The Uncrowned King of M’Bopicuá
What do the Scottish crown and the M’Bopicuá ranch, now the nature park’s center, have in common? A quixotic character connects them in a story that would be too fantastic if it were a romance.
On the M’Bopicuá ranch, where the animals in the nature park have since taken over, there lived an uncrowned king, a humble nobleman, a very modern old man. He was so extraordinary that writer George Bernard Shaw considered his life “an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance.” Another of his writer friends, Joseph Conrad, felt that, compared to him, he “had lived all [his] life in a dark hole, without seeing or knowing anything.”
He had much less recognition than Shaw or Conrad in literature, but he was content with making his own life a masterpiece, according to painter John Lavery. His adventures in South America and his books inspired movies such as The Mission, with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, and earned him the admiration of the world’s greatest writers, but his name did not achieve the fame it deserves. A monument to him erected in Uruguay’s Parque Batlle remains vandalized, without glory, and with the letters of his name barely visible.
He was one of the few people, along with his friend Oscar Wilde, who could say that he put his genius in his life and his talent in his work. His adventures don’t seem to fit in a single life, making him truly “larger than life.”
However, a historical line can be traced from the Kingdom of Scotland to the land in M’Bopicuá Nature Park, unlikely as it may seem. It is not a straight and mild-mannered line: It is full of adventure, dangerous journeys, abductions, smuggling, shipwrecks, a gold rush, romance, and wild nature, but it’s worth the ride.
Who was this man, one of the most fantastic we have been given in the past century and a half, and how is his life connected to our own? To find out, just saddle the horse of history.
He was born in Scotland in 1852 as Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, but in South America, he was known and respected as Don Roberto. Noble blood ran through his veins: He was the direct descendant of the Scottish king Robert II and was entitled to the title of Earl of Menteith, leading the Scottish poet Andrew Lang to call him the “uncrowned king” and urge him to claim the throne of Scotland based on the illegitimacy of the Stewart line.
Raised in the aristocracy, he was motivated not by convenience but by a hunger for the unknown, perhaps inherited from his Spanish-Venezuelan mother. He was just 18 years old when he decided to listen to that call and set a course for Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the first and most formative of his many adventures. He arrived at the Río de la Plata in pursuit of an unprosperous livestock business, but that was a minor detail. As Graham said many years later, “Only failure is interesting.”
And it was so interesting that he stayed on the Río de la Plata for over eight years, enamored of our fields as wide as the ocean. Although he was not a skilled rider at first—“the gringo falls to the ground,” the people said–he soon became just another gaucho. Not “just another,” in fact. An extraordinary one, who did so many things in that time that summarizing them in one paragraph is like getting repeatedly slapped in the face.
He was abducted by a rebel party of the Entre Ríos caudillo Ricardo López Jordán, who wanted to overthrow the Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. He planted yerba mate in Paraguay and later wanted to introduce it in Great Britain (he failed, perhaps why there is no such thing today as “five o’clock mate”). He rode on horseback from Paraná to Iguazu Falls, following the journey of the first Jesuits who came to the Americas (which led to the book that inspired The Mission). He smuggled horses. He was a trooper in the Banda Oriental. He crossed the Andes into Chile. And he was pursued by indigenous caciques after purchasing a ranch near Tandil. As in his native country, he did it all on horseback, but his adventures were just beginning.
After a brief return to Great Britain, where he married a Chilean woman, he came back to the Americas, this time in the north, multiplying the stakes: He traded cotton and met the famous Buffalo Bill in Texas, escaped indigenous arrows in the southern United States, set up a rural establishment that was burned by Native Americans, hunted buffalo, worked as an interpreter, taught fencing in Mexico (under the name “Profesor Bontini”), and took his first steps toward a prolific career as a writer.
The Modern Old Man
When he returned to Europe in 1883, impelled by a debt left by the death of his father, his life took an even more unusual, but no less extreme, turn: He was elected the first-ever member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom with socialist ideas. He rode to sessions on his horse Pampa, consequently scandalizing conservative British society: He supported universal suffrage, the eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, the nationalization of land, free education and school meals, equal rights for children born in and out of wedlock, the abolition of the House of Lords, the abolition of the death penalty, and the integration of women into politics. He criticized Queen Victoria for ignoring poverty, he was arrested for participating in popular demonstrations, he refused to withdraw his insults toward the Speaker of the House of Commons (his response, “I never withdraw,” earned him a place as a character in Shaw’s play Arms and the Man), he was deeply anti-imperialist, and he always defended the poor, like a gaucho Quijote, a romantic of a bygone era.
When he left politics, not even maturity quenched his thirst for adventure. He searched for gold in Galicia; he traveled in Morocco and fell into the hands of the qadi of Kintafi, who said that “one Cunninghame Graham was more dangerous to Islam than a thousand Christians”; he sailed the Orinoco in a raft; he rode the Venezuelan plains; he visited South Africa, and he journeyed through Ceylon. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Cunninghame Graham achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham.”
And it was shortly before this time of travel, when the Great War broke out, that Cunninghame’s story intertwined with that of the nature park and again with Uruguay.
My Kingdom for a Horse
When the First World War broke out, Cunninghame Graham, who had recently delivered a speech in favor of peace in Trafalgar Square, felt the need to enroll in the army and do something in the fight for freedom. He was 62 and predictably, told that he was too old. But the “wandering Scotsman” was too intense to take no for a final answer. He was unsuccessful in getting them to let him be on the front lines of the battle, but he moved heaven and earth until he was allowed, as a consolation prize, to lead a commission to buy horses in South America for the Allies.
At the end of November 1914, he set sail again for the Río de la Plata, and in February 1915, he arrived at the M’Bopicuá ranch, the same one on which naturalist Juan Villalba, head of the natural park owned by Montes del Plata, currently lives.
The ranch and the old meat establishment had been purchased fifteen years prior by the English company Liebig, owner of the Anglo meatpacking plant in Fray Bentos. Like Villalba, in the months Cunninghame lived there, he surrounded himself with animals, but for very different reasons. His assignment was not to achieve their preservation but to select horses for a tragic end.
The horses’ main mission was to carry cannons on the battlefields, and with that task, Cunninghame chose some five hundred to be sent on ships. For Don Roberto, who loved horses, it was hard to send them to perish in the bogs of the Somme, to “suffer and die without knowing why.” “They will graze on grass that does not die,” he consoled himself in his story “Bopicuá,” in which he recalls what one of his men said to the horses: “There’s no grass like that of Bopicuá [sic] where you’re going, on the other side of the ocean. All the grass in Europe must smell like blood.”
According to a period feature by journalist Conrado Monfort, the people of Fray Bentos saw him as “a strange guy,” who took walks through the ravines in the afternoons and spent his days traveling the distance between the English ranches in M’Bopicuá and La Pileta, with hair that was limp and graying but still thick, hair. Ultimately, he was still a gaucho. Biographer Alicia Jurado recalls that he traveled 40 km (25 mi) on horseback without stopping, eating only meat, which he cut with a knife. At the time, he even arrested a man for homicide, one of the laborers who worked with him there.
In a letter to a friend sent from Fray Bentos, he said, “For the past five months, I have been living the life I wrote so much about. After so many years, it seems like a dream. I’m on horseback almost all the time, from dawn to dusk and almost always wet (there’s no way to dry off until the sun rises), and when I return, I go to bed.”
His impressions of M’Bopicuá were collected in two of his stories, “Bopicuá” and “Los pingos,” in which he observed with sharp eyes the old saladero (already in ruins) that had acquired “a resemblance to a castle,” with “the triumphant nature” resuming its power “over a region in which it had tried to meddle, to be defeated in its struggle.”
He took a souvenir (very much alive, by the way) from the ranch. Over the course of those days, a horse, owned by a Mr. Irazun, one of the M’Bopicuá laborers, caught his eye. He offered to buy it, but Mr. Irazun told him he would sell it to him on condition that it wasn’t going to die on the battlefield. The Scotsman gave him his word that he wanted it for himself, and he kept it: “Malacarita” traveled with him in Great Britain for a long time. Twelve years later, he took a photo mounted on the horse and sent it to the owner of the San Martí Hotel in Fray Bentos so that he could show it to Mr. Irazun. It died not long after, and Graham was as sad as if it had been a family member.
Upon heading home from M’Bopicuá, he wrote to his mother with nostalgia: “Fray Bentos is a beautiful place, and I will always remember my walk along the small dock, after a tiring day, to watch the sunset over Gualeguaychú.”
Since adventure followed Don Roberto everywhere, on the return trip with the horses, the ship was torpedoed by the enemy army, but both he and the animals managed to survive after running aground on a sandy beach. Two years later, the same thing would happen to him upon returning from Colombia on a similar mission.
Don Roberto still had twenty years of adventure ahead of him in the novel that was his life. Death did not surprise him in Europe but near M’Bopicuá, where he felt fulfilled. In 1936, he made another trip to the Río de la Plata to revisit the places of his youth. He made it to the birthplace of his great friend—also a writer and chronicler of the region—William Henry Hudson, but he caught a cold that later resulted in his death on March 20, 1936.
His remains were visited by crowds of people in Buenos Aires, where his legendary stature was recognized even more effusively than in his native country.
What remains of the passage of this unique person through M’Bopicuá? His stories, first of all. Second, a few significant coincidences: The first time Juan Villalba visited Fray Bentos, he unknowingly stayed at the same hotel as Don Roberto (now the Colonial), as if anticipating the steps that would take him to the same residence.
Finally, perhaps also the shadow of his presence in symbolic anecdotes. Villalba, who was fascinated by Graham’s story before discovering that they had shared the same house, claims that there is a room at the ranch that sometimes smells strongly of tobacco, even though no one in the family nor none of the workers smoke. The naturalist, a man of science who knows that the explanation likely lies in the resin of some old furniture, prefers to joke that Graham’s memory has to be sneaking into the present: “It must be Don Roberto’s ghost walking around,” he says knowingly.