Two books to read in Patagonia

In a tiny little shop in the middle of route 40 in Argentinian Patagonia, I saw a book that catalogued the entire archaeological record of the area. I really wanted to buy it, except I had no cash. Stupidly, I didn’t write down the name because I assumed they’d sell it in all the tourist shops once we reached El Calafate. They didn’t.

But I did find another book instead: “The Captive in Patagonia, or Life Among the Giants” by Benjamin Franklin Bourne (free ebook available here). Published in 1853, it’s the true story of an American who was captured by a group of indigenous people in southern Patagonia. The memoir details his capture, life amongst the Tehuelche people, and finally his escape.

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Now, I said it’s a true story, but it definitely needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s have a look at his description of the people:

“The average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high…They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.”
(Page 54-55)

Even in a simple physical description, Bourne can’t help adding in a moral judgement. And this is really nothing compared to what else he claims in the book. He tells the story through a very biased lens, but what makes it interesting, and amusing, is that he turns this lens on everyone, not just his captors. Here’s his description of one of the sailors on his ship:

“Our mate, who was a sensible young man, of good education, had two foibles; he was a decided grumbler, and, in his conviviality, he was a little too far from total abstinence.”
(Page 211)

Whilst the accuracy could be called into question, the book gives a glimpse of life (both the Tehuelche’s and Bourne’s) that is fascinating and entertaining. It was the perfect book to read whilst I sailed on the Navimag Ferry through the endless islands of southern Chile.

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It wasn’t until I got to Bolivia that I found the perfect companion book. “Tierra del Fuego” by Sylvia Iparraguirre, is based on real historical events that took place in the 19th century. It’s almost the exact opposite of Bourne’s story as here Iparraguirre chronicles the kidnapping of a Yámana boy, Jemmy Button, by Europeans and the ultimate consequences of this action.

Although narrated by a fictitious historical character, it’s written with a very modern sensibility and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the cultural superiority and colonialist attitudes exhibited by Bourne.

“Two years later in England, when Button was..speaking English fluently, I learned..that the impression I had made on him during those first weeks had been rather unflattering…It would have amused his people to see how someone so proud of what he knew..would turn into a know-nothing as soon as they left him on land…I was offended, but Button was right.”
(Page 66-67)

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The narrative doesn’t always flow well, but knowing the eventual outcome of when Button was returned to his native land, made me keep reading to see how all the events led up to this. It also sent me to Wikipedia afterwards to learn more – something that a good historical novel should do, in my opinion.

The two books together give a great introduction to this period of history in Patagonia. I was fascinated with the artifacts and black and white photos in the museum in Bariloche, but with only Spanish labeling it was hard to understand everything. These two books gave me a different kind of understanding of these people and their way of life.

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