Adventures in Peru, Chapter 12

The Women of Tierra del Fuego

Indian Poisons and Medicinal Plants, Part 5

In Tierra del Fuego twenty years or more ago, the paramount Chief refused to permit foreigners to intermingle with his race. Any of his women who connived to break this law were banished. I remember three gold diggers getting into serious trouble, through making advances to some Tierra del Fuegian women. They had come over from Sandy Point. One was English, one Austrian, and the other French. How they came to go to Tierra del Fuego was on this wise. On one of the trading ships a captain named Beelindorf held sway. He had a friend and fellow-countryman named Landorf. This man had sailed with Beelindorf on several occasions. On the first trip he told Beelindorf he had been looking for gold seventeen years, and had struck it rich. Within the previous two years he claimed to have sent £17,000 home. (Landorf always paid for two cabins, one on either side of the passage, so that no one else should come near him.) Well, he went home, came out again, and banked other £15,000 The following year he stayed only five months in Tierra del Fuego, and intended to return with Beelindorf the next trip, having put by yet another £10,000. Then he meant going home for good.

“Where do you get all this red stuff?” inquired Beelindorf. “In the very wildest part of Tierra del Fuego,” Landorf replied. “It took me fifteen years to discover. It’s all alluvial.” Beelindorf asked him the whereabouts of this bonanza, but Landorf refused point-blank. “Find it yourself,” he snarled.

Now Landorf’s good luck got noised abroad, and came to the ears of the three diggers. Deciding to have a shot at it, they interviewed the paramount Chief. That worthy said, “Yes, it is quite true; a Gringo was here last year and found plenty of gold. You are at liberty to go and do likewise; only you must find out the place for yourselves, and you must not interfere in any shape or form with the Indian women. We do not want our blood mixed.”

Of course the diggers were delighted at being thus given practically a free hand, and at first regarded the cautionary advice of the chief respecting his womenfolk. But within a while they get careless, and began to approach some of the Fuegian girls. So soon as the diggers began to talk of love the girls ran away, and reported the matter to their head men. In due course it reached the Chief’s ear. He sent for the offenders and repeated his warning, adding that if they transgressed again it would be at their own risk. The diggers were foolish enough to repeat their offence, not once but twice. Retribution swiftly followed, but in what shape or form one can only surmise. Anyhow the Frenchman and Englishman were never seen again. I may say that the latter came from a place I visited some time after these occurrences took place, and his relatives told me they had never heard of him since. The Austrian was the only one of the three about whom anything definite was ever known. The Fuegians seemed to have put him through the mill pretty thoroughly, and wound up by shaving his head. All the hairs round his forehead they pulled out one by one, and then kicked him out of their country. At Sandy Point he laid a complaint with the gentleman who officiated as Consul for the three countries interested in the matter. But he got no sympathy from the Consul. “No,” said that gentleman, “I cannot interfere. The Chief may do as he likes in Tierra del Fuego. You knew what his regulations were with regard to native women. You were thrice warned not to break them, but disobeyed. Now you must put up with the consequences.”

Another incident affords additional evidence of the attitude the Indians took up in regard to sexual matters. At the foot of the Andes in old priest was pointed out to me as a man who had been engaged on missionary work up the Beni River. One day, much to everybody’s surprise, so said my informant, he arrived back escorted by a guard of Indians. It appears he had so far forgotten his sacred office as to make overtures to an Indian girl. She declined, saying it was against the law of her country, and reported the matter to her people. They took it up with the priest; but he said, “Oh, it is all right, I’m a holy man.” “Holy man or not,” they replied, “we do not tolerate that sort of thing”; and toted him off to his Archbishop. That dignitary reported the result of his inquiry to the head of his Church. His Holiness directed that the culprit should be imprisoned in a monastery for twenty or twenty-five years, I forget which. I saw the prisoner many times and had several chats with him. He was allowed to take exercise in a park that happened to be within a stone’s throw of my establishment.

As regards the Indian law relative to taking their women out of the country without permission, I have already quoted incidents. Another occurs to mind. The foreman of a gang of rubber pickers operating on the Beni district, married one of the local girls and brought her back to Oruro. He had only returned a few weeks, when some of the Indians employed about the place began to make reference to his escapade, and hinted he would be lucky if he escaped serious consequences. The foreman got so “ratted” at what was said that he approached Penny on the subject. Few men were better versed in native customs than M. M. P. He at once recognized the dangerous position in which the man had placed himself, and, accordingly, got him a situation in Chile. There I saw the man and his wife, and talked with them several times. They were both afraid to go back home, because of the penalties that attach to the breaking of the old Indian law.