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Patagonia Bookshelf

Tierra del Fuego: Of Sailors and Savages (1851—1900)
Contacts between ships and natives groups, as reported in the English-language press

UNKNOWN  [1892]

(Note: Text dealing with natives is displayed with a contrasting background colour.)


Tierra Del Fuego.

A week or two ago one of the captains of the Homeward-bound boats announced his intention of sailing through the Strait of Magellan, and as I was reading a description of Terra del Fuego in a review the other day, perhaps a few of the points mentioned in the article may not be uninteresting, especially as my geographical chats have been few and far between lately. The article is written by one who was wrecked in the strait and had to spend two months among the island peaks that constitute Tierra Del Fuego.

The strait is a dangerous and intricate one about 300 miles long and from four to twelve miles wide. Magellan sailed through it in 1520. It separates the Land of Fire from Patagonia. We are generally under the impression that Tierra del Fuego owes its name either to volcanoes being in active eruption there or to extinct volcanoes, of which the cone-like island mountain tops are the survivals. As a matter of fact they never were volcanoes. The name is owing to the camp fires always kept burning by the miserable objects that are only apologies for human beings; for they are in the lowest grade of civilised life, judged either by their intelligence or their appearance. These people are hideously ugly and grossly stupid. The men are only some 5ft 2in or 5ft 3in, and the women 6in shorter. Their bodies are very large, and the babies are pot-bellied by heredity. The legs are as thin as it is possible to conceive them to be, and no larger in the thigh than in the calf. The eyes are slanting and bleary, hair long, lank, and black; cheek bones high; forehead receding, and so on. Indeed, so little of the human is in them that someone has called them "satires upon mankind." They are fond of "long pig" — that is, they are cannibals, white folk being a special dish only procurable upon occasions. When driven by hunger the oldest woman in the company is throttled for food by her relatives, her head being the while held over the smoke of a green wood fire, presumably to hasten the process of dissolution. Like all savages they paint themselves with pigment -- have fashionable white folk given up this practice of their far back forefathers? -- using white when going to war, red and yellow to indicate friendliness, and black to indicate grief. Their principal food is a shellfish, which when eaten by Europeans produces a kind of poisoning and an irritation of the skin — one man's food being in this case decidedly another man's poison. They are very fond of the fishy and strongly-flavoured birds that frequent the islands, but cannot often get them. One of these birds, called by captains and sailors passing through the strait the steamer-duck, or racehorse duck, is the largest of its kind, measuring 40in from tip of bill to the extremity of the tail, and weighing as much as 30lb. It is an object of special interest, because it neither entirely flies nor runs, but combines running and paddling, striking the water with each wing alternately, and leaving behind a wake of foam like a steamer. […]

These are only a few of the interesting portions of the article, which narrowly escaped not being written at all, for the little band of survivors from the wreck were reduced to the last straits when rescued by a passing vessel, and were in hourly danger of making roasts for the Fuegians, who now they were reduced by weakness and helplessness had determined to attack them and have a "good square meal."