THE world-encircling voyage of the Beagle in the early 1830s is forever linked to Charles Darwin and his development of the theory of evolution. During long months at sea, punctuated by landfalls at such points of biological curiosity as Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos Islands, Darwin gathered the raw material that was to fuel his intellect - and theological and scientific debate - for decades. But just as interesting in its way, if not as earthshaking as the intellectual thunder unloosed by Darwin, was the human drama initiated by the Beagle's probe beyond the boundaries of civilization. Richard Lee Marks has intriguingly pieced together that drama, tracing the intertwined lives of Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, and Yahgan Indian Jemmy Button.
What emerges is an unorthodox blending of historical narrative, historical speculation, and mystery story. There's the central, utterly desolate setting of scattered islands off South America's southernmost tip, where the now vanished Yahgans clung precariously to life. There's the intrusion of Europeans fired by scientific curiosity and religious fervor. And there's a sense of imminent disaster, carefully nurtured by Marks through repeated references to an impending, horrible crime.
On one level this is an account of the meeting between modern man and primitive man - continuing the process begun centuries earlier when the first Europeans voyaged to the New World. The Old World explorers usually carried along a cultural arrogance that prevented them from recognizing advanced elements in the Indian civilizations they found and eventually overran. In the case of the Yahgans on Navarin and Hoste Islands, however, civilization wasn't an issue. These people, as described by Marks, had li t
tle but the ability to use fire - no permanent housing, no clothes, rudimentary language.
Marks describes what a first view of the full-sailed Beagle must have been like for the Yahgan youth who was later dubbed "Jemmy Button" by the English: "If the Yahgan boy had not so tightly held with his toes to the stones of the beach, he might have been blown off the beach not by the Antarctic wind but by the force of modern humanity."
Jemmy was one of three Yahgans transported by FitzRoy back to England for a quick course in civilization. He liked much of what he experienced there, and he liked the kind-hearted, though stern and aristocratic, young English captain. On his return to the environs of Tierra del Fuego three years later, however, Jemmy resumed his former life instead of striving to lift his people toward European methods of raising food and building shelters, as FitzRoy had hoped. But Jemmy remembered and retained his ske t
chy grasp of the English language.
Thus the stage was set for a encounter three decades later, in 1859, when English missionaries blazing with a desire to save the Yahgans sought out Jemmy as their semi-civilized link to this primitive people. Neither Jemmy, nor his people, nor the missionaries really understood the emotions and passions at work in this renewed meeting. Misunderstanding built to a tragic climax when eight Englishmen were slaughtered by the Indians - the terrible crime Marks had hinted at.
The Yahgans' violent rejection of the "better life" being offered them seemed a rejection of the very concept of Christian conversion as cherished by men like the dispirited Rev. George Despard, who had organized the Patagonian Mission. "Perhaps," writes Marks, Despard "now had a feeling similar to the feeling that Charles Darwin dispassionately was trying to introduce to a world that wanted to believe otherwise: that change could be accomplished and was accomplished only by the passage of almost incalc u
lable time, by the passage of millions of life spans...."
That observation takes the story of the men of the Beagle to a different level - toward a parable of the tension between vision and tradition, progress and habit, conscience and self-righteousness. You don't have to come to the same conclusions Marks does to be stimulated by the story he tells and its timeless implications.
* Keith Henderson is editorial page editor for the Monitor.