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Judicial enquiry into persecution of the natives of Tierra del Fuego, Chile (1895)
Twenty-three sworn testimonies recorded by the investigating judge [in Spanish]

The Historical Setting

The first years of economic development in Tierra del Fuego (both Argentine and Chilean) brought about the destruction of its most widespread native group, the nomadic Selknam (or Ona).

The 1880s saw sporadic, violent encounters between the natives and explorers or gold miners, triggered by the strangers' fear or brutality or lust. A decade later, there was widespread confrontation for a different reason: the struggle for access to the island's northern and central grasslands.

The Chilean government had awarded huge land concessions (the largest covered 1,000,000 hectares: see map), without considering the needs of the existing inhabitants. The result was an inevitable clash of interests, in which the sheep-ranching companies protected their economic assets with rifle bullets.

Rumours spread to the mainland: it was said that the ranchers paid a bounty for incontrovertible evidence of the death of a native (such as a severed head, or a pair of ears). One ranch worker boasted of killing "hundreds" of men, women and children. On the other hand, in a display of compassion, priests of the Salesian order established two mission stations — "safe havens" for the embattled native groups — but to no avail: the majority of inmates died.

With no spokesperson to represent the natives' predicament, the rest of the country was only hazily aware of these tragic events until, at the end of 1895, a Santiago newspaper published two poignant letters which led the Chilean justice system to mount an investigation into the treatment of the Selknam.

The Criminal Investigation

The higher court in Valparaíso ordered an investigation into two principal points: first, whether the press reports were true; and, second, what steps had been taken to improve the situation. Over the ensuing year, evidence was collected from residents of Punta Arenas, the principal town of the Territory of Magallanes, plus others living or employed in the island of Tierra del Fuego (approximately 158 statements). Six weeks into the process, the higher court assigned the case to a public prosecutor, possibly to reduce the burden of work on the resident judge.

Reading sequentially through the case file, one sees clearly how the web of enquiry spread wider and wider, as new names and leads arose. Owing to distances and weather conditions, some summonses took several months to be served. A few persons, among them the notorious Sam Hyslop, were never located: it was said that they might be living in Argentina.

Despite widespread conviction that natives were being murdered, eye-witnesses were thin on the ground. After diligent enquiry, the prosecutor identified one instance of armed combat where the participants concurred in stating that one native was killed. However, this confrontation occurred in a remote rural area, and tangible proof was lacking to pursue the case, because the corpse had been buried on the spot by kinsfolk. No interpreter could be found to question the natives directly.

The prosecutor delivered his report in early 1897. In it, he stated that it would be unrealistic and impracticable to apply to native peoples the same rights and responsibilities that are applicable to the "civilised" portion of society. He found that there were no grounds to lay the charge of homicide against any of the parties involved. He recommended dropping all charges. However, it was only in 1904 that the resident judge passed sentence, absolving the accused who, he said, had acted in legitimate self-defence. This sentence was referred to the higher court in Valparaíso, which dismissed the case, finding that there was no evidence that a crime had been committed; the bail money was then finally returned to the guarantors.

This Web Presentation

The quantity of evidence gathered in this case was large, but much of it was repetitive. For this presentation, we have selected a representative group of 23 informants, whose statements deal directly with events in Tierra del Fuego.

Although of interest for future publication, we have chosen to exclude several parallel issues, including: (a) mistreatment of the 165 natives who were brought to Punta Arenas; (b) disagreements between Governor Señoret and others, notably the priest Borgatello; and (c) confrontations with Kaweskar (Alakaluf) natives which occurred in the region of Última Esperanza in 1894.

Spelling has been aligned with modern practice. Foreign proper names have been standardized. Occasionally, minor punctuation has been added to improve readability.

Related Materials

The following materials on this web-site provide additional background information about the people and events mentioned in this investigation:

Sheep-farmer in Tierra del Fuego; diary of Scottish shepherd William Blain; 1891-1898

Natives of Tierra del Fuego; book by Chilean Governor Manuel Señoret; 1896 (in Spanish)

Confrontation with the Selknam; letter from a New Zealand shepherd; 1898

Ona Legends and Tales; oral tradtions of the Selknam, recorded by Lucas Bridges; circa 1900

Source: Juzgado de Crimen de Magallanes, Legajo 75; original deposited in the National Archive, Santiago, Chile
Thanks (I-2014): Francisco Díaz Luengo, Joaquín Bascopé
Page created: 18-II-2014
Last updated: 24-II-2014