Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


To Victorian eyes it seemed like a benevolent idea.
Take one Fuegian...
Seize a primitive ‘savage’ from the wilds of South America, ship him to England and give him a good Christian education.
Then, take the newly civilised tribesman back to Patagonia in order that he might spread civilisation to the rest of his people.
The story of Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle is well known. The story of Jemmy Button, the boy brought to London on the Beagle’s first voyage, is rather less well publicised.
From savage...

Yet Darwin’s experiences with Jemmy were to have a profound influence on his theory of evolution. And the sight of a wild tribesman wandering the streets of Regency London was to cause delight and horror in equal measure. 
The idea of capturing Jemmy came as the Beagle lay at anchor in the Tierra del Fuego. The ship’s crew were appalled when they first sighted these primitive tribesmen: ‘their hair hanging down on all sides like old thatch and their skins of a reddish brown colour.’ civilised. It's all in the haircut
The Englishmen found them unspeakably wild: they were decked in tattered skins and ate wild whale blubber with undisguised relish.
Robert Fitzroy: it was his idea
When, in January, 1830, some Fuegians stole the Beagle’s whaleboat, Captain Robert Fitzroy decided to take some of them as hostages. 
His first haul yielded three; they were promptly given the names York Minster, Boat Memory and Fuegia Basket.
Soon after, Fitzroy bought a young boy for the price of a mother-of-pearl button. In honour of the transaction, he gave him the name Jemmy Button.
Fitzroy claimed he had seized them in order that they might serve as interpreters. But he also wanted to civilise them by giving them an education in England.
The Beagle arrived back in England in October 1830 and the Fuegians were lodged in Plymouth while Fitzroy looked for someone to ‘instruct them and enlighten their mind.’
Boat Memory died of smallpox within days of landing. The three others were taken to Walthamstow and placed under the care of Mr and Mrs Jenkins, educationalists and evangelical preachers.
Tierra del Fuego: Jemmy's home
They were to teach the Fuegians ‘the plainer truths of Christianity,’ along with gardening and other skills.
Mr Wilson was most impressed with Jemmy Button. ‘By far the most intelligent,’ he wrote. ‘He had no idea of God [and] confessed that he had eaten human flesh.’
By the summer of 1831, the Fuegians were considered sufficiently civilised to be taken to meet King William IV and his wife, Queen Adeleide. The queen offered Fuegia Basket a pretty bonnet to take home with her.
Darwin's ship, the Beagle
Their departure came soon enough. The now ‘civilised’ Jemmy Button, along with his two fellow Fuegians were to be taken back to their homeland on the Beagle’s second voyage. Also on board was the young naturalist, Charles Darwin. 
The Beagle reached South America in December, 1832. Darwin was horrified by the primitive state of the natives ashore; they were so different from the three Fuegians on board.
Darwin: astonished by Jemmy
Comparing the two was, he wrote, ‘without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld.’ 
He added: ‘I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal…’
He was particularly surprised by how Jemmy had been transformed by his time in England. ‘It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here.’
The contrast was to make a lasting impression. When Darwin came to develop his theory of civilisation in his revolutionary Descent of Man, he recalled his time aboard the Beagle with Jemmy Button and his two fellow tribesmen.
He said that their time in England had transformed them; ‘[They] resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties.’
It led Darwin to conclude that civilisation had evolved from a primitive state in much the same manner as complex creatures had evolved from simple beginnings.
Beagle's crew met by Fuegians
Darwin and Fitzroy had high hopes that Jemmy Button would bring the civilised values of England to his own primitive people. Alas, it was not to be. Soon after arriving at his former home, Jemmy shed his European waistcoat and got back into his loincloth.
His Christianity also quickly disappeared. By the 1850s, when a missionary expedition returned to Tierra Del Fuego, the only reminder of his sojourn in England was his remarkable fluency in English.
Although Fitzroy’s ‘civilising’ experiment had failed, the legacy of Jemmy Button’s trip to England was ultimately to endure in Darwin’s revolutionary theories of evolution and the civilisation of mankind. 

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail