The life and times of a reluctant ambassador

Savage: the life and times of Jemmy Button by Nick Hazlewood (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99)
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The British have long congratulated themselves on the way they mapped the world and brought back exotic flora and fauna to enhance the collections at Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum. They have been less keen to recall their enthusiasm for boiling down the skulls of opponents and sending them home, or for kidnapping aboriginal individuals from North America, Africa and Australia and displaying them as specimens of supposedly inferior cultures to amuse London society.

Nick Hazlewood has written a delightful book based on a famous example of this unappealing practice, recovering the story of four Native Americans brought to London in 1830 from Tierra del Fuego. The man who kidnapped them was Edward FitzRoy, the high Tory captain of HMS Beagle, who later went out to rule New Zealand. Captain FitzRoy's Fuegian Indians, nicknamed York Minster, Boat Memory, Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button, were an ill-assorted group, coming from separate tribes and speaking different languages. Boat Memory died on arrival at Plymouth, probably from the effects of a smallpox vaccination. The others were sent to an evangelical infants' school in Walthamstow. Hazlewood makes a good stab at telling us what a bizarre and "uncivilised" society London must have been at that time, in the throes of an industrial revolution and on the verge of major reform.

The surviving trio were taken to meet the king and queen, but there was trouble from the start. York Minster, aged 29, took a fancy to Fuegia Basket, aged 10. Button, a teenager of 15, became inordinately vain, though he managed to pick up some English. Eventually, after they had stayed in London for just over a year, FitzRoy took them back to the South Atlantic on the Beagle, bringing with him the youthful Charles Darwin as a participant-observer. Hazlewood argues cogently that the Fuegian Indians played a role in the elaboration of Darwin's theories; in The Descent of Man, Darwin indicates that the ghastly behaviour of "savages" reconciled him to the fact that he "would as soon be descended" from a monkey.

FitzRoy, in 1831, had a more practical ambition for the Fuegian trio. The inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego had exhibited their dislike of outsiders since Magellan passed through their waters in 1520. Their rejection of the foreigner had evolved into a desire to take advantage, surrounding anchored ships to steal. Fitzroy, with the optimism of the imperialist, hoped that this might change. The returning Indians would become useful as interpreters and be "the means of establishing a friendly disposition towards Englishmen on the part of their countrymen".

Faint hope! The Fuegians worked to a different agenda. FitzRoy's specimens were poured back into the stream from which he had plucked them, and soon reverted to type, opposing the encroachments of "civilisation". The British were obliged to abandon all hope of a friendly settlement on Tierra del Fuego, and seized the Falkland Islands - which were bereft of troublesome natives.

The second half of Hazlewood's book takes up the story of Jemmy two decades later, when he was kidnapped by missionaries and taken to the ill-fated mission station on Keppel Island in the Falklands. The missionaries dealt even more arrogantly with the Fuegians, and when Button was returned in 1859 he turned against them, almost certainly participating in the slaughter of the captain and crew of the mission ship. Indian resistance spluttered into life, but it could not last. Ranchers and sheep-farmers soon began invading their lands and hunting them down. By the end of the century only a handful survived.

Hazlewood tries to turn Jemmy Button into an emblematic figure, representative of "the potential abilities and intelligence of the wider Fuegian peoples", but this is perhaps too much of a burden for one man plucked out at random. Yet he tells a sad and complicated story well, searching out historical detail and composing a readable account with all the fluency of a novelist.