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in this latitude so little height, that few parts of it appeared
above the tops of the neighbouring islets. We found here a party of
five men from Caylen, "el fin del Cristiandad," who had most
adventurously crossed in their miserable boat-canoe, for the
purpose of fishing, the open space of sea which separates Chonos
from Chiloe. These islands will, in all probability, in a short
time become peopled like those adjoining the coast of Chiloe.

The wild potato grows on these islands in great abundance, on the
sandy, shelly soil near the sea-beach. The tallest plant was four
feet in height. The tubers were generally small, but I found one,
of an oval shape, two inches in diameter: they resembled in every
respect, and had the same smell as English potatoes; but when
boiled they shrunk much, and were watery and insipid, without any
bitter taste. They are undoubtedly here indigenous: they grow as
far south, according to Mr. Low, as latitude 50 degrees, and are
called Aquinas by the wild Indians of that part: the Chilotan
Indians have a different name for them. Professor Henslow, who has
examined the dried specimens which I brought home, says that they
are the same with those described by Mr. Sabine from Valparaiso,
but that they form a variety which by some botanists has been
considered as specifically distinct. (13/1. "Horticultural
Transactions" volume 5 page 249. Mr. Caldeleugh sent home two
tubers, which, being well manured, even the first season produced
numerous potatoes and an abundance of leaves. See Humboldt's
interesting discussion on this plant, which it appears was unknown
in Mexico, - in "Political Essay on New Spain" book 4 chapter 9.) It
is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile
mountains of central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for
more than six months, and within the damp forests of these southern

In the central parts of the Chonos Archipelago (latitude 45
degrees), the forest has very much the same character with that
along the whole west coast, for 600 miles southward to Cape Horn.
The arborescent grass of Chiloe is not found here; while the beech
of Tierra del Fuego grows to a good size, and forms a considerable
proportion of the wood; not, however, in the same exclusive manner
as it does farther southward. Cryptogamic plants here find a most
congenial climate. In the Strait of Magellan, as I have before
remarked, the country appears too cold and wet to allow of their
arriving at perfection; but in these islands, within the forest,
the number of species and great abundance of mosses, lichens, and
small ferns, is quite extraordinary. (13/2. By sweeping with my
insect-net, I procured from these situations a considerable number
of minute insects, of the family of Staphylinidae, and others
allied to Pselaphus, and minute Hymenoptera. But the most
characteristic family in number, both of individuals and species,
throughout the more open parts of Chiloe and Chonos is that of
Telephoridae.) In Tierra del Fuego trees grow only on the
hillsides; every level piece of land being invariably covered by a
thick bed of peat; but in Chiloe flat land supports the most
luxuriant forests. Here, within the Chonos Archipelago, the nature
of the climate more closely approaches that of Tierra del Fuego
than that of northern Chiloe; for every patch of level ground is
covered by two species of plants (Astelia pumila and Donatia
magellanica), which by their joint decay compose a thick bed of
elastic peat.

In Tierra del Fuego, above the region of woodland, the former of
these eminently sociable plants is the chief agent in the
production of peat. Fresh leaves are always succeeding one to the
other round the central tap-root, the lower ones soon decay, and in
tracing a root downwards in the peat, the leaves, yet holding their
place, can be observed passing through every stage of
decomposition, till the whole becomes blended in one confused mass.
The Astelia is assisted by a few other plants, - here and there a
small creeping Myrtus (M. nummularia), with a woody stem like our
cranberry and with a sweet berry, - an Empetrum (E. rubrum), like
our heath, - a rush (Juncus grandiflorus), are nearly the only ones
that grow on the swampy surface. These plants, though possessing a
very close general resemblance to the English species of the same
genera, are different. In the more level parts of the country, the
surface of the peat is broken up into little pools of water, which
stand at different heights, and appear as if artificially
excavated. Small streams of water, flowing underground, complete
the disorganisation of the vegetable matter, and consolidate the

The climate of the southern part of America appears particularly
favourable to the production of peat. In the Falkland Islands
almost every kind of plant, even the coarse grass which covers the
whole surface of the land, becomes converted into this substance:
scarcely any situation checks its growth; some of the beds are as
much as twelve feet thick, and the lower part becomes so solid when
dry, that it will hardly burn. Although every plant lends its aid,
yet in most parts the Astelia is the most efficient. It is rather a
singular circumstance, as being so very different from what occurs
in Europe, that I nowhere saw moss forming by its decay any portion
of the peat in South America. With respect to the northern limit at
which the climate allows of that peculiar kind of slow
decomposition which is necessary for its production, I believe that
in Chiloe (latitude 41 to 42 degrees), although there is much
swampy ground, no well-characterised peat occurs: but in the Chonos
Islands, three degrees farther southward, we have seen that it is
abundant. On the eastern coast in La Plata (latitude 35 degrees) I
was told by a Spanish resident who had visited Ireland, that he had
often sought for this substance, but had never been able to find
any. He showed me, as the nearest approach to it which he had
discovered, a black peaty soil, so penetrated with roots as to
allow of an extremely slow and imperfect combustion.

The zoology of these broken islets of the Chonos Archipelago is, as
might have been expected, very poor. Of quadrupeds two aquatic
kinds are common. The Myopotamus Coypus (like a beaver, but with a
round tail) is well known from its fine fur, which is an object of
trade throughout the tributaries of La Plata. It here, however,
exclusively frequents salt water; which same circumstance has been
mentioned as sometimes occurring with the great rodent, the
Capybara. A small sea-otter is very numerous; this animal does not
feed exclusively on fish, but, like the seals, draws a large supply
from a small red crab, which swims in shoals near the surface of
the water. Mr. Bynoe saw one in Tierra del Fuego eating a
cuttle-fish; and at Low's Harbour, another was killed in the act of
carrying to its hole a large volute shell. At one place I caught in
a trap a singular little mouse (M. brachiotis); it appeared common
on several of the islets, but the Chilotans at Low's Harbour said
that it was not found in all. What a succession of chances, or what
changes of level must have been brought into play, thus to spread
these small animals throughout this broken archipelago! (13/3. It
is said that some rapacious birds bring their prey alive to their
nests. If so, in the course of centuries, every now and then, one
might escape from the young birds. Some such agency is necessary,
to account for the distribution of the smaller gnawing animals on
islands not very near each other.)

In all parts of Chiloe and Chonos, two very strange birds occur,
which are allied to, and replace, the Turco and Tapacolo of central
Chile. One is called by the inhabitants "Cheucau" (Pteroptochos
rubecula): it frequents the most gloomy and retired spots within
the damp forests. Sometimes, although its cry may be heard close at
hand, let a person watch ever so attentively he will not see the
cheucau; at other times let him stand motionless and the
red-breasted little bird will approach within a few feet in the
most familiar manner. It then busily hops about the entangled mass
of rotting canes and branches, with its little tail cocked upwards.
The cheucau is held in superstitious fear by the Chilotans, on
account of its strange and varied cries. There are three very
distinct cries: One is called "chiduco," and is an omen of good;
another, "huitreu," which is extremely unfavourable; and a third,
which I have forgotten. These words are given in imitation of the
noises; and the natives are in some things absolutely governed by
them. The Chilotans assuredly have chosen a most comical little
creature for their prophet. An allied species, but rather larger,
is called by the natives "Guid-guid" (Pteroptochos Tarnii), and by
the English the barking-bird. This latter name is well given; for I
defy any one at first to feel certain that a small dog is not
yelping somewhere in the forest. Just as with the cheucau, a person
will sometimes hear the bark close by, but in vain may endeavour by
watching, and with still less chance by beating the bushes, to see
the bird; yet at other times the guid-guid fearlessly comes near.
Its manner of feeding and its general habits are very similar to
those of the cheucau.

On the coast, a small dusky-coloured bird (Opetiorhynchus
Patagonicus) is very common. (13/4. I may mention, as a proof of
how great a difference there is between the seasons of the wooded
and the open parts of this coast, that on September 20th, in
latitude 34 degrees, these birds had young ones in the nest, while
among the Chonos Islands, three months later in the summer, they
were only laying, the difference in latitude between these two
places being about 700 miles.) It is remarkable from its quiet
habits; it lives entirely on the sea-beach, like a sandpiper.
Besides these birds only few others inhabit this broken land. In my
rough notes I describe the strange noises, which, although
frequently heard within these gloomy forests, yet scarcely disturb
the general silence. The yelping of the guid-guid, and the sudden
whew-whew of the cheucau, sometimes come from afar off, and
sometimes from close at hand; the little black wren of Tierra del
Fuego occasionally adds its cry; the creeper (Oxyurus) follows the
intruder screaming and twittering; the humming-bird may be seen
every now and then darting from side to side, and emitting, like an
insect, its shrill chirp; lastly, from the top of some lofty tree
the indistinct but plaintive note of the white-tufted
tyrant-flycatcher (Myiobius) may be noticed. From the great
preponderance in most countries of certain common genera of birds,
such as the finches, one feels at first surprised at meeting with
the peculiar forms above enumerated, as the commonest birds in any
district. In central Chile two of them, namely, the Oxyurus and
Scytalopus, occur, although most rarely. When finding, as in this
case, animals which seem to play so insignificant a part in the
great scheme of nature, one is apt to wonder why they were created.
But it should always be recollected, that in some other country
perhaps they are essential members of society, or at some former
period may have been so. If America south of 37 degrees were sunk
beneath the waters of the ocean, these two birds might continue to
exist in central Chile for a long period, but it is very improbable
that their numbers would increase. We should then see a case which
must inevitably have happened with very many animals.

These southern seas are frequented by several species of Petrels:
the largest kind, Procellaria gigantea, or nelly (quebrantahuesos,
or break-bones, of the Spaniards), is a common bird, both in the
inland channels and on the open sea. In its habits and manner of
flight there is a very close resemblance with the albatross; and as
with the albatross, a person may watch it for hours together
without seeing on what it feeds. The "break-bones" is, however, a
rapacious bird, for it was observed by some of the officers at Port
St. Antonio chasing a diver, which tried to escape by diving and
flying, but was continually struck down, and at last killed by a
blow on its head. At Port St. Julian these great petrels were seen
killing and devouring young gulls. A second species (Puffinus
cinereus), which is common to Europe, Cape Horn, and the coast of
Peru, is of a much smaller size than the P. gigantea, but, like it,
of a dirty black colour. It generally frequents the inland sounds
in very large flocks: I do not think I ever saw so many birds of
any other sort together, as I once saw of these behind the island
of Chiloe. Hundreds of thousands flew in an irregular line for
several hours in one direction. When part of the flock settled on
the water the surface was blackened, and a noise proceeded from
them as of human beings talking in the distance.

There are several other species of petrels, but I will only mention
one other kind, the Pelacanoides Berardi, which offers an example
of those extraordinary cases, of a bird evidently belonging to one
well-marked family, yet both in its habits and structure allied to
a very distinct tribe. This bird never leaves the quiet inland
sounds. When disturbed it dives to a distance, and on coming to the
surface, with the same movement takes flight. After flying by the
rapid movement of its short wings for a space in a straight line,
it drops, as if struck dead, and dives again. The form of its beak
and nostrils, length of foot, and even the colouring of its
plumage, show that this bird is a petrel: on the other hand, its
short wings and consequent little power of flight, its form of body
and shape of tail, the absence of a hind toe to its foot, its habit
of living, and its choice of situation, make it at first doubtful
whether its relationship is not equally close with the auks. It
would undoubtedly be mistaken for an auk, when seen from a
distance, either on the wing, or when diving and quietly swimming
about the retired channels of Tierra del Fuego.



San Carlos, Chiloe.
Osorno in eruption, contemporaneously with Aconcagua and
Ride to Cucao.
Impenetrable forests.
Great earthquake.
Rocks fissured.
Appearance of the former towns.
The sea black and boiling.
Direction of the vibrations.
Stones twisted round.
Great wave.
Permanent elevation of the land.
Area of volcanic phenomena.
The connection between the elevatory and eruptive forces.
Cause of earthquakes.
Slow elevation of mountain-chains.




On January the 15th, 1835 we sailed from Low's Harbour, and three
days afterwards anchored a second time in the bay of S. Carlos in
Chiloe. On the night of the 19th the volcano of Osorno was in
action. At midnight the sentry observed something like a large
star, which gradually increased in size till about three o'clock,
when it presented a very magnificent spectacle. By the aid of a
glass, dark objects, in constant succession, were seen, in the
midst of a great glare of red light, to be thrown up and to fall
down. The light was sufficient to cast on the water a long bright
reflection. Large masses of molten matter seem very commonly to be
cast out of the craters in this part of the Cordillera. I was
assured that when the Corcovado is in eruption, great masses are
projected upwards and are seen to burst in the air, assuming many
fantastical forms, such as trees: their size must be immense, for
they can be distinguished from the high land behind S. Carlos,
which is no less than ninety-three miles from the Corcovado. In the
morning the volcano became tranquil.

I was surprised at hearing afterwards that Aconcagua in Chile, 480
miles northwards, was in action on the same night; and still more
surprised to hear that the great eruption of Coseguina (2700 miles
north of Aconcagua), accompanied by an earthquake felt over 1000
miles, also occurred within six hours of this same time. This
coincidence is the more remarkable, as Coseguina had been dormant
for twenty-six years: and Aconcagua most rarely shows any signs of
action. It is difficult even to conjecture whether this coincidence
was accidental, or shows some subterranean connection. If Vesuvius,
Etna, and Hecla in Iceland (all three relatively nearer each other
than the corresponding points in South America), suddenly burst
forth in eruption on the same night, the coincidence would be
thought remarkable; but it is far more remarkable in this case,
where the three vents fall on the same great mountain-chain, and
where the vast plains along the entire eastern coast, and the
upraised recent shells along more than 2000 miles on the western
coast, show in how equable and connected a manner the elevatory
forces have acted.

Captain Fitz Roy being anxious that some bearings should be taken
on the outer coast of Chiloe, it was planned that Mr. King and
myself should ride to Castro, and thence across the island to the
Capella de Cucao, situated on the west coast. Having hired horses
and a guide, we set out on the morning of the 22nd. We had not
proceeded far, before we were joined by a woman and two boys, who
were bent on the same journey. Every one on this road acts on a
"hail-fellow-well-met" fashion; and one may here enjoy the
privilege, so rare in South America, of travelling without
firearms. At first the country consisted of a succession of hills
and valleys: nearer to Castro it became very level. The road itself
is a curious affair; it consists in its whole length, with the
exception of very few parts, of great logs of wood, which are
either broad and laid longitudinally, or narrow and placed
transversely. In summer the road is not very bad: but in winter,
when the wood is rendered slippery from rain, travelling is
exceedingly difficult. At that time of the year, the ground on each
side becomes a morass, and is often overflowed: hence it is
necessary that the longitudinal logs should be fastened down by
transverse poles, which are pegged on each side into the earth.
These pegs render a fall from a horse dangerous, as the chance of
alighting on one of them is not small. It is remarkable, however,
how active custom has made the Chilotan horses. In crossing bad
parts, where the logs had been displaced, they skipped from one to
the other, almost with the quickness and certainty of a dog. On
both hands the road is bordered by the lofty forest-trees, with
their bases matted together by canes. When occasionally a long
reach of this avenue could be beheld, it presented a curious scene
of uniformity: the white line of logs, narrowing in perspective,
became hidden by the gloomy forest, or terminated in a zigzag which
ascended some steep hill.

Although the distance from S. Carlos to Castro is only twelve
leagues in a straight line, the formation of the road must have
been a great labour. I was told that several people had formerly
lost their lives in attempting to cross the forest. The first who
succeeded was an Indian, who cut his way through the canes in eight
days, and reached S. Carlos: he was rewarded by the Spanish
government with a grant of land. During the summer, many of the
Indians wander about the forests (but chiefly in the higher parts,
where the woods are not quite so thick), in search of the half-wild
cattle which live on the leaves of the cane and certain trees. It
was one of these huntsmen who by chance discovered, a few years
since, an English vessel, which had been wrecked on the outer
coast. The crew were beginning to fail in provisions, and it is not
probable that, without the aid of this man, they would ever have
extricated themselves from these scarcely penetrable woods. As it
was, one seaman died on the march, from fatigue. The Indians in
these excursions steer by the sun; so that if there is a
continuance of cloudy weather, they cannot travel.

The day was beautiful, and the number of trees which were in full
flower perfumed the air; yet even this could hardly dissipate the
effect of the gloomy dampness of the forest. Moreover, the many
dead trunks that stand like skeletons, never fail to give to these
primeval woods a character of solemnity, absent in those of
countries long civilised. Shortly after sunset we bivouacked for
the night. Our female companion, who was rather good-looking,
belonged to one of the most respectable families in Castro: she
rode, however, astride, and without shoes or stockings. I was
surprised at the total want of pride shown by her and her brother.
They brought food with them, but at all our meals sat watching Mr.
King and myself whilst eating, till we were fairly shamed into
feeding the whole party. The night was cloudless; and while lying
in our beds, we enjoyed the sight (and it is a high enjoyment) of
the multitude of stars which illumined the darkness of the forest.

JANUARY 23, 1835.

We rose early in the morning, and reached the pretty quiet town of
Castro by two o'clock. The old governor had died since our last
visit, and a Chileno was acting in his place. We had a letter of
introduction to Don Pedro, whom we found exceedingly hospitable and
kind, and more disinterested than is usual on this side of the
continent. The next day Don Pedro procured us fresh horses, and
offered to accompany us himself. We proceeded to the
south - generally following the coast, and passing through several
hamlets, each with its large barn-like chapel built of wood. At
Vilipilli, Don Pedro asked the commandant to give us a guide to
Cucao. The old gentleman offered to come himself; but for a long
time nothing would persuade him that two Englishmen really wished
to go to such an out-of-the-way place as Cucao. We were thus
accompanied by the two greatest aristocrats in the country, as was
plainly to be seen in the manner of all the poorer Indians towards
them. At Chonchi we struck across the island, following intricate
winding paths, sometimes passing through magnificent forests, and
sometimes through pretty cleared spots, abounding with corn and
potato crops. This undulating woody country, partially cultivated,
reminded me of the wilder parts of England, and therefore had to my
eye a most fascinating aspect. At Vilinco, which is situated on the
borders of the lake of Cucao, only a few fields were cleared; and
all the inhabitants appeared to be Indians. This lake is twelve
miles long, and runs in an east and west direction. From local
circumstances, the sea-breeze blows very regularly during the day,
and during the night it falls calm: this has given rise to strange
exaggerations, for the phenomenon, as described to us at S. Carlos,
was quite a prodigy.

The road to Cucao was so very bad that we determined to embark in a
periagua. The commandant, in the most authoritative manner, ordered
six Indians to get ready to pull us over, without deigning to tell
them whether they would be paid. The periagua is a strange rough
boat, but the crew were still stranger: I doubt if six uglier
little men ever got into a boat together. They pulled, however,
very well and cheerfully. The stroke-oarsman gabbled Indian, and
uttered strange cries, much after the fashion of a pig-driver
driving his pigs. We started with a light breeze against us, but
yet reached the Capella de Cucao before it was late. The country on
each side of the lake was one unbroken forest. In the same periagua
with us a cow was embarked. To get so large an animal into a small
boat appears at first a difficulty, but the Indians managed it in a
minute. They brought the cow alongside the boat, which was heeled
towards her; then placing two oars under her belly, with their ends
resting on the gunwale, by the aid of these levers they fairly
tumbled the poor beast heels over head into the bottom of the boat,
and then lashed her down with ropes. At Cucao we found an
uninhabited hovel (which is the residence of the padre when he pays
this Capella a visit), where, lighting a fire, we cooked our
supper, and were very comfortable.

The district of Cucao is the only inhabited part on the whole west
coast of Chiloe. It contains about thirty or forty Indian families,
who are scattered along four or five miles of the shore. They are
very much secluded from the rest of Chiloe, and have scarcely any
sort of commerce, except sometimes in a little oil, which they get

Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 29 of 51)