I'm still reading through Harry Thompson's excellent fictionalised account of the voyage of the Beagle, but I've been particularly struck by the fate of one of the characters, known as Jemmy Button. Jemmy was a native from the islands around Tierra del Fuego and was captured by the captain of the HMS Beagle - Robert FitzRoy, who took Jemmy (and three other Fuegians) from their stone-age lives and transported them back to England, for a good christian education. The picture shows two sketches of Jemmy, the left hand picture depicting Jemmy before his education and the right hand showing the transformation of Jemmy into a more modern human being.
At the heart of Jemmy Button's story is an empirical test. At the time of Jemmy's capture, human slavery was still very much a fact of life and the prevailing opinion was that the native and slave people that the Europeans encountered, were little more than animals and certainly incapable of being educated to the level of their white counterparts. But FitzRoy showed that by transplanting a stone-age human, within a modern environment, that the natives of Tierra del Fuego were just as capable of attaining civilisation as any other human being.
After about a year in England, FitzRoy returned the three remaining Fuegians (the forth having died of small-pox) to their homelands, in the hope that the civilisation that they had attained, would spread amongst the rest of their kind and benefit them all. Finally from Wikipedia:
After initial difficulty recalling his language and customs, Jemmy was soon out of his European clothes and habits. A few months after his arrival, he was seen emaciated, naked save for a loincloth and long-haired. Darwin was appalled at Jemmy's resistance to returning to England, and preferred to relate that to the presence of his "young and nice looking wife", Lassaweea. It appears, however, that he and the others had taught their families some English and he was happy and healthier, given the disease and diet to which he had been exposed away from home.
Some twenty years later a group of Christian missionaries, the Patagonian Missionary Society, arrived to find Jemmy still had a remarkable grasp of English. Some time later in 1859, the group was massacred at Wulaia Bay by the Fuegians, supposedly led by Jemmy and his family.
And so Jemmy Button was one of the first proofs that civilisation is learnt rather than an innate quality of a particular race. In today's multicultural and multiethnic world such a finding might appear quite obvious, but back in the days of Fitzroy, Jemmy Button and Charles Darwin, the blatantly obvious, wasn't necessarily considered the truth.Go Top