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
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
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
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.
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.
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/
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.
Kawéskar: Observations near Port Famine (March 1765; May to
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.
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.
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
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
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
/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,
/2/ On various occasions across the
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.