Savages and Cannibals: Revisiting Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle
Racist assumptions are deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of the West. Lurking even in beloved texts where we may not expect to find them, they can easily translate into atrocities.
"Viewing such men, one can hardly make one's self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world." Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
When I proposed to my science writers' book club that we read Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, I recalled the sense of wonder that the young Darwin expressed as he traversed the world. Hired as the Beagle's naturalist and just 22 years old when the ship left Plymouth in 1831, Darwin joyfully details his encounters with spiders and butterflies, and birds and mammals such as ostriches and armadillos, some of which he roasted and ate. His five-year-round-the-world voyage helped Darwin formulate some of the ideas that formed the basis of his theory of evolution, published more than twenty years later as On the Origin of Species.
I first read The Voyage of the Beagle back in 2003, in the midst of writing my book, "Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects," co-authored with photographer Volker Steger. I was particularly struck by a passage in which the great naturalist described how he would clamber onto the backs of giant Galapagos tortoises, and, after "giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away; but I found it very difficult to keep my balance." I quoted The Voyage of the Beagle in my own book, specifically, an anecdote about a night in Argentina in 1835, when Darwin described an attack by "the great black bug of the Pampas," a blood-sucking bug which may have transmitted a protozoan parasite causing Chagas' disease, possibly triggering a mysterious life-long malaise that Darwin endured upon his return home.
But as I read the book a second time this spring, eighteen years later, I felt my own creeping sense of malaise. For some reason I had forgotten Darwin's encounters with indigenous peoples in South America, whom he describes, variously, as "wild," "savage," "cannibals" and "idle"; also "retard[ed] in their civilization," thanks to their "perfect equality among individuals." Even though the "civilized" Indians of the tribe of "the Cacique Lucanee" have a "lesser degree of ferocity," he notes, "it is "almost counterbalanced by their entire immorality."
To be sure, Darwin's racist ideas about the savagery and immorality of the "Indians" is tempered with some compassion and discomfort. He describes a massacre of indigenous people, "men, women and children, about one hundred and ten in number," murdered by "banditti-like soldiers." "Nearly all [were] taken or killed, for the soldiers sabre every man," Darwin writes. "This is a dark picture, but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman [my informer] answered, "Why, what can be done? They breed so."
But even as Darwin is aghast at this bloodshed, he also seems to equivocate. "Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?" He reassures himself, however: "the children of the Indians are saved, to be sold or given away as servants, or rather slaves for as long a time as the owners can make them believe themselves slaves; but I believe in their treatment there is little to complain of." (My italics.)
As I reached Chapter X, "Tierra del Fuego," my unease turned into nausea. The Beagle arrived at this southernmost Argentinian province on December 17th, 1832. "The savages followed the ship, and just before dark we saw their fire, and again heard their wild cry," Darwin recalls. Directed to a landing place on shore by four natives who "shout most vehemently," making "gestures with great rapidity," he writes, "I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement." The language of these people, he expounds, "according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate [...] certainly no European ever cleared his throat with so many hoarse, guttural and clicking sounds."
A reason for the Beagle's visit to Tierra del Fuego now emerges. On board the ship are three Native Fuegians whom Darwin admits he had not yet noticed. They had been kidnapped by the Beagle's Captain Fitz Roy on an earlier voyage, from 1826 to 1830, "as hostages for the loss of a boat, which had been stolen," and forcibly transported to England. The names slapped onto these three natives (a fourth had died in England of smallpox) are "York Minster," ("a full-grown, short, thick, powerful man;") "Jemmy Button," (purchased as a child in exchange for a pearl-button) who is "a universal favourite ... he was merry and often laughed"; and "Fuegia Basket," "a nice, modest, reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression." Their original names are not recorded.
On encountering the former captives, the "savages" invite them to stay, but Jemmy Button "understood very little of their language, and was, moreover, thoroughly ashamed of his countrymen," Darwin writes. As he explores the region and meets Native Fuegians, Darwin remarks upon their "filthy and greasy" skins, "their voices discordant, and their gestures violent." They are "cannibals;" "when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs." "Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world," he writes, concluding that, "I believe, in this extreme part of South America, man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world."
I closed the book. I felt traumatized. Then I googled "indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego."
According to Wikipedia, several indigenous peoples once inhabited Tierra del Fuego: the Ona (Selk'nam), Haush (Manek'enk), Yaghan (Yámana), and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who inhabited the region as far back as 6,400 years ago. The coastal-dwelling Yamana and Alacaluf traveled by birchbark canoe, gaining sustenance from fish, sea birds, otters, seals, shellfish and sometimes whales. The Selk'nam lived in the interior of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and lived mainly by hunting guanacos, a grazing animal closely related to the llama. The Fuegian peoples spoke several distinct languages, including both the Kawésqar language and the Yaghan language; the Ona language had more than 30,000 words.
When Chileans and Argentinians of European descent invaded and colonized the islands of Tierra del Fuego in the mid-19th century, they brought measles and smallpox to which the indigenous Fuegians had no immunity. By the 20th century, their numbers had declined to the hundreds where there were once thousands. The Selk'nam people were raped, deported and exterminated by estancieros (estate-owners) who acquired tracts of land in the grasslands of Argentina. From 1884 to 1900, sheep farmers or militia were paid a bounty for each Selk'nam they murdered, "which was confirmed on presentation of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull." In the mid-nineteenth century, about 4,000 Selk'nam were living on Tierra del Fuego; by 1930 their numbers had been reduced to about 100. Their Ona language, last spoken in the 1980s, is considered extinct.
I am certainly not the first person to recognize or comment on Darwin's racism. In May 2021, in an opinion piece for the journal Science titledThe “Descent of Man,” 150 years on, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes writes that"Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races."
Yet Darwin was a liberal and an abolitionist, as University College London geneticist Adam Rutherford points out. In Bahia, in Brazil, he quarreled with Captain Fitz Roy, who "defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered "No." He was horrified by the slave trade in Brazil. "The extent to which the trade is carried on; the ferocity with which it is defended; the respectable (!) people who are concerned in it are far from being exaggerated at home."
Upon reading these analyses, I wonder at my earlier, oblivious reading of The Voyage of the Beagle. I had thought of Darwin as a benign, long-bearded elder who spent forty years conducting experiments on earthworms and wrote a bestselling book on the topic. Among his other prolific works are The Expression of Emotions in Man and the Animals, in which he examined every feeling from dejection to sulkiness, surprise, horror, shyness and blushing, anger, disgust, patience and pride. (In 2010, I wrote a blog post about my favourite chapter of this book: “Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, Devotion.”) He was devoted to his wife (and first cousin) Emma Wedgewood and the ten children they shared, three of whom died in childhood.
Perhaps our admiration for such a towering figure obscures the more unsavory aspects of his writing. I cannot say why I paid no attention to Darwin's derogatory, dismissive, and yes, racist comments about "savages" and "cannibals" on my first reading of The Voyage of the Beagle. Did I take note and then ignore or dismiss them as an artefact of the British imperial era? I have no answer or excuse. Perhaps I simply thought, "that was then, this is now" or perhaps I was not truly cognizant of the cruelty of his words.
I do think that 21st-century readers of The Voyage of The Beagle would benefit from a more enlightened reading of the book, as well as an awareness of the suffering of exterminated indigenous South Americans. We shouldn't dismiss the racism of eminent Victorian scientists like Darwin, but instead see it for what it is: abhorrent. As Fuentes writes, "Today, students are taught Darwin as the 'father of evolutionary theory,' a genius scientist. They should also be taught Darwin as an Englishman with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience."
Images are illustrations of Fuegians from the Voyage of the Beagle
Words by Josie Glausiusz
Josie is an award-winning freelance journalist writing about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, Scientific American, Hakai, Undark, Aeon, Sapiens, and National Geographic.