The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

published 1839   chapter 18

I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a white or scarlet flower in the back of the head, or through a small hole in each ear, is pretty. A crown of woven cocoa-nut leaves is also worn as a shade for the eyes. The women appear to be in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.

Nearly all the natives understand a little English - that is, they know the names of common things; and by the aid of this, together with signs, a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. In returning in the evening to the boat, we stopped to witness a very pretty scene. Numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illumined the placid sea and surrounding trees; others, in circles, were singing Tahitian verses. We seated ourselves on the sand, and joined their party. The songs were impromptu, and I believe related to our arrival: one little girl sang a line, which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an island in the far-famed South Sea.

observations: Charles Darwin was born on February 13th in 1809 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln by a strange coincidence). Although On the Origin of species (published 20 years later) is his important work, this account of his travels is very enjoyable, as the blog has said before, and he comes over as a delightful companion.

Earlier, he quotes someone else speaking of the inhabitants of Mendoza:
"They eat their dinner, & it is so very hot they go to sleep & what could they do better?" I quite agree with [him], the happy doom of the Mendozinos is to eat, sleep & be idle.

- this despite obviously being himself someone with a huge capacity for work, achievement and acquiring knowledge, someone who could walk for miles and climb mountains with ease, while spotting tiny differences in the plants and insects he sees.

There is also a very grumpy description of a town where no-one would let him walk through their gardens to get to the hill beyond: ‘I feel glad that this happened in the land of the Brazilians, for I bear them no good will – a land also of slavery, and therefore of moral debasement.’

According to his granddaughter Gwen Raverat, he was very bad at spelling, and there is a lovely story of his playing a Scrabble-type word game and looking in puzzlement at someone adding an M to create the word ‘mother’ and saying ‘Moe-ther? Moe-ther? There’s no such word.’

Links on the blog: Charles Darwin and gauchos appeared last month, and Gauguin decorated this entry by Ian McEwan.

The picture is by Gauguin, who spent a lot of time in Tahiti and nearby islands, and is from a gallery in Dresden via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Reminds me of Somerset Maugham's 'The Moon and Sixpence' supposedly based on Gaugin's life. It's an excellent read, although it's been years since I read it. The picture looks familiar and I'm wondering if it used on my copy.

  2. Moira - What an interesting look at Darwin's travels. I've heard too that Darwin was a personable man; somehow I like knowing that about him. And I didn't know he wasn't much of a speller. Well, somehow that makes him more human...

  3. Moira, thanks for joining in the Biography fun! Cheers


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