Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part II. REVOLUTION

Chapter 8. TIERRA DEL FUEGO

Darwin Visited (Near To) Here

I shall never forget how savage & wild one group was. Four or five men suddenly appeared on a cliff near to us. They were absolutely naked & with long streaming hair; spring from the ground & waving their arms around their heads, they sent forth the most hideous yells. Their appearance was so strange, that it was scarcely like that of earthly inhabitants.

—BEAGLE DIARY, JANUARY 20, 1834

OF ALL THE PLACES I VISITED, Ushuaia, the biggest city in Tierra del Fuego, most aggressively marketed itself as a Darwin destination, based on four key realizations:

1. Darwin visited (near to) here

2. Gringo tourists are interested in Darwin

3. Gringo tourists do not understand much about Darwin

4. We can make money by presenting Darwin to Westerners

Which is basically how you get “The Adventure of the Beagle,” the musical.

Again: “The Adventure of the Beagle,” the musical, or, as it’s called there, El espectáculo del fin del mundo, “the show at the end of the earth,” a production of the tourist-friendly Centro Beagle.

I arrived at the Beagle Center an hour before the show was supposed to start and bought a ticket from a young man in a sailor hat that said “Beagle” on it. I asked if he knew anything about Darwin, and he said not much, and could I recommend a book? I suggested The Voyage of the Beagle, and, pleased, he handed me a ticket and a paper labeled “boarding agreement” and waved me into the waiting room.

The lobby was huge and featured a number of wooden tables arranged around the aft end of a scale-model replic a of the Beagle. It was empty, so I grabbed a bar stool and read through my “boarding agreement” while the lobby speakers blasted a looped recording of Handel’s “Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest.” The boarding agreement had two clauses, “purpose of the journey,” which was mostly correct in outlining the purpose of the real Beagle’s mission, and “on board rules,” which let me know that the “(1) captain is the absolute and final authority on board” and “(2) smoking, taking pictures, video, and/or audio recording use of cellular phones and other electronic devices is strictly forbidden.” For four repeats of the Coronation Anthem (you’ve probably heard it before; it’s also famous as the anthem of the European “champions league” club soccer tournament), I sat alone and wondered if they would perform the show for a solo, although highly enthusiastic, spectator. Would I be allowed to participate? Pause the actors mid-performance to ask questions? How gruesomely, fascinatingly awkward would that be?

But ten minutes before show time, a group of twenty or thirty cruise ship passengers arrived, with a tour director in tow. They seated themselves at a long table and ordered pre-performance Argentine wines. As waiters brought the wine, a few actors in what some costume designer evidently imagined to be a nineteenth century sailor outfit—with their wide-brimmed floppy baker’s hats and silver-blue neckties, they looked more like Parisian pastry chefs—emerged and pretended to swab the decks.

Before the violins could strike up a seventh chorus of the Coronation Anthem, the cruise ship passengers rose in unison at a signal from their tour director and shuffled through a curtain in the back of the Beagle replica. I followed them onto the ship, where the rising part of the rear cabin had been converted into seats. I climbed up and found one near the top, looking down at the deck planks and the sail-less main mast. My view also encompassed Tierra del Fuegian scenery, in this case glaciers made of crinkly white fabric draped over a metal framework. The ship sat in the middle of a big-top-style tent, and the black walls, with inset starry lights, rose high overhead.

Then everything went dark. The audience went quiet. The production began with a small video screen showing—what else?—Darwin as an old man in his study, recounting the origins of the voyage in a frail, Argentine-accented voice. And then, suddenly, our hero appeared in the flesh, emerging from a door in the Beagle’s fore cabin dressed in a long corduroy jacket, long red pants, and a pink shirt, and carrying what looked to be a rusty red suitcase emblazoned with flowers. The actor’s costume appeared to be loosely based on a portrait of Darwin at age thirty-one, wearing a brown shooting jacket, with a blue vest underneath—the cut of the actor’s jacket was similar, even if the color was off. The actor himself had long, straight hair, dyed blond with visible dark roots, and worn in an unruly mop. Synthetic muttonchops were glued to his cheeks.

Soon, the squadron of sailors that had earlier been pretend-swabbing the deck appeared, and then an appropriately costumed FitzRoy and another officer, and then, as Monty Python might say, things got silly. They broke out in song, in English. The lyrics, transcribed on the “boarding agreement,” read:

We’ll fight the roaring seas 
We shall face no defeat 
All across the Seven Seas 
The Beagle will succeed.

When the sailors finished singing and stomped off to work, Darwin and FitzRoy took center stage for a duet about searching for truth (in Darwin’s case) and the work of the Lord (in FitzRoy’s case). The lyrics—Darwin: “I’ll listen to the calling of the Earth,” FitzRoy: “uncover all of nature’s divine perfection and more”—played on two falsehoods, the first being that Darwin had any kind of coherent conception of his theory of evolution by natural selection before, or even really during, the Beagle’s voyage. (Mostly, he had inklings that something wasn’t right with the traditional explanation for the origins of life, which held that all species were created exactly as they were and did not change.) The second untruth was that FitzRoy wanted Darwin along to prove the literal truth of the Bible.

The musical, in fact, continued to hammer that point home, portraying FitzRoy as an overbearing fundamentalist blowhard, unwilling to tolerate dissent on religious matters. It staged Darwin as a tormented evolutionist, torn between his friendship with the captain and the new scientific truths he was discovering. If this theme wasn’t evident from, say, the twenty-foot-tall dancing sloth fossil that sang to Darwin that “you can try to deny what your eyes meet . . . but think you fool, don’t be a mule . . . I am as real as these bones,” the wailing solo that Darwin sang near the end removed any remaining ambiguity:

There’s no way to go on 
And there’s no turning back 
Nowhere to run 
Nowhere to hide 
I’m torn inside.

In fact, Darwin did complain frequently about his insides in Tierra del Fuego—with the bad weather and choppy seas, he was constantly seasick.

I knew that the play’s take wasn’t particularly historically accurate and wasn’t particularly surprised, since these are fairly easy assumptions about Darwin and the Beagle voyage. In fact, it’s probably easier to present this material —see point 3, above, “gringo tourists do not understand much about Darwin”—than to risk audience cognitive dissonance by trying to tell what actually happened.

Probably more exciting, too. Because in real life, the drama-worthy conflict on the Beagle was man versus the elements, which is hard to render in musical format. (Although if you’ve got twenty-foot-tall sloth bones singing, why not the snow gods?) Far from being a biblical literalist, the real FitzRoy wanted Darwin to study science. “Anxious that no opportunity of collecting useful information, during the voyage, should be lost; I proposed to the hydrographer that some well-educated and scientific person should be sought,” FitzRoy wrote in his Narrative. He had outfitted the ship with the very latest in scientific equipment and took a strong interest in Darwin’s discoveries. Although FitzRoy later became a staunch critic of The Origin of Species, standing up at one meeting with Bible in hand to say that he “regretted the publication of Mr. Darwin’s book,” there is little evidence to suggest he was particularly religious while on board. Darwin remembered that FitzRoy “became very religious” after the voyage and that in his own case, “I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers . . . for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.”

FitzRoy might have made the voyage even without the Admiralty’s backing—he had outfitted a ship and was ready to do so when they stepped in—because he had another important task: to return three captured indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego to their homeland.

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Darwin’s was the second voyage of the Beagle to South America. The first trip departed England in 1825 under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes. Like many other travelers, Stokes found Patagonia dreadfully dull. Faced with the idea of more time there, he shot himself. FitzRoy was his flag lieutenant, and he took over the Beagle and set off to survey Tierra del Fuego. Almost immediately, a group of Fuegians stole one of his whale-boats. FitzRoy gave chase but never recovered the whale-boat and instead took hostages, hoping that this would force its return. Much to his surprise, however, the Fuegians appeared satisfied with that bargain. He later traded another family some beads and buttons for a boy, and, with four indigenous people on board, FitzRoy seized on the idea that he would take them back to London with him, have them educated, and return them a few years later. He gave the three men and one woman the names York Minster, Boat Memory, James Button, and Fuegia Basket, and soon they were meeting the queen, ice-skating, and learning to eat with utensils.

Although Boat Memory died of an illness shortly after arriving in England in 1830, the others boarded the Beagle with Darwin a year later and set off for South America, along with a missionary, to convert their friends back home. “Jemmy” Button was the “universal favourite,” according to Darwin, and he remembered Jemmy sympathizing with his seasickness. “He used to come to me and say in a plaintive voice, ‘Poor, poor fellow!’” Darwin wrote. “But the notion, after his aquatic life, of a man being sea-sick, was too ludicrous, and he was generally obliged to turn on one side to hide a smile or laugh.” York Minster, the oldest of the group, was mostly quiet and reserved; Darwin described him as “taciturn” but “violently passionate” when excited. Fuegia Basket was the only female, and Darwin described her as a nice girl and a quick learner.

All the Fuegians taken by FitzRoy except York Minster were part of a tribe called the Yamana. The Yamana were semi-nomadic, living in small, self-contained family groups, and building small huts near oyster beds along the coast and then moving when the oyster supply gave out. They went back and forth between locations, returning to old huts after intervals long enough to allow the oyster stock to replenish. They also clubbed cormorants and seals, fished, and speared the occasional guanaco. They didn’t wear clothing, and smeared themselves with seal grease to stay warm. They carried all their valuables with them in canoes, including torches brandished to help keep their fires alive, and when there was a big event, like a whale washing ashore or an English boat landing, they would all gather in their canoes, build their huts (it took only an hour or two), and hang out.

The Yamana communicated with each other by lighting signal fires along the coast—Magellan saw these in the 1500s and named the place Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire” in Spanish. The Fuegians lit a large signal fire when the Beagle arrived this second time. FitzRoy and Darwin observed it from the boat, and FitzRoy recorded being “astonished at the rapidity with which the Fuegians produce this effect . . . in their wet climate, where I have been, at times, more than two hours attempting to kindle a fire.” Although the captain and his naturalist might have seen this as an example of the Fuegians’ clever adaptation to their environment, neither did so. When they landed the next day, it was amongst “savages.”

Darwin was transfixed. Landing amongst the Fuegians, he wrote, “was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld. I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage and civilized man is.”

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The musical treated its Fuegian heroes with a similar level of condescension. Jemmy Button’s actor turned him into a happy, effeminate Englishman who didn’t want to leave England, wearing gloves and shiny pink clothing and sipping tea with a raised pinky. (Darwin did describe Jemmy as “vain of personal appearance.”) The musical implied a romantic relationship between him and FitzRoy, which could have been Argentine actors subtly expressing their disdain for the English, or could have been overacting. Or it could have been entirely unintentional. Whichever the case, the show proceeded to the point of separation, in which FitzRoy, having shepherded his Fuegians for the past several years, finally arrived back near their home.

On January 18, 1833, FitzRoy anchored at the eastern end of the Beagle Channel and set off with Darwin, a small crew, and the missionary, whose name was Richard Mathews, to return the Fuegians to Jemmy Button’s old homeland in Ponsonby Sound, an inlet on the south end of the channel opposite modern Ushuaia. The yawl, a small sailboat used for exploratory expeditions, carried all of the items selected by Mathews’ Missionary Society to help the newly converted turn from savagery to proper Victorians. Darwin noted with disgust that the outfit included wine glasses, tea-trays, fine white linen, and a mahogany dressing case.

When the Beagle crew turned into Ponsonby Sound after three days of sailing, they found a small cove identified by Jemmy Button as his former home, Wuluaia. They landed and on the next day, Jemmy’s family arrived. (In the musical, the family was represented by dozens of grunting Yamana Indian puppets in canoes, which surrounded the stage.) Darwin remarked on the Fuegians astounding good eyesight and hearing: “all the organs of sense are highly perfected; sailors are well known for their good eyesight, & yet the Fuegians were as superior as another almost would be with a glass.” The Beagle crew optimistically set to work clearing the land for European-style living, building houses for Mathews and his prospective neighbors, and planting vegetable gardens. On January 28, FitzRoy decided that enough had been done and, leaving the three Fuegians and the missionary behind to let them get settled, turned the boats around to take a quick tour of the Beagle Channel.

As they sailed back toward Wuluaia a few days later, FitzRoy noticed a group of Fuegians, whom he didn’t recognize, wearing white linens, which he did. Mathews was not the kind of missionary who would give away the shirt from his back. FitzRoy rushed onward.

Mathews, much to the captain’s relief, came out to greet the ship, looking mostly as they had left him. But his report was unsatisfactory. He had had almost everything he owned stolen. He had been threatened. His garden had been trampled. “He did not think himself safe among such a set of utter savages as he found them to be, notwithstanding Jemmy’s assurances to the contrary,” FitzRoy wrote. The Richard Mathews experiment had finished, and on February 7, FitzRoy packed Mathews onto a whale boat and sent him back to the Beagle. At least Jemmy, Fuegia Basket, and York Minster seemed to have reintegrated nicely. Some vegetables were sprouting in the garden. FitzRoy felt sanguine.

The Beagle returned to Wuluaia one year later, in February 1834. They found the wigwams empty and no sign of Jemmy onshore. Soon a canoe appeared flying a flag. “Until she was close alongside,” Darwin wrote, “we could not recognize poor Jemmy.”

“It was quite painful to behold him,” Darwin lamented. “Thin, pale & without a remnant of his clothes, excepting a bit of blanket round his waist: his hair, hanging over his shoulders; & so ashamed of himself he turned his back to the ship as the canoe approached. When he left us he was very fat, & so particular about his clothes, that he was always afraid of even dirtying his shoes; scarcely ever without gloves & his hair neatly cut. I never saw so complete and grievous a change.”

FitzRoy rushed Jemmy below deck and had him clothed in English finery, and they proceeded to take tea together. Jemmy still remembered English and had even taught some to his family and to his new wife, who introduced herself to the sailors as “Jemmy Button’s wife.” The next morning, Jemmy told FitzRoy what had happened in the past year. York Minster and Fuegia Basket had stolen all of Jemmy’s clothes and left in the middle of the night to return to York’s homeland. And a warring tribe from the northeast of Tierra del Fuego, called “Ohens” by Jemmy—now called the Onas—had raided the settlement, forcing Jemmy to flee to his own island.

Still, Jemmy did not wish to return to England. He distributed some gifts, including a few spearheads for Darwin and a bow and quiver full of arrows for his schoolmaster in England. The gifts were as comically inappropriate as the tea trays sent the other direction by the missionary society.

Perhaps the musical had absorbed a bit of Darwin’s grief. When the Jemmy actor reappeared near the end, he had lost the tight breeches and teacup and had acquired a club and a loincloth. His hair was longer and stringier. He presented FitzRoy with an animal skin and intimated via grunts that he didn’t want to go back to England now, because he was happy being a savage. Jemmy and company (still played by puppets) then grunted their way offstage while a deeply chastened FitzRoy took the spotlight for his final solo, lamenting his pride and selfishness. “I played with this boy’s soul,” he crooned. “I took a life and treated it as if it was mine, my own to guide, to take to a better world.”

The real FitzRoy, not quite so tormented, reluctantly sailed out of Ponsonby Sound after two days. “Every soul on board was as sorry to shake hands with poor Jemmy for the last time, as we were glad to have seen him,” Darwin wrote. “I hope & have little doubt that he will be as happy as if he had never left his country; which is much more than I formerly thought.” FitzRoy spoke optimistically of the small benefits that might be gained from reintroducing Jemmy, York Minster, and Fuegia Basket to their homeland. “Perhaps,” he speculated, “a shipwrecked seaman may hereafter receive help and kind treatment from Jemmy Button’s children.”

In the 1845 edition of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin provided one last footnote about the Fuegians. The Beagle’s lieutenant, Philip Sulivan, eventually became a captain and was assigned to survey the Falkland Islands in the 1840s. In 1842, Sulivan heard from a sealer that a woman had boarded his boat in the Straits of Magellan and that she spoke English. Darwin wrote, “without doubt this was Fuegia Basket. She lived (I fear the term probably bears a double interpretation) some days on board.”

After the singing FitzRoy had belted out his musical lesson, the show reached its conclusion. The characters exited the stage and the video screen came down again, with the old version of Darwin saying it was too bad he and FitzRoy didn’t see eye to eye on the whole evolution thing, but that the Beagle trip had been a good time all around. Then the sailors came back and belted out one more rousing chorus of “Our spirits will never die / The Beagle is flying high,” and the stage went dark.

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I tracked down Marcos Gomez, the blue-eyed actor who had played Darwin, after the show. I found him in the Beagle Center lobby, watching the cruise ship passengers enjoy a nice local seafood dinner under a poster of naked Fuegians. Gomez was twenty-five, with blond hair still damp from the performance, and as he peeled back his rubber sideburns to reveal a hidden microphone, he told me he had studied acting in Buenos Aires.

I asked if he studied Darwin.

“Yes, a little,” he said. “To understand the part.” Gomez paused and looked thoughtful. “He married his cousin,” he added.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s right. And do you like playing Darwin?”

“Darwin is a fun character to play. But I would like to be the captain. He has a stronger role.” He pantomimed singing and then shrugged. “You know. But last year, I was a sailor.” He found his picture in the program and pointed it out.

I asked what he thought of the Yamana, and he became much more animated. “They’re considered the most primitive of the tribes,” he said. “But really, they were very smart. They had lots of means of obtaining food. They lived in complete harmony with the land. If a whale washed up, they’d eat that. They covered themselves in grease for the cold.” He continued praising the Yamana, clearly enthused by the subject.

I wanted to ask how he felt about the musical portraying them as grunters, but Gomez had to run backstage to change. I lingered for a few minutes more then headed back to the hostel.

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The next morning, looking for an academic of sorts to explain a bit more about current perceptions of Fuegians, I made my way through swirling mist to the local history museum. It called itself the “end of the world” museum, a tribute to Ushuaia’s self-declared status as the southernmost city in the world. (Like most everything Argentina claims, this is disputed by Chile, which says that its own naval settlement, Port Williams, is further south.)

The Yamana merited only a brief mention alongside the names and dates of famous European explorers who had visited the area. “They had a number of beliefs commonly found in other primitive peoples,” one plaque read (in English). “Yamana stories are known to be simple, with little humor or keenness.” I went to the front desk and asked if I could speak to the director and soon found myself ushered into the office of a very professorial-looking Argentine. He lit a cigarette and introduced himself as Santiago Reyes. We chatted briefly about Darwin’s visit. I asked what people in Tierra del Fuego, other than people who worked in tourism, thought of Darwin. “They don’t,” he answered quickly.

Reyes burned through three cigarettes and then switched to drinking maté.

“Darwin criticized slavery,” I said. “He defended the Indians of Patagonia. Then he arrived in Tierra del Fuego and was very critical of the indigenous people. He called them savages. Why do you think that was?”

Reyes took a sip from the maté gourd and reached back into his desk to pull out a postcard that he then slapped on the desk in front of me. It was a black-and-white picture of a Yamana family squatting in front of some trees, naked except for loincloths. It looked just like the large wall mural in the lobby of the Beagle Center.

He pulled out another postcard, of another group of Indians from the northern part of the island. In this picture, the people wore coats made from guanaco furs and stood upright with good posture. “What do you see?” he asked.

“They look different,” I said.

“There is a difference,” he replied. “To a European, these Indians look better. Darwin was very young. With very little experience. The Indians of the north were more normal for him. Imagine what he saw here. The natives were dirty. They didn’t have clothes. They’re one-and-a-half meters tall.”

Reyes didn’t excuse Darwin’s naiveté, but his side-by-side comparison provided an explanation. For a 23-year-old from a land where everyone wore wool and lived in brick houses and drove horse-drawn carriages, people sleeping naked in the rain must have seemed a breathtaking contrast. Except for the anthropologists who have discovered new Amazonian tribes, the experience Darwin had in meeting the Fuegians cannot be replicated today. Seeing rural farmers sleeping outside in sub-zero weather in the Andes or the people living in favelas in Rio de Janeiro may inspire a similar feeling of wonder at the differences between us, but I imagine it’s nothing like the shock Darwin felt. This wasn’t just the most curious and interesting spectacle he ever beheld, it was something he repeatedly referenced later in his life, even in his scientific work. Clearly, the Fuegians had set Darwin thinking: How are we the same and yet so different? Where do these vast differences come from?

The Descent of Man, published in 1871, isn’t just Darwin grappling with a lifetime of abolitionism. It’s his attempt to finally answer a question that had leaped out at him nearly four decades earlier in the savage conditions of Tierra del Fuego.

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That night in the hostel kitchen I cooked an Argentine steak, sat down to eat, and found myself opposite a young traveler. He slouched in his chair, pushed his noodle dinner around with his fork, and looked out the window at the overcast night sky. We exchanged the standard introductory formalities, and after learning he was nineteen, from Canada, and named Thomas, I asked how long he had been in Ushuaia.

“Too long, really,” he said. “This town just doesn’t do it for me. It’s too much like Canada. Maybe for you, coming from California, this weather is new or something. I can get rain and snow at home. They’ve got the same scenery. Same forests. They even took our beavers.”

(Beavers—small, furry, cute beavers—have become the brown scourge of Tierra del Fuego. Someone had the idea of introducing them in the early 1900s, to be hunted for their pelts. The pelt market collapsed almost immediately, but the beavers liked the scenery and decided to stay on and eat the island alive. The Argentine government started offering a small bounty for beaver pelts, but it didn’t help much. A local farmer explained to me that you could go out to the beaver pond, spend all day freezing cold for one decent shot at one beaver, and, if—if, he emphasized—you managed to hit one, all the other beavers within a ten-mile radius would vanish for the next few weeks. The farmer told me that they were considering introducing grizzly bears as a pest-control method.)

“At least,” I countered, “your beavers have left a trail of destruction and carnage.”

“That’s true,” Thomas said, nodding. “No natural predators. Reproducing like crazy. I saw all the dead trees in the park today.”

Thomas was impressed by the beavers. They were, he said, probably the most interesting part of the whole Tierra del Fuego experience.

He looked over at the book I was reading.

“Charles Darwin,” he said. “Why have I heard that name before?”

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