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Patagonia Bookshelf



In 1793, Captain James Colnett, acting on behalf of British interests, explored the Pacific coast of South and Central America, for the purpose of identifying suitable shore locations for the use of whaling vessels. The following reports, taken from his book, describe points in the Patagonia region. Despite the author's glowing recommendation for Britain to occupy Staten Island as a base of operations, subsequent experience favoured the Falkland Islands.


I have doubled Cape Horn in different seasons; but were I to make another voyage to this part of the globe, and could command my time, I would most certainly prefer the beginning of winter, or even winter itself, with moonlight nights ; for, in that season, the winds begin to vary to the Eastward; as I found them, and as Captain, now Admiral, MacBride, observed at the Falkland Isles. Another error, which, in my opinion, the commanders of vessels bound round Cape Horn commit, is, by keeping between the Falkland Isles and the main, and through the Straits Le Maire ; which not only lengthens the distance, but subjects them to an heavy, irregular sea, occasioned by the rapidity of the current and tides in that channel, which may be avoided, by passing to the Eastward. At the same time, I would recommend them to keep near the coast of Staten Land, and Terra del Fuego, because the winds are more variable, in with the shore, than at a long offing.

If it should be observed, that a want of wood and water may render it necessary for vessels to stop in the Straits Le Maire, I shall answer, that there is plenty of water at the Falkland Isles; and Staten Island, not only abounds in both, but possesses several excellent harbours. I first visited this place with Captain Cook, in the year 1774; and, on my outward-bound passage to the North West coast of America, in the year 1786, as commander of the merchant ship, Prince of Wales [Author's note: To the owner of this ship I was full introduced by one of the most eminent merchants of the City of London.]. I wooded and watered there, and left a party to kill seals. For my own part, I do not perceive the necessity, according to the opinion of different navigators, of going to 60° South. I never would myself exceed 57° 30', to give the Isle of Diego Ramirez a good berth, or, if winds and weather would permit, make it, for a fresh departure, had I not taken one at Cape Saint John, Staten Land, or the East end of Falkland Isles. Staten Land is well situated as a place of rendezvous both for men of war and merchant ships ; while the harbours on the North and South sides, which are divided by a small neck, would answer the purpose of ships bound out, or home. But the North side offers the best place for an establishment, if it should ever be in the view of our government to form one there. /+/

/+ Author's note:/ If the navigation round Cape Horn should ever become common, such a place we must possess; and agreeable to the last convention with Spain, we are entitled to keep possession of it, and apply it to any purpose of peace or war. Great advantages might arise from such a settlement, from whence the black whale fisheries might be carried on to the South Pole, in the opinion of all the North Greenland fishermen, with whom I have conversed on the subject. Besides, it is one of the easiest landfalls a sailor can make. In order to render this place a defensible and protecting settlement, many experienced men, lieutenants in his Majesty's navy, might be found, at very little extra expense to government, to live in a situation, which would be far preferable to many stations in Norway, that I have seen. The officer placed there, should be invested with full powers to regulate all fishers, fishing in those parts, or navigating round Cape Horn, that stop at the port.


Wager Isle is high and rugged, and may be seen at the distance of fourteen or fifteen leagues. It is about five or six leagues in length, and lays, by compass, nearly in a North and South direction, with many islets off both North and South ends. I place the body of it in Latitude 46° 30', and Longitude 76° West. On the western side, where nothing grows but a small quantity of green moss, it wears a very barren appearance, and the distant hills, bearing East 25° North, I believe, were mountains on the main land, covered with snow. Capt. Cheap, who commanded the Wager, one of Lord Anson's squadron, has given a full description of this island, where he was unfortunately cast away [Author's note: In the year 1741.]. My design in making it, was to obtain some knowledge of Anna Pink Bay and Harbour, but the coast was so forbidding, and the weather of such a dark, hazy, and wintry aspect, as to discourage me from persevering in it. Besides, having doubled Cape Horn at the precise time of the year when Lord Anson went round it, and being at Wager Isle, within a fortnight of the time, when Captain Cheap was shipwrecked there, I was discouraged from paying any further attention to it. The inlet, which was the object of my search, is not a mile wide; a space, which can be descried, but on a very near approach. The Anna Pink did not see it, until she was within a mile or two of the rocks and breakers, among which it lies; and although they may show themselves, the depth of water is so great in the bay, that when found, no whaler will attempt to make it, because he cannot trust to his anchors. I tried for sounding several times off Wager Isle, but got no bottom; neither was the colour of the water so much changed here, as the day before we made the land.

By the Anna Pink's supposed Latitude of that place, and my own observations, I have no doubt, as was conjectured, at the time, that the crew of the Wager heard the Anna Pink's guns; and that she lay under the main to the East of Wager Island. [Author's note: The Anna Pink was a victualler belonging to Lord Anson's squadron, and driven into this port in distress.] If the design proposed by Captain Cheap had been adopted, of coasting in the boats, it is more than probable that it would have succeeded ; and the well-known distresses of that officer and his crew would then have been avoided.

Source: "A voyage to the South Atlantic and round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries, and other objects of commerce, by ascertaining the Ports, Bays, Harbours and Anchoring Births, in certain islands and coasts in those seas at which the ships of the British Merchants might be refitted.", James Colnett, London, 1798
Clipped: 15-VIII-2013
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