When Charles Darwin arrived in New Zealand on the Beagle he was homesick, seasick and tired. It had been almost four years to the day since the Beagle put to sea, and virtually every mile the ship had sailed had reduced the young naturalist to a state of nausea and misery. The latest leg of the voyage, from Tahiti to the Bay of Islands, had been no exception, and the increasing length of the passages weeks at a time on the vast, empty Pacific—intensified his ennui.
The glory days of the expedition—of unearthing the fossils of extinct mammals in Argentina, botanising in the beech forests of Patagonia, horse-riding across the Uruguayan pampas or collecting giant tortoises on the Galapagos—were, he believed, behind him. “There is no more Geology, but plenty of sea-sickness,” he complained in a letter to his sister Caroline, written in Kororareka in the Bay of Islands.
As well as mal de mer, the 26-year-old Darwin was suffering from cabin fever—not surprising given that his accommodation on the Beagle consisted of a threesquare-metre cabin shared with two ship’s officers. (His hammock swung above the ship’s drafting table.) Even the fabled Antipodes, a meridian of wonder to Darwin as a child, had passed as just another weary waypoint.
Darwin was longing for England. “For the last year, I have been wishing to return & have uttered my wishes in no gentle murmurs; But now I feel inclined to keep up one steady deep growl from morning to night,” he wrote to Caroline. “I count & recount every stage in the journey homewards & an hour lost is reckoned of more consequence than a week formerly…But everything is tolerable, when I recollect that this day eight months [hence] I probably shall be sitting by your fireside.” (This letter, along with all Darwin’s letters from the period, can be viewed at the voluminous website of the Darwin Correspondence Project—see sidebar.)
Little wonder, then, that his impressions of New Zealand were jaded. As the Beagle ghosted towards the Bay in light airs on the morning of December 21, 1835, he noted without enthusiasm the fern-covered hills with their patches of woodland, the square, tidy-looking European houses, the trio of whaling ships lying at anchor off Paihia. The Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who eight years later would succeed William Hobson as governor of the colony, shared his companion’s lukewarm reaction, describing the scene as “rather uninteresting”.
Both men were still under the thrall of Tahiti, “an island which must for ever remain as classical to the voyager in the South Sea,” as Darwin wrote in his journal, later published as The Voyage of the Beagle. New Zealand appeared second rate by comparison. Tahiti, with its ravines and precipices, was geographically exhilarating, and the Tahitians had given the Beagle a “joyous, boisterous welcome”, surrounding the ship with their canoes as soon as it anchored. In the Bay, only a single Maori canoe came alongside.
Ashore, Darwin’s disparaging eye found much to disdain. Compared to the Tahitians’ “pleasant, airy abodes”, Maori whare, which Darwin likened to “a cow-shed with one end open” were “filthily dirty & offensive”. As specimens of humanity, Tahitians were “the finest men I have ever beheld”, he wrote. New Zealanders (as Darwin referred to Maori—that word not yet being in wide circulation) possessed a character of “a much lower order”. “One glance at their respective expressions,” noted the naturalist, “brings conviction to the mind that one is a savage, the other a civilised man”.
To Darwin, the proof was in the eyes and on the skin. Tahitian tattoos “so gracefully follow the curvature of the body that they really have a very elegant & pleasing effect”. Ta moko Maori, on the other hand, give “a disagreeable expression to their countenances”. The steady gaze in a Tahitian’s eye displays “an intelligence which shows they are advancing in civilization”, while the twinkle in a Maori eye “cannot indicate anything but cunning and ferocity”. Darwin even judged Maori hymn singing to be inferior to that of Tahitians.
This idea of a scale of ethnic superiority came naturally to men of Darwin’s and FitzRoy’s day. Steeped in class consciousness and the evangelical imperative to save and civilise, they could scarcely have avoided ranking the races they encountered.
The Fuegians were a case in point. In 1830, at the conclusion of the Beagle’s first South American voyage, FitzRoy had transported three local men from Tierra del Fuego to England for their betterment. An important part of the current expedition (to FitzRoy, at any rate) had been to return them to their homeland. Despite having spent several months at sea with the whimsically nicknamed Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster, Darwin appears to have shown no interest in them as fellow passengers, let alone as fellow human beings, and regarded theirs as the lowliest tribe on Earth.
“If the state in which the Fuegians live should be fixed on as zero in the scale of governments I am afraid New Zealand would rank but a few degrees higher, while Tahiti, even as when first discovered, would occupy a respectable position.”
So ingrained was the notion of class to the Victorian mind that its absence signified a primitive state. In describing the use of the hongi in greeting, Darwin noted that “the slave would press noses with any one he met, indifferently either before or after his master the chief. Although among savages the chief has absolute power of life and death over his slave, yet there is an entire absence of ceremony between them.” The lack of a pecking order implied a lack of social progress. “Where civilisation has arrived at a certain point, as among the Tahitians, complex formalities are soon instituted between the different grades of society,” Darwin continued. “For instance, in the above island, formerly all were obliged to uncover themselves as low as the waist in presence of the king.” A place for everyone, and everyone in their place: the Englishman’s Utopia.
Darwin, it should be said, did not hesitate to lam‑baste his own countrymen for their depravity, calling Kororareka “the very stronghold of vice” and its English residents “the refuse of society”. Darwin was surprised and mortified to learn that the missionaries were more worried about the conduct of their countrymen than of the supposedly bloodthirsty natives. “It is strange, but I here heard these worthy men say that the only protection which they need & on which they rely is from the native Chiefs against Englishmen!”
Meeting the local missionaries was, in fact, the one bright spot in Darwin’s visit. His description in Voyage of the Beagle of arriving at the Waimate mission is worth quoting for the bucolic picture it paints:
After having passed over so many miles of an uninhabited useless country, the sudden appearance of an English farm-house, and its well-dressed fields…was exceedingly pleasing…On an adjoining slope fine crops of barley and wheat in full ear were standing; and, in another part, fields of potatoes and clover. But I cannot attempt to describe all I saw; there were large gardens, with every fruit and vegetable which England produces; and many belonging to a warmer clime…All this is very surprising, when it is considered, that five years ago, nothing but the fern flourished here. Moreover, native workmanship, taught by the missionaries, has effected this change:—the lesson of the missionary is the enchanter’s wand. The house has been built, the windows framed, the fields ploughed, and even the trees grafted, by the New Zealander. At the mill, a New Zealander may be seen powdered white with flour, like his brother miller in England. When I looked at this whole scene, I thought it admirable. It was not merely that England was vividly brought before my mind; yet, as the evening drew to a close, the domestic sounds, the fields of corn, the distant country with its trees now appearing like pasture-land, all might well be mistaken for some part of it. Nor was it the triumphant feeling at seeing what Englishmen could effect, but it was something of far more consequence; the object for which this labour had been bestowed—the moral effect on the aborigines of this fine country.
Reading this passage today, it is hard to credit that the man whose theory has created so much trouble for the church was once its ardent supporter—he had nearly become a cleric himself. The paternalistic tone, so jarring to the modern ear, was standard Victorian fare. In his letter to Caroline, he restated the theme: “It is something to boast of, that Europeans may here, amongst men who, so lately were the most ferocious savages probably on the face of the earth, walk with as much safety as in England.”
A good deal of Darwin’s New Zealand diary contains such sentiments. Some of his anecdotes have the tenor of a racist joke. He tells the story of a missionary who found a chief and his tribe in preparation for war:
…their muskets clean and bright, and their ammunition ready. He reasoned long on the inutility of the war, and the little provocation which had been given for it. The chief was much shaken in his resolution, and seemed in doubt: but at length it occurred to him, that a barrel of his gunpowder was in a bad state, and that it would not keep much longer. This was brought forward as an unanswerable argument for the necessity of immediately declaring war: the idea of allowing so much good gunpowder to spoil was not to be thought of; and this settled the point.
One can imagine Darwin shaking his already balding head at such folly—but European wars have doubtless been waged on lesser pretexts.
Darwin and his even more devout captain didn’t always see eye to eye on the Beagle (and fell out with each other after Darwin had published his theory), but they were both believers in the civilising influence of Christianity. Darwin’s first real publication was an article, jointly authored with FitzRoy, entitled A letter, containing remarks on the moral state of Tahiti, New Zealand, &c. It appeared in a Cape Town Christian newspaper in 1836, and was basically a defence of the missionary endeavour. The nub of the argument was that if the barbarians of Tahiti, Tierra del Fuego and New Zealand could be “reclaimed”, then no man was beyond civilisation or redemption.
FitzRoy, the lead author, summarised their position: “Surely, if three years sufficed to change the natures of such cannibal wretches as Fuegians, and transform them into well behaved, civilised people, who were very much liked by their English friends, there is some cause for thinking that a savage is not irreclaimable, until advanced in life; however repugnant to our ideas have been his early habits.”
And however repugnant that view may sound today, there was a spark of truth here that Darwin took and fanned until it blazed into life in On the Origin of Species.
It was the idea that nothing is static—not ideas, not races, not nature itself. The strong displace the weak. There is a universal struggle for existence. Or, as Darwin would state in the opening sentence of his 1858 joint essay with Alfred Russell Wallace on natural selection, “all nature is at war”.
Embattled Maori would have understood the reality of struggle and change well, and Darwin was not unsympathetic to their plight. “It was melancholy,” he wrote, “to hear the fine energetic natives saying they knew the land was doomed to pass from their children.” Darwin was astute enough to realise that it wasn’t just Maori whose tenure, if not very survival, was jeopardised by a flood of overseas immigrants, but the endemic flora and fauna as well. Although he did little natural history work during his stay other than measure the girth of a few kauri trees, he noted that certain weeds (a French “leek” and English dock) had “overrun whole districts, and will be very troublesome” and that the Norway rat had “annihilated from the northern extremity of the island the New Zealand species, in the short space of two years”.
Over the next 20 years Darwin amassed a great deal of information about the displacement of New Zealand’s indigenous species by introduced flora and fauna. He corresponded with many of the important figures in colonial science: botanist Joseph Hooker, Darwin’s confidant-in-chief, who would eventually publish the landmark Flora Novae-Zelandiae, naturalist Walter Mantell, ornithologist Walter Buller, geologist and explorer Julius von Haast, governor George Grey and Ernest Dieffenbach, naturalist with the New Zealand Company.
His letters were always peppered with questions. He asked Grey about erratic boulders and Mantell about glacier movement and whether the “beau ideal of beauty” among Maori agreed with that of Europeans. He urged Haast to encourage members of the newly founded Philosophical Institute of Canterbury “to observe & annually record the rate & manner of spreading of European weeds & insects, & especially to observe what native plants most fail”. He also enquired whether introduced honeybees had replaced native insects as pollinators.
The point of gathering all this data was that it bore on a central piece of biological dogma which Darwin wanted to refute: that species were fixed entities arising from individual acts of creation, divinely fitted to the places in which they were found. FitzRoy himself praised the “admirable provisions of Infinite Wisdom by which each created thing is adapted to the place for which it was intended.” Bosh! said Darwin, and used New Zealand to argue his case. In a meticulously reasoned passage in the Origin, he writes:
From the extraordinary manner in which European productions have recently spread over New Zealand, and have seized on places which must have been previously occupied, we may believe, if all the animals and plants of Great Britain were set free in New Zealand, that in the course of time a multitude of British forms would become thoroughly naturalised there, and would exterminate many of the natives. On the other hand, from what we see now occurring in New Zealand, and from hardly a single inhabitant of the southern hemisphere having become wild in any part of Europe, we may doubt, if all the productions of New Zealand were set free in Great Britain, whether any considerable number would be enabled to seize on places now occupied by our native plants and animals. Under this point of view, the productions of Great Britain may be said to be higher than those of New Zealand. Yet the most skilful naturalist from an examination of the species of the two countries could not have foreseen this result.
In other words, the indigenous plants and animals of New Zealand were not perfectly adapted to their homeland. Introduced flora and fauna from Europe from the other side of the planet—were better adapted to antipodean conditions than the natives were.
Furthermore, argued Darwin, if each species was an absolute creation, customised to its physical environment, why was the distribution of organisms so apparently haphazard? Why should the Galapagos Islands abound with terrestrial reptiles while many equal-sized Pacific islands had only one or two species? And why should a landmass as large as New Zealand be “without one mammiferous quadruped except the mouse [he meant kiore, the Polynesian rat] and that was probably introduced with the aborigines?” It made no sense—unless you invoked the idea of species dispersing and evolving over great lengths of time.
Then there was the matter of parallel distributions of organisms—and again New Zealand was to the fore. In a letter to Hooker, Darwin had marvelled at the affinity of New Zealand’s flora with that of Chile. That New Zealand’s plants should be related to those of Australia, the nearest mainland, was to be expected. But how could one account for their similarity to the plants of South America, a continent “so enormously remote”? Darwin, writing 100 years before plate tectonics provided a more complete answer, came remarkably close to the truth: “New Zealand, South America, and other southern lands were long ago partially stocked from a nearly intermediate though distant point, namely from the antarctic islands, when they were clothed with vegetation, before the commencement of the Glacial period.”
Not a bad contribution for a country Darwin couldn’t wait to put behind him. As the Beagle set sail for Sydney on December 30, he grumbled in his diary, “I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place.” A much older Darwin, putting the finishing touches on his magnum opus 20 years later, may have smiled as he re-read those words. New Zealand had given him more than he expected.