Montevideo and Bueno Aires Part 2 – South America Today

BOTANY and zoology are sister sciences. We leave the plants to inspect the beasts in the company of M. Thays, who is always glad to see his neighbour M. Onelli.

The governor of the Zoological Garden of Buenos Aires is a phlegmatic little man, Franco Italian in speech, and the more amusing in that his gay, caustic wit is clothed in a highly condensed, ironical form. What a pity that his animals, for whom he is father and mother, sister and brother, cannot appreciate his sallies! Not that it is by any means certain that they do not. It seems clear that they can enter into each other’s feelings, if not thoughts, since an intimacy of the most touching kind exists between the man and inferior creation, to whose detriment the rights of biological priority have been reversed.

I should like to pause before the llamas, used as beasts of burden to carry a load of twenty-five kilogrammes apiece, or before the vicunas, whose exquisite feathery fur is utilised for the motor-car, and whose private life would need to be told in Latin by reason of the officious interference of the Indian in matters that concern him not a whit.

M. Onelli has housed the more prominent groups in palaces in the style of architecture peculiar to their native land, and this gives to the gardens a very pleasing aspect.

But first Iet us enjoy the animals. It is amazing to see the two monstrous hippopotami leap from the water with movements of ridiculous joyfulness in response to the whistle of their governor-friend, and, on a sign from him, open their fearful caverns of pink jaws bristling with formidable teeth to receive with the utmost gratitude three blades of grass which they could easily cull for themselves beneath their feet if these manifestations of joy were called forth by the delicacy and not by friendship. The great beasts became human at sight of their master, if one may thus describe ferocity.

The puma, a sort of yellow panther whose colour has apparently won for him the name of the American lion, came running up to offer his back to the caressing hand of his friend with a hoarse roar that seemed to express rather helpless rage than voluptuousness.

The puma is perhaps the commonest of the wild beasts of the northern provinces of the Argentine, for it retreats from before the approach of man, and is more successful than the jaguar or the panther in escaping the traps or the guns of the hunter.

M. Edmond Hilleret, who has killed several, told me that at Santa Ana, near Tucuman, it was impossible to keep a flock of sheep, as they were always devoured by the pumas in spite, of all the efforts he made to protect them. ” Yet,” he added, “notwithstanding my dogs and my peons the puma can never be seen. He is quite a rarity.”

After a short palaver with some delicious penguins newly arrived from the southern ice, with their young, which would die of spleen if they were not fed with a forcing pipe, like an English suffragette, we pause before the grey ostrich of the Pampas, which has been nearly exterminated by the cruel lasso of the gaucho.

The grey American ostrich, which should be safe from our barbarous ways since his tail feathers offer no attraction for ladies’ hats, is interesting by certain peculiarities in his domestic habits. To the male is left the duty of hatching the eggs, the female preferring to stray. By way of compensation, the paternal instinct is the more keenly developed in the father in proportion as the mother—reprehensible bird I —neglects her duties. Thus before beginning to sit on the eggs, he sets carefully aside two or three of them, according to the number of young to be hatched, and when the little ones leave their shells, he opens them with a sharp blow from the paternal beak, and spreads in the sunshine the contents of the eggs his foresight had reserved; the appetising dish attracts thousands of flies who promptly drown themselves therein to make the first meal of the fledglings. Admirable instance of the contradictory processes of nature designed for the preservation of existing types.

But we have come to the palace of the elephants. There are half a dozen of them beneath a vast dome, and the sight of M. Onelli rouses them all. The heavy grey masses sway from side to side, large ears beat up and down, while the small eyes wink; the trunks are flung inquiringly round, eager for any windfall. One amiable and tame elephant, the youthful Fanda, born on the place, hustles her colossal friends, to clear a way to M. Onelli, who talks to her affectionately, but is unable to respond as he should to her pressing request for cakes. The governor gives us the reason of their friendliness.

” We have no secrets from each other,” he remarks gently.

And it was truer than he thought, for the young trunk was softly introduced into his tempting pocket, and brought out a packet of letters which were forthwith swallowed. There-upon exclamations as late as fruitless from the victim, who thus witnessed the disappearance of his correspondence down the dark passages of an unexpected post-office from which there is no hope of return.

M. Onelli kindly offered us a few minutes’ rest in his own salon. But what did we find there? The housemaid who opened the door to us carried a young puma in her arms, and I know not what sort of hairy beast on her back. The gnashing of white teeth proceeded from under the chairs and coiled serpents lay in the easy-chairs. Indeed, we were not the least tired! Palermo must be visited.

The celebrated promenade starts nobly at the Recoleta, where the lawns and groves are seen in a setting of harmonious architecture. Carriages of the most correct British style, drawn by superb horses, and noisy motor-cars dash swiftly by. But for the groups of exotic trees one might be in the Bois. Palermo begins well. Unfortunately, we suddenly find before us an avenue of sickly coco-palms, whose bare trunks are covered with dead leaves, giving an unpleasing perspective of broom-handles. This tree, which is so fine in Brazil, is not in its element here. When planted in rows, even in the streets of Rio, it is more surprising than beautiful. It is in groves that it best displays its full decorative qualities. I take the liberty of suggesting that M. Thays should pull up the horticultural invalids and plant eucalyptus or some other species in their place.

But we are not yet at the end of our troubles. Less than two hundred yards down, the railway traverses the avenue on a level crossing. A gate, generally closed, a turnstile for pedestrians, a station, and all the rest of it. After a wait of ten minutes, the train duly passes, and then the motor-car plunges into a roadway, full of ruts, leading to a dark archway which carries another railway across the promenade, making an ugly blot on the landscape. And now we reach a further marshy road, bordered with young plantations, which leads across a leafless wood dividing the railway track from the estuary of La Plata.

A succession of trains on one hand, and a muddy yellow sea on the other : as a view it is not romantic. Gangs of labourers are at work on the roads, which are badly in need of their attentions. No doubt some day this will be a superb promenade. It is only a question of making it, and the first step must be to clear away the railway-lines with their embankments and bridges. This is probably the intention, since I was assured that the level crossing would shortly be swept away. That will be a beginning. M. Bouvard is not likely to overlook the importance of the matter. My only fear is lest the situation should make it impossible for Palermo ever to attain to imposing proportions. But one thing is certain, if M. Thays can get a free hand, the city will not lack a park worthy the capital of the Republic.

Need I say that squares and parks alike are superabundantly decorated with sculpture and monuments both open to criticism? There is nothing more natural to a young people than a desire to acquire great men in every department as early as possible. Yet idealism that is to be materialised must, one would think, have its base set solidly on established facts. In a country whose population offers a mixture of all the Latin races, art could not fail to flourish. It will free itself from its crust as fast as public taste is purified. Works such as those of M. Paul Groussac, or the fine novel by M. Enrique Rodrigues Larreta, the distinguished Minister of the Argentine Republic in Paris, are evidences of the development of literary taste on the banks of the Rio de la Plata.

The sculptor does not appear to have reached quite the same point, but I hasten to add, for the sake of justice, that our own hewers of marble, with a very few prominent exceptions, expose nothing in Buenos Aires which is calculated to throw into too dark a shade their confreres of across the ocean.

France, Italy, and Spain supply some fairly fine statuary for the Latin confraternity. But, as might be readily imagined, a legitimate desire to write history on every square and market-place has given a profusion of monuments to soldiers and politicians. The same mania has been pushed to such extremes in our own land that it would ill become me to make it a subject of reproach to others; nevertheless it behoves us to acknowledge that the Argentine Republic has, both in times of war and of peace, produced some great men. It suffices to mention the names of San Martin (whose statue is being raised at Boulogne-sur-Mer and at Buenos Aires) and of Sarmiento.

If genius were always at the disposal of Governments, the wish to perpetuate to all eternity the renown a single day had won for them might readily be pardoned. But men of genius are rare, and they are apt to make mistakes like other men. And for the rest, the statues that are put up to their memory serve merely to inspire in our breasts a few philosophic reflections on the danger of a permanent propaganda of mediocrity ! Besides, the sculptor has this defect—that he forces himself on the attention of the passer-by. We are not compelled to purchase a poor book or to go into ecstasies over all the Chauchard collection, whereas we are unable to avoid the sight of the statue of Two-shoes by Thingummy. My only consolation is that such monuments will not prevent the advent of other supermen in the future, who, like those of the past, will raise their own monuments in a surer and better manner by their own glorious achievements.

But it is time to leave these men of marble and come to the living, of whom I have so far said not a word. My remark as to the European aspect of Buenos Aires at first sight must be taken as referring merely to its outdoor life. I do not speak of the business quarter, which is the same in all countries. The man who is glued to the telegraph wire or to the telephone, waiting for the latest quotations in the different parts of the globe in order to build on them his own careful combinations, is, notwithstanding his patriotism, an international type whose world-wide business connection must in time modify his own characteristics and make of him the universal species of merchant.

At the same time, the population of any large European city, while preserving in its general outline the special characteristic evolved by its own history, does yet show a certain trend in the direction of some well-defined types of modern activity whose attributes are the out-come of natural conditions of civilisation the world over. But when transplanted outside Europe, the original characteristics are inevitably modified by the new environment, and the result will be a striking differentiation—North America is an example of this.

In the eyes of our ancient Europe, with its venerable traditions and its base of primeval prejudice, the man who ventures to strike a new root in a colony beyond the sea will have to expiate his new prosperity by some extravagances which will expose him to the fire of the satirical pressman or playwright. This is the reason why South America, having undoubtedly borne in common with every country of Europe some few fantastic types of high and of low ideals, suddenly finds herself represented to the public, for the greater entertainment of the boulevard, as being exclusively peopled with those strange creatures we have christened rastaquouères, whose privilege it is to lead a life that is ever at variance with all the laws of common-sense.

If all we ask is a joke at the expense of our neighbours, the Gauls of Paris may give rein to their wit. Still, it may be useful for us all to know that these so-called rastaquouères, leaving to petty tyrants the whole field of ancient history, have not only secured to their country by their steady labour its present prosperity, but have also founded in their new domain a European civilisation which is no whit inferior in inspiration to that which we are for ever vaunting. They learn our languages, invade our colleges, absorb our ideas and our methods, and passing from France to Germany and England, draw useful comparisons as to the results obtained.

We are pleased to judge them more or less lightly. Let us not forget that we in our turn are judged by them. And while we waste our time quarrelling about individuals and names, they are directing a steady effort toward taking from each country of Europe what it has of the best, in order to build up over yonder on a solid base a new community which will some day be so much the more formidable that its own economic force will perhaps have as a counterbalance the complications of a European situation that is not tending toward solution.

In spite of everything, France has managed to maintain so far friendly and sympathetic relations with the Republic. Latin idealism keeps these South American nations ever facing toward those great modern peoples that have sprung from the Roman conquest. I cannot say I think we have drawn from this favourable condition of things all the advantage we might have derived from it, both for the youthful

Republics and for our Latinity, which is being steadily drained by the huge task of civilisation and by the vigorous onslaught that it is called on to sustain from the systematic activity of the Northern races.

The great Anglo-Saxon Republic of North America, tempered by the same Latin idealism imported in the eighteenth century from France by Jefferson, is making of a continent a modern nation whose influence will count more and more in the affairs of the globe. May it not be that South America, whose evolution is the result of lessons taught to some extent by the Northern races, will give us a new development of Latin civilisation corresponding to that which has so powerfully contributed to the making of Europe as we know it? It is here no question obviously of an organised rivalry of hostile forces between two great American peoples, who must surely be destined both by reason of their geographical situation, as also by mental affinities, to unite their strength to attain to loftier heights. The problem, which ought not to be shirked by France, will be henceforth to maintain in the pacific evolution of these communities the necessary proportion of idealism which she had a large share in planting there.

In following such a train of thought, how can we help pausing for an instant to consider the Pan-American Congress which so fitly closed the splendid exhibition of the Argentine centenary? With the sole exception of Bolivia, every republic of South America sent a representative to the palace of the Congress to discuss their common interests—an imposing assembly, which in the dignity of its debates can bear comparison with any Upper Chamber of the Continent of Europe. For my part, I sought in vain for one of those excitable natures, ever ripe for explosion—the fruit, according to tradition, of equatorial soil. I found only jurisconsults, historians, men of letters or of science, giving their opinions in courteous language, whose example might with advantage be followed by many an orator in the Old Continent. Not, of course, that passions were wholly absent from these debates. In these new countries, where the strength of youth finds a free field for its display, and where revolution and war are the chief traditions of the race, warmth of feeling has too frequently transformed the political arena into a field of battle. But by degrees, as the community takes form and acquires greater weight in every domain of public life, there grows up an imperious need of organised action, and the youthful democrats themselves end by realising that a people can only govern itself when its citizens have proved themselves capable of self-discipline.

Of all the problems which might naturally present themselves in a Pan-American Congress, those that might be expected to call forth implacable opposition were rigorously eliminated. An exchange of views took place, and each delegate was able to report to his principals a number of conclusions calculated to pave the way to future understandings.

When the Congress threw out the proposal to generalise the Monroe Doctrine and apply its principle to the whole of the South American continent, the representative of a large State said to me:

” We shall separate without accomplishing anything.”

” It is already much to have avoided all confilet,” I replied, ” and if you had really accomplished nothing you would still have been useful in that you had met, talked together, understood one another, and parted on good terms.”

Perhaps the man whose position was the most delicate of all was Mr. Henry White, the delegate of the great northern Republic, and the distinguished diplomat so popular in Parisian society, who contributed to the utmost of his power towards finding an equitable solution of the Franco-German conflict at the Algeciras Conference. At the Congress of Buenos Aires, the delegate of Washington had, like the representative of Uruguay, one vote only, and his efforts were directed to making his collaborators forget that he was a ” big brother,” a very big brother, faintly suspected of tendencies towards an hegemony. It took all the gracious affability of Mr. White to disarm the distrust aroused more especially by the proposal to place South-ern America under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine, and thus the Congress could be dissolved without a word of any but good-will and American brotherhood.

The Pan-American Congress was the natural outcome of the great international exhibition by which the Argentine Republic celebrated the centenary of its independence. The great fairs of older times existed with very good reason. There was every advantage to be gained by bringing together at stated times the produce of different districts at a period of the world’s history when the deficiency of means of communication placed insurmountable obstacles in the way of producer, merchant, and consumer. To-day, thanks to steampower, every city in the world offers a permanent exhibition adapted to the needs of its public, and the traveller wastes his time when he endeavours to bring back from his journeys some article unknown to his countrymen. For this reason the finest of inter-national exhibitions can reserve no surprises to its visitors. And as for experts, or specialists in any branch of commerce or industry, he is to be pitied who awaits the opening of one of these universal bazaars in order to obtain in-formation on some detail of his business.

There remain evidently the amusements and entertainments which in such gatherings are naturally intended to arouse the pleasure-loving instincts of crowds. But civilisation has pretty well surfeited us with such amusements, which are now better calculated to tempt than to satisfy us. And when the friendly city that summons us to such a show is situated 11,000 kilometres from our shores, it requires a more powerful attraction than this of the ” already seen” to induce us to undertake the expedition.

For all these reasons and without seeking any others the Buenos Aires Exhibition could not be a success either in the way of money or of the concourse of peoples. An unfortunate and ultra-modern strike retarded the arrangements to such a point that on the anniversary day, May 25th, only the section of ganaderia (cattle-breeding) was ready. Notwithstanding a multitude of difficulties, pavilions were put up, in which were amassed and docketed in the usual fashion some of those products which the greed for gold brings to all the depots of the world. A few special side-shows were remarkably successful. Of these may be mentioned the English exhibit of the railway industry and the German section of electricity. Some of the buildings were never completed, as that of the Spanish section. France, I regret to say, did not distinguish herself. The omission is inconceivable when one considers what a market might in this way have been found for our manufactures. Apart from some interesting displays by dress-makers, jewellers, and goldsmiths, exhibited in a tasteful pavilion slightly resembling Bagatelle, and called the Palace of Applied Art, we found nothing to send. I admit that for France this was not sufficient. England, however, exhibited a magnificent State railway-carriage—said to be worth two millions—which she presented to the President of the Republic. It is a luxury that the English might very well permit themselves, since almost all the railways of the Argentine are in their hands. And why, if you please? Because the engineer who one day invited tenders for the construction of the first Argentine railway-line found in Paris no support, and from our capital (I have it from his own lips) he turned to London, where the enterprise was carried to colossal proportions.

We could hardly help being represented in the art and sculpture pavilions. I can honestly say that our exhibit, well-organised, was highly creditable to the nation. But, without any tremendous effort, we might have done much better ! We reckoned, perhaps, on the Argentine millionaires coming to Paris to look for the works we failed to exhibit in their capital. If only millionaires were concerned, I should say nothing. But it is precisely because the art education of the Argentine people is as yet rudimentary, as might also be said of more than one nation in ancient Europe, that we ought to have attempted to arouse a wider public interest instead of appealing merely to connoisseurs, who are in the habit of getting what they want in the picture-galleries of the Old World. Some excellent examples were shown, no doubt; that was the least we could do. Our home artists would not risk the experiment of creating a kind of exhibition-museum, which might have been a revelation of French art and have had the effect of arousing the need of the Beautiful which is latent in every nation, and at the same time inviting that intelligent criticism which is a powerful factor in the development of taste in connoisseurs.

There is no art museum worthy the name in the Argentine Republic. You must exist before you can add adornment. If, however, I may judge by what I saw in a few private galleries, the time is at hand when the need for large art collections will be fully acknowledged in the south as it is now in the north; there, forty years ago, I know by personal observation that the ground was less fully prepared than it is to-day in the Argentine, while now we see the treasures of Europe being eagerly bought up in order that the New World may soon vie with the Old on this point.

I must not omit to say a word on the retrospective exhibit of ” colonial days.” A centenary celebration implies a history and a past, and this history is remarkably well illustrated by the instruments of civilisation now in the hands of the ‘founders. What a contrast there is between the more than sumptuous railway-carriage of which I spoke just now and the archaic coaches, fat-bellied barouches, and Merovingian chariots which used to pick a painful way across the pathless Pampas, transporting from plantation to plantation families that had but little prospect of ever amassing more than they needed for a bare daily life. Utensils of the simplest, bespeaking a time when wood was scarce. Weapons of the clumsiest, undressed skins as a protection from the occasional blasts of the pampero. In a period when the horse was the universal means of locomotion—he still is as a matter of fact, to a very great extent, since in the country the little children must mount their ponies to go to school—the equipment of the horseman was a pompous bedizenment in Spanish guise, from his heavy brass ornaments to the rowels of monstrous spurs. All this belongs to the ancient times of scarcely fifty years ago, and when you meet a gaucho on his thick-set horse, his feet in weighty wooden stirrups hanging vertically like wheels, you realise that the modern miracle of iron roads has not been able to entirely wipe out the primitive machinery of a world of colonists.

The section of Argentine produce cattle, timber, plants, fruits, cereals, etc.—is specially interesting to foreigners. To describe it would be to write the economic history of the land. I heard on all sides that the cattle exhibits were exceptionally fine. I am not astonished, now that I have seen in the shows and on the estancias (farms) the finest of stock for breeding purposes. We know that out on the Pampas the rearing of horses and horned cattle as well as of sheep has developed enormously. I shall have occasion presently to return to the subject when I speak of the famous freezing-machines which supply the English markets with meat slaughtered in Buenos Aires—to say nothing of the live cattle exported. The only detail that I shall give here is that the event of the day has been the purchase by a meat-freezing company of five oxen for beef at the price of 25,000 francs apiece (L1000). This looks like madness, and perhaps it is. We are beginning to learn in Europe to what point the craze for advertisement is carried by Americans. I only quote this fact because it throws more light on certain traits of character than any number of traveller’s tales could do.

Grain-growing—wheat and maize—like that of flax (of which they burn the stalks for want of knowing how to utilise them) has recently grown enormously. I shall return to this subject also later on, when I speak of the Pampas, with their immense stretch of arable land between the Andes and the sea, yielding every kind of harvest without manure and almost without labour. Wherever the locomotive makes its appearance there blossoms forth a fertile strip of country on either side of the line, which on the plan of the administrators symbolises an instant rise in value of the property whose produce has henceforth a quick means of transport to its market. Had I not firmly resolved to abstain from quoting figures and facts cut out of books of statistics, I could easily dazzle the reader by showing him the fantastic increase in the crops of maize alone, standing in gigantic ricks round the estancias, pending the moment when they will be handed over to the gigantic elevators to be flung on board the English and German cargo-boats.

Strolling through the galleries in which are accumulated the exhibits of Argentine agricultural produce, you are forced to admire the variety of species yielded by a soil that produces clover two and a half yards in height! I say nothing of the fruits and vegetables, because at that season of the year I could not try them.

Neither seemed to me to compete with European varieties. As for the tropical fruits, with the exception of the oranges and pines, they are astonishing, I confess, but I cannot give them any other praise.

In the section of Argentine timber is to be seen in the front rank the ” false cedar ” and the marvellous québracho, of which I have al-ready spoken. No other wood can be compared with this in respect of the quantity of tannin it contains. For this reason the immense forests of the northern provinces are being devastated to supply the manufacturers. Railway-sleepers and stakes for the wire-fencing that marks out the immense stretches of Pampas are the principal employment for québracho, irrespective of the extraction of tannin. As the demand in-creases, and the idea of replanting does not seem to have occurred to the Argentinos, it is reasonable to foresee the moment when the Government of the Republic, having neglected to husband its resources, will have only vain lamentations to offer to its customers. The day may be far distant; I do not dispute it. Such an improvident policy is, none the less, reprehensible. How many years, moreover, must elapse between the planting of the young québracho and its maturity? Indeed, the same remarks might be made of all the other species of timber.

When you have seen tree-trunks that were many centuries in growth falling bit by bit into the maw of a factory furnace, without any attempt being made to replace them, when you have been saddened by the spectacle of the marvellous Brazilian forests blazing in every direction to make room for coffee plantations that will presently spring up amongst the charred trunks, you realise keenly that there is no more urgent need in these great countries than a complete organisation of forestry. If in some parts of Brazil the soil will no longer yield freely without the help of manure, the water system, at all events, remains unchanged. In the Argentine Pampas the case is very different, for the reason that the watercourses disappear into the ground before reaching the sea. When the immense forests of the highlands have disappeared to make way for plateaux open to wind and sun, can we doubt but that the already terrible scourge of drought will be still further aggravated, and its disastrous effects on cattle and harvests be even more redoubtable than they are at present?

I must resist the temptation of dwelling on the interesting exhibits of the South American Republics. I should never finish. Neither must I wander any farther from the Argentine capital to set down reflections that will more fitly suggest themselves later. Nevertheless I cannot leave the exhibition without mentioning the extraordinary establishment in which the Rural Society holds its annual cattle-shows—vast stables and stalls, constructed according to the latest pattern on English model farms. There is accommodation perhaps for more than 500 horned cattle, or horses, and for 700 or 800 probably in the paddocks, while 4000 sheep can be penned under a single roof, the whole completed by an enclosure for trials with seating accommodation for 2000 persons.

These shows take place every year in October. They are closed by a sale at which the beasts are put up at auction. No better system of gauging the progress of the breeding industry could be devised. As many as 4000 animals have been brought together for these shows, collected from all parts of the country, including stallions of the best breeds, Durham and Herefordshire cows, to say nothing of pigs, llamas, and poultry. Agricultural machinery and dairy implements also find a place here, of course.

It is in this colossal cattle-rearing city that the greatest effort of production ever made has been concentrated. I saw at Rosario a magnificent cattle show. But the great Fair of Buenos Aires outdoes anything to be offered elsewhere of the kind. I shall have to return to the subject when I come to the estancias and the vast herds that belong to them. Here it suffices to note that the Argentine breeders do not shrink from any expense in order to obtain the most perfect stallions. England is, of course, the chief market for the frozen meat, which is carried as return cargo by the coaling-boats. Naturally the farmers of the Pampas endeavour to suit the tastes of their customers. This is why the finest specimens of British cattle-farms find their way every year to Buenos Aires. It is not surprising that the horse-breeders have adopted the same course, though full justice is done to the qualities of French breeds. Still, the English breeder best understands how to make an outlet for his wares, whilst the French prefers to sit in the sun on the plains of Caen to wait until the foreigner comes to ask him as a favour for his animals.