Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Witness (Part 1 of 3)

The Río de la Plata (The River Plate)
– a brief story of a neglected river
I - “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge:  The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner)

This is the story of a river which is more of an estuary than a river, more of a muddy, contaminated sea than an estuary.  Far from being the poetical cleansing flow of silvery aquamarine water implied by its name, it is rich brown in colour and is known both for its high levels of silt and its pollution.  This silt enriches the soil of its banks, making it a highly fertile area, but the pollution not only threatens the health of those who work and play in it, but it also limits the activities that could be enjoyed by the people who live near it.  It has sadly also provided many a watery grave for unhappy people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Its treacherous currents have sucked in the unsuspecting, and on occasion even spat them back, as you will see.

This is the River Plate, the confluence of other rivers which travel from the north – the Paraná, the Uruguay...

(Look at the mud in the estuary...)

...bringing 57 million cubic metres of silt and sediments per year;

Argentina to the left (Buenos Aires in the muddy section),
Uruguay to the right with Montevideo located where it ends.

...from the west and south – the Riachuelo and other small tributaries – which contribute the detritus of meat packing plants and the tanning industry, heavy metals from chemical factories and discarded dead animals.  In addition, sewage spills into it when the sudestada arrives, the cool southeast wind which brings the stormy weather causing these small rivers to overflow their banks.

It is the third most contaminated river in the world, and it is only relatively recently that studies have been more widely disseminated alerting people to the terrible consequences of contamination, particularly to children. Upstream of the River Plate the smell emanating from the Riachuelo is pungent and unpleasant, a cocktail of that described above plus the copious quantities of engine oil and fuel which have seeped from the old rusted wrecks littering the banks.  I used to see it from time to time as a child and it was the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Successive governments have tried and failed to tackle the problem, even one minister in 1993 who made a high profile bid to “clean up the river in a thousand days”, and is still involved in a court case for alleged misappropriation of the funds set aside for the purpose.  The struggles continue.

The densely populated area around the basin of the estuary spawned the two world famous and successful football clubs, Club Atlético River Plate, and Boca Juniors, the latter named after the suburb of La Boca (the mouth).

The River Plate is also the widest river in the world.  It measures 220 km/137 miles at its widest point, and is a blend of fresh and sea water which gives rise to a phenomenon whereby the salt water occupies the lower layer, and the fresh water remains on the top due to the high volume of water rushing into the estuary from the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, which does not blend properly until further out to sea.  One of the early Spanish conquistadors thus christened it Mar Dulce (fresh water sea).  For the same reason the high tide is unable to make its way upstream as far as it does in other estuaries of the world.

The high quantity of silt requires constant dredging and is the only way the shipping route is kept open between Montevideo, capital of Uruguay to the north, and Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina, to the south. 

The River Plate in Buenos Aires...

...and at Montevideo (the colour is truer)

It is a tricky patch of water for navigation, partly because of these treacherous sandbanks, but also because of the number of submerged wrecks which abound in the area (over two hundred in the estuary alone).  In addition, the two prevailing winds – the sudestada from the southeast and the pampero from the southwest, mean that the stretch of water is often choppy.

And yet our river must have started out with very high hopes.  Subsequent Spanish, Portuguese and English adventurers changed her name from Mar Dulce to Río de la Plata – the river of silver – which owes nothing to colour and everything to the fanciful expectations of the subsequent conquistadors who thought that ‘somewhere up north’ there was a bounty of silver waiting to be discovered.  This led eventually to the area around the estuary, then widening to include the province of Buenos Aires and finally the whole country, to be named Argentina, or land of silver.

The river – or estuary – divides Uruguay from Argentina, and within Uruguayan waters has an island belonging to Argentina by the name of Martín García.  It is historically a strategic control point, and was used to keep prisoners from the so-called indian wars in 1879 and later as a temporary place of exile for various presidents of Argentina.

Google Maps - the muddy estuary
with the flagged island in the middle

Astonishingly, the estuary’s turbulent depths manage to sustain sea turtles, as well as a type of dolphin unique to the area which can live in both fresh and sea water, and many species of fish which doubtless get about without the aid of a miner’s lamp and a gas mask.

Dolphin unique to the area - Franciscana


II – The Era of Conflict, above and below the surface

Invasions and blockades

In 1806 and 1807 the estuary witnessed two unsuccessful British invasions of Buenos Aires, during the first of which the British flag remained hoisted in the main square for 46 days before a defence was organised and they were expelled…

First British Invasion, crossing the Riachuelo

...and later played an important role in armed conflicts over territory and navigation rights, and was blockaded by European powers twice between 1838 and 1850.

Anglo-French Blockade of Buenos Aires

The earth moved under the estuary on 5th June 1888, when it was shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale.  The epicentre was 15 km/9 miles south west of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, and 42 km/26 miles east of Buenos Aires, and it occurred at a depth of 30 km/19 miles beneath the surface.  Both sides of the river reported substantial shaking but there was little damage to buildings, as there were no high rise constructions in those days.

No giant waves were reported, however a local Uruguayan newspaper - “La Lucha” - did tell of a singular event.  “A steamer, the Saturno, en route from Buenos Aires was sailing in 20 ft/6 metres of water when she ran aground or came to a sudden halt.  The captain had soundings taken but the vessel, as if moved by some hidden force, was freed from the ground and continued on her way”.

No anti-seismic building measures were taken at the time or since, by either Argentina or Uruguay, despite the fact that in the same area there had been a previous seismic incident in August 1848.  Small tremors were recorded in June 1988 and January 1990. 

Worthy of note is that a 42 km/22 mile bridge is being built between Buenos Aires and Colonia in the near future. There are no plans to strengthen it in case of seismic activity.

World War II

Graf Spee
One man-made struggle which took place in the River Plate came to the attention of the rest of the world in a dramatic manner at the beginning of the war.  The Battle of the River Plate was a naval engagement – the first of the war in fact - between the German pocket battleship Graf Spee and British and New Zealand ships which started several miles outside the estuary in late 1939. 

 Since September the German fleet had been under orders to carry out commerce raiding up and down the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which consisted of attacking merchant ships of Allied countries, taking their crews on board and then sinking them without loss of life.  The Graf Spee’s Captain Hans Langsdorff had captured a merchant vessel, the Doric Star off the coast of South Africa, which had managed to send a warning radio signal, so the British knew that the River Plate estuary was next.   
 Furthermore, a Norwegian freighter reported seeing the Graf Spee practising the use of its searchlights and was able to confirm that it was on its way. 

 The British government sent  three Royal Navy cruisers to the area, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, the latter being from New Zealand, and the engagement started on 13th December 1939.  The Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire, and the Graf Spee’s fuel system was crippled.   

The Ajax and the Achilles shadowed the German ship, which docked at Montevideo, (Uruguay was a neutral country) for urgent repairs.  Historians have considered it a political error by Langsdorff to have chosen neutral Uruguay instead of Argentina, since the former had benefitted from significant British influence during its development, and it favoured the allies.  The Hague Convention dictated that they could not stay longer than 24 hours in a neutral port, and the British diplomats pressed for their adherence to the rules.

Captain Langsdorff (see right) released the 61 merchant seamen he had been holding captive aboard his ship, and asked for two weeks to effect his repair.  Although diplomats continued to press for their departure it was decided in London that a delay would give them time to send out reinforcements to the area.  However there was another Hague Convention rule that stated –

“… a belligerent warship may not leave a neutral port… until 24 hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary.”

This was neatly sidestepped by the British who secretly arranged for British and French merchant ships to steam from Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours whether or not they had originally intended to do so, which effectively kept the Graf Spee in port and allowed more time for British forces to reach the area.  Meanwhile they successfully fed false intelligence to the Germans that an overwhelming force was being assembled, and what ships they had were mustered 3 miles offshore and ordered to produce a lot of smoke which could be seen from the waterfront. 

Captain Langsdorff was completely deceived by these actions.  His ship only had enough ammunition for 20 minutes of firing.  He was outgunned, and Berlin would not have permitted him to remain in Uruguay because they thought the country would sooner or later join the Allies.

He attended the funerals of those members of the German crew who had died, as well as some of the funerals of the British dead, where it was noticed that he saluted in the traditional manner rather that with the Nazi salute. 

On 17th December he scuttled his ship to avoid unnecessary loss of life for no particular military advantage, a decision which is said to have infuriated Hitler.  The crew of the Graff Spee was taken to Buenos Aires, and in full uniform Captain Langsdorff committed suicide on 19th December by shooting himself.  He was buried with full military honours and several British officers attended.

Some of the crew settled in Argentina and now form part of German communities in different areas of the country.  As to the scuttled ship, she rested in shallow water and gradually sank over the years. 

Today only the tip of the mast remains above the surface, and is a hazard to navigation.  Although there are plans to raise her, there are some German people who object on the basis that it is a war grave, and one former crew member has testified to the fact that one of the three explosive charges they placed has never exploded.

Next time – a cruel sea
Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert & Sullivan)

Macbeth (Opera)


References - in addition to Wikipedia (for list of submerged wrecks in the River Plate) (for British Invasions of the River Plate)



Joyful said...

Wow! That is quite a history of the River. What really strikes me though is how contaminated and dirty that river is and yet it sustains some sea life. It is truly a pity that the country cannot or will not clean it up for the sake of the country and it's people. Hopefully they will soon change.

P.S. Thank you for your sweet comment on my blog post about "Dreams". I'd love to sit and share stories with you too. Perhaps we will get a chance one day ;-)

Theresa said...

I love your posts, they are so rich!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Joyful - that's what struck me particularly. It's always written off as a dirty river, and there's so much that can be done.

Thank you Theresa - the rest is less historical and won't give you indigestion, I promise!!

Lynette Killam said...

Hello Caroline...I'm slow to respond, but am very glad you stopped by my page and enjoyed my piece about immigration.
I'm now signed up to follow you.

This river history was a great read, certainly it's a part of the world I know little about.Sadly,we do know something of contamination here, though Canadian legislation tries to maintain some controls.If people would just do their part by not pouring oil down the drains and leaving plastic about everywhere, the rivers would stand a much better chance of flourishing.

I'm off to read part two now...:)

Lonicera said...

Lovely to hear from you Lynette, I'm truly delighted that you've read the whole river story. I've just been enjoying some of your stories too. Blogging has been a revelation to me because I so love to write.
Thank you for becoming a follower!

Anonymous said...

this story is wrong. you are confusing the River Plate and Riachuelo. What River Plate has is sediments because its a long river coming from Paraguay and Brazil and it brings a lot of sediments from the North. Its NOT contamination.
River Plate and Riachuelo are two different things. Riachuelo ends in River Plate but its effects are really small if you take time and measure both rivers you will notice it.

Lonicera said...

“What River Plate has is sediments because its a long river coming from Paraguay and Brazil…”

Or are you confusing it with the Paraná perhaps??

The Río de la Plata is only 275 km long and is merely the final stretch of the water system where the Paraná and Uruguay rivers meet and carry on to the Atlantic, and the Riachuelo flows into it from the opposite direction, having flowed through the city. Historically the Riachuelo has been known as one of the most contaminated rivers in the world, and it thus contaminates the River Plate as well. I am told that now it has improved somewhat following the closure of the meat processing factories, and the municipalities have invested in cleaning it up. Perhaps it’s better than I imply and Wikipedia has yet to catch up!

The internet photos I put in the post were to show the extraordinary level of sediment present in the water right out into the Atlantic, and I apologise if I gave the impression that this was contamination – certainly there is some, but it’s the area of the estuary by Buenos Aires itself which is very unhealthy even now without the meat factories and the leaking ship hulks. I visited it in 1994 and 2008 and was nauseated by the smell, exactly as I had been as a child.

No doubt as it flows out to sea the contamination is diluted and what aerial photos show is sediment.


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