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Patagonia Bookshelf

Letter from Tierra del Fuego, 1898
A New Zealander visits sheep farms in Selknam Indian territory
START => Introduction in Argentina Contemporary photograph Map


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 tongue-in-cheek.

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 mystery.

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 Springhill). The Scottish shepherd William Blain was in charge of setting up this large operation; his journal (published 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".