Darwin and the Fuegians
First published: 19 May 2009 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 11 July 2012 (GMT+10)
This is the pre-publication version which was subsequently abbreviated in Creation 32(2):42–45.
In his 1871 book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin cited the Fuegians as evidence to support of his two-fold thesis, that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” and that “we are descended from barbarians”.1
This was a considerable stimulus to racism in the 19th and 20th centuries. So who were the Fuegians, and why did Darwin regard them the way he did?
The Fuegians were the original four tribal groups2 who inhabited the islands which form the southernmost tip of South America, called Tierra del Fuego, meaning “land of fire”. It was named “land of smoke” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 for the hundreds of beach fires he observed, which the natives kept burning to keep themselves warm in the freezing climate and for cooking their staple diet of shellfish and seafish. This was later changed to the more exotic “land of fire”, reputedly by Charles I of Spain.3 Charles Darwin came into contact with the Fuegians because of the missionary zeal of Captain Robert FitzRoy.
FitzRoy’s Fuegian hostages
In 1829, FitzRoy, in command of HMS Beagle, was exploring the waterways of the area. One night, some Fuegian natives managed to steal the ship’s auxiliary whaleboat, which a seven-man survey team had earlier beached so that they could find shelter from a sudden storm. The stranded sailors used branches and their canvas tent to make a large basket in which they paddled back to the Beagle. The theft precipitated a frantic but fruitless search by FitzRoy and crew, as the boat was needed for surveying the many channels too small for the larger Beagle to navigate.
In retaliation, FitzRoy took several Fuegians hostage on board the Beagle. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, comments: “Unfortunately such disciplinary measures were lost on the Fuegians, who proceeded to make a farce of the affair when the adult prisoners, after eating the best meal of their lives, jumped overboard and swam home … .”4
FitzRoy ended up with a girl, two young men, and a boy who (allegedly) was acquired at the cost of a large mother-of-pearl button. The sailors named these people appropriately Fuegia Basket, Boat Memory, York Minster5 and Jemmy Button. FitzRoy decided to take them to England for education before returning them to their homeland as part of an “evangelical experiment”.6
On arrival in England, Boat Memory promptly died of smallpox, despite (or perhaps because of) receiving a fresh vaccination. The others were educated, civilized, anglicized and “Christianized” by being taught English, gardening, husbandry, and “the plainer truths of Christianity”. This environmental refinement proved so successful that in mid-1831, the Fuegians were presented to King William IV and Queen Adelaide of Great Britain.
Darwin meets the Fuegians
Sketch by FitzRoy
On 27th December 1831, FitzRoy again left England aboard the Beagle on a research journey around the world. Another purpose was to return the three surviving Fuegians to their own country, where FitzRoy hoped they would be missionaries to their own people. With them was “their minder, Richard Matthews, a trainee missionary himself”. Also aboard was Charles Darwin in his role as gentleman companion to the captain and unofficial naturalist. He thus had his first encounter with Fuegians—as people of sufficiently appropriate graces and deportment to have been presented at Court in England.
Sketch by FitzRoy
In his Journal (or Voyage of the Beagle, his account of this voyage), Darwin described them as follows, “York Minster was a full-grown, short, thick, powerful man: his disposition was reserved, taciturn, morose, and when excited violently passionate; his affections were very strong towards a few friends on board; his intellect good. Jemmy Button was a universal favourite, but likewise passionate; the expression of his face at once showed his nice disposition. He was merry and often laughed, and was remarkably sympathetic with anyone in pain: when the water was rough, I was often a little seasick, and he used to come to me and say in a plaintive voice, ‘Poor, poor fellow!’ … Jemmy was short, thick, and fat, but vain of his personal appearance: he used always to wear gloves, his hair was neatly cut, and he was distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied.”7
Sketch by FitzRoy
This latter fastidiousness duplicated Darwin’s own concern for his footware. When he was a student at Cambridge University, Darwin paid up to 7 shillings a quarter to have his shoes blacked!8 Jemmy had become quite the proper middle-class English gent!
“Fuegia Basket was a nice, modest reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression, and very quick at learning anything, especially languages. This she showed in picking up some Portuguese and Spanish, when left on shore for only a short time at Rio de Janeiro and Monte Video, and in her knowledge of English.” Darwin also noted, “Their sight was remarkably acute: it is well known that sailors, from long practice, can make out a distant object much better than a landsman; but both York and Jemmy were much superior to any sailor on board.”
These descriptions compare strangely with Darwin’s ignorant, derogatory, and racist comments in the same Journal concerning the Fuegians he encountered when the Beagle reached Tierra del Fuego a year later in December 1832. He constantly described them as “savages” or “barbarians”, and often compared them unfavourably with animals.
He wrote: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement. … Their skin is of a dirty coppery red colour. … The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischutz.”9
… “These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked of these barbarians! At night … [they] sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.”10
HMS Beagle being hailed by Fuegians, painted by FitzRoy’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens (click painting to enlarge)
Darwin even regarded them as objects of entertainment and diversion. In a letter of 23 May 1833 to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, he wrote: “In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.—A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.”11
Darwin’s last encounter with Jemmy was in March 1834, after Jemmy had been living with his own people again for over a year. “On the 5th of March we anchored in the cove at Woollya … Soon a canoe, with a little flag flying, was seen approaching, with one of the men in it washing the paint off his face. This man was poor Jemmy, now a thin haggard savage, with long disordered hair, and naked, except for a bit of a blanket round his waist … We had left him plump, fat, clean, and well dressed—I never saw so complete and grievous a change. … he appears to have taught all his tribe some English: an old man spontaneously announced ‘Jemmy Button’s wife’.” Then, when Jemmy returned to the shore, “he lighted a signal fire, and the smoke curled up, bidding us a last and long farewell, as the ship stood on her course into the open sea.”12
Because of what FitzRoy told him, Darwin erroneously believed that the Fuegians practised cannibalism. He wrote in his Journal: “The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low [a Scottish sealer], and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, "Doggies catch otters, old women no.”
Researcher Anne Chapman comments: “It is truly amazing that Darwin regarded Jemmy, FitzRoy’s informant on cannibalism, as a reliable source, because he [Darwin] stated that it was ‘singularly difficult to obtain much information from them [Jemmy and York], concerning the habits of their countrymen.’ Also, ‘it was generally impossible to find out, by cross-questioning, whether one had rightly understood anything which they had asserted.’ Moreover, he knew that Bob, Low’s informant on cannibalism, was ‘called a liar, which in truth he was.’”13
Chapman continues: “Darwin had reasons to doubt the veracity of Bob’s and Jemmy’s stories but he didn’t. The vision of old women being devoured was too powerful for him to resist. Moreover, cannibalism was expected among a people at such a ‘low level’ of humanity, and this may also explain why he was so credulous.” Indeed, Darwin could not resist the temptation of including this unsavoury tidbit in Chapter 1 of his Origin of Species, for the supercilious benefit of his 19th-century readers. He wrote: “We see the value set on animals even by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth, as of less value than their dogs.”14
Leonard Engel, editor of the 1962 edition of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, corrected Darwin’s error about the old women. He wrote: “Unfortunately both Darwin and FitzRoy were misled on the point, for the Fuegians were not cannibals and honoured rather than ate their old women. Old women were in demand as second and third wives … because of their experience in the management of canoes and many duties performed by the Fuegian wife. … ”15
This charge of cannibalism is further refuted by Lucas Bridges, son of Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary to the Fuegians from 1871 to 1886. Lucas was born and brought up in Tierra del Fuego and so spent many years of his life in daily contact with the Yahgan people and thoroughly understood their culture. By way of explanation for this shocking mistake he suggests that “when questioned, York Minster, or Jemmy Button, would not trouble in the least to answer truthfully, but would merely give the reply that he felt was expected or desired. … So the statements with which these young men and little Fuegia Basket have been credited were, in fact, no more than agreement with suggestions made by their questioners.”16
Concerning their language, Darwin wrote: “The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain Cook has compared it to a man clearing his throat,17 but certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural and clicking sounds.” And in a letter of July 23, 1834 to C. Whitley he said: “There is in their countenances an expression which I believe, to those who have not seen it, must be inconceivably wild. Standing on a rock he [a Fuegian] uttered tones and made gesticulations than which, the cries of domestic animals are far more intelligible.”18
Lucas Bridges was bilingual in Yahgan and English. He wrote: “The belief that the Fuegians were cannibals was not the only mistake Charles Darwin made about them. Listening to their speech, he got the impression that they were repeating the same phrases over and over again, and therefore came to the conclusion that something like one hundred words would cover the whole language. We who learned as children to speak Yahgan knew that, within its own limitation, it is infinitely richer and more expressive than English or Spanish. My father’s Yahgan (or Yamana)-English Dictionary … contains no fewer than 32,000 words and inflections, the number of which might have been greatly increased without departing from correct speech.”19,20
Bridges tells us, “The Yahgans had, at the very least, five names for ‘snow.’ For ‘beach’ they had even more, depending on … the position of the beach in relation to that of the speaker, the direction in which it faced, whether the speaker had land or water between it and himself—and so on. … For family relationships … the Yahgans had as many as fifty different words, each descriptive of a particular, and often involved, relationship.”21
Interestingly, Lucas quotes an article by his father which was published in The Standard on September 6, 1886. “Incredible though it may appear, the language of one of the poorest tribes of men, without any literature, without poetry, song, history or science, may yet through the nature of its structure and its necessities have a list of words and a style of structure surpassing that of other tribes far above them in the arts and comforts of life.” And on another occasion he wrote, “Owing to the eminently social life of the people who spend so large a part of their lives in talking and, both men and women, in giving lengthy harangues … they perfectly keep up the knowledge of their language and early learn to speak it well.”22
The Fuegians and Christianity
Although Captain FitzRoy’s ambition of converting Fuegia, York and Jemmy by having them taught “the plainer truths of Christianity” in England failed, the Gospel did come to Tierra del Fuego. But not easily. There followed abortive attempts by missionaries to settle there—Richard Matthews in 1833, and Allen Gardiner in 1845, 1848 and 1850. Gardiner founded the Patagonian Missionary Society (renamed the South American Missionary Society or SAMS in 1864). In 1851, Gardiner and six other missionaries died from starvation (as a result of the hostility of the natives), when their supply ship was two months late in arriving, and eight other missionaries were massacred in 1859.