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.

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