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Darwin and the Fuegians

by Russell Grigg

Published: 19 May 2009(GMT+10)


Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

In his 1871 book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin cited the Fuegians as evidence to support of his two-fold thesis, that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” and that “we are descended from barbarians”.1

This was a considerable stimulus to racism in the 19th and 20th centuries. So who were the Fuegians, and why did Darwin regard them the way he did?

The Fuegians were the original four tribal groups2 who inhabited the islands which form the southernmost tip of South America, called Tierra del Fuego, meaning “land of fire”. It was named “land of smoke” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 for the hundreds of beach fires he observed, which the natives kept burning to keep themselves warm in the freezing climate and for cooking their staple diet of shellfish and seafish. This was later changed to the more exotic “land of fire”, reputedly by Charles I of Spain.3 Charles Darwin came into contact with the Fuegians because of the missionary zeal of Captain Robert FitzRoy.

FitzRoy’s Fuegian hostages

Map of Tierra Del Fuego

Map of Tierra Del Fuego (click map to enlarge)

In 1829, FitzRoy, in command of HMS Beagle, was exploring the waterways of the area. One night, some Fuegian natives managed to steal the ship’s auxiliary whaleboat, which a seven-man survey team had earlier beached so that they could find shelter from a sudden storm. The stranded sailors used branches and their canvas tent to make a large basket in which they paddled back to the Beagle. The theft precipitated a frantic but fruitless search by FitzRoy and crew, as the boat was needed for surveying the many channels too small for the larger Beagle to navigate.

In retaliation, FitzRoy took several Fuegians hostage on board the Beagle. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, comments: “Unfortunately such disciplinary measures were lost on the Fuegians, who proceeded to make a farce of the affair when the adult prisoners, after eating the best meal of their lives, jumped overboard and swam home … .”4

FitzRoy ended up with a girl, two young men, and a boy who (allegedly) was acquired at the cost of a large mother-of-pearl button. The sailors named these people appropriately Fuegia Basket, Boat Memory, York Minster5 and Jemmy Button. FitzRoy decided to take them to England for education before returning them to their homeland as part of an “evangelical experiment”.6

On arrival in England, Boat Memory promptly died of smallpox, despite (or perhaps because of) receiving a fresh vaccination. The others were educated, civilized, anglicized and “Christianized” by being taught English, gardening, husbandry, and “the plainer truths of Christianity”. This environmental refinement proved so successful that in mid-1831, the Fuegians were presented to King William IV and Queen Adelaide of Great Britain.

Darwin meets the Fuegians

Sketch by FitzRoy

York Minster

York Minster

On 27th December 1831, FitzRoy again left England aboard the Beagle on a research journey around the world. Another purpose was to return the three surviving Fuegians to their own country, where FitzRoy hoped they would be missionaries to their own people. With them was “their minder, Richard Matthews, a trainee missionary himself”. Also aboard was Charles Darwin in his role as gentleman companion to the captain and unofficial naturalist. He thus had his first encounter with Fuegians—as people of sufficiently appropriate graces and deportment to have been presented at Court in England.

Sketch by FitzRoy

Jemmy Button

Jemmy Button

In his Journal (or Voyage of the Beagle, his account of this voyage), Darwin described them as follows, “York Minster was a full-grown, short, thick, powerful man: his disposition was reserved, taciturn, morose, and when excited violently passionate; his affections were very strong towards a few friends on board; his intellect good. Jemmy Button was a universal favourite, but likewise passionate; the expression of his face at once showed his nice disposition. He was merry and often laughed, and was remarkably sympathetic with anyone in pain: when the water was rough, I was often a little seasick, and he used to come to me and say in a plaintive voice, ‘Poor, poor fellow!’ … Jemmy was short, thick, and fat, but vain of his personal appearance: he used always to wear gloves, his hair was neatly cut, and he was distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied.”7

Sketch by FitzRoy

Fuegia Basket

Fuegia Basket

This latter fastidiousness duplicated Darwin’s own concern for his footware. When he was a student at Cambridge University, Darwin paid up to 7 shillings a quarter to have his shoes blacked!8 Jemmy had become quite the proper middle-class English gent!

“Fuegia Basket was a nice, modest reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression, and very quick at learning anything, especially languages. This she showed in picking up some Portuguese and Spanish, when left on shore for only a short time at Rio de Janeiro and Monte Video, and in her knowledge of English.” Darwin also noted, “Their sight was remarkably acute: it is well known that sailors, from long practice, can make out a distant object much better than a landsman; but both York and Jemmy were much superior to any sailor on board.”

These descriptions compare strangely with Darwin’s ignorant, derogatory, and racist comments in the same Journal concerning the Fuegians he encountered when the Beagle reached Tierra del Fuego a year later in December 1832. He constantly described them as “savages” or “barbarians”, and often compared them unfavourably with animals.

He wrote: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement. … Their skin is of a dirty coppery red colour. … The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischutz.”9

… “These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked of these barbarians! At night … [they] sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.”10


HMS Beagle being hailed by Fuegians, painted by FitzRoy’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens

HMS Beagle being hailed by Fuegians, painted by FitzRoy’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens (click painting to enlarge)

Darwin even regarded them as objects of entertainment and diversion. In a letter of 23 May 1833 to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, he wrote: “In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.—A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.”11

Darwin’s last encounter with Jemmy was in March 1834, after Jemmy had been living with his own people again for over a year. “On the 5th of March we anchored in the cove at Woollya … Soon a canoe, with a little flag flying, was seen approaching, with one of the men in it washing the paint off his face. This man was poor Jemmy, now a thin haggard savage, with long disordered hair, and naked, except for a bit of a blanket round his waist … We had left him plump, fat, clean, and well dressed—I never saw so complete and grievous a change. … he appears to have taught all his tribe some English: an old man spontaneously announced ‘Jemmy Button’s wife’.” Then, when Jemmy returned to the shore, “he lighted a signal fire, and the smoke curled up, bidding us a last and long farewell, as the ship stood on her course into the open sea.”12


Because of what FitzRoy told him, Darwin erroneously believed that the Fuegians practised cannibalism. He wrote in his Journal: “The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low [a Scottish sealer], and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, "Doggies catch otters, old women no.”

Darwin constantly described them as ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’, and often compared them unfavourably with animals.

Researcher Anne Chapman comments: “It is truly amazing that Darwin regarded Jemmy, FitzRoy’s informant on cannibalism, as a reliable source, because he [Darwin] stated that it was ‘singularly difficult to obtain much information from them [Jemmy and York], concerning the habits of their countrymen.’ Also, ‘it was generally impossible to find out, by cross-questioning, whether one had rightly understood anything which they had asserted.’ Moreover, he knew that Bob, Low’s informant on cannibalism, was ‘called a liar, which in truth he was.’”13

Chapman continues: “Darwin had reasons to doubt the veracity of Bob’s and Jemmy’s stories but he didn’t. The vision of old women being devoured was too powerful for him to resist. Moreover, cannibalism was expected among a people at such a ‘low level’ of humanity, and this may also explain why he was so credulous.” Indeed, Darwin could not resist the temptation of including this unsavoury tidbit in Chapter 1 of his Origin of Species, for the supercilious benefit of his 19th-century readers. He wrote: “We see the value set on animals even by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth, as of less value than their dogs.”14

Darwin wrote: ‘In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.— A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.’

Leonard Engel, editor of the 1962 edition of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, corrected Darwin’s error about the old women. He wrote: “Unfortunately both Darwin and FitzRoy were misled on the point, for the Fuegians were not cannibals and honoured rather than ate their old women. Old women were in demand as second and third wives … because of their experience in the management of canoes and many duties performed by the Fuegian wife. … ”15

This charge of cannibalism is further refuted by Lucas Bridges, son of Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary to the Fuegians from 1871 to 1886. Lucas was born and brought up in Tierra del Fuego and so spent many years of his life in daily contact with the Yahgan people and thoroughly understood their culture. By way of explanation for this shocking mistake he suggests that “when questioned, York Minster, or Jemmy Button, would not trouble in the least to answer truthfully, but would merely give the reply that he felt was expected or desired. … So the statements with which these young men and little Fuegia Basket have been credited were, in fact, no more than agreement with suggestions made by their questioners.”16


Concerning their language, Darwin wrote: “The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain Cook has compared it to a man clearing his throat,17 but certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural and clicking sounds.” And in a letter of July 23, 1834 to C. Whitley he said: “There is in their countenances an expression which I believe, to those who have not seen it, must be inconceivably wild. Standing on a rock he [a Fuegian] uttered tones and made gesticulations than which, the cries of domestic animals are far more intelligible.”18

Thomas Bridges’ Yahgan phonetic alphabet

Thomas Bridges’ Yahgan phonetic alphabet (click image to enlarge)

Lucas Bridges was bilingual in Yahgan and English. He wrote: “The belief that the Fuegians were cannibals was not the only mistake Charles Darwin made about them. Listening to their speech, he got the impression that they were repeating the same phrases over and over again, and therefore came to the conclusion that something like one hundred words would cover the whole language. We who learned as children to speak Yahgan knew that, within its own limitation, it is infinitely richer and more expressive than English or Spanish. My father’s Yahgan (or Yamana)-English Dictionary … contains no fewer than 32,000 words and inflections, the number of which might have been greatly increased without departing from correct speech.”19,20

Bridges tells us, “The Yahgans had, at the very least, five names for ‘snow.’ For ‘beach’ they had even more, depending on … the position of the beach in relation to that of the speaker, the direction in which it faced, whether the speaker had land or water between it and himself—and so on. … For family relationships … the Yahgans had as many as fifty different words, each descriptive of a particular, and often involved, relationship.”21

Interestingly, Lucas quotes an article by his father which was published in The Standard on September 6, 1886. “Incredible though it may appear, the language of one of the poorest tribes of men, without any literature, without poetry, song, history or science, may yet through the nature of its structure and its necessities have a list of words and a style of structure surpassing that of other tribes far above them in the arts and comforts of life.” And on another occasion he wrote, “Owing to the eminently social life of the people who spend so large a part of their lives in talking and, both men and women, in giving lengthy harangues … they perfectly keep up the knowledge of their language and early learn to speak it well.”22

The Fuegians and Christianity

Although Captain FitzRoy’s ambition of converting Fuegia, York and Jemmy by having them taught “the plainer truths of Christianity” in England failed, the gospel did come to Tierra del Fuego. But not easily. There followed abortive attempts by missionaries to settle there—Richard Matthews in 1833, and Allen Gardiner in 1845, 1848 and 1850. Gardiner founded the Patagonian Missionary Society (renamed the South American Missionary Society or SAMS in 1864). In 1851, Gardiner and six other missionaries died from starvation (as a result of the hostility of the natives), when their supply ship was two months late in arriving, and eight other missionaries were massacred in 1859.

Then from 1862 Waite Hockin Stirling established contact with the Yahgan and other Fuegian tribes. By 1869 “over four hundred Indians had been baptized into the Church of our Lord and Saviour”.23 When news of this reached Darwin, he was so impressed he sent off a cheque for £5 to SAMS.

Unfortunately, today, due to their lack of immunity to epidemics of smallpox, measles, influenza and other diseases brought by European whalers, sealers, gold miners, farmers and others, coupled with the effects of colonization, the Yahgan have become virtually extinguished as a people.

Darwin’s erroneous and racist conclusions

In chapter 21 of his Descent of Man, “General Summary and Conclusion”, Darwin wrote, “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped probably arboreal in its habits and an inhabitant of the Old World.” He continued, “The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to say, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians.”

In support of this Darwin then reiterated his assessment of the Fuegians. He wrote, “The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Feugians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey … or from that old baboon … as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

An alternative, less prejudiced assessment

Darwin’s fellow countryman, English explorer William Parker Snow, visited Tierra del Fuego in 1855 and, without Darwin’s racist and evolutionary presuppositions, came to some very different conclusions about the Fuegians. While noting their unkempt physical appearance and primitive habits, he wrote “ … many of the Fuegians on the Eastern Islands were fine and some of them even handsome fellows. This I know to be rather different to what Mr. Darwin says of them: but I can only speak as I found, and thus mention what I myself saw.” He further observed that they “reside in families”, and said, “I saw many instances of warm love and affection for their children and for each other”.24

Snow wrote that the modest conduct of the women was very remarkable, and all of the Fuegian mothers were much attached to their babies. He continued, “I believe they have a sort of property right amongst them, and I have seen one of the oldest women exercising authority over the rest of her people. Wanting to buy a canoe, it was refused me on the ground that it belonged to her, and she would not part with it.”

Snow concluded, “The actual difference between a savage and a civilized man is simply the degree of cultivation given to the mind. In all other respects the savage at home is identical with the savage abroad.” And, “In speaking of these savages, I cannot help saying that I do not consider them so degraded as many persons do. I look from effect to cause, and thus trace their present condition to the nature of circumstances.”

Darwin, how could you be so wrong, wrong, wrong?

  1. From among the people you labelled as “barbarians” you got to know only three well, York, Fuegia, and Jemmy, and you variously described these folk as being of good intellect, of nice disposition, and very quick at learning anything, especially languages such as English, Portuguese and Spanish. You even said that one of them was remarkably sympathetic to you when you were seasick! Yet you chose to ignore all this. Why?
  2. English explorer W.P. Snow visited Tierra del Fuego in 1855 and wrote: ‘In their rude state wild men often fancy themselves our superiors in many things, and to rightly deal with them we must show that we can hunt, fish, sing, talk, dance, and endure hardship as well as they.’

  3. You chose to disregard the evidence of the effect of environment on these three Fuegians, who in England adopted the lifestyle of the English gentry, but back in their own environment reverted to their more appropriate native lifestyle to enable them to cope with the conditions. As to their nakedness which to you was evidence of barbarism, Lucas Bridges says, “As they lived almost entirely on fish and limpets, they had very few skins with which to clothe themselves.”25
  4. Did you not know that FitzRoy “forbade his sailors to wrestle with the natives, who, being the stronger would learn to despise the white man”!25 This and the fact that English missionaries found it extraordinarily difficult to live there compared to how well the natives coped, support W.P. Snow’s conclusion: ‘In their rude state wild men often fancy themselves our superiors in many things, and to rightly deal with them we must show that we can hunt, fish, sing, talk, dance, and endure hardship as well as they.” Could you have done this, Charles?
  5. You failed to take into account the historical account in the Bible that man was highly civilized at first and was involved in urbanization, agriculture, animal domestication, metallurgy and the use of musical instruments, as recorded in Genesis 4:17–22, all of which are aspects of modern culture. The reversion of the three Fuegians to their native lifestyle does not show that they or their fellows were “barbarians”. If anything, it illustrates how some people groups dispersing from Babel (Genesis 11) could have lost some of their expertise (while gaining other skills needed for them to survive in their new environments).
  6. The conversion to Christianity of hundreds of Fuegians, which so impressed you at the time, shows two things:
    1. It is consistent with the biblical record that all people are “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26; 1 Corinthians 11:7)—how could an animal be converted to Christianity?
    2. It is not “civilizing” that people need, but the “new birth” (John 3:3). And this applies to everybody!

    Photo by Sam Scott

    The wreck of MV Logos can still be seen in Beagle Channel

    The wreck of MV Logos can still be seen in Beagle Channel today (click photo to enlarge)

    Shipwreck in the Beagle Channel

    The Beagle Channel is a strait separating islands of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago. It is about 240 kilometres (150 miles) long and is about 5 kilometres (3 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific oeans, and so allows ships to avoid going round Cape Horn. It was named after HMS Beagle during FitzRoy’s first survey of the area from 1826 to 1830.

    On January 5, 1988 MV Logos ran aground on rocks in this channel, in atrocious weather conditions. Although the ship could not be saved, no crewmembers were lost or injured. The shipwreck is still visible and has become something of a tourist attraction over the years.

    The Logos was a floating and travelling Christian bookshop and missionary base for evangelism operated by Operation Mobilization. Over a 17-year period, more than seven million people visited the Logos during 250 ports of call in 102 countries. Later in 1988 it was replaced by the Logos 2.


    1. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man (1871), John Murray, London, 1887, pp. 609 and 618–19. Return to text.
    2. These were the Yamana (also known as Yahgan), the Alakaluf, the Selk’nam (also known as Onas, but called Oens-men by Jemmy Button), and the Haush; each group had their own language. Source: Chapman, Anne, Darwin in Tierra del Fuego, Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires, 2006, pp. 7–8. Return to text.
    3. Since 1881 Argentina has owned the eastern third; the western two-thirds belongs to Chile. Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost inhabited land in the world, and so the closest to Antarctica. The extreme tip is called Cape Horn, notorious for its treacherous rocks, violent winds and mountainous waves. There are very few days without rain, slush, hail or snow. Return to text.
    4. Himmelfarb, G., Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Chatto & Windus, London, 1959, p. 55. Return to text.
    5. Because he had been captured near a rock formation to which Capt. James Cook had earlier given this name for its resemblance to the multi spires of York Minster, the huge gothic cathedral in York, England. Return to text.
    6. According to Desmond, A. and Moore, J., Darwin, Penguin Books, London, 1992, p. 106. Return to text.
    7. Darwin, C., The Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of HMS Beagle Round the World, Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy , RN, (1845), Wordsworth Classics reprint, London, 1997, p 198–99. Return to text.
    8. Worth about £25 in today’s money. Source: Darwin Online: Darwin’s student bills at Christ’s College, Cambridge 22 April 2009 Return to text.
    9. Ref. 7, p. 196 Return to text.
    10. Ref. 7, pp. 203–04. Return to text.
    11. Darwin Correspondence Project-Letter 207. Return to text.
    12. Ref. 7, pp. 217–18. Return to text.
    13. Chapman, A., Ref. 2, p. 48. Chapman is quoting Darwin’s Journal, Ref. 7, p. 199. Return to text.
    14. Darwin, C., The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, 1st edition, Penguin Books reprint, 1968, p. 94. Return to text.
    15. Darwin, C., Voyage … , 1962 edition, edited by Leonard Engel, pp. 214–15, note 4. Return to text.
    16. Bridges, L., Uttermost Part of the Earth, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1948, pp. 33–36, 166–67. Return to text.
    17. Capt. Cook visited Cape Horn in January 1769. Return to text.
    18. C. Darwin to C. Whitley, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol 1, pp. 226–27, D. Ap[pleton, New York, 1911. Return to text.
    19. Ref. 16, p. 34 Return to text.
    20. Thomas Bridges’ 32,000-word Yahgan–English Dictionary was deposited with the British Museum in 1951. Return to text.
    21. Ref. 16, pp. 34–35, footnote 1. Return to text.
    22. Ref. 16, pp. 530–31. Return to text.
    23. According to the booklet Captain Allen Gardiner and other Missionary Heroes of SAMS. Return to text.
    24. Snow, W.P., A few remarks on the Wild Tribes of Tierra del Fuego from Personal Observation, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Vol. 1, 1861, pp. 261–67. Return to text.
    25. Ref. 16, p. 62. Return to text.
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