The Ship Edward O'Brien Disabled off Cape Horn. /
San Francisco, Tuesday, Oct. 1. / The ship Edward O'Brien, from New-York, has
arrived here partially disabled. During a gale off Cape Horn her rudder was
twisted off, leaving the vessel unmanageable. The ship had fourteen hours in
a helpless condition. Large quantities of water were shipped through the hole
in the stern of the vessel, and the fore-hatch, which was opened to secure the
cargo. The damage to her cargo is not determined yet, but it is apprehended
to be considerable.
The ship Edward O'Brien disabled off Cape Horn
New York Times, 2 October 1867
Ever since the first Europeans ventured into the seas around Cape Horn, their
perils have been legendary: hurricane-force winds, mountainous waves and uncharted
rocks. Under such conditions, the slightest human error or equipment failure
can lead to disaster. Calm weather was equally hazardous to sailing ships,
since they drifted helplessly, sometimes breaking up on the rocky coast.
Nonethless, by the late 19th-century, these waters carried a constant traffic
of ships, transporting passengers and freight. It was an age of transition:
coal was slowly replacing wind as the source of power. Since steam-driven vessels
were comparatively independent of the prevailing wind strength and direction,
they were able to navigate the complex, but safer, waters of the Magellan Strait.
Sailing ships preferred to take the more hazardous southern route: they
were thereby more vulnerable to accidents, and the consequences more catastrophic.
The case of the Golden Hind is noteworthy, since it led to repercussions
in diplomatic circles: the US representative suggested to the Chilean
government creating a
service of steam-tugs
to tow sailing ships safely through the Strait.
(1872) After prolonged gales, the ship lost its rudder and ran aground on the
west coast of Tierra del Fuego.The crew abandoned ship in three boats, two
of which were soon lost. The survivors, without any instruments, attempted
to head for the Magellan Strait and the safety of Punta Arenas. One encounter
with a native canoe yielded little food. Debilitated by cold and hunger, progress
became slower, until the group was unable to advance further. Deaths occurred.
In their hunger and desperation, the survivors had no other choice than to
feed on the flesh of their companions. They were eventually rescued by a passing
(1876) After its cargo of coal caught fire, the frigate was abandoned. Much
later, one boat was rescued by a passing ship; the other, with
9 people aboard, was wrecked on the south coast of
Hoste Island. Unable to make their escape, the people suffered a slow death
by hunger. The group was discovered by a group of canoe people, who took word
to the mission station at Ushuaia. When the missionary Bridges and Captain
Willis reached the site, there was little to be done beyond recording the names
of the dead and their few possessions, and covering the remains. The natives
were subsequently rewarded by the British government for their humanitarian
assistance to sailors in distress.
(1882) This sailing barque attempted to round Cape Horn eastbound, heading
for Britain. Four days of stormy weather caused an unstoppable leak, forcing
all aboard to abandon her on the open ocean, and take to the boats. The captain,
his wife and child, and five other survivors in the first boat were picked
up a week later. The mate and four other sailors were in a second boat: they
quickly made landfall, only to encounter an even mightier peril
— fellow human beings. All but one were killed by natives in canoes.
There followed a long period of captivity. Eventually, the survivor made his
escape with another group of natives, ultimately being picked up in the
Magellan Strait by a passing steamer.
These three first-hand reports are a small sample of the disasters
that occurred with dreadful frequency. /§/ Such incidents,
both pathetic and horrific,
were widely reported in the English-language press: undoubtedly, they must
have served to reinforce existings fears and stereotypes. /*/
The proclivity of some Cape Horn natives to kill shipwrecked sailors was already
legendary; for good measure, they were suspected of being cannibals
[see newspaper headline]. Modern commentators,
for whom these events are a distant piece of history, may explain
their aggression as territorial behaviour, or as a reaction to mistreatment
by earlier "white" intruders. However, as the case of the Golden Hind
reminds us, even the taboo of cannibalism is not absolute when survival is at stake.
/§/ See a sample of newspaper headlines. Also on this site, the story of the
/*/ At this period, it was commonplace to read reports of
"outrages and atrocities",
perpetrated by so-called "savages" all around the world. Examples
placed before the public eye included the following locations:
New Zealand (Poverty Bay, 1869), United States (Texas, 1870) and Australia
(Northern Territory, 1874).