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Patagonia Bookshelf



Four native boys from Terra del Fuego were introduced to the Zoological Section of the British Association on Wednesday by the Rev. W. H. Stirling, a missionary of the South American Society. The eldest is supposed to be about 18 or 19 years of age, and is probably one of the tallest of the Terra del Fuego tribe of Indians; on being measured before the audience, he proved to be 5 feet 4½ inches. One of the others is about the same age, and the remaining two seemed to be about 11; but (Mr. Stirling explained amidst much laughter) "to-day they are only nine, as it was necessary to reduce their age in order to pay only half fare for them by express train." The young gentlemen do not know their own ages, as it is not the custom in their own country to keep any account. One of them is the youngest son of "Jemmy Button", a Fuegan brought over some years ago by Admiral Fitzroy, and introduced at Court. They were dressed in ordinary English clothing, and seemed to be in an extremely well-fed condition, rather different from what might be expected of their countrymen at home. They were described by Mr. Stirling as being intelligent and well-behaved, able to speak and joke in English, very much in the manner of English youths, and whilst under inspection on the platform they looked quite as promising as ordinary schoolboys, and gifted with more than ordinary self-possession. They appeared to enjoy the semi-comic side of their situation in being thus examined. They are of tawny complexion, with black hair and eyes, moderately thick lips, and have broad, low foreheads. Mr. Stirling quoted the opinion of Dr. Beddowe, who had examined the heads of all four, and who reported the measurements to be much more favourable than he should have anticipated, both in height and breadth, and rather above the average of the boys of Bristol.

Mr. Stirling communicated, in a most agreeable manner, some information respecting the people of Terra del Fuego and Patagonia. He said he had brought the boys over to England because a good opportunity was afforded by the voyage home and speedy return of the missionary ship on another errand; and he hoped their visit here would help to attract public interest to the missionary work among their countrymen. He had been accustomed to hear these Indians spoken of, even by those who undertook to lead public opinion, as scarcely human, and it was with an impression of their degraded state that he undertook the work of a Christian missionary among that people.

The natives of Patagonia and Terra del Fuego were distinct. Originally perhaps they were connected, as observers of their physiognomies could discover a close affinity; but at present their habits of life and their circumstances produced a great difference. We had heard the Patagonians spoken of as giants, but the idea was not correct. Forty of them were measured at the Magellan Straits, and their average height was 5 feet 10 inches. The Fuego Indians, however, to the South of the Straits were a short race. They were canoe Indians, while the Patagonians were horse Indians. The people of Fuego had no horses, they had no clothing, they were exposed very much to the weather, their diet was of fish, and it was not to be wondered at that they were often short of food and were not such a finely developed race as the Patagonians.

He had often heard it said that the Fuegans as well as the Indians oppressed their women. On the contrary, there was a very fair division of labour among them. The men made the hunting instruments and canoes. The paddling of the canoe was done by the women, and properly enough, because the men were in the meantime spearing the porpoises and replenishing the larder. The paddles were four feet long, and very light, not requiring anything like the exertion needed in rowing an English boat.

These people had been called cannibals, but he did not believe they could be. He had seen no sign that human flesh would commend itself to them. The natives brought to the missionary stations had at first rejected mutton, and, though they afterward came to prefer beef to fish, there was no doubt it was an acquired taste. Another reason for doubting their cannibalism was the fact that he visited the scene of the murder of the crew of the missionary vessel some years ago, two or three years after the occurrence, and found the whole of the remains of the men lying in their clothes, and the pockets not rifled. It was true the late Admiral Fitrzroy, whose name should always be mentioned with great honour--(applause)--and Mr. Darwin had introduced in their books some humorous stories about these natives. One of these represented them as avowing that when they were particularly "hard up" they ate the old women. Mr. Stirling believed this was simply a joke perpetrated by the natives at the expense of their European visitors, of which they were quite capable. (Laughter.) He was able to adduce signs of a very different state of things--that the old women were, in fact, held in honour. We often found it difficult in the civilised world to provide for the old people of both sexes; but in Fuego the old man provided for himself by getting two or three young wives who looked after him, rowed him about in their canoe, and made him very comfortable--(laughter)--and as for the old women they were provided for in this way: the young men were taught that it was their duty to marry them. (Renewed laughter.) The language of Fuego and that of Patagonia had been reduced to writing by the missionaries. (Applause.) Mr. Stirling exhibited a number of the productions of the Fuegans, such as whalebone, spears, and fishing lines, made from the sinews of birds.

The Patagonians were very finely developed in the upper part of the body, and being nearly always seen on horseback, wearing their mantles, they would probably seem rather "gigantic", as viewed in the distance from on board ship. The Fuegans had no trace whatever of worship of any kind; in Patagonia there were traces of the old sun worship. Of Patagonians proper there were not probably above 5000--men, women, and children-- but further up the country, north, east, and west, there were many mixed tribes of Indians.

Speaking of South America more generally, Mr. Stirling said it was a country of boundless resources, and its great want was population to develop them. But there was the greatest fear of the Indians, who committed merciless ravages, not as mere robbers, but according to their idea of warfare, and they certainly had often received great reason for their hostility. Mr. Stirling once visited an American settler who was in a state of affluence, but on a subsequent visit found him a poor man, for the Indians had swept away from his land 10,000 sheep, besides his son, and then they coolly came and asked him for money for having spared his son's life, not hesitating in the least to avow themselves the robbers. Then the American settled in one of the towns, where the Indians came to trade and were cheated right and left, and he said thus he could serve them out, and did so avowedly to "restore the balance". (Laughter.) Mr. Stirling hoped we should learn to regard the Patagonians and Fuegans with a more kindly interest, and to dismiss old prejudices.

Sir J. Lubbock suggested that the stature of the Patagonians had decreased since the days of the many earlier travellers who described them. Mr. Darwin had shown how curiously the number of bumble bees would depend on the presence of cats, and the diminution of Patagonian stature might be due to the introduction of the horse; for it was certain that when people had to find their subsistence on horses, the seven-feet men would stand a poor chance compared with those of five feet ten. Sir John pointed out the similarity of the Fuegan spears produced to those of the ancient savages of Europe, and said, although there were resemblances between the Fuegans and the Esquimaux, the former seemed more susceptible to cold, and had fires, but the Esquimaux seemed able to do without them. But perhaps the reason was that the Fuegans had wood, and the Esquimaux had not.

Mr. Stirling concurred in this, and added that the Esquimaux had warm clothing, while the Fuegans had none, and it was noticed that the latter felt the cold more, and would take cold if they got wet after they had worn clothing.

Source: "Daily Herald" (Glasgow), 15 September 1865
Clipped: 10-VI-2014
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