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Darwin in Salvador (Bahia), Brazil: Natural Selection and Slavery

My home town, Salvador, is the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Founded in 1549, it was the country's first capital and is one of the oldest European cities in the Americas. Salvador has a rich history and beautiful Portuguese-colonial, baroque architecture. The city is also fascinating from the cultural perspective, with strong West African influence on vocabulary, religion (see Humberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’), cuisine and art. What is not as well known is that Salvador hosted Charles Darwin twice, in 1832 and 1836, during his journey with the Beagle. ‘The Origin of Species’ would be published in 1859.


My interest in peeking at Darwin’s visit goes beyond attempting to understand the full picture of how the natural selection theory was conceived. Darwin’s diaries leave a historical record of life in Salvador in the early 19th century, including descriptions of the injustices of slavery (also noted in his Rio de Janeiro diaries). This record is important, as Salvador, the city with the largest black population in Brazil (~80%), is also among the cities with the highest social inequality in the country.

‘A chaos of delight’

Darwin was only 22 years old when he departed on his famous 18-month long journey on the HMS Beagle. On February 28, 1832 (63 days after departing England) the ship anchored in the city then known as ‘São Salvador de Bahia’ or simply Bahia, in reference to the Bay of All Saints (‘Baía de Todos os Santos’) that bathes the West coast of the Salvador peninsula.


As recorded in Darwin’s diary (further below), the exuberance of the tropical rainforest left him in “a chaos of delight.” A well-known passage describes his experience with tropical rain. He sought refuge under a tree “so thick that it would never have been penetrated by common English rain, yet here in a couple of minutes, a little torrent flowed down the trunk.”

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Darwin’s Salvador

Barra Lighthouse (‘Farol da Barra’), built in 1839, marks the entrance to the Bay of All Saints. A previously existing structure, on the same site, is noted by the Beagle Captain, FitzRoy: “After the light-house was passed, those by whom the scene was unexpected were agreeably surprised by a mass of wood, clinging to a steep bank, which rose abruptly from the dark-blue sea, showing every tint of green, enlivened by bright sunshine, and contrasted by deep shadow: and the general charm was heightened by turretted churches and convents, whose white walls appeared above the waving palm trees; by numerous shipping at anchor or under sail; by the delicate airy sails of innumerable canoes; and by the city itself, rising like an amphitheatre from the water-side to the crest of the heights.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Voyage)


As posted by Rob Viens on the Beagle Project, FitzRoy refers to the fact that “Salvador is separated into two sections by a 300-ft high escarpment, which creates a unique 2-tiered city. Lower Town (Cidade Baixa) is the dirty, narrow, crowded region that consists of the wharfs and the more seedy part of town […]. Upper Town (Cidade Alta) is the beautiful historic part of town that consists of churches, old houses, and government buildings.” Its position provided a natural strategic defense when the city was founded. Darwin describes the Upper Town on his second visit: “The houses, I may add, and especially the sacred edifices, are built in a peculiar and rather fantastic style of architecture. They are all whitewashed; so that when illumined by the brilliant sun of midday, and as seen against the pale blue sky of the horizon, they stand out more like shadows than real buildings.”


Darwin’s first visit coincided with the Carnival festivities, which Salvador is still famous for. His records provide a glimpse into the celebrations. He did not appear amused, perhaps because of the water-filled wax balls thrown by revelers at him and his crewmates.


At the time, Salvador had a sizeable British community. In 1811 they built the British Cemetery in the Barra Slope (‘Ladeira da Barra,’ presently above the Iacht Club) away from the city center. Two of the Beagle’s crew (Jones and Charles Musters) who died presumably of malaria, are buried in that cemetery.

Slavery and an unexpected jihad in 1800’s Brazil

Salvador has been a major seaport town since its foundation, with trade then mostly consisting of sugar export and African slave import (thus explaining the city’s present ethnic composition). Darwin was a fervent abolitionist, disgusted by the local slavery. He noted that all manual labor was carried out by black men and describes the human side of slaves in his diary (below).


At Darwin’s arrival, Brazil was an Empire. In 1807, Portuguese King John VI and the royal family fled to Brazil in response to Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal. The court would only return to Lisbon in 1821, leaving Peter I (Pedro I) behind, who declared Brazil independent of Portugal a year later. In 1831, Peter I abdicated in favor of his son, Peter II, who was only 5 years old. For the next 10 years, the country was ruled by a regency, a period marked by political instability, economic hardship and social unrest. In Salvador, this scenario was manifested through rebellions of the black population.


Darwin returned to Salvador in 1836, on the Beagle’s way back to England. He reported evidence of destruction that took place in the city the year before, during the revolt organized by muslim slaves (malês) to overthrow government and establish a Caliphate. Although unsuccessful, together with abolitionist ideas already permeating the country in the early 1800s, this and other slave uprisings fueled the debate on slavery and eventually led to its abolishment in 1888.

Darwin’s diary notes on his first visit to Salvador (Feb 28-Mar 19, 1832)
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28th February 1832

Bahia, Brazil

About 9 oclock we were near to the coast of Brazil; we saw a considerable extent of it, the whole line is rather low and irregular, and from the profusion of wood and verdure of a bright green colour. About 11 oclock we entered the bay of All Saints, on the Northern Side of which is situated the town of Bahia or St Salvador. It would be difficult [to] imagine, before seeing the view, anything so magnificent. It requires, however, the reality of nature to make it so — if faithfully represented in a picture, a feeling of distrust would be raised in the mind, as I think is the case in some of Martins pictures views. The town is fairly embosomed in a luxuriant wood and situated on a steep bank overlooks the calm waters of the great bay of All Saints.


The houses are white and lofty and from the windows being narrow and long have a very light and elegant appearance. Convents, Porticos and public buildings vary the uniformity of the houses: the bay is scattered over with large ships; in short the view is one of the finest in the Brazils. But their beauties are as nothing compared to the Vegetation; I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are and will for ever be unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies and the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise. I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.

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