Darwin supported a missionary society for years—but why?

On 17 December 1832, Charles Darwin arrived in Tierra del Fuego1 at the southernmost tip of South America, as part of his world tour aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Here he got his first view of the native inhabitants,2 whom he described as ‘miserable degraded savages,’ a term he used many times in his journal concerning these people. He wrote, ‘I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.’3

He described one group of Fuegians as ‘the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld’ and as existing ‘in a lower state of improvement than in any part of the world.’ … ‘These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question may be asked with respect to these barbarians. At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.’3

Concerning their painted faces he wrote, ‘… with their naked bodies bedaubed with black, white, and red, they looked like so many demoniacs who had been fighting,’ and ‘The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischütz.3

Concerning their language Darwin wrote, ‘The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain [James] Cook has compared it to a man clearing his throat,4 but certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural, and clicking sounds.’3….

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