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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September 1, 1934)

Darwin at the Bay of Islands

page 28

Darwin at the Bay of Islands

“IBelieve we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found at Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.”

If few people know that Charles Darwin once visited New Zealand still fewer are aware that he formed such a bad opinion of the country and its inhabitants as is concisely set out in the above quotation. Yet the words are quite authentic, and are to be found at the end of the tenth chapter of “The Voyage of the “Beagle.’” The book, of course, consists of the diary Darwin kept when he toured the world as naturalist aboard H.M.S. “Beagle,” which was despatched by the Admiralty to make a survey of parts of South America and the countries of the Pacific.

Darwin's expedition entered the Bay of Islands—or, rather, they were becalmed near the mouth—early in the morning of December 21st, 1835. The evolutionist was then a young man, or else perhaps he would not have generalised so hastily about New Zealand and New Zealanders—especially as the “Beagle” only stayed in the Bay of Islands nine days before resuming the voyage to Sydney. However, Darwin's account of his visit is well worth reading, if only for its clarity and extreme individuality. It is clearly the work of a strong-thinking and analytic mind. For instance, here is Darwin's very first impression of New Zealand scenery; and, though it might arouse indignant protest in some quarters, it is worth quoting in full:—

The general tint of the landscape is not a bright green; and it resembles the country a short distance to the south of Concepcion in Chile. In several parts of the bay, little villages of square, tidy-looking houses are scattered close down to the water's edge. Three whaling ships were lying at anchor, and a canoe every now and then crossed from shore to shore; with these exceptions, an air of extreme quietness reigned over the whole district. Only a single canoe came alongside. This, and the aspect of the whole scene, afforded a remarkable and not very pleasing contrast with our joyful and boisterous welcome at Tahiti.

The last sentence strikes a discordant note; but what a familiar picture is summoned up by the rest—New Zealanders who appreciate their past cannot fail to recognise the scene! Darwin went ashore at Paihia—“One of the larger groups of houses, which yet hardly deserves the title of a village”—the settlement of the missionaries. He finds little pleasure in the contemplation of the dwellings of the Maoris; but is surprised “to behold the English flowers in the gardens before the houses; there were roses of several kinds, honeysuckle, jasmine, stocks, and whole hedges of sweetbriar.”

The next morning he went for a walk in the district. His progress was necessarily slow on account of the well-nigh impenetrable bush; and when he attempted to walk along the beach he was stopped by the many salt water creeks; but he was much struck by the Maori fortifications on the neighbouring hill-tops. His scientific mind immediately commenced to work: “As there was no water on these hills, the defenders could never have anticipated a long seige, but only a hurried attack for plunder, against which the successive terraces would have afforded good protection.”

In company with Captain Fitz Roy, of the “Beagle,” and a Mr. Baker, one of the missionaries, the naturalist went for a walk that evening to the neighbouring Maori village of Kororareka. There he paused to make another odious comparison, this time between the Maori and the Tahitian; and once again, it must be said, he was at fault: “The comparison, however, tells heavily against the New Zealander. He may, perhaps, be superior in energy, but in every other respect his character is of a much lower order. One glance at their respective expressions brings conviction to the mind that one is a savage, the other a civilised man.”

The day after his visit to Kororareka the naturalist made the acquaintance of the British Resident, Mr. Busby (the centenary of whose arrival in New Zealand is being celebrated this year) who told him that he should visit Waimate, the model missionary settlement. Mr. Busby accompanied Darwin on part of his way to Waimate, and told him several stories of his experiences with the Maoris. On the walk to Waimate the naturalist noted again how “the whole scene in spite of its green colour, had rather a desolate aspect,” and his scientific imagination was once more at work. He thought at first that the presence of so much fern meant that the land must be sterile, but later discovered that “wherever the fern grows thick and beast-high, the land by tillage becomes productive.”

On arrival at Waimate—“the sudden appearance of an English farm-house, and its well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter's wand, was exceedingly pleasant”—the naturalist was welcomed by a Mr. Davies:—

At Waimate there are three large houses, where the missionary gentlemen, Messrs. Williams, Davies, and Clarke, reside; and near them are the huts of the native labourers. On an adjoining slope, fine crops of barley and wheat were standing in full ear; and in another part, fields of potatoes and clover… . All this is very surprising, when it is considered that five years ago nothing but the fern flourished here.

And later he makes the acquaintance of the Rev. W. Williams himself, the happy appearance of whose home impressed him considerably.

Another day Darwin spent on a trip to Waiomio with Mr. Busby, and he was forced to comment on the extraordinary rock-formation there. He also encountered an authentic example of the superstitious Maori character:—

Here there are some singular masses of limestone, resembling ruined castles. These rocks have long served for burial-places, and in consequence are held too sacred to be approached. One of the young men, however, cried out, “Let us all be brave,’ and ran on ahead; but when within a hundred yards, the whole party thought better of it, and stopped short. With perfect indifference, however, they allowed us to examine the whole place

The remainder of his hurried stay was spent in making botanical and zoological collections—some of the data he gathered no doubt contributed one day to his epoch-making evolutionary theory—and then on December 30th, the anchor was weighed and sail set for Sydney. Lest the carping remarks already quoted leave a bad impression, it might be best to end with one more paragraph of the highest praise the Englishman could give:—

As the evening drew to a close, the domestic sounds, the fields of corn, the distant undulating country with its trees might well have been mistaken for our fatherland; nor was it the triumphant feeling at seeing what Englishmen could effect; but rather the high hopes thus inspired for the future progress of this fine island.