Posted by: Rob Viens | February 9, 2014

Meandering Through the Straits of Magellan

On the 26th of January the Beagle entered the Straits of Magellan. It would not be the last time Darwin saw the east coast of South America, but that day would be coming soon.

The straits are one of the more prominent features named after the famous Portuguese explorer, however, it is hard to throw a rock in coastal Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and not find a place that Magellan didn’t touch in some way. Darwin was always acutely aware of those that came before him (being an avid reader) and he pondered Magellan’s first trip through the straits as he made his own first trip through the passage:

“Came to an anchor in St Gregory Bay; these days we have beaten against strong Westerly gales. — the tide here rises between 40 & 50 feet & runs at the rate of between 5 & 6 miles per hour. Who can wonder at the dread of the early navigators of these Straits?” (Jan 29)

Although the strait generally makes for a safer route to the Pacific (compared to Drake Passage to the south – see “A More Disagreeable Way of Spending Time”), it is not devoid of hazards. As Darwin points out the tides can be quite extreme in the eastern end of the straits, and the winds can be very strong as they pass through the gap.  In places they are only a little over 1 mile (~2 km) wide – combined with other factors this can make navigation difficult.

Straits of Magellan (from Wikipedia Commons – click for a larger image)

Map of the Straits of Magellan

The straits mark the southern end of the South American mainland – with islands of Tierra del Fuego forming the land to the south. Magellan was the first European to “discover” the 570-km-long passage, and since it was on All Saints Day (Nov 1) 1520, he named it the Straits of All Saints (Estrecho de Todos los Santos). However, after the survivors of Magellan’s voyage returned to Spain, King Charles V began calling it the Straits of Magellan, and the name stuck. The first real accurate mapping of the straits was actually done on the first Beagle voyage by Phillip Parker King. FitzRoy was here to fill in some of the details.

For the first few days in the straits Darwin describes his encounters with the local people, who he referes to as the Toldos.  I believe these are more accurately the Tehuelche people, whom Magellan referred to as the Patagons (see Ringing in the New Year in Tehuelche Territory). I’ll let Darwin describe his initial impressions:

“On shore there were the Toldos of a large tribe of Patagonian Indians. — Went on shore with the Captain & met with a very kind reception. These Indians have such constant communication with the Sealers, that they are half civilized. — they talk a good deal of Spanish & some English. Their appearance is however rather wild. — they are all clothed in large mantles of the Guanaco, & their long hair streams about their faces. — They resemble in their countenance the Indians with Rosas, but are much more painted; many with their whole faces red, & brought to a point on the chin, others black. — One man was ringed & dotted with white like a Fuegian. — The average height appeared to be more than six feet; the horses who carried these large men were small & ill fitted for their work. When we returned to the boat, a great number of Indians got in; it was a very tedious & difficult operation to clear the boat; The Captain promised to take three on board, & every one seemed determined to be one of them. — At last we reached the ship with our three guests. — At tea they behaved quite like gentlemen, used a knife & fork & helped themselves with a spoon. — Nothing was so much relished as Sugar. They felt the motion & were therefore landed.” (Jan 29)

Patagonian at Gregory Bay by Conrad Martens

Patagonian by Conrad Martens

“A large party went on shore to barter for mantles. &c. The whole population of the Toldos were arranged on a bank, having brought with them Guanaco skins, ostrich feathers &c &c. The first demand was for fire-arms & of course not giving them these, tobacco was the next; indeed knives, axes &c were of no esteem in comparison to tobacco. — It was an amusing scene & it was impossible not to like these mis-named giants, they were so throughily good-humoured & unsuspecting. — An old woman, well known by the name of Santa Maria, recognized Mr Rowlett as belonging formerly to the Adventure & as having seen him a year & a half ago at the R. Negro, to which place a part of this tribe had then gone to barter their goods. Our semi-civilized friends expressed great anxiety for the ship to return & one old man wanted to accompany us. — Got under weigh & beat up to Elizabeth island & there came to an anchor. Some Patagonians near Peckets harbor made three large fires, as did also the Fuegians on the more distant Southern shore. — Which signs of their proximity we are sorry to see.” (Jan 30)

“The Ship came to an anchor in Shoal Harbor; but it was found inconvenient; she then doubled Cape Negro & again anchored in Lando Bay. — The boats were lowered & a party went on shore. — no good water could be found.” (Jan 31)

Next stop – the delightful Port Famine… (RJV)



  1. […] was feared even before Magellan’s famous voyage in 1520 and Darwin’s passage through it on the Beagle – navigators detested its stiff westerlies and viscous currents. But over time its reputation has […]

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