Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes on Voyage of the Beagle: Chapter II

Students are supposed to be reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle for the class and taking notes. Tonight we're covering Chapter II. We're also supposed to be reading a text on tropical biology but my text hasn't arrived yet. 

To give some perspective on time, they left Devonport on December 27, 1831. Darwin was two months shy of his 22nd birthday and never left England before. 

Chapter II starts April 4, 1832, a year and five months after leaving England. This chapter primarily covers a side trip by Darwin while the ship charts the area around Rio de Janeiro. He meets up with a fellow Englishman and rides off to explore the countryside. 

The first striking passage is about a village of runaway slaves. They were discovered and soldiers dispatched yet "one old woman, who, sooner than again by led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy."  I know Darwin as a champion of antislavery. Perhaps not yet or maybe he's giving a third-person opinion on the matter. 

Darwin and his party continue to ride along the shore also described here. There is an entertaining exchange when he camps along with way and asks the local property owner if there's anything to eat. The owner responds that he can have anything Darwin desires but he's out of everything that Darwin asks for except for a chicken that they beat to death with a rock. 

Moving on into a coastal forest he sees wonderfully tall forests with parasitic plants, including many orchids, egrets, herons, gastropods, and "ants' nests, which were nearly twelve feet high." These are actually termite mounds and there's an example here. There is a brief mention of vampire bats, which harass horses. 

Coffee is grown in this region and each tree produces about two pounds of coffee beans. And Darwin gives a brief description of mandioc or cassava. All the parts of the plant are eaten save the toxic juice, which much be removed from the root before tapioca and farinha are produced. Apparently slaves work these farms and "I have no doubt the salves pass happy and contented lives."  Oy vey Darwin. 

The next story about slavery was "I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal."  Maybe it's sinking in. 

He's then off to Socego, a beach and popular destination. There he encounters an incredible forest, where one man is making a 70' canoe. SEVENTY FEET! The trees are huge and the lianas (woody vines) are also huge being 2' around. 

And this I understand about the rainforest "the attractions are so numerous, the he is scarcely able to walk at all." 

Of all the critters, he focuses on the planarians (flatworms) and fireflies. There's also a paragraphs on the local climate (that's all I'll give it... you can tell meteorology isn't my schtick - unless you're talking very local effects - then I'm very interested). There are so many insects that "It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist's mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue." He notes the work of leaf cutter ants and army ants and has a description of a fight between a large wasp (tarantula hunter) and large spider. 

We goes on to describe many spiders and habits, including social spiders. I've encountered these in Manaus. The stuff of nightmares (not really... but if you imagine being tiny and falling into these immense unorganized webs...). 

He commonly messes with invertebrates and cannot just watch. He saves insects from spiders' webs dispatches them so they don't suffer and put them back in the web.

What a curious mind. 

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