March 28, 2010

Darwinian view of Indians

The Mask and the Mirror

Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button
By Nick Hazlewood
Thomas Dunne Books St. Martin's Press: 384 pp., $25.95

By Yxta Maya MurrayIn 1833, British naval commander Robert FitzRoy permitted a free-thinking naturalist named Charles Darwin to accompany him on the Beagle en route to Tierra del Fuego, a network of channels and islands off the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. FitzRoy intended to return home three Fuegians who had spent a year enduring a "civilizing" education in England, with the hopes that they would convince the natives that Jesus Christ was their lord and savior and that their subjugation to Europeans wasn't such a bad idea, either.

One of the Fuegians traveling with Darwin was the infamous Jemmy Button, nee Orundellico, who had been abducted by FitzRoy three years before and who, three decades later, would be implicated in the slaughter of eight British missionaries on Tierra del Fuego. Darwin saw no signs of the antipathy that would later (allegedly) drive Button to violence; in "The Voyage of the Beagle" he noted: "Button was a universal favourite, but likewise passionate; the expression of his face at once showed his nice disposition." Of the other Fuegians, however, who had not benefited from English instruction, Darwin wrote elsewhere:

"I declare the thought, when I first saw in Tierra del Fuego a naked, painted, shivering hideous savage, that my ancestors must have been somewhat similar beings, was at that time as revolting to me, nay more revolting than my present belief that an incomparably more remote ancestor was a hairy beast."
More quotes on Indians

Some quotes from Darwin on the Indians he encountered:

The Voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin
Chapter 10--Tierra Del Fuego
In the morning the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.

It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities that he [Jemmy] should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here.

After our first feeling of grave astonishment was over, nothing could be more ludicrous than the odd mixture of surprise and imitation which these savages every moment exhibited.

We have no reason to believe that they perform any sort of religious worship; though perhaps the muttering of the old man before he distributed the putrid blubber to his famished party, may be of this nature. Each family or tribe has a wizard or conjuring doctor, whose office we could never clearly ascertain.

Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals; for it is not improved by experience: the canoe, their most ingenious work, poor as it is, has remained the same, as we know from Drake, for the last two hundred and fifty years.

I shall never forget how wild and savage one group appeared: suddenly four or five men came to the edge of an overhanging cliff; they were absolutely naked, and their long hair streamed about their faces; they held rugged staffs in their hands, and, springing from the ground, they waved their arms round their heads, and sent forth the most hideous yells.

Like wild beasts, they do not appear to compare numbers; for each individual, if attacked, instead of retiring, will endeavour to dash your brains out with a stone, as certainly as a tiger under similar circumstances would tear you.

We were well clothed, and though sitting close to the fire were far from too warm; yet these naked savages, though further off, were observed, to our great surprise, to be streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting.

The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so is it with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or a consequence, the more civilized always have the most artificial governments.
Darwin attempted a pseudo-evolutionary explanation for the Indians' "savagery":Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, whence have they come? What could have tempted, or what change compelled a tribe of men, to leave the fine regions of the north, to travel down the Cordillera or backbone of America, to invent and build canoes, which are not used by the tribes of Chile, Peru, and Brazil, and then to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe? Although such reflections must at first seize on the mind, yet we may feel sure that they are partly erroneous. There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number; therefore we must suppose that they enjoy a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having. Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.Darwin seems to have thought the Indians were like animals: well-adapted biologically to their environment. He seems to have missed the more obvious explanation: that they were well-adapted culturally to their environment. If their numbers remained stable despite not having clothing, religion, technology, or government, they apparently didn't need these things. They did just fine without them.

Why not become more "civilized"? Well, clothing might've led to status-seeking, technology to an arms race, and religion and government to a power-hungry hierarchy. Perhaps they judged that these things weren't worth the trouble they'd bring. Which is very different from saying they were too bestial to figure out the "benefits" of civilization.

What happened to Jemmy Button?

Murray's book review continues with the outcome of Jemmy Button's story:In 1854, delegates of the Patagonia Missionary Society, "driven by intense religious passions," sailed from Bristol to Tierra del Fuego hoping to find the English-speaking Button and persuade him to aid in their evangelical efforts. Apparently expecting a couth Tarzan, the missionaries instead encountered a "fat little Indian, dirty and naked, speaking understandable phrases of their own language."

What ensued reads like a cross between "Gilligan's Island" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau": The missionaries fought among themselves; one captain sailed home in a huff, threatening to sue; Button promised to return to England with the missionaries, then reneged; he demanded presents from the delegation's Rev. George Packenham Despard but refused to teach the Britons Yamana, his native tongue. Moreover, Button and his kindred resisted laboring for their keepers--an un-Christian trait that the missionaries set out to correct through a program of rewards, beatings and personal searches (the Fuegians could be quite the pickpockets when gifts were not forthcoming).

How successful were the missionaries? After a while, Button seemed to play along, and the Fuegians learned to pray and cover their privates. The time spent with the British, Hazlewood tells us, "turned them from lethargic sloths into energetic, industrious laborers."

Then one day, during a peaceful prayer meeting, 300 Fuegians descended upon eight of the missionaries, slaughtering them in cold blood. Although Button blamed another Fuegian tribe for the butchery, Hazlewood asserts that it is "distinctly probable" that he led the attack.
Comment:  Darwin wasn't involved with the second voyage, but the missionaries' views seem similar to his. The Europeans and Americans who encountered North American Indians also had similar views. Basically, they thought Indians were wretched, slothful savages until they adopted the white man's ways. In their natural state they had no technology, religion, or government; they were just whooping, strutting creatures like some sort of peacock.

For more on the subject, see "The Lowest Tribes Are Still Children" and The Myth of Western Superiority.


10th Little Indian said...

Truly, who IS and HAS ALWAYS BEEN the savage. Those whom destroy nature and environments; those whom pollute the air we breath; those whom drain and bleed the earths resources and annihilate cultures and lives in massive graves? Or the naked whom God created out of the Garden with no ambition to exceed his necessity(s), truly, who IS and ALWAYS HAS BEEN the savage?

Reading on the history of man the conqueror, not much has changed. Do the soldiers of today overseas still play with dead body parts as trophies and mutilate; kill children and rape women indiscriminately? How is this different than the decapitations and dismembered natives at the so-called battle of Washita, Sand Creek Massacre or Wounded Knee. And America calls Indigenous peoples savages based on attire, housing, songs and dances?

Anonymous said...

You should read Häckel's views on race. To be fair, Darwin saw Häckel as little more than a fanboy. Of course, nobody else did. Recapitulation appears in Nazi ideology, psychoanalysis (Hitler would be shocked to find himself agreeing with a Jew.), archaeology in the Americas (that clearly ancient tools are simply newer ones that were unfinished), and so on.

The result was simple: Nonwhites, being inferior, are childish; and, being childish, are inferior.

And of course, there was Francis Galton, who, as a cousin of Darwin, had only his genes as a claim to fame...and then used that to claim his superiority.