One of Darwin’s first shocks was to witness the conditions of slaves in South America. He was distressed to find a slaveowner in Brazil threatening to separate the women and children from their husbands and fathers and sell them in the market. Later, he admits that the slaves may be better off than is thought in Europe despite “many terrible exceptions” but hopes that they will soon assert their own rights.
Of the gauchos, the wild cowboys flinging bolos and lassos, Darwin frequently remarks on their “savage, picturesque” ways. Yet, despite his contempt for their immorality, he enjoyed riding with them and describes in exciting terms an occasion on which he camped with them and helped to capture a cow to provide necessary meat. His final judgment is ambivalent: respect for their fierce courage but dismay at their lack of civilization.
The most primitive of all the native peoples that Darwin observed were undoubtedly those of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the South American continent. In 1830, Captain Fitzroy had brought four Fuegians back to England: Jemmy Button, York Minster, Boat Memory, and Fuegia Basket. Boat Memory died in England, but the other three were with Darwin on the Beagle, bound home to be repatriated. Their plight was extremely disheartening: Jemmy could barely remember his native language and was forlorn at being left in the stark, inhospitable climate. The three were dumped—there is no other...
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Any reader of Darwin’s diary, young or old, will be struck by the harshness of life in many of the regions of the world that Darwin traveled. His readiness to moralize on what he saw is often not flattering to the ruling groups in these wild outposts, and not everyone will like the frankness of Darwin’s portrayal of the Portuguese in Brazil or the New Zealanders. Thus no reader of this book should anticipate a pleasant excursion through the flora and fauna of exotic locales. This is a grim book, full of cruelty and the blood of people and animals, and it deserves a wide reading by a thoughtful audience. Yet to represent it as adolescent literature probably stretches the usual understanding of that genre.
Darwin seldom offers political comments, but on two occasions, he yearned for an absolutist rule to introduce order. He argued of Tierra del Fuego that “until some chief rises, who by his power might be able to keep to himself such presents as animals &c. &c., there must be an end to all hopes of bettering their condition.” Of life in Montevideo, he writes, “In my opinion before many years, they will be trembling under the iron hand of some Dictator. I wish the country well enough to hope the period is not far distant.” His vision was prescient.