Island of Juan Fernandez
Tuesday, Nov. 25th, when at daylight we saw the island of Juan Fernandez, directly ahead, rising like a deep blue cloud out of the sea. We were then probably nearly seventy miles from it; and so high and so blue did it appear, that I mistook it for a cloud, resting over the island, and looked for the island under it, until it gradually turned to a deader and greener color, and I could mark the inequalities upon its surface. At length we could distinguish trees and rocks; and by the afternoon, this beautiful island lay fairly before us, and we directed our course to the only harbor. Arriving at the entrance soon after sun-down, we found a Chilian man-of-war brig, the only vessel, coming out. She hailed us, and an officer on board, whom we supposed to be an American, advised us to run in before night, and said that they were bound to Valparaiso. We ran immediately for the anchorage, but, owing to the winds which drew about the mountains and came to us in flaws from every point of the compass, we did not come to an anchor until nearly midnight. We had a boat ahead all the time that we were working in, and those aboard were continually bracing the yards about for every puff that struck us, until about 12 o'clock, when we came-to in 40 fathoms water, and our anchor struck bottom for the first time since we left Boston- one hundred and three days. We were then divided into three watches, and thus stood out the remainder of the night.
I was called on deck to stand my watch at about three in the morning, and I shall never forget the peculiar sensation which I experienced on finding myself once more surrounded by land, feeling the night breeze coming from off shore, and hearing the frogs and crickets. The mountains seemed almost to hang over us, and apparently from the very heart of them there came out, at regular intervals, a loud echoing sound, which affected me as hardly human. We saw no lights, and could hardly account for the sound, until the mate, who had been there before, told us that it was the "Alerta" of the Chilian who were soldiers, who were stationed over some convicts confined in caves nearly half way up the mountain. At the expiration of my watch I went below, feeling not a little anxious for the day, that I might see more nearly, and perhaps tread upon, this romantic, I may almost say, classic island.
When all hands were called it was nearly sunrise, and between that time and breakfast, although quite busy on board in getting up water-casks, etc., I had a good view of the objects about me. The harbor was nearly landlocked, and at the head of it was a landing place, protected by a small breakwater of stones, upon which two large boats were hauled up, with a sentry standing over them. Near this was a variety of huts or cottages, nearly an hundred in number, the best of them built of mud and whitewashed, but the greater part only Robinson Crusoe like- of posts and branches of trees. The governor's house, as it is called, was the most conspicuous, being large, with grated windows, plastered walls, and roof of red tiles; yet, like all the rest, only of one story. Near it was a small chapel, distinguished by a cross; and a long, low brown-looking building, surrounded by something like a palisade, from which an old and dingy-looking Chilian flag was flying. This, of course, was dignified by the title of Presidio. A sentinel was stationed at the chapel, another at the governor's house, and a few soldiers armed with bayonets, looking rather ragged, with shoes out at the toes, were strolling about among the houses, or waiting at the landing place for our boat to come ashore.
The mountains were high, but not so overhanging as they appeared to be by starlight. They seemed to bear off towards the centre of the island, and were green and well wooded, with some large, and, I am told, exceedingly fertile valleys, with mule-tracks leading to different parts of the island.
I cannot here forget how my friend S--- and myself got the laugh of the crew upon us by our eagerness to get on shore. The captain having ordered the quarter-boat to be lowered, we both sprang down into the forecastle, filled our jacket pockets with tobacco to barter with the people ashore, and when the officer called for "four hands in the boat," nearly broke our necks in our haste to be first over the side, and had the pleasure of pulling ahead of the brig with a tow-line for a half an hour, and coming on board again to be laughed at by the crew, who had seen our manoeuvre.
After breakfast the second mate was ordered ashore with five hands to fill the water-casks, and to my joy I was among the number. We pulled ashore with the empty casks; and here again fortune favored me, for the water was too thick and muddy to be put into the casks, and the governor had sent men up to the head of the stream to clear it out for us, which gave us nearly two hours of leisure. This leisure we employed in wandering about among the houses, and eating a little fruit which was offered to us. Ground apples, melons, grapes, strawberries of an enormous size, and cherries, abound here. The latter are said to have been planted by Lord Anson. The soldiers were miserably clad, and asked with some interest whether we had shoes to sell on board. I doubt very much if they had the means of buying them. They were very eager to get tobacco, for which they gave shells, fruit, etc. Knives also were in demand, but we were forbidden by the governor to let any one have them, as he told us that all the people there, except the soldiers and a few officers, were convicts sent from Valparaiso, and that it was necessary to keep all weapons from their hands. The island, it seems, belongs to Chili, and had been used by the government as a sort of Botany Bay for nearly two years; and the governor- an Englishman who had entered the Chilian navy- with a priest, half a dozen task-masters, and a body of soldiers, were stationed there to keep them in order. This was no easy task; and only a few months before our arrival, a few of them had stolen a boat at night, boarded a brig lying in the harbor, sent the captain and crew ashore in their boat, and gone off to sea. We were informed of this, and loaded our arms and kept strict watch on board through the night, and were careful not to let the convicts get our knives from us when on shore. The worst part of the convicts, I found, were locked up under sentry in caves dug into the side of the mountain, nearly half way up, with mule-tracks leading to them, whence they were taken by day and set to work under task-masters upon building an aqueduct, a wharf, and other public works; while the rest lived in the houses which they put up for themselves, had their families with them, and seemed to me to be the laziest people on the face of the earth. They did nothing but take a paseo into the woods, a paseo among the houses, a the houses, a paseo at the landing-place, looking at us and our vessel, and too lazy to speak fast; while the others were driving- or rather, driven- about, at a rapid trot, in single file, with burdens on their shoulders, and followed up by their task-masters, with long rods in their hands, and broad-brimmed straw hats upon their heads. Upon what precise grounds this great distinction was made, I do not know, and I could not very well know, for the governor was the only man who spoke English upon the island, and he was out of my walk.
Having filled our casks, we returned on board, and soon after, the governor, dressed in a uniform like that of an American militia officer, the Padre, in the dress of the grey friars, with hood and all complete, and the Capitan, with big whiskers and dirty regimentals, came on board to dine. While at dinner, a large ship appeared in the offing, and soon afterwards we saw a light whale-boat pulling into the harbor. The ship lay off and on, and a boat came alongside of us, and put on board the captain, a plain young Quaker, dressed all in brown. The ship was the Cortes, whaleman, of New Bedford, and had put in to see if there were any vessels from round the Horn, and to hear the latest news from America. They remained aboard a short time and had a little talk with the crew, when they left us and pulled off to their ship, which, having filled away, was soon out of sight.
A small boat which came from the shore to take away the governor and suite- as they styled themselves- brought, as a present to the crew, a large pail of milk, a few shells, and a block of sandal wood. The milk, which was the first we had tasted since leaving Boston, we soon despatched; a piece of the sandal wood I obtained, and learned that it grew on the hills in the centre of the island. I have always regretted that I did not bring away other specimens of the products of the island, having afterwards lost all that I had with me- the piece of sandal wood, and a small flower which I plucked and brought on board in the crown of my tarpaulin, and carefully pressed between the leaves of a book.
About an hour before sun-down, having stowed our water-casks, we commenced getting under weigh, and were not a little while about it; for we were in thirty fathoms water, and in one of the gusts which came from off shore had let go our other bow anchor; and as the southerly wind draws round the mountains and comes off in uncertain flaws, we were continually swinging round, and had thus got a very foul hawse. We hove in upon our chain, and after stoppering and unshackling it again and again, and hoisting and hauling down sail, we at length tipped our anchor and stood out to sea. It was bright starlight when we were clear of the bay, and the lofty island lay behind us, in its still beauty, and I gave a parting look, and bid farewell, to the most romantic spot of earth that my eyes had ever seen. I did then, and have ever since, felt an attachment for that island, altogether peculiar. It was partly, no doubt, from its having been the first land that I had seen since leaving home, and still more from the associations which every one has connected with it in their childhood from reading Robinson Crusoe. To this I may add the height and romantic outlines of its mountains, the beauty and freshness of its verdure, and the extreme fertility of its soil, and its solitary position in the midst of the wide expanse of the South Pacific, as all concurring to give it its peculiar charm. When thoughts of this place have occurred to me at different times, I have endeavored to recall more particulars with regard to it. It is situated in about 33 deg. 30' S., and is distant a little more than three hundred miles from Valparaiso, on the coast of Chili, which is in the same latitude. It is about fifteen miles in length and five in breadth. The harbor in which we anchored (called by Lord Anson, Cumberland bay) is the only one in the island; two small hights of land on each side of the main bay (sometimes dignified by the name of bays) being little more than landing-places for boats. The best anchorage is at the western side of the bay, where we lay at about three cables' lengths from the shore, in a little more than thirty fathoms water. This harbor is open to the N. N. E., and in fact nearly from N. to E., but the only dangerous winds being the south-west, on which side are the highest mountains, it is considered very safe. The most remarkable thing perhaps about it is the fish with which it abounds. Two of our crew, who remained on board, caught in a few minutes enough to last us for several days, and one of the men, who was a Marblehead man, said that he never saw or heard of such an abundance. There were cod, breams, silverfish, and other kinds whose names thev did not know, or which I have forgotten.
There is an abundance of the best of water upon the island, small streams running through every valley, and leaping down from the sides of the hills. One stream of considerable size flows through the centre of the lawn upon which the houses are built, and furnishes an easy and abundant supply to the inhabitants. This, by means of a short wooden aqueduct, was brought quite down to our boats. The convicts had also built something in the way of a breakwater, and were to build a landing-place for boats and goods, after which the Chilian government intended to lay port charges.
Of the wood I can only say, that it appeared to be abundant; the island in the month of November, when we were there, being in all the freshness and beauty of spring, appeared covered with trees. These were chiefly aromatic, and the largest was the myrtle. The soil is very loose and rich, and wherever it is broken up, there spring up presently radishes, turnips, ground apples, and other garden fruits. Goats, we were told, were not abundant, and we saw none, though it was said we might if we had gone into the interior. We saw a few bullocks winding about in the narrow tracks upon the sides of the mountains, and the settlement was completely overrun with dogs of every nation, kindred, and degree. Hens and chickens were also abundant, and seemed to be taken good care of by the women. The men appeared to be the laziest people upon the face of the earth; and indeed, as far as my observation goes, there are no people to whom the newly invented Yankee word of "loafer" is more applicable than to the Spanish Americans. These men stood about doing nothing, with their cloaks, little better in texture than an Indian's blanket, but of rich colors, thrown over their shoulders with an air which it is said that a Spanish beggar can always give to his rags; and with great politeness and courtesy in their address, though with holes in their shoes and without a sou in their pockets. The only interruption to the monotony of their day seemed to be when a gust of wind drew round between the mountains and blew off the boughs which they had placed for roofs to their houses, and gave them a few minutes' occupation in running about after them. One of these gusts occurred while we were ashore, and afforded us no little amusement at seeing the men look round, and if they found that their roofs had stood, conclude that they might stand too, while those who saw theirs blown off, after uttering a few Spanish oaths, gathered their cloaks over their shoulders, and started off after them. However, they were not gone long, but soon returned to their habitual occupation of doing nothing.
It is perhaps needless to say that we saw nothing of the interior; but all who have seen it, give very glowing accounts of it. Our captain went with the governor and a few servants upon mules over the mountains, and upon their return, I heard the governor request him to stop at the island on his passage home, and offer him a handsome sum to bring a few deer with him from California, for he said that there were none upon the island, and he was very desirous of having it stocked.
A steady, though light south-westerly wind carried us well off from the island, and when I came on deck for the middle watch I could just distinguish it from its hiding a few low stars in the southern horizon, though my unpractised eye would hardly have known it for land.
from "Two Years before the Mast', by Richard Henry Dana, first published in 1840.