The genocide of indigenous people in southern Chile that official history tried to hide

Héctor Cossio

After several years of research in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, the Spanish historian José Luis Alonso Marchante published the book “Menéndez. Rey de la Patagonia”, the definitive text – according to experts on the subject – on the truth of the extinction of the Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego, which in fact was an extermination ordered by José Menéndez, the large landowner in southern Chile, about whose family there are two museums in Punta Arenas, and who is credited with the economic development of the region.

Last year the Spanish historian José Luis Alonso Marchante found in the National Library of Spain the original text of Thirty Years in Tierra del Fuego, by the Salesian missionary, great naturalist and expeditionary Alberto de Agostini. With this book in his hands, the historian found that in the current reissues of the text, including the one made in 2013, there were missing paragraphs and not just any. In the censored texts, the missionary was implacable: the extinction of the Selk’nam people in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia was not the work of their “ignorant gluttony”, “war between tribes” or the product of their “miserable physical structure”, as dictated For many years the official history, but rather the product of extermination and hunting, ordered by a single man: José Menéndez, the great landowner from the extreme south of Chile.

“Explorers, ranchers, and soldiers had no scruples in unloading their mausers against the unhappy Indians, as if they were beasts or game”, reads one of the censored paragraphs (De Agostini, 1929: 244).

Alberto de Agostini

Alberto de Agostini

This finding along with other important testimonies are contained in the Menendez book Rey de la Patagonia (Editorial Catalonia), recently launched in Chile and which, according to expert historians on Patagonia, such as Osvaldo Bayer, would become “the definitive book on the truth that occurred in southern Chile and Argentina”.

“There were two things that impacted me in the investigation: the genocide of an entire town (the Selk’nam) in the middle of the 20th century and the tragic fate of the workers (also massacred) who worked in those estancias”, says Alonso Marchante, almost at the beginning of the conversation with Cultura + Ciudad, in which he explains without euphemisms the nature of the criminal responsibility of who was also the grandfather of Enrique Campos Menéndez, Pinochet’s favorite writer and editor of the military proclamations of the coup.

The censorship

The censorship in De Agostini’s text, explains Alonso Marchante, was rather a self-censorship that the religious applied to his books after the Congregation was pressured by the power of Menéndez to change history and exonerate the largest landowner in the country from the massacre. southern Chile, who accumulated one of the greatest fortunes in Latin America with the wool trade.

“The first Salesians did not deny the massacres, the first, like Faganno and De Agostini, were people who were on the ground, who built the missions out of nowhere, and in their newspapers, they published how the indigenous were being exterminated. It happens that later on there was a change in the historiography of the Salesians. Those who come later are already subject to the economic power of the Menéndez family, so the history of colonization is rewritten there, and there they maintain that the Indians simply disappear without the farmers’ mediation”, explains Alonso.

The motivation for researching the role of Menéndez and his descendants in Chile was born almost by chance. One day, he says, walking through the Asturian Museum in Buenos Aires, he found a bust of José Ménendez. He had never heard a word from him, despite the fact that the historian is also Asturian. In his native region, Alonso did not find a street bearing his name, but he did find a school –founded at the beginning of the last century–, which was the way the “indianos” had (as the European settlers who traveled to America are known) of giving back to his country the fortune achieved in his adventures.

“More than 350 schools were built in Asturias, in the first decades of the twentieth century, and among them is that of José Menéndez in Miranda, which bears his name”, says Alonso, thus highlighting the starting point of a history marked by the fortune, cruelty, and lies.

The Menéndez empire

In the Magallanes Region, specifically in Punta Arenas, the Menéndez family mansions are preserved in the form of museums, giving an account – through their splendor – of the golden age of this region.

The book explains that Menéndez, after a brief stay in Cuba, arrived in our country in 1868. In a short time, he received thousands of hectares as a benefit from the Chilean government for colonization in the south. The idea was to bring economic development to the area and establish indigenous reserves. In those years Mauricio Braun, another immigrant, had also received thousands of hectares, the same as Julius Popper in Argentina.

Alonso Marchante says that, as part of a large investment, the Menéndez and Braun families are united through the marriage of their children, and Popper’s lands, after a strange death due to alleged poisoning, are ceded to Menéndez, the latter becoming the owner and lord of all Chilean and Argentine Patagonia through the Sociedad Explotadora Tierra del Fuego.

The economic empire, which came to add banks and shipping companies, had its origin in the sheep wool trade, which they sold to England in exchange for pounds sterling. In the insertion of the sheep in the area and consequent displacement of the guanaco, an animal that inhabited those areas, there is – according to the book – the origin of one of the largest massacres of indigenous people and that had all the editorial power of those years to cover up the genocide.

The extermination of the Selk’nam

“As the sheep frontier began to advance because all the wealth of the economic dynasties was sustained by the wool cattle”, says the historian, “more and more land began to be required to end up settling in the Selk’nam territory”.

Upon settling in the area, the land is divided by barbed wire, and the guanaco – the Onas’ main food and shelter – is cornered towards higher ground.

“Once the guanaco disappears, the Selk’nam begin to go hungry. When they notice the appearance of the sheep, they begin to feed on this animal and they understand it as something absolutely natural, they do not know very well how those sheep have appeared there. They did not even know the concept of property”, explains the historian.

Group of "Indian hunters" from one of the ranches in Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia Institute)

Group of “Indian hunters” from one of the ranches in Tierra del Fuego (Patagonia Institute)

“When the Selk’nam begin to attack the sheep, José Menéndez gives the order to kill them. They do it first by shooting them directly to exterminate them, and with the women and children, there is a hunt. They hunt them and then offer them in the public squares”, says Alonso, who states that all this is much later than the exhibition of indigenous people as circus pieces, in what was called “human zoos”.

The Menéndez family, especially José Menéndez – the historian remarks – were the instigators of the massacre. “José Menéndez appointed a Scotsman named Alexander Mc Lennan (The Red Pig) as foreman and administrator of his ranch, who was the greatest killer of indigenous people and recognized by himself. He received direct orders from José Menéndez, he was his employee”.

In the book it is argued that for each indigenous dead, Menéndez paid one pound sterling, so that in the fortune that this Scotsman had, the number of indigenous people killed could even be calculated and that, according to the versions of other historians, he could estimated at several hundred, if not thousands.

“When Mc Lennan retired, José Menéndez gave him a very expensive watch in gratitude for all those services”, he says.

The official story

“I managed to contact a great-grandson of Alexander Mc Lennan, who told me that it cannot be said that it is okay to kill Indians, but that, thanks to what his grandfather and José Menéndez did, today there are no indigenous people in Tierra del Fuego, so that there are no problems. And they tell me that in the middle of 2014”, the historian recalls with amazement.

For many years, the official story told was intended to hide the crimes, which were even celebrated as a sport.

Selk´nam at Mission San Rafael

Selk´nam at Mission San Rafael

In 1971, the historian and descendant of the clan, Armando Braun Menéndez, spokesman for the ranchers, points out that their eating habits were the cause of death of the indigenous people. “It was frequent to observe next to the remains of a whale, the corpses of the natives who, arriving late to the feast, had been victims of their ignorant gluttony” (Braun 1971: 135). He insists on the subject to such an extent that he writes that “their physical build was so miserable that they couldn’t even bear their own climate”.

This absurd conjecture –explains Alonso in his book– collided with the forceful response of the Swiss ethnologist Jean-Christian Spahni, who points out: “My investigations around the inhabitants have shown me that the genocides had really existed and that they were caused precisely by the owners of the rooms that Armando Braun tries to defend”.

Enrique Campos Menéndez

Enrique Campos Menéndez

Another of the landowners’ heirs, Pinochet’s favorite writer, Enrique Campos Ménendez, even goes so far as to express his doubts about possible cannibalism of the Selk’nam, a question that, at the time of his words, no one even dared to mention.

The official history of denial of the genocide tries so hard that another of the heirs, Eduardo Braun Menéndez, manages to force – it is narrated in the book – “the scientist Alexander Lipschutz (1969 National Science Award) to eliminate any reference to the hunting of indigenous people, as a preliminary step to publish his essays in the Science and Research magazine, directed by José Menéndez’s grandson”.

Tragic Patagonia

In addition to the extermination of the Onas, Alonso’s book touches on another sensitive topic in Patagonia, which has to do with the massacres of more than 1,400 Chilean workers in 1921.

These crimes were collected in a book called La Patagonia Tragica, published in Argentina in 1928 by José María Borrero. In this book, written without scientific rigor, there was a complaint on every page and soon it became a myth when it disappeared from the bookstores. A second text, presumably called “Orgías de sangre” and which, according to myth, recounted the murders of 1921, became a legend after ensuring that the manuscript had been stolen and burned.

Chilean day laborers taken prisoner by the Argentine Army in the 1921 strikes

Chilean day laborers taken prisoner by the Argentine Army in the 1921 strikes

Part of that story was collected with scientific seriousness by Osvaldo Bayer, who published La Patagonia rebelde, in 1972, a non-fiction testimonial book that dealt with the struggle carried out by anarcho-syndicalist workers in rebellion in the province of Santa Cruz, in Patagonia. Argentina, between 1920 and 1921. This story began as a strike against the exploitation of the workers by their bosses, later repressed by the Army under the command of Lieutenant Héctor Benigno Varela, sent by then-President Hipólito Yrigoyen.

“Hundreds of farm laborers were shot, most of them Chileans, but also Asturians, Argentines, Germans, Italians. Those are the two great tragedies in this story, I think we can’t see this story with a smile because it is a tragic history, because the peoples that inhabited these lands for millennia disappear in a brutal way and there is also a savage repression on the laborers who worked in the ranches”, maintains Alonso Marchante, from whose book Bayer himself acknowledges that “after this collection from the evidence, no one will be able to point out that the critical versions that emerged as the events occurred were exaggerated or purely imaginative”.

– As a historian, do you think that the Chilean State is responsible for these massacres?

– The peons were shot by the Argentine Army, but the majority were Chilean, and the Chilean authorities not only did not raise their voices but also collaborated with the Argentine authorities in silence. This was demonstrated by Osvaldo Bayer a long time ago when he discovered how the Chilean police themselves took the laborers to Argentina, where the Army of that country shot them. It is true that these events occurred almost a century ago, but states must acknowledge it. In Argentina, in the area where the shootings took place, in each barracks where there was a detention center there are plaques that identify that people were killed in that place and in that barracks. I don’t know what tributes the Chilean authorities have paid to those laborers.


This post was translated from:

Cossio, H. & Oliveros T. (2014) ‘El genocidio de indígenas en el sur de Chile que la historia oficial intentó ocultar’, El Mostrador, Santiago, 13 August. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2020).

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1494 Christopher Columbus founded the city of Concepción de la Vega (Dominican Republic), on the island of Hispaniola.
1524 Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded the city of Granada (Nicaragua), one of the first on the American mainland.
1537 The Spanish captain Alonso de Cáceres founded the city of Comayagua, Honduras, in New Spain, with the name of villa de Sta Mª de la Concepción de Comayagua.
1548 The Spanish captain Alonso de Mercadillo founded the city of Loja, Ecuador, in the viceroyalty of Peru.
1659 The city of Paso del Norte was founded in New Spain and would later be divided into El Paso (United States) and Ciudad Juarez (Mexico).
1709 Jesuit Lucas Caballero founded the mission and town of Concepción (Chiquitos) in curent Bolivia.
1744 The city of Copiapó (Chile) was founded by Governor José Manso de Velasco, with the name of San Francisco de la Selva de Copiapó.

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