Friday, January 29, 2016

What did Darwin think about Brazilians?

For years I've wanted to read Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, which he started writing in 1836 when he set sail aboard a homonymous expedition ship to South America. Now I've finally accomplished my undertaking. It encapsules a fascinating perspective on the country in the 19th century, as Darwin adventurously muddled through seemingly uncharted paths throughout the countryside, especially in the outskirts of Rio.

What I transcribe hereunder are the most striking lines he wrote on the country, the people and the culture.

His journey in Brazil started in the Northeast, in the State of Bahia, more specifically in its capital city, Salvador. At first, he struggled with the language:

March 15th Bahia

In the evening I went to the Hotel d Universe, where by the help of the three words "comer" to eat, "cama" a bed & "pagar" my host & myself contrived to agree very well.

Upon arriving in Rio, some twenty days later, he was first introduced to the distinguished Brazilian bureaucracy:

April 6th Rio de Janeiro
The day has been frittered away in obtaining the passports for my expedition into the interior. — It is never very pleasant to submit to the insolence of men in office; but to the Brazilians who are as contemptible in their minds as their persons are miserable it is nearly intolerable.

While in the countryside of Southeastern Brazil, Darwin and his companions stop by an "inn". The following fragment fairly depicts the apparent and superficial generosity which is frequently attributed to Brazilians: 

April 9th
On first arrival we unsaddle our horses & give them their Indian corn. — Then with a low bow ask the Signor to do us the favor to give us something to eat. — "Anything you choose Sir" is his answer. — For the few first times vainly I thanked providence for guiding us to so good a man. — The conversation procceeding, the case usually became deplorable: "Any fish can you do us the favor of giving?". — "Oh no Sir." "Any soup." "No Sir." Any bread. "Oh no Sir." — Any dried meat. "Oh no Sir. — If we were lucky, by waiting 2 hours we obtained fowls rice & farinha. — It not unfrequently happens that the guest is obliged with stones to kill with stones the poultry, for his own dinner.

He then proceeds to describe the "inn" and its landlords:

April 9th
When really exhausted with fatigue & hunger, we timorously hinted we should be glad of our meal. — The pompous, &, though true, most unsatisfactory answer was given, "it will be ready when it is ready". — If we had dared to remonstrate any further, we should have been told to proceed on our journey as being too impertinent. — Their charges are, however, exceedingly moderate, but they will, if they are able, cheat. — The hosts are most ungracious & disagreeable in their manners. — their houses & their persons are often filthily dirty. — the want of the common accomodation of forks, knives, spoons is even common. I am quite sure no cottage, no hut in England could be found in a state so utterly destitute of what we considered comforts.

Four days later, Darwin arrives at a sumptuous farm in a village called Macaé, where he was introduced to typical Brazilian gluttony:

April 13th Macaé
The woods are so full of game, that they had hunted & killed a deer on each of the three days previous to our arrival. — This profusion of food shows itself at the dinners, when if the tables do not groan, the guests surely do. — Each person is expected to eat of every dish; one day having, as I thought, nicely calculated so that nothing should go away untasted, to my utter dismay a roast turkey & a pig appeared in all their substantial reality. 

Of course it wouldn't take long for Darwin to realize the utter despicable state of Brazilian roads:

April 22nd
It continued to rain & we started for our sleeping place, Fregueria de Tabarai. — This interior road is the best I have seen, but it is much inferior to the worst turnpike road. — I do not think a gig could travel on it. — Yet this is one of the principal passes in the Brazils. (…) We did not pass over one stone bridge. they Where any exist, they are made of logs of wood. They were sometimes in so bad a state that we were obliged to leave the road to avoid them. — The distances are inaccurately known, no two people at all agreeing in their accounts. — Instead of milestones, the roadside is often marked by crosses, to signify where human blood has been spilled.

Here is a clear example of how the mixed feeling of being immersed in such social chaos amidst so much natural beauty works on the scientist's mind:

May 9th Rio
Many of the views were exceedingly beautiful; yet in tropical scenery, the entire newness, & therefore absence of all associations, which in my own case (& I believe in others) are unconsciously much more frequent than I ever thought, requires the mind to be wrought to a high pitch, & then assuredly no delight can be greater; otherwise your reason tells you it is beautiful but the feelings do not correspond. — I often ask myself why can I not calmly enjoy this; I might answer myself by also asking, what is there that can bring the delightful ideas of rural quiet & retirement, what that can call back the recollection of childhood & times past, where all that was unpleasant is forgotten; untill ideas, in their effects similar to them, are raised, in vain may we look amidst the glories of this almost new world for quiet contemplation.

And while 20ºC may feel like summer in England, Darwin interestingly realizes that

May 18th, 19th
It is very amusing to hear people complaining of the extreme cold.

Darwin elegantly inveigles his readers in many different passages by depicting vivid sceneries of Rio's natural landscape not many people on Earth have the privilege to behold. Here are two of such passages:

May 25th
Walked to the city to procure some things which I wanted, then joined Earl & Derbyshire & we proceeded together to ascend the Caucovado. — The path for the few first miles is the Aqueduct; the rising water rises at the base of the hill & is conducted along a sloping ridge to the city. — At every corner alternate & most beautiful views were presented to us. — At length we commenced ascending the steep sides, which are universally to the very summit clothed by a thick forest. — The water-courses were ornamented by that most elegant of all vegetable forms, the tree fern. — they were not of a large size, but in the vividness of the green lightness of the foliage, & in the beautiful curve of head, they were most classically admirable. We soon gained the peak & beheld that view, which perhaps excepting those in Europe, is the most celebrated in the world. — If we rank scenery according to the astonishment it produces, this [1 word deleted] most assuredly could not be exceede occupies the highest place, but if, as is more true, according to the picturesque effect, it falls far short of many in this neighbourhead.

June 1st
Took a long ride, in order to geologize some of the surrounding hills. — After passing for some time through lanes shaded by hedges of Mimosas, I turned off into a track into the forest. — The woods even at this short distance from the city are as quiet & unfrequented as if a civilized man had never entered them. — The path [2 words deleted] wound up the hill: at the height of 5 or 600 feet I enjoyed one of those splendid views, which may be met with on every side of Rio. — At this elevation the landscape has attained its most brilliant tint. — I do not know what epithet such scenery deserves: beautiful is much too tame; every form, every colour is such a complete exaggeration of what one has ever beheld before. — If it may be so compared, it is like one of the gayest scenes in the Opera House or Theatre.

Charles Darwin also hypothesizes that the climate may indeed have a parcel of guilt in the underdevelopment of the Brazils. Anyone who has experienced summer in the Tropics would supposedly be able to attest to that:

May 27th Botanic Garden
The Tropics appear the natural birthplace of the human race; but the mind, like many of its fruits seems in a foreign clime to reach its greatest perfection.

One of the most striking aspects of the Brazilian society Darwin wrote about was slavery, today aka social inequality:

May 30th
Amongst other things which the anti-abolitionists say, it is asserted that the freed slave would not work. I repeatedly hear of run-away ones having the boldness of working for wages in the neighbourhead of their masters. If they will thus work when there is danger, surely they likewise would when that was removed.

And he goes on to describe how the suburbs differ from the more civilized areas downtown:

June 7th
Rode with Mr Bolger to the chapel of Nossa Senhora de Penha; this being one of the sights of the country. — Our road lay through the North & back part of the city, which covers a much greater space than I had imagined. The suburbs are very filthy & are surrounded by marshes covered with the Mangrove; the tide occasionally flows into them, & is sufficient to cause a continual putrefaction of vegetable & animal matter, which is rendered very perceptible to the nose. — The land surrounding the Bay is generally thus situated for instance Macucu & in consequence unhealthy.

The roots of social inequality always lie in an unfair distribution of wealth. In societies where huge gaps exist between rich and poor, there is nothing to expect other than the rise of crime and corruption:

July 3rd
On landing, found the Palace Square crowded with people round the house of two money changers who were murdered yesterday evening in a more atrocious manner than usual. — It is quite fearful to hear what enormous crimes are daily committed & go unpunished. — If a slave murders his master, after being confined for some-time he then becomes a government one. — However great the charge may be against a rich man; he is certain in a short time to be free. — Everybody can here be bribed. — A man may become a sailor or a physician or any profession, if he can afford to pay sufficiently. — It has been gravely asserted by Brazilians that the only fault they found with the English laws was that they could not perceive rich respectable people had any advantage over the miserable & the poor.

At last, Darwin rounds up his experiences in Brazil and summarizes the Brazilian psyche and the absurdity of slavery. He even tries his hand at prognosing the effects of slavery in the Brazilian social distribution.

The Brazilians, as far as I am able to judge, possess but a small share of those qualities which give dignity to mankind. Ignorant, cowardly, & indolent in the extreme; hospitable & good natured as long as it gives them no trouble; temperate, revengeful, but not quarrelsome; contented with themselves & their customs, they answer all remarks by asking "why cannot we do as our grandfathers before us did". — Their very appearance bespeaks their little elevation of character. — figures short, they soon become corpulent; and their faces possessing little expression, appear sunk between the shoulders.

The state of the enormous slave population must interest everyone who enters the Brazils. — Passing along the streets it is curious to observe the numbers of tribes which may be known by the different ornaments cut in the skin & the various expressions. — From this results the safety of the country. The slaves must communicate amongst themselves in Portugeese & are not in consequence united. — I cannot help believing they will ultimately be the rulers. I judge of it from their numbers, from their fine athletic figures, (especially contrasted with the Brazilians) proving they are in a congenial climate, & from clearly seeing their intellects have been much underrated. — they are the efficient workmen in all the necessary trades. — If the free blacks increase in numbers (as they must) & become discontented at not being equal to white men, the epoch of the general liberation would not be far distant.

I believe the slaves are happier than what they themselves expected to be or than people in England think they are. — I am afraid however there are many terrible exceptions. — The leading feature in their character appears to be wonderful spirits & cheerfulness, good nature & a "stout heart" mingled with a good deal of obstinacy. — I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge these wrongs. —

Over 180 years have passed since Darwin came ashore in Brazil. What strikes me as frustratingly familiar is that his depictions are still true. Granted, slavery was abolished in 1888, some 50 years after he left, but the slaves of yester centuries are the favelados of today, the exploitation, the violence and the subduing are unfortunately almost the same. 

If you are a Brazilian reading this, take a moment to think about how little things have changed since Charles Darwin explored these lands. If you are a foreigner reading this, you may compare your own experience in Brazil to what the English naturalist has described in his diary. In case you've never been to Brazil before, but at some point intend to travel there, you may start building up an unfortunately accurate, but at the same time quite interesting picture of this unfair, yet fascinating country.

*All passages ipsis litteris
Beagle Diary Source:

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