After much anticipation, on December 16th 1832, the Beagle reached the southern archipelago of Tierra del Fuego – the “Land of Fire”. Darwin notes his first impressions:
“We made the coast of Tierra del Fuego a little to the South of Cape St Sebastian & then altering our course ran along a few miles from the shore.— The Beagle had never visited this part before; so that it was new to every body.— Our ignorance whether any natives lived here, was soon cleared up by the usual signal of a smoke.— & shortly by the aid of glasses we could see a group & some scattered Indians evidently watching the ship with interest.— They must have lighted the fires immediately upon observing the vessel, but whether for the purpose of communicating the news or attracting our attention, we do not know.” (Dec 16)
It was fires on the cliff tops like the ones that Darwin described that led Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 to name this region Tierra del Fuego in the first place.
Darwin continues by describing his first impressions of the coast:
“The breeze was fresh & we ran down about 50 miles of coast & anchored for the night.— The country is not high, but formed of horizontal strata of some modern rock, which in most places forms abrupt cliffs facing the sea.— It is also intersected by many sloping vallies, these are covered with turf & scattered over with thickets & trees, so as to present a cheerful appearance. The sky was gloomy & the atmosphere not clear, otherwise the views would in some places have been pretty.— At a great distance to the South was a chain of lofty mountains, the summits of which glittered with snow.— We are at anchor to the South of St Pauls head.” (Dec 16)
Tierra del Fuego encompasses all the islands south of the Strait of Magellan and north of Drake’s Passage (including the very southern tip of the continent – Cape Horn). The region is currently governed by Chile in the west and south and Argentina in the east (see the map below). On this day in 1832, the Beagle was cruising down the Argentinean shore of the largest island in the archipelago – Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego – and the crew appears to have anchored in the vicinity of Bahia San Sebastian for the night.
Map of Tierra del Fuego from WorldAtlas.com
By the way – the highest point in Tierra del Fuego is Mount Darwin. More on that another day… (RJV)