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The Journal of Syms Covington

Chapter 3

From Brazil to the Land of Fire

[Sketch of the harbour at Bahia (San Salvador)]

Anchored off Teneriffe(13) ON January 6, 1832, WHERE WE were informed by the visit boat THAT if WE AT all wished to have staid here, we must remain twelve days in quarantine;(14) so in consequence we sailed the same hour, and steered for San Jago Island where we arrived January 16.(15)

This island is subject to the Portuguese, and well known. Suffice is to say, we got plenty of poultry and fruit(16) at a very low price, and such else as the island produces. Sailed from here February 9th, and after a moderate passage,(17) anchored in Bahía February 28th.

Bahía or San Salvador, the Capital, also called Ciudades de Bahía, was originally the seat of the supreme government of Brazil. It consists of two (3) ports, one built on low ground near the shore, where the commerce is carried on, and the other on a high hill which being the most healthy, is the residence of the people of consequence. Its population is said to be nearly equal to that of Rio de Janeiro. The houses are built with latticed windows and balconies similar to those in Rio de Janeiro. The churches which, are the public buildings most worthy of notice, are thickly ornamented within. The government of the city is vested in a governor, who holds his situation for three years.(18) The climate is always warm, but refreshed by the breeze, and is in some degree tempered by the long absence of the sun. The nights are nearly of one length throughout the year.(19) Though hotter than Rio de Janeiro, it has a more airy situation and better supplied with water, IS pretty well fortified, (4) and as to provisions, suffice is to say there is AN abundance of fresh fish, fowl and fruit.

[Entrance to Rio]
Sketch by Syms Covington: 'Entrance to Rio'

Sailed March 18th; with moderate weather and a pleasant passage we arrived at Rio de Janeiro April 4th. The finest view of this city is from the harbour, whence its lofty eminence crowned with convents, and the hills in its environs, interspersed with villas and gardens have a rich and magnificent appearence. The royal palace is within sixty yards of the landing place. This palace, though small, is the residence of the Prince Regent and the Royal Family.(20) The mint and royal chapel form parts of the structure. Some idea of the extent of the city may be formed from the SIZE OF THE population which, including the negroes, its most numerous portion, is estimated at 130,000 souls. In the city, dwellings are in general high. (5) The numerous convents and churches, to all appearence are well built, and like most Roman Catholic churches, exceedingly rich within; they appear more like fairy palaces than places for Divine worship.

There are frequent pools of stagnant water, which from the lowness of the site, cannot without much labour be cleared off and which, from the heat of the weather, often emit the most putrid exhalations. Water for the use of the city, flows from the hills through aqueducts, and is distributed to several fountains in various public places. The market is well supplied with all that a plentiful country can produce. The harbour is well known to be one of the safest in the world. The batteries, which (6) are very numerous, are at present partly in ruins. The harbour is easy of entrance and THIS IT enjoys, generally speaking, at all times, as there is a daily alternative of land and sea breeze, the former blowing until Noon and the latter from that hour until sun sets.

Left the above place May 10th for Bahía(21)

where we arrived the 15th of the same month and left the 23rd for Rio d Janeiro, where we arrived June 4th. Here we bid farewell to Rio de Janeiro and the Portuguese July 5th for Monte Video in the River Plata and the Spaniards, where we arrived July 26.

Monte Video(22) is situated on a tongue of land and surrounded with a mud wall and deep moat, with four gates. This place formerly was thought to be impregnable, but at present it is like most other (old) Spanish sea ports, their forts (7) nearly all in ruins.(23) The harbour is very open to the sea and the occasional heavily blowing WIND makes it rather dangerous for shipping; it has a fine mole with cranes. Of course there is an immense number of cattle here which makes meat cheap; and, not that alone, but everything that a fruitful country can produce. The land appears to be pretty well cultivated. Here, if a man is willing to work, he can save money however humble his situation may be.

On our arrival here we were obliged to arm and land nearly all the ships company to protect the consul and British merchants, in consequence of a disturbance between the Citizens and Country People; but by the interference of the English and Americans it was settled the following day.(24)

(8) Left Monte Video July 31st for Buenos Ayres where we arrived August 2nd. But in consequence of a misunderstanding between us and the Buenos Ayres guard ship we left the same day(25) for Monte Video, w here we anchored the 4th of the same month.(26) We lay here until the 20th, from whence we sailed for THE shallow BAY OF Bahía Blanca, or the White Bay, on the Patagonian Coast where we arrived September 5th.(27)

Bahía Blanca or the White Bay (water shallow).(28) The land about here is low and sandy, except the Blue Mountains which ar e about twenty or thirty miles in the interior, and head quarters of the Patagonians. The town of Bahía Blanca is about twenty miles from here, AND inhabited by the Spaniards. There are no trees, but ONLY dry grass and bushes, except in places where you find occasional green patches of grass on poor soils, but no water. For the latter we were obliged to dig wells in the sand for the supply of our ship, where we got water (9) which was very hard and brackish.

Here you find immense numbers of deer,(29) cavy,(30) ostriches,(31) and guanacos but OF the latter, here, I never saw many.(32) lions, tigers,(33) foxes, armadillos(34) and birds of various species, snakes and insects. The armadillo burrows in the ground, IS very plentiful, and IS most excellent eating, even equal to a young suckling pig. WE FOUND AN ostrich nest with twenty seven eggs.(35) AT Bahía Blanca, near Johnsons Point, (36) WE ALSO found the remains or bones of Megatherium, which were sent to England.(37) The Indians and Spaniards HUNT with lazo and balls.(38)

WE Sailed October 17th. (10) Arrived in Monte Video October 26th. From here we sailed October 30th for Buenos Ayres, where we anchored in the Outer Roads November 2nd.

Buenos Ayres, about 160 miles southward of Monte Video and IS opposite the Río del la Plata. The city is large and populous, AND is situated on a bank, which extends each way beyond the city a considerable distance. It is very inconvenient for landing, as there is no mole or levy, AND the water being very shallow, people are taken from their boats, when landing, in carts on very high wheels, which carts are in constant attendance for a trifling sum [Barlow 1933: 109]. THE buildings most worthy of notice are the churches, etc.

The ships company having their liberty, we left Buenos Ayres November 10th for Monte Video, where we arrived the 14th of the same month. Got seven or eight months' provisions on board, and sailed November 27th.

WE Anchored off the Bay of San Blas, December 3rd. Sailed the next morning, and also parted with the two small schooners that WERE engaged at Bahía Blanca to survey about the coast of Patagonia until our return at the same place.( 39)

(11) Moored ship December 1st in deep water AT Good Success Bay,(40) Tierra Del Fuego. The island, or Islands, and Staten Land form the Strait le Miare. HERE IT IS daylight until 10 o'clock at night, REMAINING twilight UNTIL daybreak at 2.30 o'clock. These Islands are completeLY forestED mountains, their tops capt with snow which remains the whole year round. Near the summit(41) of the mountains, there are very thick, low bushes, and patches of moss where you sink ankle deep -- which makes walking very laborious. On the tops of the mountains AT places where the snow has melted, you find rocks of a slaty and crumbling nature. Here, sometimes the wind blows with fierceness, which obliged US to return down to the woods, for without exaggeration we could scarcely breathe. On the mountain heights one finds plenty of guanacos, which are very shy. Their flesh is very good eating but dry. Both on the high and low woods there are great many birds of different species and by the sea, there ARE plenty of geese, ducks, and seals. Here, two of Captain Cook's men died of the cold. (42) WE went up to the same mountains the same day in the month AS THEY.(43)

(12) Here you find the savage in plenty.(44) Picture to yourself a canoe along side of a ship; with two or three men with as many women and a child, perhaps two, all absolutely naked. Sometimes a woman or a man may have a sealskin or a part of one over his shoulders, and the woman, with a bit of skin tied around the waist.(45) All squatted down on their hams,(46) with a handful of fire in the bottom of the canoe with a few small fishes, with their faces and bodies painted or marked with red and white chalk in various ways, with necklaces made of trade party shells worn round the necks and wrists of the women, with their stiff black hair standing on end, and most likely shivering with the cold. THEY HAVE several spears made from the bones of the seal, with a staff from twelve to fifteen feet long well made, the whole cut with sharp stones,(47) two or three fishing lines made from the gut of the seal with a knot to the end for the fish to swallow, and small buckets made from the rush (or plaited), one of which contains a fire stone and a sort of dry moss to kindle a fire when wanted. One or two stand up occasionally, making signs and continually using the word, "Yammarschooner," which is supposed to be " give me," as they hold their (13) hands out at the same time [Darwin 1906: 208,216-7].

These poor wretches are equally miserable ashore, as they have only a wigwam or small hut made with the branches of trees about four feet high rounded upon top and a hole just large enough to creep in, with a fire inside where they sit down and broil their fish, seals and limpets. This miserable hut forms but a poor barrier against the inclemency of the weather, but as they are wandering tribes and used to no comfort, those temporary huts, serve them equally as well as our houses do us.(48) Those Indians like all others are often at war with each other; their defensive weapons are the spear, the bow and arrow, club, and stones. A tribe called the Bowans use the bow and arrow more than the others.(49)

Buttons or a bit of looking glass or any thing that shines pleases them plenty; Red and yellow cloth or flannel likewise.

(14) Left Good Success Bay December 21st, weathered Cape Horn the 22nd with a pleasant breeze, AND with studding sails(50) set, a thing but rarely done. WE HAD A very fine view of the Cape and adjacent islands. Hermit Islands or the Cape is a small bare island, its top HAVING the appearance of a saddle.

By our having a gentle breeze, we sailed very close to the Rock and from thence stood away; but this breeze, in the first watch, turned to one of a very different nature viz. that of blowing a heavy gale, which obliged us to take in the studding sails etc., and close reefed our main topsail. It is well known that the weather HERE is very precarious, which obliges every one to be on the alert.

December 24th, moored ship in Wigwam Cove,(51) from whence we had a beautiful view of the cape which is within ten miles of the Cove. There were frequent squalls, AND heavy puffs of the wind to appearance like a fog (15) coming down from the mountains, called by sailors, williwaws.(52) Here we passed our Christmas and I may say a merry one considering where we were and in a ship. The Captain indulged the ships company in every thing he possibly could, our ship being housed over, we could dance, sing, joke or in a word DO anything to make one another happy, and on deck,(53) although it blew and rained occasionally.

We found wild fowl on the Cape and ON other small islands in its vicinity, and likewise found a sort of grouse. Here are plenty of celery, black currants and berries, the latter in immense numbers, and good eating.


13 Canary Islands, off the African coast, at Latitude 28° N.

14 For fear of cholera [Darwin 1906: 1]. Darwin, suffering terribly from seasickness, thought this something akin to a 'death warrant,' one which condemned him to the rolling jelly decks of his ship [Barlow 1933: 21].

15 The Cape Verd Islands, further South and some 370 miles off the coast of West Africa at about Latitude 15° N.

16 For travellers who had never before been out of England, this was the first taste of bananas (Darwin found it wanting compared with the orange) [Barlow 1933: 24].

17 On the 17th they crossed the Equator near St. Paul Rocks where they met Neptune and his constables for the initiation of the 'griffins.' Darwin escaped greater mortification; no doubt Covington was shaved, smeared with filth and finally washed with with stinging saltwater.

It was shirt-sleeve weather, and most of the men who were old enough, tended the stubble of new beards. In their journey through the Cosmos, the Sun was now in the northern sky; the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds pointed the way at night [Barlow 1933: 36].

18 Covington's comments exclusively concern the city; he apparently did not go into the country. Even so, Covington makes no mention of a carnival in the city; he may have spent his time close to the ship. Darwin tells how he and some of the officers braved squirt guns and water-filled waxballs [Barlow 1933: 41].

19 This unusual phenomenon was worth note, as the short, dreary Winter days of England were still in their minds.

20 Rio de Janeiro was the seat of the Portuguese government from 1808 to 1820; expelled by French armies, the Portuguese Royal Family moved with help of the British Fleet, their ally against Napoleon. So it was no surprise that the young Regent would soon open up the rich resources of Brazil to what turned out to be a largely unscrupulous band of British merchants.

21 The Beagle had go back to Bahía in order to correct a discrepancy in longitude. Darwin remained behind, taking up residence at Batofogo Bay across from Rio de Janeiro.

On their return, Midshipman King ran to tell him that three of their men, who had done nothing more than camp overnight in the jungle, were dead of malarial fever; Darwin's new friend and walking companion, Volunteer 1st Class Musters, the son of Mary Chaworth, Lord Byron's unrequited boyhood sweetheart, was sadly one of them. Darwin thanked his Star he didn't go along; his leg and arm were already swollen and aching from tropical sores [Barlow 1933: 67].

In addition to these losses, the period at Rio de Janeiro, saw the transfer of ill or unsatisfied crew. McCormick and the ailing artist Earle left ship for home; and then they required replacements for the dead [Barlow 1933: 72, 80].

22 Uruguay, but then it was called Banda Oriental, a nation that was little more than a weak dependency of England.

23 Covington is quite impressed with the religious buildings, he notes to the side, "built churches."

24 The government of the day confiscated 400 horses from a British merchant, according to every one on Beagle, this was an intolerable insult to the Flag [Barlow 1933: 83]. These revolutionary parties were poorly armed, and were there fore easily cajoled by British firepower. On the larger scale, Banda Oriental was a useful buffer between Brazil and the Argentine so long as it remained pliable. These wars were fortunately more operatic than bloody.

25 No small misunderstanding for Fitz Roy! The Argentine ship sent a shot "whistling over the rigging". The concern was again over cholera, but it was no excuse for "uncivilised behaviour." Drawing alongside, Fitz Roy ran out the guns hailing them, "when we again entered port ... if she dared fire a shot we would send our whole broadside her rotten hulk" [Barlow 1933: 85]. The Argentine officer was later arrested, to be punished at the discretion of the British Consul [Barlow 1933: 90].

26 The Black infantry mutinied and taken over the armoury. Fitz Roy, at the suggestion of the Police Chief Dumas, armed his men and entered town. The Americans having already occupied the Custom House, Fitz Roy's men proceeded to the armoury barricade. Dumas invited Fitz Roy to attack, but Fitz Roy sensibly declined. He was, of course, British and therefore must remain absolutely neutral! Fitz Roy retired his men to the ship the next day [Barlow 1933: 87].

27 Patagonia, the neglected southland of the yet unconsolidated Argentine Republic, was an unknown wasteland. Buildings were few, and most of the inhabitants were wandering caballeros. One day Beagle hoisted pennant and colours to hail an estancia at least 200 miles from any town [Barlow 1933: 92].

28 Six years before even the bay was unknown. Now it was a rude frontier garrison commanded by a suspicious 'old Spaniard' who would have the foreign man-of-war watched [Barlow 1933: 97].

29 The pampas deer, Ozotoceros bezoarticus. Bucks have surprisingly smelly musk glands at the base of the tail. Darwin tells the story of cleaning an animal, his knife accidentally cutting into the musk bladder. He tied the skin in a silk handkerchief which, in spite of many washings over many months still carried a horrible odour, and made the naturalist poor company at meals [Darwin 1906: 46].

30 Africa is a continent of large herbivorous mammals; in South America the corresponding range is filled with a startling variety of caviomorph rodents. 'Cavy' is a catch all term for this group, and includes the capybara, paca, agouti, the chinchilla and the guinea pig.

31 Covington follows Darwin in referring to the giant flightless bird of South America as an ostrich. We now call them rhea, as they belong to a different family. At these latitudes, Covington found the larger, common rhea, Rhea americana.

32 The guanaco, Lama guanicoe, a long-necked, humpless camel, is the wild ancestor of the domestic llama.

33 Lions and tigers here refer, respectively to the puma (Puma concolor) and (el tigre) the jaguar (Panthera onca) [Darwin 1906: 127].

34 Armadillos belong to the ancient order of Edentata (because most of them lack teeth) and are distant relatives of the Megatherium described below. The armadillos rely on a shell of modified hair for defense, rolling themselves into a little indestructible ball. Some are named for the number of chinks, or bands, in their armour. Covington came across three varieties here: the pichy, Zaedyus pichy, the aper, Tolypeutes matacus and the the ill-tempered (and most tasty) peludo, or pampas armadillo, Chaetophractus villosus.

35 This is a note set at the side of the page [Darwin 1906: 86]. Male rhea maintain a harem of six to eight females, all of them laying eggs in a single nest.

36 Called Punta Alta by Darwin, for a nearby town.

37 Fitz Roy, speaking of September, 1832, comments, "Not withstanding our smiles at the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board, he [Darwin] and his servant used their pick axes in earnest and brought away what has since proved to be most interesting and valuable remains of extinct animals" [Fitz Roy 1839: (2)106-7]. This may indicate that Covington was already in Darwin's employ; just as likely, Fitz Roy may have merely juxtaposed the chronology, as he wrote his Narratives after his return to England.

Darwin found fossils of large mammals further inland and also here in gravel near the beach, most from an area 200 yards square [Darwin 1906: 77] . They included: Megatherium (which Covington calls 'Armetherium'), a sloth the size of an elephant. Instead of climbing trees to eat like its modern cousins, it knocked them down. Smaller edentates, in the bullock-range: Megalonyx, Scelidotherium and Mylodon darwinii. There was the hippopotamus-like Toxodon. Some were part of a long separate South American evolutionary history, others arrived with the formation of a land bridge to North America, 10 million years ago.

38 Bolas: three weights connected by strong leather rope; when thrown at a running animal, the bolas tangle in the legs and drop the animal straightaway. Lazo = lasso.

39 They hired La Lièvre and La Paz almost two months before, crewed respectively by Stokes and Mellersh, and Wickham and King. They were to chart the coast on the way to Rio Negro, meeting briefly here [Barlow 1933: 106].

40 St. Valentine's Bay is erased here and in a passage below; the two are in fact adjoining bays [Darwin 1906: 194].

41 On the 20th, Darwin and perhaps Covington "attempted to penetrate some way into the country" to collect plants, but the tangle of bushes was so thick that they couldn't make their way through [ Darwin 1906: 199; Barlow 1933: 122].

42 Here, Captain Cook sent the naturalists Joseph Banks and Charles Solander inland with their Black servants in charge of the spirits. While the scientists picked plants, mindless of the cold and impending dark, the servants "stupefied themselves to the degree that they ... laid themselves down in a place where there was not the least shelter for the inclemency of the night.... Bad traveling made it impossible for any one to carry them, so that they were obliged to leave them, and the next morning they were both found dead." [ Cook 1893: (1)38; Barlow 1933: 118,123]

43 Close enough. The event occurred over the night of January 16-17, 1769. Solander's warning, "Whoever sits down will sleep; whoever sleeps will wake no more," [Cook 1906: 16] would keep Covington alert following in his steps. Darwin's trips were on December 19th (unsuccessful) and 20th.

44 Darwin liked the looks of these people. They were the Haush [see Bridges 1948], like their neighbours the Oná, called Foot Indians because they hunted in the forests. in the East of the archipelago and were tall, well-built like Patagonians, and colourfully dressed in guanaco fur mantles [Darwin 1906: 194]; though their speech "does not deserve to be called articulate" [Barlow 1933: 119]. Further West Covington met the group he now morosely characterises. These are the Yaghan, a coastal people, also called Canoe Indians. Darwin [Darwin 1906: 202] gave a similar shocked, description of the "poor wretches...stunted in their growth and their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant and their gestures violent." Their morals were supposedly worse: one was asked why do you eat the old women before you eat your dogs? "Doggies catch otters, old women no" [Darwin 1906: 203]. The Whites didn't realise they were being had on [Bridges 1948: 34].

45 "Even this is only for a pocket in which they may carry pebbles for their slings" [Fitz Roy 1836: 317].

46 The words "like a beast" were in the original text, were penciled out.

47 Harpoons for sealing and fishing.

48 The last phrase was thought better of and crossed out. Fitz Roy put it elegantly, "Smoke goes out as easily as rain enters" [ Fitz Roy 1836: 318; Darwin 1906: 202].

49 According to Jemmy Button [Darwin 1906: 209, 216; Barlow 1933: 217], the Bowans or Owens crossed the mountains and attacked Jemmy's people. The invaders may have been Oná from across Beagle Strait. Bows, being most useful for hunting game in forests, were a more important kit item for the Oná.

50 A light sail extended outboard of a square sail and supported by a boom.

51 Named after the huts found there. But Darwin points out [Darwin 1906: 201; Barlow 1933: 125], this could be said of any of the bays hereabouts. It was also called St. Martin Cove [Darwin 1906: 412].

52 Williwaw has also come to mean a whirlwind for New Zealanders; in Australia it is a willy willy.

53 Most of this activity was below deck, but Darwin and Sulivan took a long walk ashore, and were stalked at a distance by Indians [Darwin 1906: 201, 206; Barlow 1933: 124-5].

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 23 August 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 17 March 1998

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