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Darwin Correspondence Project

From B. J. Sulivan   18 March 1881


March 18/81

My dear Darwin

Mr. Bridges the clergyman from the mission station has been here to attend a Drawing Room meeting for the Society, and he told us much—that I was wishing you could hear—about the natives as I know how it would interest you.1 One statement was very surprising. You recollect what thieves they were. For several years the three missionaries have had Fowl houses—and plenty of eggs. The fowls run about the place. The doors of the Fowl houses have never been locked, and yet they have never known a fowl or egg to be stolen. They keep their fresh meat in a shed outside, and have never lost any; yet only a portion of the people profess to be christians, and many not residents come and go.

What interested some most, such as Bishop Ryan2 & some clergy, was the account of the language. Mr. B gave us amusing accounts of the difficulty at first in getting correct words for English words. For instance Mr. Despard thought they knew enough to translate the Doxology;3 but he could not get a word for “praise”   he explained to one of the most intelligent men that he had been doing very well and he wanted to “praise” him for it. he thought he had made the native understand, and asked him what word they used for it— he gave him a word—but Despard while speaking to him had patted him on the shoulder—the whole verse was supposed to be translated, and the natives sang it for two or three years: as they have no idea of any God—the name “God” was retained   When Bridges understood the language more, and began to work at a Dictionary, he found the native had given the word for “Slap” not “praise” mistaking the pats on the shoulder: and they had being singing “Slap God”. Then nearly all the words were more or less wrong, and no line had the real meaning.4

He began with a 1st dictionary of 500 words. After more than a year he could add 300, but found many of the first in error, & had to correct them; and so he went on with new editions correcting & adding to each till he got several thousand words in his 20th. Dictionary which he thinks nearly perfect, as the later ones had few words to correct. Bishop Ryan & several clergyman were quite astonished at the perfect character of the language,—and its comprehensiveness. Bridges said it had more inflections than even Greek has, and more words than English. It has one more distinct sound than English—and he has required two or three more characters in the alphabet. It is written on the Phonetic plan, and every letter & sylable is sounded as written: what the learned linguists thought most surprising is, the way a single short word means what we require a short sentence for: and then one letter added means an additional sentence. & this is the rule throughout. a single letter, or two letters, prefixed to a word gives the different tenses to Verbs— He gave us several examples, but I think one will explain my meaning to you.

Ta. To fix bird spear on shaft.

Tia. To use any thing for fixing it: such as a bit of line.

Hatia. I use a bit of line (or other thing) to fix bird

spear on shaft

(Future) Hatior. I shall use &c &c..

(Past), Hatida. I used, or did use, it to fix bird spear on shaft.


For fixing different kinds of spear, another word is used in a similar way thus—

Abmootoo— To fix whale spear on shaft.

Tabmootoo. to use any thing to fix it and so on merely altering or adding a letter or two.


The same applies to every verb. a single letter or two making the different tenses, and the Verbs generally have more inflections than Greek. while our whole sentence is sometimes expressed by one word.

He has been much surprised to find that the “Ona” tribe that is Northward to Sts. of M. that we saw a few of at Good Success Bay, have a distinct language from the Tagan: or Jemmy Button’s tribe, & the Alacoolefs or Fuegia’s tribe quite distinct from both; but the Ona’s & Patagonian’s languages have some resemblance; & he thinks the Western Fugians (Fuegia Baskets Tribe) are connected somewhat by Language with the Western tribes north of Sts. of Magellan through those Islands to Tres Montes. If so perhaps the Chonos Indians would be connected with them also.5

But then there is the extraordinary fact that while one language may have spread down the East side of Andes to the Ona Fuegians—& another language west of Andes to Western Fuegia the Southern tribe should have distinct language from those NE and NW of them. so there no words are similar and each of the other two Fuegian languages will have to be learnt as completely as the first one was. But Bridges says he hopes to acquire them in a very short time compared to the first as on the borders of the tribes he can find natives who know something of their neighbour’s language and so will be able to communicate his wishes & questions.

Bridges embarks from Liverpool on his return with his family in a few days.6

Round the Mission station there are now about 18 native cottages of three rooms each with cultivated ground round them. Their cattle feed as one herd on the common land. They build the houses with small logs split down the middle & then set in a trench in the ground edge to edge the round sides out: the roof is made the same way the smooth split sides inside as a lining; then they build a turf wall outside the upright wooden walls & cover the roof with thin turfs put on over each other like slates, which is commonly done in Scotland. They have a wide fire place and chimney in each cottage but only made in the same way with upright split logs—they have a small window in each room but only with a wooden door to it left open by day.

At the East Entrance of Beagle channel on the large island on the north shore other Fuegians live and keep cattle—it is a better place, with more sun than at Ooshoowia but our mission natives having all come at first from Jemmy’s neighbourhood they did not like going far from it: and those more Eastward though the same tribe would not have liked their coming to their part of the coast. They all seem to be agreed that who ever incloses land to cultivate it, it becomes his private property.

I asked Bridges what the constant cry to us and all vessels. “Tam a schona” meant as we thought it meant “give me”. He says they had been so ill-treated sometimes by strangers that they were in fear when near them; & that the word means “be kind to me” or “be kind to us”.

He says that our boy is the most intelligent of the whole and getting on very well.7

I hope you have all got pretty well through this severe winter. We are pretty well but my daughter still lame and hardly any better.8

With our kind regards— | Believe me my dear Darwin | Yours very sincerely | B. J. Sulivan


The Bournemouth Association ‘Drawing-room Meeting’ was mentioned in the South American Missionary Magazine, 1 April 1881, p. 100, and declared ‘a complete success’. No details of Thomas Bridges’s speech were given. Bridges ran the mission at Ushuaia.
Vincent William Ryan had been bishop of Mauritius from 1855 to 1867; he was vicar of St Peter’s, Bournemouth, at this time.
George Packenham Despard had been a missionary in Tierra del Fuego from 1856 to 1861. A doxology is a short formula of praise to God (OED).
Bridges began his dictionary in January 1865 with the Yahgan–English section; the English–Yahgan section was started later that year (the manuscript of this version is available at the Patagonia Bookshelf, Bridges continued to refine and add to the dictionary, which, by the time of his death in 1898, had over thirty thousand words (ODNB). In addition to the dictionary, Bridges also wrote a grammar of the language.
Ona language was spoken by the Selk’nam people from north-eastern Tierra del Fuego (C. Moseley ed. 2010, p. 92). ‘Sts of M.’: Straits of Magellan. Jemmy Button was the name given to Orundellico by the British; he belonged to the Yahgan tribe. Fuegia Basket was the name given to Yokcushlu, a member of the Alakaluf tribe, whose language was Kawesqar (ibid., p. 93). They were culturally similar to the Chono people, whose linguistic affiliation is unknown (EB 15th ed.)
‘Our boy’ was Cooshaipunjiz (James FitzRoy Button), the orphaned grandson of Orundellico (Jemmy Button), who had been on the Beagle with CD and Sulivan. CD was part of a scheme by Sulivan to adopt the boy (see Correspondence vol. 27, letter from B. J. Sulivan, 13 October 1879).
Sulivan may refer to either Sophia Henrietta Sulivan or Frances Emma Georgina Sulivan. Both had suffered leg injuries in 1879 (see Correspondence vol. 27, letter from B. J. Sulivan, 9 June 1879).


EB 15th ed.: The new Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th edition. 32 vols. Chicago, Ill., and London: Encyclopædia Britannica. 2002.

Moseley, Christopher, ed. 2010. Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. 3d edition. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.


Reports the observations of Thomas Bridges on the Fuegian natives. Discusses especially the languages of the area.

Letter details

Letter no.
Bartholomew James Sulivan
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 177: 314
Physical description
ALS 16pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13089,” accessed on 19 April 2024,