Adventures in Peru, Chapter 1

Fern Briton

The Wreck at Juan Fernandez, Part 2

The breaking up of the wreck occupied four months. We salved an enormous amount of copper and brass, as may be seen, when I mention that after Brown and his men had been paid their share of the profits, I received 856 dollars (gold), in addition to the chalet (valued at 1700), and all the timber.

In my spare time, i.e. when the weather hampered our operations, I fossicked about a lot. It struck me that there was a good opening for a smoked fish factory. Accordingly I busied myself in inquiring into the various methods of curing the finny monsters that frequented the waters round about the island. I soon discovered overwhelming proof that if you want to get the best results, there is nothing like oak. So I used to smoke my fish with oak chips, very slightly sprinkled with eucalyptus leaves. This gave them a distinctive and delicious flavour. I turned Kuhn’s carpenters’ shed into a smoke room; and, within a very short space of time, had every available person on the island employed in catching fish for me. I paid at the rate of 3s. per quintal, weighed without heads and backbones. My fishing-ground extended to the adjacent islands of Santa Clara and Mas-a-fuera (Spanish for “further off”), so I got plenty of material to work upon; but I made a rule never to accept a fish landed after 12 o’clock noon.

To give some idea of the vast quantities of fish in these waters, I may say that on one occasion I went out in my flat-bottomed punt with Waldimar Fisher, my old henchman, and caught 403 lb. of cod and corbina between the hours of 2 and 6.30 p.m. Waldimar looked after the boat, while I fished with a stout line and big hook. Frequently I got fast on to a monster that required our united efforts to haul in. Some had heads as big as a small calf’s. I disposed of my catch to an Italian named Cardoni, whose wife was a most beautiful woman. He—well, I hardly know what he did with it, but have my suspicions. My 12 o’clock rule was a very hard-and-fast one; still there are ways of evading every rule.

I soon made headway with my factory. One of my best customers was Weir, Scott & Co., who had a big store on the mainland. They gave me 30s. per quintal for the finished article. Don’t, however, run away with the idea that I made a profit of 27s. on the quintal. In the first place, it takes three quintals of wet fish to make one quintal of cured. Then there is the expense attached to washing, hanging, salting, drying, pressing and boxing to be taken into consideration Nevertheless, I made good money every month.

To occupy my spare time, I made arrangements with various wealthy people, such as the Cousinos, Minchin, Penny and Lutges (the owner of the magnificent hotel at Vina del Mar), to supply them with some of the ferns for which Juan Fernandez is famous. I was to receive £150 for each cargo of 100 tree ferns that I landed on the mainland. How to get them over there, was the trouble. Well, I soon got round that. I went half-shares in a seventeen-ton schooner that Fonck had bought at a forced sale. It had cost its late owner £2000 to build. Fonck got it for £400. It was constructed of oak, and suited my purpose admirably. Altogether I sent across seven consignments.

A few words descriptive of Juan Fernandez may not be out of place here. It is a little island, 365 miles west of Valparaiso, so replete in natural attractions as to be considered one of the most enchanting spots on God’s earth. It is even more a lazy man’s paradise than Peru, and that is saying a lot. Lofty hills, slumbering valleys, purling streams, and wonderfully varied vegetation, form a combination that exerts an irresistible influence on visitors. Its rocky, precipitous headlands, and irregular pinnacle-shaped formations, are particularly striking. The highest point above sea-level is called El Yunqui, i.e. the anvil. It is shaped exactly like that useful appanage of the smithy, and is apparently unclimbable.

Years ago, when the island was used as a convict settlement, the Chilian government offered 5000 dollars (gold) and a free pardon to any prisoner who scaled the eminence and planted the national flag on top. Two convicts tried their luck. One gave up the attempt when he reached the base of the anvil. The other persevered, and looked like accomplishing the feat; but just when success seemed within measurable distance, he lost his foothold and fell headlong into the forest below. He was never seen or heard of again.

Geologically considered, the formation is basalt, greenstone, and trap tuffs. There are altogether twenty-four species of ferns that are in general request, growing on this lovely island; four of them are of special interest. One of these—the Helecho fernandisciana—is only found on Juan Fernandez. I have this on the authority of Sir Thistleton Dyer, who wrote to Sir Audley Gosling on the subject. I forget the name of one of the species, but the other two are the rare Helecho brunato and Helecho dicksonia. Of ordinary kinds of ferns, such as maiden-hair, etc., Juan Fernandez boasts at least twenty. These grow luxuriantly in the valleys and creeks, and between the crevices of the rocks.

The paths leading up to the hills are bordered with beautiful flowers. Among these may be noted many wonderful ground orchids. Near the coast one frequently comes across enormous patches of arum lilies. The Panque also grows here. It has tremendous leaves like rhubarb, which have a peculiarity all their own, for they hold water. I have often poured half a bucket of water into a leaf over-night, and found it next day not the least diminished. This plant has blooms resembling a hyacinth, only three times as big, with an orange and scarlet centre.

The Disciana is like a small tree fern, but has leaves like a maiden-hair. This species is very rare. I was able to include one or two in my cargoes ordered from the mainland. Subsequently I sent a few to England for my father and King Edward, then Prince of Wales. At Sir Thistleton’s request, conveyed through Sir Audley Gosling, I obtained specimens of the Panque, the Helecho fernandisciana and the Chonta palm for Kew Gardens. Like the Panque, the latter is indigenous to Juan Fernandez. The order for King Edward’s ferns also came from Sir Audley Gosling, who said His Royal Highness would be very pleased if I could get them for him. I was, of course, only too delighted to comply with the command so graciously expressed, and made a special trip to fulfil it. My ordinary cargoes of ferns consisted of from 100 to 120 specimens, the tallest of which measured 22 ft. I had to consider the capacity of my hold, or I might have shipped some even larger. They grow 30 ft. and over in height. I like those best that range from 8 to 12 ft.


One thought on “Fern Briton

  1. Prodgers’ scientific names for his ferns leave something to be desired. Helecho is simply the Spanish for fern, and Disciana seems either to be a mishearing of Dicksonia or an abbreviation of fernandisciana, which in modern scientific names for Juan Fernández species is styled fernandeziana. Either way, it’s hard to be sure exactly which varieties of fern he means, but Dicksonia berteroana is one species endemic to Robinson Crusoe Island.

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