A Boy for a Button – Part Two of a Tale of Exploration and Indians

In the first part of this saga we were introduced to the Yaghan, the hunter-gatherer people who dwelt on the shores of Tierra del Fuego. We now follow the story of how they came to be considered not just as objects of pity but as souls to be saved; and, in this matter, no one played a more important role than Robert FitzRoy.

With only 24 years to his back, Robert FitzRoy was an unlikely candidate for command of a surveying expedition beyond the farthest reaches of civilisation in one of the coldest, cruelest environments on the planet. He would certainly never have been appointed if the job had become vacant in more convenient circumstances – surely, the Board of the Admiralty would never have trusted someone so inexperienced? – but the situation was difficult and delicate. The ship was already in Patagonia, and her former commander, one Pringle Stokes, had hated the job so much that he had committed suicide.

Robert Fitzroy, from a painting made many years after the famous voyage
Robert Fitzroy, from a painting made many years after the famous voyage

The son of a peer, and a great-grandson of King Charles II, FitzRoy had joined the navy at the age of 12 and by 14 he was a midshipman aboard a frigate. By 16 he was a lieutenant, and it was in this capacity that he was shipped across the Atlantic to serve the commander in chief of the British South America Station. Clearly, the boy was a high flier; but even so, the crew of the Beagle must have shaken their heads when they heard of the appointment of such an ‘upstart’. It cannot have been long, however, before he set them right in their thinking. Charismatic, intelligent, courageous, meticulous, observant, bursting with energy, and very fair-minded, Robert FitzRoy was actually the perfect choice for the job of commanding a sailing ship through the uncharted channels of Tierra del Fuego.

Fitzroy’s survey forms the foundation of our modern knowledge of this region. Not for nothing is the main artery known, even in Spanish, as the Beagle Channel, and as we make our way through these waters I find myself constantly thinking of the man and feeling grateful for his legacy. However, FitzRoy did not only explore the region’s every nook and cranny, charting each and every cove; he also left his mark in other ways, and one of these ways had a very unhappy result. It concerned the Yaghan.

Fitzroy explored the canal and visited the glaciers in a small open boat.
Fitzroy explored the canal and visited the glaciers in a small open boat.

It was during one of the Beagle‘s small-boat expeditions that relations between the Yaghan and the British sailors suddenly took a turn for the worse. A whale-boat commanded by the sailing master, Mr Murray, had gone to survey some islands in the vicinity of Cape Desolation, on the very outskirts of the archipelago. While this party was away, Beagle lay at anchor in a small cove beneath a high-peaked hill. Here she endured several days of very windy weather of the sort typical to this region: “The williwaws were so violent that our small cutter lying astern, was fairly capsized. … The ship herself careened, as if under press of sail, sending all loose things to leeward. … If the holding had not been excellent and our ground-tackle very strong we must have been driven onto the rocks.” When the weather eventually permitted, FitzRoy climbed the peaks for – as he explained – this gave him a bird’s eye view of the channels which he had been sent to chart. He was surprised that the whale-boat had not yet returned. It was to be two days more before her crew turned up; and they then arrived in “a basket”. They had been camped, in the wind and rain, on what they took to be an uninhabited island, but they had awoken one morning to find their boat stolen.

FitzRoy makes it clear that he considered that Murray was blameless in the loss of the whale-boat – the same thing would probably have happened to me, he tells their lordships in his report – but whereas you or I might also have congratulated the master and his men for their ability to knock up a rescue craft from almost nothing, he does not conceal his contempt for their “clumsy” creation. It was made of wickerwork, covered in canvas (from the tent) and lined with clay, but it leaked badly and was difficult to paddle.  It had taken the men two days to travel the 15 miles back to Cape Desolation, and they arrived in a state of exhaustion. “Something more like a canoe than a coracle would have been better,” FitzRoy remarks.

FitzRoy wasted no time. The boat was critical to the success of his mission and he absolutely must recover it. He immediately had his own five-oared whale-boat prepared and provisioned, with food for eleven men for a fortnight. Over the course of the ensuing week of cold, windy, and rainy weather he searched every nook and cranny and every native wigwam, and he found plenty of evidence of the theft in the form of bits of stolen gear; but he never actually sighted the boat itself. Having finally located the clan who were evidently responsible for the crime, the young commander didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to inflict a punishment, for he was not a cruel man; and besides, he saw that it would serve no purpose. Eventually, after having been repeatedly betrayed by natives who apparently knew the whereabouts of the boat but who misled him and who even stole other property, he resolved to take hostages.

Three Yaghan men with an adolescent girl and two malnourished children
Three Yaghan men with an adolescent girl and two malnourished children

Up until this time, FitzRoy’s interactions with the Yaghan had been entirely friendly and also somewhat superficial, so that he had underestimated their strength, their swiftness, and their ability at warfare. Since he considered them to be more like beasts than men, he ought surely not to have been surprised when they demonstrated the wild animal’s ability to hide and the cornered quarry’s habit of making a ferocious attack – but he was completely taken aback. The sailors planned to creep up on the Yaghan wigwams, but the natives’ dogs gave the game away. When the men pressed on regardless, a Yaghan couple lying in ambush under the bank of a stream almost killed one of them, the woman holding him underwater while her husband repeatedly bashed his head with a stone. In order to save the sailor one of the officers shot the native. Having been hit by the bullet the man commenced to hurl stones with deadly accuracy before suddenly dropping dead. FitzRoy lamented this turn of events but pointed out that the deceased was killed while trying to murder someone else.

With her crew of eleven plus eleven hostages, the whale-boat was now severely overladen, but FitzRoy succeeded in sailing her safely back to the mother-ship. Leaving most of the Yaghan in the care of his officers, with instructions that they be well fed and provided with blankets, he promptly set out again for a second attempt at finding the precious boat. Three of the prisoners were taken along as guides and these people were also treated with respect, for the commander believed that the fact of their children having been left aboard the Beagle would act as security for their behaviour. He had previously noted that the Yaghan often showed great affection towards their offspring – but perhaps this lot were of a different clan; in any event, when he neglected to tie them up, they ran off into the woods. One gets the impression that even if he could have predicted this outcome, FitzRoy would still not have suffered the natives to be treated with anything other than trust, for he seems to have seen very clearly that a bully wins no friends and gains no advantage. Still, the experience surely changed his view of this primitive people and his change of attitude certainly shaped subsequent events.

The second attempt to locate the boat was no more fruitful than the first. FitzRoy tells us that his crew worked hard and suffered much, but to no avail. Many hours were passed each evening in trying to start a fire with damp wood, and this pursuit followed upon hours of rowing in the cramped boat. The company lived in sopping wet clothes – they were not tempted to adopt the Yaghan custom, of wearing a layer of waterproof seal fat instead of cotton and wool – but, as ever, it is for his men alone that the captain, in his report, expresses concern.

When they got back to the Beagle, FitzRoy learnt that all but three of the prisoners whom he had left there had jumped overboard into the icy water and swum away. He was now left with three children, the oldest of whom was only about eight. Again, he remarks on the fact that the parents could be so heartless as to abandon their offspring – and, again, one senses that a plan of sorts is forming in the man’s mind. These people were basically good-hearted – after all, they were a part of the Family of Man – but, like children, they needed to be educated. During the search for the boat he had, of course, continued his keen observation and had identified a couple of good harbours, but he had also spent a lot of time thinking. He had come to the conclusion that it was essential that the explorers learn the Yaghan lingo and the Yaghan learn English – “or else we should never know much about them or their land”.

Having finally resigned himself to the loss of the boat, FitzRoy resolved to build another one. Meanwhile, there was the matter of the three Yaghan children. The next survey party was given custody of the two smaller infants and directed to leave them with any suitable natives, but the captain decided to keep the eight year old girl. A bright and happy child, she had already picked up a few words of English and this appeared to augur well.

York Minster after he had been tidied up
York Minster after he had been tidied up

FitzRoy’s attitude towards the Yaghan was now decidedly cool, and when a party approached the ship as she lay at anchor (in a place which he named March Harbour) he tried to drive them off. Then it suddenly occurred to him that if he took one of the youths into custody the boy might serve in the project recently devised, and be a useful interpreter; so he went out to the natives in the boat. He chose a youngster who, as he explains, would have no wife or children to miss him. This young man was told to get into the boat, which he did; and his companions promptly departed. The boy was subsequently named York Minster, for the headland off which he was taken. At first sullen, he soon became friends with the girl – who had been christened Fuegia Basket – and after being fed and clothed in European attire he became reasonably content.

Subsequently, another party of Yaghan arrived and, judging from their unfriendly behaviour and from the way they grouped themselves on a headland overlooking the bay, FitzRoy reckoned that his men, working on the beach, were about to be attacked. When he went to look at the visitors’ canoes, in search of relics from the stolen boat (which he indeed found), a hail of rocks fell upon him and one of his sailors was knocked unconscious. A skirmish followed, and the result of it was that the British secured another captive whom the commander named Boat Memory.
 However much one might admire his surveying skills, his ability to command, and his general kind-heartedness and generosity, it has to be said that in his naming of the natives FitzRoy rather gives the game away. One can perhaps understand his reluctance to use unpronounceable Yaghan names, but he surely could have done better than saddle his guests with appellations scarcely fit for cattle.

The Murray Canal is now only open to Chilean flagged vesselsIn the first week of May 1829, FitzRoy set out to survey the channel which had been discovered previously by the sailing master and which bears his name: the Murray Channel. His opinion of the natives now being entirely pessimistic, the commander was pleased when his boat was able to outsail the Yaghan paddling after him in their canoes. When he and his men wanted to land and pitch their tents for the night they now did so only after dark, and they took pains to conceal their fire. Nowadays, a sharp look-out was also kept all through the night, and to aid them in this matter the sailors had two dogs, bought from the indians. Still, the surveyors found it quite impossible to entirely evade the Yaghan, who often arrived with fish to barter. So long as they were unarmed, FitzRoy was content to indulge in this trade.

By now, winter was coming on and there were frosts at night; but those old sailors were a hardy lot – not as hardy as the Yaghan, to be sure, but much hardier than us ‘moderns’ – and they kept on with their mission.  They headed west from the Murray Channel, along the strait now known as Brazo Noroeste del Canal Beagle (north-west arm of the Beagle Channel), and for a week and more they sailed past glaciers, in their little open boat, and travelled amongst fragments of ice. On the night of the 9th May, FitzRoy sat beside his camp-fire gazing on the beauty of the wooded slopes and the snow-covered mountains, “on which the moon was shining brightly”. Pensive as ever, he contemplated the difficulty that a sailing vessel would have in navigating along the often-times windless but often-times squall-smitten channel which now bears the name of his ship. What could be the purpose of this place, he seems to have been asking himself? “The land is unfit for the use of civilised man,” he concluded.

But the Yaghan… What of this people – this shred of humanity – who lived like animals in the bitter cold? Fitzroy’s conscience seems to have been prodding him to act on their behalf; and from the moment when such thoughts eventually crystallised in his mind, he was a man with a mission.

Caleta Letier one month (and almost 200 years) after Fitzroy visited
Caleta Letier one month (and almost 200 years) after Fitzroy visited

FitzRoy turned back towards the Murray Channel and on the 11th, he entered the mouth of the straits and landed for lunch in a small bay – that same bay which we, so many years afterwards, decided to use for our night’s resting place. By now he was in high spirits again, and he actually courted the company of some natives whose fire he chose to sit beside. He traded a knife “for a very fine dog, which they were extremely reluctant to part with – but the knife was too great a temptation to be resisted”.

On leaving Caleta Letier, as it is now called, FitzRoy embarked towards the narrows; and it was while he was here that there occurred an event of great consequence. The boat was approached by three canoes whose occupants were eager to trade, and so the commander swapped a few beads and buttons for some fish. Then, acting, as he tells us, “without previous intention”, he told a boy sitting in the canoe to get into his boat; and when the boy obeyed, he gave the man who was with him a large, shiny, mother of pearl button.
Before we condemn FitzRoy for kidnap, it’s worth recalling that he had already, on at least two previous occasions, been offered a girl in exchange for buttons and beads. And it’s worth noting that the boy – now nicknamed Jemmy Button – “seemed pleased” at the change in his circumstances.

Buying a boy for a button
Buying a boy for a button

The three Yaghan youths remained aboard the Beagle for a month while the company continued their work of surveying the region. After that it was time for the explorers to head north again to rendezvous with another Admiralty survey vessel at Rio de Janeiro. FitzRoy tells us that when he first took the natives aboard he had intended only to detain them while he was in their waters, hoping in this short time to learn some of their language and teach them some of his own, but having found that they were happy, helpful, and good-humoured (“even taking some pains to walk properly and get over the crouching posture of their countrymen”) he began to think of “the various advantages which might result to them and their countrymen, as well as to us, by taking them to England and educating them … and then bringing them back to Tierra del Fuego”. In adopting this course, as the young man tells us, he “incurred a deep responsibility”.

Subsequent events showed that FitzRoy indeed took the matter of his Yaghan protégée very seriously, but they also showed that compassion without foresight can be a dangerous thing. The “various advantages” which the young man anticipated all came to nothing, and the exploit sparked an undertaking which was to prove absolutely disastrous to the very people it was meant to serve.

In the third part of this series, we learn about the return of Jemmy Button and his companions to Tierra del Fuego.

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