Chapter 02 – Rio de Janeiro

One of the recurring themes of this chapter is Darwin’s opposition to slavery. Darwin does not only oppose slavery on an intellectual level, but also as someone who has witnessed the cruelties and horror of a slave country with his own eyes.

It is also becoming increasingly obvious that it is not true, as often supposed, that Darwin had a sudden “Eureka!” moment, perhaps whilst whilst observing the Galapagos finches or some such. Instead, Darwin came to his great idea thanks to the accumulation of vast observational experience, and the some of the first inklings of evidence for his theory can be easily found in this chapter.

Starting from April 4, 1832, Darwin travels north to Cape Frio. Along the way, the party pass through an area known to be inhabited by a group of runaway slaves, who were discovered and recaptured during this time. Darwin not only comments on the slavery but also the associated racism:

… the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces on the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

Arriving at an estate in Socêgo on April 13, Darwin enjoys the stay but again denounces the keeping of slaves:

As long as the idea of slavery could be banished, there was something exceedingly fascinating in this simple and patriarchal style of living…

The notion that Darwin did, until recently, consider become a country parson is not entirely alien to these thoughts.

Leaving Socêgo, the party rides to Rio Macaé, to visit another estate that had not yet been entirely cleared for crops. Darwin marvels at the productivity of the land and at the size of the population it might support: environmentalism, clearly, is not yet a word.

This chapter’s denunciation of the slave trade is far from complete, however, as a few more quotes will illustrate.

While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction in Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe that the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner.

Darwin shares his birthday – the same day, month, and year – with Abraham Lincoln, and it is worth noting at this point that in the US, marriages between slaves were, for many years, not recognised – slaves, indeed, had to use different marriage vows. Not “till death do us part”, but “till death or distance do us part” – because they could be separated by sale, a phenomenally ugly thought.

And the other quote on this topic that I want to mention, when Darwin is travelling on a ferry with a former(?) slave:

I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.

On April 18-19, Darwin goes collecting insects, and is terribly interested in a genus of extremely simple flatworms, the Planaria. Interestingly, the great zoologist Cuvier classified them amongst the intestinal worms – but these are not parasites, but instead eat wood. Darwin goes on to encounter twelve species of Planarian during his voyage, and experimented on them, noting their capacity to regrow when cut.

Darwin watches a small frog, which can climb glass vertically, thanks to suction pads on its toes. It has, he reports, a pleasant croak, and part of a cacophony with a large number of crickets. He watches fireflies at night at notes that these sorts of creatures frequently tend to glow a particular shade of green. He tests the nature of a glow – irritating the firefly with a needle increases the intensity of the light, and that the glow persists for up to 24 hours after the firefly’s death.

While carrying a pungent fungus that he had collected, a Hymenophallus, a beetle, attracted by the odour, landed on it. Here, Darwin has the opportunity to observe how “in two distant countries a similar relation between plants and insects of the same families, though the species of both is different”. Darwin also notes that humans can interfere in these relationships by introducing foreign species.

Darwin observes a common butterfly, Papilio feronia, which often visits orange groves. It rests on tree trunks, always facing downwards, but, unusually for a butterfly, it does so, apparently, with its wing stretched horizontally, more like how a moth rests. Darwin also sees that this butterfly can run with its leg – making it much harder for Darwin to capture a specimen. He is fascinated to note that these butterflies can make a clicking sound, which they use when looking for a mate.

Darwin, for some reason, is disappointed by the beetles. This seems odd, as Darwin had long been fascinated by beetles and there is no shortage of them here. In one day, without particularly trying, Darwin is able to collect 68 species of the “minute and obscurely coloured beetles”. However, there are few carnivorous beetles, perhaps due to the abundance of spiders and Hymenoptera. There are, in particular, huge numbers of ants, which travel well-worn paths.

When he was in Bahia, indeed, he observed spiders, cockroaches, lizards, and various insects fleeing from a huge army of ants.

Back in Rio, Darwin has seen “wasp-like insects” constructing clay cells full of paralysed spiders and caterpillars for their young to feed on. Such behaviour is well-known amongst wasps, and I can only wonder what these “wasp-like insects” actually are. There’s also a case of a wasp attacking and hunting a spider. He also sees a large spider (closely related to one claimed to eat birds) allow a smaller spider to eat the minute prey on its web. If you’ve watched David Attenborough’s marvellous Life in the Undergrowth series, you’ll recognise much of this behaviour.

Indeed, he also mentions a spider found in a valley near the Andes, which has a wedge-shaped web. Although little detail is discussed, is this perhaps a Hyptiote, also shown in Life in the Undergrowth? Perhaps.

Next time: Maldonado