The Voyage of the Beagle

Of his time on the Beagle (1832 – 1836), Darwin wrote, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.” Of the manuscript describing that voyage, he wrote, “The success of this my first literary child always tickles my vanity more than that of any of my other books.”

Taking a cue from these reflections, I’d like to spend some time with this book, in celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday, coming up in just a few days.

(Reposted and slightly revised from last year)

An early version of “The Voyage.”
To begin with, it is appropriate to clear up some potential confusion. (Or if not clearing it up, perhaps creating it because you may not be aware of it!) If you go to the bookstore or the library, you will find a few different books called “The Voyage of the Beagle” by Charles Darwin. Darwin never really wrote such a book. His manuscript has been published many times under various titles, with the main title of “The Voyage of the Beagle” being first used in 1905 in an edition from Harmsworth Library. One of the earliest versions of this manuscript was called “Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.A.” by Charles Darwin. The most well known version of this is the second “corrected edition” of 1845. The Spine of this edition shows that it is volume 12 of the Colonial and Home Library, and it is called “Darwin’s Naturalist’s Voyage.” The publisher is John Murray, of London.

I’ve read two versions of this book. The older one, that I prefer because it is more fun to read books that are about 100 years old, is “Journals of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various countries visited during the voyages of MS beagle …” published by JM Dent and sons, London and New York. On the spine, this one is called “Naturalist’s Voyage in H.M.S. Beagle,” and mine is a 1912 reprint of a 1906 fist edition. I also have a couple of copies of “The Voyage of the Beagle,” such as the Modern Library Classics, with an introduction by Steve Jones, which is what you get if you buy a copy now.

I am glad that publishers have finally regularized how they title books, so the spine and the title page more or less match these days.

For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to use an on line edition, so that cutting and pasting is easiest, and so that you, dear reader, can go to the same exact source I am using without difficulty. For this, I’ll go to the earliest version that seems to have what I want, to wit:

Darwin, C. R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832-1836. London: Henry Colburn. It is on line here.
In subsequent posts, I want to discuss a number of passages that show a few interesting things about Darwin. Darwin was first and foremost a geologist. Darwin made interesting observations in ethnography. He was an experimenter. Much of what Darwin wrote in these early manuscripts can be used today as content in science classrooms, if you fix it up a bit. But for now, I’ll just give you a taste of the book by giving you the first few paragraphs of the main text, under the first chapter heading of “ST. JAGO-CAPE DE VERD ISLANDS”

JAN. 16TH, 1832.–The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fire of past ages, and the scorching heat of a tropical sun, have in most places rendered the soil sterile and unfit for vegetation. The country rises in successive steps of table land, interspersed with some truncate conical hills, and the horizon is bounded by an irregular chain of more lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person, fresh from the sea, and who has just walked, for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees, can be a judge of any thing but his own happiness. The island would generally be considered as very uninteresting; but to any one accustomed only to an English landscape, the novel prospect of an utterly sterile land possesses a grandeur which more vegetation might spoil. A single green leaf can scarcely be discovered over wide tracts of the lava plains; yet flocks of goats, together with a few cows, contrive to exist. It rains very seldom, but during a short portion of the year heavy torrents fall, and immediately afterwards a light vegetation springs out of every crevice. This soon withers; and upon such naturally-formed hay the animals live. At the present time it has not rained for an entire year. The broad, flat-bottomed, valleys, many of which serve during a few days only in the season as a watercourse, are clothed with thickets of leafless bushes. Few living creatures inhabit these valleys. The commonest bird is a kingfisher (Dacelo jagoensis), which tamely sits on the branches of the castor-oil plant, and thence darts on the grasshoppers and lizards. It is brightly coloured, but not so beautiful as the European species: in its flight, manners, and place of habitation, which is generally in the driest valleys, there is also a wide difference.

One day, two of the officers and myself rode to Ribeira Grande, a village a few miles to the eastward of Porto Praya. Until we reached the valley of St. Martin, the country presented its usual dull brown appearance; but there, a very small rill of water produces a most refreshing margin of luxuriant vegetation. In the course of an hour we arrived at Ribeira Grande, and were surprised at the sight of a large ruined fort and cathedral. The little town, before its harbour was filled up, was the principal place in the island: it now presents a melancholy, but very picturesque appearance. Having procured a black Padre for a guide, and a Spaniard, who had served in the Peninsular war, as an interpreter, we visited a collection of buildings, of which an ancient church formed the principal part. It is here the governors and captain-generals of the islands have been buried. Some of the tombstones recorded dates of the sixteenth century. (The Cape de Verd Islands were discovered in 1449.)
The heraldic ornaments were the only things in this retired place that reminded us of Europe. The church or chapel formed one side of a quadrangle, in the middle of which a large clump of bananas were growing. On another side was a hospital, containing about a dozen miserable-looking inmates.
We returned to the “Venda” to eat our dinners. A considerable number of men, women, and children, all as black as jet, were collected to watch us. Our companions were extremely merry; and every thing we said or did was followed by their hearty laughter. Before leaving the town we visited the cathedral. It does not appear so rich as the smaller church, but boasts of a little organ, which sent forth most singularly inharmonious cries. We presented the black priest with a few shillings, and the Spaniard, patting him on the head, said, with much candour, he thought his colour made no great difference. We then returned, as fast as the ponies would go, to Porto Praya.

Darwin continues with descriptions of further meanderings around the island. Then, we encounter one of the first real mentions of natural history, his encounter with the Octopus:

I was much interested, on several occasions, by watching the habits of an Octopus or cuttle-fish. Although common in the pools of water left by the retiring tide, these animals were not easily caught. By means of their long arms and suckers, they could drag their bodies into very narrow crevices; and when thus fixed, it required great force to remove them. At other times they darted tail first, with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, at the same instant discolouring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink. These animals also escape detection by a very extraordinary, chameleon-like, power of changing their colour. They appear to vary the tints, according to the nature of the ground over which they pass: when in deep water, their general shade was brownish purple, but when placed on the land, or in shallow water, this dark tint changed into one of a yellowish green. The colour, examined more carefully, was a French gray, with numerous minute spots of bright yellow: the former of these varied in intensity; the latter entirely disappeared and appeared again by turns. These changes were effected in such a manner, that clouds, varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut brown,* were continually passing over the body. Any part being subjected to a slight shock of galvanism, became almost black: a similar effect, but in a less degree, was produced by scratching the skin with a needle. These clouds, or blushes, as they may be called, when examined under a glass, are described as being produced by the alternate expansions and contractions of minute vesicles, containing variously-coloured fluids.â�
This cuttle-fish displayed its chameleon-like power both during the act of swimming and whilst remaining stationary at the bottom. I was much amused by the various arts to escape detection used by one individual, which seemed fully aware that I was watching it. Remaining for a time motionless, it would then stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat after a mouse; sometimes changing its colour: it thus proceeded, till having gained a deeper part, it darted away, leaving a dusky train of ink to hide the hole into which it had crawled.
While looking for marine animals, with my head about two feet above the rocky shore, I was more than once saluted by a jet of water, accompanied by a slight grating noise. At first I did not know what it was, but afterwards I found out that it was the cuttle-fish, which, though concealed in a hole, thus often led me to its discovery. That it possesses the power of ejecting water there is no doubt, and it appeared to me certain that it could, moreover, take good aim by directing the tube or siphon on the under side of its body. From the difficulty which these animals have in carrying their heads, they cannot crawl with ease when placed on the ground. I observed that one which I kept in the cabin was slightly phosphorescent in the dark….

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0 thoughts on “The Voyage of the Beagle

  1. I’ve been reading the Voyage very slowly over the course of the past couple of years (I keep it in one of my bags so I only ever read it when I’m on the subway with that particular bag). I’ve found it varies a bit; part of it was a bit of a slog, probably because South America is such a freakin’ huge place… But now I’ve reached the Galapagos chapter and am once more enthralled.

    I’m now also reading the Origin and can’t fathom why people find it boring. I love his writing!

  2. I read The Voyage of the Beagle several years ago. I found it extremely fascinating. He IS a very descriptive writer. You can see the seeds of a brilliant naturalist and keen observer blossoming already. He truly was a genius.

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