The south-eastern area of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is known as Península Mitre, and many accidents took place on its Atlantic coast. Galleons, caravels, and even frigates sailing in the tea or manure routes were involved.Except for some exceptions, the causes are ignored. The most famous are the Purísima Concepción (1765) and the Duchess of Albany (1893), both wrecked near Policarpo cove.
The first case is one of the enigmas of austral
navigation. Everybody talks about it and, what's more, its survivors built
a 16-meters-long schooner so that they could arrive in Buenos Aires on
board of it. The wreckers settled down at a harbor they called Consolación
(it is supposed to be the present Caleta Falsa). They built the schooner
with the remains of the galleon. They stayed three months with the natives
and they lived almost in the same way.
Unbelievably, they transported in their holds 193 wreckers and left the load of "wealth" that they carried from the "Callao" in this place and there is no news about it. Given sea conditions, the Captain decided to cover all the places where the water could enter and, according to the chronicles of the time, four men died of suffocation because of the stacking. In the surroundings of this cove, two cannons of that period and a figurehead (without face) that might have belonged to the galleon were found. But the exact place of the accident remains unknown.
Duchess of Albany's is one of the few shipwrecks about which there is plenty of information. It is an iron hull built in 1884 by the shipyard T. Royden & Sons from Liverpool for the W. & R. Wright Company in the same city. She was 253,00 feet long; 40,3 feet wide and had a 23 feet draft. Her load displacement was 1,793 tons and she had two decks, three masts, and bowsprit. She was one of the many traders built in that period, a mixture of a clipper with a frigate which is an instance of a perfect construction with perfect water lines. The clinching and planking work in the sheets is excellent as well as its strength which, day after day, endures the dashing of the sea.
Her wreckage took place on a winter night in 1893 (July, 13). According to what Captain Greve of the frigate Aconcagua informed in 1897. He saw a sailing boat that had ran aground and was abandoned in the area an he commented that "it was black, its masts and yards were almost entire; its masts were light chestnut and the deck extremities white." Later on he says: "On the beach, in front of the vessel, some spoils of army tents made of canvas could be seen."
But, which were the causes of the accident? It is almost impossible to know the answer accurately, and several hypothesis are valid. One of them –somewhat evilly-disposed— says that she ran aground on purpose to get the money of the insurance policy. The large number of frigates and clippers luffed against the coast in the last decade of the 19th century attracts attention. Exactly when the engine made sails obsolete.
What we do know is that the ship arrived at the coast with a poor visibility. Some authors claim that it was at daybreak (4 a.m.) and that the wind was blowing between 20 and 25 knots. During winter, daylight at those latitudes scarcely lasts for over seven hours (the sun rises at 9.30 and sets at 16.30).
Everything suggests that it arrived at high tide and, perhaps it approached the coast too much to look for protection to cast anchor, or it may be that the poor visibility, the lack of wind, and the current could have driven them to a trap that would turn out to be their last landfall. The largest anchor was thrown and the chain loosened. What happened after this? Nobody knows. But the rest of the anchors are still on board with all their chains. What did Captain John Williams decide? Why didn't he cast the other anchor if the anchor had started to drag? Which were the exact weather conditions? Few people got to know the truth. Only the hull and conjectures remain till today.
The whole crew survived. There was just one missing member who, according to certain accounts, decided to stay to live with the Onas. The rest were rescued by the steamer Amadeo, chartered for that purpose from Punta Arenas, and another group sailed on a pair of boats to the subprefecture at Thetis Bay.
According to our own inquiries, the English frigate Glenmore crashed into San Vicente and her remains can be seen at low tide, completely destroyed by the dashing of the waves. This happened in 1888 and her crew went to Thetis Bay, situated a few miles away from the place.
The Cordova sunk at Le Maire strait and its crew also sailed to the subprefecture at Thetis Bay on 26 July 1888. The Colorado wrecked against Cape San Vicente on 5 July 1887. The whole crew was saved and arrived at Thetis Bay.
The number of shipwrecks in the same area and its high frequency of occurrence draw attention. Was this just fortuitous or was this a good place to get rid of ships?
The last ship lost in the area was the Desdémona. It is stranded exactly at San Pablo Cape with its double bottom perforated. The accident took place in September 1985, on a trip from Ushuaia to Río Grande. She was made run aground by its captain, Germán G. Prillwitz, with the intention of putting it afloat again later on. He did it because with only one engine he could not enter in port Río Grande and, as a tempest coming from the south west had been announced, he was looking for a cove to cast anchor during the tempest.Unfortunately, it touched the shoal of Cape San Pablo and started to sink. That simple, if we do not take into account the macabre intentions that its owners apparently had; apart from the conspiracy that the Captain suffered and the fact that it had been practically lost in Río Grande on a previous voyage.
An ancient malediction belonging to naval traditions says: In the Last Judgement those who dared to defy the "Cape" will not be able to be freed from their icy graves. Anyway, during the second half of the 19th century over 200 sailing ships did it yearly, and only five per cent of them wrecked.
In some years, the challengers resulted brutally damaged such as during the summer of 1906/1907 when, in the surroundings of Cape San Vicente, twelve ships sunk and, between 1887 and 1888, three important English frigates were ruined in the same place.
A WRECKER IN THAT REGION
What did a wrecker had to face at Península
Mitre? In the first place, it was the land of the native Onas and Haush.
Any of the two peoples could react in the same way: either they helped
or attacked the wreckers. But apart from the misfortune of being a wrecker,
the only possibility to survive meant to wander through isolated places
with a hard climate and a land almost impossible to travel by with burden.
The wind, constant from the NW, blows from 20 to 35 knots with squalls
at intervals. Advancing against the wind is quite difficult and it is
advisable to walk along the beach at low tide. The coast is high and it
is necessary to climb up and down cliffs in order to avoid the dangerous
parts on the coast (capes with huge rocks). On the other hand, it is necessary
to be careful with the rising tide as it is possible to get trapped by
it at the base of the cliff.
Off the beach, the coastal line has abundant peat and, approaching Thetis Bay, it is even more frequent to find. Low woods make it nearly impossible to walk with some burden, but they provide plenty of firewood. There are also plentiful rivers such as: Leticia, Policarpo, Bueno, and Irigoyen; it is convenient to ford them at low tide.
There is food: algae, scum, and different crustacean can be eaten at low tide. There is also wild celery, and guanacos were abundant a century ago. Nowadays there is cattle and some guanacos. Cold is constant, but thermal registers are not that low. Next to a fire, one can get warm quickly. There is plenty of fresh water, but it is important to see if the spring comes from a dam built by a beaver. At that time, there were no beavers. If water is brownish, it is because of peat.
Of course, these are the conditions in summer. In winter the soil is half frozen and snow falls usually even in summer.
It is interesting to read the accounts of a logbook of that time, although they are written in a telegraphic way. Shipwreck in the surroundings of Policarpo Cove of the sealing ship owned by Mr. Brisbane and Mr. Bray in 1830, contained in the book Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, Between the Years 1826 and 1836, Describing their Examination of the Southern Shores of South America and the Beagle’s Circumnavigation of the Globe, Volume II, Patagonia, by Robert Fitz Roy.
Feb. 23d . Employed saving things from the wreck : six Indians came to us. 24th. Twenty-five Indians came, with their women and children. 25th. Another visit from natives: men, women, and children. 26th. Indians began to be very troublesome. 27th. Forty Indians came to us, all armed with bows, arrows, and slings, without women or children. Some of our people employed in building a shallop out of the wreck. 28th. More Indians, with twelve strong women and eighteen children: but unarmed on this day. March 1st. More Indian visitors. 2d. Fifty-one natives, armed. To the 9th the crew continued to build their shallop, and were almost daily visited by natives, whom two-thirds of the party were obliged to watch with arms in their hands. On the 21st sixty-one natives visited them (these Indians always went away before dusk). (...) 29th. Much troubled every day by natives, who tried to steal our tools; and hard pressed by hunger. No supper (this was their principal meal; as during the day, while the Indians were about, they had no time to cook or eat) the last three days. (...) April 8th. A large party of Indians, who were plaguing us, quarreled among themselves, and had a severe fight. 9th. Our last remainder of provisions finished. 15th. Employed caulking the shallop’s deck, and getting limpets from the rocks. N.B. Almost starving. 17th. Not being troubled to-day by natives, and the sea being smooth, went out in a little boat which we had saved, and caught eleven skate. After this day several fish were caught at times, which, with shell-fish, afforded a scanty subsistence; but before this time they had been reduced to eating hide, and half putrid blubber, which they got by barter from the Indians.
(...) 22d. Launched the shallop, or rather, hauled her down at low water, and let her float. 24th. Indians more troublesome than ever; obliged to fire at them repeatedly. 27th. Almost starved, eating bullock’s hide. 30th. Nothing to eat but bullock’s hide and berries. Could not get the shallop over the reef because of a heavy surf.
May 1st. Got out to sea; found the shallop leak very much: nothing to eat but hide. (...) 5th. Made Cape Meredith (in the Falklands), but could not get near for want of wind. 6th. Two men gave out (could work no longer) for want of food: they had gone six days with but one pound of hide. 7th. A heavy gale; the shallop under bare poles, and almost sinking; sea making a clear breach over her; men quite worn out by constant pumping and baling, and by want of food: we had a very hard job to keep her from sinking: at dusk saw land through the rain and spray, half a mile to leeward; showed the head of the jib, and bore away right before the wind for the nearest part: saw a cove, ran into it, and anchored. Killed numbers of geese; thanked God for our safety. 11th. Many of our men ill from the sudden change. 17th. Went ashore in Pleasant Harbour; saw a great number of cattle; the dog caught two of them, and held them for us to kill [R. F’s note: Seized them by the lip. He was a large, strong animal, between a bull-dog and a mastiff]. 30th of May. Anchored in Port Louis, landed, and hauled the shallop ashore in hig-water.” (See shipwrecks in Península Mitre for further details.)
A hard climate, the sea, storms, hunger, cold, wet all the time, natives, getting smaller to avoid sinking, a discouraging panorama. They were not the only ones to survive building another vessel and putting again to sea. A life of actual seamen.
We are grateful to the following for their invaluable help: The National Maritime Museum of Greenwich; the Argentine Navy, who made it possible the field work; the Museum of the End of the World; and the Naval Museum of Paris.