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Creation Archive > Volume 21 Issue 3 > Darwin’s ‘savages’
Darwin supported a missionary society for years—but why?
On 17 December 1832, Charles Darwin arrived in Tierra del Fuego1
at the southernmost tip of South America, as part of his world tour aboard
H.M.S. Beagle. Here he got his first view of the native inhabitants,2
whom he described as ‘miserable degraded savages,’ a term
he used many times in his journal concerning these people. He wrote, ‘I
could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and
civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal,
inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.’3
He described one group of
Fuegians as ‘the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld’
and as existing ‘in a lower state of improvement than in any part of the
world.’ … ‘These poor wretches were stunted in their growth,
their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy,
their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing
such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and
inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure
in life some of the lower animals can enjoy; how much more reasonably the same
question may be asked with respect to these barbarians. At night, five or six
human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous
climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.’3
their painted faces he wrote, ‘… with their naked bodies bedaubed
with black, white, and red, they looked like so many demoniacs who had been fighting,’
and ‘The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the
stage in plays like Der Freischütz.’3
their language Darwin wrote, ‘The language of these people, according to
our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. Captain [James] Cook has
compared it to a man clearing his throat,4but certainly no European
ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural, and clicking sounds.’3
Comparison with the views of Christopher Columbus
The people Darwin saw were in many ways similar to the native
inhabitants whom Columbus had seen when he landed at San Salvador in the
Bahamas, north of the South American continent on 12 October 1492. The
natives of both Tierra del Fuego and the Bahamas were naked or nearly
so, both decorated their bodies and faces with coloured paints, both traded
trinkets with their visitors, both communicated by gestures in an attempt
to bridge the language barrier, and both imitated the gestures and speech
of their visitors.
However Columbus, in his Log,5
described the people he saw as being ‘friendly and well-dispositioned,’
having ‘handsome bodies and very fine faces,’ with eyes that were
‘large and very pretty,’ and he praised their ‘docility.’
He is delighted at finding a group of people in need
of salvation, and wrote, ‘I think they can easily be made Christians, for
they seem to have no religion.’5
on the other hand, in obvious racist disparagement and disgust, compared his group
to devils he had seen in plays and equated their habits to those of animals.
Why the difference?
Why was there
such a difference in the way these two explorers described the people they saw?
It was during this voyage of the Beagle that Darwin
read Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology, which
subtly ridiculed belief in recent creation in favour of an old earth, and denied
a global flood in favour of slow and gradual geological processes. It also presented
Darwin with a time frame of vast geological ages—which seemed to make his
theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution plausible.
All this was part of the commencement of his slippery slide
into unbelief and rejection of Genesis, which blinded his eyes to the
fact that all human beings (no matter how apparently ‘uncivilized’)
are made in the image of God (Genesis
1:26), and all are related through Adam.6
In fact, a few years later (1871) he wrote The Descent of Man,
in which he repeatedly presents the racist view that primitive peoples
stand between the animals and man, and in which he says, ‘At some
future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized
races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage
races throughout the world.’7
The gospel comes to the Fuegians
In due course, missionaries
came to Tierra del Fuego. The first was Allen Gardner, who from 1841 onward made
several attempts to reach the Fuegians. In 1844, he formed the Patagonian Missionary
Society, which was renamed the South American Missionary Society (or SAMS) in
1864. Gardner made two attempts to settle in Tierra del Fuego in 1845 and 1848
(both of which were frustrated by the hostility of the natives), and again in
1850, this time with six companions, only for them all to die a year later from
hunger and exposure to the awful cold of a sub-Antarctic winter,8 when
a relief ship was two months late in arriving.
was Thomas Bridges, who committed the language of the people (called Yahgan) to
writing and compiled a dictionary of 32,000 entries.9 Contrary to the
erroneous and disparaging remarks of Charles Darwin, the oral forms of the language
seem to have been unusually intricate and complicated. Bridges’ dictionary
included fifty different words for family relationships.10 When Bridges
had translated the four Gospels and Acts, and produced a Prayer Book, the mission
was well on its way to fruitfulness and success.
In 1862 the
leader of a fresh missionary party was Waite Hocking Stirling. His doctors had
warned him that he probably had only three years to live, to which he replied
that he would live them where they would be most used of God.
He served for the next 38 years in Tierra del Fuego, traveling
throughout the region by horseback, bringing the gospel to the Yahgan
and to other Fuegian tribes.11 By 1869, over 400 Indians had
believed and been baptized.
News of this changing lifestyle
of the Fuegians reached Darwin in 1867. He was so impressed that he immediately
sent off a cheque to SAMS, and then continued to contribute to this Society for
the next 15 years until his death in 1882.
Vice-Admiral B.J. Sulivan [sic] wrote to the Daily
News of 24 April 1885 about this, as follows: After referring to Charles
Darwin as ‘my old friend and ship-mate for five years,’ he
said, ‘Mr Darwin has often expressed to me his conviction that it
was utterly useless to send missionaries to such a set of savages as the
Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human race. I had always replied
that I did not believe any human beings existed too low to comprehend
the simple message of the gospel of Christ. After many years … he
wrote to me, that the recent accounts of the Mission proved to him that
he had been wrong and I right in our estimates of the native character,
and the possibility of doing them good through missionaries; and he requested
me to forward to the Society an enclosed cheque for £5, as a testimony
of the interest he took in their good work.’12 The date
of this payment was 9 February 1867.
On 30 June 1870, Darwin wrote to B.J. Sulivan concerning
the success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission: ‘It is most wonderful,
and shames me, as I always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success.
I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary
member of your society.’12
However, this did not mean that Darwin now believed in the truth
of the gospel or that he accepted the gospel for himself.13
His support of SAMS had more to do with his delight, as a typical member
of the English gentry of Queen Victoria’s day, at the ‘civilizing’
effects of Christianity. He continued to think that ‘savages’
were more closely related to animals than Englishmen. And even though
he acknowledged that the effects of the gospel on the Fuegians meant that
he had been wrong in his assessment of them, this did not result in his
seeing them (and all mankind) as being created in the image of God (Genesis
1:26) or in their converted state as being ‘sons and daughters of
God.’ Sadly he remained an agnostic to the end of his days.13
Paradoxically, the man
who wiped the idea of God from the minds of millions14 had a kindly
side to his nature. This meant that he not only supported missionary work, he
was also vocal about the abolition of slavery. His racist and inaccurate assessment
of tribal peoples was therefore (in contrast to the views of Christopher Columbus)
not so much intrinsic to his nature, as it was the logical consequence of his
evolutionary views and the associated rejection of the authority of the Word of
References and notes
- Tierra del Fuego means
‘land of fire,’ so named by the Portuguese navigator and explorer,
Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520, after he saw the dancing flames from Indian camps
along the darkened shore.
- Along the shores of what came to be called
- Charles Darwin, A Naturalist’s voyage round
the World, (Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the
Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the Command of Captain
Fitz Roy, [sic] R.N.), John Murray, London, pp. 205–231,1845
- Captain Cook, who ‘discovered’ the east
coast of Australia, visited Cape Horn in January 1769.
- Log of Christopher
Columbus, trans. by Robert Fuson, International Marine Pub. Co., Maine, pp.
- See John Brentnall and Russell
Grigg, Darwin’s slippery slide into unbelief, Creation
18(1): 34–37, 1995.
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, John Murray, London,
p. 156, 1887.
- Tierra del Fuego, at latitude 55°S, is the southernmost
inhabited land in the world and thus the nearest to Antarctica.
grew up with Fuegian children from the age of 13. He thus became completely fluent
in the Yahgan language. The manuscript of his Yahgan dictionary was deposited
in the British Museum in 1951. It contains 32,000 Yahgan words translated into
English via a phonetic system, and is a priceless documentation of a language
now almost extinct. It was Bridges who first used the term ‘Yahgan.’
‘Yahga’ is the Fuegian Indian word for the Murray Narrows, situated
in the centre of Fuegian territory.
- For example, Yahgan has separate
words for ‘mother’s brother,’ ‘mother’s sister’s
husband,’ ‘father’s brother,’ etc. where we would just
- In 1869 Stirling was consecrated first Bishop
of the Falkland Islands, with almost all of South America for his Diocese. This
meant Anglican support and coordination of the work.
- Quoted from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis
Darwin, Appleton & Co., London, 2:306–308, 1911. Note
that there are some small differences in the wording of these letters,
between the version given by Francis Darwin and that of other writers.
E.g. Canon MacDonald, Bishop Stirling of the Falklands, Seeley,
p. 69, 1929, gives the date of Darwin’s letters to Sulivan as
30 January 1870.
- Darwin’s deathbed conversion is an urban myth. See Russell
Grigg, Did Darwin recant?, Creation, 18(1):36–37,
- See Carl Wieland, Darwin’s
real message: have you missed it?, Creation 14(4):16–19,
author wishes to thank the Sydney SAMS office, Mrs Naomi Ansell (grand-niece of
Bishop Stirling), and Mrs Dory Zinkand of Delaware, USA, who supplied much historical
information; also Rev. A. Graeme Smith who supplied a copy of his article on ‘The
Mission to Tierra del Fuego’ published in Evangelical Quarterly.
Russell Grigg, M.Sc.(Hons),was an industrial chemist
before serving 20 years with Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He is now
a staff member of Answers in Genesis in Brisbane, Australia.