The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

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by Andreas Madsen

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Sketches of Old Patagonia


by Andreas Madsen

In one of my journeys to the coast I happened to arrive in Santa Cruz a couple of days after Bobby, one of my oldest friends, had got married, and he and Annie were very busy organizing their "honeymoon", packing up their belongings to move to their future home, half-way on the road to the Cordillera and about forty leagues from Santa Cruz.

More than one reader will say: "So what? Forty leagues are not a big deal." It is true that today, with automobiles and good roads, they are insignificant. But in those times forty leagues really meant something. There was scarcely a trail, made by a few ox-carts; the only vehicles available were drawn by oxen or horses, and there was not one hotel to spend the night. The pampa was endless, and in all the route there was only one small farm, located more or less at the mid-point of the journey.

Since my return journey to Lago Viedma would take me on their same route, I arranged to wait two days to accompany them: I did not enjoy travelling alone and I could always give them a hand. I was travelling light, with just two horses: I had come to the coast to load my ox-carts with provisions for the winter. I watched their departure from Paso Ibáñez, which was not so easy, because the carters — generally Chileans — frequently got drunk and turned quarrelsome. With a balanced mixture of diplomacy and physical persuasion, I managed to see them safely on their road, and followed them for a day to reassure myself that none of them would return to the bar.

When I returned to Paso Ibáñez, Bobby had his wagon ready to leave at dawn on the following day, with an impressive cargo of trunks, furniture, provisions and other items; it resembled a skyscraper in miniature. I asked "Are you not afraid to sit on top?" At this he laughed, for he was a man who feared nothing.

He had lashed everything very securely, and, once the horses were penned up in the corral to prevent them from straying in the night, we went to the bar, or — pardon me — to the "hotel", and to a "real hotel", because it offered eleven small rooms, each with two beds for guests. There was Annie — God bless her — preparing an enjoyable, full evening meal for us, something like a farewell to civilization, all very proper and orderly. In any other circumstances Bobby and I would have celebrated the departure in our customary boisterous fashion.

We started the following morning. The horses — mostly untamed — gave us a lot of work, but we finally secured everything. I took charge of the front ones until Bobby was able to perch on top of the wagon and grasp the reins — an acrobatic feat, since some of the horses attempted to break loose. When he shouted "Let go!" I jumped to one side, and off went the bad-tempered wagon, jolting and bucking and shaking over the pampa. But Bobby had a firm grip, and he soon tamed them. There was none more capable than he to drive a full team of cart horses, but, had the cargo not been well tied down, everything would have been spread across the pampa. 

Following the cart came Annie, in a break [1] driven by old Cameron, Bobby's business partner, and I brought up the tail on horseback.

Everything went well that day: we covered four leagues, after which we had to camp on account of the cargo horses, which were getting tired due to the excessive weight of the cargo. We chose a pleasant spot beside some large calafate bushes; a canvas, hung between the wheels to give shelter from the wind, together with a cape for a roof and protection for the cargo, provided shelter beneath the wagon — there Annie made her bed. Cameron and I settled down with our horse gear next to the fire.

After eating, as darkness fell, we heard the voice of someone singing, and were surprised to see our friend Albert who, with a German called Herman, and a herd of cattle and horses, had settled to the south of Lago Viedma. Albert was on his way down with an ox-cart, and this encounter happened in the same place where I had met him on my way down, searching for his oxen which had been lost during his stay in Santa Cruz. Since he was an optimist, and, confident that he would straightway locate his animals, he had not even saddled his horse, riding bareback instead; he had now been searching for six days, but had finally found his oxen on the road to San Julián.

After serving him a couple of mates, Annie asked: "But, have you eaten?" Albert laughed and replied: "Yes, but six days ago." Annie looked at him puzzled, and then she looked at us. I explained to her that I had met him while coming down, and that since then he had been searching for his oxen. "However," Albert added, "I don't mean that I haven't eaten anything in all that time: I managed to grab a couple of armadillos and roasted them, but, in truth, it's been six days since I saw a real meal." Annie ran to the wagon, returning with a basket full of cold meats, roast chicken, etc., and passed him a leg of chicken with a slice of bread, exclaiming "Well, you must be hungry, for God's sake". Now, Albert was young and strong as a Viking, and normally had the appetite of a healthy young lad; but, after six days without food, he admitted that he was hungry; so, when Annie was about to pass him another serving, he interrupted her, saying "Don't go to any trouble, ma'am, I can serve myself." And with that he took charge of the basket and proceeded to conscientiously lighten its load.

Annie surveyed the devastation with a heavy heart. She had carefully calculated that the basket would last for the whole journey, so as not to have to unpack pots and frying pans. However, I am sure that she did not think for a moment of rationing anything. "Thanks very much, ma'am; I really enjoyed it", said Albert, as he finally handed back the basket, which Annie returned to the cart.

After chatting for a while, Bobby and Annie retired to their nuptial bed underneath the cart, Cameron and I lay down beside the fire, and Albert did likewise, covering his eyes with his only trapping — his cap. And we all slept the sleep of the just.

Things were going well. Bobby's horses got used to the caravan arrangement and didn't give us any more trouble in the morning. On the fourth day we met Bill Downer, another settler from Viedma, coming towards us with a cargo of wool. At this point, Annie's sole worry was the arrangements for our morning ablutions, because Bobby had forgotten to leave the basin accessible, and, even though we always camped beside some spring, it was awkward to wash up without it. Fortunately, in my baggage I had a tin mug, useful for cooking stew, or making coffee, or whatever; I offered it to Annie and that, somehow or other, solved the problem — although we never understood how she managed to wash with it, while keeping it permanently shiny. Bobby and I were not in the habit of paying much attention to our personal hygiene, and Annie was always scolding us on that score.

Well, this encounter with Old Bill put us on the spot, because, having heard of our imminent arrival, he had galloped over the previous night to a country store on the Río Chico, to buy a new suit, complete with hat. And so, when Bill was introduced to Annie that morning, he was dressed like a real dandy and was "painfully clean". The outcome was swift: "You men always say that it is impossible to stay clean while travelling; just look at this gentleman, as clean as he ought to be, despite travelling for a fortnight since leaving the Cordillera."

We were obliged to hang our heads, so as not to expose our friend; only old Cameron dared to mumble: "You should have seen his hands yesterday, ma'am." "I don't think so," Annie replied, "I'm sure that he is always like this". We all agreed with her, because we were very fond of Bill, but he was one up on us on this occasion.

After seven days we reached the district where Annie and Bobby were to settle. Annie had borne the journey well, ever spirited and thinking of the house that awaited her. Certainly, it had not been a pleasure trip in that open wagonette, with a near-constant head wind bringing gusts of dust and sand; but when she arrived and, for the first time, saw her "house", she sat down and sobbed bitterly. Not without reason — the house was a mud cabin thatched with reeds, three small rooms, with neither ceiling nor floor. The previous occupants had been tremendously untidy, and the surroundings were a rubbish heap — filth inside and out, and no-one to bid us welcome. Bobby had just one worker, his shepherd, who was away, looking after the flock: he had a lot of work on the open range, with Indian tents nearby and their swarm of dogs of every breed, never leashed or supervised, who wandered freely and caused more damage to the flock than all the pumas.

When Annie finally stopped sobbing, she got up, and, determined young woman that she was, set to work on the pigsty, putting her energy into the task.  Straightaway the four of us were busy with brushes; there was little use for water or broomstick, for there were only two doors made of makeshift nailed planks. With a few hours of sustained labour, we removed the greater part of the rubbish, both inside and out, installed some of the furniture, while in one of the rooms we hung a canvas as a ceiling. Annie insisted on covering the bare floor with a carpet; but, since the cart had arrived full of dust and sand, it was hard work cleaning everything. I attacked the carpet with a brush, beating it conscientiously, and when Bobby approached, bringing something from the cart, I joked with him: "Soon you are going to be shaken like this sack." Now, when someone gets into trouble it is generally through carelessness; and if I had been on the lookout, I would have checked first that Annie wasn't close by. I didn't, and, lo and behold, she was directly behind me; at once she seized my brush, and I had to seek refuge behind the wagon, while Bobby, climbing on top of it, cracked up laughing. For a few seconds Annie pretended to be annoyed, then we all laughed and carried on working.  

Meanwhile, the shepherd arrived, and he and Cameron set to prepare the food. Within a few hours that inhospitable hut had been transformed into a home, as only a woman can do. We sat down to eat, the table laid with an impeccable white cloth and napkins, with Annie at the head, presiding as the lady of the house, with all the dignity of a queen in her palace. Bobby and I presented ourselves at table as "painfully clean" as Bill had been when we first met him.

I shall never forget that meal, the ruin transformed, the mud walls artfully disguised, carpets on the floor, the large lantern hanging from a beam, gently illuminating the scene, the table well set, and the meal prepared with care. The wife of the "pioneer" had arrived home.

The following morning, I said goodbye to my dear friends, with my best wishes for their happiness. That house was always to be mine, whenever I travelled their road.

Much has been said and written about the fibre of "pioneer" men; however, their bravery is much less than that of those admirable women who abandoned home, relatives and friends, renounced all the comforts of civilized life to follow their companion, and faced privations and scarcity, for months — even years — without seeing or speaking to another woman. Many of them gave birth without any medical assistance, alone with their husband. In cases of illness or accident, the nearest doctor was hundreds of miles away, over impassable roads, with no communications or mail service. Assuredly, very few people today can conceive of the sacrifice of these forgotten heroines, the brave and loyal wives and mothers who contributed so much to the progress of Patagonia. 

o - O - o

[1] Break (or brake): a long wagonette (a kind of open carriage with one or two seats crosswise in front, and two back seats arranged lengthwise and facing inwards); a carriage frame all wheels and no body, used in breaking in horses. 

Source publication: "Argentina Austral" Year XVII, No. 173, November 1945.
Published text translated from English to Spanish by T. Caillet-Bois.
Translated back to English for this website by Duncan S. Campbell.
Thanks: Carlos Nuevo (III-2018)
Created: 31-III-2018
Updated: 31-III-2018