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 Murray
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."
Some quotes from Darwin on the Indians he encountered:
The Voyage of the Beagle
Chapter 10--Tierra Del Fuego
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.
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:
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.
For more on the subject, see "The Lowest Tribes Are Still Children" and The Myth of Western Superiority.