If you want to go to Antarctica, you go to Ushuaia. But you can go there anyway without the sidetrip to the South Pole. It’s the city at the bottom of South America. It’s the city at the bottom of the world.
Magellan Claims Naked Giants Live at South Pole
“One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general [Magellan] sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned…”
Naked Giants – Yes or No?
This story was sensational. “Patagonia” or “Land of the Bigfeet”. People were amazed to hear about this ‘Land of the Giants’. But were they really giants? Not really. Europeans were short. Anyone over six feet would be a giant. Maybe they looked taller because they didn’t wear any clothes.
What Were They Like
These people were nomads. In the winter, they were in the lowlands trying to keep warm. In the summer, they went up into the Andes mountains. They hunted with bolas. They used those bolas on guanacos. The guanacos were llama-like at about 4 feet tall. They ate them. They used their fat to grease their bodies during winter, and used their skin for shelter.
I know. Why did they cover their bodies with primitive Chapstick in the winter? You won’t believe it but these people wore no clothes! Ever. It was a short hop to Antarctica. You would think they would make a llama skin jacket or something, but no. No clothes, just grease.
What they did make was big fires. Not a surprise. They spoke Tehuelche. This language has 20 ways to say, “god, it’s c-c-cold, let’s make a big fire.”
The big fires is what Magellan saw as he came through the Tierra del Fuego or Land of Fire in 1520. He stopped to find out what the big fires were all about. He met some really tall people.
Not All Were Tall
One of the groups around there was the Yámana people. They were more wide than tall and their legs looked short. They were boat people. They made fires in the boat. I’m not kidding. They had a fire going in the middle of the boat. They put rocks and sand in the boat and build a fire on them. Remember that they only wore a loin cloth at the most and you can see why. They had to go hunting for whales and brought fire with them. They probably didn’t use the bolas on the whales.
The Yámana slept in the nude and got up in the nude and stayed nude all their lives. They swan in the nude, at least the women did. The women liked mussels and would dive in the chilly ocean to get them. These women were really were something. They would pull the boat back to shore with the men in it. The men didn’t swim. Sometimes these swimming women kept their babies tied to their heads as they pulled the boat. Crazy, huh?
The Yamani Meet Darwin
In 1832, the Yamani spotted a Beagle. This Beagle had Darwin in it. Darwin was trying to become famous by collecting weird stuff. He talked Captain Robert FitzRoy into taking three young Yamani back to England. He thought they were the ‘missing link’ to primitive man. They sure looked the part hunched up near a fire. Big muscular arms added to the look. I don’t think the young men wanted to go but they did become celebrities and really impressed the King and Queen.
Explorers would do stuff like this back then to prove they weren’t lying. The camera didn’t exist. To their credit, FitzRoy and Darwin did take the fellows back home on another voyage. I wish I could have been there when they tried to explain London to their families. Sure, it would have been in the Tehuelche language, but I could have seen the amazed faces in the light of a big fire as they heard their story.
As storytellers, these guys were great. Trying to protect their people from more outsiders, they told Darwin that the Yamani were cannibals. Not true. But few in Europe wanted to go down there and check this out.
Cannibals or not, Tomas Bridges went there and learned their language. He even talked them into wearing clothes. He never did get them to wash those clothes, though. But, even as Bridges was doing his best, the diseases the Europeans always brought with them were making the Yamani sick and many died.
In 1871, Tomas Bridges junior was born there, the first non-Fuegian baby. The Yamani immediately wanted to cover the baby with guanaco grease. I don’t know if he let them.
Argentina Beats Chile
Up until 1881, Argentina and Chile were still fighting over who owned Tierra del Fuego. But now, they had to decide. Why? Because someone was spreading the story that there was gold. Argentina and Chile agreed to divide it up and go for the gold.
In 1881, miners started showing up to find this gold because of a guy named Ramón Serrano Montaner. He said there was a lot of gold in the streams and river beds of Tierra del Fuego.
By 1884, there were so many new settlers, Argentina sent Comodore Augusto Laserre to plant the Argentine flag and let everybody know it was theirs. Since Ushuaia was the only part that even looked like a city, it was made the new capital of Tierra del Fuego.
Julius Popper was from Romania. He was going to do it right. He got the Argentine government to grant him rights to any gold he found in Tierra del Fuego. He got some of the gold and decided Tierra del Fuego needed something more. He opened a bank. He coined some money to put in it. He opened a post office. He made up some stamps to use. He even had his own small private army for anyone who said different about this stuff. Soon all kinds of businesses were opening. People like bakers and shoe makers opened shops.
The Prison of No Escape
The native people got the worst of it as more foreigners came in. The cannibal story couldn’t hold back the treasure seekers. The missionaries moved the surviving natives to the Salesian Mission of Dawson Island. This did not help much, though the missionaries meant well.
In 1902, the British built a prison on an island near Ushuaia, the Carcel de Ushuaia. There was no escape from this star-shaped prison. It had no outside walls. It didn’t need them. Dangerous prisoners, both men and women, worked off their time as lumber jacks or jills. To escape? Just cross the ice cold waters of the Beagle Channel, climb the Andes Mountains, and cross the endless desert on the other side. Only two prisoners ever escaped the prison and didn’t get far.
Prison Turns Museum
Ships brought supplies and picked up the cut wood. In 1947, the prison was closed. You can go there now and see the museum. You can visit the prison cells and learn about how the prisoners lived and about all the other people who lived there many years ago.
The Convict Train cuts a horseshoe loop through the Pipo River Valley. Inmates used it to haul the wood they cut to heat their cells. Now you can ride the End of the World Train (Tren del Fin del Mundo), the southernmost railway in the world.
Last Stop to Antarctica
In the late 40s, people became obsessed with finding out about Antarctica. Ushuaia seemed the perfect place to start an expedition. Ushuaia became well known to the scientists and explorers who got their supplies for a hop down to the continent hidden under the ice and snow.
Today, cruise ships stop at Ushuaia while crossing between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. The prison island also has the Base Naval Ushuaia Almirante Berisso, open since in 1950.
In 1974, Angela Loij, one of the last Onas who spoke the language, died.