t the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese discovered and monopolized the Cape of Good Hope. They thus opened up the first sea route to Asia and Oceania, a source of riches for European trade.
The Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan could not convince the king of his country to outfit a fleet to look for a passage to the Orient via America. Finally, it was the Spanish King Charles V who accepted Magellan’s proposal in 1518. This was the beginning of the most extraordinary of the European explorations to discover the world.
On September 20, 1519, the “Moluccas Fleet” set sail from the port of Seville under Magellan’s command. On board was a young Italian Antonio Pigafetta, who left us an account of this expedition that departed from Spain with five ships and 265 men and returned three years later at the breaking point with only one ship and 18 men, having completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.
After reaching Brazil and thoroughly exploring the La Plata River, the flotilla headed south and, on November 1, 1520, finally entered a strait that Magellan christened the “Strait of All Saints” and that was later renamed the “Strait of Magellan”. The lands to the north of the Strait were named “Land of the Patagones” (Patagonia) and those to the south “Land of Smoke” (Tierra del Fuego).
Five weeks later, the three remaining ships came out into a vast and new ocean with calm waters, for which it was given the name “Pacific Ocean”. Magellan later died in a battle with natives on the Moluccas, and it was his pilot, Sebastián del Cano, who led the remainder of the expedition back to Spain after uncountable hardships and difficulties. The western sea route was open for Spain.
Later, between the years 1557 and 1559, Juan Ladrilleros sailed from Valdivia (Chile) and made a notable contribution to the knowledge of the Strait of Magellan, but the enemies of the Spanish Crown, the English, also used the Strait. The privateer Francis Drake passed through it (1557-1578) to sow the seeds of desolation in the Spanish colonies of the west coast of South America and, on the way, was the first to mention the fact that Tierra del Fuego was an island and not a great continent that stretched to the South Pole. He also completed the second circumnavigation of the globe.
The Spanish, alarmed by the unpunished passage of the English through the Strait of Magellan, decided to establish two cities in the area. Sarmiento de Gamboa, at the helm of this military and colonizing expedition, set sail from Seville in September 1581 with 23 ships and 3,000 people. A year and a half later, after extensive damage, he finally arrived at the Strait with just five ships and 500 people. The city of Nombre de Jesús was founded near Dungeness Point (the east entrance of the Strait), while the city of Rey Felipe was founded some 60 km (37 miles) south of the current city of Punta Arenas.
This attempt at colonization turned into a true disaster: the two cities’ colonists and soldiers died of hunger. Such was the extent that in 1587 the English privateer Thomas Cavendish managed to rescue a Spaniard, one of the few survivors of the tragedy. The rest were abandoned to their fortunes, and Spain forever renounced the colonization of the Strait of Magellan. The site on which the city of Rey Felipe was built was then named “Port Famine”, a name that has lasted to modern times as “Puerto de Hambre”.