The Voyage of the Beagle

 

(This 828th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 11, 2007.)

 

Charles Darwin in 1840

Painting by George Richmond

 

On February 12, we celebrate the birthday of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. Not many Americans realize that on that same 1809 date Charles Darwin, an equally famous man, was born.

 

Today most of us think of Darwin as the author of The Origin of Species, a book that has brought its author high praise in the scientific community but shocked disbelief from many evangelicals.

 

What is not so well understood is the fact that Darwin's standing in both the scientific and the literary communities was well established long before 1859 when Origin was published and he became a controversial figure. His stature derived from his 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle, arguably the finest travel narrative ever written. (Interestingly, Darwin's co-founder of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, a book that many believe is the second best travel narrative.)

 

The Voyage of the Beagle was originally prepared as a natural history appendix (the third of four volumes) to a report of the five year world circumnavigation of the British navy brig Beagle by its captain, Robert FitzRoy. The remarkable quality of Darwin's contribution made it stand alone while the captain's report of the ship's coastal navigation surveys served only the technical community.

 

Everyone should read this book. We usually picture Darwin as the heavily bearded old man of his later portraits, but Voyage was written by a thirty year old and it conveys the enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge of a bright young man. Consider, for example, excerpts from his account of the severe 1835 Chilean earthquake.

 

"It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect.

 

"March 4th. We entered the harbour of Concepcion. While the ship was beating up to the anchorage, I landed on the island of Quiriquina. The mayor-domo of the estate quickly rode down to tell me the terrible news of the great earthquake: that not a house in Concepcion or Talcahuano (the port) was standing; that seventy villages were destroyed; and that a great wave had almost washed away the ruins of Talcahuano. Of this latter statement I soon saw abundant proofs -- the whole coast being strewed over with timber and furniture as if a thousand ships had been wrecked. Besides chairs, tables, book-shelves, etc., in great numbers, there were several roofs of cottages, which had been transported almost whole. The storehouses at Talcahuano had been burst open, and great bags of cotton, yerba, and other valuable merchandise were scattered on the shore. During my walk round the island, I observed that numerous fragments of rock, which, from the marine productions adhering to them, must recently have been lying in deep water, had been cast up high on the beach; one of these was six feet long, three broad, and two thick.

 

"Shortly after the shock, a great wave was seen from the distance of three or four miles, approaching in the middle of the bay with a smooth outline; but along the shore it tore up cottages and trees, as it swept onwards with irresistible force. At the head of the bay it broke in a fearful line of white breakers, which rushed up to a height of 23 vertical feet above the highest spring-tides. Their force must have been prodigious; for at the Fort a cannon with its carriage, estimated at four tons in weight, was moved 15 feet inwards. A schooner was left in the midst of the ruins, 200 yards from the beach. The first wave was followed by two others, which in their retreat carried away a vast wreck of floating objects. In one part of the bay, a ship was pitched high and dry on shore, was carried off, again driven on shore, and again carried off. In another part, two large vessels anchored near together were whirled about, and their cables were thrice wound round each other; though anchored at a depth of 36 feet, they were for some minutes aground. The great wave must have travelled slowly, for the inhabitants of Talcahuano had time to run up the hills behind the town; and some sailors pulled out seaward, trusting successfully to their boat riding securely over the swell, if they could reach it before it broke. One old woman with a little boy, four or five years old, ran into a boat, but there was nobody to row it out: the boat was consequently dashed against an anchor and cut in twain; the old woman was drowned, but the child was picked up some hours afterwards clinging to the wreck. Pools of salt-water were still standing amidst the ruins of the houses, and children, making boats with old tables and chairs, appeared as happy as their parents were miserable. It was, however, exceedingly interesting to observe, how much more active and cheerful all appeared than could have been expected. It was remarked with much truth, that from the destruction being universal, no one individual was humbled more than another, or could suspect his friends of coldness -- that most grievous result of the loss of wealth. Mr. Rouse, and a large party whom he kindly took under his protection, lived for the first week in a garden beneath some apple-trees. At first they were as merry as if it had been a picnic; but soon afterwards heavy rain caused much discomfort, for they were absolutely without shelter.

 

"In Captain Fitz Roy's excellent account of the earthquake, it is said that two explosions, one like a column of smoke and another like the blowing of a great whale, were seen in the bay. The water also appeared everywhere to be boiling; and it "became black, and exhaled a most disagreeable sulphureous smell." These latter circumstances were observed in the Bay of Valparaiso during the earthquake of 1822; they may, I think, be accounted for, by the disturbance of the mud at the bottom of the sea containing organic matter in decay. In the Bay of Callao, during a calm day, I noticed, that as the ship dragged her cable over the bottom, its course was marked by a line of bubbles. The lower orders in Talcahuano thought that the earthquake was caused by some old Indian women, who two years ago, being offended, stopped the volcano of Antuco. This silly belief is curious, because it shows that experience has taught them to observe, that there exists a relation between the suppressed action of the volcanos, and the trembling of the ground. It was necessary to apply the witchcraft to the point where their perception of cause and effect failed; and this was the closing of the volcanic vent. This belief is the more singular in this particular instance, because, according to Captain Fitz Roy, there is reason to believe that Antuco was noways affected.

 

"Earthquakes alone are sufficient to destroy the prosperity of any country. If beneath England the now inert subterranean forces should exert those powers, how completely would the entire condition of the country be changed! What would become of the lofty houses, thickly packed cities, great manufactories, the beautiful public and private edifices? England would at once be bankrupt; all papers, records, and accounts would from that moment be lost. In every large town famine would go forth, pestilence and death following in its train."

 

Although his experiences strongly influenced Darwin's later theories, Voyage is not about evolution. No matter what your attitude toward that important subject, read this classic adventure story.-- Gerry Rising