History of the Juan Fernández Islands

Robinson Crusoe is a subtropical and template island. It appears as an imposing and unexpected structure that raises from the surface of the ocean as you sail towards it. For a sailor like Juan Fernández coming from the loneliness of an unending sea, his first encounter with this island might have been like he was in an incredible fantasy, like a miracle from God. In reality, many fateful adventurers and explorers of the South Pacific Ocean experience the same feelings upon their arrival.

The first documented human to find Robinson Crusoe Island was the sailor Juan Fernández (who was born in Ayamonte, Province of Huelva in Andalucía, Spain), on November 22, 1574. He dedicated the discovery to Spain and named the three major islands Más a Tierra (today known as Robinson Crusoe- 47 km2), Más Afuera (today known as Alejandro Selkirk- 22 km2), and Santa Clara (still known as Santa Clara- 3 km2).

Advancing to the Spanish Crown’s wishes, Fernández settled the islands bringing 60 Indians, goats and chickens. He began the killing of fur seals in order to extract their natural oil and sell it at very high prices in Perú. When the ship that Juan Fernández used to carry his products sank, Fernández lost all of his capital and because of this he learned that The Crown had denied his petition of supremacy (dominion) on his arrival in Chile. Flourished and old, he retired and moved to Quillota in Central Chile. The islands were neglected by the Spanish Crown and they were used by used by pirates and bucaneers as a major stronghold in their attacks to Chile and Perú.

In the mean time there were only sporadic visits of shipcrews, so the goats Juan Fernández had taken to the island in his colonization proyect had multiplied. Diego de Rosales, a Jesuit who came a century later was astonished to see them when he stopped at Robinson Crusoe. He stayed at the island for a few days to plant trees and vegetables, in order to feed the crews of visiting ships.

A long history of sailors, explorers, and pirates often stopped at island Más a Tierra throughout the XVII century, but undoubtly the most famous was the visit of the "Cinque Ports". In August of 1704, Alexander Selkirk, a 24 years old man with a conflictive personality decided to abandon his ship, the "Cinque Ports" Galley after a dispute with his captain and stay at Más a Tierra Island (Robinson Crusoe). He lived on this island for 4 years and 4 months alone, after being rescued by a British Ship "Duke", under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers. Years later, the author Daniel Defoe heard about Alexander Selkirk and the story of his exile in a far away island. This is where the character Robinson Crusoe and his famous adventures were born.


During the XVIII century after numerous attempts by England and France to take over the island, Spain decided to use its strength and used the island as a prison for dangerous criminals. Spain put the criminals in seven big caves where they were maintained behind bars made out of “luma” wood. In the XIX century, during the “Reconquista” (Re-conquest of Chile by the Spanish) period (1814-1818), Mariano Osorio the spanish general who defeated the chilean patriots sent to the island a group of ninety six Chilean patriots, some of whom were Don Manuel de Salas, Don Juan Enrique Rosales, and Don Pedro Nolasco. The first goal that the young Chilean Navy acomplished was the takeover of these Islands in 1818. From then on they belong to Chile. In 1823 Lord Cochrane, the first Admiral of the Chilean Navy, although he was English, and María Graham, an English writer, visited Más a Tierra.

Only in 1877 the colonization of Robinson Crusoe Island started by the Chilean government, although the driver was a Swiss, Baron Alfredo de Rodt. Many of the people who still live on the island are direct descendants of him. But other Europeans, also setteled on the Island. Names such Charpentier, Schiller and Greene are very common among the 500 habitants.

In 1915 Cumberland Bay was the scene of a naval battle between the German Battleship “Dresden” and two English ships, the "Glasgow" and "Kent". Realizing that the Germans had lost the battle, the Dresden´s captain decided to open the floodgates and let the ship sink. Today the sunken ship is under water sixty meters deep in a place north of Cumberlandbay. This sunken ship has now been striped by divers, who little by little have taken the remains of the ship. It is now prohibited to dive around it, after a diver in 1992 got trapped in it and drowned. Almost the entire crew was rescued, and four days later they were picked up by the Chilean Navy and sent to Talcahuano, the Chilean Navys major base, where they had to stay until the end of World War I. Among the crew, there was a young lieutanant, Wilhelm Canaris, who would become the Chief of the German Abwehr (Secret Service) during World War II. He was sentenced to death by Hitler, because of his responsabilities in the failed bombattack, which almost costs Hitler´s life. Three sailors of the Dresden who died in this battle were found and buried in the town’s little cemetery. In the picture you can see the small monument, which was donated by the German Community of Valparaiso, Chile, to remember the three dead sailors.


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