Patagonia history

Fernao de Magellanes
The Estrecho de Magellanes links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via a 310 mile channel separating Tierra del Fuego from the rest of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia. This was discovered by a Portuguese navigator, Fernao de Magellanes: As a young man, born of a noble family from Oporto in 1480, he attended the naval college, having lost his parents at an early age. After several voyages, he developed an enthusiasm for exploration and at the age of 33 was back inOporto, broke but full of ideas. At this time Spain andPortugal were the leading nations in exploration and trade. They decided that the world could conveniently be divided into two respective spheres of influence, so as to avoid conflict. This arrangement had the effect of barringSpain from access to theEast Indies, the valuable ‘spice islands’. However, the Spaniards believed that the spice-islands might be argued to be in their domain if it could be shown that they lay close to South America, which they already controlled. Thus, and paradoxically, it was the King of Spain who funded Magellanes to find a route to the ‘spice-islands’ viaSouth America. This required him to sail down the coast of present-dayArgentina, exploring every creek and delta, hoping that it might lead through to the Pacific. Thus visiting many anchorages where we have later followed (e.g.Cabo Hornos).

The more southerly and exposed Cape Horn route had advantages for westward headed sailing ships because they could take advantage of the strong prevailing west winds. The comparatively sheltered Estrecho de Magellanes channel has seen much greater use in more recent times by steam and diesel powered ships.  However, the combination of strong tidal currents, winds amplified by funneling and the constant proximity of land make this less attractive to yachts.

Robert Fitzroy

It becomes quickly apparent from charts of the fjordland of Chilean Patagonia that many of the channels and islands have names that sound English. The reason for this is that the first accurate survey was instigated by the British Admiralty in 1826. This was to be a significant enterprise, involving two expeditions, each lasting several years, in which Robert Fitzroy played a key role.

In the course of the first expedition, Fitzroy took command of one of the expedition ships, the 225 ton Beagle, after the previous captain’s suicide. During the survey work, Alcaluf Indians stole a whaling launch and hence Fitzroy took some of the Indians as hostages against the return of the boat. This did not achieve the desired result. Most of the hostages escaped, eventually leaving just two men, Boat Memory, York Minster, and a young girl, Fuegia Basket; the names having been given by the Beagle’s crew. Added to this was a Yamana Indian boy, Jemmy Button.  The survey work was completed in 1830, by which time many of the channels from Cabo de Hornos to Isla Chiloe had been explored.  Fitzroy then returned toEnglandwith the Indians, where he provided for their education. His intention was to return them to their native land during his next expedition, thus to sow the seeds of European culture into their way of life. Two years later, Fitzroy returned in the Beagle with the Indians (excepting Boat Memory who had succumbed to disease) and a young minister, Richard Matthews, landing at Caleta Wulaia on Isla de Navarino. The crew built some huts, cleared ground for cultivation and then departed, leaving the minister with the Indians. Fortunately, Fitzroy had some misgivings about the safety of the minister and promptly returned to Wulaia, where he found the man still alive, but much abused and fearing for his life. The minister sensibly decided to depart with the Beagle.

Fitzroy returned again to Wulaia, in 1834, to find the place deserted. Eventually he came across Jemmy Button who had reverted entirely to his original way of life. Apparently, Fuegia Basket and York Minster had left for the Alcaluf lands, having stolen his possessions.

Captain Fitzroy is remembered as a brilliant seaman and the first to use the telegraph to send weather forecasts. He also understood the importance of collecting data and samples from these unexplored lands. To this end he was instrumental in adding a scientist to his ship’s company: Charles Darwin.

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