Cristián Cuturrufo, 1972-2021, Q.E.D.P.

Club de Jazz, Coquimbo, 2005

December, 1578: Drake fails to make friends in Coquimbo

In December 1578, while idly circumnavigating the globe and having encountered a Spanish ship at Valparaiso, “easing [it] of so heavy a burden” as the treasure it carried, (not yet Sir) Francis Drake and his crew sailed north in the Golden Hind in search of both the rest of their squadron and a safe harbour for some rest and refit. On board with them was their chaplain Francis Fletcher, a who kept a journal:

For this cause, December 19 we entred a bay, not far to the southward of the town of Cyppo [Coquimbo] now inhabited by the Spaniards, in 29 deg 30 min [south] where having landed certain of our men, to the number of 14, to search what conveniency the place was likely to afford for our abiding there ; we were immediately descried by the Spaniards of the town of Cyppo aforesaid, who speedily made out 300 men, at least whereof 100 were Spaniards, every one well mounted upon his horse ; the rest were Indians, running as dogs at their heels, all naked and in most miserable bondage.

As you’ll see the journal is not shy in demonizing the Spanish and especially their treatment of the native Chileans whom Fletcher is pleased to note his own crew treat admirably on every possible occasion, especially if they help them cause trouble for the mutually hated Spanish.

Things aren’t looking good for Drake’s assuredly entirely innocent and wildly outnumbered expedition to shore, but fortunately they spotted the descending hoard (they could hardly have missed it):

They could not come any way so closely, but God did open our eyes to see them before there was any extremity of danger whereby our men being warned, had reasonable time to shift themselves as they could ; first from the main, to a Rock within the sea ; and from thence into their boat : which being ready to receive them, conveighed them with expedition, out of the reach of the Spaniards fury, without the hurt of any man:

Phew! They got away, and I’d lay odds it was via the rocks just off Fuerte Lambert of Coquimbo, now the local sea lions’ favourite sunning spot. Looking around a bit, it seems a number of people think that Drake “discovered” the bay of La Herradura, which is to the south of modern day Coquimbo. Leaving aside the idea of “discovering” a bay right next to another bay the Spanish had been using for some 34 years, landing there would have been significantly less to his “conveniencies” than landing in the Coquimbo bay proper, because “Cyppo” was not where it is now. Drake was inevitably interested in what we now call La Serena, which was then commonly known as Coquimbo, and that is where the Spanish garrison would have been stationed. Fletcher even tells us that the Spaniards of La Serena had “descried” the ship in their own bay. La Herradura cannot be seen from La Serena, and vice versa.

Anyway, back to the beach where it seems not quite all of the landing party have made it after all: someone’s having an attack of excessive bravery, or something like that:

only one Richard Minivy, being over bold and careless of his own safety would not be intreated by his friends nor feared by the multitude of his enemies, to take the present benefit of his own delivery : but chose either to make 300 men by outbraving of them to become afraid,

What on earth is he playing at?

or else himself to dye in the place; the latter of which indeed he did, whose dead body being drawn by the Indians from the Rock to the shore was there manfully by the Spaniards beheaded, the right hand cut off, the heart pluct out, all which they carryed away in our fight, and for the rest of his carkase they caused the Indians to shoot it ful of arrows, made but the same day of green wood, and so left it to be devoured of the beasts and foules,

Well that’s not nice, is it? Presumably the marauding Spaniards and their native slaves take off again leaving Drake’s crew to at least clean up. I guess they had made their point.

but that we went a shoare again and buried it : wherein as there appeareth a most extream & barbarous cruelty, so doth it declare to the work, in what miserable feare the Spaniard holdeth the government of those parts; living in continuall dread of the forreign invasion by strangers, or secret cutting of throats, by those whom they kept under them in so shameful slavery, I mean the Innocent and harmles Indians.

Well, quite, occupying foreign armies are what they are, and oppression and brutalization of the invaded are their stock in trade.

Then there is the following interesting deduction (presumably the greenness of the arrows is noted as they are pulled out of poor Minivy’s remains):

And therefore they make sure to murther what strangers soever they can come by, and suffer the Indians by no means to have any weapon longer then they be in present service: as appeared by their arrows cut from the tree the same day, as also by the cred[i]ble report of others who knew the matter to be true. Yea they suppose they shew the wretches great favor, when they do not for their pleasures whip them with cords, and day by day drop their naked bodies with burning bacon :  which is one [of] the least cruelties amongst many, which they usually use against that Nation and people.

Prudent, I suppose, not allowing the natives weaponry until they’re needed, but you might worry about friendly fire anyway, if good treatment is defined as not torturing them.

The episode ends with something of an understatement. Well, the English do that, don’t they?

This being not the place we looked for; nor the entertainment such as we desired; we speedily got hence again, and Decem 20 the next day, fell with a more convenient harbor, in a bay somewhat to the Northward Cyppo lying in 27deg 55 min South the line [the equator].

My guess is they dropped anchor again somewhere near Huasco, if being off by 25 arcmin north as they were for Coquimbo is anything to go by.

(Incidentally, Francis Fletcher would later fall afoul of Drake’s good humour and end up being summarily excommunicated by him for giving a sermon he failed to find entirely satisfactory. Can ship’s captains do that? Either way, the journal gets very thin afterwards.)

A visit to Coquimbo and La Serena in 1821, and a geological theory

Given that La Serena, founded in 1544 by Pedro de Valdivia, is the second oldest city in Chile (after Santiago), historical reports are surprisingly thin on the ground. Our friend Pedro, Conquistadore, had a vested interest in persuading people to follow him in settling this new country he had found, not to mention a need for reinforcements in helping him suppress the local population. At the time, the only known route from Europe was via the Carribbean, overland via Colombia then down the west coast of South America from Lima, Peru. It made sense to establish a town on the way, suitable for the rest and victualing of the ships that made it past the driest desert in the world which Pedro himself had crossed on foot and horseback. Those who followed him, now knowing that something other than desert was down here, would have sailed past it. The sweeping Coquimbo bay provided a natural anchorage and the surrounding lands, cut by a reliable river, were just fertile enough to allow for crops and pasturage. For a short while, La Serena was a vital stopping point on the way into this brave new land.

But of course, it was not long before easier access was discovered for travelers from the European centers, around the bottom end of the continent via the Straits of Magellan and later even more straightforwardly around Cape Horn. So La Serena’s early usefulness declined, but did not completely disappear as gold, silver, iron, and other materials to attract the interests of man were discovered in the surrounding lands.

Idly curious, I spent a happy pandemic evening exploring Google Books’ holdings for what I could find of historical reports of this town, my 21st century home. Since I had recently been reading reports of the Valparaiso earthquake of 1822, I restricted my search to the first half of the 19th Century. Among a few others that I may cover later, I found Basil Hall‘s

Hall was quite prolific in his writings and I have found what I discuss below word-for-word in several different volumes. The image links to just one version.

“On the 14th November 1821”, Captain Basil Hall, “received orders to proceed in the [HMS] Conway from Valparaiso towards Lima, and to call at the intermediate ports on the coasts of Chili and Peru”

The object of this voyage was to inquire into the British interests at those places ; to assist and protect any of his Majesty’s trading subjects ; and, in a general way, to ascertain the commercial resources of the coast.

Given Chile’s 1818 declaration of independence from Spain, Britain was busily exploring trade opportunities. Hall was clearly bored in Valparaiso because he did not waste any time:

We sailed from Valparaiso on the 15th November, and on the 16th, a little before sunset, steered into the Bay of Coquimbo, and having anchored the ship, landed at a point, near huts, in order to inquire our way to the town of La Serena, or Coquimbo, lying two leagues to the northward.

This sentence, at first, confused me, because today Coquimbo and La Serena are distinct towns. Coquimbo, the port town, and likely where Hall found some huts, occupies the southern end of the bay, and La Serena is immediately to the south and a little inland of the point where the River Elqui empties into the sea, about halfway up the bay and indeed a couple of hours’ walk (two leagues) away. Coquimbo is also the name given to the entire administrative region. My reading has shown that the name La Serena was little used for at least two hundred years, and the town and regional capital was instead known by the local name “Coquimbo”. How the port eventually poached it, I do not (yet) know.

Hall muses on his arrival in this new place:

On entering a remote foreign port, which no one on board the ship has visited before, there is always a delightful feeling of curiosity and uncertainty, which recals [sic] to our memory those juvenile emotions with which every boy has read Robinson Crusoe.

That mispeling of recalls in the original is part of what I enjoy about these old books. Was it deliberate? Or was it a typesetting error?

Hall, with characteristic long-windedness, but not without relevance even to today’s tourists, goes on:

The reality, in general, comes fully up to the vivid promise which the imagination holds out ; nor is this interest abated by the repeated sight of new objects, but, on the contrary, each new place seems more curious than the last; and as the sphere of our observation is enlarged, our curiosity becomes more impatient, though, at the same time, more easily gratified. The world, indeed, in every place, is so crowded with new and varied objects, that no-one can hope, even by the most awakened attention, to observe thoroughly the details of any scene ; and the curiosity is thus kept alive by the certainty of everywhere meeting with novelty, if not in the great outlines and broad distinctions, at least in the minute shades of difference, which experience teaches us to discriminate, and to apply with increased satisfaction, as the objects of comparison are multiplied, and our  familiarity with them extended. In the first instance, our pleasure springs out of our ignorance – in the course of time it is derived from our knowledge.

I wonder if he was aware of the concept of a run-on sentence?

He doesn’t say how, but Hall and company find some horses and ready themselves for the ride along the beach:

Just as we were mounting our horses, two English gentlemen from Coquimbo came galloping in. They had mistaken our ship for an American frigate, on board of which a son of one of these gentlemen was expected to come as passenger. The father bore his disappointment with great good humour,

But imagine that disappointment. Ships would have been rare sights, and who knows how long it has been since he saw his son? He would have seen the ship drop anchor, and excitedly leapt on his horse to ride an hour or more to welcome the prodigal. Indeed, what is the story of that son, where has he been, did he ever make it home?

But in this remote and lonely outpost, visitors, especially those of his home country, would have been rare and welcome company, so he…

insisted upon carrying us back to his house, at the door of which we were met by his wife, a native of the place, and half-a-dozen children, who rushed out in a body into the patio to meet their brother, and could ill dissemble their mortification at seeing only new faces. 

The kids are not so shy at showing how they really feel. It is interesting, although perhaps not surprising, that the man’s wife is a native. That means he arrived alone down here alone, seeking his fortune, perhaps, or escaping from who knows what in England. As for being his wife, Chilean law would probably have demanded that he convert to Roman Catholicism, but out here would anyone have cared? Would she have been truly native, or a Spanish immigrant? Maybe the latter, although quite possibly a mix of the two, resulting from the early Spanish conquest’s deliberate practice of taking native wives to spread their superior blood.

But our reception, notwithstanding this disappointment, was hospitality itself; our new friend insisted on making up beds for the whole party, although consisting of five persons.

And that would have been no trivial undertaking. The houses were not large, and built with two foot thick walls of wood, mud, and straw. The roofs were likely tiled, and there was probably a courtyard. “Making up beds” should perhaps be taken literally as the height of such technology of the time and place was four stakes driven into the earth floor and wrapped with cords to make frames and netting on which to spread straw and blankets. The weather in November would have been quite mild, so some may have slept outdoors.

We remained at Coquimbo four days, during which our host entertained us with morning and evening parties at his house, and by taking us to visit the best families in the place.

Like I said, visitors were a novelty, but impressing your neighbours by showing off your foreign friends remains a local pastime even today. Also, note the “best families”. Who was being the snob? Hall, or his host? Probably both. I wonder if the Chilean word for snobby, “cuica”, was already in use back then.

Today the Chileno word for someone from La Serena is serenense, from Coquimbo is coquimbino, but Hall anglicizes as he offers some polite, if condescending judgement on the locals:

In their manners the Coquimbians are unaffected and gentle, and habitually well bred, but act more, I think, from feelings which lead to general kindness and consideration, than from any formal rules of politeness. […] the climate is delightful ; and the people appear to be so easy and contented in their circumstances, that we are sometimes inclined to lament the inroad which the progress of civilization must soon make upon their simple habits.

Somehow I suspect that even modern visitors might still be inclined to this view. La Serena is a quiet, sleepy sort of place, still keeping to its own social rules, sometimes to the bewilderment of a visitor who supposes him- or herself sophisticated.

Hall, however, was not inclined to spend all his time sitting around socializing with the locals, but craved a little adventure and exploration, and

On the 18th November, our friendly host accompanied one of the officers of the Conway and myself in a ride of about twenty-five miles, up the valley of Coquimbo, during which, the most remarkable thing we saw was several series of horizontal beds, along both sides of the valley, resembling the Parallel Roads Of Glen Roy, in the Highlands of Scotland, so carefully examined by Thomas Lauder Dick, Esq. and described in the ninth volume of the Edinburgh Royal Society Transactions.

There is much to unpack in this paragraph and what follows. Glen Roy, in Scotland does indeed have what are known as parallel roads:

By 1821, Thomas Lauder Dick and others had surveyed these “roads” and concluded that they were the shorelines of a primordial lake which had long since drained away. Later, Darwin himself, who also visited Coquimbo and environs, would study the Glen Roy roads, conclude that they are primordial sea beaches, and argue for tectonic activity as their cause. There’s an excellent discussion (download the PDF), complete with contemporary drawings here. Today, we know that they are the result of glaciation during the last ice age.

Hall gets quite palpably excited by what he has found and goes on at some length, and who can blame him? He believes he has found a second example of a phenomenon which attracted the attention of some of the best scientific minds of his time:

[The roads] are so disposed as to present exact counterparts of one another, at the same level, on opposite sides of the valley. They are formed entirely of loose materials, principally water-worn rounded stones, from the size of a nut to that of a man’s head. Each of these roads, or levels, resembles a shingle beach, and there is every indication of the stones having been deposited at the margin of a lake, which has filled the valley up to those levels. These gigantic roads are at some places half a mile broad, but their general width is from twenty to fifty yards. There are three distinctly characterized sets, and a lower one, which is indistinct when approached, but, when viewed from a distance, is evidently of the same character with the others. The upper road lies probably three or four hundred feet above the level of the sea, and two hundred and fifty from the bottom of the valley ; the next twenty yards lower, and the next about ten yards still lower.

He rues the likely inaccuracy of his measures and regrets “not having time to return with a spirit level,to examine this question of horizontality [between roads on opposite sides of the valley] by infallible means.” Inevitably, following Lauder, he concludes that he is looking at ancient lake shores:

The theory which presents itself to explain these appearances, supposes a lake to have been formed, no matter how, and to stand at the level of the highest road, till a flat beach is produced by stones being washed down from above; the water in the lake is next conceived to wear away, and break down a portion of the barrier; this allows the lake to discharge part of its waters into the sea, and, consequently, lowers it to the second level: and so on successively, till the whole embankment is washed away, and the valley left as we now see it.

But what is he seeing? Here is a view across the Elqui valley today:

It doesn’t look much like Glen Roy. Whatever Hall saw, it would not have been nearly as green as this. There would have been a narrow strip of green near to the river, and a broad wash filled with “loose materials, principally water-worn rounded stones, from the size of a nut to that of a man’s head” with not much vegetation, then, moving up the sides of the valley some scrub would appear, probably fairly green, and that would blend smoothly into the uniform cactus-lands of the hillsides. Human activity has redistributed the water supply so that small farms, stands of trees, and general development obscure somewhat the true lay of the land.

In the photograph, at the foot of the hills to the right, where the native flora stops, you can make out a horizontal line which looks like a road. It is an irrigation canal, and long post-dates Hall’s visit. There are also a few actual roads which follow lines of roughly the same height above the valley floor. But on the far side of the valley to the left, there is a clear shelf, rather like the side of a mesa. Beyond it are the beginnings of another valley which runs behind the hills on the right, and there is a cut in that shelf where the small flow of water that spills out of it has generated a narrow canyon. Immediately below the camera’s point of view, on this side of the valley, there is a concrete wall, and on the other side of it indications of another shelf. In fact, when I took this photograph, I was standing on a terrace.

Indeed, the valley sides are built of what look like very broad and quite high staircases. It is no surprise that Hall leapt to the conclusion that he did. But he was wrong, and there was never any lake here. My layman’s guess is that they were produced over the aeons by the combination of tectonic activity and erosion by the river. Easy to say now, not so much then. It’s a bit of a shame really, because I quite enjoy imagining that:

some vast, though transient cause, may, at one operation, have scooped out the valley, filled it with water, and left a barrier of adequate strength to retain it for a time ; till, by a succession of sudden disruptions of this barrier, the lake would stand at different levels, and the washing of the water down the sides of the banks would bring along with it the loose stones to the water’s edge, where their velocity being checked, they would be deposited in the form of level beaches.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s more impressive to imagine the land being hoisted up by one megathrust earthquake after another and Hall does offer another theory:

… it is supposed that vast masses of solid land have been forced up, from the bottom of the sea, with great violence … a wave, greater or less in magnitude, according to the size and velocity of the submarine elevation, must inevitably be produced ; and it requires no great effort of the imagination to conceive one sufficiently large to submerge the whole of this coast : at least those who have examined the Alps, the Andes, or any other lofty chain, and have seen the solid strata of rock now elevated on their edges, to the height of many thousand feet in the air, although bearing indubitable marks of having once been in a horizontal position, and below the sea, will discover nothing extravagant in this idea.

“Nothing extravagant in this idea”!

Regretting not having time to visit any mines, being too far from the coast, Hall “examined several of the gold mills, where the process is carried on entirely by amalgamation” by which I take him to mean the mercury process. He sailed for Huasco, and further north on 19th November 1821.

A sermon, and early theories of earthquakes

Reading around Maria Graham’s journal of her year in Chile, during which she was present for the megathrust earthquake of 19 November 1822 in Valparaiso, I discovered an article written and published in Santiago a few days later, in edition number 16 of El Mercurio de Chile. Santiago was not so heavily damaged as Valparaiso, but nevertheless the citizenry were understandably perturbed. The article was written by one Camilo Enriquez, it has a distinctly religious bent and indeed the article describes him as a “Theologian, as sensitive as he is pious”.

Don Camilo is clearly concerned that the population, in their fear and lack of understanding of the causes of the earthquake, do not stray too far from the idea of a beneficent God.

What terror is this, Citizens, that still holds your hearts in awe? Is the triumph of fear so firm against reason that, raising its empire over the dejection of your spirit, it occupies all the bosoms of your soul, leaving no room for reflection and no other feeling in your breast than the bitterness that oppresses you? […]

Religion and humanity work at the same time their effects: all concur in believing that man is in these sad catastrophes the object of the furies of earth and heaven, although we always see the system of the stars immutable as if they imitated the immobility of the Omnipotent, showing its impossibility, its bliss, and its unalterable glory.

But, not so fast, he says, because “whoever records the sacred pages of Scripture, will observe that when he [i.e. God] has wished to avenge crime on miserable mortals, he has always warned them with the threat of punishment.” and goes on to quote a chunk of Ezequiel, where the Old Testament God is seen to warn the people of Tyre before laying into them. Curiously, I was unable to locate the text he supposedly quoted in an English language bible. Since his own bible would have been in Latin, he doubtless translated what he wanted into Spanish and I expect my subsequent translation into English drifted too far from at least the King James Version.

Don Camilo argues that this earthquake, for all its violence, is something common to the Earth and a general part of creation not intended to bring retribution for human transgression:

No: the earthquake that suddenly overcame us on the night of the 19th, and that has caused so many disasters in other places, has kept the regular period with which these revolutions ordinarily occur on the terrestrial globe.

And he lists a number of other earthquakes of his knowledge, from all around the globe, noting that “physicists presume that Britain itself was by an earthquake detached from the continent of Europe, and Sicily from the rest of Italy”. Well, we know now that the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates created much of its current form, and that would have involved a fair number of earthquakes, but Britain was separated from Europe by the rising of sea level after the last ice age.

This part in particular rather amused me:

some philosophers think that the Atlantic Ocean took this name from that of the immense island that was absorbed, and that tradition placed between Africa and America, leaving those of Cape Verde, the Canaries, and the Azores as unfortunate vestiges of the tremendous revolution that erased that country from the face of the earth.

Atlantis, of course!

At the time of his writing, a debate was raging in more developed countries, in which Maria Graham herself later got caught up, between Neptunism and Plutonism. Adherents of the former felt that essentially all rocks were sedimentary in origin, and the latter that at least some of them were volcanic or magmatic. Today, we know the latter were closer to correct, but back then it was anybody’s guess. Maria Graham’s observations of sea level changes resulting from the Valparaiso earthquake were squarely on the Plutonist side, much to the ire of the Neptunists. But in remote Chile, no-one knew anything of this, although Don Camilo wrote:

From the Andes to Japan, from Iceland to the Maluku [Indonesia], the bowels of the globe are perpetually torn apart by fires that work without ceasing with more or less violence. Such powerful causes must produce effects that influence the total mass of the earth; they must eventually change its center of gravity, dry up one of its parts to submerge others, and finally help nature to run the circle of its revolutions.

Which sounds close to an idea of Plutonism to me, although later in the same edition of this newspaper, another writer says that the earthquake “was followed by electrical emissions from the volcano in the Cordillera, which indicates that the danger has ceased, and that it was caused by a subterranean tempest, probably originating from the ignition of an immense quantity of hydrogen”. This is in line with other reports of underground gases moving about and seems to be the prevailing popular idea of the cause of earthquakes in a land where generally smaller ones were and still are a near daily experience. Just this morning, I felt the rumble of an earthquake under my home, and yes, if I did not know better, I could imagine it to have been caused by the rumbling’s of Earth’s intestinal gasses.

Don Camilo brings us from these theories back to his preferred idea of a benevolent God:

… the fermentation of the fuels that embrace the interior of the earth, the air enclosed in it, dilated by its fires, and which makes considerable efforts to expand and flee – the water reduced to vapors, and which raises with prodigious force everything that opposes its expansion; Here are the agents that originate the earthquake, and not the purpose of a God who has the pleasure [ . . . ] to rise up in a bad mood like ideological men, and to take pleasure in seeing for a moment those who were not torn to pieces by the earthquake tear their flesh.

Instead, he demands that the survivors not “tear their flesh” in despair, but count their blessings and that “Misericordia Domini quia non sumus consumpti” (it is the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed), finishing with exhortation to help the less fortunate:

Let us do for them what we would like to do for ourselves. Their misfortune is too great for us to be able to deafen the cry of humanity. […] In the shade of a tree God will be worshiped with the same respect on our part and with better satisfaction on His part than under sumptuous roofs, and in the midst of magnificent altars, to the altars of which I would look with horror if those who, in order to make a pleasure of which divinity has no need, had not stretched out their hands to the indigent, and preferred the sacrifice of fanaticism.

Preaching to the crowd in Valparaiso, 1822, after the earthquake
(Famín, C. (1839). Historia de Chile. Barcelona: Imprenta de Guardia Nacional, figure 19.)

All-in-all it would have made quite the sermon and an appeal to reason and humanity to hear and read in the streets surrounded by the rubble left by a terrifying earthquake on the edge of the world 200 years ago.

Stranded in Valparaiso in 1822

View from her house in Valparaiso by Maria Graham

I have recently finished reading “Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the year 1822, and a voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823”, by Maria Graham, later Lady CallCott. Graham herself was quite the personality, with many talents. I won’t try to cover them here, but can recommend this web page, as well as her Wikipedia entry. In April 1822, she found herself stranded in Valparaiso after her ship’s captain and husband died while rounding Cape Horn. She remained there, excepting a visit to Santiago and exploring the region, until January 1823 when she was taken to Brazil via Isla Juan Fernandez by the redoubtable Lord Cochrane. She is celebrated in Chile for her journal, which is the first description of the new country written in English.

I found the journal most interesting, even fascinating. Her writing is surprisingly good, very mannered, albeit in an unfamiliar early 19th century English and inclined to occasional clumsy scansion, at least to my 21st century ear. Many times, a particularly backhanded compliment brought a grin to my face, and I found myself highlighting many pithy and wise comments. She is carefully restrained but nevertheless full in the expression of her impressions of the country and its people. Sometimes, her writing is quite moving.

The 100+ page introduction is a potted history of Chile, about half of which is devoted to the war of independence. It becomes obvious that she had a real thing for Lord Cochrane, who led the Chilean navy during the war of independence (and was poorly treated by the country during and afterwards if Graham is to be believed), to the point that I wonder if their relationship was entirely platonic. Certainly she is far from an unbiased reporter, and takes Cochrane’s side over any issue that he had with the Chilenos, and these were not few. He was an idealistic firebrand with a reputation for upsetting the powerful, and did not take well to the pragmatic and perhaps sometimes self-serving behaviour of many of the Chilenos he dealt with. I see echoes of modern culture clashes in this.

Graham herself was inevitably of the upper classes, although not especially high at that point in her life, she clearly occupied a privileged position in this country of her temporary exile, sharing the company of the highest echelons of the society she encountered, up to and including the president, or Director, himself, Bernardo O’Higgins. I have seen O’Higgins described as Chile’s version of George Washington, although he was the second to hold that office. Of the man himself, she says: “he was too apt to rely on the honesty of others from the very uprightness of his own intentions”. On meeting him, she embarrasses herself a little:

I am so accustomed to see respect paid to the actual sovereign of a country, that I instantly rose and courtesied, and was quite abashed to see that I was the only person in the house who did so : however, it passed for a particular compliment, and was particularly returned.

She reports severally of Cochrane’s exploits and idealism, but does not lack the latter herself:

It is true that military despotism is the greatest curse under which a nation can suffer. But it never lasts long. One change has been effected, therefore the possibility of another is proved : the bands of tyranny are slackened ; and the people will grow, and be educated, a little roughly perhaps, but knowledge will advance ; and, as knowledge is power, they will, at no distant period, be able to shake off the tyranny both of foreign governments and domestic despots, and to compel their rulers to acknowledge that they were made for the people, and not the people for them.

She has no love at all for José de San Martin, the Chilean military leader who, if she is truthful, seemed determined to undermine Cochrane at every stage, although never inclined to risk his own neck. More than once, she notes that the word “brave” is publicly attached to Cochrane, but San Martin gets merely “fortunate”, apparently to his ire. Perhaps jealousy played a factor between the two men. Either way, she is not shy of implying he was, and at least once outright calling him, a coward. I suspect he had more sophisticated motivations, not least an inclination to inappropriately (if she is to be believed) enrich himself. She writes that he declared himself “Protector” of Peru, once successful in dominating the Spanish there. More sober accounts have him “appointed”. He and Cochrane had been sent to suppress them in the fear that Spain might try to take Chile back using Peru as a launching off point. He helped himself to a large chunk of the spoils and, inexplicably, allowed the Spanish to rescue some, and then sought to place the blame on Cochrane. He later took the treasure back by subterfuge, with offers of positions within the newly independent Peru, but reneged on them and imprisoned the hapless colonists – was this this his intent all along? Of the man himself, she offers: “his courage is more than doubtful, and his talents are not above mediocrity”, which, if you read it too quickly almost sounds like it might have been a compliment. Here’s another: “I know no person with whom it might be pleasanter to pass half an hour : but the want of heart, and the want of candour, which are evident even in conversation of any length, would never do for intimacy, far less for friendship.”

As a stranded traveler of uncertain future, and forced to live in an unfamiliar environment, she starts off not entirely comfortably, she writes of contemporary life in Chile:

Every thing here is so far back with regard to the conveniences and improvements of civilised life, that if we did not recollect the state of the Highlands of Scotland seventy years ago, it would be scarcely credible that the country could have been occupied for three centuries by so polished and enlightened a people as the Spaniards undoubtedly were in the sixteenth century, when they first took possession of Chile.

I wonder if she knew what rose-tinted glasses are she would understand that this is a view of the past distinctly coloured by such. The Conquistadores were far from enlightened and the conquest of Chile thoroughly savage, such that its consequences are still felt today in continued strife with what remains of the native population. She goes further:

” England, with all thy faults, I love thee still,” Cowper said at home, and Lord Byron at Calais. For my part, I believe if they had either of them been in Valparaiso, they would have forgotten that there were any faults at all in England. It is very pretty and very charming to read of delicious climates, and myrtle groves, and innocent and simple people who have few wants ; but as man is born a social and an improvable, if not a perfectable animal, it is really very disagreeable to perform the retrograde steps to a state that counteracts the blessings of climate, and places less comfort in a palace in Chile than in a labourer’s hut in Scotland.

She writes repeatedly that the country could do so much better if its people could be bothered to exert themselves just a little more than was immediately necessary. She noted the infighting between various factions, the invention of calumnies in the interest of power plays, and the unnecessary, even counter-productive control the government exerted over the country’s imports and exports. Perhaps she exaggerates, but she suggests that if “one man” in Santiago succeeds in making an adequate stocking, all imports thereof are thereafter taxed at such a high rate that everyone is forced to wear uncomfortable crudely woven substitutes in the face of these taxes and the lack of sufficient supply from within the country itself.

It is easy, perhaps facile to ask: but what did she expect? Chile was a very young country, barely beginning to feel its way. But in her defense, culture shock is a constant reaction of any human moving from one country to another. It takes time to integrate, to understand why things are the way they are, even if they are not what you are accustomed to. And in the meantime, complaining and comparing the local disadvantages to the conveniences of home is a popular pastime. But of course, she did not know what is culture shock although perhaps she might quickly have understood if it were explained to her.

But it’s not all bad. Far from it, she has much that is good to say of the country and its people. Such as:

Their manners are decent ; and there is a grace and kindliness in the women that might adorn the most polished drawing-rooms, and which prevents the want of education from being so disgusting as in our own country, where it is generally accompanied by vulgarity. Here the want of cultivation sends women back to their natural means of persuasion, gentleness and caresses ; and if a little cunning mingles with them, it is the protection nature has given the weak against the strong. In England a pretty ignorant woman is nine times in ten a vixen, and rules or tries to rule accordingly. Here the simplicity of nature approaches to the highest refinements of education; and a well-born and well-bred English gentlewoman is not very different in external manners from a Chilena girl.

Today’s sensitivities might be aghast at the means by which the observation is expressed, but it is archly and memorably so nonetheless. Later, she adds: “there is nothing in which a lady of Chile is so delicate as the choice of her shoes.” Take it from me, this is still true.

In the Chile of today, it is well to be cautious asking for directions of a passerby in the street, especially well out in the countryside. They are sometimes much inclined to show their own knowledge, even if it is entirely lacking, and to please you by giving a confident answer regardless of where it might lead you. Graham encountered her own version of this:

Descriptions are very often totally untrue ; whence is this ? One should think nothing could be so simple as to describe that which we have seen with attention. However not one person in a hundred succeeds in giving to another a true idea of what he has seen. I had a proof of this to-day. We went to see the lake of Aculeo : I had heard it described as round, and deep in hills, and still as Nemi ; and, to increase the wonder, that it was salt as the sea. None of all this is true : it is irregular and winding, with sunny islands in it ; some steep mountains overhang it, but the margin oftener slopes gently, and affords pasturage to numerous cattle, and its little valley opens to the eastward, on which side it sends forth its stream to swell the river of the Angostura.

And in Chile today, what might be described as “comida rapida” (fast food) will often take somewhat longer than the hungry drop-in might expect:

I have received many visits in the course of the day to congratulate me on my return, the most and the kindest from my naval friends ; and I am particularly flattered by Lord Cochrane’s coming with Captains Wilkinson and Crosbie, and Mr, H. E. to tea. Before I could give it to them, an incident truly characteristic happened : we were obliged to wait while a man went to catch a cow with the [lasso] on the hill, to procure milk. After what I had seen [elsewhere], I could not wonder, and had nothing to do but sit patiently till the milk arrived, and my guests being older inhabitants of the country than I am, were equally resigned ; and the interval was filled with pleasant conversation

It’s true, you’ve just got to roll with it. ‘Besides, what’s not to like about properly fresh milk in your tea?

She observes that everyone rides their horse, even if it is just to visit a neighbour. I am reminded of modern Americans and their cars (and particularly of that scene in L.A. Story where Steve Martin visits his next door neighbour). She writes evocatively of the countryside, clearly struck by its beauty and moved to do it what justice she can, which is not inconsiderable. She describes the earthquake of November 22nd 1822 and its aftermath with a vivid reality. That earthquake was considerably more powerful than any I have experienced and inevitably did significant damage. It was interesting to note how pragmatically everyone dealt with the consequences, although Graham also pointed out the superstitions it aroused, some of which was not obviously superstition at all, given what little they understood about such phenomena at the time. Consider, for example:

at night a heavy torrent of rain fell, which has done great damage by injuring the goods left exposed by the falling of the houses, and which has rendered the miserable encampments on the hills thoroughly wretched. Yet the people are rejoicing at it ; because they say that the rain will extinguish the fire that causes the earthquake, and we shall have no more.

If they’d known that the earthquake was caused by the entire continental tectonic plate riding up and over the Pacific plate, they might have been yet more frightened. In the case of clear superstition, Graham is not above sarcasm:

I find, however, that witches here do much the same things as in Europe ; they influence the birth of animals, nay, even of children ; spoil milk, wither trees, and control the winds.

Or maybe that isn’t sarcasm. I myself have been the subject of more than one attempt at, um, enchantment.

She relates this anecdote of crowd manipulation, practiced by the besieged Spanish royalists in the south of the country:

A figure of the Virgin was placed in a conspicuous situation ; the patriot flag was presented to her, she shook her head ;– a Spanish flag was brought, the arms of the figure instantly embraced it; and the omen was of course accepted by the multitude

One wonders how they managed such a stunt. I have vague visions of a bearded Spanish soldier dressed up as the virgin, shaking his head at the first, then hugging the second flag. Unless, of course, it happened exactly as written.

She is not above her own irrational fears, but is also interestingly aware of them. She was not shy in exploring the country, with all the accompanying dangers (remember, no police or ambulance to help if you get into trouble, no four wheel drives to get through rough terrain). This is no delicate flower who must be kept from the vicissitudes of reality:

there is something fearful in fording a deep and rapid river in the dark. The rushing of the waters, the sensation of struggling owing to the resistance they offer to the horses’ feet, the cry of a water-bird startled from its nest on the margin, might easily become the shriek of the water sprite, and his attempts to seize the traveller. Night, doubt, and fear, are powerful magicians, and have done more to people the world of fiction than half the romancers that ever lived.

After the earthquake, still with no idea how she might get home, she is out riding on the beach in a fog, and stoically reflects:

I was in a fine humour for moralising. Earthquake under me, civil war around me ; my poor sick relation [her sailor cousin] apparently dying ; and my kind friend [Cochrane], my only friend here indeed, certainly going to leave the country, at least for a time. All this left me with nothing but the very present to depend on ; and, like the road I was travelling, what was to come was enveloped in dark clouds, or at best afforded most uncertain glimpses of the possible future. In such cases the mind is apt to make a sport to itself of its very miseries. I more than once on the way caught myself smiling over the fanciful resemblances I drew between human life and the scene I was in ; or at the fatality which had brought me, an Englishwoman, whose very characteristic is to be the most domestic of creatures, almost to the antipodes, and placed me among all the commotions of nature and of society. But if not a sparrow falls unheeded to the ground, I may feel sure that I am not forgotten. Often am I obliged to have recourse to this assurance, to make me bear evils and inconveniences that none, not the meanest, in my own happy country would submit to without complaint

Finally, Cochrane comes to her rescue and offers her and her cousin berths on his ship back to England (with stops at Isla Juan Fernandez and Rio de Janiero):

I could not answer– I could not look my thanks ; but if there is any one who has had an oppressive weight on the heart, that seemed too great either to bear or to obtain relief for, and who has had that weight suddenly and kindly removed, then they may understand my sensations,– then they may guess at a small part of the gratitude with which my heart was filled, but which I could not utter.

Well, she went through a lot, between losing her husband, living in a country at war with itself and others, and surviving a major earthquake, all within 9 months, so who can blame her?

The first travel guide to Chile: La Serena in 1646

Pandemic boredom being what it is, I have been exploring some of Chile’s history from its original sources, such as I can find in English (because I am lazy).    This proves to be much more fun than reading any stuffy old history books, and free because they’re long out of copyright and Google and others have helpfully published scans.

I have found the original travel book of Chile.  Written by one Alonso de Ovalle, a Jesuit priest, son of one of the earliest alcaldes of Santiago, and grandson of the conquistador Juan Bautista Pastene.  He traveled to Rome and discovered that the Europeans knew next to nothing about his country, if they’d heard of it at all (so, not vastly unlike the Europe of today really).  Being a good Jesuit, he took it upon himself to educate them and in 1646 published what he called “Histórica relación del Reyno de Chile“. 

I found a facsimile of an English translation too, “AN Hiftorical Relation OF THE KINGDOM CHILE” published in 1703.  This offers the following delightful description of the La Serena of the time, which I transcribe, with my annotations in []’s, retaining all the same punctuation and spelling but converting old style “long-s“s which look a little like f’s (see image at top) to modern s’s so that it is more easily read:

“Judging therefore that it was not yet time to leave anything behind him unfortified, he [Pedro de Valdivia, the conqueror of Chile] founded in the Valley of Coquimbo the City generally call’d by that Name, but by him call’d La Serena, to serve for a Resting Place or Scala for the People who came from Peru to Chile [before anyone knew you could get around the southern end of South America]; for being in great want of such Supplies [i.e. reinforcements], he did endeavor to facilitate by all Means their Passage, and draw as many People as Possible to preserve his Conquest; for acting otherwise would only be to have so much the more to lose, as indeed it happened, and shall be related in its due place [referring, I imagine, to the sack in 1549 of the town originally where Las Companias is now and thence refounded in its current location].

This City of La Serena was the Second that was founded in Chile in the year 1544 in a very Pleasant and Fruitful Valley, Water’d by a very fine River [the River Elqui], not of the biggest, but of clear and admirable Water, with which the Fields are all so plentifully refresh’d, that their Product is so various, that the Inhabitants want almost nothing from abroad that is necessary for Humane Life, for they have Corn, Wine, Flesh, all sorts of other Grain, and Legumes Fruits, even more than in  St. Iago; for besides all those of Europe, and those of Chile, they have Two sorts very extraordinary.  The first is a sort of Coucumbers, which are very sweet, and do not need paring; for the outside is a very thin Skin, smooth, of a delicate colour, between white and yellow, all streaked with a very fine purple [still found here and called pepino dulce].  The other Fruit is that which they call Lucumas [something of a delicacy even now, they don’t travel well, to me it has a flavour faintly reminiscent of coffee], and is a Fruit that I remember I have seen in Peru; it is a very wholesome well tasted Fruit, the Stone is smooth and of a purple colour.  The [olive] Oyl of this Place is absolutely the best in the whole Kingdom, as clear and bright as ones Eyes, and of a rare smell and taste: They make great quantities, so that they send a great deal abroad [this is still true].  They have great Flocks of Cattle, though not so many as about St. Iago [Santiago], because it Rains less, and so the Pasturages are leaner.

But what is most particular, and of greatest value in this Country, is the great abundance of rich Metals, as Gold, Copper and Lead; so that though they have given over gathering of Gold in all the other parts of Chile, because other Products are of greater advantage, yet in this place they go on gathering it more less, according as the Winter is more or less Rainy; for when it Rains much the Mountains are dissolv’d and the Earth open’d, and so the Gold is easier found [I’ve never found any, but then I didn’t know to look].  And the copper too that is melted down there, serves for all the Kingdom and Peru besides.  The Climate of this City is absolutely the most temperate of all the Kingdom, because the Winter in which other Parts is very sharp, particularly the nearer the Pole is here so gentle that it is hardly perceiv’d, it being within five or six Degrees of the Tropick; it being in the 29th Degree of Latitude, enjoys a moderate Climate, the longest day being of 14 hours; and is upon the 11th of December, as the shortest is upon the 11th of June and the night is of 14 hours [today, the shortest and longest days of the year fall around the 20th of those months; calendars were changed in 1752].

But the accidental Situation of the City helps much towards the Mildness of the Climate; it is within Two Leagues of the Sea [if a league is an hour’s walk, it is not that far today], having a Plain before it all covered with Mirtles; it stands on a Rising Ground, having a Prospect to the Sea, which makes a beautiful Bay, abounding in Fish of all sorts; by which it is an excellent Place to pass the Lent in, Fish being very cheap: But the good Cheer is also as well out of Lent for besides the Mutton, which is excellent, and very nourishing, there is plenty of Tame Fowl, Partridge, Turkeys, and all sorts of Wild Fowl.  This City begun to be Inhabited by many Noble Families, the Founders being Men of the best Quality that came to Chile, and their Descendents have remain’d and do maintain the Lustre of their Ancestors.  The Governor General appoints the Place of the of Corregidor or Mayor of the City, and it is one of the most Profitable Places that are, because of the Mines which are wrought in its Territory : But notwithstanding all these good Qualities which we have mention’d this City does not increase so fast as that of St. Iago ; for this last may be compar’d to the Clovetree, which sucks to itself all the Substance of the Earth round about it ; a thing which is proper enough to Capital Cities every where.”

Here is his beautifully minimalist map, with the town on the bay, the Elqui Valley to the top right, the Coquimbo peninsula running down the right side. I don’t know what is that lone building, seemingly a church, slightly inland on the left, perhaps it is the original location of the town in 1544, where the Las Companias barrio is now. The print-through of the scan is another map, presumably on the next page, of Valparaiso, the main port of Chile at the time, serving Santiago.


Blue Whale

The Thames at the London Eye

Cheddar Gorge

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