In the continent of South America, Argentina and Chile, its western neighbour beyond the Andes Mountains, stretch southwards for more than two thousand miles.
Argentina’s four southernmost Provinces ending in Tierra del Fuego (‘the land of fire’), together with a smaller area of Chile, are collectively known as Patagonia. This enormous territory, what a 19th century writer described as ‘the uttermost part of the earth’ covers 400,000 square miles, and is mostly a rugged wilderness of treeless wind-scoured steppe with isolated sheep ranches and few people.
To European explorers of the 16th century, Patagonia was a mysterious place, thought of as lying somewhere between India and Japan. In 1518 King Charles 1 of Spain commissioned the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, with an expedition of five ships, to sail down the South American coastline, find a way to the Molucca Islands of the Pacific, and claim them for the Spanish crown.
Magellan did find a sea passage of over three hundred miles connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, sailed it in thirty-four days, and made it to the Pacific islands of the Phillipines, where he was killed in 1521. That seaway through Tierra del Fuego today bears the name of the Magellan Strait.
Fifty years later, the Elizabethan explorer and privateer Sir Francis Drake, set out from Plymouth in the Golden Hind in November 1577 to attempt a voyage round the world. The following August he and his crew gazed with awe at the snow-covered mountainous slopes bordering the Strait.
A storm forced them to retrace their path to the Atlantic coast, and Drake later related how his ship anchored at 50 degrees South, somewhere near “the southernmost point of land in the world.”
He would not at the time have known that further south from Cape Horn was the immense, and as yet undiscovered, ice-covered continent of Antarctica. With a fair wind, the old sea-dog sailed up the coast of Chile, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and home to a hero’s welcome. He had circumnavigated the earth.