Posted by: Rob Viens | January 17, 2013

The Beagle’s Fuegians Part I: The Whaleboat and Fuegia Basket

On the 16th, the Captain scouted the island to see if this was a good place to set up a “Mission”.  Darwin explains:

“The Captain took two boats to search for a good place for the settlement. — We landed & walked some miles across the country. — It is the only piece of flat land the Captain has ever met with in Tierra del F & he consequently hoped it would be better fitted for agriculture. — Instead of this it turned out to be a dreary morass only tenanted by wild geese & a few Guanaco. — The section on the coast showed the turf or peat to be about 6 feet thick & therefore quite unfit for our purposes. We then searched in different places both in & out of the woods, but nowhere were able to penetrate to the soil; the whole country is a swamp. — The Captain has in consequence determined to take the Fuegians further up the country. — This place seems to be but sparingly inhabited. — In one place we found recent traces; even so that the fire where limpets had been roasted was yet warm. — York Minster said it had only been one man; “very bad man”& that probably he had stolen something. — We found the place where he had slept. — it positively afforded no more protection than the form of a hare. — How very little are the habits of such a being superior to those of an animal. — By day prowling along the coast & catching without art his prey, & by night sleeping on the bare ground.” (Jan 16)

The time has come, to talk about FitzRoy, the Fuegians and the prospects of a Mission in Tierra del Fuego.  The story is a relatively long one, so let me start off the story with how the Fuegians came to be on the Beagle in the first place.

The story begins back in late 1828 during the Beagle‘s first voyage. After being officially assigned captain of the Beagle by the Admiral of the South American Station (see The First Voyage of the Beagle Part I), Captain FitzRoy left Brazil and took the ship back to Tierra del Fuego to continue his survey work.

About a year later, on February 5, 1830, while surveying around Cape Desolation (NW of Cape Horn) FitzRoy notes*:

“At three this morning (5th), I was called up to hear that the whale-boat was lost—stolen by the natives; and that her coxswain and two men had just reached the ship in a clumsy canoe, made like a large basket, of wicker-work covered with pieces of canvas, and lined with clay, very leaky, and difficult to paddle.”

(*All entries today are from the Narrative of the Voyage of the Adventure and Beagle from 1826-30.  Phillip Parker King was the commander of the expedition, however, according to the preface, it was written by Robert FitzRoy. Therefore, these are FitzRoy’s experience and his words.)

Turns out that the crewmen surveying the coast in one of the whaleboats had spent the night on a small island that they thought to be devoid of any human inhabitants.  Consequently, they did not post a watch.  They were wrong – it turns out the Yaghans lived almost anywhere along the coast, and during the night some local men stole the whaleboat.  The crewmen were stranded and forced to build a makeshift “basket” to get back to the ship. FitzRoy reacted immediately:

“Not a moment was lost, my boat was immediately prepared, and I hastened away with a fortnight’s provisions for eleven men, intending to relieve the master, and then go in search of the stolen boat.”

To some degree the next 40-50 or so pages of the Narrative are a reflection of FitzRoy’s obsession with catching the thieves and retrieving the whaleboat. The narrative goes something like this:

  • Find trace evidence of the whaleboat near a Yaghan campsite
  • Track down some local people who deny knowing anything
  • Recruit 1 or more Yaghans on board to help with the search
  • Yaghans escape (and often steal something else)
  • Crew unsuccessfully tries to recover runaways
  • FitzRoy looks for more evidence
  • Repeat

FitzRoy goes through this cycle several time over the course of a couple of months, justifying his obsession with that fact that the Beagle is in the area getting survey work done anyway. Yes – he was a man obsessed.

At first, he is pretty polite to the natives he found, often giving them clothing and “taking good care” of them in exchange for their help.  But the first time he tried this, the guides he recruited escaped in the night, running off with the coats and hats from the crew.

After that the relationship deteriorated, and FitzRoy started taking hostages as a way to keep the guides from running off. In one case, about 2 weeks into the search, he left a bunch of prisinors on the Beagle as collateral.  During the search the guides “escaped” and FitzRoy returned to the Beagle to find that all but three children who had been on the Beagle had also swam to shore and got away, as well.  By the end of the month FitzRoy lamented:

“Thus, after much trouble and anxiety, much valuable time lost, and as fine a boat of her kind as ever was seen being stolen from us by these savages, I found myself with three young children to take care of, and no prospect whatever of recovering the boat.”

At this point he decided it was time to have the ship’s carpenter begin building another whaleboat. He also realized that, if he wanted to have meaningful conversations with the Yaghan’s, he would need to learn to communicate:

“I became convinced that so long as we were ignorant of the Fuegian language, and the natives were equally ignorant of ours, we should never know much about them, or the interior of their country; nor would there be the slightest chance of their being raised one step above the low place which they then held in our estimation.”

Ultimately, FitzRoy would let 2 of the three children go, but one of them – who became known to the crew as Fuegia Basket after the makeshift canoe/basket described early – ended up remaining a hostage and ultimately returned to England with the Beagle.  Fuegia was one of the three Yaghan’s currently on board.

Fuegia Basket – sketch by Robert FitzRoy:

Fuegia Basket

Even though a month had passed, FitzRoy was by no means done searching for his boat. The saga continues…(RJV)


  1. […] – Read the story of Jemmy, York and Fuegia in Part I, Part II and Part III of The Beagle’s […]

  2. […] was named after Darwin’s ship captain on the HMS Beagle.  (Unfortunately, Fitzroy basically kidnapped several of the native Fuegian people during the first Beagle expedition.)  The peak serves as the […]

  3. […] “Convenci-me de que, enquanto formos ignorantes da língua fueguina, e os nativos forem igualmente ignorantes da nossa, não iremos nunca saber muito sobre eles, ou o interior do seu país; nem haverá a menor possibilidade de virem a ser elevados um degrau acima da baixa estima que nós temos por eles”. (Diário de bordo de FitzRoy) […]

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