home page English página inicial Español índice del sitio contents nombres de personas databases nuevas páginas news contacto al webmaster e-mail buscar texto search guía al sitio help

The British Presence in Southern Patagonia
« A history of the British presence in Chile »
(extracts from the forthcoming book by Eddie Edmundson)


From Chapter 1. Pirates, Buccaneers, Privateers, Corsairs & Early Circumnavigators.

…. On entering the Strait, Francis Drake named three islands – Elizabeth (after the Queen), St George, and St Bartholomew – shown in a map of Levinius Hulsious of 1606 as the “Francisci Draco Ins[ulae]”. No-one on board had been through the Strait before, and Magellan had left few details of his route, which must have tested Drake’s navigational skills to the full. In this endeavour, Drake was probably assisted by the Portuguese pilot Nunho da Silva whom he had captured earlier in the voyage.

He crossed the 363-mile Strait in only sixteen days. This was almost certainly the fastest journey through the Strait in that century – Magellan had taken thirty-seven days. On their way through the Strait they saw penguins, and the usage dates from this expedition. The pastor Francis Fletcher borrowed the Celtic word for the great auk, (possibly from the Welsh pen “head” + gwyn “white”) - a flightless sea bird which became extinct in the late 19th century. They also met a group of Alacaluf Indians in a canoe near Cape Froward, “naked men and women, whom we could not perceive to have either set places or dwellings, or any ordinary means of living”, [The World Encompassed: 1628].

When they emerged from the Strait on 6 September 1578, the ships turned northwest and therefore into the open ocean, believing that the Chilean coast tended in that direction. That the coast in fact tends northwards was one of the two notable geographical discoveries of the voyage. But this lay ahead, for the flotilla’s luck ran out and they were now hit by a succession of terrible storms that battered them southwards. The Marigold was lost in the high seas, overwhelmed by a great wave. Under Captain John Winter, the Elizabeth turned back to the Strait, making the first west-east navigation by a British sailor, and then made for England. The Golden Hind remained the only ship of the group in the Pacific, remorselessly pushed southwards by the raging storms that lasted the better part of fifty two days.

This led to a second and even more momentous discovery; that the Magellan Strait was not just a passage between two continent masses arranged north to south, the Americas and Terra Australis, as shown in Mercator’s map of 1541. Another widely held version had the same geography. Diego Gutiérrez’s map of 1562 – the most detailed map of the 16th century showing the New World – showed that the Strait divided the Tierra de Patagones from the Tierra de Magallanes. What Drake’s voyage discovered was that the Atlantic and the Pacific actually joined in a confluence, and that open sea lay beyond and south of Tierra del Fuego. The World Encompassed recorded this discovery. “The uttermost cape or headland of all these islands stands near in 56 degrees, without which there is no main or island to be seen to the southwards, but that the Atlantic Ocean and South Sea meet in a most large and free scope”. This new fact has been commemorated ever afterwards in the naming of Drake’s Passage - the sea between Cape Horn and the Antarctic.

Having been driven south, Drake discovered some islands, but it is uncertain exactly which islands he reached south of the Magellan Strait. Francis Fletcher recorded in The World Encompassed that the ship was pushed down to the “utmost island of Terra Incognita, to the southward of America, whereat we arriving, made both the seas to be one and the self same sea, and that there was no farther land beyond the heights of that island”. No-one can be sure exactly what this ‘utmost island’ was, but it may have been Cape Horn. Drake formally claimed the islands in the south for England and called them the Elizabeth Islands.

There is an intriguing detail. Drake sheltered from the incessant storms in the lee of an island he also called Elizabeth Island for three days and four nights, where he recorded a depth of twenty fathoms. This island was shown for more than 170 years on maps as Port Sir Francis Drake. The curiosity is that this island, given the coordinates recorded by Drake, lies well to the west of Cape Horn and away from the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, where no modern map shows land and where it is known that the ocean is enormously deep. For example, Nicolaes Visscher II’s map (c.1700) ‘Carte du Paraguay du Chile Détroit de Magellan & Terre de Feu dans L’Amerique Meridionalle’ depicts a “Port decouverte por Jacques le Maire”. Emanuel Bowen, engraver to George II, shows in his map of 1747, ‘A New and Accurate Map of Chili, Terra Magellanica, Terra del Fuego &c’, that at longitude 78 just north of latitude 57 S there is a “Port discovered by Sr F. Drake”. Felix Riesenberg [1950] hypothesises in his chapter on ‘The vanished island of Sir Francis Drake’ that this might have been the crater of a volcano, since reclaimed by the sea. ………………………


From Chapter 3. British naturalists in Chile.

…. Charles Darwin kept a detailed diary of his observations and opinions while on the Beagle. His first contact with Chile was in December 1832, accompanying FitzRoy on his cultural experiment, that of returning the Fuegian Indians called York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button to Tierra del Fuego. Darwin’s first meeting with the indigenous people was in the Bay of Good Success, and sadly he was not impressed.

“Their language does not deserve to be called articulate: Capt. Cook says it is like a man clearing his throat; to which may be added another very hoarse man trying to shout & a third encouraging a horse with that peculiar noise which is made in one side of the mouth. Imagine these sounds & a few gutturals mingled with them, & there will be as near an approximation to their language as any European may expect to obtain. I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found”. [Beagle Diary: 18th December 1832].

Darwin was perhaps more struck by the Tehuelches of the Patagonian mainland, north of Tierra del Fuego. He recalled later that in January 1833 he had met with “the famous so-called gigantic Patagonians, who gave us a cordial reception”. Darwin was able to scotch one enduring myth, that of the excessive height of these Indians:

“Their height appears greater than it really is, from their large guanaco mantles, their long flowing hair, and general figure: on an average their height is about six feet, with some men taller and only a few shorter: and the women are also tall; altogether they are certainly the tallest race which we saw anywhere”. [Darwin, Journal of Researches: 1844].

Notwithstanding Darwin’s poor opinion of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, he still believed that the distance between uncivilised and civilised man could be crossed; he had seen firsthand the difference that FitzRoy’s experiment in culturalisation had made on the Fuegians taken to England. Janet Browne [1995] believes that:

“Darwin’s intense interest in the ability of human beings to change…was fundamental to his later conversion to evolutionary theory. The attention he paid to the contrasts and to the similarities between civilized and uncivilized races of human beings during the voyage created an intellectual context in which ideas about a real evolutionary connection could take root and subsequently flourish. Without this experience in Tierra del Fuego – the experience of comparing Anglicised Fuegians with wild tribesmen and women, of comparing native Fuegians with himself – he would never have had the breadth of vision to include mankind as an integral part of the natural world, or to have recognized any form of continuity between the most urbane and cultivated Englishmen and savages: between FitzRoy and Jemmy’s wild brother, between the Darwin sisters and naked Fuegian women”.

Janet Browne argues that of all the many and varied experiences that Darwin was subject to on this five year voyage, “it was this recognition of the connections between human beings around the world that moved him most” – more than the all the botany, more than the geology, more even than the exotic tropical forest he had seen in Brazil. He realised that culture was just a veneer for humanity, and that civilisation itself was something made by man, and ephemeral.

After leaving the missionary Matthews with Fuegia Basket, York Minster and Jemmy Button, in a cove at Wulaia, FitzRoy decided to withdraw with Darwin and the crew of the Beagle and spend the night in Bahía Tekenika, to give their plans to establish a settlement focussed on the missionary a chance to take effect. After an anxious night, they returned to find that nothing untoward had occurred, and FitzRoy decided to leave Matthews for a longer period, and set off to explore the western reaches of the Beagle Channel. (Chapter Fourteen has a description of what then happened to this missionary). It was on this voyage of exploration in boats, while near the Pacific mouth of the Beagle Channel, that Darwin literally saved the expedition.

The group had left their boats and had set off on foot to have a closer look at a glacier, when the same glacier suddenly calved an immense block of ice and the resulting waves raced towards the boats they had beached. Darwin quickly realised that the boats could easily be washed away, and he raced to the spot with some other seamen just as the first of three huge waves broke over the boats, and held on grimly to save their only means of getting away from the place. FitzRoy wrote about the incident that “had not Mr. Darwin and two or three seamen run to [the boats], they would have been swept away from us irrecoverably”, [FitzRoy, Proceedings of the Second Expedition: 1838]. Darwin wrote about the incident in his Beagle Diary. “One of the seamen just got hold of the boat as the curling breaker reached it: he was knocked over & over but not hurt & most fortunately our boat received no damage” [Beagle Diary: 29 January 1833], but Darwin makes no mention of his own role in helping save the group from disaster. FitzRoy was so grateful that he named the waters where this happened after his friend, as Darwin Sound. Not only that, FitzRoy also called the high peak where the glacier flowed Mount Darwin, and the entire range of mountains Cordillera Darwin, names which continue in use to today.

Despite such adventures, the days spent in Tierra del Fuego tended to get the crew down, and Darwin was no exception. He noted in his diary for 1st June 1834, during his second experience of Tierra del Fuego:

“Arrived at Port Famine. I never saw a more cheer-less prospect; the dusky woods, pie-bald with snow, were only indistinctly to be seen through an atmosphere composed of two thirds rain & one of fog; the rest, as an Irishman would say, was very cold unpleasant air”. [Beagle Diary: 1st June 1834]. …………….

Last updated: 30-XII-2008