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The Natives of Tierra del Fuego

From Mission Life (Vol. VIII) (new series) (1877), pages 109-115.

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


From a Letter of REV. T. BRIDGES, of the South American Mission.

WHAT is the state of the natives--how is society held together? Parents universally take no pains in the education of their children, and give them no instruction in the arts of native life, save it may be a little instruction in swimming and basket-making by mothers to their daughters; yet I believe that even for this they are generally as much indebted to others as to their mothers.

The children learn to speak, to use the spear, sling, and arrow, to make these and other implements and vessels as best they can. No youth has a chance of getting anything of consequence with his spear (the principal native means of getting a living), for, when travelling with his father, the father takes precedence in the canoe, and tries his hand (often less skilled) to the exclusion of his son. Again, no youth before he has a wife goes about in his own canoe, but voyages with any one who may take him, and not only has he no canoe, but no spears either. It would be profitable, and conducive to much good, if fathers would show interest in their sons, and give them a chance. Thus a man, say, has three wives, and children, say, from ten to twenty years. Suppose, as never occurs, with the help of his sons, he kept two canoes for his family, and sent sometimes one, sometimes another of his sons, accompanied by his mother, aunt, or sister, with needful supplies of spears to try their hand in killing seals, &c., distinguishing the one most successful or otherwise deserving; this, or other similar efforts for their good, would strengthen the parents' authority (which is very slight), and be attended with other good results. Or, supposing the supine native (for he is very supine in all things, save in hunting, self-gratification, and quarrels) exerted himself to amuse his children, to play with them, to lead them on, instead of idly telling them to do this and that, and leaving it to them to obey or not, and to do it when they choose, his self-denial and [109/110] wholesome exertions for his children's good would promote in them love and respect to him. The native never punishes his child because he has done wrong, but because he has troubled him, or to please those who may be angry with him, or he expresses his vexation towards any who have displeased him by wreaking it upon his innocent child. In fact, in all the duties of life the heathen, whether man or woman, is so selfish, so immoral, so unreasonable, so foolish, as to forfeit each other's regard, the affection of their children, and the confidence of all men.

This (intense selfishness) being the state of the natives, what keeps them together? what prevents their so following their evil ends, their selfish desires, as to lead to their destruction by each other's hands? FEAR is the powerful agent--fear of man, fear of death; without the latter there would not be the former to any profitable degree. A man is restrained from taking life by fear--fear of his friends, as well as dread of those whose vengeance he has incurred by the taking the life of one of their kin. For according to native usage, and necessarily springing from it, all the kindred of a murderer are held as sharers of his offence, and frequently suffer in his stead. For though they (selfishly) may be ever so angry with their relative, the murderer, for thus making them liable, yea, not only liable, but certain to be partners of his punishment, yet they will not give him up to death, but will avenge his death if he is killed.

Also, leading the wandering life they do, they are eminently subject to fear of each other, which is both hurtful and beneficial, as will be seen hereafter. Thus a man cannot afford to displease a guilty person by punishing him. He will blame, and make a great talk, but not intimidate; no native can intimidate a fellow-native of any consequence. Society, as here constituted, supports, aids, protects, not the innocent or injured, but each clan its member, guilty or not guilty. Thus, if one native would destroy another native's canoe, he could not be prevented save by superior physical power in him who withstood him. But God be thanked, who has imbued these poor Firelanders with naturally amiable and pliable dispositions, so that, in the absence of means of insuring safety and justice, we and they live month after month in safety and in peace. The wandering habits of the natives result in making them servile to each other. Not knowing whom he may meet in any place, yet having to seek shelter with any one he may find there, a native would find it very awkward thus to meet a man and his friends whose enmity he had incurred, causelessly or otherwise. Living statedly in one place, among a settled number of persons, pursuing regularly some employment, where each one is interested in the security of all, these circumstances beget independence of spirit, honesty, and wideness of sympathy. To induce [110/111] these people to settle will tend to their highest good in a thousand ways. To do this, it is absolutely necessary at present to feed them, in part at least; and if to feed them, so also to clothe them, and to aid them in the erection of improved dwellings, and in cultivating the soil, &c., &c. This aid must be, in part at least, earned, hence the necessity of employing them; and this employment of natives takes much time, and leaves little space for really more important work, as the further acquirement of the native language (Yahgan), the visitation of natives at home, general and particular instruction of natives, translation of God's Word, &c., &c. Not only is it necessary to employ the people, but through the state of this country and its inhabitants there is much work which must be done, and that not only directed but largely shared by us. Were these people civilised, we might purchase from them all we require as food which their country supplied. Now we must entirely depend upon ourselves. Thus we must raise large supplies of vegetables for ourselves and the cattle, which also we must rear, and in this rigorous climate supply, to a considerable extent in winter, with food raised, gathered, and stored for them. Our winter is fully four months. For the cattle we must enclose land, erect sheds, &c., &c. Again, for the saving of expense, we must raise locally as much means for the carrying on of the work as we can, but this represents much work and care, and we who have to direct and get the work done have been too few. Again, in our present work, we, must be mindful of the future, and in the growth of this settlement must follow some plan. That which struck me as best necessitated the making a road varying in depth from 0 to 10 feet. Our house is about 90 feet above the sea, and the length to rise this height makes the rate of rise in the road 1 foot in 11. To do this work we had more than once to repair our wheelbarrows, handle our pickaxes and point them. We had also to make a cart, of which only axles and wheels were sent out to us. The new road is as direct as possible, I think about 430 yards long, and much shorter than the former one, fully a third. The present road will be practicable from beach to store, i.e., the cellar of our house; and at high-water the distance of carriage can be lessened by 140 yards by landing the goods in the inlet cove. The Indians soon tire of regular daily labour, and I have found it necessary to work with them, not only to superintend. When I work with them I know they do fully as much again. In fact, every now and then I find it necessary to reprove so sharply and so generally for idleness at work, lateness in coming to work, and frequent and long absences from work, as to sorely displease them for the time; but the effect has always been good for awhile, when a repetition would again be necessary. If left to themselves they presently would not do an hour's work in a day.

[113] There is no market in Fireland. The natives covet our food, clothing, and goods. Women, one after another, bring bundles of small fish for sale. One wants in exchange much biscuit, another a comb, another a handkerchief, another sugar, &c., others bring crabs and other shellfish, and oftentimes there is such a flow that we must stop and refuse; then they are abusive and angry, and one says, "It is me only you refuse to buy from; you hate me. I won't come again; I will leave to-morrow." Many come with baskets, spears, shafts, fish-lines, eggs, shells, and curios of every imaginable kind--stones, seals' teeth, birds' claws, feather headbands, clays, fungi, seeds, &c., &c.--wanting every description of goods in return. Many come begging; many to borrow this thing and that thing, then afterwards to return the article borrowed; many to ask for employment; and all these things take much time, for we seldom are abrupt with them.

You wonder, perhaps, and say, "Why not have more native help in the house?" I reply, We cannot. Not one of them is free from vermin; if free to-day, they would not be tomorrow. Their dwellings made of turf principally, with earth floors; bedding, a litter of grass on the earth; no seclusion, no exclusion; natives in and out of each others' dwellings all day long, squatting close up to each other, women with their arms round each other, and so walking about, and the men too. No native thus forced by habit and general custom to suffer every intrusion and close contact can keep clear of vermin; and our straitened house-room will not permit us to lodge a native servant. Again, there is with these people a very strong and disagreeable odour. I have always perceived the same with the cleanest of the natives, even at Keppel Island, so that to bend over them with the nose close to their heads in directing their handwriting has been very disagreeable, and I am not at all nice in this matter. Here, where their food is largely fish, they smell much stronger. My wife has the effectual, ready help of her sister, and very frequently we employ a man besides to do the rougher, harder work, yet we find our domestic duties very onerous. We have to bake our own bread, rear our own poultry and eggs, keep a dog for protection of .premises, make our butter, attend to dairy, but natives entirely milk the cows. To some considerable degree we have ourselves to cultivate our gardens. For economy's sake, and also for the good of the natives, everything we can get done we do. Thus, material for clothing is ordered and sent, the fustian, cord, calico, flannel, &c., is converted into clothes by native labour, in part; for none yet, despite all the time some of them have been taught, can turn out of hand unaided a decent pair of trousers, waistcoat, or shirt. Do not think I complain--I do not; I am happy; but I tell you all these things to convince you how busy we always are. The coming of Mr. Whaites will be a great relief, as [113/114] I shall entirely throw upon him all those duties for which he is better fitted than myself--all tools and work in the carpentering and smithing lines; the execution, direction of all such work, and the superintendence of the native when at work generally, together with other duties. We shall then, I hope, be able regularly to keep school for the boys and girls, and give special teaching to adults such as shall qualify them to teach and lead their fellow-countrymen.

The natives are always buying and selling, exchanging canoes and everything, and their manner of doing so is very unsatisfactory. Here is a sample that occurred a few days ago. Palahlian, a man about thirty-eight, has three wives and three little children, and had a good canoe. Another man, a visitor here, not living with Palahlian, intends to give his canoe to Palahlian. Palahlian does not wish it, and hears of it indirectly, and is troubled what to give in return. He told me all about it. Palahlian at length is told that such and such a canoe is his, not, however, by the giver. Palahlian then seeks him and gives him a large axe, well handled. Thus there is no mutual agreement previously made, and most of their transactions are performed in this loose manner. Marriages are brought about much in the same way: they cannot be termed transactions; there are no arrangements, no agreements between the various parties. This horrible looseness prevails through everything. No discipline, no order, no agreements or arrangements; hap-hazard, confusion, "happy-go-lucky," these are the usages of Fireland life. A general absence of confidence, faithfulness, and love is everywhere apparent. There is a great show of friendship, but little sincerity.

The begging and stealing propensities of the natives discourage laying up stores of fuel- or food, and engender slyness. When they sell skins or other things to us, they aim to do so unknown to their fellows, in order to keep what they receive to themselves. Thus they secrete what they bring under their clothes, or hide it near by, till obnoxious observers and waylayers have departed. Again, if they have any supply, they cannot keep it in their own possession, and so they leave it with us. A great powerful fellow lately bought some biscuit; he wished me very much to keep it for him. Twice or thrice a day this man came to our door, and would take out three or four biscuits at a time, and always watched for opportunities to time his visits privately. Before leaving our door he invariably concealed the little he used to take. As the man with his biscuit above-mentioned, so with those who have swedes; daily, or several times a day, will they come for two or three. The people here cannot leave the canoe furniture in the canoes for fear of theft, and so have to be constantly taking backwards and forwards paddles, spears, and every trifle. So given are the people to exaggeration and lying that it is very difficult [114/115] to know what to believe; and so partial are they, that it is very difficult to come to a clear understanding of the why and wherefore of their quarrels. Each side invariably clears itself and condemns the other.

I think I have now said enough against the people; is there nothing I can say for them? Yes, much. Compared to what they were, the change is great, and influences beneficially in a thousand ways--in what it does, in what it prevents. Though no earnestness is shown in repentance of sin and love to the blessed Saviour--though no earnest questions are asked or remarks made concerning the Divine truths they hear, yet improvement of character and life is manifest in all; there is a breaking away from old and hurtful prejudices and deceits; a great spread of clear knowledge of the goodness and severity of God, His nature, laws, promises, and threatenings. More industry is shown in improving their dwellings, in preparing land for crops, in cleanliness, order, and thrift. When asked whether they understand and value the instruction they receive, they invariably reply affirmatively and heartily. There is a decided increase of self-dependence and independence. In short, though much remains to be done, much undeniably has been done towards bringing about the kingdom of Christ Jesus, the great laws of which are charity and truth, and its blessings and results, joy and peace.

To do these people all the good I could wish, the following seems to me to be the best way, though a way we, through want of means and agents, can but imperfectly carry out. First, insure a very large and constant residence here by a general employment (as lucrative as possible), and to supply them in return with needful shelter, food, and clothing. All so employed should daily receive religious instruction and evening lectures, and other means of developing and influencing aright the minds and hearts of the natives should be steadily pursued. The young should be fully supported, and lodged in suitable buildings entirely away from their parents, till those parents could, through the grace of God, be a blessing to their children. The young persons should be well watched, guarded, warned, exhorted, instructed, and also suitably employed, to prepare them for life's duties, guard them from its snares, and lead them in all things so to live as to glorify God. As one and another became fitted, they should be assisted to follow various occupations according to their own leadings; some should be teachers, others tailors, cobblers, sawyers, fishers, bakers, gardeners, farmers, carpenters, smiths, vendors, &c., &c. To accomplish this, and make the people capable of living a happy Christian life, would require a great number of agents, extensive erections of buildings, and, in fact, would be a complicated and extensive business, but I believe one that would permanently prove the salvation of these poor remnants of America's aboriginal races.

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