Posts tagged: La Serena

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.

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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