The unsent mail to Charles Darwin
Life of Darwin was like a voyage, like his great book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, through the infinitesimal aspects of living beings. Now, as we celebrate his 211th birth anniversary, it would be worthwhile to take a look at what he had gone through while jotting down his encounters during the voyage.
While reading Charles Darwin's book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’, I entered into a different world of reading. So far the books I read were either fiction or books of philosophic nature. But this book has offered me a different ray of thought. It was a combination of scientific exploration and the extra ordinary experience of a voyage. This book is a compilation of the great scientist's journal of researches. And at every moment of reading, the thought that the narrator is Charles Darwin, one of the great intellectual milestones that has changed man's thinking, did excite me.
‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ has 550 pages within 21 chapters. It was published in 1968 By Heron Books, Geneva. There are 40 illustrations to support the narration, mainly geographical maps or sketches of Darwin's observations in Natural History.
At the beginning of my reading, Darwin stood as a great master of science before me. Soon he became my friend, and I became his fellow traveller throughout his navigation, his exploration to South America and the Pacific. I was in a kind of close attachment with the scientist of a bygone era. My reading took months to finish as I had limited time for quiet reading. Throughout the period, Darwin became an intimate person for me that I felt so sad to depart the book and his thoughts.
His descriptions depicted his own mind and thought pattern. It was a beautiful mind, so progressive, straight and above all so humane...
Let me quote Courtland Canby who is the editor of the book. Canby writes about Darwin in his Editor's Foreword, “The great scientist who accomplished all this was nevertheless one of the most modest and endearing of men. Possessed by a rare passion for truth, he was diligent and supremely conscientious in his work..........Darwin was a kind and patient man, and something of his spirit, and of the making of his ideas can be gained from a reading of the engrossing pages of his journal."
What Canby had expressed about Darwin was revealed to me in many of the incidents that occurred during the voyage. While meeting the poor inhabitants of a harbour near Chiloe, he broods, “....for the race [race of American native red Indians] is in this part extinct, owing to the catholic desire of making at one blow Christians and Slaves.”
I remember how he felt for the slaves who are maltreated by the rich and dominant people of some American countries... I remember his facial expression when he met the pathetic state of a poor slave. He was wondering about the brutal power of man to control his own fellow beings, and about the submissive nature of the slave who is at the same time physically stronger.
He writes about his first encounter of a savage, a barbarian in his own habitat, "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 to describe or paint the difference between savage and civilized man. It is the difference between the wild and tame animal: and part of the interest in beholding a savages the same which would lead everyone to desire to see the lion in his desert…”
Darwin’s commentary brings in various bewitching imageries. Many times I felt that he is a real poet at heart. During the voyage around islands near Chiloe, he describes the surrounding climate, “on the following day a storm, worthy of Tierra del Fu ego, [oh! That name of the mountain reminds me of the day Darwin spent on climbing the steep rocks of Tierra, and at last reaching at the mountain top and how he looked down to the plain with ‘a mind undisturbed by minute details, was filled with the stupendous dimensions of the surrounding masses] and raged with great fury. White massive clouds were piled up against a dark blue sky, and across them black ragged sheets of vapour were rapidly driven. The successive mountain ranges appeared like dim shadows; and the setting sun cast on the woodland a yellow gleam, much like that produced by the flame of spirits of wine. The water was white with the flying spray, and the wind lulled and roared again through the rigging; it was an ominous, sublime scene”.
He describes a night in the sea, “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 canvass.”
Now I remember another charming description of his. It was while he was traveling south of Plata. He writes, “……every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wakes he was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure as over the vault of the heavens.”
He admires the sublimity of the primeval forests of Brazil undefaced by the hands of men. He admires the planes of Patagonia for its boundlessness and coral islands for their amazing natural architecture. His visually rich descriptions of earthquakes and active volcanoes are alive in my memory. There are so many more exciting direct observations from Mr Darwin about strange animal behaviour. It was very interesting to watch Darwin collecting and analysing samples of fossils and living creatures that helped him to form at last his ‘THEORY OF EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELECTION’. I found him often getting off the ship into some strange islands and running to the shores or towards a nearby steep mountain with his geological hammer and lenses…
In the last pages, while traveling back to England, he looks back to his long six years of sea-life-1831 to 1836. Here he recognizes his thirst to travel into unexplored lands as that of the savage man for his love of the chase. I love to remember the lines which he added in the last page, “Traveling 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.”
There are many more interesting observations of Darwin about the biology and geology of South America, which I am unable to quote here because I am lazy and enjoy being lazy. But I am sure that everyone who starts reading this book will be blessed to go through so vast an experience and knowledge in each line.