Immediately west of Pebble Island and north of Hill Cove, rarely visited Keppel Island has wildlife including penguins and black-browed albatrosses, no permanent inhabitants, and the most extraordinary history of any offshore island. In the early 1850s, the South American Missionary Society (SAMS) occupied Keppel as part of an ambitious project to make Fuegians abandon their livelihood as mobile hunter-gatherers and become sedentary horticulturalists—evangelizing them, of course, in the process.
Among the inhabitants at Cranmer, as the SAMS settlement was known, was Jemmy Button, history’s most famous Fuegian. Having traveled to England with Captain Fitzroy on the Beagle, learned English, and even met the Queen, Button returned to Tierra del Fuego and resumed his aboriginal ways, though he spent five months on Keppel shortly after it opened. In 1859, in an incident that’s still subject to much speculation, he was implicated in the murder of SAMS missionaries at Tierra del Fuego but acquitted in a Stanley trial.
At remote Keppel, the SAMS operated with little government oversight and even less transparency, leading to suspicions of forced labor and abuse. Many Fuegians died at Cranmer, their graves unmarked, but in all probability crowded living fomented diseases like tuberculosis. In their homeland, living in the open air, the Fuegians survived almost without clothing.
Despite these setbacks, Keppel remained a missionary station until 1898, and while the number of Fuegians decreased, its produce brought substantial income on the Stanley market. Sold in 1911 to Dean Brothers, owners of nearby Pebble, it operated as a sheep farm until 1992.
Cruise ships sometimes stop at Keppel, where a high relief SAMS emblem embellishes the arch of the mission’s woolshed. Several other mission structures are fairly intact, and there remain foundations of several Yámana houses. More recent buildings are in good condition.
Getting to Keppel Island
While it’s hard to reach Keppel other than on cruise ships, because FIGAS planes cannot land unless there is someone there in case of emergency, some locals have spoken of offering boat tours from nearby Pebble Island or Saunders Island, so it’s worth asking around. In conjunction with the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust, the Liverpool Museum has published an excellent, well-illustrated, and laminated Keppel Island Site Guide, available in Stanley.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition