Sunday, 19 April 2015

Chase the Dog Star over the Sea.

Our final day in Chile and we head out of Santiago for a day trip to Valparaiso. There are few places on earth that conjure so many romantic and evocative stories as the city. For centuries it was the first safe port for any sailor successfully negotiating the icy westerly winds and jagged terrain round the treacherous Cape Horn and so must have been seen as some kind of utopia at the edge of the world. To arrive was to have survived the most dangerous of voyages. To leave meant you were prepared to risk it all again. It's an in-between place, where time stands still.

The first Englishman Francis Drake was the first Englishman to navigate into these waters was Francis Drake, on his round the world voyage. His chronicler Richard Hakluyt describes Drake's approach in his book Voyages and Discoveries.

'We ran, supposing the coast of Chile to lie as the general maps have described it, namely northwest, which we found to lie and trend to the northeast and eastwards, whereby it appeareth that this part of Chile hath not been truly hitherto discovered, or at least not truly reported.'

Nobody was expecting an English ship to sail into Valparaiso and so Drake was able to lay up next to a Spanish Galleon heaving with gold from Peru, board her and with a cry of 'abajo perro.' (Go down dog!) beat up and captured the sailors.

He then went ashore and rifled a chapel and wine warehouse before charting a course north for more plundering in unknown waters as he looked for a safe passage home.

We came in a different way, by minibus, and parked up in the Plaza Sotomayor facing the sea.

None of us have had a lot of time to pick up gifts and souvenirs and so we spent an hour bustling round the harbourside market and watching the ships from fishing boats to navel frigates manoeuvre in the bay, before heading off to a local seafood restaurant where our drivers knew they'd get a free lunch in return for bringing in such a shoal of tourists.

The meal was a joyous affair. Nobody really knew what they were ordering, but so much food was brought out and passed around that it barely mattered. News spread quickly of our presence and a within minutes of our arrival a smiley faced salty seadog appeared to serenade us with stories and songs from long ago.

We could have stayed all afternoon, but the town was calling and so after one final chorus of a song about a sailor who left his heart on shore and will one day return, we set out to explore.

Most of the old town is built on the hills over looking the harbour, where the brightly painted houses are packed tightly together. No cars can climb up to these places, but a string of funicular railways pluck visitors from port side into the labyrinth of winding streets where you can lose yourself for hours.

And that is what we did, meandering slowly admiring the colourful murals and small craft shops, every now and then turning a corner and catching a glimpse of the ocean.

Eventually we found ourselves back down by the sea standing next to the statue of another of Chile's unlikely heroes from the War of Independence, the Scottish Sea Lord Thomas Cochrane.

Cochrane is a fabulous figure, a contemporary of Lord Nelson he left England in disgrace having made significant money on the stock exchange during a boom period prompted by rumours of the Emperor Napoleon's death. The Lord was accused of being responsible for the hoax and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a short humiliating hour in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange. The final straw came when his banner was taken down a physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps at Westminster Abbey in a rarely performed official degradation ceremony. It was time for new adventure.

Cochrane, like many radicals of the time, had been sympathetic to the struggles for independence going on in the new world and so when he was approached by a representative of O'Higgins' recently established post-colonial government and offered command of the Chilean navy, he not only jumped at the chance, but proposed an even more exciting plan, which would not only strengthen the military position of the newly formed states, but revenge the great wrong he perceived his country had done him.

Defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon had, by this time, been left in penury and exile on the Island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, an act of meanness that had left Cochrane full of contempt at 'the disgraceful conduct of those minions who would leave this colossus of the modern world to rot in captivity.'

So Cochrane decided, as he was now bound for the South, to commission a ship, rescue the Emperor, sail with him, chasing the dog star, through the straits of Magellan to Valparaiso and have him crowned as the supreme ruler of South America. In this way, he reasoned, South America could provide a republic to rival the United States in the north. Sadly for Cochrane, his own ship took longer to build than the Deptford boat builders initially suggested and so, impatient to leave, he and his family hitched a lift on a Chilean sailing ship that he redirected to return to Valparaiso via St Helena.  En route, however, news arrived that the Spanish had galvanised themselves and were set to attack Santiago. The ship redirected course, again, and headed, with full speed back to Chile to lend support. Napoleon never got to hear of the plan and died broken, alone  and seemingly forgotten three years later.

Oh what might have been?

Time was all too short and Antonia was keen to get us to the beach at Vina del Mar in time for sunset. I was suddenly struck that our own wonderful adventure to the far end of the world was coming to an end and as the light fell and the students got their feet wet in the Pacific. I made a promise to the twinkling lights of Valpariso that I'd come back soon.