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Patagonia Bookshelf



[By the Rev. Fred. Hastings.]

Punta-Arenas is the southernmost city of South America. As the German Consul said, "It is the last, but not the lost city." Its name means Sandy Point. Here is a stretch of sand half way through the Straits of Magellan where ships can anchor. The captain of the Rimutaka was very anxious to reach it before darkness completely settled down, but we were unable to do so.

It was a day of intense enjoyment we had had in going through the celebrated straits which Magellahanes, the Portuguese (after in pique he offered his services to Spain), had named. In what a different way he came through. He had to explore it day after day in a small vessel of about 120 tons; we can go through it in about two days in a steamer of 6,000. The Portuguese had to be at the mercy of head winds and the gusts that come rushing down the gorges between the mighty snowclad mountains on either hand; we are able to defy winds. We are not surprised that considering this feat of the Portuguese navigator and his 90 days' sail in the Pacific, Dr. Murray should have said lately that the feats of Magellahanes outshone even those of Columbus. But how to pronounce his name? Some will have it with the soft g and others with the hard. I found the Englishmen will have it pronounced with the hard g. We pass "Desolation Island"—by its appearance bearing out its name. It would not carry many sheep to the mile. Here is "Pillar Rock" at the entrance of the straits. Fortunately in the absence of any lighthouse the rock by its peculiar and bold outline is a guide to the mariner. The further we go in the straits the greater our admiration at the grandeur of the mountains, their coloring, their glaciers and gorges, and the many fiord-like openings passed. Here water is tumbling over a rock a thousand feet up the mountain. Here a great glacier of miles in length seems ready to slip over into the deep waters. Some half naked savages come out and add to the weirdness of the scene in the twilight. What a rush to gaze at them in their clumsy skin-covered canoe. They shout aloud for something or other, and are nearly swamped in the swell of the steamer. While some continue to bale out the boat the others pick up the box of biscuits and great plugs of tobacco tied to a board thrown to them. Further down a missionary boat sails by. We gain a very vivid conception of what devotion to the work must fill the heart of any man who is content to work among such rude branches of humanity and in such desolate and awesome regions. And it most be frightfully cold in winter. Even in summer the great snow-fields high up send down chill blasts, but they are nothing to what must come in winter. A man would want two thick ulsters then.

Not a single lighthouse through all this dangerous passage until we get about half way. About two hundred miles from the entrance we come to Punta-Arenas. There one light shines out at the head of a small pier. There is a stretch of sandy anchorage ground. If the captain wanted to pull up before he could not have touched bottom with his cable. The waters of the southern fiords are deep.

The cable is running out. The steamer is quiet at last. Through the early haze we scan this new and last city of Chili. We wonder whether it is filled only with adventurers and desperadoes; we have heard tales of its convict outbreaks. Will it be safe to land and remain? Will steamers call? Can we and four others go from here to Monte Video without having to go on to Rio and suffer quarantine on return? The "yellow jack" and cholera are greatly dreaded. The captain of the Rimutaka kindly offers to send all six passengers ashore in a gig, only we must take our baggage as well. He moreover promises to wait until 7 o'clock to see if we can arrange matters. Two are afraid to risk it, and prefer the danger of quarantine from Rio. Four venture. We see the line of wooden and zinc houses; some bare of color, others with painted roofs of red and walls of blue, or  yellow, or brown. Behind are hills purple and olive green, where dense forests stretch out. No hotel is visible. At 5 o'clock the "captain of the port'' came off in a four-oar gig manned by dark and somewhat ferocious-looking sailors. He tells us that he thinks we can get away in a few days. While we are talking a German cargo boat heaves in sight. When he is near enough we pull at once with the luggage to the side of the ship to see if we can have passage. "No; I have no doctor on board, and may not carry passengers." We are sorry. Then the German captain offers to go ashore to see the consul and agent to ascertain whether by enrolling us in the ship's list we can go. The consul was surly and loud in speech. "He had no cargo to send—why should he be disturbed ? No : we could not go. The ship would be quarantined. We might even be fined for breach of quarantine laws." As the captain went away he said to me:—" If you were alone I would take you somehow. I could stow you away, but madame and the others—ah, no! The chief officer, who had followed to shore in the Rimutaka's boat, now had to return. "Put our things on the wharf; we will risk it." Two ladies and a gentleman seated in deck chairs remain to watch belongings, and I go off to find shelter for all. In the "best" hotel they could not receive us. There were only two bedrooms to the house I should think. After some trudging and much enquiry I find that there is a place where the settlers of the surrounding district coming to purchase goods stay. It is a sort of annexe to a store. A servant said we could remain, she thought, but the proprietor was not yet arisen. I think it best to accept the intimation, as the winds are blowing coldly. A mule and cart bring up the luggage, and I bring up those who had remained as guardians over it. When the proprietor of the store appeared he placed even his sitting-room, in the house in the quadrangle, at the disposal of the ladies; still we had to sleep in the annexe. One bedroom was rather passable, the other was carpetless, unwashed, lumbered with boxes, saddles, rugs, guanaco skins, and sacks with strong-smelling wool combings therein. No blinds shielded the windows, and yet they were on the ground-floor; and that floor—it had not known soap and water for years probably. The two ladies took one room and my fellow-passenger and myself the other. We soon settle down and find that the single-handed German domestic knows how to cook. We congratulate ourselves on our good fortune in even securing such quarters. Moreover, we find staying at the same house one who was an immigrant from New Zealand only five months ago. He tells us that we may be content in our minds that we shall not be eaten alive — that fleas, mosquitoes, and worse things are unknown in that district—that we shall probably get a steamer of some kind in a few days, Anyhow we are sure that it is better to wait here and go to Monte Video from a direction from which quarantine is not enforced. Some would smile at the manifest dislike to endure quarantine, but it is no joke to be put on a dreary island for eight days at least, and perhaps many more, paying at the same time 10s. a day expenses. We will find more of interest here in watching the things strange to us. Here is a baker on horseback with two boxes—like huge hat-boxes—slung over the horse and filled with loaves. Here is a broad-faced loosely-dressed woman of Patagonia with her two dogs and her shoes made out of the turned-down skin of the leg of a horse. Here is a man with the poncha, or hole-centred rug of many colors, and spurs of terrific length. Here is a span of oxen with a cart of solid wheels that might have done duty in the time of Homer. Here are women with heads closely hidden in black shawls going to early mass, at the small wooden church. Here are mules unfastened dragging carts about the streets at their own sweet will as they look for grass. Here also are swarthy Chilian officials and guardianos who might protect us if annoyed.

Our newly-made companion, the New Zealand settler, proves invaluable. He takes us out, interprets for us, gives us peeps of interiors of homes, walks us out by the river, and generally describes life in the "camp" or country. He is waiting for a chance to go over to Terra del Fuego to see if he can find more land suitable for sheep. When a cargo schooner is going that way he will take passage. Meanwhile he says that he is content with what he has gained in the five months. He makes money easily. In a few years he thinks he will have "made a pile big enough to enable him to live comfortably the rest of his days." Still he confesses that "life is hard, that you have to work incessantly, and hardly know Sunday from week day." He introduces me to a Patagonian woman, who talks so rapidly that I cannot make out a sentence. When I shake my head, she says "Usted no habla Christiana"—which means "You don't speak Spanish." This seems almost a reflection on one's faith, but it is not so. The Jesuit missionaries had taught the natives that Spanish was the Christian language.

The Patagonians are a handsome race when young. They like long calico print dresses and thick long hair. They are great gamblers. They will drink and sell their chiripas, or outercoverings, for more drink. The Fuegians are said to be generally bandy-legged, pot-bellied dwarfs, but this applies to those who generally go in canoes; those inland are a strong race. A sort of war is going on just now between the Indians of Terra del Fuego and the settlers. An English company that has settled on the island has great difficulty with the natives. The Indians say that the land belongs to them, and the English that they have a concession from the Chilian Government; the Indians claim the horses, cattle, and sheep. One night they drove lately at once from one station 2,000 sheep. They took them so far and drove them so rapidly that English shepherds thought it was utterly impossible for sheep to have travelled so far. In crossing some streams one or two would fall and others stumbling over them the rest would cross on a sort of bridge of mutton. The Fuegian Indians use arrows with heads made from pieces of bottles ground into shape. They make their huts of grass sods, and knives of hoop-iron found on casks washed ashore from wrecks. They live chiefly in summer on cururos, which is something between a rabbit and a rat, but minus a tail. In winter they fish. They don't care to eat preserved fruits or flesh or fish from wrecks, having great fear lest they should be poisoned. To take the guanacos is their great occupation inland. The guanacos are about the size of a donkey, but resemble a camel in some things. They are swift. Few horses can catch them, and only very swift dogs will take them. They give a shrill neigh like a horse, and will jump defiantly round horsemen. The Indians make a long ridge of sods and hide behind it. Others drive by whoops the guanacos past them, when the glass-tipped arrows lay them low. The skins of the guanacos form the capas or cloaks of the Indians. These are bought by traders, and become the rugs of fashionable carriages and drawing-rooms. The Tehuelches, a tribe of Patagonian Indians, have a great shrinking from fish and pork. They know not why they have the repugnance, but they have it. They believe still in witchcraft, and greatly dread evil spirits. They have generally no other religion than the dread of the gualichu. They speak of putting the gualichu on a man. A man gets a piece of lava and then a bit of the hair of a man or woman and puts it in the holes of the stone. Then he buries it, and tells another that he has put the gualichu upon him. The other fearing bad luck will grow moody and often die from fright. Pretended wizard or brujo will tell him that he will take the gualichu from him for a certain amount. The Government have taken away many of these so-called bewitched stones and bottles belonging to these people. The tents in which the Patagonians live are made of old guanaco skins, having the hairy side turned outwards. The smoke is blinding within. They drink yerba out of porongos, or small twisted gourds. This is called "taking mate." They wear large silver earrings, and prefer the silver to gold. They think white better than yellow. They knew not the value of gold, but now some of the more cute understand it, and the "peons," or servants, will make engagements for their wages to be paid in "pounds sterling." When an Indian dies his name is never mentioned again. His friends speak of him as the defunct one. A son does not keep his father's name after the father is dead. Horses and dogs are killed at the death of a Patagonian that he may be able to hunt in less arid fields beyond.

In Chili religious marriage is now ignored. There and in the Argentine Republic the civil bond is enough. Manhood suffrage obtains, but Indians and foreigners are not suffered to vote. Protective duties are imposed on imports, but in some outside ports absolute free trade is allowed; of these ports Punta Arenas is one. This is why we found everything so cheap at this place of our enforced brief detention. Sheep here average about 7s. a piece and good horses are obtained for £5 or £6. Meat is sold at a halfpenny per pound and is still cheaper if a large quantity is bought. From December to February the settlers have hard work dipping and shearing sheep or pressing and dispatching the wool.

A doctor who has just ridden in from his homestead had to take four days to do the journey on horseback. He tells me that to pay three visits to patients he had once to ride a thousand miles. One patient paid him handsomely, the others made only promises. It is often necessary in these parts for a doctor to insist on payment before he undertakes to treat a fever or cut off a diseased limb. The doctor says that it costs him £2 every time he gets a mail, and he can only get that once a month. He has to join with others who live on the road to keep one man employed as postal messenger. This man keeps several horses placed at convenient distances for relief.

Talking with the "Captain of the Port" I learned somewhat of the history of this Punta-Arenas. It seems that it was a convict settlement. Two hundred prisoners were kept here and about the same number of soldiers. The two combined in the year 1867 because the Governor was so much hated. Then they looted the town, indulged most freely in the strong drinks found, and made the inhabitants flee to the mountains. Here many perished. The mutineers had full sway for a time. It was a time of terror. "I kept out of the way somehow," said the old captain. "Hearing a row I thought it best to be silent and I escaped." The mutineers soon exhausted the means of subsistence, and had themselves to take to the "camp" and mountains. Many of them perished. Some in their desperation made signs to a small ship of war to send a boat to rescue them. They thought the men in the boat would come unarmed, that they could overpower them and then seize the boat and attack the ship. They were deceived and were all captured. Government in Punta Arenas was restored, and nine of the captured mutineers were publicly executed. They are said to have died laughing at their executioners.

It was my good fortune to make the acquaintance of the Governor — a very courteous and intelligent man. He is mayor, judge of the town, and governor of the whole of this southern district of Chili. He invited my wife and myself to his home. It was interesting to have a view of the interior of a Chilian house. It is of wood and square, surrounded by a shrubless grassy space. Along the whole front is a glass-enclosed space which serves for hall, verandah, and conservatory in one. The whole of the glass was covered with glacial decoration, and had a pretty if "shin" effect from within. With pride the Governor pointed out some well-developed specimens of eucalyptus and camellias in painted tubs. He also was proud to show his children, and his quiver may be said to be full, for there are seven "arrows" in it. His wife was not of the Chilian olive complexion like himself, but exceedingly pale. Her manners were those of a cultured woman, and she spoke French with charming intonation.

The Governor had been employed by the Chilian Government to superintend the building of war vessels in Europe. He was a naval officer, and so undertook his work. He said that he liked his work. From him I gained considerable information. He had been sent here to restore order and buildup the place. Punta Arenas was declared a free port in order that settlers might be attracted to the district. So successful was this policy that now most of the good land is taken up. The number of inhabitants in the town has increased to 3,200. There are 800 houses, but 130 of them have license to sell liquor. The governor issues all licenses. He said when asked for a license, "I always say 'Yes.' I wish to give all the liberty possible. All I can do is to keep order. I have 25 guardianos or policemen only for the whole of this great district." He thought that "the free and very cheap liquors may help to foster drunkenness, but he was not sure."

Chilians seem to like the light wines, and it is only on feast days—l was told by others—that many drunken people are seen. When Europeans come here they don't always resist the temptation to over-indulge in the use of cheap spirits.

"Chili," said the governor, "has gold mines that enabled it to send away three tons of gold. Last year 2,000 men came into this district owing to a gold rush. Men of every nationality came. The fever went down, but many men remained. Last year 200 houses were put up by these adventurers." The gold found is chiefly on the beach and the rivers. There is an effort to develop the frozen meat trade; 18,000 carcases are to be sent to England shortly by a sailing vessel having a refrigerating apparatus. More wool is shipped every year. Labor being rather less than in Australia and stores imported free of duty will enable the squatters of the Argentine and Chili to compete successfully with those in Victoria, South Australia, or New South Wales. No wonder that there is such an effort to utilise the islands of Terra del Fuego.

The wages for peons, or native servants, are from £3 to £5 per month, and for shepherds £6 per month. They have to find themselves in everything but meat. The wool chiefly exported from here is the long wool of cross-bred sheep, the Lincoln and Romney Marsh.

There are strained relationships just now between Ecuador and Peru over boundaries. The boundary question is always a source of irritation. The boundaries were originally fixed by Spain, and when that country ceased to hold South America and the different republics were formed the difficulty as to boundaries became intensified.

I noticed in the harbor of Punta Arenas two small ships of war, and enquiring as to the reason for their presence found that an international commission was than being held to mark the limits between the Argentine and Chilian Republics. There are three more boundary commissions in the north among the mountains. This year by a treaty which was passed between Chili and Peru in 1884 it is imperative that a plebiscite should be held in the provinces of Tacna and Arica—two of the provinces in Southern Peru—as to whether they will remain with Chili or go back to the Government of Peru. If they go to Peru they will have to pay Chili two million pounds, but as Peru now owes Chili that amount probably the provinces will remain with Chili. The debt of Peru is about £60,000,000, and for the last 15 years she has not paid a cent. of interest. She has only a population of about two and a half millions, hence cannot afford to go to war again, and yet one may speedily break out. Should it do so it is believed the Argentines and the Bolivians would help Peru. The fact is the whole of this South America seems to be smouldering with war spirit, and the revolution in Brazil is only a small part of the fire that might blaze at once through the whole land. It was amusing to hear some who had only been settled a few years in Argentina speak of how they would like to "help to whip those Chilians." Doubtless the pioneers in Paraguay will soon find themselves taking sides, and should Paraguay be drawn into any war they would possibly have to take some of its burden. That risk has to be faced.

I hear many tales of the corruption that obtains in all the republics. All officials seem to understand that it is their privilege to "feather their own nests," and help their friends to "make hay while their sun shines." Government funds are the milch cows of numerous officials, lobbyists, and wire-pullers. Money due from governments can be more easily obtained when due if large percentages can be returned in ways not recognisable to those who have the duty of paying the just debts of the governments.

Source: "The Advertiser" (Adelaide, SA), 8 May 1894
Clipped: 23-IX-2012
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