I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin.
The Morning Post of the 25th of October 1830, under the heading Interesting Voyage of Discovery, announced the arrival of:
His Majesty’s surveying-vessel Adventure…with the Beagle…from South America, where both vessels have been engaged nearly five years…in surveying the coasts from the River Plate on the East, round Cape Horn, to Chiloe on the West.
Sadly, the report went on to say, four officers and seven seaman died while on the voyage. It did not mention that the leader of the expedition Commander Pringle Stokes had committed suicide, thus giving Robert Fitzroy his command of the Beagle.
However, there were some passengers on board the Beagle who had joined the ship in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. As the Morning Post explained:
The Beagle has brought to England four natives of Tierra del Fuego…These Fuegians were taken prisoner during the time that the Beagle was employed on the S.W. coast of that country, in consequence of their tribe having stolen a boat…
Seeing that they had quickly settled into life on board the Beagle, Fitzroy decided to bring them to England, educate them (which meant converting them to Christianity) and then return them to Tierra del Fuego. Thus by improving their lot, the life of the tribe could be improved, and lifted up from its present condition, described by the Morning Post as:
…the lowest of mankind…
adding that they were:
…without a doubt, cannibals.
Fitzroy did indeed look after them. He organised lodgings for them, found a school which they could attend and called on the Church Missionary Society to help with their Christian education. Whatever else he thought of them, and he also believed them to be cannibals, he wrote of the need to vaccinate them:
I was, of course, anxious to protect the Fuegians, as far as possible, from the contagion of any of those disorders, sometimes prevalent, and which unhappily have so often proved fatal to the aboriginal natives of distant countries when brought to Europe… “Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle”
During the summer of 1831 King William IV asked to meet the Fuegians. The meeting was a success. The King, wrote Fitzroy:
…asked me so many sensible and thoroughly pertinent questions respecting the Fuegians and their country also relating to the survey in which I had myself been engaged…
Queen Adelaide went one further. She presented Fuegia with one of her own bonnets, the ring from her finger and a sum of money to buy clothes before she returned to Tierra del Fuego.
Darwin describes their return to Tierra del Fuego in The Voyage of the Beagle.
It was interesting to watch the conduct of the savages when we landed towards Jemmy Button: they immediately perceived the difference between him and ourselves…The old man addressed a long harangue to Jemmy, which it seems was to invite him to stay with them. But Jemmy understood very little of their language, and was, moreover, thoroughly ashamed of his own countrymen.
His own tribe welcomed Jemmy and the other Fuegians. With them was a Mr Matthews, a missionary who had been sent with them from England. His mission was a short one. Three weeks later, the Beagle returned to find that the members of the tribe had stolen everything and threatened Matthews – among the robbers was Jemmy’s own brother. Fitzroy decided to take Matthews with them. They returned for the final time in the March of the following year. Jemmy, naked except for a blanket, with his hair long and messy, was ashamed at first to meet with them. The sadness of their parting was very real as Jemmy has always been popular with the crew. Darwin wrote:
When Jemmy reached the shore, he lighted a signal fire, and the smoke curled up, bidding us a long and last farwell, as the ship stood her course into the open sea.
There is an epilogue. In October 1854 the schooner Allen Gardiner, paid for by the Patagonian Missionary Society, sailed for Tierra del Fuego, with the aim of spreading Christianity and also searching for Jemmy Button. Like previous missions it was not a success, not because of theft or murder, as in the case of the missionary Allen Gardner after whom the schooner was named, but through dissension between the schooner’s captain Parker Snow and, well, just about everyone else. But in the appropriately named Button Islet, attracted by the British colours raised by Parker Snow, two canoes approached the schooner.
I sang out to the natives interrogatively, “Jemmy Buttom? Jemmy Button? To my amazement and joy…an answer came from one of the four men in the canoe , “Yes, yes; Jam-mes Button. Jam-mes Button!”
His English returned bit by bit. He asked to wear trousers in the presence of Parker Snow’s wife; when they sat down to eat he wanted to use cutlery; shown the captain’s library he asked for three books. Stepping on deck for the first time, he saluted Parker Snow which impressed the crew. Of this first meeting Parker Snow wrote:
..with his shaggy hair and begrimed countenance; I could not help assimilating him to some huge baboon dressed up for the occasion.
Which, I guess, says it all.
In the return visit six weeks later, over a hundred of the tribe came to greet the schooner. The tone of the encounter had changed. Jemmy’s brothers demanded gifts from Parker Snow while Jemmy chatted with the missionary on board the schooner. Parker Snow ordered the anchor raised. Jemmy’s wife called to him from the canoe. As the wind caught the sails the Fuegians on board returned to their canoes and the schooner turned to the open sea. Parker Snow wrote of Jemmy:
…the man of many hopes, of much talk, of great name in getting interest in the mission…yet none less a nude savage like his brethern.
It was never going to have a happy ending, was it?
But of literary taste, what can we say? I would say “Charlie, do you fancy a pint? ” And the crack, as they say in Oban, would be good. So, it’s a hearty (7,5) and set course for the open sea.
Next time, the temperature drops as we head to the South Pole with Captain Scott, in The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.