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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1
Título: 1998

In Araucanía

In early 1845 Domeyko traveled south to Concepción, Chile’s second city and the gateway to the Indian frontier. He stopped briefly in the southern capital to procure horses and other supplies for the trip into Indian territory. Although his main object was to conduct geological surveys of the region, thereby confirming what early studies had claimed about the potential wealth of the region, Domeyko looked forward to meeting the once-indomitable Araucanian Indians. Heeding the advise of experts, he bought a supply of “beads, bells, red and blue scarves, tobacco, indigo, and other trinkets as gifts for the Araucanians.” Such a gesture, he reckoned, may go a long way in helping him out of a difficult situation.13 Leaving Concepción, Domeyko and his party, which included a guide, a muleteer, and a favorite alumnus of his Coquimbo school, crossed the Bio-Bio River and entered Indian territory. They traveled south along the ancient camino real, the coastal highway that once connected Concepción with the ancient settlements at Valdivia and La Imperial. The route was a tortuous one, winding through hills and valleys, across turbulent rivers, through dense rainforests, and deep into almost impassable swamps and marshes. Almost at once Domeyko and his party saw signs of Chilean intrusion in Indian territory. Noting the process of marginalization of poor Indians, whose lands had been sold by their avaricious leaders, Domeyko recalled:
I observed from the highway...the manner by which the most civilized speculators had established themselves in this part of Araucanía, a country, instead of being populated was undergoing depopulation. Because no sooner had a Chilean illegally bought or usurped some land from the Indians, he soon expelled the poorest Indians. After tearing down their huts, the settler fenced in the land and placed 200 or 300 cattle, which will live there throughout the year. Cattle raising requires almost no cost.14
As he suspected, Domeyko learned that Euroamerican advancement did not necessarily mean progress. He came to believe that most Chilean settlers, like their Argentine cousins, differed little from the Indians living south of the Bio-Bio River. The settlers lived in a state of semi-savagery and tended, Domeyko believed, toward laziness and alcoholism. In a sense, living on the other side of the frontier afforded undisciplined settlers the opportunity to shun responsibility and civilized manners that were necessary for modern political lives. Once in Indian territory the temptation to “go over the hill,” to abandon western ways and live as an Indian, was too strong to resist. The adoption of Indian customs was what gave South American frontiersmen their unique character.

Besides attracting marginal peasants, the Araucanian frontier was a safe-haven for many criminals, swindlers, bootleggers and smugglers, and the occasional adventurer who sought fame and fortune in the pristine wilderness of Araucanía. At a tavern just south of the frontier, Domeyko met Ambrosio Lozier, a French mathematician and veteran of Napoleon’s army, who, like Domeyko, had come to Chile in 1827 on invitation of the government.15 After several years in Santiago, where he taught and served as rector at the national preparatory school, Lozier inexplicably disappeared. Rumors had it that he defected to the other side and lived as an Indian, adopting Mapuche dress and taking at least one Indian wife. Domeyko discovered that Lozier had indeed returned to nature. At one time, Lozier was a rancher and land speculator known for swindling local caciques out of their holdings and using the corrupt judicial system to assure his claims. When Domeyko found him, Lozier had degenerated into a miserable alcoholic who frequented taverns and lived in a cave near Tucapel. It must have seemed to Domeyko that the New World had, as the naturalist Comte de Buffón had once theorized, a degrading effect on Europeans and their culture.16

It became increasingly clear to Domeyko that the frontier was a world of vast contradictions. All settlers, foreigner or Chilean, had embraced some aspect of Indian culture and some, like Lozier, had even intermarried with Indians. Yet, they despised the Araucanians as a type of subhuman species and, like their gaucho cousins on the eastern side of the Andes, longed for their eradication. During the trip Domeyko was accompanied by a tough, mestizo veteran named Miguel Zúñiga, who was the archetype of the Chilean frontiersman. Although born of an Mapuche woman, Zúñiga was a “ferocious enemy” of the Araucanians and offered brutally candid opinions of them. One day on the trail, Zúñiga proclaimed:
the Indian...is astute, treacherous, deceitful, and hateful towards the Christian and the Chilean and will never subject himself to their control. The Indian is an animal who defies taming, and who should be treated only with severity and his extermination is necessary. Above all we should control him by force, without giving him any peace or rest.17
When Domeyko suggested a return to the mission system as a means of civilizing the frontier, Zúñiga rejected the premise outright. The guide explained, “I know the missionaries; I am, too, a missionary, and I will show them everything they need to know,” slapping his saber. Domeyko came away convinced that any plan to integrate the Indians into modern life must exclude frontier population as they were constituted and necessitate the cultural and moral elevation of both Indian and settler.

Eventually, after several days on horseback, Domeyko entered the world of the “truly free and independent Indians.” He had encountered many Indians along the frontier, but all had manifested some degree of cultural degradation having been in contact with a corrupt and backward frontier population. The villages he visited along the Laflenmapu—the Araucanian coast—were small and peaceful settlements, isolated from Chilean influence. Domeyko found the Mapuche people hospitable and friendly. When he arrived at a village, he endured lengthy welcoming ceremonies. These rituals often took hours to perform and delayed the discussion of business, but were minor distractions; they were always followed by an exchange of gifts and a sumptuous meal. A binge of chicha, a local fermented cider, usually accompanied the feast.18

Domeyko admired the Araucanians for their hardiness and bearing, especially the women, who despite their wretched appearance, served as paragons of domestic labor, doing all the “chores, raising the children, spinning wool, knitting clothing for their husbands and children.”19 The men hunted and defended family and hearth. Domeyko saw the Araucanians as a people who were capable of civilization and who already practiced some of the basic customs of civilized folk. They had long since abandoned their nomadic ways and adopted the life of sedentary farmers, who cultivated wheat, fine orchards, and raised livestock.

Despite their seemingly idyllic life, warfare and violence still plagued the region. Even long before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Mapuche people had warred against each other. Leading caciques—warrior chiefs—fought over hunting grounds, trade routes, and captives, a situation that worsened after the Spanish invasion. In Domeyko’s time, land and the right to sell it to Chilean settlers became the main source of intertribal strife. This problem appeared worse along the upper frontier, where Chilean presence was strongest. Domeyko understood that this accounted for the slow progress in civilizing the Mapuche communities of that region. Indian resistance to Spanish, and later Chilean, invasion assured Domeyko that military conquest could never result in their productive assimilation.

Domeyko came away convinced that the Araucanians would be better off as private landowners and town-dwellers living under the supervision of religious missionaries who would effect their gradual civilization. Clearly, Domeyko could not free himself from his European notions of man, culture, and civilization. As enlightened as he tried to be, his perceptions were clearly eurocentric. While Domeyko rejected the innate inferiority of the Araucanians, he still believed that they, like most Indians, lacked something that hindered their full potential as human beings. Like the great Christian apologists before him—Bartolomé de las Casas and Vasco de Quiroga—Domeyko considered the Indian mind that of a child, fully capable but lacking in reason.20 Domeyko thought that a rigorous infusion of Christianity, complemented by instruction in the practical arts would help the Mapuches rise above their current state. A renewed missionary effort, he later argued, was the solution.

A visit to the Franciscan missions of La Imperial convinced Domeyko of the efficacy of the mission approach. In 1838 the Chilean government had invited Italian Franciscans to establish missions among Mapuches living along the southern frontier near Valdivia and La Imperial. Their efforts were to complement the Franciscan efforts already underway along the Bio-Bio. Supported by the government and having complete autonomy in their dealings with the natives, the Franciscans had made great progress in converting the Araucanians of La Imperial. Domeyko visited a mission school at Quillaquién and recalled seeing “twelve small children, between the ages of six and ten years... almost naked, wearing only a ragged poncho on their backs; their faces were dark and their bristly hair in disarray.” Yet, they were in the middle of a Spanish lesson, taking turns reading aloud to their teacher. The government paid for their schooling and board, and their parents received a monthly stipend for keeping them in school. To combat the Mapuche tendency to abandon their studies during adolescence, the missionaries established workshops, where errant charges could be enticed back into the fold with small stipends and other material rewards. Slowly, the children learned the value of sedentary life and hard work and, eventually, spoke Spanish and adopted western dress. The process, the Franciscan in charge explained, “erased the Indian traits and paved the way for a new nation that will deliver to the Holy Church thousands of new addicts.”21