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Patagonia Bookshelf

Records of the South American Missionary Society (1896?)
First-hand accounts of Anglican missionary work in Tierra del Fuego

title page
title page of book

The 19th century, in Britain as elsewhere, was characterized by a strong desire to explore every part of the world, and carry the Christian religion to the "uncivilized" races. Captain Robert Fitzroy, RN, while surveying the coastline of Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia), personally attempted to practice these tenets. In 1830 he took four young Fuegian natives to London to be educated at his expense, returning them three years later in the celebrated HMS Beagle expedition.

Recognizing the need for a permanent presence in this region, the Brighton Missionary Association for Patagonia was established in 1844 with private donations. Retired Navy Captain Allen Gardiner played a leading role in the initial fieldwork. As a result of his death in 1851 (along with six of his companions) the flow of donations to the now renamed Patagonian Missionary Society increased. A new strategy was adopted of gradual contact with the natives under controlled conditions, and a ship was built for the missionaries' use. In 1865 the organization changed its name once more, to the South American Missionary Society (S.A.M.S.), establishing a base of operations at Keppel, one of the nearby Falkland Islands.

Two prominent missionaries in this period were Rev. (later Bishop) Waite H. Stirling, the first person to live among the natives; and Rev. Thomas Bridges, who was to settle permanently at Harberton (Beagle Channel) with his family. By 1894 S.A.M.S. also had missions at several other locations around the continent, including Brazil, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as other regions of Argentina and Chile. This book, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the original society, is devoted in good part to its activities in Tierra del Fuego, quoting many first-hand accounts.

Reading this collection of reports with the benefit of hindsight, one senses discouragement and resignation in the face of a dwindling native population (exposed to the white man's diseases, and an unaccustomed sedentary life-style, among other reasons). It is rather sad that several of the author's "success stories" in fact extol a Christian way of dying, rather than living. Within the next two decades, the Tierra del Fuego mission was to lose almost all its native constituency, closing its doors for good in 1916; only the Rev. John Williams remained in the region, to work in the booming, immigrant community of Punta Arenas.

Source materials: "Records of the South American Missionary Society, or Fifty years work of the Church of England in South America (British Guiana excepted)", fourth edition, pp. 1-42, compiled by Mrs. Allen Gardiner (Elizabeth Lydia Marsh Gardiner), and published by the South American Missionary Society, London, 1896?.

Thanks: to the staff of the Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington DC for their assistance.

Links: Several more original publications have been transcribed by Project Canterbury
A review of the Anglican missionary society work in Southern Patagonia can be found here
Photographs of the Tekenika Mission Station