1902 Encyclopedia > Juan Fernandez

Juan Fernandez
South Pacific Ocean

JUAN FERNANDEZ, a small island in the South Pacific in 34° S. lat., 400 miles west of Valparaiso. The Spaniards also designate it Mas-a-Tierra, " more to land," to distinguish it from a smaller island, Mas-a-Fuera, " more to sea," 9 miles farther west. The aspect of Juan Fernandez is beautiful and striking; only 13 'miles in length by 4 in width, it consists of a series of precipitous rocks rudely piled into irregular blocks and pinnacles. The highest of these masses (about 3000 feet), a fine object from the anchorage, is called, from its massive form, M Yunque, the Anvil; it appears to be inaccessible. Any attempt to scale the higher peaks of the island is dangerous ; the soil is very light and shallow, and the vegetation mostly a shrubby under growth, and on any attempt to pull oneself up by the help of this, the whole is apt to give way, and climber and shrubs are precipitated together down the cliffs. The rocks are trap-tuffs, basalts, and green-stones, and the island seems to date back to the older trappean series. There is a doubtful story of light having been seen emanating from one of the higher peaks; but it seems likely that, if Juan Fernandez was ever a subaerial volcanic cone, its fires have been long extinguished. Small indentations are found all round the island, but Cumber-land Bay on the north side is the only good anchorage, and even there, from the great depth of water, there is some difficulty and risk.

A wide valley collecting streams from several of the ravines on the north side of the island opens into Cumber-land Bay, and is partially enclosed and cultivated ; and the settlement, consisting of some thirty or forty dilapidated Chilian huts, faces the anchorage. As seen from the bay the mountains seem covered with foliage to the sky-line, except where precipitous faces of rock—basalt and green-stone—form a beautiful contrast to the luxuriant some-what pale vegetation so characteristic of an island in the warmer temperate zone.

The flora and fauna of Juan Fernandez are in most respects Chilian,—the opportunities of immigration from any other direction being specially difficult, for nearly con-stant currents set from the south-west, a direction in which there is no land nearer than the antarctic continent. There are few trees on the island, and these are chiefly in inac-cessible situations, the timber near the shore having been almost entirely cut down for fire-wood. Most of the valuable indigenous trees have been exterminated; the sandal-wood, which the earlier navigators found one of the most valuable products of the island, is now confined to almost inacces-sible places, while the other prominent indigenous forms, a native palm (Ceroxylon australe) and two tree-ferns, may be counted on the fingers as they raise their feathery heads over some overhanging crag or precipitous ravine. The steep paths up the hills are bordered by a thicket of flower-ing shrubs and herbs chiefly of South American origin. One of the most prominent of the latter (Gunnera chilensis) expands its gigantic rhubarb-like leaves to an enormous size, while the procumbent rhizomes creep along the ground, throwing up leaf-stalks 8 and 10 feet in height, and forming with the leaves, which frequently measure 15 feet across, a canopy under which one can ride easily on the small Chilian horses. There are twenty-four species of ferns on the island, and of these four are special to it; so great a prevalence of ferns gives quite a character to the island flora.

The fauna of Juan Fernandez is likewise fairly rich and very special. There are no indigenous land mammals on the island. Pigs, which have long since become wild and numerous, were left by the earlier navigators, and wild goats imported in the same fashion are now abundant, and their flesh is excellent. Sea-elephants and fur-seals were at one time plentiful upon Juan Fernandez, and are still found in some numbers at Mas-a-Fuera. There are, besides the Accipitres and the Natatores, four land birds on Juan Fernandez (and four somewhat different on Mas-a-Fuera).

The four Juan Fernandez birds are a thrush, a tyrant, and two humming-birds (Eustephanus femandensis and E. qcderites). The thrush and Eustephanus femandensis are special to the island, and the latter has the great peculiarity of having the male of a bright cinnamon colour while the female is green. Both sexes are green in E. galerites. Of the shrubs in the jungle bordering the ravine, there seems scarcely a plant of myrtle, or of a bignoniaceous plant with long dark bells associated with the myrtle, which is not inhabited by a pair of humming birds, so that the whirring and buzzing of the brilliant flutterers over the flowers is singularly attractive.

Juan Fernandez was discovered by a Spanish pilot of that name (who was also the discoverer of the island of Mas-a-Fuera) in 1563. Fernandez obtained from the Spanish Government a grant of the islands, where he resided for some time, stocking them with goats and pigs. He soon, however, appears to have abandoned his possessions, which were afterwards for many years only visited occasionally by fishermen from the coasts of Chili and Peru, who found the sea round the island well stocked with fish. In 1616 Le Maire and Schouten called at Juan Fernandez for water and fresh provisions. Pigs and goats were then abundant on the island, and the valleys coming down to the anchorage were filled with herbage and the sea with excellent fish. Sandal-wood was plentiful, and near the anchorage there was a grove of wild quince trees. The fleet under the command of Admiral l'Ermite next visited the island. Three soldiers and three gunners remained behind when the fleet left; what became of these is altogether unknown. In the year 1668 the buccaneer Sharp anchored off Juan Fernandez, at first apparently on the south side of the island and afterwards in Cumberland Bay. At the time of his visit seals and sea-lions frequented the shores in large numbers, and pigs, the descendants of those originally imported by Fernandez, were so abundant that a hundred were salted down in addition to those killed for immediate use. At the end of 1687 five men voluntarily remained at Juan Fernandez from another buccaneer commanded by Captain Edward Davis. They remained on the island until October 1690, when the English ship "Welfare," Captain John Story, took them off.
In February 1700 Dampier called at Juan Fernandez, and whilst there Captain Straddling of the " Cinque Porte " galley quarrelled with his men, forty-two of whom deserted but were afterwards taken on board by Dampier; five seamen, however, remained on shore. In October 1704 the " Cinque Porte" returned and found two of these men, the others having been apparently captured by the French. On this occasion Captain Straddling had a disagreement with his master, Alexander Selkirk, who insisted upon being put on shore rather than serve longer with Straddling. Selkirk's desire was complied with, and he was sent on shore with a few ordinary necessaries. Before the ship left he begged to be readmitted; but this was refused, with the curious result that, with little merit of his own, Selkirk has become a hero for all time, and "Robinson Crusoe's Island " the cynosure of all boys' eyes. It is extremely im-probable that Alexander Selkirk ever actually placed his journal in the hands of Defoe, but his story excited some public interest, and in catering for the public amusement that prince of raconteurs was most likely to have adopted Selkirk's tale for combination with other material in one of his wonderful "realistic novels." Many of the incidents in the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe are evi-dently inconsistent with the narrative of Selkirk, and are un-doubtedly taken from other sources ; for example, the footprint on the sand, and the decidedly tropical description of "Robinson Crusoe's Island," would agree better with one of the outlying islands of the West Indies. Alexander Selkirk was relieved from what appears to have been a by no means unbearable exile in 1709 by the ship "Duke," Captain Wood Rogers, and in 1868 the officers of H.M.S. " Topaze " erected a tablet at a point on the hill road called "Selkirk's Look-out," just where in a gap in the trap rock a magnificent view may be had of the whole island, and of the sea north and south, over which the exile must have often and eagerly watched for an approaching sail. It bears the following inscription :—" In memory of Alexander Selkirk, mariner, a native of Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, who was on this island in complete solitude for four years and four months. He was landed from the ' Cinque Porte' galley, 96 tons, 16 guns, 1704 A.D., and was taken off in the 'Duke' privateer, 12th February 1709. He died lieutenant of the ' Weymouth,' 1723 A.D., aged forty-seven years. This tablet is erected near Selkirk's look-out by Commodore Powell and officers of H.M.S. 'Topaze,' 1868 A.D."

After Selkirk's relief, visits, especially from buccaneers, to the island of Juan Fernandez became more frequent. In June 1741 Commodore Anson anchored in Cumberland Bay in the " Cen-turion." During Anson's stay the " Trial" visited Mas-a-Fuera, and found the anchorage more exposed than at Juan Fernandez.

Anson found vegetables, of which the scurvy-struck crew of the '' Centurion " stood greatly in need, much as formerly, —the cabbage palm, celery, water-cresses, and radishes being abundant. After having added to the resources of the island by sowing the stones of fruit trees and garden seeds, some of which did well, Anson con-tinued his voyage in September. On Anson's return home it was proposed to form an English settlement on Juan Fernandez, but the Spaniards hearing that the matter had been mooted in England gave orders to occupy the island, and it was garrisoned accordingly in 1750. Carteret first observed this settlement in May, 1767, and on account of the hostility of the Spaniards preferred to put in at Mas-a-Fuera.

After the revolutionary wars Juan Fernandez passed into the possession of the Chilians, and has remained theirs ever since. Shortly after 1818 it was used as a state prison by the Chilian Government. In 1820 there appear to have been 300 convicts on the island, with 100 regular troops. In that year the island was swarming with wild horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, and vegetables and fruit were in abundance. In 1830 Juan Fernandez was visited by Captain King in H.M.S. "Adventure." There were then no convicts on the island. There was a small garrison of forty persons, and provisions were scarce. In 1833 Juan Fernandez was again used as a convict station by the Chilians. In 1835 the island appears to have been governed by a Mr Sutcliffe, an Englishman in the Chilian service. He was present when an earthquake took place on the 20th February of that year, of which he gives a description.

In November 1875 H.M.S. "Challenger," Captain F. T. Thomson, called at Juan Fernandez for two days, lying as usual in Cumberland Bay. Shortly after 1835 Juan Fernandez was abandoned as a convict settlement, and since that time it has been leased by the Chilian Government to such as cared to occupy it for the supply of whalers and other passing ships, and for such remains of sea-lion hunting and fur-sealing as still exist. The speculation does not appear to be very profitable; and the island is likely to be by and by left so far as may be in the busier world of to-day to its pristine solitude. (C. W. T.)

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