August 2009

Historical Metallurgy

The gold rush in Tierra del Fuego

By F. Habashi

The land of fire

The name of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, located near the southern tip of South America, means “Land of Fire” in Spanish. The name dates back to when the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, became the first European to visit these lands in 1520. He believed he was seeing many fires (fuego in Spanish) that the Amerindians had lit for protection against the low temperatures in the area.

The territory of Tierra del Fuego is divided between Argentina and Chile. Located on the Magellan Strait, Punta Arenas (literally in Spanish, “Sandy Point”), is the capital of the Chilean province, while Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentinean province. Until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Punta Arenas enjoyed economic prosperity as a ship supply facility servicing vessels that had to go around Cape Horn.

An eminent visitor

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who was hired as a naturalist for the British Navy research ship HMS Beagle, stayed at Tierra del Fuego from March 1832 to February 1833 and again from January to June 1834. Incidentally, it was during this period, in 1833, that the Falkland Islands were claimed by the British Crown. Darwin spent his time on land exploring and taking notes for his 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle. This detailed scientific journal covered topics as diverse as biology, geology and anthropology.

Darwin’s contact with Fuegians had a tremendous influence on the development of his later ideas on evolution, which were elaborated in his famed volumes, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in 1859 and 1871, respectively.

Golden black sands

News of the existence of gold in Tierra del Fuego can be traced back to a chance discovery in 1882. At that time, Giacomo Bove had mounted preparatory expedition aimed at drawing up plans for a later Italian Antarctic expedition. One of his men gathered a curious “black sand” from a beach in the region. Later, in 1885, the governor of Ushuaia learned about the sand and was so intrigued by its description that he  sent a ship in search of more of the material. When the news spread that the black sand contained gold, a torrent of people poured into the area.

A short-lived gold baron

In 1885, the Romanian-born Julius Popper (1857-1893), who had studied in Paris, arrived in Argentina. In 1886, he settled down in Rio Grande with a number of workers and a small militia. There, he launched a campaign of extermination against the area’s indigenous peoples. Over the course of his three-year campaign, Popper was able to extract 173 kilograms of gold.

A dynamic and well-connected man with excellent relations in Buenos Aires, Popper minted his own gold coins in the Casa de la Moneda of Buenos Aires and even issued his own stamps for use in his fiefdom, Colonia Popper.

Popper’s 1887 lecture at the Argentine Geographical Institute in Buenos Aires, that revealed the depth of his scholarship, was printed and widely circulated. It is now available on the intent ( After his sudden death in Buenos Aires at the age of 35, his empire collapsed. It is believed that he was assassinated in his hotel room.

The history and heritage of Fuegian culture, including the region’s tryst with gold, are now conserved  at the Museo del Fin del Mundo which was founded in Ushuaia in 1979.

Post a comment


PDF Version