Poring over Darwin’s Journal of Researches, which describes the naturalist’s second survey expedition on The Beagle (1831-1836), we uncovered some real treasures and several pertaining to Chile. The first of which, reproduced here, gives a lovely description of Darwin’s wonder and appreciation of the Andean landscape. He goes on to talk about the preponderance of mines in the country and the lot of the ‘Chillian’ miner. The following passages were recorded in 1834. Source: Darwin, C. R. 1890. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle etc. London: John Murray. First Murray illustrated edition. pages 273-278.
“The setting of the sun was glorious; the valleys being black, whilst the snowy peaks of the Andes yet retained a ruby tint. When it was dark, we made a fire beneath a little arbour of bamboos, fried our charqui (or dried slips of beef), took our maté, and were quite comfortable. There is an inexpressible charm in thus living in the open air. The evening was calm and still;—the shrill noise of the mountain bizcacha, and the faint cry of a goatsucker, were occasionally to be heard. Besides these, few birds, or even insects, frequent these dry, parched mountains.”
Here Darwin notes what all Chileans know well; that the Andes provide a formidiable defense from all forms of attack including that from disease…
“We spent the day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. Chile, bounded by the Andes and the Pacific, was seen as in a map. The pleasure from the scenery, in itself beautiful, was heightened by the many reflections which arose from the mere view of the Campana range with its lesser parallel ones, and of the broad valley of Quillota directly intersecting them. Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed, and levelled whole masses of them? It is well in this case to call to mind the vast shingle and sedimentary beds of Patagonia, which, if heaped on the Cordillera, would increase its height by so many thousand feet. When in that country, I wondered how any mountain-chain could have supplied such masses, and not have been utterly obliterated. We must not now reverse the wonder, and doubt whether all-powerful time can grind down mountains—even the gigantic Cordillera—into gravel and mud. The appearance of the Andes was different from that which I had expected. The lower line of the snow was of course horizontal, and to this line the even summits of the range seemed quite parallel. Only at long intervals a group of points or a single cone showed where a volcano had existed, or does now exist. Hence the range resembled a great solid wall, surmounted here and there by a tower, and making a most perfect barrier to the country.”
And of the divisions of class, how much has actually changed…
“Almost every part of the hill had been drilled by attempts to open gold-mines: the rage for mining has left scarcely a spot in Chile unexamined. I spent the evening as before, talking round the fire with my two companions. The Guasos of Chile, who correspond to the Gauchos of the Pampas, are, however, a very different set of beings. Chile is the more civilised of the two countries, and the inhabitants, in consequence, have lost much individual character. Gradations in rank are much more strongly marked: the Guaso does not by any means consider every man his equal; and I was quite surprised to find that my companions did not like to eat at the same time with myself. This feeling of inequality is a necessary consequence of the existence of an aristocracy of wealth. It is said that some few of the greater landowners possess from five to ten thousand pounds sterling per annum: an inequality of riches which I believe is not met with in any of the cattle-breeding countries eastward of the Andes. A traveller does not here meet that unbounded hospitality which refuses all payment, but yet is so kindly offered that no scruples can be raised in accepting it. Almost every house in Chile will receive you for the night, but a trifle is expected to be given in the morning; even a rich man will accept two or three shillings. The Gaucho, although he may be a cutthroat, is a gentleman; the Guaso is in few respects better, but at the same time a vulgar, ordinary fellow. The two men, although employed much in the same manner, are different in their habits and attire; and the peculiarities of each are universal in their respective countries. The Gaucho seems part of his horse, and scorns to exert himself excepting when on its back; the Guaso may be hired to work as a labourer in the fields. The former lives entirely on animal food; the latter almost wholly on vegetable. We do not here see the white boots, the broad drawers, and scarlet chilipa; the picturesque costume of the Pampas. Here, common trousers are protected by black and green worsted leggings. The poncho, however, is common to both. The chief pride of the Guaso lies in his spurs; which are absurdly large. I measured one which was six inches in the diameter of the rowel, and the rowel itself contained upwards of thirty points. The stirrups are on the same scale, each consisting of a square, carved block of wood, hollowed out, yet weighing three or four pounds. The Guaso is perhaps more expert with the lazo than the Gaucho; but, from the nature of the country, he does not know the use of the bolas.”
Brits abroad, they get everywhere!
August 18th.—We descended the mountain, and passed some beautiful little spots, with rivulets and fine trees. Having slept at the same hacienda as before, we rode during the two succeeding days up the valley, and passed through Quillota, which is more like a collection of nursery-gardens than a town. The orchards were beautiful, presenting one mass of peach-blossoms. I saw, also, in one or two places the date-palm; it is a most stately tree; and I should think a group of them in their native Asiatic or African deserts must be superb. We passed likewise San Felipe, a pretty straggling town like Quillota. The valley in this part expands into one of those great bays or plains, reaching to the foot of the Cordillera, which have been mentioned as forming so curious a part of the scenery of Chile. In the evening we reached the mines of Jajuel, situated in a ravine at the flank of the great chain. I stayed here five days. My host, the superintendent of the mine, was a shrewd but rather ignorant Cornish miner. He had married a Spanish woman, and did not mean to return home; but his admiration for the mines of Cornwall remained unbounded. Amongst many other questions, he asked me, “Now that George Rex is dead, how many more of the family of Rexes are yet alive?” This Rex certainly must be a relation of the great author Finis, who wrote all books!
Ah, on to the precious cobre!
“These mines are of copper, and the ore is all shipped to Swansea, to be smelted. Hence the mines have an aspect singularly quiet, as compared to those in England: here no smoke, furnaces, or great steam-engines, disturb the solitude of the surrounding mountains. The Chilian government, or rather the old Spanish law, encourages by every method the searching for mines. The discoverer may work a mine on any ground, by paying five shillings; and before paying this he may try, even in the garden of another man, for twenty days.”
“It is now well known that the Chilian method of mining is the cheapest. My host says that the two principal improvements introduced by foreigners have been, first, reducing by previous roasting the copper pyrites—which, being the common ore in Cornwall, the English miners
were astounded on their arrival to find thrown away as useless: secondly, stamping and washing the scorié from the old furnaces—by which process particles of metal are recovered in abundance. I have actually seen mules carrying to the coast, for transportation to England, a cargo of such cinders. But the first case is much the most curious. The Chilian miners were so convinced that copper pyrites contained not a particle of copper, that they laughed at the Englishmen for their ignorance, who laughed in turn, and bought their richest veins for a few dollars. It is very odd that, in a country where mining had been extensively carried on for many years, so simple a process as gently roasting the ore to expel the sulphur previous to smelting it, had never been discovered. A few improvements have likewise been introduced in some of the simple machinery; but even to the present day, water is removed from some mines by men carrying it up the shaft in leathern bags!”
“The labouring men work very hard. They have little time allowed for their meals, and during summer and winter they begin when it is light, and leave off at dark. They are paid one pound sterling a month, and their food is given them: this for breakfast consists of sixteen figs and two small loaves of bread; for dinner, boiled beans; for supper, broken roasted wheat grain. They scarcely ever taste meat; as, with the twelve pounds per annum, they have to clothe themselves and support their families. The miners who work in the mine itself have twenty-five shillings per month, and are allowed a little charqui. But these men come down from their bleak habitations only once in every fortnight or three weeks.”
It’s still common practice in to stay up in the mine for 2 weeks at a time in some companies, hopefully the conditions have improved a bit since then though! Maybe a Chilean miner or anyone that’s worked over there can give us a ‘day in the life’?
You can read all of Darwin’s work for yourself by following the link.