Jemmy Button, Fuegian Sneetch

Darwin’s Perception of Our Common Humanity Across Immense Cultural Divides

But McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say

That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

— Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches

In Dr. Seuss’s parable about the folly of discrimination and prejudice, the Sneetches either had stars on their bellies or not. The star-bellies behaved very snootily to their plain-bellied neighbors and would not share the beaches with them. One day Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives with “a very peculiar machine” that puts stars on Sneetch bellies “for three dollars each.” Of course, the plain-bellies line up for stardom to the inevitable consternation of the star-bellies. McBean then unveils his star-off machine. After days of hectic passages through the star-on and star-off machines, no Sneetch can tell a superior Sneetch from the lesser sort. McBean pocketed his fortune and left town in the belief that “You can’t teach a Sneetch!”

Notions of racial superiority and inferiority—echoed by Seuss’ Sneetch tale—preoccupied European science of the mid-nineteenth century. As acceptance that new species might descend from more ancient ones there arose the hypothesis that each human race descended independently from a separate primate ancestor. People did not have stars on their bellies, but racial features marked them nonetheless. Geographic proximity provided circumstantial evidence. Orangutans were associated with Asians, for example.

Darwin, and two of his closest colleagues, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Wallace, believed otherwise. In their minds, all humans belonged to a single species and shared common descent from a relatively recent ancestor by means of natural selection. For their time, they endorsed racially progressive doctrines. In 1865 Huxley condemned slavery and women’s second class citizenship in his paper, “Emancipation—Black and White.”

Wallace lived among the Dyak people of Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) “in their communal houses” with “rows of smoked heads hanging from the roof.” He came to have faith in the goodness of human nature from what he learned of these “uncivilized people.”[2] He found them in many respects more advanced in morality and civility than their European counterparts.

Darwin decried cruelty and injustice. Love, compassion, and sympathy for the pain of others united humans as one and separated them from the world of beasts. Although he deliberately remained silent on the subject of human origins in the Origin of Species (1859), by the time he had written the Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), all reticence on this subject had disappeared. Snarls and sneers, teeth-baring in submission or laughter, posture and furrowed brows—people and animals depended upon similar expressions, though often used for different purposes. Children from all corners of the globe expressed themselves similarly, Darwin concluded, as he made observational studies of his own offspring for comparison. As Darwin delved into the origin of human nature, he helped to usher in a brave new science.

As goodly, beauteous, united in their common humanity as people might be, it was nevertheless an episode of colonial kidnapping that jumpstarted his career. For Darwin, the traditions of tribes living amidst the extremely harsh climate of Tierra del Fuego proved pivotal to his thoughts on humanity. In their lives Darwin found evidence of the power of human culture to make people different. Learning from Fuegians, he concluded that people were people, whatever their culture.

Hostage Fuegians

On his first HMS Beagle expedition, while Captain FitzRoy was mapping the passages surrounding Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn for the British Admiralty, a group of natives stole a whaleboat. As the English stormed a campsite thinking to get it back, powerfully built Fuegians fought back, throwing stones with deadly aim. They grabbed one crew member and attempted to smash his skull; a gunshot saved the Englishman but killed a native. Subsequently, Captain FitzRoy took several natives hostage to use as bargaining chips for his stolen whaleboat. At one point he held eleven captives, including three women and six children. [3]

Excursions by whaleboat were essential to charting and mapping close to shore and the loss of one was intolerable. Such a loss could jeopardize the success of the expedition. Some of FitzRoy’s prisoners did attempt to describe where to look for the stolen whaleboat, but language proved a barrier and it remained missing. FitzRoy wrote that a week of intense searching through a “labyrinth of coves and channels”[4] proved fruitless. Meanwhile, except for three children, FitzRoy’s captives escaped. Having given up the search, he decided to keep one child as a hostage and return the other two to their people.

The men from whom the whaleboat was stolen had fashioned a craft from local woody vegetation—a basket boat—and paddled it back to the Beagle. As a consequence, Captain FitzRoy adopted the habit of referring to the remaining child hostage, “Yok'cushly” in her own tongue, as “Fuegia Basket.”[5] She was about nine years old.

Days later, having commandeered a native canoe, he persuaded a twenty-something man, El'leparu, to board the Beagle, intending that he become an interpreter and perhaps negotiate the return of the still missing whaleboat. Nearby loomed a rock outcrop named York Minster that resembled its namesake cathedral in England. Fitzroy dubbed his ersatz interpreter York Minster.

Nearly a week later, smoke drew FitzRoy’s attention to a nearby cove. An approach to the encamped Fuegians again turned violent and a well-aimed stone struck a crewmember’s head. Canoes at the camp appeared to hold gear from the missing whaleboat. Continued pursuit led to the capture of another Fuegian, native name unknown, and ever since referred to as Boat Memory, for memory was all that was left of the whaleboat.

More than a month passed. As the Beagle neared the Murray Narrows, three canoes of Fuegians approached eager to exchange goods. FitzRoy traded a mother of pearl button for O'run-del'lico, a boy of fourteen, who quickly became known as Jemmy Button. The complement of human cargo was complete and the Captain hatched a plan to deliver Jemmy Button, York Minster, Fuegia Basket, and Boat Memory to the British Court, educate them at his own expense, and then return them to Tierra del Fuego. There, as English-speaking middle-men (and woman), they would be able to promote his nation’s trade and military interests. [6] All FitzRoy had to do was turn the crank on a very peculiar cultural machine, placing British stars on the bare-bellied Fuegians.

Thus dedicated to repatriating “his” Fuegians, as well as to establishing a mission in their homeland, FitzRoy planned a second Beagle voyage, and to this voyage of repatriation Darwin received an invitation. They departed Plymouth as the year of 1831 came to a close.

The Woollya Mission

Sailing in late November, 1832, to Tierra del Fuego, the repatriation of FitzRoy’s hostages moved ahead on plan. Three now survived; one—Boat Memory—had died of small pox in England. The names “Patagonia” and “Tierra del Fuego” had been left in the wake of Magellan’s voyage in 1520: presumably, “patagon” translates as “bigfoot” and refers not to human feet exactly but to the fur boots worn by the people Magellan encountered. As Magellan navigated the straits through this land, the indigenous peoples lit fires—hence “Land of Fires” or “Tierra del Fuego.”[7]

Indeed, smoke signaled the Beagle’s arrival to the south of Cape St. Sebastian. The ship passed through the Straits le Maire and pot-boiling seas to anchor in Good Success Bay. Darwin watched Fuegians “perched on a wild peak overhanging the sea & waving their cloaks of skins [while sending] forth a loud, sonorous shout.”[8]

Given barely twelve miles of progress in three weeks, Captain FitzRoy decided to emplace the Fuegian mission somewhere in the eastern straits of the Tierra del Fuegan archipelago. The Beagle anchored at Goree Sound near the eastern entrance to the Beagle Channel. Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket, and York Minster found themselves settled at Woollya, Jemmy’s home cove.[9] Soon, York Minster took Fuegia Basket as his wife.

FitzRoy misunderstood the name of the local people to be the “Yapoo Tekeenica.” Thomas Bridges, a later missionary and translator of Fuegian dialects, corrected this misunderstanding. “Yapoo” means “Otter;” “Tekeenica” means, “I do not understand you” to the Yahgashagalumoala or “People from Mountain Valley Channel,” aka, the Murray Narrows.[10] By convention, the name has shortened to “Yaghan,” Jemmy Button’s people.

“Cleared and rich” ground at Woollya promised to grow a nourishing “kitchen garden of potatoes, carrots, turnips, beans, peas, lettuce, onions, leeks, and cabbages.”[11] Perhaps Captain FitzRoy has assumed that Fuegians lacked nothing so much as healthy European vegetables to augment their shellfish diet.

Jemmy’s extended family painted in white, red, and black appeared by canoe together with many others expecting gifts. Within a few days the contingent from the Beagle judged the settlement well settled and departed. The yawl and one whaleboat returned to the ship; Darwin and his captain went exploring in the other two whaleboats.

Whales accompanied them as they rowed through the deep but narrow Beagle Channel ringed by drowned Andean peaks draped in glacial ice. A change in weather left Darwin and his compatriots sun-burned.

Fuegians arrived to threaten the evening’s camp, so Darwin’s band moved to another site, Darwin entered in his journal that the Fuegians’ courage was “like that of a wild beast” and that each one “would endeavor to bash your brains out with a stone, as a tiger would be certain under similar circumstances to tear you.— . . . The occasional distant bark of a dog reminds one that the Fuegians may be prowling, close to the tents, ready for a fatal rush.”[12]

While Darwin and his survey party mates were replacing Yahgashagalumoalan names for local landmarks with proper English ones, native people stole the Woollya Mission’s soup tureens, beaver hats, wine glasses, and fine linens: the articles of “folly and negligence” graciously provided by the Church Missionary Society. No china remained for serving soup according to proper British etiquette.

Darwin considered leaving the Fuegians “amongst their barbarous countrymen” to be “quite melancholy” and expected them to return shortly to their “uncivilized habits.”[13] His thoughts were most prescient.

Fuegian Demise

Two years later, on March 5, 1834, following many laborious months of survey work, the Beagle once again anchored at Woollya to bid farewell to Jemmy Button.

They found him nearly unrecognizable. By this time the Ona tribe as well as York Minster had stolen everything from Jemmy; York Minster and Fuegia Basket had fled west.

When first left at Woollya, Jemmy was “fat” and “particular about his clothes . . . afraid even of dirtying his shoes; scarcely ever without gloves & his hair neatly cut.—” Darwin had “never [seen] so complete and grievous a change.—”[14] Now Jemmy Button was “thin pale & without a remnant of clothes, excepting a bit of blanket round his waist: his hair, hanging over his shoulders; & so ashamed of himself.”[15]

In Tierra del Fuego, McBean’s machine had worked with furious effect to remove almost every vestige of Englishness from Jemmy.

With no wish to return to England, Jemmy happily shared a gift of two otter skins. Darwin recorded in his journal:

He seems to have taught all his friends some English . . . 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 & have little doubt he will be as happy as if he had never left his country. . . . He lighted a farewell signal fire as the ship stood out of Ponsonby Sound, on her course to East Falkland Island.—”[16]

Measles ultimately killed Jemmy in 1864. York died in a revenge for his killing of an Alacaloof (Fuegia Basket’s people), circa 1840. While in her fifties, Fuegia too a new husband, eighteen years old. She died in her sixties in approximately 1883, shadowed by suspicion of working as a prostitute from time to time on board English ships.[17] “Today the Fuegians are virtually extinct.”[18]

Jemmy the Sneetch?

Nothing fascinated Darwin more than watching the Fuegians and their English affectations followed by their reversion to Fuegian norms of dress, gesticulation, and diet. FitzRoy’s captives were taught Christianity, to bow and curtsey, and to speak English—in short, they were “civilized.”

Darwin noted their exceptional talent for learning languages as well as extraordinarily perceptive vision. They returned home, toting a number of fine china soup tureens, to establish the mission at Woollya. FitzRoy presumed that their mastery of European custom, religion, and language would dispel superstition, usher in progress, and serve the interests of British commerce. He believed that civilizing influences changed even the shapes of their foreheads.[19] FitzRoy was the Fuegians’ Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

Darwin was much less sanguine about the marks of Englishness sticking to Jemmy’s belly like a star on a Sneetch. Nor did he accept that face, forehead, and head bumps foretold secrets of character, personality, or racial disposition—the stock beliefs of phrenologists and physiognomists such as FitzRoy.[20] A change in attire, a new tongue to speak could make no difference in cranial morphology. How did Darwin reconcile the indelible mark of being Fuegian on Jemmy with a belief in the common origin of humanity and the ability of education to bridge the differences? Darwin attributed Jemmy’s nature not to an inherent racial disposition, but to the overriding effects of immersion as a child and youth in Fuegian culture and environment. Darwin glimpsed in Jemmy the lifestyle of ancient Britons, untransformed by European civilization’s morals.

Darwin wrote with evident affection for Jemmy and equal astonishment at his partial transformation. The days of farewell to the Fuegians led Darwin on February 25, 1834, to enter one of the most telling passages in his journal:

Whilst going on shore, we pulled alongside a canoe with 6 Fuegians. I never saw more miserable creatures; stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint & quite naked. — One grown full aged woman absolutely so, the rain & spray were dripping from her body; their red skins filthy & greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, their gesticulation violent & without any dignity. . . .

Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures placed in the same world. — I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting & worthy of reflection, tha[n] one of these unbroken savages. — . . . To look at the Wigwam; any little depression in the soil is chosen, over this a few rotten trunks of trees are placed & to windward some tufts of grass. Here 5 or 6 human beings, naked & uncovered from the wind, rain & snow in this tempestuous climate sleep on the wet ground, coiled up like animals. —

. . .

Their country is a broken mass of wild rocks, lofty hills & useless forests, & these are viewed through mists & endless storms. In search of food they move from spot to spot, & so steep is the coast, this must be done in wretched canoes. — . . . They cannot know the feeling of having a home — & still less that of domestic affection; . . . How little can the higher powers of the mind come into play: what is there for imagination to paint, for reason to compare, for judgement to decide upon, — to knock a limpet from the rock does not even require cunning, that lowest power of the mind. Their skill, like the instinct of animals is not improved by experience; the canoe, their most ingenious work, poor as it may be, we know has remained the same for the last 300 years.

Although essentially the same creature, how little must the mind of one of these beings resemble that of an educated man. What a scale of improvement is comprehended between the faculties of a Fuegian savage & a Sir Isaac Newton — Whence have these people come? Have they remained in the same state since the creation of the world? . . . — Such & many other reflections, must occupy the mind of every one who views one of these poor Savages. —

At the same time, however, he may be aware that some of them may be are erroneous. — There can be no reason for supposing the race of Fuegians are decreasing, we may therefore be sure that he enjoys a sufficient share of happiness (whatever its kind may be) to render life worth having. Nature, by making habit omnipotent, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate & productions of his country. —[21]

For Jemmy, the “habit” of Fuegian life reigned “omnipotent.” Darwin faulted the harshness of the Fuegian habitat for failing to call into play “the higher powers of the mind.” Jemmy was all that he could be—considering where he had come from.

In these words are the serious reflections of a young man in search of self, of standing as a naturalist, and of understanding of the human condition in the world. They are prescient. The fate of Darwinism is to unravel thoroughly the theology of a fall from grace, of an expulsion from Eden. Darwin decapitated the theological explanation of “the distance between a Fuegian and a Sir Isaac Newton.” The state of the Fuegians is not due to descent into savagery caused by original sin, but rather to existing at a lowly stage in the evolution from barbarism to civilized living. Environment—the inhospitable lands and climate of Tierra del Fuego—carries the blame. With time, by virtue of applying the “mental faculties” to the “social instincts”—each a product of natural selection—progress may ensue (in Darwin’s mind leading, of course, to becoming more like Englishmen).[22]

Human origins, according to Darwinists, are to be found first in then base creatures, and later on in animal ancestors with social instincts and some semblance of mental faculties. Acting on these, natural selection fashioned a single human race with capacities for improvement equally distributed yet dependent upon environmental circumstances to come to fruition.

Darwin witnessed both sides of educational transformation: the Anglicizing of Jemmy and his re-socialization as a Yahgashagalumoalan. Society’s transformative effects bridged the entire, striking difference twice, with habits adapted for survival in different circumstances. Darwin imagined how refinement of the social instincts of animals led to altruistic behaviors and concern for the welfare of others. Becoming human depended upon being animal. Sound reasoning and support from fellow human beings elevated the human condition.

Not until his magnum opus of 1871, The Descent of Man, would Darwin’s most penetrating insights into what makes us human be shared widely and come to undo the arguments of scientific racism. The support of others, the ability to reason, and the “hard-wiring” of sympathy from animal instincts hd empowered humanity to create social institutions. In composing The Voyage of the Beagle Darwin argued, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”[23]

The laws of nature do not cause the misery of the poor, the squalid state of much of humanity, or the brutal hatreds of one people for another. In brief, his sympathetic farewell to Jemmy Button presaged Darwin’s grasp of the mutability of life and society. Darwin saw in Jemmy nothing other than his own distant past.

Decades after Darwin’s voyage, the Patagonian Missionary Society tried again to establish a mission in Tierra del Fuego; all but one member from their ship, the Allen Gardiner, were massacred. The year was 1859, the same year as the publication of The Origin of Species. Missionary work finally “succeeded” in 1867 at Ushuaia in the Beagle Channel. Within a generation, disease depopulated the area and eventually the Argentine government made the site a prison.[24]

Humanitarian Evolution

Darwin, Huxley, and Wallace shared the faith that all peoples could progress in morals and civil conduct. Of course, such faith undergirded colonial and missionary zeal in their age, ruthlessly eradicating indigenous peoples, whether by disease or arms, and subjugating non-Europeans around the globe. Nevertheless, their shared commitment through science to human unity, in light of competing, pernicious, racist dogmas in their day, remains inspiring.

In speculating about human origins, Wallace, a utopian socialist, argued for the importance to progress of mind and consciousness. Progress meant protection of the weak, cooperation, and an end to exploitation—a conclusion he shared with Huxley and, in most respects, with Darwin as well. In Wallace’s view, natural selection first shaped the body—then morality and society, along with human consciousness, took sway. Wallace accepted the idea of intervention from a spirit world and believed that becoming fully human, and therefore social progress, could not be explained by a materialist mechanism of selection.[25] Darwin never succumbed to this temptation.

Today children celebrate Darwin’s vision of one species of humanity every time they read Dr. Seuss’s story of The Sneetches. This claim may seem far-fetched. The story teaches children not to judge others by outward appearances and clearly the English, whether or not they ascribed to a single species view of humanity in the 1800s, did not hesitate to rank peoples. A couple of years of English education accompanied by learning to wear fine English clothes, including gloves for Jemmy Button and a bonnet for Fuegia Basket, bridged an enormous divide, but did not erase fundamental differences, as Darwin well realized. However, given competing anthropological theories of his time, the history of social Darwinism, and the eugenics movement of the twentieth century, it is instructive to underscore Darwin’s belief in a single species of humanity. Jemmy could put on or take off his English apparel, just as McBean could add or remove stars on bellies, remaining fully human in either case.

Of course, in Darwin’s mind Fuegian culture was neither comparable nor equal to English society. He believed that they lived in a wretched state and lacked not only the fruits of modern science but also the civilizing effect of Christian virtues. Darwin was a child of colonial England and unapologetic for that fact and encounters with the lifestyles of native Fuegians shocked him. The Fuegian peoples seemed pushed to the margins of the inhabitable earth, isolated and living in brutish ways.

Darwin failed to appreciate the how well the Fuegians had mastered the art of living in the archipelago through sophisticated canoe technology. They lived as nomads at sea, ferrying fire wherever they traveled. Fuegians could swim great distances in icy water. They could spot ships on the horizon at remarkable distances and mimic language with ease. They were deadly accurate when hurling stones. Darwin marveled at their abilities while shuddering at the bare subsistence level of their living.

Canoe nomads or English sailors—star-bellied Sneetch or not—Darwin believed that humanity was a single species. His evolutionary belief conformed to his family’s Christian heritage and antislavery activism. Darwin criticized the proponents of multiple, separate human origins. Whether “savage” or “civilized,” people worldwide shared a relatively recent, common ancestor, he argued. The difference between them was bridgeable by education if begun at an early age with profound consequences that could not easily be undone. Enculturation accounted for differences, not independent descent.

[1] Theodor Seuss Geisel, The Sneetches and Other Stories (New York: Beginner Books, 1961).

[2] Iain McCalman, Darwin’s Armada (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 256.

[3] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 50.

[4] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 52.

[5] Wikipedia, “Jemmy Button,” Wikipedia. Accessed April 2, 2013,

[6] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 52-60.

[7] Richard D. Keynes, Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians (Oxford University Press: New York, 2003), 117.

[8] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 121.

[9] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 138.

[10] Richard D. Keynes, Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians (Oxford University Press: New York, 2003), 127-128.

[11] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 177.

[12] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 139.

[13] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 141, 143.

[14] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 226.

[15] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 226.

[16] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 227.

[17] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 261; and Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 227.

[18] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 327.

[19] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 93.

[20] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

[21] Richard D. Keynes, Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1988), 222-223.

[22] Charles Darwin, The Decent of Man, 1871. In From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), edited by Edward O. Wilson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

[23] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle: Darwin’s Five-Year Circumnavigation (Santa Barbara, CA: The Narrative Press, 2001), 525. A re-issue of the 1845.

[24] Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (New York: Perennial, 2004), 326.

[25] Iain McCalman, Darwin’s Armada (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 353.