In order to understand the notion of “Finis Terra” better, it is important to complete the image of the south. If we consider the publications of the journalist Roberto J. Payró (1898), we can see that the following steamer companies were based at Punta Arenas –“Pacific Steam Navigation Company," "Lloyd Norte Aleman," "Messageries Maritimes," "Kosmos" (from Hamburg), and "Charles Reunis," apart from an Italian one and another American, which he does not name. As regards rescue companies, he mentions four –the one owned by Braun and Blanchard, with four ships; Kurtz’s and Wahlen’s, with two; Menendez’s, with two steamers; and the Corporation, which builds one.
Why so many rescue companies? Simple –they
were engaged in rescuing vessels in trouble in the area on the basis of
respondetia (no aid no pay); i.e., they worked for a percentage between
the seventy and the eighty per cent of the net products rescued. Apart
from the said work, they were also engaged in coastal navigation and,
chartered by the government, they provided support to farming settlements.
Back to Roberto Payró’s description, the journalist says about Punta Arenas, “...cutters, schooners, two and three-masted pilot’s boats from twenty-five to two hundred tons and more abound in the port, and they carry the Chilean flag with almost no exception; these ships do all sorts of works, from plain freight, to expeditions for seal hunting or for gold digging on Tierra del Fuego; and whatever they do, they contribute to promote and foster the colony...”
How did they work?
To begin with, they had to rescue the survivors that, on many occasions, apart from the misfortune of wrecking at those latitudes, run the risk of being killed by pirates that were in the business of plundering wrecked vessels. All the members of the rescue enterprise came out well-off as, apart from the percentage agreed with the captain or the shipowner, the men also agreed another percentage among them. This activity was so particular that a new term still in use was born –wrecking.
But, why did they sink and where? Did all of
them sink at Cape Horn? In fact, when we refer to Cape Horn we mean the
whole area, not only the famous island but also the whole archipelago
that surrounds it and even Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, included by
navigators. Then, when somebody says, “it was lost in the area,”
he may be referring to –the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel,
the Cape itself, Península Mitre, or the “mysterious”
Isla de los Estados.
Some sunk while sailing because, in general, a heavy storm filled them with water and made them founder so quickly that it was exceptional that somebody could survive. This kind of shipwreck left no visible signals as these vessels sunk in deep waters.
There was a famous case in the 19th century: twelve traders that set sail together from Chile to the Atlantic sunk during the same storm, the same day and there were no survivors. None of them could defeat the "Cape."
In general, ships were lost in the Strait of Magellan as a result of tacking back and forth in a risky maneuver or of luffing against the coast or a rock. But there were not so many cases.