Posted by: Rob Viens | March 15, 2014

Live Long and Prosper Jemmy Button

On March 5th the Beagle continued along the Southern coast of Tierra del Fuego in an effort to return to the site of the failed Christian mission. Everyone (no doubt) anticipated the reunion with the three Fugeians who had spent time in England (Jemmy Button, York Minster and Fuegia Basket) after having been away from them for a year. I’m sure that Captain FitzRoy was anxious to see how his “civilized Feugians” were doing back in their native environment – hoping that they had started to convert their tribesmen into “good Christians”.  But what he found was the exact opposite – York and Fuegia had run off with any valuables left by the Englishmen, and Jemmy had completely converted back to the lifestyle of the Yaghans. And even more amazingly (to the crew)– he was quite happy with having thrown off the shackles of “civilization” and had no desire to return to England. Darwin described the encounter in his diary over two days:

“In the morning, after anchoring in Ponsonby Sound we stood down to Wullia or Jemmy Buttons country. This being a populous part of the country, we were followed by seven canoes. — When we arrived at the old spot; we could see no signs of our friends, & we were the more alarmed, as the Fuegians made signs of fighting with their bows and arrows. — Shortly afterwards a canoe was seen coming with a flag hanging up: untill she was close alongside, we could not recognise poor Jemmy. It was quite painful to behold him; thin, pale, & without a remnant of clothes, excepting a bit of blanket round his waist: his hair, hanging over his shoulders; & so ashamed of himself, he turned his back to the ship as the canoe approached. When he left us he was very fat, & so particular about his clothese, that he was always afraid of even dirtying his shoes; scarcely ever without gloves & his hair neatly cut. — I never saw so complete & grievous a change. — When however he was clothed & the first flurry over, things wore a very good appearance. — He had plenty (or as he expressed himself too much) to eat. — was not cold; his friends were very good people; could talk a little of his own language! & lastly we found out in the evening (by her arrival) that he had got a young & very nice looking squaw. This he would not at first own to: & we were rather surprised to find he had not the least wish to return to England. Poor Jemmy with his usual good feeling brought two beautiful otter skins for two of his old friends & some spear heads & arrows of his own making for the Captain. — He had also built a canoe. —& is clearly now well established. The various things now given to him he will doubtless be able to keep. — The strangest thing is Jemmys difficulty in regaining his own language. — He seems to have taught all his friends some English. — When his wife came, an old man announced her, “as Jemmy Buttons wife”! — York Minster returned to his own country several month ago, & took farewell by an act of consummate villainy: He persuaded Jemmy & his mother to come to his country, when he robbed them of every thing & left them. — He appears to have treated Fuegia very ill.” (Mar 5)

Fuegians in Portrait Cove (by Conrad Martens)

Fuegians in Portrait Cove

“Jemmy went to sleep on shore but came in the morning for breakfast. — The Captain had some long conversations with him & extracted much curious information: they had left the old wigwams & crossed the water in order to be out of the reach of the Ohens men who came over the mountains to steal. They clearly are the tall men, the foot Patagonians of the East coast. — Jemmy staid on board fill the ship got under weigh, which frightened his wife so that she did not cease crying till he was safe out of the ship with all his valuable presents. — Every soul on board was as sorry to shake hands with poor Jemmy for the last time, as we were glad to have seen him. — I hope & have little doubt he will be as happy as if he had never left his country; which is much more than I formerly thought. — He lighted a farewell signal fire as the ship stood out of Ponsonby Sound, on her course to East Falkland Island.” (Mar 6)

I think this whole encounter had an impact on Darwin.  In the previous weeks he had written quite a bit about the pathetic state of the native people. But I think he started to realize that they were living a lifestyle that actually made sense in the climate and environment of Tierra del Fuego. The same sort of concept that he would later realize was true of all plants and animals that were well adapted to their environment. It must have been interesting to him when he realized that this concept also applied to humans.  Now, that being said, he still seems to have considered the locals a “lesser species of man”.  Even having had time to think about it for a few years, he still wrote (in Voyage of the Beagle) that the social structure of the Fuegians led them to be forever trapped in a “lesser state”.  He writes:

“The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes, must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so is it with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or a consequence, the more civilized always have the most artificial governments. For instance, the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders,—who, although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, such as the domesticated animals, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth given to one is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest his superiority and increase his power.

I believe, in this extreme part of South America, man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world. The South Sea Islanders of the two races inhabiting the Pacific, are comparatively civilized. The Esquimaux, in his subterranean hut, enjoys some of the comforts of life, and in his canoe, when fully equipped, manifests much skill. Some of the tribes of Southern Africa, prowling about in search of roots, and living concealed on the wild and arid plains, are sufficiently wretched. The Australian, in the simplicity of the arts of life, comes nearest the Fuegian: he can, however, boast of his boomerang, his spear and throwing-stick, his method of climbing trees, of tracking animals, and of hunting. Although the Australian may be superior in acquirements, it by no means follows that he is likewise superior in mental capacity: indeed, from what I saw of the Fuegians when on board, and from what I have read of the Australians, I should think the case was exactly the reverse.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Yes indeed, Darwin was a product of his times.  And although he made some progress in how he viewed indigenous people, his worldview about people did not change as radically as did his view of how new species are made.

AS for Jemmy – he continued to encounter European missionaries and travelers for several decades after saying goodbye to the Beagle.  I’m sure they were amazed to find a Yaghan speaking English in such a remote location.  Reports of Jemmy suggest that he died in 1866 – seven years after Darwin published his most famous book. There is no reason to believe that he even regretted returning to his people, though one has to wonder if he ever told his family about the poor Englishmen and their “lesser” way of life :).

One of the most famous painting of the voyage from Conrad Martens was the one showing the Beagle in Ponsonby Sound with, what some claim, is Jemmy Button waving goodbye:

Beagle in the Beagle Channel

Now it was time to head east to the Falkland Islands one more time… (RJV)

PS – Read the story of Jemmy, York and Fuegia in Part I, Part II and Part III of The Beagle’s Fuegians.



  1. […] “A perfeita igualdade entre os indivíduos que compõem as tribos Fueguinas, deve por um longo tempo retardar sua civilização. Como vemos os animais, cujo instinto os obriga a viver em sociedade e obedecer a um chefe, são mais susceptíveis a evoluir, e assim é também com as raças humanas. Queira olhemos como causa ou conseqüência, o mais civilizado sempre têm os governos mais artificiais. (…) Em Tierra del Fuego, até que algum chefe surja com potencial suficiente para assegurar qualquer vantagem adquirida, tais como os animais domesticados, parece quase impossível que o estado político do país possa ser melhorado. Atualmente, até mesmo um pedaço de tecido dado a um é rasgado em pedaços e distribuído; e nenhum indivíduo torna-se mais rico do que o outro. Por outro lado, é difícil entender como um chefe pode surgir até que exista propriedade de algum tipo pelo qual ele pudesse manifestar a sua superioridade e aumentar seu poder.” (Viagem do Beagle – Charles Darwin) […]

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