Trayendo El Fuego

As I’m nearing the completion of this audit of the Drundel collection, I’m beginning to wonder if it should be called “Maps and ephemera of Tierra del Fuego and others.”

Why Tierra del Fuego? It is the first time I’ve heard of this land, but certainly not the first I’ve heard of its associations: Strait of Magellan, Patagonia, Chile, Argentina. As with really any coastal region in the fertile, precolonial South Americas, it became an immediate site of extractive enterprises. This was of no shock.

Perhaps one of the more interesting facts I learned about the island was in the nationality of the renown colonial entrepreneur in the region, Julius Popper. I’ve seen his name mentioned on a few of the maps, but hadn’t taken great note of them. Unlike most of the conquistadors, Popper was Romanian. Originally employed as a telegrapher in Chile, he set his sites on prospecting the little known metals of the island.

In the late nineteenth century, it was here he encountered the Selk’nam tribe and sponsored a genocide that lasted almost a decade. The tribe, once 4,000 individuals, were reduced to 500.

The Selk’nam were one of three tribes on Tierra del Fuego. They were hunter-gatherers and primarily situated in the northeast region, referred to as Onas by the other tribes. In the late nineteenth century, cattle farmers, gold seekers, and farmers instigated their extermination by means as brutal as deportation, hunting of members, and alcohol (Gardini, 647). “The pen hesitates to describe this systematic extermination,” writes Austrian Ethnologist Gusinde.

Gusinde himself, regarding them a “magnificent race,” was more than willing to ship their skulls to anthropological museums in Europe under the banner of science. But it was ultimately the cattle ranchers, favored by local authorities, who proposed and carried out the genocide with impunity.

Tierra del Fuego itself boasts surreal and enchanting geographical features. Each of the drawings and photos captured of the area portray a cinematic panorama without compare.

These astounding features being shaped by and characterized by the Andrean orogeny supplies a somewhat uncanny analogy to its cultural history and my role as a researcher. It is this idea of distance. I wonder often how distance can so readily lead to violence.

The name “Tierra del Fuego” derives purportedly from early conquistadors observing bonfires on the shoreline as they passed through the Strait of Magellan. The reports are that these indigenous tribes were staging an attack. What if it was a greeting? In fact, it probably had nothing to do with the colonizers at all. What if the the shore remained in shadow, never drawing the eye of the colonizers? There’s a melancholy in great events, both horrific and beatific, made probable when distance is brought to light.


Gardini, Walter. “Restoring the Honour of an Indian Tribe-Rescate de Una Tribu.” Anthropos 79, no. 4/6 (1984): 645–47.