Posts Tagged ‘Yahgan’

Lucas Bridges: The Uttermost Part of the Earth

November 11, 2014

5196kYhPYsL._AA160_Well, I never imagined I would describe a book about sheep farming in Argentina as fascinating, but this one certainly was. First off, since I moan so frequently about maps in travel books, I will acknowledge that the maps in this volume are excellent: clear, and a decent scale. Obviously they were taken from the original 1948 publication of this book.

I’ve never really understood Christian missionaries setting off to prosyletise in the back of beyond either, but they often write very well about the people and places they encounter, and The Uttermost Part of the Earth starts with the author’s father establishing the first mission to the pagan tribes of Tierra del Fuego, on the very tip of South America. The tribes, the Yahgan and the Ona, are primitive and savage, and in the end not terribly interested in Christianity – they seem to have no gods or religion at all, only some superstitions and rituals –  and the father gives up being a missionary, but raises his family and develops settlements where life is hard, sheep are raised, the land is gradually settled, and in some ways the lives of the natives are improved. However, the writer acknowledges that the encroachment of the white races, as Argentina and Chile gradually claim and fill up their territories, leads to the inevitable extinction of the tribes.

The writer, however, is increasingly fascinated by the natives, learning their unbelievably complex languages, and sharing their lives, habits and rituals, often risking life and limb as he becomes unintentionally embroiled in some of their internecine feuds. He grows up among them and knows no other way of life; he relishes the adventures and takes all the hardships in his stride as a young man. He describes the lives of the settlers and the tribes in great detail, and, for someone writing about events over a century ago, is very open-minded and non-judgemental about what he encounters. At this level, the book becomes quite compelling, and once again I had the feeling of real explorers (Europeans, yes) discovering somewhere and exploring it for the first time, enduring genuine hardship and privation when they could have been somewhere a lot more comfortable. Clearly, you can’t avoid the ‘what on earth are Europeans doing there anyway?’ and the issue of colonialism and its deleterious effects.

The writer’s father spent years compiling a dictionary of the Yahgan (or Yamara) language, which was stolen, pirated and didn’t actually see the light of day for over fifty years. Fascinated as I am by weird languages I went straight to the bizarre Christus Rex website, which is the best place I know of to see examples: they have versions of the Lord’s Prayer in about 1700 languages, and sure enough there it was… further research was rather chilling, as one of the two languages (Yahgan and Ona) was listed as extinct, and the other, in 2013, had only one living speaker. As I started off by saying, I was rather more touched and moved by this book than I expected to be.

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