JOURNAL OF A CRUISE … IN THE U.S. FRIGATE ESSEX … 1812-1814
by CAPTAIN DAVID PORTER, pub. 1822
From CHAPTER IV
On the morning of the 15th [March 1813], we succeeded in getting off the point of Angels, which I ranged at two cables' length from a few scattering rocks which lay at the distance of about a cable's length from the shore. We had been running in with a good breeze, but it died away calm off the point, when we furled all sails, and put our drags into operation to get into the harbour; but in the mean time despatched lieutenant Downes to inform the governor that we were an American frigate greatly in need of supplies of every kind, that our wants were greatly augmented by the loss of our store-ship off Cape Horn; and that we threw ourselves on his hospitality. I was induced to use this little artifice from a knowledge of the unaccommodating disposition of the Spaniards, and their jealousies respecting foreign vessels that enter the ports of their American possessions. From the stand the United States had taken against the aggressions of Great Britain, as well as their conduct with respect to the Floridas, I had not reason to expect from them much amity; and only hoped to extort from them, under the plea of distress, permission to take in a few provisions, and to fill our water; and indeed it was not without many restrictions that I hoped to obtain even this indulgence. Before I had got to an anchor, however, the captain of the port, accompanied by another officer, and lieutenant Downes, came on board in the governor's barge, with an offer of every civility, assistance, and accommodation that Valparaiso could afford. To my astonishment I was informed that they had shaken off their allegiance to Spain; that the ports of Chile were open to all nations; that they looked up to the United States of America for example and protection; that our arrival would be considered the most joyful event, as their commerce had been much harassed by corsairs from Peru, sent out by the viceroy of that province, to capture and send in for adjudication all American vessels destined for Chile; and that five of them had disappeared from before the port only a few days before my arrival, after having captured several American whalers, and sent them for Lima. This unexpected state of affairs, as may naturally be supposed, (considering our existing wants) was calculated to afford me the utmost pleasure, as it promised us a speedy departure from Valparaiso.
The affair of the salute was arranged; and, after anchoring, I saluted the town with twenty-one guns, which were punctually returned. Immediately after this I waited on the governor, don Francisco Lastre, who gave me the most friendly, and at the same time unceremonious reception. On my passing the American armed brig "Colt", she fired a salute of nine guns, which was returned by the "Essex" with seven. I had not been long with the governor, before I discovered that I had, happily for my purpose, got among staunch republicans, men filled with revolutionary principles, and apparently desirous of establishing a form of government founded on liberty. But it could not be concealed that some of the leaven of the old Spanish regime was still among them; and that, however desirous they might appear of establishing liberty and equal rights, the chief aim of a few leading characters and designing men among them, was despotic power. The governor was himself one of those who owed his rise entirely to the revolution; his grade was that of a lieutenant in the navy; but he was created governor on shaking off his allegiance to Ferdinand. It could, however, be perceived, that his Excellency was rather lukewarm and cautious in his expressions, and was still desirous of preserving appearances, in the event of the province returning again to its former masters. The captain of the port, whose name I do not recollect, was a sterling honest patriot, and spoke his sentiments boldly; he evidently felt as those should feel who are determined to be free; appeared sensible they had yet much to do; and I am sure was resolved to do the utmost to emancipate his country.
A courier was immediately despatched by the American deputy vice-consul, to Santiago, the capital of Chile, to inform Mr. Poinsett, the American consul-general, of our arrival in the port of Valparaiso; and arrangements were made for getting our wood, water, and provisions on board. The latter article I found could be procured in the greatest abundance, of an excellent quality, and at a more moderate price than in any port of the United States. I also directed a daily supply of fresh beef and vegetables, fruit and fresh bread, for the crew, and, by the time I completed these arrangements, was informed that the governor intended returning my visit. I consequently went on board to receive him, and on his arrival, with a numerous suite of officers, saluted him with eleven guns. It appears that many of them had never before seen a frigate, all of them being native Chileans, and this being the first, since their recollection, that had entered the port. The "Standard", a British ship of the line, had touched there four months since for refreshments, on her way to Lima; but some misunderstanding having taken place between them and her officers, there was but little intercourse between them. The visit lasted about two hours, during which time they viewed every part of the ship; and although she appeared under great disadvantage, from having been so long at sea, and from the tempestuous passage around Cape Horn, still they were much pleased and astonished that Anglo-Americans, as they styled us, could build, equip, and manage ships of so large a size.
The governor, before he left the ship, invited myself and officers to a party for the next evening, and expressed great regrets that we had not arrived sooner, as they had had the evening before great rejoicings, in consequence of a victory gained by their troops over those of Peru. It seems that a small, unimportant fortress, belonging to the latter, had fallen into the hands of the Chileans.
Our purchases of provisions went on as well as I could desire, but our watering proceeded but slowly, as the only place from whence we could procure it, was a small well near the landing-place by the custom-house, which would only admit of four or five casks being filled before it gave out. We were then compelled to wait some time for the water to run in, before we could fill any more; but as it afforded a supply of from one thousand to fifteen hundred gallons per day, I concluded to fix the period of our departure on the 22d, allowing one week to get all our supplies.
When we first arrived, a few boats came off with fruit, and, as was the case at St. Catharine's, the most exorbitant prices were demanded for the most trifling article. However, as they continued to increase in numbers, I soon saw that the evil would be speedily removed; and permission being given them to establish their market on board, our supply was in a few hours as abundant, and at as low prices, as in the market on shore. Nothing could exceed the excellence and abundance of the apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, melons, onions, potatoes, and vegetables of every description. The potatoes are superior in size and quality to those of any other country, and are indigenous. Tons of the foregoing articles were sold to our people, which were laid by as a sea stock, as well as hogs and poultry in great numbers, and of the best qualities. The fowls are of the largest size, and of that kind called the China fowl, which were sold at the moderate price of two and a half dollars per dozen; indeed, I soon perceived that, unless I placed some restrictions, my ship would be much encumbered with the stock on board her. I therefore, before my departure, gave directions that all the hogs belonging to the crew should be killed, except one for each mess: and this arrangement left upwards of one hundred hogs on board, counting those belonging to the officers. No part of the world could have afforded us a more ample supply of every kind of provision required. The flour and bread were of a very superior quality, and could be procured in any quantities without difficulty. We could not, however, without considerable delay, procure salt provisions, except jerked beef: this was to be had in large quantities, and put up in a superior manner for exportation, in a network formed of strips of hide, containing one hundred weight. All the dry provisions were put up in hides; the flour was better secured in them, and more closely packed, than it could possibly be in barrels; and, although much heavier, we found them more manageable. The use they make of hides is astonishing; the most of the furniture for their mules and horses, and their houses, and, on some parts of the coast, even their boats, or (as they are called) balsas are made of this article. It is used for every purpose to which it is possible to apply it, either whole, cut in pieces, or in long strips. When used for balsas, two hides, each cut something in the form of a canoe, with the seam upwards, are blown up by means of a reed, and stopped together; a piece of board is then laid across to sit on, and on this frail machine they venture a considerable distance to sea. The lasso for the use of which the Chileans are so famous, is formed of a very long strip of hide, with a running noose; and their dexterity in using it, in catching animals at full speed, is surprising. Every pack-horseman and driver of a jackass is furnished with one of these; and so much do they delight in them, or in showing their dexterity, that when they wish to catch any one of their drove, either to load, or unload, or for any other purpose, they take their distance, deliberately coil up their lasso and never fail of throwing it over the neck of the animal wanted.
On the 17th, captain Munson, of the American brig in port, arrived from Santiago, bringing me a letter from the consul-general, inviting myself and officers, in the name of the government of Chile, to visit the capital, and informing us that horses and every officer convenience were provided for us on the road. Captain Munson was also desired by the consul to inform me, that the president and junta, with a large military escort, would meet us at a considerable distance from the city; and that, in a political view, they considered our arrival as the most happy event. Captain Munson stated, that the bells had been rung the whole day, and illuminations had taken place the evening after our arrival was announced; and that it was generally believed that I had brought from my country nothing less than proposals for a friendly alliance with Chile, and assurances of assistance in their struggle for independence. This idea I felt no disposition to do away with; and as I had not, since my arrival, given any hints of my object in this sea, I found it not too late to encourage a belief that suited my views and accorded with their wishes. I had prepared my officers and crew to secrecy before my arrival, and had now no objection that the good people of this place should put the most favourable construction on our arrival among them, provided it did not traverse my only object, the getting a supply of provisions, a circumstance which their solicitude to oblige gave me no cause whatever to apprehend.
When we were about to embark our provisions, it was signified to me by the deputy vice-consul, that the officer or the customs did not feel himself authorized to permit their embarkation free from duty, without orders from superior authority, unless we would enter into bonds to pay the duty, if it should be exacted by the junta; the governor also had felt a delicacy on the subject, and had written to Santiago for instructions. Knowing the favourable disposition of the superior government toward us, and learning that the officer of the customs was averse to the present form of government, and suspected of monarchical principles, I spurned the idea of entering into bonds, and refused to take any thing on board until I had full authority from the president and junta, which I was sure of getting without any material loss of time, as a courier was about being despatched with my letter, in reply to that of Mr. Poinsett, in which I took the opportunity of mentioning the circumstance. The governor, however, received orders the next day to permit us to take on board whatever we pleased, free from every embarrassment of custom-house or other regulations, and was directed to afford myself and officers every facility and civility in his power, calculated to forward our views, and render our stay among them agreeable. This order the governor brought himself on board to show me, and at my request furnished me a copy.
Agreeably to the governor's invitation, we attended his party, where we found a much larger and more brilliant assemblage of ladies than we could have expected in Valparaiso. We found much fancy and considerable taste displayed in their dress, and many of them, with the exception of teeth, very handsome, both in person and in face; their complexion remarkably fine, and their manners modest and attractive. This was our first impression on entering a room containing perhaps two hundred ladies, to whom we were perfect strangers. Minuets were introduced; country-dances followed; and the ladies had the complaisance and patience to attempt with my officers, what they had never before seen in the country, a cotillion. The intricacies of their country-dance were too great for us to attempt; they were greatly delighted in by those who knew them, and admitted a display of much grace. With their grace, their beauty of person and complexion, and with their modesty, we were delighted, and could almost fancy we had gotten amongst our own fair country-women; but in one moment the illusion vanished. The bailes de [la] tierra, as they are called, commenced: they consisted of the most graceless, and at the same time fatiguing movements of the body and limbs, accompanied by the most indelicate and lascivious motions, gradually increasing in energy and violence, until the fair one, apparently overcome with passion, and evidently exhausted with fatigue, was compelled to retire to her seat.
They disfigure themselves most lavishly with paint; but their features are agreeable; and their large dark eyes are remarkably brilliant and expressive. Were it not for their bad teeth, occasioned by the too liberal use of the mate, they would, notwithstanding the Chilean tinge, be thought handsome, particularly by those who had been so long as we out of the way of seeing any women.
The mate is a decoction of the herb of Paraguay, sweetened with sugar, and sucked hot through a long silver tube. To the use of this beverage the Chileans are perfect slaves. The taste is agreeable, but it occasions terrible havoc among the teeth. We returned on board our ship pleased with the novelties of a Chilean ball, and much gratified by the solicitude shown by every one to make our stay amongst them agreeable. Invitations had been given by them to visit at their houses; but time was too precious to us to be spent in amusements. All were busily engaged until the 20th in getting on board our supplies, and on the meridian of that day we had completed our water, and, with the exception of a few small articles, had as much provisions on board as the day we left the United States. Those we calculated on taking on board while our accounts were in a train for settlement; and as the next day was Sunday, and we all required some relaxation from our fatigues, I determined to devote it to pleasure, and invited the ladies and gentlemen of Valparaiso to spend the afternoon on board the ship, all, as well as ourselves, being previously engaged for the evening at a ball, at the house of Mr. Blanco, the vice-consul. The Spaniards, and particularly Catholics, do not, like the people of protestant countries, spend their Sabbath in penance and prayers, but in feasting and dancing; and although a good catholic would consider himself lost if he neglected confession, or tasted meat during Lent, yet he is above the vulgar protestant prejudice of devoting one whole day in each week to the worship of the Almighty, when he has it in his power to spend it so much more agreeably in amusement. The consul-general had arrived from Santiago, accompanied by don Lewis [Luis] Carrera, the brother of the president, by the consul, a Mr. Heywell, and another American gentleman. They all dined on board my ship on Saturday, and were saluted with eleven guns. On Sunday, about 3 o'clock, myself and officers were on shore with our boats to take the ladies on board the ship, she having been previously prepared for their entertainment; and we had all laid aside our national and religious prejudices, and devoted ourselves entirely to the pleasures of the day, when, at the moment we were on the point of embarking with them, an officer came from the ship to inform me that a large frigate had appeared in the offing, and on perceiving us had hauled in for the harbour. We all immediately left our fair Chileans, and without any ceremony jumped in our boats and repaired on board, where I found every thing prepared for getting under way. I soon perceived that the strange ship was a thirty-two gun frigate, gave orders to cut the cables, and in an instant the "Essex" was under a cloud of canvas; but as the breeze, which had until this moment blown, now failed, we got all our boats ahead, and towed out of the harbour, and in the course of an hour we were along side the stranger, who proved to be a Portuguese, that had been sent round by the government at Rio Janeiro, for the purpose of getting a supply of flour for Lisbon. As there was every expectation of an engagement, the consul-general, and several Americans and Spaniards, and don Lewis Carrera, came on board to share with us the dangers; the latter appeared to us a spirited youth, (about twenty-two years of age,) and as he had never been in any engagement of importance, was evidently anxious to partake of one. His constant request of me was to board the stranger, and his disappointment was great when he discovered the Portuguese flag. We could perceive the hills crowded with men, women, and children, all equally, and perhaps more anxious than don Lewis, to see the fight. Among them, as it afterwards proved, were our fair guests, who did not hesitate to declare their disappointment; and frankly acknowledged that a sight of a sea engagement would have had more charms for them than all the entertainment we could have afforded them on board the ship.
The wind continued light; and, the day being far advanced, I gave up all thoughts of returning to port that night, and stood off to sea, endeavouring to get to windward. Don Lewis, as well as his servants who accompanied him, soon became excessively sick; and however warlike he might have felt when he first came on board, he was now as helpless as an infant. We succeeded, by the help of our drags, in getting to our anchors early next mornings and were more fortunate in finding the buoys we had put to our cables than I had expected. We, immediately on securing our ship, took on board the remainder of our supplies. An invitation was brought for us to dine and spend the evening with the governor, who, we could perceive by the flags about the battery in front of his house, had made great preparations for the occasion; and we were informed that the entertainment was given us by the order and at the expense of the superior government of Chile. The company was seated in an extensive tent, handsomely and fancifully decorated with the flags of different nations, and the ground covered with rich carpets; the dinner was served up in silver plate, and, with the exception of the blades of the knives alone, no other metal or substance whatever was used for any part of the table equipage. The dinner consisted of at least twenty changes; and by the time the third course had been removed, we had cause to regret that we had not reserved our appetites for some of the delicacies which we perceived were likely to succeed the substantial food of the first course, which we had begun upon with keen appetites, and were soon cloyed. The officers of the Portuguese ship, and some English merchants, were also at table; but when the wine began to circulate, and the Chilean officers to feel the ardour of their patriotism, such flaming toasts were given, as to make them think it prudent to retire.
As the ball was to succeed the dinner in the tent, we walked round with the governor to look at the fortifications, which were in tolerable order; and on our return found the ladies assembled, dressed in all their splendour, and unusually disfigured with paint. The night was spent with much hilarity, and at one o'clock in the morning we repaired on board. Having now little to detain us, I intended sailing early; but these ladies seemed determined not to be cheated out of a visit to the ship, for the governor, his wife, with a boat-load of other ladies, came on board about nine o'clock, and remained until twelve. On their leaving us, I saluted them with eleven guns.
From my extreme occupation with my duty, and the rapidity of the events which took place during the week I remained at Valparaiso, it could scarcely be supposed that I could have an opportunity of making many observations on the place, the manners and customs of the people, or the political state of the country. Perhaps no week of my life was ever more actively employed, both in labour and in pleasure; and had not a strong desire of serving our country to the utmost overcome every other consideration, we should have left Valparaiso with much regret.
The town of Valparaiso is pleasantly situated at the bottom of the bay, and is a place of considerable commerce. The anchorage is in front, and from two to five cables length from the shore, where vessels lie secure, and are sheltered from all except the north winds, which blow directly into the harbour, and occasion a considerable sea. There have been instances of vessels being driven on shore by them, and all hands perishing. On the eastern, limits of the town, towards the village of Almendral, and near some rocks, is erected a cross, as a monument of the loss of a Spanish ship that was driven on shore here, and all her crew lost.
The bay is entirely free from danger, and the only advice necessary for running into the harbour, is to stand in for the middle of the town, choosing your anchorage in from twenty-five to seven fathoms water. The bottom is every where clean, and the holding ground good. As the port has been so accurately and minutely described by Vancouver and others, any further directions would be superfluous.
The customs of the inhabitants of this place differ so materially from our own, (and perhaps from those of every other people,) that I cannot help noticing a few particulars that struck me as the most singular.
At all their dinner entertainments, the principal guest is placed at the head of the table, the host on one side of him, and the hostess on the other; and their principal business appears to be to make him eat as much as possible. This duty they are apt to perform most effectually, if he happens, like me, to be a stranger, and not aware of the variety of changes that is to be brought on, each one more and more inviting in its appearance and taste.
There is another practice at their balls, or evening parties, which at first gave me some embarrassment. A very large silver dish, filled with sweet jelly, was presented me by a servant, as well as a silver plate and fork. Believing that the whole dish could not be intended for me, I attempted to take the plate; this the servant objected to, I then attempted to take the dish; but to this she objected. I felt certain, however, that it was intended for me to eat in some way or other, and was determined to do it in that way which appeared the most natural and convenient; I therefore took from her the plate and fork, and helped myself to as much as I thought I should want. The eyes of all the company, however, were on me, and I perceived that I had made some mistake, which I was soon convinced of; for the servant brought another plate with a fork, which was handed with the sweetmeats around to the company, and each one made use of the same fork to take a mouthful, holding his head carefully over the dish in order that nothing might fall from his mouth to the floor; the fork was then laid on the plate, and passed to the next. The mate is taken with as little regard to delicacy or cleanliness. When the cup containing it is brought in, one of the company blows into it, through the silver tube, until a high froth is produced; it is then considered property prepared. The same mate and tube is then passed around the room, and each one takes in turn a draught of it, with much apparent relish and delight. It is also a practice for one glass of water, one spoon, or one cigar, to be served to the whole company. A Chilean lady would consider it a high indecorum to be seen walking arm in arm with a gentleman; and their refinement is so great, that it is thought indelicate even to accept his hand in any way, except in dancing, when, to be sure, every thing like delicacy is laid aside. They are, however, extremely hospitable and attentive to strangers; and if they have their peculiar customs which seem strange to us, we no doubt have our own equally deserving their animadversion.
The whole power and force of the kingdom of Chile is now concentrated in one family, who have taken advantage of the state of anarchy into which it fell for want of rulers, and placed themselves at the head of government. This family is the Carreras. The eldest brother has created himself commander of the infantry; the second brother is president of the junta, and commander of the cavalry; the third, don Lewis, is commander of the artillery; and they are altogether capable of bringing into the field fifteen thousand men, but they have not arms for more than six thousand. They are in alliance with the Buenos Ayreans, and have furnished them with five hundred men, properly equipped, to assist them in carrying on their war against the Montevideans. The rest of their force, except a few men on the frontiers of Peru, remains unemployed; and indeed they all appear too much engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, and the gratification of their appetites, to be capable of making any great military exertions.
There is a strong and secret party opposed to the present administration, and favourable to the cause of Ferdinand VII: they are styled Saracens; the party in power are denominated Patriots; the former are dangerous, and are not a little dreaded, from the concealed manner in which they carry on their hostilities. Several of their emissaries have already been convicted of attempts to assassinate the officers of the present government; some have been sentenced to be hung, others to be banished to the island of Juan Fernandez. The patriots are known by a tri-coloured cockade, blue, yellow, and white; and the ladies of that party are distinguished by wearing their hair gracefully brushed over on the left side of the face. They seem to have entered into the spirit of the revolution, and perhaps not without cause, as most of the patriots are young, dashing, native Chileans, and the adverse party are invariably crusty, old, formal Castilians. The patriots have not yet openly declared themselves independent, nor has any declaration of war taken place between them and the Peruvians. Yet they have done what nearly amounts to the same thing; they have formed for themselves a constitution, one article of which punishes with death any person, residing in Chile, who shall keep up any secret intelligence with, or execute any order from, any power not resident within the state.
After the governor's party had broken up, Mr. Poinsett and don Lewis took their leave of me to proceed to Santiago. From thence they were to accompany the president to Conception, with a view of fortifying and making the place more secure against foreign invasion.
Before my departure, I wrote a letter to commodore Bainbridge, enclosed it to the minister at Rio Janeiro, and sent them to Mr. Poinsett to be forwarded.
I shall now take my leave of Valparaiso, and continue my cruise.