American Grasslands, Including a Prussian Baron

In North America, there are Prairies and Plains. In South America, there are pampas and llanos. All four are relatively level grasslands.

In the South of South America one often hears the word pampas and in the north of that continent, one more often hears the word llanos. All of these wide grasslands have their stories. The following is meant to be a kind of appetizer. It is meant to give you a taste for the stories from South America.

Only ten thousand years ago people were killing and eating doedicurus not far from the present location of the great Argentinian city of Buenos Aires. In case you are not well acquainted with your doedicurus, they are a kind of glyptodont. You might want to call the people doing the killing and eating, American Indians.

In the late 1500s Spanish Americans began to settle the pampa. By 1833 there were about 40 million (million!) head of “wild” cattle on the Argentinian grassland. These cattle were the offspring of those brought and “lost” by the earlier explorers and settlers. Sounds reminiscent of happenings in North America, doesn’t it? During the increase of these heard, the number of Indians on the pampa diminished.

Heading to the north of the continent we learn about Llaneros, men and women of the llanos. Llaneros formed most of Bolivar’s cavalry. That cavalry did much to overthrow Spanish rule over the people of the continent in the early 1820s. Who is Bolivar? You may well ask; as Simon Bolivar was a very important personage of the period. But, we were speaking of Llaneros. Descendants of those Llaneros can still be found in the plains of Colombia and Venezuela. Some of them still resist the dominion of the “Yankee Imperialist.” A famous old song is known by more than a few of those Llaneros. A refrain of that song goes, ” Sobre mi caballo, solo yo; sobre yo, solo mi sombrero.” In English, it might go “Over my horse, only me; over me, only my hat. It’s about liberty, freedom.

Among the first noted horsemen to explore the llanos of the north were German “conquistadores”  whose patrons had loaned vast sums of money to Spanish royalty.  What did influential Spaniards do with the wealth they gained from their New World colonies? What did influential Americans do with the enormous wealth they gained from the great American empire? The sponsors of the three German groups sent to South America gained little wealth from their ventures. Still, Spanish royalty was able to pay off much of its debt. And Germans later profited by beginning the first South American airline. In fact, that might have been the first private airline in all the Americas. My memory is almost as old as I am, so I am not always sure of my facts.

About 270 years after the ventures of the German “conquistadores,” the Spanish crown allowed another prominent foreigner into South America and it’s llanos. That person was baron Alexander von Humbolt. Every educated American and European ought to know that name. I don’t think that he began these travels as baron, but I  choose to call him that. The baron was a Prussian naturalist and much more. He ould become the father of modern geography and ….except for Napoleon…. the best known European of his time.

I think Humboldt told the story of a camp in the llanos where his host was so disturbed early one night that the baron too felt the disturbance. Unknown to either of them, in the dry packed earth directly beneath his host’s hamaca, a very large alligator-like animal was hibernating through the dry season. Just as his host was composed for sleep, something disturbed the crocodilian. To the surprise of all, it erupted from the earth noisily thrashing its tail. However, soon it was walking away with an air of disgust and soon the camp was peacefully at rest.


by Richard Sheehan

for Mago Bill

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