Yaghan people, 1883 | Photo: Wikicommons
The HMS Beagle, crewed by Robert FitzRoy and, the now world-renowned father of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin rowed ashore to the Galapagos’s San Cristobal Island on Sept. 17, 1835. What they saw would not only change the understanding of the origins of our species but led to both men’s religious convictions to change drastically, affirming FitzRoy’s beliefs and strengthening Darwin’s already forming doubts of his religion.
Charles Darwin became a household name back in the Western world, for his documentation of the natural beauty and wonderful diversity of the ecology of Ecuador’s islands. Ecuador has proudly and diligently protected and championed its flora and fauna, and in September 2008, under the progressive government of Rafael Correa, became the first country in the world to grant Rights to Nature in its constitution. The Constitution enacted bills that gave nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”
Suffering much less prominence, FitzRoy’s name still adorns street signs in Argentina’s Tierra Del Fuego Island, 184 years after he sailed past the then uninhabited island as he returned to the southernmost tip of Latin America. That particular voyage, however, had sinister undertones. The journey was to return three indigenous people to their homeland three years after FitzRoy had kidnapped them from their communities.
In 1931, FitzRoy and his crew ambushed a Yamana settlement killing at least one indigenous person with a gunshot and over the course of the following days taking four more hostage. Perversely, one of the indigenous peoples kidnapped was named “Button” by his English captors, in a crude reference to the shiny button they gave his tribe “in payment.”
The four captives, forcibly removed from their people, were then subject to a three-year experiment on the ignorant whims of a sailor. Describing the Yamana as “savages,” FitzRoy expected to make them “civilised” by forcing them to adopt European customs on the shores of Britain.
Tragically, one of the four taken died in England having contracted smallpox with no immunity to fight off the disease – a prescient warning of what was to come. The remaining three, two of which were children, spent the next three years in England and when they were repatriated one had lost his father, and the other two had been returned to the wrong island in ignorance of the tribal differences and varied ethnic groups among the inhabitants of Tierra Del Fuego. Understandably the mother of the 14-year-old told her son how she “had been inconsolable for the loss and had searched everywhere for him.”
The final outcome of this inhumane experiment was ultimately, for the time being, a victory for the indigenous peoples. Whilst FitzRoy left behind a missionary to “Christianise” and create a new community, expecting the “partially civilised” natives he had returned to disseminate what they had learned, the whole episode had failed within a week. The natives rightly continued with their customs and when FitzRoy returned a year later to see what he expected to be the fruits of his labour, “Button” had returned fully to his culture and custom, telling his former captor that he had no wish whatsoever to change his way of life.
Darwin, a mere observer of the experiment, had nothing to do with the whole escapade, and said of the matter, “I fear it is more than doubtful whether their visit [to England] will have been of any use to them.” It was to be FitzRoy’s last time in Latin America and what he had seen, observed and later witnessed the results of – in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – irreversibly sent his life on a downwards spiral.
As the two men, once happy sea-faring companions, diverged in their worldviews, FitzRoy’s faith intensified double for each time Darwin furthered his theories of evolution. Eventually, after his social experiment and crusading attempts to “civilise” the tribes of Tierra Del Fuego had failed, and witnessing the global effect Darwin’s work had achieved – FitzRoy deemed it “an abomination” – he committed suicide at the age of 59.
Heartbreakingly, FitzRoy’s interactions with the Yamana eventually led to their entire wipeout – bar one. In 1833, the Yamanas numbered 3000: come the turn of the century there were fewer than 200. 14 years after FitzRoy had first attempted to set up a missionary in their community, London’s South American Missionary Society returned, and bigger in number. Their presence introduced numerous illnesses and ailments and with no immunity to them, the Yamanas dwindled in numbers after decades of epidemics.
After inhabiting Tierra Del Fuego for more than 10,000 years the Yamana are now virtually extinct. Cristina Calderón is the last of her people and will turn 90 next year. Chile has recognised her as a Living Treasure, and let that for as long as possible be the case.