Antonio de Córdoba José Vargas Ponce.

A voyage of discovery to the Strait of Magellan: with an account of the ... online

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From the latter point to the Cape of St. Geronimo, the climate
becomes more severe, and the face of the country more rude
and unpleasant. But, even this is nothing to be compared with
the remainder of the straiten its west point at Cape Vittoria; to
which last district, Narborough, with great reason, gave the
horrid appellation of the Daolation of the South.

In the midst of the summer of this part of the earth we ex-
perienced severe cold, and a singular inconstancy in the wea-
tlier ; very seldom did we enjoy a clear sky, and short were the
moments in which ue perceived the heat of the sun. Not a
day passed without some rain ; and, in general, it did not even
ijitermit to rain the whole day long. The thermometer stood
at 6^ and 7*^, and often it fell to zero. At the sauje time, it
must be remarked, that the mountains with which our vessel
was surrounded, must necessarily have diminished considerably
the cold, whose severity we found to be most intense, and al-
most insupportable on their sunmiits.

It cannot be doubted that the steep, lofty, and barren^
rocks an<i pinnacles of this part of tiie strait, covered with
perpetual snows, presenting an aspect equally gloomy and
lri<^litful, contribute much to the humidity and cold of the at-
ipospheie ; for which reason the air is constantly loailcd w ith
vapours and fogs so dense, that often the most furious hurri-
canes are not able to dissipate them. If here, as in other parts


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te the Strait i^JfageUan. G9

dF the worldi the cold slioiild increase proportiDndsty m the
winter season, it must be next to intolenible.

We had no opportunity of' experiencing this severity ; but
the Dutch, who were detained in this strait by contrary wea-
ther, being obliged to remain all the winter in the Bay des
Copdes, lost no less than 80 persons out of their number by the
inclemency of the climate : although we need not have recourse
to foreign examples, when we reBect on the fate of the colonies
planted by Sarmiento, which were entirely destroyed by the

All authors agree, that the southern hemisphere is, in equal
latitudes, twice as cokl as the northern. Some pretend, that
this arises from the greater space of the former which is occu-
pied by the waters of the Ocean ; from whence it comes, that,
in certain seasons, banks and shoals of snow and ice are met
with in no very high latitudes ; and hence also proceed the
wind?, which continually blow with violence from the west-
ward, which, passing over an immense extent of ocean, without
meeting any obstacles to interrupt or divert their course, gradu-
ally acquire such force, as to be capable of occasioning the
most dreadful effects ; in particular, rendering the passage from
the north and east, round Cape Horn, so painful and danger-
ous, in the Strait of Magellan we observed some variations in
the winds ; only, in general, we found that they followed the
direction of the channels amongst the islands and mountains;
and the impression produced by an atmosphere so loaded and
confined between such lofty mountains, contributed much to
form those furious gales, blasts, or hurricanes, which we some-
times experienced, and whose fury renders so tedious the pas-
sage through this strait.

it is impossible to conceive the moisture prevailing in all
these parts, and the multitudes of rivulets and falls of water
which, precipitating themselves from the higher parts of the
mountains, form a prospect, at first view most agreeable ; but
which, on a nearer approach, soon produces very opposite

These waters are very good when used immediately after
they are taken up; but^ve tound that on board ship they did
not long remain so, soon acquiring a disagreeable flavour, —
a proof of their bad qualities.

Such being the soil, and such the climate, of the low or plain
part of the country bordering on the Strait of Magellan, it is
not wonderful that it should produce only the lew plants
which we are now going to describe ; observing, at the same
time, they are all found in the neighbourhood of the sea: for
wc bad not occasion to penetrate much into the country; so that

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10 Cordffoa's Voyage of Dmovery

\tv9oxM be Wrong either to assert or to believe, that there are
not in the interior other classes.

The whole of the district we have described as so unfit for
vegetation, from the excessive want of moisture in the soil, is,
nevertheless, overrun with a species of plant resembling oat-
grass, and with another which grows in plenty in the Falk«
land Islands, and is there called paxonoL In the month
of December this was in its full vigour, the colour between
green and yellow, as then nearly ripe and drying up, when it
remains like straw. This is the substance with which the Pata-
gonians make their torches; and, as far as we saw, it fur-
nished good matter for the flame, being else, in all appearance,
extremely fit for the use of cattle, as has been experienced ia
the Falkland Islands.

1st. There is one plant, two feet in height, verv thick and
bushy, its leaves like those of the cypress, and of the same co-
lour: at the extremity of each is found a small yellow flower;
so that each little branch forms a sort of nosegay or bouquet of
flowers, which are very small and of a strong aromatic smell,
stronger than thyme. The taste is very bitter and resinous.
This plant produces no prickles, nor fruit of any sort; its roots
are very much scattered, although they are but slender and
/ weak. When you rub the leaves against the band, they leave
a very agreeable and refreshing odour. *it resembles a little the
trica, or heath, of Spain ; but may rather be considered as a
species peculiar to this strait.

2d. plant has but few leaves,- which are small, and
covered with a down. It is the shape of the palm of the hand j
the colour of the upper surface a bright-green, and white and
more downy on the under surface : its taste is somewhat sub-
acid. The stalk is about l| foot high, on \^'hich it sets out
some flowers, which are white in the leaves, but yellow in the
centre of the calyx, resembling the maryg6ld : these flowers
are always found in a cluster of three or four together; the
stalk is also downy and slender ; the root, which is white, is
from five to seven inches long : in some properties it resembles
the sorrel.

3d. The third is about one foot high ; the leaves smaller than
those of sage, being whitish, thick, and hairy ; theirsmell a little
Aromatic, and taste bitter: it seems to be a species of canijntis,
or semper viva, of the fields.

4th. The fourth plant is a kind of shrub, little more than one
foot higli, spreading over the ground for more than a yard in
circumference; the leaves round, shaped like tlie fruit of the
almond j the colour a dark-grccn j its branches thick set with


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to the Strait of Magellan. . 71

prickles ia such regular order, that, under each leaf, they form
a cross, on which the leaf rests ; the taste is acid but disiin^re^^u.
blc, aful it has a sensible smell : it bears a small 'round fruit, of
the same taste; but when we s^w it, it was not ripe.

These four plants are all that deserve any description. The
Abb6 Perneti, in his voyage to the Falkland Islands, makes
mention of some of these, besides several others, peculiar to
these islands. It is not improbable, that an experienced botar
nist and naturalist might have discovered in this part of th^
stmt greater treasures, to increase the catalogue of plants
already known; but in that, this tract of country will always
remain one of the most barren and unfit for the production of
necessaries for men, at least in the article of vegetables.

If this plain country were proper for the erowth of trees, it
is but reasonable to suppose that we should have seen some on
it ; since the violent wuids, blowing almost incessantly from
the westward, must, in all probability, on numberless occasions,
have conveyed hither the seeds of those with which the moun-
tainous tracts to the west are almost entirely covered.

This supposition is supported by the many and useless at^
tempts made by the French and English, to raise trees on their
respective settlements in the Falkland Islands, transporting
them, with ail possible precaution, from the Strait of Magellan,
which is at uo great distance : but neither the one nor the other
have hitherto been successful.

When we (the Spaniards) got possession of these islands, in
1764, we also used the most strenuous exertions to the samo
effect, carrying thither not only young plants, but even the
soil, from Buenos Ay res; by which precaution we succeeded
in making them take root and live, but not to come to any per.
iection ; and even to procure a few cabbages and garden-stuff,
although not in perfect ripeness, which never is obtained, it is
necessary to sow them under the shelter of some slope or
rising ground, and to surround them with hurdles, to defend
them from the winds. The same precautions were employed in
raising trees; but no advantage was ever reaped from such qx*
pensive labour : all which proves the similarity of soil in these
islands with the country we are now describing at the mouth of
the strait.

We come now to treat of the quadrupeds of this country, on
which subject we must remark, that it appeared very strange,
that, in all this tract, we should not meet with the least trace,
nor acquire the smallest information, of horned cattle, which
have 60 prodigiously increased all over the territory of Buenos
Ayres. Perhaps these most useful animals have never arrived
at this southern extremity of South America, on account of tlje

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12 Cordovans Voyage of Discwery

large rivers, and other interruptions, which they have not beea
able to overcome.

The first animal that presented itself to our view, vrastbe
guanaco lamas or lama, of which we might have given a cir*
cumstantial description, were it not that such accounts are
already common, in all treatises on natural history. We shall
therefore confine ourselves to some remarks on the peculiarities
of those animals which are found in the neighbourhood of the

The celebrated naturalist, M. de Buffon, is of opinion, that
the lama only inhabits the coldest regions of the Cordilleras of the
Andes ; but this supposition cannot be reconciled with what is
related of them by D. A. de Ulloa, in the Account of his Jour*
ney to Peru, nor with the great numbers of them to be found
along the Patagonian coast and the plain part of the Strait of
Magellan, where they constitute the chief article of the food;
and the wealth of the inhabitants. In all the different occasions
of our intercourse with the Patagonians, the lama was the only
article they presented to us, their abundance of these animals
exciting our wonder ; but, altlK)ugh we saw them so frequently
on the shore, we had no opportunity of killing any of them.

It is not to be wondered at, that they should inhabit a tract .of
country so destitute of water as this is, since it is well known,
that they consume but a very small quantity of either food or
drink, and frequently quench their thirst by keeping their
mouths moist with their own saliva, with which they are fur-
nished in much greater abundance than any other kind of ani*

The lama has often been carried to Spain, but has never
propagated, anil has lived but a very short time ; showing that
that animal thrives only in the country from which it originally

The plains abound no less with zorillos (called izqurepatly),
whose fur is as pleasant to the eye and the touch, as the smell
of its urine is pestiferous, which may b© perceived at a
very great distance. Our officers shot some of them, but
were obliged to throw them into the sea, to prevent the
vessel from being poisoned with their abominable smell. Great
care is requisite in depriving their fur of this most ofTenskve
odour, which would render them totally unserviceable; and,
even after they are properly prepared^ they must be kept per-
fectly dry ; for, on the least communication with water, they
again revive their loathsome smell.

All naturalists agree, that this animal (the zorillo) is found
only in the New World ; and M. de Buffon has very properly
remarked a difference which subsists between those of the south

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(0 the Strait of Magdlan. 73

parts of America, and those in the districts of Carthagena and
the.river Orinoco [notOronoco], both in the size and the colour
of the skin, as also in the smell of its urine, which is still more
abominable than even that of the zorillo of Magellan.

We have but little to observe concerning the horse, of which
the Patagonians make such constant use, as it is well known
that the original Americans were totally unacquainted with that
noble animal, and his usefulness in the purposes of civilized
life, until they had experienced the advantages derived from
them by the Europeans, who first transported them to this part
of the globe; by that means greatly facilitating their conquest of

The perfect similarity proves manifestly that the Patagonians
have drawn, and still continue to receive, such horses as they
now possess in so great numbers, from the immense plains or
pampas of Buenos Ayres, where these animals have increased
to a degree almost beyond conception or b'elief.

The author (Walter) of the Voyage of Commodore Anson
round the World, asserts, that the natives of these parts prefer
the flesh of horses for food to that of any other animal ;
but, although we took a great deal of pains to discover the
truth of this assertion, we never were able to learn whether
the Patagonians do re^Uy follow that practice : on the con-
trary, we are inclined to think that it is at best extremely

Such faithful companions of these natives are their dogs»
that they are very seldom seen without a vast crowd of them.
Tlieir race resembles that which at Buenos Ayres is called cimar^
rants, (wild, untamed, also spotted or speckled,) and from
whence, most probably, they originally received them, whi-
ther they were flrst carried by the Europeans; since it is cer-
tain, what is related by the histories of America, and which is
confirmed by Cook, in his first voyage to the South Seas, that
the indigenous animals of the canine race» in that country, ne-
ver bark ; whereas, those which accompanied the Patagonians
gave unequivocal proofs, and that even at a great distance, of
Uieir being descended from ancestor^ natives of the Old Con-

As the low parts of this strait are entirely destitute of trees,
it is not surprising that few birds should be met with; we shall
therefore omit the aquatic fowl, which are common to both

Cirts of the strait, and observe, that we only saw some of those
rge birds of this continent, which, from their general resem*.
blance to the ostrich, have been distinguished by the same name;
but which, when carefully examined, are found to be essentia
Voyages and Travels^ No. b, FoU II. l

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74 Cordova^ & ^9y^g^ of Discovery

ally different from the ostrich : on which ax:count, several Spa-
nish naturalists, as well as Buffon, have reserved to the bird the
appellation tuyUj by which it is known to the inhabitants of the
district in which it was first observed : so that the tuyUf which
is only found in America, ought not to be confounded with the
ostrich, which is a bird peculiar to Africa.

We also saw some birds of prey ; amongst others, a kind of
SD(iall eagle, called by the naturalists the little eagl€i or grey
falcon, which is so frequent in the Falkland Islands.

These are all the animals which are to be found at the en-
trance of the Strait of Magellan.

We met with no fish of any kind here, so that it must be far
from plentiful ; and the shores also seem to be destitute of shell-

We come now to the mountainous part of the Strait of Ma-
gellan, of whose temperature we have already made mention.
In the narrow plains and levels along the foot of the mountains
grow small round heaps, formed by a plant whose leaves are
round, and so closely set and interwoven together, that each
plant forms a sort of carpet, extremely equal and even, having
on the inside nothing but the roots, which, in proportion as
they grow, continue to increase this heap of leaves, until it
assumes the appearance of a large round loaf. This plant is
called by botanists sedum minimum.

These heaps or loaves, as they may be called, are from one to
two feet high, and the same in diameter, and, when they are in
their vigour, are so strong as to bear the weight of a man ; but
we observed, that, when they began to decay, they easily gave
way, on placing the foot on them. When they are in a middle
state, that is, neither so green as to possess all their power of
resistance, nor so decayed as to have the roots putrid, they
raise and lower their surface, when one stands on them, with a
sort of elasticity or tremulous motion, produced by their own
strength, as also by the moss or green crust of the ground,
which grows up among them.

The surface or soil in which these loaf-shaped heaps grow,
is not the solid ground, but only the remains of other heaps of
the same kind, corrupted by the moisture ; so that the real soil
or earth is not met with for four, five, or six, feet lower down,
which must render extremely difficult, if not entirely abortive,
any attempt to bring into a state of cultivation this ground>
which, in all probability, has lain in its present state ^om its
first formation. The proper soil consists of a kind of clay^
of a darkish colour, and light, with some small stones, and a
little fine sand ; so that, if the soil were not so beset with the

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to the Strait of Magellan. 75

above-mentioned plant and crust, it ^eems to be not unapt for
cultivation and agriculture, at least, as far as we may judge
by the abundance and vigour of all the vegetables which it pro-

The plant just described covers almost the whole surface ; of
which we have thought it better to give the foregoing descrip.
tion, than to lose time in enquiring tor a proper name for it, or
a correct assimilation to some other better known, which per-
haps would be so much labour thrown away ; being convinced
that, from what has been related concerning it, experienced
botanists will be at no loss to distinguish it, and to arrange it
according to its proper class of vegetable productions.

There is another plant in great abundance, near two yards
high, very thick set with leaves from the root upwards,
which are of a bright-green, and arranged in the shape of a
cross ; the flowers are white and beautiful, the petals being
very small, grouped together like a nosegay. The natives eat
this plant, which is to them a great dainty. We had not the
good fortune to procure its seed in proper season, which con-
sists of a few square long grains in the flower. The taste of
this plant is subacid, with very little sweetness in it.

Another plant is frequently found, whose leaves are of the
shape atid colour of the vine, but of the size of the- ivy. Its
height is not quite three yards. In summer it sends out the
fruit, which consists of clusters of berries, about the size of a
large pea, very black, and sweet; of which our people ate
freely, without experiencing any inconvenience therefrom.
This plant is the uva ursie, having the same figure and property
with others of the same kind that are well known.

Another species of the same shrub, of a yellow colour, is
also found here, with a smaller leaf than the former ; having pa
its branches a fruit of the satne taste and colour, but a diffierent
shape : so that it may be considered as belonging to the same
kind of plant, and possessed of the same properties and virtues.

Intermingled with these shrubs is found, on the ground,
plants bearing a flower, which, even in Europe, the fair sex
might esteem handsome. This flower is bell-shaped, of a rose-
colour, growing on a kind of small myrtle. Also another plant,
with leaves like the myrtle, produces numbers of white flowers,
of delicious smell : this gives a reddish round fruit, like a pea,
having within it a stone like the plum. Besides which, there
are three other kinds of the same plant. The taste, far from
being agreeable, is dry and insipid; but the leaves are harsh
and astringent, so that they may be supposed to contain more
virtue than the fruit,


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74 CordffoaU Voyage of Discotverjf

Near the rimlets or streams of water, there is commonly
found in great abundance, on the ground, a plant, different
from the melon, but very much resembling it in the leaf ^ each
of which springs out of the ground by a separate pedicle, the
colour of an ordinary green ; the pedicle, or foot-stalk, red-
dish ; the taste of the leaf very bitter. We also found this plant
in the mountain de la Cruz> having in its calyx a small scarlet
berry, like an unripe mulberry ; the root is long, but not thick.
From the properties of this plant, we called it Malva Atagel^

In one of the bogs we examined we found a great quantity of
fern, resembling that which grows in Spain; and, in various
other places, a s{)ecies of maidenhair, but very different from
that wnich grows in moist situations.

There are also along the beach many plants, whose height
does not exceed two feet, with leaves as large as those of the
white beet.

On the trunks of trees, and beside the channels of water, is
found a kind of vetch, or knot-grass, which is a plant with
leaves as small as those of lentils ; its stalks very broad, and of a
dry insipid taste.

Also, along the sea^shore, we met with some shrubs, whose
leaves are. very fine and delicate, resembling the willow,
of a bright-green colour ; the flowers scarlet and bell-shaped,
having in the centre three small blue petals, enclosing the calyx,
altogether offering a very pleasant sight to the eye. The seed
lies in a small sheath, like a kernel, but more slender and
round; the stem is very crooked, and in general covered
with a coat of moss; but the wood is neither strong nor

Near the beach is also found a large quantity of wild parsley^
or parsley of Macedonia, of a toXex&iy agreeable flavour. On
account of the antiscorbutic qualities of this plant, we made
<;onstant use of it in our vessel ; the ship's company eating it,
with much advantage, both in soup and broth, and by way of

In the interior of the woods we met with some plants of anise,
but were pot so fortunate as to find its grains or seed, notwith-
standing that we were in the strait during the season in which
it is ripe.

Great part of these woods is overrun with a plant very like
rosemary, but which is of a different kind : it is of various
heights, the tallest not being two yards; each plant being thick
and busby from the ground upwards ; the leaves of a bright-^
{xeen, whitish in the upper sunaces, and a little downy on the

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to the Strati qf Magellan. • 77

ibterior ; their length about one inch, and greatest breadth one
quarter of an inch. It bears flowers on each branch of the
upper part of the shrub, of a white colour, but of very little
smell ; the taste bitter, and somewhat insipid ; but, when it is
burnt, it exhales a very pleasant odour.

The myrtle is the shrub which produces the fruit which
has been \ised by perhaps all the travellers who have passed
this strait, on account of its subacid sweetish taste, being
of a cooling quality, and extremely pleasant, when perfectly
ripe. Of this fruit there are many kinds ; some being roundf,
others oblong, others heart-shaped. They vary also in their
colour ; some being black, others red, rose-colour, or entirely
white <; which last are the sweetest.

This plant, called by Sarmiento montina^ is of different sizes,
some being found from one foot to two yards, all producing
fruit in their season. The leaves are smallish, but long and
sharp-pointed; so nrach so, that, in getting the firuit, they
prick the hands: the colour of all these leaves is a dark-green,
and insipid and astringent. This fruit constitutes a part of the
food of the Indians, and our crew also eat them abundantly.

Although we saw no more, it would be rash to assert, that the
Strait of Magellan produces no other plants than those we have
recapitulated, since it is but natural to imagine that it may fur-
nish many other kinds, especially in the mountainous track, of

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