Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S.

by Charles Darwin
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

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.

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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 word for it—on the Fuegian shore in December, 1832, and when the Beagle returned in February, 1834, Darwin could hardly recognize “poor Jemmy.”

Darwin’s account of life on Tierra del Fuego is grim. The people were the most primitive that he had ever seen, living on berries, shellfish, and fungi and sleeping naked on the ground exposed to wind, rain, and snow. Darwin meditates on their state: “Although essentially the same creature, how little must the mind of one of these beings resemble that of an educated man. What a scale of improvement is comprehended between the faculties of a Fuegian savage & a Sir Isaac Newton!”

Hardly better were the inhabitants of the inland towns near Montevideo, where absolute lawlessness reigned. Darwin writes at length of the degraded conditions in these towns, concluding that “If I had read these opinions a year ago, I should have accused myself of much illiberality: now I do not.” If Darwin had ever felt any sympathy with literary depictions of noble savages, he would never do so again.

Yet he uncovers barbarism among Christians as well. He is shocked to learn in Argentina of the slaughter by soldiers of 112 Native American men, women, and children. When told that all the women over the age of twenty had to be killed because “they breed so,” Darwin asked helplessly, “Who would believe in this age in a Christian civilized country that such atrocities were committed?”

Darwin observed the atrocious conditions in the gold mines of Chile, where frail men climbed straight up out of 450-foot-deep mine shafts bearing more than one hundred pounds of stone. They left the mines only once every three weeks and were paid thirty shillings a month. Despite these hardships, the miners lived better than the agricultural workers.

How these observations influenced Darwin’s later thinking can only be speculated on, but his diary makes it clear that little was lost on this genteelly educated young man of privilege. It would be difficult to believe that such vivid impressions of cruelty did not work their way into his later vision.

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