Tierra del Fuego

Here we are at the Uttermost Ends of the Earth and I am trying to discover how it was that a people described in 1829 by Charles Darwin as abject, miserable savages so loved their homeland that the three who had been taken to England jumped into the surf and ran ashore as soon as they were returned. Few who come this way can be unaware of the tale of Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and their companions, taken by Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle to experience the civilising effects of early nineteenth century England. Three years later the survivors couldn’t wait to return to this life, so wretched that it was seen by the Victorians as little removed from that of wild animals.

But first: our farewells! The final couple of days with the tour group were difficult in the extreme. After leaving Puerto Natales and setting off for Ushuaia via The Straits of Magellan and yet another border crossing, some deep divisions began to emerge and tempers frayed. In fact, so unpleasant was the prospect of spending our penultimate night “rough camping” beside a desolate roadside, that more than three quarters of the group refused to get off the bus. Oh well, I suppose we were in a remote part of Chile; perhaps I should be grateful that the engine started first time next morning and that no one actually had to resort to cannibalism. Once we finally reached our comfortable hostel at the end of the line, of course, hot food and hot showers restored a veneer of civilisation and it was all hugs and kisses and promises to stay in touch. Please don’t ask me whether I shall be repeating the experience.

Now, back to the Fuegian (or Yamana people). Darwin was wrong to describe them as cannibals. In fact it is a particular shame that he, known for his humanitarianism in later life, should have listened to so many unfounded sailors’ tales and formed such an inaccurate and ugly impression. Unsurprisingly, there are no native people still living the traditional way of life in these regions any more but, thanks to some better informed scholars such as Thomas Bridges and Father de Agostini, a lot more information was collected and translated before the inevitable contact with settlers and gold prospectors (and their diseases) sealed its fate.

However, it is plain from the information given in the museums and from the local artwork that many local people trace their decent from the original inhabitants of this region and are re-engaging with their neglected heritage. Perhaps a retrospective guilt or an eye to tourist revenue opportunities plays a part but, when I asked to photograph the bus stop lady’s remarkable features, she referred to herself as “The Shaman”, and dissolved into a fit of giggles. Those museum displays do a good job of explaining the native people’s adaptations to their environment; they did not wear clothes because they could not keep them dry, instead they carried fire with them wherever they went, so that the thousands of tiny orange lights along the shoreline gave rise to the name “Tierra del Fuego”. The names of the various groups, though, can be complicated in the extreme, with at least one “tribal” name being subsequently translated as “I don’t understand what you are saying” so please forgive me if I have confused some of them in my captions.

Social life amongst Yamana was apparently fairly egalitarian, with care given to the sick and elderly and shared male and female roles. I particularly liked the description of the canoe etiquette. The woman (the only one who knew how to swim) would sit in the back and steer, while her husband stood up front and hunted with his spear and the children tended the fire in the centre of the boat. Think of a weekend excursion in a small family car and imagine the rows that would result; I doubt you would be far from the mark. Their use of fire becomes more easy to understand when you find out that there are a number of coal seams this far south and that the natives had developed effective techniques of keeping it glowing for long periods in the damp climate. They also developed various methods of rapidly erecting shelters and keeping the interiors warm and dry. What had seemed to the first visitors a crude and primitive type of dwelling was simply an individual adaptation to the nomadic lifestyle.

It is all very well to read about this in the warm and to look at models and dioramas but I have to admit to remaining unconvinced until Grahame and I set off for our 8k nature walk (please note – walk not trek) in the incomparable Tierro del Fuego National Park. Here, the sheer beauty and bountiful harvest of the shoreline quite took our breath away. Here, it was possible to see at last how an animistic and unsophisticated (I’m not going to say primitive) people would feel themselves so much a part of the landscape that they would long to be reunited with it. It was an unforgettable experience and I hope that the photographs can do it justice.



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