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A tale of the Pampa[1] tells how a River Plate farmer of bygone days, seeing his wife and child dead of pestilence and his pastures blackened by fire, fell into a magic slumber born of the lethargy of despair.

He was awakened, many years afterwards, by the scream of a railway engine at his boundary; to find his land fenced in, his flocks and herds improved beyond recognition, and maize and wheat waving where only coarse grass had been before.

This allegory is true.

It tells the whole story of the real development of the River Plate Territories, a development in which the descendant of the original settlers has but comparatively recently begun to take an active part.

He, the Patriarch of the soil, lived on his land while English capital and Italian labour opened up its treasures to the world. In the beginnings of Argentina as a nation, his property consisted of vast herds of long-horned, bony cattle, valuable only for their hides, which roamed the Pampa in savage freedom; untended, save for periodic[2] slaughter and skinning and the yearly rounding up for the marking of the calves.

Later, came the acknowledgment between neighbours, living at vast distances from one another, of boundaries which indicated the huge areas over which each had grazing rights. Later still came the time when the more far-sighted of such men bought wire and, with quebracho posts, ringed in those areas as their own. The foreigner and his railway did the rest to build up the huge fortunes of the children and grandchildren of those far-sighted Patriarchs. For Patriarchs they were, Pastoral Kings surrounded by half-caste gauchos who lived in the familiar vassalage of the great mud-walled, grass-thatched house, and spoke in the familiar second person singular still in use among Argentines towards their servants; otherwise only employed between members of the same family or close friends. Until a very few years ago, these great Argentine families constituted Oligarchies which ruled almost absolutely each over one of the more distant Provinces, the people of which were the descendants of the vassals of their forefathers. The full power of these Provincial Oligarchies was only broken by the centralizing policy of President Dr. Figueroa Alcorta (1906 to 1910). The curtailing of their power was very necessary for the credit of National Finance and Justice, for that power was often exercised with a medi?val high-handedness unsuited to twentieth-century ideas.

The disintegration of the power of local Oligarchies, each of which completely dominated the Congress of its province, was one of the final but quite necessary steps towards putting the house of Argentina into perfect political and financial order; especially as Provincial Governors, hitherto always members of the Oligarchic families, were also almost invariably members of the National Senate. Add to these considerations the further one that the Provincial Courts had somehow or other gained a reputation for not meting out justice to political friend and foe alike, and that much[3] complaint was heard about the difficulties encountered by some persons in even working the way of their cases up to the admirably impartial hearing of the Federal High Court of Appeal; since, for instance, it is difficult to appeal from a decision which has not been given, and which you seem to possess no means to obtain, even as against you.

All these inconveniences and scandals had long called imperatively for reform, but it was reserved for Dr. Figueroa Alcorta to discover the way to successfully bell these powerful provincial cats.

The way he found (which is referred to more fully in a later chapter) was essentially South American; but, as many things in South America which at first sight appear strange to European eyes do, it worked very well.

It is desirable here, however, to make quite clear the fact that any political South Americanisms which may still survive in Argentina are strictly confined to her internal and local politics and administration. Within that sphere it might almost be said that only the Judges of the Federal High Court of Appeal keep themselves completely clear of any shadow of suspicion. If you get to the Federal High Court you have the Law of the Land administered with unflinching impartiality. The only leaning of which that Tribunal has ever been accused (and that only jokingly) is that of an inclination to decide against the Government. Because, its judges, once appointed, cannot be removed unless on the ground of gross misconduct; whereas all other functionaries in the country are more or less liable to feel the effects of political influence. The National foreign or commercial policy is also as transparently pure and fair as it is possible to be. Argentina knows her best interests much too well to seem even to offend against European ethical standards in anything which touches external policy or Foreign interests, however remote.

As for her internal politics, these have been, until very recently, at all events, left by common consent of foreigner[4] and native alike to the sweet will of the caste of professional politicians. These people intrigue for place and profit and have vicissitudes, triumphs and defeats, without the real wealth-producers of the country knowing or caring one way or another. The doings of the Ministries of Finance, Agriculture (embracing Commerce and Industry) and Public Works and the legislation affecting matters appertaining thereto are all that matter to the Bankers, Traders and Agriculturists or the great Railway Companies; and these leading Official and Commercial and Industrial Classes are the only people of real consequence in the land; unless one adds the Municipal Authorities of the Cities of Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca.

The actual Government, however, is jealously kept in native patrician hands. If one finds a foreign name in the list of high officials it may safely be assumed that the bearer of it is connected by marriage with one of what may be called the great ruling Argentine families, with names recurrent in the country’s History.

These families constitute the real aristocracy of the Republic, and are mostly possessed of very great wealth. Kind and sympathetically courteous to the stranger as are all Argentines, one cannot but smile when one finds writers implying that entrance into Argentine Society is easily effected by anyone who, as I once saw it stated, could play a good hand at bridge.

As a fact, no stranger ever becomes a member of the best Argentine Society; he may find himself in it at brief, fleeting moments, but he is never of it. As in the aristocracies of the old world, all its members are connected more or less remotely by blood or marriage, usually both, with one another. One may know intimately many men prominent in Argentine Society, may be received by them at their houses now and again and mingle there with other men, their kindred; but the charming conversation one enjoys when there is not that which was going on when one[5] entered, and will continue after one has left again. Argentine ladies only receive on set, formal occasions; unless in such public places as the Palermo Race-course or the Rambla at Mar-del-Plata. Small and select dinners take place rather at the Jockey Club than in private houses. Under a somewhat effusive external manner, the Argentine has all the reserved exclusiveness of his Spanish ancestors. Gold has its weight in Argentina as elsewhere; but it has more efficacy as a key to society in many European capitals than in Buenos Aires; notwithstanding the almost childish fondness of Argentines for the display of their own wealth, a characteristic which makes them (and other Americans) beloved in Hotels and Restaurants throughout the world. The one characteristic for which the Argentine does not get full credit from the superficial observer is the very strong vein of common sense which underlies his more immediately noticeable affectation of manner and behaviour. A great deception is always in store for those who do not appreciate the fact that the most boisterously extravagant Argentine never really loses sight of the fact that 2 and 2 make 4 and no more and no less. Yet this should be apparent in a nation which has known so well during the fifty or sixty years of its real development how to let the foreigner work out that development at a good profit for himself, of course, but at a much greater one for them. The Argentine, while availing himself of every advantage derivable from the influx into his country of foreign Capital and Labour, has never really loosed his hold on his own independent Government nor the land. His land is and has always been the source of his fortune, and to his land he clings with unrelaxing tenacity. If there is a good bargain to be made in real property, it is an Argentine who immediately takes advantage of it to increase his probably already large holding.

He it is who most readily lends money on mortgage, at a high rate of interest, on real property. He knows only of one way in which to invest the surplus of his income—in[6] land or the things intimately connected with land and its immediate productivity. Agricultural enterprise he understands and daily appreciates more and more its scientific working. Intensive farming is already practised by him in those parts of the country where land is most valuable. He breeds as fine cattle and sheep as any foreign breeder or colonizing company.

But for commerce other than purely agricultural he has no bent. So he wisely leaves it in the hands of the stranger, who thereby develops his towns, and builds railways and tramways; all of which go to the enhancement of the values of Argentine real property.

Now and again there is a pseudo-patriotic clamour in certain sections of the Native Press over what is denounced as the exploitation of Argentina by the foreigner. But all this is mere froth born of journalistic need of “copy”: mere great-gooseberry matter for a dull season. That it is no more was proved a few years ago by the great English Railway Companies.

They became weary of being denounced as the worst kind of exploiters of an innocent bucolic people; and, in reply, published broadcast an announcement that they would transfer a certain large quantity of their shares at par (the market price being considerably higher) to Argentines who might thereby qualify themselves not only for a share in the Companies’ profits, but for seats on the Boards of Directors; where they could have a voice in the management of what was being denounced as a vast system of exploitation. To this very liberal, almost quixotic, offer there was no response. For the simple reason that, whilst the railway dividends did not exceed 7%, land mortgages carried 10% or 12%, and the yield from immediate agricultural enterprise proportionately more.

Every branch line opened by the railways, often at huge expense of expropriation, spells fortune to Argentines. If the railway gains in a less degree who should complain?[7] No one really does, everyone really concerned being much too well aware on which side his own particular bread is buttered. As I have said, the Argentine is possessed of a quite preponderating amount of common sense.

His attitude towards the foreigner is, “I give you all liberty and protection for any enterprise you may wish to carry out in my country, by which you may become very rich; but the country itself and nearly all the land in it is mine and will remain so.”

The last thing the Argentine will part with as an individual or as a nation is land.

Grants of fiscal lands were made in the past with scandalous liberality for political services, but to Argentines. Mighty little of such lands, none of any, then, apparent value, went to foreigners; whatever they might have done for the country’s development and good. Now, few grants of such lands are made to anyone; the National and Provincial Governments appreciating too fully the advantages of their retention as aids to power and wealth.

In all this the Argentine is right from his natural point of view; but his obstinate maintenance of it is gradually bringing certain economic problems of vital importance to a stage when some way will have to be found out of the dilemmas which they already present.

The chief of these problems is that of agricultural labour. What inducement does Argentina offer to the class of colonist she needs most, the man with a wife and family to aid him in his work and with, perhaps, a small amount of Capital?

He will find plenty of work and people to employ his labour at a liberal wage as soon as he lands. He will be taken, if he so wish, free of all cost to himself, to one or other of the more or less distant parts of the Republic, where he may be set to work on virgin soil at a wage, or, may be, on a half share of profits for a period of three years. On the scene of his industry he will find an Italian or Galician[8] storekeeper who will supply his every reasonable want on credit, taking as security the share to come to him of the profits from the land to be worked. The storekeeper will also charge a high rate of interest on prices of his own fixing, unembarrassed by any competitors within a radius of very many miles; or, if there be such, he and they will know well enough how to preserve a rate of profit which would astonish an European shopkeeper.

At the end of three years the landlord will have his land in good working order,[2] and the storekeeper will have most, if not all, of the new colonist’s share of profits. The latter can then, if he likes, have some more virgin land on similar terms. He is a mere labourer, a worker for others, with no betterment on his own horizon.

There is as yet no real practically working official machinery by which he can obtain a direct grant of land in freehold to himself; such as exists, with other added facilities, in each of our own great agricultural dependencies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

For this reason alone, the rural population of Argentina has almost ceased to show much more than a vegetative increase. The population of the whole Republic is that of greater London spread over an area only a very little less than that of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland put together.

This lack of increase in the rural population is not due to Argentina being a country unknown to the appropriate class of people. There are thousands of Italian peasants who go there regularly every year as harvesters, and who return to their own country as soon as the crops are gathered in. They know Argentina and the natural richness of her resources as well as do born Argentines, but they also know that they cannot get land. Only wages; the purchasing power of which is so much greater in Italy that there they[9] can live on them in semi-idleness for the remainder of the year, whereas they would attain no greater pecuniary advantage by remaining and working permanently in Argentina, where the cost of living is relatively very great. So they remain “swallows” as they are called, coming and going with the beginning and close of the harvest season.

If Argentina wants settlers, and she does need them badly, she must make up her mind to give them land.

And she must also make a thorough overhaul of the titles to all lands as yet not under cultivation. Because many of such lands are merely traps for the unwary who may be induced to occupy and develop them only to find himself, after he has ploughed and planted, called upon to pay rent to some resident in Buenos Aires or some other town whose property they turn out to be, under some long-forgotten Government grant, and who has not only never visited them, but has also practically lain in wait for some innocent settler to develop them under the impression that they were his own. Cases of this kind have happened over and over again; and the deluded settler, who may have even purchased the land in question at a public auction or have obtained it from some self-styled colonizing Company, finds himself with nothing but a vista of wearisome and costly litigation before he can hope to grasp a usually very elusive remedy for his wrong. Generally, he gives the whole thing up in despair and becomes a tenant of the land on which he has already spent all his small capital. These things are also known to the Italian harvester, and the knowledge of them acts as a further deterrent to his becoming a settler.

As Argentina is blessed with almost the best possible laws about everything sublunary, she has, naturally, first-rate colonization regulations. Only these are confined to her statute books and sundry pamphlets which lie in dust-covered heaps in the Ministry of Agriculture. But there is as yet no real working machinery for the carrying out in practice of all these excellent embodiments of the results[10] of experience of farming colonization all the world over. There are no officials whose exclusive duty it is to attend to the multiple exigencies of true colonization, and none capable of such work if they were suddenly called upon to do it, for lack of the necessary experience.

An intending colonist may therefore land in Buenos Aires with a small but sufficient amount of capital for a reasonable start in, say, Australia or Canada, and may wander about that city till, if he be foolish enough, his money is all spent without ever having found any Government office or official willing or in a position to put him into possession of the land he wants.

He usually, after a few weeks of fruitless search, goes back to Australia or New Zealand or wherever else he may have come from, disgusted with Argentina and her ways; of which he, on getting back, gives an account which effectually damps off any existing enthusiasm in his neighbourhood for emigration to the River Plate for a long while to come.

The Argentine Government spends plenty of money in advertisement, and true advertisement, of the fertility and marvellous climates of a Republic which extends over 35 degrees of latitude, but neglects to make provision for those who may desire to respond actively to its propaganda. This neglect is due, really, to an inherent incapacity for detail, part of the Argentine nature which, therefore, is terribly prone to get tired half-way through a job. In South America, generally, a wonderful amount of enthusiasm is always available for the planning of new schemes. The declamatory exposition of their sovereign virtues and glory amid the acclamations of sympathetic Board or Committee meetings is a grateful task; as is that of the dissemination of these discourses in pamphlet form, in which also the full list of the names of the originators and supporters of the scheme appears. It is, however, when practice shows unworkable flaws in splendid theories, when the drudgery of[11] adapting high-flown principles to plain everyday drab facts must take the place of inaugural banquets and florid speeches, that Argentine enthusiasm has a regrettable way of petering out. Soon, something newer and of a different kind is started by someone else. The meetings and banquets are held in its honour by other groups and the former scheme passes to a shadowy land, the way to which is always kept paved with a plenitude of good intentions.

Capital will always be forthcoming for profitable enterprise; as will Labour if that enterprise be made profitable to the worker—a good and useful class of whom can only be induced to emigrate by the prospect of permanent betterment of the conditions of life. The natural ambition of every man is to work for himself, to be the master of the results of his own efforts and to possess those results as a provision for his old age and his children. This a new country or colony must offer if it would obtain the high level of intelligent labour which it needs for its fullest and best development.

On the other hand no one need starve or go hungry for long in any of the countries of the River Plate; unless he elects to be and to remain a persistent loafer in one of the large towns. Even then he has only to ask and he will receive food, at almost any restaurant or private house. If he refuse to beg or to leave town, he may suffer hunger and thirst, otherwise he cannot. To begin with he can always get a job at one thing or another from any of the numerous private agencies which have standing orders for labour, and even schoolmasters, for the “Camp,” and which are as avid of candidates for such jobs as any crimp of the old days was for men of any kind to sling aboard a ship.

Once in the camp any man who has had the grit to go there is sure of finding someone wanting some kind of work which he can do in some sort of fashion. There he will recover such of his normal health and strength as he may have lost as a city unemployed, and will soon shake into[12] a capacity for, and get, something better to do than his first job.[3]

The native agricultural labourer or “peon” is a very free and easy and light-hearted kind of person, and must be treated accordingly if his services are to be retained. He is never rude unless in answer to obviously intentional offence offered to himself, and will work very much harder for an employer he likes than for one he finds unsympathetic. Indeed he will only remain with the latter on his own tacit understanding that he takes things easily.

When he has accumulated a few dollars of wages he will take himself off to the nearest store or township and indulge in such dissipation as the place affords. From thence he departs with perhaps a few cheap handkerchiefs or other small finery, in the breast of his blouse, which he bestows as gifts at various friendly cottages; at each of which he may while away a day, partaking of pot luck, a shake down on the floor, and innumerable mates and cigarettes, making himself merrily agreeable to his hosts. When he gets tired of this, or has exhausted the immediate circle of his friends, he will return to work on the property on which he left off; or somewhere else should he find himself not as well received on his return as he had hoped.

It is pretty much all one to him. An experienced native peon need never go far begging for a job.

These men are strong and wiry, capable of spurts of very hard work indeed; so that, even with frequent intervals for chat with everyone available, their average day’s work is usually by no means a bad one. Severity in an employer[13] they will take with perfect good humour; but any affected superiority, or “side,” on his part will meet with a very contemptuous resentment. They are true sons of a Republic, though holding school-learning in the deep respect observable in peasantry almost all the world over.

The Argentine peon inherits much of the ready wit and extraordinary gift of repartee of his immediate ancestor the GAUCHO; of whom he is the modern representative. With whom, however, a concertina has most unfortunately taken the place of the guitar. But as a bachelor he is the same flirtatious, lady-killing scamp; loving often and riding away from, most frequently instead of with, the lady of his ephemeral choice.

His wit, and hers, most frequently take the form of double entente. An interchange of chaff has always one perfectly innocent superficial meaning and another the realization of which would redden the ears of a British bargee. Both parties to this skilled contest of phrases keep perfectly immobile countenances and neither gives a sign, except by his or her, always latent, reply, of any perception of the underlying significance of the conversation.

This exchange of wit is a form of art derived from the gaucho Payadores or minstrels, who improvised their songs in verses which, on the face of them, were hymns to Nature in its purer forms, and contrived simultaneously to either hugely amuse ribald company or else to convey insult to a present rival payador who answered in like manner in his turn; hidden insult being thus intentionally heaped on insult till a fight with knives succeeded singing. A fight in which all present took sides and joined.

Thus were Sundays enjoyed in the PULPERIAS (canteens) of the older times, over a quarter of a century ago.

A now almost lost art of those days was the knife play in which the gaucho was then an extraordinary adept. Even now gauchos may be found, in the distant northern Provinces,[14] who in a duel, according as it be a serious or a playful one, can kill or just draw a pin-prick’s show of blood at will from their adversary. In these duels the knife is kept in constant rapid, dazzling movement, while the poncho or gaucho shawl, with a slit through which the head is passed when wearing, is wrapped round the left arm which is used as a guard.

The gaucho was a picturesque figure in his chiripá[4] or festal, wide-bottomed, lace-frilled trousers, a broad leathern girdle studded with silver coins and his silver-mounted, high-pommelled saddle. The chiripá and girdle remain; and one may still see a camp dandy glorious on feast-days in a saddle adorned with silver mountings.

But the cow-boy utility of the gaucho waned with the advent of scientific farming. He had no taste nor aptitude for such new-fangled ideas; and now his sons are mostly to be found in the army, the police, or that very useful body of firemen and soldiers too, the corps of “Bomberos,” men who can be relied on at any moment to quell a fire or a riot in their own very effective way. They fear neither flames nor turbulent strikers, and are only too ready, in the case of the latter, to shoot first and listen to orders afterwards. Another body of men drawn almost exclusively from gaucho sources is the “Squadron of Security”; a mounted corps of steel-cuirassed and helmeted semi-military police, also used to clear the streets of political or other disturbances. Three trumpet blasts sounded in quick succession are the signal for a charge in lines extending, for instance, over the whole breadth of the Avenida de Mayo. Such is the law and everyone, as in England, is presumed to know it. If he do not, and therefore fail to take prompt refuge down a side street or in a shop, so much the worse for him. The Avenida will be cleared even if he be taken to the Asistencia Publica as a consequence of the[15] process, without any valid claim for damages. He heard the “Clarion” and is assumed to have contumaciously disregarded its warning.

It might be thought that the vegetative increase of such a hardy nucleus of native population would suffice for the Labour needs of the country. There are, however, many reasons for the fact that it does not. The chief of these is the general refractoriness of the Indian to the process of education on the lines of the white races. You cannot by any means make a white man out of an Indian any more than you can of a Negro. And the gaucho has usually more Indian (and Negro, from the slave days) blood in him than he has white.

Unrivalled in the days when vast hordes of semi-savage cattle needed rounding up and cutting out with his lazo and boleadora, the gaucho has not always the patience nor the regard for detail needed for the care of prize Durhams, Polled Angus or Herefords; nor is he at his best with modern agricultural machinery. Neither does his character lend itself to the dull discipline expected and necessary on a farm to-day. He can no longer with impunity stay the extra day or two at the canteen to which his savings entitle him; and on the farm he finds himself confined to the more subservient work. Against all this his native pride rebels, and he gradually drifts into the army or the police, where he is gradually being exterminated by the disintegrating effects of idleness and lack of the hard physical exercise which kept his ancestors in health. A greedy meat-eater, he succumbs as often to stomach as to lung trouble.

Population! In every other way nature is most bountiful on the River Plate. If only Argentina were more thickly peopled her wealth would be phenomenal in the world. For it must not be thought that grain and cattle sum up the whole extent of her possible productivity. Far from it: her output has hitherto been confined to these commodities because they were so obviously those which most readily[16] yield immediate profits, without in the first place demanding any great outlay of capital or scientific acquirements. Cattle there have always been on the Pampa since the time of the Goes’ cows;[5] and as for grain, the virgin soil barely needed scratching for its growth. Thus cereal cultivation and cattle raising naturally became the national industries, and the population has never been sufficient to attend even to all the possibilities of these, let alone others. Nevertheless, there are many more which Nature has in store for these marvellous countries with their great variety of climates.

Sugar (pretty badly exploited till recently), coffee, cotton, tobacco (already grown in the North and even, to a comparatively small extent, in the Province of Buenos Aires) and timber of many and valuable kinds are among the future produce of the Southern Republics; while the wool output of Argentina could be greatly increased.

No lack of capital would be felt were there the necessary skilled management and labour available for the production of, leaving sugar and timber apart for the moment, let us say cotton and tobacco.

In the cultivation of both of these, much depends on selection of kinds according to soil and climate and on the right moment for gathering. It is owing to ignorance in these regards as well as to labour difficulties that several attempts to cultivate these crops on a large scale have hitherto only resulted in failure.

Given the necessary science and labour, soil and climate may well be trusted to do the rest for assured success.

Nothing is lacking to the countries of the River Plate but population. Given adequate human agency to exploit their evident and latent treasures, they have before them a future[17] prosperity which can only be called incalculable in its marvellous immensity.

Note.—A fact that cannot escape observation by the reader of this book is that of the comparative absence of exact statistical information disclosed in it in regard to Uruguay in comparison with that which appears relating to Argentina. The reason of this is that while the latter country has now had many decades in which to put its house in order, the former is still so busily occupied in that necessary task that its officials have as yet had little time to devote to compiling authoritative statistics of a progress of which it must not, therefore, be inferred that they and their country are not very justly proud.

Thus figures which are easily available through the patriotic ability and industry of Dr. Francisco Latzina, the chief of the National Argentine Statistical Department, and so clearly and strikingly digested by Se?or Ricardo Pillado, the Director of the Division of Commerce and Industry in the Argentine Ministry of Agriculture, a Ministry the scope of whose work is extremely wide and all-important in the Republic, have really yet no counterparts in Uruguay, where one is rather left to guess at the general effect of such isolated agricultural trade statistics as alone are immediately available. Figures are to be had by the private courtesy of individuals connected with various administrations, and these, if not exact, are no doubt approximately so; but they do not bear the stamp nor the proof of comparison which should be found in authoritative figures.

The author knows from the test of his own previous experience that such few figures as he has given concerning Uruguay are substantially correct, and must therefore, though reluctantly, ask the reader to take his word for it that they are so.


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