Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Story of the Village of Bell Ville, Córdoba, Argentina (Part 6 of 7)

The story so far:
My grandmother and mother were born in Bell Ville, originally named Fraile Muerto, and this series of posts is the result of my research into this village, later a town.  There were English farmers in the countryside and (mainly) Italian immigrants in the town, and I descend from both.
Part 1:  The history of the area up to the mid nineteenth century.
Part 2:  The arrival of the English farming pioneers as typified by Richard Seymour and Frank Goodricke, who resided at their farm Monte Molino from 1865-68;  their first encounter with marauding indians;  headman Lisada’s gesture of friendship to an indian scouting party.
Part 3:  More encounters with indians; description of gauchos; characters in Fraile Muerto.
Part 4:  The arrival of Richard Seymour’s brother Walter and his friend Hume Kelly.  RS’s stsruggles with farming, loss of all their livestock after an indian attack; the weather and the primitive living conditions.
Part 5:  Shepherd Harry’s story.  Another indian raid; war with Paraguay, effects of cholera on Fraile Muerto.

A new president

The cholera continued.  In the city of Rosario rows of houses were boarded up, either because their owners had died or escaped to the countryside if they could – one French family managed to get away, only to fall into the hands of  Indians, who kidnapped them.  The disease swept its way onward, indiscriminately killing native and foreigner alike.  It was estimated that people were dying of cholera at a rate of one in ten.  Richard Seymour himself was struck down with it, but was lucky.  After a very unpleasant twenty-four hours he took a turn for the better and recovered relatively quickly.
At a German colony in a village nearby called Cañada de Gómez a farmer witnessed every member of his household die in succession, and when he himself was attacked by the disease, he shot himself in despair.  His holding became abandoned, with livestock wandering about at will, and the whole area was severely depopulated.  It brought out both the best and the worst in people – the fear of infection was so great that the dead were being buried in great haste, and sometimes people left their relatives to die alone rather than set foot inside their front door.  They would then lasso the body from the outside and drag it out for burial.
As soon as the cold weather set in the disease vanished.

In May 1868 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento became the newly elected seventh president of Argentina.  This was welcomed with relief by the farmers, who saw in him their only hope of support against the incursions by the Indians. 
Until such time as Sarmiento could solve the indian problem, they turned their attention away from cattle and towards crops such as wheat, maize and flax, purchasing 20 young bullocks to do the ploughing so as to prepare the land for wheat growing, after scorching the grasslands with fire to prepare the soil, as was the custom in those days.  This was a method which in that area worked well because there was nothing but grass, though it was reported that in the province of Buenos Aires, which was well populated by thistles several metres high, serious damage could ensue if the fires were lit towards the end of the summer when the vegetation was very dry.
Driving the bullocks required infinite patience, for the animals didn’t fancy going in a straight line, and only seemed to respond when the shouted orders were accompanied by coarse and hoarse epithets (“...the gauchos ought to find their bullocks most obedient servants...” Dick Seymour commented wrily.) The creatures were reduced to order at last, but were obstinate and tiresome to manage.  This was not helped by the fact that the native ploughs were very primitive, consisting as they did of a log with a nail in it, which barely scratched the surface of the soil.  However the soil was so fertile and rich that there had been no incentive to improve the mechanism, until the European farmers settled there.  Later on when steam-driven ploughs from England eventually arrived, the locals could not believe their eyes.
Dick Seymour wrote that on a typical morning he would have ploughed up some dozen snakes, and there would be dense flocks of birds following to pick up seed, which, he said, in turn often provided food for the ploughmen.  He was also impressed by the number and variety of plants which flourished in those parts – their kitchen garden’s vegetables in ‘the greatest luxuriance’ .  The onions and radishes grew to an immense size, one specimen of radish reaching a size of 18 inches in circumference.  The soil was perfect also for melon, pumpkins, cucumbers, and many trees, including peach trees.  He loved the purple and red verbena wildflowers particularly.
Sadly their prize English rams died off one by one with a mysterious swelling of the throat, and they concluded that European sheep were not meant to live at those latitudes.
Round about at this time Gumersindo Lisada, formerly the capataz or foreman at Monte Molino (see Part Two) and latterly living in the village, had his most terrifying encounter yet with the indians.  He was visiting his friends at Monte Molino for a few days with his little brother Stani and they were rounding up stray cattle one day, when a party of indians came upon them and kidnapped Lisada.  Stani got away because he was at some distance and his horse was not as tired, and he was able to raise the alarm. 

This sort of action by natives generally meant that they needed someone of Lisada’s age and experience to act as scout, or baqueano.  Everyone knew the sort of treatment meted out to both gaucho interpreters and these press-ganged scouts, and in Fraile Muerto he was mourned as if already dead.  Richard Seymour was in the village at the time, and was much cast down by the news of his cheeky, feisty and highly regarded former capataz.  Several days later he bumped into one of Lisada’s friends, who reported that he had returned home late the night before, safe and sound.  Seymour hastened to Lisada’s home, where he found him tucked up in bed, resting from his labours and recovering from his fright.  After a few restoring rounds of mate, he told him his story. 
He had been seized by a party of some thirty braves, who were soon joined by an even larger number.  They informed him (through the gaucho interpreter) that he was now their scout and asked where he had come from.  On hearing that it was the Monte Molino estancia, they demanded him to guide them there.
Lisada was able to reply truthfully that thanks to the number of recent predations upon that property by their good selves, they would find nothing left to take – and he described the most recent raid (see Part Two).  They held a council, and decided they would head instead for the Esquina Ballesteros estancia belonging to the family of Casas, the Chief of Police.  When they reached there a group of them attacked the house accompanied by the gaucho and Lisada stayed back with the rest.  He heard a lot of shouting and shots, and smoke billowing out of the windows.  The interpreter told him later that the place had been bravely defended by three people, but the Indians had eventually got in and killed them all.  They also took with them every horse, cow and sheep they found, the latter doubtless merely to feed them on the way to their next raid.
A while later they attempted to kidnap another gaucho, who made a desperate attempt to escape but was caught after a chase over several leagues.  They bound his hands together and ordered him to his knees, and after allowing Lisada to give him a cigarette, the fugitive’s last request, executed him with their lances. 
Lisada was quite sure he would be next and was quaking with terror, but to his everlasting surprise learned that they remembered him from the raid to Monte Molino when he had crossed the moat and shared his cigarettes with them.  They had admired his bravery and appreciated his gesture of friendship, and would therefore spare him.  They gave him an old horse, shook hands with him, and told him to go home.
Dick reported that his former capataz continued to live and flourish in Fraile Muerto, unless he was later called up to serve in the army in Paraguay.  This would have been a severe trial for him, he reflected, fond as he was of sitting around drinking mate and – in Lisada’s own words – finding that his bedsheets “stuck to him” in the mornings.
Richard Seymour never spells out in his book why shortly after this he returned to England in 1868 for good and gave up his Argentine farming adventure, but his remarks make it easy to read between the lines.  The climate and soil were perfect and permitted the growth of excellent pastureland for cattle, which attracted many foreign immigrants with whom they had established excellent relations.  The communications with Buenos Aires and London were good, providing the market for their products, and the introduction of the railway was making the process faster all the time. 
On the minus side he had clearly been unprepared for the unknown diseases which affected his animals and killed them with no warning, the vast distance to Fraile Muerto because there was no bridge to cross the river which made errands a major chore, the regular locust plagues which left the cattle scratching for food and emptied their kitchen garden of vegetables, and the chronic lack of firewood on a sea of grassland with few trees.

Locust plague in progress

But all this was as nothing to the disillusionment he felt over the severity of the Indian problem and the government’s lack of reaction to this impediment to progress, let alone the loss of life.  The constant depredations had almost bankrupted him, but his experiences had a lasting influence on his life.
The Indians themselves and the 30,000 who died in the last quarter of the nineteenth century became a shameful and forgotten chapter in the country’s history until the last decade, when the true facts about their systematic extermination have become known.  Many books have been written on the subject and many claims for their land still continue. 

The indian campaign, 1879

Fraile Muerto becomes Bell Ville
The time had finally come for Fraile Muerto, the oddly named town of Dead Friar, to shed its name.  The moment and the place were set by the visit of the new President of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.  In late 1870 he was travelling to the city of Córdoba for the inauguration of the First Industrial Exhibition, and he made a stopover of several days at Fraile Muerto.
The flags and the bunting were out, the schoolchildren let off school for the day, and a large outdoor barbecue was organised in his honour.  Sarmiento circulated among the guests chatting amiably to all and sundry, and presently asked to meet the oldest settler present.  He was introduced to the brothers Anthony and Robert Bell, farmers originally from Dunbar in Scotland who had established themselves as farmers in the area some years previously, and were recognised as having introduced modern farming methods. 
The President was an anglophile and had taught himself English many years earlier by translating Dickens novels solely with the use of a dictionary.  He questioned one of the brothers closely about the quality of the soil, the clearing of the bush, the crops they were growing, how the cattle fared, and the rainfall. 
Then he said “And the water – what is the water like in this area?”
Robert Bell smiled and replied “The truth is Mr President, I don’t know.  I only drink whisky.”
President Sarmiento was very amused by this, and on impulse he proposed the name of the town should be changed.  Calling it after a dead friar did not reflect its new progressive image; why not call it Bell Ville?  Two years’ later the name was officially changed and it has been Bell Ville ever since.
Many variations of this story have been told since then, but my grandfather Manfred Schiele was present when it was related first hand to his father Edward Constantine Schiele, my great-grandfather, also a farmer and landowner in those parts, by an Englishman who was standing by on that day in 1870.

My great-grandfather, Edward Constantine Schiele
Grandfather Manfred owned an estancia called El Recreo near Bell Ville, and later sold it to his brother Bertie, my great uncle, and in her letters home to her parents in England between 1912 and 1919, my great aunt Winifred described it as having a watchtower and a moat around it.  Drought and locusts seemed to be a constant in their lives.

Winifred and Bertie Schiele


For Bibliography see end of Part 7.

Next Post:  The Italian Connection - my Italian ancestors

1 comment:

Dorothy Boyer said...

Dear Lonicera, I know you. I am Dorothy Boyer, wife of John whose great grandparents were also Schieles ( I recognise the photo which I have on my bedroom wall) Fact is dear girl I have just found your blog and hope your treatment is going well, I am tending to my mum who is 103 years old but just to say -- my granddaughter is called Amelia after Amalie. John and I are based in Spain but at the moment I am in orbit between there and Scotland. I recognised so much in your blog! I used to live in Arias--Olga was John's grandma. You can tell I am rushing--am always ready to take off! But this is to wish you well dear girl -- high abrazos and good luck and thanks for an amazing blog. Could we be in touch? If you google my name, my web site comes up and a communication from you would enable me to contact you directly without every man and his wife looking in! Hugs Dorothy Boyer

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