The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

A Yahgan for the killing: murder, memory and Charles Darwin


Department of History, Yale University, PO Box 208324, New Haven, CT 06520–8324, USA. Email:


In March 1742, British naval officer John Byron witnessed a murder on the western coast of South America. Both Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy seized upon Byron's story a century later, and it continues to play an important role in Darwin scholarship today. This essay investigates the veracity of the murder, its appropriation by various authors, and its false association with the Yahgan people encountered during the second voyage of the Beagle (1831–1836). Darwin's use of the story is examined in multiple contexts, focusing on his relationship with the history of European expansion and cross-cultural interaction and related assumptions about slavery and race. The continuing fascination with Byron's story highlights the key role of historical memory in the development and interpretation of evolutionary theory.

(Online publication October 20 2011)


  I would like to thank Jon Agar and the BJHS editorial staff for taking a risk on an unusual interdisciplinary project. I am especially grateful to the referees for their generous and detailed critiques. Special thanks are due to Richard Huzzey, Elaine Jackson, Petra Rodriguez, the librarians at the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile and The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. This essay is dedicated to my father, biology teacher and grass-roots ecologist, whose deceptively simple question (‘Do you think it's true?’) led to a fascinating and complex story.