The Voyage of the Beagle (II)

As earlier mentioned I’ve recently been rereading this book.

I have added some observations and quotes from the book below.

“The river, though it has so little power in transporting even inconsiderable fragments, yet in the lapse of ages might produce by its gradual erosion an effect of which it is difficult to judge the amount. But in this case, independently of the insignificance of such an agency, good reasons can be assigned for believing that this valley was formerly occupied by an arm of the sea. […] If I had space I could prove that South America was formerly here cut off by a strait, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, like that of Magellan. But it may yet be asked, how has the solid basalt been moved? Geologists formerly would have brought into play, the violent action of some overwhelming debacle; but in this case such a supposition would have been quite inadmissible; because, the same step-like plains with existing seashells lying on their surface, which front the long line of the Patagonian coast, sweep up on each side of the valley of Santa Cruz. No possible action of any flood could thus have modelled the land, either within the valley or along the open coast; and by the formation of such step-like plains or terraces the valley itself had been hollowed out. Although we know that there are tides, which run within the Narrows of the Strait of Magellan at the rate of eight knots an hour, yet we must confess that it makes the head almost giddy to reflect on the number of years, century after century, which the tides, unaided by a heavy surf, must have required to have corroded so vast an area and thickness of solid basaltic lava. Nevertheless, we must believe that the strata undermined by the waters of this ancient strait, were broken up into huge fragments, and these lying scattered on the beach, were reduced first to smaller blocks, then to pebbles and lastly to the most impalpable mud, which the tides drifted far into the Eastern or Western Ocean.”

“On March 1st, 1833, and again on March 16th, 1834, the Beagle anchored in Berkeley Sound, in East Falkland Island. […] After the possession of these miserable islands had been contested by France, Spain, and England, they were left uninhabited. The government of Buenos Ayres then sold them to a private individual, but likewise used them, as old Spain had done before, for a penal settlement. England claimed her right and seized them. The Englishman who was left in charge of the flag was consequently murdered [I’m not sure why, but this sentence incidentally reminded me of this comic]. A British officer was next sent, unsupported by any power. And when we arrived, we found him in charge of a population, of which rather more than half were runaway rebels and murderers.”

“The geological structure of these islands is in most respects simple. The lower country consists of clay-slate and sandstone, containing fossils, very closely related to, but not identical with, those found in the Silurian formations of Europe; the hills are formed of white granular quartz rock. The strata of the latter are frequently arched with perfect symmetry, and the appearance of some of the masses is in consequence most singular. Pernety[8] has devoted several pages to the description of a Hill of Ruins, the successive strata of which he has justly compared to the seats of an amphitheatre. The quartz rock must have been quite pasty when it underwent such remarkable flexures without being shattered into fragments. As the quartz insensibly passes into the sandstone, it seems probable that the former owes its origin to the sandstone having been heated to such a degree that it became viscid, and upon cooling crystallized. While in the soft state it must have been pushed up through the overlying beds.” (This is one neat illustration of the fact that it’s not like people didn’t know anything about geology at this point in time or didn’t have any ideas, even if plate tectonics is still very far away – there’s actually a lot more stuff on this topic later on in the book, for example when Darwin talks about an earthquake (“It is generally thought that this has been the worst earthquake ever recorded in Chile”) which happened in Chile while he was in the area. I may or may not come back to this in my third and presumably last post about the book).

“In the morning the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: It is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is greater power of improvement. […] Their attitudes were abject, and the expression of their countenance distrustful, surprised, and startled. After we had presented them with some scarlet cloth, which they immediately tied round their necks, they became good friends. […] I have not as yet noticed [meaning in this context: mentioned, US] the Fuegians whom we had on board. During the former voyage of the Adventure and Beagle in 1826 to 1830, Captain Fitz Roy seized on a party of natives, as hostages for the loss of a boat, which had been stolen, to the great jeopardy of a party employed on the survey; and some of these natives, as well as a child whom he bought for a pearl-button, he took with him to England, determining to educate them and instruct them in religion at his own expense. To settle these natives in their own country, was one chief inducement to Captain Fitz Roy to undertake our present voyage; and before the Admiralty had resolved to send out this expedition, Captain Fitz Roy had generously chartered a vessel, and would himself have taken them back.”

“While going one day on shore near Wollaston Island, we pulled alongside a canoe with six Fuegians. These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld. On the east coast the natives, as we have seen, have guanaco cloaks, and on the west they possess seal-skins. Amongst these central tribes the men generally have an otter-skin, or some small scrap about as large as a pocket-handkerchief, which is barely sufficient to cover their backs as low down as their loins. It is laced across the breast by strings, and according as the wind blows, it is shifted from side to side. But these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. It was raining heavily […] Viewing such men, one can hardly make one’s self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question may be asked with respect to these barbarians! At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the win and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. […] They often suffer from famine […] The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr. Low, and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr. Low why they did this, answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” This boy described the manner in which they are killed by being held over smoke and thus choked; he imitated their screams as a joke, and described the parts of their bodies which are best to eat. Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives must be, the fears of the old women, when hunger begins to press, are more painful to think of; we are told that they often run away into the mountains, but that they are pursued by the men and brought back […] the husband is to the wife a brutal master to a laborious slave.”

“Few if any of these natives [these are incidentally not the same natives as the ones described above, US] could ever have seen a white man […] They were very inoffensive as long as they were few in numbers, but in the morning (21st) being joined by others they showed symptoms of hostility, and we thought that we should have come to a skirmish. An European labours under great disadvantages when treating with savages like these, who have not the least idea of the power of firearms. In the very act of levelling his musket he appears to the savage far inferior to a man armed with a bow and arrow, a spear, or even a sling. Nor is it easy to teach them our superiority except by striking a fatal blow. Like wild beast, they do not appear to compare numbers; for each individual, if attacked, instead of retiring, will endeavour to dash your brains out with a stone, as certainly as a tiger under similar circumstances would tear you.”

“We slept at the gold-mines of Yaquil, which are worked by Mr. Nixon, an American gentleman […] When we arrived at the mine, I was struck by the pale appearance of many of the men, and inquired from Mr. Nixon respecting their condition. The mine is 450 feet deep, and each man brings up about 200 pounds weight of stone. With this load they have to climb up the alternate notches cut in the trunks of trees, placed in a zig-zag line up the shaft. Even beardless young men, eighteen and twenty years old, with little muscular development of their bodies (they are quite naked excepting drawers) ascend with this great load from nearly the same depth. A strong man, who is not accustomed to this labour, perspires most profusely, with merely carrying up his own body. With this very severe labour, they live entirely on boiled beans and bread. They would prefer having bread alone; but their masters, finding that they cannot work so hard upon this, treat them like horses, and make them eat the beans. […] They leave the mine only once in three weeks; when they stay with their families for two days. One of the rules of this mine sounds very harsh, but answers pretty well for the master. The only method of stealing gold is to secrete pieces of the ore, and take them out as occasion may offer. Whenever the major-domo finds a lump thus hidden, its full value is stopped out of the wages of all the men; who thus, without they all combine, are obliged to keep watch over each other. […] Bad as the above treatment of the miners appears, it is gladly accepted of by them; for the condition of the labouring agriculturalists is much worse. Their wages are lower, and they live almost exclusively on beans. […] extreme poverty is very common among the labouring classes in this country.”

“The poverty of the place [Chiloe Island – in Chile, US] may be conceived from the fact, that although containing some hundreds of inhabitants, one of our party was unable anywhere to purchase either a pound of sugar or an ordinary knife. No individual possessed either a watch or a clock; and an old man, who was supposed to have a good idea of time, was employed to strike the church bells by guess. […] There is also a great deficiency of a circulating medium. I have seen a man bringing on his back a bag of charcoal, with which to buy some trifle, and another carrying a plank to exchange for a bottle of wine. Hence every tradesman must also be a merchant, and again sell the goods which he takes in exchange. […] In all parts of Chiloe and Chonos, two very strange birds occur […] One is called by the inhabitants “Cheucau” (Pteroptochos rubecula): it frequents the most gloomy and retired spots within the damp forests. Sometimes, although its cry may be heard close at hand, let a person watch ever so attentively he will not see the cheucau; at other times, let him stand motionless and the red-breasted little bird will approach within a few feet in the most familiar manner. […] The cheucau is held in superstitious fear by the Chilotans, on account of its strange and varied cries. There are three very distinct cries: one is called “chiduco,” and is an omen of good; another, “huitreu,” which is extremely unfavourable; and a third, which I have forgotten. These words are given in imitation of the noises; and the natives are in some things absolutely governed by them. The Chilotans assuredly have chosen a most comical little creature for their prophet.”


December 3, 2014 - Posted by | books, Geology, history

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