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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Gaucho and His Knife

The following sketch of the South American gaucho comes from Monte-Video, Buenos Ayres, and the River Plate (1845), by General O'brien. If the portrait seems intended to be unflattering, it is nevertheless redolent of romance; the gaucho sounds like the quintessential hero of an American Western.
The readiness to shed blood--a ferocity which is at the same time obdurate and brutal--constitutes the prominent feature in the character of the pure gaucho.
The first instrument that the infantile hand of the gaucho grasps is the knife--the first things that attract his attention as a child, are the pouring out of blood, and the palpitating flesh of expiring animals. From his earliest years, as soon as he is able to walk, he is taught how he may with the greatest skill approach the living beast, hough it [sic], and if he has the strength, kill it. Such are the sports of his childhood--he pursues them ardently, and amid the approving smiles of his family. As soon as he acquires sufficient strength, he takes part in the labours of the estancia; they are the sole arts he has to study, and he concentrates all his intellectual powers in mastering them. From that time forth he arms himself with a large knife, and for a single moment of his life he never parts with it. It is to his hand an additional limb--he makes use of it always, in all cases, in every circumstance, and constantly with wonderful skill and address. The same knife that in the morning had been used to slaughter a bullock, or to kill a tiger, aids him in the day time to cut his dinner, and at night to carve out a skin tent, or else to repair his saddle, or to mend his mandoline. With the gaucho the knife is often used as an argument in support of his opinions. In the midst of a conversation apparently carried on in amity, the formidable knife glitters on a sudden in the hand of one of the speakers, the ponchos are rolled around the left arm, and a conflict commences. Soon deep gashes are seen on the face, the blood gushes forth, and not unfrequently one of the combatants falls lifeless to the earth; but no one thinks of interfering with the combat, and when it is over the conversation is resumed as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. No person is disturbed by it--not even the women, who remain as cold unmoved spectators of the affray! It may easily be surmised what sort of persons they must be, of which such a scene is but a specimen of their domestic manners. Thus the savage education of the estancia produces in the gaucho a complete indifference as to human life, by familiarizing him from his most tender years to the contemplation of a violent death, whether it is that he inflicts it on another or receives it himself. He lifts his knife against a man with the same indifference that he strikes down a bullock: the idea which everywhere else attaches to the crime of homicide does not exist in his mind ; for in slaying another he yields not less to habit than to the impulse of his wild and barbarous nature.

If, perchance, a murder of this kind is committed so close to a town that there is reason to apprehend the pursuit of justice, everyone is eager to favour the flight of the guilty person. The fleetest horse is at his service, and he departs certain to find wherever he goes, the favour and sympathy of all. Then, with that marvellous instinct which is common to all the savage races, he feels no hesitation in venturing into the numerous plains of the pampas. Alone, in the midst of a boundless desert, and in which the eye strains itself in vain to discover a boundary, he advances without the slightest feeling of uneasiness--he does so watching the course of the stars, listening to the winds, watching, interrogating, discovering the cause of the slightest noise that reaches his ears, and he at length arrives at the place he sought, without ever straying for it, even for a moment. The lasso which is rolled around his horse's neck; the bolus suspended to his saddle, and the inseparable knife suffice to assure him food, and to secure him against every danger--even against the tiger. When he is hungry, he selects one out of the herd of beeves that cover the plain, pursues it, lassos it, kills it, cuts out of it a piece of flesh, which he eats raw, or cooks, and thus refreshes himself for the journey of the following day.

If murder be a common incident in the life of a gaucho, it often also becomes the means to him of emerging from obscurity, and of obtaining renown amongst his associates. When a gaucho has rendered himself remarkable by his audacity and address in single combats, companions gather around him, and he soon finds himself at the head of a considerable party. He ‘commences a campaign,’ sets himself in open defiance to the laws, and in a short time acquires a celebrity which rallies a crowd about him.

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