Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Gauchos by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The gaucho came to be the great River Plate horseman and drover, expert in working with livestock and skilled in handling the lasso, the bolas, and the knife - the basic instruments of his work. His origins, however, are as obscure and controversial as the root of the word gaucho itself. The product of a racial mix between Indians, blacks, and the first Spaniards, the gaucho in colonial times was a nomad who lived on the margins of society - that is, he lived freely on the pampa as a cattle thief. It was the age of hides, and attempts were made by the authorities to control the slaughter of herds. According to one historian, eighteen or twenty gauchos hunting wild cows with sharp, sickle-like blades attached to long poles - with which the cattle's hind tendons were severed - could fell seven or eight hundred animals in an hour. Money was to be made from such 'cattle mining', as this illicit trade was then called.

The range, however, was unending, unowned, and unfenced, and cattle and horses multiplied and roamed wild. This situation gave impetus to the gaucho malo, or outlaw. Hence, in time the word gaucho became a synonym for 'ne’er-do-well', 'robber', or even 'murderer'. After the outset of the revolution against Spain, in which the gaucho was to make an indispensable contribution, attitudes slowly changed and there even grew up a whole genre - literatura gauchesca - in prose and verse, in which gaucho life was described, aggrandized, and ultimately turned into myth. Some of this writing was purely picturesque, much of it descended into sentimentality and may be looked on as another example of the cult of the noble savage, but the best of this work, by writers like Bartolomé Hidalgo, Hilario Ascasubi, Estanislao del Campo, and José Hernández, has real merit.

Hernández's Martín Fierro - its two parts date, respectively, from 1872 and 1879 - is deservedly the Argentine national epic. A novel in verse, it is at once an exciting tale and an eloquent defense of the gaucho, alienated from the society of his day. To the poet Ascasubi, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the gaucho most often was 'poor, but he is free and, owing to his very poverty and his few needs, independent; he is hospitable at home, full of keen intelligence and shrewdness, physically agile, short on words, vigorous and circumspect in his actions, guarded when he speaks to outsiders, with a poetic and superstitious tinge to his beliefs and speech, and extraordinarily skilled in travelling alone over the immense Argentine deserts, securing for himself food, horses, and so forth, with his lasso and bolas.'

Domingo F. Sarmiento, the nineteenth-century writer, statesman, and champion of civilized values, praised the gaucho for his intimate knowledge of the country, pointing out the incredible skill of the rastreador, or track finder, whose work it was 'to follow a horse's tracks, and to distinguish them among a thousand others, and to know whether it was going at an easy or a rapid pace, at liberty or led, laden or carrying no weight' and of the baqueano, or pathfinder, who would know every span of twenty thousand square leagues of flat terrain and be able to guide a traveller over the featureless plain to a place fifty leagues away or to announce the approach of an enemy up to ten leagues off, while at shorter distances 'he notices the clouds of dust, and estimates the number of the hostile force by their density.' But Sarmiento also recognized the gaucho as a 'white-skinned savage, at war with society and proscribed by the laws' and consequently held him responsible in part for the primitiveness and bloody strife that afflicted the fledgling republic throughout the nineteenth century. It was the hapless gaucho who made up the rabble armies of the despotic caudillos - men like López, Ramírez, Artigas, Quiroga, Urquiza, and the blood-stained Rosas - who ruthlessly held sway over the Argentine provinces as if they were their own private fiefdoms. Darwin, in 1833, meeting this gaucho cavalry for the first time on one of their expeditions to exterminate Indians, noted: 'I should think such a villainous, banditti-like army, was never before collected together.'

The gaucho disappeared, or was assimilated, after the range was divided and fenced in the nineteenth century. His descendants are the paisanos who populate rural Argentina today, and the word gauchada - an act or action appropriate to a gaucho - no longer stands for 'wiliness' and 'meanness' as it once did but became 'a manly act', one carried out with boldness and skill. While to some Argentines the gaucho is a heroic symbol for lost freedom and untrammelled nature, to others he touches off unsavoury sentiments of jingoism and lawlessness, such as the utter contempt with which the army held the rule of law in the Argentine Republic for most of the past half century.

Readers of English will find the pages of W.H. Hudson filled with first-hand knowledge of gaucho life. There is also valuable gaucho lore in certain passages of the work of R.B. Cunninghame Graham.

First published in Estancias the Great Houses and Ranches of Argentina, 1992.

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