The Land of Fire archipelago or Tierra del Fuego is divided into the Argentinean section in the east, and the Chilean to the west. At the time when Magellan accidentally sailed into the pass between the Land of Fire and the continent, the island was inhabited by the Ona or Selk’nam native tribes. They were nomads, and they depended on the wild guanaco, which they used as source of food and fur. They worshiped their supreme being Temaukel, which existed since time immemorial, and has maintained the universe and all moral laws. It is believed that they came from the north because, unlike the Yagan and Alacalufe tribes, they neither fished nor sailed. The native tribes kept a constant fire going, and this was the first thing that Magellan saw when he sailed in at night, which is where the island got the name Tierra del Fuego, which literally translates to land of fire. There were traces of footprints wrapped in fur left behind in the snow. The word for a large foot is ‘patagon’, which is how the entire area got the name Patagonia, and it encompasses a much larger area than the southern Argentinean and Chilean regions. The Selk’nam lived in this area for 6,000 years. According to notes from Alejandro Canas, there were 3,000 of them in 1896, 279 in 1945, and only 25 by 1945. There are no remaining survivors of the tribe today. Until the arrival of white men, Patagonia was home to some 12,000 natives across the various tribes, and their average lifespan was around forty years.[1]




Lago Fagnano and the Sierra Valdivieso mountain chain, with Selk'nam houses by the lakeside

     White people began to colonize the Land of Fire at the end of the 19th century; they were sailors, explorer, missionaries, colonizers, and those that had heard there was gold there. Particularly noteworthy among them is Julio Popper (1857 – 1893), a Romanian Jew, son of a Hebrew professor from Bucharest, who came to the land of fire in 1886 and obtained a license from the Argentinean government in Buenos Aires to explore the territory[2]. He found large quantities of gold, and even had his own coins minted. When the Argentinean peso crashed on the market in 1890, Popper’s gold coins became their official currency. Popper and the rest of the white people viewed the native Selk’nam as a great nuisance. They would take sheep from farmers, as they didn’t recognize private property, and they would harass gold miners. Popper was merciless in his slaughter of the natives; he would hunt them with mastiffs and organize slaughters, and was largely to blame for their genocide. A severed ear was originally the sign of a native kill, but when people caught on that there were some alive without their ears, this quickly became a severed head. Popper wasn’t long for the world himself. He was found dead in his hotel room in Buenos Aires at the age of 36. Doctors couldn’t quite agree on the cause of death, and it was speculated that he might have been poisoned over some disputes in the Land of Fire.

     Tales of gold from the Land of Fire eventually reached Dalmatia, which saw people from Mimice and the vicinity of Omiš leaving in search of it, along with numerous other islanders, primarily from Brač. Popper had already collected the majority of what was there by the time they had arrived. Thus they had to turn to different professions, as getting home was no mean feat. We can find traces of their lives in the Land of Fire in the names of streams such as Kovačić, Arroyo Kovacic, or the Milna River, Rio Milna.


potok Kovačić,Ognjena zemlja Argentina               rječica Milna Ognjena zemlja-Argentina


The border that separates the Argentinean and Chilean sections of the Land of Fire can be crossed in two places; the northern, safer pass is San Sebastian, while the southern pass, Radman, is the less safe route, as the border lies across a stream, and safe passage depends on the water level.


At the Atlantic coast, on the eastern side of the Land of Fire, lies the city of Rio Grande. It arose in the heart of the Ona or Selk’nam territories, where, in 1893, the Salesian priests founded a mission. The Rio Grande quickly became a port city, and the center for incoming farmers, and was officially founded in 1921. Jose Menendez, who had come here with nothing but the shirt on his back, was largely responsible for its development, as he came here to build roads and docks, open stores, and attract people. The Brauns, Bridges and numerous Croatians came with him. There are around 70,000 people living in the city today, and it has become a significant industrial center. There’s always a wind blowing across the city, and no coast beyond the horizon, until one goes all the way around the globe to the other side of the Land of Fire. A boardwalk in San Martin contains a monument with the Croatian national crest. It was placed there in 2001 by a Croatian society, which nurtures its connections to the land of its ancestors.


Ana Maria Rakela Zuvic i  Maria Calatalina Zuvela

Maria Catalina Zuvela (left) and Ana Maria Rakela Zuvic, in front of the monument with the Croatian national crest

Rio Grande-ploča na spomeniku




The Argentinean section of the Land of Fire contains several other settlements, as well as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, which has some 30,000 citizens, and is located along the Beagle canal. The northern section of the canal currently belongs to Argentina, while the southern section belongs to Chile.

White people first came in sight of the Beagle canal when Captain Murray, coming from the eponymous canal that was named after him, which is located between the Chilean islands of Navarino and Hoste, sailed into it aboard the Beagle. Ushuaia is old native name for it, and loosely translates to bay pulled-in west. Aia is the native word for bay. The first ship to be moored here was the Allen Gardiner, which brought over missionaries. Their job was to baptize the natives. After them came the Argentinean navy, and finally Fortunato Beban, born on Zlarin in 1851. Beban was a friend of Petar Zambelić, one of the first colonizers of the Magellanes region. Both of them sailed to Cape Horn, and traded with the native Yagan tribe. Beban’s two sons came with him; Fortunato Jr. and Tomas, and they all settled in Ushuaia in 1900. His house is still there today, and has been turned into a museum known as Casa Beban. Everyone in the Beagle canal knew of his four ships; General Garibaldi, Tomasito Dalmata, Fortunato Viejo, and Florencia.


Fortunato      Fortunato                     

The left picture is of Fortunato Beban, while the right is of his ship, the Fortunato Viejo

Ushuaia-povijesna kuća Beban

Ushuaia, house Beban 

Sailing in this part of the world wasn’t easy, but Fortunato Beban was a skilled sailor who knew how to handle strong winds and storms. He even devised his own way of sailing out of the Brecknock Canal, which was notorious for causing shipwrecks. His instructions were passed on by word of mouth, so the location came to be known as Paso Beban. However, in 1899, Argentinean president Julio Roca and Chilean president Federico Errazuriz met aboard the Belgrano in order to resolve numerous border disputes. It was then that they officially named the area Paso Belgrano. After all of this time, there is still a desire to have the pass officially renamed to Paso Beban, as it was Fortunato Beban’s skill that had saved many lives here.

However, another place is actually called Paso Beban, not after Fortunato, but after his son, Tomas, instead. At the beginning of the last century, there was no road leading from Ushuaia to Lake Fagnano. People would take various routes, and Tomas had gathered a group with the intention of finding the easiest path through the Sierra Valdivieso mountain chain. Today, there is a paved road leading through there, while Paso Beban is used by climbers and hikers.


Paso Beban Sierra-Valdivieso

Sierra Valdovieso, Paso B

Paso Beban, Sierra Valdivieso


plan grada

There is a Fortunato Beban street and the Pasaje Tomas Beban passage in in Ushuaia

Much more information on Beban, as well as many other Croatians, can be found in the Croatian exhibit of the Naval Museum in Ushuaia. The Croatian community worked hard to obtain its place there, and to have the history of their people in these lands appropriately portrayed.


Ushuaia, Naval Museum


A list of Croatians that came to the Argentinean portion of the Land of Fire, from 1880.

eksponat 1                                   eksponat 2

Exhibits in the Croatian corner of the Naval Museum


The Colegio Tecnico Provincial Olga Bronzovich de Arko technical school in Ushuaia bears the name of a Croatian professor, whose family came over from Selca on the island of Brač. Her father, Andrija Bronzovich, arrived in Ushuaia in 1923, as a World War I veteran. His brother, Jure, and Jure’s wife, Kate, came with him. He married Mandica Bezmaliovich, also of Brač descent.


Ushuaia-škola koja nosi ime sestre Tome Bronzovicha

Tomo Bronzovich Bezmalinovich in front of the school bearing his sister’s name


[1] Beroš Martinić, Mateo. 2002. Breve historia de Magallanes., La Prensa Austral. Punta Arenas. Pg. 23.

[2] Canclini, Arnoldo Canclini. 2000. Julio Popper, Quijote del oro fuegino. Zagier&Urruty Publications. Buenos Aires.