Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part I. EXPLORATION

Chapter 3. PORT SAN JULIAN

The Patagonian Myth

Port San Julian was the dramatic site of the most notable acts of first contact between the white man and the Argentine land, and in its barren beaches was written, with the blood of natives and Europeans, the first pages of the dark prologue of Argentine History.

—PABLO WALKER, PUERTO SAN JULIÁN, ORIGEN DEL MITO PATAGÓNICO

THE BEAGLE’S CAPTAIN, ROBERT FITZROY, had decided in 1833 to hire a second ship to help speed the survey of the Patagonian coastline. After several months of hard work he was getting antsy, and he had come across a sealing boat while visiting the Falkland Islands and decided to purchase it. For the next year, both the Beagle and the new addition, the Adventure, ferried their explorers around, taking measurements and making charts. On one of these small surveying voyages, FitzRoy determined the Adventure was not sailing well enough, and so when the ships arrived at Port Desire, he ordered it taken out of the water to have its sails altered. The repair delays mounted, and as the Adventure languished, the Beagle took off again. FitzRoy and crew would survey the harbor at Port San Julian, 110 miles to the south. Darwin, of course, went along.

Although there was no settlement then at Port San Julian, the harbor had managed to cram a lot of history into its short, unhappy life. It was discovered in 1520 by Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet of five ships. Just north of Port San Julian, Magellan encountered the Tehuelche natives of the region and of them his chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, wrote, “One of these men, as tall as a giant, came to our captain’s ship to satisfy himself and request that the others might come. And this man had a voice like a bull’s.” Magellan’s ship then encountered a ferocious storm, emerged unscathed and sailed into Port San Julian on March 31, 1520, to spend the next five winter months. Pigafetta continued his note-taking. “We saw a giant who was on the shore, quite naked, and who danced, leaped, and sang, and while he sang he threw sand and dust on his head.” Magellan sent crew members out to lead this giant back to him, which they did. “And he was so tall,” Pigafetta wrote, “that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.” Magellan named these giants “Pathagoni,” a word that, according to a footnote in the R. A. Skelton translation of Pigafetta’s work, means “dogs with large paws” in various Romance languages. The name for their land became Patagonia.

Almost immediately after arriving in the harbor, the masters of the other four ships mutinied. The mutiny failed, meriting scarcely a mention by Pigafetta, and Magellan beheaded two of the lead mutineers. Then, for good measure, he had them drawn and quartered. He hung their remains on wooden crosses as a warning to o t hers, smack in the middle of an island in the harbor, which became known as “Magellan’s Gibbet” (a gibbet being a useful little device, often cross-shaped, for hanging or displaying remains). He named the island Isla de la Justicia, the Island of Justice.

When the long winter came to an end, Magellan trekked to the top of the highest mountain in sight, planted a cross on top, and claimed the land for the King of Spain. He sailed on to “discover” the Pacific Ocean, give it a name, and then get hacked to death by an angry mob in the Philippines. (A sadly recurring theme for the great explorers; Pigafetta’s description of Magellan’s death—a confusing melee in which the captain fell on the beach as he was repeatedly stabbed—is a tableau familiar to fans of Captain Cook.)

Sixty years later, in 1578, the English pirate Sir Francis Drake sailed into the harbor at San Julian. Drake, too, had a suspected mutineer on board, so he called together a jury of forty sailors from his various ships, and the jury found the man guilty. Drake had him beheaded and hung, also on the Island of Justice, and etched a few w ords commemorating the deed into a rock on the island.

The bay continued to attract famous visitors: English circumnavigator George Anson came in 1741 and made it his base of operations in case of an attack by the Spanish. Spanish city-founder Antonio de Viedma, who helped colonize much of Argentina, tried (and failed) to establish a city called Floridablanca here in the 1780s.

Darwin arrived on January 9, 1834. For a week, the Beagle had explored the coast, and while sounding the sandbars in the harbor, FitzRoy let Darwin off the ship to examine the geology. A few days later, he went out walking and made two discoveries he could not easily explain: “a Spanish oven built of bricks, & and on the top of a hill a small wooden cross.” “Of what old navigators these are the relics it is hard to say,” he wrote in his journal. Although he knew both Magellan and Drake had visited the bay, he did not mention Floridablanca, which seems the most likely origin of the Spanish oven. The cross could have been Magellan’s—if the wood had survived for 314 years—although Darwin noted that it was small. Pigafetta had observed that the cross Magellan placed on the hilltop was “very tall.” (And a Spaniard would never lie about the size of his cross.)

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The bus terminal at modern Port San Julian was an afterthought and, for most, a fifteen-minute bathroom break on the long haul between Buenos Aires and Rio Gallegos, the southernmost city in mainland Argentina. Going north, the bus pulled up at Port San Julian at 2 A.M. and left twenty minutes later. Going south, the bus arrived at 1 A.M. and left after a mere ten minutes.

Darwin called the San Julian harbor “fine,” which, in the tourist literature, local historians had translated to “beautiful.” In the dark the town looked like most other Patagonian towns, all low buildings made of cement and corrugated metal, lit with glowing orange street lamps. I arrived at 2 A.M., one of the more lively times of day, since that’s when everyone was arriving or leaving. The coffee shop in the bus terminal was open and packed, the different bus companies had staffed ticket booths, and cars cruised the streets. Exhausted by a sleepless bus ride, and still not operating on Port San Julian time (i.e. being awake and alert at two in the morning), I lugged my pack down the street to what looked like a hotel (it had a glass front door and a bar), inquired and received a room, locked myself in, and promptly fell asleep for the next ten hours.

When I woke up around noon the next day, the stores were closed, shuttered, and locked, the sidewalks were empty, and the cars and their drivers had deserted the streets. It was Sunday, always a quiet day in heavily Catholic Latin America, but I walked for several blocks without passing a person or open business, arriving after ten minutes at the harbor. A freshly painted replica of Magellan’s flagship, Victoria, creaked and groaned in the wind. Wax sailors hung from the rigging. The harbor extended around the town, which was on a peninsula, and I pulled out a copy of one of Martens’ drawings, labeled “entrance to the harbor at Port San Julian,” and compared the view. The low-profile town did almost nothing to change the scenery overall, ending, as it did abruptly, in the low brown hills which still looked very much as rendered by the Beagle’s artist. The tallest hill, where Magellan put his cross, was visible at the right edge of the drawing. Now called Monte Wood, the summit’s distinctively flat top helped me recognize it instantly, even before I saw the large metal cross poking up into the blue sky. With the entire town closed for Sunday, I decided to do what any nineteenth century naturalist would have, and walk to the top of the distant hill.

One thing I envied about Darwin: Randomly walking places must have seemed quite natural to him. As a product of twentieth century U.S. suburbs, I found it strange to glimpse a mountain, set my sights on it, and just start walking toward it on the most direct, as the crow flies, route. I kept thinking there must be an officially sanctioned trail, or a road somewhere, because that’s all I had known. North American national parks are so crisscrossed by trails it seems no natural wonder exists without a well-marked trail leading right to it. There’s no real need to think about routes, or even to watch your step. But in South America, there are plenty of places—like Monte Wood—where the only way to get there is to blaze your own trail. You learn to appreciate distance that way. You start weighing your desire to experience distinctive parts of the landscape against how long it would take you to walk to them. Months later, back at home, I would look at the hills on the San Francisco Bay peninsula and think, “I could probably be up that and back by lunch.”

The sun burned down from the clear sky, and it would have been scorching were it not for the hellacious head-wind hampering my progress. I passed the town sewage treatment plant just outside of town, and the dump, where a trash fire was blazing. A cloud of putrid crap-and-refuse smoke was pushed by the winds back across the city.

After the dump, the road devolved into a standard Patagonian gravel rut. The air was so dry I could feel my lips cracking after about twenty minutes and the dust from the road settling in my mouth and around my teeth.

On January 11, 1834, Darwin and FitzRoy and crew set off into the same terrain in a search for fresh water, using an old Spanish map. They walked all day but couldn’t find a drop, and FitzRoy became dangerously fatigued. Darwin, who was more accustomed to long hikes, lit out for a lake a few miles in the distance but found to his “great mortification” that the lake was nothing more than “a field of solid snow-white salt.” Upon receiving this news, the crew decided they could do nothing else but return to the ships. FitzRoy, however, could not make it. “About dusk I could move no farther, having foolishly carried a heavy double-barrelled gun all day besides instruments,” he wrote. “So, choosing a place which could be found again, I sent the party on and lay down to sleep; one man, the most tired next to myself, staying with me. A glass of water would have made me quite fresh, but it was not to be had.”

Darwin struggled back to the Beagle with the others and sent back help for FitzRoy and friend. “Towards morning we all got on board,” FitzRoy continued later, “And no one suffered afterwards from the over-fatigue, except Mr. Darwin, who had had no rest during the whole of that thirsty day—now a matter of amusement, but at the time a very serious affair.” Darwin recorded a slightly different version of the day’s events—“I was not much tired,” he wrote in his diary—but he quickly contracted a fever and was consigned to bed for the next two days.

In analyzing the difficulties of that abortive walk, Darwin concluded that the climate had done them in: “as we were only eleven hours without water, I am convinced it must be from the extreme dryness of the atmosphere.”

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Someone had erected a fence about twenty yards below the summit, but since there was no one to object, I crawled under the barbed wire and quickly hiked the rest of the way up to the wind-blasted peak. With nothing to shelter behind, I worried that my fifteen-pound backpack would blow away and balanced by hunching at a slight angle into the wind.

The giant metal cross I had glimpsed from the harbor below was made of a steel lattice, and the wind whistling through it made a sound like a subway train passing through a tunnel. I could see all the way down to the town and across the bay to what was purported to be Magellan’s Gibbet and Island of Justice.

I wondered if Darwin had climbed the same hill. It seemed to me almost inconceivable that he would not have, although he never mentioned it by name in his journal (the name Monte Wood was already being used by that time, which we know because FitzRoy mentioned it as the landmark he used for finding the harbor). Darwin did mention climbing two hills while in Port San Julian, the first when he found the wooden cross, and the second where he and FitzRoy first glimpsed the salt flats. Either could have been Monte Wood. Darwin might not have recorded the name in his journal simply because the hill, I had to admit, was not particularly impressive.

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The next day, Monday, was a holiday, and I wandered aimlessly around town for a while, hoping mostly that a grocery store would open and allow me to buy my favorite budget traveling meal, bread and cheese. But with the doors still locked and barred at 11 A.M. I gave up and moved on, making a note to think about trying again when the out-of-town buses arrived after midnight. Next, I tried the city history museum, and it was locked, and then I tried the archaeological museum, and that was locked. I tried the tourist information office, where a woman was sweeping the sidewalk in front—it was locked. She turned out to be an employee of the hotel next door, although her hotel was closed for the time being. I wandered along the bay and returned to the replica Victoria, whose ticket office was boarded-up, and then came to the only guided tour company in town. Reminiscent of Darwin Expeditions in Port Desire, they advertised dolphin-watching expeditions, but they too were boarded-up and locked. A faded dry erase board on their storefront heralded “Next departure:”—followed by a large blank spot.

I wandered back up the main street, San Martín, which runs from the highway down to the bay. It is really the only street in town—the roads are paved for about two blocks on each side of it and beyond that it’s dirt and gravel and low cement houses. In the middle of the block I found another tourist information office, and although I didn’t see anyone, the door was open.

Inside, there was an empty desk with a computer and a letter-sized printed report with the title: “What are we doing about tourism?” The cover had a picture of Rodin’s “Thinker.” After walking around in the wind, it was startlingly quiet in the office. The large windows had a view up the mostly empty street.

In the other room of the office, I found a woman sitting at a desk.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for something to do.”

She smiled and nodded knowingly. She looked tired. She handed me a brochure that I’d already been given by the receptionist at the hostería municipal (my hotel, the descriptively named, “municipal hotel”), showing sites of interest that included all four restaurants in town (all four of which were closed), the bus terminal, the tourist information office, the police, and a few hotels (most of which were also closed).

“I noticed that the museum was closed,” I said.

“Yes. The museum is closed.”

“Will it open?”

“No. It’s closed.”

I pondered this for a minute. There went half my plan for the day. “It seems,” I ventured slowly, “like there aren’t many tourists around.”

She shook her head sadly. “No.” It sounded very tragic, the way she said it.

“So,” I said. “What do people do here for work?”

“Most of them work in administration,” she said.

That made sense. The only buildings I’d seen open were social security offices and banks. But it still didn’t help me plan the rest of my day.

“So,” I said, returning to my theme. “What can I do?”

“You could go to the archaeological museum,” she said hopefully. She gave me another brochure and pointed it out on the map. “You could go to the nautical museum, but that’s also closed. But you could take pictures, or look at it from the outside.”

I didn’t mention that I’d already tried both places. I told her that I was researching Darwin. Was there anyone I might talk to?

She thought for a minute. “Pablo Walker,” she said. “You can find him at the university.”

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I went to the university to look for Pablo Walker.

The university was about the size of my elementary school, one story tall and painted a kind of pale mint green. I asked after Pablo Walker at the reception desk.

The receptionist eyed me suspiciously and asked me to wait while she checked. She disappeared through the cafeteria and returned a minute later. “Follow me,” she said.

She led me through the empty cafeteria—the kind of multipurpose, vinyl-floored auditorium we had at my junior high school—past a small room marked “Professors” on the door and consisting of a single desk, bookshelf, and two computers. We walked through another short hallway and entered a classroom that had about thirty small desks pushed together into the corner. A larger desk in the center of the room supported two computers wired to some video editing equipment. Three men sat around, staring at monitors. The receptionist waved me in and went back to her desk.

One of the men stood up when I walked in. He was wearing a black sweater vest over a white T-shirt and faded, dusty, cuffed blue jeans. His hair was gray and brown and parted into a wave that soared off the top of his wrinkled forehead. He was wearing thick metal glasses and he had a thick red beard that didn’t quite cover his chin.

“I’m Pablo Walker,” he said, shaking my hand. “Can I help you?”

I told him that the woman in the tourist office had provided his name and that I was interested in Darwin and the history of Port San Julian.

“Sure,” he said. “I’m working until 5:30, but come back then and we can talk.”

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Pablo Walker was still sitting at the video-editing desk when I returned at 5:30. He came over to the desk where I had parked myself and sat down opposite me.

Unsure where to begin, I asked what kind of professor he was. “History?” I guessed.

“Actually, I’m not a professor. I’m just a lecturer,” he said. “I just read a lot. I’m a fan of history.”

“Walker isn’t exactly a common name in Argentina,” I ventured.

“Well, my great-grandparents were some of the first immigrants to come to San Julian, and they had come originally to Punta Arenas from England. I’m the fourth generation to live in San Julian, and my great-grandparents were among the first thirty people here.”

“Are people here interested in Darwin?”

“People are interested because of tourism,” he said. “But you look at the bigger names, like our street names. Like in the U.S. you have Washington, our streets have names like San Martín. We have a Darwin Street, but it’s a secondary street.”

Walker remarked that until three years ago, he had been the tourist director for San Julian. During that time, he had overseen the building of the replica Victoria. It was a hard-fought battle, he said, to keep other tourism officials from turning the Victoria into a Disney attraction, more cartoonish and less historically accurate.

“Now I have a project to build a replica of the Beagle, for a museum,” he said. “Like the Victoria, except that’s more nautical. This would be more of a science museum.”

“What do people in Argentina think of Darwin?” I asked.

“In Argentina, they accuse Darwin of believing Patagonia to be bad land,” he said. “Darwin saw that there was not much life in the interior, but he didn’t see how much life was in the water. He was focused on geology. The coast of San Julian has 75,000 penguins. There are seals, cormorants, dolphins. It’s a bit strange in the case of San Julian that Darwin focused on geology and the land.”

“And do you study him in school?”

“My classes, or in general? In general, we study him, because wherever you are, he’s on the list of ten most influential scientists. In my classes, I teach a bit of the history, and take people to where he was, so they can see, take pictures and understand things that he saw.”

I asked how much time he spent on Darwin in his classes. He said that a course met twenty times during a typical semester, devoting five sessions each to “the four most important things here”: Magellan, Drake, Darwin, and Floridablanca.

“And which of those is your favorite subject?”

“Darwin.”

“It’s interesting,” I said, “that there’s so much history in this one small town.”

He nodded. “The coast of Santa Cruz is very inhospitable,” he said. “There are only five or six places where they have safe ports: Puerto Deseado, San Julian, Puerto Santa Cruz, Rio Gallegos, and Rio Coyle.” He ticked each port off on a finger.

“Of those, San Julian has the best port. It’s small, but for small boats like the Beagle, or Drake, it was perfect. That’s why the history is so concentrated in such a small area. What’s lacking in San Julian is the history before Europeans,” he continued. “There were people here 8,000 to 11,000 years ago. Patagonia has had people in it for longer than Brazil. It’s sad that for the original inhabitants there is nothing to study.”

There seemed little hope, then, in learning more about Magellan’s Pathagoni. Since I had another full day in Port San Julian, I asked Walker what he would recommend I do on Tuesday. “Come back around noon,” he said. “We’ll go out and see the places where Darwin went.”

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The next morning dawned clear and bright, with a rampaging fifty-mile-an-hour wind that made being outside nearly intolerable. I met Walker at the university and we drove to his house in a beaten, faded 1970s-vintage Volkswagen sedan. There, he switched to a new white van, and we set out along the coastal road toward the mouth of the harbor.

Outside the wind was making things miserable, but from inside the van, it had the effect of clearing the air and opening the view. We could see across the harbor to the cliffs on the other side, where Darwin had “geologized.” Walker pointed out the different sedimentary layers and told me the age of each.

“The point is called Punta Asconapé,” he said. “Point Shingle.” His English was good—he spoke it fluently—but for whatever reason, he chose not to talk to me in English unless it was directly relevant to his lesson.

“I think this point was named by FitzRoy after talking to Darwin,” he said. “Darwin wrote while he was here about the accumulation of pebbles from the Andes on the plains, called shingle. FitzRoy named that Point Shingle, for Darwin.”

Walker was unafraid to offer his own opinion about the city’s history. I had gathered from reading newspaper stories about the Victoria replica that this did not always make him popular—he was inevitably labeled “the revisionist historian Pablo Walker”—although when I asked him about this, he shrugged and said it was mostly politics.

We drove around the base of Monte Wood. I told him I’d climbed it on Sunday and he said he also had climbed it, a few hours after I had. “Windy up there,” I said.

“And it was calm in town on Sunday,” he agreed. “Today, you wouldn’t be able to stand.”

“It makes sense that Darwin climbed it,” he added, without prompting. “It was the highest point. If he wanted a view, he would have climbed it.”

He slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. “See the penguins?” he said, pointing at an island in the bay. Small groups of six or seven penguins stood around, wings slightly raised in a gesture that—and here I could be anthropomorphizing just a little bit—indicated confusion.

“In the right season, there are 75,000 penguins on that island,” Walker said. “Right now, the only ones who are still there are the ones with problems. Maybe they’re sick. But if they’re still there in a few days, it’s very likely they’ll die.”

The island appeared on maps as Cormorant Island. Walker suggested that it was the real Island of Justice—and that the place that bore the label of Isla de la Justicia was not. He suggested that the English captain George Anson mixed up the map of the harbor, confused some of his compass directions, and so reversed the islands.

“When the tide is high, Isla de la Justicia is very small,” he said, as evidence. “It’s only about fifty meters across. There’s almost nothing there. But look at this island, it’s much larger.”

“But can’t you find Drake’s rock on Isla de la Justicia?” I asked, referring to the rock on which Drake had carved a Latin inscription to commemorate the execution of the mutinous sailor.

“If that actually was the real Isla de la Justicia, which I don’t believe it is, yes, you might,” he said. “But no one has. And it’s been five hundred years now.” Walker said he remembered Bruce Chatwin, the author of the famous travelogue In Patagonia, visiting San Julian in the 1970s. Chatwin devoted a paragraph to his own unsuccessful search for Drake’s rock. (Chatwin, not a Darwin aficionado, wrote succinctly, “I passed through three boring towns, San Julian, Santa Cruz, and Rio Gallegos.”)

Leaving historical mysteries aside for the moment, Walker again stopped the van at a small rocky point called Cape Curious. We got out and walked along the rocks, which were overflowing with fossil mussels and small shells. “These rocks are about 40 million years old,” he said, pointing out different layers in the cliff. We walked along the cliff, peering at different kinds of fossils, for a few minutes. The wind picked up speed and blew the tops off the breakers, sending a plume of spray forty feet into the ocean. Sand got in my eyes even though I was wearing sunglasses. I felt it stick to my ears and neck.

When we got back in the car, I grunted. “The wind is really blowing.”

“Probably sixty or seventy kilometers per hour,” Walker said. “It can reach up to one hundred.”

The ocean was heaving and looked remarkably like the picture that the Beagle’s ship’s artist, Conrad Martens, had drawn of the harbor. The idea of being out on a small boat in that wind didn’t appeal to me at all, and I can imagine Darwin’s sensitive stomach finding it quite disagreeable. Darwin didn’t mention seasickness, although his entry from January 15 reads: “A heavy gale of wind from the SW; several breezes from that quarter have reminded us of the neighborhead of Tierra del Fuego.”

Walker and I continued driving around the cape to an Atlantic beach, where the remains of British carbon mines still stood in the cliffs. Walker pointed out carbon on the beach; long stretches of black rock that broke off easily. “It’s not very good quality,” he said. “But the rocks here are very metallic. Feel how heavy this is.” He picked up a rock and handed it to me, and my arm sagged under the weight. When I dropped it, it made a metallic plink on the other rocks.

We walked along, looking at more fossils. “This is the oldest formation here,” Walker said, pointing out to the end of the beach. “Seventy-five million years old.”

I could see Darwin walking the same beach, delighted by the profusion of fossils. We saw football-sized mussels, long-since extinct. We saw sand dollars—“these are also forty million years old,” Walker said, “but you still have live ones in North America, right?”

The cliffs were lined with fossils up to heights of forty or fifty feet. We walked out to the point, Walker leaping between rocks and striding purposefully across the beach, each time with a specific thing in mind to point out. He had obviously given this lecture a few times before.

Finally, we came to the end and looked out at the raging ocean and up at the fossil cliffs.

“Sadly,” he said, “that’s all the time I’ve got today. Back to work.”

He drove me back to the university and there he gave me a short historical paper he had written. With nowhere to go, and relieved to have some human company in an otherwise lonely town, I stuck around and started to read his history, while Walker and another professor hunched over a plastic model airplane, which they had positioned in front of a beige sheet under a set of bright camera lights. They had a small camcorder on a tripod pointed at the airplane, and they turned this on and filmed for a while. Then they moved the camera over to an editing station where Walker cut the plane out and inserted it into a video shot earlier at the Port San Julian airport. The second professor pulled out a thermos and started passing around tea while they settled in to watch the finished product on a pull-down screen. The screen went dark, then flashed the title, “Pilotas de las Malvinas.” And then dramatic action music started, a mix that sounded suspiciously like the theme to Hollywood action blockbuster The Rock. A quick zoom caught a heroic pilot walking across the tarmac in his jumpsuit. Another zoom captured his manly jaw and hard, squinting black eyes. He looked determined as he walked past a set of warlike planes parked in the hangar—a live action male striding purposefully past the plastic model that Walker had inserted only a few minutes ago. I looked at the raised canopy on the parked planes and then over at the raised fake-glass canopy on the model at the other end of the room.

This was weird, the kind of thing I used to do when I was twelve years old, not the kind of thing I had expected in an academic setting. But there was a huge qualifier: This was a film about the Falkland Islands War. And when the Falklands are involved, in Argentina at least, normal feeling doesn’t really enter into it.

A brief historical diversion concerning the small island group off the coast of southern Argentina: On March 1, 1833, the Beagle arrived at Port Louis, in the Falkland Islands, after a long journey through Tierra del Fuego. “The first news we received was to our astonishment, that England had taken possession of the Falkland Islands & that the Flag was now flying,” Darwin wrote. He offered his own brief history of said event: that the islands had been uninhabited until the Argentine government (which Darwin referred to as the “Buenos Ayres Government”) sent settlers there, which in turn prompted England to respond and reassert its claim to the islands, which they had stumbled upon and claimed as their own—along with Spain and France—in the 1500s.

When the Argentine governor of the Falklands felt forced to surrender them to the English in 1833, he had little power to resist, which didn’t stop him and other members of the government from grumbling loudly. “By the aweful language of Buenos Ayres one would suppose this great republic meant to declare war against England!” Darwin scoffed. He little understood the depth of feeling Argentines held for the islands, a pride that surfaced again in 1982, when the military dictatorship of Argentina decided to make another grab for them. Unfortunately they underestimated the depth of feeling English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher nurtured for the islands too. From my view, both were hard to understand. (The famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that “the Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.”) What was supposed to be a quick and painless invasion turned into three months of war, handily won by the British, even though they were fighting 8,000 miles from home. Argentina suffered nearly three times as many casualties as the British—635 to 255—and their World War II-era military equipment couldn’t match England’s high-tech arsenal. Argentina’s military government resurrendered the Falklands in June 1982 and their authority quickly collapsed, leading to a new civilian rule in Argentina.

Twenty-five years later, the Falklands still fascinate the Argentines, and their passion is astonishing. Ubiquitous graffiti demands that the British ship off once again, and towns are cluttered with memorials and plaques pledging “We will return.” Argentine maps invariably display the name “Islas Malvinas (Arg.)” near the Falklands—the same treatment, incidentally, granted the large sector of Antarctica that Argentina claims, as well as the South Georgia Islands, the South Orca Islands, and the South Shetland Islands. An English friend who had been to Argentina told me that when he reported a stolen wallet in the town of Mendoza, the police shrugged and informed him, “We’ll give you back your wallet when you give us back the Malvinas.”

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When the film ended, I turned my attention back to Walker’s history paper. He had titled it “Port San Julian, origin of the Patagonian myth,” and in it he made a fairly compelling argument that Darwin had been one in a long line of explorers to give outsiders the wrong impression of Patagonia as a harsh, sterile, wild land. The first subhead read, “Magellan lands in San Julian, and the cursed legend is born.” Magellan’s bloody mutiny and red-painted cannibal giants “made an impact in our collective imagination,” Walker wrote, and the explorer’s fantastical account, combined with the only other events outsiders ever seemed to know about Patagonia, including Drake’s harsh justice, failed settlements up and down the coast, and Darwin’s descriptions of plains “pronounced by all wretched and useless,” only fortified that myth.

“They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants,” Darwin wrote. But the myth had gripped him too. “Why, then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?”

It was hard, though, when I later walked down the deserted Darwin Street, with the wind popping in my ears and the dust in my eyes, and all the stores locked and shuttered, and all the houses made of corrugated metal to withstand the elements, not to look around and think, myth?

Walker’s answer was to look to the water. But although Walker built his defense of Patagonia around the harbor at Port San Julian, it wasn’t the focus of Darwin’s Patagonia experience. The young naturalist spent only a few days there, and his remarks to his diary were nothing out of the ordinary. The accusations that Darwin found the land cursed came instead from his account of one of his greatest overland adventures, a trip up the River Santa Cruz into the very heart of the Patagonian legend. That river is still largely unvisited, and its mouth on the Atlantic is only about seventy-five miles south of Port San Julian. But just you try getting there.

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