From Chile: A lesson from Jemmy Button

COMMENTARY

“He told us ... that he was not cold, that his relations were very good people, and that he did not wish to go back to England ...”– Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, March 1834



The three men were so different. Standing on the wooden deck of the ship, they watched the black waters from two oceans mix with the bone-chilling, glacial water of what would become known as the Beagle Channel. As they stared northward, columns of mist from Tierra del Fuego – just a few miles away and earning its name, Land of Fire – hovered in the air adding to the weight of the moment.

One was the epitome of aristocratic England, in full naval attire with requisite Bible in hand. Another was representative of the then rising middle class, wealthy and in search of knowledge. While the first two were relatively young, in their 20s, the third was even younger. His brown skin, mat of black hair, command of two very different languages, and nakedness set him apart. What also distinguished him was his circumstance. He had been stolen. And now he had a decision to make which, unbeknownst to him, would be scrutinized to this very day.

Meet respectively Robert FitzRoy, British Captain of the H.M.S. Beagle and religious fundamentalist, and Charles Darwin, volunteer naturalist who eventually would develop theories of evolution and become the father of modern biology. And lastly, meet Jemmy Button, one of four Yamana Indians, who, on a previous expedition, were snatched and brought to England to be “civilized.”

This now famous moment in time took place off Isla Navarino, a remote island in the Cape Horn area of what is now Chile. It has been called the uttermost end of the world. Its waters, south of the island where the Pacific meets the Atlantic, are famous for violent storms that brought the demise of many sailing ships in those days well before the Panama Canal.

Looming behind the three men was the landscape so aptly described by Darwin. There were rounded mountains of clay-slate and rising jagged spires somehow missed by earlier southern glaciers. The “dense gloomy” forest of southern beech, some at waters edge, bent by fierce antarctic winds, formed the backdrop to the developing drama.

What had led to this intriguing moment? On a previous voyage, a small boat from the Beagle had been taken by some Yamana. Pieces of the vessel had been divided up amongst the natives. In an ensuing fight, a sailor lost an eye and one Yamana was killed. All this infuriated Captain FitzRoy, who began taking captives in various ways.

He paid for one young native boy with a mother-of-pearl button from his coat; thus the name Jemmy Button. The captain then took the Yamana to England to “civilize” them and return them to “Christianize” their “kind” on a subsequent voyage (Darwin’s).

Jemmy Button had been back to his native island for more than a year. Much of Captain FitzRoy’s experiment went disastrously wrong and he now was offering Jemmy Button the opportunity to return to England. And Jemmy Button said no.

It would appear that this was the end of it. An experiment by a fundamentalist gone haywire, but lo, wait. There’s more. In Darwin’s concluding remarks of his Cape Horn experience he notes, “Every one must sincerely hope that Captain FitzRoy’s noble hope may be fulfilled ... by some shipwrecked sailor being protected by the descendants of Jemmy Button and his tribe!” And from the Captain himself we get this juicy morsel: “there may be metal in many of the Fuegian mountains.”

So, in the end, or most certainly in the beginning, all the pious words and undertakings with the Yamana had to do with pacifying the native peoples and finding “metals.” So it had to do with gold or silver in them thar’ hills. Consequently, it had to do with the sun never setting on the British empire, no matter how fervently the Captain pushed and believed in his pious ideas.

It is a fitting lesson for these times. Now, focusing on another part of the world, there are those who only see religion and fanaticism in regards to the war in Afghanistan. What of oil and gas and being in geopolitical position to deliver them? The old adage, follow the money, aptly applied to colonialism. While in the different clothing of globalization and the fight against terrorism, it is very much alive as we go further into the 21st century.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org