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  • Writer's pictureDianna Janas

"Jemmy Button: A Tale Unveiling History's Intricate Threads"

Join me in exploring the remote glaciers, fjords, islands and stories of the Southern hemisphere

In the annals of history, there are stories that unfold like captivating narratives, weaving together themes of cultural clash, exploration, and the human spirit's resilience.

One such story is that of Jemmy Buttons, a young Yámana native from the southern tip of South America, who found himself thrust into the tumultuous world of European civilization in the early 19th century.

Hidden amidst this breathtaking scenery lies the Yahgashaga, the ancestral land of the Yamana indigenous people. A captivating 19th-century saga unfolds, starring this young Yamana named Orundellico, later known as Jemmy Button, whose life took a tumultuous turn when kidnapped by British Captain Robert Fitzroy in 1830. The encounter between Jemmy and the crew of the Beagle presents a poignant chapter in the complex tapestry of colonial history.

 Born in 1815, Jemmy was raised in the traditional Yamana way, canoeing with his family from beach to beach. Jemmy grew up in the untouched realm of Tierra del Fuego, where European powers had not claimed dominion.

The Yamana way of life, navigating canoes, hunting seals, and building shorefront wigwams, remained unaltered. Men in the Yamana community tended to fires, hunted seals, and constructed wigwams along the shore. Meanwhile, women took charge of aquatic responsibilities—diving to the ocean floor for shellfish, securing canoes in nearby kelp forests, and swimming through frigid waters to reunite with their families by the beachside fire.

Yamana attire leaned towards simplicity, with most individuals opting for nudity, occasionally donning seal skins or guanaco hides to shield against the brisk winds on this southernmost landmass, just shy of Antarctica, or insulating their skin with blubber for warmth.Fitzroy's incursion, ostensibly for geographic exploration, morphed into Fuegian kidnappings, including Jemmy's.

In 1830, Captain Robert Fitzroy sailed into this setting aboard the HMS Beagle, assigned by the British crown to chart the southern coast of South America. While kidnapping Fuegians, a general term for the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, wasn't part of Fitzroy's directives, an incident involving the Kaweskar  rival of Jemmy’s Yamana tribe, prompted a deviation. When they took one of the Beagle’s whaling boats, which in their culture was considered fine if something was left unattended it was communal property.

Fitzroy strayed from his orders of geographic exploration and began kidnapping Fuegians. While history claims it was a negotiated trade

Fitzroy’s surviving journal and firsthand account of this event, can only interpret as a kidnapping: "May 11th, 1830, reads: …we continued our route, but were stopped when in sight of the Narrows by three canoes full of natives, anxious for barter. We gave them a few beads and buttons, for some fish; and, without any previous intention, I told one of the boys in a canoe to come into our boat, and gave the man who was with him a large shining mother-of-pearl button. The boy got into my boat directly, and sat down. Seeing him and his friends seem quite contented, I pulled onwards, and, a light breeze springing up made sail. Thinking that this accidental occurrence might prove useful to the natives, as well as to ourselves, I determined to take advantage of it. The canoe, from which the boy came, paddled towards the shore …"

Initially his intention was to hold them ransom until his whaling boat was returned, but when that didn’t work, he decided to keep them FitzRoy made the decision to transport four young Fuegian hostages to England with the aim of utilizing them as interpreters and fostering a favorable disposition towards Englishmen among their compatriots, intention was for these individuals to receive education and Christianization, ultimately contributing to the betterment of their communities.

Jemmy Button, one of the captives, was acquired in exchange for a mother-of-pearl button, hence his name. The circumstances surrounding whether his family willingly participated in the exchange or if he was forcibly taken remain unclear.

Displaying notable concern for their well-being, FitzRoy prioritized their sustenance over that of his officers and crew.


 Jemmy met three other Fuegians who had already been kidnapped The crew assigned names to the Fuegians, connected to their kidnappings.

A 26 year old man was named York Minster because a rock formation near where he was kidnapped resembled the cathedral in York to the British eye.

A 20 year old man was donned Boat Memory since he’d been stolen in revenge for the stolen whaling boat.

And an 11 year old girl was given the name Fuegia Basket, for she was a Fuegian kidnapped from a place where the Brits had weaved themselves a basket-styled boats.

Within a month of arriving in Plymouth in October 1830, one of the four, Boat Memory, died of smallpox.

This should have been a warning that increased contact with this remote, largely uncontacted group of indigenous people would only lead to Old World diseases bringing about their eventual decimation, instead Fitzroy continued with his plan to “civilize” the remaining three Fuegians, and they were placed in the Walthamstow Infants’ School, just northeast of the city of London.

Their curriculum consisted of walking, clapping, chanting and singing.  Jemmy and Fuegia, both under 16 at the time, took well to learning the English language and seemed to adapt well to their new surroundings, dressed in British clothes and became something of a curiosity in high society, even being taken to the palace in London to meet King William IV and Queen Adelaide, who gifted Fuegia Basket one of her royal bonnets.

However, challenges emerged. 26 year old, York Minster's romantic feelings for 11 year old Fuegia Basket prompted concerns about their relationship.

In December 1831, at Fitzroy’s beckoning, the British navy commissioned a second voyage of the Beagle, and this time Fitzroy would be accompanied on board by a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Darwin befriended Jemmy and wrote of him: "the expression of his face at once showed his nice disposition. He was merry and often laughed, and was remarkably sympathetic with anyone in pain… When the water was rough, I was often a little sea-sick. Jemmy used to come to me and say in a plaintive voice, “Poor, poor fellow!” 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, and then he would repeat his “Poor, poor fellow!”’

The Fuegians were returned to Wulaia Bay, in the Yamana’s Yahgashaga homeland, with a young missionary named Richard Matthews, and upon arrival to the beautiful cove, near where Jemmy had originally been picked up, the British began to go about building a mission hut. Hundreds of indigenous people arrived in dozens of canoes to see what happening on the beach and Jemmy was reunited with his family.

Darwin wrote: 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. I hope and have little doubt he will be as happy as if he had never left his country; which is more than I formerly thought."

York and Fuegia left Wulaia Bay and returned to Kaweskar territory, and Jemmy was left to return to his native state.

On his return, Jemmy soon shed his European clothes and habits. A few months after his arrival, he was seen emaciated, naked save for a loincloth, and long-haired. Nevertheless, he declined the offer to return to England, which Darwin conjectured was due to the presence of his "young and nice looking wife"

in 1855, a ship of the Patagonia Mission Society called the Allen Gardiner sailed back to Wulaia Bay, managed to find Jemmy, and eventually in 1858 convinced him to take his family to the Falkland Islands to the Christian Mission they’d established there. After about a year in the mission Jemmy and his family returned to Wulaia Bay.

Jemmy died of an unknown disease, as various unknown diseases, presumably the result the increased contact with the Europeans, swept through and devastated the indigenous population of Tierra del Fuego. Their population continued to decline in the following decades, with a huge wipeout occurring following the British establishment of a mission in nearby Ushuaia, which was incorporated by Argentina in 1884, leading to more contact and more diseases. By the end of the 19th century the Yamana and the other indigenous groups of Tierra del Fuego were being hunted into extinction by prospectors and sheep ranchers.

By one account, today there is only one surviving full blooded Yamana indigenous person, a woman named Cristina Calderon, who lives in Puerto Williams, Chile, in Tierra del Fuego.

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