Posted by: Rob Viens | January 21, 2013

The Missionary Matthews

Over the weekend (back in 1833), FitzRoy continued to search for just the right place to set up his mission.  Darwin describes the search in some detail:

“In the morning, three whale-boats & the Yawl started with a fair wind. — We were 28 in number & the yawl carried the outfit given to Matthews by the Missionary society.” (Jan 19)

Richard Matthews was only 22 years old as the Beagle searched for just the right spot to “abandon” him at the “bottom of the Earth”. He was about to become the only “white” resident for many hundreds of miles, living along with the people of Jemmy Button’s tribe, and if all went according to plan, converting them all to Christianity. (There was supposed to be a second missionary, but (not surprisingly) no one else was interested in moving to Tierra del Fuego.) Richard Matthews would go on to live a long life serving the Anglican Church Mission Society, but he would never see England again. Without giving too much away regarding what would happen in Tierra del Fuego, I will note that he spent most of his career in  New Zealand, with his older brother Joseph (also a missionary).  Richard and Joseph both died there, well into their 80’s – almost living to see the 20th century. But for the moment, back to Tierra Del Fuego…

The Church Mission Society had equipped Matthews and the Fuegians will all sorts of “civilized” items to use at the mission.  Ironically, all of these “useful” items had been taking up useful space on the Beagle for over a year.  Darwin did not think too highly of this:

“The choice of articles showed the most culpable folly & negligence. Wine glasses, butter-bolts, tea-trays, soup turins, mahogany dressing case, fine white linen, beavor hats & an endless variety of similar things shows how little was thought about the country where they were going to. The means absolutely wasted on such things would have purchased an immense stock of really useful articles.” (Jan 19)

However, Darwin did think quite highly of the scenery, as the crew entered the Beagle Channel – named back in the spring of 1830 on the first voyage of the little survey ship.

“Our course lay towards the Eastern entrance of the Beagle channel & we entered it in the afternoon. — The scenery was most curious & interesting; the land is indented with numberless coves & inlets, & as the water is always calm, the trees actually stretch their boughs over the salt water. In our little fleet we glided along, till we found in the evening a corner snugly concealed by small islands. — Here we pitched our tents & lighted our fires. — nothing could look more romantic than this scene. — the glassy water of the cove & the boats at anchor; the tents supported by the oars & the smoke curling up the wooded valley formed a picture of quiet & retirement.” (Jan 19)

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego by Conrad Martens

Beagle in Tierra del Fuego

The next day the curious inhabitants of the region signaled the arrival of the Beagle as it cruised up its namesake waterway.  The arrival of the ship caused quite a stir:

“We began to enter to day the parts of the country which is thickly inhabited. — As the channel is not generally more than three or 4 miles broard, the constant succession of fresh objects quite takes away the fatigue of sitting so many hours in one position. — The Beagle channel was first discovered by Cap FitzRoy during the last voyage, so that it is probable the greater part of the Fuegians had never seen Europæans. — Nothing could exceed their astonishment at the apparition of our four boats: fires were lighted on every point to attract our attention & spread the news. — Many of the men ran for some miles along the shore. — I shall never forget how savage & wild one group was. — Four or five men suddenly appeared on a cliff near to us. — they were absolutely naked & with long streaming hair; springing from the ground & waving their arms around their heads, they sent forth most hideous yells. Their appearance was so strange, that it was scarcely like that of earthly inhabitants.

We landed at dinner time; the Fuegians were not at first inclined to be friendly, for till one boat pulled in before the others, they kept their slings in readiness:— We soon delighted them by trifling presents such as tying red tape round the forehead; it is very easy to please but as difficult to make them content; the last & first word is sure to be “Yammerschooner” which means “give me”.  At night we in vain endeavoured to find an uninhabited cove; the natives being few in number were quiet & inoffensive” (Jan 20)

The search for the perfect spot would have to wait another day… (RJV)


  1. I am interested in Richard Matthews because he was my great great grandfather. My mother Ellen Blomfield Draper was descended from his youngest daughter Ellen Matthews.
    Olive Piper

  2. […] principal da viagem era o estabelecimento da Sociedade da Igreja Missioneira, pelo missionário Richard Matthews, de 22 anos de idade, que durante a toda a viagem de volta continuou doutrinando os índios na […]

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