by Russell Grigg

Charles Darwin

In his 1871 book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin cited the Fuegians as evidence to support of his two-fold thesis, that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” and that “we are descended from barbarians”.1

This was a considerable stimulus to racism in the 19th and 20th centuries. So who were the Fuegians, and why did Darwin regard them the way he did?

The Fuegians were the original four tribal groups2 who inhabited the islands which form the southernmost tip of South America, called Tierra del Fuego, meaning “land of fire”. It was named “land of smoke” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 for the hundreds of beach fires he observed, which the natives kept burning to keep themselves warm in the freezing climate and for cooking their staple diet of shellfish and seafish. This was later changed to the more exotic “land of fire”, reputedly by Charles I of Spain.3 Charles Darwin came into contact with the Fuegians because of the missionary zeal of Captain Robert FitzRoy.


FitzRoy’s Fuegian hostages

In 1829, FitzRoy, in command of HMS Beagle, was exploring the waterways of the area. One night, some Fuegian natives managed to steal the ship’s auxiliary whaleboat, which a seven-man survey team had earlier beached so that they could find shelter from a sudden storm. The stranded sailors used branches and their canvas tent to make a large basket in which they paddled back to the Beagle. The theft precipitated a frantic but fruitless search by FitzRoy and crew, as the boat was needed for surveying the many channels too small for the larger Beagle to navigate.

In retaliation, FitzRoy took several Fuegians hostage on board the Beagle. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, comments: “Unfortunately such disciplinary measures were lost on the Fuegians, who proceeded to make a farce of the affair when the adult prisoners, after eating the best meal of their lives, jumped overboard and swam home … .”4

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