The Geography Of South America
( Originally Published Early 1912 )
PERHAPS a fact not generally known is that South America is greater in area than North America, and is situated to the east of the Northern Hemisphere. If you are on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the line which your eye takes looking down the hill towards Madison Square, were it continued far enough south, would hit South America near the west coast of Peru. Practically all of the continent is east of such an imaginary line, and from this point to Cape St. Roque is as far as from New York to San Francisco ; from Cartagena in the Caribbean to Punta Arenas in Patagonia is as far as from Key West to the North Pole. There are nearly half a million more square miles within these extremes than in all of North America.
Between the "twin continents," as the northern and southern sections of the Western Hemisphere have been called, the transitions are everywhere so gradual that it is not at first sight easy to say where one ends and the other begins. But when the question is studied on a large-scale map, we see at once that the true natural limits are laid down, at the northwest extremity of the southern section, by the Gulf of Darien, which formerly penetrated much farther inland than at present, if it did not even present a free waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
So obvious are the points of resemblance between these divisions that they strike the eye at first glance. Both present the same rough, triangular shape, with base inclined from northwest to southeast, and sides of nearly equal length converging to the apex south-wards. In superficial extent there is little difference, the northern triangle scarcely exceeding the southern by one-eighth, while a surprising parallelism is presented by the general relief, the disposition of mountain ranges, tablelands, plains, and fluvial basins. To the Rocky Mountains and Central Sierras correspond the Andean Cordilleras, both running close to the west coast, and ramifying at intervals into two or even three branches, which enclose vast plateaux often of great elevation. Indeed, the resemblances are here so striking, and extend to so many secondary features, such as active and extinct volcanoes with extensive lava fields and other igneous matter overlying sedimentary formations, that a unity of the orographic system from Fuegia to Alaska is suggested.
On the Atlantic side the correspondence is maintained by the Alleghanies in the north and in the south by the Sierra de Merida, the Sierra de Mar, and the Brazilian highlands. In both continents, the western and eastern mountain systems enclose boundless central plains—prairies, savannahs, llanos, pampas, woodlands—which are traversed in much the same directions by a few fluvial arteries rivaling or surpassing in volume, length, and drainage area the great rivers of the Eastern Hemisphere. With two important exceptions—Mackenzie and Yukon—the outfall is to the Atlantic, recipient also of so many running waters on its eastern seaboard. Thus Churchill, St. Lawrence, and Hudson trending east and the Missouri-Mississippi with a southerly course, find their exact counterparts in the Orinoco and Amazon on the one hand and the Parana-Paraguay on the other.
But these analogies, which lie somewhat on the surface, are perhaps more than balanced by the contrasts, which are in some respects of greater moment, and on the whole more favorable to the north than to the south. Foremost among these is the position in respect of the poles and the equator. Here the discrepancy is enormous, sufficient in fact to constitute the southern division mainly a tropical country, and the northern mainly temperate. To be sure, much of North America seems to lie within the Arctic Circle, or near enough to be called Arctic. But the absolute area of this section, consisting so largely of archipelagos with extensive intervening water-surfaces, is less than is commonly supposed, and is amply compensated by the bulging out and consequent great average breadth of the continent in more favorable latitudes.
But the very opposite is the case of South America, where the bulging takes place about the equator, with a consequent excess of heat and moisture, and where beyond the tropic of Capricorn, the land tapers so rapidly southwards that but a relatively small area is extra-tropical. Here only a fraction of the southern continent would be suitable for European settlement were the tropical heat not tempered by the great elevation of the Brazilian and Andean uplands, and by the moderating influence of sea breezes from the Atlantic. Owing to these favorable conditions the general climate of South America is more equable and cooler by several degrees than that of the African continent. Thus the isothermal line of greatest heat, which runs from the isthmus of Panama mainly along the seaboard to Cape San Roque, intersecting the equator at the Amazon estuary, ranges from about 80° to 82° F., while the temperature of the corresponding heat zone on the east side of the Atlantic normally exceeds 86° F.
Other important consequences, also to the advantage of the north, follow from this general latitudinal position of the twin continents. During the glacial epochs, whether simultaneous or not on either side of the equator, a fairly warm temperature must have at all times prevailed in inter-tropical South America, with the result that the running waters suffered no serious arrest, but continued their natural process of development without interruption except in the sub-arctic lands of the extreme south.
Hence on the Chilian coast and in Fuegia alone are found those peculiar fjord-like formations which, as in Scandinavia and Greenland, are due to the grinding action of glaciers or frozen streams. Elsewhere the rivers have excavated their beds down to their natural levels, and in so doing have drained nearly all the old lacustrine basins and effaced most of the falls and rapids which formerly abounded in many districts. Cataracts still survive in the Colombian and Peruvian Andes, on the Parana, the Madeira and elsewhere ; but all the large lakes have disappeared except Titicaca and the still periodically flooded Mojos basin about the Amazon-Parana water-parting, at the northern extremity of the old Pampean Sea. Even Titicaca, though still an imposing sheet of water, is little more than a highland loch compared to its vast dimensions in Secondary and Tertiary times. Colonel G. E. Church tells us in his Geographical Journeys that "geological examinations show that Titicaca was once one of the large lakes of the world, and that it has slowly been drying up."
How different from all this the picture presented by the northern continent, where glacial action attained a greater development than in any other part of the world, where the ice-cap, thousands of feet thick, advanced and retreated more than once over vast areas millions of miles in extent, and where icebergs in great numbers are still annually discharged from the Green-land and Alaskan glaciers. Hence the mighty streams held in their icy fetters till far into the Pleistocene age have not since had time to arrive at maturity. They still tumble over some of the grandest falls on the globe, and have left undrained great lakes of the Laurentian basin and many others strewn over the Canadian Dominion, while the seaboard is so finely diversified with fjords, gulfs, bays, and other inlets that it presents 26,000 miles of contour-lines compared with 19,000 miles of the somewhat monotonous South American coastlands.
Practically the South American coasts, always excepting Chile, Patagonia, and Fuegia, have no windings or inlets beyond the relatively insignificant Gulfs of Darien and Venezuela in the north and Guayaquil on the west, with the still smaller bays of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia on the east side. The few other indentations are not marine inlets, but great fluvial estuaries, which by the deposits of silt are being slowly transformed to deltas like that of the Orinoco, or else converted into alluvial plains like that of the Rio Colorado. Formerly the lower reaches of this Pampean stream presented the aspect of a very large estuary running over one hundred miles inland, though still greatly inferior to those of the Plate and Amazon, which are amongst the most typical and extensive of such formations in the world.
There is also a remarkable absence of islands or insular groups, South America showing in this respect a close analogy with the two other great Austral lands. As South Africa has its Madagascar and Southern Australia its Tasmania, so the southern continent of the Western Hemisphere terminates in Terra del Fuego. The few insular groups in the Caribbean Sea should either be grouped with the West Indian system or else regarded as almost still forming part of the mainland. And now, keeping these comparisons in mind, let us go more into detail regarding South America.
The southern continent extends from about 12° North latitude to about 55° South, and from about the 35th meridian west of Greenwich to about the 80th. Its area is estimated at 6,837,000 square miles, or 391,-000 square miles greater than that of North America-
Along the west coast, from Panama to Cape Horn, runs the wall of the Andes, separated from the Pacific by a comparative ribbon of land and varying from fifty to several hundred miles in width. There are mountains in eastern Brazil, but these are so low, comparatively speaking, that the continent may be said to slope eastward from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. In the Andes is the highest land in the Western Hemisphere, supposed to be Mt. Aconcagua, about 23,000 feet. Many other Andean peaks are over 20,000 feet. The highest navigable lake in the world is Titicaca, which is situated at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet, on the boundary between Bolivia and Peru.
The principal rivers are the Amazon, which traverses nearly the entire breadth of the continent and is the largest river in the world; the Orinoco and La Plata, with its two great tributaries, the Parana and Uruguay. West of the Andes and between upper Peru and upper Chile there is practically no rainfall, the moisture condensing and falling before the clouds can pass the Andean rampart.
The configuration of the surface is divided into five physical regions : (1) Low-country skirting the shores of the Pacific Ocean, from 50 to 150 miles in breadth, and 4,000 miles in length. The two extremities of this territory are fertile, the middle a sandy desert. (2) The basin of the Orinoco, a country consisting of extensive plains or steppes, called Llanos, either destitute of timber or merely dotted with trees, but covered with a very tall herbage during a part of the year. During the dry season the heat is intense here and the parched soil opens into long fissures in which lizzards and serpents lie in a state of torpor. (3) The basin of the Amazon is a vast plain embracing a surface of more than two million square miles, having a rich soil and a humid climate. It is covered almost everywhere with dense forests, which harbor innumerable tribes of wild animals, and are thinly inhabited by savages, who live by hunting and fishing. The great southern plain, watered by the Platte and the numerous streams descending from the eastern summits of the Cordilleras. Open steppes, which are called Pampas, occupy the greater proportion of this region, which is dry, and in some parts barren, but is generally covered with a strong growth of weeds and tall grass, upon which feed great herds of horses and cattle, and which affords shelter for a few wild animals. (5) The country of Brazil, eastward of the Parana and Uruguay, presenting alternate ridges and valleys, thickly covered with wood on the side next the Atlantic, and opening into steppes or pastures in the interior.
Having thus considered the resemblance between the northern and southern continents of the Western Hemisphere, and taken a general survey of the physical features of South America, let us turn our attention to the political divisions of the southern continent, which at present consist of ten independent republics : Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela ; and the colonies of Guiana under the British, French, and Dutch. Besides these, there is the Isthmus of Panama, which has recently gained its independence, and is no longer considered a part of South America, but an independent and individual country.
Commencing with the first of these republics, which we have named in alphabetical order, we find that the Argentine Republic extends from latitude 22° South to 56° South, and from the summit of the Andes to the Atlantic. The area is 1,212,000 square miles, or about five and a half times that of France. A recent estimate of the population places it beyond the six million mark, with one million of this figure in the city of Buenos Aires. For nearly three hundred years after the discovery of the River Plate, in 1516, the part of South America now known as the Argentine Republic belonged to the viceroyalty of the River Plate. In 1810, the Viceroy Baltasar de Cisneros was deposed, in 1816, independence was declared, and in 1825 the new Republic was recognized. From then until 1880 there was more or less continuous trouble between the Porteños, people of the gate, of Buenos Aires, who wished to dominate or separate from the confederation, and the provinces who were jealous of Buenos Aires. The result was the making of Buenos Aires a federal district and a strong central government instead of a loose confederation. The Argentine Republic includes within its boundaries the country once known as Patagonia, and still known by that name as a province of the new republic. The Rio de la Plata, with its tributaries, the Parana and the Uruguay, drains an area of 3,103,000 square kilometers—slightly more than is drained by the Mississippi.
Bolivia, named in honor of Bolivar, the liberator of northern South America, gained independence in 1825. In the war of 1879 with Chile it lost its sea-coast, and it is now completely landlocked. Trade with the outside world is carried on through Chiliad ports and the Peruvian port of Ollendo by way of Lake Titicaca. Most of the cities are situated on the high western tableland, which, at the ancient town of Potosi, rises to nearly 14,000 feet. La Paz, the capital, with a population of about 79,000, is situated at an altitude of 3,630 meters, over 12,000 feet. The area of Bolivia is estimated at 709,000 square miles, - or only about 60,000 less than that of Mexico; it is the third country in size in South America. The population is estimated at 2,300,000, of which about one-fifth are white and the rest Indians and mixed races.
Brazil, which borders on the Atlantic, is the largest country of South America, and extends from 4° North latitude to nearly 34° South, with a coastline about 4,000 miles in length. Its greatest width, from east to west, is between a point in the State of Pernambuco and one on the frontier of Peru, in longitude 30° and 58' West, the distance between these two points being 4,350 kilometers, or about 3,500 miles. The area is estimated at 3,218,991 square miles, or about as large as the United States, including Alaska. A recent estimate gives the population as 20,000,000, of which one-third to one-half is white. The capital is Rio Janeiro—population about 820,000; the principal cities Sao Paulo, with 332,000 population; Bahia, 230,000; Pernambuco, 120,000; Belem, 100,000; Port Alegre, 80,000; Manaos, 40,000. Several other cities have over 30,000.
Chile extends from 16° 30' South latitude to Cape Horn, about 2,300 miles, and from the crest of the Andes to the Pacific, an average breadth of 130 miles. The area is 307,620 square miles, or about 50,000 square miles larger than Texas. The country is extremely mountainous and has no large rivers. The population of the republic is about 5,000,000, 400,000 of which are residents of the capital, Santiago; the remainder of the population is in the rural districts and small towns, and such cities as Valparaiso, 143,000 population ; Concepcion, 50,000; Iquique, 43,000; Talca, 43,331; Chillan, 36,681; Antofagasta, 16,253.
Colombia, which once included what is now Venezuela and Ecuador, gained independence from Spain in 1819; split up into Venezuela, Ecuador, and Republic of New Granada, in 1832; in 1858 New Granada changed into Confederation Granadina; in 1861 name changed to United States of New Granada, which was changed to United States of Colombia in 1863. A revolution in 1885 brought about a new constitution, by which the sovereign states became simple departments, with governors appointed by the president of the republic. Revolutions have been almost continuous, and this, with lack of communication, has kept Colombia backward. The area of the republic is estimated from 445,000 to 505,000 square miles—this on account of disputed boundaries. The population is 4,279,674, including 150,000 uncivilized Indians. Colombia has a fine capital—Bogota—situated in the interior, 9,000 feet above sea level; population 120,-000. The chief commercial towns are Baranquilla, on the Magdalena River, and its seaport, Savanilla, Santa Marta, and Cartagena, on the Caribbean ; Buenventura, on the Pacific, and Medillin, an interior mining town. The Magdalena is navigable for 900 miles, steamers now ascending to La Dorada, 600 miles from the coast.
Ecuador, separated from Colombia in 1830, has been disturbed more or less continually ever since by revolution. Its area is about 120,000 square miles, or about the size of Norway. The population numbers 1,400,000, the bulk of which is Indian and mixed blood. The capital, Quito, has 80,000 population. The principal seaport and commercial center is Guayquil, with about 70,000 inhabitants.
Peru, formerly the most important of the Spanish vice-royalties, declared independence in 1821, and gained freedom in 1824. Since then the country has suffered from various revolutions and its power was temporarily crushed in the war with Chile (1879-1884), by which it lost the valuable nitrate provinces. Its area is about 696,000 square miles, or about three and one-half times that of France. It has a population of about 3,500,000, of whom more than half are Indian. The capital is Lima, with 135,000 inhabitants. Other important cities are Callao, the seaport of Lima, Arequipa, Cuzco, and Iquitos ; the latter is near the eastern border and extensive trade passes through it on its way to the Amazon.
Paraguay was originally a part of the viceroyalty of Peru, later placed under the jurisdiction of Buenos Aires. It declared its independence of Spain in 1811. After a short government by two consuls, the supreme power was seized by various dictators, and so held until the great war between Lopez and the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, 1865-1870. Lopez was defeated and killed at Aquidaban, March 1, 1870. The country was completely exhausted, and it is only within the past few years that it has commenced to recover. The area of Paraguay is 98,000 square miles. The population of about 650,000 includes 15,000 Indians. The capital, Asuncion, has about 62,000 people. Other towns are Villa Rica, 25,000; Concepcion, 15,000; Carapegua, 13,000.
Venezuela, which was discovered by Columbus on his third voyage, in 1498, is one of the most interesting of the Republics. It was here that the revolutionary movement began that freed the whole of the northern part of South America from Spain. The Republic itself was organized in 1830 by a secession from Colombia, and since then it has had no fewer than fifty-one revolutionary movements. Its area is about 364,000 square miles, with a population of 2,602,492. Carácas, the capital, has about 75,000 people, and among other cities are Valencia, 38,654; Maracaibo, 34,284; Barquisimeto, 31,476; Barcelona, 12,735 ; Ciudad Bolivar, 11,686. The area of Venezuela equals more than the combined area of Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
With this general outline of the geography, political and physical, of South America, we are well prepared to take up a chapter on the history of the country; a knowledge of both its geography and history are necessary to an adequate understanding of the life of its people.