Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1624
The Voyage of the Beagle shows the English naturalist Charles Darwin’s brilliant mind already at work on the problems that led to his seminal theory of evolution. The work’s title is somewhat misleading, for the author actually has little to say about the voyage. The original full title—Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836—is a better reflection of the scope of the work.
The Voyage of the Beagle is not only an important book in the history of modern thought but also a highly significant one in the life of Darwin. As a young man, Darwin had little sense of vocation or direction. When he was sixteen, he began a career of medicine at Edinburgh University. Discovering, however, that he was unfit for the profession, he entered Christ College, Cambridge, three years later in 1828 to prepare himself to be a clergyman. Failing to take honors or to distinguish himself in any way, he accepted the offer of Captain Fitz Roy of the Beagle to sign on as a naturalist on a voyage around the world that eventually took five years. During that time, Darwin not only discovered himself and his career but also began making those observations that he later developed into the theory of evolution expounded in On the Origin of Species (1859). This work, together with the works of Karl Marx and of Sigmund Freud, constituted a powerful influence on twentieth century scientific thought and values.
In December, 1831, the brig Beagle of the Royal Navy set sail from Devonport, England, to begin a series of surveys of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, some of the islands of the Pacific, and Australia. In addition, chronometric measurements were to be made while the ship circumnavigated the earth. Darwin kept a detailed record of the journey that included observations in natural history and geology. It was in particular his observations on the relationships between animals segregated geographically (those living on islands and those on the mainland) and on the relationships between species separated by time (those living forms and those recently extinct ones) that forced him to reconsider the standard, scientific view of the fixity of species. He was also impressed by “the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards” in South America.
The Beagle began the voyage by sailing to the coast of South America by way of the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, and the island of St. Paul’s Rocks. From the first American seaport the ship touched, Rio de Janeiro, Darwin went on an inland excursion, and upon his return he made natural history observations near Botofogo Bay. From there the expedition went southward to the mouth of the River Plate, where Darwin remained several weeks collecting animals, birds, and reptiles. On his journeys to the interior, he met gauchos and witnessed their skill with the lasso and the bolas in capturing horses and cattle.
From the next anchorage at Rio Negro, Darwin decided to go to Buenos Aires by land under the protection of the Spanish army, who had declared war on various Indian tribes. On this journey, he was able to observe the habits of the South American ostrich.
After a stop in Buenos Aires, Darwin set out for Santa Fe by means of a slow bullock wagon. He returned by boat down the Parana River to the seacoast and joined the Beagle at Montevideo. On an excursion inland from that seaport, Darwin observed herds of sheep that were watched only by dogs who had been brought up with the flocks. On the coast of Patagonia, a land where Spanish settlement was unsuccessful, Darwin observed the guanaco, or wild llama, which he found to be extremely wary but easily domesticated after capture. From Patagonia, the Beagle went to the Falkland Islands, where Darwin found horses, cattle, and rabbits thriving on the seemingly desolate land. In Tierra del Fuego, the natives existed in an utterly savage state, with barely enough food and clothing to maintain a miserable existence.
On board the Beagle were three Fuegians, who had been taken to England to be educated and taught the Christian religion and who were now to be returned to their own tribes, accompanied by a missionary. The ship anchored in Ponsonby Sound, and four boats set out to carry the Fuegians home. All the natives gathered on shore wherever they landed and asked for gifts. When their wants were not entirely satisfied, they became hostile. The missionary decided that it would be useless for him to stay among them.
Once the Beagle arrived in Valparaiso, Chile, Darwin set out to observe the geological formations of the base of the Andes Mountains. On that journey he saw copper and gold mines.
While at anchor in a harbor of the island of Chiloe, all aboard were able to observe the eruption of a volcano on the Chilean mainland. About a month after the Beagle sailed north again, a great earthquake shook parts of the coast and the nearby islands. Darwin saw the damage caused by the earthquake in the harbor city of Concepción, where almost every building was demolished. Part of the town also was swept by a tremendous tidal wave.
After the Beagle returned to Valparaiso, Darwin procured guides and mules and set out to cross the Andes to Mendoza. Proceeding eastward through the Portillo Pass and returning through the Uspallata Pass, he reported beautiful scenery and collected much interesting geological and natural history data. When the Beagle sailed up the coast of northern Chile and continued northward to Peru, Darwin saw a saltpeter works and visited Lima. The city did not impress him, for it was dirty and ugly, suffering from many revolutions and an almost continual state of anarchy.
Lima was the last point at which the Beagle touched on the western coast of South America. The ship proceeded next to the Galápagos archipelago, where the most interesting feature was the prevalence of great tortoises. The inhabitants often killed these reptiles for their meat. Most of the birds on the islands were completely tame, for they had not yet learned to regard man as their enemy. The ship proceeded on to Tahiti, where Darwin was impressed by the swimming ability of the Polynesians. He explored the mountains of the island with the help of guides.
From Tahiti, the Beagle went south to New Zealand, New South Wales, and Australia. There Darwin first saw the aborigines’ social greeting of rubbing noses, the equivalent of the European custom of shaking hands.
After leaving this group of islands, the ship headed back to Brazil to complete chronometric measurements. On the way, Darwin visited the island of St. Helena. It was on this last part of the journey that Darwin began to record in his journal his theories about the formation of coral reefs, many of which he observed during his stay in the South Seas. Darwin was glad to leave Brazil for the second time, for the practice of slavery in that country sickened him. In October, 1836, the Beagle returned to England.
As important as The Voyage of the Beagle is to the understanding of the genesis of Darwin’s theory of evolution and of an appreciation of his own struggle for self-discovery, the book’s most significant aspect is the insight it provides into the Victorian mind. Darwin shared many characteristics with other Victorian intellectuals of his generation, among them Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, John Henry Newman, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Principally, this generation of the 1830’s was motivated by a conviction of personal destiny and a sense of being at the beginning of a new era in which the old ways of viewing matters would no longer apply. With the exception of Newman, they all came to embrace an idea of progress, either spiritual or social. Darwin found in nature a reason to assert that there was biological progress. Indeed, he provided Tennyson, for example, with metaphoric proof, in his theory of natural selection, of the poet’s own concept of ethical evolution. The Voyage of the Beagle reflects the combination of zest for adventure and sense of mission that identifies Darwin clearly with his age and generation.
Most impressive perhaps about Darwin was his capacity for experiences of all kinds. From the start, he exhibited immense energy and thoroughness. Despite his commitment to naturalistic data, he remained responsive to the human dimension, and his observations were touched by sentiment and, at times, outrage. His description of the sheepdogs could be written only by an animal lover, and he did not hold back his outrage and disgust when he saw the conditions of anarchy and poverty in Lima.
One of the most salient aspects of nature, which Darwin faced with unceasing honesty, particularly in the Galápagos islands, was that of cruelty. About twenty years after the return of the Beagle, he wrote, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature.” In a sense, it is the other side of the coin of natural selection. If Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to a general progress of a species, it also revealed the indifference of nature to individuals within the species. It is precisely Darwin’s openness to nature that allowed him to perceive this duality, and it was his scientific honesty—which necessitated his acceptance of his observation—that supported the final development of his thought. Both of these attributes are already reflected in Darwin’s first book, The Voyage of the Beagle.
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