European familiarity with southernmost South America dates from 1520, when the Portuguese navigator Fernando Magalhaes, under the Spanish flag, sailed through the strait that now bears his name (Magallanes in Spanish, Magellan in English). Ranging from three to 25 kilometers in width, the strait became a maritime thoroughfare en route to the Pacific.
Prior to their “discovery” by Magellan, southern South America’s insular extremes were inhabited by hunter-gatherer bands such as the Selk’nam (Ona), Kawésqar (Alacaluf), and Yámana (Yahgan). They lived off maritime and terrestrial resources that they considered abundant—only in the European view was this a land of deprivation. The archipelago acquired its name from the fires set by the region’s so-called “Canoe Indians,” the Kawésqar and Yámana, for heating and cooking; in this soggy region, though, it might have been more accurate to call it Tierra del Humo (Land of Smoke).
Early navigators dreaded Cape Horn’s wild seas, and their reports gave their countrymen little reason to settle in or even explore the area. In the early 1830s, Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Beagle abducted several Yámana, including the famous Jemmy Button, to England; he subjected them to missionary indoctrination before returning them to their home on a later voyage. On that voyage, a perplexed Charles Darwin commented on the simplicity of their society: “The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes, must for a long time retard their civilization.”
The first to try to bring civilization to the Yámana, rather than the opposite, were Anglican missionaries from the Falkland Islands, some of whose descendents still live here. After abortive attempts that included both Fuegian assaults and the starvation death of evangelist Allen Gardiner, the Anglican Thomas Bridges settled at present-day Ushuaia, on the Argentine side of the Isla Grande, where he compiled an English-Yámana dictionary. His son Lucas, who grew up with Yámana playmates, wrote the extraordinary memoir The Uttermost Part of the Earth, published a few years before his death in 1950.
In the meantime, both the Chilean and Argentine governments established their presence, and gigantic sheep estancias occupied the sprawling grasslands where native peoples once hunted guanaco and other game. As the guanaco slowly disappeared and the desperate Fuegians began to hunt domestic sheep, they often found themselves facing the wrong end of a rifle—though introduced European diseases such as typhoid and measles killed more native people than did bullets.
The archipelago’s borders were never clearly defined, and the two countries nearly went to war over three small Beagle Channel islands in 1979. Positions were uncompromising—one adamant Argentine poster proclaimed that “We will never surrender what is ours!”—but papal mediation brought a settlement within a few years. There are lingering issues, though, such as transportation across the Channel from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams.
Since then, travel to the uttermost part of the earth has boomed, especially on the Argentine side in the summer months. Other important economic sectors are sheep farming and petroleum, on both the Chilean and Argentine sides.
Some of the oldest archaeological evidence for human habitation on the entire continent comes from Magallanes, from volcanic rock shelters in and near Parque Nacional Pali Aike along the Argentine border. Pleistocene hunter-gatherers once stalked now-extinct species such as giant ground sloths and native American horses, but later adopted more broad-spectrum forms of subsistence that included marine and coastal resources. These peoples were the predecessors of today’s few surviving Tehuelche and Kawésqar (Alacaluf) peoples, and the nearly extinct Selk’nam (Ona) and Yámana (Yahgan) who gathered shellfish on the coast and hunted guanaco and rhea with bows and arrows and boleadoras.
Spain’s 16th-century colonization attempts failed, as did the initial Chilean and Argentine efforts, but the city of Punta Arenas finally took hold after 1848—thanks partly to the fortuitous discovery of gold in California just a year later. Gold fever subsided, but the introduction of sheep brought a wool and mutton boom that benefited from the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870, and helped create sprawling estancias that dominated the region’s political, social, and economic life for nearly a century.
While the livestock industry hangs on, commercial fisheries, the state-run oil industry, and the tourist trade have superseded it in the regional economy. Even these industries, though, have proved vulnerable to fluctuations, declining reserves, and international developments beyond their control, but Magallanes is presently one of Chile’s most prosperous areas, thanks partly to the Zona Franca free-trade zone that has even drawn immigrants from the Chilean heartland.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition