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Tierra del Fuego as a Mission Field

From Mission Life, Vol. VIII (new series) (1877), pages 3-6.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007


THROUGH the kindness of the South American Missionary Society we are enabled to furnish our readers with a view of some of the strangest scenery in the world, and a description of the out-of-the-way land, in which some of the most interesting work of that Society is being carried on. Indeed you could hardly find a spot more calculated to test, not only the moral and spiritual, but even the bodily qualities of the Missionaries that are sent to labour in it. The following account of it was published a few years ago in The Brazil and River Plate Mail from the papers of an exploring party sent out by the Chilian Government:

"From the Gulf of Penas to Cape Horn the Pacific coast line of Tierra del Fuego is grand and imposing, the sea forming large inlets, from which rise precipitous cliffs, whose summits are wrapped in snow. Between Taitao Point and Wellington Island there is an archipelago of numberless islets, some wooded, others barren and precipitous, the eye wandering in delight from untrodden thickets to snowy peaks that frown over chasms, while the musical cadence of waterfalls lends another charm to a scene that poet or painter never yet dreamed of.

"Messier's Channel leads through a labyrinth of peaks crowned with the most luxurious vegetation, till we reach Wellington Island, with its summit of perpetual snow, from which descend rapid streams that rush impetuously to the sea. On the mainland is a line of lofty mountains, the beginning of the great range which extends through the whole length of the New World, from Magellan's Straits to icy Labrador.

"Who shall describe the lovely islets, like gems of shining emerald, bathed in the glowing sunlight? And when the moon silvers over this delightful coast, the giant peaks around are reflected in the tranquil waters, while the endless echo of cascades breaks upon the traveller's ear.

"Bare, shaggy rocks of granite line the narrow channel at Saumarez Island, the navigation being exceedingly difficult, and the temperature [3/4] notably colder, perhaps owing to the want of foliage. Icebergs bigger than a ship float about as they break loose from the frozen regions of the far south; sometimes they assume the fantastic shape of a Turkish or Chinese city, and often disappear suddenly, or turn upside down, when they lose their centre of gravity.

"Going southwards towards Cape Horn, the scene becomes every day more dismal. Lead-coloured mountains rise up in continual succession, the base fringed with moss and vegetation so spongy that one of our men sank up to his neck on jumping ashore.

"Now we are in the region of ice and snow, and of perpetual storms; sailing vessels find it almost impossible to navigate these waters, and even steamers must only venture by day, so intricate are the islands and bays.

"Here we meet with the wretched Fuegians, whose life is a miracle in the midst of such wild desolation. Some are half naked, others have a seal's skin thrown over their shoulders, or a cloak made of the skins of sea-cats. Their little bark canoes are seen often at the mercy of the waves, the rigging made fast with the sinews of marine animals. They seem to eke out a miserable subsistence on shell-fish, except when they happen to catch a seal, and then they hold a grand banquet.

"Whenever they see a vessel pass they paddle out to meet her, and lift up their arms as if uttering maledictions, the men squealing like wild cats, the women calling out for biscuit. If they get near enough, the sailors throw them food and clothing; but they generally keep a good distance off, perhaps because afraid of punishment for eating such crews as are wrecked on their coasts.

"The Fuegians have a stupid, vacant expression. The old men look wild and savage. I shall never forget the ravenous manner in which one of their women ate a raw piece of pork thrown to her. The women have some little intellect, more than the men, and sing in a dismal, monotonous hum through their teeth. The men are thin, the women comely; the latter have beautifully rounded arms and legs and delicate hands.

"As life is impossible here without fire, the women are like the vestals of old, and never allow the fire to go out in the frail barques, As for the animal kingdom, it hardly exists here, beyond a few amphibious mammifers which bask on the coast, such as seals, sea-cats, and sometimes whales. Deer are supposed to exist in the interior of Tierra del Fuego." [We believe that rabbits have also been successfully acclimatised.]

"Sea-birds abound in these latitudes. Black-necked swans at Smith's Channel, and a kind of gull called the 'steamer,' because when pursued it beats the water like the screw of a propeller. Shell-fish [4/5] cover all the rocks, and seem to afford the chief sustenance of the Fuegians, who leave heaps of shells wherever they touch.

"The Fuegian language is nasal and harsh; it sounds like the barking of a dog. The forests alone would afford splendid room for industry as soon as these shores tempt settlers. It is, moreover, believed at Sandy Point that coal and gold exist in the interior. Perhaps before long science will open up the secrets of this strange land."

Another newspaper, The Buenos Ayres Weekly Standard, gave a slightly more favourable account of the Fuegian character, and there is reason for thinking it also a truer one. But the picture of material poverty was just the same, and we hope to show how that also has been already brightened to some extent by the influence of the Missionary. It says:--

"The Fuegians care little about the black currant, although their bill of fare is very short; and fungus growing on the beech, and other trees, is highly prized. These people have a hard life, especially in winter time, for their diet is scanty enough, and beyond a scrap of sealskin, they have, for the most part, no clothing, and many have absolutely none. Yet they are to be found merry and cheerful when vessels visit them for pacific purposes. Unlike the big flesh-eating Patagonian, who is his neighbour, the Fuegian is all vivacity, his countenance never at rest, and his tongue never too slow to express the wants which he feels. The visit of a vessel, if not an unfriendly one, is, however, a gala occasion for these inhabitants of the south, and they naturally abandon themselves to a little agreeable excitement; but the low, monotonous, dirge-like sounds, which they chant in companies, and which represent all their music, indicate a sad and solitary history, overshadowed by lofty mountains and deep woods, and the gloomy superstitions of an untaught mind. Amongst this people the voice of the Christian Missionary is beginning faintly to be heard, and the Land of Fire may hereafter be distinguished as a trophy of Christian faith."

The above was written some twelve years ago. In 1869 the Rev. W. H. Stirling, the present Bishop of the Falklands, opened the first station in Fireland. The Allen Gardiner Mission Yawl is constantly employed in conveying Missionaries and natives to and from the coast, and in carrying farm produce and general stores and supplies between the stations. On the last 12th of March Bishop Stirling arrived in her at Ushuwia, and wrote home as follows:--" I felt very happy on returning to this scene of Christian labour . . . . The station, and all its details of garden and field and dwelling you are familiar with. A road to the beach, cut down through a steep natural [5/6] embankment, and carried across a swampy space at the foot of it, was in the course of being made, and was to me the most marked feature introduced since my visit three years previously.. Some fresh ground had been fenced in, and more was marked out for enclosure. The Mission gardens looked well; but the gardens of the natives showed want of care and of persistent industry. The cattle evidently thrive, and there is room for a larger herd. The pasture, if not very extensive, offers a choice of good grasses, so that the animals have a sleek and well-nourished look.

"Generally there was improvement in the appearance of the natives. An unmistakable change for the better has taken place amongst them. Old times are changed, old manners gone; and this without leaving any cause for regret. But whilst this is the case generally, I can without reserve say that in particular instances the change has been not only outward and superficial, but, in my belief, of a spiritual, and therefore heartfelt kind. With a grateful, rejoicing spirit, I responded to Mr. Bridge's request that I should confirm six of the Christian natives. I have much confidence in the sincere and simple piety of these members of our Church; and it was with no ordinary feelings that I witnessed their earnest preparation for, and devout reception of, the Lord's Supper. The Church in Tierra del Fuego has, I hope, now a root in itself."

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