book-reviews

The Voyage of the Beagle

by Charles Darwin

Rating: ★★★

Part travel story, part geological essay, Darwin's Voyage is from an era when to travel at all was to embark on a journey of some daring and duration. From leaving England to returning, the trip took five years, and the route taken saw the HMS Beagle circumnavigate the globe in its entirety. The novel is Darwin's own account of this epic journey, made famous for the startling conclusions he drew afterwards from certain observations of the distribution of species.

The first thing to note about the book is that the plot is theoretically quite gripping. Spurred by the long uneventful weeks kept captive on the ship, Darwin explodes onto land with a restless curiosity, trekking off into every stretch of land he can, often racing the Beagle from one port to the next, accompanied only by a hired guide or two. He sees a lot of life in a lot of different places, including revolutionary South America, the savage welcome of Terra del Fuego, the gold-mines of Chile, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and imperial diplomacy in Tahiti.

The second thing to note is that as a naturalist and a biologist, he hardly seems to notice some of this. His rendition of highly interesting events is rather dry and detached, and you see much of it from a distance and at a high level. The endless detail of scenery and biology also grows rather tiring, as Darwin himself seems to feel, especially when he finds nothing new to comment on in what he describes. For the most part, though, his geological observations are interesting, perhaps because he himself is more aware of finding interesting features in these less-explored regions. You also see Darwin's power of reasoning being deployed against these features, and certain slightly scholarly tracts of the book -- such as his discourse on the formation of coral atolls -- are notably interesting for this.

Through the book, you get a sense of the man himself. That sense is decidedly confusing and uneven, but that simply tells us that this is a rendition of a real person and not a character of fiction. Darwin is an egalitarian-minded fellow, willing to treat all men as worthy and deserving of respect. He much admires several of the native peoples he comes into contact with, while noting also negative traits where he sees them. One of the brief glimpses of passion in the book comes from his sincere denunciation of slavery, based on his own agony at seeing it in practise and the effect it has on people he is inclined to admire. Darwin is also a natural scientist, filled with curiosity and little cause to care if he is thought odd. Scrambling around the strangest country in search of fossils, rocks and plants, he seems perfectly at home. In the Galapagos, he seems almost giddy with his studies, describing his mad efforts at riding tortoises, hurling sea-iguanas into pools and playfully tugging at the tails of their land-dwelling brethren.

The Voyage of the Beagle should be viewed as a bit of wild country. It contains some beautiful specimens of experience in their natural environment, and it is a pity that the reality of extracting them includes some long hard walks through dry detail, often fruitless but sometimes returning great bounty.