Adventurous Men & Genocide: Julius Popper

Throughout history, especially colonial history, with its Eurocentric narratives, there have been romanticized concepts of European wanderers: adventurous men who went into the unknown and faced down mysterious forces. For these achievements, most of them gained at least one street with their name on and a pretty reference in the history books.


Nowadays, the paradigms on which knowledge (historical in this case) is questioned, redefined, or at least discussed, means that colonialism and genocide are finally being called by their name.


"Adventurous men," men who went abroad in search of gold - finding it or not - were usually involved on some level with genocide, or at least the exploitation of indigenous groups. One of those "adventurous men" was Julius Popper.


Julius Popper was born in Bucharest, Romania, on December 15, 1857. His father was a merchant named Neftalí Popper, however, there are no formal sources regarding his mother's name or origin. Later, Julius Popper got a mechanical engineering title in France, and, after visiting Japan, Turkey, China, and other regions, Popper went on to help design the outline of the city of Havana, Cuba. After further trips, including one to Brazil, he finally moved to Argentina.

Julius Popper next to the corpse of a Selk'nam, the picture belongs to the The Museum of World Cutlure (Världskulturmuseet)

For context, around 1885, the era of "gold fever" in Argentina reached its peak. Many found gold in Cabo de las Vírgenes, Santa Cruz; which put the remote place in the far south onto the map for a period.


During the gold exploitation in Cabo Vírgenes, many gold seekers began expeditions to search for more gold, which led them to the island of Tierra del Fuego. Tierra del Fuego was an island that was divided in the middle, with a Chilean and an Argentinian side.


Tierra del Fuego was populated by various indigenous groups, including the Selk'nam people, an indigenous group who inhabited the island until the arrival of European landlords, who, sponsored by the Republic of Argentina, committed acts of genocide against indigenous groups.


In 1885, Popper arrived in Argentina (Buenos Aires) for the first time, during the last year of Julio Roca's presidency (a man who is also now identified as genocidal). Roca gave Popper the gold exploitation concession in Santa Cruz, under the name of the Popper y Cía enterprise, and simultaneously, also appointed Popper the technical director of the South Gold Wash Company. Each of these activities were organised under the title of "scientific exploration".


Roca and Popper's ambitions in Tierra del Fuego led to one of the darkest moments for indigenous peoples of the area. The Selk'nam people never gave much importance to gold or other materials, they were more focused on hunting, making alliances between other indigenous groups, and reproducing their practices.

Map of the Popper Expedition of 1887. Isla Grande (Mainland) Tierra del Fuego

By the year 1886, Julius Popper arrived in Tierra del Fuego and immediately started to explore, giving names to the geographic features that he found along the way, many of which still remain today.


Popper also created a paramilitary crew of Croatians, who joined in with both his gold-seeking expedition and the killing of indigenous people. In the words of the Salesian missionary Alberto De Agostini: "They were criminals of the worst kind, well-armed and equipped."


Popper published a document, translated as: 'TIERRA DEL FUEGO, according to the explorations and studies carried out by the Engineer Julio Popper 1886-1891.' In the publication, Popper talks about the geographical features of Tierra del Fuego and the continuous "confrontation" he encountered with the native people there. Popper was celebrated for his genocidal acts on the Selk'nam people, and further established four gold laundries in Tierra del Fuego area.


The most remarkable gold laundry was El Páramo de la Bahía San Sebastián, through which 265,000 grams of gold was extracted in a year. Popper's Bahía San Sebastián project also consisted of the creation of a port in the area, however, it resulted in the deaths of 13 workers who starved to death under Popper's watch.


In the year 1899, Popper mined and created two sets of coins: 1000 1 gram coins and 200 5 gram coins, printed with his name upon them. He also wrote to the authorities in Buenos Aires with the intention of buying another 80,000 fiscal hectares of land on the island of Tierra del Fuego, to add to the 2,500 hectares that he already owned.

Popper's 1 gram coins

It is known that Argentina and Chile, in their beginnings, used to pay a reward for people who arrived carrying indigenous people's ears, tongues, testicles, and women's breasts as a trophy. In order to "improve the race" those same nations invited Europeans to inhabit the lands that were taken from the indigenous peoples. Therefore, gold was not the only factor upon which to blame the genocide, often nations found it easier to kill the indigenous people, rather than "educate them in faith and good customs."


Popper's desire for more land, his coin production, and his paramilitary crew caused friction between him and the Argentinian leaders. The governor of Tierra del Fuego, Mario Cornero, with the increasing friction, even denied Popper access to the 80,000 fiscal hectares that he requested, which would have made Popper's territory the most productive on the island. When Cornero was removed from his position of power in 1893, due to pressures on the national government from Popper, it seemed like Popper was going to finally get what he wanted, but he did not.


Popper suffered a mysterious death in June 5th of 1893, when he was 36 years old. He was found dead in his room in Buenos Aires; the autopsy said he had a "brain collapse" but rumours surrounding the idea that Popper was killed by one of his competitors prevailed.


However, Popper was not the only one involved in the extermination of the Selk'nam people, though what is most outrageous is that Popper had such little self-awareness that he published a book in which he appears posing with the corpses of Selk'nam people, that he and his workers had killed (as can be seen in the article's first image).


The states of Argentina and Chile were also complicit in Popper's atrocities, stopping Popper only when he had "too much power," all the while ignoring his frivolous murdering that occurred before then.


References


- Artistas de Magallanes reconstruyen ruta del genocida Julius Popper, uno de los responsables del etnocidio Selknam—El Mostrador. (n.d.). Retrieved 26 December 2021, from https://www.elmostrador.cl/cultura/2020/10/12/artistas-de-magallanes-reconstruyen-ruta-del-genocida-julius-popper-uno-de-los-responsables-del-etnocidio-selknam/

- Austin Whittall. (2020). Cabo Vírgenes, Ruta 40. http://www.turismoruta40.com.ar/cabovirgenes.html Facundo Di Genova. (n.d.). Julio Popper, el “rey de la Patagonia” que exterminaba nativos y tuvo un final trágico y misterioso—LA NACION. Retrieved 26 December 2021, from https://www.lanacion.com.ar/sociedad/julio-popper-el-rey-de-la-patagonia-que-exterminaba-nativos-y-tuvo-un-final-tragico-y-misterioso-nid22072021/

- Julio Alvarez. (n.d.). Julio Popper, el dudoso explorador acusado de perpetrar un genocidio en Tierra del Fuego. Retrieved 26 December 2021, from https://www.labrujulaverde.com/2018/02/julio-popper-el-intrepido-aventurero-acusado-de-perpetrar-un-genocidio-en-tierra-del-fuego


Image References

- Mora, G. (2004). MARCAS VIOLENTAS: COLONIALISMO, MUERTE Y SEXO EN EL CORAZÓN A CONTRALUZ DE PATRICIO MANNS. Revista Chilena de Literatura, 64. https://doi.org/10.4067/S0718-22952004000100007

- Popper y la Historia el Oro. (n.d.). Retrieved 26 December 2021, from http://historiatdf.com.ar/popper.htm

- Silvana García Tironi. (n.d.). Enterreno | Fotos históricas de Chile. Retrieved 26 December 2021, from https://www.enterreno.com/blogs/el-genocidio-del-fin-del-mundo




Author Photo

Melisa Silva

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