Fitzroy has a Dream – Part Three of a Tale of Exploration and Indians

The continuing saga of our journey in the wake of HMS Beagle

This is the third article in our series about Western encounters with the Yaghan natives of Tierra del Fuego. If you haven’t been following along, check out the first and second articles.

It being only a week or two before the solstice, and the shortest day of the year in the south, the time available to us for sailing in the Beagle Canal was limited. Not that it’s impossible to travel at night, but one certainly can’t make harbour under the tall mountains and in the tight bays in the hours of darkness. Thus it was that we got underway from Caleta Letier as soon as the sun rose – which was just after ten…

The crew of Mollymawk in Gondwana's wheelhouse
The crew of Mollymawk in Gondwana‘s wheelhouse

The day was cloudy and the wind cut like knife, so that we were grateful for Gondwana‘s wheelhouse and for the heaters burning in her cosy cabin. We headed directly for the Murrray Narrows – a tiny pass which divides Isla Navarino from Isla Hoste and which leads into the Ponsonby Sound. Only Chilean flagged and Chilean captained vessels may travel this way, meaning that Gondwana is pretty much the only yacht entitled to take this short-cut route to Cape Horn and the only one able to visit Wulaia; and it was to Wulaia that we were sailing.

Wulaia was the home of Jemmy Button, one of the four Yaghan indians whom Fitzroy had taken to England aboard the Beagle. Upon their arrival in England one of the Yaghan youths had died of small-pox, but the other three had been successfully inoculated and had subsequently been given into the care of a clergyman. The Reverend Wilson managed to teach his students quite a bit of English and also some carpentry and gardening but, as it seems, he succeeded in imparting very little Christian theology – and that was subsequently to be a matter of great regret.

How the boy who was bought for a button managed to explain to his benefactor that his folks lived in Wulaia is anyone’s guess, but on their return to Tierra del Fuego it was to this place that Fitzroy sailed, and with the object of depositing all three Yaghan in that place. After more than a year of living as honorary white men, and having been feted and petted even by the king and queen, the little trio thought quite a lot of themselves – and many of those who met them shared this high opinion. One who saw through the charade was a young graduate from Cambridge university who had been shipped aboard the Beagle in the capacity of naturalist and – more importantly – as gentleman companion to the captain.

The position of 19th century ship’s captain was a lonely one, and never more so than when the vessel was travelling for extended periods in a remote part of the world. The Beagle‘s first commander had found the stress so great that he had committed suicide. So, too, had one of Robert Fitzroy’s uncles. With this in mind, and having already spent more than a year at the “uttermost end of the earth” and experienced its solitude, the young aristocrat had advertised for a suitable man to share his table. Few were the candidates who responded to the appeal – perhaps his fellow noblemen recalled the fate of Thomas Doughty, whom Drake had beheaded when he proved a tiresome companion; or perhaps it was just that the idea of hanging out in the frozen south aboard a smallish boat for a number of years held little appeal. The chap who eventually responded to the request was, himself, somewhat nervous about the project, and his father did his best to persuade him that it was a foolhardy mission. Happily, a friend of the family intervened and persuaded the good doctor that this trip represented, for his son, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Had it not been for the intervention of Josiah Wedgewood, mankind might have had to wait a great deal longer to learn that we were not, in fact, placed upon this earth in our present state but are descended from the beasts. As it was… the Beagle and Fitzroy have a lot to answer for; and Fitzroy later came to regret his part in the creation of the new, monstrous theory of evolution.

Darwin was 24 when he joined the Beagle; just two years younger than Fitzroy.
Darwin was 24 when he joined the Beagle; just two years younger than Fitzroy.

Was it his encounter with the Yaghan indians which first caused Charles Darwin to doubt the veracity of the story told in Genesis? As I say, he was not taken in by the fact of their having been tidied up, and he had a particularly low opinion of the young man known to the British as York Minster. Aged about 20, this native of Tierra del Fuego had been chosen by Fitzroy, in an impulsive moment, to act the part of interpreter, but he was not adequate to his captor’s whim. When paraded before England’s high society he was vain, and when charged with performing any task he was sullen. Even Fitzroy described him as “a displeasing specimen,” and others labelled him a brute. The captain would surely have done better to arrive at a less haphazard selection method – but, then again, Jemmy Button was also snatched from a passing canoe and he proved, initially, to be a much better bargain.
Darwin considered Jemmy to be thoroughly likeable and reasonably intelligent, although he was something of a dandy. As for the little girl, who was known as Fuegia Basket – she had charmed the royal family and was also a favourite of the sailors, but she was evidently rather easily led. Unfortunately, she had always been close to York Minster, who was of her clan (while Jemmy was not). Although she was still only about ten years old, the two of them were now becoming intimate. During the passage south she had to be constantly chaperoned and her admirer kept at bay.

The Beagle Channel in the vicinity of Puerto Navarino
The Beagle Channel in the vicinity of Puerto Navarino

Although he had already explored the channel which now bears the name of his ship, during his first expedition in Tierra del Fuego Fitzroy had never taken the Beagle this way. In fact, he had noted that it would be a difficult passage for a sailing ship, which would have to tack to and fro, often in the lightest of airs but at other times in a strong headwind. After spending several weeks at sea off the Horn, riding out a series of gales, he brought the ship north again and attempted to enter the channel, but – just as he had expected – the winds were strong and contrary. He therefore anchored the Beagle in Windhund Bay, on the south of Isla Navarino. After a second attempt to enter the channel, a couple of days later, he resolved, instead to anchor at Goree Roads (a bay on the west face of Isla Lennox) and to travel round to Wulaia in the ships’ three boats.

On the 18th January 1833, Fitzroy took the three Yaghan and 28 of the crew on a trip around the eastern end of Navarino and along the Beagle Canal. Several nights were spent under canvas at various locations as the expeditionaries journeyed west towards the Murray Channel, and then, finally, on the 23rd, the little flotilla arrived at Wulaia.

Walking in a winter wonderland at Wulaia (June 2015)
Walking in a winter wonderland at Wulaia (June 2015)

And why was their benefactor so concerned to take his Yaghan guests to this exact spot? And why the large company of sailors and other men?
The answer is that Fitzroy was on a mission. In fact, to be exact, he had decided to found a mission. The mission was to be sited amongst Jemmy Button’s people, with that young lad as its beautiful example of the advantages of faith in Christ the Lord. At precisely what stage Fitzroy came up with this scheme we are not told, but the seed was surely sown during his first voyage south, at the moment when a bunch of Yaghan stole one of the ship’s boats. It was during his attempt to recover the boat that Fitzroy had realised that the people lacked morals.

Whereas other men might have wanted to civilise the natives the better to be able to dominate them, Fitzroy appears to have been motivated purely by concern for the people’s welfare. He wanted to bring them the benefits of his technologically advanced society, but more than anything he wanted them to have the benefit of a civilised mind. Then they would be liberated from this animal nature which allowed them to steal the European’s boats, attack him with rocks, abandon their children when the moment suited them, and eat their enemy’s dead. (Various anthropologist have since disputed that the Yaghan ever ate human flesh, but his three protégées certainly gave Fitzroy to believe that this was their custom.) Basically, Fitzroy admired the Yaghan’s astonishing strength and their fantastic ability to endure the cold, but he deplored their state of mental development. He wanted the natives to get dressed, grow some crops, stop misbehaving – and carry on living merrily amongst the snow and ice; and when he arrived at Wulaia with a young missionary and a boatload of Bibles, he seriously believed that he was the bringer of great joy.

Miserable degraded savages (Darwin)
Miserable degraded savages (Darwin)

When he first set eyes on Jemmy’s relations, Darwin was dumbfounded. “I never saw more miserable creatures. … These poor wretches were stunted in their growth… their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, their gestures violent… Viewing such men one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures.” Indeed, it was hard even to believe that the young dandy whose company he had enjoyed during their long journey south was of the same race as “these miserable, degraded savages”.
It is unlikely that either Darwin or Fitzroy had ever encountered an English peasant, living in squalor, without access to warm water with which to wash himself or his clothes; and since they were both young and unmarried there is every chance that they had never before seen a female nude. Pondering the matter, the young naturalist reckoned that the gulf between civilised man and the savage was even greater than that between a wild animal and a domestic one – and one can readily see how that thought led to others, less acceptable at that time, of the ascent of man from an even more basic state.

Meanwhile, Fitzroy went ahead with his plan to elevate the Yaghan, in one swift move, to the realm of decent beings. Notwithstanding the fact that Jemmy’s family were more shocked than impressed by his new appearance, whilst he was thoroughly embarrassed by theirs, the English set about building wigwams and planting what should have been Tierra del Fuego’s first ever crop of potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages. Hundreds of natives arrived to watch this strange activity. Jemmy’s family were soon suitably attired in breeches and coats or petticoats and dresses; saucepans and plates were admired; iron tools were coveted. No doubt the willow pattern chamber pots were a bit of a puzzler.

The young missionary’s first job was to ensure that York Minster and Fuegia Basket were joined before God – because it was obvious that if they weren’t, they were soon going to join themselves anyway, without benefit of His favour. This having been done, and the loving couple settled into their new wigwam, Fitzroy decided to leave the mission to fend for itself, and he sailed away. Since it was the theft of his boat which had first sparked the captain’s desire to reform the natives one can only marvel at the way in which he managed to persuade himself that the place could survive without armed men standing nearby. Seemingly, he had great faith in his three converts and in their ability to restrain their kin.

A grand, but half-ruined house now stands on the site of Fitzroy’s missionary wigwams

Darwin was more realistic about the outlook for the mission, and perhaps his doubts eventually seeped through to the evangelist. After having been away for little more than a week, Fitzroy turned the boats around and came back to check on progress. As they drew near to Wulaia the sailors spotted indians strangely adorned with scraps of coloured cloth, and on their arrival they found the new gardens ruined and the reverend missionary cowering in his hut. The stores had been looted – which explained how the natives had come by their garb – and the priest had been threatened, so that he feared for his life. Naturally, Fitzroy agreed to take the poor fellow back aboard the ship, but he hoped that his three domesticated Yaghan would keep the dream alive; and they agreed to do so.

The Beagle now sailed out to the Falklands, and then she sailed back up the coast of South America to Montevideo. After spending the winter here she returned south – and Fitzroy finally had the opportunity to revisit his mission. What, one wonders, were his feelings as he came through the narrows and came within sight of the little sheltered bay at Wulaia? Did he really imagine that a teenage boy, a surly youth, and a little girl would be able to inspire a mob of naked savages?
Darwin, certainly, was not the least surprised when the party found the mission completely abandoned. After a short while, Jemmy Button appeared from the island, off-lying the bay, which had been given his name. To the distress of his former companions, he had reverted to the native lifestyle and was completely naked, with long unkempt hair; in fact, they didn’t even recognise him until he gave them a military salute. (Jemmy was renown, amongst the English, for his sense of humour.) After three years of intensive training amongst the most high-born and civilised of men, it had taken only a year for the young man to fall back into his palaeolithic ways. The English were astounded, but I say take even a man who has been born into this civilised world, rob him of his clothes and tools, and place him in a hostile environment, and he will have no choice but to become “a savage” – if, indeed, he can find the necessary skills and the physical ability to survive at all.
You may also care to note that a yotty who has been through a week-long gale and who has not taken the trouble to prettify himself is also rather wild in appearance.

The similarity between the Yaghan and the yotty is quite striking
The similarity between the Yaghan and the yotty is quite striking

Once aboard the Beagle and cleaned and dressed in sailor’s attire, Jemmy swiftly reverted to European ways – as one would. The officers noted that he had no difficulty in remembering how to hold his knife and fork. While they ate, he explained to Fitzroy that York Minster had built a large canoe and then, one night, had disappeared. Besides taking his young wife, he had also made off with everything that the mission owned. Jemmy himself had been left with only the clothes on his back.
Whereas Jemmy was from Wulaia, the other two Yaghan had been taken prisoner amongst the islands west of Cape Horn – they were from the clan responsible for the theft of the whale-boat – and many years later a visitor to this archipelago would record meeting an aged Fuegia Basket and learning the story of her post-Wulaia life. Seemingly, the brutish York Minster had not lived long. He had murdered another native and then, according to the custom of this people, had been killed by his victim’s avengers. At the age of 50, Fuegia had married an 18 year old – and that, too, was not unusual amongst this people, for the young men liked to have a mother-figure to look after them. By the time she was rediscovered living in her homeland, Fuegia was 60 and was growing senile, but she had sons and daughters looking after her and thus it was likely that she would be spared one other local custom – that of doing away with the elderly when they were no longer able to fend for themselves.

His friends aboard the Beagle did their best to encourage Jemmy Button to leave Wulaia and sail with them to England, but the native thanked them and declined the invitation. Darwin surmised that it was on account of his “young and attractive wife”, who was sitting in the canoe alongside (wailing with fear lest her man be abducted again). The girl refused to come aboard. Clearly, Jemmy hadn’t given her a very favourable impression of English society.
It does not seem to have occurred to his friends that Jemmy might simply have preferred the life of a naked savage to that of a pampered pet or a tradesman slaving to earn enough money to pay his bills. Yaghan man was born free – he was his own master, living according to the terms laid down by nature – and although neither Fitzroy nor even Charles Darwin had the least inkling of the fact, it might just be that the life of an English worker didn’t measure up.

Read about later missionary encounters with the Yaghan in the fourth article in this series.


  1. Hi guys – a great article and very informative.
    One item of curiosity – what heating do you use?
    Best regards,
    [email protected]

    1. Hullo Chris,

      We’ve spent the winter using a wood-burning stove which we feed with fallen timber and drift wood. This heats the main cabin but not the ends of the boat, so we’ve recently acquired a second hand diesel heater with two radiators. It took the skipper more than a month to plumb it in – lots of drilling through the steel bulkheads, etc – but we now have heat all throughout the boat.
      On the downside, we’re now burning diesel – and that costs money, and it’s also worse from an environmental point of view. So, the next job is to get the radiators working off the wood stove. This will involve making a coil to fit inside the stove.

  2. What a great ditty Jill! I always enjoy reading your stories with such a captivating style.
    Best wishes and fair winds.

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