Harberton - Past and Present
Postion: Estancia Harberton
Date: 13 December 2011
In the late 19th century, an extraordinary man called Thomas Bridges left England by ship with his young wife, as a missionary bound for Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the Indians of this, the remotest part of the earth. Few people had ventured here. Some of these included Darwin and Fitzroy on their epic voyage on the Beagle. They had found the Indians to be savages, aggressive to white intruders. Undaunted, Thomas Bridges settled here and over the decades, risking the lives of him and his family on a daily basis, developed not only an eventual rapport with the Indians, but brought some to Christianity. However his greatest contribution was to record the way of life of these Indians and to compile a dictionary of their various languages. Later in life he retired from missionary service and the Argentine government in gratitude granted him 50,000 acres of land north of the Beagle Channel on Tierra del Fuego which Bridges named Harberton after the village in which his wife had been brought up in Devon. Thomas and his children almost single-handedly founded, then developed through faith, sheer force of will, and enormous physical fortitude, Tierra del Fuego whilst at the same time being the protectors of the Indians whom they had come to save, and whom they grew to love and respect.
One of Thomas’s sons, Lucas Bridges, wrote a book called “Uttermost Part of the Earth” telling the enthralling story of this episode and chronicling these extraordinary people – both his family and the Indians – and the interaction between them. Sadly, all the Indians eventually succumbed to the murderous aggression and diseases which the subsequent European speculators brought with them and none now exists. But if it had not been for Bridges family, little would have been known about them. Instead we have a rich knowledge of them and their way of life. The book is now out of print in English but good second hand copies can be found on the internet. I commend it to you, because I have found the book totally inspirational, having read and re-read it over the last 35 years since I first met Maria (the Absentee Downstairs Skipper – or DS as she is known to her friends).
My sister, her hubby John and I are now anchored off the house at Harberton on the Beagle Channel – the same original house which was built in England and sent out here as a present from Thomas’s wife’s father, and reconstructed piece by piece.
The names of Bridges and Harberton are revered in Argentina, and particularly in Tierra del Fuego. They are the fabric of the historic culture of the area and Harberton is now a famous tourist attraction. One of the reasons for my previous fascination for the whole story is that Maria has a very distant family connection with the Bridges family. So as we were approaching Harberton I emailed Tommy Goodall, the direct descendant of Thomas Bridges, and his wife Natalie who is a famous naturalist and conservationist, who still own and live in Harberton to say we were arriving by boat and could we come and visit. We received a reply to say we would be very welcome. And indeed we have been made welcome.
We went ashore this morning to be greeted by Tommy and Natalie. We were invited to lunch and spent the meal talking about the family and Harberton in the past and as it is today. The traditional use of the land for farming sheep and cattle is sadly no longer viable – not because of the price of wool or beef is low, but because sheep and cows get stolen. Gangs arrive from the north at night, shoot the livestock, cut off the valuable bits, and load it into the back of their trucks to sell it. The estancia is so vast, there is no way of policing it, so they have packed it in and have developed Harberton as a tourist attraction instead. Visitors now flock in by coach, car and by boat from Ushuaia 55 miles away. Linda, John and I were given a personal tour round the farm and the surrounding forest which is now a nature reserve. The sheep pens and the shearing houses, now empty but for the original equipment, are part of the living museum. Having read so much about Harberton and the family over the years, it has been an enormous pleasure to come here in my own boat and to meet Tommy and Natalie. I just wish the DS could have been here as well.
On another matter, I find that during the non-sailing season, when I am languishing at home planning the next adventure, I tend to put on a little weight, but the moment I am back on the boat it is easily shed again. In cold climes, such as we find ourselves now, the effect is even more pronounced. Though I say it myself, I now have the muscular and fat-free physique of a 20 year old. John, too, has noticed that he is having to put an extra notch in his belt to stop his trousers from falling down. Not so my sister, Linda. Oh, no. For some inexplicable reason the opposite seems to have applied to her. I don’t know whether she’s found the secret stash of Mars Bars, Twix and peanut butter that I’ve stowed beneath her bunk as part of our calorie-rich Antarctic rations, but she’s positively ballooned. She arrived on the boat svelte like, but she now waddles around looking like she’s wearing my Teletubbie suit the whole time. And she’s just about to return home for all the excesses of Christmas. God help her. January’s going to be tough.
Linda has also been blogging this trip on their boats blog: www.blog.mailasail.com/suilven