The Strait of Magellan is a natural channel located at the southern tip of South America, connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The strait is 350 miles long and and 2-20 miles wide at its narrowest and widest points. I visited in November 2016 during a trip to Punta Arenas and Chile’s Patagonia Region.
Named after Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who discovered the strait in 1520, the Strait of Magellan separates the southernmost tip of the Americas and Tierra del Fuego Island. Most of the strait lies within the territorial waters of Chile. The eastern entrance touches Argentina.
Small fjords and channels on the Pacific side are famous for views of glaciers and mountains. The scenery around Puerto Natales and Ultima Esperanza Seno (Last Hope Sound) is representative. The area is comparable to Alaska’s Inside Passage 8,000 miles to the north on the opposite end of the land mass that comprises the Americas.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan became the first European to navigate the Strait. Magellan led a fleet of five Spanish ships and 270 sailors in an attempt to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands (the Maluku Islands). Only one ship, the Nao Victoria, with 18 or 19 men returned to Spain.
It Seems That The First Man To Circumnavigate The Earth Was Probably A Slave
In elementary school, we were taught that Magellan was the first man to sail around the world. In fact that is wrong. On April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed on the island of Macatan in the Philippines. Only 18 or 19 crew finally arrived back in Spain on September 6, 1522. on the sole surving vessel, the Nao Vicotria.
Magaellan clearly wasn’t the first. I don’t think any of the survivors on the Nao Victoria were either. The honor of being the first person to circle the earth probably belongs to a slave named Enrique.
Magellan captured and enslaved Enrique in 1511 during the Portuguese conquest of Malacca. Enrique sailed with Magellan on his final voyage. Following Magellan’s death, Enrique escaped from the expedition in the Philippines when the instruction in Magellan’s will that he be set free was not honored.
The distance between Macatan and Malacca is just over 1,500 miles. After being abducted 11 years prior, finding himself in a foreign land but relatively close to home and family after being abducted 11 years prior, surely Enrique would have returned home as quickly as possible. Unless he perished on that journey, Enrique would be the first person to complete a journey around the world. Eurocentric historians, however, pay little attention to this near certainty because there is no further record of Enrique after he escaped
Nao Victoria Museo
One of Punta Arenas’ most interesting attractions is the Nao Victoria Museo. This museum features full size replicas of several famous vessels that have some connection the the Strait of Magellan.
Nao Victoria was the only one of five ships to complete Magellan’s voyage.
H.M.S. Beagle carried Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery 1831-1836. Darwin spent several months exploring in and around the strait while transiting to the Pacific Ocean.
The James Caird is the smallest vessel at the museum, but it tells a most extraordinary story. It was a lifeboat on the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship on his Trans-Antarctica Expedition (1914 -1917), an attempt to make the first land crossing of the continent. When sea ice trapped and crushed the Endurance in 1915, Shackleton and five companions left the othe r22 members of the expedition on Elephant Island and sailed the James Caird through 800 miles of the treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia Island.
With the help of the government of Chile, Shackleton was able to rescue the party on Elephant Island. The entire crew survived and were taken to Punta Arenas.
The Strait of Magellan is an important waterway in a spectacular location. It has played a major role in commerce and world exploration. You should check it out if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Patagonia region of Chile or Argentina. I plan to return to Punta Arenas at some point to take a flight to Antarctica.