Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Darwin's Carnival

It's Carnival time in Brazil. Thousands of people have been working all year on wonderful costumes and floats for this moment, and so it is especially gratifying for this blog that one of the winners, Uniao de Ilha, chose as their theme the English biologist Charles Darwin.

Darwin and his manuscripts

Although most people know of Darwin's voyage to the Galapgos on HMS Beagle, not many know that he stopped off on the way in Brazil. Fortunately, a friend has been kind enough to give me a copy of his diaries.
"It was impossible to wish for anything more delightful than thus to spend some weeks in so magnificent a country. In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all." he wrote in his journal.

After a quick stop at the volcanic island of Fernando de Noronha the Beagle next made landfall at Salvador in Bahia, where Darwin took the opportunity to explore inland.
"The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign."

Next stop was Rio. Here an Englishman, Patrick Lennon, offered to take Darwin on a trek inland...
"Leaving the coast for a time, we again entered the forest. The trees were very lofty, and remarkable, compared with those of Europe, from the whiteness of their trunks. I see by my note-book, "wonderful and beautiful, flowering parasites," invariably struck me as the most novel object in these grand scenes. Travelling onwards we passed through tracts of pasturage, much injured by the enormous conical ants' nests, which were nearly twelve feet high."

The tree of life

There is material for a 100 blogs in Darwin's journals, which can be found online at

For now I will only add a passage from the journey after Rio, down to Montevideo
"In our passage to the Plata, we saw nothing particular, excepting on one day a great shoal of porpoises, many hundreds in number. The whole sea was in places furrowed by them; and a most extraordinary spectacle was presented, as hundreds, proceeding together by jumps, in which their whole bodies were exposed, thus cut the water. When the ship was running nine knots an hour, these animals could cross and recross the bows with the greatest of ease, and then dash away right ahead. As soon as we entered the estuary of the Plata, the weather was very unsettled. One dark night we were surrounded by numerous seals and penguins, which made such strange noises, that the officer on watch reported he could hear the cattle bellowing on shore. On a second night we witnessed a splendid scene of natural fireworks; the mast-head and yard-arm-ends shone with St. Elmo's light; and the form of the vane could almost be traced, as if it had been rubbed with phosphorus. The sea was so highly luminous, that the tracks of the penguins were marked by a fiery wake, and the darkness of the sky was momentarily illuminated by the most vivid lightning."

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