Judicial enquiry into persecution of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, Chile (1895) Twenty-three sworn testimonies recorded by the investigating judge [in Spanish]
The Historical Setting
The first years of economic development in Tierra del Fuego (both Argentine
and Chilean) brought about the destruction of its most
widespread native group, the nomadic Selknam (or Ona).
The 1880s saw sporadic, violent encounters between the natives and explorers
or gold miners, triggered by the strangers' fear or brutality or lust. A decade
later, there was widespread confrontation for a different reason: the
struggle for access to the island's northern and central grasslands.
The Chilean government had awarded huge land concessions (the largest
covered 1,000,000 hectares: see map), without considering the needs of the
existing inhabitants. The result was an inevitable clash of interests, in which
the sheep-ranching companies protected their economic assets
with rifle bullets.
Rumours spread to the mainland: it was said that the ranchers paid a bounty
for incontrovertible evidence of the death of a native (such as a severed head,
or a pair of ears). One ranch worker boasted of killing "hundreds" of
men, women and children. On the other hand, in a display of compassion, priests
of the Salesian order established two mission stations
— "safe havens" for the embattled native groups — but
to no avail: the majority of inmates died.
With no spokesperson to represent the natives' predicament, the rest of the
country was only hazily aware of these tragic events until, at the end of 1895,
a Santiago newspaper published two poignant letters which led the Chilean justice
system to mount an investigation into the treatment of the Selknam.
The Criminal Investigation
The higher court in Valparaíso ordered an investigation into two principal
points: first, whether the press reports were true; and, second, what steps
had been taken to improve the situation. Over the ensuing year, evidence was
collected from residents of Punta Arenas, the principal town of the Territory
of Magallanes, plus others living or employed in the island of Tierra del Fuego
(approximately 158 statements). Six weeks into the process, the higher
court assigned the case to a public prosecutor, possibly to reduce the burden
of work on the resident judge.
Reading sequentially through the case file, one sees clearly how the web of
enquiry spread wider and wider, as new names and leads arose. Owing to distances
and weather conditions, some summonses took several months to be served. A
few persons, among them the notorious Sam Hyslop, were never located:
it was said that they might be living in Argentina.
Despite widespread conviction that natives were being murdered,
eye-witnesses were thin on the ground. After diligent enquiry, the prosecutor
identified one instance of armed combat where the participants concurred in
stating that one native was killed. However, this confrontation occurred in
a remote rural area, and tangible proof was lacking to pursue the case, because
the corpse had been buried on the spot by kinsfolk. No interpreter could be
found to question the natives directly.
The prosecutor delivered his report in early 1897. In it, he stated
that it would be unrealistic and impracticable to apply to native peoples the
same rights and responsibilities that are applicable to the "civilised" portion
of society. He found that there were no grounds to lay the charge of homicide
against any of the parties involved. He recommended
dropping all charges. However, it was only in 1904 that the resident judge passed sentence,
absolving the accused who,
he said, had acted in legitimate self-defence.
This sentence was referred to the higher court in Valparaíso, which
dismissed the case, finding that
there was no evidence that a crime had been committed;
the bail money was then finally returned to the guarantors.
This Web Presentation
The quantity of evidence gathered in this case was large, but much of it was
repetitive. For this presentation, we have selected a representative
group of 23 informants, whose statements deal directly with events
in Tierra del Fuego.
Although of interest for future publication, we have chosen to exclude
several parallel issues, including: (a) mistreatment of the 165 natives
who were brought to Punta Arenas; (b) disagreements between Governor Señoret
and others, notably the priest Borgatello; and (c) confrontations with
Kaweskar (Alakaluf) natives which occurred in the region of Última Esperanza
Spelling has been aligned with modern practice. Foreign proper
names have been standardized. Occasionally, minor punctuation
has been added to improve readability.
The following materials on this web-site provide additional background information
about the people and events mentioned in this investigation:
Source: Juzgado de Crimen de Magallanes, Legajo 75; original deposited in the National Archive, Santiago, Chile
Thanks (I-2014): Francisco Díaz Luengo, Joaquín Bascopé
Page created: 18-II-2014
Last updated: 24-II-2014