Eyewitness drawings of a Spanish merchant vessel nearly coming to grief in an ice floe off Cape Horn in 1769

[CAPE HORN.] LA FREGATA NOMBRADA LA VENTURA. [At sea? Cadiz, Spain?], 1770.
Diptych in ink and watercolour above two columns of descriptive text on a sheet of laid paper bearing “GR” watermark, 9”h x 14 7/8”w at sheet Edge. Vertical central fold, very faint foxing and offset, lower-left corner clipped. Hinge remnants on verso.

Two unusual and appealing drawings of a Spanish merchant vessel narrowly avoiding disaster in an ice floe off Cape Horn in 1769.

The drawings depict the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, alias La Ventura, a 28-gun privately-owned frigate threading its way through a field of towering icebergs. The left-hand drawing provides a bird’s-eye view of the frigate at three moments: sailing on a southeast bearing as she enters the ice field, in the center of the field having just lost her bowsprit, and, finally, exiting to safety and setting a course for Rio de Janeiro. The drawing is framed within a faux-cartographic border with a compass rose at the upper left corner (Per the legend, the drawing is oriented with north to the left.) The right-hand drawing gives a perspective view of the same sequence and better conveys the vast size of the ice field, which La Ventura was fortunate to escape largely intact.

A manuscript legend in the lower margin describes in detail the Ventura’s ordeal, which began at three in the morning of October 8, 1769 and ended at seven that evening. It conveys the horror of the experience, the writer’s despair at the moment the frigate lost its bowsprit, the sheer size of the icebergs–described as immense above the water but with about nine tenths of their volume treacherously hidden below the surface–and how the crews resorted to the use of oars to escape the floe. After its near escape, La Ventura, which had sailed from Lima’s port of Callao laden with goods on 16 August 1769, took the unusual step for a Spanish frigate of putting in at Rio de Janeiro for repairs on November 10, then set sail on February 13, 1770 to complete its journey to Cadiz in Spain, where it anchored on May 3.

The drawings are by an eyewitness on the voyage (the legend refers to “we”), though a name in manuscript on the lower left margin appears to have been cut out leaving only the date “1770”. We did compare the handwriting to that of the Ventura’s master, Miguel Domingo de Ezcurra, but it is not a match.

The subject matter, the “time-lapse” design of the drawings, the use of “bird’s-eye” and perspective views, and the naive rendering of the ice field render are all most unusual. The overall effect is both informative and charming, and I don’t recall having seen anything similar.

La Ventura and the route around Cape Horn
Cape Horn “has the world’s worst reputation for weather among sailors … The sea bottom off the Horn is littered with the bones of ships and their sailors. Only 200 miles south of the Horn lies the Antarctic’s ice peak. The Horn is 1,600 miles nearer the South Pole than Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, 900 miles nearer than Tasmania. To round it, you must go well below the 50th parallel, and “South of Fifty” is a dread phase among all sea-going men.” (Life, 27 February 1939) La Ventura’s encounter with the ice floe occurred well beyond this, at the 57th parallel, and at a time when regular commercial traffic between Spain and Lima via Cape Horn was still in its infancy. “The Cape Horn route, though difficult and dangerous enough, was surer and safer than the strait [of Magellan]; but not until the eighteenth century did shipping develop sufficiently to make regular commercial use of it.” (J. H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, p. 261)

La Ventura tackled this hazardous route on a regular basis from at least 1763 on, after being purchased by the well-established, Basque, Uztariz Company. The 1769-70 voyage, however, was the frigate’s last for Uztariz, as it was sold in July 1770 to another powerful merchant in Cadiz, Luis Segundo de Aristegui, though it would continue to sail the same route in ensuing years. On this, its final voyage for Uztariz, La Ventura sailed into Cadiz, as reported by the richly laden with 2,749,205 pesos in gold and silver, 9,417 loads of cocoa, 450 quintals of tin, 351 arrobas of vicuña wool, 55 arrobas of calaguala and cascarilla, and other South American trade goods. (Mercurio Histórico y Político for May 1770, vol. cciii, pp. 73–74) It and its cargo resembled the few other ships on this dangerous trade run.

“Most register ships rounding Cape Horn after 1742 were vessels of over 500 tons, were in general larger and carried richer cargoes than those bound for the Atlantic coast, and there were only three to six of them a year in either direction. The cargoes coming from Spain were made up of relatively expensive merchandise such as textiles. Similarly ships bound for the metropole carried high value cargoes made of precious metals; Peruvian and Chilean staples such as chichona bark, cocoa and copper were shipped along with the precious metals.” (Xabier Lanikiz, “The Transatlantic Flow of Price Information in the Spanish Colonial Trade, 1680–1820”, in Pierre Gervais, Yannick Lemarchand and Dominique Margairaz, eds., Merchants and Profit in the Age of Commerce, 1680–1830, London: Routledge, 2014, p. 109)

An eyewitness account describing the events that befell the Ventura on its 1769 journey between Lima and Rio de Janeiro was considered sufficiently dramatic to be included in the manuscript compilation, “Navegaciones antiguas y modernas á la Mar del Sur y otras partes del Globo. Descubrimientos y Diarios curiosos de Viages hechos á la Mar del Sur y otras partes incognitas del Globo, en America. Recogidas por Don Joseph Antonio de Armona, cavallero pensionista de la distinguida Real orden Española de Carlos III. Año de 1772”, that today can be found in the British Library (Egerton Ms. 902, no. 6, see Gayangos, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum (1877), vol. II, pp. 300–302, and the British Library’s online manuscript catalogue).

Archivo General de Indias (Seville), Contratación 1753 (Ventura sails to Lima in 1763); –, Contratación 1762 (Register of ships sailing to Mar del Sur, includes Ventura, 1768); –, Lima 651, no. 69 and 71 (Letters from Manuel de Amat, Viceroy of Peru, to Julián de Arriaga on cargo of plumed birds he is sending for the king on board the Ventura, 1769); –, Contratación 2812 (Register of ships for Lima, includes Ventura, 1772). Gayangos, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum, 1877, vol. II, pp. 300–302. Laura Gutiérrez Arbulú, “Indice de los Documentos del Archivo General de Indias sobre el Comercio Peruano en el Siglo XVIII”, Boletin Instituto Riva-Agüero, 1990, pp. 71–146.

Translation of the legend
“The frigate known as La Ventura, at 3 in the morning on day 8 of October 1769 sailing SW with the foremast [main sail], the mizzen and the stay, the wind from the SE reasonably fresh, we entered this mountainous range at point A. [The Ventura shown again] Once inside it, though with bare masts, around ten thirty we veered in something like a lagoon so as not to run into one of the many larger floes that we had to leeward and at 12, without being able to avoid it, we crashed against the floe labelled B where we broke the bowsprit. Thus we found ourselves in Cape Horn at latitude 57 degrees and 24 minutes having survived this danger, without it having seemed possible, and sailing along the mountainous range until 2 in the afternoon. At this time, it was seen from the masthead that there was open sea to the W for which reason an effort was made to get there, despite crashing against one after another floe but with the effort of all people on board who did nothing but push these away with boot, bars, oars &c. With this effort, we managed it at 7 [pm] having sailed out from the area marked C where the wind held us back towards WSW. All those which are marked with the letter D were floes of snow of immense magnitude and, from experience, all generally, if consisting of 10 parts, had 9 of them below water.

“This frigate sailed from Callao de Lima on 16 August of last year, arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 10 November and sailed from this port on 13 February arriving in Cadiz Bay on 3 May 1770.”