Last week, I re-read parts of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle whilst comp- iling I and the Bird #42. I first read the book about 15 years ago, when I was in my late teens. Below is an excerpt from chapter 19, in which Darwin describes the Aborigines as “savages”:
At sunset, a party of a score of the black aborigines passed by, each carrying, in their accustomed manner, a bundle of spears and other weapons. By giving a leading young man a shilling, they were easily detained, and threw their spears for my amusement. They were all partly clothed, and several could speak a little English: their countenances were good-humoured and pleasant, and they appeared far from being such utterly degraded beings as they have usually been represented. In their own arts they are admirable. A cap being fixed at thirty yards distance, they transfixed it with a spear, delivered by the throwing-stick with the rapidity of an arrow from the bow of a practised archer. In tracking animals or men they show most wonderful sagacity; and I heard of several of their remarks which manifested considerable acuteness. They will not, however, cultivate the ground, or build houses and remain stationary, or even take the trouble of tending a flock of sheep when given to them. On the whole they appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in the scale of civilization than the Fuegians.
It is very curious thus to see in the midst of a civilized people, a set of harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night, and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods. As the white man has travelled onwards, he has spread over the country belonging to several tribes. These, although thus enclosed by one common people, keep up their ancient distinctions, and sometimes go to war with each other. In an engagement which took place lately, the two parties most singularly chose the centre of the village of Bathurst for the field of battle. This was of service to the defeated side, for the runaway warriors took refuge in the barracks.
Update (February 12th, 2007; Darwin’s 198th Birthday!): I stress that in writing this post I am not attempting to discredit Darwin, and that I do not dispute evolution. Darwin’s views on race are open to interpretation, and I interpret his use of the word “savages” as being quite offensive. But they were his opinions, and therefore have to be considered independently of the great contribution he made to biology.