Posted by: Rob Viens | December 19, 2012

First Contact with the “Fuegians”

On December 18th, Darwin had his first encounter with the people of eastern Tierra del Fuego – a people he (and FitzRoy) referred to in general as the “Fuegians”.  FitzRoy had encountered “Fuegians” on the first voyage of the Beagle, and in fact, there were currently three on board. (The two Fuegians referenced below – Jemmy Button and York Minster – belonged to a group of people from the west.  So although the Englishmen lumped them all together as “Fuegians”, there were (not surprisingly) separate cultures in Tierra del Fuego.) I’ll have more to say in the coming days about the native people of Tierra del Fuego and the tree passengers that FitzRoy was bringing home.  But, I suspect there is some value in reading Darwin’s own words about this first encounter in their entirety today.

“Natives of Tierra del Fuego” by Conrad Martens (from FitzRoy’s Narratives)

Natives of Tierra del Fuego

It is always a bit uncomfortable to hear Darwin compare “savages” with “civilized men”, so I find that I have to remind myself that this was a different time, and although it not appropriate today, it is a part of history.  This European viewpoint certainly was part of who Darwin was and how he thought about the world.

Here is Darwin’s first encounter with the people living at the “bottom of the world”. (I’ve broken the entry into paragraphs to make it a little easier to follow on the page.)

“The Captain sent a boat with a large party of officers to communicate with the Fuegians. As soon as the boat came within hail, one of the four men who advanced to receive us began to shout most vehemently, & at the same time pointed out a good landing place.— The women & children had all disappeared.— When we landed the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking & making gestures with great rapidity.— It was without exception the most curious & interesting spectacle I ever beheld.— I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage & civilized man is.— It is greater than between a wild & domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement.— The chief spokesman was old & appeared to be head of the family; the three others were young powerful men & about 6 feet high.— From their dress &c &c they resembled the representations of Devils on the Stage, for instance in Der Freischutz.— The old man had a white feather cap; from under which, black long hair hung round his face.— The skin is dirty copper colour. Reaching from ear to ear & including the upper lip, there was a broard red coloured band of paint.— & parallel & above this, there was a white one; so that the eyebrows & eyelids were even thus coloured; the only garment was a large guanaco skin, with the hair outside.— This was merely thrown over their shoulders, one arm & leg being bare; for any exercise they must be absolutely naked.”

“Their very attitudes were abject, & the expression distrustful, surprised & startled:— Having given them some red cloth, which they immediately placed round their necks, we became good friends.— This was shown by the old man patting our breasts & making something like the same noise which people do when feeding chickens.— I walked with the old man & this demonstration was repeated between us several times: at last he gave me three hard slaps on the breast & back at the same time, & making most curious noises.— He then bared his bosom for me to return the compliment, which being done, he seemed highly pleased:— Their language does not deserve to be called articulate: Capt. Cook says it is like a man clearing his throat; to which may be added another very hoarse man trying to shout & a third encouraging a horse with that peculiar noise which is made in one side of the mouth.— Imagine these sounds & a few gutterals mingled with them, & there will be as near an approximation to their language as any European may expect to obtain.”

“Their chief anxiety was obtain knives; this they showed by pretending to have blubber in their mouths, & cutting instead of tearing it from the body.— they called them in a continued plaintive tone Cochilla,— probably a corruption from a Spanish word.— They are excellent mimics, if you cough or yawn or make any odd motion they immediately imitate you.— Some of the officers began to squint & make monkey like faces;— but one of the young men, whose face was painted black with white band over his eyes was most successful in making still more hideous grimaces.— When a song was struck up, I thought they would have fallen down with astonishment; & with equal delight they viewed our dancing and immediately began themselves to waltz with one of the officers.”

“They knew what guns were & much dreaded them, & nothing would tempt them to take one in their hands.— Jemmy Button came in the boat with us; it was interesting to watch their conduct to him.— They immediately perceived the difference & held much conversation between themselves on the subject.— The old man then began a long harangue to Jemmy; who said it was inviting him to stay with them:— but the language is rather different & Jemmy could not talk to them.— If their dress & appearance is miserable, their manner of living is still more so.”

“Their food chiefly consists in limpets & muscles, together with seals & a few birds; they must also catch occasionally a Guanaco. They seem to have no property excepting bows & arrows & spears: their present residence is under a few bushes by a ledge of rock: it is no ways sufficient to keep out rain or wind.— & now in the middle of summer it daily rains & as yet each day there has been some sleet.— The almost impenetrable wood reaches down to high water mark.— so that the habitable land is literally reduced to the large stones on the beach.— & here at low water, whether it may be night or day, these wretched looking beings pick up a livelihood.— I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.— The Southsea Islanders are civilized compared to them, & the Esquimaux, in subterranean huts may enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

“After dinner the Captain paid the Fuegians another visit.— They received us with less distrust & brought with them their timid children.— They noticed York Minster (who accompanied us) in the same manner as Jemmy, & told him he ought to shave, & yet he has not 20 hairs on his face, whilst we all wear our untrimmed beards.— They examined the color of his skin; & having done so, they looked at ours.— An arm being bared, they expressed the liveliest surprise & admiration.— Their whole conduct was such an odd mixture of astonishment & imitation, that nothing could be more laughable & interesting.— The tallest man was pleased with being examined & compared with a tall sea-man, in doing this he tried his best to get on rather higher ground & to stand on tip-toes: He opened his mouth to show his teeth & turned his face en profil; for the rest of his days doubtless he will be the beau ideal of his tribe.— Two or three of the officers, who are both fairer & shorter than the others (although possessed of large beards) were, we think, taken for Ladies.— I wish they would follow our supposed example & produce their “squaws”.— In the evening we parted very good friends; which I think was fortunate, for the dancing & “sky-larking” had occassionally bordered on a trial of strength.” (Dec 18)

FitzRoy describes several of the same things in his Narratives. I will share just one line, that I found particularly interesting.  It is a little hard to follow, but I think (if I read it right) he is actually making a somewhat enlightened point for 1832:

“Disagreeable, indeed painful, as is even the mental contemplation of a savage, and unwilling as we may be to consider ourselves even remotely descended from human beings in such a state, the reflection that Cæsar found the Britons painted and clothed in skins, like these Fuegians, cannot fail to augment an interest excited by their childish ignorance of matters familiar to civilized man, and by their healthy, independent state of existence.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)




  1. […] these cultures Darwin encountered and described un some detail last month in Good Success Bay (see First Contact with the “Fuegians”). The bay is right at the boundary between the Ona and the Haush, but it is a bay, and within the […]

  2. […] Colin Campbell:  “Because of teaching Environmental Biophysics class, all my focus has been on reading An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics.  And, although I’ve read it too many times to count, I finally had a chance to study the human energy balance chapter (13) in depth, which was amazing.  The way humans interact with our environment is something we deal with at every moment of every day; often not giving it much thought. In this chapter, we are reminded of the people of Tierra del Fuego (Fuegians) who were able to survive in an environment where temperatures approached 0 C daily, wearing no more than a loin cloth. Using the principles of environmental biophysics and the equations developed in the chapter, we concluded that the Fuegian metabolic rate had to continuously run near the maximum of a typical human today. The food requirements to maintain that metabolic rate would be somewhere between the equivalent of 17 and 30 hamburgers per day (their diet was high in seal fat).  You can read more about the Fuegians here.” […]

  3. […] The good ship Beagle actually had an ongoing relationship with Tierra Del Fuego in the form of three Fuegan children that Captain FitzRoy had picked up and taken back to England on one of the ship’s previous voyages.  The Beagle was in the process of returning the three – nicknamed Fuega Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster – back to their homes.  You can read more about their incredible story here. […]

  4. […] The good ship Beagle actually had an ongoing relationship with Tierra Del Fuego in the form of three Fuegan children that Captain FitzRoy had picked up and taken back to England on one of the ship’s previous voyages.  The Beagle was in the process of returning the three – nicknamed Fuega Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster – back to their homes.  You can read more about their incredible story here. […]

  5. […] greeted the Beagle, in their guanaco clothed state, and strange, “100 word vocabulary” (guessed Darwin), he was impressed with the adaptability of the human species. They were not perhaps as perfectible […]

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