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Darwin Correspondence Project

Richard Matthews

Richard Matthews was 21 years old when he stepped aboard the Beagle, destined for a lonely career as a missionary in Tierra del Fuego. The Church Missionary Society had arranged for him to accompany the three Fuegians (Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster) whom Robert FitzRoy was returning to their homeland after a few months in England, where they had received some education and been taught the principles of Christianity. The expectation was that Matthews would find a suitable spot in Tierra del Fuego to make a ‘commodious habitation’, cultivate a well-stocked garden, and keep a plentiful supply of pigs, poultry and goats, thereby setting an example to encourage the Fuegians to improve themselves. He was instructed to acquire as much language of the Fuegians as possible, engage in Bible-based religious teaching, and establish a mission in Tierra del Fuego. The Church Missionary Society had failed in its initial quest to send two missionaries on the Beagle, and so it was Matthews alone who embarked on this ambitious task. (Narrative 2: Appendix, pp. 93–7.)

After FitzRoy decided that Matthews, together with Jemmy Button, York Minster, and Fuegia Basket, would settle in Jemmy Button’s home place, members of the Beagle crew helped Matthews construct some ‘wigwams’, and dig a garden to plant the seeds brought out from England. When the work was finished, FitzRoy, fearing an attack, was hesitant to leave Matthews there alone, but according to Darwin, damning in his faint praise, ‘ Matthews, with his usual quiet fortitude (remarkable in a man apparently possessing little energy of character), determined to stay with the Fuegians’ (Darwin 1845, p. 223). When all seemed well the following morning, FitzRoy decided to leave for a few days, but by the time of his return, Matthews had been subjected to intimidating behaviour, most of his belongings had been plundered, and his garden trampled. ‘I think we arrived just in time to save his life’, Darwin recorded (Darwin 1845, p. 226).

Matthews was back on board the Beagle after just fifteen days in Tierra del Fuego. For the next two years he travelled on the Beagle, but was not mentioned in Darwin’s correspondence. When the Beagle called at New Zealand, Matthews decided to join his missionary brother there. Although Matthews’s attempt single-handedly to establish a mission on Tierra del Fuego had come to nothing, he must have been heartened by the New Zealand missionaries, who declared it not a failure but a first step, not dissimilar to the early attempts to set up missions in New Zealand.

Matthews joined his brother at the Kaitaia Mission in the Far North District of New Zealand, but his behaviour frequently threatened the fragile relationship between the missionaries and the Maoris. In 1840, the Church Missionary Society asked him to assist in setting up a mission at Wanganui, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. His involvement in a financial scandal there led to him, his pregnant wife, and his children having to walk four hundred miles back to Kaitaia. As recompense for his misdeeds, Matthews set up a school in a remote region. With a wife and four children to support, and the loss of sight in one of his eyes, Matthews experienced considerable distress. He remained in New Zealand until his death in 1893.


Darwin, C. R. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition. London: John Murray.

Hazlewood, Nick. 2000. Savage. The life and times of Jemmy Button. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

NarrativeNarrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836. [Edited by Robert FitzRoy.] 3 vols. and appendix. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.