1902 Encyclopedia > Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, a large archipelago at the southern extremity of South America, from which it is separated by Magellan Strait, at the Narrows and other points scarcely a mile wide. The group lies between 52° 40' and 55° 59' S. lat. and 63° 30' and 74° 35' W. long, stretching nearly in a line with the Patagonian Andes for over 400 miles north-west and south-east, between Capes Pillar and Horn, and for about 270 miles west and east from Cape Pillar to Cape Espiritu Santo (Catherine Point) in the north; southwards it tapers to 120 miles between Capes Horn and St Diego, the latter being continued east-wards to Staten Island, which is not usually included in the group. Although on ordinary maps this region pre-sents to the eye a hopelessly confused aggregate of islands, channels, and fjord-like inlets, as if it had been submerged sufficiently to convert its deep valleys and gorges into marine passages, bays, and bights, it is nevertheless clearly disposed in three main sections, which may be conveniently named East, West, and South Fuegia.

East Fuegia consists of the single island of King Charles's South Land (eastern Tierra del Fuego), which is very much larger than all the rest of the group together, being considerably over 200 miles long from north to south. It obviously forms a southern extension of the Patagonian pampas, which it greatly resembles in its physical constitution, climate, flora, and fauna. The low-lying, flat or slightly rolling plains are covered with a rich growth of tall herbage, which is frequented by the rhea, guanaco, and other animals common to the adjoining main-land, and also peopled by a branch of the same Tehuelche (Patagonian) family. In the south a long peninsula pro-jects westwards to the Pacific. This western limb as-sumes a mountainous character, Mount Darwin (6800 feet) being situated about midway on its south side and Mount Sarmiento (6900, or perhaps 7000 feet), the culminating point of the archipelago, much nearer the Pacific. Although generally supposed to be volcanic, this peak presents such extremely precipitous, in fact, almost vertical flanks that John Ball considers 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 vol-canic outbursts that have covered the framework of the western side of South America." This is altogether an alpine region with numerous snow-clad summits and gla-ciers descending down to the sea (Darwin).

Along the south side of East Fuegia flows Beagle Channel, about 55° S. lat., separating it from South Fuegia, which comprises 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 western end Beagle Channel takes the name of Darwin Sound, which leads to the Bacific at Londonderry and Stewart Islands. North of these lies Brecknock Beninsula, the westernmost extension of East Fuegia, cut-ting off South Fuegia from Clarence Island and Desola-tion Land, which with Dawson Island and numerous rocks and islets constitute West Fuegia. Desolation Land, so named by Cook, who supposed it to form a continuous mass stretching from the western entrance of Magellan Strait to Cockburn Channel, really consists of at least three, and possibly more islands, separated from each other by very narrow channels flowing between the Pacific and the western branch of Magellan Strait. The name Desolation has been reserved for the northern member of the group terminating at Cape Pillar; the one next to it has been called Santa Inez; the other or others are still unnamed. When Ball passed through the strait, he was shown one of the narrow sounds "which have lately been ascertained to penetrate entirely through what used to be considered a single island" (op. tit., p. 241).

Lying almost in a line with the main Andean axis, both "West and South Fuegia are essentially highland regions, conforming in their general characteristics to the intervening western extension of East Fuegia. As compared with the great mass of the latter, they are everywhere extremely rugged and mountainous, having a mean elevation of not less than 3000 feet, a much moister climate, and arboreal instead of grassy vegetation. The isothermals of 32° Fahr. for July (winter) and 50° Fahr. for January (summer), with a mean annual temperature of 42° Fahr., show that tolerably mild winters are followed by cool summers, both seasons being accom-panied by overcast skies, constant and sudden changes from fair to foul weather; whilst fogs, mists, rains, snows, and high winds (prevailing throughout the year) endanger the navigation of the intricate inland channels, and render the archipelago one of the dreariest regions on the globe.

A botanical parting line seems to be constituted by the range of hills running back of Punta Arenas along the east side of Brunswick Peninsula (which, although attached by a narrow neck of land to Patagonia, belongs physically to the insular domain), and termin-ating at Cape Froward (53° 54' S. lat.), the southernmost point of the American mainland. West and south of this line the pampas are replaced by lofty mountains clothed with a dense forest vege-tation from the water's edge to heights of 1000 and 1200 feet, above which stretches a zone of peaty soil with stunted alpine plants as far as the snow line (3000 to 3500 feet). The forest species are chiefly an evergreen beech (Fagus antarctica, S.) and the winter bark (Winteria aromatica), also evergreen, with tall smooth stem and glossy leaves like the laurel. Wild celery, cress, cochlearia, and other anti-scorbutic plants occur on both sides of Magellan Strait, and the beech nourishes a large yellow mushroom, which, with the berries of a dwarf shrub, is the only vegetable food of the natives.

In West and South Fuegia the fauna is restricted mainly to two species of fox, a bat, rats, mice, the sea otter, the penguin and other aquatic birds, and various cetaceans in the surrounding waters.

To the three geographical divisions correspond three well-marked ethnical groups,—the Onas of East, the Yaghans of South, and the Alacalufs of West Fuegia. The first are estimated to number 2000, the others 3000 each, making a total population of some 8000 for the whole archipelago. The Onas are Patagonians who have crossed the strait. The Alacalufs are also immigrants from the mainland, but probably they came at an earlier date, and from the western uplands, being apparently a branch of the Auca (Arau-canian) race of the Patagonian and Chilian Cordilleras. They differ altogether in speech both from the Onas, with whom they come scarcely anywhere in contact, and from the Yahgans, who are the true aborigines of the archipelago. These last are in exclusive possession of South Fuegia, and also occupy the north side of Beagle Channel about Mount Darwin and further west. To them alone missionary enterprise has hitherto been extended, and the English station of Ushiwaya on Beagle Channel has for some years been the only centre of civilizing influences in the archipelago. As Lieutenant Bove of the Italian Antarctic expedition has mack) a special study of this branch, they are much better known than either of the neighbouring races. If they represent an earlier Araucanian immigration than that of the Alacalufs, their ex-tremely low social state, on which all observers are unanimous, may be regarded as the result of degradation from a higher con-dition during their long sojourn in their present inhospitable en-vironment. But it seems more probable that they are the direct descendants of the primitive race by which the archipelago has been occupied from a vastly remote period, as is shown by the very great number of kitchen-middens recently discovered on the coast. Although taller than the Negritoes of the eastern hemisphere (4 feet 10 inches to 5 feet 4 inches), the Yahgans present in some respects a more debased type, characterized by low brows, prominent zygomatic arches, large tumid lips, flat nose, loose wrinkled skin ("pelle grinzosa e cadente," says Bove), black restless eyes very wide apart, coarse black unkempt hair, and head and chest dispropor-tionately large compared with the extremely slender and outwardly curved legs, conveying an impression of top-heaviness like that of the Akkas of equatorial Africa. Their mental qualities are on the same low level, as is indicated by the almost total absence of clothing under such inclement skies, by the brutal treatment of their women, who when old and useless are often eaten, by the lack of human affections or love of offspring, who in rough weather are thrown overboard (Dr Fenton), either as a peace offering to the spirits of the storm or to lighten the canoe, and by many repulsive practices connected with their food and social habits. The tribal organization has not yet been reached, each family circle living apart and combining only in small groups against some common enemy, but recognizing no hereditary chief or even any temporary leader. Yet the missionaries, who have reduced the language to writing (Gospel of St Luke, London, 1881), assert that it contains no less than 30,000 words, although the numerals stop at five, already a compound form (cu-pash-pa), and although the same word expresses both hand and finger. But they have obviously failed to distinguish between distinct terms and the endless grammatical intricacies in which this, like so many other rude forms of speech, is still involved.

Since 1881 the eastern portion of Fuegia (with Staten Island) has belonged to the Argentine Republic and the western to Chili. The boundary line, which is purely conventional, runs from Cape Espiritu Santo due south to Beagle Channel. Neither power has hitherto occupied any part of Fuegia, except Punta Arenas (Sandy Point) on the Patagonian side of Magellan Strait, where the Chilians have for some years maintained a convict and coaling station.

Fuegia was discovered by 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 much more probably from the fires kindled by the natives along parts of his course. In 1578 Drake first sighted the point which in 1616 was named Cape Hoorn (Anglicized Horn) by the Dutch navi-gators Lemaire and Schouten. In 1619 the brothers Nodal first circumnavigated the archipelago, which was afterwards visited at intervals by Wood and Narborough (1670), Gennes and Froger (1696), Byron (1764), Wallis and Carteret (1767), Cook (1768), and Weddell (1822). But no systematic exploration was attempted until the British Admiralty undertook a thorough survey of the whole group by King (1826-28) and Fitzroy (1831-36). 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. Since then the work of exploration has been continued and nearly completed by Dumont d'Urville (1837), Charles Wilkes (1839), Parker Snow (1855), Bove (1883), and various English, American, and Roman Catholic missionaries.

Bibliography.—De Brosses, Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes, Paris, 1756; J. Burney, History of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea, London, 1803-17 ; 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 Geogr., November 1875; J. G. Kohl, Gesch. d. Entdeckungs-reisen, &c, zur Magellan's Strasse, Berlin, 1877 ; "La Terre de Feu et ses Habitants," in Journal des Missions Evangeliques, August 1876; D. Lovisato, Appunti Etnograftci con Accenni Geologici sulla Terra del Fuoco, Turin, 1884; John Ball, Notes of a Naturalist in South America, London, 1887; R. W. Coppinger, Cruise of the "Alert," London, 4th ed. 1885 ; G. Sergi, Antropologia Fisica delict Fuegia, Rome, 1887 ; Ramon Lista, " East Fuegia," in Petermann's Mitteilungen, May 1887 ; and the works already mentioned. (A. H. K.)


1 Notes of a Naturalist in South America, London, 1887, p. 245.

See Guido Cora's Cosmos for May 1883.

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