Voyage to the South Seas and Pacific Ocean

Benjamin Morrell

This page presents an excerpt from the author's first voyage, in which he describes his visit to San Julián and Rio Santa Cruz in 1822, aboard the Wasp.

October 9th.—We came to anchor in the port of St. Julian on Wednesday, the 9th, at one o'clock P.M., and found it to be a safe harbour. The entrance to this port is in lat. 49° 8' S., long. 67° 40' 15” W. Variation per azimuth 23° easterly. It is somewhat difficult to find the entrance to this port, on account of its southern or outer point projecting past the northern point, so as to conceal the opening. It may be known, however, by a large white cliff, stretching along shore from the south almost to the mouth of the harbour. No trees are to be seen, but there are some dark bushes on the sides of the hllls. The bar at the entrance of this port sometimes shifts and changes its position; previous to attempting an entrance, therefore, I would recommend sending in a boat to sound. In entering the harbour the course is about south-half-west, and the water sufficiently deep when you are once over the bar, on which will be found, in the channel, about four fathoms at full sea. The tide rises here about twenty feet. Both wood and water may be obtained at this place, though with some difficulty; and a ship can lie here in perfect safety from all winds. The natives of the interior seldom visit this port except for the purpose of fishing.

October 10th.—On Thursday, the 10th, we again got under way, and resumed our task. Between St. Julian's and Santa Cruz the shore, which is bold and free from danger, runs in a south-west direction, and the distance is about thirty leagues. The entrance to Santa Cruz harbour is in lat. 50° 12' S., long. 68° 13' W. The land to the north of the harbour is steep chalk hills, and the mouth of the river is obstructed with a number of rocks, one of which shows itself above water, and is called Sea-lion's Island. The river penetrates into the country in a north-west direction, and widens as you advance. This river was first discovered in 1520, by Don Juan Serrano,§ captain of the St. Jago, who accompanied Magellan in his voyage round the world. The ship was wrecked in this river, but the crew were saved.

§  The Portuguese navigator João Serrão, appointed captain after the mutiny. See Some Placenames … for details about the naming of this river.

October 12th.—On Saturday, the 12th, we came to anchor in the port of Santa Cruz, where, as usual, we made such surveys and observations as were deemed beneficial to the interests of nautical science. Ships touching at this port may supply themeselves with fish, wood, and excellent water. In addition to this, two men expert with the rifle could soon furnish the crew with an abundance of fresh meat, by shooting beeves, foxes, and hares, all of which are found in great plenty in a valley of the interior, not more than five miles from our anchorage. Such sportsmen, however, must be on their guard, as the natives frequently visit this extensive valley for the purpose of grazing their horses.

October 13th.—On the day following that of our arrival at Santa Cntz I penetrated some miles into the country, accompanied by two men only, leaving others to guard the boat. It was Sunday, and I wished for a little relaxation from the duties to which I had, for some weeks, so assiduously applied myself; we therefore strolled leisurely into the interior, until we arrived in view of the valley before mentioned. Here we discovered a band of about two hundred native Patagonians, all on horseback, attending to a drove of about three thousand guanacoes.

With such inadequate support, and being at least eight miles from my vessel, I thought it most prudent to avoid an interview with this formidable band of equestrian herdsmen, of whose amicable disposition I had not the means of gaining assurance. Under different circumstances, however, I think I might have made a lucrative speculation, by purchasing of them the skins of wild cattle, foxes, nutria, and guanacoes. As it was, acting on the principle that “discretion is the better part of valour,” we concealed ourselves in some underbrush; where, without being seen ourselves, we could observe the movements and study the appearance and costume of this singular people at our leisure.

Their stature was of the common measurement, say from five feet ten inches to six feet; a few might have boasted three or four more inches, but their average height was about six feet. Their complexion was of a deep copper-colour, similar to the aborigines of our own country, with long, straight, black hair, which did not appear to have any of the properties of “hog's bristles,” as one navigator has represented, but soft and pliable. They were all well-made, robust, and athletic; but I was not near enough to observe that remarkable diminutiveness of hands and feet which has been attributed to the formidable giants of Patagonia.§

§  Morrell's source for this puzzling attribution is unknown, pending further research. But some years later (1854) in John S. Jenkins' Voyage of the U. S. Exploring Expedition commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, the author writes of the Patagonians; “… they are undoubtedly the tallest people of whom we have any account, … Their heads and features are large, but their hands and feet are small.”

They were generally clothed in skins of the guanaco, or some other animal, with the flesh side out. These appeared to be confined to the body by a narrow strip of the same material, but by what kind of fastening I could not ascertain. Some of them, however, were evidently clad in cloth of some kind or other; whether of their own manufacture or not, it is difficult to conjecture. The shape and fashion of their cloth garments, however, must be peculiar to themselves. From the opportunity I had of inspecting them, I should agree with the description of Captain Wallace,§—that this apparel was a square piece of cloth made of the downy hair of the guanaco, through which a hole was cut out for the head, with side slips for the arms, and the rest, sustained by the shoulders, hung down in folds to the knees, or was confined to the body with a girdle. Many of them had a kind of legging or buskin, made of skin extending from the top of the calf to the foot. Their horses, which displayed a great deal of spirit, were not of the largest size, but handsomely formed, and in excellent condition. The bridles were similar to our halters, made of a thong of skin; but whether their bits and spurs were of wood, or any other material, it was impossible for me to determine. Something like a saddle formed a seat for the rider, who managed his animal with much tact and dexterity, and rode with an ease and grace not easily acquired by art.

§ Possibly Benjamin Wallis (note spelling) of Salem, Massachusetts.

Some voyagers have suggested that these Indians of Patagonia are descendants of the natives of the Canary Islands, who were all a tall people; and it is said that they bury their dead on the eastern shores, as looking to the country of their ancestors. I have found several of these graves on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, covered with large heaps of stones to guard the bodies from the ravages of wild beasts. But if this circumstance proves any thing, it is the fact that all uncivilized people have a superstitious veneration or reverence for the east. Bougainville assigns them a different origin,§ and suggests that they might have sprung from the Tartars, as in their roaming propensities and equestrian habits they much resemble that people. If reports be true, they are also like the Tartars in another respect—that of pillaging caravans and robbing travellers.

§ Bougainville: Voyage autour du monde.

That their life is pastoral as well as predatory I have no doubt as they are frequently seen in such companies as I have just described, watching over their flocks or herds of guanacoes while they are grazing, surrounding them on horseback, and arresting such as seem disposed to desert the fold. Those not actually employed in this particular service are grazing their horses, or refreshing themselves. It is highly probable that when the grassy nutriment becomes exhausted in one valley they move to another; like the sons of Jacob, whose flocks having exausted the vales of Hebron and Shechem, departed thence, and said, “Let us go to Dothan.” In this respect they resemble the Arabs, among whom, says the Rev. Michael Russel, a pastoral and predatory life “is accounted far more noble than that which leads to a residence in towns, or even in villages. They think it, as Arvieux § remarks, more congenial to liberty; because the man who with his herds ranges the desert at large, will be far less likely to submit to oppression than people with houses and lands.” In another place the same excellent writer observes that the life of a migratory shepherd or herdsman “has a very close alliance with the habits of a freebooter; and the attentive reader of the ancient history of the Israelites will recollect many instances wherein the descendants of Isaac gave ample proof of their relationship to the posterity of Ishmael. The character of Abimelech the son of Gideon, for example, cannot be viewed in any other light than that of a captain of marauders.

§ Presumably Laurent d'Arvieux (1636-1702), whose memoirs were published as Mémoires du chevalier d'Arvieux.

But whether the Patagonians be shepherds or robbers, or both—whether they be descended from the ancient natives of the Canaries, the Tartars of Northern Asia, the Arabs of its southern regions, or the lost tribes of Israel—or are the natural production of the region they inhabit—one thing is certain, that about two hundred of these copper-coloured gentlemen kept three hungry Christians fasting in a bunch of underbrush for the best part of a Sabbath-day. As they evinced no intention of changing their ground, we were compelled to hold ours, as the least movement on our part would at once have exposed our persons to view; and that might possibly have been attended with a hazard which I was not then prepared to incur. We therefore thought proper to remain in our place of concealment until we could leave it under the cover of darkness. This we finally effected, and arrived safe on board the schooner at. about three o'cloek in the morning.

October 14th.—Having enjoyed the refreshment of food and sleep after our adventure of yesterday, we prepared to leave Santa Cruz; and at eleven o'clock A. M. were again under way and steering from the mouth of the river, being now within forty-five leagues of Cape Virgin, the northern point of the Straits of Magellan, where our survey was to terminate, until we had paid a visit to the Falkland Islands, and after that to the Antarctic Seas.

At about sixty miles south from Santa Cruz is Point Varella, whence the shore runs S. by E. to the river Gallegos. This part of the coast is one continued chain of rocks and reefs, which stretch partly across the entrance of the river just named. In steering along here, in the night it is necessary to give the shore a good berth. The entrance of the river Gallegos is in lat. 4° 41'S., long. 69° 2' W. Variation per azimuth 23° 15' easterly. From hence the coast tends to E.S.E. about fifty miles, to Cape Virgin, the northern boundary of the straits, as before mentioned; and so called by Magellan because he discovered it on the feast of St. Ursula.

October 16th.—Having thus thoroughly examined the coast of Patagonia from Cape Corrientes to Cape Virgin, keeping the boats constantly in-shore, while the schooner followed them at from two to three miles' distance, we prepared, in conformity to my instructions, to visit the Falkland Islands. Accordingly, at eleven o'clock A. M. we took our departure from Cape Virgin, and steered an easterly course, with the wind W. by N., and fair weather; and on Friday, the 18th, at noon, we arrived in safety at New Island, one of the Falkland group, and cast anchor on its eastern side, in Shallop Cove, in three fathoms of water. Here we found the second mate of the schooner Henry, of New-York, with two of her crew, gathering eggs. The reader will recollect that this vessel was commanded by my old friend Captain Johnson, and left New-York about the time that we did. Captain J. was now on a six weeks' cruise in search of the Aurora Islands, but without success.