I took my time reading this book and during that time I mentioned reading it to a few people. Every single one sucked in their breath and expressed amazement at my dedication to the 501 List. They all assumed that it would be a horrendously boring book to read.
Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that Darwin wrote a few books. The best known is “Origin of the Species” but the 501 list asked for “The Voyage of the Beagle” so that’s what I read. In it he describes his adventures during his five year trip around the world on the survey-ship, The Beagle. I assumed it would largely deal with his famous visit to the Galapogos Islands and was amazed when I found that trip only took up one chapter in the entire tome. I was pleased to find that it’s a well-written Victorian travel book covering Rio, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, Chile, Patagonia, Tierra del Feugo, Peru, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and Mauritius.
Now yes, there are scientific elements to his descriptions. You won’t find many restaurant reviews. This is not a Lonely Planet guidebook. But if you’ve any interest in the landscape, people, animals, politics, and atmosphere of those places at that time in history then this is a terrific read. I was surprised to find his main interest to be in geology, but he covers all bases with musings about the formation and movement of continents, the reason why new settlers invariably killed off the native peoples with imported diseases, ideas on climate change, and even how coral islands are created. His ideas of evolution were still evolving at the time of writing, but you will get tantalising glimpses of his great mind at work on the idea.
During his travels he survives many storms, a plague of locusts, a sudden blizzard high in the Andes, days of riding without water supplies, combative locals, and enduring sea-sickness. It’s a surprise to me that he managed to write anything in his diary at all. It’s clear that the voyage changed his life and perspective on more than just the natural sciences. The passages describing his sleeping under the stars in South America show a young man, freed from class constraints, revelling in that freedom.
However if you’re from New Zealand or Australia you probably won’t enjoy his assessment of those growing colonies. I don’t think their tourist boards will be quoted Mr. Darwin anytime soon.
Readers also need to be aware that the author is a product of his own times. There are many references to slavery, for example, although overall he disagrees with the idea and the treatment given to the slaves. He also eats a few, now very rare, animals and regularly documents hunting trips, which isn’t something I expected from a naturalist, but those were the times he lived in and in some cases the animals were imported back to England for zoological study. I particularly enjoyed his adamant prediction that kangaroos would be made extinct by the introduction of English greyhounds to Australia. I guess even Darwin gets things wrong sometimes.
He suggests at the end of the book that travel will help any traveller – “teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurance…he will discover , how many truly kind-hearted people there are.” If that doesn’t make you want to explore the world, then nothing will.
(read January 2011)