Charles Darwin.

The Voyage of the Beagle online

. (page 49 of 51)
Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 49 of 51)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in the slightest degree. The elements of the scenery are so simple
that they are worth mentioning, as a proof on what trifling
circumstances exquisite natural beauty depends.

The country may be described as a level plain of about three
hundred feet in elevation, which in all parts has been worn into
flat-bottomed valleys. This structure is remarkable in a granitic
land, but is nearly universal in all those softer formations of
which plains are usually composed. The whole surface is covered by
various kinds of stately trees, interspersed with patches of
cultivated ground, out of which houses, convents, and chapels
arise. It must be remembered that within the tropics the wild
luxuriance of nature is not lost even in the vicinity of large
cities: for the natural vegetation of the hedges and hill-sides
overpowers in picturesque effect the artificial labour of man.
Hence, there are only a few spots where the bright red soil affords
a strong contrast with the universal clothing of green. From the
edges of the plain there are distant views either of the ocean, or
of the great Bay with its low-wooded shores, and on which numerous
boats and canoes show their white sails. Excepting from these
points, the scene is extremely limited; following the level
pathways, on each hand, only glimpses into the wooded valleys below
can be obtained. The houses I may add, and especially the sacred
edifices, are built in a peculiar and rather fantastic style of
architecture. They are all whitewashed; so that when illumined by
the brilliant sun of mid-day, and as seen against the pale blue sky
of the horizon, they stand out more like shadows than real

Such are the elements of the scenery, but it is a hopeless attempt
to paint the general effect. Learned naturalists describe these
scenes of the tropics by naming a multitude of objects, and
mentioning some characteristic feature of each. To a learned
traveller this possibly may communicate some definite ideas: but
who else from seeing a plant in an herbarium can imagine its
appearance when growing in its native soil? Who from seeing choice
plants in a hothouse can magnify some into the dimensions of forest
trees, and crowd others into an entangled jungle? Who when
examining in the cabinet of the entomologist the gay exotic
butterflies, and singular cicadas, will associate with these
lifeless objects the ceaseless harsh music of the latter and the
lazy flight of the former, - the sure accompaniments of the still,
glowing noonday of the tropics? It is when the sun has attained its
greatest height that such scenes should be viewed: then the dense
splendid foliage of the mango hides the ground with its darkest
shade, whilst the upper branches are rendered from the profusion of
light of the most brilliant green. In the temperate zones the case
is different - the vegetation there is not so dark or so rich, and
hence the rays of the declining sun, tinged of a red, purple, or
bright yellow colour, add most to the beauties of those climes.

When quietly walking along the shady pathways, and admiring each
successive view, I wished to find language to express my ideas.
Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who
have not visited the intertropical regions the sensation of delight
which the mind experiences. I have said that the plants in a
hothouse fail to communicate a just idea of the vegetation, yet I
must recur to it. The land is one great wild, untidy, luxuriant
hothouse, made by Nature for herself, but taken possession of by
man, who has studded it with gay houses and formal gardens. How
great would be the desire in every admirer of nature to behold, if
such were possible, the scenery of another planet! yet to every
person in Europe, it may be truly said, that at the distance of
only a few degrees from his native soil the glories of another
world are opened to him. In my last walk I stopped again and again
to gaze on these beauties, and endeavoured to fix in my mind for
ever an impression which at the time I knew sooner or later must
fail. The form of the orange-tree, the cocoa-nut, the palm, the
mango, the tree-fern, the banana, will remain clear and separate;
but the thousand beauties which unite these into one perfect scene
must fade away: yet they will leave, like a tale heard in
childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful

AUGUST 6, 1836.

In the afternoon we stood out to sea, with the intention of making
a direct course to the Cape de Verd Islands. Unfavourable winds,
however, delayed us, and on the 12th we ran into Pernambuco, - a
large city on the coast of Brazil, in latitude 8 degrees south. We
anchored outside the reef; but in a short time a pilot came on
board and took us into the inner harbour, where we lay close to the

Pernambuco is built on some narrow and low sand-banks which are
separated from each other by shoal channels of salt water. The
three parts of the town are connected together by two long bridges
built on wooden piles. The town is in all parts disgusting, the
streets being narrow, ill-paved, and filthy; the houses tall and
gloomy. The season of heavy rains had hardly come to an end, and
hence the surrounding country, which is scarcely raised above the
level of the sea, was flooded with water; and I failed in all my
attempts to take long walks.

The flat swampy land on which Pernambuco stands is surrounded, at
the distance of a few miles, by a semicircle of low hills, or
rather by the edge of a country elevated perhaps two hundred feet
above the sea. The old city of Olinda stands on one extremity of
this range. One day I took a canoe, and proceeded up one of the
channels to visit it; I found the old town from its situation both
sweeter and cleaner than that of Pernambuco. I must here
commemorate what happened for the first time during our nearly five
years' wandering, namely, having met with a want of politeness; I
was refused in a sullen manner at two different houses, and
obtained with difficulty from a third, permission to pass through
their gardens to an uncultivated hill, for the purpose of viewing
the country. I feel glad that this happened in the land of the
Brazilians, for I bear them no good will - a land also of slavery,
and therefore of moral debasement. A Spaniard would have felt
ashamed at the very thought of refusing such a request, or of
behaving to a stranger with rudeness. The channel by which we went
to and returned from Olinda was bordered on each side by mangroves,
which sprang like a miniature forest out of the greasy mud-banks.
The bright green colour of these bushes always reminded me of the
rank grass in a churchyard: both are nourished by putrid
exhalations; the one speaks of death past, and the other too often
of death to come.


The most curious object which I saw in this neighbourhood was the
reef that forms the harbour. I doubt whether in the whole world any
other natural structure has so artificial an appearance. (21/6. I
have described this Bar in detail in the "London and Edinburgh
Philosophical Magazine" volume 19 1841 page 257.) It runs for a
length of several miles in an absolutely straight line, parallel to
and not far distant from the shore. It varies in width from thirty
to sixty yards, and its surface is level and smooth; it is composed
of obscurely-stratified hard sandstone. At high water the waves
break over it; at low water its summit is left dry, and it might
then be mistaken for a breakwater erected by Cyclopean workmen. On
this coast the currents of the sea tend to throw up in front of the
land long spits and bars of loose sand, and on one of these part of
the town of Pernambuco stands. In former times a long spit of this
nature seems to have become consolidated by the percolation of
calcareous matter, and afterwards to have been gradually upheaved;
the outer and loose parts during this process having been worn away
by the action of the sea, and the solid nucleus left as we now see
it. Although night and day the waves of the open Atlantic, turbid
with sediment, are driven against the steep outside edges of this
wall of stone, yet the oldest pilots know of no tradition of any
change in its appearance. This durability is much the most curious
fact in its history: it is due to a tough layer, a few inches
thick, of calcareous matter, wholly formed by the successive growth
and death of the small shells of Serpulae, together with some few
barnacles and nulliporae. These nulliporae, which are hard, very
simply-organised sea-plants, play an analogous and important part
in protecting the upper surfaces of coral-reefs, behind and within
the breakers, where the true corals, during the outward growth of
the mass, become killed by exposure to the sun and air. These
insignificant organic beings, especially the Serpulae, have done
good service to the people of Pernambuco; for without their
protective aid the bar of sandstone would inevitably have been long
ago worn away and without the bar, there would have been no

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank
God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I
hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my
feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most
pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was
being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to
remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured
slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance.
Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept
screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in
a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was
reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the
lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old,
struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his
naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean;
I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye.
These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in
which it has always been said that slaves are better treated than
by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen
at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow
directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a
kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men,
women, and little children of a large number of families who had
long lived together. I will not even allude to the many
heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; - nor
would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met
with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the
negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have
generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the
domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like
myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask
slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must
indeed be dull who does not calculate on the chance of his answer
reaching his master's ears.

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as
if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less
likely than degraded slaves to stir up the rage of their savage
masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble
feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious
Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing
the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of
our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our
institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I
cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in
one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some
dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and
with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into
the position of the latter; - what a cheerless prospect, with not
even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging
over you, of your wife and your little children - those objects
which nature urges even the slave to call his own - being torn from
you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are
done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as
themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on
earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that
we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry
of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to
reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever
made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

On the last day of August we anchored for the second time at Porto
Praya in the Cape de Verd archipelago; thence we proceeded to the
Azores, where we stayed six days. On the 2nd of October we made the
shores of England; and at Falmouth I left the "Beagle," having
lived on board the good little vessel nearly five years.


Our Voyage having come to an end, I will take a short retrospect of
the advantages and disadvantages, the pains and pleasures, of our
circumnavigation of the world. If a person asked my advice, before
undertaking a long voyage, my answer would depend upon his
possessing a decided taste for some branch of knowledge, which
could by this means be advanced. No doubt it is a high satisfaction
to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the
pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is
necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may
be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.

Many of the losses which must be experienced are obvious; such as
that of the society of every old friend, and of the sight of those
places with which every dearest remembrance is so intimately
connected. These losses, however, are at the time partly relieved
by the exhaustless delight of anticipating the long-wished-for day
of return. If, as poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage
these are the visions which best serve to pass away the long night.
Other losses, although not at first felt, tell heavily after a
period: these are the want of room, of seclusion, of rest; the
jading feeling of constant hurry; the privation of small luxuries,
the loss of domestic society and even of music and the other
pleasures of imagination. When such trifles are mentioned, it is
evident that the real grievances, excepting from accidents, of a
sea-life are at an end. The short space of sixty years has made an
astonishing difference in the facility of distant navigation. Even
in the time of Cook, a man who left his fireside for such
expeditions underwent severe privations. A yacht now, with every
luxury of life, can circumnavigate the globe. Besides the vast
improvements in ships and naval resources, the whole western shores
of America are thrown open, and Australia has become the capital of
a rising continent. How different are the circumstances to a man
shipwrecked at the present day in the Pacific, to what they were in
the time of Cook! Since his voyage a hemisphere has been added to
the civilised world.

If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily
in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil,
cured in a week. If, on the other hand, he take pleasure in naval
tactics, he will assuredly have full scope for his taste. But it
must be borne in mind how large a proportion of the time, during a
long voyage, is spent on the water, as compared with the days in
harbour. And what are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean?
A tedious waste, a desert of water, as the Arabian calls it. No
doubt there are some delightful scenes. A moonlight night, with the
clear heavens and the dark glittering sea, and the white sails
filled by the soft air of a gently-blowing trade-wind, a dead calm,
with the heaving surface polished like a mirror, and all still
except the occasional flapping of the canvas. It is well once to
behold a squall with its rising arch and coming fury, or the heavy
gale of wind and mountainous waves. I confess, however, my
imagination had painted something more grand, more terrific, in the
full-grown storm. It is an incomparably finer spectacle when beheld
on shore, where the waving trees, the wild flight of the birds, the
dark shadows and bright lights, the rushing of the torrents, all
proclaim the strife of the unloosed elements. At sea the albatross
and little petrel fly as if the storm were their proper sphere, the
water rises and sinks as if fulfilling its usual task, the ship
alone and its inhabitants seem the objects of wrath. On a forlorn
and weather-beaten coast the scene is indeed different, but the
feelings partake more of horror than of wild delight.

Let us now look at the brighter side of the past time. The pleasure
derived from beholding the scenery and the general aspect of the
various countries we have visited has decidedly been the most
constant and highest source of enjoyment. It is probable that the
picturesque beauty of many parts of Europe exceeds anything which
we beheld. But there is a growing pleasure in comparing the
character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain
degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty. It depends
chiefly on an acquaintance with the individual parts of each view;
I am strongly induced to believe that as in music, the person who
understands every note will, if he also possesses a proper taste,
more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a
fine view may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined
effect. Hence, a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views
plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock
even in the wildest forms, and they may for a time afford a sublime
spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with
bright and varied colours, as in Northern Chile, they will become
fantastic; clothe them with vegetation, they must form a decent, if
not a beautiful picture.

When I say that the scenery of parts of Europe is probably superior
to anything which we beheld, I except, as a class by itself, that
of the intertropical zones. The two classes cannot be compared
together; but I have already often enlarged on the grandeur of
those regions. As the force of impressions generally depends on
preconceived ideas, I may add that mine were taken from the vivid
descriptions in the "Personal Narrative" of Humboldt, which far
exceed in merit anything else which I have read. Yet with these
high-wrought ideas, my feelings were far from partaking of a tinge
of disappointment on my first and final landing on the shores of

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed
in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man;
whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant,
or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both
are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of
Nature: - no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel
that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. In
calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia
frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by
all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative
characters; without habitations, without water, without trees,
without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why,
then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid
wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? Why have not the still
more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are
serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can
scarcely analyse these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the
free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are
boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they
bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and
there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If,
as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an
impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable
excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man's
knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?

Lastly, of natural scenery, the views from lofty mountains, though
certainly in one sense not beautiful, are very memorable. When
looking down from the highest crest of the Cordillera, the mind,
undisturbed by minute details, was filled with the stupendous
dimensions of the surrounding masses.

Of individual objects, perhaps nothing is more certain to create
astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a
barbarian, - of man in his lowest and most savage state. One's mind
hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, Could our
progenitors have been men like these? - men, whose very signs and
expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the
domesticated animals; men, who do not possess the instinct of those
animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason, or at least of
arts consequent on that reason. I do not believe it is possible to
describe or paint the difference between savage and civilised man.
It is the difference between a wild and tame animal: and part of
the interest in beholding a savage is the same which would lead
every one to desire to see the lion in his desert, the tiger
tearing his prey in the jungle, or the rhinoceros wandering over
the wild plains of Africa.

Among the other most remarkable spectacles which we have beheld,
may be ranked the Southern Cross, the cloud of Magellan, and the
other constellations of the southern hemisphere - the
waterspout - the glacier leading its blue stream of ice, overhanging
the sea in a bold precipice - a lagoon-island raised by the
reef-building corals - an active volcano - and the overwhelming
effects of a violent earthquake. These latter phenomena, perhaps,
possess for me a peculiar interest, from their intimate connexion
with the geological structure of the world. The earthquake,
however, must be to every one a most impressive event: the earth,
considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has
oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the
laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the
insignificance of his boasted power.

It has been said that the love of the chase is an inherent delight
in man - a relic of an instinctive passion. If so, I am sure the
pleasure of living in the open air, with the sky for a roof and the
ground for a table, is part of the same feeling; it is the savage
returning to his wild and native habits. I always look back to our
boat cruises, and my land journeys, when through unfrequented
countries, with an extreme delight, which no scenes of civilisation
could have created. I do not doubt that every traveller must
remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced when
he first breathed in a foreign clime where the civilised man had
seldom or never trod.

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage which
are of a more reasonable nature. The map of the world ceases to be
a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated
figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are
not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as
mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of
Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding
names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for
weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly
convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply.

From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward
with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire
hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the
introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea, probably
stands by itself in the records of history. It is the more striking
when we remember that only sixty years since, Cook, whose excellent
judgment none will dispute, could foresee no prospect of a change.
Yet these changes have now been effected by the philanthropic
spirit of the British nation.

In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may
be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilisation, which,

Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 49 of 51)