Authors: Nick Hazlewood
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He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision â he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath â
âThe horror! The horror!'
Heart of Darkness
Court House Port Stanley, 28 May 1860
The names of the dead men were read outÂ â¦
âJohn Johnston, Carpenter
Hugh McDowall, Able bodied seaman
John Johnston, Able bodied seaman
John Brown, Able bodied seaman
John Fell, Ship's Mate
August Peterson, Ordinary Seaman
Robert Fell, Captain
Garland Phillips, Catechist'
Eight men butchered on Wulaia Cove, Tierra del Fuego. Only the ship's cook, Alfred Coles, survived to point the finger of blame. The man responsible, he said, was the man who had slept in the dead captain's bed after the bloodbath.
That man was the Fuegian, Jemmy Button.
Land of Fire 1830
One night a great number of fires were seen, mostly on their left hand, from which they guessed that they had been seen by the natives of the region. But Magellan, seeing that the country was rocky, and also stark with eternal cold, thought it useless to waste many days in examining it; and so, with only three ships, he continued on his course along the channel, until, on the twenty-second day after he had entered it, he sailed out upon another wide and vast sea.
Maximilian Transylvanus, secretary of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in a letter to the Cardinal of Salzburg
In 1520 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan became the first European to pass from the Atlantic into the Pacific by way of the straits that would henceforth bear his name. To his north lay the barren wastelands of Patagonia, to the south a harsh and uninviting territory that he thought to be the tip of a huge land mass known as Tierra Australis or Terra Incognita. Here, it was believed, there existed an Anti-Earth, a place where everything was upside down, back to front and inside out. In this mixed-up continent, which stretched as far as Antarctica, snow and rain fell upwards, the sun was black and the people were sixteen-fingered beasts known as Antipodeans. Little surprise that Magellan did not stop to explore the territory, although after hearing the roar of a sea on a still farther coast, he surmised that if this was a huge continent, then what he was seeing was a series of islands at its crumbling apex.
Legend has it that from the deck of his flagship, the
he traced mysterious plumes of smoke across the sky. Only eighteen of the original 290 men arrived back in Spain alive from this first, accursed circumnavigation of the globe, and when the survivors described what were almost certainly Indian signals to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, he replied that there is no smoke without fire, and christened the land Tierra del Fuego â the Land of Fire.
In the popular imagination Magellan's sighting of the strange land of Tierra del Fuego was heralded as a vision of hell, with the distant fires being the pyres on which souls of the dead were incinerated, and the strait itself acting as nothing less than a Styx-like passage to the shores of Hades. Time and exploration were to reveal the truth about the land at the end of the world: the bitter tempests, the fearful williwaws and the swirling seas may have continued to conjure up a picture of the underworld, but only as a metaphor. Sitting between 52Â° and 56Â° south, this bleak outpost is a windswept complex of tightly knit channels and islands covering roughly the same area as Ireland. It is separated from the mainland of South America by the Straits of Magellan and dominated by one large island to the east and to the north, the Isla Grande. It is in Tierra del Fuego that the Andes finally tumble, under the pressure of successive glaciations and appalling weather conditions, into a cruel sea. As much as five metres of rain drench its western flank every year, yet in the eastern rain shadow of the colossal mountains annual precipitation can be as relatively low as half a metre. Here gales rip across sombre plains bringing an unpredictability to an otherwise gloomy but surprisingly mild climate. It is a land that inspired awe in its early European explorers, preserved in the names of much of its terrifying geography: Fury Bay and Fury Island, Useless Bay, Desolation Bay, Port Famine, Devil Island and, of course, it is here, at Cape Horn, that the Atlantic and Pacific meet like two Goliaths doing battle.
The sculpting hands of this southern wilderness were huge ice sheets which, acting on the volcanic tail of the Andes chain, advanced and retreated over millions of years. For almost nine-tenths of the last 800,000 years the landscape of Tierra del Fuego has been shaped by the action of massive glaciers nurtured in the high and wet peaks of the Andes in the western half of the archipelago. Powerful rivers of glacial meltwater poured down the steep south and western sides of the mountains into the Pacific, chiselling out fjords and carving complex and jagged islands. To the east, glacial meltwater cut the large basins, the impressive bays and the lakes that pockmark the region, glaciofluvial deposits pushed out the undulating ridges of morainic detritus and the vast plains of outwash gravel that stretch as far as the Atlantic. The sense of the majesty, ferocity and inhospitality of the area was reflected in the writings of the early European explorers. Francis Fletcher, the chaplain who accompanied Sir Francis Drake around the globe in 1577, was clearly in awe of the
grisly sight of the cold & frozen mountains, reaching their heads yea the greatest part of their bodyes into the cold & frozen region, where the power of reflection of the Sonn never toucheth to dissolve the Ise & Snow: so that the Ise & Snow hang about the Spire of the Mountaine circulerwise as it were regions by degrees one above another & one Exceeding another in breadth in a wonderfull order as may apeareÂ â¦ from those hills distilled so sharpe a breath that it seemed to enter into the bowells of nature, to the great discomfort of the lives of our men.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Tierra del Fuego, with its forests of sourthern beech trees, its wild grassy plains and vast boggy moors, was virgin territory for the European explorers who ventured this far south, but it had long been inhabited by tribes of Fuegian Indians. A number of theories exist regarding the peopling of the archipelago, but the most likely begins back at the time of the initial crossing of the Bering Straits into Alaska, when humans set foot in the Americas for the first time. In the thousands of years that followed, there was a slow demographic movement across the continent as tribes of hunter-gatherers sought out amenable homes. The search, and intercommunal violence, drove groups across and down North and Central America then into the southern continent. Here, during the Ice Age, they found Patagonia and its Fuegian extension inhospitable and barren. About 14,000 years ago, when the ice began to retreat, enabling a southerly spread of flora and fauna, the wandering tribes followed. These were unsophisticated, primitive people, for whom a stretch of water as wide as the Straits of Magellan would have been an impenetrable frontier. Strong evidence shows, though, that as much as 11,000 years ago varying climatic conditions led to long periods when the straits were bridged by land exposed as water levels dropped. Groups of people could pass over onto northern Tierra del Fuego until around 8,000 years ago when warmer global conditions caused sea levels to shoot up. The straits were flooded and those who had crossed them were trapped â the first inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego.
At the very ends of the earth, the island fragmentation, scant resources and awful weather conditions split the native people into isolated groups, who over the intervening millennia were to become distinct, differentiated by technological advances such as canoes and weapons, diet and, most significantly, language. By the early nineteenth century it is estimated that there were 9,000 native Fuegians divided among four tribes, defined by geography, linguistics and mutual antipathy. They were the Selk'nam (alternatively known as the Ona or Oens-men), the fearsome peoples of the main island; the Alakaluf (or Kaweskar) of the western lands; the Haush (or Mannekenk) who lived on the south-eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego; and the Yamana.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Outsiders called them Yahgans, Yapoos or Tekeenicas, but Yamana was the word the canoe Indians of the Beagle Channel region used to describe and distinguish themselves from foreigners, whether Fuegian or European. In simple translation it meant people and described a race of bronze-skinned Aborigines who dwelt at the extreme of Tierra del Fuego, survivors clinging to the southern-most edge of the habitable world. They lived a fragile existence in small nomadic groups across a territory south of a line mapped by the British from Desolation Bay in the west, to Spaniard Harbour in the east. The men averaged less than five foot two in height and the women, who were even shorter, tended towards obesity, brought on by long periods of inactivity and a diet of seal blubber. Nevertheless they were a powerful race of people, with strong-featured faces, straggling jet-black hair, stout bodies and tapering limbs.