[ blog » 2022 ] Book: The Voyage of the Beagle (by Philipp Gesang, location: the balcony)

To accompany me on this year’s summer trip I picked a classic of travel literature, Charles Darwin’s description of his experiences on board the HMS Beagle during the years 1831–36. He condensed two separate trips into a single literary account that takes the reader on a contiguous trip around the world in east-west direction.

The mode of travel determines the “episodic” style of the Voyage as most stops in the itinerary follow the same pattern: the Beagle lands, Darwin embarks on extensive hikes to prominent landmarks, interacts with the locals, returns to the boat which then sets sail to the next destination. These on-shore – off-shore cycles are interspersed with observations about nature and society, and the logistics of the trip itself like obtaining a “passport” from non other than General de Rosas. El naturalista Don Carlos reports his findings of fossils of large land animals that once populated south america like Megatherium, theorizes about the origin of rock formations and reefs, discusses first-hand evidence for Lyell’s geological ideas, and discusses the varieties (and on occasion, the taste) of species he encounters – most prominently, of course, the tortoises in the famous Galápagos chapter. The arrangement in a series of largely independent episodes also makes the book quite convenient to pick up again after a reading break.

No less fascinating are Darwin’s remarks on the local population. Even in the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego, whose annyoing behavior towards strangers he comes to despise, he sees close relatives of the one human species, including the more refined “westerners”. A humanist perspective that he should later integrate in his evolutionary framework in The Descent of Man.

Darwin’s love for the tropics is evident, but he unexpectedly develops a fascination with barren Patagonia which he finds so hostile to Life, “pronounced by all most wretched and useless”, wondering “why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm possession of the memory?” Most travelers will be able to relate to this experience of a place which continues to stimulate our memory long after a visit even though superficially it did not seem to be of much interest before we actually got there.

Strongly recommended to everyone interested in travel, science and history!

Charles Darwin (1839): The Voyage of the Beagle, ISBN 978-0-140-43268-8.