the small chapel at the end of the world -- 4/17/19

Today's selection -- from Horizon by Barry Lopez. The eloquence of the small chapel in Port Famine (Puerto del Hambre), on the Strait of Magellan, Chile:

"In March 1584, the Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa founded a settlement on Chile's Brunswick Peninsula, about halfway between Cape Froward and what would later become the town of Punta Arenas. He called it Ciudad del Rey Don Felipe. His purpose was to establish a military presence in the Strait of Magellan, to prevent the British from entering the Pacific, as Drake had in 1578, an ocean the Spanish regarded as their own.

"Gamboa landed about three hundred soldiers and settlers and departed as winter was coming on. The settlement faltered. When the English navigator Thomas Cavendish visited the site three years later, he found everyone had perished from starvation and exposure. He renamed the place Port Famine. Today local people call it Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine, Port of the Starving, Port Hunger). ...

"In 1831 [British Lieutenant Robert] FitzRoy was given command of the Beagle ... to continue the British survey of the coasts of South America. On December 27 he sailed from Plymouth with a young naturalist, Charles Darwin, aboard.

"After surveying the southeastern coastal waters of South America, the Beagle anchored again at Port Famine in midwinter, on June 1, 1834. Darwin wrote of the place that he 'never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly, through a drizzling hazy atmosphere.' After a visit ashore, during which he attempted to force his way through dense thickets of heavy brush, he described the surrounding area as a 'death-like scene of desolation exceed[ing] all description.'

Capilla Fuerte Bulnes

"I'd always thought of Port Famine as a profoundly desolate place, a negative monument to human efforts to seize and possess on a monu­mental scale. ... What had come to interest me most about the site was a small chapel there, built, I believe, in the 1950s. Individuals disabled by despair regularly make pilgrimages to this chapel. Its walls, I'd heard, were thickly crowded with milagros, the corsage-like assemblages of fresh flowers, religious medals, holy cards, ribbons, and handwritten notes imploring the saints, especially the Blessed Mother, to intercede for them in heaven. (Milagro is the Spanish word for miracle.)

"Small folk chapels like this one, their walls and sometimes even their ceilings crowded with milagros, can be found all over South America, their interiors lie by hundreds of votive candles. For me these chapels transcend religion. They speak to a fundamental human need, the need to be reassured. Whatever we may say to each other about living well, about enjoying the fruits of our labors and the closeness of our families and friends, these chapels insist that the experience of human suffer­ing known to us all, the universal suffering that takes more lives than anyone would have the stamina to hear about, not be ignored.

"The chapels are as eloquent about deep-seated human fears as they are about deep-seated faith. I find it impossible to visit such places and not feel compassion.

"To regard the milagros there as evidence of superstition, or to describe these out-of-the-way chapels as backward, seems to me to dismiss what it means to be human, which is to live in fear in a world in which one's destiny is never entirely of one's own choosing."



Barry Lopez




Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2019 by Barry Lopez


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