh consciousness of my critical position.
The weather had been fair during the night, but there were now indications of another snow-storm. I waited long and impatiently for my companions to awake, and at last started off in quest of fuel, on returning with which they bestirred themselves and started a fire, which warmed our half-benumbed limbs. There lay the little island, beautiful to eyes that longed, like mine, for a habitation of sympathizing men, about a mile and a half distant. It almost seemed to recede while I gazed, so low had my hopes sunken under the pressure of disappointment and bitter uncertainty. A violent snow-storm soon setting in, it was hidden from view; everything seemed to be against me. It slackened and partially cleared up; then came another gust, filling the air and shutting out the prospect.
In this way it continued till past noon; at intervals, as the sky lighted up, I took a firebrand and set fire to the bushes on the beach, and then hoisted the flag again, walking wearily to and fro till the storm ceased and the sky became clear. The chief concealed himself in a clump of bushes, and sat watching with cat-like vigilance the movements of the islanders. After some time he said a boat was coming; I scarcely durst look in the direction indicated, lest I should experience a fresh disappointment; but I did look, and saw, to my great joy, a boat launched, with four or five men on board, and pushing off the shore. On they came; the chief reported his discovery, and the rest of the Indians came to the beach, where I was still walking backward and forward. The boat approached, not directly off where I was, but an eighth of a mile, perhaps, to the windward, and there lay on her oars.
The Indians hereupon ordered me to return to the camping-ground, but, without heeding them, I set off at a full run towards the boat. They hotly pursued, I occasionally turning and telling them to come on, that I only wanted to see the boat. “Stop! stop!” they bawled. “Now, my legs,” said I, “if ever you want to serve me, this is the time.” I had one advantage over my pursuers: my shoes, though much the worse for wear, protected my feet from the sharp stones, which cut theirs at every step; but, under all disadvantages, I found they made about equal speed with myself. As I gained a point opposite the boat, the Indians slackened their speed and looked uneasily at me; the man in the stern of the boat hailed me, inquiring what Indians these were, what number of them, and how I came among them. I replied in as few words as possible, and told him we wished to cross to the island. He shook his head; they were bad fellows, he said; he could not take me with the Indians. They began to pull away. I made signs of distress and waved them to return, shouting to them through my hands. The boat was again backed within hailing distance. “Will you look out for me if I come by myself?” “Yes,” was the prompt reply.
The Indians all this time had kept within ten or fifteen feet of me, with their hands on their knives, and reiterating their commands to come back, at the same time edging towards me in a threatening manner. “Yes, yes,” I told them, “in a moment; but I want to look at the boat,”—taking care, however, to make good my distance from them.
At the instant of hearing the welcome assurance that I should be cared for, I drew out the watch (which I had brought, according to promise, to have a new crystal inserted at Holland), and threw it into the bushes; the salt water would spoil it, and, if I should be retaken, the spoiling of that would be an aggravation which might prove fatal. At the same moment I gave a plunge headlong into the river; my clothes and shoes encumbered me, and the surf, agitated by a high wind, rolled in heavy seas upon the shore. The boat was forty or fifty yards off, and, as the wind did not blow square in shore, drifted, so as to increase the original distance, unless counteracted by the crew. Whether the boat was backed up towards me I could not determine; my head was a great part of the time under water, my eyes blinded with the surf, and most strenuous exertion was necessary to live in such a sea.
As I approached the boat I could see several guns, pointed, apparently, at me. Perhaps we had misunderstood each other; perhaps they viewed me as an enemy. In fact, they were aimed to keep the Indians from following me into the water, which they did not attempt. My strength was fast failing me; the man at the helm, perceiving it, stretched out a rifle at arm’s length. The muzzle dropped into the water and arrested my feeble vision. Summoning all my remaining energy, I grasped it, and was drawn towards the boat; a sense of relief shot through and revived me, but revived, also, such a dread lest the Indians should give chase, that I begged them to pull away, I could hold on. The man reached down and seized me by the collar, and ordered his men to ply their oars. They had made but a few strokes when a simultaneous cry broke from their lips, “Pull the dear man in! Pull the dear man in!” They let fall their oars, laid hold of me, and, in their effort to drag me over the side of their whale-boat, I received some injury. I requested that they would let me help myself, and, working my body up sufficiently to get one knee over the gunwale, I gave a spring with what strength was left me, and fell into the bottom of the boat.
They kindly offered to strip me and put on dry clothing; but I told them, if they would only work the boat farther from the shore, I would take care of myself. They pulled away, while I crawled forward, divested myself of my coat, and put on one belonging to one of the crew. Conversation, which was attempted, was impossible. It was one of the coldest days in a Patagonian winter. I was chilled through, and could only articulate, “I ca-n’t ta-lk now; I’ll ta-lk by a-nd by.” Some liquor, bread, and tobacco, which had been put on board for my ransom, on supposition that this was what the signal meant, was produced for my refreshment. The sea was heavy, with a strong head-wind, so that, though the men toiled vigorously, our progress was slow. I was soon comfortably warmed by the stimulants provided, and offered to lend a hand at the oar, but the offer was declined. The shouts and screams of the Indians, which had followed me into the water, and rung hideously in my ears while struggling for life in the surf, were kept up till distance made them inaudible. Whether they found the watch, whose mysterious tick at once awed and delighted them, and restored it to its place of state in the chief’s lodge, or whether it still lies rusting in the sands by the sea-shore, is a problem unsolved.
The boat at last grounded on the northern shore of the island. Mr. Hall, the gentleman who commanded the party, supported my tottering frame in landing, and, as we stepped upon the shore, welcomed me to their island. I grasped his hand and stammered my thanks for this deliverance, and lifted a tearful eye to heaven in silent gratitude to God. I was then pointed to a cabin near by, where a comfortable fire was ready for me. “Now,” I heard Mr. Hall say, “let us fire a salute of welcome to the stranger. Make ready! Present! Fire!” Off went all their muskets, and a very cordial salute it appeared to be.