For some, the pirate Pedro Ñancúpel is remembered as a hero, for others a thief and a brutal murderer. There are countless stories told of this legendary pirate who roamed the Guaitecas Archipelago in the mid 1800’s and it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. The only hard facts are that he was born in 1837 in a small hamlet of Chiloé and became one of the most feared pirates of the era in the Fjords and Channels of the area. The rest is legend…
Chiloé had been annexed as part of Chile only a few decades prior and the economic, social and cultural changes resulting from this relationship were not being well received by islanders. Outsiders had arrived with funding and permits to extract local resources; perhaps the most powerful was Ciriaco Álvarez, known as the King of the Cypress. His economic wealth was aligned with the political power in the area and it wasn’t long before he was begrudgingly considered as lord and master over a large portion of Chiloé. Pedro Ñancúpel rebelled against Álvarez and his foreman, deciding to migrate to the Guaitecas and forge his own destiny. But treason against the King of the Cypress, was the same as rebelling against the authority of the Government of Chile, and soon, Pedro found himself as a local symbol of the resistance against the establishment.
Ñancúpel set sail from Chiloé in route for Las Guaitecas with provisions, a shotgun and gunpowder. He was looking for his brother Juan and a nephew, who made their living hunting beavers and otters in the different islands of the archipelago and selling their pelts. When he found them, it wasn’t hard to convince them that stealing skins would be much more lucrative than hunting and they formed a plan to attack a crew of hunters who were working nearby. They killed the hunters, robbed their skins, weapons and merchandise, and hid the bodies in a cave. With their stolen weapons and supplies, they traveled to other area islands finding other crews to rob; thus, beginning a rash of brutal crimes, the scope of which is still being discovered. Many of these crimes went unrecognized because there was little maritime control in this era; people disappearing were attributed to shipwrecks and storms in the Corcovado Gulf. It is not uncommon today, with increased traffic and exploration of the islands and islotes of Las Guaitecas, that skeletons and stashes are discovered and added to the list of Ñancúpel’s pillages.
Ñancúpel’s wealth and power increased rapidly; each time he amassed a full load of booty, he would go into Melinka, Castro or Ancud to sell his wares; interchanging skins for ounces of gold. With his profits, he would by more guns, powder and provisions, and head back out to the sea, where he reigned, spreading terror and death. It is said that he had no pity, no respect for age or gender. Some stories go so far as to say that he raped the young wife and killed the baby of one of the captains, whose boat he later sank. The story says that he took them to a cave where he abused the woman for 3 days, before slaying the baby in front of his mother and then also killing her.
Other stories contradict this image of Ñancúpel as a cruel murderer. These accounts tell of the pirate delivering food and supplies to indigenous peoples, peasants and workers and punishing the captains of sea lion hunting vessels who abused their employees. In these stories, Ñancúpel never attacked vessels owned by fellow Chilotes, preferring instead to wreak havoc on those whom he termed as “the mighty”. This version of the myth depicts an image that is more like a Robin Hood of the seas than a ruthless criminal.
Stories go that when Ñancúpel had completed a total of 99 murders (or 200 or more, depending on who’s telling the story) he was finally apprehended in Melinka and extradited to Chiloé where he went on trial and was executed in 1887. It is said that he never showed the slightest evidence of remorse.
But all of this is myth and legend, there is little official information about the Pirate Ñancúpel. And with pirate stories, does it really matter? Isn’t it more fun to listen to the hundreds of good stories you’re sure to hear when conversing with the inhabitants of the Archipelago de las Guaitecas?
If you want to explore the stomping grounds of this legendary character, we suggest you invest some hours in strolling around Melinka, the main town of Las Guaitecas, and its surrounding forests, beaches and caves.
Start by walking northeast from the village following the path toward the airfield. About halfway to the airfield you should detour, taking the trail that crosses the forest toward a small bay enveloped by evergreens. This is the place to test your luck as a treasure hunter, the legendary area of the famous cave of the Pirate Ñancúpel. According to the legend, the pirate buried a treasure trove of skins, furniture and gold in some place in Melinka and many believe it was in the cave in this protected bay, which now bears his name.
Afterwards, there is another trail located a little further north, where the Raya Beach begins, that will lead you through a beautiful sector protected from the winds and ideal for sunbathing or a picnic. Another perfect place for a picnic is the Faro Falso sector. If you head north from Melinka along the road that runs parallel to the sea, you’ll soon reach an evergreen forest that harbors an old lighthouse, now decommissioned after many centuries of protecting captains following this coastal route. The beach is beautiful in this sector, the perfect place to sit for a while and watch the sea, contemplating the myths and contradictions of the pirate Ñancúpel. Don’t be surprised to spot a ghostlike ship on the horizon with a skull and crossbones – after all, you’re in Las Guaitecas, where the past and the future are always connected by the continuing rhythms of the tides.