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Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button
Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button
Nick Hazlewood
Thomas Dunne Books, 2023
320 pp., 29.95

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David N. Livingstone


Mission Run Amok

From savagery to civilization…and back again.

Early in 1870, Bartholomew Sulivan—a prominent member of the Patagonian Missionary Society, recently renamed the South American Missionary Society—received a letter from one of England's foremost natural historians. "The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms me," the famous scientist wrote. "It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society."

Nearly 40 years had elapsed since the writer of these words first found himself among the native peoples of the "Land of Fire." At that stage what impressed him most was their savage state. As the survey vessel, crammed to the teeth with scientific instruments, including 22 chronometers, pulled away from the shores of Tierra del Fuego for the last time in early March 1834, the naturalist recalled his impressions of the indigenous inhabitants. They were, he mused, "in a more miserable state of barbarism, than I had expected ever to have seen a human being." Years later that initial impression still lingered. In 1862 he told the author Charles Kingsley, that when he "first saw in Tierra del Fuego a naked, painted, shivering hideous savage" it suddenly struck him that his "ancestors must have been somewhat similar beings"—an altogether "revolting" thought. "The Fuegians rank amongst the lowest barbarians" he wrote in 1871. "For my own part," he continued, "I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper … as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions."

The naturalist in question, of course, was Charles Darwin, and his interest in the Patagonian Mission expressed a rather forlorn hope that the Fuegians might, after all, be humanized. Not that such an aspiration was entirely without foundation. To be sure, he told the readers of his Descent of Man of his astonishment "on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore … for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors." But in that very same year—1871—one of his correspondents, Rev. Thomas Bridges, who provided Darwin with answers to a variety of queries about Fuegian habits and customs, stepped off the Allen Gardiner with his wife and young daughter to begin a 13-year stint at Ushuaia, a mission station on the southern fringes of the island.

The adopted son of Despard Bridges, the first mission superintendent of the region, Thomas had already spent much of his early life in that part of the world prior to returning to the South Atlantic in holy orders and with a hitherto untraveled wife. During these years he acquired an unprecedented knowledge of the local language—Yamana—and began to dispel many of the myths that had grown up about the Fuegians. For a start, their language was infinitely more complex than anyone had imagined. Whereas the English language had some 25 words for family relationships, for example, Yamana had over sixty. Moreover, Yamana had more inflections than Greek and far greater economy of expression than many other languages. All this was a far cry from the assertions of earlier visitors that Yamana speech amounted to no more than a few hundred grunts. Besides this, Bridges reported that talk of cannibalism was entirely without foundation, for, as he informed the English Literary Society of Buenos Aires in 1888, the practice violated the basic laws of Fuegian society, which regarded human life as sacred. All in all, his research revealed far greater sophistication and social organization among the Fuegians than European naturalists had thus far discerned.

Evidence supporting the possibility of Fuegian "improvement," however, did not rest solely on these most recent linguistic disclosures. Darwin himself had already been witness to one of the most remarkable experiments in social theory a half-century earlier. This was the case of Jemmy Button, whose life-story provides Nick Hazlewood with the narrative peg on which to hang his account of the British encounter with Tierra del Fuego. It is a tale—well told in the main—about social advancement and regression; the fragility of civilization; the poignant fate of first nations; and the ambition, heroism, and duplicity of seafaring naturalists, evangelical missionaries, imperialist colonizers, and native peoples alike. Hazlewood's account is not without blemishes, but it is undoubtedly an arresting story and the major landmarks on the horizon are worth recounting in a little detail.

In 1826, HMS Beagle had left England for the South Atlantic. Its mission at least in part was to carry out astronomical observations in order to plot accurate longitudinal positions for the city of Monte Video and the Cape of Santa Maria. By this stage, Tierra del Fuego already occupied the European psyche in the form of a fearful imagined geography. Its reputation found expression in the toponymic terror of such locations as Fury Island, Useless Bay, Port Famine, Devil Island, and the like. By May of 1830, the vessel had found its way to the territory of the Yamana people, and it was here that the ship's evangelical and betimes tyrannical Captain Robert FitzRoy, still in his mid-twenties, picked up several new passengers. One was a native Fuegian called Orundellico. But like the land itself, he was rapidly renamed. Jemmy Button, so christened for the large button that was thrown to his uncle from the ship as payment, entered the annals of history as a critical trial in the powers of cultural evolution. Had enlightened civilization the capacity to overcome the forces of savage darkness?

Jemmy was not the only Fuegian to enjoy the enforced hospitality of FitzRoy. Three others joined the company—a young girl given the name Fuegia Basket, a "sullen brute" known as York Minster, and "a very favorable specimen of the race," Boat Memory. FitzRoy had been accustomed to delivering physiognomic readings of the people he encountered. Fuegian facial forms, he reckoned, revealed "cunning, indolence, passive fortitude, deficient intellect, and want of energy." Nevertheless, with an unanticipated haul of Fuegians now onboard, the idea of a project to bring about social transformation through geographical relocation began to dawn on him. He hatched a plan to bring these four natives back to England and thus to the glories and delights of civilization. Convinced that they would be enriched by exposure to English mores, he judged that the benefits would vastly outweigh any drawbacks arising from a temporary separation from their homeland.

All in all, save for the unfortunate death of Boat Memory by smallpox, the initial phase of the experiment was a triumph, supposedly transforming cannibalism into civility. The Fuegians were educated at FitzRoy's personal expense at a Church of England school in Walthamstow a few miles from London; it was his intention that they should be returned in due course to their native land as envoys of Christianity and civilization. By and large the Fuegians rapidly adjusted to the fads of Victorian hauteur and acquired the mannerisms of their English hosts. Soon Jemmy and Basket (York continued to be more difficult) were the darlings of everyone they encountered. They loved dressing up in fashionable gear, acquired a good deal of the English language, and reportedly made much moral progress. So impressive were their achievements that in the summer of 1831 they were conducted to Buckingham Palace to meet King William IV.

That same year the Admiralty announced that FitzRoy would head up another Beagle expedition to South America. Among the crew this time was a fledgling student of natural history who had been recommended to FitzRoy as an ideal table companion by the Cambridge naturalist Rev. George Henslow. It was Charles Darwin. And thus began Darwin's acquaintance with the three Fuegians. Traveling with the company was another young man, Richard Matthews, a teenager sponsored by the Church Missionary Society. His task was to establish, with the returning Fuegians, a foothold for the faith in Tierra del Fuego. Just how acquainted his backers were with conditions in Jemmy's homeland can be gleaned from the fact that among the items with which they equipped Matthews for the task were cut-glass decanters and glasses, fine white linen, beaver hats, a mahogany dressing-case, and a set of silk handkerchiefs!

Two days after Christmas, and after numerous delays on account of inclement weather, the Beagle weighed anchor and headed off once more for the southern hemisphere. Darwin found that Jemmy had a "nice disposition" and was "remarkably sympathetic with anyone in pain." In Rio de Janeiro, where the ship docked in April 1832, Fuegia Basket was left for a few months with an expatriate English family while FitzRoy rechecked some astronomical readings. During that spring she acted as a nanny to the children, taught them English, and learned enough Portuguese herself to be able to converse freely. In the summer the Beagle pressed on to Tierra del Fuego. The experiment in cultural metamorphosis appeared to be a striking success. And yet …

Eventually depositing its human cargo on Wulaia Cove in three newly constructed lumber houses, the vessel continued its exploration of the area around what has come to be known as Beagle Channel. Just over a week later FitzRoy returned. The news was not good. Matthews had been stripped of clothing, tools, and much else besides by the pilfering Fuegians. The same was true of the foppish Jemmy, though Basket and York had survived unscathed. Matthews clearly could not remain, and when he was safely on board, the Beagle once again pulled away from the cove.

It would be 13 months before her sails would again darken the shores of Wulaia. Darwin anticipated what they might find. "I expect," he wrote to his sister, "to find them naked and half starved—if indeed they have not been devoured during the past winter." He was not far wrong. Jemmy was emaciated, stripped to a loin cloth, and with hair long and matted. Moreover it transpired that Basket, who had delighted the English court, and York, now her husband, had conspired to fleece him of his starched white shirt, breeches, kid gloves, and button boots. The experiment had miserably failed. The imprint of civilization had scarcely gone skin deep. What was more, Jemmy told FitzRoy that he had no desire either to return to England or to change his way of life. The dejected FitzRoy had to comfort himself with the thought that Jemmy and his family were, at least, a bit more humanized than other savages in the region.

The story of Jemmy Button did not begin and end with the coming and going of the Beagle. Fully half of Hazlewood's book is devoted to the sad and at times tragic chronicle of the Fuegians and the Patagonian Missionary Society in the years after 1834. Jemmy was sought out by missionary after missionary; he became an instrument in the hands of imperial forces; his people were subject to a whole raft of different missionizing strategies; yet more Fuegians were brought back to England; some were transported to Keppel Island and subjected to Victorian spiritual discipline. The mercurial temperament of mission directors, various violent outbursts and their impact on the British Press, inter-personal feuding between missionaries, and various other episodes of cultural collision in the South Atlantic are explored in fascinating detail. But above all else stands the tragic figure of that hybrid creation Orundellico/Jemmy Button, a cultural pivot between two worlds, too English for the Fuegians, but far too Fuegian for the English.

Engaging though Hazle-wood's account undoubtedly is, it is not entirely bereft of problems. That the Patagonian Missionary Society was beset by clumsy mismanagement, bungling evangelistic policies, the mishandling of funds, gross opportunism, cultural insensitivity, and general ineptitude is hardly open to question. The problem is that some readers will too readily generalize from the artlessness of the specific case and typecast all missionary endeavors as mere agents of empire. I am not claiming that Hazlewood himself mistakes particularity for universality here. But there is more than a hint in several places that the book colludes in the besetting sin of certain postcolonial schools of mission anthropology, namely, a persistent inclination to misconstrue contingency for necessity, the circumstantial for the inevitable.

In Hazlewood's account of the high-profile controversies surrounding the strategies of the society in the late 1850s, for example, we hear nothing of how other missionary bodies reacted to the furor. Without that evidence to hand, it is just too fashionably easy to slip into assuming that the mind of the European missionary—an imagined singularity if ever there was one—was overpopulated by "crude, barbarous aborigines." Whether Hazlewood intends his text to be read this way I cannot judge; that it can be mustered to serve that end cannot be doubted.

If stereotype is only implied in Hazlewood's portrayal of the missionary enterprise, the same cannot be said for his depiction of the relations between Darwinism and Christianity. Here, the warfare between science and religion that many historians had thought finally laid to rest continues to thrive. The assumption that both science and Christianity were dominated by a crude creationism in the years before the publication of the Origin of Species, is perpetuated; the mythic clash between Huxley and Wilberforce—now so exhaustively worked over by revisionists—resurfaces; and the idea that churchmen "threw up their hands in horror" because they realized that natural selection "undermined the basic doctrines of Christianity and science," only serves to reduce the subtle colors of history to monochrome black and white.

These blots, however, must not be allowed to detract from the important issues that Hazlewood's account raises. Four items in particular strike me as significant. First, the story of Jemmy Button serves to redraw attention to the central significance of global circuitry in the making of the modern world. People and practices, ideas and images, bullets and bugs, have moved around the globe. The cultivation of scientific knowledge at the metropolitan core was crucially dependent on the transfer of species and specimens from the colonial periphery. Jemmy and his compatriots found themselves swept up into the great social-scientific theories of the day. In one way or another the globe's outer margins contributed hugely to developments in the West's inner radius.

Second, Darwin's Fuegian experience had a critical role to play in the development of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Even though he did not make public his thoughts on the subject of human evolution until the appearance of The Descent of Man in 1871, it is clear that the question of human origins and the relations between civilization and barbarism was an enduring obsession from the early 1830s. Far from being a late extension of his theory the question of human ancestry was central to Darwin right from the start.

Third, Hazlewood's book reminds us that a culture of prurient exhibitionism has frequently, if not routinely, masqueraded as a concern for the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Various exemplars of the human race were paraded for entertainment at many exhibitions. Several Selk'nam Indians were displayed at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster in 1889. Albert Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire enlisted caravans of Nubians, Canadian Inuit, and troops of Argentinian guachos in the hope of maintaining public interest in his botanical garden. And in 1906, an African Pygmy by the name of Ota Benga was put on display in the Monkey House of the New York Zoological Park. Many other instances could be enumerated. All testify to a recurring impulse to create a human zoo.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is the sober moral message with which Hazlewood's text confronts us. When Jemmy Button boarded the Beagle on that fateful day in the early 1830s, it is estimated that there were 3,000 Yamana Indians. In 1947 there were forty-three. Guns, greed, and goodwill alike had virtually obliterated them. When the Fuegians visited Victorian Britain and mixed with the high society of the day, they proved, in Hazlewood's words, to be "adaptable, intelligent, and understanding." Sadly, but tellingly, the "same could not always be said for Europeans going the other way."

David N. Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history at the Queen's University of Belfast. He is the author most recently of Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, just published by the University of Chicago Press.

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