© 2004-2014

Patagonia Bookshelf

Insurrection at Magallanes (1851)
A North-American sea-captain is captured by Chilean army mutineers at Punta Arenas.

Select Chapter:       1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10    

CHAPTER IV.

Capture of the Governor — His execution — I am led out of my prison —The burning of the bodies — Governor Muñoz Gamero's character — His intercourse with the native tribes —The Priest Acuña — Arrival of H. B. M. war steamer Virago — Mr. Dunn, the Secretary — Cambiaso plans the capture of the steamer — He fears her force and discipline — The officers invited on shore — No suspicions aroused — The Virago sets sail

On the afternoon of the day of these executions, Cambiaso sent out two or three parties of soldiers, well armed, under one of the chief officers, and all on horseback, with directions to take the governor and his party, and bring them in dead or alive. They had accurate information of their hiding place from the traitor, and by surrounding the bushes, and gradually beating in, they succeeded in capturing them, and about sunset brought them in, and they were soon heavily ironed.

I heard that they were terribly emaciated, and scarcely able to stand, from weakness, having lived for nearly a week on nothing but roots and berries. Cambiaso ordered them to be served with a good dinner, saying that they should go with a belly-full, and then thrust them into the calaboose, where captain Ávalos and the other prisoners were confined. Captain Ávalos told me afterwards that neither the governor or the priest showed any signs of fear, but when he asked them if they knew their fate, they answered coolly, "Oh, yes!" Cambiaso seemed to intend to surround this execution with all the pomp and solemnity that he could command. About nine, in the evening, there was a general rush through the camp. The bugles sounded the death march, the drums beat, the soldiers were all ordered under arms, and governor Muñoz Gamero and the priest Acuña were led out of the barracks. All was still in the yard after they left, and in a short time I heard the report of their death shots. They were shot under the same trees to which Mr. Shaw and captain Talbot had been tied.

In about an hour I was called out of my room, and told that I was wanted in the yard. I went out doggedly, for this day of excitement had worn me down into a sort of indifference as to my fate; but the scene that lay before me when I reached the platform, which, raised above the rest of the yard, commanded a view of the land beyond the fortification, roused me at once from my indifference. In the field north of the barracks, was dug a deep hole, in which a large fire was kindled, which threw its red light on all around. On the trees, to the right, hung the dead bodies of Mr. Shaw, captain Talbot, and the boy, and beneath them were dimly seen the bleeding corpses of the governor and priest. The rebels were busied around the fire and the bodies, and Cambiaso, with some mounted officers, were to be seen giving directions. Soon I saw a cart driven up to the fire, and a dead body thrown from it into the flames, with as little ceremony as one would treat a dog. One of my guard standing by me, said, "There goes the governor." The bodies of Mr. Shaw, captain Talbot, and the poor English boy were one by one cut down, and thrust into the fire.

The women of the camp had pleaded with Cambiaso to allow the body of the priest to be buried, and he, having perhaps some feelings of reverence for his sacred office, had allowed it to be given into their hands. More fuel was now heaped on the flames, and their lurid light showed me a scene which makes me shudder as I recall it.

The soldiers danced round the fire, singing the national hymn of Chile, and mingling with it shouts and curses, imprecations on the governor, and threats of vengeance against the remaining prisoners; especially against captain Salas, the commander of the troops under Muñoz Gamero, and against captain Ávalos, whose rank as an officer under the government of Chile seemed to be his only crime. The darkness of the night, the lurid glare of the flames, the fantastic dancing of the soldiers, the mingled shouts and curses that met my ear, made every thing appear to me like some revelry in hell, where the souls of the damned make merry over their fellow sufferers. On this evening the barque's papers, also my private papers, were burnt, with shouts of joy.

I was kept on the platform until the flames had died down, when three cheers were given by the soldiers around the fire, and answered by those within the yard; and soon after, I was ordered back to my prison, to endure another night of anxiety.

The mate eagerly asked me what I thought was going to happen next, but I answered him shortly, and turned from him, for I felt the necessity of calming my mind, after such excitement.

That night I passed in close communion with myself, strengthening my soul to meet whatever might be before me, and rousing my energies to seize every opportunity to escape from the hands of such blood-thirsty fiends. The morning found me calmer, and more full of energy and determination, than any moment since my captivity. If Cambiaso ordered me to be brought out on the platform in order to intimidate me, he did not know his man. The sight, instead of depressing me, roused in me a spirit of revenge, and determined me to retaliate the wrongs which I had seen inflicted on my friend.

Governor Muñoz Gamero was a post captain in the Chilean army; his name, Benjamín Muñoz Gamero. I afterwards heard him spoken of as a man of fine character, and of excellent judgment. Under his directions, the colony had grown in prosperity and in discipline. He had built some very comfortable barracks for the soldiers, and some good houses for the officers. The convicts had been employed in clearing and cultivating the ground, and intercourse and trade with the Indians of the country had been encouraged.

The native tribes around the colony had always shown themselves friendly to the settlement; and, as I learnt, had been in the habit of coming down to the barracks about once a month, bringing with them game, and other articles, which they were anxious to exchange for flour, bread, and so forth. They generally formed themselves on a line, on the north side of the barracks, and the governor would range his troops upon the platform, above the fence, and put in their view the two cannon, the noise of which they had often heard, and of which they had a superstitious dread. The chiefs would then come forward and meet the governor outside the fence, and arrange their terms of barter.

Of the clergyman, Acuña, I know but little. The reverence of the women of the colony for him, certainly speaks in his favor.

The morning of the 4th of December, while the mate and myself were eating our scanty allowance of hard bread, washed down by the water which we had taken from the dirty buckets in the guard room, a shout rose in the yard, "A steamer! a war steamer, with the English flag!" My heart leaped to my mouth, as I sprung to my feet, and the mate seemed to gather courage from the very sense of the vicinity of his countrymen and from his confidence in the protection of his flag. One moment's glance showed me that even amidst their excitement, some of the guards were watching us from the other room; and managing to caution the mate by a glance, I endeavored to assume as natural an air as possible, listening and asking questions as if from mere curiosity. I gathered from the guard and from the idlers round the camp who flocked in, that Cambiaso had expressed his determination to attempt to capture the steamer; that the Chilean flag had been run up at the flag-staff, and a gun fired to attract the attention of the steamer, and induce them to come into the harbor and drop anchor. At last, she was seen to make for the harbor, and to be evidently making preparations to anchor. Her name, they told me, was the Virago.

During the last hour, the mate and myself had been forming a thousand plans by which we hoped to attract the attention of the officers or men of the steamer, when they landed, and warn them of their own danger, and of our situation; but our plans were quickly frustrated; for no sooner had the steamer come to anchor, than the mate and myself were hurriedly taken from our room, and led across the yard towards a smaller building. In vain I questioned those who were leading me, as to where I was going; my only answer was hasty oath, and an order to be quiet. The door of the little calaboose was opened, and we were pushed into a room about eight feet square, and the bolts drawn behind us. Before me, sitting or lying on the floor, were six haggard looking men, heavily ironed. I spoke to them in Spanish, but was answered by one of them in good English, who said "You are the captain of the American barque?" I started with surprise, for I immediately thought him an American; and I saw that he was a gentleman, or something beyond a common sailor. And what American could be confined there, not belonging to the Florida? Could there have been another vessel captured by these pirates, of which I had heard nothing? "Who are you?" I eagerly asked; "are you an American? How came you in this wretched place?"

He answered that his name was Dunn, and that he was a Brazilian, who had been employed by governor Muñoz Gamero as his secretary. That he had been seized by Cambiaso's orders, at the time of his insurrection, and confined in that filthy den ever since.

While he was speaking, one of our guard knocked on the door, and ordered silence, saying that he would shoot down the first one of us who troubled him again.

The next three hours we spent in anxious listening to what was going on without; Mr. Dunn and myself now and then exchanging a word in a whisper. Every attempt that we made to look from our little window was prevented by our guard, who stood closely gathered about both door and window, every now and then looking in upon us. Without, all was very still and orderly; no noisy rioting to be heard, nothing, save every now and then the tread of soldiers, or the usual noises attending the regular military duty of a barrack yard. We expected every moment to hear the noise of firing, or some shout of exultation, if the officers of the Virago were entrapped as we had been; but all was quiet.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, the English mate and myself were taken out, and conducted to our old prison. All was quiet in the yard, and as I glanced around, I saw no new faces, no change in the arrangement of the soldiers, no building guarded but those which I had been accustomed to recognize as prisons for my crew, the crew of the E. Cornish, and the room where captain Ávalos, and the prisoners with him, were confined.

Arrived at our old home, the guard became more communicative, and told me that our prison had been changed to keep us out of sight of the English officers, who had come on shore, visited the barracks, and the Florida, and had left the harbor without having their suspicions excited. This chance of escape was lost to us then. I felt very indignant at what seemed to me the unparalelled stupidity of the officers of the Virago, and yet it is very possible that had their suspicions been excited, we might all have fallen victims to the revengeful spirit of the rebels, before any thing could have been done for our rescue.

During that evening and the next day, I managed to extract from my guard and from one or two of my fellow voyagers, the Chilean prisoners, who had now become almost regular visitors to my room, an account of all that had occurred during the visit of the Virago to the colony.

On the steamer's casting anchor, Cambiaso had manifested a great desire to capture her; probably expecting something of a prize on board of her, and perhaps wishing to have in his hands so powerful a vessel. He had called a meeting of his officers, to consult upon the most advisable plan to pursue, to accomplish the capture. The first plan proposed, was that which had been so successful in our case and that of the English brig: to seize the officers as they came on shore, and kill them at once, to avoid the necessity of employing men to guard them; then to board the steamer and take her, having first enticed away as many of the officers and crew as possible. The sight of the big guns, which showed their teeth all along the side of the steamer; their knowledge of the excellent discipline on board a British man-of-war; of the capability of even the smallest midshipman to take command of the crew in case of the absence of the superior officers, all deterred the pirates from attempting this plan of capture.

The difficulties in the way of the capture were, I heard, discussed very freely; general García being most earnest in insisting upon them. The chief, or rather the first difficulty suggested by him, was that the officers might come on shore so well attended that a fight might be necessary, to overcome them; and that the noise of the struggle might excite the suspicions of those on board, when the whole colony would be at the mercy of the guns of the Virago. This plan was put to the vote among the officers, and after voting upon it nine times, it was rejected. Once, I was told, it came within one vote of being accepted.

The next proposition was worthy of the blood-thirsty wretches. It was that such officers should be invited to dine with Cambiaso, he supporting the character of governor of the colony; and that poison should be mingled with some of the dishes of which the officers were to partake, but this plan also was rejected. The rebels must have felt that it was too uncertain, even if human nature did not make them feel something revolting in it. It was then proposed that some of the officers of Cambiaso should be sent on board the steamer, with an invitation to the captain to land, and that they should, on their return, report the appearance of things. This was agreed to, and the spies were sent; but their report of the order and discipline on board, the well manned guns, the well drilled marines, determined Cambiaso to give up all hopes of capturing the vessel, and to confine himself to attempting to elude suspicion. The officers of the Virago landed, and were shown through the fortification and the colony, Cambiaso attending them.

I was told that one of the prisoners, Mr. Dunn, who talked both English and Spanish, was taken from his prison, and after being threatened with instant death if he revealed the true state of things, was employed to interpret for Cambiaso; while at the same time two of the rebels who had some knowledge of English, were ordered to watch him, and report any thing which might sound suspicious.

The captain of the Virago asked what vessels those were lying at anchor. Cambiaso answered that they belonged to him; remarking that the brig had prisoners on board of her — some of the convicts whom he had not the conveniences for keeping in close confinement on shore; and that as the vessel was only used as a prison, there would be nothing interesting to them in going on board of her.

The captain and officers afterwards visited the Florida, from which all my crew had been removed except the steward, a negro man, and on board which were living five or six of Cambiaso's followers. How the English officers could be so blind as not to read on the stern of the barque the name, "Florida, of New Orleans," and on the brig, "Eliza Cornish, of Liverpool," or not to have their suspicions excited, if they did read those names, is incomprehensible to me. It would seem that their own common sense would have told them that such a colony could not hold vessels; or if it did, that the vessels would be Chilean — not American, or English. I was told that Cambiaso made the captain a present of eighty or ninety tons of coal, of which the Virago was in need; but I could not but think there must be some mistake about this. The coal was perhaps bought by the Virago. Surely, Her British Majesty's vessels do not accept such presents as that from the governor of a small penal colony, on the shores of Patagonia. So large a quantity of coal would be a very valuable gift in such a place as that, where all the fuel, except the brush-wood from the scrubby forests around, must be brought from abroad.

Cambiaso told the captain, whose name I afterwards learnt was Stewart, that several of his prisoners had escaped, and were now lurking about the woods at Port Famine; and if, on the steamer's anchoring there to take in some of this coal, which lay on the shore, any of these prisoners should wish to be taken on board the Virago, he wished captain Stewart to order his men to drive them away, and to hold no communication with them. Some of the soldiers who escaped with the governor, had, it appears, never been re-taken, and Cambiaso feared their report to the English vessel.

It seems to me another instance of stupidity in captain Stewart, that he should have swallowed unsuspiciously this story of Cambiaso's. Would it not have been much more probable that Cambiaso would have asked their assistance in recapturing his prisoners, and requested the Virago to retain them until he could send for them? I could not but feel that all these things, or indeed half of them, would have been enough to have opened the eyes of even a moderately "cute" Yankee. But perhaps some allowance for my impatience at the blindness of the English officers is to be made, when we consider how much this chance of escape was to me, and how bitterly I lamented its loss.

My fellow prisoner and myself were sad enough during the rest of that evening, as we heard that the Virago had left Port Famine, and was now out of sight.

Select Chapter:       1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10