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 [via]