Ethnicity, Plurality and Nationhood: Amalgamated Cultures in Chatwin’s Patagonia

Of the many people Bruce Chatwin encounters throughout In Patagonia, none can avoid having their personal histories documented methodically and meticulously by the author. In Chatwin’s narrative world, each doctor, bartender or rancher comes with a genealogy or certain nationality that reveals a certain aspect of his character; these inclusions imply that, for Chatwin, Patagonia is heterogeneously composed of various cultures — cultures that do not always agree with one another. These Argentine flatlands house Bolsheviks, Welsh émigrés, and displaced Araucanian Indians alike, and Chatwin takes it upon himself to explore how these diverse cultural referents inform the way people of a certain ethnicity perceive their neighbors.

The author finds that in many cases a person born in Patagonia might boast that they are of a certain superior nationality while exhibiting very little of the characteristics associated with such a nationality (for instance, the ability to speak the common language). In this sense, Chatwin observes how nationality simply as a label, not necessarily as a defining or formative trait, matters immensely to such an amalgamated community — to a point at which even a “Scotsman,” although born in Patagonia and exclusively Spanish-speaking, feels like he can form a loose connection with Chatwin, an “Englishman.”

Among them was a Scot with ginger hair and the physique of a caber thrower. He peered at me with milky blue eyes, feeling out affinities of race and background with a mixture of curiosity and pain. His name was Robbie Ross.

The other men were Latins or Indian half-breeds.

“This is an Englishman,” one of them said.

“A Scotsman,” I corrected.

“Si, soy Escoces,” said Robbie Ross. He had no words of English. “Mi patria es la Ingalterra misma.”

For him England and Scotland were an indivisible blur. He shouldered the brunt of the hard work and was a target for the others” witticisms.

“Es borracho,” the man said. “Is a drunk.”

Obviously the men didn”t expect Robbie Ross to get mad. Obviously they had called him a drunk before. But he set his clenched fist on the table and watched his own whitening knuckles. The color drained from his face. His lips quivered, and he lunged for the man&” throat, and tried to drag him from the caravan.

The others overpowered him and he began to cry. In the night I heard him crying and in the morning he wouldn”t even look at another Englishman.” (78)

For the proud Scot, Chatwin’s presence transforms a usual joke about his drunkenness into a severe cultural embarrassment. According to Chatwin, these sensitive resentments between cultures — some seen as superior, some inferior — are common in Patagonia, as if everyone there were equally trying to convince themselves that their status was something higher than “Argentine.” Chatwin describes those who lie about their genteel nationality, as well as those haughty few who disdain and expose the people who lie: ““But I told her the truth,” Miss Starling said, “Ah-hihg,” I said, “your employer is not English at all. She’s a Russian Jewess.” And Ah-hing was upset because all the bad treatment was now explained” (120). Thus this mélange of nationalities specific to Patagonia demands a stable hierarchy for its proud and diverse inhabitants, at the bottom of which lies the Araucanian Indians:

The servants were preparing the dining-room for the evening’s reception . . . After the ceremony the older gentlemen relaxed in the winter-garden, attended by a maid in black and white, who served scones and pale tea. The conversation turned to Indians. The “Englishman” of the family said; “All this business of Indian killing is being a bit overstretched. You see, these Indians were a pretty low sort of Indian. I mean, they weren”t like the Aztecs or the Incas. No civilization or anything. On the whole they were a pretty poor lot. (143)

Throughout Chatwin’s account, he returns, whether intentionally or not, to this idea of cultural superiority in Patagonia: how within a pluralistic community, one nationality always insists on tearing down another. The fact that he offers no opinion on the matter remains a crucial part of Chatwin’s distanced, objective narration. For him, it appears more important that he show the reader the facts as he witnessed them and allow them to form their own opinion; however, in the sense that the same details and issues of nationalist entitlement recur with every description of everyone he meets, the nuance of Chatwin’s criticism is somewhat lost.

This is not to say that In Patagonia as a whole intends on making some grand statement on cultural prejudice, since its primary concern lies in Chatwin’s own genealogy — specifically his quest to reclaim the piece giant sloth skin he was to inherit from his grandmother. Chatwin’s own wholesome story nonwithstanding, there rests a distinctly racial and national element to his account of the various people he encounters, which may have more to do with the uncertain political climate of Argentina at the time of his visit.


1. How does Chatwin’s subtle selection of detail guide your interpretation of the first passage? Phrases like “he wouldn”t even look at another Englishman” could potentially be misinterpreted or misapplied based on the context of the story, but what about Chatwin’s way of describing the situation allows for a clear understanding of the complicated nationalist pride of the Scot?

2. In both passages, Chatwin’s tone is essentially the same: objective and expository. Despite this narrative distance, how might one infer that Chatwin is specifically concerned with nationalism and its conceptions or implications in Patagonia — particularly with respect to prejudice? Is it possible for Chatwin to imply that prejudice is unjust even though he does not seem to explicitly sympathize with the Scot or the Indian in either scenario?

3. How does this separate nationalist discourse fit into Chatwin’s overarching narrative concerning his grandmother&” cousin? Is the Charlie Milward narrative, which progresses in more detail toward the end of the nonfiction novel, less contentious as the other parts of Chatwin’s book? In what sense are both parts, and Chatwin’s entire work, concerned with “origins”?

4. Does Chatwin completely eliminate his own sense of nationality from the novel? Everyone else gets a fairly detailed account of their genealogy and origin, particularly with respect to how that causes them to interact with other people around Patagonia. Is it a problem that we don’t get as much of this with Chatwin? Or does it allow for a more “objective” account?

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14 March 2011