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The History of Cape Horn

An old maritime saying claims that: “Below 40 degrees latitude, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God”. Cape Horn, which lies at 55°56’ south latitude and 67°19’ west longitude, certainly fits the sentiments of this adage. Given the wildness of the waters and the winds that plague the oceans surrounding this landmass, it is little wonder that it wasn’t discovered until the beginning of the 17th century.

Discovering Cape Horn

Explorers had been navigating the southern seas around the South American continent for over a century before Cape Horn was officially discovered. Further north, the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego had been discovered by Portuguese Captain Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.

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Later in the century, the English privateer Francis Drake and his crew were blown off course in 1578 and discovered the Drake Passage, refuting the belief that Tierra del Fuego was part of the great, impassable continent of Terra Australis Incognita that was believed to stretch to the South Pole. However until the early 1600s, no ships had yet sailed the entire Drake Passage or encountered Hornos Island and the Hermite Islands where Cape Horn is located.

During this period, the Dutch East India Company held the monopoly on all Dutch trade through the only known routes to the Indies: the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope. A previous shareholder in the company, the wealthy Belgian-born Amsterdam merchant, Isaac Le Maire and veteran Dutch sailor, Willem Cornelis Schouten financed a voyage to discover Tierra Incognita as well as to find another route to the Pacific Ocean and thus end the Dutch East India Company’s trade monopoly.

The 360-ton Eendracht (Unity), commanded by Schouten and crewed by Le Maire’s son, Jacob, and the 110-ton Höorn mastered by Johan, Schouten’s brother, both sailed from Texel in the Netherlands on June 15, 1615. On January 24, 1616 the crews crossed and named the Strait of Le Maire before rounding the horn on January 29 and calling it “Kaap Höorn” after Schouten’s town of birth.

Although this voyage successfully opened a new route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it was mired by controversy and Schouten and Le Maire’s expedition has only recently been credited with being the first recorded voyage through the Drake Passage.

At the time, the two crews were captured by another Dutch expedition and indicted for breaking the law. Their claim that they had discovered a new route was dismissed and they were instead charged with breaching the exclusive rights of the Dutch East India Company over passage through the Strait of Magellan. Found guilty, they were sent back to the Netherlands on board the Zeeland, although Jacob Le Maire died during the voyage.

Luckily, history has since been kinder to the legacy of these brave men. Schouten, Le Maire and their crew are now regarded as the pioneers of rounding legendary Cape Horn.

The Cape Horn Inter-Ocean Route

After the passageway around Cape Horn was discovered, the subsequent two centuries saw ships of all nationalities opting for this route over the previously favored Strait of Magellan. During this period, much of the world’s trade passed through here with ships carrying grain, gold and wool from Australia to Europe, others transporting trade from the Far East to Europe and passenger liners travelling between the coasts of the United States.

Traffic around the horn also increased significantly during the Californian Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855 and led to the US building strong trade vessels such as square-rigged ships that could withstand the harsh conditions of the voyage.  

Darwin and Cape Horn

For sailors, Cape Horn was a terrifying ordeal caused by the unpredictable weather conditions that characterize this region. During the historic voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1832, Captain Fitz Roy, Charles Darwin and their crew found themselves in serious danger of shipwreck as they rounded Cape Horn. Having narrowly avoided certain death thanks to the excellent captaincy of Fitz Roy, Darwin described the harrowing experience:

“… about three o’clock [we] doubled the weather-beaten Cape Horn. The evening was calm and bright, and we enjoyed a fine view of the surrounding isles. Cape Horn, however, demanded his tribute, and before night sent us a gale of wind directly in our teeth. We stood out to sea, and on the second day again made the land, when we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form — veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence, that the Captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This is a snug little harbor, not far from Cape Horn; and here, at Christmas-eve, we anchored in smooth water.”

The Decline of Trade Through the Route and the Increase in Tourism

In 1914, the completion of the Panama Canal connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meaning that ships no longer needed to embark upon the hazardous journey around Cape Horn.

Nowadays, recreational sailors and cruise ships are the few remaining explorers of these rough seas. Major yachting events such as the Vendée Globe, a round-the-world single-handed yacht race, continue to pass around Cape Horn as it is considered one of the ultimate sailing feats that can be achieved.
There is even the International Association of Cape Horners, a group founded to recognize those who have rounded Cape Horn as part of a non-stop passage of over 3,000 nautical miles. The association compares sailing around Cape Horn to climbing Mount Everest and claim that fewer people have achieved the former than have climbed the latter since the initial summit of Mount Everest in 1953.


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