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Darwin's voyage of discovery

This Thing Of Darkness

By Harry Thompson

Headline Review, 2006, £7.99

Reviewed by Paul Moorhouse

I’VE NEVER really ‘got’ sea-faring fiction. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages of Moby Dick or anything by CS Forrester and Partick O’Brien. The only book by the socialist Conrad I enjoyed was the landlocked Secret Agent. So it went against the grain to give this book with its cover picture of a barque in full sail a second look, but it certainly deserved it.

Although set at sea, and steeped in the lives of sailors, this book is about much more. The compelling tale of Charles Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle and his relationship with its captain, Robert FitzRoy, sheds light on the scientific, philosophical and political struggles of the first half of the 19th century.

Darwin and FitzRoy, the founder of modern meteorology, were scientific geniuses from very different backgrounds: FitzRoy from the Tory aristocracy – a nephew of Lord Castlereagh and a direct descendent of Charles II; Darwin from the non-conformist Whig manufacturers, his uncle was the pottery tycoon Josiah Wedgwood. At the start of voyage, both men were Anglicans, and Darwin a trainee priest.

Exploring the natural history of South America and the Pacific, Darwin’s discovery of natural selection forces the two friends to different conclusions. Darwin rejected religion for a materialist view of the world. FitzRoy feared the threat his friend’s ideas posed to the existing social order: "If you succeed, the Church will be ruined… You will give succour …to the Chartists who seek to overthrow our society. You will remove the very need for God".

Resisting evolution, FitzRoy clung to the notion that the fossils Darwin discovered in Argentina had perished in Noah’s flood. This ‘deluvian’ or ‘catastrophist’ explanation for geological change had been undermined by Charles Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ theory that all geological change came from processes operating on earth today. Darwin studied Lyell’s Foundations of Geology on the Beagle, but rejected the gradualist way in which Lyell explained uniformitarianism. Pondering the formation of the Andes, a revolutionary synthesis struck him: "The shell terraces [on the mountains] were beaches… Each one had been wrenched into the air by an earthquake… The mountains were indeed rising from the sea. But they weren’t doing it gradually… Lyell was wrong. FitzRoy was wrong. The Bible was wrong…". Small wonder Marx commented that Darwinism ‘contains the basis of natural history for our views’.

This is not, however, a crude story of the reactionary FitzRoy and the radical Darwin. Although from different wings of the ruling class, both their lives were a struggle between sympathy for the downtrodden; a desire to deepen humanity’s understanding and mastery of the natural world; and their privileged social backgrounds.

Both are shocked by the effects of colonialism and capitalism on the Mapuche of South America and the New Zealand Maoris. But Darwin is initially impressed by the Argentinean dictator Rosas’ justification of genocidal war against the Indians in Patagonia.

Darwin is outraged by FitzRoy’s acceptance of slavery in Brazil, echoing Wedgwood’s support for abolitionism. But visiting a tin-mine in Chile Darwin sees workers climbing the 450 foot shaft on tree trunks: the owner explains: "‘I allow them to stop once for rest on the way up. They are fed upon boiled beans and bread twice a day… They are given two days off every three weeks.’ ‘That is generous’, agreed Darwin, comparing the arrangement favourably with conditions in his uncle’s factories’."

Fitzroy invented weather forecasting to save sailors’ lives. The fishing industry opposed it because profits suffered less when one ship sank with all hands on board than when the fleet stayed in port for safety. When their parliamentary campaign ended forecasts, Fitzroy took his own life in desperation.

This was the first novel by the television producer Harry Thompson, whose shows like Have I Got News for You and Ali G satirised modern Britain. Sadly, Thompson died of cancer shortly after publishing this book which, as well as being a gripping story, does much to expand our understanding of the past. In an excellent postscript, Thompson links it to the modern world – most surprisingly when he reveals who really wrote General Rosas’ speech which so impressed Darwin!


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