Argentina's last frontier & the King of Patagonia
Julio Argentino Roca's Conquista del Desierto and Julius Popper.
Welcome Avatar! After a short hiatus last week we’re back with some more LatAm stories just before the weekend. Today we dive into the fascinating story of one of the early flag planters of Argentina who even minted his own shitcoins, and the related campaign to conquer as must of the unclaimed deserted territory in the south as possible before Chile was able to lay a claim on most of Patagonia.
Roca and the Conquista del Desierto
Before Argentina had its current landmass, large parts of the Southern Cone of South America were still largely unclaimed and deserted. The only inhabitants were indigenous nomad tribes, but not even the Spanish conquistadores had ventured into the “deep south” of the South American continent.
Towards the end of the 19th century, most of South America was entrenched in conflict, the Paraguayan War being one of the most bloody ones in the continent’s history (we will cover that war in a later article). And this continued well into the turn of the century.
Not even 10 years had passed since the end of the Paraguayan War, when General Roca began the campaign of conquest of the desert (La Conquista del Desierto) on April 16, 1879. It was Argentina’s final frontier of undefined borders with the indigenous people that populated Patagonia on the one hand, and Chile on the other.
Roca decides it is time to lay claims on these unclaimed lands to make sure they will be part of the Argentine nation.
Before Roca came into play, the Minister of War and Navy, Adolfo Alsina, had ordered to make a very physical separation between the territories in the south, and the rest of Argentina. This trench of two meters deep and three meters wide was supposed to stop the indigenous raids on the north. Alsina died of a fever in 1877, and shortly after Roca took over, discarding the trench idea.
Roca’s first order was to suspend additional work on the trench, which was already 370 kilometers long. He was determined to put aside the defensive strategy to solve the problem of the indigenous raids once and for all.
According to Roca, Alsina's strategy delayed the solution to the problem. Roca mobilized the army, with soldiers armed with modern Remington rifles that could fire six shots per minute.
On the receiving end, the indigenous people went to the fight armed with a tacuara spear, about four meters long, which had shears attached to its tip. They rode horses while shouting like "devils in the dark".
Roca’s strategy was to form a large force divided into small squadrons that moved quickly:
"The greatest strength to fight against the Indians and reduce them at once, is a regiment or a fraction of troops of two types of weapons, well mounted, and who are constantly going through the dens of the Indians and showing up where they least expect it".1
In total Roca would lead 23 expeditions, each of them with about 300 men. In record time, 6,000 soldiers and 800 friendly Indians were mobilized, and 7,000 horses and cattle were gathered for food. In the middle of the campaign, when the cows were finished, what was consumed was mare meat (no bug burgers for the Roca boys, even in those hard times).
Many soldiers joining Roca’s forces were foreigners who would be promised a piece of land, or other types of compensation.
The Desert Campaign officially ended in 1885, but one of the most enigmatic characters in Argentine history, a Romanian explorer named Julius Popper, would extend Roca’s campaign well into the final decade of the 19th century.
Popper: the Romanian flag planter
Julius Popper was born in Bucharest in 1857 and was already well travelled before arriving in Argentina in 1885. Argentina was quickly becoming the richest country in the world, and many foreigners flocked to the country to try their luck.
Popper arrived during the last year of the first presidency of Julio Argentino Roca. Popper was a charismatic character and he quickly gained access to the highest circles of the Buenos Aires upper class.
Roca granted him the gold mining concession in the Santa Cruz province in the south, for his company "Popper y Cía", at the same time that he was appointed as technical director of the Lavaderos de Oro del Sud Company.
Towards the end of 1886, Popper heads to Tierra del Fuego in search for gold, land and fame. This scientific expedition would make him famous, and would eventually be his downfall.
Popper’s expedition to the end of the world
After receiving authorization from the Roca government, Popper formed a paramilitary army, with uniforms, discipline, and unified command.
Most of the soldiers were Croatian mercenaries, whose sole purpose was to enrich themselves and “cleanse” the territory of any natives who could oppose the colonizing company of the Romanian engineer. And cleanse they would.
During his expedition2 Popper found gold on the beaches of the island, and baptized the largest river on the island with the name of President Miguel Juárez Celman (which he later renamed with his own name).
He also commanded a massacre of aboriginal selk'man and even photographed himself with their corpses.
After this initial killing spree, Popper organized four gold mining posts on the island of Tierra del Fuego. At these posts, his group members would sift the precious metal, separating it from the sand.
The best known of these gold sinkholes was El Páramo de la Bahía San Sebastián, near the border with Chile, where he planned to create a port and a city called Atlanta, that would serve as a stopover prior to Antarctica. From El Páramo, a total of 265,000 grams of gold were extracted in just over a year.
The mini kingdom ruled by King Popper
Popper did not seem to be completely satisfied with just having personal gain and swimming in gold. He became the highest parastatal authority in the Argentine part of the island, and decided that his mini kingdom should have its own currency.
He minted thousand 1-gram gold coins and two hundred 5-gram coins which bore his name, as did the postage stamps they used in the area.
Autist note: Some historians have speculated that Popper was a Freemason agent at the service of England who planned to establish a new country independent of Argentina and Chile. Some histards, like Federico Rivandera Carles, go even further: in his anti-Semitic-inspired work The Patagonian Kingdom of the Jew Popper, he claims Popper sought to establish a new Jewish state at the end of the world. Most likely scenario? Popper was just an early flag planter who could do whatever tf he wanted and decided Argentina was the land of opportunities to do just that.
In 1890, a year after having minted his own shitcoin, Popper requested the concession of another 80,000 fiscal hectares of the island, in addition to the 2,500 he already owned, with the aim of "civilizing the tribes".
We all know how Popper’s civilizing campaign went down, and for most of those tribesmen it probably would’ve been preferable to get locked up in a CCP re-education camp, if they would’ve had the choice.
After his initial campaign and settlement, Popper started to run into opposition from authorities. Popper didn’t seem to care the nation building efforts going on at the time, while building his own little island kingdom.
The Tierra del Fuego Governor opposed the Romanian's requests for more land, titles, and influence in a letter to the Senate in 1891, arguing that, if the State granted him the land, the settler would own a third of the most useful and productive portion of the island.
Autist note: The arguments against Popper's demands began to circulate with greater force thanks to the INSANE story of the Frenchman Antoine de Tounens, who had proclaimed himself "King of Araucanía" (on the Chilean side of Patagonia) in 1860. The Chileans not only did not recognize his kingdom, but also decided to expel the Frenchman from the country. This French 2011 documentary is also centered around this story.
Popper pulls a Nisman
Autist Note: If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you watch this Netflix series on the whole Nisman story, otherwise this title will make a lot less sense.
When Popper's main opponent (Tierra del Fuego governor Cornero) was removed from office in April 1893, everything seemed to indicate that the Romanian would emerge victorious.
Popper believed he would be able to fund and rule his empire based on hundreds of thousands of hectares at the end of the world. However, a mere two months later, he was found dead in the bed of the hotel room he rented in the City of Buenos Aires.
King Popper had died on June 5 1893 due to "brain congestion", according to the death certificate signed by the municipal doctor Lorenzo Martínez, who performed the autopsy. He was only 36 years old.
Even though it would take a while before the mass adoption of Twitter more than 100 years later, in 1893 it didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to start circulating about Popper’s death.
Popper had made many enemies, which is why many claimed that he had been poisoned. Up to this day it is maintained that when his body was exhumed for a new autopsy, it disappeared without a trace.
With the Popper out of the picture, the humanitarian atrocities he committed on the island of Tierra del Fuego also began to come to light (he once left 13 workers to die of hunger and cold at his El Páramo gold extraction plant).
From some of the photos we showed above, it seems clear that Popper and his mercenaries entertained themselves by killing natives, photographing themselves with their bodies in true Jeffrey Dahmer fashion.
Howver, Popper was not the only one responsible for the extermination of the native tribes of the south. Estimates of the original tribe population in the extreme south at that time (1880) range from 5,000 to 6,000 inhabitants.
Tierra del Fuego was the continuation of the Campaña del Desierto by other means. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Selk'man people had been exterminated.
The outcome of the Conquista
The Conquista del Desierto resulted in at least 14,000 dead indigenous people, as a result of combat in open fields or in surprise attacks by Roca’s soldiers and later attacks by militias of the new ranchers, both on the Chilean and Argentine sides, who wanted to expand their terrains for sheep farming..
Men and women who survived were separated to avoid offspring, and thousands of women and children were sentenced to a life of semi-slavery as domestic service with families from Buenos Aires.
Children were also separated forever from their mothers, and their fate was decided by the Welfare Society. As you can see once we touch on the last military dictatorship in the 1970’s, taking away children and reassigning them to a different family has been a recurring theme throughout Argentine history.
The captive indigenous warriors were employed as cheap labor on ranches, in agricultural work in the west, in yerba mate and cotton fields in the northeast, and in lumber and sugar mills in the north.
Others were drafted into the ranks of the army and navy. Those considered the most dangerous by the government were confined to the Martín García Island3, where they broke stones for the paving of the city of Buenos Aires. Many died from poor diet and disease.
The surviving leaders had no choice but to submit and were able to live in peace on plots assigned by the government.
Hundreds of captives were recovered and the State took possession of 500,000 square kilometers of territory, much of which was distributed among politicians, landowners, and the military.
As you can see, planting flags and expanding territory was a bit more violent in those times.
See you in the Jungle, frens!
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Translation from Spanish: “El mayor fuerte para guerrear contra los indios y reducirlos de una vez, es un regimiento o una fracción de tropas de las dos armas, bien montadas, que anden constantemente recorriendo las guaridas de los indios y apareciéndoseles por donde menos lo piensen”
This is a great excursion from Buenos Aires, but you need to reserve well in advance.