Posted by: Rob Viens | January 18, 2013

The Beagle’s Fuegians Part II: York Minster, Boat Memory and Jemmy Button

No word from Darwin on the 17th – so back to the story of the Fuegians:

As February turned into March 1830, FitzRoy continued to search for the thieves who stole his whaleboat. By now he was fed up and wanted nothing to do with showing any hospitality to the natives. But it did not take long for the Yaghans to find him:

“Some Fuegians in a canoe approached us this morning, seeming anxious to come on board. I had no wish for their company, and was sorry to see that they had found us out; for it was to be expected that they would soon pay us nightly as well as daily visits, and steal every thing left within their reach.”

However, while chasing them off, FitzRoy had a revelation:

“Reflecting, while Mr. Wilson was following them, that by getting one of these natives on board, there would be a chance of his learning enough English to be an interpreter, and that by his means we might recover our lost boat, I resolved to take the youngest man on board, as he, in all probability, had less strong ties to bind him to his people than others who were older, and might have families.”

So FitzRoy “kidnapped” another Yaghan. This was the second Fuegian who would ultimately return with the captain to England later in the year. The crew named him York Minster, since we was brought on board in the shadow of the prominent cliff of the same name (described a couple of entries ago).

York Minster by Robert FitzRoy

York Minster

A few days later, the Beagle caught up with a group of locals who the captain believed had a connection with the men who stole the boat, and a minor conflict ensued.  During the struggle, he took yet another prisinor – a young boy who FitzRoy called “Boat Memory”, after the lost boat. (Again, the captain was clearly obsessed with that d@*m whaleboat.) “Boat” was the third Fuegian that FitzRoy would ultimately take back to England with him.  The ship was starting to get crowded with “guests”…

Eventually though, it became clear even to FitzRoy that the boat was gone, and it was time to “cut their losses” and move on.  So by the end of the month of March, after the new whaleboat was finished and the area had been surveyed to his satisfaction, FitzRoy decided to head back around the horn and into the Atlantic. Survey work continued and FitzRoy continued to mention his “passengers” – how they were learning English, getting along with one another and generally “happy”.  On one occasion the crew meet some other Yaghan people. Fuegia, York and Boat reacted as if these people were enemies – indicating that there were separate tribes within the Yaghan people:

“At first, ‘York’ and ‘Boat’ would not go near them; but afterwards took delight in trying to cheat them out of the things they offered to barter; and mocked their way of speaking and laughing; pointing at them, and calling them ‘Yapoo, yapoo.’ ‘Fuegia’ went on deck; but the instant she saw them, screamed and ran away. Some one told her, in jest, to go into their canoe and live with them, which frightened her so much, that she burst into tears and ran below to hide herself. After they were gone, ‘Boat’ and ‘York’ made us understand they had had fights with that tribe, and shewed the scars of wounds received from them.”

FitzRoy was fascinated by these relationships and wrote about them often.

Come May, the Beagle was close to its current (Jan 17, 1833) location when several canoes came up along side the captain’s boat to trade.  FitzRoy notes:

“Afterwards we continued our route, but were stopped when in sight of the Narrow by three canoes full of natives, anxious for barter. We gave them a few beads and buttons, for some fish; and, without any previous intention, I told one of the boys in a canoe to come into our boat, and gave the man who was with him a large shining mother-of-pearl button. The boy got into my boat directly, and sat down. Seeing him and his friends seem quite contented, I pulled onwards, and, a light breeze springing up, made sail.”

And just like that, a fourth Fuegian had “joined the crew”.  This young boy, became known as Jemmy Button, after the “trade” that precipitated his coming on board.

Jemmy Button by Robert FitzRoy

Jemmy Button

By this time the captain had no intention of trading Fuegians for his lost whaleboat – he was now 100’s of kilometers from where the theft had occurred, and Jemmy’s people were from a different tribe of Yaghans. But there was an idea forming in his head that would seal their fate. On June 10, 1830, the captain reveals his intentions:

“I had previously made up my mind to carry the Fuegians, whom we had with us, to England; trusting that the ultimate benefits arising from their acquaintance with our habits and language, would make up for the temporary separation from their own country. But this decision was not contemplated when I first took them on board; I then only thought of detaining them while we were on their coasts; yet afterwards finding that they were happy and in good health, I began to think of the various advantages which might result to them and their countrymen, as well as to us, by taking them to England, educating them there as far as might be practicable, and then bringing them back to Tierra del Fuego. These ideas were confirmed by finding that the tribes of Fuegians, eastward of Christmas Sound, were hostile to York Minster’s tribe, and that therefore we could not, in common humanity, land them in Nassau Bay or near the Strait of Le Maire. Neither could I put the boy ashore again, when once to the eastward of Nassau Bay, without risking his life; hence I had only the alternative of beating to the westward, to land them in their own districts, which circumstances rendered impracticable, or that of taking them to England. In adopting the latter course I incurred a deep responsibility, but was fully aware of what I was undertaking.”

And that is how four natives from the “southernmost people” in the word ended up traveling north many thousands of miles to meet the Queen of England.  More to come… (RJV)


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

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