The Mask and the Mirror

Yxta Maya Murray is the author of "What It Takes to Get to Vegas" and "Locas."

Imagine the writer who sets out to depict "what has happened." Day and night he labors over the glittering residue of the world in order to reconstruct some portrait--of a famous ruler, perhaps, or a notorious slave--or he attempts to describe the temper of an age gone by. He pieces together the refracted stuff of fact and rumor and hearsay. He fills his given frame with battles, conquests, warships, kings, murders, rescues and betrayals. One day, after years of toil, he finishes the likeness, and it is a beautiful, shimmering thing. But as he bends close to admire his work, he sees (if he looks very hard) not a famous ruler, or a slave, or the temper of an age gone by. Instead, he sees his own face.

He has not made a portrait at all but a mirror.

And so it is with history.

That we make a cartography of ourselves when we map the world seems triply true when our subject is "exotic," for then we may see what measures we use to make our comparisons, and from the contrast we discover who we are, primarily by discovering who we are not. In 1833, British naval commander Robert FitzRoy permitted a free-thinking naturalist named Charles Darwin to accompany him on the Beagle en route to Tierra del Fuego, a network of channels and islands off the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. FitzRoy intended to return home three Fuegians who had spent a year enduring a "civilizing" education in England, with the hopes that they would convince the natives that Jesus Christ was their lord and savior and that their subjugation to Europeans wasn't such a bad idea, either.

One of the Fuegians traveling with Darwin was the infamous Jemmy Button, ne Orundellico, who had been abducted by FitzRoy three years before and who, three decades later, would be implicated in the slaughter of eight British missionaries on Tierra del Fuego. Darwin saw no signs of the antipathy that would later (allegedly) drive Button to violence; in "The Voyage of the Beagle" he noted: "Button was a universal favourite, but likewise passionate; the expression of his face at once showed his nice disposition." Of the other Fuegians, however, who had not benefited from English instruction, Darwin wrote elsewhere:

"I declare the thought, when I first saw in Tierra del Fuego a naked, painted, shivering hideous savage, that my ancestors must have been somewhat similar beings, was at that time as revolting to me, nay more revolting than my present belief that an incomparably more remote ancestor was a hairy beast."

In this passage and in others, the Fuegians, of course, are nowhere to be found. Rather, what we see in their likenesses is the brilliant science by which the First World would measure itself, the way it replaced mystic faith with empiric certainty, its creed of categories and how the theory was also a mirror that flattered its maker.

In "Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button," Nick Hazlewood gives us another account of the Fuegian's miseducation, and his is a ripping and troubling tale.

Button's saga is framed by two accounts of British adventurers, one who seeks to tame his region's wilderness in the interests of the Crown and another who seeks to tame the wilderness inside of himself in the interests of God. In 1828, FitzRoy, a mentally unstable aristocrat, took command of the Beagle and within two years had not only reached Tierra del Fuego but had also kidnapped four of its natives with the object of turning them into English ambassadors who might ease the pangs of expansion. Included in his haul was the young boy Orundellico, whom FitzRoy "purchased" from the Yamana Indians in exchange for one mother-of-pearl button. The price of his freedom also became Orundellico's new name.

A year later, Jemmy Button was learning the Lord's Prayer in Walthamstow, England, and swearing off what he described as the Fuegian habit of cannibalism. He was learning to love, too, "fine clothes, gleaming shoes and kid gloves." That the British took Jemmy and his fellow Fuegians "into their hearts," Hazlewood says, "is beyond doubt," for the people of Walthamstow gave them presents and came in droves to look at them. Moreover, when King William IV honored them with an audience, Queen Adelaide gave a Fuegian girl, renamed Fuegia Basket, a bonnet.

Still, to the extent FitzRoy believed his charges would prove to be valuable assets, he was wrong. They were expensive to educate, and when FitzRoy took them back (Darwin in tow) to Tierra del Fuego, Button had "forgotten" his native language and was not much help at easing relations with Indians who remembered FitzRoy's previous felonies. FitzRoy eventually admitted defeat and left Button and other captives where he found them.

More than 30 years later, another ambitious crew set out for the region with the goal of converting the heathen, and once again Button figured prominently in British plans. In 1854, delegates of the Patagonia Missionary Society, "driven by intense religious passions," sailed from Bristol to Tierra del Fuego hoping to find the English-speaking Button and persuade him to aid in their evangelical efforts. Apparently expecting a couth Tarzan, the missionaries instead encountered a "fat little Indian, dirty and naked, speaking understandable phrases of their own language."

What ensued reads like a cross between "Gilligan's Island" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau": The missionaries fought among themselves; one captain sailed home in a huff, threatening to sue; Button promised to return to England with the missionaries, then reneged; he demanded presents from the delegation's Rev. George Packenham Despard but refused to teach the Britons Yamana, his native tongue. Moreover, Button and his kindred resisted laboring for their keepers--an un-Christian trait that the missionaries set out to correct through a program of rewards, beatings and personal searches (the Fuegians could be quite the pickpockets when gifts were not forthcoming).

How successful were the missionaries? After a while, Button seemed to play along, and the Fuegians learned to pray and cover their privates. The time spent with the British, Hazlewood tells us, "turned them from lethargic sloths into energetic, industrious laborers."

Then one day, during a peaceful prayer meeting, 300 Fuegians descended upon eight of the missionaries, slaughtering them in cold blood. Although Button blamed another Fuegian tribe for the butchery, Hazlewood asserts that it is "distinctly probable" that he led the attack.

Though the author easily condemns the British, he skirts the questions of Button's responsibility. He notes that "Fuegians lived by different rules and values and this [the massacre] was their customary response to the threat of foreign incursion." He characterizes Button as a "used and abused" "primeval child" who "emerged nevertheless as a man of character and fortitude," even if it is true that "Jemmy became more fractious, less helpful and was at times a thorn in the side of those who sought him out."

Hazlewood gives us a far different picture of Fuegian character than did Darwin, and this difference gives us a gauge of what has changed in the last 150 years. Darwin's theory had a staggering certainty to it: Species evolved as a result of natural competition; here was the hierarchy, objective and real. And this "objective" measure is a flattering mirror for its maker. It wasn't Darwin's fault that the Fuegians seemed rough clay in comparison to the British: Some of us are simply more evolved than others.

Today, such cultural judgments are said to be wrongheaded and have brutal consequences: The ultimate genocide of the Fuegians at the hands of Europeans serves as only one precedent. Many (like Hazlewood) respond to this dilemma by reserving judgment and locating the acts and motives of exotics in a neutral, relativistic context: They lived by different rules and values, et cetera. Although Darwin once gave us a measure for comparing the difference between "them" and "us," and that measure was a rose-tinted mirror, now (we say) there is no measure. So what do we get as a result?

As it turns out, another mirror.

It may be that the brand of sensitive relativism at play in "Savage" conflicts with the tenets of good storytelling. Whenever Hazlewood feels comfortable judging his characters, they blaze into life, and he reveals his considerable talent for writing a carefully researched and engrossing yarn. For example, take the melancholic FitzRoy, a man of "capricious rage" who suffered from "blue evils" and who, after enduring a professional decline, slit his own throat. Consider the delegation's Capt. Robert Fell, too; before his murder at the hands of the Fuegians, he was a "fervent rough-and-tumble Baptist, for whom life was one long crusade."

But Jemmy? "Savage" does not show him as a man of "character and fortitude." Instead, we see him preening in England; we find him fat and filthy in Tierra del Fuego; we discover that he and his kinsmen were prevaricators, having lied about the Fuegian taste for human flesh because that "was expected of them"; back home, he refuses to interpret Yamana for the missionaries out of "ignorance, exhibitionism, or an unwillingness." Hazlewood's unease with Jemmy's complexities emerges most clearly when he asks us to remember the Fuegians "in the person of Jemmy Button, whether hunting seal and guanaco ... toying with the inhabitants of [Tierra del Fuego], repeating scriptures ... or dining with the friends of FitzRoy."

Why, we may ask, does he underplay the slaughter of the eight missionaries?

Unlike the vivid British, Button displays as his most vibrant features his appetite for shiny shoes and scripture, and I do not think that this stems merely from a dearth of information about the man. Rather, the modern reluctance to judge exotics may only camouflage the hierarchy so visible in Darwin's work. In the contest of characterization, certainly, the British win out; whether the missionaries are sadistic depressives or doomed ecstatics, they emerge as vibrant antagonists. Button, on the other hand, remains between the lines, and in Hazlewood's hands, he comes across as a Spartacus who's been dropped on his head a couple of times.

The most telling lapse is that Button may have been more advanced than Hazlewood describes. Where the author sees, perhaps, a blunt-witted liar and a belligerent English-speaker, I see a trickster who befuddled his masters with a campaign of fabrication and obfuscation.

That "Savage" is more a biography of imperialism than the story of Jemmy should not deter history lovers from reading the book: There is a lot here of tremendous interest and some very good writing and research. Hazlewood is to be applauded for excavating Button's story and placing it under the eye of our age. But as Jemmy Button--Orundellico, that is--confounded those who would snare him before, he continues to do so now. Just when we think we've trapped him in our frame, he slips away, and when we look at the portrait in front of us, we may be so seduced by our own face we won't remember to care.

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