Week 23 – This immersion in Tierra del Fuego (with the city of Ushuaia on the Argentinian side) and in the Magallanes province (with the city of Punta Arenas on the Chilean side) allowed me to discover how much the will of the governments in place in the 19th century was strong to gain new territories.
Let’s talk about the Argentine side to start. The first people settled on Isla de los Estados Island, which is located at the eastern end of Tierra del Fuego. On this small island, the colony had built some constructions the most known being the lighthouse of the end of the world (El Faro del Fin del Mundo), named Faro San Juan de Salvamento, which inspired Jules Vernes for his famous novel Le phare du bout du monde. Living conditions were really difficult on this island, so several expeditions were launched in the Beagle Channel to find a place more suitable for life. It is on this small bay, at the foot of the Martial Glacier, that the city of Ushuaia was finally founded in 1884.
The colony having difficulties to develop, the government of Buenos Aires decided in 1902 to create a prison which would only house dangerous criminals or recidivists. Thus thirty men were sent to Ushuaia to work on the development of the city. They had to build the prison itself, a hospital and residential houses. El Tren del Fin del Mundo (end-of-the-world train) was also constructed as a link between the outskirts of the city and the nearby forests in which the prisoners were going to cut timber for the construction works.
The museum of Presidio located in the old prison is very interesting and allows to realize the conditions in which they lived for nearly 40 years, until 1947 when the prison was closed.
Let’s move to the Chilean side with the conquest of the Magellan Canal. Back on the mainland (remember the Tierra del Fuego is an island), we went to visit the city of Punta Arenas and the former colonies that preceded it. In the 16th century, the Magellan Canal was a must for ships sailing from Europe to the Pacific side of the Americas. The crossing of the canal being dangerous, pirates acting there and the will of expansion of Spain being strong, the crown sent an expedition of 4000 men in order to secure the channel. 300 men and women will be sent some 60 km south of current Punta Arenas to establish a colony. In 1584, the colony Rey Don Felipe was created… unfortunately, the living conditions being impossible in this place, almost all the population died of hunger! One of the survivors having managed to make contact with a ship crossing the canal in 1587 and having explained the tragedy, the colony, or rather the creek, was renamed El Puerto del Hambre (the port of hunger)!
Another attempt took place nearly 2 centuries later (in 1843) just 2 km further south. In the 19th century Chile had a strong will to colonize and control the South of America. The government of Chiloe (a peninsula located north of Patagonia) sent an expedition to find a suitable place for the installation of a new colony. A fort, El Fuerte Bulnes, was built with the objective of growing population. The conditions being particularly inhospitable in this place, it was again impossible to develop the agriculture and the breeding necessary for the survival, and it was decided in 1848, after some exploring, to migrate all the small population 60 km further north to the Sandy Point area where the thriving town of Punta Arenas is today. The fort has been abandoned and finally burned.
Today we can see these 2 towns very active and in full development! There is comfort, life, tourism, but how not to imagine the terrible conditions in which the first settlers arrived and tried to survive to meet the needs of conquests of their kingdoms or governments!
I am also amazed at the courage of the expeditions that have left unceasingly to conquer Antarctica! The conditions of survival are so difficult there and for witness there was this incredible story of the Irish explorer Shackleton whose ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice forcing all the crew to leave it. Ernest Shackleton will maintain the morale of the team to give them the courage to survive and will successfully attempt an expedition with 3 men in one of the endurance rowing boats modified by the carpenter of the team to withstand the more hostile seas of the globe! They will be able to brave the Drake Strait where winds and swells of the roaring forties reign to reach the small island of South Georgia they will have to cross on foot, braving terrible blizzards, to find help in a British whaling station. The 28 members of the expedition will return safely after a 22-month adventure!
In a word, what an interesting week!