Bruce Chatwin's passage about his visit to Ro Grande is a melancholy sketch of Western peoples' domination over native Patagonians. When the Tierra del Fuego Indians encountered Roman Catholic missionaries, they forfeited their hunter-gatherer lifestyles for "material advances" and the Christian religion. Chatwin briefly characterizes the self-sufficient Indian groups in contrast to an idle Catholic priest, creating a sense of injustice and loss. Evidence of hybridization and genetic pollution at the end of the passage only adds to the melancholic tone.

A young priest from Verona came with the key. The museum was housed in the old Mission Church. The Indians of Tierra del Fuego were the Ona and the Haush, who were foot hunters; and the Alakaluf and the Yaghan (or Yàmana) who were canoe hunters. All were tireless wanderers and owned no more than they could carry. Their bones and equipment decayed on glass shelves — bows, quivers, harpoons, baskets, guanaco capes — set alongside the material advances brought by a God, who taught them to disbelieve the spirits of moss and stones and set them to petit-point, crochet and copy-book exercises (examples of which were on display).

The priest was a placid young man with droopy eyelids. He passed his time watching how low a barometer could sink and digging Ona campsites for artifacts. He took me to some green swellings along the shore. Lancing one of these with a spade, he uncovered a purple pie of mussels, ashes and bones.

'Look,' he cried, 'the mandible of an Ona dog.'

The museum housed a stuffed specimen of this ancient, wiry, sharp-muzzled breed, now smothered by the genes of Highland sheepdogs.

Investigating Indian culture in the Mission Church museum, Chatwin frames his narrative from a position within the influential society. However, the narrative reveals Chatwin's sympathy for the Indian's waning culture, calling them "tireless wanderers." Perhaps the most poignant instance of sympathy occurs at the end of the passage, when Chatwin writes that a species of Ona dog was "smothered by the genes of Highland sheepdogs." Like the missionaries pressing their customs and religion upon the Tierra del Fuego Indians, invasive animal species have driven native ones to extinction. The parallel between animals and humans suggests that when Chatwin mentions that a taxidermied Ona dog is on display at the museum, the reader imagines that the Tierra del Fuego Indians are treated with a similar grotesque curiosity.

Questions

1. At the end of paragraph one, Chatwin lists some elements of domesticity, then follows the list with an element of proof. What is the effect of the phrase "(examples of which were on display)?"

2. Look at the single line of direct discourse. How does this characterize the priest? Does this character elicit sympathy from the reader? As much as the extinct Ona dog does? How does Chatwin play with the reader's sympathetic reactions in the passage?

3. How are Chatwin's criticisms of Christianity like or unlike Carlyle's, Ruskin's and Johnson's? Is his treatment of religion more like Carlyle or more like Wolfe?

4. In this passage, Chatwin's travel writing is fueled by his reading of a non-textual event (items at the museum and the Ona campsite). Does this fit into the genre of writer-as-reader or is it something else?

Bibliography

Chatwin, Bruce.In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.


Victorian Web Overview discusson questions

Last modified 31 October 2007