Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Darwin returns to Sydney

22nd January, 1836: Darwin headed to Sydney along Lockyer's Line of Road. On his journey back, he 'passed through large tracts of country in flames, volumes of smoke sweeping across the road'. The bush fire concerned him less than the character of the new population.
Before arriving here the three things which interested me most were,—the state of society amongst the higher classes, the condition of the convicts, and the degree of attraction sufficient to induce persons to emigrate. Of course, after so very short a visit one's opinion is worth scarcely any thing; but it is as difficult not to form some opinion, as it is to form a correct judgment. On the whole, from what I heard, more than from what I saw, I was disappointed in the state of society. The whole community is rancorously divided into parties on almost every subject. Among those, who from their station in life ought to be the best, many live in such open profligacy, that respectable people cannot associate with them. There is much jealousy between the children of the rich emancipist and the free settlers; the former being pleased to consider honest men as interlopers. The whole population, poor and rich, are bent on acquiring wealth; amongst the higher orders wool and sheep-grazing form the constant subject of conversation. The very low ebb of literature is strongly marked by the emptiness of the booksellers' shops; for they are inferior even to those in the smaller country-towns of England.

There are many serious drawbacks to the comforts of families; the chief of which, perhaps, is being surrounded by convict servants. How thoroughly odious to every feeling to be waited on by a man, who the day before, perhaps, was flogged, from your representation, for some trifling misdemeanor. The female servants are, of course, much worse; hence children learn the vilest expressions, and it is fortunate if not equally vile ideas.

I'd like to know the story behind the 'of course' in that last sentence.
On the other hand, the capital of a person without any trouble on his part, produces him treble interest to what it will in England; and with care he is sure to grow rich. The luxuries of life are in abundance and very little dearer, and most articles of food cheaper, than in England. The climate is splendid and quite healthy; but to my mind its charms are lost by the uninviting aspect of the country. Settlers possess a great advantage in finding their sons of service, when very young. At the age of from sixteen to twenty they frequently take charge of distant farming stations; this, however, must happen at the expense of their boys associating entirely with convict servants. I am not aware that the tone of society has assumed any peculiar character; but with such habits, and without intellectual pursuits, it can hardly fail to deteriorate. My opinion is such that nothing but rather severe necessity should compel me to emigrate.

Darwin believed that Australia's future didn't lie in primary industry but in manufacture.
The rapid prosperity and future prospects of this colony are to me, not understanding these subjects, very puzzling. The two main exports are wool and whale-oil; and to both of these productions there is a limit. The country is totally unfit for canals; therefore there is a line not very distant, beyond which the land carriage of wool will not repay the expense of shearing and tending sheep. Pasture everywhere is so thin, that settlers have already pushed far into the interior: moreover the country further inland becomes extremely poor. I have before said that agriculture can never succeed on a very extended scale; therefore so far as I can see, Australia must ultimately depend upon being the centre of commerce for the southern hemisphere, and perhaps on her future manufactories. Possessing coal, she always has the moving power at hand. From the habitable country extending along the coast, and from her English extraction she is sure to be a maritime nation. I formerly imagined that Australia would rise to be as grand and powerful a country as North America; but now it appears to me such future grandeur is rather problematical.

Despite his gloomy view of the country, he did have one bright thing to say about its convict heritage.
On the whole, as a place of punishment the object is scarcely gained; as a real system of reform it has failed, as perhaps would every other plan: but as a means of making men outwardly honest,—of converting vagabonds most useless in one hemisphere into active citizens of another, and thus giving birth to a new and splendid country—a grand centre of civilization—it has succeeded to a degree perhaps unparalleled in history.

Darwin spent a week in Sydney. On 30th January, HMS Beagle set sail for Van Diemen's Land.

4 comments:

Christopher Taylor said...

The female servants are, of course, much worse; hence children learn the vilest expressions, and it is fortunate if not equally vile ideas.

I'd like to know the story behind the 'of course' in that last sentence.


Well, I'd guess it's more likely to be just random native sexism (the sentence was written by a nineteenth-century male, after all), but is it also possible that the level of crime that would result in a sentence of deportation for a woman was higher than for a man, so female convicts might indeed tend to be of lower character? Or is Darwin alluding to nature of crimes commited by women that were likely to be punished by deportation (I'm guessing prostitution was a common one)? Or did convict women simply feel the need to exaggerate their bitchiness so as not to have to take too much **** from convict men?

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Snail
Yes, it is very interesting. He was a creature of his time, and a churchman to boot. Certainly sounds like he did not like dealing with the female convicts. It is easy to assume this was a mix of misogyny and prudery.
.
I was more taken with this:
"as a place of punishment the object is scarcely gained; as a real system of reform it has failed, as perhaps would every other plan: but as a means of making men outwardly honest."
History has shown Australia to be full of "outwardly honest" people.
Shame about that. Its not enough.
.
Snail. Thanks for this interesting series of posts.
Cheers
Denis

sarala said...

I had never seen this social commentary by Darwin. Of course, all I ever read of him was Origin of the Species a century or two ago.
If you take out the beatings, convicts and so forth some of his complaints seem entirely contemporary.

Dave Coulter said...

So that's it...we just need to find the right hemisphere to inhabit!