This winter I’ve enjoyed two exciting armchair cruises First, The Sea and the Jungle, a nearly forgotten book by H.M. Tomlinson, published in 1912. In 1909 Tomlinson, a British journalist, took a job as purser on a freighter carrying equipment to the navigable limits of the Amazon River and its tributary.
Tomlinson’s prose is haunting. He describes a wave during a storm as “a heaped mass of polished obsidian. . . . It rose directly and acutely from your feet to a summit that was awesome because the eye travelled to it over a long and broken up-slope; this hill had intervened suddenly to obscure 30 degrees of light; and the imagination shrank from contemplating water which overshadowed your foothold with such high dark bulk toppling in collapse.”
Traveling through the sweltering, claustrophobic greenness of the jungle which parted only enough to allow the river through, Tomlinson reflects on the advantages of armchair adventure to the real thing. He sounds pretty contemporary as he criticizes the wasteful bureaucracy of the British companies involved in trying to build a railroad through the jungle from Brazil to Bolivia.
Tomlinson was ready to return to England and family after his travels, but I was not. I picked up Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle to experience an earlier voyage in a sailing ship. Darwin majored in divinity at Cambridge where he was also an avid student of natural history—religion and science were much less politicized in Victorian England than in modern America. Darwin’s well-heeled father sponsored his five year trip on the Beagle as a “scientific gentleman.”
Darwin’s prose does not match Tomlinson’s poetic grandeur, but he does create a memorable trip through wilderness which no longer exists. The Beagle was a surveying ship sent on a two-year mission to explore the coast of South America. This is not the book where Darwin put forth his theory of the evolution of species, but it does show Darwin collecting and analyzing specimens of living and fossilized animals. And, yes, I did skip these detailed explanations. The amount I want to know about species of plankton or tropical worms is limited.
What I did enjoy were the adventures Darwin had in traveling through the interior of a sparsely settled continent as the Beagle docked for weeks at a time in every port. Darwin’s least favorite country is Brazil where he is horrified at the treatment of slaves—even by relatively enlightened owners. Sounding like a clergyman, Darwin writes: “It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit.” He witnessed a party of soldiers corner an escaped slave who flung herself over a cliff rather than face capture and return to slavery. Darwin remarked that a Roman matron who chose death over slavery would have been honored. The African woman was condemned as obstinate.
In reading this book, I could never get my picture of the balding, middle-aged Darwin out of my mind. For this reason, I was always amazed at the young Darwin’s mountain-climbing exploits and horseback forays into uninhabited plains and mountains. His accounts of Argentine wars against native-Americans resemble those of the U.S. at the same time.
The most unusual, and also the saddest culture, Darwin encountered were the natives of Tierra del Fuego living a stone-age existence at the tip of South America. Three years earlier, the Beagle’s captain had taken three children from that tribe to England to Christianize and educate them. On this trip, he was returning them—now in their teens—to their native country with an English missionary to teach Christianity and agriculture to these people. The ship returned to check on the group a few weeks later and rescued the missionary from certain death. The three natives stayed, but had obviously reverted to their tribal customs in order to survive.
I was surprised, but not disappointed, that a relatively small part of this book described the visit to the Galapagos Islands. The ship spent a relatively short time there, and Darwin obviously made the most of his visit. In this book he doesn’t write about the theory that must have been taking shape in his head. The Voyage of the Beagle is all about the adventure.