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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


Cultural Superiority

During the 19th century, there was a pervasive perception that some human groups are backward, and in need of "improvement". The appearance and customs of the "Fuegians" provides ample temptation for sensationalism and expressions of superiority. At one extreme are articles such as The Land of Fire, Picherays and Pater's Chats with the Boys, apparently preaching "social darwinism" and imbued with contemptuous and sarcastic language. At the other extreme, the author of Cape Horn Aboriginals depicts the canoe nomads as a formerly admirable, successful race, destroyed by the intrusion of the white man; and whose violent, murderous excesses must be understood as an attempt to preserve its integrity in the face of aggression and abuse by outsiders — but this was not the spirit of the age (see footnote).

Negative News

The articles studied usually convey negative news: either an unintentional and unpleasant situation, such as a shipwreck, or aggression against the whites by "canoe natives". Their repeated attacks on boatloads of survivors were interpreted as a survival mechanism, intended to discourage future "intruders" from entering their territory.

Violence by Whites

Few reports describe violence or abuse perpetrated by the whites. There is one case of premeditated murder, by the survivor of the Balaklava, while escaping from captivity. Gratuitous murder of groups of natives is mentioned in two articles: (a) retribution by the Scottish captain of the Princess Louisa for the deaths of the men of the Propontis; and (b) liquidation of a group of natives onboard an Argentine or Chilean ship after the womenfolk were taken below decks (by implication, for the crew's sexual entertainment). In addition, this last article mentions other irresponsible actions by the crews of sealing ships (without mentioning names or nationalities): namely, kidnapping native women as sex slaves, and shooting at natives for sport, as if they were wild game.


The natives' desire to possess the whites' property, stemming from a different concept of ownership, was a frequent motivator of aggression. Aggressive behaviour in defence of families was reported by the officer of the Wyoming. Their lack of fear was most apparent when meeting small, unarmed parties of whites: attacks would then be made with stones, clubs, spears and hatchets.

This aspect of the native character is specifically noted in the diary of Richard Williams, the surgeon who accompanied Allen Gardiner in his 1851 mission: "A short acquaintance with the natives confirmed the unfavourable report which such writers as Fitz Roy, King, and Darwin had given; [...] that when they were the weaker party, they were mild and submissive, but the instant they had the prospect of taking us unawares, they became presuming and full of mischief."


The allegation of native cannibalism is widespread, although nowhere substantiated in the news reports. But, certainly, it must have served as a warning against relaxing one's guard in their presence. Taken together with descriptions of the natives' "repugnant" appearance, this belief will have reinforced the public's perception of their sub-human nature. Nonetheless, cannibalism of whites by whites did occur in the case of the Golden Hind, and is mentioned in the account of the Glenmore.

/Footnote/: In an 1853 publication, no less a figure than Charles Dickens debunked the notion of the "noble savage", concluding that "the world will be all the better when his place knows him no more" — unexpected words indeed from the renowned "social improver".