Textual Voyages of Self-Formation and Liberation: Darwin's the Voyage of the Beagle and Dana's Two Years before the Mast

By Christensen, Allan C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Textual Voyages of Self-Formation and Liberation: Darwin's the Voyage of the Beagle and Dana's Two Years before the Mast


Christensen, Allan C., Papers on Language & Literature


The books by Darwin and by Dana about their youthful journeys exemplify writing that consolidates processes of self-formation and intellectual enfranchisement. The formative process, which would culminate in these books, began in both cases as an act of resistance. Darwin embarked on his voyage at the age of 22 in December 1831, and Dana at the age of 19 in August 1834, in order to put off embarking upon their apparently destined careers. Darwin was resisting a career in the Church, while the more rebellious Dana abandoned undergraduate study at Harvard not only to avoid a legal career but to escape the debilitating ills of civilization itself. Despite or because of the tradition of male writers in their families, neither youth intended, when setting out on the journey, to contribute with a book about it to the literature of his civilization.

Instead of following the well-established pattern of the grand tour to the classical sites of Mediterranean civilization, our young men travelled westward towards more primitive settings. Their ships doubled the coasts of South America, and we can individuate the two points at which they most nearly crossed paths. On about 20 November 1834, Dana's ship the Pilgrim moving north and Darwin's Beagle moving south crossed the same latitude just above the island of Chiloe off the coast of Chile. Then on about 17 August 1836, while the Beagle was anchored in the Brazilian port of Pernambuco, Dana's ship the Alert sailed past that port on its homeward journey. The Alert returned to Boston on 20 September and the Beagle to Falmouth on 2 October 1836.

Although the two young men sailed by one another without meeting, the books about their travels--Darwin's first published in 1839 and Dana's in 1840-emerge as analogous productions of the historical moment. They express a liberating energy that while motivating the self-formation of the protagonists also has implications for the larger intellectual and cultural environment. That energy operates simultaneously in the context of Darwin's scientific research and in the framework of maritime commerce in which Dana's story unfolds.

Both travellers began their journeys with a concern, not explicitly confessed in the books, about their health. Dana suffered from impaired eyesight, evidently stemming from both physiological and psychological causes, that prevented him from reading and so continuing his career as a student. Darwin suffered from hypochondriac indigestion and heart problems. Both of them hoped that the voyage would have tonic effects. But after sailing away from home, both were dismayed to realise that they might be infecting the populations of the ports at which they called with other diseases of which they were unwitting carriers. In the very first paragraph of his account, Darwin reports ominously that at Teneriffe the ship is "prevented landing, by fears of our bringing the cholera" (Voyage 11). (1) The contamination brought by ships like his to what have once been healthier settings emerges as an even more "melancholy" fact for Darwin in the islands of the Pacific. "Wherever the European has trod," he reflects, "death seems to pursue the aboriginal":

   The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as
   different species of animals--the stronger always extirpating the
   weaker. It was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine energetic
   natives saying, that they knew the land was doomed to pass from their
   children. Every one has heard of the inexplicable reduction of the
   population in the beautiful and healthy island of Tahiti since the
   date of Captain Cook's voyages. ... The Rev J. Williams ... says,
   that the first intercourse between natives and Europeans, "is
   invariably attended with the introduction of fever, dysentery, or
   some other disease, which carries off numbers of the people. ... It
   is certainly a fact, which cannot be controverted, that most of the
   diseases which have raged in the islands during my residence there,
   have been introduced by ships; and what renders this fact remarkable
   is, that there might be no appearance of disease among the crew of
   the ship which conveyed this destructive importation. … 

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