Juan Fernandez

The discoverer of the open-sea route which circumvented these inordinate delays [between New Spain & Chile] was one of twenty-six people, several of them sailors, living in Santiago de Chile in the 1570s, and all named Juan Fernandez; the meticulous researches of José Toribio Medina have narrowed the field to one. He discovered the island long named after him, but since 1966, by official decree of the Republic of Chile, styled Robinson Crusoe's Island.

Juan Fernandez seems to have come to Chile about 1550-1, and in the next twelve years had much experience, as boatswain and later master, in navigation between Peru and Chile. In February 1574 he was in command of the Nuestra Señora dos Remedios from Valparaiso to Callao; and when, on 27 October 1574, he took her out on the return, there can be scarcely any doubt that his southwestwards track—into the open Pacific—was deliberate. The wind régime on the coast is such that he could hardly have been blown off-shore; on the other hand, he was a close friend of Gallego, Mendaña's pilot on the 1567 voyage to the Solomons and from him he must have learned that once out of the mainstream of the Humboldt Current, and well into the Southeast Trades, winds and currents made a good southing much easier than it was close to the coast.

On 6 November Fernandez sighted the barren rocky islands he named San Felix and San Ambor ... and on the 22nd two islands which he named for the day, Santa Cecilia's. These were certainly the group known by his name ... thirty days from Callao he reached a Chilean port, either Valparaiso or Concepcion ... although his island did not appear on the maps until early in the next century, his 'new navigation' was soon adopted as the standard track.

One of the founders of Santiago, Juan Jufre (who introduced goats to Chile, and hence, at a remove, to Crusoe's Island), backed a reconnaissance in 1575, perhaps under Fernandez, though it is not certain the latter ever set foot on his islands. Nothing came of this, but in 1576 Fernandez was sent by Jufre ... to discover 'the islands which are frontier to this kingdom.' Knowledge of this expedition rests on one of the memorials with which the highly uncritical Dr Luis Arias sought to revive, in the totally unfavourable climate of Philip III's reign, the grand designs of Mendaña and Quiros for a vast religious imperialism in the South Sea. Fernandez is said to have sailed, from about 40 degrees south, on a westsouthwest course for one month—and to have discovered a land with well-clad white people and many fine rivers. In the eighteenth century this was taken up enthusiastically by Alexander Dalrymple—to whom it must of course have been Terra Australis—and considered more cautiously by James Burney; it has been variously identified as Easter Island, New Zealand, Australia, the Solomons, Tahiti, and (by the Chilean Vicuña Mackenna) as fantasy; which last seems most probable. Arias himself is most confused, and his evidence is—at best—third hand; Medina makes a gallant attempt to show that Fernandez found somewhere, say Tahiti, but carries no conviction. At all events, what with the Araucanian Wars and Drake's raid nothing could be done—the heretics might hear of it—and any follow-up was put off from day to day until Juan Fernandez died in 1599. The mantle fell on Quiros.

more from the shores of The Spanish Lake (op.cit.)

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