La Isla de los Muertos

A mysterious cemetery and what it tells us about the early days of Aysén.

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Outside the rain-drenched fishing hamlet of Caleta Tortel, across the bay where the Baker meets the Pacific Ocean, lies an oblong island of Patagonian jungle. There, at the edge of the mosses, ferns, and cypress, dozens of wooden crosses emerge from the forest— silent emissaries from the past, simple and stark, arms outstretched. These crosses, whose origins were for decades shrouded in mystery, gave the island its name: La Isla de Los Muertos.

Ask around in Aysén and you can still hear the stories — stories of murder, of mass poisoning, of cover-ups and conspiracies. Rumor and myth have always found fertile ground in remote regions like this one, and a powerful oral tradition — tales told over maté or during long cattle drives — has kept alive many versions of the past. But the true story of the crosses is as tragic as any fiction, and offers a glimpse into the birth of modern Aysén.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Chilean officials in Santiago knew little about the inland territory between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, save for limited information collected by Chilean and Argentine boundary commissions over the preceding decade. Chilean maps labelled huge swaths of Aysén as, simply, inexplorado.

Yet it was viewed as a matter of national urgency that the area be peopled, that Chileans hacer patria — that is, establish “facts on the ground” and exercise Chilean claims to the land. For 19th century statesmen, filling land with people in and of itself constituted progress. Gobernar es poblar, the Argentine political theorist Juan Batista Alberdi declared. Governing is peopling. That maxim became gospel for Argentine and Chilean leaders alike.

Chileans also feared losing Aysén to Argentina. This was not an idle concern: South American national boundaries were contentious at the turn of the 20th century. And Chileans in particular knew something about the pliability of borders, having just seized huge tracts of land (today’s Arica, Tarapacá and Antofagasta) from Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, which ended in the mid-1890s. Chile’s success in that conflict hinged, in part, on the widespread presence of Chilean businesses and laborers in territory claimed by its neighbors. If Argentina were allowed similar influence in Aysén, the outcome could be disastrous.

And so a hasty and slipshod effort to establish a Chilean presence in Aysén began. In the United States, the government lured settlers westward by offering small plots of land to families and individuals. Chile relied on a different tactic: corporate “societies,” not families, would drive the process of building a Chilean Aysén.

In Santiago around 1900, the offices of the Ministerio de Colonización hummed with activity as government officials and well-connected bidders sliced the Aysén territory into ten enormous parcels, each of which was then rented (or “concessioned”) to a company. The Compañia Explotadora Baker, backed by dozens of investors from the upper-crust of Santiago and Valparaíso, acquired the rights to a sweeping area between the southern shore of Lago General Carrera (then known solely as Lago Buenos Aires) and the outlet of the Baker into the ocean. In exchange for a twenty year lease to the land, the CEB agreed to several conditions: they would build roads and infrastructure, install permanent settlers, and export their products through Chilean ports, rather than over the pampas to Argentina.

The CEBs business plan was, on paper, fairly straightforward — and must have seemed quite reasonable to bureaucrats and investors in Santiago who had never fought through a thicket of ñirre, rowed the gelid waters of the Baker, or herded animals over a high pass in a Patagonian deluge. The company intended to graze thousands of cattle and sheep in the Chacabuco Valley and the upper Baker (in the general vicinity of today’s Cochrane) while also harvesting cypress from the rain-soaked southern part of the concession, near modern day Caleta Tortel. All the products would be shipped to market by steamship from a small port — a hovel, really — at the Baker’s outlet. 

The plan called, of course, for an enormous amount of manpower to lay in rudimentary roads, build simple housing and corrals, and harvest timber. So in the spring of 1904 the CEB contracted a steamship and sent it to Puerto Montt and Chiloé, hiring hundreds of seasonal workers in a process known as an enganche (literally, “harnessing” or “hitching up” laborers). Meanwhile, Aysen’s other new concessionaires were doing the same thing.

Since the 1850s, chilotes (that is, natives of Chiloé) had often worked seasonally, leaving their homes for three or four months and joining cypress logging operations along the coast. (Most of the cypress was sold, at enormous profit, to railway operations in central Chile and Peru.) But now, in 1904, the new ranching concessionaires arrived like a wave. Puerto Montt’s harbors had never seen anything like it. “Our bay has seen extraordinary activity in recent days,” reported the Alianza Liberal. “It is remarkable to see the crowds stationed outside the accommodations of the ranch administrators, hoping for a job.” Steamship after steamship departed for the south, waved off by fervent crowds from the pier. The newspapers painted dramatic images. One described “eager travelers, trailed by retinues of women and children, bidding farewell with effusive hugs and heartfelt goodbyes … The women and children wept.” Another observed that “many people climbed onto the sideboards of the ship to show their jubilation at the forward progress of the southern region.” These were heady times in the sleepy port towns of northern Chilean Patagonia.

But underneath the amazement at all the hustle and bustle, and the excitement at the growth of the ports, lay a strain of concern. The Llanquihue paper, observing the hullaballoo, remarked ominously that “as all excess of good brings something bad, we worry about an unhappy ending.” Yes, there was a “ranching fever” afoot, but, the newspaper wondered, did it amount to anything more than greedy and imprudent speculation? By 1906, barely two years after the first concessions were granted, some of the new ranching corporations had already begun to go under, causing “great panic and considerable ruin.” The bubble was bursting. Within a decade, all but two of Aysén’s ten new concessionaires would be bankrupt. None failed at such a high cost to human life as the Compañía Explotadora Baker.

Things started well enough. The CEB’s owners hired as administrator an Englishman named William Norris, who set to work purchasing cattle in Argentina. Over the course of 18 months, he herded thousands of cattle across the pampas and over Paso Roballos, depositing them at the CEB’s new headquarters at the confluence of the Colonia and Baker Rivers. (The name Colonia in fact dates to the construction of a small “colony” — or outpost — by the Boundary Commission when it passed through the area. Here and elsewhere, CEB piggy-backed off limited infrastructure the Commission left behind.)

Meanwhile the chilote laborers, based on the lower Baker, had worked through two summers felling cypress, establishing tracks, and building warehouses. By June of 1906, with winter quickly arriving, Norris and the laborers convened at Bajo Pisagua, the company’s small port at the outlet of the Baker into the Pacific, where they expected to find a steamer waiting to carry them to their homes on Chiloé.

They arrived to an empty harbor, and concern began to set in. To call Bajo Pisagua an isolated backwater hardly does justice to its remoteness, and by mid-June the days had grown dreary and frigid. With over two hundred workers congregated at the small CEB outpost, food supplies began to dwindle. Still, no ship appeared.

From Bajo Pisagua, the only way to contact the outside world was to row out to the mouth of the Messier Channel, a fifty mile journey through the fjords. There, on a small island, one could huddle in a cove called Caleta Hale and wait for a steamship plying the trade route between Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt, whereupon a frantic smoke signal would indicate to the passing vessel that a passenger was waiting. It was a pretty desperate undertaking. Nonetheless, on June 15, the CEB’s manager set off for the cove. It took three weeks to flag a ship. The manager departed for Punta Arenas promising to send for help.

By now the situation at Bajo Pisagua was dire. Malnutrition and scurvy had begun to spread among the men as rations ran low. On July 7th, the first worker perished. Hunting expeditions were sent into mountains to pursue huemul, but even a haul of half a dozen deer provided just a scanty ration for 200 men. Painfully, thousands of cattle and additional supplies were upriver, at the Colonia, but reaching them required an arduous ten-day trip. No one wanted to risk missing the expected steamer, and in any event few men had the strength left to undertake the journey. So the starvation continued and the deaths mounted. On August 1st, in desperation, another party rowed through the fjords to Caleta Hale, making contact with a passing steamer after a twelve day wait on the island. Again, a CEB employee boarded the ship and departed for Puerto Montt, this time with the urgent news of a catastrophe underway. Dozens of laborers had already died.

In September, nearly two and a half months after the workers had expected to be home, word of the unfolding tragedy finally reached Puerto Montt. “ON THE BAKER RIVER: Abandoned!” blared one headline, demanding an investigation. Not only were the workers still missing, and many of them dead, but the CEB had long since ceased paying the agreed-upon “mesadas” — monthly payments — to their families on Chiloé and in Puerto Montt. Anger mounted. “Have these workers simply been abandoned in the fields with the company’s cattle?” wondered the Alianza Liberal.

Finally, at the end of September, over three months after the men had expected to be retrieved, a passing steamer, presumably having heard the news reports, diverted to Bajo Pisagua and rescued the remaining workers. It took four days to reach Chiloé; in that time, another two workers died. The ship’s gloomy arrival at the northern ports contrasted sharply with the fanfare that had seen the workers off nearly a year prior. The 150 odd survivors of the tragedy came gingerly off the boat, received by a community in mourning.

So what caused the abandonment of over 200 workers at Bajo Pisagua in the winter of 1906? In a word: negligence. The CEB blamed a series of disasters outside their control. A sunken ship. An earthquake. Miscommunication. But the truth was that the company simply had not reckoned with the remoteness of the area and the ferocity of the climate. They had no communication systems in place, no back-up plans, and no real understanding of the Aysén region. That ignorance proved fatal.

Astonishingly, the Compañía Explotadora Baker continued operating for another year after the deaths at Bajo Pisagua. In 1907, the company purchased 20,000 sheep in Argentina. Half of them died in river crossings and snowstorms before they reached the Chacabuco Valley — another demonstration of the company’s feeble understanding of the Patagonian context. The loss of so many human lives in 1906 should have been the end of the CEB, but it was the loss of sheep in 1907 that ultimately pushed it into bankruptcy. In 1908, the company disbanded, abandoning its buildings and selling off its animals in a fire sale. At Bajo Pisagua, the jungle crept forward over the graves of the workers.

After the tragedy, livid newspapers in Puerto Montt and Chiloé demanded action from the government. None came. From Santiago, the Minister of the Interior curtly described the deaths as an “essentially private matter, about which this ministry can do nothing.” The surviving chilote workers were never paid for the months they spent suffering at Bajo Pisagua. Families of the dead received no compensation. No CEB executive was ever punished, fined, or called to account for the deaths.

Over the subsequent decades, rumor and legend began to reshape the Bajo Pisagua story. The workers had been poisoned, some claimed, by the Compañía Explotadora Baker in order to avoid paying them. Some versions specifically blamed Lucas Bridges, who arrived to the Baker region well after the events in question.

These re-tellings, though wrong on the facts, contained an essential truth: The workers at Bajo Pisagua were victims of a system that did not value their lives. They were merely a tool, an instrument in the hands of private companies that operated like small fiefdoms: they paid the salaries of police forces and were judge and jury for decisions about their workers. With essentially no oversight from the Chilean state, these companies were handed huge tracts of land and sought profits for their investors in Santiago, Valparaíso, and London.

Racism also undergirded the tragedy. Shockingly, many of of the Aysén concession agreements signed in the early 1900s included specific stipulations that ranching companies settle the area with white European colonists of “Saxon” descent (de raza sajona) — not chilotes, not even Chileans. In that context, it is hardly surprising to see unvarnished racism in the response of authorities. The Minister of Colonization, explaining the deaths of the chilote workers, suggested absurdly that they perished due to a refusal to take medicine, a result of cultural backwardness. Similarly, William Norris, the CEB’s administrator, dismissed the workers as “most ignorant people” and “the dirtiest that I have ever had anything to do with.” Negligence caused the deaths at Bajo Pisagua, but a system rooted in prejudice and profit-seeking allowed them to go unpunished.

The wooded crosses, then, are a reminder of a complex story. They are memorials to men who died far from their homes and families, inhumanely abandoned in the Patagonian winter. But they are also a testament to a time when Aysén was divvied up for profit, in the name of nation-building and in service to a wealthy elite. The injustices of that founding vision linger in Aysén, hidden in the jungle’s undergrowth.

Sources

There are two book-length treatments of the deaths at Bajo Pisagua by Aysén-based historians: La Tragedia Obrera de Bajo Pisagua by Mauricio Osorio Pefaur and Caleta Tortel y su Isla de Muertos by Danka Ivanoff Wellmann. The former is very thorough and is the source for much of this post, including several of the images. A helpful interview with Mauricio Osorio is here.

In English, it is fascinating to read the (short) memoirs of William Norris, available here. He describes the creation of the CEB and the frankly unbelievable work of bringing animals over Paso Roballos in 1905. He also addresses the tragedy at Bajo Pisagua in a letter to his uncle in England. Danka Ivanoff’s rediscovery of the letter in the early 2000’s shed new light on the origin of the crosses at Bajo Pisagua.