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Athena Review, Vol. 1, No.3

Darwin at Terra del Fuego (1832)

The British survey ship H.M.S. Beagle, under Captain Fitz Roy, circumnavigated the globe in 1831-1836. Aboard the ship as naturalist was Charles Darwin, then a young man in his mid- to late twenties. During this voyage, Darwin began to formulate the theories later published in his landmark study of evolution, The Origin of Species (1859). One of the Beagle's most important stops was at Tierra del Fuego, where Captain Fitz Roy was returning to their homeland three natives of the Yahgan tribe he had taken to England a few years previously: a boy named Jemmy Button, a girl named Fuegia Basket, and a man named York Minster. Darwin's commentary, taken from Chapter 10 of his Journal of Researches on the Voyage of the Beagle (1839; revised 1845), alternates between the beautiful wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, the unpredictable ways of the native Fuegians, and his own reflections on the wide differences between human societies.

[Fig.1: Portrait of Darwin as a young man  in his 20s.]

"December 17th, 1832. - ... A little after noon we doubled Cape St. Diego, and entered the famous strait of Le Maire. We kept close to the Fuegian shore, but the outline of the rugged, inhospitable Staten-land was visible amidst the clouds. In the afternoon we anchored in the Bay of Good Success. ...While entering we were saluted in a manner becoming the inhabitants of this savage and forbidding land. A group of Fuegians partly concealed by the entangled forest, were perched on a wild point overhanging the sea; and as we passed by, they sprang up and waving their tattered cloaks sent forth a loud and sonorous shout. In the morning the captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. . . . It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not believe how wide was the difference difference between a savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a domesticated and wild animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.  The chief spokesman was old - and appeared to be the head of the family; the three others were powerful young men about six feet high.. .The old man had a fillet of white feathers tied round his head, which partly confined his black, coarse, and entangled hair. His face was crossed by two broad transverse bars; one, painted bright red, reached from ear to ear and included the upper lip; the other, white like chalk, extended above and parallel to the first, so that even his eyelids were thus coloured. The other two men were ornamented by streaks of black powder, made of charcoal . . .

[Fig.2: Map of Tierra del Fuego, and the eastern side of  the Straight of Magellan.]

"Their very attitudes were abject, and the expression of their countenances distrustful, surprised, and startled. After we had presented them with some scarlet cloth, which they immediately tied round their necks, they became good friends. This was shown by the old man patting our breasts, and making a chuckling kind of noise, as people do when feeding chickens.. I walked with the old man, and this demonstration of friendship was repeated several times; it was concluded by three hard slaps, which were given me in the breast and back at the same time. He then bared his bosom for me to return the compliment, which being done, he seemed highly pleased...."

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