Jim's Reviews > Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives--a Deck's-eye View of Cape Horn

Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy
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's review
Nov 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: argentina, adventure, history
Read from November 08 to 12, 2011

Just as there is a "Matter of Britain," what with its King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Galahad, there is also a "Matter of Tierra del Fuego." But instead of mythical characters, we have, to begin with, a British Royal Navy captain named Robert Fitzroy hijacking four Indian children and taking them to Britain. One of them, Boat Memory, died of Smallpox shortly thereafter. The other three -- York Minster, Fuegia Basket, and, above all, Jemmy Button -- survived. Great things were expected of them, especially by Protestant missionaries. But Christianity just wasn't a good mix with Fuegian natives,

The missionaries, however, persisted despite one party dying of starvation at Spaniard Harbor and another being massacred by Yaghans, probably led by Jemmy Button. Eventually, there was one missionary by the name of Thomas Bridges who understood the natives: Among other things, he learned their language and wrote a dictionary before the last Yaghan died of measles or influenza or some other white man's disease. His son, Lucas, wrote a book which probably encapsulates the whole Fuegian experience better than any other: The Uttermost Part of the Earth.

Rounding the Horn is about far more than what I called the "Matter of Tierra del Fuego." It's about a present day sailing trip from Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, the two southernmost cities in the world, to Cape Horn and the surrounding islands. Many are still largely unexplored today. When one goes south of the Beagle Channel by even a few miles, the weather becomes very very bad. Storm waves that have traveled for thousands of miles without meeting a land mass upon which to break its force. According to Dallas Murphy, the book's author, this is called fetch, and we see several examples of such megastorms not only in the present, but in accounts of expeditions all the way from the time of Magellan and Drake to the early twentieth century.

This is an exciting book and written with a healthy sense of skepticism that keeps it from straying into the type of bull pucky so prevalent in the work of inferior authors. Even though so much of the book deals with the storms of the Drake Passage that separates Cape Horn from the Ross Peninsula of Antarctica, the ghost of Jemmy Button seems to haunt it. Murphy keeps coming back to him: It is the whites' failure to understand the Yaghans and other peoples of Tierra del Fuego that keeps taking center stage -- because, after all, that misunderstanding is the main human focus of the area's history.

This is a book I would gladly recommend to anyone: It is accurate, witty, and well-researched. And it is entertaining and well written.

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