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Darwin Correspondence Project

Boat Memory

Boat Memory was one of the indigenous people from Tierra del Fuego brought back to England by Robert FitzRoy in 1830, but he remains as ghostly a figure as his name. What he was called by his own people is unknown, but the name Boat Memory, chosen by FitzRoy, was doubly ominous. It recalls both the reason for his capture and his disappearance from the historical record following his sudden death from smallpox soon after his arrival in Plymouth.

Boat Memory, a member of the Alakaluf tribe, or canoe people from the western part of Tierra del Fuego, was captured by FitzRoy in 1830 after one the small boats used for surveying the narrow inlets of the coast had been stolen. During a relentless hunt for the lost vessel, several Fuegians were taken hostage by FitzRoy, who promised their release on the return of the boat. All these captives escaped, except for three children. FitzRoy released two boys but kept a young girl whom he named Fuegia Basket. He next took a man, whom he called York Minster. Continuing the hunt, FitzRoy then seized another young man near a hut where there were traces of line from the stolen boat. This was Boat Memory, ‘the best-featured Fuegian’ FitzRoy had seen, and ‘a very favourable specimen of the race’ (Narrative 1: 416). After FitzRoy realised that his captives and the natives who came to barter with those on board the Beagle came from different tribes, he took a fourth captive, from another tribe, in order to carry out a social experiment. He decided to take his four captives back to England, educate them, instruct them in religion, and return them to Tierra del Fuego to act as moral exemplars to their own people and as interpreters for passing English ships.

Embarked on this course, FitzRoy had the four Fuegians vaccinated against smallpox in Monte Video, but the vaccine had no effect. On arrival in England, he sent them to a farm outside Plymouth where, despite being revaccinated, Boat Memory succumbed to the disease. All four Fuegians were placed in the smallpox ward of Plymouth Naval Hospital. Three survived, but Boat Memory, estimated to be just twenty years old, died on 11 November 1830.

The death of Boat Memory was a shock to FitzRoy, who paid the following tribute to the young man he had abducted: ‘This poor fellow was a very great favourite with all who knew him, as well as with myself. He had a good disposition, very good abilities, and though born a savage, had a pleasing, intelligent appearance. He was quite an exception to the general character of the Fuegians, having good features and a well-proportioned frame. It may readily be supposed that this was a severe blow to me, for I was deeply sensible of the responsibility which had been incurred; and, however unintentionally, could not but feel how much I was implicated in shortening his existence’ (Narrative 2: 10).

References:

Chapman, Anne. 2010. European encounters with the Yamana people of Cape Horn, before and after Darwin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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.

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.