“A dusky train of ink”: Darwin in Cape Verde

What if, instead of brilliant naturalist, Charles Darwin had been an epic poet? Actually, he may have been both. Here’s how The Voyage of the Beagle begins.

After having been twice driven back
by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship
Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command
of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed
from Devonport on the 27th of December,
1831. The object of the expedition
was to complete the survey of Patagonia
and Tierra del Fuego, commenced
under Captain King in 1826
to 1830, — to survey the shores
of Chile, Peru, and of some islands
in the Pacific — and to carry a chain
of chronometrical measurements round the World.

On the 6th of January we reached Teneriffe,
but were prevented landing, by fears
of our bringing the cholera: the next morning
we saw the sun rise behind the rugged
outline of the Grand Canary island,
and suddenly illuminate the Peak of Teneriffe,
whilst the lower parts were veiled in fleecy clouds.
This was the first of many delightful days
never to be forgotten. On the 16th
of January, 1832, we anchored
at Porto Praya, in St. Jago, the chief
island of the Cape de Verd archipelago.

The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea,
wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires
of a past age, and the scorching heat
of a tropical sun, have in most places
rendered the soil unfit for vegetation.
The country rises in successive steps
of table-land, interspersed with some
truncate conical hills, and the horizon
is bounded by an irregular chain of more
lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld
through the hazy atmosphere of this climate,
is one of great interest; if, indeed,
a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked,
for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees,
can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.

The island would generally be considered
as very uninteresting, but to anyone
accustomed only to an English landscape,
the novel aspect of an utterly sterile land
possesses a grandeur which more vegetation
might spoil. A single green leaf
can scarcely be discovered over wide tracts
of the lava plains; yet flocks of goats,
together with a few cows, contrive to exist.
It rains very seldom, but during a short
portion of the year heavy torrents fall,
and immediately afterwards a light vegetation
springs out of every crevice. This soon withers;
and upon such naturally formed hay
the animals live. It had not now
rained for an entire year.

When the island was discovered, the immediate
neighbourhood of Porto Praya
was clothed with trees, the reckless destruction
of which has caused here, as at St. Helena
and at some of the Canary islands,
almost entire sterility. The broad,
flat-bottomed valleys, many of which
serve during a few days only in the season
as water-courses, are clothed with thickets
of leafless bushes. Few living creatures
inhabit these valleys. The commonest bird
is a kingfisher, which tamely sits
on the branches of the castor-oil plant,
and thence darts on grasshoppers and lizards.
It is brightly coloured, but not so beautiful
as the European species: in its flight,
manners, and place of habitation,
which is generally in the driest valley,
there is also a wide difference.

[…]

The scenery of St. Domingo possesses
a beauty totally unexpected, from
the prevalent gloomy character of the rest
of the island. The village is situated
at the bottom of a valley, bounded by lofty
and jagged walls of stratified lava.
The black rocks afford a most striking
contrast with the bright green vegetation,
which follows the banks of a little stream
of clear water. It happened to be
a grand feast-day, and the village was full
of people. On our return we overtook
a party of about twenty young black girls,
dressed in excellent taste; their black skins
and snow-white linen being set off
by coloured turbans and large shawls.
As soon as we approached near, they suddenly
all turned round, and covering the path
with their shawls, sung with great energy
a wild song, beating time with their hands
upon their legs. We threw them some vintems,
which were received with screams of laughter,
and we left them redoubling the noise of their song.

[…]

Generally the atmosphere is hazy; and this is caused
by the falling of impalpably fine dust,
which was found to have slightly injured
the astronomical instruments. The morning before
we anchored at Porto Praya, I collected
a little packet of this brown-coloured fine dust,
which appeared to have been filtered from the wind
by the gauze of the vane at the masthead.
Mr. Lyell has also given me four packets
of dust which fell on a vessel a few hundred miles
northward of these islands. Professor Ehrenberg
finds that this dust consists in great part
of infusoria with siliceous shields,
and of the siliceous tissue of plants.
In five little packets which I sent him,
he has ascertained no less than sixty-seven
different organic forms! The infusoria,
with the exception of two marine species,
are all inhabitants of fresh-water. I have found
no less than fifteen different accounts of dust
having fallen on vessels when far out in the Atlantic.
From the direction of the wind whenever it has fallen,
and from its having always fallen during those months
when the harmattan is known to raise clouds of dust
high into the atmosphere, we may feel sure
that it all comes from Africa. It is, however,
a very singular fact, that, although
Professor Ehrenberg knows many species
of infusoria peculiar to Africa,
he finds none of these in the dust which I sent him.
On the other hand, he finds in it two species
which hitherto he knows as living only
in South America. The dust falls
in such quantities as to dirty everything
on board, and to hurt people’s eyes;
vessels even have run on shore owing
to the obscurity of the atmosphere.
It has often fallen on ships when several hundred,
and even more than a thousand miles from
the coast of Africa, and at points
sixteen hundred miles distant in a north
and south direction. In some dust
which was collected on a vessel three hundred miles
from the land, I was much surprised
to find particles of stone above the thousandth
of an inch square, mixed with finer matter.
After this fact one need not be surprised
at the diffusion of the far lighter and smaller
sporules of cryptogamic plants.

The geology of this island is the most
interesting part of its natural history.
On entering the harbour, a perfectly horizontal
white band, in the face of the sea cliff,
may be seen running for some miles
along the coast, and at the height of about
forty-five feet above the water.
Upon examination this white stratum
is found to consist of calcareous matter
with numerous shells embedded, most or all
of which now exist on the neighbouring coast.
It rests on ancient volcanic rocks, and has been
covered by a stream of basalt, which
must have entered the sea when the white
shelly bed was lying at the bottom.
It is interesting to trace the changes produced
by the heat of the overlying lava,
on the friable mass, which in parts
has been converted into a crystalline limestone,
and in other parts into a compact
spotted stone Where the lime has been
caught up by the scoriaceous fragments
of the lower surface of the stream,
it is converted into groups of beautifully
radiated fibres resembling arragonite.
The beds of lava rise in successive
gently-sloping plains, towards the interior,
whence the deluges of melted stone have
originally proceeded. Within historical times,
no signs of volcanic activity have, I believe,
been manifested in any part of St. Jago.

[…]

I was much interested, on several occasions,
by watching the habits of an Octopus,
or cuttle-fish. Although common in the pools
of water left by the retiring tide, these animals
were not easily caught. By means of their long
arms and suckers, they could drag
their bodies into very narrow crevices;
and when thus fixed, it required great force
to remove them. At other times they darted
tail first, with the rapidity of an arrow,
from one side of the pool to the other,
at the same instant discolouring the water
with a dark chestnut-brown ink. These animals
also escape detection by a very
extraordinary, chameleon-like power
of changing their colour. They appear to vary
their tints according to the nature of the ground
over which they pass: when in deep water,
their general shade was brownish purple, but
when placed on the land, or in shallow water,
this dark tint changed into a yellowish green.
The colour, examined more carefully,
was a French grey, with numerous minute spots
of bright yellow: the former of these varied
in intensity; the latter entirely disappeared
and appeared again by turns. These changes
were effected in such a manner, that clouds,
varying in tint between a hyacinth red
and a chestnut-brown, were continually
passing over the body. Any part,
being subjected to a slight shock of galvanism,
became almost black: a similar effect,
but in a less degree, was produced
by scratching the skin with a needle. These clouds,
or blushes as they may be called, are said
to be produced by the alternate expansion
and contraction of minute vesicles containing
variously coloured fluids. This cuttle-fish
displayed its chameleon-like power both
during the act of swimming and whilst
remaining stationary at the bottom.
I was much amused by the various arts
to escape detection used by one individual,
which seemed fully aware that I was watching it.
Remaining for a time motionless, it would then
stealthily advance an inch or two, like a cat
after a mouse; sometimes changing
its colour: it thus proceeded, till having gained
a deeper part, it darted away, leaving
a dusky train of ink to hide the hole
into which it had crawled. While looking
for marine animals, with my head
about two feet above the rocky shore,
I was more than once saluted by a jet of water,
accompanied by a slight grating noise.
At first I could not think what it was,
but afterwards I found out that it was
this cuttle-fish, which, though concealed in a hole,
thus often led me to its discovery.
That it possesses the power of ejecting water
there is no doubt, and it appeared to me
that it could certainly take good aim
by directing the tube or siphon on the under
side of its body. From the difficulty
which these animals have in carrying their heads,
they cannot crawl with ease when placed
on the ground. I observed that one
which I kept in the cabin
was slightly phosphorescent in the dark.

***

Please join me in toasting one of the greatest and most graceful minds of the last two centuries on the bicentennial of his birth. May we all someday learn to observe as patiently and to question as fearlessly as Charles Darwin.

8 Comments


  1. I like his enjambment best of all!

    So Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day! I had no idea. Sorry for the shameless plug, but I’m loving the possible implications. You celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial birthday by suggesting that he was a poet as well as a naturalist; I celebrate Lincoln’s by suggesting that he was a mystic as well as a politician.

    Reply

  2. And I celebrate both because I share their day. As a child I loved Abe because I always had my birthday off from school; later on his mysticism moved me. My father gave me this book for my 17th birthday. Rereading it now, as poetry, I am even more taken by its beauty. Thanks.

    Reply

  3. dale- Cheers.

    Peter – I had forgotten about Lincoln until just the day before. Not as big a fan of the man as you are, to put it mildly, but he and Darwin were certainly alike in their complexity and their impact on history.

    Peg – Happy birthday! My niece Elanor turned four on Wednesday, the 11th.

    Jo – That looks like a great book. I’ll put it on order. I kicked around the idea of trying to do some Darwin poems myself, but figured it had already been done better by someone else.

    Reply

  4. Hmm. I was just thinking, well, you’re right that he was a dream of a writer. Wonderful. But in what sense is this a poem, except that you’ve chopped it into felicitously short lines? And then I realised I was reading on and on, my eye drawn relentlessly down the page, realised how powerfully he translates into words the sensation of movement, the seduction of the voyage. Yes, you’re right, it is an epic poem.

    Reply

  5. I really appreciated what you did to the Beagle text (especially after a recent trip to a DARWIN BIG IDEA exhibition). Very timely also.

    Reply

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