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The Journal of Syms Covington

Chapter 5

Fog, Mist and Shoals

[Indian paddling canoe]

The Beagle moved to Guanaco Island December 30th, where they started the New Year by ransacking an Indian grave for antiquarian remains. Removing stones from the cairn, they peered inside but found only a few vegetable fibres. The body was gone, having disintegrated into dust [Barlow 1933: 203-6], it thus escaped the hands of the desacrators.

During this year they would make a second trip to the Falklands, now in the midst of a mini-revolution, make a historic trek up the Río Santa Cruz, pioneer a new route to the Pacific and begin a long survey of the Pacific Coast of South America.

Sailed from Port Desire. January 4th 1834. (29) Anchored in Port St. Julian January 9th, 1834;(117) PORT ST. JULIAN IS similar, I may say, in almost every respect, to the above place, EXCEPT THAT THERE has been no settlement. Also, cliffs are full of fossil shells.(118)

(31) Sailed from Port St. Julian January 19th, and anchored in Port Desire January 20th. Left the 22nd, entered the Strait on the 26th, anchored in Possession Bay January 27th and left the following morning.

In Straits of Magellan. Anchored in Gregory Bay January 29th and left the following morning. Anchored in Shoal Haven January 31st.(119) Left next morning.

(32) Anchored in Port Famine February 2nd(120) and left, pm THE 10th Here, formerly, was the city of San Filipe (Lat. 53°38'S), which contained four hundred souls who lived here three years until all their provisions, which were sent from Spain, were consumed; and receiving no more on which they fully relied and their own ground yielding nothing, out of four hundred, only twenty three escaped starvation, two of these women. Twenty two left the city and took the road to Río della Plata, their fate never ascertained. The one that remained in the city, was afterwards taken to an English ship, and sent to Spain. From this circumstance the Port takes its name, given by Thomas Cavendish in 1587. (Vide Sarmiento's Viaje Spanish Edition)(121)

(33) February 11th pm anchored Gregory Bay. Sailed the following morning. The 15th out of the Straits at Sea am. 21st, anchored Thetis Bay about noon. 22nd am Sailed, and passed through the Straits le Maire. Here(122) the ship plunged and would not answer her helm for a short time, caused by the meeting of the currents etc. or the tide meeting the swell of the Cape. Ship looked the appearence as if going down.(123)

(34) 24th pm anchored Wollaston Island. Sailed from ditto 27th am. pm March 2nd anchored Beagle Channel(124) and sailed the next morning. March 5th am, anchored Ponsonby Sound. THE 5th pm ditto Woollya, or Buttons land; the place where the Indians were put on shore, and native place of Jemmy Button. Here the Indians are very numerous; the ship was surrounded with canoes the short time we were here, bartering. Near here is 'Mount Darwin' the highest mountain in Tierra del Fuego.(125)

(36) Sailed from Woollya 6th am; 7th Passed through the Straits le Maire; 16th Anchored Berkeley Sound, Port Louis.(126) On our arrival here, which was the second time, we found Brisbane, the Governor, had been shot with three others by the gauchos. It w as said, he was very tyrannical to the whole of people in general. Two of the murderers were secured by H.M.S. Challenger a short time before our arrival, and two by our own ship, who were sent to England. A new Governor (a lieutenant of the Navy) was left by the Challenger, with marines for his guard.(127) One of the Challenger's boats capsized here; a lieutenant and one or two others were drowned. Some of the clothes of the former, and a knife, were picked up on the beach by our people.(128)

(37) April 7th sailed, anchored in river Santa Cruz THE 13th. (30) (Latitude 50° South); the farthest South we HAD BEEN on the coast of Patagonia. In going inTO THE river, THE SHIP barely escaped going ashore INADVERTENTLY. Here THE ship's bottom was cleaned, BRINGING HER ASHORE by having A very steep beach WITH great tides.(129) Tides up river run five or six knots an hour. Same sterile sandy plains as the above place. THE source OF THIS river HAS never been explored; but IT is supposed to come from the Andes AND it is very crooked. OUR boats went up about 270 miles, about 140 miles in a straight line.(130) High up river on plains, were seen herds of guanaco, four or five hundred STRONG, also is a smaller species of ostrich,(131) AND numbers of condor.(132) Several shot; one, a male that weighed thirty six pounds; from beak to tip of tail, four feet one inch; from extremity of each wing nine feet eight inches.(133) A puma or lion about eight feet long was shot here. Shot guanacos enough to supply the ships company. No deer or cavy, BUT shot a beautiful wild cat.(134) (Infermo aqui catorce dias.)(135)

May 12th am sailed, the 16th pm Anchored off Cape Virgins, Straits of Magellan. (136) Here we were obliged to work with a tide, THE tide runs four or five knots an hour. (38) 25th, passed First Narrows. Narrows ARE about a mile and a half wide. 29th am anchored Gregory Bay. Patagonian Indian chiefs came on board in THE Captain's gig; some of whom bartered their mantles for tobacco etc. The men in general were exceedingly tall and robust, but not giants as has been fabled by different voyagers.(137) They are a very friendly people, and have behaved well to different sailors who have been wrecked on the coast. They live by the chase, are fine horsemen, of which they have plenty, are very expert with the lazo, balls etc., by which means they secure their prey. They live in small huts made of skins, etc.(138) They leave the Straits the beginning of Winter for the interior and, I believe, return again in Summer. At this time it was very cold, the ground being covered with snow, with a very sharp cutting wind.

(40) Sailed the afternoon of the same day. June 1st am anchored Port Famine. During our stay here, we caught an immense quantity of very fine smelt with A seine, which if home, WE supposed to be worth a hundred pounds. YET THIS WAS caught in one day. Near here is the River Sedger, the largest freshwater river(139) river in Tierra del Fuego. I went with others upSTREAM a considerable way; the water BECAME very shallow a short distance up, not deep enough for a boat; to walk on its banks was very bad (THAT IS, DIFFICULT), by reason of the numberless fallen trees, deep mud, and thickets. The latter is impenetrable in many places, which obliged us frequently to go into the woods to seek for better roads. To water ship in this port, is to send boats at high water, as the water is at THE very bottom of THE Bay; at ebb tide THE bay IS very shallow. (140)

(41) June 9th am sailed from Port Famine for the last time, accompanied by the schooner ADVENTURE. Going before the wind, with a fine breeze, had a fine view each side, as we ran up the straits; "The highland is totally covered with snow. Its dense forests, with Sarmiento towering above all, and to appearance, like an immense mass of ice, had altogether a most beautiful and grand effect".(141) Anchored in three places previous to leaving Straits; passed through Jerome Channel, instead of the, Madre de Dios.

(42) JUNE 9th pm anchored Warp Bay, 10th am sailed. Mr. Rowlett, THE purser, died on passage to Chiloé.(142) On ditto blew a heavy gale. 28th at Midnight anchored off Chiloé IN beautiful moonlight.(143)

San Carlos, now the capital, is situated in a valley, with a small fort, and forty Chileno soldiers. There are several forts in the harbour. The houses are entirely built of wood (viz. the lercy, or pine cedar);(144) the planks when cut for use serve for bartering, or in place or money, OF which they have but very little in the island.(145) and The natives are of a low stature,(146) and comely in general; t hey are also honest and good natured. (43) They principally subsist on potatoes, which they grow in prodigious quantities, corn, oxen and sheep. Pigs and apples they also have in abundance. On this island it is rare that ten or fourteen days pass throughout the year, without rain. On our first arrival here, we had scarcely one fine day during three weeks.

This island I may say is one dense forest, and low land in general.(147) In the forests there is to be found, and but very rarely a very small deer.(148) Here also are a great many beautiful birds; the humming bird is very common.(149) From San Carlos, to Castro (the latter the old capital) a road sixty miles long is cut through the forest, made entirely of wood in the following manner, something like rush matts: (150)


_____||||_____||||_____ Road

_____||||_____||||_____ to

_____||||_____||||_____ Castro


(44) The principal beverage, or drink of the Chilotans is chichi, or cider, made from apples;(151) but there IS ALSO aguardente(152) etc . The natives seem not much addicted to drunkeness.

(45) Sailed from Chiloé July 14th. Anchored in THE port of Valparaíso July 22nd. Valparaíso is too well known to require any detailed account, suffice is to say it is in a flourishing state. The bay is large, between two and three miles wide, has a fort on each side, but IS very open and exposed to different winds which blow very heavily occasionally. The town extends FROM one extremity of the bay to the other, is built on a very uneven or broken site. Great numbers of the houses are built on the tops or first hills. The Almendral,(153) situated on the upper part of the bay, WHICH is much wider and more level. Houses are mostly very low, and built with a sort of mud brick, which is most adapted(154) in a country where earthquakes are so frequent. There is but one building worthy of notice, viz. the custom-house, which is well built, large, and (46) commodious, has a tower and clock, the two latter built etc. subsequent to our first arrival.

From all parts of Valparaíso we have a fine and noble view of the majestic Cordillera -- Aconcagua (the MOUNTAIN second in height in the whole range of South America) towering above all with its snowy summit, when distinctly seen, FOR IT IS very often clouded, having a most beautiful and sublime effect. The valleys clothed in verdure, bushes and trees, with sweet smelling flowers, and those of the most variegated colours, and varieties, and peopled with numerous little chirping birds of many species, AND immense numbers of humming birds buzzing about like bees. The stately condor hovering round on all parts, and above all the beautiful azure blue of the heavens, which altogether has the appearance of a fairy land, after just leaving the inhospitable shores of Tierra del Fuego, and the wet and gloomy Chiloé Isle, where we rarely had a clear or sun shining day.

(47) From the Almendral, a zig zag road leads up the mountains to Santiago, the capital, distant from Valparaíso ninety and odd miles. This road is very good and is constantly full of waggons, chays, horses, etc.; it also leads to the very base of the Cordillera. The first pasada from the port is three leagues distant; the second is twelve leagues, the latter called Casa Blanca, is a small village, situated on a beautiful little plain. I lived in THE former seventeen days; left for THE above (VALPARAÍSO) August 22nd. The latter, merely went to and from, in a biloche for Don Carlos. Lived at Mr. Corfields three months.(155)

Winds. The North and North-West winds usually bring rain, and the South and South-East a clear sky.

(48) Sailed from Valparaíso November 10th(156) for Chiloé where we anchored(157) November 22nd.

Left the ship, the 24th at San Carlos. Went in A yawl to survey about THE different islands of the archipelago,(158) which are very woody and THE ground, moist. WE came to an anchor every night; pitched our tents, and of course, slept on shore with a watch, or lookout man, throughout the night. As most of the islands are peopled, we always had plenty of fresh provisions, and THE expenses of which were very little, as we often bought a sheep for two or three negro-heads of tobacco;(159) pigs, fowls, eggs, potatoes and bread in like manner. And also milk. The natives were very sociable and willing to oblige in general. Patches of cultivated ground were to be seen on all the islands which we passed and stopt at. We were up with the break of day every morning, took breakfast and sailed; and every afternoon found a creek or inlet to anchor in, allowing sufficient time to get every thing that was (49) necessary on shore before dark. During our passage from place to place, we had many fine views of the Cordillera, and also of some of its active volcanoes, from which we could see from the distance, vast volumes of smoke arising, as if from a furnace only on so great a scale.(160)

Anchored AT Castro (the old capital) on Sunday the 30th. This town is situated on the South part of the island of Chiloé, a channel is formed here by the latter and THE island of San Pedro. The town is built on a flat tableland about a mile square each way, has a church, but all in ruins, the houses all built of wood.(161) The inhabitants are but few in comparison to what there were when it was the capital.(162)

Left the following morning. Surveyed parts of other islands etc. Met the ship at THE place appointed, viz. at San Pedros Island.(163) Went on board December 7th.(164)

(51) December 24th 1834. Anchored in a small bay, Near the Sugar-loaf, (Cape Tres Montes), ON the western coast of South America, where we spent the Christmas; the two previous days, blowing very heavy.(165)


117 Crossed out, "about two days sail from the above place" [Darwin 1906: 163].

118 Also found were fossil quadrupeds like Macrauchenia patachonica [Darwin 1906: 163]. Macrauchenia, which belongs to still another order of extinct South American mammals, had horse-like legs, the long neck of a guanaco, a prehensile proboscis like a tapir, and nostrils seated high up on the skull, between the eyes.

119 At the entrance of Magellan Strait. From here they would beat up the Channel to Port Famine on the Brunswick Peninsula [Barlow 1933: 207-8].

120 To quote Darwin, "I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only indistinctly seen through the drizzling, hazy atmosphere" [Darwin 1906: 22 2].

121 Covington refers to the narratives of Pedro Sarmiento de Gambóa (1532-1608), one of the first, and most notable, explorers of the Straits of Magellan. Sarmiento tried to avert the San Filipe disaster, by petitioning the King, but it was all too late. Cavendish took on only one man, Tomé, Hernandez whose declaration is Covington's source; Cavendish left all the others to die [Markham 1895: 364].

122 As the ship doubled Cape St. Diego [Barlow 1933: 211].

123 Perhaps they were caught off guard by this year's better weather [Barlow 1933: 210]. Unable to steer, they ran far too close to Staten Island; there was little they could do but drift past the desolate coast and hope to stay clear [Barlow 1933: 211-2].

124 Their purpose was to beat against the prevailing Westerlies up the Beagle Channel towards Ponsonby Sound; this necessitated short tacks, waltzing them up the narrow waterway to amused calls from the locals [Darwin 1906: 216].

125 Jemmy Button had changed completely, and for the worse. The fat, cheerful boy who did not appear without suit and gloves, was now emaciated, naked and smeared with grease [Barlow 1933: 215]. He was given good meal and sat down to talk. Did he want to go back to England? Well, no. But good heavens why? Jemmy introduced his "young, nice-looking" wife (a lady unused to big canoes and strange creatures, for she never stopped crying the whole time she was on board). Jemmy gave his friends otter skins and "spearheads and arrows made with his own hands." Here in the end was the single, small reward for Fitz Roy: when Jemmy returned to the shore, he lit a fire and "its smoke curled up, bidding us a last and long farewell as the ship stood out to sea" [Darwin 1906: 218].

126 They had a very wet stay in port [Darwin 1906: 179-94].

127 Captain Seymour of the Challenger left Lieutenant Henry Smith, who stayed on the next four years as governor. Along with Smith were four seamen volunteers and a few marines to keep the gauchos at bay [Ritchie 1967: 207].

128 Challenger left without recovering the body of their lost Lieutenant Clive. The crew of the Beagle found him on April 6th and buried him near their own Mr. Hellyer [Fitz Roy 1839: (2)335].

Fitz Roy delayed departure some days, waiting for a cutter to pick up the most dangerous Argentine prisoners. This failing, the Beagle took the ringleaders and "King's evidence," to eventually hand them over to the British government[Barlow 1933: 216,220].

The Falkland conspirators presented a problem: they were arrested before British authority over the Falklands was fully established, and to give them over to Buenos Ayres would legitimize Argentine claims over the Malvinas. There was nothing to do but set them free in neutral Monte Video [Cawkell et al.1960: 50].

129 The process was called 'careening,' the normal way of examining a hull before there were drydocks. The ship was settled aground in an estuary. As it turned out, they found that the Beagle shaved a few feet of false keel. Nothing to worry about[Barlow 1933: 220].

130 They left on April 18th, traveling until May 4th before returning to the Beagle on the May 8th [Darwin 1906: 1 52-161]. This ambitious expedition took them halfway across the tapered end of South America, almost within reach of Lake Argentino -- finally discovered 33 years later [Barlow 1933: 437]. It was necessary to track the boats (pull them upstream by rope) because of the strong current. Fitz Roy recounts, "The order of our march was usually one or two riflemen in advance, as scouts -- Mr. Darwin and occasionally Mr. Bynoe upon the heights -- a party walking along the banks near the boats, ready to relieve or assist in the tracking, and the 8 or 10 men who were dragging the 3 boats along at a rate of about 2 miles an hour over the ground, though full 8 knots through the water." With delays and stops, they managed no more than 12 miles a day; and even that small distance was not accomplished without rubbing shoulders and feet raw [Fitz Roy 1839: (2)347]. A big river, the Santa Cruz to averages 200 yards wide, with a mean depth of 10 feet [Fitz Roy 1836: 315].

131 This is Darwin's rhea, Pterocnemia pennata. And it nearly didn't make the record books. The bird was shot by Conrad Martens (the new artist!), cooked and largely eaten before Darwin realised that its shorter, down-covered legs and mottled plumage were unlike those of the common rhea. Fortunately, there were enough leftovers to be sent to London, mounted and put on exhibit [Darwin 1906: 58].

132 The Andean condor Vultur gryphus is now an endangered species.

133 On April 27th [Darwin 1906: 156]. The animals mentioned here were killed by a hunting party on the return from the Santa Cruz headwaters; sportsmen who grew concerned as night drew near. The carcasses they carried on their backs drew a puma, which they were able to smell but not see [Fitz Roy 1839: (2)357, Barlow 1933: 227].

134 Geoffroy's cat, a spotted, sandy-grey, ocelot-like cat, Oncifelis geofroyi.

135 "I was ill here four days."

136 They were "beating around the Straits," obtaining soundings and searching for hidden sand banks. On the 25th the Adventure arrived from the Falklands with news that the last of the Argentine rebels had been captured and that "the Island was quiet." The first battle for the Falklands was over [Barlow 1933: 227].

137 They averaged six feet in height [Darwin 1906: 199]. Fitz Roy [Fitz Roy 1836: 3 15-6] said the men gave the impression of being still more muscular, draped in their long, loose guanaco mantles.

138 "The huts of these wanderers are somewhat like Gipsy tents ... an irregular tilt-like hut" [Fitz Roy 1836: 316].

139 That is, there are rivers (fresh water) and channels (salt) coursing through Tierra del Fuego; Río Sedger is water of the first kind. Fresh water a rare, most of it like drinking a "physic." The water from Port Famine was priceless because it also tasted "excellent" [Barlow 1933: 229].

140 Fuegians came "Yammarschoonering" again, and couldn't be dissuaded by mock musket attacks, so Fitz Roy was forced to deploy the rockets and scare them into the hills [Barlow 1933: 229].

141 The quotation marks are in the original.

142 The oldest officer aboard, George Rowlett "sank under a complication of diseases ... in his 38th year" [Barlow 1933: 231].

143 The Beagle would spend the next six months surveying the coast from Chiloé southward through the Chonos Archipelago.

144 The larch, or alerce of Darwin, Latrix.

145 "A man wanting to buy a bottle of wine, carries on his back an Alerce board" for exchange [Barlow 1933: 270]. Which proves cumbersome. What little money they gained selling wood bought them sheep, and initiated what is today a famous wool market [Barlow 1933: 232].

146 To Darwin, they looked much like the Fuegians [Barlow 1933: 232].

147 Having a tropical appearance due to even temperatures and volcanic soils. "The trees are all evergreens and the stems are variously coloured white and red, etc. [Barlow 1933: 231-2; Darwin 1906: 257-9]. Thick stands of bamboo, climbing to 30-40 feet, made the woods unnegotiable. This was a miraculous change from stunted Fuegian beech trees.

148 The pudu, Pudu pudu, which is the smallest living deer; adults stretch up to 15" (40 cm) shoulder height.

149 Humming birds, common to the Americas, are unknown in Europe. The smallest and most active of birds, most of them with bodies no longer than 2 inches (5 cm), chase "away the rival butterfly." The smallest are half that and the largest, Patagona gigas mentioned by Darwin, is only 4 inches (10 cm) long. Brilliantly iridescent, "their wings moved so rapidly that they were scarcely visible, and so remaining stationary, the little bird darted its beak into the wild flowers, making an extra ordinary buzzing noise at the same time with its wings" [Barlow 1933: 70].

150 The island of Chiloé is one wet place. An ordinary highway would be mud in no time. So the road was made out of logs placed both across the road and along its length. Covington's drawing, an overhead view, shows this very well. In order to keep the logs in place, poles are stuck into the earth at the side of the road. Darwin reminds us, "These pegs render a fall from a horse dangerous; as the chance of alighting on one of them is not small." The agile Chilotan horses which "skipped from one" log "to another with the quickness and certainty of a dog" were his greatest security [Darwin 1906: 280].

151 Apple orchards abound in this wet, temperate environment [Darwin 1906: 283], as "Necessidad es la madre del invencion, " men made apple cider and wine; a white spirit from apple refuse was made into treacle. "Children and pigs seemed almost to live, in this season of the year, in the orchard" [Darwin 1906: 285]. More commonly spelled chicha.

152 Aguardiente, strong spirits, such as rum or brandy.

153 The Almendral was a large suburb where Darwin found an old friend and school chum named Corfield [Darwin 1906: 2 40; Barlow 1933: 235-6] who had a fine house, servants and horses, all of which he kept for a modest sum. The house was pleasant, "one storey high with all the rooms opening into a quadrangle; there is a small garden attached."

154 'Adapted' is common in Darwin's vernacular.

155 Casa Blanca is South East of Valparaíso. Darwin went from the Quillota plains South on a winding track to the inland city of Santiago. From here he hoped to take a good road to the coast, but sickness forced him to halt at Casa Blanca on the 25th, where he sent for Covington to return him in a waggon, or biloche to Corfield's where he stayed the next month in bed [Darwin 1906: 257; Barlow 1933: 249]. Darwin blamed this illness on too much chichi, but it may be that he contracted a more serious illness, perhaps Chagas disease or typhus. The Beagle delayed sailing until Darwin recovered.

156 The Beagle sailed without Martens, who booked passage to Australia. The Adventure was sold against Fitz Roy's strongest objections; Wickham and his crew squeezed back onto Beagle. Fitz Roy, who threatened resignation over the loss of Adventure, was cajoled into retaining his captaincy.

157 At San Carlos

158 This excursion, under the command of Mr. Sulivan, was to survey the Chonos Archipelago over the next two weeks. Covington and Darwin both came along [Darwin 1906: 262].

159 The sheep belonged to the miserably poor former governor who, with many Chilotans lost his income with independence from Spain [Barlow 1933: 234, 250]. Worse, as far as these people were concerned, land was being redistributed to the Indians. In the past, Indians could not legally hold land -- and if they did clear a plot it was usually confiscated after the work was done [Barlow 1933: 253].

160 Three mountains simultaneously gushed smoke onto this grand panorama [Darwin 1906: 263; Barlow 1933: 251]. Far to the North, mighty Aconcagua was also trembling prophetically.

161 Including the church, which looked something like a collection of sheds with a steeple, but it was fifty years old and in fine shape [Darwin 1906: 266; Barlow 1933: 254].

162 So degraded was the old town that nobody had a watch. Instead, "an old man who was supposed to have a good sense of time, was employed to strike the church bell" [Darwin 1906: 266].

163 Presenting the fable of Charles and the fox: Once upon a time there was a curious fox who overtook a boat load of English cartographers near his little island. Never had the fox seen such creatures, with all their poles, ropes and machines. Along came Charles, wandering in the hills, and seeing the fox, snuck up behind. So intent was the fox on the surveyors that Charles merely reached out and brained the unwary fox with his geological hammer. The moral is, "this fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, then the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society" where his glass eyes perpetually contemplate Englishmen. He is the type specimen of the Chiloé or Darwin's fox, Dusicyon griseus fulvipes [Darwin 1906: 268; Barlow 1933: 257].

164 Sulivan continued on in the yawl on the 10th, but Covington and Don Carlos remained with the Beagle, which stood out to sea on the 18th [Darwin 1906: 269].

165 Another bay newly mapped by the Beagle; Sugar-loaf, "even more conical than the famous Sugar-loaf at Rio de Janeiro" was first sighted this day. They were in an empty country, or almost, because they later recovered two sailors who jumped an American whaler. The men were stranded here, wandering the empty coast for fifteen months [Darwin 1906: 269-70]. Fitz Roy recommended that ships avoid this country: though full of bays, the land is so obscured by fog and rain as to make them useless [Fitz Roy 1836: 318].

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 23 August 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 17 March 1998

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