Sent by
The Bishop of Plasencia
under the Command of
Don Alonso de Camargo
to open a route from Spain,
by the Strait of Magellan
to the West Coast of
South America

Alonso de Camargo §

§ As noted in the Hakluyt Society editor's “Introduction” below, the author of the text was on the second of the ships in the expedition. He may have been its captain (“On the 29th I turned with …” [emphasis added]). In any case, the writer's name is unknown, and so the work is identified here by the name of the expedition leader.

Introduction to
The expedition of
the Bishop of Plasencia

A far more sensible reason for undertaking a voyage to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan than the enforcing of a claim to the Spice Islands, was the opening up of a cummincation by sea, with the ports of Peru and Chile. This was the opinion of the good Viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza. by his advice his brother-in-law, Dr Don Gutierrez Carbajal, the Bishop of Plasencia, exuipped a fleet of three small vessels with this object. The command was given, by the Bishop, to his relation Don Alonso de Camargo, and the expedition sailed from Spain in August 1539.

Camargo lost his own ship, the capitana, at the entrance of the first narrow in the Strait of Magellan. The second ship was separated from the others, wintered in a port of Tierra del Fuego, and returned to Spain in 1541. An important fragment of the log of the captain of the second ship has been preserved. Camargo continued the voyage through the strait in the third ship. When Pedro de Valdivia was prosecuting his conquest of Chile he was astonished to hear that a strange vessel was on the coast, coming from the south. Camargo touched at Valparaiso and eventually reached Callao in a very pitiful condition. He was the first navigator to arrive on the west coast of South America by way of Magellan's Strait. But no account of the voyage has been preserved. Camargo himself settled in the city of Chuquisaca, and mixed himself up in the feuds of the conquerors of Peru. He was put to death, with eight others, by cruel old Carbajal, the lieutenant of Gonzalo Pizarro. The mainmast of Camargo's ship was long preserved at Callao, as a memorial of the first voyage to that port by way of the Strait of Magellan.

We know neither the name of the second ship of the Bishop of Plasencia's fleet, nor the name of the captain. But a very important fragment of the journal of the second ship has been preserved. It was in the collection of Muñoz, and was printed by Torres de Mendoza and afterwards in the Anuario Hidrografico de Chile for 1879 (pp. 450-457). Its importance consists in the fact that the ship appears to have been the first to visit Staten Island, and to enter the Strait of Le Maire, and that she wintered in the Beagle Channel. The master appears to have been an intelligent observer and a competent seaman. He probably discovered the Strait of Le Maire, but Schouten still deserves all the credit of having discoverd it to be an important strait.

A translation of the fragment of the Journal follows:—

Account of the Navigation
of the Strait of Magellan

Voyage of the ship belonging to the fleet of the Bishop of Placencia [sic, Plasencia] that returned to Spain.

In the first place I took the sun in the month of November 1539.* I took it on the 11th of the said month in 4°,† and here we were out of sight of land, with soundings in 35 fathoms, bottom loose stones.

* The three vessels sailed in August 1539.

† A misprint. It should be 34.

On the 14th I took the sun in 34° 40', with soundings in 32 fathoms, bottom small shells, no land in sight.

On the 15th I took the sun in 36° 20', and we sounded in 45 fathoms. No land in sight.

On the 16th we sounded in 50 fathoms without seeing land.

On the 17th I took the sun in 37° 10', and sounded in 25 fathoms, clean bottom. Here we fished and caught many fish.

On the 18th we found a depth of 60 fathoms, clear sand. No land.

On the 19th I took the sun in 38° nearly, and sounded in 50 fathoms. Again we fished successfully. No land.

On the 20th I tookd the sun in 39°.

On the 22nd I took the sun in 42° 15', sounded in 40 fathoms, without seeing land.

On the 23rd we found bottom in 17 and 20 fathoms, without seeing land. The sun was not taken. In this part we made many balsas de curiola, and there were many birds, gulls and ablatrosses.

On the 26th I took the sun in 42° 45', and we sounded, without seeing land.

On the 27th I took the sun in 43° 40', but we did not sound nor see land.

On the 28th I took the sun in 44° 30', and sounded in 50 fathoms. Here we caught many fish.

Month of January. Year 1540.

On the 1st of January we sounded in 60 fathoms, without seeing land. The sun was not taken.

On the 2nd I took the sun in 46°, but no land in sight. Sounded in 26 fathoms, rocky with sea weed.

On the 3rd I took the sun in 46° 30', and sighted land at the mouth of the river Canano, which is a large bay, and from W.N.W. to North there is high land. From S.W. to South the land is low like an island running eight leagues out to sea to a cape, also like islets, the cape being east and west. On the east side six or seven rocks appeared, white as lime. We sounded in48 fathoms, rock and stone.

On the 4th I took the sun in 47° 40', in sight of land.

On the 5th I took the sun in 49° out of sight of land, and sounded 60 fathoms.

On the 8th I took the sun in 49° 15', in sight of land, and sounded in 40 fathoms, clean sand.

On the 9th I took the sun in 50°, in sight of land.

On the 10th I took the sun in 50° 15', in sight of land, with many white rocks, and we saw many columns of smoke.

On the 12th I took the sun in 51° 6', in sight of a point of land running two leagues out to sea, with many white rocks.* In the afternoon, at some distance from the land, we sounded over a shoal extending S.E. and E.S.E. from the point two leagues, in six of seven fathoms, and to the west is the entrance to the Santa Cruz river running N.W. and S.E. We sailed along the coast, running north and south, to the Cape of Virgins.

* Entrance to river Gallego.§

§ 51° 6' is about 10 miles south of Rio Coig (50° 58'), and 35 miles north of Rio Gallegos (51° 36'). Therefore, it appears that the ship was nearer the former when the sun was taken, and later sailed past the entrance to the latter, mistakenly identified by the writer as the Santa Cruz river (50° 8'), which is about 100 miles to the north.

We anchored near the Cape of Virgins which is in 52°. From the cape we saw the entrance to the Strait of Magellan, and here is an anchorage which it is well to know. The cape is fringed with white rocks, and a low point runs to the south for a league, with a beach of sand. We sounded a league from the land and found 18 fathoms, black sand, where we anchored. During the night there was a gale from the land, which drove us out to sea.

On the 15th I took the sun in 51° 20', 40 leagues from the land.

On the 16th I took the sun in 51°, being 60 leagues from the land.

On the 19th I took the sun in 51° 30', being 10 leagues from the land, and we sounded in 40 fathoms, black sand.

On the 20th I took the sun in sight of land, a league outside the point of land at Cape Virgins, in 52° 30'. We sounded in 20 fathoms, rock with sea weed.

In the name of Jesus, Entrance of the Strait.

On the 20th of January we began to enter the strait and at a league and a half within it we sounded on a bank of 89 fathoms, sea weed like beans. We steered to N.W. and came to a depth of 20 to 25 fathoms, black sand, where we were in advance of the point coming out from Cape Virgins. We saw a very high cross on shore, and within sight of this cross there is an anchorage which continues for two leagues. Here we saw a point of land beyond which the coast runs W.N.W. for about six leagues. Beyond that we came to a strait only three quarters of a league in width for tow leagues N.W. and S.E. Here that is a strong current.

On the 22nd, an hour before daylight, the capitana was wrecked at the mouth of the strait.* The crew were saved.†

* The N.E. end of the first narrow.

† The Captain General, Alonso de Camargo, was taken on board the third ship, with his crew.

On the 27th I turned back to the mouth of the strait and, when two leagues from the mouth, I encountered such a gale that I was driven back as far as the Cape of Virgins.

On the 29th I turned with the intention of joining the Captain General and the others. As the wind was contrary, and it then fell calm, I anchored.

On the 31st, before daylight, it came on to blow so hard from the S.S.E. that there was a cross sea. The cable parted and I made sail. At daylight we found ourselves so near the land that we were on the point of cutting away the masts, when it pleased God to send fair weather.

On the 4th of February, in the morning, we sighted land which appeared to be the eight or nine islands on the chart, and we were between two lands. We had land to N.N.E. on our port side, and there was also land to the south. It appeared to me and to all the others that we should be amongst those islands, while according to the chart there were channels between them through which we could pass, and all clear without shoals. At noon we observed a great bay* with lofty mountains, at a distance like islands. We then went on the other tack to see if we could double the land we saw to the N.W.. We worked all the day until nightfull without being able to get round it. When night came on we stood to the south to see if we could pass on another course. In the night such a wind sprang up that we could show no sail. Next day, in the afternoon, we saw a point of land, and as it seemed that if we could double it there would be no more to the south, we got round it with much trouble. From the point several shoals run out to sea, and we were very near them. After we had doubled that point to the south, we sighted other land to the S.E. Between that land we saw a great bay, with high mountains on either side which yet appeared like islands, because great arms of the sea intervened between one mountain and another.

* Bay of San Sebastian.

On this day, in the afternoon, the master thought he saw a channel opening to the south* through which we might go. Until that day we had seen all the land closed up. We thought it well to anchor that night by some beach.† As we had no anchor we came to with six berzos. Afterwards we made sail, standing off and on until we found ourselves embayed, with land to the south.

* Strait of Le Maire.

† On the north coast of Staten Island.

This range of mountains runs east and west, taking a turn E. by S. and W. by N. In it there are many streams and branches of the sea coming from the north, and entering far into the land.* We never could succeed in entering any of these deep bays because the wind was always blowing from the mountains. Thus we were cruising about outside until we found, twwards the N.E., a small inlet which only penetrated about a quarter of a league inland. We ran for this refuge. When we were near the entrance, trusting that God would perform miracles for us, we cut away the mainmast and run in under the foresail, until we came to the cape at the entrance, where there was little depth, with clean sand. The sea being smooth the ship passed in without accident, and was secured with hawsers and cables.

* These deep inlets are described by Lieut. Kendal, R.N., who surveyed Staten Island. See Voyage of the Chanticleer.

We were there eight days, but on the 11th it blew so hard that the hawsers on one side were carried away, so we went further up the inlet. This port, in which we were enclosed, received from us the name of the “Harbour of Foxes,” as there were many foxes on shore.*

* The writer in the Anuario Hidrografico de Chile suggests that the little vessel had gone up the Beagle Channel.

This land appears to be a part of the mainland to the south of Magellan's Strait. This seems to be so because the land from this point runs to the west, and is parallel with the strait.* We found at the point of this land many stretches of shrubs and trees which had been burnt, and all the wood that comes out of the strait is washed up here. For at the place where we were, a board of the ship capitana, which was wrecked in the strait, was floated here, as well as other things.§

* These data show that the position was on the south side of Tierra del Fuego.

§ If the board was indeed from the capitana, then they were not in the Beagle Channel—it would be next to impossible (to say the least) for a fragment to drift from the wreck site (first narrow) through the strait and the complex network of waterways and then into the Beagle Channel. It seems more likely that the writer was mistaken, and the board came from some other source.

This land is bare, without trees, windy and very cold. It snows in several months of the year, the winds blowing from S.W. and West, and very seldom from any other quarter. In all this land there are many ducks, as well from shore as from the sea. There are also seals with skins 36 feet long.§ Within the land there is much cedar wood. Round this coast there are many small islands, a fact which is well to know. The land where we lost the berzos was an island; and in the bay where we are, there are many small islands and rocks, and many arms of the sea extending far inland. Here the summer only lasts for four months, January, February, March and April. In May the rigours of winter commence, and it snows frequently until December. In this land there is much game, consisting of ducks, foxes and seals. We were here for six months. We then took in wood and water, and prepared our ship for the return to Spain.

§ Probably a misprinted “6 feet long.”

We left this port of the Foxes on the 24th of November with a N.E. wind and fine weather. We discovered a gulf, and the wind became so strong from N. and N.E. that we were unable to work to windward, and were forced to put into a bay to the south, whither the sailors had been to fish during the winter. Here there was a good port, and we went into it. We found it landlocked with 10 or 12 fathoms of depth. Afterwards, on St Andrews's Day, ther ewas such a gale from N.W. and W. that we were in great danger. This port was formed by an island surrounded by two arms of the sea. There was plenty of game, but no foxes, which shows that the former port, from which we had come, was on the mainland. On a cape of this island much wood was found, including a part of a plank which much have come from the strait, where the capitana was wrecked. This port is landlocked, and suited for any ship to winter in. There is a good supply of wood and water, and good shelter from all winds, with a means of departure by the west, and thence all the coast within sight to the westward may be reached. Between this island on the landlocked harbour and the mouth of the strait, there is a gulf* extending for eight or nine leagues. We were eight or none days in this harbour, on the return voyage to Spain.

* The Strait of Le Maire.

We departed from this harboudr on the 3rd of December 1540, with fine weather and wind from S. and S.W. sailing large until we had passed the island where we lost the berzos. Then the wind veered to the S.W. before which we ran for two days, seeking the mainland to the north. On the 5th I took the sun in 49° 6'.*

* 360 miles north of Staten Island.

On the 11th we ran, for a long time, to the S.E. and S.S.E. and came to the mouth of the river Canano. This following night the wind veered to S. and next day we double the cape. Then we suffered from bad weather for eight days.

On the 30th of December we came to the island of Cristobal Angues, which is at the mouth of the river Plate in 35° 30'.

Year 1541.

On the 1st of January I took the sun in 35°, and on the 6th I took it in 34°. Here it seems to me that the water flows with great force from the river Plate. We were in the currents, with calm weather, until the 10th, without making any headway.

On the 11th of December [sic, January] I took the sun in 34°, and next day in 31°, and next day in 28°.