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10 September 2016

Where is the end of the World?

I visited “The End of the World” last month and this is what I discovered…
Ushuaia, better known in Argentina as “The end of the world”, is located on the Argentinian side of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Tierra del Fuego (as some may not know) is an island, located at the southernmost tip of South America, surrounded by the Martial Mountains and the Beagle Channel. It is shared by Argentina and Chile and is known for its dramatic landscape of snow covered mountains, glaciers and windswept forests.

Ushuaia was founded by British missionaries in 1870 and it is regarded as the southernmost city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica.

In the past, Ushuaia was established by one of the presidents of Argentina, as a penal colony for those considered to be the most dangerous prisoners in Argentina. Nobody ever managed to escape the island, some tried and died, others even came back to the prison after they had escaped, begging to be let back inside, so as not to die of cold and hunger.

The prison was constructed by the prisoners themselves and in incredibly low temperatures for half of the year.

A steam railway was built by the prisoners to connect the prison with the rest of the town, which at that time was very small. The steam engines were brought all the way from England and South Africa.

The tribe who wore almost nothing in temperatures as low as -21°C !

Before Ushuaia was a prison, on the island of Tierra del Fuego there used to live a tribe, known by the British as the Fuegians. Their original name was the Yaghans.
Charles Darwin cited the Fuegians as evidence to support his two-fold thesis, that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped” and that “we are descended from barbarians”.

So who were the Fuegians, and why did Darwin regard them the way he did?

The Fuegians were the original of four tribal groups, who inhabited the islands of Tierra del Fuego, which means “land of fire”.

The members of this tribe used to wear only small pieces of leather cloth to cover their lower private parts and nothing else. Let’s keep in mind that in Winter, which last 6 months of the year in Tierra el Fuego, temperatures vary between -21°C (lowest recorded) and -10°C

So, surely the Fuegians would have been very cold and suffering without clothes? How could they survive? That is certainly what British explorers thought when they saw the Fuegians for the first time.

On their second visit, the British brought the Fuegians clothes, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of existence for this tribe.
When they were given clothes they started dying from all kinds of illnesses caused by the lack of hygiene which was the result of them wearing clothes.

The explorers thought that the only way to save them would be to bring them back to England and try to help them have a more “civilized“ life. Some were used as souvenirs, others exhibited in Museum shows, but at the end, they all died from other illnesses they caught in England.

So, in the end, by trying to help these people by making them live more like us, we actually managed to wipe out a tribe who had been coping much better before we came along.

Who are we to decide that what we call civilized is the best for everyone and will make everyone happy?

Mili Ponce

Mili is a keen traveller, a dreamer and occasionally attempts to be a writer. Originally born in Argentina she is a citizen of the world.