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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open. 1916.


The Ranchland of Argentina and Southern Brazil

IN the fall of 1913 I enjoyed a glimpse of the ranch country of southern Brazil and of Argentina. It was only a glimpse; for I was bent on going northward into the vast wilderness of tropical South America. I had no time to halt in the grazing country of temperate South America, which is no longer a wilderness, but a land already feeling the sweep of the modern movement. It is a civilized land, already fairly well settled, which by leaps and bounds is becoming thickly settled; a region which at the present day is in essentials far more closely kin to the plains country, which in temperate North America stretches from Hudson Bay to the Gulf, than either land is kin to what each was even half a century ago. The main difference is that the great cow country, the plains country, of North America was peopled only by savages when the white pioneers entered it in the nineteenth century; whereas throughout temperate South America there were here and there oases of thin settlement, including even small, stagnant cities, already two or three centuries old. In these oases people wholly or partly of European blood had gradually developed a peculiar and backward, but real, semicivilization of their own. This quaint, distinctive social culture has been, or is now being, engulfed by the rising tide of intensely modern internationalized material development.

Among the many pleasant memories of my visit to Argentina, one of the most pleasant is that of a dinner at the house of the governor of the old provincial capital of Mendoza. Our distinguished host came of an old country family which for many centuries led the life of the great cattle-breeding ranch-owners, although his people were more and more turning their attention to agriculture, he himself being a successful farmer, as well as an invaluable public servant of advanced views. His father was at the dinner. He had retired as a general after forty-nine years’ service in the Argentine army. The fine old fellow represented what was best in the Argentine type before the days of modern industrialism. A very vigorous and manly best it was, too. He wore the old Argentine uniform, which for his rank was the same as the uniform once worn by Napoleon’s officers. He had served in the bloody Paraguayan War, when Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay joined to overthrow the inconceivably murderous dictatorship of Lopez, and when the Paraguayans rallied with savage valor under the banner of the dictator, who tyrannized over them, but who nevertheless represented in their eyes the nation. This old general had served in many Indian wars, both in Patagonia and in the Grand Chaco, and had seen desperate fighting in the civil wars. He wore medals commemorating his services in the Paraguayan and Indian campaigns, but he would not wear any medals commemorating his services in the civil wars. Yet the only time he was wounded was in one of the battles in one of these civil wars. He was then shot twice and received a bayonet thrust, and was also stabbed with a lance. If he had not possessed a constitution of iron he would never have survived. Our people in the United States often speak of these South American wars with the same ignorant lack of appreciation that used to be shown by European military men in speaking of our own Civil War and other contests. This attitude is as foolish on our part in the one case as it was foolish on the part of the Europeans in question in the other case. The South American Indian fighting was of the same hazardous character, and the Indian campaigns were fraught with the same wearing fatigue, and marked by the same risk and wild adventure, as in the case of our own Indian campaigns. In the Argentine civil wars, and in the Paraguayan War, as in the wars which the Chileans have waged, the fighting was, on the whole, rather more desperate than in any contest between the civilized nations of Europe from the close of the Napoleonic struggles to the opening of the present gigantic contest. There is no more formidable fighting material in the world than is afforded by certain elements in the populations of some of these Latin-American countries. The general of whom I am speaking was himself a most interesting example of a vanishing type. Lovers of good literature should read the sketches of old-time Argentine life in Hudson’s “El Ombu.” When they have done so, they will understand the strength and the ruthlessness which produced leaders of the stamp of the scarred and war-hardened veteran who in full general’s uniform met us at dinner at the house of his son, the governor of Mendoza.

The old-time conditions of gaucho civilization that produced these wild and formidable fighting men, who fought as they lived, on the backs of their horses, have vanished as utterly as our own Far West of the days of Kit Carson. The Argentine country life has changed as completely as the Argentine city life. They are gone, those long years during which the gaucho rode over unfenced plains after gaunt cattle, and warred against the scarcely wilder Indians with whom he vied in horsemanship and plains-craft and hardihood and from whom he borrowed that strange weapon, the bolas. Even the southern Andes of what was once Patagonia are unexplored only in the sense that the Rockies of Alberta are not yet completely explored. Much of the former ranch country is now wheat-land, where the workmen of foreign, especially Italian, origin far outnumber the men of old Hispano-Indian stock. Great cattle-ranches remain; but they are handled substantially like great modern ranches in our own Southwest, and the blooded horses and high-grade cattle are kept in large, fenced pastures. In most places the gaucho has changed as our own cowboy has changed. He is as bold and good a horseman as ever; but it is only in out-of-the-way places that he retains all his old-time wild and individual picturesqueness. Elsewhere he is now merely an unusually capable ranch-hand. His employer has changed even more. The big handsome ranch-houses are fitted with every modern comfort and luxury, and the owners belong in all ways to the internationalized upper class of the world of to-day. The interest attaching to a visit to one of these civilized ranches is that which attaches to a visit to a fine modern stock-farm anywhere, whether in Hungary or Kentucky or Victoria.

But there is one vital point—the vital point—in which the men and women of these ranch-houses, like those of the South America that I visited generally, are striking examples to us of the English-speaking countries both of North America and Australia. The families are large. The women, charming and attractive, are good and fertile mothers in all classes of society. There are no symptoms of that artificially self-produced dwindling of population which is by far the most threatening symptom in the social life of the United States, Canada, and the Australian commonwealths. The nineteenth century saw a prodigious growth of the English-speaking, relative to the Spanish-speaking, population of the new worlds west of the Atlantic and in the Southern Pacific. The end of the twentieth century will see this completely reversed unless the present ominous tendencies as regards the birth-rate are reversed. A race is worthless and contemptible if its men cease to be willing and able to work hard and, at need, to fight hard, and if its women cease to breed freely. I am not speaking of pauper families with excessive numbers of ill-nourished and badly brought up children; I am well aware that, like most wise and good principles, this which I advocate can be carried to a mischievous excess; but it nevertheless remains true that voluntary sterility among married men and women of good life is, even more than military or physical cowardice in the ordinary man, the capital sin of civilization, whether in France or Scandinavia, New England or New Zealand. If the best classes do not reproduce themselves the nation will of course go down; for the real question is encouraging the fit, and discouraging the unfit, to survive. When the ordinary decent man does not understand that to marry the woman he loves, as early as he can, is the most desirable of all goals, the most successful of all forms of life entitled to be called really successful; when the ordinary woman does not understand that all other forms of life are but makeshift and starveling substitutes for the life of the happy wife, the mother of a fair-sized family of healthy children; then the state is rotten at heart. The loss of a healthy, vigorous, natural sexual instinct is fatal; and just as much so if the loss is by disuse and atrophy as if it is by abuse and perversion. Whether the man, in the exercise of one form of selfishness, leads a life of easy self-indulgence and celibate profligacy; or whether in the exercise of a colder but no less repulsive selfishness, he sacrifices what is highest to some form of mere material achievement in accord with the base proverb that “he travels farthest who travels alone”; or whether the sacrifice is made in the name of the warped and diseased conscience of asceticism; the result is equally evil. So, likewise, with the woman. In many modern novels there is portrayed a type of cold, selfish, sexless woman who plumes herself on being “respectable,” but who is really a rather less desirable member of society than a prostitute. Unfortunately the portrayal is true to life. The woman who shrinks from motherhood is as low a creature as a man of the professional pacificist, or poltroon, type, who shirks his duty as a soldier. The only full life for man or woman is led by those men and women who together, with hearts both gentle and valiant, face lives of love and duty, who see their children rise up to call them blessed and who leave behind them their seed to inherit the earth. Dealing with averages, it is the bare truth to say that no celibate life approaches such a life in point of usefulness, no matter what the motive for the celibacy—religious, philanthropic, political, or professional. The mother comes ahead of the nun—and also of the settlement or hospital worker; and if either man or woman must treat a profession as a substitute for, instead of as an addition to or basis for, marriage, then by all means the profession or other “career” should be abandoned. It is of course not possible to lay down universal rules. There must be exceptions. But the rule must be as above given. In a community which is at peace there may be a few women or a few men who for good reasons do not marry, and who do excellent work nevertheless; just as in a community which is at war, there may be a few men who for good reasons do not go out as soldiers. But if the average woman does not marry and become the mother of enough healthy children to permit the increase of the race; and if the average man does not, above all other things, wish to marry in time of peace, and to do his full duty in war if the need arises, then the race is decadent, and should be swept aside to make room for one that is better. Only that nation has a future whose sons and daughters recognize and obey the primary laws of their racial being.

In these essentials Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil have far more to teach than to learn from the English-speaking countries which are so proud of their abounding material prosperity and of their wide-spread, but superficial, popular education and intelligence. In this same material prosperity, and in many other matters, Argentina much resembles our own country. Brazil is travelling a similar path, although much more slowly; and although its climate is not so good, its natural resources are vaster and will in the present century undergo an extraordinary development. Very much of the Brazilian country from São Paulo to the Uruguayan frontier is essentially like Argentina. The city life and the ranch life are advancing in much the same fashion; although of course there are sharp differences in culture and habits of thought and life between the great Spanish-speaking and great Portuguese-speaking republics which are such close, and not wholly friendly, neighbors.

One point of similarity is the number of immigrants in each country. In our journey southward from São Paulo we found both towns and stretches of ranchland in which Germans, Italians, and Catholic, Orthodox, or Uniate Slavs, were important, and sometimes preponderant, elements of the population. There were German Lutheran churches and also congregations of native Protestants started by American missionaries; for Brazil, like Argentina and the United States, enjoys genuine religious liberty.

This rich and beautiful country of southern Brazil is part of the last great stretch of country—south-temperate America—which remains in either temperate zone open to white settlement on a large scale; the last great stretch of scantily peopled land with a good climate and fertile soil to which white immigration can go in mass.

Of part of tropical Brazil I have written elsewhere, and I allude to it elsewhere in this book. Here I am speaking not of the tropical but of the temperate country.

Portions of temperate Brazil are open prairie, portions are forest. The climate is never very hot, nor is there ever severe cold. The colonists with whom I conversed had not found the insects specially troublesome; not much more, and in places rather less, troublesome than in Louisiana and Texas. There was no more sickness than in the early days in the West. The general effect in the forest country, while of course the species of plants are entirely different, reminds the observer of the Louisiana and Mississippi cane-brake lands and the country along the Nueces. The activities of the settlers in the open country are substantially those with which I was familiar thirty years ago in the cattle country of the West. In the forests one is reminded more of early days on the Ohio, the Yazoo, and the Red River of the South.

Certainly this is a country with a wonderful future. It offers fine opportunities for settlers who desire with the labor of their own hands to make homes for themselves and their children. This does not mean that all people who go there will prosper, or that success will come save at the price of labor and effort, of risk and hardship. If any Americans have forgotten how our own West in the pioneer days appealed to an observer who was friendly, but who had not the faintest glimmering of the pioneer spirit, let them read “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Dickens represented the numerous men who foolishly hope to enjoy pioneer triumphs and yet escape pioneer risks and hardships and the unlovely and wearing toil which is the essential prerequisite to the triumph; and every one should remember that in a new country, which opens a chance of success to the settler, there always goes with this the chance of heart-breaking failure. Brazil offers remarkable openings for settlers who have the toughness of the born pioneer, and for certain business men and engineers who have the mixture of daring enterprise and sound common sense needed by those who push the industrial development of new countries. Both classes have great opportunities, and both need to be perpetually on their guard against the swindlers and the crack-brained enthusiasts who are always sure to turn up in connection with any country of large developmental possibilities. On the frontier, more than anywhere else, a man needs to be able to rely on himself and to remember that on every frontier there are innumerable failures.

No man can be guaranteed success. Men who are not prepared for labor and effort and rough living, for persistence and self-denial, are out of place in a new country; and foolish people who will probably fail anywhere are more certain to fail badly in a new country than anywhere else. During the whole period of the marvellous growth of the United States there has been a constant and uninterrupted stream of failure going side by side with the larger stream of success. Unless there is revolutionary disorder and anarchy, the future holds for southern Brazil much what half a century ago the future held for large portions of our country lying west of the Mississippi.

In southern Brazil the forest landscape through which we passed was very beautiful. The most conspicuous tree in the forest was the flat-topped pine, the shaft of which rose like that of a royal palm. The branches spread out at the top just where the palm-leaves spread out on the palm, only instead of drooping they curved upward like the branches of a candelabra. There were many other trees in the forests which I could not recognize or place. Some of them looked like our Southern live-oaks. Then there were palms, and multitudes of big tree-ferns. In places where these tree-ferns grew thickly among the tall, strange candelabra pines, with palms scattered here and there, and other queer ancient tropical plants, the landscape looked as if it had come out of the carboniferous period—at least as the carboniferous period was represented in the attractive popular geologies of my youth. There were flowers in the woods, of brilliant and varied hue, although we saw but few orchids; and in the glades or spots of open prairie there were immense patches of lilac and blue blossoms. The flowering trees were wonderful. On some the blooms were blue, on others yellow. The most beautiful of all flamed brilliant scarlet. The trees that bore them, when scattered over hillsides that sloped steeply to the brink of some rushing river, made splashes of burning red against the wet and vivid green of the subtropical foliage. As we got farther south I was told that there were occasional sharp frosts, but that the low temperature never lasted for more than an hour or so. In answer to a question as to how these rare, short frosts affected such plants as palms and tree-ferns, it was explained to me that the frosts prevented coffee being grown, but that they had no effect on the palms, and, rather curiously, no effect on the tree-ferns if they were under big forest trees, but that if they were in the open the fronds were killed, the trees themselves not being injured, and new fronds taking the place of the old ones.

In the open prairie country of the state of Parana we stopped at Morungava to visit the ranch of the Brazil Land, Cattle, and Packing Company. Our host, the head of this company, Murdo Mackenzie, for many years one of the best-known cattlemen in our own Western cow country, was an old friend of mine. During my term as President he was, on the whole, the most influential of the Western cattle-growers. He was a leader of the far-seeing and enlightened element. He was a most powerful supporter of the government in the fight for the conservation of our natural resources, for the utilization without waste of our forests and pastures, for honest treatment of everybody, and for the shaping of governmental policy primarily in the interest of the small settler, the home-maker.

We rode first to Mackenzie’s home ranch, about a mile from the railway, and then to an outlying set of ranch buildings ten miles off. At the home ranch were the American foreman and his American wife and their children. The buildings and the food and the whole life were typical of all that was best in the old-time “Far West,” in the days when I knew it as a cattle country. We were given a most delicious and purely American lunch, including all the fresh milk we could drink; and the foreman himself piloted us over the immense stretches of rolling country, and in every action showed himself the born cattleman, the born and trained stockman. Half of the employees were men from the Western ranches, from Montana, Colorado, Texas, or elsewhere; and they and the stock and the vast, pleasant, open-air country were enough to make any man feel at home who had ever lived in the West. The children round the ranch-house were already speaking fluent Portuguese!

There were Indians in the neighborhood; but we saw none, for they are very shy and dwell in the timber. Although nominally Christian, and somewhat under the influence of the priests, they are otherwise entirely outside of governmental control. At first Mackenzie’s cattle were sometimes killed by the wild, furtive creatures; but he stopped this by a mixture of firmness and fair treatment.

It was a beautiful country, well watered, with good grass and much timber. I was assured by both the men on the ranch and their wives that the climate was better than that of our own Western cattle country, for the heat is not as extreme as during summer in the southern part of our country, and the winters are mild, with only occasional touches of frost. Much care has to be shown in dealing with the ticks and certain other insect plagues, but not materially more than in some of our own Southern regions. While we were at the outlying ranch we saw the cattle being dipped in familiar ranch fashion.

Cattle, horses, and hogs all thrive. All the native stock offers material on which to improve. The company is carefully breeding upward, following precisely the same course which in Texas, for instance, has effected a complete substitution of graded beef and dairy cattle for the old longhorns. The native cattle are very distinctly better than the old Texan cattle—the native Mexican cattle. The Durham and Hereford bulls introduced from the States will in a very few years completely change the character of the herds. Good cows are kept in sufficient numbers to insure a constant supply of the breeding bulls. In the same way Berkshire boars are being crossed with the native pigs, and blooded stallions with the native mares. In short, everything is being done exactly as on our advanced and successful ranches at home. The country is still largely vacant, and opportunities for development will be almost limitless for at least another generation.

Aside from the extreme interest of seeing the ranch itself, the twenty-mile ride was most enjoyable. The country was like our own plains near the foothills of the Rockies, except that there was more water and a greater variety of timber. The most striking trees were the occasional peculiar flat-top pines, and there were also other and very beautiful pines through which the wind sang mournfully; and there were many flowers. In one place we saw a small prairie deer, and in galloping we had to keep a lookout for armadillo burrows, just as we keep a lookout for prairie-dog holes in the West. The birds were strange and interesting, some of them with beautiful voices. Out on the plains were screamers, noisy birds, as big as African bustards. One sparrow sang loudly, at midday, round the corrals where we dismounted for lunch. He was a confiding, pretty little fellow, with head markings somewhat like those of our white-crowned and white-throated sparrows. He sang better than the former, and not as well as the latter.

The horses were good, and we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon canter back to the home ranch, when the shadows had begun to lengthen. We loped across the rolling grass-land and by the groves of strange trees, through the brilliant weather. Under us the horses thrilled with life; it was a country of vast horizons; we felt the promise of the future of the land across which we rode.