Essay on Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle

Essay on Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle

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Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle


A modern reader might be surprised to find that travel writings of the 18th century, books intended for the general public, featured specific scientific terms and precise descriptions of landmarks, species and resources. But how did it happen that “sentiment, imagination, and the graces have been banished” (Voltaire, Letter to Cideville) from 18th century literature? In her article “Science, planetary consciousness, interiors” author Mary Louise Pratt argues that the change in travel writing in the 18th century promoted a new type of planetary consciousness, thus triggering a shift in European colonial policies. In her subsequent article “Narrating the anti-conquest”, she argues that as travel writing evolved, so did colonial policies and she exemplifies the process by an examination of four travel writers of the era to show how travel writing changed. Pratt suggests that writing shifted from survival literature, focusing on coastal regions (an observing eye), through strictly descriptive accounts of interiors (a scrutinizing eye), to writing about the ways in which things could be improved (an improving eye). Forty years after Pratt’s last example of 18th century anti-conquest writing was published, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle came out of press. The ethos displayed by Darwinian his journal, however, diverged from the anti-conquest ethos as modified by Pratt. Therefore, a close reading of Darwin, one of the most prominent 19th century authors of travel writing, could be used to suggest in what direction 18th century travel writing evolved.

What is specific about 18th century travel writing in particular? Pratt invents the term “anti-conquest” to describe how through the innocent...


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...n only be understood in the context of his belief in the need for improvement, enlightenment, and civilization. Therefore, Darwin is not a purely anti-conquest writer. His compassion, his tendency toward explication instead of mere registration, his attitude of improvement and belief in the “philanthropic spirit of the British nation” (Voyage of the Beagle, 376) break the frames of Pratt’s definition of 18th century anti-conquest writing. With 19th century Darwin, 18th century anti-conquest writing evolves in a new type of travel narrative.

Works Cited:

1. Pratt, Mary Louise. “Narrating the anti-conquest”. Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge. p.38 – p.68.

2. Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches. Edited and abridged by Janet Browne and Michael Neve. Penguin Books, 1989.

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