Julius Popper, a Rumanian engineer of Jewish descent, explored Tierra del Fuego between 1885 and 1893 and was a famous miner during the archipelago’s short-lived gold boom. Most significant works on Tierra del Fuego discuss his exploits in brief. The subject of occasional journalistic articles in the Buenos Aires press, Popper has also received some scholarly attention from the Fuegian historian Armando Braun Menéndez. Boleslao Lewin, better known for his works on Jews in colonial Latin America, has maintained an interest in Popper for more than a decade.
Popper: un conquistador patagónico consists of biographical information coupled with excerpts from the explorer’s writings reprinted without comment. The first of the book’s two sections contains a series of topical sketches outlining such interesting facets of Popper’s career as his feuds with territorial governors and Chilean prospectors. Unaware of judicial documentation, Lewin still relies heavily on data which he has published in several previous articles on Popper. Despite these shortcomings, this work merits some attention from the mini-audience interested in Popper and the Fireland. New material gathered from newspapers of the period and from Rumanian sources enable Lewin to present a more realistic appraisal of Popper’s background. Not only are Popper’s activities during bis first months in Argentina unraveled for the first time in print, but Lewin also supplies us with an interesting interpretation that links Popper’s meteoric rise to fame to his membership in the Masonic Order.
Unfortunately, Lewin focuses his attention on Popper, the man of action, rather than on the larger context of Argentina’s economic boom during the Generation of Eighty within which the career of the enigmatic explorer must be understood. Nor has Lewin achieved full impartiality. There is no evidence to warrant his conclusions that Popper was genuinely dedicated to his colonizing activities, or that he was more interested in science than in material wealth. Some foundation does exist, however, for his lament that the absence of Popper’s name among the landmarks of Tierra del Fuego “is proof of an injustice” (p. 33). In all, Lewin’s biographical section does not greatly amplify that of Braun Menéndez’ in 1936.