© 2004-2017

Patagonia Bookshelf

Letter from Tierra del Fuego, 1898
A New Zealander visits sheep farms in Selknam Indian territory
START => Introduction in Argentina Contemporary photograph Map


[Formatting and Editorial notes added for this web edition.]

The Editor, Marlborough Express.

Dear Sir,__
The attached letter, which I lately received from an old Marlborough resident who left the district about a year ago, and is now in Terra del Fuego, appears to me so interesting that I am sure it will be read with pleasure by the readers of your paper, very many of whom knew the writer and deeply regretted his departure from our midst. It contains valuable information about country hitherto a terra incognita, and I will ask you to give it space in your column.
[Letter begins]

Dear _____

I sincerely hope you have not forgotten me. I assure you I often think of you and the many kind friends I left in New Zealand. I left it for a change. I have had the change, and would give something for an hour or two's yarn with you. It is quite hopeless to give you even an outline of the many strange scenes I have been through since I last saw you. I have not heard a word from New Zealand since I left.

After a prosperous and pleasant voyage we arrived at Monte Video [Montevideo, Uruguay, Ed.] there our adventures commenced, and they have been going on ever since. I do not think the average New Zealander has the faintest conception as to what the people and towns of South America are like. I considered myself a fairly well read bushman, but all my preconceived notions were at total variance with the real article. When I say we landed, I mean we three New Zealanders, A. and B., a young fellow from Christchurch who was my cabin mate, and with whom I struck up an intimacy, and myself. We found Monte Video in a very disturbed state, in fact, there was some talk at first of our not being enabled to land. I don't know whether they thought we were going to take the place.

After three or four days' stay we decided to cross over to Buenos Ayres. I am skipping all details, and you may imagine they were numerous and varied, but I trust that some fine day I may relate the whole story to you. On landing at Buenos Ayres, which is an immense and busy town of 750,000 people, to which B. and I gave a thorough overhaul, I was fortunate in making the acquaintance of two gentlemen, Messrs F. and M., who were kindness itself, and they gave me numerous letters of introduction to country people.

I was as far as 300 miles to the west of Buenos Ayres on one of my trips. Doubtless, there is a lot of splendid country, but there is a big lot of drawbacks connected with it — for instance, they have all the diseases that stock are heir to in New Zealand, and a lot more that I never heard of before. I was at Mr T.'s place, the son of an old New Zealander. I also stayed two days with a Mr R., the most fascinating man you ever heard of. He was manager and part owner of the place he was on, and a real old Irish gentleman. He had taken up the country some 16 years ago, when the place was overrun with Indians and pumas, and he had actively assisted to kill both out. For 16 years previous to that he had been in Banda Goutal [Banda Oriental = Uruguay, Ed.], but I think they had made it too hot for him there; but he had a collection of the most lovely yarns, they also will have to stand over.

I think every place I went to was busy shearing, so I was fortunate in that Mr T. was married, and his private house was nice, but my goodness the accommodation for the Peons was a caution. I arrived at Mr T. with a young English gentleman who had come down through the Continent from Klondyke [Klondike, Ed.], and as Mr T. was not at home when we arrived he suggested that we should explore the men's huts. Well the outside was bad enough, but the inside was past description; the one we examined was presided over by an Indian lady and her cubs. I cannot fill in details. All the other places I was at were, with one exception, bachelor places. An English lady was living at the one which was nicely kept like Mr T's place, the bachelor establishments were rough enough for anything, but the people were all very kind and hospitable; they had a kind of white rum called caine [caña, Ed.] that made one think of his friends;

Every one of these places were worked in Spanish. After seeing these different places and asking the advice of two or three of the settlers, who told me I could see for myself that a man, however good he might be, was totally useless without a knowledge of Spanish, and I could see it perfectly plain, you could hardly believe the messes one could get into when travelling for the want of it, and it is bosh to think there are lots of English people. There are only 10,000 in the whole of the Argentine, and more than half of these are in the offices in the large towns, and when you do get hold of some fellow who can speak English he is generally some infernal rascal that will make you pay dearly for the honor of his acquaintance before he has done with you.

I met the Bishop (Sterling) [Waite Hockin Stirling, previously at Keppel Island and Ushuaia, Ed.] of the Falkland Islands, and he advised me to go to Patagonia, I also met K., who used to be with the L. & M.A. Co. [not identified, Ed.] He strongly advised me to go to the Falklands; in fact, all were unanimous in advising me to go somewhere. The Bishop said the Falkland Islanders did not like New Zealanders, while K. said he believed the Falklands to be a grand place — at any rate they spoke English there and by that time I was beginning to think that a very desirable accomplishment in anyone. K's adventures have been many and varied, as you may imagine when he crossed over from Chili [Chile, Ed.] without a sixpence, and had served six months as a full private in the Argentine army.

I did not like the look of these peons, who do all the work on the stations. No doubt the work is badly done, but on the other hand it is very cheap, in fact, simply slave labor, shearing about 7s [shillings, Ed.] per 100. The food, any sheep or cattle that look likely to die in the next 24 hours, three biscuits a day and a small quantity of mate, a kind of natural tea, very cheap, that is all they get and they sleep anywhere. Most of these persons wear a broad belt, ornamented with coins or metal work of some kind or another, but the real fact is it is simply armour plating for their stomachs, for that is where they try to stab people, and will do so without excessive provocation. When in Buenos Ayres I went to the English hospital to see the manager of a station who was lying there with a dozen stabs in his arms and legs, he was fortunate enough to guard his stomach, which this peon of his was anxious to cut open, at the same time it must be allowed that public opinion said that it served the manager jolly well right and that he had brought the attack on himself and that he was a fool for doing so when he had not got his revolvers. F. was his name and he was one of the few disagreeable people I met in Argentine.

When I got back to B.A. [Buenos Aires, Ed.] I could find nothing of A. nor had B. seen him for some days, so I thought he must have gone to Santa Fe; so I cleared after saying good-bye to B. You have no idea how horrid it is not to have a single acquaintance, when you cannot understand a single word that is said, and you have not too many dollars in your pocket. The steamer that I crossed to Monte Video in was full, but so far as I know not a soul could speak a word of English, and all the Spanish I knew was No Espanni, which I used when anyone addressed me, and now and again relieved my feelings by swearing at them in English. I got ashore somehow, and by luck met a fellow that I knew to be an infernal scoundrel; but by that time I was desperate, and would have made friends with the devil if I thought he had a smattering of English. Anyhow the rascal behaved well (upon my word, I don't know what I should have done without him), and got me and my luggage shipped on board the German steamer Ammon [Kosmos Line, Ed.], the dirtiest beast of a vessel I think I ever saw; and only one of the officers and one of the stewards could speak a few words of English.

I had a horrible trip down to the Falklands. Stanley, where we lay 24 hours, is a clean, cold, bleak looking little village; I should not like to live there. Fortunately Robertson was there. He looks prosperous and well, and is to be married shortly, he told me. He also advised my going to Patagonia. Anyhow, I was not fascinated with the appearance of Stanley, and as I had taken my ticket to Punta Arenas, the price being the same whether you stayed at Stanley or went on to P. A. [Punta Arenas, Ed.], at least the confounded agent told me so, but I found out afterwards that it was a lie. I made the acquaintance at Stanley of the Rev. Mr Aspinall [Doctor Edwin Coupland Aspinall, previously at Ushuaia, later at Punta Arenas, Ed.], who had been a missionary on Terra [Tierra, Ed.] del Fuego, and it was from him that I got the first hint of trouble with the Indians there. He said he thought I could get plenty of employment there if I was not frightened of Indians. This rather staggered me, for I had always been told that the Indians on Terra del Fuego were the lowest class of humans in the world, as well as being insignificant in numbers; however, I was to learn more later on.

At the Falklands we picked up two ship captains, one of them and myself were the only two in the second cabin, and very rough and dirty it was. My captain friend used to keep middling sober, until breakfast time, 11 am., when he invariably used to go to sleep and drop his face in his soup, when I had to rescue him; it got a little tiresome, still he was not a bad fellow for an hour or so before breakfast. The other captain, Peterson, a Dane, was in the first cabin, and became a great friend of mine afterwards at Punta Arenas; their history was most extraordinary, they had both lost their vessels at the Falklands, and it was hard to say whether the drunkard or the teetotaller had made the biggest mess of it, but the difference was that the temperance man was always sighing and whipping the cat [complaining or reproaching himself, Ed.], while the drunkard did not care a hang.


Source: "Marlborough Express", 7 and 11 April 1898; accessed on Papers Past