The Beagle Channel.
WITH the map of South America before him, the reader, if he will bring his eye to bear on the parallel of 55° S. latitude, will find an intricate passage dividing Tierra del Fuego from a group of islands to the southward. This is called the Beagle Channel, after H.M.S. Beagle, in which ship Captain Fitzroy surveyed the coast some sixty years ago. In this channel, on the Fuegian coast, the South American Mission have established their headquarters. The name of the place is Ushuwaia, the southernmost inhabited portion of the globe. It had always been my desire to visit this interesting place, and when outward bound in the Reindeer in 1871 I was asked to do so; but it was out of my beat, and I did not feel authorised to deviate from my course, which lay through the Straits of Magellan and Smythe's Channel to the Pacific. But now things were different: I was my own master, subject only to the Lords of the Admiralty, and I felt justified in going, although the mission was actually a little off my station. But for that matter, it is on no one's station in particular, and is never visited by a man-of-war. Accordingly in February 1888, having embarked Bishop Stirling,
the Ruby left Port Stanley, and the following day anchored off Keppel Island, where a branch of the mission is established. I will explain in a few words the history of the South American Mission.
Some years after Captain Fitzroy's voyage in 1850, Captain Alan Gardiner of the Royal Navy left England with an expedition, the object of which was to ameliorate the condition of the degraded natives of Tierra del Fuego. His idea was a noble one, but the expedition was ill-found and the natives were hostile. Poor Gardiner and his companions were driven from. the coast, and perished miserably, from cold and starvation, at a lonely spot called Spaniard Harbour, on the south-east coast of the island of Tierra del Fuego.
Several other expeditions disastrously failed, till Bishop Stirling caused himself to be landed. at Ushuwaia, and, undeterred by previous failures, remained alone amongst the natives for a year, gaining their respect and affection. If ever a man deserved the Victoria Cross that man is Bishop Stirling, for he carried his life in his hands, and the chances were against his ever returning to civilisation. I am not an enthusiast for missionary work, but in this case there was no question of the good that might be, and has been, done, and I was proud to have the Bishop as my guest on board the Ruby.
From Keppel Island we shaped our course for Staten Island, and anchored in St John's Harbour, which, by the bye, is not unlike that of the same name in Newfoundland. Staten Island belongs to the Argentine Republic. A lighthouse has been erected on the point near the settlement, and a life
THE BEAGLE CHANNEL.
boat established for the relief of shipwrecked crews. I visited the settlement, which was clean and well-kept : spare bunks have been erected for the convenience of wrecked seamen, and everything provided for their comfort. The lighthouse would have been better placed on the west side of the island, for almost all ships are lost there whilst endeavouring to enter the Straits of Le Maire after coming round Cape Horn. Moreover, the island is so mountainous and inaccessible that it is impossible for a shipwrecked crew to reach the settlement by land, and equally so to travel by the beach; while, owing to the strong tides and heavy sea, a boat would be unable to get there by water. The climate is probably more severe than that of any part of the world, and it is unsuited for permanent occupation. Nevertheless, the aspect of the island is not forbidding. The mountains, rising to a height of 3000 feet, are heavily timbered to about two-thirds from their base, above which rise rugged and fantastic peaks inaccessible to any creature but a goat. Of volcanic formation, the substratum is hard rock covered with peat. In this soil a stunted kind of beech finds sustenance, and the ground is carpeted with wild-flowers and raspberries.
Leaving Staten Island, we ran through the Straits of Le Maire, and the same night anchored in Spaniard Harbour. The next morning the Bishop and I landed to seek for the spot where the remains of Alan Gardiner were said to be. We easily found the place, and the cave where the poor fellows lived and died. On a tree near by was a notice to say that H.M.S. Dido visited the spot in 1851. A cross was painted on a tree to mark the captain's grave, and
we nailed a sheet of copper round the tree to show that the Ruby had been there.
Leaving this place with its melancholy recollections, we steamed along the land to the westward between Picton Island and the mainland. The southern shores of Tierra del Fuego are mountainous and well wooded, with fine open valleys covered with grass suitable for sheep. We saw no signs of habitation till we came to Mr Bridges' place, " Down East," about forty miles east of Ushuwaia. Mr Bridges has built himself a comfortable house, and gone in for farming. In his garden were good crops of potatoes, cabbages, turnips, and lettuces, also many kinds of English flowers, and strawberries, gooseberries, and currants. Several cows, sheep, and pigs were pastured near. Here we came across some Fuegian families living in huts made of logs and peat, and some in birch-bark canoes. Each canoe holds a family with their belongings; in the centre of the canoe a turf-fire is constantly kept burning for cooking purposes. The natives seemed a wretched lot, stunted in growth from bad food and exposure, their complexions muddy, hair black, and eyes bleared from constantly sitting over a smoky fire. They suffer much from scrofula and consumption, and no wonder: measles and smallpox also have made fearful havoc amongst them.
Leaving " Down East," where we had been hospitably entertained by Mr and Mrs Bridges, we reached Ushuwaia and anchored off the mission station the same evening. The settlement stands on a low peninsula with a background of purple hills and a range of snow-clad mountains beyond. Through a gap in the panorama Mount Darwin may be seen
THE BEAGLE CHANNEL.
rising to a height of 7000 feet, its summit covered with eternal snow. The line of vegetation reaches about half-way up the mountains, the lower slopes being thickly wooded with antarctic beech. We spent a quiet Sunday at the anchorage to enable the Bishop to inspect the schools, and in the afternoon the Indians of the mission visited the ship, amongst them sixteen orphan girls, under the care of Mrs Hernmings, the matron. All the English missionaries also came on board, and were delighted to have their good Bishop amongst them once more.
Ushuwaia - the Headquarters of the South American Mission
On February 27 we left Ushuwaia on our return journey: it was a lovely warm day, numerous whales disporting themselves round the ship. The view on a calm day, which is rare, is most beautiful, the still
THE SOUTH AMERICAN MISSION.
lighting up the mountains with varied tints and the scene being reflected in the water.
It is difficult to estimate the number of Indians in Tierra del Fuego, as there are several tribes, some savage and hostile, who live in the interior of the island. The " Yahgan," or Canoe Indians, inhabit the coast, living on shellfish, and occasionally a dead whale, when Providence puts one in their way. They would appear to be the most degraded of the human race : they have no idea of a Supreme Being, no alphabet, or means of reckoning beyond the number three, and even when civilised seem wanting in ordinary intelligence. They have no notion of calculating time, of the division of days, weeks, or years, and reckon only by the change of seasons, like birds and beasts. The Indians of the interior are said to be a finer race, and are more warlike and courageous; but their days are numbered, and, like the Patagonians, they will probably have ceased to exist before long, especially as they are systematically destroyed by the Argentines. I heard on undoubted authority that infected clothing from smallpox hospitals had been purposely introduced among them. In concluding this account of the South American mission, I am of opinion that it is deserving of support, especially from a seafaring people like ourselves.
Apart from the religious aspect of the question, these poor folk have learnt to regard the white man as their friend; so much so, that whereas in former times the crews of vessels wrecked upon this stormy coast were killed and eaten, they are now guided to places of safety by the natives. Accustomed to a rigorous climate, they would make capital boatmen,
THE BEAGLE CHANNEL.
and would be capable of manning a lifeboat if such were supplied, or a lighthouse if one be ever placed on Cape Horn. Here is an opportunity for wealthy philanthropists. A comparatively small sum would go a long way. Already something has been done in this way, and that by a lady, the late Mrs Langworthy, who generously provided the funds to purchase the mission schooner, Alan Gardiner, on the station. It will be a shame if the noble efforts of Captain Gardiner be allowed to perish for want of support.
The Sunday after leaving Ushuwaia we had our usual service on board, and the Bishop preached the sermon. We were walking the poop together after church, and the men were giving the usual touch up to the guns before piping to dinner, when the Bishop remarked to me upon the apparent inconsistency of the sailor's life. One moment we were singing that beautiful hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee," and at the next we were polishing up the guns ready for a fight! "Well," said I, "the fact is, my lord, I have read somewhere that 'it is the Lord who teacheth our hands to war and our fingers to fight.'" " Ah, " said the Bishop, "it was David who said that!" and I fancied I saw a twinkle in his eye as he called my attention to a distant sail.
On our return to Monte Video we picked up our old berth as close to the shore as the depth of water permitted: in fact, we used to lie on the mud in 16 feet of water, the ship drawing 19. It was amusing to see how strangers anchored four miles from the port, afraid to come closer, and I used to be told that we should come to grief some day in a pampero ; but there was no risk, as the
A HOSPITABLE ESTANCIA.
water always rises before a pampero, and in the mean time the ship lay easy at her anchors with no strain on her cables, and the boats had a much better time of it than when anchored so far away.
One day we heard that ex-President Santos, who had been residing in Paris for some years, was returning to Uruguay; and as he had many supporters; a revolution was anticipated. Orders were given that he was not to be allowed to land at Monte Video, and I was asked if I would receive him on board the Ruby, a very large sum being offered me if I would do so. Of course I declined the honour, and on Santos' arrival in the mail-steamer he had to go on to Buenos Ayres.
Whilst waiting for our relief I took a run over to Buenos Ayres, and enjoyed once more a visit to Negretti, Mr Shennan's beautiful estancia, where, in the absence of the owner, his manager, Mr Evans, extended hospitality on a liberal scale. Many naval officers who have visited the Plate will have reason to remember the splendid hospitality and grand sport afforded them by Mr Shennan ; and indeed at all the estancias, both native and foreign, in Uruguay and Argentine, naval officers are always heartily welcome, but all are not in the position to entertain in the same manner as the genial and popular owner of Negretti.
The Ruby's cruise is over: for three years and a-half we have traversed the station from one end to the other. Leaving Monte Video for the last time, her head is pointing northwards, and her peaceful but not altogether uninteresting commission is concluded.
No sooner was the Ruby berthed alongside the
THE BEAGLE CHANNEL.
jetty at Sheerness, preparatory to paying off, than a policeman came on board, and showing a cheque for £70 signed in my name, asked me if it was mine. I at once pronounced it to be a forgery. He then asked if Mr Leslie, the first lieutenant, was on board, and being introduced to that officer, he told us that a person describing himself as Mr Leslie, formerly of H.M.S. Ruby, had lately come home from South America, and had cleverly swindled an unfortunate schoolmaster at Clifton with the following audacious tale. He said that he had been sent home by Captain Kennedy in charge of Mrs Kennedy and the captain's two sons (who never existed), that Mrs Kennedy died on the passage home (she is alive and well now, I am happy to say), and that she had expressed in her last wish that the two boys should be placed at this school at Clifton. As a guarantee of good faith he produced the bogus cheque, and on the strength of it he borrowed some £15 or £20 from the schoolmaster to enable him to fetch the boys from Portsmouth. Of course he never returned, and the cheque was dishonoured. The rascal then went to a firm at Gosport, and representing that he was the captain of Lord Porchester's yacht, the Aphrodita, ordered a new suit of sails, &c., presenting his lordship's cheque (forged) and borrowing money as before. After several operations of alike nature he was run in and convicted. But to explain how he became familiar with my name, and that of Mr Leslie, I must go back a little.
One day whilst the ship was at Monte Video a gentleman was announced who wished to see me, and was introduced as Mr Walter Ross-Raleigh, "special correspondent of the `Times."' He spoke
MR WALTER ROSS-RALEIGH.
with an American accent, which was a little suspicious ; but as he produced credentials from the Foreign Office on official paper, signed by Lord Salisbury, I was thrown off my guard. He said he was sent out to report upon Uruguay, and asked me to assist him, which I was quite able and willing to do after three years' experience of the country.
He thanked me very heartily, and asked me to dine with him and his wife on shore. Having no particular engagement, I accepted, and was introduced to Mrs Ross-Raleigh, a middle-aged, highly respectable looking old party. We spent a pleasant evening together, and the lady called me to order for some flippant remark I made on the occasion.
The next I heard of the gentleman, he turned up at Rosario representing that he was a United States naval officer come out to supersede the captain of one of the American men-of-war on the station. On the strength of this he borrowed 1000 dollars from the United States consul, and having swindled many others in the Plate, he cleared for Rio, and from thence sailed for Hamburg, where he was arrested; but as no one appeared to prosecute, he was released and made his way to England, where, under different aliases, he perpetrated several swindles – those I have narrated amongst them. I heard afterwards that the woman was his accomplice, and not his wife.
The Argentine Republic used to be the favourite rendezvous for scoundrels of every nationality, owing to there being no extradition treaty; but I believe this has since been changed. The notorious forger Goldsmith was doing a roaring business at Buenos Ayres under a feigned name when I was on the station,
THE BEAGLE CHANNEL.
and for all I know is doing so still. I fear the morality of some people on that station is at a very low ebb. Whilst at Rio I was interviewed by a coal contractor, who wished to supply the squadron with coals. On taking his leave he had the impudence to say that "of course a set of diamond studs would be at my disposal, and a necklace for my wife," if he got the contract. I told him that of course I should expect it, and I had his name at once removed from the list of tenders.
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