A ship and a harbour

Wenja: ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or the blade of a knife’—‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’—‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’—‘to swing, move or travel’—‘to exist or be’
—Yaghan-English Dictionary compiled by Rev Thomas Bridges (1898)

This definition from the Yaghan language is read by Bruce Chatwin, sitting in the Bridges’ family farmhouse in Tierra del Fuego, and recorded in the famous tale of his journey through Patagonia. Something in the word wenja speaks to why I was making my own way through South America, 30 years after Chatwin, and more than 100 after Bridges arrived. To be loose, to wander about, to roam, to move—these ideas have always seemed to me fundamental to what it is to exist, to be.

Stationariness, by contrast, rings of death. One house, one job, one country—how on earth do people manage it? How can they possibly choose one place in which to sate all their curiosity of the world, one home in which to house all their myriad selves? So I have long thought to myself with incredulity and, not uncommonly (broke, sick, longing for absent family and friends), a stain of envy. Yet there is comfort to be taken in the nobility of like-minded precursors. Pascal wrote that all man’s unhappiness stems from his inability to remain quietly in a room. Rimbaud ran off to Africa, Robert Louis Stevenson to the South Seas, and Chatwin to Patagonia. In my own smaller way, in the decade since I finished university, 24 months is the limit I have stayed in any one place at a time. The interest always has been to travel as far and as wide as funds would allow—Turkey, Morocco, Russia, Japan, Europe, and then last year through South America, the longest period yet of just wandering about, roaming, moving, being.

There, after seven months, I read a reference to the Jesuit missions in south eastern Bolivia. A sentence about operas performed ‘in the Bolivian wilderness’ took hold and I decided to go and see for myself. The image called up by the guidebook had reminded me of Fitzcarraldo—the maniacal 19th-century Irishman, obsessed by the vision of building an opera house in the Amazon. My partner and I had seen Fitzcarraldo’s own house, now a glaring electronics store, on the plaza at Iquitos, a city whose heat and utter isolation (no roads have yet penetrated its encircling jungles and rivers) still produce a kind of insanity in foreigners. I knew of Fitzcarraldo’s story because it had become the provocation for another epic—the film Fitzcarraldo by German director Werner Herzog. This film, in turn, was the subject of a documentary, The Burden of Dreams, in which Herzog is shown driven to the point of madness by the physical difficulties of shooting in such a location (heat, disease, helicopter crashes, a sudden border war), the Indian cast’s blithe obliviousness to his will, and the antics of his star Klaus Kinski (whom one Indian eventually offers to kill on Herzog’s behalf). Staring frenziedly into the camera, Herzog pronounces the jungle evil, its rapacity and fecundity overwhelming another Kurtz. But, in truth, he more closely resembles Fitzcarraldo: the imaginations of both ultimately victorious in their battle with reality. Again and again it seems that the South American continent has incited such leaps from sense and logic (who would try and haul a steamboat over a mountain to fund an opera house, and who would try to re-create that for a film?) into a mad grandness of vision, an extremity of purpose. When I went to visit the Bolivian missions, their exquisite carved angels hemmed in by buzzing green jungle, and then later the mammoth stone ruins of the missions scattered around Paraguay and Argentina, it was clear that the Jesuits shared Fitzcarraldo’s dramatic idealism, only on a much grander scale.

Today, the ambition of the mission project has the air of myth: in our time we are familiar with exile, a fleeing from political and economic exigencies, but not that kind of visionary going to. We live in a quieter age, where such strivings seem the stuff of fiction rather than real life, and it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the experience of those individual men, boarding boats in Italy and Germany and disembarking months later to head for the jungle, with their crucifixes and grammars, aiming to revolutionise a culture.

For isn’t that, and nothing less, what missionaries want? In one sense, evangelisation in South America was as simple as this: one group of people had certain religious beliefs and practices and another group wanted to destroy these and replace them with their own. The judgment we make of this goal is guided primarily by our own status as believers or not—or, as in my case, reformed believers. I was raised in a big, strong Catholic family and though I haven’t considered myself a ‘member of the church’ since a teenager, like many in the same position I doubt I’ll ever fully separate myself from it, ever manage to be immune to its teaching or its history. The Catholic Church concerns me; and if I’m the first to critique it to its followers, I’m also the first to defend it to detractors from ‘outside’. As someone with one foot in the church, as it were, and one outside, visiting the missions challenged me to assess their history; it was, after all, a part of the legacy passed on to me in suburban Brisbane. I felt compelled to consider what may have been the realities of conversion, even while beguiled by the poetry of the missions’ ‘operas in the wilderness’, the beautiful extravagance of their conception.

There was a 92-year-old matron I lunched with in Buenos Aires who assured me that evangelisation was for ‘the good of the Indians’, bringing as it did ‘true religion’ and a ‘superior culture’, but I met others with a more reflective understanding. Margaret Hebblethwaite, whose regular columns in The Tablet chronicle her life in the former Paraguayan mission town of Santa Maria de Fe, argues passionately that the Jesuits preserved indigenous culture and protected it from the brutalities of colonisation. As an example, she credits the Jesuits with the continuance of the Guarani language. In fact, the Jesuits constructed a ‘Guarani’ based on the variety of related languages spoken by indigenous groups coming into the missions in the 17th century, but it is certainly due to them that this indigenous-based tongue is, along with Spanish, an official language in Paraguay today. With the intention of keeping the Indians safe both from the moral vices of the colonisers and their slave-raiding parties, the mission system was built around a philosophy of cultural apartheid—non-Jesuit visitors could only spend a few days at the missions and were confined to dwellings at their boundaries. Hebblethwaite contends that as a result the Jesuits kept the indigenous culture ‘pure’ while at the same time ‘offering’ their religious beliefs.

It is clear that she speaks from a place of deep faith, and there is no denying the benefits that her own work in Santa Maria has brought to its community, but this interpretation of mission history fails to convince me, a non-believer. Culture and religion cannot be so easily divorced, most especially among indigenous people such as the Guarani and Chiquitos, for whom religion was not the separate sphere it is today in the industrialised world, but fully integrated into kinship structures, political organisation, and economics. To assault a religion, therefore, was to assault a culture. The mission system may have helped protect Indians from the worst excesses of colonisation but it also served the colonial project: converted Indians ceased to be a military threat and their lands and labour could be put to the service of the empire. Travelling through South America it also became clear that indigenous peoples were given little choice by the Spanish and Portuguese colonisers when it came to conversion. The anthropologist Guillermo Wilde, whom I met in Buenos Aires, says there was a stark distinction between Indians who converted and those who kept their own beliefs: the former survived.

For those, like Hebblethwaite, who believe that Christianity is a gift, it is perhaps impossible to give the weight I do to these other considerations. It is true that by the standards of their time the Jesuits behaved commendably—they worked for the best interests (as they saw them) of the Guarani and Chiquitos, rather than for personal gain—but that cannot mitigate the fact that, like all missionaries, they went not to discover but to conquer. I find it impossible to celebrate this history as a story of salvation, but nor can I condemn the missions from a modern anthropological perspective. Given what the Jesuits believed, could they have acted otherwise? Rather than suggesting a superiority to those 16th-century travellers, my exploration of mission history expanded my understanding of the complexity and confusion always present in the encounter between different cultures.

When visiting the former missions and researching their history, a void appears; in the centre of all you are learning a great absence simultaneously grows: how did the Indians experience mission life? If it is hard now to imagine the reality of the priests, then how much more difficult it is for us to sense what it may have been like for the Guarani and Chiquitos, leaving a nomadic life of communal ownership in the jungle, and submitting to Jesuit discipline and ideology in towns of up to 6000 people. Unlike the missionaries, these new converts didn’t leave written records. They did, however, produce extraordinary art that, although modelled on imported European forms, carries traces of a different mindset: Christs with brown skin, angels with Indian features, church ceilings painted with giant golden suns. Scholars are now working to discover the ways in which indigenous peoples contested and altered the Catholicism presented to them in the 16th century, but the continuing evidence of this religious dialogue is clear even to the non-specialist.

South America is an intensely religious place, and while the majority of people identify as Christian, the vitality and popularity of non-Christian traditions (the worship of other gods, fertility festivals, shamans, the spiritual use of hallucinogens) is striking. Conquest is not such a simple story after all. The Spanish ‘triumphed’, but most South Americans today have Indian blood; the missionaries ‘converted’, but the Catholicism of South America is not the one brought by the Jesuits.

Although today we can see a religious exchange (or, in cases, more properly an argument) that, of course, was not the way the Jesuits experienced evangelisation. The missionaries referred to the Indians as niños con barbas—children with beards—and this paternalism pervades their letters and records. Their chronicles bear witness to the deep cultural gaps separating Jesuit and Indian, of which the missionaries were blind: they could see only the gulf, not the world existing on the other side. One Jesuit, Antonio Sepp, wrote of his exasperation at the Indians being ‘so void of sense and judgment’, and the priests were often at a loss as to how to explain their theology in a way it could be understood. They were confounded, for example, in their attempts to argue from created things the existence of a Creator.

Beset with similar difficulties, Thomas Bridges, the compiler of the Yaghan-English Dictionary, believed indigenous thinking, as expressed in its languages, simply lacked the concepts into which Christian faith could be translated. He despaired ‘of finding in the labyrinth of the particular words to express the intangible concepts of the Gospel’, as Bruce Chatwin puts it. Chatwin argues that the insufficiency lies, in truth, with Bridges, who lacked the subtlety to see the layers of metaphorical association in the Yaghan language, where the word for depression, for example, is that used to describe ‘the vulnerable phase in a crab’s seasonal cycle, when it has sloughed off its old shell and waits for another to grow’, or where ‘sleet’ and ‘fish scales’ are synonyms. This different way of seeing the world is observable too in the few recorded words we have from the Guarani, one of whom responded to the Jesuits’ teaching about heaven by saying ‘Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were wont to contemplate the earth alone, anxious only to see if the plain afforded grass and water for their horses’. This is not simple materialism, as the Jesuits assumed, but a spirituality, like that of the Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego, rooted in the relationships of this world. Chatwin’s examination of the Yaghan language in In Patagonia points to the ways in which another mode of thinking was operating, rather than the ignorance assumed by Bridges and the Jesuits. Centuries of encountering non-European peoples, and the accumulated work of anthropologists and linguists, allow us to appreciate that difference now, but it’s not surprising that the missionaries couldn’t. Yet, Chatwin fails to extend the sympathetic imagination he has for the indigenous mentality to that of the first Europeans travelling to South America.

Charles Darwin’s record of his journey around South America, The Voyage of the Beagle, describes the Indians of Patagonia as ‘the most abject and miserable creatures’ he has anywhere beheld. He confesses that he could hardly believe they were ‘fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world’. Seeing these humans so utterly lacking in what he understood to be defining of humanity—clothing, houses, churches, roast dinners—sowed the seed for Darwin’s theory that modern man evolved from some ape-like species.

In Patagonia condemns Darwin for ‘sneering’ at an indigenous culture, but what I find in The Voyage of the Beagle is genuine incomprehension—how can they sleep out in the cold without any covering? Why do the men allow their women to do such demanding physical labour? Aren’t they all exhausted by the constant up-and-moving from one place to another? The Fuegians are more foreign to Darwin than all the strange animals and plants he catalogues from The Beagle, defying as they do all existing social categories. The life Darwin imagines as one of relentless hardship, exemplified by the sight of a rain-wet baby, held by its naked mother as she curiously watches his boat pass, pains him—his culture shock is the product of human empathy rather than of superiority. Darwin’s journal depicts a man profoundly confronted by the mysteries of another kind of life; yet, at the same time, The Voyage of the Beagle is full of the sympathy that emerges from detailed observation, and is passionately opposed to slavery, the barbarity of which he witnesses in Brazil. Chatwin’s castigations of Darwin result as much from Chatwin’s own a priori privileging of ‘nomadism’ (as exemplified by the Yaghan culture) over the domestic hearth, as from a response to the Victorian naturalist. What I find in Darwin’s discussion of the Patagonian Indians is a paean to all that which the author himself holds dear, and what he is desperately missing in his two years spent sailing the world. Like the Jesuits, Darwin is part of the story of first meetings: two radically different ways of being making contact for the first time. The Voyage of the Beagle also records the Fuegians’ fascinated incomprehension of the Englishmen—their displays of waltzing, their absence of women, and their pernickety care in matters of bathing.

Chatwin writes that while the Yaghans’ language for the seasons and directions was exceedingly detailed, they did not count to five. The Guarani Indians were similarly innumerate, which shocked the Jesuits; believing that numeracy was essential for civilisation and the exact confession of sins, they ordered entire townships to publicly count from one to 1000 in Spanish. Yet, as with Darwin’s descriptions of the Yaghan, I see in it not grounds for retrospective critique, but as evidence of one culture struggling in its own way to come to terms with another.

Which is of course what I was doing in South America too. I was overwhelmed by the richness and colour of its cultural traditions, the endurance of the Andean campesinos, the botanical knowledge of the Amazon, and the willingness of everyone to throw off the hardships of working life with drink and music. But there was frustration and alienation on our part as well. Comfortable ideas of social justice were challenged in a context of endemic poverty, where foreign visitors represent unimaginable riches. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes feeling constantly harassed by the local people, and—sometimes saying ‘no’ to requests, sometimes saying ‘yes’—I shared his exhaustion. But, at the same time, my sense of travelling as a kind of ethical project was strengthened. Seeing how different people live is essential to the formation of a genuine tolerance, an openness to the stubborn ‘thereness’ of other realities. We also met travellers involved in a different kind of journey from the one we were on—thousands of Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians moving north of the Mexican border so that the money they send home from illegal cleaning and restaurant jobs will support their mothers and children, husbands and wives.

Yet, after ten months of moving, the places and the lives we were travelling through began to blur. It was the sense of daily life we glimpsed in Ecuador that led to that old traveller’s paradox—you can only really see a place by staying. Now, back in Australia, my husband and I are imagining children. What will the next decade bring? Does ‘staying quietly in a room’ bring with it a different kind of horizon to explore? The words of the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai have been running through my mind:

To live is to build a ship and a harbour at the same time. And to finish the harbour long after the ship has gone down.  

Sarah Kanowski is a freelance writer and broadcaster. Her documentary on visiting the Jesuit missions in South America was aired on ABC Radio National in May, and can be heard online.



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