Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button Hardcover – 1 Jun 2001
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Phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-scientific analysis of skull contours, revealed Jemmy Button as having "a disposition to combat and destroy". The reading proved prescient for the Fuegians, who within a century found their numbers diminished from thousands to tens. That this could be directly attributed to Jemmy, taken as a boy in 1830 from Tierre del Fuego on the southern tip of South America to London and then returned to his people to spread the Christian word, provides a fascinating and juicy tale of zealous evangelism and the misguided compulsion to "civilise". Bruce Chatwin told the story in In Patagonia, but Nick Hazlewood's is the first full-length treatment of an unremarkable figure caught up in a remarkable episode.
The most famous passenger of the Beagle, which transported Jemmy and three others to England, was a fresh-faced young naturalist, Charles Darwin. In his account of the voyage, which decisively informed his 1859 thesis The Origin of Species, he called the Fuegians "the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld" (the phrenology of Darwin's nose apparently suggested "a lack of energy and determination"). Though that may say more about the unworldly Darwin than the Fuegians, there can be no doubt that they were markedly un-European, naked, unwashed and heathen. The massacre of eight men in 1860 by a mob reportedly led by Jemmy shocked the Patagonian Missionary Society, who were behind efforts to convert the South Atlantic, and whose eventual well-meaning perseverance introduced, along with the Bible, disease and ruin into the community. Hazlewood's writing has a mellifluous rhythm, lithely assimilating disparate sources while being unafraid to leave uncomfortable edges when appropriate, and proving particularly adept when Jemmy Button is centre stage, dressed in his dandy pomp and finery like the Pearly King of Walthamstow. Walking a tightrope himself between a rollicking yarn and censorious anthropology, Hazlewood keeps his balance to offer an insightful yet depressingly familiar account of the noble savage undone by the savage noble. --David Vincent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
'His book is fascinating, and indispensable for those interested in tragic clashes of culture' -- Sunday Telegraph --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
The story is fascinatingly told working its way from Jemmys origins in Tierra del Fuego to his capture by the British and his travels across to a Victorian England obsessed with the new. The tale of his reception by the British establishment and his realisation of the danger which his people faced is a remarkable piece of writing from an author who has obviously worked hard to reach deep inside this character from the past. It is an entertaining and gripping story remarkably told. If you have never picked up a history book before then I suggest that you start at the first page of "Savage" and work your way through to the end. You will not be disappointed.
Although the story of one man, the book does fill out his world for the reader with first rate historical research, meticulous detail and a host of truly amazing characters. Yet, at all times, these always relate directly back to Jemmy and his centrality is never lost in a sea of irrelevant detail, as so often happens in books such as this.
The later sections concerning the missonary attempts to 'tame' the Yamana where, I felt, entirely appropriate and I was surprised at how interested I was in their story too. Even after Jemmy's death, the reader is so involved, I would have felt cheated if the author had not told us how the story of his people (as Jemmy had known them) ended.
This is a great book and deserves to be read by a great many more people. The writing is erudite and engaging, the story gripping and the research impressive. Buy it!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In 1845, the Patagonian Missionary Society, one of the many Protestant vanguards of British colonialism, made an effort to land on Tierra del Fuego and begin proselytizing. The mission lasted a week, because the natives merely stole from it, without improvement of their souls. In 1850, a similar attempt lead to the deaths of the missionaries. Newspapers warned the Patagonian Missionary Society off any future effort, but the public loved this British bravado, and the Society was emboldened to try a new venture. It would use one of the Falkland Islands as a staging ground to which Fuegians could be ferried, civilized, converted, and returned. To this end, Jemmy was found and was kidnapped once again, along with members of his family. They became homesick and resentful, and were cycled back home, with another nine Fuegians picked up. The Society's reports were glowing, but glossed over the frequent problems. One of the basic ones was that the Fuegians had little concept of property rights, and when they liked something, they took it, and they resented any subsequent searches. When this group was returned, eight missionaries were murdered. The Society blamed the work of Satan, but as one letter to the papers said, the massacre "...was produced by the recklessness of the society and their agents, and therefore I must conclude that Satan is much maligned in this matter."
Hazlewood has told this astonishing and distressing story with a novelist's fluency. In the end, the efforts toward the Fuegians could not have been more futile. Ranchers and sheep-farmers soon began invading their island, and brought devastating diseases or simply hunted them down and shot them. No pure Fuegians survived. Those with intentions of greed harmed them as much as those with intentions of improvement under the guise of imposition of a strong culture over a weak one. Such were the benefits of civilization to the savages.
Normally I would be satisfied to see that other reviewers have given the marks that are deserved and would not bother to write yet another review.
This book is not normal, however. I was struck by Hazlewood's ability to paint all of the characters as rational and intelligent but also products of their times and cultures. The story unfolds in a nonjudmental way...and then leads the reader to be a witness to untold horrors and great tragedy.
Well worth the read.
In this absorbing book, Hazlewood lets Darwin go his way, and tracks Button and the fascinating story of intentions -- good or pig-headed, as you will -- gone bad. This is not a dry academic publication. The same day I got this book, a friend lent me three detective novels -- one Jeffery Deaver and two James Pattersons -- but once I got my nose into Savage, I could hardly pull it out. From my previous reading, I had a picture of Captain Fitzroy as an unpleasant character, being forced to right his wrongs through no good will of his own. Hazlewood's research shows me that I seem to have been led astray. His Fitzroy is far more sympathetic than the one I had known.
An inferior artist leaves you gasping at his craft. Hazlewood is such an expert writer that you may read the entire book without really noticing the skill and work that must have gone into the creation of this book: fluent writing, careful research, and fine construction throughout.
Had Fitzroy never packed Jemmy Button off to England, perhaps the Fuegian Indians would have disappeared from this world without a trace. At least through the work of the missionaries, whatever their motive, a record has been left of their language and some of their culture (BTW, I disagree with the previous reviewer who said we are closer to the Yamana than to the Victorians; a romantic notion that hardly bears up to a moment's consideration.) This book leaves you with a lot to think about.
Permit me to quote Alfred Russel Wallace in exposition of the book's title: "The white men in our colonies are too frequently the true savages."
So _Fitzroy_ is the savage, of course? Certainly, but Hazlewood's irony, and his capacity for imaginative compassion, is deeper than that.
Fitzroy thought he was doing good. Mutual incomprehension between the Tierra del Fuegians and passing European and American ships had led to murder: and people with muskets and ship's cannon are more efficient at murder than people with spears. If some Tierra del Fuegians could be taught English and gain an understanding of European culture and manners, there might be fewer violent encounters. And if his captives could be taught to build and cultivate crops, then they could be returned to their homes, equipped with seeds, food animals and tools, and perhaps teach their kinspeople a more comfortable and secure way of living.
Hazlewood tells the story of how this benevolent (by the standards of its time) project goes horribly wrong. The remarkable figure of Jemmy Button, the resourceful young man captured by Fitzroy (later returned to his home by Fitzroy, as promised), and how he fared in English culture and his own, is a central thread in that story. However this is history and not biography; the canvas is wider than one man.
Tragedy comes with the arrival of the Patagonian Missionary Society in the Land of Fire. Like Fitzroy they believed they came with good intentions; unlike Fitzroy they offered little of value, took much, and mostly broke their promises. They sought the help of Jemmy Button, who was back living with his people, but with a half-remembered stock of English. Button offered that help, and he and his family, and other Tierra del Fuegians were in return kept as virtual slaves in the Society's encampment. Hazlewood shows how tensions rose until the missionaries were massacred, probably by a party led by Jemmy Button.
Interestingly, despite what we think of as the racist arrogance of the Victorians, the authorities in nearby Port Stanley and in London understood the events in terms that we might consider "modern": they saw the massacre as the result of the missionary society's cruelty, bigotry and duplicity, which had placed intolerable pressure on the Tierra del Fuegians. Claims that the slain missionaries had been "martyrs" were quietly (and justly) derided, and no attempt was made to avenge their deaths.
The title "Savage", I think, refers neither to the Tiera del Fuegians nor by heavy-handed irony to the Victorians. Though the Patagonian Missionary Society does emerge as something of a villain, their villainy was too drab to be "savage". The title refers not to people but to the events that led to the destruction of the first and second missions to Tierra del Fuego.
The wholesale slaughter of Jemmy Button's people by European settlers a generation or two later is dealt with briefly at the end of the book; that was unquestionably the act of savages, but beyond the focus of this book.
This is a great book. Far from depressing despite the subject matter, it is instead encouraging about the possibility of communication and imaginative sympathy between people whose cultures, histories, technologies and languages have virtually nothing in common, so long as neither side is blinded by racist or religious arrogance.
We are in some ways as far from the Victorians as we are from the Tierra del Fuegians. It may be easier for us to imaginatively identify with Tierra del Fuegian ideas on (for example) family, sex, politics, clothing, and perhaps religion, than with the Victorians. The Victorians, particularly Hazlewood's missionaries, accepted a vast and rigid structure of ideas, almost none of which we now accept; Tierra del Fuegian attitudes are in some ways easier for a post-post-modernist to accept. (This is not to pretend that the Tierra del Fuegians were new age philosophers, let alone Noble Savages.)
So the book is an exercise in empathy for both the Victorian and Tierra del Fuegian protagonists, and reveals the humanity of both. An example is Jemmy Button's bashfulness in the presence of an Englishwoman, when a British ship arrives at his Tierra del Fuegian home twenty years after Button's return. That his discomfort turns out to be because he has married, and that Button is inclined to conceal his married status while talking with a lady ("English ladies very good," he had commented), is cheering enough, and so too is the comprehension of the British sailors when Button's wife arrives by canoe, to find out what is going on. Button's embarrassment, and the hearty congratulations of the sailors when they recognise the cause of his embarrassment, is in its own way an inspiring moment, and well captured by Hazlewood. These are not saints on either side of this cultural divide, but they are human. And they enjoy their mutual recognition without imagining, as a post-structuralist might, that they are unable to communicate because they are irredeemiably "other".
While it both inspires and also makes angry, "Savage" is also a hugely entertaining book. Hazlewood offers many revealing glimpses into peoples, white and brown, whose ways of life have long since vanished. For example this, from a 17th century sea-captain's letter to his son:
"A merchant of Loundon wrote to a factor of his beyoand sea, desired him by the next shipp to send him 2 or 3 Apes; he forgot the r, so it was 203 Apes. His factor has sent him four score, and says he shall have the rest by the next shipp ... if yorself or frendes will buy any Apes to breede on, you could never have such a chance as now."
Even then, a simple typo could have embarrassing results...
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