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Chapter XXI: Mauritius To England (Page 2)


The flat swampy land on which Pernambuco stands is surrounded, at the distance of a few miles, by a semicircle of low hills, or rather by the edge of a country elevated perhaps two hundred feet above the sea. The old city of Olinda stands on one extremity of this range. One day I took a canoe, and proceeded up one of the channels to visit it; I found the old town from its situation both sweeter and cleaner than that of Pernambuco. I must here commemorate what happened for the first time during our nearly five years' wandering, namely, having met with a want of politeness. I was refused in a sullen manner at two different houses, and obtained with difficulty from a third, permission to pass through their gardens to an uncultivated hill, for the purpose of viewing the country. 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. A Spaniard would have felt ashamed at the very thought of refusing such a request, or of behaving to a stranger with rudeness. The channel by which we went to and returned from Olinda, was bordered on each side by mangroves, which sprang like a miniature forest out of the greasy mud-banks. The bright green colour of these bushes always reminded me of the rank grass in a church-yard: both are nourished by putrid exhalations; the one speaks of death past, and the other too often of death to come.

The most curious object which I saw in this neighbourhood, was the reef that forms the harbour. I doubt whether in the whole world any other natural structure has so artificial an appearance. [6] It runs for a length of several miles in an absolutely straight line, parallel to, and not far distant from, the shore. It varies in width from thirty to sixty yards, and its surface is level and smooth; it is composed of obscurely stratified hard sandstone. At high water the waves break over it; at low water its summit is left dry, and it might then be mistaken for a breakwater erected by Cyclopean workmen. On this coast the currents of the sea tend to throw up in front of the land, long spits and bars of loose sand, and on one of these, part of the town of Pernambuco stands. In former times a long spit of this nature seems to have become consolidated by the percolation of calcareous matter, and afterwards to have been gradually upheaved; the outer and loose parts during this process having been worn away by the action of the sea, and the solid nucleus left as we now see it. Although night and day the waves of the open Atlantic, turbid with sediment, are driven against the steep outside edges of this wall of stone, yet the oldest pilots know of no tradition of any change in its appearance. This durability is much the most curious fact in its history: it is due to a tough layer, a few inches thick, of calcareous matter, wholly formed by the successive growth and death of the small shells of Serpulae, together with some few barnacles and nulliporae. These nulliporae, which are hard, very simply-organized sea-plants, play an analogous and important part in protecting the upper surfaces of coral-reefs, behind and within the breakers, where the true corals, during the outward growth of the mass, become killed by exposure to the sun and air. These insignificant organic beings, especially the Serpulae, have done good service to the people of Pernambuco; for without their protective aid the bar of sandstone would inevitably have been long ago worn away and without the bar, there would have been no harbour.

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip

(before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; -- nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master's ears.

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children -- those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own -- being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

On the last day of August we anchored for the second time at Porto Praya in the Cape de Verd archipelago; thence we proceeded to the Azores, where we stayed six days. On the

2nd of October we made the shore, of England; and at Falmouth I left the Beagle, having lived on board the good little vessel nearly five years.

Our Voyage having come to an end, I will take a short retrospect of the advantages and disadvantages, the pains and pleasures, of our circumnavigation of the world. If a person asked my advice, before undertaking a long voyage, my answer would depend upon his possessing a decided taste for some branch of knowledge, which could by this means be advanced. No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.

Many of the losses which must be experienced are obvious; such as that of the society of every old friend, and of the sight of those places with which every dearest remembrance is so intimately connected. These losses, however, are at the time partly relieved by the exhaustless delight of anticipating the long wished-for day of return. If, as poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which best serve to pass away the long night. Other losses, although not at first felt, tell heavily after a period: these are the want of room, of seclusion, of rest; the jading feeling of constant hurry; the privation of small luxuries, the loss of domestic society and even of music and the other pleasures of imagination. When such trifles are mentioned, it is evident that the real grievances, excepting from accidents, of a sea-life are at an end. The short space of sixty years has made an astonishing difference in the facility of distant navigation. Even in the time of Cook, a man who left his fireside for such expeditions underwent severe privations. A yacht now, with every luxury of life, can circumnavigate the globe. Besides the vast improvements in ships and naval resources, the whole western shores of America are thrown open, and Australia has become the capital of a rising continent. How different are the circumstances to a man shipwrecked at the present day in the Pacific, to what they were in the time of Cook! Since his voyage a hemisphere has been added to the civilized world.

If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil, cured in a week. If, on the other hand, he take pleasure in naval tactics, he will assuredly have full scope for his taste. But it must be borne in mind, how large a proportion of the time, during a long voyage, is spent on the water, as compared with the days in harbour. And what are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean. A tedious waste, a desert of water, as the Arabian calls it. No doubt there are some delightful scenes. A moonlight night, with the clear heavens and the dark glittering sea, and the white sails filled by the soft air of a gently blowing trade-wind, a dead calm, with the heaving surface polished like a mirror, and all still except the occasional flapping of the canvas. It is well once to behold a squall with its rising arch and coming fury, or the heavy gale of wind and mountainous waves. I confess, however, my imagination had painted something more grand, more terrific in the full-grown storm. It is an incomparably finer spectacle when beheld on shore, where the waving trees, the wild flight of the birds, the dark shadows and bright lights, the rushing of the torrents all proclaim the strife of the unloosed elements. At sea the albatross and little petrel fly as if the storm were their proper sphere, the water rises and sinks as if fulfilling its usual task, the ship alone and its inhabitants seem the objects of wrath. On a forlorn and weather-beaten coast, the scene is indeed different, but the feelings partake more of horror than of wild delight.

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 comprehend the 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.

When I say that the scenery of parts of Europe is probably superior to anything which we beheld, I except, as a class by itself, that of the intertropical zones. The two classes cannot be compared together; but I have already often enlarged on the grandeur of those regions. As the force of impressions generally depends on preconceived ideas, I may add, that mine were taken from the vivid descriptions in the Personal Narrative of Humboldt, which far exceed in merit anything else which I have read. Yet with these high-wrought ideas, my feelings were far from partaking of a tinge of disappointment on my first and final landing on the shores of Brazil.

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: -- no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why, then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?

Lastly, of natural scenery, the views from lofty mountains, through certainly in one sense not beautiful, are very memorable. When looking down from the highest crest of the Cordillera, the mind, undisturbed by minute details, was filled with the stupendous dimensions of the surrounding masses.

Of individual objects, perhaps nothing is more certain to create astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a barbarian -- of man in his lowest and most savage state. One's mind hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, could our progenitors have been men like these? -- men, whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals; men, who do not possess the instinct of those animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason, or at least of arts consequent on that reason. I do not believe it is possible to describe or paint the difference between savage and civilized man. It is the difference between a wild and tame animal: and part of the interest in beholding a savage, is the same which would lead every one to desire to see the lion in his desert, the tiger tearing his prey in the jungle, or the rhinoceros wandering over the wild plains of Africa.

Among the other most remarkable spectacles which we have beheld, may be ranked, the Southern Cross, the cloud of Magellan, and the other constellations of the southern hemisphere -- the water-spout -- the glacier leading its blue stream of ice, over-hanging the sea in a bold precipice -- a lagoon-island raised by the reef-building corals -- an active volcano -- and the overwhelming effects of a violent earthquake. These latter phenomena, perhaps, possess for me a peculiar interest, from their intimate connection with the geological structure of the world. The earthquake, however, must be to every one a most impressive event: the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.

It has been said, that the love of the chase is an inherent delight in man -- a relic of an instinctive passion. If so, I am sure the pleasure of living in the open air, with the sky for a roof and the ground for a table, is part of the same feeling, it is the savage returning to his wild and native habits. I always look back to our boat cruises, and my land journeys, when through unfrequented countries, with an extreme delight, which no scenes of civilization could have created. I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced, when he first breathed in a foreign clime, where the civilized man had seldom or never trod.

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage, which are of a more reasonable nature. The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply.

From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea, probably stands by itself in the records of history. It is the more striking when we remember that only sixty years since, Cook, whose excellent judgment none will dispute, could foresee no prospect of a change. Yet these changes have now been effected by the philanthropic spirit of the British nation.

In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilization, which, at some not very remote period, will rule as empress over the southern hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag, seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.

In conclusion, it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in distant countries. It both sharpens, and partly allays that want and craving, which, as Sir J. Herschel remarks, a man experiences although every corporeal sense be fully satisfied. The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity. Moreover, as a number of isolated facts soon become uninteresting, the habit of comparison leads to generalization. On the other hand, as the traveller stays but a short time in each place, his descriptions must generally consist of mere sketches, instead of detailed observations. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge, by inaccurate and superficial hypotheses.

But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover, how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.

[1] After the volumes of eloquence which have poured forth on this subject, it is dangerous even to mention the tomb. A modern traveller, in twelve lines, burdens the poor little island with the following titles, -- it is a grave, tomb, pyramid, cemetery, sepulchre, catacomb, sarcophagus, minaret, and mausoleum!

[2] It deserves notice, that all the many specimens of this shell found by me in one spot, differ as a marked variety, from another set of specimens procured from a different spot.

[3] Beatson's St. Helena. Introductory chapter, p. 4.

[4] Among these few insects, I was surprised to find a small Aphodius (nov. spec.) and an Oryctes, both extremely numerous under dung. When the island was discovered it certainly possessed no quadruped, excepting perhaps a mouse: it becomes, therefore, a difficult point to ascertain, whether these stercovorous insects have since been imported by accident, or if aborigines, on what food they formerly subsisted. On the banks of the Plata, where, from the vast number of cattle and horses, the fine plains of turf are richly manured, it is vain to seek the many kinds of dung-feeding beetles, which occur so abundantly in Europe. I observed only an Oryctes (the insects of this genus in Europe generally feed on decayed vegetable matter) and two species of Phanaeus, common in such situations. On the opposite side of the Cordillera in Chiloe, another species of Phanaeus is exceedingly abundant, and it buries the dung of the cattle in large earthen balls beneath the ground. There is reason to believe that the genus Phanaeus, before the introduction of cattle, acted as scavengers to man. In Europe, beetles, which find support in the matter which has already contributed towards the life of other and larger animals, are so numerous that there must be considerably more than one hundred different species. Considering this, and observing what a quantity of food of this kind is lost on the plains of La Plata, I imagined I saw an instance where man had disturbed that chain, by which so many animals are linked together in their native country. In Van Diemen's Land, however, I found four species of Onthophagus, two of Aphodius, and one of a third genus, very abundantly under the dung of cows; yet these latter animals had been then introduced only thirty-three years. Previous to that time the kangaroo and some other small animals were the only quadrupeds; and their dung is of a very different quality from that of their successors introduced by man. In England the greater number of stercovorous beetles are confined in their appetites; that is, they do not depend indifferently on any quadruped for the means of subsistence. The change, therefore, in habits which must have taken place in Van Diemen's Land is highly remarkable. I am indebted to the Rev. F. W. Hope, who, I hope, will permit me to call him my master in Entomology, for giving me the names of the foregoing insects.

[5] Monats. der Konig. Akad. d. Wiss. zu Berlin. Vom April, 1845.

[6] I have described this Bar in detail, in the Lond. and Edin. Phil. Mag., vol. xix. (1841), p. 257.

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