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Punta Arenas and its People — A Charming Irish Doctor — Lady Florence Dixie in Trousers — Ostriches and Ostrich Hunting.

PUNTA ARENAS, Patagonia, June 18. — One look at this place is enough to convince the most incredulous that whoever located the penal colony of Chili did not intend the convict's life should be a happy one. It lies on a long spit which stretches out into the Straits and the English call it Sandy Point, but a better name would be Cape Desolation. Convicts are sent here no longer, but some of those remain who came when Chili kept the seeds and harvests of her revolutions here. There used to be a military guard, but that was withdrawn during the war with Peru, and all the prisoners who would consent to enter the army got a ticket of leave. The Governor resides in what was once the barracks, and horses are kept in what was used as a stockade. Hunger, decay, and dreariness are inscribed upon everything, on the faces of the men as well as the houses they live in, and the people look as discouraging as the mud.

They say it rains in Punta Arenas every day. That is a mistake — sometimes it snows. Another misrepresentation is the published announcement that ships passing the Straits always touch here. Doubtless they desire to, and it is one of the delusions of the owners that they do: but as the wind never ceases except for a few hours at a time and the bay on which the place is located is shallow, it is only about once a week or so that a boat can land, because of the violent surf. Our arrival happened to be opportune, for the water was smooth, and we landed without great difficulty the only drawbacks being a pouring rain and mud that seemed bottomless.

The town is interesting, because it is the only settlement in Patagonia, and of course the only one in the Straits. It is about 4,000 miles from the southernmost town on the west coast of South America to the first port on the eastern coast, a voyage which ordinarily requires requires fifteen days, and, as Punta Arenas is about in the middle of the way, it possesses some attractions. Spread out in the mud are 250 houses, more or less, which shelter from the ceaseless storms, a community of 800 or 1,000 people representing all sorts and conditions of men, from the primeval Indian type to the pure Caucasian — convicts, traders, fugitives, wrecked seamen, deserters from all the navies in the world, Chinamen, negroes, Poles, Italians, Sandwich Islanders, Portuguese, men who have fled from justice, wandering Jews, and human driftwood of every tongue and clime cast by the sea and absorbed in a community scarcely one of which would be willing to tell why he came here, or would they stay if they could get away. It is said that in Punta Arenas can be found an interpreter for every language known to the modern world, but, although the place belongs to Chili, English is most generally spoken. There are a few women in the settlement, some of them faithful mothers and wives, no doubt, but the most of then have defective antecedents, and are noted for a disregard of matrimonial obligations.

There are some decent people here, ship agents and traders, who came for business reasons, a Consul or two, and among others an Irish physician, Dr. Fenton, who is the host and oracle sought by every stranger who arrives. Occasionally some yachting party stops here on a voyage around the world, or a man-of-war cruising from one ocean to the other, and steamers bound from Europe to the South Pacific ports, or returning thence pass every day or two; so that communication is kept up with the rest of the universe, and the people who live at this antipodes, where the Sun is seen in the north and the Fourth of July comes in the depth of winter, are pretty well informed as to affairs at the other end of the globe. The latitude is about that of Greenland, and it you tip the globe over you will see that it is the southernmost town in the world, further south than the Cape of Good Hope or any of the inhabited islands. The emotions that come with a contemplation of the fact that you are about as far away from anywhere as one can go are quite novel; but in the midst of them you are summoned to confront the fact that the world isn't as large as it looks to be, for here is a man who used to live where you came from, and another who once worked in an office where you are employed. There is a news stand at which you can purchase London and New York papers, often three or four months old, but still fresh to the long voyager, and shops at which Paris confectionery and the luxuries of life can be had at Patagonia prices.

There is a curiosity shop near the landing, kept by an old fellow who was once a sailor in the United States Navy, and fought under Admiral Farragut at Mobile — at least he says he did, and he speaks like a truthful man. Here are to be purchased many interesting relics, and passengers who are fortunate enough to get ashore go back to their ship loaded down with Indian trifles, shells and flying fish, tusks of sea lions, serpent skins, agates from Cape Horn, turtle shells, and the curious tails of the armadillo, in which the Indians carry their war paint. But the prettiest things to be bought at Punta Arenas are the ostrich rugs made of the breasts of the young birds, as soft as down and as beautiful as plumage can be. The plumes of the ostrich are plucked from the wings and tail while the bird is alive, but to make a rug the little ones are killed and skinned and the soft fluffy breasts are sewed together until they reach the size of a blanket. Those of brown and those of the purest white are alternated, and the combination produces a very fine artistic effect. They are too dainty and beautiful to be spread upon the floor, but can be used as carriage robes, or to throw over the back of a couch or chair. Sometimes ladies use them as panels for the front of dress skirts, and thus they are more striking than any fabric a loom can produce. Opera cloaks have been made of them also, to the gratification of the aesthetic. They are too rare to be common and too beautiful to ever tire the eye.

Guanaco skins are carried away from Punta Arenas also, and are considered very fine. These are the wearing apparel of the Indians, and with the ostrich rugs the chief results of their chase. In Patagonia ostriches are not bred as at the Cape of Good Hope, but run wild, and are rapidly getting exterminated. The Indians chase them on horseback, and catch them with bolas, two heavy balls upon the end of a rope. Grasping one ball in the hand they gallop after the ostrich, and whirling the other ball around their heads like a coil of lasso, they let go when near enough to the bird, and the two balls, still revolving in the air, if skilfully directed will wind around the long legs of the ostrich and send him turning somersaults upon the sand. The Indians then leap from the saddle, and if they are out of meat, cut the throat of the bird and carry the carcass to camp; but if they have no need of food, they pull the long plumes from his tail and wings, and let him go again to gather fresh plumage for the next season.

The bolas are handled very dextrously, and well-trained Indians are said to be able to bring down an ostrich at a range of two or three hundred yards. But it is not often necessary to fire at that distance. Horses accustomed to the chase can overtake a bird on an unobstructed plain, but time birds have the advantage of being artful dodgers, and carrying so much less weight can turn and reverse quite suddenly. The usual mode of hunting them is for a dozen or so mounted Indians to surround a herd and charge upon them suddenly. In this way several are usually brought down before they scatter, and those that get away are pursued As they dodge from one hunter they usually run afoul of another, and the first they know are tripped by the entangling bolas. People who are passing through the straits often stop over a steamer at Punta Arenas to enjoy an ostrich chase. They can secure trained horses and guides at moderate prices; but one who has never thrown the bolas will be amazed the first time he tries it to find how difficult it is to do a trick that looks so easy. Not long ago a young English lord, who came down here to exterminate the ostrich family, came very near being lynched for manslaughter, as the first bolas he threw took one of the half-breed guides under the ear and laid him out a cold as a wedge. His lordship made a suitable provision for the family of his victim, and the deceased man's partner immediately took up with the bereaved widow without the formality of a wedding ceremony. The bride and groom omitted the usual period of mourning, and appeared to be much gratified at the results of his lordship's visit. Of course the neighbors were scandalized, but the marriage was useful in diverting public attention from the accident and the reckless scion of the nobility slipped away to Valparaiso without explaining matters to a court.

Some years ago the much-talked-about Lady Florence Dixie with her brother the Marquis of Queensberry, whose name is familiar to the pugilistic world, came down here for a paseo, as the Spaniards call a picnic or a promenade, and spent several weeks in the pampas in pursuit of pleasure and ostriches. Her ladyship published a very large and handsomely illustrated volume entitled "Across Patagonia," but Dr. Fenton tells me that the party did not go many leagues from town, and that most of information given in the book was gathered from intelligent contrabands, whose society Lady Florence sought on rainy days. But, as she pays the Doctor several handsome compliments, it is rather ungenerous in him to depreciate so interesting a book. He admits, however, the truth of her ladyship's own confession, that she took a good many miles on horseback, and didn't use a side saddle while she was here. Her brother's trousers were more convenient and comfortable than skirts, and the Doctor recommends that all ladies who ride horseback should follow Lady Florence's example.

This Doctor, who, by the way, is an interesting character, as wise as he is witty, is well known in all the navies of the world, for all the men-of-war that come here carry away pleasant remembrances of his hospitality, and repeat the stories he tells to the people on the other side of the world. He has a sheep ranch near Punta Arenas, and divides his time between mending broken beads and attending to his mutton. Sheep are said to thrive very well upon the Patagonian pampas, but as the Government will not sell any land, and only leases it to tenants who are liable to be turned off at any time and have their improvements confiscated, there isn't much encouragement to come here and grow up with the country. There is no more desolate, dreary place on the face of the globe.

Large amounts of money have been made on ostrich farms in Africa, and they might, perhaps, be duplicated in this locality; bit as long as the Indians are allowed to kill the birds and sell the results of a week's chase for a few drinks of rum, the business would not be profitable. The ostriches are becoming scarcer every year, as the improvident Indians slaughter them without reason, and the pampas will soon become as barren of their greatest source of revenue as the plains of our great West are of buffaloes today. At any of the trading posts in Punta Arenas you can buy for $8 or $10 a rug that represents the breasts of twelve or fifteen young ostriches, and even that low price gives the trader a profit of many hundred per cent, as a few drinks of whiskey makes the Indian susceptible to persuasion. If the Government of Chili were to sell the monopoly of trading in ostrich skins and feathers to a few fair-minded men, the birds would multiply enormously, and the beauty of their plumage be very much increased. The best plumes are worth $40 or $50 a pound in the market, and are much improved by the proper care of the bird. Those that run wild have their feathers torn by bushes and ruined by mud, and the better the quality of food they receive the better the plumes they produce. Ostriches usually live to be twenty or more years old, if they do not fall a prey to hunters or pumas (Patagonian lions), and after they have reached the age of four or five years they can be made to produce a couple of pounds of plumes annually. The American ostrich is said to be not so good as that of Africa, but experts say that is only because the latter has been cultivated, while the former has been permitted to run wild, eating such food as he can pick up on the pampas, preyed upon by pumas and wolves [not found in Patagonia, Ed.], and tearing his coat to tatters by plunging through the brush.

The popular supposition that an ostrich never lays but one egg and drops that anywhere upon the sand is nonsense. The female lays as many eggs annually as a goose or a hen, and covers them with as much care, usually digging a hole in the sand with her feet and depositing her eggs in it daily until the time for incubation comes, when she sits regularly upon them and is fed by her mate. Very often eggs are found singly upon the desert, dropped in a chase or when the bird is unable to reach her nest.

The egg of the ostrich is equal in size and nourishment to about two dozen ordinary hen's eggs, and sometimes weighs three pounds. The flavor is wholesome, and an omelette made of them could not be detected. One egg makes a good meal for half a dozen hearty persons, and the Indians use them very extensively. They are often used by the residents of Punta Arenas, and are sold to passing vessels for food: but there is great risk in purchasing the eggs of the ostrich, the shells being so dense as to prevent accurate judgment as to their merit. A decaying hen's egg will not sink in water, because of the gases inside the shell, but no such rule can be applied to the eggs of the ostrich. They will sink in water whether good or bad, and when a bad one is opened the odor is sufficient to destroy the peace of entire village. Many a camp on the pampas has been removed a long distance because of the indiscretion of a cook, who has broken an egg instead of tapping it with the tip of his hunting knife; and it is said that the stench of a very antique one can be heard for several miles. When an egg is tapped and found to be rotten, the hole is immediately covered with a quid of tobacco, if the cook happens to have one in his mouth, otherwise he claps on a chunk of mud, and immediately digs a hole in which the cause of offense is buried.

The flesh of the young ostrich is wholesome and palatable, having a gamy flavor, however, resembling that of the wild turkey of the North American woods. The tongue and brains are much coveted by epicures, and used to be set before the potentates of ancient times when they gave swell dinner parties. The breasts are the best part of the body, and are roasted or broiled, while any portion makes an excellent soup or stew. He who happens to tackle an old bird, however, if he is in a hungry and a quarrelsome mood, will discover that there are other things tougher than sole leather. The philosopher who announced that the world offered no obstacles that human patience and ingenuity could not overcome, never attempted to satisfy hunger by eating an ancient ostrich.

The ostrich is a very docile, tractable bird, and can be easily domesticated, but it is sensitive to changes of climate, and seldom thrives when taken from his native heath. Those that are shown in menageries and zoological gardens do not fairly represent the species, and no one can judge by their appearance of the beauty of the bird in its wild state.

Source: "The Sun" (New York, NY), 6 September 1885
Clipped: 23-IX-2012
© Copyright: Duncan S. Campbell + Gladys Grace P., 2004-2012, this presentation.
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