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article imageMisery, despair and starvation at ‘Port Famine’ on the Strait Special

By Igor I. Solar     Sep 3, 2011 in Travel
Punta Arenas - The tragic history of a desolate and wretched place in the far south of South America is kept alive by memorials to the Spanish sailors who colonized it and the British surveyors who studied the geo-hydrography of the Magellan’s Strait.
Port Famine is on the northern edge of the Strait of Magellan, across from Santa Ana Point, about 60 kilometres south of the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in the world. At this forsaken Patagonian location Spanish Captain Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, on the instructions of his King Philip II of Spain, founded in 1584 a settlement which he audaciously named "Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe” (City of King Philip).
Captain Sarmiento had with him 337 settlers including soldiers, 2 Franciscan priests carrying a huge wooden cross, and other colonisers among which there were 13 women and 10 children. Sarmiento’s objective was to claim for the Spanish crown the control of the southern passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Shortly after the small village was underway, Captain Sarmiento left the City of Rey Don Felipe and returned to Spain.
Port Famine. At this location Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento founded the City of King Philip II. N...
Port Famine. At this location Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento founded the City of King Philip II. Nearly all settlers died of cold and starvation.
In addition to "King Philip City" Sarmiento also founded the colony of “Name of Jesus", located in Cape Vírgenes, near the Atlantic mouth of the strait, now part of the Argentine territory. Name of Jesus did not last long. It was abandoned by its inhabitants, presumably to move west in search of the City of King Philip, which was assumed to be a better place.
Unfortunately, the Spanish colonization enterprise at Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe, established at one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, run into a long period of awful weather conditions, a severe plague of rodents, disputes and combats with the local aboriginal Indians and the inability to develop the most basic way of agriculture and animal husbandry. The settlers survived for a while on wild berries and shellfish and finally they had the most tragic end: most of them, but a few, died of cold and starvation.
The commemorative plaque reads:  To the illustrious navigator Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa  Governor an...
The commemorative plaque reads: "To the illustrious navigator Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, Governor and Captain General of the Straits who on March 25, 1584, founded here the city of Rey Don Felipe, and to the unfortunate Spaniards who suffered and perished in the first attempt to colonize this land. A tribute of the Galician Center of Punta Arenas, 1961."
Almost three years later, the British pirate Thomas Cavendish crossed the Strait of Magellan and found what remained of the Spanish settlement. He witnessed the ruins of the former budding colony, a place of death and desolation. Only 15 famished men and 3 women were still alive. Cavendish offered to take them on board. The survivors did not trust him and only one man, sailor Tomé Hernández, got on board. He escaped from the British pirates at the port of Quintero, near Valparaiso, and told the story. Nothing was ever known of the remaining 17 castaways.
Cavendish renamed the unfortunate location as "Port Famine", a name preserved to this day. The British took over the site and used it as a base of the British Navy for study of the geography and hydrography of the Strait of Magellan.
In January of 1827, as part of the long British program of hydrographical surveys in the Southern seas, the HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes arrived to Port Famine. The ship stayed here for a long time. History tells that shortly after learning about the orders that he should continue the surveys in the Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego for another five years, Captain Stokes fell into a deep depression. In August 1828 he went into his cabin and stayed there for 14 days at the end of which he shot himself with his pistol. Unfortunately, he aimed poorly and he agonized for 10 days towards a painful death.
He was buried right there, in a little cemetery known as English Port, where his tomb is still decorated with Navy objects and old nautical charts. Lieutenant W.G. Skyring, first mate of the ship, assumed command of the HMS Beagle until Captain Robert FitzRoy was officially assigned. Under FitzRoy’s command, on the second voyage of exploration of the Beagle, the young naturalist Charles Darwin visited Port Famine as he continued his travels of scientific discovery along the coast of South America between 1832 and 1835.
The British Cemetery  at Port Famine  on the shore of the Strait of Magellan. The large cross marks ...
The British Cemetery, at Port Famine, on the shore of the Strait of Magellan. The large cross marks the tomb of Captain Pringle Stokes.
The tomb of Pringles Stokes  captain of HMS Beagle at Port Famine. Anguish and depression moved him ...
The tomb of Pringles Stokes, captain of HMS Beagle at Port Famine. Anguish and depression moved him to commit suicide on August 2, 1828.
In February 1968, the ruins of the former ill-fated colony at Port Famine were declared a National Monument of Chile. The Chilean Navy takes care of the little British Cemetery located nearby and maintains the tomb of Captain Stokes and those of other unnamed British sailors also buried there.
Digital Journal visited what remains of the old Spanish colony at Port Famine and the tomb of Captain Pringle Stokes at the tiny British Cemetery by the Strait of Magellan.
Fishing boats at a small cove next to Port Famine.
Fishing boats at a small cove next to Port Famine.
More about Chile, Strait of Magellan, Port Famine, Punta Arenas, Pringle Stokes
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