The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives

By Hester Blum | Go to book overview

5    THE GALAPAGOS AND THE EVOLUTION
OF THE MARITIME IMAGINATION

The Galapagos Islands, a volcanic cluster located in the Pacific Ocean approximately 500 miles west of Ecuador, scarcely registered on the map of American geographical knowledge prior to the publication of Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches, which was issued in America in 1846. Today more commonly known as Voyage of the “Beagle,” Darwin’s Journal found wide readership; it had great appeal as a travel book and as an engrossing record of what would be to British and American readers exotic natural and geological history. Darwin’s text appealed to and was positioned for a nineteenthcentury audience hungry for travel and sea narratives. Even the editions that were titled some variation of Journal of Researches emphasized the exploration aspects of the text, as the spines on reprints of 1845 and 1860 bear the titles Naturalist’s Voyage or Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World.1 This was not a prohibitively technical text, although Darwin would later use the data collected in the Journal to craft his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species. For the reader who was not a student of science, the maps and woodcuts of various flora and fauna included in many early editions provided an accessible glimpse of the Galapagos.

Herman Melville bought a copy of Darwin’s Journal in its first American edition and read it as early as 1847.2 He himself had traveled to the Galapagos archipelago on the whaler Acushnet in 1841, and his sketches of his own travels appeared in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1854 as “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” The title reflects the name Spanish explorers gave the islands, finding their location difficult to fix. Darwin and Melville were not alone in recording the peculiar qualities of these Pacific islands. The narratives of sailors such as James Colnett, William Dampier, Amasa Delano, and David Porter—all of which Melville credits as source material in “The Encantadas” —also provided tantalizing glimpses of the region. The 1815 Journal of the

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