December 22: "What a dump!" -- Charles Darwin

I guess when you've been at sea for four years, ocean views no longer do it for you.

I'll just give away the ending of today's excerpt from "Voyage of the Beagle" -- though I realize I did this yesterday:
I believe 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 in Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.
Somebody go put that up at TripAdvisor!

If I were smarter, if I had read Lèvi-Strauss in college like the cool kids (that's how I knew I wasn't a cool kid; one of many ways, believe me), Darwin's distaste for New Zealand would be occasion for interesting insights on cultural imperialism. However, screw that. Instead I observe that Darwin appears to have disliked the place because it resembled a fraternity:
But their persons and houses are filthily dirty and offensive: the idea of washing either their bodies or their clothes never seems to enter their heads. I saw a chief, who was wearing a shirt black and matted with filth, and when asked how it came to be so dirty, he replied, with surprise, “Do not you see it is an old one?” Some of the men have shirts; but the common dress is one or two large blankets, generally black with dirt, which are thrown over their shoulders in a very inconvenient and awkward fashion. A few of the principal chiefs have decent suits of English clothes; but these are only worn on great occasions.
Like when you're trying to convince the Dean not to throw you out. Oh, and here's a former frat president-type, to the life (who, I might add, is also heavily tattooed):
Physiognomy here spoke the truth; this chief had been a notorious murderer, and was an arrant coward to boot. At the point where the boat landed, Mr. Bushby accompanied me a few hundred yards on the road: I could not help admiring the cool impudence of the hoary old villain, whom we left lying in the boat, when he shouted to Mr. Bushby, “Do not you stay long, I shall be tired of waiting here.”
I swear, all that guy needs is a bluetooth in his ear. I can see why Darwin, a quiet man, one of the nerds, was put off. Also understandable is his McDonalds-in-the-Champs-Élysées moment:
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, placed there as if by an enchanter’s wand, was exceedingly pleasant. ...Around the farm-yard there were stables, a thrashing-barn with its winnowing machine, a blacksmith’s forge, and on the ground ploughshares and other tools: in the middle was that happy mixture of pigs and poultry, lying comfortably together, as in every English farm-yard.
I suppose this is a little culturally imperialist too, but come on, people -- the guy had been four years at sea! Of course, it works both ways too:
There is not nearly so much tattooing as formerly; but as it is a badge of distinction between the chief and the slave, it will probably long be practised. So soon does any train of ideas become habitual, that the missionaries told me that even in their eyes a plain face looked mean, and not like that of a New Zealand gentleman.
Finally, all this New Zealand talk gives me an excuse to include my favorite Flight of the Conchords song. No, not "Business Time." This one, which, appropriately, is about understanding other cultures:

1 comment:

Lisa Simeone said...

Très drôle!