Keppel Island

A red house in a field on Keppel Island

The South American Missionary Society settlement in the Falkland Islands

In 1855 the schooner 'Allen Gardiner' under Captain William Parker Snow reached uninhabited Keppel Island off the coast of West Falkland. A party of missionaries had come to set up a home base for the Patagonian Missionary Society. The society had been founded a few years earlier by Captain Allen Gardiner. He himself had perished in an attempt to convert the natives of Tierra del Fuego (An archipelago off southern South America) to Christianity. He had left instructions in a journal found beside his body as to how the missionary work should proceed. He envisaged a mission station on the Falklands, to which natives could be brought away from their 'savage' environment for instruction and education.

Snow and the missionary party settled on a site for their settlement beside the sheltered Committee Bay where streams provided abundant fresh water. Over the next two years the missionaries laboured to establish the settlement. They named it Cranmer Station after the Protestant martyr. The mission superintendent was installed in a wooden house on an elevated site, a store was built, gardens were dug and planted, and the farm bailiff had a good stone cottage. Many of these buildings survive, either as foundations or in a few cases as standing structures.

It was four years before the first Fuegians were brought to Keppel. They were Yámana people (sometimes called Yahgans) from the south of Tierra del Fuego and included Jemmy Button who had been taken to England in 1833 by Captain Fitzroy of the 'Beagle'. There Jemmy had learnt English and 'civilised' manners, met the queen and returned eventually to his homeland. Now he stayed with his wife on Keppel for five months before returning home. Despite some setbacks, including the massacre of most of the missionary party at Wulaia in 1859, the mission progressed. Several Indian families and young men stayed for extended periods on Keppel. They were given instruction by the missionaries in Bible studies, the English language, farming, gardening and other crafts. Few traces of their presence now remain, but some Indian arrowheads and fish-spears found there are now kept in the Museum in Stanley. In time the society established several mission stations on the South American mainland and in Tierra del Fuego. Keppel lost its importance as a mission station but flourished as a farm. It continued to provide a healthy income for the society through its abundant production of butter, potatoes and fruit such as currants for the market in Stanley.

During its lifetime well over 150 Fuegians were brought to the settlement. In their homeland, disease and competition for the land from European settlers dramatically reduced the native population. Eventually the society decided to dispose of the settlement and in 1911 it was sold to Dean Bros. of nearby Pebble Island. After changing hands twice more, the farm ceased to operate in 1992. The island is now once again uninhabited, except for its rich and varied wildlife.

The 'Keppel Island Site Guide', with a trail around the settlement, was published in 2002 by the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust. Copies are available from National Museums Liverpool and the Falkland Islands Museum, Stanley, Falkland Islands.