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Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle

In honor of Darwin Day, I figured I'd post a review of The Voyage of the Beagle, which I just recently finished reading. The edition I read was actually the one from The Folio Society, given to me as a gift, and not the one pictured at right from Amazon. The book is also available as a free download from Project Gutenberg as a text only version, or as html with pictures, or from The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.

There are many reasons to like this book. One can't ignore the historical importance, since this expedition gave Darwin much of the insight that would lead to developing the theory of evolution, but this book would still be interesting even if Darwin had gone on to do nothing after sailing on the Beagle. The book is basically the journal of a young man on a round the world voyage, visiting much of South America, Tahiti, Australia, and a few other places, describing all the different cultures, geographies, and animals that he encountered.

For this review, I'll quote heavily from The Voyage of the Beagle, letting Darwin speak for himself, to give the reader a better idea of the language of the book. But first, let's get the somewhat confusing background out of the way. Darwin went along on the second survey expedition of the HMS Beagle. The first expedition, begun in 1826, consisted of two ships, the larger HMS Adventure, captained by Phillip Parker King, and the smaller HMS Beagle, captained by Pringle Stokes. Stokes committed suicide near the end of the first expedition, and 23 year old Flag Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy was named as temporary captain of the Beagle. On the second expedition, begun in 1831, only the Beagle returned, and as FitzRoy had proven himself well enough as temporary captain on the first expedition, he was given command of the ship for this second expedition. Worried about becoming depressed and suffering the same fate as Stokes, FitzRoy invited Darwin along for the journey so that he could have someone to talk to. As survey expeditions, the main purpose was acquiring data to produce nautical charts. Darwin had a slightly different agenda, as a naturalist, collecting many samples of the flora & fauna and taking many notes along the way. After the expeditions' completion, a four volume account was published, titled, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle. The third volume of this narrative was written by Darwin, and titled, Journal and Remarks, 1832--1835. Darwin's volume proved to be so popular that the publisher, Henry Colburn of London, decided to publish it as a stand alone book, renamed, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. The book was published several more times under several different titles, but is most commonly referred to today as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Lost Worlds

One of the things I found most interesting was the way Darwin described, what are to us now, lost worlds. This voyage took place over 170 years ago, before industrialization, mass media, high speed transportation, and all those inventions that have made our modern world smaller, and more homogenous. In many of the places that Darwin traveled to, people were still practicing, practically unchanged, the same traditions they'd been practicing for generations. Consider this description of the people of Tahiti.

Most of the men are tattooed, and the ornaments follow the curvature of the body so gracefully, that they have a very elegant effect. One common pattern, varying in its details, is somewhat like the crown of a palm-tree. It springs from the central line of the back, and gracefully curls round both sides. The simile may be a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man thus ornamented was like the trunk of a, noble tree embraced by a delicate creeper.

Here is another passage, showing one aspect of the people in South America at the time. I suppose that there are still pockets of people like this in the world, but it's still interesting to see the mindset of such people.

On the first night we slept at a retired little country-house; and there I soon found out that I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been. At one house a young woman, who was ill in bed, sent to entreat me to come and show her the compass. If their surprise was great, mine was greater, to find such ignorance among people who possessed their thousands of cattle, and "estancias" of great extent. It can only be accounted for by the circumstance that this retired part of the country is seldom visited by foreigners. I was asked whether the earth or sun moved; whether it was hotter or colder to the north; where Spain was, and many other such questions. The greater number of the inhabitants had an indistinct idea that England, London, and North America, were different names for the same place; but the better informed well knew that London and North America were separate countries close together, and that England was a large town in London!

Other passages, like the following, aren't exactly in line with the other two from above - what Darwin is describing is a world that was lost even before he arrived. I find these fascinating because they show just how long ago the Spanish colonization was. We tend to have this concept of now, and the past, without really thinking of how grand that past is. I've been to similar ruins in Guatemala, and you can see the grandeur of what was, now crumbling, and you just have this sense that it happened a long time ago. When you read books like this one, you have that same sense of Darwin's exploits happening a long time ago. But to see Darwin describing these ruins in much the same way that I saw them, gives you a better sense of just how long ago those buildings were constructed and subsequently fell into ruin.

In such a country the fate of the Spanish settlement was soon decided; the dryness of the climate during the greater part of the year, and the occasional hostile attacks of the wandering Indians, compelled the colonists to desert their half-finished buildings. The style, however, in which they were commenced shows the strong and liberal hand of Spain in the old time. The result of all the attempts to colonize this side of America south of 41 degs., has been miserable.


You don't hear people talk much of Darwin's humor. And for the most part, this book was fairly straight laced. However, a few parts were a bit funny. The following passage may be a bit morbid, and a bit dry, but I still found it humorous the way it was presented.

In the evening we reached the island of San Pedro, where we found the Beagle at anchor. In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite. A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.

Darwin wasn't above making fun of himself in the book, either. Consider this passage, where he described himself practicing with bolos.

The main difficulty in using either lazo or bolas is to ride so well as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily round the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush, and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and, like magic, caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practised animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.

In some cases, Darwin described himself in ridiculous situations. I think these are all the more funny, considering the esteem in which Darwin is held, today. Just imagine, the father of evolutionary theory, acting the way he did in the following two passages.

[describing guanacos] Or does curiosity overcome their timidity? That they are curious is certain; for if a person lies on the ground, and plays strange antics, such as throwing up his feet in the air, they will almost always approach by degrees to reconnoitre him. It was an artifice that was repeatedly practised by our sportsmen with success, and it had moreover the advantage of allowing several shots to be fired, which were all taken as parts of the performance.
[describing tortoises on the Galapagos] I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters, as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away; -- but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.


Some people in the anti-science camp, who for whatever reason don't like the concept of evolution, will sometimes try to demonize Darwin by calling him a racist, attempting to taint evolution by tainting Darwin himself. While the reputation of Darwin really has no bearing on the validity of evolution, I still found it fascinating to read some of what he had to say regarding races. He was no saint, by any means, and made many comments that make the modern reader cringe. But keep in mind that this book was written in the 1830's, decades before the U.S. Civil War, where southern land owners fought to maintain slavery. In that light, some of Darwin's views actually seem enlightened.

As it was growing dark we passed under one of the massive, bare, and steep hills of granite which are so common in this country. This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves, who, by cultivating a little ground near the top, contrived to eke out a subsistence. At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

The following passage is one of the clearest in the whole book expressing Darwin's view on slavery.

I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.

He even had something to say regarding skin color.

It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener's art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields.


You can hardly discuss this book without mentioning evolution. Darwin never explicitly spelled out his theory in this book, but looking at it in hindsight, you can see the first glimmers of the theory in some of the passages.

The Tinochorus is closely related to some other South American birds. Two species of the genus Attagis are in almost every respect ptarmigans in their habits; one lives in Tierra del Fuego, above the limits of the forest land; and the other just beneath the snow-line on the Cordillera of Central Chile. A bird of another closely allied genus, Chionis alba, is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on sea-weed and shells on the tidal rocks. Although not web footed, from some unaccountable habit, it is frequently met with far out at sea. This small family of birds is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created.

In another passage, Darwin addressed Lamarck (who had his own theory of evolution, most famous for its law of use and disuse). Were it to be written today on a blog, it could only be referred to as snarky.

Considering the strictly subterranean habits of the tucutuco, the blindness, though so common, cannot be a very serious evil; yet it appears strange that any animal should possess an organ frequently subject to be injured. Lamarck would have been delighted with this fact, had he known it, when speculating [7] (probably with more truth than usual with him) on the gradually _acquired_ blindness of the Asphalax, a Gnawer living under ground, and of the Proteus, a reptile living in dark caverns filled with water; in both of which animals the eye is in an almost rudimentary state, and is covered by a tendinous membrane and skin.

Of course, you can't discuss Darwin and evolution without mentioning the Galapagos Islands. Here is what he had to say in part of the introduction to that chapter.

The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width. The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and has received the general character of its indigenous productions. Considering the small size of the islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava- streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period geologically recent the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on this earth.

In one place, Darwin's comments even foreshadowed the current science vs. creationism debate.

It was amusing to hear the inhabitants discussing the nature of the fossil shells which I collected, almost in the same terms as were used a century ago in Europe, -- namely, whether or not they had been thus "born by nature." My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos? -- why some springs were hot and others cold? -- why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.

Awe of Nature

After reading Darwin, it's clear that he had a deep awe of nature. However, this awe was not directed just at the superficial beauty. To Darwin, having a deeper understanding of something could only increase your appreciation of it.

Let us now look at the brighter side of the past time. The pleasure derived from beholding the scenery and the general aspect of the various countries we have visited, has decidedly been the most constant and highest source of enjoyment. It is probable that the picturesque beauty of many parts of Europe exceeds anything which we beheld. But there is a growing pleasure in comparing the character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty. It depends chiefly on an acquaintance with the individual parts of each view. I am strongly induced to believe that as in music, the person who understands every note will, if he also possesses a proper taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view, may also thoroughly comprehendthe full and combined effect. Hence, a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock, even in the wildest forms, and they may for a time afford a sublime spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with bright and varied colours, as in Northern Chile, they will become fantastic; clothe them with vegetation, they must form a decent, if not a beautiful picture.

And consider this passage, from the chapter where Darwin summarized his theory of the formation of coral islands and atolls.

April 12th. -- In the morning we stood out of the lagoon on our passage to the Isle of France. I am glad we have visited these islands: such formations surely rank high amongst the wonderful objects of this world. Captain Fitz Roy found no bottom with a line 7200 feet in length, at the distance of only 2200 yards from the shore; hence this island forms a lofty submarine mountain, with sides steeper even than those of the most abrupt volcanic cone. The saucer-shaped summit is nearly ten miles across; and every single atom, [10] from the least particle to the largest fragment of rock, in this great pile, which however is small compared with very many other lagoon-islands, bears the stamp of having been subjected to organic arrangement. We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason.


I found The Voyage of the Beagle to be extremely interesting. This book stands well on its own, as an account of the adventures of a young man visiting exotic locations and cultures on a round the world voyage. Knowing Darwin's contributions to science later in life only makes the book that much more interesting. I've only given a sampling of what this book holds. Darwin visited more places than I have mentioned, and discussed more science than what I've listed. He even devoted an entire chapter to the theory of the formation of coral islands and atolls. The only stumbling block I can see to the modern reader is that Darwin's language is over 170 years old - it's not as difficult as reading Shakespeare, but it's not as easy as reading Carl Zimmer. Still, I would highly recommend this book to anyone. In fact, for those people that might not be as curious about science and evolution as I am, and may not be interested at all in reading On the Origin of Species, I would still recommend this book for the history and exotic locations.


I happen to have a 1972 copy of this book which my younger sister had given to my father in 1974, and which eventually made its way into my hands a couple of years back and I read it soon after. So, seeing it mentioned here, it caught my eye. Regarding the quote above about the "stupid" negro who put his hands at his side, if you remember that any slave (or even a freed slave) who as much as threatened a white man was likely to be whipped or beaten (or worse), then this negro might have actually been smart enough to save himself a potential lot of pain and trouble. Put up with the white man passing his hands over your face and talking loudly at you, and you might be able to go on your way at the end of the journey. Maybe he also had a family to think of. Many slaves were lynched for very minor crimes in those dark days, and even into the last century, according to a program I saw on TV about the influence of music on the civil rights struggle. But Darwin may have known little of this ill-treatment and thus misunderstood the behaviour of the black man. Just a comment....

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