The Emperor of Patagonia

Who doesn’t enjoy a good story based on real events? I know I do. But more than that, I have learned to appreciate stories inspired by people who have left their mark on history. Such is the case of Julius Popper, a Romanian-born Argentine explorer and slayer of the natives from Tierra del Fuego in southern Patagonia. He has lived for some brief thirty-five years in the second half of the nineteenth century during a time marked by discovery and tragedy alike.
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Julius Popper (1857 – 1893). Source: historiatdf.com.ar

Several works of fiction were inspired by his life, directly or indirectly, including the collection of short stories Tierra del Fuego (1956) by Francisco Coloane, El Corazón a Contraluz (1996) by Patricio Manns, and Popper – La Patagonia del Oro (1999) by Daniel Ares. Coloane’s work is easily accessible for English-speaking readers, but the other two are found mostly in Spanish.

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The jacket for Tierra del Fuego, published in 1956. Source: pinterest.com

Son of a Jewish antiques merchant from Bucharest, he studied in Paris to become an engineer. His career took him to Chile, where he worked on the infrastructure for the telegraph. So far so good. In 1885, however, when we moved to Argentina, Popper’s interest shifted to the undiscovered gold of Tierra del Fuego. The want for the precious metal soon corrupted his mind and subsequent events would immortalize him in history as both a genius and a murderer.

The next year, accompanied by armed men and a mineralogist, Popper led an expedition in southern Patagonia that would make him very wealthy. There he owned a private army and even issued his own coins and stamps as symbols of his dominion over these faraway territories.

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The two faces of a Julius Popper gold coin, weighing 1 gram. Source: romaniancoins.org

Popper is also known for being involved in the genocide of the Selk’nam people, native to Tierra del Fuego. The Selk’nam, also known as the Ona, were the last aboriginals that the European settlers made contact with in South America. The genocide saw their numbers reduced from at least three thousand to five hundred in only a little over a decade. The newcomers had many reasons to want the Ona destroyed, including disputes over gold mining and to stop them from hunting farmed sheep.

Before his sudden death, Popper had plans to claim areas of Antarctica on behalf of Argentina. Some say Popper was poisoned by his enemies from the South. What is certain is that his legacy is both ingenious and terrifying and it serves as a reminder of how far human nature can make us go in the name of progress.

Featured Image Source: Mount Fitz Roy, Patagonia, Argentina by Kenneth Street Photography.
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