Darwin and the Curious Case of Gaucho Rivero

From 1832-1835, a young Charles Darwin made his way through South America aboard HMS Beagle, during which time he made key observations pertaining to wildlife.  Though Darwin’s exploits on the Galápagos are widely discussed, his travels in the South Atlantic, and specifically the Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as the Malvinas), are less well-known.  And yet, the naturalist witnessed key events setting in motion festering British-Argentine conflict which continues to reverberate today.  What is the historical legacy of Darwin’s voyage, as well as the current political, and even environmental stakes underlying tensions, not to mention hopes for the future?

Such questions were on my mind when I recently retraced Darwin’s travels in the South Atlantic in tandem with a book project dealing with the scientist’s legacy.  En route to Patagonia, where I was to rendez-vous with the Darwin200 initiative, a scientific expedition on the high seas, I first stopped in Buenos Aires.  The voyage of the Beagle must be considered in the context of Britain’s wider international ambitions: just twenty-five years before Darwin embarked, British troops had landed in Buenos Aires during the Napoleonic wars, when Spain had been allied to France.  The British were only ejected after lengthy street-to-street fighting, prompting the Secretary of War to remark that it was a “hopeless task” to conquer a continent “against the temper of its population.”

However, once South American countries achieved political independence from Spain, Britain may have maintained a kind of “informal empire” in the region.  Several years before the Beagle departed, the Admiralty started surveying the South American coast, a task of vital significance given Britain’s rivalry with Spain and the United States for control over natural resources.  The Beagle was tasked with mapping coastlines while scoping out channels and harbors.  Through its surveying, the Admiralty sought to make crucial naval and commercial decisions while establishing a foothold in areas which had been released from trading obligations with Spain.

During its voyage, the Beagle was involved in several neo-colonial incidents.  At one point, for example, a guardship opened fire on the Beagle outside Buenos Aires.  When a customs officer ordered the crew to submit to a quarantine inspection, captain Robert FitzRoy refused and threatened to lob a broadside into the guardship.  The incident raised the ire of Darwin himself, who remarked “oh I hope the guardship will fire a gun at the Frigate.  If she does it will be her last day above water.”  When local authorities later apologized and announced the captain of the guardship had been arrested, the chest-thumping incident bound the crew closer to FitzRoy.

“That incident was tremendous,” says Héctor Palma, a Darwin scholar and professor at the National University of San Martín.  Speaking with me at a local café, he adds the confrontation revealed imperialistic undertones.  Curious to learn why the incident did not encourage further conflict, I caught up with Julio Djenderedjian, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires.  Even if officials wanted to display a show of force, modern Argentina did not yet exist, but was rather comprised of an assortment of nearly independent provinces, with the south inhabited by indigenous peoples.  After the failed interventions of 1806-7, the British turned towards commerce and some 4,000 influential merchants set up operations in Buenos Aires.  The latter were careful not to ruffle any feathers, preferring to stick to business.  “Politics at that time was very bloody,” Djenderedjian says, and so merchants tried their best to get on with all rival factions.

Noemí Goldman, a fellow historian at the University of Buenos Aires, adds that local elites were interested in developing cattle ranching and exporting goods to Britain.  Being able to rely on the expatriate community was convenient for Darwin, who stayed with his countrymen in Buenos Aires.  Later, the scientist’s contacts proved immensely helpful by enabling Darwin to ship bones pertaining to ancient megafauna back to England.  The naturalist visited English estancias, observed English shops, and thought it strange how merchants owned English furniture and drank tea in their new homeland.

The British were subject to local laws, Goldman adds, though they enjoyed the right to practice their own religion.  “There was tolerance,” she said, “and that was exceptional, because Buenos Aires was a cosmopolitan city.”  Djenderedjian stressed the importance of British cultural influence, ranging from private clubs to newspapers to sports to interior decoration to clothing.  “If you go right outside our office,” he remarks, “you will see an important vestige of the British community on 25 May Street” (taking his advice, I later walked by the Anglican church, constructed just a year before Darwin’s arrival).

Anglican church

At the same time, perhaps the authorities were in no mood to pick fights: the governor of Buenos Aires at the time, Juan Manuel de Rosas, favored British business interests. Though his term as governor concluded at the end of 1832, Rosas later took up his role of army chief, prosecuting the bloody Desert Campaign of 1833-34 against indigenous peoples in the south.  When Darwin rode out into the pampas, he was exposing himself to danger and found himself in the middle of Rosas’ war.  Moreover, natural history investigations and coastal survey could be seen as political, if not nationalistic endeavors and therefore suspicious.

Rosas would take a hostile stand towards the British when he returned in later years as governor and assumed dictatorial powers, though in this case he went out of his way to expedite Darwin’s scientific work, providing a passport to “El Naturalista Don Carlos.”  Wasn’t it a bit ironic, I asked Palma, that Rosas would support progressive scientific ideas in the middle of prosecuting a vicious war of ethnic cleansing?  To be sure, my contact explained, Rosas was a caudillo and a traditionalist, but on the other hand “he believed in the notion of a modern country and respected scientists.”

Despite Darwin’s amicable relations with Rosas, the naturalist would shortly witness key events setting the stage for future British-Argentine conflict.  Heading into the South Atlantic, the Beagle sailed to the Falkland Islands twice, in 1833 and 1834.  For some time, the archipelago had been subject to conflicting geopolitical claims: in the eighteenth century, the British maintained an intermittent settlement on West Falkland while vying with the Spanish.  The latter, meanwhile, held an outpost on West Falkland which lasted until 1811.  Five years later, the Buenos Aires government declared its independence from Spain and asserted sovereignty over the Falklands.  To make matters more complicated, by the 1830s, up and coming American interests had begun to conflict with an Argentine settlement in Port Louis, located on East Falkland.

But would it be proper to call the settlement “Argentine,” in a modern sense?  Port Louis itself was inhabited by a motley assortment of people from Europe and South America.  The outpost was run by Louis Vernet, a businessman and Huguenot merchant who originally hailed from Hamburg.  In response to Vernet detaining American sealing vessels, the U.S. sacked Port Louis in 1832.  Buenos Aires had few compelling economic interests in the Falklands at the time, says Djenderedjian.  “There was whale oil, and not much else.  Vernet had his own entrepreneurial pursuits, but nothing more substantial.”  Despite this, General Rosas did send a token garrison force to maintain stability in the islands.  However, the crew — most of whom were American or British anyway — promptly mutinied and killed Rosas’ commander, thus leaving Port Louis defenseless.  Amid a breakdown in order, the British sent HMS Clio to the Falklands in the name of reclaiming the islands.

Portrait of Louis Vernet at the Historic Dockyard Museum

In early 1833, the Beagle happened to be in the Falklands when one of Vernet’s deputies presented his papers to FitzRoy.  The ship’s captain made it clear that Argentine sovereignty would not be encouraged, though Darwin himself expressed no strong views about British claims.  The Beagle only stayed in the Falklands for about a month, but shortly after Darwin’s departure things took a turn for the worse when a group of gauchos (men generally of Latin American origin who work on horseback with cattle) revolted in Port Louis.  Incensed over being paid in worthless paper tokens, the conspirators killed five leading members of the settlement, including a Scot, a Frenchman, a German, an Argentine and an Irishman.

The gaucho revolt, however, fizzled.  Antonio Rivero, leader of the effort, handed over his accomplices and surrendered in a bid for clemency.  The following year, the Beagle returned.  Surveying the bleak aftermath of the revolt, Darwin decried the small population of Englishmen, gauchos, and other “runaway rebels and murderers.”  Going further, the naturalist remarked the Falklands were “ruined,” “worth nothing,” and “desolate and wretched.”  Pursuing his scientific research, Darwin later rode into the countryside accompanied by two remaining gauchos who hadn’t been involved in the revolt.  “They had no temptation to murder me,” Darwin remarked, “and turned out to be most excellent Gauchos.”

Despite unrest on the islands, relations remained harmonious between Argentina and Britain in later years, with a small British community cropping up in the Falklands.  Britain became a prime importer of Argentine beef and invested heavily in banking and shipping.  In Buenos Aires, Brits continued to play an important cultural and economic role, and the two countries enjoyed a “special relationship.”  Indeed, Argentina was the UK’s biggest export market for much of the twentieth century.  Such ties were placed under great strain, however, during the 1982 Falklands War, when the Argentine junta, acting “out of despair” and hoping to rally public opinion, invaded the archipelago.  The 10-week conflict, which cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers, ended with  humiliating surrender for Buenos Aires.

Though gaucho Rivero would seem a mere footnote, his memory was revived in the twentieth century.  When Argentines invaded the Falklands in 1982, Port Stanley was briefly renamed Puerto Rivero.  “For some Argentines,” Palma told me, “Rivero is a patriot, who struggled against imperialism.”  Such claims, however, would seem to be iffy given the murdered multi-national victims represented Vernet’s interests at the time.  More likely, Rivero wasn’t revolting against the British at all, but rather committed an apolitical act of savagery since he did not care for Vernet’s system of debt peonage.  “I’m not sure if you can still find them,” Palma remarks, “but we had some 50-peso notes featuring an image of Rivero.”  The notes were denounced by the Falklands as a “crude propaganda initiative.”

Britain and Argentina restored diplomatic relations in 1990, but Buenos Aires sports a Malvinas museum, designed to convey the Argentine position on the Falklands, while providing information about the islands’ flora and native wildlife.  Interestingly, guides teach visitors about kelp, a local seaweed which intrigued Darwin during his travels (to this day, islanders refer to themselves as “kelpers”).  The Argentines, meanwhile, even passed aGaucho Rivero Bill” banning vessels from docking in Argentina on their way back from the Falklands.  Images of the islands, meanwhile, are visible everywhere in Argentina and are plastered onto buses, trains and schools.

Javier Milei, Argentina’s recently elected rightist president, seeks a “roadmap” towards Argentine sovereignty over the islands, though he accepts the Falklands are “currently in the hands of the UK.”  Less nationalistic than his predecessors, Milei remarks he is committed to getting the islands back through diplomatic means.  Speaking with experts in Buenos Aires, I got the impression Milei is departing slightly from the usual script.  “Malvinas is deeply embedded in Argentine idiosyncrasy,” says Palma.  The islands have been coveted for some time as a strategic shipping point and hold bountiful natural resources from fisheries to oil.  Palma, however, does not believe Milei would go further than rhetorical bromides.

“The idea that we were robbed of the Malvinas,” Djenderedjian added, “still looms large in popular consciousness, and that has been going on since the era of Rosas.”  Ironically, however, Milei admires Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister during the Falklands War, and the president has criticized politicians who “beat their chests demanding sovereignty over the islands, but without any result.”  Perhaps echoing Rosas in his earlier years, Milei has courted western diplomatic support and seeks a trade deal with the UK.

Not only does the festering conflict over the Falklands have a political dimension, but also an environmental component.  The latter would have vexed Darwin were he still alive today: though the naturalist never denied the environment was changing, he might have been taken aback by the current rate of climate change.  In the Falklands, Darwin uncovered ancient fossils which were remarkably old, but now the archipelago must adapt to a much speedier environmental timeframe since glacial melt could result in open sea overwhelming the islands.

Meanwhile, though the whaling industry has been reined in significantly since Darwin’s day, humpback whales in the South Atlantic must overcome the threat of climate change and reductions in prey abundance.  While sailing on the Beagle, Darwin observed seals and noted seal hunting, and though all marine mammals are protected in the Falklands today, seals too face environmental threats such as bird flu, which in turn is exacerbated by disruptions in bird migration and climate change.  Indeed, almost 96 percent of Patagonia elephant seal pups living at breeding sites in Argentina where bird flu was detected recently died.

The standoff in the South Atlantic hasn’t represented a boon to wildlife, either.  In fact, military conflict during the Falklands War contributed to the destruction of native tussac grass, which has been severely depleted since Darwin’s day.  Moreover, secret leaked cables indicate the British government isn’t exactly partial to pesky environmentalists in the South Atlantic.  For his part, meanwhile, Milei is an outright climate change denier.  Friction between the two nations hasn’t benefited marine protections: in a disputed “blue hole” stretch of waters close to the Falklands, fishing fleets have engaged in a free-for-all.  The area is not covered by a regional fishing agreement, and geopolitics has gotten in the way of further safeguards.

Given the bleak diplomatic picture, what are future ecological prospects?  Such questions were on my mind as I flew south to meet the Darwin200 rendez-vous point in Puerto Madryn, a city in coastal Patagonia.  After taking in a grim memorial to fallen Argentine soldiers of the Falklands War, I boarded tall Dutch sailing ship Oosterschelde.  Captain Jan-Willem Bos told me there had been Argentine sensitivities when negotiating the trip to the Falklands.  “It’s more of a formality than anything else,” he said, “and you will get permission, but it’s a lot of bureaucracy.”  While onboard, I met young Argentine cameraman Nicolás Marín Benítez, who told me Buenos Aires has enough money for scientific research, but the current government doesn’t see this as a priority.  On the other hand, he added that improved diplomatic relations between the UK and Argentina might help improve wildlife protection.

War memorial in Puerto Madryn

Whether such relations improve, Falkland islanders aren’t particularly optimistic about successive Argentine governments.  I got a taste of this firsthand after disembarking on remote Saunders Island, lying northwest of West Falkland.  Without a soul in sight, my shipmates and I hiked to a sparsely populated settlement where I met David Pole-Evans, owner of the island.  After touching on climate change and dry conditions, he remarked, “I don’t think things will be any different under Milei.”  Pole-Evans told me he’d been present on the islands during the Falklands War and witnessed military aircraft flying overhead.  “I hate Argentines,” he declared, adding that if there had been combat on Saunders, he would have confronted invaders.  On nearby Carcass Island, meanwhile, motorists place signs in their car windows reading “don’t cry for us Argentina…British and proud.”

In Port Stanley, Darwin’s legacy looms large, from the word Beagle etched into the side of a hill to a distillery offering gin mixed with “Darwin’s botanicals.” I headed to the Historic Dockyard Museum, where I took in exhibits dealing with Vernet, Gaucho Rivero and Darwin.  Outside, signs of British nationalism abound, from a statue dedicated to Margaret Thatcher to a memorial wood.  At one point, British fighter jets buzzed overhead.  Heading out of Port Stanley, I visited Goose Green, a hamlet briefly taken over by Argentine soldiers during the Falklands War.  Inside a meeting hall where residents had been held captive, British flags hung on the wall.  Next door, a makeshift museum held memorabilia ranging from rifles to life-size model soldiers to photos and maps.

Makeshift museum in Goose Green

Later, I visited both Argentine and British memorial graveyards, as well as the wreckage from an Argentine helicopter.  “I don’t think the Falklands conflict will be resolved in my lifetime,” says Linda Buckland, my tour guide.  “It’s the rhetoric from Argentina which keeps things going for another generation,” she explains, as we drive through hills marked by unusual geology and boulders.  “I don’t think it makes much difference who’s in charge there.”

Back in Stanley, I met with Amanda Curry Brown, Director of Policy, Economy and Corporate Services for the Falklands Islands government.  Given deep-seated grievances, could improving diplomatic relations spell joint environmental action, I asked?  Though the Falklands works with Uruguayan and Chilean scientists, Argentina is still “the missing party.”  “The prospects are unsure,” she said.  “There’s a new president and we haven’t received a signal, but that is an area which we hope to expand.”

Paul Brickle, a marine ecologist and CEO of SAERI (South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute), told me Darwin’s impact on scientific studies in the Falklands is “massive.”  The expert was in awe of the Beagle’s original nautical charts from the Falklands, which illustrated the extent of kelp forests during Darwin’s voyage.  Remarkably, the original maps are quite accurate and line up to a large degree with current satellite imagery pertaining to kelp.  That’s good news, the expert said, since it indicates the kelp “is in a pretty safe sweet spot at the moment.”

On the other hand, Brickle was concerned about the lack of a regional fisheries agreement.  “There is no data sharing with Argentina,” he declared.  In 2005, he says, Argentina walked away from the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission.  The scientist says Argentina later overfished, to the point that southern blue whiting stocks crashed.  “Everyone will benefit a lot more from managing regional stocks,” he adds, “and the only way to do that is by collaborating.”  What are the hopes for the future?  “It all depends on the government in Argentina,” he remarks, “and whether they are open or not.”

Despite the Falklands War, Britain and Argentina have been intertwined for two hundred years and for the most part have enjoyed amicable relations.  With the fate of the South Atlantic now at stake, scientific collaboration could be highly significant, though history can still be a polemical subject.  Sitting down with Emma Brook, a geologist and administrator at Falklands College, I wanted to know if the story of gaucho Rivero still held any resonance.  “Argentina has completely distorted history,” she says.  “I think even if you presented them with the facts, they wouldn’t want to hear them.”

Even geology has become politicized.  When he was in the Falklands, Darwin uncovered fossils from the Devonian which lined up with fauna from South Africa, thus providing a vital geological link.  The naturalist’s observations of geological formations helped prove the emerging theory of Gondwanaland, a supercontinent which broke up during the Jurassic between 160 and 125 million years ago.  However, in the minds of some researchers, Darwin’s findings have “unwittingly initiated a geological controversy over the regional geological relationships of the Falkland Islands.”

Just what is the geological history, then?  Previously, some British researchers agreed that most likely the Falklands microplate rifted from the east coast of South Africa.  During breakup of Gondwana, the archipelago could have rotated from its position off Africa to its present position near South America.  Argentine researchers, however, argue the South Africa hypothesis isn’t very “compelling,” and have made the case for a closer Falklands geological relationship to Patagonia.

For her part, Brook calls Argentine scientists “charlatans.”  “They’re doing their darndest to try and make sure the Falklands are connected to Argentina,” she says, adding for good measure, “I have no time for our neighbors across the water.”  Recently, a British researcher revisited contrasting theories of rotating microplate as opposed to the idea the Falklands formed part of a fixed South American promontory.  The controversy, he wrote, is “unresolved,” with differing interpretations of South Atlantic geology “continuing to the present day.”  An ironic historic twist?  Though Darwin noted the islands were “a bone of contention between different nations,” the evolutionary scientist might have been taken aback by geological arguments surrounding his discoveries which continue to bedevil and play out to this day.

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