The Long Riders' Guild

An Instinctive Passion

by

Charles Darwin

In contemplating the brilliant intellectual achievements of the past, Charles Darwin's name is often mentioned. Whether you agree with his famous "Theory of Evolution" or not, Darwin's impact on the course of modern events cannot be denied. His was a life whose resonance is still being felt around the globe. It goes against the grain of common perception to think of this scientific titan galloping over the pampas of Argentina, exploring volcanic islands on horseback, and lying down to rest on the bosom of the earth with his horse nearby. Yet Darwin's diaries tell the story of not just a naturalist exploring the world searching for answers, they also reveal the inner man, the Long Rider who revelled in the freedom of riding on three continents, South America, Australia, and Africa. For as these varied diary entries explain, Charles Darwin the Scientist, soon discovered that when you are a Long Rider you often find astonishing acts of kindness awaiting you out on the long grey road to adventure.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

April 6th, 1832

The day has been frittered away in obtaining the passports for my expedition into the interior. It is never very pleasant to submit to the insolence of men in office. But the prospect of visiting wild forests tenanted by beautiful birds, monkeys, sloths, and alligators will make any Naturalist lick the dust even from the foot of a Brazilian.

April 8th, 1832

At 9 o’clock I joined my party at Praia Grande, a village on the opposite side of the Bay. We were six in number and consisted of Mr. Patrick Lennon, a regular Irishman, who when the Brazils were first opened to the English made a large fortune by selling spectacles. About eight years since he purchased a tract of forest country on the Macae river and put an English agent over it. Communication is so difficult that from that time to the present he has been unable to obtain any remittances. After many delays Mr. Patrick resolved in person to visit his estate. It was easily arranged that I should be a companion and in many respects it will be an excellent opportunity for seeing the country and its inhabitants. Mr. Lennon has resided in Brazil 20 years and was in consequence well qualified to obtain information.

He was accompanied by his nephew, a sharp youngster, following the steps of his Uncle and making money. Thirdly came Mr. Laurie, a well informed clever Scotchman, a selfish unprincipled man, by trade partly Slave-merchant, partly swindler. He brought a friend, a Mr. Gosling, an apprentice to a Druggist. A black boy as guide and myself completed the party, and the wilds of Brazil have seldom seen a more extraordinary and quixotic set of adventurers.

Our first stage was very interesting; the day was powerfully hot and as we passed through the woods, everything was still, excepting the large and brilliant butterflies, which lazily fluttered about. The view seen when crossing the hills behind Praia Grande is most sublime and picturesque. The colours were intense and the prevailing tint a dark blue; the sky and calm waters of the bay vied with each other in splendour. After passing through some cultivated country we entered a forest which in the grandeur of all its parts could not be exceeded. I was utterly at a loss how sufficiently to admire this scene.

We continued riding for some hours; for the last miles the road was intricate, it passed through a desert waste of marshes and lagoons. The scene by the dimmed light of the moon was most desolate; a few fire-flies flitted by us and the solitary snipe as it rose uttered its plaintive cry; and the distant and sullen roar of the sea scarcely broke the stillness of the night. We arrived at the Venda and were very glad to lie down on the straw mats.

April 9th, 1832

Having been 10 hours on horseback, I never cease to wonder at the amount of labour which these horses are capable of enduring.  

April 11th, 1832

Travelled on till it was dark, felt miserably faint and exhausted; I often thought I should have fallen off my horse.  

April 12th, 1832

The next morning I cured myself by eating cinnamon and drinking port wine.

April 14th, 1832

Started at midday for Mr. Lennon’s estate. The road passed through a vast extant of forest in which we saw many beautiful birds. We slept in a Fazenda a league from our journey’s end. The agent received us hospitably and was the only Brazilian I had seen with a good expression. The slaves appeared miserably overworked and badly clothed.

April 15th, 1832

We were obliged to have a black man clear the way with a sword. The woods in this neighbourhood contain several forms of vegetation which I had not seen before, some elegant tree ferns and a grass like papyrus.

When we arrived at the estate there was a most violent and disagreeable quarrel between Mr. Lennon and his agent, Mr. Cowper. During Mr. Lennon’s quarrel with his agent, he threatened to sell at the public auction an illegitimate child to whom Mr. Cowper was much attached. Also, he put into execution taking all the women and children from their husbands and selling them separately at the market in Rio. How strange and inexplicable is the effect of habit and interest. Against such facts how weak are the arguments of those who maintain that slavery is a tolerable evil.

April 20th, 1832

Returned by the old route to Campos Novos. The ride was very tiresome, passing over a heavy and scorching sand. Whilst swimming our horses over the St. Joao river, we had some danger and difficulty. The animals became exhausted and we had to contend with two drunken mulattos in a boat. We arrived back at Rio in the evening and were obliged to sleep on a bed of Indian corn.

Baia Blanca, Argentina

September 7th, 1832

There were several of the wild Gaucho cavalry waiting to see us land. They formed by far the most savage, picturesque group I ever beheld. I should have fancied myself I the middle of Turkey by their dresses. Round their waists they had bright coloured shawls forming a petticoat, beneath which were fringed drawers. Their boots were very singular. They are made from the hide of the hock joint of horses’ hind legs, so that it is a tube with a bend in it. This they put on fresh and thus drying on their legs is never again removed. Their spurs are enormous, the rowels being one to two inches long. They all wore the Poncho, which is a large shawl with a hole in the middle for the head. Thus equipped with sabres and short muskets, they were mounted on powerful horses.

"I cannot agree with the man who spoke of the ten thousand beauties of the Pampas.  But I grant that the rapid galloping and the feeding on beef and water is exhilarating to the highest pitch."  Charles Darwin

The men themselves were far more remarkable than their dresses. The greater were half Spaniard and Indian, some of each pureblood and some black.  The Indians, whilst gnawing bones of beef, looked as though they were half-recalled wild beasts.  No painter ever imagined so wild a set of expressions.  As the evening was closing in, it was determined not to return to the vessel.  So we all mounted behind the gauchos and started a hand gallop for the fort.  This place has been attacked several times by large bodies of Indians.  The war is carried on in the most barbarous manner.  The Indians torture all their prisoners, and the Spaniards shoot theirs.  The Commandante’s son was taken some time since by the Indians.  After being bound, the Indian children prepared to kill him with nails and small knives, a refinement in cruelty I never heard of.  A Cacique Indian then said that the next day more people would be present and there would be more sport, so the execution was deferred and in the night he escaped. 

September 8th, 1832

The Gauchos were very civil and took us to the only spot where there was any chance of water.  It was interesting seeing these hardy people fully equipped for an expedition.  They sleep on the bare ground, and as they travel get their food.  Already they had killed a puma, the tongue of which was the only part they kept;  also an ostrich, these they catch by two heavy balls fastened to the ends of a long thong.  Having given our friends some dollars they left us in high good humour and assured us that they would someday bring us a live lion.  We then returned on board.

Rio Colorado, Patagonia

August 11th, 1833

We started early in the morning, but owing to some horses being stolen, we were obliged to travel slowly.  Shortly after passing the first spring, we came in sight of the famous tree which the Indians reverence as the altar of their God, Walleechu.  It is situated on a high part of the plain, and hence is a landmark visible at a great distance.  Being winter, the tree had no leaves, but in their place were countless threads by which various offerings had been suspended.  Cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth etc.  To complete the scene, the tree was surrounded by the bleached bones of horses slaughtered as sacrifices.  All Indians of every age and sex make their offerings;  they then think that their horses will not tire and that they shall be prosperous.

About two leagues from this very curious tree we halted for the night.  At this instant, an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed Gauchos.  Off we set in chase, and in a few minutes she was dragged in by the lazo and slaughtered.   Here we had the four necessaries for life “en el campo,” pasture for the horses, water (only a muddy puddle), meat and firewood.  The Gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries, and we soon set to work at the poor cow.  There s high enjoyment in the independence of the Gauchos’ life:  to be able at any moment to pull up your horse and say, “Here we will pass the night.”

The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gypsy group of Gauchos making their beds around the fire, has left in my mind a strongly-marked picture of this night which will not soon be forgotten.

Navedad, Chile

September 19th, 1834

I felt during the day very unwell and from this time to the end of October did not recover. Rode but a short distance and was then obliged to rest. Our course now lay directly to Valparaiso, Chile. We found a rich Haciendero, who received us in his house close to the sea. At night I was exceedingly exhausted but had the uncommon luck of obtaining some clean straw for my bed. I was amused afterwards by reflecting how truly comparative all comfort is. If I had been in England and very unwell, clean straw and stinking horse blankets would have been thought a very miserable bed.

Potrero Seco, Chile

June 11th, 1835

Rode for 12 hours without stopping, till we reached the Hacienda of Potrero Seco. I was heartily glad. The whole journey is a source of anxiety to see how fast you can cross the Traversia desert. To all appearances however the horses were quite fresh and no one could have told they had not eaten for the last 55 hours.

Sydney, Australia

January 19th, 1836

I hired a man and two horses to take me to Bathurst, a village about hundred and twenty miles in the interior. By this means I hoped to get a general appearance of the country. The first stage took us through Paramatta, a small country town. The roads were excellent and were much frequented by carriages. I also met two stage coaches. In all these respects there was a most close resemblance to England, perhaps the number of Ale-houses was here in excess. The parties of convicts, who have committed some trifling offence in this country, appeared the least like England. They were dressed in yellow and grey clothes and were working in irons under the charge of sentrys with loaded guns.

At sunset by good fortune a party of a score of the Aboriginal Blacks passed by, each carrying, in their accustomed manner, a bundle of spears and other weapons. Their countenances were good humoured and pleasant.

January 20th, 1836

This day we had an instance of the sirocco-like wind of Australia which comes from the parched deserts of the interior. While riding I was not fully aware how exceedingly high the temperature was. Later I heard the thermometer out of doors stood at 119 degrees and in a room in a closed house at 96 degrees. It was during that late afternoon that we came into view of the town of Bathurst.

The officers all seemed very weary of this place and I am not surprised at all, as it must be to them a place of exile.

Darwin.JPG (27109 bytes)

"I do not doubt every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness, from the simple consciousness of breathing in a foreign clime, where the civilized man has seldom or never trod."  Charles Darwin

Click on picture to enlarge

Cape Colony,  Africa

June 4th, 1836

I hired a couple of horses and a young Hottentot groom to accompany me as a guide.  He spoke English very well and was most tidily dressed. He wore a long coat, beaver hat and white gloves.

Our first day’s ride was to the village of Paarl, situated forty miles from the Cape Town. Even at this short distance from the coast there were several very pretty little birds. If a person could not find amusement in observing the animals and plants, there was very little else during the day to interest him.

Angra, Island of Terceira

September 9th, 1836

We crossed the Tropic of Cancer and in the morning we were off the island of Terceira. The island is moderately lofty and has a rounded outline with hills evidently of volcanic origin. The land is well cultivated and small hamlets are scattered in all parts.

The next day the Consul kindly lent me his horse and furnished me with guides to a spot in the centre of the island, which was described as an active volcano.

When we reached the crater the bottom was traversed by several large fissures out of which small jets of steam issued as from the cracks in a the boiler of a steam engine. It is said that flames once issued from the cracks.

Falmouth, England

October 2nd, 1836

After a tolerably short passage, but with some heavy weather, we came to an anchor at Falmouth. To my surprise and shame I confess the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings than if it had been a miserable Portuguese settlement. The same night, and a dreadful stormy one it was, I took the stage for Shrewsbury.

In conclusion, I am sure the pleasure of living in the open air, with the sky for a roof, and the ground for a table, is part of an instinctive passion. It is the savage returning to his wild and native habits. I do not doubt every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness, from the simple consciousness of breathing in a foreign clime, where the civilized man has seldom or never trod.

It appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries. The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulates him on to activity.

Travelling ought to teach him that he will discover how many truly good natured people there are with whom he never before had, nor ever again will have any further communication, yet who are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.

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