Posted by: Rob Viens | February 12, 2014

Birthday Wishes in Port Famine

It is hard to believe that after more than 2 years at sea, on this day in 1834 Charles Darwin was celebrating his 25th birthday. I doubt there was any cake, certainly no ice cream, and, in the barren landscape of the Straits of Magellan, it is doubtful Darwin even had a nice orange or banana to mark the occasion.  He doesn’t even bring it up in his diary.  But I can’t image such a milestone birthday passed without our hero thinking about his future career – still unaware of just how big of an impact he would have.  Happy Birthday Charlie!

Back in early February the Beagle was cruising the Straits of Magellan – sailing between the lands of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Darwin described the next few days as the crew approached Port Famine:

“So in the morning got under weigh to run to Port Famine; The wind fell light; so the Captain sent the ship back to her anchorage & proceeded in a boat to the head of Shoal Harbor, During the last voyage the Captain discovered a large inland sea (Skyring water), 50 miles long; From the end of Shoal harbor we walked 5 miles across the country in hopes of being able to see it; the distance turned out to be greater than was expected & we were disappointed, if it had been nearer, the Captain had intended to have put a whale-boat on wheels & dragged it across, which would have saved much time in the survey of this Water. As soon as we came on board, the anchor was weighed & with a light air stood down for Port Famine.

The country, in this neighbourhead, may be called an intermixture of Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego; here we have many plants of the two countries; the nature of the climate being intermediate: a few miles to the South the rounded Slate hills & forests of evergreen beeches commence. — The country is however throughily uninteresting.” (Feb 1)

“We got into Port Famine in the middle of the night, after a calm delightful day. M. Sarmiento a mountain 6800 feet high, was visible although 90 miles distant.” (Feb 2)

Port Famine is known for essentially two things – neither of them particularly positive.  The first, is the incident that provided the site with its name.  The second, is that it is the final resting place of Pringle Stokes.  Let me elaborate…

Location of Port Famine

Not long after what was left of Magellan’s “fleet”  returned to Spain, the Spanish decided to establish a presence in the strait – in part to help gain control of the important waterway. This plan was supported by the King, at the advice of one of the commanders who had been chasing down “pirates” like Sir Francis Drake in South America for over a decade – Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. The first attempt to send 3000 colonists to the region in 1581 never reached South America.  The expedition was forced back to Spain by storms. Shortly afterward Gamboa left with a small fleet to try again.  This time, after several lost ships and disagreements that resulted in others returning to Spain, about 300 colonists and 4 ships reached the site that would become Port Famine and established a colony.  They called it Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe – the “City of King Philip”.

The colonists – including soldiers, priests, women and children – built a town on the site, but from the beginning appear to have had difficultly with the indigenous people (big surprise) and the availability of food. Gamboa returned to Spain (more on that shortly) in 1584, and nothing more seems to have been heard from the colony until Thomas Cavendish stopped there in 1587. Cavendish found the ruins of a town with only 18 starving survivors, only one of which trusted the Englishman enough to come aboard and return to Europe.  The In the end, he would be the only one left to tell the tale of The City of King Philip – a tale of starvation and loss.  A tale that led Cavendish to rename the site Port Famine.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa
Gamboa, didn’t get off that easy himself.  His ship was captured by the British while returning to Europe and was brought before the queen.  She sent him back to Spain with an offering of peace, but he was again captured – this time by the French – and the message never made it to the king.  One has to wonder if the war between England and Spain would have ended earlier if the queen’s letter of peace had reach King Philip?

In site of Port Famine, Mt. Sarimiento is named after the Spanish commander (image from Climbing Magazine)

The next time the Port Famine “made the headlines” was 1828, when it was visited by the HMS Beagle on its first voyage of discovery. At that time the ship was commanded by Pringle Stokes (second in command to Philip Parker King who commanded the expedition from the HMS Adventure).  It was in Port Famine that Stokes succumbed to deep depression brought on by the desolation of the southern weather and shot himself.  Along with the ruins of the Spanish colony, Stokes’ grave site is one of the few landmarks of Port Famine.  Recall that this was one of the things that set in motion a string of events that led to Darwin’s invitation to join the Beagle‘s second voyage. (For more on Stokes’ story see The First Voyage of the Beagle – Part I.)

Grave site of Pringle Stokes (by Igor Solar)

Pringle Stokes gravestone

Much like 1828, Darwin’s early days in Port Famine were cold and wet – and for the next few days his motion was somewhat restricted by the weather:

“We are now within a wet circle, in consequence every morning there has been torrents of rain; in the evening I managed to have some walks along the beach; which is the only place where it is possible to proceed in any way but scrambling.” (Feb 3-5)

But there would be more climbing in Darwin’s future very soon… (RJV)


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