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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, 2001
320 pp., $25.95

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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. ...

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