Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Charles Darwin and St Helena

As almost everyone should know by now, this year marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of On the Origin of Species . Today we took two grandsons to visit the Darwin exhibition at Manchester's wonderful John Rylands Library.

Whilst there I dipped into The Voyage of the Beagle, and read Darwin's account of his visit to St Helena in 1836.

"Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains" is one of those nineteenth century aphorisms which have stuck with me since my youth - and Darwin certainly exhibited that.

He stayed only four days, but with the aid of a guide, a former slave, walked in all directions from morning to night and acquired a detailed knowledge of the island.(1)

He obtained lodgings within a stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb, on which he commented with a rather sarcastic footnote:

After the volumes of eloquence which have poured forth on this subject, it is dangerous even to mention the tomb. A modern traveller, in twelve lines, burdens the poor little island with the following titles, -- it is a grave, tomb, pyramid, cemetery, sepulchre, catacomb, sarcophagus, minaret, and mausoleum!

He also made a few comments about the situation of Longwood, without actually mentioning Napoleon or the Captivity:

Viewed from a short distance, it appears like a respectable gentleman's country-seat. In front there are a few cultivated fields, and beyond them the smooth hill of coloured rocks called the Flagstaff, and the rugged square black mass of the Barn. On the whole the view was rather bleak and uninteresting.

Other than that Darwin showed little interest in the Napoleonic sites. Darwin of course was not a tourist, and presumably did not wish to enter into controversy about the treatment of Napoleon at a time when the latter's body still lay on St. Helena. In any case he was entirely focused on his geological study, which was to form the basis of a later publication on volcanic islands.

Comments about St Helena

- St Helena's vegetation had

a character decidedly British. .. When we consider that the number of plants now found on the island is 746, and that out of these fifty-two alone are indigenous species, the rest having been imported, and most of them from England, we see the reason of the British character of the vegetation. Many of these English plants appear to flourish better than in their native country; some also from the opposite quarter of Australia succeed remarkably well.

The "English" appearance of St Helena:

The English, or rather Welsh character of the scenery, is kept up by the numerous cottages and small white houses; some buried at the bottom of the deepest valleys, and others mounted on the crests of the lofty hills. .. On viewing the island from an eminence, the first circumstance which strikes one, is the number of the roads and forts: the labour bestowed on the public works, if one forgets its character as a prison, seems out of all proportion to its extent or value.

Darwin was pessimistic about the future of the people of St Helena, and this long before the building of the Suez canal:

There is so little level or useful land, that it seems surprising how so many people, about 5000, can subsist here. The lower orders, or the emancipated slaves, are I believe extremely poor: they complain of the want of work. From the reduction in the number of public servants owing to the island having been given up by the East Indian Company, and the consequent emigration of many of the richer people, the poverty probably will increase. The chief food of the working class is rice with a little salt meat; as neither of these articles are the products of the island, but must be purchased with money, the low wages tell heavily on the poor people. Now that the people are blessed with freedom, a right which I believe they value fully, it seems probable that their numbers will quickly increase: if so, what is to become of the little state of St. Helena?

Finally I noted some caustic comments about the game-laws that were such a part of England and apparently of St Helena also.

Partridges and pheasants are tolerably abundant; the island is much too English not to be subject to strict game-laws. I was told of a more unjust sacrifice to such ordinances than I ever heard of even in England. The poor people formerly used to burn a plant, which grows on the coast-rocks, and export the soda from its ashes; but a peremptory order came out prohibiting this practice, and giving as a reason that the partridges would have nowhere to build.

Clearly Darwin was not a High Tory!

When it was time to leave, he did so with some sorrow, having so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena . I think I know how he felt.

1. He described his guide as a very civil, quiet old man, and such appears the character of the greater number of the lower classes. It was strange to my ears to hear a man, nearly white and respectably dressed, talking with indifference of the times when he was a slave. Darwin could not abide slavery, as even a cursory reading of the Voyage of the Beagle makes clear. e.g. On the 19th of August [1836] we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.

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