The Voyage of the Beagle (I)

“”You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching,” Dr. Darwin had said, “and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.””

The above quote is included in the introduction to the book, by David Quammen. I somehow really like that quote.

I generally don’t blog fiction unless I have a good excuse, but I didn’t seem to have many problems coming up with excuses for covering this book here. When I first read the book some years ago I read a version of it I did not personally own, in Danish – later on I bought a(n English-language) copy for myself. Lately I have been rereading it. It’s a nice book. The world was a very different place 180 years ago, and a book like this gives you a lot of details which help you understand just how different. The book is interesting not only for the many glimpses it gives you into the lives of different people living in the 19th century, but of course also from a history of science point of view; this relates not only to how the trip helped Darwin develop his ideas about natural selection but also relates to many other aspects, some more related to his ‘big idea’ than others. Darwin’s geological observations more than a century before the idea of plate tectonics was accepted by the geological community are for example fascinating, but he also shares some of his ideas about e.g. local weather pattern and meteorological phenomena encountered along the way, and stuff like animal breeding. It should be emphasized that this is a travel book and not a scientific treatise. I’m reasonably certain that if Darwin had never come up with the idea for which he is now known and had not included any biology-related observations in the book, there would still be many parts of this book which would be very much worth reading for other reasons; Darwin experienced a lot of interesting stuff during this trip, and the trip would have made for a very good story even if they’d skipped the trip to the Galapagos Islands and had returned home to Britain after the visit to Chile. Though it’s a good thing for biology that they didn’t.

Many of his observations are interesting not because they tell you what a young man like Darwin might have thought about, say, weather patterns in 1835, but because they give you some wonderful insights into stuff like prevailing social mores and dynamics in South American societies around the 1830s; as mentioned, the world was a very different place back then. Just how different should be clear from some of the quotes below, and part of what I sometimes found really interesting about the account was how Darwin would not comment on or question specific things he observed – things someone born in the late 20th century might well have thought about in a very different manner. Darwin took a lot of stuff for granted, just like someone born in the late 20th century does, but the things he took for granted were sometimes very different from the things we might take for granted. It’s however noteworthy in this context that although there’s a big gap, both in terms of knowledge and presumably also in terms of values, between Darwin and the modern reader, there often seems to be if anything a bigger gap between him and some of the people he encounters along the way; sometimes you sort of think it would be easier for you, the modern reader, to understand ‘where Darwin was coming from’ than it must have been for some of the people whom he met during his travels. There’s more than one good reason to read this book.

I’ve added some quotes from the book below. I should point out that Darwin writes in a manner some might well find boring in part because he tends to go into a lot of detail when talking about some specific thing he considers to be interesting (you may find that boring if you don’t find that topic interesting), but there’s some really nice stuff hidden in there and it’s very much worth reading the book even if you don’t enjoy all of it equally well.

“As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy. We continued riding for some hours. [No more comments about this event – three sentences later he talks about fireflies…]”

“On such fazêndas as these, I have no doubt the slaves pass happy and contented lives. On Saturday and Sunday they work for themselves, and in this fertile climate the labour of two days is sufficient to support a man and his family for the whole week.”

“While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eyewitness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner.”

“I first visited the forest in which these Plenariae [some worms] were found, in company with an old Portuguese priest who took me out to hunt with him. The sport consisted in turning into the cover a few dogs, and then patiently waiting to fire at any animal which might appear.”

“I may mention, as a proof of how cheap everything is in this country, that I paid only two dollars a day, or eight shillings, for two men, together with a troop of about a dozen riding-horses. My companions were well armed with pistols and sabres; a precaution which I thought rather unnecessary: but the first piece of news we heard was, that, the day before, a traveller from Monte Video had been found dead on the road, with his throat cut. This happened close to a cross, the record of a former murder.
On the first night we slept at a retired little country-house; and there I soon found out that I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been. […] this retired part of the country is seldom visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the north; where Spain was, and many other such questions. The greater number of inhabitants had an indistinct idea that England, London, and North America, were different names for the same place; but the better informed well knew that London and North America were separate countries close together, and that England was a large town in London!”

“On approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse […] Having entered the house, some general conversation is kept up for a few minutes, till permission is asked to pass the night there. This is granted as a matter of course. The stranger then takes his meals with the family, and a room is assigned him, where with the horsecloths belonging to his recado (or saddle of the Pampas) he makes his bed. It is curious how similar circumstances produce such similar results in manners. At the Cape of Good Hope the same hospitality, and very nearly the same points of etiquette, are universally observed.”

“To the northward of the Rio Negro, between it and the inhabited country near Buenos Ayres, the Spaniards have only one small settlement, recently established at Bahia Blanca. The distance in a straight line to Buenos Ayres is very nearly five hundred British miles. The wandering tribes of horse Indians, which have always occupied the greater part of this country, having of late much harassed the outlying estancias, the government at Buenos Ayres equipped some time since an army under the command of General Rosas for the purpose of exterminating them. The troops were now encamped on the banks of the Colorado; a river lying about eighty miles northward of the Rio Negro. […] It was supposed that General Rosas had about six hundred Indian allies. […] The duty of the women is to load and unload the horses; to make the tents for the night; in short to be, like the wives of all savages, useful slaves. The man fight, hunt, take care of the horses, and make the riding gear. […] While changing horses at the Guardia several people questioned us much about the army, – I never saw anything like the enthusiasm for Rosas, and for the success of “the most just of all wars, because against barbarians.””

“A few days afterwards I saw another troop of these banditti-like soldiers start on an expedition against a tribe of Indians at the small Salinas, who had been betrayed by a prisoner cacique. The Spaniard who brought the orders of this expedition was a very intelligent man. He gave me an account of the last engagement at which he was present. Some Indians, who had been taken prisoners, gave information of a tribe living north of the Colorado. Two hundred soldiers were sent; and they first discovered the Indians by a cloud of dust from their horses’ feet, as they chanced to be travelling. The country was mountainous and wild, and it must have been far in the interior, for the Cordillera was in sight. The Indians, men, women, and children, were about one hundred and ten in number, and they were nearly all taken or killed, for the soldiers sabre every man. The Indians are now so terrified that they offer no resistance in a body, but each neglecting even his wife and children; but when overtaken, like wild animals, they fight against any number to the last moment. […] This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he answered, “Why, what can be done? They breed so!”
Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country? The children of the Indians are saved, to be sold or given away as servants, or rather slaves for as long time as the owners can make them believe themselves slaves; but I believe in their treatment there is little to complain of.”

“We passed a train of waggons and a troop of beasts on their road to Mendoza. The distance is about 580 geographical miles, and the journey is generally performed in fifty days.”

“a niata bull and cow invariably produce niata calves. A niata bull with a common cow, or the reverse cross, produces offspring having an intermediate character, but with the niata characters strongly displayed: according to Señor Muniz, there is the clearest evidence, contrary to the common belief of agriculturalists in analogous cases, that the niata cow when crossed with a common bull transmits her peculiarities more strongly than the niata bull when crossed with a common cow. When the pasture is tolerably long, the niata cattle feed with the tongue and palate as well as common cattle, but during the great droughts, when so many animals perish, the niata breed is under a great disadvantage, and would be exterminated if not attended to; for the common cattle, like horses, are able just to keep alive, by browsing with their lips on twigs of trees and reeds; this the niata cannot so well do, as their lips do not join, and hence they are found to perish before the common cattle. This strikes me as a good illustration of how little we are able to judge from the ordinary habits of life, on what circumstances, occurring only at long intervals, the rarity of extinction of a species may be determined.”

“Police and justice are quite inefficient. If a man who is poor commits murder and is taken, he will be imprisoned, and perhaps even shot; but if he is rich and has friends, he may rely on it no very severe consequences will ensue. […] A traveller has no protection besides his fire-arms; and the constant habit of carrying them is the main check to more frequent robberies. […] Nearly every public officer can be bribed. The head man in the post-office sold forged government franks.”

“The results of all the attempts to colonize this side of America south of 41°, has been miserable. Port Famine expresses by its name the lingering and extreme sufferings of several hundred wretched people, of whom one alone survived to relate their misfortunes. At St. Joseph’s Bay, on the coast of Patagonia, a small settlement was made; but during one Sunday the Indians made an attack and massacred the whole party, excepting two men, who remained captives during many years. At the Rio Negro I conversed with one of these men, now in extreme old age.”

“Every animal in a state of nature regularly breeds; yet in a species long established, any great increase in numbers is obviously impossible, and must be checked by some means. We are, nevertheless, seldom able with certainty to tell in any given species, at what period of life, or at what period of the year, or whether only at long intervals, the check falls; or, again, what is the precise nature of the check. Hence probably it is, that we feel so little surprise at one, of two species closely allied in habits, being rare and the other abundant in the same district; or, again, that one should be abundant in one district, and another, filling the same place in the economy of nature, should be abundant in a neighbouring district, differing very little in its conditions. If asked how this is, one immediately replies that it is determined by some slight difference, in climate, food, or the number of enemies: yet how rarely, if ever, we can point out the precise cause and manner of action of the check! We are, therefore, driven to the conclusion, that causes generally quite inappreciable by us, determine whether a given species shall be abundant or scanty in numbers. […] To admit that species generally become rare before they become extinct – to feel no surprise at the comparative rarity of one species with another, and yet to call in some extraordinary agent and to marvel greatly when a species ceases to exist, appears to me much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the prelude to death – but when the sick man dies to wonder, and to believe that he died through violence.”

November 26, 2014 - Posted by | biology, books

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