Posted by: Rob Viens | February 7, 2013

Mission Impossible

Well – after three years of preparation, Captain FitzRoy returned to Woolya Cove on February 6th to find that after just a couple of weeks, the Tierra del Fuego Mission was a failure. Even Matthews, who had committed his life to missionary work, was ready to return to the ship and call it a bust.  Darwin describes the situation:

“Arrived at the Settlement. — Matthews gave so bad an account of the conduct of the Fuegians that the Captain advised him to return to the ship. — From the moment of our leaving, a regular system of plunder commenced, in which not only Matthews, but York & Jemmy suffered. Matthews had nearly lost all his things; & the constant watching was most harassing & entirely prevented him from doing anything to obtain food &c. Night & day large parties of the natives surrounded his house. — (Note in margin: They tryed to tire him out by making incess noises.) One day, having requested an old man to leave the place, he returned with a large stone in his hand: Another day, a whole party advanced with stones & stakes, & some of the younger men & Jemmys brother were crying. — Matthews thought it was only to rob him & he met them with presents. — I cannot help thinking that more was meant. — They showed by signs they would strip him & pluck all the hairs out of his face & body. — I think we returned just in time to save his life. — The perfect equality of all the inhabitants will for many years prevent their civilization: even a shirt or other article of clothing is immediately torn into pieces. — Until some chief rises, who by his power might be able to keep to himself such presents as animals &c &c, there must be an end to all hopes of bettering their condition. — It would not have been so bad if all the plunder had remained in one family or tribe. — But there was a constant succession of fresh canoes, & each one returned with something. — Jemmys own relations were absolutely so foolish & vain, as to show to strangers what they had stolen & the method of doing it.” (Feb 6)

Fuegian Village from an earlier edition of Voyage of the Beagle – artist  unknown:

Fuegian Village

Although Matthews had decided to leave, the newly repatriated Yaghans would be staying in their homeland. Darwin feared for the three Fuegians who had been “civilized” – believing that they were now above the rude savages who stole goods, trampled gardens, and plucked a person’s hairs out one by one. Yet, it was deemed (by choice I suspect) that they would remain with their countrymen:

“It was quite melancholy leaving our Fuegians amongst their barbarous countrymen: there was one comfort; they appeared to have no personal fears. — But, in contradiction of what has often been stated, 3 years has been sufficient to change savages, into, as far as habits go, complete & voluntary Europæans. — York, who was a full grown man & with a strong violent mind, will I am certain in every respect live as far as his means go, like an Englishman. — Poor Jemmy, looked rather disconsolate, & certainly would have liked to have returned with us; he said “they were all very bad men, no sabe nothing”. —Jemmys own brother had been stealing from him as Jemmy said, “what fashion do you call that”. — I am afraid whatever other ends their excursion to England produces, it will not be conducive to their happiness. — They have far too much sense not to see the vast superiority of civilized over uncivilized habits; & yet I am afraid to the latter they must return. ” (Feb 6)

And on that note, the whaleboats full of travelers from the other side of the Earth headed back to their ship to continue their work, and left the group of natives to live as they had always lived before (with the addition of a few newly procured tea sets and silk sheets):

“We took Matthews & some of the clothes, which he had buried in the boat & made sail: The Captain to save time determined to go to the South & outside of Navarin Island, instead of our returning by the Beagle channel. We slept at night in the S. entrance of Ponsonby Sound, & in the morning started for the ship.

There was a fresh breeze & a good deal of sea, rather more than is pleasant for a boat. So that on reaching in the evening the Beagle, there was the pleasure of smooth water joined to that of returning after 20 days absence. — The distance we have run in the boats has been about 300 miles & as it was in a East & West direction it afforded an excellent geological section of the country.” (Feb 6)

Makes you sort of wonder what happened to all of those china teapots and vanity mirrors that were donated to the mission.  Are some of them still out there – just waiting to be found by an eccentric collector?  Or are their broken chips mixed with mussel shells in the middens of Tierra del Fuego? Just waiting to confuse some future archeologist with the juxtaposition of two very different cultures. (RJV)

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