The curious case of Jemmy Button

Posted: Fri Aug 24 2012

This year's Casa Latin American theatre festival opens with the strange tale of the first Fuegian to arrive in London

At best, you might call it a benevolent gesture, an anthropological experiment born of good intentions. In reality, the story of Captain Fitzroy's first voyage to South America in 1830, where he kidnapped four children to be bought back and 'civilised' in England, was little short of a disaster. The ship's original captain committed suicide. The Fuegian locals - tribal Indians - attacked Fitzroy's crew. One of his young hostages died before the HMS Beagle even docked in Plymouth.

High in drama (though perhaps low on swashbuckling japes), Fitzroy's pre-Darwin days anchor an intriguing new play from Chilean theatre company, Tryo Teatro Banda. The show, 'Jemmy Button', opens as part of the always fascinating Casa Latin American theatre festival, and tells the tale of Fitzroy's most famous test case: the eponymous Button, a 12-year-old boy who became a minor celebrity in nineteenth-century London.

'Going from Patagonia to the second biggest industrial city in the world would have been like going to a different planet, from Earth to the moon,' says Nick Hazlewood, author of 'Savage', a book that charts Button's journey from Tierra del Fuego to England - and then back again; Button was the group's show-off and a social hit, making Fitzroy famous in the process. He was enrolled in a Walthamstow school by the captain and put under the charge of a local vicar. Taking to English society just as Fitzroy had hoped, Button began dressing like a foppish dandy, was shown off in court and met a drunk King William IV. So far, so costume drama romp meets Rudyard Kipling.

What happened next is up for debate among historians: the popular retelling suggests that the remaining two adoptees, Fuegia Basket and York Minster, a petite young girl and a hulking adolescent boy, were less interested in the new life foisted on them. The pair were (apparently) repeatedly caught humping behind bushes. It was because of this that Fitzroy, panicked by the scandal the couple might inflict on his own reputation, decided to set sail for Tierra del Fuego and return all three home.

This mission, just over a year later, included a young Darwin on board for a five-year adventure that famously informed 'On the Origin of Species'. Fitzroy's three were dumped back in the southern cone of Chile with the vague hope that they would spread English 'civilisation' among the natives. But in a community where property was meaningless, Button's clothes were stripped from him and his new tools redistributed; his return to Fuegian ways was inevitable.
'We were immediately drawn to this tale,' says Francisco Sánchez Brkic, company director of Tryo Teatro Banda, who is hoping the piece informs as much as it entertains, 'especially as it opened our eyes to another instance of the traumatic experience that occurs when a conquistador invades the world of an indigenous people'.

The real twist in Button's story came 22 years later, when Christian missionaries landed on the islands and found Button again. Zealous and forceful, they convinced him to bring his family and fellow Fuegians to a new settlement in the Falklands and begin a programme of so-called enlightenment. Moving back and forth between the islands to ferry more recruits, the missionaries landed themselves in major trouble. Tensions brewed, but blinded either by imperialist arrogance or the innate belief they were doing good (or both), the missionaries persisted. In the end, their camp was ambushed and looted, with eight of the Christians slaughtered by indigenous Fuegians. Button, it's understood, took part in the rebellion - a tragic conclusion, agrees Brkic, to Fitzroy's expedition.

'In Chile, no one knows anything about Jemmy Button,' he says. 'But bringing all this to the stage… it has so much fascinating theatrical possibility! The piece is full of music, humour, mime. We wanted to make it suitable for children, so it's a very easy story to follow.'