Notes from the Hassler archives: Encounters in Patagonia

[This post is part of a series on the archives of the 1871-1872 Hassler expedition, written by Bruno Costelini, Science without Borders intern at the Ernst Mayr Library]


As the Hassler deep-sea dredging expedition reached Patagonia and the Strait of Magellan in March 1872, getting provisions through commerce was no longer feasible, so the job was left in the hands of the ship’s crew and even of the members of the scientific party, as James H. Blake describes in these passages of his journal, written in Elizabeth Island:


We could see large rookeries at different places on the land where hundreds of birds were sitting and as all in the boat were anxious to get to them first it was arranged that all should land at the same time and at the word “go” fire the birds. There was a large variety of them and the cormorant (Phalaecrocorax) being the most abundant. Some of the party went one way by the shore and some the other to look for sea-lions […]


Party at the Site of Hassler Glacier
"Party at the Site of Hassler Glacier"


Not only sea-lions and cormorants, but also oyster-eaters, gulls and even penguins were not safe from their thirst for stock and specimens, for many of those would also be packed and shipped to the MCZ in Cambridge. Blake himself didn’t seem very apt in the search for game, but didn’t refrain from taking part in it either:


I went on further and came to a very large rookery. As I approached there they ran up a little hill and such a sight I never witnessed before. To put them at the lowest number I should think there were one thousand (1000) and the land was black with them, they did not fly as they could not do in the valley but ran upon this little hill. I took chase and was joined by several others who killed two or three dozen and could have killed as many more. I killed only two of three for thought it useless but the men had no mercy of the poor creatures.


Cove in Desolation Island
"Cove in Desolation Island, Strait of Magellan, viewed from the Hassler steamer"


Their encounters with the native Patagonians weren’t so pretty either. After seeing some signs of occupation, such as piles of shells and abandoned huts they eventually confronted a group of Tierra de Fuego natives or “wild Fuegians”, as Blake puts it:


[…] we observed it to be a boat filled with the wild Fuegians. As we had brought carabines and revolvers even the men were armed we waited for them to land.

[…] Five men landed with sticks and three large dogs who immediately came towards us barking and growling fiercely. (After ordering the dogs back) we invited them to our fire which they accepted but we would allow them no further. They were dirty extremely so with nothing to cover their bodies but a seal skin which was tied about their waist with a sinew while standing at the fire one of them untied this string and his whole […] part of his body was bare. He did not seem to even notice it although in the presence of ladies.


The Hassler Glacier
"The Hassler Glacier, named after the expedition's steamer"


With tensions eased, their meeting went on to follow the script laid out centuries earlier with bartering of arrows and skins for tobacco and other goods:


They caught the old tobacco which Mr. Mansfield dig out of his pipe. Dr. Stein offered them snuff and some of them took it and snuffed it up the nose as they were shown to do and “made believe” sneeze […]


We heard the gun from the ship which obliged us prepare our things for going on board. When they heard the gun, one of them grinned pointed towards the ship and with a gesture said “bom” to imitate the sound of the gun.