An Argentine Child’s Wake, with Music and Dancing – As seen by Alfred Ébélot and R. B. Cunninghame Graham
McIntyre, John C
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The French engineer Alfred Ébélot in 1870s Argentina helped lay out a ditch 300-plus kilometres long across the grasslands – the pampa – of the huge Province of Buenos Aires. This was to hinder Indian raiders seeking to make off south with white captives and huge numbers of animals. Somewhere Ébélot witnessed a traditional child’s wake, accompanied by music and dancing. Graham, fluent Spanish speaker and expert horseman, was in the 1870s utterly captivated by the unfenced pampa and by its cow-herders, the gauchos. He too witnessed a child’s wake with music and dancing. “El Velorio” (The Wake), the first of Ébélot’s vignettes in La Pampa (1890), describes such a child’s wake. In 1894 W. H. Hudson, the Argentine-born naturalist and author, recommended La Pampa to his friend Graham, advising him to switch his writing focus to short sketches based on his pampa experiences. In 1899, Graham’s “El Angelito” (The Little Angel) is a five-part description of a child’s wake very similar in design to Ébélot’s “El Velorio”. Ébélot, a positivist, is more critical than Graham of the commercialisation of the child’s wake tradition. Graham’s passion for the pampa and especially his ability to highlight compelling details give the literary edge to Graham’s sketch. Ébélot’s La Pampa proved a useful help to Graham in his rapid development in the late 1890s as a writer of literary sketches. In 1870, two foreigners landed in Argentina for the first time – the Frenchman Alfred Ébélot and the Scotsman Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. In different places each witnessed a traditional child’s wake accompanied by music and dancing. This article compares their experiences of Argentina and their literary interpretations of an intriguing piece of Hispano-Argentine folklore.