Tierra Del Fuego: A Centennial Tribute To Capt. Joshua Slocum
New England’s Captain Joshua Slocum was a craftsman shipwright as well as a tenacious sea captain, but had almost phenomenal navigational finesse. This combination resulted in his pulling off a lone voyage around the world at a time when pirates plundered coastlines and many in far reaching locations were hostile.
By 1895 Slocum had been master of great clippers, sailing them the world over, but the advent of steam would slowly, but inexorably close off available commands. So, when an old friend offered him an abandoned oyster sloop he took it, completely rebuilt it, gave it the name “Spray”, and embarked on his lonely circumnavigation.
One of Slocum’s most critical moments was his close call with the Fuegian Alacaloof Indians in the Magellan Straits. Wearing sea boots and clothing he recognized as being from luckless stranded or besieged sailors who’d gone before him, they waited out their opportunity to kill him and take his boat and possessions by hiding in the weather beaten stunted scrub of vegetation along the rocky shoreline of his route. All Indian canoes had the essential comfort of a fire amidships, laid on a bed of sand. It was so essential during the brutal winter climate that fires were kept alight for readiness even during the times when the canoes were not in use. Wherever the Indians went, they needed fires, hence the name Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire!
Sometimes they’d try the direct approach by approaching his vessel in daylight, begging for food, waiting for the instant his guard was interrupted in order to fire off a fatal arrow and achieve their lurid gains. But he knew of their cunning treachery and went to great pains to assure his attackers that he was not alone by changing hats and clothes and appearing from varying hatches in his two cabins, and since the enemy here had no guns, he would fire shots when his assailants ventured close enough to use their arrows.
By far the worst of the threats he faced however, was an attack by night. Many a vessel had been lost in this manner by the natives throwing fire sticks through the portholes of ill-fated craft. By far the greatest fear however, was being boarded while he slept. But a chance acquaintance he encountered in Punta Del Arinas where he’d put in for supplies, had given him a box of carpet tacks which he begged the doubting captain to spread on deck at night before he turned in, being certain that plenty were “business end up”.
Soon thereafter the tacks would play their part in his narrow survival. He had perceived canoes following in his wake, and later, on that night the Indians were pretty convinced that they finally had him. They carefully boarded the sloop from all angles but as they jumped on deck the agony on their bare feet caused bedlam in loud screams, waking Slocum who clamored on deck firing his repeater in all directions at once, scattering the intruders who jumped pell mell into the frosty strait or into their canoes and made off.