American Expedition passes through Falklands in 1811

The following extract is taken from an account of an American expedition to the Pacific Coast that landed on the islands in 1811. The title of the book is: Narrative Of A Voyage To The Northwest Coast Of America by Gabriel Franchere.

Before the Panama Canal, the only sea route to the West Coast of America entailed travelling all the way down to Cape Horn and then back up the other side of South America. It was a long and arduous journey. This particular account is interesting as it explains just how abandoned the islands were in 1811. The explorers looked for the remains of the French and British colonies but could find little trace of them or of any Spanish occupation:

On the 4th (Dec.) in the morning, I was not the last to mount on deck, to feast my eyes with the sight of land; for it is only those who have been three or four months at sea, who know how to appreciate the pleasure which one then feels even at sight of such barren and bristling rocks as form the Falkland Isles. We drew near these rocks very soon, and entered between two of the islands, where we anchored on a good ground. The first mate being sent ashore to look for water, several of our gentlemen accompanied him. They returned in the evening with the disappointing intelligence that they had not been able to find fresh water. They brought us, to compensate for this, a number of wild geese and two seals.

The weather appearing to threaten, we weighed anchor and put out to sea. The night was tempestuous, and in the morning of the 5th we had lost sight of the first islands. The wind blowing off land, it was necessary to beat up all that day; in the evening we found ourselves sufficiently near the shore, and hove to for the night. The 6th brought us a clear sky, and with a fresh breeze we succeeded in gaining a good anchorage, which we took to be Port Egmont, and where we found good water.

On the 7th, we sent ashore the water casks, as well as the cooper to superintend filling them, and the blacksmiths who were occupied in some repairs required by the ship. For our part, having erected a tent near the springs, we passed the time while they were taking in water, in coursing over the isles: we had a boat for our accommodation, and killed every day a great many wild geese and ducks. These birds differ in plumage from those which are seen in Canada. We also killed a great many seals. These animals ordinarily keep upon the rocks. We also saw several foxes of the species called Virginia fox: they were shy and yet fierce, barking like dogs and then flying precipitately. Penguins are also numerous on the Falkland Isles. These birds have a fine plumage, and resemble the loon: but they do not fly, having only little stumps of wings which they use to help themselves in waddling along. The rocks were covered with them. It being their sitting season we found them on their nests, from which they would not stir. They are not wild or timid: far from flying at our approach, they attacked us with their bill, which is very sharp, and with their short wings. The flesh of the penguin is black and leathery, with a strong fishy taste, and one must be very hungry to make up one's mind to eat it. We got a great quantity of eggs by dislodging them from their nests.

As the French and English had both attempted to form establishments on these rocks, we endeavored to find some vestige of them; the tracks which we met everywhere made us hope to find goats also: but all our researches were vain: all that we discovered was an old fishing cabin, constructed of whale bone, and some seal-skin moccasins; for these rocks offer not a single tree to the view, and are frequented solely by the vessels which pursue the whale fishery in the southern seas. We found, however, two head-boards with inscriptions in English, marking the spot where two men had been interred: as the letters were nearly obliterated, we carved new ones on fresh pieces of board procured from the ship. This pious attention to two dead men nearly proved fatal to a greater number of the living; for all the casks having been filled and sent on board, the captain gave orders to re-embark, and without troubling himself to inquire if this order had been executed or not, caused the anchor to be weighed on the morning of the 11th, while I and some of my companions were engaged in erecting the inscriptions of which I have spoken, others were cutting grass for the hogs, and Messrs M'Dougall and D. Stuart had gone to the south side of the isle to look for game. The roaring of the sea against the rock-bound shore prevented them from hearing the gun, and they did not rejoin us till the vessel was already at sea. We then lost no time, but pushed off, being eight in number, with our little boat, only twenty feet keel. We rowed with all our might, but gained nothing upon the vessel. We were losing sight of the islands at last, and our case seemed desperate. While we paused, and were debating what course to pursue, as we had no compass, we observed the ship tacking and standing toward us. In fine after rowing for three hours and a half, in an excited state of feeling not easily described, we succeeded in regaining the vessel, and were taken on board at about three o'clock P.M.

Having related this trait of malice on the part of our captain, I shall be permitted to make some remarks on his character. Jonathan Thorn was brought up in the naval service of his country, and had distinguished himself in a battle fought between the Americans and the Turks at Tripoli, some years before: he held the rank of first lieutenant. He was a strict disciplinarian, of a quick and passionate temper, accustomed to exact obedience, considering nothing but duty, and giving himself no trouble about the murmurs of his crew, taking counsel of nobody, and following Mr. Astor's instructions to the letter. Such was the man who had been selected to command our ship. His haughty manners, his rough and overbearing disposition, had lost him the affection of most of the crew and of all the passengers: he knew it, and in consequence sought every opportunity to mortify us. It is true that the passengers had some reason to reproach themselves; they were not free from blame; but he had been the aggressor; and nothing could excuse the act of cruelty and barbarity of which he was guilty, in intending to leave us upon those barren rocks of the Falkland isles, where we must inevitably have perished. This lot was reserved for us, but for the bold interference of Mr. B. Stuart, whose uncle was of our party, and who, seeing that the captain, far from waiting for us, coolly continued his course, threatened to blow his brains out unless he hove to and took us on board.

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by Stephen Luscombe