Posted by: Rob Viens | January 19, 2013

The Beagle’s Fuegians Part III: There and Back Again

On January 18th 1833, Captain FitzRoy was making plans to “repatriate” Jemmy Button and his countrymen. Darwin’s short entry simply states:

“Spent in preparing for a long excursion in the boats. — In consequence, the Captain determined to take the whole party to J. Buttons country in Ponsonby Sound.” (Jan 17/18)

But like the recent film version of The Hobbit, the tale of the Fuegians (and the prequel to the Second Voyage of the Beagle) has a third and final chapter to tell.  So here goes:

When we last left the Beagle in 1830, it was bound for England with four native Yaghans on board. These travelers did not choose to go farther north than any Yaghan had ever gone before.  By some accounts they had been kidnapped and were taken with no real knowledge of where they were going. They were a type of “specimen”, taken by the captain to be put on display back home – much like Darwin’s collection of plants and animals.  Regardless of what one might think of his motives and the ethics of what he did, however, FitzRoy did make every effort to take care of his “guests” and make sure that they were returned safely home. Most of them did.

By the middle of June, the Beagle had crossed back through the Straits Le Maire and was heading north.  The first stop was Montevideo – almost certainly the first large “European” city the Fuegians had ever seen. To his credit, the first thing FitzRoy did was have the natives inoculated against small pox.

They continued north, stopping at Rio, and after about 4 months at sea returned to England, where FitzRoy had the Fuegians vaccinated a second time.  Unfortunately, this vaccination did not help Boat Memory.  A few months after arriving in England he contracted small pox.  All four Fuegians were moved to the Royal Naval Hospital for care.  Boat Memory didn’t make it.

The death of Boat hit FitRoy hard and he blamed himself for the young Yaghan’s death (he was estimated to be about 20 yrs old). But FitzRoy didn’t give up on his plan to show that these “savages” could be cleaned up, educated, and turned into proper British citizens.  He would progress with their training before returning them home to serve as translators and role models for their “less-civilized” countrymen. In addition, they would be taught Christianity, and also serve as missionaries in their own land (or so the plan went).

To this end, the three remaining Yaghans were moved to the Walthamstow Infants School – a school started by the Reverend William Wilson to educate young children in the ways of the christianity (oh, and to teach them reading and writing, too). Records show that Fuegia (age ~10) and Jemmy (~14) took to their lessons well, but that the older York (~26) was a troublemaker.  Who could blame him – he was sitting in a classroom 1000’s of miles from home, with 3 and 4 year olds. I would go insane if I had to spend the day as a “student” in my sons toddler class.

The Fuegians often accompanied FitzRoy on visits to affluent families (dressed as proper English citizens). The culmination of these visits was an audience with King William IV and Queen Adelaide.  It is said that Adelaide was so taken by little Fuegia Basket that she gave her one of her own bonnets and a ring (which Fuegia later took back home).

Queen Adelaide in 1831 by William Beechey and King William IV in 1833 by Martin Archer Shee

Queen AdelaideKing William IV

Although the original plan was to return the Yaghans to South America in a few years, less than a year had passed and FitzRoy was already looking to charter a boat to take them home.  Why exactly the schedule was “moved up” may never be known for certain, but rumor has it that it may have been due to an inappropriate relationship between York and Fuegia which could have resulted in a great deal of scandal.  In any case, FitzRoy was soon looking for a way back to Tierra del Fuego.

Various church groups raised some money for the trip and donated all sorts of blankets, tea sets, and fancy clothes for the natives to bring home, but it was FitzRoy who put up a large sum of money to charter a ship to take himself and the Fuegians back.  He even secured a 12-month leave from the Royal Navy to undergo the journey. Clearly FitzRoy was a man who followed through on his promises.

However, fate (or more likely good social connections) stepped in and the Admiralty decided to send a ship back to survey Tierra del Fuego – and, fortunately, decided to offer the command to Robert FitzRoy. They even agreed to let a missionary – Richard Matthews – come along to help the three “emissaries” set up a mission near Cape Horn. (Unfortunately, FitzRoy was out the large sum of money he put down as a down payment for the private ship he had already contracted.) By the end of 1831, York, Fuegia and Jemmy were on their way home.

By the way – although the Beagle’s crew gave all the Fuegians “pet names” that we still use today, some record remains of the “real names” of the Yaghans (unfortunately, Boat Memory’s names is lost to history).  These are:

  • el’leparu (Jemmy Button),
  • o’run-del’lico (York Minster), and
  • yok’cushly (Fuegia Basket)

Lastly, it was an effort to return Fuegia and York to the place where they were “taken” (near Christmas Sounds and Mount Desolation) that led to the Beagle‘s recent misadventures in Drake Passage.  After two weeks of storms in which the Beagle literally lost ground, it was probably a relief to the crew that Fuegia and York decided they would be more than happy to be left with Jemmy’s people east of Cape Horn.  This would later prove to be a “not-so-good” idea. But that really is another story… (RVJ)

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Responses

  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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