Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part II. REVOLUTION

Chapter 6. SALVADOR DA BAHIA

Beginning and End

If to what Nature has granted the Brazils, man added his just & proper efforts, of what a country might the inhabitants boast. But where the greater parts are in a state of slavery, & where this system is maintained by an entire stop to education, the mainspring of human actions, what can be expected; but that the whole would be polluted by its part.

—BEAGLE DIARY, MARCH 17, 1832

THERE ARE THINGS AN ENGLISH or American background can prepare you for when you travel in South America, whether you’re traveling now or in the 1830s. Politics, for example. You can read about political history in books and then show up and get a pretty firm grasp on Hugo Chavez (in the modern era) or Juan Manuel de Rosas (in Darwin’s time; more on the great Argentine general later). It’s different, yes, but it’s fairly easily understandable from abroad.

There are also things that it’s hard to convey in books, but that are an unanticipated bonus pleasure to experience in person, like tropical rainforests. Most of us have a decent understanding of the concept of green, but you can show up in your first Brazilian forest and be blown away, as Darwin was, by how that particular green just glows, in a way that’s almost challenging to the pastoral green of the English countryside or the subtle green of the drizzling Welsh mountains.

And then there are things that, no matter what you’ve read or talked about or heard, you can’t prepare yourself for. For Darwin, this meant one thing in particular, and it’s something that there’s not much to compare to in the modern era. Darwin, despite everything in his abolitionist English education, and despite a long family history of activism, was not prepared to deal with witnessing slavery. Doing so, at least according to some biographers, may have been one of the single most important events in his entire life, and not just in terms of his personality, but also in terms of his work.

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The Beagle’s first stop in mainland South America was in Salvador da Bahia, on the northeastern coast of Brazil. For the first few days, Darwin delighted in the tropical scenery, hiking and collecting and scribbling gleefully in his journal about the glories of the rainforest. Then he hurt his knee and retired to his hammock. While Darwin rested, Captain FitzRoy went out to see the town, and when he came back, he told Darwin about having visited a great slave-owner. FitzRoy, according to Darwin, “defended and praised” slavery and told Darwin that he had asked many of the slaves he had seen if they wanted to be free, and all said no. They were happy as slaves, FitzRoy said. Darwin shot back that those answers weren’t worth much when asked in front of the master of the house, and FitzRoy threw a tantrum, saying that since Darwin did not believe his word they could no longer live together and that the naturalist would have to leave the voyage. The other officers, more accustomed to FitzRoy’s notorious hot temper, grabbed Darwin and invited him to eat with them, and soon enough, FitzRoy apologized and invited Darwin back.

That week, Darwin had his point made for him by proxy: There were Englishmen abroad in almost every large port, either living in town or on board other English ships in the harbor, and they generally came onboard to dine and converse with the gentlemen on board the Beagle, Darwin included. One of these men, the captain of a British warship called the Samarang, visited soon after the slavery argument. “Cap Paget has paid us numberless visits & is always very amusing,” Darwin wrote. “He has mentioned in the presence of those who would if they could have contradicted him, facts about slavery so revolting, that if I had read them in England, I should have placed them to the credulous zeal of well-meaning people: The extent to which the trade is carried on; the ferocity with which it is defended; the respectable (!) people who are concerned in it are far from being exaggerated at home.”

Paget told Darwin and FitzRoy of the atrocities and tortures he’d seen and quoted a slave he’d talked to as saying, as Darwin related it, “If I could but see my father & my two sisters once again, I should be happy. I never can forget them.”

“Such was the expression of one of these people, who are ranked by the polished savages in England as hardly their brethren, even in Gods eyes,” Darwin fumed that night in his diary. Turning his rage to FitzRoy, but hesitating to criticize him by name, he recorded an anonymous jab at the captain. “From instances I have seen of people so blindly & obstinately prejudiced, who in other points I would credit, on this one I shall never again scruple utterly to disbelieve: As far as my testimony goes, every individual who has the glory of having exerted himself on the subject of slavery, may rely on it his labours are exerted against miseries perhaps even greater than he imagines.”

Jean, my forest guide in the Tijuca Forest near Rio de Janeiro, had mentioned Captain FitzRoy’s pro-slavery sympathies while we hiked in the forest. “The Captain,” he asked me. “What was his name?”

“FitzRoy?”

“Yes, FitzRoy,” Jean said. “He talked a lot of bullshit.”

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In the years since Darwin’s visit, Bahia has morphed from the center of Brazilian slavery into the best spot in Brazil to celebrate and study African culture and the legacy of the slavery that Darwin so abhorred. The English had essentially forced the end of the slave trade in Brazil by blockading harbors and attacking slaving ships; I wondered if Darwin’s impassioned anti-slavery remarks were still remembered. The descendants of slaves make up an estimated eighty percent of the population in Bahia, and their culture—food, religion, and most especially music—is the city’s biggest tourist draw. Stepping out of the airport terminal at Bahia, I was greeted by a group of black women in flowing white robes operating a small food stand outside where they sold palm hearts fried in dendê oil.

Modern Salvador da Bahia is a sprawling city of more than two million inhabitants, and the jungle that Darwin enjoyed—“The town is fairly embosomed in a luxuriant wood,” he wrote—has been cut away to well beyond city limits. Government-sponsored billboards lining the main roads cheered on growth and development. Hardhatted workers posed in front of oil wells and manufact u ring plants; “Bahia is growing,” the caption promised. “Bahians, too.”

I checked into a hostel in Porto Barra, a block from the beach at the crux where the Atlantic Ocean met All Saints Bay. The hostel décor screamed tropics: a canary yellow exterior lined with cherry-red hibiscus, bright orange paint in the kitchen, and sunburned European tourists napping shirtless in hammocks strung across the common spaces.

I had arranged to meet a Salvadoran friend-of-a-friend named Silas Giron there that evening, and he arrived around 8 P.M. after getting off work at a local music store. He looked nothing like I had imagined—I had pictured someone short, dark, and athletic, like all the people I’d seen in Rio de Janeiro and on the streets of Bahia as I drove from the airport to the hostel. Instead, Silas turned out to be an illustration of Brazilian diversity: tall and waif-thin, with mocha skin and long, dreadlocked blond hair that he wore tied up in a net. He played the guitar and talked seriously about his musical influences, which represented a typical modern Bahian mixture of samba, swing, reggae, rock, and pop, and seemed to owe particular inspiration to legendary Bahian-born guitarist Gilberto Gil, who had recently been made Brazil’s minister of culture. Although his grandfather was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy—which he didn’t tell me until later—Silas offered to help me as best he could. Darwin, with the very last line of The Voyage of the Beagle, made a brief argument in favor of travel for young naturalists, concluding that “Traveling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover, how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.” Silas, for me, was one of those kind-hearted people.

After we had introduced ourselves and chatted for a while, Silas suggested we go for a walk through Porto Barra, the hostel’s quiet beach neighborhood a few miles south of the city center. The waterfront extended to a sharp point marked with a lighthouse, and sandy public beaches curled away from the point. We walked along the promenade overlooking the bay-side beach, which was fairly crowded even at close to 10 P.M. The groups of people lounging, sitting on towels, even trying the water, were diverse—mostly black, but also whites and those of obviously mixed race. I asked Silas about the diversity on the beach, as it often seemed to me that Brazil had succeeded admirably in integrating different races. He thought for a moment. “That’s one of the reasons I like this beach,” Silas said. “Everyone comes here, all different kinds of people.”

Silas hesitated to talk about racism in English, worried that it would quickly strain his vocabulary. Brazil is not without many of the same lingering racisms found in the United States, with blacks having higher incarceration rates, lower incomes, and fewer college degrees. Turn on the television in Brazil, and you’re likely to see popular soap operas featuring mainly light-skinned actors and actresses. But although he acknowledged the complexity of such problems, Silas did seem to think that racism in Brazil was rarely overt. “Here in Salvador, everybody is very proud of our black influences,” he told me. “It seems to me that most Brazilian people try hard not to demonstrate any sort of racial prejudice.”

I asked Silas how Darwin’s anti-slavery rants played here, but he hadn’t heard of them. So as we concluded our walk, Silas suggested I come by his university the next morning to meet his history professor.

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When I woke up the next morning, I wrote down some questions for the professor, Carlos Eugênio Líbano, and ran them through an online translator that promptly rendered them meaningless in Portuguese. (“Knows surplus the visit of Charles Darwin the Bahia in 1832?”)

I met Silas in a patio in the University of Bahia’s Philosophy and Life Sciences campus a few minutes before his class was scheduled to get out. “Don’t you need to be in class?” I asked as he came out to greet me.

“No,” he said, thinking it over. He sighed. “I should go more often, but it is very hard.” He explained that he often worked late, or stayed up late playing music, which made attending his 9 A.M. classes difficult.

It was a beautiful campus, on a hill overlooking the ocean, with several shady viewpoints surrounded by the kind of greenery that sent Darwin into ecstasies. Silas helpfully identified one small, shaded area, on a tiny promontory overlooking the blue ocean, as his favorite spot in Salvador to smoke a joint. “You should bring your friends back there,” he said. “I think they will really like the view.” He seemed to know most of the students crowding the patio to smoke, talk, and eat, which made our progress toward his classroom slow.

Eventually, Silas led me inside a small, typical university classroom, where his professor was wrapping up his lecture. Then he started to take roll, and as I stood at the edge of the door, Silas quietly slipped back into the classroom with a cheery “Here, professor!” when his name was called. After class a small crowd clustered around the professor’s podium, and as I edged toward the front of the room, I felt like I was getting an audience with the Pope, or maybe Santa Claus, until someone in front of me vacated the line and I was next. The professor looked up at me expectant ly, waiting for me to give my name so he could put an X next to it and mark me present. Silas jumped in.

“Professor,” he said, “this is the friend I told you about, from the United States. He is researching Charles Darwin and his time in Bahia.”

The professor raised a spiky black eyebrow in my direction. “Your questions,” he said in Portuguese. “Speak.”

I hastily unbuckled my backpack and handed my sheet of questions to Silas, who read the first one. “What do you know about Charles Darwin’s visit to Bahia?”

The professor said he didn’t know much about it. “I am not an authority on Darwin,” he said. (His area of expertise was in studying slave life, specifically the acrobatic martial arts dance called capoeira, in the time of slavery.) “You can look up the microfilm, though,” he added. “What dates was he here?”

“The end of February, 1832.”

He shrugged, and indicated we should walk with him, Silas simultaneously keeping an eye on me while doggedly pursuing the professor through the crowd of students. I trailed behind both, doing my best to understand the rapid-fire Portuguese being spoken. Sometimes Portuguese sounds so much like Spanish that I thought I could understand, particularly after I had learned a few of the key differences. Sometimes, it really doesn’t—this was one of those times. “How much did Europeans influence the abolition movement in Brazil?” Silas asked on my behalf.

“Very much,” the professor said. “The English basically ended the slave trade by attacking Portuguese slaving ships that were leaving the harbor at Bahia.”

“Darwin was an abolitionist,” I told Silas as we both jogged along, now through the bright sunshine outside the classroom, “and he wrote about how bad slavery was in Bahia. His book was very widely read in England. Can you ask if this had any effect on attitudes there and here?”

He repeated my question to the professor, who by now had donned a heavy pair of aviator shades. I found him intimidating, although Silas seemed to find him as approachable as a smiling Labrador retriever.

“Darwin had no effect while he was here,” the professor said. “But when he got home, his writings had a very big effect. He said he would never visit a country that had slavery again.”

The professor turned away to purchase a small cheese-infused piece of bread from a food trolley and started to wolf it down while chatting with a colleague. Before Silas could grab him again, he rushed back to class.

“I really like him,” Silas said as we watched him stride away. “He is very funny.”

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Europeans who refused to visit or move to slave-owning countries did, at least, play a role in slavery’s demise. Although British influence had led to an end of the trading of slaves in 1851, slavery itself continued. Without new slaves arriving from Africa, however,Brazilian farmers began to look elsewhere for workers—and, along with much of the rest of South America, looked to European immigrants to fill the plantation workforce gaps. When these potential immigrants refused to go to a country where slavery existed, plantation owners began to think differently. By the time the Brazilian emperor ended slavery in 1888, he enjoyed almost unanimous popular support.

Darwin wrote more about the evils of slavery, and, as if to emphasize his feelings, he placed his most impassioned argument just before the conclusion in the published version of The Voyage of the Beagle. He first set out the horrors he had witnessed or heard of—beatings, whippings, families forcibly separated, and the moans of tortured slaves. Darwin added that he would not have mentioned these had he not “met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.” Then he summarized arguments for slavery and provided his own counter-arguments in the same meticulous way in which he later documented the case for natural selection.

For a few crucial pages, and at a crucial time in his narrative, Darwin completely sets aside everything he’s famous for—geology, botany, biology—and focuses on the political issue that animated much of his life. Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that abolition wasn’t just a passionate side-cause for Darwin and that it actually influenced his whole career, most particularly Darwin’s second major evolution-related work, The Descent of Man. They argue that those last few lines in The Voyage of the Beagle were in fact a calculated argument inspired by Darwin’s anger at a travelogue published by his close friend Charles Lyell that appeared to accept slavery in the United States. “Darwin retorted by publishing details of the most revolting tortures he could remember,” Moore and Desmond wrote. “He lit the fuse buried in his notebooks and exploded against the ‘sin’ of slavery. Never again would he express himself so thunderously to the world.”

Darwin’s thunderous conclusion, written long after he had returned home and only for an edition of The Voyage of the Beagle published in 1845, still called up all the righteous wrath he had felt in FitzRoy’s cabin thirteen years before: “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.”

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