Posted by: Rob Viens | January 27, 2013

At Home in Woolya Cove

Last week, Darwin was busy helping the captain set up a new home for Matthews and the three Fuegians. They cruised up the Beagle Channel for several days looking for the “right place”. By nightfall of the 22nd, they were on the doorstep of the perfect site:

“At night we arrived at the junction with Ponsonby Sound; we took up our quarters with a family belonging to Jemmys or the Tekenika people. — They were quiet & inoffensive & soon joined the seamen round a blazing fire; although naked they streamed with perspiration at sitting so near to a fire which we found only comfortable. — They attempted to join Chorus with the songs; but the way in which they were always behind hand was quite laughable.— A canoe had to be despatched to spread the news & in the morning a large gang arrived.” (Jan 22)

Tierra del Fuego (modified from Google Maps) – The red line shows the path of the Beagle in the days leading up to January 23rd
Tierra del Fuego

On the 23rd they moved into Woolya Cove, located on the northeast side of Ponsonby Sound.  Darwin describes the morning – including the reintroduction of Jemmy to his family:

“We started, accompanied by 12 canoes, each holding 4 or 5 people, & turning down Ponsonby, soon left them far behind. — Jemmy Button now perfectly knew the way & he guided us to a quiet cove where his family used formerly to reside. We were sorry to find that Jemmy had quite forgotten his language, that is as far as talking, he could however understand a little of what was said. It was pitiable, but laughable, to hear him talk to his brother in English & ask him in Spanish whether he understood it. I do not suppose, any person exists with such a small stock of language as poor Jemmy, his own language forgotten, & his English ornamented with a few Spanish words, almost unintelligible. — Jemmy heard that his father was dead; but as he had had a “dream in his head” to that effect, he seemed to expect it & not much care about it. — He comforted himself with the natural reflection “me no help it”. — Jemmy could never find out any particulars about his father, as it is their constant habit, never to mention the dead. — We believe they are buried high up in the woods. — anyhow Jemmy will not eat land-birds, because they live on dead men. — This is one out of many instances where his prejudices are recollected, although language forgotten.

When we arrived at Woolliah (Jemmys cove) we found it far better suited for our purposes, than any place we had hitherto seen. — There was a considerable space of cleared & rich ground, & doubtless Europæan vegetables would flourish well. — We found a strange family living there, & having made them friends, they, in the evening, sent a canoe to Jemmys relations. — We remained in this place till the 27th, during which the labors of our little colony commenced.” (Jan 23)

Of particular interest is Darwin’s comments on the heightened senses of the Yaghan men. In his mind, their ability to see and hear things before anyone else was astounding:

“On the 24th the Fuegians began to pour in; Jemmys mother, brother, & uncle came; the meeting was not so interesting as that of two horses in a field. — The most curious part was the astonishing distance at which Jemmy recognized his brothers voice. To be sure, their voices are wonderfully powerful. — I really believe they could make themselves heard at treble the distance of an Englishmen. — All the organs of sense are highly perfected; sailors are well known for their good eyesight, & yet the Fuegians were as superior as another almost would be with a glass. — When Jemmy quarrelled with any of the officers, he would say “me see ship, me no tell”. — Both he & York have invariably been in the right; even when objects have been examined with a glass.” (Jan 23)

Over the course of several days the entire crew was focused on creating a settlement in Woolya Sound.  Darwin continued with a description of the construction, and the reaction of the natives to the “mad” Englishmen and their white skin.  Recall that the Yaghan did not make “permanent” settlements.

“Everything went on very peacibly for some days.— 3 houses were built, & two gardens dug & planted. — & what was of most consequence the Fuegians were very quiet & peacible; at one time there were about 120 of them. —the men sat all day long watching our proceedings & the poor women working like slaves for their subsistence. The men did not manifest much surprise at anything & never even appeared to look at the boats. — Stripping for washing & our white skins seemed most to excite their attention. — They asked for every thing they saw & stole what they could. — Dancing & singing absolutely delighted them. — Things thus remained so quiet, that others & myself took long walks in the surrounding hills & woods.” (Jan 23)

Woollya by T. Landseer

Woolya Cove

As the Beagle prepared to leave the lone missionary with the locals, Darwin did not hold out much hope for his success:

“All the goods were therefore moved to the houses, & Matthews & his companions prepared to pass rather an aweful night. — Matthews behaved with his usual quiet resolution: he is of an eccentric character & does not appear (which is strange) to possess much energy & I think it very doubtful how far he is qualified for so arduous an undertaking. — In the evening we removed to a cove a few miles distant & in the morning returned to the settlement.” (Jan 23)

In another day, Matthews would be on his own on the bottom of the world. (RJV)


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