Stranded in Valparaiso in 1822

View from her house in Valparaiso by Maria Graham

I have recently finished reading “Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the year 1822, and a voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823”, by Maria Graham, later Lady CallCott. Graham herself was quite the personality, with many talents. I won’t try to cover them here, but can recommend this web page, as well as her Wikipedia entry. In April 1822, she found herself stranded in Valparaiso after her ship’s captain and husband died while rounding Cape Horn. She remained there, excepting a visit to Santiago and exploring the region, until January 1823 when she was taken to Brazil via Isla Juan Fernandez by the redoubtable Lord Cochrane. She is celebrated in Chile for her journal, which is the first description of the new country written in English.

I found the journal most interesting, even fascinating. Her writing is surprisingly good, very mannered, albeit in an unfamiliar early 19th century English and inclined to occasional clumsy scansion, at least to my 21st century ear. Many times, a particularly backhanded compliment brought a grin to my face, and I found myself highlighting many pithy and wise comments. She is carefully restrained but nevertheless full in the expression of her impressions of the country and its people. Sometimes, her writing is quite moving.

The 100+ page introduction is a potted history of Chile, about half of which is devoted to the war of independence. It becomes obvious that she had a real thing for Lord Cochrane, who led the Chilean navy during the war of independence (and was poorly treated by the country during and afterwards if Graham is to be believed), to the point that I wonder if their relationship was entirely platonic. Certainly she is far from an unbiased reporter, and takes Cochrane’s side over any issue that he had with the Chilenos, and these were not few. He was an idealistic firebrand with a reputation for upsetting the powerful, and did not take well to the pragmatic and perhaps sometimes self-serving behaviour of many of the Chilenos he dealt with. I see echoes of modern culture clashes in this.

Graham herself was inevitably of the upper classes, although not especially high at that point in her life, she clearly occupied a privileged position in this country of her temporary exile, sharing the company of the highest echelons of the society she encountered, up to and including the president, or Director, himself, Bernardo O’Higgins. I have seen O’Higgins described as Chile’s version of George Washington, although he was the second to hold that office. Of the man himself, she says: “he was too apt to rely on the honesty of others from the very uprightness of his own intentions”. On meeting him, she embarrasses herself a little:

I am so accustomed to see respect paid to the actual sovereign of a country, that I instantly rose and courtesied, and was quite abashed to see that I was the only person in the house who did so : however, it passed for a particular compliment, and was particularly returned.

She reports severally of Cochrane’s exploits and idealism, but does not lack the latter herself:

It is true that military despotism is the greatest curse under which a nation can suffer. But it never lasts long. One change has been effected, therefore the possibility of another is proved : the bands of tyranny are slackened ; and the people will grow, and be educated, a little roughly perhaps, but knowledge will advance ; and, as knowledge is power, they will, at no distant period, be able to shake off the tyranny both of foreign governments and domestic despots, and to compel their rulers to acknowledge that they were made for the people, and not the people for them.

She has no love at all for José de San Martin, the Chilean military leader who, if she is truthful, seemed determined to undermine Cochrane at every stage, although never inclined to risk his own neck. More than once, she notes that the word “brave” is publicly attached to Cochrane, but San Martin gets merely “fortunate”, apparently to his ire. Perhaps jealousy played a factor between the two men. Either way, she is not shy of implying he was, and at least once outright calling him, a coward. I suspect he had more sophisticated motivations, not least an inclination to inappropriately (if she is to be believed) enrich himself. She writes that he declared himself “Protector” of Peru, once successful in dominating the Spanish there. More sober accounts have him “appointed”. He and Cochrane had been sent to suppress them in the fear that Spain might try to take Chile back using Peru as a launching off point. He helped himself to a large chunk of the spoils and, inexplicably, allowed the Spanish to rescue some, and then sought to place the blame on Cochrane. He later took the treasure back by subterfuge, with offers of positions within the newly independent Peru, but reneged on them and imprisoned the hapless colonists – was this this his intent all along? Of the man himself, she offers: “his courage is more than doubtful, and his talents are not above mediocrity”, which, if you read it too quickly almost sounds like it might have been a compliment. Here’s another: “I know no person with whom it might be pleasanter to pass half an hour : but the want of heart, and the want of candour, which are evident even in conversation of any length, would never do for intimacy, far less for friendship.”

As a stranded traveler of uncertain future, and forced to live in an unfamiliar environment, she starts off not entirely comfortably, she writes of contemporary life in Chile:

Every thing here is so far back with regard to the conveniences and improvements of civilised life, that if we did not recollect the state of the Highlands of Scotland seventy years ago, it would be scarcely credible that the country could have been occupied for three centuries by so polished and enlightened a people as the Spaniards undoubtedly were in the sixteenth century, when they first took possession of Chile.

I wonder if she knew what rose-tinted glasses are she would understand that this is a view of the past distinctly coloured by such. The Conquistadores were far from enlightened and the conquest of Chile thoroughly savage, such that its consequences are still felt today in continued strife with what remains of the native population. She goes further:

” England, with all thy faults, I love thee still,” Cowper said at home, and Lord Byron at Calais. For my part, I believe if they had either of them been in Valparaiso, they would have forgotten that there were any faults at all in England. It is very pretty and very charming to read of delicious climates, and myrtle groves, and innocent and simple people who have few wants ; but as man is born a social and an improvable, if not a perfectable animal, it is really very disagreeable to perform the retrograde steps to a state that counteracts the blessings of climate, and places less comfort in a palace in Chile than in a labourer’s hut in Scotland.

She writes repeatedly that the country could do so much better if its people could be bothered to exert themselves just a little more than was immediately necessary. She noted the infighting between various factions, the invention of calumnies in the interest of power plays, and the unnecessary, even counter-productive control the government exerted over the country’s imports and exports. Perhaps she exaggerates, but she suggests that if “one man” in Santiago succeeds in making an adequate stocking, all imports thereof are thereafter taxed at such a high rate that everyone is forced to wear uncomfortable crudely woven substitutes in the face of these taxes and the lack of sufficient supply from within the country itself.

It is easy, perhaps facile to ask: but what did she expect? Chile was a very young country, barely beginning to feel its way. But in her defense, culture shock is a constant reaction of any human moving from one country to another. It takes time to integrate, to understand why things are the way they are, even if they are not what you are accustomed to. And in the meantime, complaining and comparing the local disadvantages to the conveniences of home is a popular pastime. But of course, she did not know what is culture shock although perhaps she might quickly have understood if it were explained to her.

But it’s not all bad. Far from it, she has much that is good to say of the country and its people. Such as:

Their manners are decent ; and there is a grace and kindliness in the women that might adorn the most polished drawing-rooms, and which prevents the want of education from being so disgusting as in our own country, where it is generally accompanied by vulgarity. Here the want of cultivation sends women back to their natural means of persuasion, gentleness and caresses ; and if a little cunning mingles with them, it is the protection nature has given the weak against the strong. In England a pretty ignorant woman is nine times in ten a vixen, and rules or tries to rule accordingly. Here the simplicity of nature approaches to the highest refinements of education; and a well-born and well-bred English gentlewoman is not very different in external manners from a Chilena girl.

Today’s sensitivities might be aghast at the means by which the observation is expressed, but it is archly and memorably so nonetheless. Later, she adds: “there is nothing in which a lady of Chile is so delicate as the choice of her shoes.” Take it from me, this is still true.

In the Chile of today, it is well to be cautious asking for directions of a passerby in the street, especially well out in the countryside. They are sometimes much inclined to show their own knowledge, even if it is entirely lacking, and to please you by giving a confident answer regardless of where it might lead you. Graham encountered her own version of this:

Descriptions are very often totally untrue ; whence is this ? One should think nothing could be so simple as to describe that which we have seen with attention. However not one person in a hundred succeeds in giving to another a true idea of what he has seen. I had a proof of this to-day. We went to see the lake of Aculeo : I had heard it described as round, and deep in hills, and still as Nemi ; and, to increase the wonder, that it was salt as the sea. None of all this is true : it is irregular and winding, with sunny islands in it ; some steep mountains overhang it, but the margin oftener slopes gently, and affords pasturage to numerous cattle, and its little valley opens to the eastward, on which side it sends forth its stream to swell the river of the Angostura.

And in Chile today, what might be described as “comida rapida” (fast food) will often take somewhat longer than the hungry drop-in might expect:

I have received many visits in the course of the day to congratulate me on my return, the most and the kindest from my naval friends ; and I am particularly flattered by Lord Cochrane’s coming with Captains Wilkinson and Crosbie, and Mr, H. E. to tea. Before I could give it to them, an incident truly characteristic happened : we were obliged to wait while a man went to catch a cow with the [lasso] on the hill, to procure milk. After what I had seen [elsewhere], I could not wonder, and had nothing to do but sit patiently till the milk arrived, and my guests being older inhabitants of the country than I am, were equally resigned ; and the interval was filled with pleasant conversation

It’s true, you’ve just got to roll with it. ‘Besides, what’s not to like about properly fresh milk in your tea?

She observes that everyone rides their horse, even if it is just to visit a neighbour. I am reminded of modern Americans and their cars (and particularly of that scene in L.A. Story where Steve Martin visits his next door neighbour). She writes evocatively of the countryside, clearly struck by its beauty and moved to do it what justice she can, which is not inconsiderable. She describes the earthquake of November 22nd 1822 and its aftermath with a vivid reality. That earthquake was considerably more powerful than any I have experienced and inevitably did significant damage. It was interesting to note how pragmatically everyone dealt with the consequences, although Graham also pointed out the superstitions it aroused, some of which was not obviously superstition at all, given what little they understood about such phenomena at the time. Consider, for example:

at night a heavy torrent of rain fell, which has done great damage by injuring the goods left exposed by the falling of the houses, and which has rendered the miserable encampments on the hills thoroughly wretched. Yet the people are rejoicing at it ; because they say that the rain will extinguish the fire that causes the earthquake, and we shall have no more.

If they’d known that the earthquake was caused by the entire continental tectonic plate riding up and over the Pacific plate, they might have been yet more frightened. In the case of clear superstition, Graham is not above sarcasm:

I find, however, that witches here do much the same things as in Europe ; they influence the birth of animals, nay, even of children ; spoil milk, wither trees, and control the winds.

Or maybe that isn’t sarcasm. I myself have been the subject of more than one attempt at, um, enchantment.

She relates this anecdote of crowd manipulation, practiced by the besieged Spanish royalists in the south of the country:

A figure of the Virgin was placed in a conspicuous situation ; the patriot flag was presented to her, she shook her head ;– a Spanish flag was brought, the arms of the figure instantly embraced it; and the omen was of course accepted by the multitude

One wonders how they managed such a stunt. I have vague visions of a bearded Spanish soldier dressed up as the virgin, shaking his head at the first, then hugging the second flag. Unless, of course, it happened exactly as written.

She is not above her own irrational fears, but is also interestingly aware of them. She was not shy in exploring the country, with all the accompanying dangers (remember, no police or ambulance to help if you get into trouble, no four wheel drives to get through rough terrain). This is no delicate flower who must be kept from the vicissitudes of reality:

there is something fearful in fording a deep and rapid river in the dark. The rushing of the waters, the sensation of struggling owing to the resistance they offer to the horses’ feet, the cry of a water-bird startled from its nest on the margin, might easily become the shriek of the water sprite, and his attempts to seize the traveller. Night, doubt, and fear, are powerful magicians, and have done more to people the world of fiction than half the romancers that ever lived.

After the earthquake, still with no idea how she might get home, she is out riding on the beach in a fog, and stoically reflects:

I was in a fine humour for moralising. Earthquake under me, civil war around me ; my poor sick relation [her sailor cousin] apparently dying ; and my kind friend [Cochrane], my only friend here indeed, certainly going to leave the country, at least for a time. All this left me with nothing but the very present to depend on ; and, like the road I was travelling, what was to come was enveloped in dark clouds, or at best afforded most uncertain glimpses of the possible future. In such cases the mind is apt to make a sport to itself of its very miseries. I more than once on the way caught myself smiling over the fanciful resemblances I drew between human life and the scene I was in ; or at the fatality which had brought me, an Englishwoman, whose very characteristic is to be the most domestic of creatures, almost to the antipodes, and placed me among all the commotions of nature and of society. But if not a sparrow falls unheeded to the ground, I may feel sure that I am not forgotten. Often am I obliged to have recourse to this assurance, to make me bear evils and inconveniences that none, not the meanest, in my own happy country would submit to without complaint

Finally, Cochrane comes to her rescue and offers her and her cousin berths on his ship back to England (with stops at Isla Juan Fernandez and Rio de Janiero):

I could not answer– I could not look my thanks ; but if there is any one who has had an oppressive weight on the heart, that seemed too great either to bear or to obtain relief for, and who has had that weight suddenly and kindly removed, then they may understand my sensations,– then they may guess at a small part of the gratitude with which my heart was filled, but which I could not utter.

Well, she went through a lot, between losing her husband, living in a country at war with itself and others, and surviving a major earthquake, all within 9 months, so who can blame her?

One Response to “Stranded in Valparaiso in 1822”

  1. […] around Maria Graham’s journal of her year in Chile, during which she was present for the megathrust earthquake of 19 November 1822 in Valparaiso, I […]

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