Where were we a few weeks ago? Oh yes! The Pelican—renamed as Golden Hind before reaching the Fuegian channel—was entering the waters of the Strait of Magellan on August 21, 1578. Although commanded by Francis Drake, the British fleet counted on the invaluable help of Nuno da Silva—a Portuguese pilot that Drake kidnapped in the island of Santiago de Cabo Verde—to reach and cross the Strait. The corsair held Da Silva in high esteem, and the technical documents written by the Portuguese certify his “top level” sailing skills.
While Drake was beginning his piratical activities in the Pacific, his Vice-Admiral, John Winter, delved into the Strait to return to England. This return journey allowed him to go down in history as the third man to go through the Strait in a West-East direction and as the discoverer of the medicinal virtues of the Drymis winteri bark to deal with scurvy. Supposedly, also a small boat of Drake’s fleet, captained by Peter Curder, would have returned to England by undoing the path through the Strait.
Thus, the Door to the Pacific—and to the Spanish riches it contained—was also opened to English ships. Obviously, this fact set off all the alarms in Philip II’s court. The response to Drake’s boldness was to send a fleet to the Strait under the command of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1579–1580), a man well-versed in nautical issues. His mission was to collect as much information as possible on the Fuegian channel, in order to fortify the passage and to avoid unwelcome guests. The documentary result of the expedition was an outstanding brand new rutter for the Strait and some nautical charts. However, the fortification project never materialized; in light of this, some of Drake’s compatriots began to set a course for the coveted channel. Thomas Cavendish crossed the Strait in 1587, and then completed the third circumnavigation of the Earth; Andrew Merrick tried to follow in his footsteps in 1590, but he did not go past Cape Froward; Cavendish again, in 1592, tried to repeat his own achievement, but he also ran into Cape Froward. Finally, it was Richard Hawkins in 1594 who managed to reach the Pacific again through the Strait, in an interesting journey that can be read in The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins (1622).
Do not miss the third part of the series to find out which nation took over from the English sailors on the Strait of Magellan! [José María Moreno Madrid]