PATAGONIA : A NEW ZEALANDER'S IMPRESSIONS
The writer of this letter (we only have his initials, G.H.C.) is an experienced
sheepman from the north of New Zealand's southern island. He tells us that
he has a white beard, and that he feels "stronger
and better than I was twenty years ago" – evidently a mature
individual, upwards of 40 years old. He is familiar with the Maori people,
and was a long-time resident of the Marlborough district: perhaps,
New Zealand-born. His style of writing is colloquial, conversational and sometimes
This, his first visit to South America, is a case of culture shock:
Argentina both attracts and repels; Tierra del Fuego is also a new experience.
Life there in 1898 is still quite precarious: "civilisation" starts
at Punta Arenas, across the Magellan Strait; and, apart from a few gold-prospectors
washing gravel, the interior of the island is still a
Just ten years earlier, the Chilean government had started granting
land concessions for sheep ranches in northern Tierra del Fuego; among these
was Spring Hill (1891, later
The Scottish shepherd
William Blain was in charge of setting up this large operation; his
on this website) describes that process, including his relations with the
original inhabitants (the Selknam).
From the ranchers' perspective, the "Indians" are a serious
threat to their working capital: the thousands of sheep, imported from
successful ranches nearby, to graze on the virgin grassland. From the natives'
perspective, the sheep are a convenient food supply, easily driven off and
killed; fences are obstacles, to be cut as necessary. Without prior experience
of this type of situation, the ranchers' responses are ad hoc. Armed
guards are posted and posses are sent out to drive away the intruders,
but this does not solve matters.
Peaceful coexistence is elusive: the continued friction leads to reprisals
on the one hand, retaliation on the other. Deaths occur on both sides. Professional "Indian
hunters" are in demand. The ranch owner's wife is "terrified out
of her life; no neighbours, not a soul to speak to save the servants".
Blain says "I can count 35 white men who have been killed in my time".
We know from other sources that the number of Selknam killed was much higher.
The writer's employers (a partnership, including the Waldron, Wood and Wales
families) have tried appeasement – a regular supply of meat in exchange
for an end to poaching – but it has not worked. Salesian priests have
established a mission station on nearby Dawson Island, as a "safe haven" for
displaced natives. Steadily, with no end to the aggression in sight, whole
groups of natives are rounded up and deported: those who resist pay the ultimate
price. It is a process reminiscent of the "reservations" established
in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, including Chilean Araucanía
– this way, the original peoples would not cause any more "trouble".
This is an authentic, first-hand account of these "clearances".
We hear how an armed group goes out "hunting" (the analogy
with sport-shooting extends to observation, tracking and night-stalking); they
are given instructions to kill only in self-defence, sparing the unarmed women
and children. We hear how these are led away in a state of fear and distress;
while the captured menfolk are placed under armed guard by day, then leg-ironed
at night to prevent escape. The writer is plainly shocked with this way of
life: "unless I can see something very much better than I do,
I shall not stay long".