1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tierra del Fuego

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4112791911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26 — Tierra del Fuego

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, an archipelago at the southern extremity of South America, from which it is separated by Magellan Strait, at the First Narrows and other points scarcely a mile wide. The group lies between 52° 40' and 55° 59' S. and 63° 30' and 74° 30' W. stretching nearly in a line with the Patagonian Andes for over 400 m. N.W. and S.E., between Capes Pillar (Desolation Island) and Horn, and for about 270 m. W. and E. from Cape Pillar to Catherine Point at the north of the main island of Tierra del Fuego. Southwards it tapers to 120 m. between Capes Horn and San Diego, east of which extends Staten Island, which terminates in Cape St John. The boundary between Argentina and Chile has been settled in such a manner that Argentina holds that part of the main island of Tierra del Fuego which is situated east of the meridian of Cape Espiritu Santo, the frontier striking the north shore of Beagle Channel about its centre; and Chile holds all the western part of the main island and the other numerous islands to the west and to the south of Beagle Channel. The Argentine side is known as the Territory of Tierra del Fuego (including Staten Island), and the Chilean forms part of the Territory of Magallanes. Although on ordinary maps this region presents to the eye a hopelessly confused aggregate of islands, channels and fjord-like inlets, it is nevertheless clearly disposed in three main sections: (1) the main island; (2) the islands to the south, from which it is separated by Beagle Channel; (3) the islands to the west, marked off from those to the south by the Brecknock Peninsula.

Knowledge of these lands increased considerably during the later years of the 19th century, and their reputation for dreariness has been favourably modified. The climate in the eastern and southern regions is not so rigorous as was believed, there are no barren lands, the soil is fertile and can support fruitful industries, and the aborigines are far from being so dangerous as they were once considered to be. The greater part of the main island of Tierra del Fuego is formed by the continuation of the Tertiary beds of the Patagonian tableland cut by the transversal depression of Magellan Strait and by the low land extending from Useless Bay on the west to San Sebastian Bay on the east, of so recent origin that there exist still some salt lakes, this depression being represented in the old charts as an inter-oceanic passage for small boats. Although in 1880 numerous prospectors discovered extensive deposits of alluvial gold, its exploitation was not generally successful, and farms took the place of mines. By the end of the 19th century 120 square miles had been occupied by cattle and sheep on the Argentine side, and about the same extent on the Chilean; and the cattle industry proved very profitable.

The undulating tableland has an average height of 300 ft. above the sea, and its climate, however cold in winter—in 1892 and 1893 the temperature reached 12.6° F.—allows of the cultivation of barley, oats and occasionally potatoes, which, however, grow better along Beagle Channel. To the south the tableland is higher and more broken, being drained by the Silva and Grande, among smaller rivers, the Grande being navigable in some parts by small craft. To the west and south-west the general character of the land changes; the ends of the Tertiary beds are raised in small hills and Mesozoic rocks appear, forming broken ridges of the Pre-Cordillera, a name given on the continent to the ridges which precede, to the east, the Andes. In this region appears the Antarctic forest in which predominates the Fagus antarctica and F. betuloides, Drymis Winteri, Berberis licifolia, Pernettia, Desfonteinia and Philesia buxifolia. Lake Solier and Lake Fagnano receive the waters of these mountains and hills. Lake Fagnano is only 180 ft. above the sea, and its depth reaches 700 ft. To the south of the lake rises the south-eastern prolongation of the Cordillera of the Andes, with ridges of a uniform height of 3500 ft., in which predominate crystalline schists which do not seem to be very old. Some peaks of Tertiary granite break the uniformity, such as Mt Sarmiento (7200 ft.), Mt Darwin, of which two peaks have been measured (6201 and 7054 ft.), and Mt Olivaia (4324 ft.). Sarmiento, the culminating point of the archipelago, was generally supposed to be volcanic, but it presents such extremely precipitous flanks that John Ball considered it more probably “a portion of the original rock skeleton that formed the axis of the Andean chain during the long ages that preceded the great volcanic outbursts that have covered the framework of the western side of South America.”[1] Sir Martin Conway, who ascended it, ascertained that it is not a volcano. This is altogether an alpine region with numerous snow-clad summits and glaciers descending down to the sea. Deep valleys, which seem to be only the prolongation of fjords, penetrate into the chain in the southern slope where exist several harbours on which settlements have been founded. Yendegaia, Lapatia and Ushuaia Bays are among the larger. Ushuaia is the site of the capital of the Argentine Territory, and has shown considerable development, haying regular communication by monthly steamers with Buenos Aires, while smaller steamers serve the different settlements along the coast. Cattle farms prosper along Beagle Channel, the timber industry is growing, lignite seams have been discovered, and alluvial gold is washed principally at Slogget Bay. These regions, as they become more known, may even invite the attention of tourists by their sublime scenery. Staten Island to the east of Tierra del Fuego has been settled by the Argentine government; there are a prison and lighthouse at St John Harbour, and a first-class permanent meteorological and magnetic station.

The division of the archipelago to the south of Beagle Channel includes the islands of Hoste, Navarin, Gordon, Londonderry, Stewart, Wollaston and numerous islets, disposed in triangular form with the base on Beagle Channel and the apex at the rocky headland of Cape Horn. At its west end Beagle Channel takes the name of Darwin Sound, which leads to the Pacific at the Londonderry and Stewart Islands. Partial exploration in this region was conducted by the French Mission du Cap Horn in 1882-1883, and the geological foundations are granite and basic volcanic rocks. The western group of islands, demarcated by Brecknock Peninsula, includes Clarence Island and Captain Cook's Desolation Land, with Dawson Island and numerous rocks and islets. Desolation Land was supposed by Cook to form a continuous mass stretching from the western entrance of Magellan Strait to Cockburn Channel, but it actually consists of several islands, separated from each other by very narrow channels flowing between the Pacific and the western branch of Magellan Strait. The name Desolation is given to the northern member of the group terminating at Cape Pillar; the southernmost and largest island nearer to Clarence Island, is Santa Iñes. In other cases small surveys among these fjords have shown that several of the larger islands are cut by channels which separate them into smaller ones, while elsewhere the low valleys which unite the mountains and hills are the result of post-Glacial deposits that have filled part of the former channels, these islands being the summits of an old continuous half-submerged mountain chain. At Dawson Island the Chilean government has established settlements, and a Roman Catholic mission has carried on work among the Alakaluf Indians.

Climate.—At Ushuaia ten years' meteorological observations[2] have shown a mean annual temperature of 42.84° F., with a winter mean of 34.7° and a summer mean of 50.18°. These figures show that tolerably mild winters (as a whole, apart from the extremes of cold already indicated) are followed by cool summers, both seasons being accompanied by overcast skies, constant and sudden changes from fair to foul weather; while fogs, mists, rains, snows and high winds (prevailing throughout the year) endanger the navigation of the intricate inland channels. The precipitation during ten years at Ushuaia has been observed to average 24.8 in. But on the southern seaward islands, under the influence of the prevalent westerly or south-westerly winds, it is very much heavier, and reaches 59 in. at Staten Island.

Fauna.—In the main island of Tierra del Fuego, the low-lying plains with their rich growth of tall herbage are frequented by the rhea, guanaco and other animals common to the adjoining mainland. In the southern and western islands the fauna is restricted mainly to foxes, bats, rats, mice, the sea otter, the penguin and other aquatic birds, and various cetaceans in the surrounding waters.

Inhabitants.—To the three geographical divisions correspond three well-marked ethnical groups—the Onas of the main island, the Yagans (Yahgans) of the south and the Alakalufs of the west. With the settlement of the main island, which is now sometimes called Onisia, leaving the name of Tierra del Fuego to the archipelago, the Onas tribe has become fairly known. Their origin, like that of the other groups, is obscure. Undoubtedly among these Indians are many that recall some Patagonian types; it seems that they are not the same as the Tehuelche type, but that they pertain to one of the races that in earlier times existed in Patagonia. Their language is closely allied to that called Old Tehuelche; it is a hard, slow-spoken speech, not at all resembling the soft, rapidly-spoken language of the Yagans, which has many points of similarity with that of the Alakalufs. The isolation of the Onas is peculiarly marked, inasmuch as they are an insular people who do not use boats. Their life is nomadic, and they are hunters, living upon the flesh of the guanaco, and using only tussock-roots and wild celery for vegetable food. Their skill in and necessary devotion to the chase influence their whole mode of life; “their moral code is based upon a standard of physical culture and health.”[3] They live in small groups, every member of which is connected by family ties; between these groups, as in the case of the Yagans and Alakalufs, the vendetta is common. They have no gods, though certain legends are preserved. They have maintained their stock untainted, and have withstood the influence of the white man to a remarkable degree (for example, they use no spirituous or fermented drink), though they have suffered a serious decrease in numbers at his hands. The men average about 5 ft. 10 in. in height; the women 5 ft. 6 in. They are of a light copper colour, with black straight hair, and remarkably muscular. The Yagans live under conditions of extraordinary rigour. In order to obtain food, they venture naked in small canoes into the treacherous seas; their life is a constant battle with starvation and a rude climate, and their character has become rude and low in consequence. They have no higher social unit than the family. On the authority of Charles Darwin they have been held by many to be cannibals, but they are not, although those suffering from incurable ailments are often put to death. Although taller than the Negritoes of the eastern hemisphere (4 ft. 10 in. to 5 ft. 4 in.), the Yagans present in some respects a more debased type characterized by low brows, prominent zygomatic arches, large tumid lips, flat nose, loose wrinkled skin, black restless eyes very wide apart, coarse black unkempt hair, and head and chest disproportionately large compared with the extremely slender and outwardly curved legs. The missionaries, who have reduced the language to writing (Gospel of St Luke, London, 1881), assert that it contains no fewer than 30,000 words, although the numerals stop at five, already a compound form, and although the same word expresses both hand and finger; but it appears that a large number of the words included in this total are compounds. Comparatively little is known about the Alakalufs. They have a reputation for treachery, and for assaults on shipwrecked crews. They are hunters both on land and on the water, using the bow and arrow like the Onas, and building canoes often of Targe size.

The aborigines are decreasing rapidly in the whole archipelago, and although the Rev. Thomas Bridges, who, as missionary first and then as farmer, resided thirty years there, calculated the population to be 10,000 when he arrived, towards the close of the 19th century it was estimated to be little more than 1000.

Tierra del Fuego was discovered by Fernando de Magellan in 1520, when he sailed through the strait named after him, and called this region the “Land of Fire,” either from now extinct volcanic flames, or from the fires kindled by the natives along parts of his course. In 1578 Sir Francis Drake first sighted the point which in 1616 was named Cape Hoorn (anglicized Horn) by the Dutch navigators Jacob Lemaire and Willem Cornelis Schouten (1615-1617). In 1619 the brothers Garcia and Gonçalo de Nodal first circumnavigated the archipelago, which was afterwards visited at intervals by Captain Sir John Narborough (1670), M. de Gennes and the Sieur Froger (1696), Commodore John Byron (1764), Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret (1767), James Cook (1768) and James Weddell (1822). But no systematic exploration was attempted until the British Admiralty undertook a thorough survey of the whole group by Philip Parker King (1826-1828) and Robert Fitzroy (1831-1836), The latter expedition (Voyage of the “Beagle”) was accompanied by Charles Darwin, then a young man. To these admirable surveys is due most of the present geographical terminology of the archipelago. Subsequently the work of exploration was continued by Dumont d'Urville (1837), Charles Wilkes (1839), Parker Snow (1855), various later travellers, a selection of whose works are quoted below, and British, American and Roman Catholic missionaries.

Bibliography.—Charles de Brosses, Histoire des navigations aux terres australes (Paris, 1756); J. Burney, History of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea (London, 1803-1817); J. Weddell, A Voyage towards the South Pole and to Tierra del Fuego (London, 1825); Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, &c., during the Voyage of the “Beagle” round the World (London, 1845); W. Parker Snow, A Two Years' Cruise off Tierra del Fuego (London, 1857); G. Marguin, “La Terre de Feu,” in Bull. de la Soc. de Géogr. (November, 1875); J. G. Kohl, Gesch. d. Entdeckungsreisen, &c., zur Magellans Strasse (Berlin, 1877); “La Terre de Feu et ses habitants,” in Journal des missions évangéliques (August 1876); D. Lovisato, Appunti etnografici con accenni geologici sulla Terra del Fuoco (Turin, 1884); John Ball, Notes of a Naturalist in South America (London, 1887); I. W. Coppinger, Cruise of the “Alert” (London, 4th ed., 1885); G. Sergi, Antropologia fisica delta Fuegia (Rome, 1887); Ramon Lista, “East Fuegia,” in Petermanns Mitteilungen (May 1887); Mission scientifique du Cap Horn, 1882-1883 (Paris, 1888); Thomas Bridges, “Notes on Tierra del Fuego,” Revista del Museo de la Plata (1892); Otto Nordenskjold, “Ueber die Natur der Magellansländer,” Peter. Mitt., 43, 1897; L'Expédition suédoise à la Terre de Feu (1895-1897; Wiss. Erg. der schwed. Exped. nach den Magellansländern, 1895-1897 (Stockholm, 1898); Geological Map of the Magellan Territories (Stockholm, 1899); F. Lahille, “Fines de verano en la Tierra del Fuego,” Revista Museo de La Plata (1898), vol viii.; Sir Martin Conway, Aconcagua and Tierra del Fuego (London, 1902); R. Dabbene, “Viaje á la Tierra del Fuego y á la Isla de los Estados,” Bolet. Inst. Geog. Argentino (1905), xxi.; K. Skottsberg, Vegetationsbilder aus Feuerland, &c., parts iii. and iv. in G. Karsten and H. Schenck's Vegetationsbilder (Jena, 1906); R. Crawshay, The Birds of Tierra del Fuego (London, 1907).

  1. Notes of a Naturalist in South America (London, 1887).
  2. Dr Chavanne, Die Temperatur und Regenverhältnisse Argentiniens (Buenos Aires, 1903).
  3. W. S. Barclay, “The Land of Magallanes, with some account of the Onas and other Indians,” Geographical Journal, vol. xxiii. (London, 1904).