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Correspondence of the Journal of Commerce.

Straits of Magalhaen,
Schr. Empire, 22d April, 1849.

A Voice from over sea! It should be freshened by the many winds through which it pierces, strengthened by loud gales, yet soft in its pleasant course over cool seas. Mellowed by distance, it should harmonize for a moment the spirit of one untimed by the jangle of Wall-street, or stunned by Broadway's dusty roar. Let an inhabitant of Babel imagine himself a lonely admirer of these inhospitable regions where civilized men can never live. Let those who are wont to fall into ecstasy at seeing their own pigmy highlands, fancy themselves here, lost in the surpassing, yet dreary magnificence of these Straits of Magalhaen.

"Dull as a voyage at sea," is a common proverb, but the Solomon who first uttered it had little poetry in his soul. Day after day we sail over serene waters, with a pleasant sun overhead and cool waves below, surrounded by sparkles of gay foam, and joyous in the very inspiration of motion. And in these southern latitudes, where are

Larger constellations burning, mellower moons, and happier skies,

we stand upon the deck at night, and feel strange emotions, till they find an expression in happiness, like the very waves we see around us, lifted from still depths to break in white beauty into the upper air. The gray and solemn albatross wheels wondering about us, the delicate petrel flutters in our wake, and myriads of the deep leap ahead as if to pilot us through their home. The storm, the calm, the breeze succeed each other, and continually excite emotions of wonder, or deep pleasure.

Some discomforts there are, to be sure, but all our loss becomes gain. Sea fare cannot at all times be most enticing to the palate, but sea air makes all food wonderfully toothsome. Then, our schooner is small and in her motions resembling "that Scot of Scots, who runs o' horseback up a hill perpendicular," but she frolics along as graceful as a kitten, and we are so accustomed to her antics that we may justly despair of finding a more comfortable couch ashore than a sea-saw board. The only serious deprivation is the absence of the morning papers; but never surely was European, political, or even California news, sought with such intense excitement as the daily bulletin of latitude and longitude. No political problem, long doubtful and finally solved by the freedom of a nation, could interest us half so much as to work our imaginary location upon the shifting waves, so despotically does Neptune rule the minds of all subjects in his vast dominions.

Sixty days of pleasant sailing, the last three weeks of fighting with pamperos and heavy gales excepted, found us in sight of the castellated heights of Cape Virgins, the eastern entrance to the far-famed Straits of Magalhaen.

These are classic waters. Through this narrow cut in the land, scarcely three hundred miles in all its tortuous course, bold Fernando de Magalhaen steered, and despite of unfitness of vessels and treachery of officers, accomplished that wherein Columbus failed, and opened a new highway to the Indies. For many years afterwards, this was supposed to be the only channel for ships, and many were the rich argosies that passed here with the fruits of sunnier climes: many too,

Which struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool ;
But the cruel rocks, they gored their sides,
Like the horns of an angry bull.

Then Cape Horn was found to terminate the American continent, and few vessels, except those of simplest rig and smallest size, have since dared to attempt a passage from east to west through Magalhaen's Straits.

You will best understand the peculiar nature of this corner of the earth, by following us from Cape Virgins to Cape Pillar.

The first day was spent in painfully beating up to the first anchorage in Possession Bay, against violent gusts of wind, which lifted the tops from those deep green furrows, and drenched us with showers of inexpressible saltness. We anchored with our consort, the Sea Witch of Mystic, the pilot-boat Anonyma, seventy-two days from Boston, and the clipper Eclipse, eighty days from Baltimore. Though thousands of miles from home, at a distance where the distinction between States should be lost, and all viewed as a single nation, I was never more forcibly struck with sectional peculiarities, than when contrasting the slow, drawling reply of the Baltimorean, with the hearty shout of the Bostonian, and the bluff, independent hail of the Yankee smackman. The little fleet which had thus gathered in a single day, determined to sail in company through the Straits, and it may safely be said that four swifter vessels were never yet seen together in these waters.

At the second trial we succeeded in passing the first and second Narrows. These are each about ten miles in length and nearly two in width, the tide running through them full ten or twelve miles an hour. By seizing it at the favorable time, no danger need be apprehended, except from the heavy ripplings in which many vessels have been lost. In three days we had passed the first of the three great divisions which nature has marked in the Straits. The region of sand hills and granite cliffs yields to one which appears almost delightful in comparison with what precedes and follows it.

Here the coast suddenly tends southward, and the Strait expands into a broad sheet of water, thirty miles in width and three hundred fathoms in depth. The hills are thickly clothed with trees to the water's edge, and were it not for the humid climate and boggy soil, man could gain his livelihood from the earth. As it is, the Chilian colonies of convicts at Sandy Point and Port Famine are supported from home. Rain fell every day while we were there, and in a continual flood for a full third of the time. In this kind of experience we can fully equal even our brother hunters for gold who trudged across to Panama.

Port Famine, the capital of semi-civilization in this quarter of the globe, consists of a few houses, inclosing a wooden fort, in which lie unmounted two honey-combed twelve-pounders and a brass field-piece, tightly spiked! Buenos Ayres also claims this country, and Chili thus arms herself against her rival in imbecility. There is a rickety apology for a fence—a stout cat might paw it down—running around thirty or forty cells in four large styes, between which are gutters for streets, little stone islands for a sidewalk, and eighteen inches of mud for a pavement. I thought of New York! In each of these six-by-eight boxes, windowless and chimneyless, exists a family of convicts. About seventy from the fleet went ashore one evening, and saw a fandango. In Spain the dance may be graceful. Here, no wonder that the wretches pay one dollar a pound for soap, and make a good bargain at that!

Most vessels stop here needlessly for wood and water. Both can be procured as well, if not better, in most harbors further on, and time spent here is lost; for there is always a fair wind in this portion of the Straits, and many days must be spent at anchor before the Pacific is reached. Yet the water at Port Famine cannot be surpassed. Men of experience say that months at sea do not alter its taste.

At San Nicholas' Bay we saw a fair specimen of the Patagonians. This is that singular race of men which have so inexplicably lost half their stature in the last two hundred years! Magalhaen affirmed them to be nearly twelve feet high, Cordova and Sarmiento at least nine, Anson about eight, and our own school geography full seven. In truth, they measure about six feet, and are very strongly built. Whether time tears down tallness from men or from fables, is a point for conjecture. These Horse Indians, as they are commonly called, from their equestrian life, are friendly and very stupid. The Tierra del Fuegian, or Canoe Indians, are of the ordinary height, magpies in tongue, baboons in countenance, and imps in treachery. Many conflicts have taken place between them and sealing vessels. They are best seen at a distance.

At Cape Howard the main channel turns sharply to the north-west. Here end the two first sections of the Straits, and all plain sailing. The whole body of water is here divided into a thousand little channels to the Pacific, of which the best known are the Cockburn, Barbara, Gabriel, and Main Channels. The labyrinth of islands and sounds is so perfect, that a good chart is indispensable. Unfortunate, indeed, is the vessel in Crooked Reach, which has saved an unlucky sixpence in not providing several stout anchors and the best of cables, at home or at the half-supplied depot in Port Famine.

Here the navigation assumes a new character. Nine days in ten, gales of westerly wind prevail, and beat fiercely upon the adventurous vessel which dares to struggle with their power. Rain falls several times each day, and when that fails, showers of thick snow or stinging hail supply its place. There is a certain singular gust of wind very prevalent here, which the sailors have termed "woolliewaws." When a vessel is caught at night out of the harbor by rain, snow, hail, gales, thick darkness and woolliewaws, there will be little sleep on board. We were twice trapped in this manner, and always afterwards saved time and labor by seeking a harbor at three o'clock in the afternoon.

Strangely enough, the temperature of these high latitudes is equable, and not very cold. The thermometer ranges from 40° to 50° Fahr. throughout the year. Decreased strength of winds alone marks the winter season.

In one day we sailed from San Nicholas' Bay to Borja Bay; leaving the region of thick verdure, passing grim Mount Sarmiento seven thousand feet above us, and struggling through a narrow island-spotted ribbon of water, with gigantic walls of granite overshadowing us from their immovable resting places. Cordova said that the mountains west of Cape Quod gave to this portion of the Straits a "most horrible appearance." They do indeed seem very desolate and uninviting, almost all terminating in sharply serrated peaks, or slightly rounding knobs of bare granite, but there is a savage grandeur, a wild glory, upon their lofty summits, which far excels the smiles of the softest landscapes.

At Borja Bay we found the brig Saltillo, which had sailed from Boston some time last year, and had already spent five Sundays in the Straits. We also received New York papers to February 17th, from the steamer Panama. She reported several vessels at the entrance of the Straits, and among them the well-known New York pilot boat, Wm. G. Hackstaff, which sailed one day before us. At Swallow Harbor lay the Velasco, of Groton, and Iowa, of Sagharbor. Thus our fleet was increased to six schooners.

Both harbors are most secure and picturesque, locked in, as they are, by lofty mountains. Right at the bottom of each, a magnificent cascade rustles down the sides of a broad, brown mountain,

With the foamy sheaf of fountains, falling through the painted air.

Few things can be more lovely than these harbors, inclosed by bare cliffs like gems set in granite. The weary sailor, who looks for no beauty, can never deny their comfort. The only objection to them is from the terrific woolliewaws that rush from the surrounding heights without a second's warning, and pounce upon the waters, gathering them into a narrow but boiling circle of foam, then skurry around, fan-shaped, in every direction, and with resistless fury. "These woollies are queer things!" exclaimed our skipper. "See how they tie the water all up in a little heap, and then throw it every-which way!" Even at anchor, the whole fleet rolls down in abject submission before them. Once, the Anonyma's clinker boat was torn from her stern, whirled over in the air, and sunk in a single second. It is fortunate that they last little longer.

It was only by a very painful beating that we passed English Reach, Crooked Reach, Long Reach, and Sea Reach. The gale was diversified only with woolliewaws, the rain with snow and hail. Sometimes we are sailing along in rare sunshine, when a woolliewaw whirls a storm of sharp diamond hail into our faces, or a column of spray-beads to the very truck; forces our little craft down into the water, till a rushing flood swashes along her decks, then moves leeward in a brown and distinct whirlwind, till it hides one end of a lustrous rainbow, whose other extremity is splendidly defined against some rough mountain. Meanwhile the glorious sunlight is over all. From Port Famine to the Harbor of Mercy, near Cape Pillar, they continually increased in fury. The day before we left this latter harbor, there was a grand display of their impotent rage.

Our passage consumed twenty days, thirteen of which found us closely shut up in harbors. We overtook and passed square-rigged vessels, which had been weeks in the Straits, unwilling to return and unable to proceed. Few square-riggers can hope for a short passage; the difficulties in managing them in a channel, barely a mile wide in some places, are too great.

The passage from the Atlantic is thus mostly confined to small vessels. From the Pacific, passages are often made by ships in two or three days, and the only wonder is why more do not save the distance around Cape Horn. There are scarcely any dangers which are not visible, so bold is the coast and deep the soundings throughout the Strait.

Few portions of the earth can surpass this, so wonderful in the grandeur of its scenery. Here let the painter come—the poet too—all who love nature in her wildest moods, and can discern a mystic loveliness behind her frowns. Only the monomaniac gold-hunter views it with indifferent eye.

We have left the Straits of Magalhaen. Cape Pillar grows dim; Westminster Hall towers faintly afar; the sea-beaten Evangelists begin to loom in the evening sky, and Cape Victory, like a grim old warder, watches our departure in silence. On one side of us is the mighty group of Tierra del Fuego; on the other begins an immense continent, whose other extremity is near the North Pole. Before us lies the great Pacific.


Source: "The Living Age", Vol.23, pp.161-163
Clipped: 10-VI-2014
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