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French expeditions to Falklands and Strait of Magellan, 1764-1766
Principal characters: Bougainville, Duclos-Guyot, Giraudais and Saint-Simon
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French contact with Patagonians in the Magellan Strait

Bougainville's vessels entered the Magellan Strait in 1765 and 1766, to supply wood for the newly founded French colony on the Falkland Islands. In the course of these visits, they encountered and exchanged gifts with at least two distinct native groups: the Aónikenk, at Cape Gregory, on the north shore of the Strait, close to the Second Narrows; and the Kawéskar, further south-west, at Port Famine, also on the continental shore.

With a view to making a treaty with these new "neighbours" in Patagonia, the French Ministry sent Antoine-Charles Denis de Saint-Simon as Capitaine Aide-Major des Colonies. Born in Quebec, Saint-Simon had experience in dealing with the natives of Acadia (historically, this region included parts of the Canadian Atlantic provinces); this was to prove valuable when he, together with a small group of Frenchmen, was detained onshore by bad weather, in the company of several hundred natives. link As tokens of goodwill, the French ships carried a variety of goods, including weapons, tools and utensils, clothing and red pigment; foodstuffs were also offered, and accepted. In return, they received cloaks, weapons and shell necklaces, some of these making their way to Paris, even to the King himself. link One such gesture had to be declined, however — twelve horses, which it was impossible to transport.

Aónikenk: Observations near Cape Gregory (May and June, 1766)

There were two French exchanges with the Aónikenk, in 1766, both brief, but quite intense. Each time the ships approached the shore in the eastern part of the Strait, they were spotted by horsemen, who encouraged them to land. It became apparent from various signs that this group had prior experience of contact with Europeans: they carried knives, and were familiar with the use of tobacco; they were not frightened by firearms; and they had some words of Spanish. link

The attitude of the "Patagonians" towards the French visitors was welcoming, even excessively so in one respect. For, beyond mere goodwill gestures (gifts of cloaks, weapons, necklaces), their hospitality extended to sexual intercourse with wives and daughters. /1/  link

One incident of altruistic behaviour drew attention when, of his own initiative, a native horseman rode into the surf to rescue the ship's yawl, which had been left on the beach and swept out to sea. link

Kawéskar: Observations near Port Famine (March 1765; May to June, 1766)

In 1765 Bougainville had a brief meeting with a small group of canoe people in the wooded middle section of the Strait, forming a positive impression of their character. The following year, the French spent several weeks there, providing a greater opportunity for observation. Initially timid in their approaches, the Kawéskar became emboldened by their visitors' generosity, which included food as well as gifts. They were especially eager to eat bacon and candle-wax, and to drink seal-oil. In return, they gave the French bows, arrows and shell necklaces. link

Two young men were invited to stay aboard the ship and travel for a year. Although the idea met with the approval of the local chief, the "volunteers" soon gave signs of homesickness, and were returned to shore; not, however, without disappointment on the part of the ship's captain. link  /2/

During these weeks, one of the Kawéskar group died. The Frenchmen observed that, as a mark of mourning, most of the men left their bodies unpainted, while others painted themselves in black; whereas the women were painted with black spots, and blooded, as if torn by thorns. Three days later, all were painted black. link

The prolonged contact was to end badly — a pattern which occurred repeatedly with later European contacts. The natives started to "help themselves" to tools and fire-wood, no doubt perceiving that there was an abundant supply of both. link Things eventually came to a head with an armed attack on the French workshop: although outnumbered, the French were better armed and routed the aggressors; but three natives were killed, while several of the French suffered serious injuries. link

/1/ [Pernety, 1770, Vol. 2, pp. 127-128]. Through the fieldwork of modern anthropologists, it is now known that this practice was not limited to one isolated culture. Indeed, it must have been more common than it appears from a reading of published reports, which were prone to censorship (whether self-imposed or otherwise), in conformity with the prevailing morality of the period. [See also Martinic, 2008]

/2/ On various occasions across the centuries, "Patagonians" were invited to board visiting ships; in this way, some travelled to far-off Europe, on the pretext of civilization or, at times, for exhibition.