skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Jemmy Button (Orundellico)

jemmy_button_1833.jpg

Jemmy Button in 1833
CUL CCA.24.2
Jemmy Button in 1833 from 'Fuegians' in The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle. Vol.2. FitzRoy, R. 1839. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36. 'Fuegians' [plate] pp.324-325
Cambridge University Library

Jemmy Button was known as Orundellico among the Yahgan, or canoe people of the southern part of Tierra del Fuego.  He was the fourth hostage taken by FitzRoy in 1830 following the theft of the small surveying boat. This fourteen-year old boy was called Jemmy Button by the Beagle crew because FitzRoy had given a large mother-of-pearl button to the man who was in the canoe with Orundellico. Neither Orundellico nor his mother thought he was being taken further than a nearby island, but FitzRoy had decided to educate his captives in England and instruct them in religion before returning them to Tierra del Fuego. Orundellico’s mother was distraught at the apparent loss of her son, and the loss was complete for his father, who died before Orundellico’s return.

Once on board the Beagle, Orundellico was placed in the company of the three hostages from an enemy tribe, with no common language. At first, the teenager was taunted by the others, but by the time he was attending Walthamstow infants’ school, near London, he and Yokcushlu were good friends. They were also quick to learn, in contrast with the much older Elleparu, who, isolated after the death of Boat Memory, began to take a jealous interest in Yokcushlu.

On the return voyage to Tierra del Fuego, Orudellico was clearly the favourite among the crew. He was thought to be the most intelligent of three Fuegians, with some moral understanding, and had developed a love of fine clothes and boots. He also had a keen sense of sympathy. Even though, as a member of a seafaring people, he could not understand Darwin’s seasickness, he would often visit Darwin and say ‘Poor, poor fellow!’ (Darwin 1845, p. 207).

When Orundellico returned home, the Beagle crew were witness to his reunion with his family, and his reaction to the news of his father’s death. He appeared unemotional to the English, but this was customary behaviour for the Yahgan, and not an indication of a lack of affection. Moreover, Orundellico’s experiences in England had so profound an effect on the fifteen-year-old boy that he could barely speak his own language. For the rest of his life, he continued to use English, and alone among the hostages did not return to his Fuegian name, but preferred to be known as Jemmy (or James) Button.

To some extent Jemmy Button no longer belonged anywhere. Perhaps this was why he and his mother agreed to accompany Elleparu and Yokcushlu to their country further west. By this point, many of the possessions Jemmy had been given in England had been lost through pilfering, but he was unprepared for treachery from his fellow travellers. En route to the west, Elleparu and Yokcushlu abandoned Jemmy Button and his mother at night, after stealing all their belongings and leaving them naked. Jemmy Button had also lost the company and influence of Richard Matthews, the missionary sent back with the Fuegians, because FitzRoy had removed him within days of arrival, deeming it too dangerous for him to remain.

Jemmy in 1834 from 'Fuegians' in The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle. Vol.2. FitzRoy, R. 1839. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36. 'Fuegians' [plate] pp. 324-325. CUL CCA.24.2When the Beagle returned, several months later, to check on the progress of FitzRoy’s three protégés, Elleparu and Yokcushlu were gone, and Jemmy radically altered. The plump dandyfied young man who had waved them goodbye in his smart dress coat and button boots was now indistinguishable from any other native. FitzRoy could hardly contain his feelings at seeing the alteration in Jemmy, and Darwin lamented ‘so complete and grievous a change ’ (Darwin 1845, p. 228). The clean, stout lad was now ‘a naked thin squalid savage’, Darwin told his sister Catherine. Jemmy, however, greeted the crew with affection and presented carefully prepared gifts to them as well as for his old schoolmaster in Walthamstow. He used a knife and fork correctly when he joined the captain’s table for dinner, and, according to Darwin, was ‘very happy, did not wish to return to England; had not forgotten his English & lastly, but not least, he had married a young; & for a Fuegian, a beautiful Squaw’.

Jemmy Button was next heard of in 1855 when he was sought by officials of the Patagonian Missionary Society, who hope to persuade him to allow Yahgan boys to be brought to the mission on Keppel Island, off West Falkland Island. Twenty-three years after leaving the Beagle, Jemmy Button not only remembered his English, but also had taught his family some words. When he discovered he was to take tea with an English woman, he requested clothes. By 1855, he had two wives and several children. Although he welcomed the missionaries, he did not let them take his small son (or any other male children) to the Keppel Island mission, nor did he stop his brothers demanding more gifts and goods from them. In 1858, after the mission rules were changed to allow families to go to the station, Jemmy Button, his wife, and three of their children were persuaded to go to Keppel Island in the hope of encouraging other Yahgan families to do the same. Jemmy Button and his family made a good impression during their five-month stay, although they did not embrace Anglicanism.

On his return to Tierra del Fuego, Jemmy Button wore European clothes, and his wife’s appearance was so changed that she was referred to as ‘English woman’ (Chapman 2010, p. 353). Within the year, however, Jemmy was once again naked to the dismay of the missionaries. Although they had also been frustrated by Jemmy Button’s inability to act as an interpreter because of his lack of knowledge of own language and his insistence on speaking broken English, more Yahgan families had travelled to Keppel Island. The hope was to educate a sufficient number to sustain a mission in Tierra del Fuego, but antagonism developed in 1859 when the returning Yahgan families were searched before they left the ship. During a service in the mission house being constructed at Wulaia in southern Tierra del Fuego, a large number of Fuegians from different groups mounted an attack and killed eight Europeans associated with the mission.

Jemmy Button, who had been at the service, later travelled to the Falkland Islands to give his deposition in answer to charges made by the sole survivor of the mission massacre. Jemmy was accused of instigating the attack, but the authorities in the Falklands judged him to be innocent except for sharing in the plunder. The missionary Thomas Bridges, who disliked Jemmy Button and thought he kept what he knew to himself, later described him as ‘the great imposter’ (Chapman 2010, p. 387).

In 1863, Jemmy Button’s son Wammestriggens (Threeboys) went to the mission on Keppel Island. On his return to Tierra del Fuego in 1864 he discovered that an epidemic had killed many of his people, including his father. Despite Jemmy’s death, contact was still maintained between the Button family and the crew of the Beagle. Bartholomew James Sulivan met Wammestriggens in 1866, when he was brought to England by the Patagonian Missionary Society, and in 1880, Sulivan was instrumental in encouraging the ‘old Beagles’ to sponsor one of Jemmy Button’s grandsons in the orphanage in Ushaia in the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego.

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.