The Beagle: A Voyage Through Time
By William T. Vollmann
A Brief History of the Beagle Ship
In 1811, John Murray was working as a surveyor at Fort St. James in Newfoundland when he received a letter from his friend Robert Falcon Scott inviting him to join him on his next expedition to South America.
After reading about Scott’s previous expeditions through the New World, Murray decided to volunteer for one of them. The first leg of the journey would take Scott and two companions to Cape Horn, a mountain range in Chile that could only be reached by sailing around it. There they planned to sail northward along the coast of Peru before heading south through Brazil and crossing the Amazon River into Ecuador. Once there, they hoped to reach the Andes Mountains via a route overland across Bolivia and Argentina.
Murray had been living in England since 1793 and was well known among English explorers. His reputation preceded him; he was invited to join several other British adventurers on their journeys to South America.
But Scott’s invitation caught Murray off guard. “I didn’t think I’d get such an offer,” he later wrote. “It seemed so out of character.”
What’s more, the journey to Cape Horn would take at least six months and was dangerous. At the time, the three main ways to get there were rounding the southern tip of Africa, going around it via sailboat, or traveling overland through Bolivia.
The latter was known as one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. The former two routes were plagued by pirates. All three options were expensive, and all had claimed the lives of many sailors before.
Despite having almost no experience with the sea, Murray ultimately decided to take up this challenge. That was in April of 1826.
“It was not altogether a love of danger and difficulty that influenced me,” he later wrote in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Late Victorious Campaigns in Chile and Peru During the Years 1820-1821-1822-1823-1824. “I had become weary of my life in London and wished once more to enjoy myself in the freedom of the wild outdoors.”
By the time he arrived at Cape Horn, however, his initial enthusiasm had worn off. The journey was hard on his body, and the conditions of the ship were terrible.
The crew was forced to resort to cannibalism after they ran out of supplies and still hadn’t reached their destination. Finally, on December 13, 1826, after almost a year at sea, they spotted land.
“We now beheld the long-wished-for coast of Terra del Fuego,” he wrote. “Everyone’s joy and spirits now returned.”
They sailed northward along the hostile coast for days, passing through small channels between islands. Some of these islands were nothing more than ash and rock.
Others were covered in ice. It was, as one sailor later wrote, like a “land of death.”
“Slowly we moved along this scene of dreary nature,” he remembered. “Mute and desolate islands surrounded us on every side, while the gloomy and frowning …
rocks look as if they were prepared to vomit fire and brimstone on us.”
The only good thing about the place was that there were no pirates around. It was too treacherous for them to sail through.
Finally, they spotted an inlet which appeared to offer the best harbor around. It was at the bottom of a steep valley, overlooked by a promontory.
Almost as soon as they sailed into the inlet, two boats filled with armed Native Americans sailed out to meet them.
There must have been a misunderstanding, because the next thing Murray knew he and his companions were surrounded by hundreds of Native Americans. They were tall and muscular, with dark skin and long black hair.
Many wore little more than animal skins. They displayed a terrifying sight. Some of them danced around the British boats, shaking their spears and yelling out incomprehensible things in a language Murray didn’t understand. By now it was late in the day, but the Native Americans formed a ring of boats around the British ships, preventing them from sailing out to sea.
“We expected nothing but instant death,” he wrote. “Indeed such seemed our inevitable fate.”
The next morning the ring of boats broke up, and some of the Native Americans sailed toward the ships. They climbed aboard and offered Murray and his companions gifts of corn and fruit, as well as a selection of small, beautifully painted canoes.
They invited them to come ashore, then returned to the shore themselves and invited them to follow. After a long discussion, they decided to accept the invitation.
As the sailors clambered ashore, they were surrounded by hundreds of Native Americans, all pointing their spears in their direction. They were led to a village where they were given food and lodgings for the night.
The next morning, the Native American leader came to see them. He was tall and muscular, with a broad face and bright eyes. He wore a feathered headdress and a fur cloak made from the skin of some unknown animal. His name was Cabeza, which means “Head.”
After lengthy greetings had been exchanged, Cabeza told the sailors that he had been waiting for them to arrive. He said that he had seen their ships approaching many days before and had seen the black spots on the white skins of some of his men who had been aboard the ship in the distance.
He knew that they came from far away across the great ocean, so he had waited for them to arrive.
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