Posted by: Rob Viens | January 2, 2014

Longing for Ancient Oceans in Port Desire

The holidays have left me with a little catching up to do to, so today I thought I’d share a few words from Darwin’s last few entries in December – mainly about his recent port of call, Port Desire.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Beagle arrived in Port Desire in southern Argentina on December 23rd, after a 16 day voyage.  Darwin’s only entry during that time describes his arrival:

“Arrived at Port Desire. — Our passage has been a very long one of seventeen days; the winds generally being light & foul. — with the exception of a fresh gale or two. —

The Adventure delayed us: she is found not to sail well on a wind; & at this place her sails will be altered. — The harbor of Port Desire, is a creek which runs up the country in the form of a river: the entrance is very narrow; but with a fine breeze, the ‘Beagle entered in good style.” (Dec 8-23)

Port Desire (now called by it’s Spanish name Puerto Deseado) is located at the mouth of the Río Deseado on the large peninsula of land that “sticks out” into the Atlantic in southern Argentina. The Río Deseado begin’s its journey in the Andes Mountains over 600 km to the west, and travels across the arid plains of Argentina’s Santa Cruz province. The ocean floods the mouth of the river forming a deep water port and a nutrient rich estuary (now preserved as Reserve Natural Ría Deseado).

The Río Deseado a short ways inland of Port Desire. (from Wikipedia Commons)

Deseado River


From the image above, it is not surprising that Darwin talks a lot about the geology here.  It is raw and exposed as well as any place on Earth. The next day he took he first walk about in the desert to examine the rocks (and in the process brought home Christmas dinner):

“Took a long walk on the North side: after ascending some rocks there is a great level plain, which extends in every direction but is divided by vallies. — I thought I had seen some desart looking country near B. Blanca; but the land in this neighbourhead so far exceeds it in sterility, that this alone deserves the name of a desart. — The plain is composed of gravel with very little vegetation & not a drop of water. In the vallies there is some little, but it is very brackish. — It is remarkable that on the surface of this plain there are shells of the same sort which now exist. — & the muscles even with their usual blue colour. — It is therefore certain, that within no great number of centuries all this country has been beneath the sea. Wretched looking as the country is, it supports very many Guanacoes. — By great good luck I shot one; it weighed without its entrails &c 170 pounds: so that we shall have fresh meat for all hands on Christmas day.” (Dec 24)

As in so many places, Darwin’s observations supported what he had recently read in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology – that relative sea level had changed.  In many cases, this was evidence for a relative drop in sea level (which could mean uplifting the land or an actual drop in the ocean surface), as seen in the shells he found high and dry on old marine terraces.  There is a simple joy that comes from the contrast that is created by the fact that these flat desert plains were once the floor of an ancient sea.  I still remember the mental images that first came to me when I found my first shells on the desert mesas of the Southwestern US and in the dry plains of the state of Kansas. I can completely relate to what Darwin was experiencing – flashing images of the past in stark contrast to the present. It’s one of the reasons I love geology.

After the “Christmas Day Olympics”, Darwin was back to exploring the landscape around Port Desire:

“The Beagle is anchored opposite to a fort erected by the old Spaniards. — It was formerly attempted to make a settlement here; but it quite failed from the want of water in the summer, & the Indians in the winter. — The buildings were begun in very good style, & remain a proof of the strong hand of old Spain. — Some of the enclosures & some cherry trees may yet be seen. — The fate of all the Spanish establishments on the coast of Patagonia, with the exception of the R. Negro, has been miserable. — Port Famine, as it is well known, expresses the sufferings of the settlers. — At St Josephs every man, excepting two, was massacred by the Indians on a Sunday when in church. — The two were prisoners some years with the Indians; one of them, now in extreme old age, I conversed with at R. Negro.

I walked this day to some fine cliffs, five miles to the South: here the usual geological story, of the same great oyster bed being upheaved in modern days was very evident. — In the evening weather very cold, — & a Tierra del Fuego gale of wind.” (Dec 26)

Conrad Martens captured some of this remnants of past settlements in Ruins, North side of the Harbour of Port Desire. Decr 23 1833 by Conrad Martens (note the Adventure at anchor in the foreground)

Ruins by Conrad Martens

Port Desire is one of those anchorages that was used by explorers for many years prior to Darwin’s arrival in 1833. As is true of many of the prominent ports in Argentina, Ferdinand Magellan passed through this area in 1520. Later in 1586, the privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish (at the age of 25) stopped at the river mouth and gave the port its name. Cavendish was a wealthy Englishman who decided that he would follow in the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake by raiding Spanish towns in the Pacific and returning to England by circumnavigating the globe. And that is exactly what he did.

Port Desire was an early stop on the voyage, and Cavendish named it after his 18-gun ship the Desire. In 1587 he sailed through the Straits of Magellan and raided several Spanish settlements along the Pacific Coast.  His crowning achievement was the premeditated capture of a Spanish treasure ship, loaded up with silks, damasks, spices, musks, wines and other treasures from the Philippines. The Manila-Acapulco Galleon – called the Santa Ana – was 5 times the size of the Desire and hade 4x as many men, but Cavendish won the day and the treasure.  He then headed west across the Pacific, around Africa and back to England – making him the third expedition (after Magellan and Sir Francis Drake) to circumnavigate the world.  Technically he was the second captain to make the trip (since Magellan never made it home), and the first to intentionally set out to make the trip.  He did it in record time, returning in just 2 yrs and 2 months.

Engraving of Sir Thomas Cavendish (by Henry Holland (1620)). The motto says Animum fortuna sequatur – “The soul follows chance”.

Sir Thomas Cavendish

Interestingly Cavendish’s second expedition on the Desire was not nearly as successful. After traveling to South America in 1591 with the Navigator John Davis, Cavendish died at sea at the young age of 31.  Davis went on to “discover” the Falkland Islands, before limping back to England with a battered Desire and only a few crewmen.

More on Port Desire, and the last couple days of December 1833, tomorrow… (RJV)


PS – For more stories of Englishmen picking off Manila Galleons see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World.

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