The Naming of a Chilean Patagonian Island by my Scottish Great Grandfather
An adventurous Scot.
His name was John Robert Stewart, and his spirit of adventure seems to have been very pronounced. I never met the gentleman, but both my grandmother and my mother were always relating anecdotes and sayings attributed to his person.
He was born in 1847, and married Magdalene Hardie in 1870, “after Banns according to the Forms of the United Presbyterian Church”. The formal inscription of the marriage in the District of St. George, in the City of Edinburgh, describes him as an Engine Fitter, while she is down as a School Teacher. Their eldest son, also called John Robert, was born in 1871, and their daughter, Annie, did not appear until 1878.
There are a few local newspaper cuttings that describe Magdalene as a very gifted teacher, I would have liked to have met her, I think! I know she painted and drew superbly; I did get to see some examples of her work before they disappeared.
I also get the impression that both John Robert and Magdalene were relatively well educated for the period, and he seems to have been a very competent technician, in view of the rest of his life story.
Where does the connection with Chile come in? Well, traditionally the Chilean Navy has been practically inseparable from Britain in many aspects, not least, the origin of her ships, as most of them came from British shipyards.
The Turning Point
The turning point in Great Grandfather’s life was the trip he made to Chile on a ship recently acquired from Britain. It seems the ship was a steamer, a relatively new technology for the times. A British crew brought her out on her maiden voyage, in order to test her engines before delivery. And John Robert, adventurer, was there in the engine room! Where else, for a Scott!
The ship docked in Valparaiso, having come round the Southern passage – no Panama Canal at that time! The provisional crew was provided with living quarters by the Chilean government while waiting for another berth for the return trip to Europe.
John Robert Stewart, formally from Edinburgh, fell in love with Valparaiso in particular and with Chile in general, and when he was offered a post in the Chilean Navy as a Naval Engineer, did not hesitate to accept, and then sent for his family. They all settled in Chile and never went back; he died in 1929, and is buried in Chile, as are all the rest of that family group.
There is one more important detail related to his family life in Valparaiso: in 1887, Magdalene gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Unfortunately the boy died, and the girl survived (just barely!) to be named Magdalene Jane after her mother, and to eventually marry in Chile. Her husband was a Welshman whose last name was Wrigley, and their daughter Gladys eventually produced me.
Chile, a really long country
A Career in the Chilean Navy
Starting in 1883, John Robert Stewart senior seems to have had quite an active career in the Chilean Navy, rising from Naval Engineer Second Class to Naval Engineer First Class. He even participated in the training of Chilean seamen at one point.
His precise starting date as Engineer was the 20th of September, 1883. Now at that time, Chile had just finished fighting a rather hard war against her Northern neighbors, Peru and Bolivia, while at the same time receiving threats from Argentine to join in against Chile as well. The war lasted from 1879 to 1883, but in 1881, during the war, Chile was forced to cede the entire Eastern section of the Patagonia to Argentine, so as to avoid stacking up yet another country at war against her.
Having won the war in the North, the next urgent task was to consolidate Chile’s boundaries and install settlers wherever possible, thus establishing her sovereignty in a more concrete way. The extreme north, newly acquired, and the extreme South, seemed to be the more vulnerable points.
With this objective in mind, the Chilean Navy started a series of tours of the southernmost coasts, namely, the Fiords, Islands and Channels in the Sub Antarctic region. Injeniero Juan R. Stewart, as he is registered on his naval documents, sailed South on the following dates:
- December, 1885, on the “Toro” sailed for Punta Arenas for the placing of buoys and beacons in the Magellan area.
- August 1886, again on the “Toro”, sailed south for work on the same tasks.
- May 1889, went back to the Channels and the Straits of Magellan, to place new buoys, take measurements and repaint buoys already in place.
The Beagle Channel
Up to this point, the information comes from official documents that I have actually seen. What follows is a combination of fact and “family legends”.
At some moment during these trips to the Southern archipelagoes, Naval Officer Juan R. Stewart seems to have navigated in the area of the Beagle Channel., a strait in the archipelago island chain of Tierra del Fuego at the Southern tip of South America.
The Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan a bit further north, and the Drake Passage in the open ocean to the South, are the three passages that can be navigated between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. The first two are rather narrow; therefore the extra large commercial ships must all use the open ocean passage, that is, the Drake Passage.
The eastern end of the Beagle Channel corresponds to a part of the border between Chile and Argentine, and the western end is entirely in Chile. Its northern coast corresponds to the large main island of Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego, and to the South there are several smallish islands, called Picton, Lennox, Londonderry, etc.
Several of the smaller southern islands mentioned in the last paragraph, were officially visited by the Chilean Navy ships during the 1880’s, while on duty in these waters, with the idea of initiating a preliminary description of them, and establishing whether they were inhabited by any of the indigenous tribes that were not too well known at that time. Many of these various islands had not even been mapped yet.
My surviving family members were not too clear about the particulars, but it seems that at one point in all this history, Great Grandfather Stewart went ashore on a particular island near the most westerly end of the Beagle Channel. The legends say that he volunteered, but it is highly possible that he was ordered, or that the Officers had a roster system and took it in turns. All in all, it sounds like a rather spooky undertaking, as some of the native inhabitants were hostile and rather fierce; and very little was known about the fauna of the area.
Be it as it may, Engineer Stewart bravely reconnoitered the island accompanied by one other person. They checked for fresh water supplies, took note of some of the vegetation, kept their eyes open for wild animals and/or other persons, and then left the island to its initial frozen silence, having found it apparently empty of life. For reasons only known to them, before they left they freed a pair of rabbits on the island. Legend also states that when next anybody went round that area, the island was populated by hundreds of rabbits!
Well, the island had no name, and a name was needed. So voila, the Stewart Island was born!
The Beagle Channel, showing Stewart Island
Stewart Island at the Beagle Channel, Chile
Island in Chilean Oatagonia, at the wes end of the Beagle Channel. It remains uninhabited.
This is a family story that has always been very dear to me. When I first heard it, I didn’t quite believe it, but my mother finally located a map with enough detail to be able to find Stewart Island on it. That was a very thrilling moment for me; I must have been about 10 years old!
Of course, with the use of satellite maps, it is now very easy to be able to observe the island in some detail. What never ceases to amaze, is the temerity of the navigators who first searched these waterways, with no maps to guide them, and constantly threatened by storms and treacherous currents.
Of special note, is HMS Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed. The Beagle Channel was named after this ship.
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)