Charles Darwin: ‘I was wrong’

From the archive:

OK, maybe not about evolution. But the celebrated biologist – who made regular donations to a mission agency – did have to revise his opinions on missionaries and ‘the very lowest of the human race’, writes Bob Lunt

Statue of Darwin outside Shrewsbury School (Photo: © SAMS/Peter Rainford)

There can hardly be a turtle in the Galapagos who doesn’t know by now that 2009 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

With it also being the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark Origin of Species, he is in the media spotlight more than ever.

Not widely known, however, is that from 1867 until his death in 1882 Darwin made an annual subscription to the funds of the South American Mission Society (SAMS).

The regular donation was in recognition of the Society’s work in transforming the lives of the Fuegian Indians, the collective name for the tribes of Tierra del Fuego.

Mr Darwin expressed his conviction that it was utterly useless to send Missionaries to such a set of savages as the Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human raceSAMS annual reports used to include names of donors and subscribers, and tucked away in the long list for 1867 is that of ‘Darwin, Charles, Esq., per Admiral Sulivan £5.0.0’.

Sir James Sulivan, a vice-president of SAMS, was a long-time friend of the naturalist and had sailed with him as second lieutenant on the famous voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin had been shocked by the appearance, language (‘scarcely deserves to be called articulate’) and customs of the Fuegians, dismissing them in A Naturalist’s Voyage in these words: ‘I believe in this extreme part of South America man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world.’

However, the vision of Allen Gardiner and the dedicated ministry of Bishop Waite Stirling, Thomas Bridges and other pioneers led to a Christian church among the Fuegians, together with schools and training in farming and useful arts. Bridges compiled a 32,000-entry dictionary of Yahgan, the main language, and was also a correspondent of Darwin’s.

Sulivan later recalled: ‘Mr Darwin had often expressed to me his conviction that it was utterly useless to send Missionaries to such a set of savages as the Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human race.

‘I had always replied that I did not believe any human beings existed too low to comprehend the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.

‘After many years…he wrote to me that recent accounts of the Mission proved to him that he had been wrong and I right in our estimates of the native character and the possibility of doing them good through Missionaries’ (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887).

Thus in 1870 Darwin wrote to Sulivan: ‘The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms [or shames] me, as I had always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society’.

He later added: ‘I certainly should have predicted that not all the Missionaries in the world could have done what has been done.’

On one occasion Stirling reported on the baptism of 36 Fuegians, adults and children, and the marriage of seven couples, the baptised then ‘spontaneously organis[ing] evening worship and [regularly] meeting in each other’s houses for prayer and praise.’

‘Nothing but the grace of God could have accomplished such a marvellous change’, wrote Robert Young in 1900, adding, ‘No one was more astonished and gratified…than Charles Darwin, [whose] subscription to the Society’s funds, continued for many years until his lamented death, was, according to The Spectator [of 26 April 1884], ‘about as emphatic an answer to the detractors of missions as can well be imagined” (Robert Young, From Cape Horn to Panama, 1900).

This article first appeared in Share, the magazine of the South American Mission Society and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Published 18 February 2009
Region
Latin America

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