The Discovery of the Magellan Strait (The Chilean Channels – Part III)
From the Beagle Channel several much narrower waterways wind their way north into the Magellan Strait, joining it just west of the infamous Cape Froward (the southernmost point of continental America). Arriving here, the traveller is no longer just trailing after FitzRoy and Darwin; he is sailing in the wake of dozens of heroes.
Magellan was the first, of course. Or at any rate, he is believed to have been the first. According to a Venetian gentleman who was sailing with him, the commander knew for certain that there was a pass leading through the continent – and how can he have been certain, if nobody had been this way before? Pigafetta tells us that when the ships found themselves seemingly embayed, in the place which we now know to be the eastern entrance to the Strait, most of the sailors thought that they were doomed, “but the captain-general said that there was another strait for going out [into the Pacific], and he knew it well, because he had seen it by a sea chart of the King of Portugal. [This] map had been made by a great pilot and mariner.”
Was that mythological map drawn through mere conjecture, or has the rightful discoverer of these Straits sunk without trace in the mire of history?
“I think there is not in the world a more beautiful country or a better strait than this one,” wrote Pigafetta, some years after the first circumnavigation – thereby giving us cause to doubt either his memory or his integrity. He tells of finding, “at every half league, a good port and place for anchoring, good waters, wood… fish… and wild celery”.
These anchorages certainly do exist, albeit not at one-mile intervals; and in places where the wind does not haul them off the rocks there are trees; but the use of the word “beautiful” to describe the scenery seems scarcely appropriate. Others sailing in this region have labelled it anything from awesome through to drab, or just downright ghastly.
Although we know it by his name, Magellan called his discovery the Strait of All Saints, because it was on that day that it was discovered. Just think – if he’d found it a day earlier we might now know it as the Straits of Halloween!
Having successfully led his fleet through the narrows which lie at the back of what had seemed to be just a bay, Magellan continued along the broad river until he came to a place where it divides.
He sent two of his ships to explore an opening to the south while he, meanwhile, took the other two along the arm which led in a more westerly direction. This branch of the Strait soon turned a sharp corner, at the place which we now call Cape Froward, and then it seemed to fizzle out into a clutter of islands and narrower channels. The exploration of this maze would obviously be much easier in a smaller, more handy craft – and so, accordingly, Magellan sent his longboat on a reconnaissance mission.
While the boat was away, Magellan anchored his two ships – and the big question is, where?
Pigafetta merely tells us that they anchored in a place which they named the River of Sardines – “because we found a great quantity of them”.
Three days was all the time it took for the longboat to sail from the anchorage all the way to the cape at the western extremity of the Straits and to return with the joyous news of their discovery. Even if we assume that the men cut the journey short on first deciding that the big blue-grey expanse ahead of them must obviously be the sea, this is a distance of over 100 miles each way – so, myself, I think that the ‘River of Sardines’ must have been further to the west than Port Gallant. I wonder if it might have been Seno Notch, which is much more like a river.
Pigafetta’s account is very lacking and leads his followers into frustration, but it’s a good thing that Magellan had him aboard, for he himself didn’t live to tell the tale of their adventures. Indeed, of the 240 who set out, only eighteen men returned; and they were by now being captained by a fellow who had once mutinied against Magellan and who had only narrowly escaped execution.
Although Magellan didn’t survive the first ever circumnavigation of the world, his expedition brought back a cargo of spices from the East Indies, and it was therefore considered to be a success. Other ships and men were sent out to emulate the voyage – and perhaps that’s why Pigafetta makes the whole thing sound like a picnic; perhaps he was being employed as an advertising agent. In the event, every subsequent attempt to pass through the Straits ended in failure, until along came modest, genteel Sir Francis Drake. “I was the only man that might do this exploit,” he later told his friends and admirers.
Although he comes across as being a lot more human than the first explorer, with a sense of humour for which he was renown, Drake seems to have been a bit of a hot-head and he was also a pirate – albeit a royally sanctioned one. Not that Magellan was much better in that respect, mark you. He may not have attacked and robbed the ships of other European powers, but he was certainly up for stealing gold from ‘savages’ and for fighting battles.
As we sailed along in the wake of these two very ruthless and dangerous men we couldn’t help but feel glad that the modern political situation is so very different. The world of today is much friendlier and safer – or at least, it is at the moment, and in this particular corner…
Magellan spent seven weeks exploring the Strait and travelling from one end to the other, whereas Drake was through in just seventeen days. Both expeditions enjoyed remarkably good weather, but in the moment when Drake’s fleet reached the Pacific their luck changed and a gale sprang up. Drake is not commemorated in the Strait – not one headland or cove bears the name Francis, Pelican, or Golden Hind, for we have no idea where his ships may have stopped on their way through – but his name is given to the passage around the bottom of South America, for it was here that his ship was blown by the gale.
Having survived not just one but three storms, each more horrendous than the last – and having accidentally discovered that passage south of the Horn (which he described as being “wide enough for a thousand English carracks abreast”) and made the first recorded landing on the Cape Horn island – the privateer then sailed north to do what he had been sent to do. He sacked Valparaiso and Valdivia; he took the Inca gold from a ship captained by one Sarmiento de Gamboa; and then, for an encore, he captured a treasure ship laden with hundreds of thousands of pesos worth of gold, silver, and emeralds. Then he headed for home.
Hot on the heels of Drake came that same Sarmiento. Or at least, he hoped that he was, quite literally, hot on Drake’s heels. He was dispatched specifically in order to catch the villain who had just looted Peru.
Seemingly, it didn’t occur to the Spanish that El Draco would have the nerve to cross the Pacific. Instead, Sarmiento went a-searching amongst the islands which make up the seaboard of what is now Chile, and he eventually navigated the Strait from west to east.
Sarmiento certainly left his mark on the map of Tierra del Fuego. Having enjoyed an easy, downwind journey through the Strait and having sailed, thence, all the way up to Spain, he was sent back down here to establish a colony. It was clear that the exploits of the dastardly English ‘dragon’ had set an example which might be followed, and so – unwitting of the fact that the enemy had discovered a route around the bottom of the continent – the Spanish decided that the Strait must be fortified. Sarmiento was certainly the man for this job. A first class navigator, he was as dauntless as Magellan and Drake, and he was passionate in his hatred of the English. And after all, it was his ship that Drake had stolen!
In the light of his easy passage from west to east along the Strait, Sarmiento managed to persuade himself and everybody else that this region was really most delightful, and he eventually led a party of a thousand men, women, and children to settle here – and to die here.
It’s a long tale, with the roots of the failure embedded in the mire of massive ambitions, conflicting egos, and a climate and landscape which refused to play the game. The most poignant fact, however, is that the great Sarmiento de Gamboa himself did not die here. He slipped away one night, abandoning the hungry masses to their fate. Most of them had already succumbed, and he might easily have salvaged the survivors and taken them north with him. But he didn’t.
According to Sarmiento’s account, he went for a little jolly in his ship and was blown out of the Strait. Being unable to get back in, he sailed north to Rio de Janeiro to fetch supplies; and here he lost his ship on a sandbar. Nothing daunted, he bought another ship, filled her with food and munitions, and sailed south. Being once again unable to enter the Strait, and having been blown back all the way up to Rio, as he tells us – (a thing which would be more or less impossible) – he then elected to sail for Spain. After surviving various ordeals he arrived back in his nativeland; but having arrived he appears to have set aside all concern for his hapless companions, and to have re-immersed himself in the business of becoming wealthy and successful. Perhaps he figured that by now the castaways must all be dead. In reality, however, one of them lasted six years.
If there is a hell, Sarmiento’s seat is surely one of the nearest to the fire.
The Spanish were not wrong in their belief that others would soon seek to emulate the example set by Francis Drake. But, ironically, it took less time for them to establish their colony and for it to be wiped out than it did for the ‘copy-cats’ to get their act together. By the time Thomas Cavendish came this way, in 1587, the settlement which Sarmiento had named Rey Don Felipe was just a ghost town, and he renamed it Port Famine (Puerto Hambre, on Chilean charts. It’s about two-thirds of the way between Punta Arenas and Cabo Froward).
In a place nearby he came upon eighteen thin and ragged Spaniards who were the last survivors of the folly – and he left all but one of them there, on the beach.
In mitigation, it has to be pointed out that the Spanish had been placed here specifically to stop men like Cavendish and to send their boats to the bottom of the sea; and it has to be said that the Spanish, though they were starving, were initially inclined to tell their Protestant enemy to go to hell.
Cavendish anchored at various places along the Strait – including Port Gallant, which he named thus for one of his ships – and he subsequently emerged into the Pacific. He then sailed north to sack the Spanish colonies, sinking nineteen ships and “burning and spoiling” the villages and accruing even more wealth than his exemplar.
Returning to England by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and so becoming the third captain to circumnavigate the world, Cavendish could have settled into happy retirement – but that’s not the style of a man addicted to money or to glory. As it is now, with the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population ever eager to enlarge their fortune – and quite without reason – so, seemingly, it was in Tudor times. A couple of years after having returned home, Cavendish set out to repeat his glorious adventure; but this time he met bad weather and other misfortunes and did not return from the south.
He had the luck of the brave, but he was a man with few scruples and he’s probably seated quite close to Sarmiento.
Next week we continue along the Straits of Magellan, in Part IV of this series.
An excellent article ……..well researched, well written and informative. It makes me really appreciate the Panama Canal – it’s just to cold down there for me.
Really enjoyable read! Thank you!
Our company is called Drake & Farrell (and the Drake part relates to our entrepreneurship….but also we liked the fact that he was a pirate heehee)