The Voyage of the Beagle
© 1839 Charles Darwin
As a young man, Charles Darwin lacked sharp direction. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but he hated the sight of blood. His passion was natural philosophy, the observation and study of the natural world, and he briefly considered becoming a country parson so that he would have the time to pursue that passion. A chance opportunity to join the crew of the HMS Beagle, assigned to survey the extreme southern end of South America, gave him more occasion to practice natural observation than he might have ever expected. It was on that journey that he collected the data that would produce his first book, a monograph on coral reef formation, and stir his imagination about life’s abundant variety.
Voyage consists of a log by Darwin, divided into sections of interest, and follows him and the Beagle from England to South America, then across the Pacific back to England again. Darwin’s real purpose on the ship was to keep the captain company, a man who would have otherwise had to have made conversation with common sailors. Virtually all of his commentary is given over to descriptions of Darwin’s time spent on land, aside from brief mentions of dolphins frolicking. Young Darwin explores the surrounding area every time the ship puts into port, but he is often dropped off for several days on end, trekking into the interior. Voyage is a work of scientific journalism, describing the flora and fauna of South America’s rims and outlying islands. Darwin’s commentary reveals an already practiced scientific mind, especially in the area of geology. The author is most famous, of course, for his insights into biology, particularly the way natural selection forces living populations to change over time. His chapter on the Galapagos island and its famed finches drops a hint of the patterns Darwin was beginning to detect:
“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”
In addition to detailing the behavior of pumas and the native economy of this-or-that group of Patagonians, Darwin has a few extraordinary experiences. At least once he is marooned in-country during a revolution, and as the Beagle is sailing up the coast of Chile, there is a volcanic eruption and several earthquakes. Darwin does not limit his commentary to the plants and animals he collects; he also has much to say about the peoples they meet, and here he comes off rather nicely. He views Spanish and English civilization being created in these distant lands an improvement on say, human sacrifice, but recognizes that the age of ‘discovery’ has also been one of violent ruin for many. He takes in the many strange customs he sees not with condescension, but with wonder — with the exception of commenting on stagnant rural economies. Upon departing the eastern coast of South America on the return trip, he sighs with relief that he will never again witness a slave-country; in Australia, he exhibits a strong sympathy for the aboriginal peoples, who have lost their land to both Polynesians and the English.
For the reader with a scientific appetite and the willingness to chew on pages of description, Voyage is appealing. This is not some layman’s travel guide to South America, obviously, but a book intended for those who wish to learn about the land’s geography and life. In 2016, of course, there is added historical appeal; not only in exploring a continent not yet hit by industrialism, but in seeing a giant of English scientific achievement in his youth, still gathering material awaiting the imaginative spark.