This series has two easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Site of Buenos Aires.
By the discovery in 1515 of the Rio de la Plata (“River of Silver”), the Spaniards opened for themselves a way to colonization in South America. The first explorer, Juan Diaz de Solis, was killed by the Indians on landing from the river. But in 1519 Magellan, while on his great voyage of circumnavigation, visited the Plata, and in 1526 Sebastian Cabot, in the service of Charles I of Spain (the emperor Charles V), ascended the river to the junction of the Paraguay and the Parana, both of which he then explored for a long distance.
Among the natives, whose silver ornaments, it is said, gave origin to the name La Plata, as well as to that of Argentina, Cabot passed two years in friendly intercourse. He then sent to Spain an account of Paraguay, and a request for authority and reinforcements to take possession of the country with its rich resources. Although his request was favorably received, no efficient action was taken upon it, and, after waiting for five years, Cabot, despairing of the necessary assistance, left the region.
It was not long, however, before a somewhat extensive settlement in those parts was projected. Don Pedro Mendoza, a knight of Guadix, Granada, one of the royal household, undertook the colonization of the country, and September 1, 1534, he sailed from San Lucar.
This selection is from History of Brazil by Robert Southey published in 1810. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Robert Southey was most famous as one of the “Lake Poets” in the Romantic Period. He was also a prolific writer of history and biography.
Place: Buenos Aires
Mendoza had enriched himself at the sackage of Rome by the Constable de Bourbon in 1527. Ill-gotten wealth has been so often ill-expended as to have occasioned proverbs in all languages; the plunder of Rome did not satisfy him, and, dreaming of other Mexicos and Cuzcos, he obtained a grant of all the country from the river Plata to the straits, to be his government, with permission to proceed across the continent to the South Sea.
He undertook to carry out in two voyages, and within two years, a thousand men, a hundred horses, and stores for one year at his own expense, the King granting him the title of adelantado, and a salary of two thousand ducats for life, with two thousand more from the fruits of the conquest in aid of his expenses. He was to build three fortresses, and be perpetual alcaid of the first; his heirs after him were to be first alguazils of the place where he fixed his residence, and after he had remained three years he might transfer the task of completing the colonization and conquest either to his heir or any other person whom it might please him to appoint — and with it the privileges annexed — if within two years the King approved the choice.
A king’s ransom was now understood to belong to the crown; but as a further inducement this prerogative was waived in favor of Mendoza and his soldiers, who were to share it, first having deduced the royal fifth, and then a sixth. If, however, the King in question were slain in battle, half the spoils should go to the crown. These terms were made in wishful remembrance of the ransom of Atabalipa.
He was to take with him a physician, an apothecary, and a surgeon, and especially eight “religioners.” Life is lightly hazarded by those who have nothing more to stake, but that a man should, like Mendoza, stake such riches as would content the most desperate life-gambler for his winnings is one of the many indications how generally and how strongly the contagious spirit of adventure was at that time prevailing.
Mendoza had covenanted to carry five hundred men in his first voyage. Such was his reputation, and such the ardor for going to the Silver River, that more adventurers offered than it was possible for him to take, and he accelerated his departure on account of the enormous expense which such a host occasioned. The force with which he set forth consisted of eleven ships and eight hundred men. So fine an armament had never yet sailed from Europe for America: but they who beheld its departure are said to have remarked that the service of the dead ought to be performed for the adventurers. They reached Rio de Janeiro after a prosperous voyage, and remained there a fortnight, during which time the Adelantado, being crippled by a contraction of the sinews, appointed Juan Osorio to command in his stead. Having made this arrangement they proceeded to their place of destination, anchored at Isle St. Gabriel within the Plata, and then on its southern shore and beside a little river. There Don Pedro de Mendoza laid the foundation of a town which because of its healthy climate he named “Nuestra SeÃ±ora de Buenos Aires” (“Our Lady of Good Air”). It was not long before he was made jealous of Osorio by certain envious officers, and, weakly lending ear to wicked accusations, he ordered them to fall upon him and kill him, then drag his body into the plaza, or public market-place, and proclaim him a traitor. The murder was perpetrated, and thus was the expedition deprived of one who is described as an honest and generous good soldier.
Experience had not yet taught the Spaniards that any large body of settlers in a land of savages must starve unless well supplied with food from other sources until they can raise it for themselves. The Quirandies, who possessed the country round about this new settlement, were a wandering tribe who, in places where there was no water, quenched their thirst by eating a root which they called cardes, or by sucking the blood of the animals which they slew.
About three thousand of these savages had pitched their movable dwellings some four leagues from the spot which Mendoza had chosen for the site of his city. They were well pleased with their visitors, and during fourteen days brought fish and meat to the camp; on the fifteenth day they failed, and Mendoza sent a few Spaniards to them to look for provisions, who came back empty-handed and wounded. Upon this, he ordered his brother Don Diego, with three hundred soldiers and thirty horsemen, to storm their town, and kill or take prisoner the whole horde. The Quirandies had sent away their women and children, collected a body of allies, and were ready for the attack. Their weapons were bows and arrows and tardes — stone-headed tridents about half the length of a lance. Against the horsemen they used a long thong, having a ball of stone at either end. With this they were wont to catch their game; throwing it with practiced aim at the legs of the animal it coiled round and brought it to the ground. In all former wars with the Indians the horsemen had been the main strength and often the salvation of the Spaniards. This excellent mode of attack made them altogether useless; they could not defend themselves. The commander and six hidalgos were thrown and killed, and the whole body of horse must have been cut off if the rest had not fled in time and been protected by the infantry. About twenty foot-soldiers were slain with tardes. But it was not possible that these people, brave as they were, could stand against European weapons and such soldiers as the Spaniards: they gave way at last, leaving many of their brethren dead, but not a single prisoner. The conquerors found in their town plenty of flour, fish, what is called “fish-butter”–which probably means inspissated oil–otter-skins, and fishing-nets. They left a hundred men to fish with these nets, and the others returned to the camp.
Mendoza was a wretched leader for such an expedition. He seems, improvidently, to have trusted to the natives for provision and to have quarrelled with them unnecessarily. Very soon after his arrival six ounces of bread had been the daily allowance; it was now reduced to three ounces of flour, and, every third day, a fish. They marked out the city and began a mud wall for its defense, the height of a lance and three feet thick. It was badly constructed: what was built up one day, fell down the next; the soldiers had not as yet learned this part of their duties.
A strong house was built within the circuit for the Adelantado; meantime their strength began to fail for want of food. Rats, snakes, and vermin of every eatable size were soon exterminated from the environs. Three men stole a horse and ate it; they were tortured to make them confess the fact and then hanged for it; their bodies were left upon the gallows, and in the night all the flesh below the waist was cut away. One man ate the corpse of his brother; some murdered their messmates for the sake of receiving their rations as long as they could conceal their death by saying they were ill. The mortality was very great. Mendoza, seeing that all must perish if they remained here, sent George Luchsan, one of his German or Flemish adventurers, up the river, with four brigantines, to seek for food. Wherever they came the natives fled before them and burned what they could not carry away. Half the men were famished to death, and all must have perished if they had not fallen in with a tribe who gave them barely enough maize to support them during their return.
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