Posted by: Rob Viens | January 15, 2013

Border Wars and the Beagle Channel

By the 14th, the worst of the storm seems to have passed, though Darwin was lamenting the loss of some of his scientific materials. To be fair, at this time and place they were irreplaceable, so it was a great loss:

“The winds certainly are most remarkable; after such a storm as yesterdays, it blew a heavy gale from the SW.— As we are in smooth water it does not so much signify. — We stood to the North to find an harbor; but after a wearying search in a large bay did not succeed. I find I have suffered an irreparable loss from yesterdays disaster, in my drying paper & plants being wetted with salt-water. — Nothing resists the force of an heavy sea; it forces open doors & sky lights, & spreads universal damage. — None but those who have tried it, know the miseries of a really heavy gale of wind. — May Providence keep the Beagle out of them. ” (Jan 14)

Then on the 15th, the Beagle was able to drop anchor on the shores of an island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago called Lennox Island:

“Standing to the East, we found a most excellent anchorage in Goree Sound & moored ship, secured from wind & sea: We shall probably remain here some weeks as the Fuegians & Matthews are to be settled here & there will be some boat expeditions. The object of our disastrous attempt to get to the Westward was to go to the Fuegian York Minsters, country. — Where we now are is Jemmy Buttons & most luckily York Minster from his free choice intends to live here with Matthews & Jemmy. — Goree Sound is situated by Lennox Island & near to the Eastern entrance of Beagle channel.” (Jan 15)

Lennox Island is a 170 km2-island which, along with Nueva and Picton islands, mark the entrance to the Beagle Channel. The waterway to the west of the island is known as Goree Channel, so I suspect Goree Sound is on that side of the island. Notice that it is nearly 100 km NE of Cape Horn. Clearly the Beagle had been all around the tip of Tierra del Fuego during the past 2 weeks.

Location map for January 15, 1833

The three islands at the mouth of the channel where part of a border dispute between Argentina and Chile that nearly led to war in 1978.  After a failed arbitration by Queen Elizabeth II (which awarded the islands to Chile) and an Argentinean occupation, both parties agreed to abide by a decision from pope John Paul II. (I had no idea that popes settled border disputes.) While the decision was being determined Argentina went to war with the UK over the Falkland Islands (more on that later when Darwin visits), and (not surprisingly) Chile supported the UK.  In 1985, both countries agreed to the pope’s arbitration, which gave control of the islands to Chile and the surrounding waters to Argentina. So far, so good…

Chile and Argentina were newly declared independent countries when Darwin visited in the early part of the 19th century, and neither were interested in the southern islands of Tierra del Fuego.  This land was the realm of the Yaghan people, and in 1833 Robert FitzRoy was here to return  three Yaghans to their homeland. More on York, Jemmy, Fuegia and their “ward” – Matthews – in the coming days. (RJV)


  1. […] Before I get too far behind Darwin, I thought I would do something a little unusual and just post a few days of Darwin’s diary without much comment. During most of this period of time, the Beagle was in the vicinity of Wollaston Island located near Cape Horn.  (This was an area discussed almost exactly one year ago (see Of Rock, Chemists and Darwin’s Uncle Charles).)  By the end of the month the crew had retraced their route and moved east to the Beagle Channel (see Border Wars and the Beagle Channel). […]

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