In Search of Jeremy Button

It’s a three hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, in the southern part of Patagonia, where tourists arrive to view the great glaciers and lakes of the Southern Andes. The lush green of the fertile plains south and west of the capital gradually give way, as you fly south, to parched, brown, empty deserts, mountains and grasslands, almost devoid of human habitation. This area has never sustained life easily: a few hunter gatherers lived here from around 10,000 BC, and then sparse, competing tribes of indigenous peoples until the mid-19th century. They were followed, after the European invasion, by a few determined sheep farmers, and now there’s the tourist industry.


We’re over an hour’s flight from Terra del Fuego, and Cape Horn, more than another 1,000 km to the south, but I think of the Fuegan, Jeremy Button, and his people, and of all the other similar people who eked out a living for thousands of years in this hostile land, before succumbing to European diseases (against which they had no resistance), or to the ruthless campaigns of extermination conducted by invading European farmers laying arrogant claim to the land. The indigenous people of Patagonia have virtually ceased to exist.


Jeremy Button (1815-1864), or Orundellico (in Fuegan), was taken hostage by Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle in 1830, and then (allegedly) bought from his family for a single pearl button. He was removed, along with three other Fuegan captives, York Minster (el’leparu), Fuegia Basket (yok’cushly), and Boat Memory (Fuegan name unknown), to England. Boat Memory died of smallpox during the journey, but Jeremy survived, rapidly learned English and enjoyed great celebrity in London on his arrival, where he was presented to William IV. Queen Adelaide gave Fuegia Basket a bonnet, an article of clothing she would no doubt come to cherish in the howling gales of the South American archipelago, following her return.


A year later, on Fitzroy’s second voyage of the Beagle to Terra del Fuego, with Charles Darwin as his passenger, Jeremy Button, York Minster, and Fuegia Basket, were returned by Fitzroy to their people. There they shed their European customs and clothes as rapidly as they had acquired them (except, one likes to think, for the bonnet). Jeremy was later offered the chance to return to England, but he refused, though he maintained sporadic contact with European visitors over the following years.

It is a sad story of imperialist paternalism, of supremacist racism, and the proud rejection by Orundellico and his fellow captives, of assimilation, though Captain Fitzroy apparently treated his captives with great kindness. As things turned out, over the century that followed, mutual incomprehension gave way to hostility and the eventual extermination of the native peoples of the region. There is nothing, here, now, to celebrate the land as it was or the people who once lived in it. It is beautiful, empty, still spectacular, but wholly European.

I first learned of Jeremy Button a year or two ago, from a wonderfully evocative novel about Captain Fitzroy and his voyages, This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson. I strongly recommend it.


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