Posts tagged: Coquimbo

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.

La Pampilla

I managed to almost completely avoid the Dieciocho this year, until Sunday night when I got dragged to the Pampilla

Pampilla football pitchOh the dust, the crowd, the smell of burning meat, the drab winter clothing, the murky lighting, the losing your friends, the dodgy fairground attractions, the tat, the rubbish, the noise, the distorted public announcements, the pum pum pum of what might be music, the standing around, the morose crowds, the drift from one dusty patch to another.

PampillaAt last, the fireworks!


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