The Return of Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Return of Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster

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During the voyage of the British ships Adventure and Beagle to Tierra del Fuego in the years 1826-1830, Captain Robert FitzRoy:

...seized a party of natives, as hostages for the loss of a boat, which had been stolen, to the great jeopardy of a party employed in the survey; and some of these natives, as well as a child whom he bought for a pearl-button, he took with him to England, determining to educate them and instruct them in religion at his own expense.
- Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, chapter 10.

Four Fuegians - two men, a young boy, and a little girl - were removed from their home and forced to travel to the other side of the globe. One of the men soon died of smallpox1. The other three unfortunates eventually came back to the land of their birth, but they could never return home.

The Three Fuegians

Charles Darwin provides a description of the three Fuegians who accompanied him on the first leg of the famous Voyage of the Beagle. York Minster, the surviving man, was 'full-grown, short, thick, powerful' and 'reserved, taciturn, morose, and when excited violently passionate.' York Minster's violence would serve him well on his return to Tierra del Fuego. Jemmy Button, the child who had been purchased for the price of his namesake button, was:

… an universal favourite, but likewise passionate... He was merry and often laughed, and was remarkably sympathetic with anyone in pain.

Although Jemmy Button expressed a devotion to his native land, in his time in Britain he had adopted a number of European habits: he wore gloves, kept his hair neatly trimmed, and was very careful to always keep his shoes brightly polished. Fuegia Basket, the girl, was 'a nice, modest, reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression.' Darwin reports that she seemed to have a facility with languages and learned some Spanish and Portuguese on the voyage. Darwin was of the impression that York Minster was 'determined to marry' Fuegia Basket once they were returned to their homeland. Darwin was, however, showing Victorian politeness: part of the reason that FitzRoy had been content to cut short his experiment of civilising the Fuegians was that York Minster had already been caught raping the 12-year old Fuegia Basket.

The Return

The return of the three Fuegians was one of the principal reasons for the voyage of the Beagle. The British Admiralty, in an anachronistic show of humanitarian spirit, had been horrified by FitzRoy's abduction of these simple people and in time gave orders that they be returned. After York Minster's attack on Fuegia Basket, FitzRoy was quite happy at the prospect of having them out of his home. The three Fuegians were not consulted. It seems clear from both Darwin's description of the three, and from later events in Tierra del Fuego, that at least Jemmy Button might have chosen to remain in Britain if given the choice.

In January 1833, FitzRoy landed the Fuegians in the area of Jemmy's family. York Minster and Fuegia, who had originally come from another area, decided that they would debark with Jemmy as well. A British missionary also intended to remain. Five days were spent in building the returnees shelter and in unloading their goods and there was even an attempt made at preparing a garden and planting seeds. On 24 January, Jemmy's mother and brothers arrived to investigate reports of his return. Jemmy had forgotten most of his own language and was virtually ignored by his family. Fuegia Basket, however, was doted upon by the Fuegian Women.

Three days later, all women and children of the native group disappeared. This caused great unease among the British who, except for Matthews the missionary, moved camp to a location farther from the little group of shelters. The next day, since all seemed well at the resettlement camp, the British moved off on an exploration journey, returning on 6 February. While away, the Fuegian men had been reinforced and had spent their time plundering the new arrivals. FitzRoy ordered Matthews back to the ship. York Minster apparently expressed his confidence that he and Fuegia would be able to manage. Jemmy Button, however, 'looked rather disconsolate, and would then, I have little doubt, have been glad to have returned with us.' The Beagle sailed away.

Jemmy Button's New Life

On 5 March the following year, the Beagle anchored once more near the settlement and found it deserted. After a time, a canoe approached the Beagle with a naked and distraught Jemmy Button. After a wash and a British meal, Jemmy informed his European friends that he wished to stay in his homeland: he had a wife, he had relearned some of his language, and he had acquired skills he needed for life in Tierra del Fuego. After a short visit with his old friends, Jemmy Button and his wife returned to the canoe he built and the home he hoped to build for his family. There is a story that some years later a group of missionaries was killed in the same area by a party led by Jemmy Button.

York Minster's New Life

According to Jemmy Button, sometime after the Beagle's initial departure, York Minster built a canoe and returned to his home area with Fuegia Basket. He was said to have persuaded Jemmy Button and his mother to accompany them, but one night he stole everything the Button family owned and deserted them on the strange shore. With that final act of robbery, York Minster passes out of history.

Fuegia Basket's New Life

The last mention history makes of the little girl that FitzRoy abducted comes from a Captain Sullivan, who had heard the story from a sealer. Around 1842, in the western part of the Strait of Magellan, a woman came aboard the sealing vessel and surprised all present with her ability to speak English. As Darwin writes in a footnote:

She lived (I fear the term probably bears a double interpretation) some days on board.

Some reports suggest that Fuegia did not survive her time on the sealing ship while other stories current in Patagonia suggest that she lived to be an old woman with the fear that her relatives were intending to strangle her.

1The smallpox victim had been named Boat Memory.

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