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The River Plate — Buenos Aires, its Trade and People.
The Argentine Republic is the modern representative of the Spanish colonies on the east coast of South America, as Brazil is that of the Portuguese. Fifteen years after the landing of Cabral, Spanish sailors first sighted the entrance to the Rio Plata, and in 1535 Mendoza established a settlement on the site which later was Buenos .Aires. No gold or silver, however, was to be found, and the Spaniards looked on their holdings on the South Atlantic merely as a back door to their richer possessions on the Pacific. Till the eighteenth century all their South American territories were under the Viceroy of Peru, and in order to suit the convenience of that colony no ship was allowed to trade direct with Buenos Aires; all the merchandise from Europe had to be fetched over the Andes. It was not till the first richness of the mines was exhausted that attention was drawn to the grass-covered plains of the east.
The Napoleonic wars, which turned Brazil from a colony to an empire, ultimately led to the establishment of republican rule in the Spanish colonies. Pitt, however, made a mistake in judging in 1806 that the discontent felt by the younger nation with the rule of their mother-country would make them unite in the war against her. He sent an armed force to the River Plate, but his full expectation that there would be a local rising was grievously disappointed; Buenos Aires was captured, but the British were subsequently heavily defeated and obliged to return home. The anniversary of the "reconquest" is yearly celebrated, and the newly arrived Briton, who probably never heard of the occurrence, finds that in Argentina his country is regarded as a defeated nation.
The loyalty of the colonists to the Crown of Spain was not, however, of long duration. Seeing that in the old country all authority was in the melting-pot, a secret society was formed in Buenos Aires, of which Belgrano was a leading member, to work for representative government; popular desire for freedom became too strong to be resisted, and on May 25th, 1810, the viceroy resigned. From that date the independence of Argentina is officially reckoned. The Argentines then successfully assisted the revolutionaries of Chile. Disputes subsequently arose as to the boundary between the two countries; these differences were referred, at the beginning of this century, to the Crown of England, which appointed a commission to deal with the matter, and a treaty was agreed upon in accordance with its recommendations.
At noon the following day we anchored for a short time, as the current was too strong for us, and at evening anchored again, apparently in the middle of nowhere, though with twelve large vessels as neighbours. We were in reality at the entrance to the Dredged Channel, where artificial means have had to be employed to make the river navigable for ships of large draft. Here it is necessary to pass the quarantine authorities and obtain a fresh pilot, which formalities being duly complied with, we proceeded next day on our journey. As it nears the city the Dredged Channel divides into two; one branch leads to the basin at the north end of the docks, the other to that at the south end. The docks at Buenos Aires, instead of being stowed away as an undesirable excrescence in some remote part of the town, as is the case in most large seaports, form a frontage of some three miles to the most important part of the city, and appeal strongly to both the eye and the imagination. There, in ordered sequence, not by units — as, for example, at Southampton or Marseilles — but by hundreds, lie great vessels of all descriptions from almost every country in Europe; the outward sign of the great carrying trade between the old country and the new. They have brought their human freight and cargo of manufactured goods, and are waiting to return with a food-supply of livestock and grain. Even these docks are not equal to cope with the demand for accommodation, for in the grain season as many as a hundred may be seen in the outer roadstead awaiting admission, and large extensions were in progress. Argentina is one of those new lands which stand in the position of rural estate to older and manufacturing Europe; the supply of food, which in the earliest stages of the world's development lay next each man's dwelling, and then outside the towns, is now brought across 7,000 miles of ocean.
Little Mana was most kindly welcomed by the port authority, and awarded a place of honour by the entrance to the North Basin, which is generally reserved for men-of-war. Here she appeared elegant but minute, and not being a battleship felt her position somewhat precarious. The next berth was occupied by a large emigrant ship, which was German, French, and Italian by turns, and as the yacht was immediately under the stern it looked as if, with the least motion, she would be crushed out of existence. Every time a huge ship went out of the entrance to the harbour, all on board rushed to the yacht's deck to see if her bowsprit was about to be carried away. The manoeuvring of the big vessels by tugs in a limited space is, however, wonderful, and though we had one or two narrow escapes, either the position was not so perilous as appeared, or we became accustomed to alarms, for we finally lived there quite comfortably. We landed either by boat across the docks, or by scrambling up a wharf like a house-side by means of a lengthy and somewhat shaky ladder. I have a vivid mental picture of His Majesty's Minister, Sir Reginald Tower, when he was good enough to come and see us, standing on the top with a little dog, and not unnaturally wondering how on earth he was expected to descend.
We lay at Buenos Aires for over a month, refitting and stowing, before facing the next part of the voyage. We grudged the delay, but even with the kind help we received there is, as has already been explained, much time inevitably lost in a new port, and New Spain, like its European prototype, is essentially a country of mañana. In the end we had to leave without getting the trouble with the engine put right. The stores sent ahead from England arrived safely, and through the courtesy of the Legation we received them custom free, but on some articles, which were unluckily ordered to come by post — a serge suit, linen coat, and two washing blouses — we had to pay £4 duty. I spent a portion of the time in luxury at an hotel while Mana had a much-needed spring-cleaning. S. lived on board, and I found on my return had had a good many visitors, whom he appeared to have enjoyed showing over the yacht with her hatches up and the floor covered with packing-cases; maintaining, in reply to my chagrined comments, that the public were shown over the Terra Nova in just such a condition.
In such time as could be spared from the work of the Expedition we saw what we could of the life of the country, and our observations are given for what they are worth. Unlike Pernambuco there is no doubt as to the economical raisons d’être of the Argentine; they are, of course, grain and meat. The area under cultivation, which we did not see, is steadily increasing, but the grain export is still far below that of the United States. The greater part of the mutton supplied to Great Britain comes from Australia and New Zealand, but the Argentine provides 72 per cent, of the beef which we receive from abroad, and we were much interested in seeing something of the cattle industry. We visited, by the courtesy of the owner, Señior Pereyra, an estancia about an hour's journey from Buenos Aires. The train traversed first the suburbs of a great town, then low country often under water, and we alighted at a little railway station, from which we immediately entered the park of the estancia. The estate was large, though there are others which exceed it; it covers fifteen square miles, a portion of which is, however, undrained. It has been in the occupation of the same family for about ninety years, during which time continual planting has been going on. The road which led through the park to the house passed under several fine avenues; the eucalyptus trees of older growth were most beautiful, and a revelation of what that tree can attain, to those who have only seen it in temperate climates or in the villages and towns of South Africa.
The dwelling of the owner proved to be a most charming country house. The dining-room was panelled with oak, displaying the magnificent collection of silver cups gained by the stock of the estancia. Our host was in the proud position of having just won at the cattle show, then being held at Buenos Aires, the highest awards for both Herefords and Shorthorns. The competition for such prizes lies in the Argentine between a limited number of noted breeders, and it is felt well to bring in a judge from the outside. That year an English gentleman, well known in connection with the Royal and other shows, had been requested to act. Eighty thousand Argentine dollars, or over £7,000 sterling, were paid at this show for a champion bull, being the highest price yet given for such an animal. After luncheon we inspected the large farm buildings where the most valuable of the stock were housed. The remainder of the cattle, some 7,000 in all, lived in different large enclosures in various parts of the estate, with a cottage near-by for the caretaker. The owner was assisted by an English and a French manager, and 260 peons or labourers, mostly Italian, were employed on the estancia. They earn £3 10s. a month, with practically no expenses, being housed in a row of buildings with a mess-room in common. There was no lack of labour, applicants having continually to be turned away.
Our education was continued by a visit to the market at Buenos Aires, where anything up to 5,000 head of cattle are disposed of daily. These are brought from all parts of the Argentine, and were formerly driven across country. Now, however, owing to the prevalence of wire fences, they are generally brought by train. They are confined in open pens, and sold by auction or otherwise. The cattle auctioneers are men of high position, and regard themselves as the aristocracy of the city. The animation of the scene is increased by the number of roughriders who career on spirited ponies up and down the alley-ways, looking after the stock and lassoing refractory beasts. No man connected with the "camp," as the open country is termed, ever thinks of walking at any time. The Argentine saddle has special characteristics, and consists of a pad each side of the spine of the horse, above and below which rugs are placed, the whole being covered with a piece of leather and kept in place by girths, thus forming a most comfortable cushion. The stirrup is so made that only the toe can go into it, and the whole is calculated to allow a man to fall clear if he is thrown, a wise precaution in a land of unbroken mounts. It has also the advantage of providing excellent bedding, but is of course adapted for a flat country only, and would be out of place in a mountainous one. A kind acquaintance, seeing the interest S. took in the saddle, made him a present of one, which proved invaluable in Easter Island.
The majority of the beasts sold at the cattle markets are for local consumption: those going to the freezing manufactories are generally bought by private treaty. We were taken over one of the largest of these frigorificos, as they are called, where some 1,200 cattle and 3,000 sheep are killed daily. Each animal is inspected from a sanitary point of view on arrival, and every beast is again examined after it has been killed. It is skinned and cleaned at the same time, and in fifteen minutes, from the moment of being slain, is ready in two sides to hang up in the chilling or freezing chamber. Each of the sides is subsequently enclosed in a muslin covering ready to be shipped. The hides are, of course, also a most valuable commodity, and the fat is subjected to pressure, the oil being used for cooking purposes and the solid residue for candle-making. The unused portion of the beast is turned into guano. Some of the meat is reserved for canning, and the tinned goods are particularly attractive. Each tin is closed save for one small hole at the top, and is then passed into a vacuum pump, which extracts the air and closes the hole with an electric needle,
A very determined set was being made to bring all the Argentine frigorificos into the American meat trust; those which, like the one we visited, are determined to resist have to fight hard to hold their position. There was a loud outcry with regard to the increase in the price of meat, which had gone up retail to about sevenpence a pound; but buying through a ship's chandler, who could obtain it for wholesale prices, we were able to purchase at a lower rate. The prices for tinned meat were much the same as in England. Salt meat we were warned to avoid, as it could not be guaranteed for more than two months, though the remainder of our stock that had been put on board in England, ten months before, was still in excellent condition. Every attempt, we were told, had been made to discover the reason for this failure, which is common to all meat south of the Equator; the services of experts from Europe had been requisitioned, the method, the meat, the salt, and the water had all been carefully examined, but so far without result.
The city of Buenos Aires itself, of which the docks have already been described, is simply a glorified port for this trade, and for the produce of a wealthy hinterland. The old part of the town, in which all business is transacted and which most impresses itself on the memory, is a labyrinth, or rather chessboard, of terribly narrow streets. The thoroughfares are at right angles, and the houses, which are in regular blocks, are all precisely similar in appearance; nothing, therefore, but an exact knowledge of the names and orders of the numerous streets as they lie in each direction of the chess-board can enable a stranger to find his way. The same street extends for miles, and he who forgets the number of his destination may as well give up the search. So narrow are these thoroughfares that two persons can only just pass on the pavement , and there is imminent danger of being pushed under the trams which run within fifteen inches of the curb. Traffic is only allowed in one direction.
In a town which has never been walled, and where space was no object, such a state of things is surprising; the original construction is said to have been due to the desire to obtain a maximum of shade, and any alteration now is of course fraught with much difficulty. Great efforts are, however, being made to render the Argentine capital worthy of its wealth and position. An imposing avenue, with the House of Congress at one end, has been cleared at great cost. The more recent portion of the town boasts good squares and parks, for the network of streets is but the hub of a huge and quickly growing city. Underground railways are being constructed, but so rapid is the extension of Buenos Aires that it is said they will only relieve the traffic for eleven years. The general impression of a bustling sea port with a southern element recalls Marseilles, but it has not the same beauty of situation. Buenos Aires has been called "a horrible travesty of Paris," but perhaps the most correct description is that which styles it "a mixture of Paris and New York."
Of what description are the people in whose hands lie the development of this country, with its growing influence on the destinies of the world? The new-comer arriving from the north is at once struck with the distinction between Brazil and the Argentine. Rio, with its strain of dark descent living in the midst of a dream of sleepy beauty, is still perhaps partly mediaeval and undoubtedly tropical; Buenos Aires, on its flat plain and dreary river, is awake, twentieth century, and wholly European; but it is to the south of Europe that the Argentine is akin and not to the north. A Latin race was the first to colonise the new land, and successive waves of the same are still reaching its shores. In 1911 the immigrants from Spain, Italy, and France numbered nearly 2,000,000, as against 13,000 from Britain and 7,000 from Germany. Many Italians, it is true, come only for one harvest, or possibly for two, returning for the busy season in their own homes. The wages earned are such that the more idle are in a position to disdain all other work, and a crowd of loiterers round the docks, who appeared to us to be unemployed of the usual character, turned out to be agricultural workers living on their own resources till the next harvest. Many, however, of these immigrants settle in the new land, by the law of which every child born in the country becomes ipso facto an Argentine subject. It is perhaps because of this comparatively uniform origin that an Argentine type seems to be already developing. It is fundamentally that of Southern Europe, but it is moulded by a new environment, is wide-awake and energetic, with an absence of all mystery and tradition, but alive to the finger-tips. The practical aspect of life is the dominant note, whether for the native or temporary resident. "We are all here to make money," the stranger is frankly informed, “and we talk of nothing else." No apology shall therefore be made for once more referring to the question of pounds, shillings, and pence, for in South America it is impossible to get away from it.
The cost of living in Buenos Aires is two or three times as high as that of London in normal times. At the best hotel, usually frequented by European travellers, the smallest bedroom cannot be obtained under eighteen shillings a night, and even at the less dear hotels, resorted to by those to whom expense is an object, the ordinary price for dinner is five dollars or 8s. 9d.
"One thinks a good deal in England of a £5 note," was the remark to us of one Argentine; "here one never goes out without a fifty-dollar note (between £4 and £5) in one's pocket." Rents are enormous, and a would-be purchaser told us ruefully that he could not obtain in the suburbs a house with three sitting and four bedrooms, on a plot of ground some thirty yards square, under £15,000. All this falls hardly on the visitor or foreign official, but it affects the resident but little; an 8 per cent, investment is looked upon as reasonable and cautious, and for the working classes wages are proportionately high. The temporary immigrant who wishes to go back to Europe saves most of the money by living under very meagre conditions; thus two or three Italians frequently join together in one room at about half the rate paid by less thrifty workmen. Most visitors to Southern Europe are acquainted with the little mansions, built in the villages of their birth, by natives who have returned with modest fortunes from the Argentine, and this is the process by which that wealth is accumulated. More rapid roads are occasionally found to success. Our Sailing-master was acquainted with a former gaol-warder who went out as an emigrant from Southampton; his wife joined him, but came back before long, saying little but that her husband was also returning. In less than two years the man was back with a competency for the rest of his days, the source of which continued to be veiled in mystery.
Science, literature, and art do not as yet thrive very largely in Argentina, though exception must be made for the very interesting museum at La Plata, whose director was most kind in affording information to the Expedition. The great recreation is racing, in addition to which the inhabitants are all born gamblers. Sir Reginald Tower, to whose kind arrangements for us we owe much of the interest of our time in Buenos Aires, was good enough to take us to a race meeting, and we were greatly impressed with the lavish arrangements for the comforts of the spectators. It was also most pleasant to be spared all cries of the bookmakers — the betting system is that of the pari mutuel. The Jockey Club is the most important social club, and with an entrance fee of nearly £300 is naturally extremely wealthy; its existing premises are palatial, and even so the removal to larger ones was under consideration. We were kindly entertained there by a distinguished representative of the early Spanish stock, Señor Calvo, to whom we were introduced while he was practising his profession of auctioneer at the cattle-market. His ancestor was a viceroy of the Court of Spain, and he is by descent on both sides a pure Spaniard; the cosmopolitan influences of to-day have, however, been too strong for the continuance of this tradition in the family, and he himself and other members of it have allied with outside nationalities. His father, who was responsible for the conduct of a public journal, had his life attempted three times by his political enemies, and finally sought refuge in England. There the son was born and educated, but later on, going out to the Argentine, he too entered public life and became a member of Congress, whose buildings it was most interesting to see under his guidance.
The life of Argentine women is almost that of the East. The men go their own way, make their own acquaintances, live their own life. They ask strangers but little to their homes, and it is possible to be on quite intimate terms with an Argentine and unaware whether he is married or single. Country-house hospitality scarcely exists, and even on the large estancias in the neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, a week-end party is unknown. A lady does not walk out alone, and never, even in her own home, receives a male guest without the presence of her husband. We have been credibly informed of a wife who boasted that during her husband's absence in Europe, of over a year, she never went out of the house. There is no higher education for women except for those training professionally, and the interests of the majority, like those of a certain set at home in pre-war days, consist mainly in bridge and dress. Forty years ago all women wore the mantilla, but to-day fabulous sums are spent on clothes. One charming Argentine lady told me that £30 was quite a usual sum to give for a smart but simple hat. At the seaside resorts the expenditure on clothes is so lavish, that it is cheaper to take the trip to Europe than to procure the necessary garments in which to be seen among your friends. In appearance the women are pretty and effective, but spoilt to the eyes of a European by the inordinate amount of powder. I was told by one present at the dinner-party in question of an amusing scene witnessed in the ladies' cloak-room; a daughter arriving with her mother called out, “Oh, Mother, you have not nearly enough powder on," and made a dash for the powder-puff to remedy with two or three large splashes the supposed defect. It is said that the wave of female emancipation is reaching South America, but doubt was expressed by a keen observer whether it would necessarily take its European form of a demand for political and legal rights, or whether the Argentine woman would not begin by desiring the same social and matrimonial liberty as is assumed by her husband. At present, unfortunately, with the vicious circle in which such customs move, much of the precaution taken to guard women appears to be necessary, and I was sadly informed by more than one English girl employed in the business houses of Buenos Aires, that the freedom with which young women can move and conduct themselves at home was not only conventionally but actually impossible in their new surroundings.1
Argentina, as the depository of much that is undesirable from other nations, can hardly hope to escape the blackguard element. Assassination is the only thing which is cheap in the South American continent. The head of one of the seamen's missions at Buenos Aires told S. that it was possible at any time to procure the murder of a man by paying five dollars, not quite ten shillings, in the right quarters: this was somewhat less than at Rio, where the price was stated to be thirteen shillings and fourpence. The scenes which occur nightly about the docks are incredible; hence returning to Mana after dark was always a matter of some anxiety. Our steward received a typewritten letter saying that he had been mentioned as a suitable man for a desirable situation, and giving an appointment after dark at a certain house in a certain street. On inquiry the address turned out to be that of a low street in the new part of the town, where much land is still waste, and there was no house yet built of the number given. With regard to the said steward, one Sunday evening he left the yacht and never returned. All anxiety about his fate was set at rest by the fact that he had cleared his cabin of all his goods. He may have been homesick and arranged to work his passage back, or he may have been enticed by a more substantial offer, a very usual occurrence where trained servants are difficult to obtain. As he had of course signed the ship's articles for the trip, his desertion was reported to the consulate and the police, but we were told that to get him back would be practically an impossibility; while, scruples apart, nothing would have been gained by the simpler method of assassination. The man himself we did not regret, but after the manner of his kind he had waited till we were on the point of sailing, and therefore left us in the lurch.
In spite of the fact that personal safety still leaves a good deal to be desired, the Government of Argentina is one of the purest in South America; the result, it is said, of the wealth of her officials. She is already proudly conscious of her strength, and, in some quarters at any rate, is anxious to rely upon it alone for her position among nations rather than on any such external aid as the Monroe doctrine. Throughout the whole continent it is necessary in speaking of the citizens of the United States to term them carefully "North Americans," avoiding the usual and more abbreviated form.
Religion is not a powerful factor in Argentina either in public or private life. Roman Catholicism is officially recognised, but it does not strive to be a political force, and meets therefore with general toleration; even when it is not practised it is neither hated nor feared. Many women and some men are devout, but the majority of men simply ignore it.
A Briton in leaving Argentina not unnaturally asks what is the share of his own countrymen in the development of the new republic. Our connection with it through trade is considerable. The railways are in British hands, and 61 per cent, of the shipping flies the Union Jack. In addition to young men who may wish to take up life in "the camp," or country, a certain number of Englishmen are employed in offices and professional positions, while in connection with retail trade, it is homelike to see the shops and advertisements of such firms as Harrod and Maple. A pleasing bond exists throughout the British colony in Freemasonry, which is a most living force, with many adherents, amongst whom our Minister is included. S. being one of the elect, we had, through the kindness of Mr. Chevalier Boutell, the Deputy Grand Master for South America, the pleasure of being present at a ladies' banquet, which proved a very brilliant and enjoyable entertainment.
While the English commercial position is still good, it is said that forty years ago our proportion of the trade was even greater. An old inhabitant told us that he knew personally of not less than twenty-five British firms who had gone under during that period, owing to the dogged incapacity of the Englishman to supply what his customer wanted, instead of what he himself chose to provide. Such failures leave, of course, the door open for German penetration. A reputation for the same want of adaptability, and also for being given to drink, makes Englishmen unpopular as employees. With regard to our women kind, certain posts in the town which are open to English girls are well paid, but they should be taken up in every case with the greatest caution, and the remuneration offered carefully compared with the increased cost of living. A woman who marries on to an estancia is necessarily comparatively isolated, and accounts differed as to the amount of help she is able to obtain in domestic labour. The 30,000 British subjects who form the whole of those resident in Argentina are, in any case, but a drop in the ocean, and they but seldom identify themselves with the country of their abode. It is not unusual for parents to arrange that their children shall be born in England, in order that they may avoid registration as citizens of the Republic, with its consequent liability to military service. It has been proposed in high quarters that suitable accommodation might be provided in the Falkland Islands, as nearer and more convenient British soil. Failing some such arrangement it is possible to register a child of British parentage which is born in Argentina, at the national consulate, and it is then ipso facto a British subject, except when actually in the land where it first saw the light. Whatever share Britain may have in developing the wealth of Argentina, that country never has been, and never will be, connected with us by blood; for that bond with new lands we must look to our own dominions over the seas.
1 Lady Grogan informs me that one of the main reasons for the position of women in Argentina is that there is no Married Women's Property Act, and that even an heiress is therefore in ordinary course entirely dependent on her husband.