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Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 13:10 GMT
The 'hostages' that sailed with Darwin
By Jonathan Duffy and Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

The HMS Beagle

It sounds like the plot to a particularly misguided TV makeover show, but when a British sea captain brought four South American Indians back to Britain, and enrolled them in school, his plan was to help spread civilisation across a "dark continent".

By the time he got round to writing his first novel, the comedy credentials of Harry Thompson, who died last week, were beyond question.

With TV shows such as Have I Got News for You, Harry Enfield and Chums and Never Mind the Buzzcocks in his back pocket, Thompson had more than earned his light entertainment stripes.

So the subject of his historical novel, This Thing of Darkness, came as a surprise. The book, which was considered for this year's Booker Prize, deals with the voyages of the Beagle - the ship which carried Charles Darwin on his voyage of discovery.

But Thompson's tale also helped reawaken interest in a remarkable, though largely forgotten, episode in Britain's colonial history.

The former St Mary's Church school, Walthamstow
The school where Jemmy and others attended still stands
When the Beagle set sail from Plymouth for the south Atlantic in 1831, with Darwin in the charge of Captain Robert Fitzroy, it was also taking three young Patagonian Indians home after a bizarre social experiment.

His charges - two of them still children - had spent the previous 15 months living on the outskirts of London, where they had been the subjects of what, viewed through modern eyes, seems like an astonishing act of imperialism.

The trip back to the southern hemisphere was also a return journey for Fitzroy, who had originally been sent there, in charge of the Beagle, to survey this remote part of the globe for the British government.

On that initial journey Fitzroy had taken four local "savages" from the southernmost tip of the continent, known as Tierra del Fuego, as retribution for the stealing of one of his whaling boats.

Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle makes note of the Patagonian travellers
He notes that Jemmy was 'thoroughly ashamed of his countrymen'
On returning a year later, Jemmy was a 'thin, haggard savage'
See Internet links, above right
As hostile as the captain's conduct may seem, his motives were largely 19th Century benevolence: Fitzroy planned to ferry his four captives back to Britain and school them in the ways of Christianity and gentility. He then planned to return them to their homeland in the belief they would spread their newly instilled values through this "dark continent".

The four were an incongruous bunch, spanning in age range from nine to 26, with an equally motley collection of names given them by Fitzroy.

  • Fuegia Basket, the youngest and the only female, was named after "Basket Island";
  • Jemmy Button, aged about 14, took his name from the pearl button he was exchanged for;
  • Boat Memory, who was about 20; and
  • York Minster, who was named after a hill that had been likened in shape to the ancient city's cathedral.

The experiment started badly. Boat Memory died of smallpox shortly after the Beagle docked in Plymouth. Fitzroy took the other three to London and enrolled them in the first Church of England primary school, located in Walthamstow, today a suburb but then a village to the north east of the capital.

Peter Nichols, author of Evolution's Captain, which examines the relationship between Fitzroy and Darwin, struggles to imagine the scene.

"York Minster would have been a hulking guy. They would have been dressed up in uniform and made to sing songs about Jesus," says Mr Nichols.

Robert Fitzroy - Wikimedia: http://timeframes1.natlib.govt.nz/nlnz-get-info?Action=Info;RefNum=1/1-001318
Capt Fitzroy was a progressive character for the day
Nevertheless, the two youngest seemed to settle in well. Records held by the Vestry House Museum, which sits close to the spot where the school was, reveal they made friends easily.

With Fitzroy as their escort, they were also proving a hit on the London social scene, and even enjoyed an audience with King William IV and Queen Adelaide.

Such treatment doesn't bear scrutiny through modern eyes, says Mr Nichols.

"People then looked at them and thought isn't it great to see them dressed up in English clothes, saying 'please' and 'thank you ma'am'."

Yet records showed that Jemmy Button lapped up the attention, and was "enthralled" by his clothes. "He was said to never be able to pass a mirror without stopping to gaze in it."

"What they really thought... what was going on inside their heads... who knows?"

Fearing humiliation

But things were starting to go awry as York Minster, who was ill at ease among his new-found "friends", became sexually interested in young Fuegia Basket. Although the official records don't note it, says Mr Nichols, it can be deduced from other writings at the time.

There was no demonstration of affection; they simply stared for a short time at each other; and the mother immediately went to look after her canoe
Darwin on the re-unification of Jemmy Button with his mother
"It was really hushed up. Fitzroy, having taken these people around London and explained his scheme knew it wouldn't have looked good."

Devastated and fearing he would be utterly humiliated the captain swiftly removed his charges from school and made hasty plans to take them back to the south Atlantic.

But a complex and intelligent man, Fitzroy panicked at the thought of spending months on his own at sea, with only the ship hands and his three Patagonians. So he put the word out he was looking for a travelling companion, preferably a naturalist.

Up stepped Charles Darwin, then a trainee pastor, and, like most others at the time, a firm believer in the biblical account of the Creation.

The repatriation of the Patagonians was every bit as disappointing as the experiment to Fitzroy. They had been packed off with a haul of presents from British well-wishers - wine glasses, tea trays, butter dishes - all of which were useless in their home environment.


They were robbed by other natives and York Minster, having married Fuegia Basket on their return, subsequently robbed his old travelling companion Jemmy Button.

Charles Darwin
Darwin's On the Origin of Species was informed by his trip with Fitzroy
When Fitzroy returned a year later to catch up, having traipsed around the south Atlantic with Darwin, he found Jemmy Button had simply gone back to his old way of life.

"Fitzroy had to face the fact his experiment had been a total disaster because they had reverted to savaging; their civilisation had been a gloss. It plunged him into a deep depression," says Mr Nichols.

Reports that filtered back to Britain many years later would have depressed him even further. Fuegia Basket had become a prostitute "turning tricks on the beach" for British sailors and Jemmy Button stood trial for hijacking a ship of British missionaries, who were all slaughtered.

Yet, as Mr Nichols points out, without the experiment Darwin might never have set out on what turned out to be the momentous voyage through which he forged his theory of natural selection.

Shortly afterwards, Alfred Russel Wallace was pursuing a similar line of inquiry. Were it not for the folly of the well-meaning but ultimately misguided Captain Fitzroy, says Mr Nichols, we might today be talking about Wallacism rather than Darwinism.

Thanks to the Waltham Forest Local Studies Library for their help in researching this article.

Your comments:

I wish we are given this kind of background stories during our years at school. Darwinism and Biology was a very dull and boring subject, such story about the nature of the voyage would have ignited some debate about Darwin's theory by the adolescents more than the theory itself. After all, the neo-conservatives in my adopted country in USA are trying to send all children to the old Christian civilization and doubting Darwin's theory.
Ismail Hummos, Chicago USA

What an interesting story! I will read the book to learn more. However, one of the most interesting aspects of it was the fact that 'their civilisation had been a gloss' - I think this is probably true of us all. When law and order disappear or a calamity happens, we revert to our raw survival mode and the 'gloss' of civilisation is probably one of the first things to go. That is not to say, of course, that the so-called 'savages' did not have a perfectly well functioning society and values of their own - just very different from the England of that time!
Jessica, Norwich

I'm surprised you didn't mention Nick Hazelwood's popular history book Savage (Hodder & Stoughton 2000), which deals with this same story.
Paul Sullivan, Buxton, UK

Wallace was only 8 years old in 1831, and his first expedition set out in 1848, 17 years after the Beagle. The Beagle voyage was of decisive importance for Darwin's development as a scientist, and the history of Darwin and Wallace's friendship is fascinating, but neither depend in any direct or critical way on Fitzroy's "experiment" with the Fuegians.
Gregory Mayer, Racine, Wisconsin, USA

Thanks for drawing attention to a remarkable tale. A few pedantic comments: 1. The implication of the article is that the purpose of the second voyage of the Beagle was to return Jemmy et al to their homes. In fact, the Beagle was on an Admiralty-mandated surveying mission. Had the Beagle not been commissioned by the Admiralty, Fitzroy would have sent the Fuegians back aboard a merchant ship. He had made arrangements to do so (at his own expense) before the Beagle commission came through. 2. Jemmy Button did not "hijack" the Patagonian Missionary Society boat, The Allen Gardiner, in 1859 but was implicated by the sole survivor in the massacre of its crew.
Andrew Berry, Cambridge MA USA

Priceless. Thank you for writing this article. I am a field biologist and desert ecologist, educator & amateur historian of science, and details like this about my chosen profession are invaluable. Please keep up the good work, nothing close to it is coming out of American journalists. Thank god for the BBC.
Wylie Cox, Tucson, Arizona, USA

An excellent article! Such articles are in pitiful supply of late.
Dudley Didereaux, Bacliff, TX USA

I was so sorry to read that Harry Thompson has died. I finished reading the book last week and was going to write to him to congratulate him on this wonderful novel. It is the best book I have read for many years, full of detail, adventure and amusement. I hope he knew what a great achievement it was.
Kate O'Dea, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Who first said it I do not remember, but Captain Fitzroy's experiment reminded me that if there really are UFOs and you witness one landing in England or anywhere else, then you had better prepare yourself for a long journey! J. P. W.
j. p. ward, Netherlands

We cannot judge attitudes and behaviour in the past by contemporary standards, which will themselves be deemed unacceptable in a few years time. The greater tragedy for humanity is that the Fuegian race now seems to be extinct. This should not be a surprise in view of the miserable climate in which they existed, living in wet and cold conditions and barely existing. An interesting description is found in "Sailing Alone around the World" by Joshua Slocum.
david , Horsham,UK

It's remarkable to note that Christian evangelism aimed to "prove" to natives that they should abandon their natural way of life, yet by facilitating the creation of Darwin's theories, which to many disprove Christian thought, it rather shot itself in the foot. Karma, anyone?
Chandra, England

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