(Vintage edition with On the Origin of Species)
The Voyage of the ‘Beagle’ is the publication which made Charles Darwin’s name as a naturalist: he accompanied HMS Beagle, whose captain and crew had the remit to undertake a detailed survey of South America’s coasts and islands for the Admiralty. The whole voyage took several years, and because of Beagle’s prime remit, Darwin spends most of the book discussing his experiences in South America.
Darwin, judging by the book, was a man passionately interested in everything, whether this was geology, insects and birds, animals, weather patterns, the customs of the people he encountered, and the general scenery. His journal begins in the Cape Verde islands, briefly, before spending a great deal of time in Brazil, Argentina (where he seems particularly interested in the way of life of the gaucho), Tierra del Fuego (which he describes in the most miserable of terms, battered by storms and raging seas, even in the summer), Chile and the Andes and the Peruvian desert. Then on to the Galapagos Islands, where he makes notes on the famous tortoises and the finches which led him to formulate his theories of natural selection, across the Pacific to Tahiti (with which he was very favourably impressed) and New Zealand, before going on to Australia (which did not impress him favourably), the East Indies (which led him onto further theories about the formation of atolls), and finally back to England.
Darwin travelled widely within the countries he visited, only occasionally dismayed by lawlessness, and discusses politics and current affairs in these places. He describes insects, plants and animals in detail, often using Latin names – so much so that I wished for a glossary or a set of footnotes – and his writing is immediate and – for the nineteenth century – even conversational. However, for the modern reader it is densely written, and the edition I read is unencumbered by maps (apart from the Galapagos Islands) and has very few illustrations.
He was a meticulous scientist, and a modest man, acknowledging help he had received from fellow scientists in identifying the many fossils and specimens he brought back to England, but it’s the interest and delight which he had in the natural world which comes across so clearly in these pages.
It’s rather a shame that Vintage (who published the edition I read) seem to treat the book as simple prose, and don’t provide more guidance in reading it: I’m a scientist (a geologist) and I had difficulty with some of the terminology at times, so I’m not sure what a non-scientist would make of the long descriptions of shrews and the fossils of Argentina, for example. I also could have done with a few more maps, showing where Darwin went and the places he visited, but perhaps there is an edition out there giving more support to the reader.
Anyway, it’s a fascinating work, interesting to read as the jumping-off point for many of Darwin’s theories, and the origins of our modern ways of thinking about the natural world.