Four hundred and ninety-five years ago today, on November 1, 1520, a small fleet of Spanish ships commanded by Ferdinand Magellan entered the mouth of a small waterway near the southern tip of South America. Magellan and his navigators were hoping to find a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean which would enable European ships to circumnavigate the globe, and the stormy, wind-swept wastes of this forbidding passage seemed to offer a tantalizing possibility. The Victoria was the first of Magellan’s ships to traverse it after a peril-fraught passage through what was obviously a narrow, complicated and dangerous course. But the Spaniards had found what they were looking for. While originally named the Patagonia Strait, the waterway soon became known as the Strait of Magellan. The Spanish commander never lived to know that it was named for him. He was killed in the Philippines in 1521 and did not personally complete the round-the-world voyage, which was carried on by his underlings after his death.

Since the 16th century the Strait of Magellan has become one of the most important waterways in the world, and the large role it’s played in history has marked it as a geographical feature that bridges time as well as space. Until 1914 the Strait was one of only two practical passages between the Atlantic and Pacific. The other was the gap between the tip of South America (Cape Horn, which is actually on a small island) and the Antarctic Peninsula, which came to be known as the Drake Passage. But the problem with the Drake Passage, especially for pre-modern sailors, was that it was often choked with ice and even stormier and more dangerous than the Strait; it also took ships a bit more time to cross beneath Cape Horn. But the Strait is no picnic. Its myriad of channels require a very skilled sailor to navigate. The environmental aspects of the topography and the ocean make the storms that hit the eastern entrance to the Strait especially ferocious. Sailing vessels could get bogged down in the winds and storms just trying to enter the Strait, and many have been pounded to pieces over the centuries.

strait of magellan map

This detailed map of the Strait of Magellan was made in 1786 and shows the complexity of navigating the passage’s channels.

In 1914, of course, the Panama Canal, built mainly by American engineers, cut an artificial passage through the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America. Theoretically this took months off ships’ sea voyages and was much safer, because Panama of course is in tropical waters and the system of man-made locks ensures an easy traverse. The Panama Canal, however, is only so big. Even today very large ships simply can’t fit through it–large oil tankers, aircraft carriers or the passenger liner Queen Mary 2 are far too large, and thus if they want to go between the Atlantic and Pacific they have to go through the Strait. So the canal hardly replaced the Strait of Magellan in its importance. The Panama Canal is a passage of convenience. The Strait of Magellan and the Drake Passage are channels of necessity. Our world simply couldn’t have developed the way it has without them.

Though I’ve never been to the Strait of Magellan, I’ve been curiously drawn to it in my imagination for as long as I can remember. In addition to its geographical importance there’s a kind of exotic mystique about it. While traversing the area in 1520 Magellan noticed strange clouds of smoke hovering above the island to the south of the strait, which were campfires of the indigenous Yaghan Indians. He called the island the “land of smoke” or “land of fires” which eventually became its name, Tierra del Fuego. The windswept rocks and bays of this fascinating land exhibit an otherworldly quality. With the exception of Antarctica it’s as far away as you can get from anywhere and still be on planet Earth. Tierra del Fuego appears as a sort of aspirational world to which characters in my 2006 book Life Without Giamotti wish to escape, and the Strait of Magellan (and its main port city on the Chilean side, Punta Arenas) are mentioned in my short story The Antimeridian, itself a prequel to The Valley of Forever. It’s one place I definitely want to see before I die.

magellan passage by jakob hagg pd

For centuries the captains of sailing ships dreaded the Strait as much as they depended on it. This 19th century view of one Strait passage is by Swedish painted Jacob Hägg.

The Strait of Magellan also appears in other fiction and cultural representations. James Michener’s novel Hawaii uses the Strait as a kind of test of wills. Based on real events–the voyage of the first American missionaries to reach Hawaii in 1820–one of the novel’s key scenes involves the brig taking the missionaries to the Pacific and the captain’s frenzied attempts to shoot the Strait in rough weather. The ship almost meets it fate on the Evangels, four large rocks at one end of the Strait. An attempted, but not successful, passage through the Strait is also associated with the true (and fictionalized) stories of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, whose captain William Bligh tried to go through the Strait (or alternately around Cape Horn) in real life in 1788. He couldn’t make it, and instead turned around to head the other direction, around the Cape of Good Hope–a decision that may have indirectly led to the mutiny, depicted not entirely accurately in Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty, source of most of the movie depictions of the event.

The Strait of Magellan is a fascinating thing, a concept, a mystique and a trans-national and environmental history as much as it is a place on a map. You can go there, and many have, but to truly appreciate it you must know its history and appreciate its natural elements. It’s also a reminder how much the accidents of how our world’s landmasses are shaped can have a profound effect on our history and our culture.

All images in this article are in the public domain.