From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth

Essays north and south


(The January Crestone Eagle features my account of a journey into the heart of the new Inuit state of Nunavut in Canada. Here’s a link for non-Crestonians: 
The following account of a journey to Tierra del Fuego a year earlier balances things out.)

Darwin And The Yamana People

The fires of Tierra del Fuego are gone. The Yamana people, whose smoke signals announced Magellan in 1520, are gone. Their bark canoes carrying fire, gone. And nobody for now lives at Wulaia, which in a missionary’s dictionary of the Yamana language meant beautiful-sheltered cove (aia).

On a summer day in January we landed at Wulaia in rubber Zodiacs from the Mare Australis, a clean new expedition crucero of Chilean registry. For now, this is the only cruise through the restricted Murray Narrows south of the Beagle Channel, a passage from Ushuaia to Cape Horn.

View of our ship from Wulaia

On the pebbled beach, with the mother ship shining like an ice berg among the blue islands of the cove, we shed our orange life vests and took a guided walk. Except for the masonry hulk of an old naval station, Wulaia is graciously unimproved. Our guide said the cruise company has leased the site from the Chilean government and plans to restore the vandalized two-story building as a visitor’s center with dorm rooms for archeologists. They have dug in the strata of discarded mussel shells and concluded the place was inhabited for perhaps 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.

Up in the beech trees out of the cold Antarctica wind our guide, a native of Punta Arenas (Chile) and a patriot of the unrecognized “nation” of Patagonia, made a surprising request. Remarking upon the absence of all mechanical sounds in this place that is accessible only by water, he asked us to find comfortable places and. . .

For several minutes, maybe five, we sat in silence. It was like a sitting in a Zen do or a Dzogchen teaching except the surrounding sounds – birds in the white noise of the sea and wind – were non distracting. We merged.

On Jan. 23, 1833, two bright young English gentlemen, representing a new generation of scientific thinkers, landed at Wulaia. They were Capt. Robert FitzRoy, 27, of the 90-foot barque HMS Beagle and the survey ship’s volunteer naturalist, Charles Darwin, 23. Supported by two dozen seamen in four small boats loaded with supplies, they were delivering a worried missionary and three Fuegian natives who had spent a year being Chrstianized in England. Their nicknames and approximate ages were Jemmy Button, 16, Fuegia Basket, 12, and York Minster, 26. Another Fuegian died in London of small pox, despite FitzRoy’s carefully arranged vaccinations.
The plan in Wulaia was to build an outpost for the Church Missionary Society. The day was beautiful, FitzRoy wrote to his sister. “The steep-sided snow-capped mountains glittered in the sun on one side while on the other they threw a deep darkness over the icy smooth dark blue water.” His words could serve as cutlines with some of the digital pictures we brought home from Wulaia. That day 174 years before must have been like our day there, sunny with partly metaphysical skies. It was Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, who described Tierra del Fuego, in its extremity, as a “slow sphere that destroys night, water, ice / expanse assailed by el tiempo (weather-time) and termination / with its violet mark, with the final blue /of the savage rainbow.” (My translation)
FitzRoy said in his journal: “Rising gently from the waterside there [were] considerable spaces of clear pasture land, well-watered by brooks, and backed by hills of moderate height, where we afterwards found woods of the finest timber trees in the country. Rich grass and some beautiful flowers, which none of us had ever seen, pleased us when we landed and augured well for the growth of our garden seeds.” Nice place for a homestead.
Darwin in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (1839) described Wulaia that day as “a quiet pretty cove. . . surrounded by islets, every one of which and every point had its proper native name. . . bordered by some acres of good sloping land, not covered (as elsewhere) either by peat or by forest-trees.”
It was a day of high hopes, the culmination of a three-year experiment in which the first Fuegian natives were exposed to the English language and, in FitzRoy’s words, “the plainer truths of Chrisianity.” And now the three would be replanted – germ of civilization in this wild country at the tip of South America. The seamen would till the soil and plant a garden, build some decent canvas shelters for living and worship, furnish them from the crates of implements and fashionable but inappropriate table settings donated by well-meaning Londoners (Darwin commented on this), and shove off, waving goodbye to the worried missionary and the three doubtful converts.
FitzRoy and Darwin regarded the Yamana as savages, the captain more charitably than the naturalist, whose first impression upon seeing a group of naked Fuegians in a canoe is often quoted: “These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld. . . their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent.”

Lucas Bridges, who grew up among the Yamana in a missionary family, rebutted Darwin’s judgments in his memoir, “The Uttermost Part of the Earth” (1948). Darwin’s report that the Yamana practiced cannibalism was “a shocking mistake,” he said, speculating that it was the result of a common type of miscommunication where the informant feels compelled to please the questioner by giving the expected answer. He attributed to Darwin the opinion that the Yamana in their speech repeated the same phrases over and over and so about 100 words would cover their language. I don’t know the source of this, but Darwin did write, “The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate.” Bridges’ father, Thomas Bridges, compiled the Yamana dictionary, which runs to 30,000-words.

Psychoanalyze Darwin as you wish. Compare and contrast his early revulsion upon encountering the heart of darkness with, say, C. G. Jung’s enlightenment a century later under a tree in west Africa or at Taos Pueblo. Show how the presumption of misery was used to legitimize putting these native people “out of their misery” when they were in the way of sheep ranchers and miners 50 years later. Present murderous bounty hunters like Bruce Chatwin’s partly fictional “Red Pig,” who did or did not say killing Indians is “a humanitarian act if one has the guts to do it.” Ignore the architectural beauty of the central plaza at Punta Arenas where the sheep families built their mansions and erected a Magellan monument with subdued and dreamy Indians. But don’t blame Darwin for the genocide. He grew.

In “The Descent of Man,” (1871) he revisited his first impressions. “The Fuegians rank amongst the lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three natives on board HMS Beagle, who had lived some years in England, and could talk a little English, resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties.” In a letter quoted by Nick Hazlewood in “Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button” (2000) Darwin said the realization that his ancestors were similar beings was “more revolting than my present belief that an incomparably more remote ancestor was a hairy beast.”

By then he was corresponding with Thomas Bridges and others, seeking objective information on how the Fuegians expressed various emotions, some of which was published in his “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872). The argument of this curious book is that all animals feel and think and therefore the “higher” powers (yes, the soul) of Man are developed, not created. (The evolution of the capacity for culture through the irrational process of sexual selection is, I think, the disguised theme of “The Descent of Man.”)

In Wulaia I wondered if Jemmy Button ever sat in the silence and worried about what was to come. He had seen the future. Or was I just projecting? After all, the Yamana were not down insulated Outside Magazine readers. Their canoes were not Old Town composites. Still, I thought, maybe some sort of Yamana Way, adapted to the well-meaning values of pure land backpacker democracy, can save Patagonia!
Who were they? How did they live? Darwin was wrong about them, but he asked some relevant questions. How could these people, going from place to place in “their wretched canoes,” know the joys of home and family? In such a primitive existence, “How little can the higher powers of the mind be brought into play: what is there for imagination to picture, for reason to compare, for judgment to decide upon?”
Dismissing the prejudice of higher and lower powers, I suppose that the these questions can be answered sufficiently by ethnologists, not philosophers. But the first credible anthropologist in this new field would be a long time coming to Tierra del Fuego. By the time Martin Gusinde published his five-volume study of the Yamana, based on field work between 1918 and 1924, they were already approaching cultural extinction. Those who had not been wiped out by European epidemics like small pox or measles, those who were not murdered by bounty hunters, were working for the sheep ranches.
Their oral tradition, their stories, was confined to the faulty memories of a few elders, whom Gusinde interviewed. He tried to codify the stories and preserve them, and the brief collection is fascinating. Of the several deluge myths, one tells how a jealous woman flooded the world by first covering it with ice and then letting the ice melt. (Attn: Al Gore.) The few mountaintop survivors founded the Yamana people, teaching them about sex and wild berries and fire and canoes.
Gusinde learned all he could about the canoes of the past. He rode in one, “the last of its kind,” he said, made by an old man. “When boarding the canoe, everyone places his foot very carefully; in fact everyone avoids any jolt or violent movement, for the seams easily burst and the seam threads become brittle the older they get,” he wrote.
So the canoes were fragile, with a life of only about six months. They were essential for the survival of each nuclear family. The beech bark vessels could carry up to eight persons and were shaped “like a four-day moon, with elevated points,” he said. They were outfitted for cold sea journeys as long as 200 miles. Their carefully placed implements included: paddles, three kinds of basket, fire tongs, four specialized spears (for fish, seals, crab and limpet), a dip net, a club, a mooring rope, a bucket and a fish line. “Man and wife have their special share in the vessel; he builds it, and she keeps it in repair.” The wife was the captain, determining everything from load to seating, and she paddled while the husband stood at the bow with harpoons ready.
Fire was essential for cooking. Gusinde noted they never ate raw flesh. Also for signaling and warmth. Radiant heat is most effective on bare skin, and wet clothing is worse than none at all in cold weather. Thus the nakedness that appalled Darwin. Instead, they covered their bodies with warming, waterproofing oil from seals or whales.
Restarting a fire was risky in that wet, windy climate, so they kept the flames going continuously. When they moved they carried the fire with them on a bed of overturned turf resting on stones. Children rode in the center of the canoe and fed the flames from a stack of dry beech sticks under strict supervision of the woman, the captain.
The mobile hearth was worth mentioning as a unique adaptation to a harsh environment. Young Darwin didn’t mention it. But its image continues in a new medium, art for tourists. They now form the economy of Ushuaia (Argentina), which bills itself as the southernmost city on the planet. “Desfruta, es el fin del mundo,” say the café napkins. Enjoy, it’s the end of the world. On a side street of the main thoroughfare where pale passengers from enormous cruise ships buy stuffed penguins, there is a privately funded Yamana museum. In artful small scale dioramas and displays of artifacts it depicts the life of the extinct people, sweetly. Some exhibits quote Gusinde, the strange German Jesuit.
On the ticket is simple logo representing a canoe carrying fire: a “four-day moon” with a line of smoke. And on the wall behind the entrance desk is a large expressive painting that merges canoe, water, mist and smoke.
We discovered that the artist, Monica Alvarado, had a show in one of the spokes of the circular presidio, the town’s main tourist attraction. The prison was created for the most dangerous offenders, including political prisoners in the Argentine caudillo tradition.
Painting by Monica Alvarado
Ushuaia was secure – a cove (aia) surrounded by snowy mountains in an archipelago without roads. The prison is fixed up now with costumed dummies, one of which represents Ricardo Rojas, a writer who got into political trouble in 1934 and chose Ushuaia over exile. In his cell he wrote about the Yamana, contributing to, according to a biographer (in rough translation), “the unmaking of the false and fallacious legend created by Charles Darwin about these parts and their monstrous inhabitants.”
The art show was in itself a piece of walk-in art because Alvarado had mounted each work in a six-by-six cell, some pieces augmented by word art on the freshly painted beige walls. Strange, to see a cellblock turned into a gallery, cells into niches.
Stranger still was the ride on the short, scenic steam railway in nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park. The two-foot gauge track was laid by prison labor a century ago, up the river valley to haul timber and materials for the prison. Cute little steam engines now pull colorful cars full of tourists, who are entertained along the way by a soundtrack in English that romanticizes the prison past. Meadows dotted with ash grey stumps from clear cuts look almost pretty.
Tourism is that way. It cleans up messes. It is superficial. It is about appearances. But tourists, at least the more lucrative ones who come in on the giant cruise ships, don’t pay for reality. They get enough of that at home. As a general rule, tour catalogues and slide shows at travel shows will keep a safe distance from war zones. Local guides sometimes stray from that rule, as did Steve, our fearless leader for 17 days in a big yellow Tucan passenger truck that went 4,700 kilometers from Santiago to Ushuaia. He talked about the 1983 war over the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas). The invasion of the British territory was staged from Patagonia by the Argentine junta. The Brits regained the islands with the help of Chile, a longtime antagonist of its neighbor. In several border areas there are signs warning of buried “<em>minas</em>.” There are the remnants of British fortifications at Punta Arenas, Argentine fortifications at Rio Grande. Graffiti at a scenic Argentine viewpoint:  “Ingleses = Piratas.”
I came away from the Ushuaia presidio immersed in appearances, treasuring images to carry home, and thinking: “You Know? Monica Alvarado is reality.” Her work, tied to its birthplace, which is her birthplace, expressed the emptiness of nests and the absence of the Yamana. She called her show “Secretos del Silencio.”
In the silence at Wulaia I wondered about Jemmy Button. This was his homeland. On May 11, 1830, he was in a canoe with relatives seeking to barter with the Beagle. FitzRoy, who was taking hostages for the return of a stolen whaling boat, snatched Jemmy Button. As the curious 14-year-old boy was captured, not exactly kicking and screaming, FitzRoy tossed a pearl button to the canoe. This was the source of the nickname given him by the sailors. Darwin said the boy was “bought for a pearl button,” a story that Lucas Bridges called ridiculous. “No native would have sold his child in exchange for HMS Beagle with all it had on board,” he wrote.
The Zodiacs could be canoes and the Mare Australis, the Beagle.
The Fuegians — Jemmy Button fastidious in his top hat and gloves and spotless waistcoat, Fuegia Basket sweet and childlike, and tough guy York Minster who would claim her as a wife — became celebrities in London. They were granted a royal audience in which Queen Adelaide gave Fuegia a bonnet and a ring.
FitzRoy wlaways intended to return them to Tierra del Fuego. He was willing to pay the full expense of chartering a ship, equal to the price of a London townhouse, but friends in the Admiralty came to his assistance. A second voyage of the Beagle was authorized with the assignment to complete the charting of the southern South American coast and then to continue around the world, determining longitude, an inexact art at the time. Permission was granted to take the Fuegians as passengers. Also granted was FitzRoy’s request for a volunteer gentleman naturalist to do scientific investigation and engage in conversation. The naturalist was young Darwin, chosen by his Cambridge professors.
Because Darwin’s career was determined by his experiences on the five-year voyage and because the return of the Fuegians was a key motivation for the voyage, you might say, as FitzRoy biographer Peter Nichols suggests whimsically in “Evolution’s Captain,” that the kidnapping of Jemmy Button precipitated the theory of evolution! Darwin was in intimate contact with Jemmy Button for more than a year and wrote about him, but not, as Nichols observes, very perceptively. “Darwin’s impressions of the Fuegians were less savvy than his observations of natural landscapes he glimpsed at the Beagle’s ports of call.”
The Yamana and their neighbors had been dealing with whaling ships for 50 years by the time the Beagle showed up, Nichols points out, and they were accustomed to receiving trinkets. In fact, as events would show, they expected gifts, and not cheap ones any more, but valuables like blankets, knives and hatchets. FitzRoy in the letter to his sister observed that as he approached Wulaia with Jemmy and the others, “Thirty or forty canoes followed our boats as we pursued a winding course amongst inlets and around projecting precipices. The deep voices of the natives, shouting with all their might, were echoing from height to height. From the fires in each canoe, small columns of blue smoke ascending added to the novelty and picturesqueness of the scene. It was not what one would expect in Tierra del Fuego, it was (except for the mountains) a scene of South Sea Islands.”
The Fuegians followed the Beagle party ashore. The seamen kept them back and set a boundary with a line of spades to thwart pilfering during the four days they spent building and planting. As an apparent test, FitzRoy pulled out of Wulaia the following week. He returned on Feb. 6 to find the garden trampled and the missionary shaken by heavy thievery and personal assaults and taunts. FitzRoy rescued him and his remaining possessions, leaving the three Fuegaians.
On March 5, 1834, on his way to the Pacific FitzRoy stopped again at Wulaia. The nascent mission was deserted and sacked. Soon a canoe approached the Beagle carrying a fat Fuegian desperately washing his face and naked body. Jemmy Button. He came aboard, received clothes, and dressed for dinner at the captain’s table. He said York Minster had robbed him of everything and escaped in a new large canoe with Fuegia Basket. Next day he returned and lingered, receiving a canoeful of gifts, until the Beagle was under way. “Every soul on board was heartily sorry to shake hands with him for the last time,” wrote Darwin. As they weighed anchor a small fire on shore signaled goodbye.
They would not hear of him again until the spring of 1860, when news of the Nov. 6, 1859, massacre at Wulaia reached London. Eight men from the schooner Allen Gardiner had been killed and the boat stripped. The captain, a missionary catechist, and all the of the crew except the cook, who had remained on the ship, were attacked as they sang a hymn. It was the first Sunday morning service inside a manse they had spent all week building. Vastly outnumbered by Fuegians, the unarmed men (they left all firearms on the ship) were clubbed, stoned and harpooned. And the reputed leader, who slept that night in the captain’s bed, was Jemmy Button.
He denied it, voluntarily appearing before a board of inquiry in the Falklands. He pinned blame on a neighboring tribe. The only non-native witness was the cook, who saw some of it from the deck of the schooner and placed Jemmy Button and his relatives on the scene. The cook, Alfred Coles, escaped in a lifeboat and hid for weeks until he surrendered to some Yamanas. He said they who told him Jemmy Button led the angry insurgency. Lucas Bridges did not doubt the story. Hazelwood says the doubts will never be resolved.
Jemmy Button was not punished, and there were no reprisals. But if he didn’t lead the uprising, it seems to me he could have stopped it. After the departure of the Beagle he become a sort of head man in the Murray Channel. When he was found by missionaries in 1855, he was unusually fat and had two wives, many children and his own island. (It appears on the maps as Button Island.) And during the next four years he probably got rich in trade goods because the missionaries laid piles of gifts on him as an incentive to deliver potential converts for Christian education (and hard work) at the nearest mission station, in the Falklands.
The massacre was a result of a long-running pattern of overbearing responses to petty thefts. The Allen Gardiner had just made a troubled three-week voyage from the Falklands with a group of Jemmy Button’s tribesmen. The head of the Falklands mission, Rev. George Despard, was obsessed with the suspicion that the Yamanas were always stealing things. He had caused several confrontations over missing items, sometimes unfairly, during the nine months the group had endured Christian education. And as they lined up to embark for the return voyage, with their tied bundles of possessions in hand, Despard ordered a complete search.
A few pilfered items – a knife, a hatchet – were found.
But the group of nine was so outraged that some threw their luggage into the sea and others exchanged blows with the searchers. Despard did not accompany them to Wulaia, but the captain, Robert Fell, apparently was infected with Despard’s obsession. On a report by a crew member that things were missing, Fell ordered another search of the Fuegians before they could disembark, precipitating more rage. The anger apparently spread as more and more local people gathered in the cove, and they rose up four days later.
Despard and his colleagues were dangerously incompatible with Jemmy Button and his tribesmen whose freedom was at stake. As Lucas Bridges observed, accusing someone of theft in that society was a “deadly insult.” But Despard didn’t get it. His view, as he wrote in his diary, was: “Satan will interpose every obstacle he can in the way of delivering these people from degradation.” By contrast, Jemmy Button, when questioned about Christian morality “stoutly declared that there is no devil in his land,” wrote Darwin.
It’s not likely that FitzRoy would have made the mistakes of Despard and Fell. He was intelligent and cool. There were several occasions when he sailed away from a situation he viewed as hostile. When the whaling boat was stolen, his strategy was take hostages and negotiate. Nichols suggests that he blamed the failure of the negotiations on the language barrier and that this insight gave him the idea of taking Fuegians to London. The idea was that when they were returned, they would open communications between the two worlds.
Mount FitzRoy in the southern Andes is a monolith so sheer that not more than a coating of snow sticks to it. It towers over the new town of El Chalten, Argentina, built near the Chilean border after the Falklands war. We agreed it was our favorite town in Patagonia and that it had the feel of Colorado mountain towns 40 years ago. It is a hangout for adventure backpackers and extreme climbers from around the world, and nobody seems to resent the English name of the dominant peak. In fact they probably they would have liked him, FitzRoy. He was lean and fanatic. He was a superb navigator who took the Beagle through every imaginable storm and around Cape Horn. His strict attention to instruments produced new accurate readings of longitude. His elaborate system of time-keeping from start to finish of the five-year second voyage around the world was off by a mere 20 seconds.
But FitzRoy lost his cool in the wake of the second Beagle voyage. It began when Darwin, a facile writer, finished his book less than a year after the Beagle returned. It was supposed to be published as the third volume of a set, but FitzRoy was too slow. Darwin’s book became a best seller. FitzRoy’s tedious technical volumes were ignored or ridiculed. When he finally completed his post-Beagle work, which included final drafts of the valuable new charts of South America, influential friends got him elected to Parliament. Then in a political dispute he became so furious with an abusive opponent that he challenged him to a duel, which was botched. He was appointed governor of New Zealand in 1843 and sent away. A group of Maori tribesmen massacred some unlawful English squatters. FitzRoy was circumspect, then enraged the colonizers when he announced his decision: “I will not avenge their deaths.” He was returned to England after only two years. His wife died. He returning to his true skills, leaving politics. He was appointed head of the new office of meteorology, where he was successful, at least in the view of professionals. He developed a new kind of barometer and established weather stations linked by telegraph, developed theories of weather patterns, published a book of weather lore.
In the same month as the massacre at Wulaia, Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” FitzRoy had become a fundamentalist in religion, and he was deeply ashamed of his part in what immediately became known as Darwinism. Nichols and others tell the story of FitzRoy in the audience at the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate on evolution at Oxford. He rose to his feet waving a Bible and proclaimed something about “the word of God.” He was shouted down. In the ensuing years he was ridiculed in the press for aspiring to predict the weather. Imagine! He fought melancholia for years. On the morning of April 30, 1865, after months of depression, he awoke, kissed his daughter in another room, went into his bathroom, took up a straight edge razor and slashed his throat. He was not yet 60.
I have said that FitzRoy was more charitable than Darwin in his attitude toward the Fuegians. The experiment with Jemmy Button and the others was costly and exhausting, but rested on Christian faith that it would all come to good. He left that last day at Wulaia with the hope that, as Darwin expressed it, the descendants of Jemmy Button would some day rescue a shipwrecked sailor. But Darwin didn’t think so. In a letter quoted by Hazelton he said of the Tierra del Fuego mission, “I had always prophesied utter failure.” And in another he questioned with regard to a grandson of Jemmy Button “whether it is a real kindness to educate him.” People who grew up watching “Star Trek” might see the “prime directive” of non-interference at work in Darwin, the scientific observer.
Jemmy Button died in 1863 in one of the pandemics that decimated the native population of Tierra del Fuego. They had few immunities to certain European viruses. Fuegia Basket would be reported whoring on passing ships in 1842. York Minster would be murdered in reprisal for murder. Thousands of Yamana died of measles in 1884, after the Argentine Navy raised its pale blue national flag over the mission at Ushuaia. The missionary, Thomas Bridges, moved his family to a ranch. Argentina made it a prison colony, which was its primary business until the prison was closed in 1942, to languish as a minor naval base until we arrived — <em>los turistas.</em>
One of the tourist shops in Ushuaia is called “Jimmy Button.” It sells cute-as-a-button stuffed toys and postcards in a perfumed environment. I asked a sales clerk, an amiable young man who spoke some English, how the place got its name. He said the owners named it for a Yamana Indian who was kidnapped by the English and brought back educated. He said, “They were trying to introduce culture to a people who already had a culture.”
We saw the monument at Cape Horn, a dark construction of stratified steel plates framing the negative image of a bird in flight. It is an albatross, reprsenting “the forgotten soul of sailors lost” on the 800 ships that sank there over five centuries.
The monument at Cape Horn
There are other lost souls. Gusinde in a 1937 epilogue wrote: “The last two dozen surviving Yamana will soon have sunk into their graves. Tho this people, misunderstood by Europeans for three centuries, the tossing, foaming waves of the eternally restless sea around Cape Horn will sing a never ending dirge.”