The Islands of
Juan Fernandez
  Extract from
The Journal of Philip Saumarez on board The Centurion
From 'Log of the Centurion' by Leo Heaps
Click on for large view
top This island lays in the latitude of 33° 35' south or 40 mins. south as I found by repeated observation and 85° 26' west longitude from the meridian of London calculated by continuance of my longitude from my first setting out to the different parallels of latitude and corrected by a celestial observation at the island of St Katharin's on the coast of Brasil.

The distance from the Continent of Chile (by a medium in my different runs which were interrupted by currents to which these seas are subject) about 105 leagues west.

On the first appearance strangers would naturally conclude it to be a barren inhospitable island affording a prospect of broken inaccessible mountains and rocky precipices, but on nearer approach am easily reconciled to it when surprised with the discovery of trees and verdure with which it is clothed, with several streams of water discharging themselves from below into the seas and forming agreeable cascades in their falls.
top On a survey which we took of the island we found the South East side to extend 6 leagues and the South West about 3 and the northern side 4, and nearest resembles that triangle called by mathematicians the scalinium from the inequality of the sides.
  Nearer the southeast point there is a small island called Goat Island but two miles off and near the east point there is a rock like a pyramid called Monkey Key

The southern part of it is flat and barren and being extremely dry and stony and entirely destitute of trees we flattered ourselves to have found on this part great quantities of goats.

  From the tradition of former voyages there are opinions which prevailed that the declivity of the mountains prevented a communication between the northern and southern sides.
top We found the face of things much altered. The place is covered with dogs of an enormous size resembling the grey hounds. These with the advantage of level surface have effectually destroyed the goats on this side, whose refuge consists of steep rocks and precipices, and probably in time will destroy them on the other, the dogs likewise having contracted an agility and swiftness almost equal to the goats.
  This side is seldom. frequented by ships being mostly environed with steep cliffs against which a large southern swell is continually breaking, nor would be any ways serviceable from its laying exposed to a southerly wind which in the winter solstice generally presides and blows very hard.
top The general anchoring place is on the north side which affords three bays each of which is well provided with rivulets of water and fish but the middle bay is the largest and deepest laying open to a North East wind, about a mile in width and half a mile deep, which all ships prefer.

It may be distinguished from the rest at sea by a tableland which is the highest mountain in the island, which for sailing in with appears to be a steep precipice the top of which inclines a little to the westward. Notwithstanding I call it tableland, it is far from being so smooth or level as hills distinguished by the name are understood to be.


We mistook the bay expecting to see some other level surface as we ranged along the northern side yet in respect to the other mountains who are all broken precipices, it may be termed a tableland. What adds to the description is a steep peak on each end of it at some distance and much lower. This tableland bore from us at an anchor South South West. The other two bays scarcely deserve the name and may properly be called landing places where boats may find the conveniency of putting their casks on shore.


top As to what regards the refreshments it seems providentially calculated for the relief of distressed adventurers who find such vegetables as are particularly adapted for curing the distempers contracted on long voyages and bad diets, especially those of the scorbutick kind; it abounding in great quantity’s of water and wood cresses, excellent wild sorrell, a great profusion of turnips, the tops which we generally preferred to the roots, with great quantities of clover and oats for which I may add the cabbage tree. This latter was scarce and generally attained with great difficulty and hazzards.

Goats we sometimes regaled with but found it very laborious and fatiguing to get any, the dogs being grown so numerous that they have almost unfortunately destroyed them and obliged the remainder to refuge on top of the most dangerous precipices. By continual application we were perfectly acquainted with the retreats and always observed that they went in herds each consisting of 16 or 20 goats and never intermixed with each other; and we can exactly tell by their diminishing proportionally to the numbers we shot. We were grown so expert as to be able to compute the number which might amount to 150 or 160 on the island, and scarce more as we were certain there were none on the south side: Their flesh was excellent and ate like venison. Some of the ears we observed were slit in this manner-the creatures are marked when bred up tame and perhaps might be the remains of Selkirk's nursery all those thus distinguished being extremely old.


We likewise found great relief from our feeding on fish which this bay is plentiful stored with in great variety. There are cod of prodigious size, cavallys, groupers, large breams, silver fishes, congers, albacores with many others, and a black fish somewhat resembling a carp called by our predecessors a chimney sweeper, with great quantities of dog fish of a voracious kind which often interrupted our fishing, it being observable that no fish would approach the baits while they were near to these, and I may also add sharks of an enormous largeness which often accompanied our boats and seemed exceedingly ravenous.

The craw fish was likewise found in the greatest plenty conceivable and beyond any like I ever saw in largeness or goodness. We generally caught close to the sea side, often striking them with our boat hooks. Nor were the sea lion and seals excluded from our table. Through satiety or wantoness or depraved appetites we found them excellent food. The former bearing some affinity with beef and the latter not to be distinguished from mutton.


We saw here but very few birds, chiefly . consisting of blackbirds, hawks, owls, hummingbirds, and the pardella which burrows in the earth and mentioned by former voyagers. We saw not but the holes we frequently fell into. Probably the dogs had destroyed them all as they had likewise the cats which were almost exterminated, but rabbits were very troublesome and infested our tents nightly.

top The island is entirely overspread with woods on the north amongst which are several aromatic trees such as the vinters bark tree, arber magillaneus, called by some the pimento tree. A large tree resembling our ash whose leaves and bush have the property of the rue and used by us as bitters. The berries were like the dwarf lemon with tufted blossoms like the primrose, of a yellowish colour. The myrtle tree, these were the largest on the whole place, supplies us with timbers for several uses but none would work beyond 40 feet in length. It bore an excrescence like moss, growing on a small stock on the bark of the tree whose taste and smell resembled garlic, as was used by us as such. The tree excreted likewise the polipody which we found a good laxative. The cabbage I have already mentioned to which I may add the tree resembling the palm tree. Probably physical herbs might likewise abound in great plenty for besides the polipody we discovered the ash coloured ground liver wart recommended as useful against the venom of mad dogs. This grew nearer the banks and the rivulets on the flat stones. Also several kinds of maiden hair with great abundance of very high leaves with which the valleys are entirely covered and grow to an extraordinary largeness. We found a small shrub somewhat like the tilibri cherry bark tree whose bark we used as an astringent with great success as well as the pelliberry which we discovered in great quantities and is looked on as a nitrous duiretic, but as botanism is out of my province numbers of others have doubtless escaped my notice.
  It is highly probable that mines might be discovered here, that nitre abounds in most places and copper we extracted, besides which there are several hills of a peculiar sort of red earth whose brightness equal vermillion and with a proper management might furnish the composition for the potters of an extraordinary kind.
top I cannot omit mentioning the sea lions which seem as extraordinary a production as any in the creation and might justly deserve the observation of an expert naturalist. This surprising creature partakes of a double nature being truly amphibious, and divides its time equally between the land and sea retiring to the shore in the winter solstice as if actuated by innate impulse which prompted him to abandon an element which would soon grow boisterous. In the interval they engender and bring forth their young which at birth are as big as a seal full grown, and generally have two which they breed up with great care suckling them with their milk till contracted through the first stage of infancy, at which period the parents relinquish their charge and retire to the sea leaving their off spring behind which in a few months copulate living in this interim in the fresh water streams and eating such grass and verdure as grow near the banks of them. When arrived to their full growth they are from 12 to 18 feet long and 9 or IO in circumference, and better to convey an idea of them is to resemble them to an overgrown seal though in some particulars there is a palpable difference; especially in the males who have a long bulbous substance growing on the top of their head and hangs down three or four inches below their noses somewhat like a comb which gives them a certain majestic masculine air. This the females are deprived of who have a much softer and effeminate look and are likewise of a smaller size.