Port Desire and the Discovery of the Falklands

By Peter J. Pepper 
(Falkland Islands Newsletter, No. 78, March 2001)

The author describes the role of Port Desire and charts the voyages, beset by storms, which led to the discovery of the Falklands.  Centuries later, Argentine divers are salvaging fascinating artefacts from the wreck of a British ship involved.

The year is 1586, and Thomas Cavendish sails from Plymouth to follow Sir Francis Drake and Magellan - around the world.  His ships are the Hugh Gallant, of just 40 tons, the Content of 60 tons, and his flagship the Desire of 120 tons.

Sailing via the Coast of Barbarie (Morocco), Cape Verde, Sierra Leone and Brazil, Cavendish was off Patagonia on December 17th.  That day, the Desire led the other two ships into a remarkable harbour - nearly 20 miles long.  It had been used by Magellan and was to be used by many of the great navigators of the world.  Cavendish named it Port Desire after his ship.  It bears that name to this day.  In Spanish, it is Puerto Deseado, and the people there are proud of the man who named their town.  The point at the harbour mouth is Punta Cavendish and even the local car parts shop is "Automotores Cavendish".

But there was nobody there in 1586 - except a few Indians who wounded a couple of his men with arrows.  Ten days later, Cavendish sailed on, and got back to England in 1588 - just a month after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

In 1591, Cavendish sailed again.  This time he had five ships: the Leicester Galleon in which he sailed as admiral, the Roebuck, a veteran, like Cavendish himself, of the Roanoke Island enterprise, England's first colony in the New World, the Black Pinnace, and the Dainty that abandoned the expedition early on.  The fifth ship was again the Desire - captained this time by John Davis, hero of three expeditions to the North-West Passage, where the Davis Strait is named after him.  Luckily, Davis had John Janes on board, the chronicler of the first and third of these expeditions.

Heading for China and the Philippines, they again sailed via Port Desire, but this time there was to be no voyage on round the world.  By May of 1592, the fleet was in the Straits of Magellan, desperately short of supplies, the men suffering severely from cold, and the rigging of their ships nearly worn out.  So Cavendish decided to turn back to winter in Brazil.  As they headed back north, the ships lost contact with each other off Port Desire on the night of May 20th.  What actually happened that night is the subject of controversy.  Davis, with his experience of the North-West Passage, had not been worried by the cold, and had wanted to go on, getting supplies on the coast of Chile, and Cavendish considered that he had deliberately left the expedition in order to do this.

Anyway, whatever the real motive, Davis then entered Port Desire, together with the Black Pinnace, that had also become separated from the rest of the fleet - hoping that Cavendish would do the same and find them.  It didn't happen.  Cavendish sailed on northwards, while Davis stayed in Port Desire until August.  Then, expecting Cavendish to return to the Straits of Magellan when winter was over, Davis left Port Desire to be there first so that Cavendish couldn't fail but find them again.  So on August 6th, the Desire and Black Pinnace sailed to Penguin Island.  This is just outside Port Desire and clearly visible from it (and should not be confused, as some authors have, with Penguin Island in the Straits of Magellan).  There they filled twenty barrels with penguins for food and then sailed on south the next day to return to the Straits.

Davis was going against the current in a battered ship, so by August 9th, he would probably have been off what is now San Julian or Santa Cruz, just a little north of the latitude of the Falklands.  That day, they were hit by a storm.  With their rigging in such poor shape, they had to run before the wind with sails furled.  On the 14th, they ran in among islands that John Janes described as "never before described by any known relation".  These can only have been the Falklands.  This is backed up by the position Janes gives for them: "lying fifty leagues or better from the shore east and northerly from the Straits".  At three nautical miles per league, this is exactly where the Falklands are.  Davis had made the first documented and provable sighting.

Janes records that the wind first ceased and then shifted to the east and that they then headed for the Straits, sighting the cape (undoubtedly Cape Virgenes at the mouth of the Straits) on the 18th.  Cavendish never did appear.  So in October, Davis went on into the Pacific - but had to give up.  Beset by scurvy and with another cargo of penguins rotting horribly, Davis reached Ireland with only 16 of his men still alive.

Other travellers were soon on their way to Port Desire.  John Narborough was there in 1670.  He actually claimed the territory there for Britain.  John Strong in the Welfare was heading for Port Desire too.  But, driven off course by contrary winds, he reached the Falklands instead, landing at Bold Cove in January of 1690.  His landing is well documented and accepted as the first.  One of the owners of the Welfare was Viscount Falkland and Strong named Falkland Sound after him.  Soon this was extended to all the Islands.  Strong sailed on to the Straits of Magellan, and named the harbour opposite San Jeronimo's head, Port Falkland, a name that never lasted.  He then sailed on to Guayaquil to attempt the salvage of a sunken Spanish treasure ship there.

After visiting Port Desire, Captain John Byron went ashore in the Falklands in January 1765 to take possession of the Falklands for George III.  He named the site Port Egmont, and it was here the Spanish attacked four years later in 1770 - and where the Swift - or rather its loss - was a key factor.

The Swift was a corvette, one of four British ships in Port Egmont when two Spanish ships arrived to expel the British on January 17th that year.  The others were the store ship, Forida, the frigate Tamar and another corvette, the Favourite.  The odds were too much for the Spanish.  They stayed a week, took on water, protested at the British presence and left.  Soon afterwards, the Tamar and the Florida returned to Britain.  Then the Swift sailed, probably to reconnoitre the surrounding seas.  It went to Port Desire - and it's still there.

Entering the harbour, the Swift struck a concealed rock.  It got off, but was out of control and then hit a rock shelf - just beyond the modern fishing dock.  There its bows were held fast as the tide went out.  Its stern flooded and the ship slid under the water.  Its crew sent an open boat all the way to Port Egmont and the Favourite came and rescued them.  They left the wreck of Swift - to be rediscovered two hundred years later.

The story doesn't end there.  Without the Swift, there was only one guard ship and a shore battery at Port Egmont.  When the Spanish returned that June with five ships, there could be no resistance.  Port Egmont capitulated on June 10th. 

Spain was forced to return Port Egmont to Britain in 1771 - under threat of war.  Britain maintained its claim to the Falklands, but withdrew the garrison in 1774, needing its forces elsewhere as the American War of Independence approached.  It was just as well.  Bunker Hill, the first battle of that war, was fought a year later and all Britain's power was needed there over the next few years - and was not enough.

Those days still echo down the centuries.  June the 10th, when Britain capitulated at Port Egmont, was foolishly chosen by the newly independent Argentina in 1829 for their declaration of Louis Vernet as Commander of the Falklands - when he was actually already trying to get the British to take the Islands over.  His appointment led to an immediate British protest.

The rest is well known.  Vernet antagonised the Americans who sacked his settlement, Port Louis, in 1832.  This led Britain to reoccupy the Islands a year later.  Then Peron chose June the 10th to be "Malvinas Day", when he was rejuvenating the Argentine claim - as he told Bill Hunter-Christine "to take the people's minds off internal problems".

Despite all the Malvinas hype in Argentina, the wreck of the Swift was forgotten there until Patrick Gower, an Australian army officer, arrived in 1975 to research his ancestor, Erasmus Gower, who had been second-in-command of the Swift.  But little was done until 1982 when the wreck was located.  A museum was planned in 1983.  This was built in 1991 and named the Museum Brozoski after a man who lost his life in the early diving work.  Its got little money and is still nearly empty.  There are only some jars and bottles there now.  But this February, the Swift's guns were found and will soon be raised.  The Maritime Museum at Greenwich is involved, and the ship may yield fascinating artefacts.

Interestingly, John Davis' stay in Port Desire doesn't appear in the long list of navigators the authorities in Puerto Deseado are so proud of.  Perhaps it's just ignorance.  But Puerto Deseado was one of the ports used in 1982 to support the Argentine invasion forces, and the people are very bitter still.  So maybe they don't want to know about John Davis' other landfalls.  Others are mentioned: the Beagle was there - and Chaffers island at the harbour mouth is named after one of its officers.  Various places are named after Darwin too.

The facts of history are unavoidable.  These will come out as the salvage proceeds.  The name Port Desire comes from Cavendish's ship that Davis used in 1592 to discover the Falklands.  The Falklands motto: "Desire the Right" celebrates that event.  So modern Puerto Deseado and the Falklands, although divided by politics, are linked by history.

This article first appeared in the Falkland Islands Newsletter, Edition 78, March 2001.  The Falkland Islands Association is an independent organisation which brings together those who support the continuing freedom of the people of the Falkland Islands.  Its Constitution states that its objectives are to assist the people of the Falkland Islands to decide their own future for themselves without being subjected to pressure direct or indirect from any quarter.

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