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.

In the closing pages of The Voyage of the Beagle, which relates Darwin's five-year voyage from England to South America, Tahiti, Australia, and back again, he considers what advice he has for someone contemplating undertaking similar adventures. He begins with a warning: “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.” This characteristically quiet admission lets us readers know that Darwin has suffered a good deal during the time he spent on the ocean, something upon which the earlier portions of the book do not touch. But when he we think about the pages we have read, we realize that the man whom we tend to envisage as the Victorian sage-like man that Boehm carved in marble — white-bearded, sitting home safe in his chair — in his youth experienced great adventures, braving bone-chilling cold, terrible heat and humidity, destructive earthquakes, and ocean storms. Something of a pre-Victorian Indiana Jones, he traveled through war zones, avoided hostile tribes, and made his way across terrifyingly narrow narrow mountain trails precipices with 500-foot drops (although denying that they were all that dangerous — after all, only heavily-laden pack mules fall over the edge. Frequently).

Trying to appear positive, he suggests (perhaps tongue in cheek) that if the potential traveler “take pleasure in naval tactics, he will assuredly have full scope for his taste.” And then he immediately responds, as if he were taking part in a dialogue with the reader: “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.” Next he asks,

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. [My emphasis]

Darwin, who like Copernicus, de-centered the position of human beings in the natural world, nonetheless finds nature (here with an uppercase N) somehow inadequate. In fact, he sounds much like Oscar Wilde in “The Decay of Lying” — “I confess, however, my imagination had painted something more grand, more terrific, in the full-grown storm.” The problem, it turns out, is a matter of perspective, point of view, for the ocean

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.

Travel, of course, has its advantages, a “brighter side”: It's been nice, after all, seeing all those foreign lands. “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.” Of course, he admits, “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.”


Darwin, Charles. A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World The Voyage Of The Beagle. Project Gutenberg EBook #3704 produced by Sue Asscher. August 6, 2008. The e-version is based on the 1890 11th edition. (The book first appeared in 1839.)

Last modified 25 March 2012