Jul 232016


The Tratado de Límites (Boundary Treaty) of 1881 between Argentina and Chile was signed on this date in Buenos Aires by Bernardo de Irigoyen, on the part of Argentina, and Francisco de Borja Echeverría, on the part of Chile, with the aim of establishing a precise and exact borderline between the two countries based on the uti possidetis juris principle (designed to assign uncolonized territory). The main point of the treaty was to divide Patagonia between the two countries for fear it would be grabbed by foreign powers such as Britain, but there were also issues concerning trade routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific via the channels between Tierra del Fuego and the mainland. The treaty needed to be renegotiated several times, but the basics are still in place demarking Chile’s and Argentina’s current 5600 km of shared borders.

Argentina declared its independence in 1816 and Chile followed suit in 1818. Once the Spanish had been expelled, relations between the two nations soured primarily due to a border dispute: both claimed to have inherited overlapping parts of Patagonia. Independence movements in South America were catalyzed in the early 19th century by the weakness and instability of Spain and Portugal caused by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Before that time South America was loosely divided into very large and unwieldy viceroyalties, which broke apart as successive regions fought for and won their independence. Then they set about fighting each other for land. The 19th century was a bloodbath all across the continent.

The Chilean constitution of 1833 established the Andes as its eastern boundary. This view of Chile’s borders was challenged in 1853 by Miguel Luis Amunategui in Titles of the Republic of Chile to Sovereignty and Dominion of the Extreme South of the American Continent, in which he put forward the notion that Chile had valid arguments to claim all of Patagonia. He traced Chilean claims back to the conquest of Chile in the 16th century by Pedro de Valdivia, arguing that de Valdivia obtained rights from the Spanish crown to establish a captaincy limited by the Strait of Magellan to the south. De Valdivia subsequently founded several cities through southern Chile with the goal of reaching the Strait of Magellan. However the remoteness of the region and the Mapuche in the War of Arauco limited further expansion to the south. The Republic of Chile founded Fuerte Bulnes in 1843, and later Punta Arenas in 1847, giving strong assistance to steam navigation through the Strait of Magellan and probably averting the occupation of the strategically crucial strait by the European powers or the United States.


In 1865 Welsh immigrants began to settle around the lower part of Chubut Valley. This colonization, supported by Argentina, meant that Argentina got a new exclave in Patagonia apart from Viedma-Carmen de Patagones, which had been founded in 1779. While the economic and geopolitical impact of this settlement was less than that of Chile’s Punta Arenas, it soon became a starting point for further colonization toward the Andes.

Chilean trade and culture were oriented towards Europe and therefore the complete control of the Strait of Magellan was a core Chilean interest. Chilean politicians saw control of the strait as vital to the survival of Chile as a nation. In contrast, the rest of Patagonia was seen by Chilean politicians as a worthless desert. This view was shared by Diego Barros Arana and was inspired by Charles Darwin’s description of the area as a useless moorland.

Mapuches and other indigenous groups had for a long time pillaged the Argentine southern frontier in search for cattle that was later taken to Chile through the Camino de los chilenos. The cattle were traded in Chile for weapons and alcohol. These groups had strong connections with Chile and therefore gave Chile certain influence over the pampas. Argentine authorities feared an eventual war with Chile over the region in which the indigenous locals would side with the Chileans, and that the war would be fought in the vicinity of Buenos Aires.

In the 1870s, Argentina built a more than 500-km long trench called Zanja de Alsina, which Argentina had undertaken during the Conquest of the Desert from 1876 to 1878 to defeat the indigenous people occupying northern Patagonia, and which was intended to control the eastern third or, at a minimum, the eastern mouth of the strait.

Great Britain and the USA did not directly intervene in the distribution of land and maritime areas, but the U.S. ambassadors in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, Thomas A. Osborn and Thomas O. Osborn (stupendous coincidence of names), did serve as mediators. The concern of the great powers was free navigation through the strait. The U.S. administration declared immediately before the negotiations leading to the treaty that:

The Government of the United States will not tolerate exclusive claims by any nation whatsoever to the Straits of Magellan, and will hold responsible any Government that undertakes, no matter on what pretext, to lay or impost or check on United States commerce through the Straits.

The colonial powers, United Kingdom and France, viewed Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego as terra nullius (unclaimed territory) and were active in land grabs. This was evident in the Malvinas, which Argentina claimed under papal concessions dating back to the 15th century, but which Britain occupied in 1833, expelling the Argentine colony of the time – making the assertion that no one owned the islands. Argentine fears about Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were therefore well justified.


In 1874 Chilean minister Guillermo Blest Gana and the Argentine Minister of Foreign Relations Carlos Tejedor agreed to put the question to arbitration. However, the new Argentine president Nicolás Avellaneda, boosted by internal popularity, cancelled the agreement in 1875. Attempts to clear up the dispute about Patagonia were unsuccessful until 1881, when Chile was fighting the War of the Pacific against both Bolivia and Peru. At that time Chile had defeated Bolivia’s and Peru’s regular armies and had large contingents in occupying Peru and fighting Andrés Avelino Cáceres’ guerrillas. In order to avoid fighting Argentina as well, Chilean President Aníbal Pinto authorized his envoy, Diego Barros Arana, to hand over as much territory as was needed to avoid Argentina siding with Bolivia and Peru.

According to the Argentine view of the treaty, called the Magellan/Atlantic transfer, the general agreement was that Argentina was an Atlantic country while Chile was a Pacific one. Chile has never accepted that view. In the main the treaty is simple – the highest peaks of the Andes form a natural border between Argentina and Chile, down to latitude 52°S. There it gets a little contentious. Both countries wanted control of navigable waters between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Border disputes concerning Patagonia continued after the treaty because large parts were still unexplored. The concept of the continental divide based on highest points and drainage was easy to apply in northern regions, but in Patagonia drainage basins crossed the Andes leading to disputes over whether the highest peaks would be the frontier (favoring Argentina) or the drainage basins (favoring Chile). The Argentine explorer Francisco Perito Moreno suggested that many Patagonian lakes draining to the Pacific were in fact part of the Atlantic basin but had been moraine-dammed during the quaternary glaciations, changing their outlets to the west. In 1902, war was again avoided when British King Edward VII agreed to mediate between the two nations. He established the current border in the Patagonian region in part by dividing many disputed lakes into two equal parts and most of these lakes still have different names on each side of the frontier.

Navigation was basically sorted out by making the Strait of Magellan neutral and carving up the offshore islands between the two nations but minor disputes lingered for decades. This map (click to enlarge) shows some of the claims.


Argentina started to establish its right to the whole of Tierra del Fuego in the 1870s by proposing the building of a penal colony in Ushuaia, modeled on the British colony in Tasmania, but only really got going on the project after the 1881 treaty.  If you visit Ushuaia, as I did in 2011, you can ride the railway built by the prisoners and visit the remains of the colony. It is a bleak place.


The ubiquitous plant of the southern reaches of Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina is the calafate, also known as Magellan barberry, which has a characteristic yellow flower and bears a distinctive blue-black fruit. The plant has many close relatives in the Old World, but the Patagonian calafate has a unique flavor. It is commonly made into jellies and preserves, or a flavoring for ice cream and cocktails. The common legend is that if you eat calafate berries in Patagonia you will return. I have, and I will.


The hardest thing about recipes for calafate is getting hold of the berries themselves. No doubt you can get preserves and cordials easily enough online. To get the actual berries I expect you would have to go to Patagonia. They are everywhere. I doubt that they are grown commercially because they grow like weeds on any available land. You can pick them at will. In La cocina del fin del mundo, Jesús Fernandez, gives a recipe (in Spanish) for calafate jelly. I’ve not tried it, but I’ll give some pointers, and make some additional suggestions based on my general experience with jams and jellies.

First I note that Fernandez uses no pectin, but he does include apples whose juices will help set up the finished product. If you’re lazy, though, you can just add pectin according to the instructions on the package. I think the recipe would make a decent preserve as well as a jelly.

Calafate Jelly


1 kg calafate berries
½ kg green cooking apples
700 gm sugar


Wash the berries well in cold running water. Peel and core the apples and cut them in chunks.

Place the berries and apples in a heavy pot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and add the sugar. Stir well and let the fruit cook to a pulp, stirring occasionally at first and then more frequently as the fruit softens – about 2 hours.

Test the gel by taking a small amount of the liquid with a spoon and placing a drop on a cool saucer. If it beads up and keeps its shape it is ready. If it flows outward you need to keep cooking. This step is critical. If the liquid does not gel it will never set up when cooled. There are no rules at this point except to keep cooking until you get the desired gel.

Now you have two choices. You can press the mixture through a conical jelly sieve to extract the liquid which will make your jelly, or you can just leave it as is and use it as a preserve. In either case, divide your product between air tight jelly jars and keep them in a cool place.